A Trace of Thrace: Balkan Adventure

bear-balkansIn Plovdiv, Bulgaria, John M. Edwards snitches on the mystery-shrouded Balkans’ best-kept secret: an ancient (and enduring) heresy

I was on the way slow train from Budapest through the Balkans, on my way to Bulgaria, chainsmoking and guzzling Egri Bikavier (Bull’s Blood) wine, when the train came to a juddering halt and was boarded by heavily armed Serbian soldiers.

A Serb with an impressive handlebar moustache and an assault rifle demanded my passport.

“Americansky!” The Serb spat. “You must get off train!”

Knobby knees buckling, I asked, “The train won’t leave without me, will it?” With all the seething political turmoil in the ex-Yugoslavia, I was seriously creeped out. I hoped this wasn’t an internment center or refugee camp.

“You must get Serbian visa!” he announced officiously. He rattled off something in a Cyrillic alphabet soup to his comrade, then briskly led me off the train. I knew I should have taken the more roundabout route through Romania rather than Yugoslavia. But for this to be a true trip through the Balkans I had to take the more direct path.

Inside a wooden shack, resembling an outpost entrance to a concentration camp, they interrogated me.

“I’m going to Bulgaria, not Serbia, “ I assured them.

“Why are you going to Bulgaria?” the moustached man asked, eyeing me suspiciously.

I didn’t want them to think I was a spy, or, even worse, a reporter. Instead of saying, Because it’s there, I said, “Uh, for vacation.”

They burst out laughing. The sinister border guards seemed amused I was taking a “vacation” in Bulgaria. They let me back on the train, but not in on the joke. They obviously knew something I didn’t. Judging by their somewhat misplaced laughter, I really had no idea what was in store for me in Bulgaria. Destination: Plovdiv!

* * *

The blond-haired, blue-eyed Moslem resembling Bruce Chatwin going native stood defiantly, playing the Rhodope bagpipes in the square, its sad wail reminiscent of the ululations of the muezzins who were rapidly disappearing throughout modernizing Bulgaria. He was a Pomak, an ethnic Slav Bulgarian whose family had converted to Islam under Ottoman rule.

But now Bulgaria is a staunchly Orthodox Christian country, but like all Balkan nations, it had its fair share of Moslems and Gypsys who hadn’t quite integrated under the former communist government’s enforced “Bulgarization” program. This is just an example of a paradox in what could be the dizzying Balkans’ most puzzling jigsaw piece.

bulgaria-monsteryWell off the beaten European tourist trail, Plovdiv had a lot of remnants of the past to recommend it. There was a gorgeous Ottoman mosque, as well as Roman ruins—and, too good to be true, even older ancient pre-Greek Thracian ruins. The place did indeed have a magical, almost Orphic atmosphere. Over there a Turk unrolling his prayer mat in the marketplace, over there a man leading a trained bear on a leash, and over there a midget in evening clothes waiting tables at a restaurant.

It felt like I had jumped into a Tintin comic. Surely Bulgaria must have been the inspiration for the mythical kingdom of “Syldavia” that Tintin visited in King Ottakar’s Scepter? The only other things I knew about Bulgaria were that Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian defector, was killed on London Bridge in broad daylight by being casually poked in the ribs with a poison-tipped umbrella, and that Bulgaria (“Vulgaria”) was the setting for the evil baron who hated children from Cubby Brocolli’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!

Built over an ancient Thracian site, Plovdiv was called Philippopolis when it was founded in 342 B.C. As I walked around the lower town I noted the Byzantine walls, Roman columns, and Ottoman minarets. The Hisar Kapiya (Fortress Gate) was built back in the times of Philip II of Macedon: a trace of Thrace.

At last walking into the Stariyat Grad (Old Town), I couldn’t believe how picturesque were the 19th-century timber-framed mansions almost coming to loggerheads on the narrow cobblestone streets like a fantastical setpiece for a German Expressionist film (Bulgaria’s ex-ruler King Boris, who really did resemble Boris Karloff, was actually German)—all the product of the so-called Bulgarian Renaissance. Amid this stunning Balkanesque backdrop were more people than the city could hold: I had arrived in the middle of an international trade fair, the largest in the Balkans. Said a dodgy Brit with bad teeth in for the fair, “The fair is great, mate; my trade is ‘pharmaceuticals.’”

Joining the “korso” (evening promenade) down Ulitsa Knyaz Aleksandar I, I set off to uncover a restaurant, any restaurant. Although most of the eateries were full of trade-fair revelers, I finally landed at a table outside a small dump on a sidestreet. I wondered why the eatery was almost empty. I also wondered why such a beautiful city was almost unknown. With a little renovation we had another undiscovered Prague or Talinn, albeit with a different architectural legacy, on our hands.

After waiting an hour for my Bulgarian grub (tripe soup!) I was steaming mad. I should have just gotten some fresh yoghurt and baklava (both purportedly Bulgarian inventions) at the outdoor marketplaces. When my lukewarm “special” resembling cannibalism and locally produced red wine finally arrived, I remarked on the poor quality of both to the dwarf waiter, and I asked for the bill.

“The wine eez wery special,” the dwarf explained in a piping castrato voice, as I eyed the bill, featuring a hefty markup. I’d heard of this before: a simple case of a menu switch.

Nah-un, no way.

