Top 10 Must See in Baku Azerbaijan: Fire Temple, Mud Volcano, and Early Man sites


In my quest to visit every country I wasn’t sure what to expect with Azerbaijan.  What looked like a small country with a checkered past sprinkled with war and conflict with Armenia.  I was definitely interested in learning about the people, the culture and learning what Azerbaijan had to offer the world and for fellow travelers. I wasn’t disappointed, in fact I was blown away with the treasures of this land.

What I found was fantastic.  Azerbaijan is a very culturally rich country with a deep past.  A former soviet block country with it’s own history and it’s own identity, Azerbaijan is rich.  Rich culturally and figuratively with oil and very culturally rich.

Baku is in and of itself a stand out city that should be held up against the greatest in the region in comparison with Dubai and Doha .

1. Baku Zoroastrian Fire Temple – Ateshgah of Baku.

The Temple of Fire “Ateshgah” on the List of World Heritage Sites, UNESCO. It’s been a museum since 1975.  The fires use to come out of the top of the 4 corners.  This fascinating fire temple was a place of worship long ago and most of the history before 1700 has been lost.

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In front of the fire temple

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This recreated piece shows what it would have been like, complete with Zoroastrian pilgrims and Persians

Modern Baku – Baku is a fascinating city with many modern buildings that would boggle the mind.  I thought I was in Dubai or Qatar when I started seeing the array of modern, brilliant and fantastic architectures.

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2. Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

– amazing example of modern architecture. The white building is a major landmark in the heart of Baku City.  The immaculately white building comes in the shape of waves. It is no doubt an impressive structure and an great achievement in field of modern architecture and engineering.  I can’t imagine trying to make the bricks for this.  No lines are straight!

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3. Baku Flame Towers

is a striking new addition to the skyline of Baku. Located atop a hill on the Caspian Sea overlooking Baku Bay and the old city center, the three towers were inspired by Azerbaijan’s ancient history of fire worshipping, and will illuminate the city and act as an eternal flame for modern Baku. 190 Meters… towering above old town.

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4. World’s 2nd Largest Flag Pole – National Flag Square

The flag square is one end of the boardwalk, so really you’re just on one end of the Caspian sea and 5K walk through the park across the street from the Old Town.

The flag you see was the largest in the world until Dushanbe Tajikistan took it over by just 3 meters.  Big flag.

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I suggest you either take the

5. Steps for City View Funicular and night time viewing of the Flame Towers

up to the top to get a close up view, or ask your taxi or driver to take you to the steps shown to get a close up view of the Flame Towers.  This is a must see spectacle lighting up the night sky with fires.

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6. Must See Sunrise and Caspian Sea and seaside boardwalk

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Baku is a beautiful city, and walking along the seaside boardwalk and heading for a jog at sunrise is incredible.  Beautiful sunrise creeping up over the Caspian sea.  You can see the oil residue in the water.  It’s not appealing, but the jog or walk along the the sea side can’t be beat.  I recommend Milli Park, which is right near the Maiden tower, which is in Old Town.  So very easy to combine visits to a bunch of this stuff.

Seaside Boulevard was opened in May 2012 and extends from the ‘Baku Sports Palace’ (Bakı İdman Sarayı) to the ‘National Flag Square’.

7. Mud Volcanoes

– The worlds mud volcanoes are in large part in Azerbaijan.  They say that more than 50% of the worlds mud volcanoes are in this country.  I don’t doubt it.  It hasn’t become the tourist attraction it deserves.  We had the whole place to ourselves.  Our driver really didn’t want to take us in his nice car, but we twisted his arm and the offroad dirt roads he took to get there, I now understand his hesitation.  It was probably my favorite thing we did there.  The mud was bubbling up creating cinder cones of mud, we played around.  It’s not hot to the touch, in fact it was cool.  Very strange and fascinating world.

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8. Gobustan Early man site and Petroglyphs – UNESCO world heritage site.

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Early man carved out these holes to capture water for drinking.

