Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Travels in the Balkans

"Whether breathing the Ottoman atmosphere of Prizren, Kosovo, or exploring the mystical shores of Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid; dining on grilled squid at a seaside café in Montenegro or sampling the nightlife in the Serbian capital of Belgrade—visitors can’t help but marvel at the richness of culture and the vibrant weave of people, history, and nature in this crossroads of Europe." - From a recent story on the Western Balkans in National Geographic Traveler.  

I didn't consult National Geographic when I began planning our latest trip through parts of the former Yugoslavia, but it looks like we'll be hitting all the right spots. I hope you'll come along as Tom and I travel through the Western Balkans, starting with an overnight ferry from Bari in Italy to Montenegro on the Adriatic coast.

Where are the Western Balkans? See this map and you'll get an idea. These are the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia in Southeastern Europe. The Balkans in Turkish means "mountains.'' For the most part, this is mountainous land, fragmented both in geography and politics, with most of the population divided into ethnic groups based on religion - Orthodox Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Judaism and European-style Islam, inherited from the long occupation of the Ottoman Turks. 

Wars in the 1990s over who was to control what territory following the break-up of Yugoslavia took their toll on cities and people. The fighting is over and the area is safe. Ethnic tensions still exist, but for the average traveler it's the post-Communism entrepreneurial spirit that's most noticeable, and in my opinion, this is what makes the Balkans such a  fascinating and fun place to visit.

Traveling in this area is like experiencing Europe on sale. Along side Catholic churches, Orthodox monasteries and Ottoman mosques are new hotels, sidewalk cafes, bars with outdoor patios decorated like living rooms, riverside bike paths and national parks, all there to be discovered, minus the costs and crowds of  Western Europe.

Our first trip in the Balkans was nine years ago. We spent time in Slovenia, Bosnia and Croatia. Croatia was barely being discovered at the time. Now it's one of the most popular destinations in Europe. Two years, ago we spent 10 days in Albania where my grandfather's Italian-born ancestors came from originally. This time, we'll be exploring in cities and countries we haven't yet visited, including Montenegro; Belgrade in Serbia; Prizren in Kosovo; Lake Ohrid in Macedonia; the village of Dihovo in Macedonia, and finally, our last three days in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. 

Each country is different, so we'll be dealing with several languages, use of the Cyrillic, Latin and Greek alphabets; three different currencies; many forms of public transportation (bus, train, ferries - no car!); and last I counted, eight different places to stay. These include a private room in a hostel in a 13th century building in Kotor, Montengro; a B&B run by a young couple in Belgrade; an Albanian-style inn in Kosovo; a lakeside boutique inn on Lake Ohrid; a "pay what you want'' farmstay (meals included) in the village of Dihovo in Macedonia; and finally, couchsurfing with a pair of forty-something teachers in Thessaloniki, Greece. 

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