After arguing about the bill for several minutes, the dwarf ran back inside and got the Bolshevik manager, who, believe it or not, was wearing one of those big bulgy Chef Boyardee hats. He yelled loudly at me in Bulgarian. I felt like I was in one of those Tony Curtis “Great Race” movies, facing the villain with a pencil-thin Cantinflas mustache, or any flick with David Niven.

I refused to be extorted.

Out of nowhere rushed two youngish travelers, looking very Lonely Planet, saying, “Hey, what’s all the trouble?” An American with a Midwestern accent, who was teaching English in Plovdiv, expertly negotiatied in cutting down the bill somewhat, as I noted the strange Bulgarian mannerism and custom of nodding the head no and shaking the head yes. An inexplicable conundrum. Which made it hard to follow the course of the convo.

Finally, it was all hearty guffaws and “blagodaryas” (thankyous) all around. Then I left with the American and his Bulgarian sidekick and went to the amazing almost-perfectly-preserved Roman ampitheater to sacrifice a bottle of Bulgarian red in the moonlight. One of Bulgaria’s early rulers, Khan Krum, used to drink wine out of his enemies’ skulls, I remembered reading somewhere. Probably better and more hygienic than passing around the bottle. In the moonlight, among the ruins, the American said, “I can tell you’re different. . . .”

muralI had been a houseguest of the American and Bulgarian for several days, when the American (name withheld) hinted that he may or may not work for a well-known intelligence-gathering company usually referred to by three letters. CIA or KGB? Probably to prove he was a real American, not just a pretend spider, with evident hilarity the American sang an old jingle from tlevision: “Who’s the kid with all the friends hanging round, kid with a snowman, Snowcone!” In retrospect, he resembled Bulgarian-American Cult Leader David Koresh, and maybe it was him? He also offered to take me on a tour of the legendary Bachkovo Monastery.

“Christianity in Bulgaria is a little different,” the Bulgarian offered sotto voce, a mysterious smile parting his beard. “It’s a kind of mix Christianity and Paganism!”

With this in mind later the next day, I accompanied the American on a series of bus rides, filled with Universal-Pictures-like Gypsys wearing outlandish garb, until we found ourselves at the beginning of a wide valley leading to Bachkovo, founded in 1083 and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After tramping a while, I asked if we could head back. There was something strange about the vast valley that gave me the willies. We stopped and the American found a stone sculpture that he had made and left behind on the trail on a previous trip. He commented, apropos of nothing, “Did you know that some people think [Eastern Orthodox] monks can walk straight through mountains?”

And so we began to go uphill.

We came across a small fountain for washing our feet.

We ran into some other pilgrims walking the shining path, their icon eyes blazing. They said something to us. The American translated for us, “The Truth!”

Entering the monastery through a door leading into a cobbled courtyard, we saw some frescos depicting the torments of hell. At the nearly right-there Sveta Bogoroditsa, a church built in 1604, we admired the transplanted Georgian icon of the Virgin, which the American said with demonic cheer, “Looks like it’s from outer space, doesn’t it?”

Indeed, all the Byzantine Empire mosaics and frescos had figures with numinous golden-halo helmets and otherworldly pagan bespoke robes. On this day, black-clad Bulgarian monks swung censers to “drive away evil spirits.” On the walls I noticed little eyes in pyramids, which many believe are Masonic symbols. The Cyrillic alphabet was invented somewhere in these parts by the Bulgarian monks Cyril and Methodius, and is still used in many places today, such as Russia. At times resembling a mirror-image of Latin, the Cyrillic Alphabet sometimes is almost decipherable: Bulgarian “BAP” means “BAR,” for example.

After admiring the ancient witchcrafty church, we took a lengthy hike to reach a remote chapel, which would have been impossible to find without the American as a guide. Going up a steep hill we came across an old picture of Christ in a cracked glass frame, then went on up the hill to yet another chapel farther up the mountain. On the way I noticed little bits of rags tied to the branches of trees.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

When an old babushka crone came out of nowhere—yes, cackling.

“The Baba, the Baba!” the American laughed cryptically, as she ascended the hill with her gnarled wooden cane. “A witch!” He whistled.

At a chapel on the edge of time, the American led me inside: “There’s something I want you to see.” Inside, there was an ancient Christ Pantocrator approximating a peace sign painted on the ceiling and a prayer niche with a velvet curtain in front of it.

“Can I borrow your camera? There’s something scary I want you to see!”

He shot a photo into the recess, and there was a bright flash!

Hence, the Manichaean fresco was thus illumined.

What the?!

I have to admit I was very startled by what I saw. You have to go there yourself to see what it is. Let’s just say, there was an ancient heresy in Bulgaria called the Bogomils (circa 10th century), who believed the world was created not by God but by Satan. . . .

* * *

Back in town at a Thracian excavation site, we puzzled over why there was no one to protect the ruins from plunderers, including us. The Thracians, who practiced an orgiastic free-love religion linked to the Greek god Dionysus, were skilled archers and equestrians. One group called the Capnobatae (“Smoke Treaders”) got high on hemp seeds—the ancient world’s first hippies. I carefully arranged a pile of ancient Thracian phalluses, an archaeologist’s wet dream, and snapped a photo.

I was really digging Thrace.

“You can take some if you want,” said the American. “Except they’d probably confiscate them at the airport.”