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Gobustan Rock Art – outstanding collection of more than 6,000 rock engravings bearing testimony to 40,000 years of rock art. The site also features the remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials, all reflecting an intensive human use by the inhabitants of the area during the wet period that followed the last Ice Age, from the Upper Paleolithic to the Middle Ages.  The invading armies of Alexander the Great and Trajan also left some interesting grafitti.  We didn’t find this on our journey… may have been inside the gated area, but we really enjoyed what we saw.  So much there, but you’d likely need a guide to get off the route and see more.

There were a lot of petrogliphys.  We did the self guided tour, and later stopped in the museum that’s near the entrance of the park.  It was fascinating to see.  We combined seeing the mud volcanoes and the petrogylphys and early man stuff in Gobustan.

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Walking through the center of town you’ll find a fascinating walking street through the town. Be sure to take the underground walk ways when you encounter busy streets and obey the traffic signs.  The cars won’t stop for you.  There are lots of fountains and fascinating things to view walking through the city.

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9. Old City and Maiden’s TowerOld City (a UNESCO World Heritage site)

First thing to see in the city and likely where you should stay near… this mysterious and eccentric tower was built somewhere between the 7th and 12th centuries and may have served as a fire beacon, defensive fortification, astronomical observatory, or Zoroastrian temple

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Old City Baku

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If you like Sports… check out the 2015 European Games planning on Baku Azerbaijan as the host.  They are getting state of the art stadiums to host the games.

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10. Bibi-Heybat Mosque –

The Bibi-Heybat Mosque is a historical mosque in Baku, Azerbaijan. The existing structure, built in the 1990s, is a recreation of the mosque with the same name built in the 13th century by Shirvanshah Farrukhzad II Ibn Ahsitan II, which was completely destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1936. The Bibi-Heybat Mosque includes the tomb of Ukeyma Khanum (a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad), and today is the spiritual center for the Muslims of the region and one of the major monuments of Islamic architecture in Azerbaijan.

What I missed, that I wanted to see.

  • Go and enjoy the oil baths of Naftalan.  Seriously baths of crude oil… petrol!
  • The Baku Airport is one of the few in the world offering flights to Nakhchivan and travelers heading that way should book a flight from here.  My friend Michael who traveled with me was able to fit it in and spent a good day there.

Chernobyl Tour: Nuclear Disaster Day Trip


My first experience with Chernobyl was a fly over.  I was flying out of Belarus to Ukraine and my friend Michael mentioned we were flying over the area where Chernobyl happened.  My curiosity and thoughts went wild.  Then it was a couple of b movies, TV show, and Hollywood Horror Flick that really got me interested.  An article from national geographic about the people that lived in the exclusion zone really got me curious. чернобыль to locals in Ukraine isn’t a place people would want to visit?  Why go to a contaminated place?  Have you ever been curious to visit a place after a volcano? Mt St Helens… A hurricane? New Orleans… or curious about Berlin? Why not Hiroshima or Chernobyl?  There is actually a name for this now. Disaster Tourism – the act of traveling to a disaster area as a matter of curiosity.

Chernobyl Nuclear silo

Was it possible to visit such a place?

Yes!  After looking into it, I found a visit to Chernobyl is not only 5 stars and ranked number 1 nearly every review on Trip Advisor for day trips from Kiev, there were multiple tour companies doing nearly daily tours.   As well Chernobyl Tour has 106 Five star ratings and not even one one, two, or three star rating.   There is only one way for normal people to visit Chernobyl… on a tour.  Let me pick a few select titles from the reviews that pushed me over the edge on this…

Chernobyl Ferris Wheel

The infamous and creepy carnival in Pripyat

These rides were never enjoyed by children. The city was evacuated before the park’s launch at the May day celebration.

“Best tour of my life!”

“Ammmmazing!”

“Best Journey of my life!”

“A metaphysical experience”

Chernobyl tour

Chernobyl Tours with UkrainianWeb.com

So I tried to track down a tour that would be able to pick me up on the day the only day I was going to be available.  Thursday Sep 25.  Here’s the confirmation mail from my reservation that shares a lot of the details.  We reserved the private tour.  This gave us more flexibility.  We stopped at a market on the way and I got a jacket and locally made yoghurt (it had been pretty cold.

