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. 

image

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.

25708_381158112913_2547739_n

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

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.

cappadocia 065 (2)

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