Thoughts and feelings in the Balkans (and beyond)

For my newest excuse explaining the long duration between posts, I would like to offer: blame my parents. We have just had an extremely fun two weeks with them romping through Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, and Hungary. Also our computer broke again.

I’m actually just going to tell you about our days before picking up Mom and Dad at Zagreb airport in Croatia. For their side of the story, I ask you to eagerly await a new segment on our blog: Travel companion guest post!!! This will happen in a couple of days. For now, I’ll just say that the four of us travelled well together and packed in the excellent adventures. I am also happy to report that, to my knowledge, no one in the party tried to murder anyone else. This sets a good precedent for future travel companion arrangements, including Rachel and Manny, whom we met last night at Manny’s parent’s house in Oradea, Romania.

In the days before meeting Mom and Dad in Zagreb, we had a brief taste of slightly more offbeat travel destinations – Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia (preceded by Croatia, which is decidedly not offbeat). We’ve also experienced some more extraordinary hospitality, this time from the much too sweet Rads, Leah, Peter, and Zorica in Novi Sad, Serbia.  To disentangle my confusing timeline, remember to check out the “Keeping up with the Shingle to Boggians” link, which has a list of our whereabouts.

I probably shouldn't have taken a picture of this? But so exciting!
I probably shouldn’t have taken a picture of this? But so exciting!

The border from Croatia to Bosnia was the first that I was nervous about (though not as much as, say, Kazakhstan to Russia, or China to Laos). I am happy to report, however, that this border crossing was – without sarcasm – simply a delight. We waited for about 20 minutes in a line on a lovely country road with a view over a valley. We did have to buy border insurance for about 30 euros (we knew we would), but the border guards were hilarious. One of them kept telling us that next time we come, we must bring them boomerangs. Travelling on an Aussie passport is fun.

Our companion at the border. There's a person in the middle of that hay. He cut off a couple of cars and cut in line.
Our companion at the border. There’s a person in the middle of that hay. He cut off a couple of cars and cut in line, a group of pedestrians cheering and laughing.

In general, borders in this area are crazy easy. I actually mean crazy. At a couple of borders they’ve barely even looked at our faces to check we match the passports, let along looking at our car rego, insurance, or any cargo we might be carrying. I really thought borders would be stricter given the current refugee situation.

How pretty is Bosnia though?
How pretty is Bosnia though?

Bosnia has beautiful nature and beautiful people. It’s very mountainous, with lots of forests and national parks. We couldn’t find anywhere online in advance to stay, but luckily we saw a sign for camping in an old national park complex. There were quite a few other people camping too. We did have to engage some 4WD action to get into the grassy area, which was fun (a Serbian/German couple joined us in this adventure with their little car). We “checked in” at the Soviet-looking hotel up the hill. This took us past a set of old tourist buildings that had clearly been shot at, shelled, and abandoned. It’s such a shame – if that complex was in Croatia it would be newly renovated and swarming with tourists.

It was a noteworthy night at that campground. First of all, there was a thunder storm. This forced us to take our glasses of wine and our activities (listening to Phantom of the Opera for Luke, and reading for me) into bed while we waited it out. I am afraid of thunder, so it was lucky that Hogwarts was there to welcome me home.

Secondly, a pack of 20-something guys spent most of the night and morning singing rousing choruses of Bosnian folk tunes at the tops of their very nice voices. I know they were folk songs because I asked the guys, which they thought was weird.

Thirdly, we got an introduction to stray dogs in the Balkans. They were adorable, sweet, well-behaved, and discernible breeds. There were three wandering the campground, getting pats and food from the campers. We almost adopted the puppy, who looked like he might have been part German Shepard. We thought he might be a good wedding present for you, Kim and Doug. Who doesn’t want a tragically adorable flee-ridden Bosnian puppy delivered to them on their wedding day, right? It’s just a LITTLE bit of potential rabies.

I mentioned before that we saw a bit of physical evidence of the war in Croatia. In Bosnia, it’s a whole other league. I don’t say this to be disrespectful or sensationalistic – it’s just true. Probably about a quarter of the buildings we saw in most places (given our very limited time there) had evidence of bullet holes, some were clearly shelled, many were abandoned (probably because people were killed, or fled and didn’t return). There were a couple of places we drove through where an entire street was thickly peppered with bullet holes. We also drove through a few towns – Foca and Visegrad, specifically, about whose history we  read. Very bad things happened in these places. It is not my history to tell, and I can’t begin to understand the complexities of the way that this recent history is recounted by the various groups of people involved. But I doubt that any would disagree that very bad things happened.