Chernobyl tour friends

In front of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster monument. Behind us is Nuclear reactor #4.

“Today the fiercely radioactive remnants of reactor four continue to smolder beneath the so-called sarcophagus, a decaying concrete-and-steel crypt, hastily built after the accident, that now threatens to collapse. Work is about to get under way on a replacement: an arched structure, the size of a stadium, that will slide over the sarcophagus and seal it off. With its completion the destroyed reactor will be out of sight. But for the region’s people it will never be out of mind, as a slow-motion catastrophe continues to unfold.” – Ny Times Chernobyl Capping a Catastrophe

Chernobyl Sarcaphagus

It’s been covered by what they call a sarcophagus and they are in the process of building the new one which is the biggest engineering project of this kind.  This New York Times article describes the new construction.

The Chernobyl Arch will end up costing about $1.5 billion

“If all goes as planned, by 2017 the 32,000-ton arch will be delicately pushed on Teflon pads to cover the ramshackle shelter that was built to entomb the radioactive remains of the reactor that exploded and burned here in April 1986. When its ends are closed, it will be able to contain any radioactive dust should the aging shelter collapse.”

NY times: Chernobyl Capping a Catastrophe

IMPORTANT:

Make sure to carry your passport with you on the day of your tour.

Dear Mr Oleson:
Below is your Chernobyl tour pick-up contact information:
1. On Thu, Sep 25th, at 8:15 a.m., a car from the Chernobyl agency will be waiting for you at the address (in front of the hotel):

Dnipro Hotel, 1/2 Kreschatik Str

The Dnipro Hotel is situated in the Сentre of the city, on the European Square.

Make: Mercedes Sprinter (Color: white)

The driver’s name is Vladimir. His cell # is  (He doesn’t speak English.)

AS SOON AS you check-in at your hotel in Kiev, call a taxi service and arrange for a cab pick-up in the morning, for example, at 8:00 a.m. or so -the taxi people will be able to give you a more accurate estimate. Normally, there is a HEAVY TRAFFIC in this part of the city at this time of the day.

2. Your English speaking pick-up manager’s cell phone # is:  His name is Anton

3. Your total for 2 persons is: $398.0, already paid: $90.0 (reservation fee). So your balance with us is $308.0

You will have to pay it in UA Hr though.

Unfortunately, the UA Hr exchange rate fluctuates these days pretty vigorously.

If it was today, it would be an equivalent of 4405 (four thousands four hundred five) Ukrainian Hryvna.

However for now this is just a reference point for you, while the exact amount will be confirmed by the tour manager on the day of your tour, as you come to board your tour vehicle.

The Zone authorities just introduced a mandatory accidental insurance for each day/person of the trip. The insurance is 80 UA Hryvna (it is an equivalent of $7 usd and has to be paid inside the Zone directly to the Zone authorities who are the exclusive operator of this tour.)

You will have to pay this amount in Ukrainian currency. Please mind, the tour manager will not accept currencies other than Ukrainian Hryvna.

IMPORTANT:

Make sure to carry your passport with you on the day of your tour.

IMPORTANT:

It’s not uncommon to experience problems with obtaining cash from Mastercard, Visa and other credit/debit cards at ATMs in Kiev, Ukraine. We strongly recommend that you bring some Euro and/or US$ cash with you to avoid possible unpleasant last-minute surprises.

IMPORTANT (in summer):

Please make sure to wear a close type of clothing: long sleeves, no shorts, close sports or casual type footwear (no flip-plops, no sandals).

“The one piece of advice I would say is bring sturdy shoes as there is lots of walking on broken glass in Pripiyat.”

Pripyat hotel broken glass

(Picture not included in email… but yes there’s lots of glass!)

Don’t forget the mosquito spray. (We didn’t need any)

Radiation dosimeters are available for rent.  The daily rental rate is 200UAHr/day (equivalent of 13Euro).  Please indicate explicitly the number of dosimeters you wish us to reserve for your.