Grabbing a phallus as a souvenir and inserting it into my daypack, I had for the first time in my life become an amateur smuggler. (But if you fink on me and tell anybody, I’ll claim it dropped out of my bag on the way to the train station.)

Right before I left Plovdiv, while boarding the train to Instanbul, I noticed a tour group of people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Florida Friendship Front.” I pointed this out to the American, who laughed, “Let’s see, FFF”—a David Letterman-like smile creased his face—“So F is the sixth letter of the alphabet, so 666, the number of the Beast!” Everyone laughed uproariously. Way clever, yes, even genius, but I have to admit I was also a little spooked. I hoped the train didn’t have some secret ulterior destination I didn’t know about yet, such as Danté’s Inferno.

I boarded the train, waved goodbye, and settled into my compartment.

And off went the train.

Somewhere in European Thrace, there was a sudden crash!

On impact I went flying backward in my cabin. The bunk above my head slammed down off its hinges like an accordion in a crowded beerhall.

Or, a Balkan Jack-in-the-Box.

I would have been killed had I not been thrown backward.

Wow, the train had hit a truck and was now derailed!

Thanking my lucky stars to be in one piece, I got off the train as Turkish workmen grimaced, ran around like maniacs, and dangerously smoked cigarettes near leaking oil. Nobody seemed to know what to do.

It was a fitting end to my mysterious little trip through the Balkans. Eventually a battered dolmus arrived and I pressed in like Jim Morrison, a big fan of Orpheus, breaking on through to the “other side,” headed for Instanbul, the ex-Constantinople, sort of lost with my secret (and stashed phallus) in the Turkish part of European Thrace, in the place where Europe ends and Asia begins. . . .


Bring Adventure Back to Europe

lake-ohridThis was Richard’s Keynote to The European Travel Commission, presented on May 9, 2013. This also took first place in our 2013 travel writing competition.

I once ran with the bulls of Pamplona….by mistake, involuntarily. I was at Microsoft, where we were developing a new travel product that would become Expedia, and we had the idea to use a new web technology called Live Chat to convey from the field the adventure of travel. I had the idea that I would cover the running of the bulls by standing in a doorway on the route of the stampede, and report live what was happening. But when the canon went off, a river of people charged down the street, and scooped me out of the doorway and into the fray. The 90 thousand people from around the world who tuned in to hear my reportage heard only screams as I ran with the bulls to the stadium.

Afterwards I checked out the bulletin boards that had the hundreds of photos taken by photographers on the balconies, and there were several sequences of a bull with his horn just inches from my back.

The experience was how some describe adventure today…a well-planned trip gone wrong….but it wasn’t always this way.
Europe is where Adventure Travel was born. Today it is a 150 billion dollar industry, and accounts for 26% of all tourism departures worldwide.

So, why do we take Adventure Travel Trips?

In 1735, the British poet Sir Hildebrand Jacob wrote “A mind truly disposed for the perceptions of that which is great and marvelous is a product of Nature and cannot be attained through study.” In other words, it’s good to get outdoors.

In 1757 The Irish philosopher Edmund Burke tried to account for the passions evoked in the human mind by what he called “terrible objects.” He was interested in our psychic response to things—a rushing cataract, a soaring cliff face, an avalanche—that seized, terrified, and yet also somehow pleased the mind by dint of being too big, too high, too fast, too powerful, too uncontrollable to be properly comprehended. These sights inspired a heady blend of pleasure and terror; these were the sights of Adventure. In Burke’s theory, beauty, which was about balance and grace, has a relaxing effect on the “fibers of the body,” whereas adventure tightens these same fibers. He wrote: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” He went on to posit that terror was a passion which “always produces delight when it does not press too close.” So, as in riding on a mountain train, or skiing a steep slope, kayaking a fast river or hiking through the wilderness it is the suggestion of harm, melded with the knowledge that no harm will likely come, which induces the sensation of delightful terror. It’s why we ride roller coasters, and why we take adventure-travel trips.

But it’s not just an elective. Adventure, which stimulates the evolution of consciousness, is necessary. As the English mathematician Alfred North Whitehead said, “Without adventure, civilization is in full decay.”

So, who were these first adventurers, and why?

Adventure was not a motivation for the first travelers through Europe. They were pilgrims, hunters, Crusaders heading for the Holy Land; mercenaries, messengers, tradesmen, smugglers and other criminals. Most of these voyagers avoided the “hills whose heads touch heaven,” afraid of the uncanny powers that lurked within. They did not want to be in the mountains of Europe; they did not want unnecessary adventure.

A half century before Christ the Romans considered the Alps inhospitable, desolate, hostile—…ocris, arduus, horridus. The Roman poet, Titus Lucretius Carus, called the Alps the waste places of the world, where Nature had swept its rubbish.

For generations after the Romans, mountains signified only the deformed and execrable, thinly soiled, steeply sloped, bad for farming, ordeals to cross, the lairs of demons and trolls. The Welsh priest Adam of Usk was so petrified when he crossed the Gotthard Pass in 1402 he had to be blindfolded, and travelers after him would often close the carriage curtains to avoid the dreadful scenes of the Alps. Anything could happen in this icy semi-circle of teeth that bit off Italy from the rest of Europe. Not only were the Alps scary; but they also were ugly, warts on the skin of the Earth; boils on its face. The classical notions of beauty called for purity, order, restraint, regularity, proportion—perfection; while The Alps were disordered, irregular, chaotic, and bad-mannered.