All that said, Bosnia (and also Serbia) are the places that Luke and I are most likely to travel to again – above Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands. They are truly beautiful, they are not overrun with tourists, and the people really are incredibly friendly. We can talk all we want about the hospitality of people in other parts of Europe, but I think locals are just more welcoming in places that do not see packs of visitors all the time. In the case of Bosnia, I think people are happy we have come. Luke got his hair cut in a square in the small town of Trebinje, near the border with southern Croatia. The hairdresser was very sweet and talked to us a lot. She did, however, ask if we were “scared to come to Bosnia.” She said we had nothing to fear, it was safe. I totally agree with her. I would recommend Bosnia to any traveller with a healthy sense of adventure. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it’s very cheap for people with AUD and USD.

A lovely market in Trebinje
A lovely market in Trebinje

Another huge bonus of Bosnia (and also Serbia) is the booze. Oh, the best booze. We bought some homemade wine in plastic Coca-Cola bottles from some ladies in a market. It was fabulous, much better than a cheap Aussie red. Also, the market ladies are great. Welcoming and informative, and quick to offer a taste of their own wine in a small plastic cup, but they don’t push.

Going into Serbia from Bosnia and Herzegovina was like driving from Detroit into Canada. Material signs of war and poverty vanished instantly in Serbia, though we did get some very small glimpses later. I’m not going to make any speculations or judgements on why this might be the case – I certainly don’t understand this situation well enough.

Our fancy-pants place in Serbia
Our fancy-pants place in Serbia

I will make a judgement about the hotel we stayed in, located in a ski resort area in Serbia. It was MAGICAL. There were ceilings that were AT LEAST 8 feet high, and we didn’t have to bring our own toilet paper. And the wi-fi worked. We ran around in circles like idiots and jumped on the bed when we got in our room. We hadn’t stayed in a building for about a month. (Don’t get me wrong – we adore our little “house”. We’re just very easily pleased now.)

But things got even better when we got to Novi Sad. Rads and Peter work with Luke in Sydney, and they happened to be in Serbia at just the right time, with their wives, Leah and Zorica. Peter and Zorica are Serbian and they come back here frequently. They have a gorgeous house which feels like a little slice of Australian housing (the good kind) in Serbia, it was like being home. Actually, it was way nicer than the house we lived in in Sydney. I don’t think they would ever let chickens inside their house.

Touristing together
Touristing together

Anyway, our main takeaway was a feeling of being very taken care of (more delicious food and drink than we can handle, Zorica washing and folding our laundry, and sleeping in a big huge bed in a bedroom with a view of Novi Sad and the Danube). We left feeling pampered and well-rested, but also educated. Like if you went to a day spa situated in a library, but with home cooked meals.

The education bit: the fam took us on some really good tourist expeditions, for a start. We checked out some ancient Roman ruins and a couple of great historical museums in a town called Sremska Mitrovica. It was a capital of the Roman Empire during the Tetrarchy! It was such a treat to see history in a not overly-touristed place: in both museum buildings, museum staff led us around the exhibitions, explaining and answering questions.

Also, we were allowed *very* close contact with Mammoth bones.
Also, we were allowed *very* close contact with Mammoth bones.

Secondly, we had some really good chats, including with their neighbour, who popped by for a drink. He, from what we understand, is a meteorology professor at a university in Novi Sad. He and Peter were not at all shy about telling us about the history of Serbia/Yugoslavia, including the World Wars. We actually really appreciate people taking the time (and emotional energy) to tell us about their home, especially when it’s had as much history happen as Serbia has.

Rewind: Dubrovnik

Welcome to King's Landing!
Welcome to King’s Landing!

Just to throw you for a temporal loop, I’ll now tell you a little bit about Dubrovnik, which we visited prior to Bosnia and Novi Sad. The first, but least important, tidbit to note about Dubrovnik is that it is the filming location for all the King’s Landing scenes in Game of Thrones. Luke and I did geek out about that a little, yes. But more importantly, Dubrovnik is a beautiful ancient town. It’s insanely touristed – the throngs were still descended when we arrived by boat at 9pm for a walk around. However, it is one place we would recommend despite the hordes. There’s also very important recent history, having been under siege for several months in the 90’s.

Until next time!

Southern Croatia and Dubrovnik

 

Bosnia

Serbia

7 thoughts on “Thoughts and feelings in the Balkans (and beyond)”

  1. So it’s back to the old days of blaming your parents! We wrote our blog entry on the flight last night, hope it’s coherent, but I know it’s not as funny or clever as yours! Have fun with Rachel and Manny.

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  2. WOW!! Another great post and beautiful pictures. Enjoyed it so much. Keep the blogs coming and keep having a good time. Love you both!

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  3. I’m so impressed! Your posts are always so much fun and so full of information. Thanks for taking the time to share! Love to you both!

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  4. Thanks again for your very interesting travelling adventures.

    Hope all goes well on the next leg and through Russia.

    Much love Sue

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