Radiation dosimeters are also available for purchase at $175 each. Your will have to pre-order the quantity you need.  (The docimeter was actually a Geiger counter and we rented 1 between us)

Please confirm receiving this email.

Thank you for your business.

Sincerely,
Customer Service

www.UkrainianWeb.com

————————————————-

So how did I get to Ukraine? I was invited to speak in Kiev at a SharePoint conference http://spcua.com/ (my day job, see my technical blog for more details).  I booked an amazing flight from Amsterdam down to Kiev, and on to Azerbaijan and back to Stockholm for about $500 on Ukraine air. Less than 24 hours later Malaysian airlines went down and I got cold feet and cancelled the flight.  A couple weeks later I was convinced that the real conflict was 500 Km away and the people could use the morale from a visit.  After some convincing for my wife and making sure my insurance policy was still in place, I rebooked the flight on condition that I’d be able to visit one of my new bucketlist items.  Chernobyl, the worlds worst disaster and one of the most fascinating places.  It’s amazing how this 1000 square miles now known as the exclusion zone has become a wild animal park.  With humans having been evacuated the bears, wolves, moose, wild horses, fish have really made

Life in Pripyat came to a shuddering end on April 26, 1986, less than two miles (less than three kilometers) south of what was then a city of 50,000, as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s number four reactor exploded. Thirty people died in the blast and fire or exposed to lethal doses of radiation. The destroyed hulk burned for ten days, contaminating tens of thousands of square miles in northern Ukraine, southern Belarus, and Russia’s Bryansk region. It still is the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen!

Read more about the history of Chernobyl and the blast : Great Article on Chernobyl from National Geographic

Exclusion Zone 1st Check Point

An exclusion zone of about 1,000 square miles still exists around the plant, with access controlled through checkpoints. Although radiation levels have declined somewhat through the natural process of radioactive decay, the zone remains virtually empty. Some of the villages were bulldozed to contain the radiation (it didn’t help); forest has overtaken others. In Pripyat, where 45,000 people once lived, paint peels off the murals in the community center and a tree grows in the middle of a gym floor. In one apartment, all that remains is a smashed piano.

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The fallout, 400 times more radioactivity than was released at Hiroshima, drove a third of a million people from their homes and triggered an epidemic of thyroid cancer in children. Over the years, the economic losses—health and cleanup costs, compensation, lost productivity—have mounted into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

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Here’s the Chernobyl tour itinerary interspersed with my photos:

Unscheduled stop.  Saw some places in the woods and asked top stop.  This was a community center complete with stage.

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  • Arrival at the town of Chernobyl

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These are the robots that were used to clean up the nuclear disaster.  The best ones were the ones without electrical components.  The best ones apparently were the old soviet ones.

  • Transfer to the village of Leliyov. Passing the 10-km zone border.
  • Transfer to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and sightseeing of Reactor 4.

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Reactor 4

I captured video of our Geiger counter going crazy right in front of Reactor #4

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The Fish of the cooling water.  These are nuclear hot.  Reminds me of the Simpsons fish what you can’t see in the picture is the scale.  The catfish is so big it is the size of a shark.  They often will feed it a loaf of bread!

  • Visit to Pripyat (Prypiat), the highlight of your trip. Sightseeing of “The Dead (Ghost) Town” – swimming pool area, ferris wheel, amusement park, river boats, abandoned buildings, school, etc..

Pripyat pool

scary kids bumper cars

bumber cars chernobyl

Watch my video “Stroll through Pripyat” where you can see the natural surroundings.

A customized (private) trip; 2 day trip is available too.

Chernobyl Zombies

There is some pretty strange graffiti, maybe this is from one of those scary movies?

Somebody important

Large strange poster inside the hotel.

Urban Stalactites

How long does it take to grow stalactites?  Well as the large hotel turns into a cave, maybe 30 years?

  • Stop nearby the “Red Forest”

Nuclear Stop Sign

Near the Red Forest we stopped by this sign.