The monk John de Bremble was so horrified by his experience crossing the Great St. Bernard Pass that he prayed, “Lord restore me to my brethren, that I may tell them not to come to this place of torment.” Bishop Berkeley, crossing the Alps in 1714, carped that, “Every object that here presents itself is excessively miserable.”

Fantastic beliefs are not just a trait of modern politicians. In 1723, a Swiss Fellow of the Royal Society, Johann Jacob Scheuchzer, penned a famous “dracopedia” with detailed description of alpine dragons he had seen. And he believed that certain chamois possessed a stone in their bellies that rendered them immune to bullets.

And it wasn’t just the mountains that evoked these feelings. In 1791 the English cleric William Gilpin noted that “the generality of people found wilderness dislikable.” “There are few,” he wrote,” “who do not prefer the busy scenes of cultivation to the greatest of nature’s rough productions.” It’s interesting that if you look back before the 18th century there is virtually no literature that praises Grand Nature or the adventures found within…nothing in Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare or Milton…it’s all about the human form, about delicate beauty, about ordered gardens and symmetrical patterns. Unless a soldier, pilgrim or pirate, adventure was anathema.

So, how did this mindset change? When did they pull back the curtains?

In 1739, Cambridge professor Thomas Gray took the Grand Tour, crossed the Alps, and wrote letters in which he used the adjectives “romantic” and “poetic,” and the phrases, “a sacred terror” and “a severe delight.” With these words he put himself in a dramatic story, and turned the pages that grew a movement.

In 1775 Jean-Jacques Rousseau found his narrative voice and turned it on: “I must have torrents, rocks, pines, dead forest, mountains, rugged paths to go up and down, precipices beside to frighten me.”

Then the Industrial Revolution, which motivated record numbers to leave farms and crowd to the cities. Suddenly places like London were dirty, smoggy, disease and crime ridden—this was the setting that gave Charles Dickens his work. People lost faith in God and humanity.

But when the rock star Romantic poets… Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, Mary Shelly…who wrote Frankenstein …William Wordsworth, John Ruskin and others set out to adventure in the Alps, they found landscapes clean and green, dangerous and overwhelming, and it made them feel more alive, it made them believe in something powerful—and they called the feelings they evoked as

“An Agreeable Kind of Horror”

“A Magnificent Rudeness”

“A Rapturous Terror”

“A Turbulent Pleasure”

These were feelings on the other side of thought and language….this was adventure.
And it was one of the most profound revolutions in thought that ever occurred—the transition from a loathing of Grand Nature to its celebration.

And adventure travel was hatched.

The Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix was founded in 1821, and quickly became the biggest guide company in the world, attending to the thousands who followed in the footsteps of the Romantics.

Trains then democratized adventure. This despite early sentiments that the rapid movement of trains would cause brain damage and other ill-effects.

Thomas Cook—the Richard Branson of his day—helped prove those sentiments wrong. In 1855 he brought a tour group of 62 from England to the Continent for the first time, paving the way for cross sections of society to experience what had long been the province of the privileged. At last everyone could be a character is his own moving adventure play.

Cook wrote what is perhaps the best brochure copy ever. He said adventure travel “provides food for the mind; it contributes to the strength and enjoyment of the intellect; it helps pull men out of the mire and pollution of old corrupt customs; it promotes a feeling of universal brotherhood; it accelerates the march of peace and virtue, and love; it also contributes to the health of the body, by a relaxation from the toil and the invigoration of the physical powers.”

In 1888 French author Alphons Daudet wrote that “The ubiquitous impulse to leave the beaten track had been tapped and its fulfillment made available.” Europe was now ground zero for the exploding pike of adventure travel. And it remained so for over a century.

So, what then happened?

The rest of the world caught up, and in many ways took over what Europe started. The Himalaya took the climbers and trekkers; Africa poached the wildlife seekers; Latin America stole the romantics. Parts of Europe today are more American than America, yet with more rules.

But things are changing again, and herein lies the opportunity; to get back to where we once belonged.

In this age of GPS tracking, big data and disintermediation, adventure travel has become more and more analytical. More statistically driven; more about cost benefits analyses, about benchmarking; about safety, about quantifying guilt with tree plantings and pollution credits.

But the underlying enthusiasm for adventure remains the script with the participant as hero, the three act structure of challenge, struggle and resolution; the quest for the agreeable kind of horror Joseph Addison described in 1701. There is a fundamental delight in being close to danger. As someone who has spent some time exploring wild rivers in remote corners, and who holds the distinction of having capsized on six continents, I know this notion— that life is more intensely lived the closer one gets to its extinction. We never feel so alive as when we purl by the eddy of death.

Our impulses today remain as energetic as ever, eager for the romance, mystery and the vulnerability tapped in wild places….and these attributes argue for preservation, and visitation. Most people won’t be compelled to take an adventure because the lodge uses certain light bulbs or soap or low volume toilets; or hires locals; or carbon offsets, though these are necessary and good practices.

What most folks seek, I believe, are the unfathomable shadows where the wild things are. Our human DNA compels us to crave exploration, transformation, resonance, and a story that stars us.

