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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Must See Cathedrals of Sofia Bulgaria


Black Sea to the East, Turkey and Greece to the south, Macedonia to the Southwest, and Romania to the North.  Sofia is a feast of richness in culture.

I had a 5 hour stopover in Sofia on my way to Istanbul, and I asked the Taxi to drop me off in the center of town.  As we got close I saw this amazing gold roof, and I asked him to drop me off at what I’d find out was Alexander Nevsky Cathedral an Eastern Orthodox church that can support 10,000 people.

Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky Sofia Bulgaria
Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky in Sofia Bulgaria

What a fascinating area.  First you just start walking around and you find amazing vendors selling antiques.  Antiques including old money from Yugoslavia, Germany, Iran, Iraq, across the middle east and various EU countries prior to their adoption of the Euro.  Amazing masks, art work, and antique razors, knives, and swords.  What a beautiful area to wander around.

Next door sits St. Sofia a crazy old church even for Europe.  On the site of the church in the 2nd century was a Roman theatre, and over the next couple of centuries were built churches only to be destroyed by Goths and Huns, and in the 6th century was built the Hagia Sofia church, a contemporary of the Hagia Sofia church in Istanbul.  In the 16th century it became a mosque, and the mosaics destroyed.  Now one of the most valuable pieces of early architecture in Southeastern Europe.  The city took it’s name from this church.

Alexander Nevsky
Alexander Nevsky

The young population of the city breathes life in a big way.  My second visit to Bulgaria a week later after having traveled across Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia to then drive from Skopje to Sofia in 3 hours with an impressive taxi driver. One estimate we had in Sofia was an 8 hour drive.  My hat off to our Macedonian driver.  The same driver who took us to meet the Roma.

Center of Sofia
The workers of Sofia Bulgaria

I’ve seen skaters in large cities in Europe before.  In fact in Paris, I saw huge jumps setup in a park, but in Sofia it was different.  Here it was as if the youth were the center of the city.  There presence is more important and embraced.  Vibrant youth. Radical change.  Hope.

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I met one such youth.  Yordan. He is full of hope, he is full of energy.  He was playing his accordion for fun.  It added a cultural element to the air.  We had a quick chat and extremely quickly we became friends and built trust.

Having a great meal in Bulgaria with locals
Having a great meal in Bulgaria with locals

Speaking of hope… I spent a few days with these guys at MS Days Bulgaria.  Two company owners and Microsoft Employee.  Radi, the Ninja Master, opened up his office and on my way home I had dinner with his team.  Again, passion, energy.  The old guard is getting old and retiring, there’s a lot of change a foot in Bulgaria.  A new generation is building businesses and generating successful employment.  Over 1000 attendees came to the event held in a very new Movie Theatre complex.

One of the coolest things about Sofia Bulgaria is the various fresh local markets. While the antique market may be catering somewhat to the tourist. The book market, the fruit and fresh market, and the vendors in the area.  Encouraging passion, intelligence, and getting people out into the streets engaging.  The culture is very open, very talkative.

Fresh Market in Sofia Bulgaria
Fresh Market in Sofia Bulgaria

Travel Tip: We had no problems with metered Taxis, but yes you might pay more than twice more if you don’t negotiate a local price.  Use the OK taxi, use the meeter and you’ll save a bundle.  Don’t believe them when they say fixed price from the airport, and don’t take a taxi that isn’t in line.  Those soliciting are going to charge you more than the yellow OK taxi.

The parks aren’t setup specifically for the tourist.  A book market… YES! Can you believe it!  Knowledge is power, and whether it’s the book market or the extremely passionate chess games with crowds as large as 20 people watching the intense game.  There’s something going on in Bulgaria.  It’s called life.

Sorry to say… I had a delay on my way home from Turkey which caused a domino effect.  It did put me in Sofia for another 5 hour layover, a third trip to Sofia in a 10 day period and rather than sit at the airport lounge, I reached out to my new friend Radi who invited a few friends.  Many thought it was an April fools joke.

One of the things I loved most of Sofia was how easy it was to find incredible food.  I didn’t have a single dish that wasn’t incredible.  The salads, the soups, the vegetables… I don’t think I’ll ever rave so much about various red and green peppers, cucumbers, egg plant, TOMATOs, and the cheese… yes the cheese.  I mean really, they were spectacular.  I’ve never tasted anything like it, there’s something in the soil, or something.  I have to imagine organic plus no chemicals, hormones, no accelerated growth, or weed killer.  Something I just can’t get in the US or in Western Europe.  When I saw goat head on the menu, I was getting a little excited.  The guys had some fun with that.  Unfortunately Goat head wasn’t available.  Parts and pieces depend on what’s available.