  • Return to Chernobyl. Lunch* (Food is clean, it is delivered from outside of the Exclusion zone)

I didn’t really take any pictures of our basic lunch.  We all laughed about the apples.  The soup was fine.

  • Visit to Chernobyl Scientific Center: physical and radiochemical laboratories (optional).
  • Visiting the Opachychi village, meeting with “re-settlers”, people who have moved back to their villages after evacuation (optional).

My old Chernobyl Friends

True Survivors

  • Passage through the Dytyatky check-point. Checking the radiation, deactivation.

Decontamination

After 2 checks like the above at each of the checkpoints.

  • Return to Kiev at around 6 p.m.

We still got rid of our clothes and shoes and took a detox shower.

Incredible amazing tour.  All those comments make sense now.  Chernobyl was amazing as a ghost town, a wasteland, and unlike anywhere in the world due to its size and culture.

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One of the most interesting thing was listening to the real survivors.

More on travel in Kiev, the revolution conflict in a follow up post…

It was an interesting time to be in Kiev…

Hitchhikers guide to the Baltics: Part 1 – Tallinn, Estonia

Russian Orthodox Alex Nevsky

I have really enjoyed exploring Eastern Europe.  After you visit western Europe a bunch of times, you’ll really appreciate Eastern Europe.  First it just seems so much more raw, so much more fresh.  It hasn’t had as much time in the media and still feels a bit undiscovered and off the radar of most tourists, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so amazing.  It’s that sense of adventure.  I was once visiting Helsinki, Finland just across the sea from Tallinn, Estonia and in fact saw that there was fast ferry that would take you across the sea to visit Tallinn in 3.5 hours.  I went to a nearby island and saved the Baltics for a trip where I’d get more than just a few hours.  Road trip across the Baltics and then meet up with friends at the border of Belarus sounded like a blast.

The Baltic states are three countries east of the Baltic Sea – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  The full drive was around 8 hours on the road.  It’s a great road, and traffic wasn’t bad.  We didn’t need a GPS.

From Tallinn to Vilnius

I’ll cover a little bit on each one, but the point of these is to share my photos.  I flew into Tallinn, and my friend Paul and I rented a car one way and drove from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Latvia to Vilnius, Lithuania.  We had most of a day and a night in each capital.

Old Town within the gates of the city was our target.

 

town square in old town estonia

Above: Beautiful Town hall square in Old Tallin

cobble stone street in old town

Quaint old cobblestone streets

Alex Nevsky Russian Orthodox in Estonia

Above: Alex Nevsky – Russian Orthodox Church

 

Russian Hats in Estonian Hat store

Above: Fun with Hats: Left- Paul, next shop owner, and Me on the Right.

 

Must see top 5:

1. St Catherines Passage in Old Town

2. Old Town & Town Hall

3. Alex Nevsky Church

4. Walls & City Gates (especially Fat Margaret)

5. Toompea – Garden on Toompea Hill

Also sneak out to the waterfront, some beautiful views of the Baltic Sea.

 

Looking for more? My friend Michael shared his experience on Sharing the Globe – Journey through the Baltics – Estonia

Russia Travel Rocks – St Petersburg to Majestic Moscow

Red Square Moscow

Russia is just the most amazing place.  Part of this for me is just the pure history of the last century, but also it’s just so prominent on the globe.  Russia has been so imperial.  So majestic.  So mysterious. There’s the crazy cold war, and my favorite the space race.  Forget about the arms race, although I really do need to visit Chernobyl.  I did fly over it on a jet on my way out of Moldova. Can you believe it? The US is now hitching rides with the Russians into space to the international space station.  Amazing how the dynamics themselves have definitely changed.  At least the space people are collaborating.