Yet too many adventure experiences around the world have become internment centers mapped and planned with no blank spots. The trails are overly-marked and monitored; the buses video enabled, so you can watch the movie Brave rather than the castle outside the window. Around the world at pool sides and lobbies visitors watch from a safe distance ethnic spectacles and performances, loaded with Post-it Note mysticism. The deep, rich cultures and traditions are too often reduced to dinner shows for the mobile rich. In these brief, one-sided encounters, there is little chance to understand the people behind the dances, no real celebration of a vibrant, living culture. Visitors are offered the bread crumbs on the floor beneath the big table of cultural understanding.

In these dynamics, there is little room for true discovery; little prospect for a story that makes sense of who we are; little chance for profound adventure.

And there is little opportunity for magic and luck. The Danish Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr, who nailed a horseshoe above his office door for good luck, was asked by a colleague, “You don’t really believe in this stuff, do you?” To which Bohr replied, “No, but I’ve heard it works even for people who don’t believe.”

Yes, the wilderness is vanishing, and cultures are fading, but what saves them are not dry statistics and doomsday scenarios, but rather the emotional sumptuousness and connection that comes from visitation. We have to lead from the heart, not the head. Our job is to figure out how to inspire someone on a couch in America or Asia watching his television or computer screen to get up and make that step and come see and feel the witchcraft of European wilderness. Once so touched, travelers become the most passionate advocates for place and preservation, as the trees and brooks and wild things are as family.

If pieces of Europe can be unmediatedly wild—like, for instance, Sutjeska National Park in Bosnia, where I recently got lost, afraid to go off path for fear of landmines …If pieces of Europe can be unmeadiately wild, without the requisite security and compliant spaces, without adult supervision, it is then faithful to our childlike imaginations of wilderness. The natural sublime is as much about awe as real danger…the peril of avalanches in the Alps; the risks of wild rivers in the Balkans; or the hazards of fjords in Norway. Real adventure attracts like moths to a flame, where we feel most alive when we can imagine our own demise.

Adventure ought to be the great, original quest, an individual tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance and danger. Done right, it is a journey undertaken with only a fragmentary map constructed out of a patchwork of accumulated local lore and the occasional milepost marked “here be dragons.”

If we decode adventure travel it fulfills the desire to find a new way of being, an experience unpredictable, immediate, and true. One of my favorite films is Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, in which Jack Nicholson plays a disillusioned journalist who decides to abandon his past and assume the role of a dead stranger. …The tale is a journey though landscapes of identity and mystery, shimmering with danger and uncertainty. And it occurs to me that any adventure travel trip is a similar chance for reinvention, for becoming someone different, perhaps someone better; a chance to explore the inaccessible landscapes and unmapped countries within each of us.

Yet the adventures of today, all over the world, have become too circumscribed. There is a powerful quality in being open-ended, vague at the borders; of being sufficiently unpolished that a visitor can expand upon it in his own mind, projecting himself into its narratives. Too many adventure providers today are like unctuous butlers of the imagination, ready to serve every need or desire as it arises; they don’t leave anything implied, unstated or incomplete. They don’t allow us to get lost.

The key here, of course, is akin to trundling on a train through the Alps..Europe today, unlike much of the world, can offer up the delight of the illusion of menace, the idea of danger, all with a comfortable seat and a nicely structured glass of wine. And it offers, as well, the adventures outside the train. Not many places can offer both.

This is the opportune moment for Europe. While economies stagger, tourism has never been more alluring, more important, for both the traveler and the destination. We can re-imagine, rebrand, and retrofit to bring back the thrills that once defined the continent. This is the time to let the chaos of adventure shimmer through the veil of order; to be open to tearing down the grid that has lidded the wild places, to peel back some rules, to strip the veneer of worldliness and return to some more primitive, if more demanding, state of grace, remembering, and perhaps retweeting, that Europe is where it all began.


Select Highlights of South East Europe

These are some of the highlights of visiting select locations in Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro and Serbia. This trip was totally unscripted and unplanned. All we had were our plane tickets to Europe. We used public transportation to get around – buses, trains, city trams and metros where available. Note that while distances on the map don’t look that far from each other especially along the Dalmatian Coast, the roads are narrow, windy and very slow going. Allow 3-4 weeks for this itinerary.

Belgrade Serbia
One of the nicest hostels we’ve stayed at is Spirit Hostel – the staff is welcoming both with their personality and the local alcoholic drink which greets you when you arrive. The staff sits down with you and reviews a local map, attractions and provide suggestions for what to do in town.

We received better hospitality here than in hotels two and three x the price. They have a limited number of rooms – bunk beds for couples and rooms with multiple beds for more people. We were surprised to also find slippers and a bathrobe on our bed! WiFi is included and they have several computers on site as well. This hostel is within walking distance to a number of popular streets and not far from the tram stops (public transportation). Visit: www.spirithostel.com

Belgrade is a fun town – especially for those who like to eat late, party late and generally enjoy the night life. The “bohemian” part of town is the Skadarska district and its main walking street. Many restaurants and cocktail bars are located within this area and Fridays and weekend nights get very crowded. Start your evening in the Skadarska district and then proceed to the clubs. A number of floating night clubs are located on barges/boats on the Danube and Sava Rivers. Oh and these clubs typically stay open until 4am – none of that early 2am closing you find in some countries.