A crossroads of East and West, Bulgaria may hold an important piece of the future of Europe and hence the future of our world.  Often overlooked, but sleeping spark of economic growth.  While Greece, Spain, Portugal and others slow, there’s a sleeper that is emerging.  Let us welcome Bulgaria to the world stage.  I’d definitely welcome a Bulgarian restaurant in my home town.

Russian Orthodox Bulgarian
Russian Orthodox Bulgarian

Skopje Macedonia and the Mysterious Gypsy City


Arriving in Skopje (Pronounced Scope-Ya) Macedonia by Train, we met up immediately with our new friend Darko.  What a cool name!  Darko, a native Macedonian was ready for us on the train platform arriving from Kosovo.  He had big plans and was anxious to show off his amazing city, and we ready to take it in. (Pictured below: Me, Betim, and Darko)

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Darko takes us downtown to this beautiful area.  Tons of Monuments centered around Alexander the Great fountain.  You may not be aware, but the name itself “Macedonia” is controversial.  Greece doesn’t like that Macedonia or FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia)  uses that name.  In Greece, the region north around Thessaloniki, is known as Macedonia and recognized by them as the *real* Macedonia. I highly recommend a quick read from Wikipedia’s article on the Macedonia name dispute.

Alexander the Great

Here’s a little snippet from Wikipedia which better explains it: “The dispute has escalated to the highest level of international mediation, involving numerous attempts to achieve a resolution. In 1995, the two countries formalized bilateral relations and committed to start negotiations on the naming issue, under the auspices of the United Nations. Until a solution is found, the provisional reference “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (often abbreviated as FYROM) is used by international organizations and states which do not recognize translations of the constitutional name “Република Македонија” (“Republika Makedonija”, “Republic of Macedonia”). UN members, and the UN as a whole, have agreed to accept any final agreement on a new name agreed upon by both Greece and FYROM.”

For now, don’t get upset if I don’t use the ugly acronym.  I love both ideas, and I’m sure they’ll work it out eventually.  Maybe if Skopje builds more monuments of Alexander the great, Greece will concede… joking!!

The amount of construction going on, on these massive and incredible monuments would make you think there’s a great insurgence of money coming in, but really it seems something imperial is going on.  There is a new Caesar or Alex in town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pictured Above: Alexander the Great

 

Pictured Below: Tsar, and the Stone Bridge originally from 6th century, and that’s not Las Vegas’s Caesar’s palace but it sure looks like it.

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Right from downtown if you look up, you see this amazing castle -Kale Fortress built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian.  It adds a very chivalrous spirit to the air, and the amazing river and big statues everywhere and all the great colorful flags made for a beautiful day.  I thoroughly enjoyed the city, and walking around it was a lot of fun.  I am a bit dissapointed I didn’t spend more time in the old city going to the bizarre.  I’ve heard lots of good things online.  As a tourist, you could spend most of your time in this area of the city walking up the hill… incredible views.  We even found a secret door into the fortress.  Very interesting.  In these streets of the old bizarre and double hamam you could get lost in a good way weaving around old and new.  We had some great hot chocolate the the guys LOVED the coffee.  The new Mother Theresa building is very nice as well.  More great statue and modern art.  Darko then took us to a fabulous lunch.

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Castle Above Macedonia

After another incredible meal. Awesome vegetables, and succulent meats, we simply walked upstairs to a large group of people that were actually waiting for us.  Darko organized a technical event for me and my traveling buddies to present at.  We had over 120 attendees and with Darko’s help we launched a brand new SharePoint community in Macedonia.  We were super pleased with the turnout.  Nothing I love more than to feel like I’ve left something behind that will blossom and grow.  Building community provides infrastructure, support, and strength.  It also grows friendships and global connections.