Red Square - State Historical Museum

When I was growing up I remember looking for places to hide just in case the Russians came.  There was the attic, and the potato cellar.  Either way Russians were always the enemy, but in church we would talk about when Russia would be open for the preaching of the gospel.  The end of the world would come shortly after missionaries entered Russia, or so it would seem. Ronald Regan had that big arms race thing.  The “Wall” comes down and shortly Russia would be open for preaching of the gospel.  I’d hear of friends who would go there on their missions.  There was stories that reached all the way to Idaho about the first McDonalds in Russia and how lines wrapped around the block or worse.  Fast forward a few years, and I’m a minority on a Russia majority software company up in Seattle.  I find these “refugees” are amazing, and I’m fascinated with their culture.  I never hated Russians, just fascinated by their culture and the communist machine.  So many stories about how we should be extremely worried about anything that had anything to do with it.  Living in Seattle, I’d find a HUGE Leningrad Lenin at a coffee shop.  There was even communist magazines and articles in Fremont area in Washington, that made it seem almost cool to be communist, because it was racy.  Why do I give you this terse background story?  Because going to Russia is a HUGE rush.  Most American’s have some weird ideas of what it would be like to go to Russia.  How dangerous it might be, what might happen.  The crazy Russian Mafia stories.

First thing I had to do as an American was getting the Russian Visa.  It was the longest visa form I’ve ever filled out.  I started having doubts that they might not admit me.  It’s not just asking about my passport details and where I’m going… It gets into my parents and grandparents on both sides.  It asks about every country I’ve visited plus dates, that’s a pretty good list that ends up being pretty complex.  Despite the complexity and the couple of weeks it took.  I get the visa!!  I’m on my way to Russia.  What’s better I’ve got colleagues in St. Petersburg and I’ve got a SharePoint user group meeting setup in Moscow.  So work is paying for hotels, and all I’ve got to do is cover a train ticket from St. Petersburg to Moscow.  The Nevsky express!  Strangely about a week after that train ride that same train would get blown up and derailed by Chechen Rebels. Crazy.

St Petersburg Church of Spilled Blood

Pictured Above:  One of my favorite buildings in St Petersburg is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This Church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and was dedicated in his memory.

Continue reading “Russia Travel Rocks – St Petersburg to Majestic Moscow”

Rediscovered Europe: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Island in Bled Slovenia

I had seen most of Western Europe when I visited the Balkans, but I wasn’t prepared for the beauty and raw elements of war I would see.  Mountain views, lakes and valleys that would rival the best of Switzerland, rivers that rival the beauty of Idaho’s and untouched wilderness, the bridge in Mostar rival the arches of the canals of Venice, but evoke an emotional response.  The worst of the war torn parts remind me of some parts of Beirut.  Even the West Bank has been more cleaned up than some of the pits out of the buildings in Sarajevo.  The stories of the rebuilding of the Synagogue in Sarajevo… How many times can a building be rebuilt?

Night in Zagreb, Croatia

In contrast, Roman emperors vacationed in Croatia. croatia_bosnia Dubrovnik and Split are incredibly scenic and would rival that of any ports in Italy or France, and a fresh seafood or fish dinner would cost you much less.  I guess what I’m saying is, I loved it.  Belgrade and Sarajevo are the hidden gems of Europe, the passion and life, and recent history to blow your mind.  The travelers looking for secrets in Europe.  Here’s a great place to start.  It’s the Balkans.  Some of my best friends in Europe.  There’s something that goes deeper here.  Relationships are stronger, and go deeper, you can feel it.

My trip started in Zagreb the capital of Croatia with a night tour. We met up for a great dinner and ended up walking around parliament, and old town Zagreb. Zagreb itself did avoid much of the conflict in the Balkan conficts/wars that happened back in 92-93.

Remnants of the war are still visible.  There are more reasons to come and visit than the incredible night life.  There are fresh memories that will teach the world a lesson… this lesson is war is not kind to anyone.  War should be avoided at all costs, and the horrors and nightmares of war are real.  Those who only vacation at Disneyland or Disneyworld and spend their vacations with the Grand Canyon as the ultimate bucketlist need to come for a visit.  This land has a lot of lessons to teach. 

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When we got close to the Republik of Srpska we came across these signs.  After spending time at the Cambodia land museum, I have been convinced that land mines do more danger to the citizens that have to live with these than any good they do for the military.  There are some crazy stats on how much the people are impacted by these.