This guy was wandering around in the middle of the street drinking beer. Cars were swerving to avoid him and honking – he was in danger until his friend pulled him out of the street. Oh yea!

Kalemegdan park – Belgrade fortress. This is a relaxing place to visit with great views of the Sava & Danube Rivers as well as central Budapest. A number of winding paths, grassy areas and park benches are here as well as a military display right outside the main walls. This is the oldest settled area in Budapest and for many years the city was contained entirely within its protective walls.

Tesla Museum – This museum is definitely one of the highlights when visiting Belgrade. The museum is small but many of Tesla’s inventions are on display (a number of them still work). Guided tours (in English) are given and it is during these times that some of the models are demonstrated. Highlights include a Tesla coil which throws off an impressive purplish spark when turned on and the world’s first remote controlled device (a large propeller driven boat with an equally large remote control device – first demonstrated in New York’s Central Park). A golden globe in a separate room contains Tesla’s ashes. The man is an under-appreciated genius whose inventions and ideas have profoundly changed the lives of millions of people. Visit: www.tesla-museum.org

Knez Mihajlova street is setup for two things – shopping and people watching, oh and in the summer its a great place to grab a bite to eat from any of a number of restaurants who serve food from the outdoor tables. The shops typically aren’t International high end brand names but are of very good quality.

Cathedral of Saint Sava is the largest Orthodox Church in the Balkans and one of the largest in the world. It is a rather new building and while the structure is entirely completed the interior still needs some work including murals and decoration. This is a rather impressive building – it is open to the public and donations are accepted.

Na Cosku or Iguana Restaurant serves International food at decent prices with a tasty array of dishes. It is a corner restaurant located just down from the Tesla Museum. From the outside you might miss seeing it as its fairly unassuming but the inside is elegantly decorated. Location: Beogradska 37.

Budapest, Hungary
Make a beeline from the bus station (walking distance) or one stop on the metro to Nightingale Mini Hotel (formerly Mandragora Hostel) at Blaha Lujza ter on the metro red line. This clean very quiet mini hotel offers a number of private rooms and the great part is its located in a building mere steps from the entrance to the metro and across the street from the street trams. WiFi is included in every room – the main reception has a small kitchen. Visit: http://nightingale-minihotel-budapest.freeblog.hu/

The metro here is Europe’s second oldest (opening after the tube in London). The yellow line 1 is truly like stepping back in history – quaint and decorated like something out of a fairy tale. Be very careful that you always purchase and get your ticket stamped by the machines before getting on the metro. The metro “police” take their job very seriously and will fine you immediately for any unvalidated ticket. Unlimited 24 hour transportation tickets are also available.

Budapest is in part known for its Thermal Baths. Look no further than the extremely popular public Szechenyi Thermal Baths. They are a series of indoor baths at different temperatures ranging from painfully cold to hot – with saunas also at different temperatures. Cabines are available to rent for changing and storing items while you make use of the facility. Massage rooms are available in one building next to the outdoor pools. Visit: www.szechenyibath.com

Caves make up a fairly large part of the underground of some of Budapest’s residential neighborhoods. Nowhere can you experience the darkness and claustrophobia better than in the 19km long Pal-volgyi-Matyas-hegyi cave in Duna-Ipoly National Park. you can take public transportation here from within central Budapest. The caving experience is typically 3 hours (heavy duty overalls, a helmet and headlight are provided). You will explore only a select portion of the cave but because of the small multi-level chambers and very tight squeezes it will feel like you’ve explored much further. There are a number of sections where you have to get down on your stomach and inch through like an inchworm because its so narrow on all sides. There is one rock with a small hole that only a small percentage of people who try to go through it will actually squeeze through. Its all about the size of your hips! For more information visit: www.palvolgyi.atw.hu

Caving: lets do it!

Castle Hill affords one excellent views of most of central Budapest including Obuda Island (home of the famous annual Sziget Music Festival) in the middle of the Danube River and of the very impressive Parliament building. No cars are allowed in this area (other than the main drop off point) so you can either take a taxi, bus or walk here from the main city below. The “hill” is a major tourist attraction and during the summer there will be bus loads of people here.

The Royal Palace is certainly a highlight of a visit here (although never occupied by the royals!); it contains several museums as well as the National Gallery.

Buda Castle Labyrinth is an odd attraction that features fairly dark tunnels that wind beneath residential neighborhoods. This attraction used to be a wine cellar as well as a shelter during WWII. They certainly have a number of inviting signs around Castle Hill promoting the attraction but its actual location is rather hard to find due to its very small sign and the fact that it sits among a bunch of nondescript houses. The tunnels are mostly empty but there are a few very odd and eclectic displays (garbage piled into a corner, toilet sitting by itself, items encased in plastic, footprints in concrete claiming to be thousands of years old etc). There is even a “fountain of wine” which you will surely smell from a distance. In actuality there might be some alcohol in the liquid but its mostly turned to vinegar. Tasting or drinking this is not recommended due to it being recycled so it can keep flowing out of the spigot. For more info visit: www.labirintus.com/en

If the wine spigot in the Buda Castle Labyrinth has got you discouraged head over to the House of Hungarian Wines (also in its own caves) for some real wine tasting featuring as advertised, “Europe’s 6th largest wine cellar”. Enter and choose from a variety of wine tasting options then wind down the stairs to their actual cellar (a number of displays) and tasting room. Besides a nice escape during the summer from the searing heat, the highlights here are the Hungarian wines from Hungary’s 22 wine regions, especially those from the Tokaji region (dessert wines). Visit: www.magyarborokhaza.com

Matthias Church is beautiful inside with lots of gold and ornate decorations; construction was started in the 13th century. Purchase your tickets across from the main entrance at the ticket booth.