After the event we went back and I was doing some research.  I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss anything super cool.  I came across Roman Aqueducts just outside the city, and then was reading about the largest Roma community of 30,000 being nearby.  Michael had this funny look on his face.  Dude, I’m surprised your not excited.  What?  Gypsies!  OH, NO WAY!  I’ve always wondered where gypsies came from.  Here I had found the beginning to that answer.  No where in the world is there a community quite like this.  We did a little research, and Paul being skeptical about our little on the fly adventure to a city of gypsies had him emptying his pockets taking off his watch.  I wasn’t as worried, but what did I know.  I had no idea what to expect.  I did expect desperation.  I had read about 70-80% unemployment.  Wow.  So sad.  I read about efforts to build homes, build schools, but what an incredible story.

In the streets of Shutka Worlds Largest Gypsy Community

From Wikitravel on Skopje attractions: “Shuto Orizari Municipality. Also called Shutka is one of the largest Roma settlements in the world with about 30,000 inhabitants. Neither picturesque nor romantic, it is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in Roma life and culture. On the other hand, this is not a tourist attraction. The settlement developed from a small village where only a few Roma families were living before the 1963 earthquake. Many of the corrugated iron shacks that were donated by US aid organisations are still in use.”

Gypsy Romani Children

I should have been alerted to why it was cool when I read… “this is not a tourist attraction.”  That is a good clue.  After quickly getting ready we jumped in a cab, and said Shutka… huh?  Roma… ah!?  Why!?  We want to see the people!  I wasn’t sure what our cabbie could have been thinking.  He later explained to us that we were the first tourists he’s taken to that part of town.  While there is a textile market, and exchange that locals would request to be taken to, we were the first of his customers to purposely go into what he’d consider a strange part of town that most would avoid.  That is often the way we travel.  I find I personally am fascinated by where culture shows its both clean and ugly head.  I really don’t only want to see the sugar coated places.  My friend Ricardo our guide in San Jose Costa Rica, Buenos Aires, Santiago and Uruguay was always looking out for us, so we had to purposely get ourselves into situations where we could find where the “real” people lived.  For me this one late afternoon was one of the highlights of the trip for me.  Here I was seeing tons of kids roaming the streets that were extremely inquisitive.  I saw a guy selling used shampoo bottles.  We saw homes where animals lived better than the humans, and visa versa.  There were lots of horses, and dogs.  Walking the streets we ran into Jehovah’s Witnesses.  From my past experience as a missionary of the LDS Church, we called them JW’s (Jay Dubbs.)  They were dressed nicely and were teaching a couple of different women.  I have to tip my hat to them.  While others saw this as a dangerous impoverished area, they were trying to spread the gospel of hope.  I don’t know how well it was being received, but based on an earlier conversation on the trip where we were talking about conflict and religion.  It was nice to be able to share how religion can bring hope to a soul.  The conflicts in Kosovo for example while on the surface it looks like religion, I still do have to see these as national conflicts, pursuits of freedom, and of nationality.  The Balkans are so rich with so many nationalities, and religion does play into those differences.  If peace can be found in the Balkans it will spread across many lands.  The conquests of the Persians, Greeks, Roman empire, the Byzantine empire, the Ottoman empire, and Hungarian, and Hapsburgs… This was the burnt over district.  There’s a lot of history in this little area.  Spain has good examples of how it can work in the same nation.  France is still working it out… and when we do get things all worked out it will be for the betterment of society as a whole.

One question the roaming gypsy seems to bring up is… where do they come from?  Assumptions are they come from Northern India.  One more recent thought is they come from Egypt. (hence the name E-Gypt becomes Gypsy.)  Having visited both of those areas.  I do think the beautiful eyes of the Rajasthan province of India would be a good match, but at the same time, there are a lot of similarities with Egyptians and both are plausible.  Would be interesting to get some DNA family research.  Some DNA has been done which points to Pakistan and Northern India. The unique cultures of the Roma people are fascinating.  I would love to spend more time understanding it.  Would love to help build a school, and help inspire the families to value education.  It was amazing to see how much they value family and family unity.  To be rejected from the Roma society is one of the worst things that can happen to someone.

The Romani people have a journey ahead of them.  As a people they have suffered slavery, they were shot on site in WWII by the Nazis, post WWII their music was banned, their women were sterilized, and in eastern Europe haven’t had a fair shake.  Do they assimilate? Do they stop wandering and build cities like Shutka?  No matter where they are they will receive persecution despite the fact that they tend to accept the religion of the region where they live.  Very recently there are still problems around the world with the Romani people.

Paul did quite a bit of research after we got back… I think something happened to him in that city.  It definitely did to me as well.  I think I’m going to look out more for ways I can help people when I travel… I hope you will too!

Romi Children

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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