 

Now before you think it’s all doom and gloom, that’s totally not the key take away.  It’s the opposite.  In fact my friend Michael, who I was traveling with, recently wrote about his experience on this same trip.  I highly encourage reading about his writeup on the former Hapsburg empire – Serbia, Romania, Bosnia & Herz, Montenegro, and Croatia. This trip started with a fellow colleague who lived in Croatia, Toni Frankola, a speaking team of Michael Noel, and Paul Swider.

This place is amazing, but as an American tourist, that gets a rise out of seeing something unlike anything I can find within the US or Western Europe.  I get excited. This was one of the best Europe vacations I’ve ever done.  I’ve seen Dubrovnik and Mostar on the front page of Bing on multiple occasions.  They really are spectacular.  The castle in Belgrade was an awesome place to walk around.  The cultural music and dancing we got at night was spectacular.  Very fun environment.  I think it was a good thing for Toni as well, as he recognized some of the tunes, and was surprised to see the similarities between Croatia and Serbia.  Good stuff.

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Continue reading “Rediscovered Europe: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina”

Virgin Tourist Destinations: Albania and Kosovo


Albanian Art
Albanian Art

When I said I was flying into Albania and traveling across Kosovo to Macedonia some thought it was a very odd choice.  After having done it, I really enjoyed this trip and would recommend it for those looking for more of a raw European experience.  Some of the cheapest areas in Europe with the least number of tourists with some incredibly beautiful terrain.  At the end of this trip, from my UN country list I’m only missing Andorra from continental Europe, that may also explain our odd choice, but again, great adventure.  Did you know Mother Theresa is ethnic Albanian?  She was born in Skopje, Macedonia.

The Balkans are one of my favorite areas in Europe.  Dubrovnik, Split, Sarajevo, Mostar, Budapest and Belgrade continue to be some of my favorite cities in Europe.  The Balkans fail to get the best mention for beauty because of stains of war, but this history shouldn’t keep you from enjoying what hasn’t yet been claimed by tourists.  Seriously, you are missing out on the best if you ignore this region.

I met up with Paul Swider in Istanbul for his birthday, and Michael in Tirana.  You’ll hear a lot about these guys… my traveling companions for many adventures.  The night before our flight I was walking with Paul on the famous Taxim.  A walking street in Istanbul that’s known for it’s incredible night life, shopping, food, and it may have a million visitors in a day.  It’s pretty incredible area for getting the vibe of the city and just people watching.

Mega ATM Machine
Mega ATM Machine

Can you tell this city is interested in tourists?  This ATM machine spits out dollars, euros, pounds, and Turkish Lira!  Minutes later we’d be talked into going into this lounge.  They sell drinks for crazy high prices.  I had warned Paul, and thankfully we looked at the pricelist.  A couple years ago I was in a similar situation, but not with any knowledge of the scam that happens in that area with dancing Ukrainian girls sipping champaign, and within 20 minutes my buddy I had met that night had racked up a charge of over 500 Euros and was looking to split it.  Uhhh, no thanks.  Just a quick word of caution to not be talked into going into boring lounges with crazy expensive drinks.  Thirsty girls that just want to talk, is a bad sign.

As avid travelers Paul and I were so crazy impressed by the Turkish Airlines international lounge at the Istanbul Airport.  It wasn’t just the massage therapist who was walking around giving back massages, or the high speed wifi, the omelet bar, the huge free drink selection, breakfast buffet, but when you lockup your bags in a digital locker area with tons of space, a theatre room with rows of leather recliners, a news room area with 9 screens all showing different news programs all over the world and head sets where you could tune in at will.

Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul
Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul

I hadn’t really done much research, but after landing in Tirana, Albania and checking into our hotel, I quickly did some searches and found we were only about 40 minutes from the coast or better.  Tirana is named after a castle and is relatively a new city in European terms, but Durres, a roman port town was an easy drive.  So I convinced my traveling companions we needed to head for the coast.  After walking around down town, we saw some remnants of the communist era as well as a mosque that luckily survived 40 years of no religion in Albania and a touch of modernism.

 

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