Fisherman’s Bastion is a white tower and lookout area behind Matthias Church. There are great views looking across the Danube River onto the Pest side of the city.

Ruin Pubs are located in “ruined” buildings that have been converted to pubs/restaurants. The ruined part of the building will feature in the restaurant – outdoor seating surrounded by old crumbling walls for example. A number of these are found throughout the city.

Its extremely difficult to find authentic Thai food outside of Thailand. The well-known chef, David Thompson who runs Nahm Restaurants in Bangkok and London never eats Thai food outside of Thailand. We can see why – its just not the same and often cooked for different “tastes”. So it was rather surprising to find a small restaurant in Budapest that served rather authentic Thai cuisine. Thai Buddha is small, has an open air kitchen and some outside tables. The food is well prepared, tasty and pretty “thai” considering its location! Visit: www.thaibuddha.hu

Kotor, Montenegro
This charming very picturesque town sits at the end of Europe’s southern most fjord – the town by itself would be a postcard fit but when you add the cobalt blue water and dramatic mountains you have an idealic location. You also don’t have the crowds of Croatia and its slightly less expensive. There are no major beaches in town although there are plenty of places to access the water for swimming and people do. If you want beaches, crowds and nightlife, Budva – about 35 minutes away has much larger beaches and crowds to go with them.

For those in shape and wanting some great views hike above the old town to medieval St Ivan’s Fortress (two walkways lead to the trail from the back of old town). There’s something like 1300 steps along the rocky trail and it usually takes one 45 minutes to an hour to reach the old fort. During the day there are ticket collectors at the bottom of the trail collecting nominal hiking fees.

There are a number of accommodation options in Kotor – nice hotels in the old town as well as private home-stays. If you arrive by bus chances are you will be met by several people offering to show you their home at the central bus station. The old city is the center of town and some of the home-stays are on the outskirts of town (making it difficult to reach if you don’t have your own vehicle). We found several home-stays simply by walking into the old town and asking small shop owners if they knew of people renting rooms. Several owners didn’t speak English so we merely made the universal hand and head signal for sleeping and voila one of their friends showed up with keys to a room! Old town can get quite noisy at night so check for restaurants/bars below and in the vicinity of the room.

A must do half day trip is to the small town of Perast – about 35 minutes from central Kotor. This charming long bay side town is most visited as a place to catch boats to two small islands – St. George island and Gospa od Skrpjela (Our Lady of the Rock). Each island contains a small church. There are no sand beaches in Perast but there are plenty of swimming spots and even a few gravel beaches outside of town. The water is super clear here.

Split, Croatia
- Brac Island

For a friendly place to stay as well as being a hangout for International travelers check out Al’s Hostel – www.hostelsplit.com/ located in the heart of old town. This hostel is setup for single travelers – all dorm style, but in the summer Al can recommend nearby home-stays for couples. When you arrive in town you will be sure to be greeted by the “grannies”, older ladies who hang out trying to attract the attention of tourists so they can show them rooms. We checked out a few of these rooms – they were generally higher priced and not as attractive as some of the established hotels.

Split offers the quintessential summer time crowded Mediterranean experience. Hordes…droves of tourists crowd the narrow streets of the old city and pack the harbor front in all directions. Its people watching at its prime.

It is always nice to experience this craziness, yet at the same time if you are looking for a break, head across the water to the island of Brac (pronounced Brach). You can buy your ferry tickets near the entrance to the ferry harbor. The trip takes about 50 minutes on the car ferry (during the summer ferries leave every hour to 90 minutes) and you will arrive at a small town called Supetar. This pretty town can easily be explored on foot but to see the rest of the island on your own you can rent a car or motorbike here. There are several vehicle/motorbike rental companies in town including one close to where you exit the ferry. Buses also make the trip around the island if you have more time.

The island’s main road is super narrow and windy and often with little traffic during the summer days (everyone already at the beach!) it makes for a pleasant ride. Nothing comes close to riding a motor bike on a warm European summer day on an island. The beautiful blue and aqua marine water is never far away as well as the aromatics that only the Mediterranean can deliver. The smell of fig trees, lavender and pine trees were all enjoyed while riding past small vineyards, olive orchards and even old Roman quarry’s. This island is well-known for its high quality marble – the marble that was used to build the white limestone columns at the White House in Washington DC came from this island.

Motorbikes are great – you can get off the beaten path and even explore rugged roads/trails that normal vehicles don’t have the clearance for. We found such a road on the north side of the island. It cut between two small villages and included fun stretches of steep rocky ruts which required some careful navigation. But the reward was small coves with small beaches, clear blue water and no one there (sort of a rarity in these parts!). The small town of Pucisca is a gem and this time of year, made for swimming and seemingly that’s what most of the town was doing – all ages.

Eating, drinking and swimming – from village to village. Most restaurants serve locally grown ingredients for their salads in the summer. This is the way a salad should be delivered – all fresh with unfiltered vinegar (right, one shouldn’t be able to see through the vinegar), oil, salt and pepper you grind out in large chunks. You prepare the dressing yourself, simple and delicious – so Mediterranean.

Airfare – there are several low-cost European based airlines that fly to a number of cities. Easy Jet, Ryan Air and Wizz Air have well established routes and often decent prices – even at the last minute. Note that these airlines have a variety of other add on fees on top of the base fare including checked luggage fees.

Money - Hungary accepts the Forint, Croatia takes the Kuna, Montenegro has long accepted the Euro and Serbia accepts the Dinar.

More Information
Hungary National Tourism: www.hungary.com
Croatia Tourism: www.croatia.hr/en-GB/Homepage
Serbia Tourism: www.serbia.travel/
Montenegro Tourism: www.montenegro.travel/index_en.html


Dave’s Travel Corner Announces Annual Travel Essay Contest

A big thanks to everyone who submitted their journals and travel writings for our annual travel writing contest. We had a lot of great submissions. Also thanks for our great sponsors: Motorola Mobility, Lock-A-Bye and the Allegany National Forest. The winners are listed directly below. We look forward to holding this again next year :)

Congratulations to Kelly, our first place winner of our annual travel writing contest!

Congratulations to Leslie, our second place winner of our annual travel writing contest!
Romancing the Past

Congratulations to Maureen, our third place winner of our annual travel writing contest!
Three Days in Apimsu

(3/28/11) Looking to share your travels with others? Do you enjoy writing? Look no further. Dave’s Travel Corner is holding our annual travel essay contest. Entry is free. Please see below for details.

2011 Travel Writing Contest is now closed to new entries – interested in publishing your travel writings? You may do so on our Journals Page using the Guest Login

Please include your email address or some form of contact information at the bottom of your essay. This information will not be posted with your essay; it is so we can contact you in case of winning.

The essay must be written by you and it must be about something that inspired you on one of your travels. It could be about a particular place, a person, a country, a culture or any other number of things that may have touched you on your travels.

At least 775 words – no more than 5000 words. Up to two (2) essays may be submitted per person. Essays or blogs already posted on Dave’s Travel Corner are not eligible for this contest. Journals published elsewhere that do not violate any copyright by posting them on Dave’s Travel Corner are eligible for the contest.

The grand prize winner will be awarded
1. Motorola DEFY Smart Phone (courtesy of Motorola Mobility)
2. $100 sent by PayPal or Check
3. Two $25 gift cards to be used for Lock-A-Bye products (only one card can be used per purchase) Use Promo Code of DTC1291 for an additional 20% discount
4. Copy of: Pennsylvania Wilds: Images from the Allegheny National Forest (courtesy of the Allegheny National Forest
Visitors Bureau)

1st Runner Up will be awarded
1. $75 sent by PayPal or Check
2. Two $25 gift cards to be used for Lock-A-Bye products (only one card can be used per purchase) Use Promo Code of DTC1291 for an additional 20% discount
3. Copy of: Pennsylvania Wilds: Images from the Allegheny National Forest (courtesy of the Allegheny National Forest
Visitors Bureau)

2nd Runner Up will be awarded
1. $50 sent by PayPal or Check
2. Two $25 gift cards to be used for Lock-A-Bye products (only one card can be used per purchase) Use Promo Code of DTC1291 for an additional 20% discount
3. Copy of: Pennsylvania Wilds: Images from the Allegheny National Forest (courtesy of the Allegheny National Forest
Visitors Bureau)

—> Also note: a collection of mostly new travel books will be offered to all winners in the form of a list – each winner will choose
two (2) books starting with the grand prize winner. These books will then be mailed to a provided address.

The prize winners will be listed on the main page of Dave’s Travel Corner – with links to their winning essays posted on our main travel journals page.

2010 Travel Essay Contest Winners
1st – Blundering in the Balkans | 2nd – Addicted
2009 Travel Essay Contest Winners
1st – Nghiep | 2nd – Krystal | 3rd – Lorena

All essays can be submitted by either Emailing a Word Document dave@pon.net or using the GUEST LOGIN link on the lower left hand side of our Journals Page. Any entries that are approved will be posted on our Journals page. Once posted your essay remains your property – it will only be posted on our site. Journals may be submitted to minor grammar and editing before being posted. We encourage photos to be included with your journals but a lack of photos does not factor in the contest decision making. Note that 325 pixels is the maximum width recommended for any uploaded photos.

Your essay must be submitted by July 1, 2011. Winners will be announced on August 1, 2011

Please include your email address or some form of contact information at the bottom of your essay.


Blundering in the Balkans

Belgrade-Fortress-Walkway serbiaThe sweat dripped down my face as I gyrated to the throbbing techno trying to keep up with a six-foot Serbian bombshell that had taken a keen interest in me, or at least my obvious American appearance. We walked out to the deck of the club, docked on the banks of the river Danube in downtown Belgrade to escape the heat of the nightclub and catch a breath of fresh air. As I took a sip of Jelen Pivo, the standard Serbian beer, my mind was fighting an epic battle between my brain telling me to get some rest and my eyes telling me to keep flirting with this beautiful Serb. My body was running on fumes, I had not slept in two days after flying from Boston into Belgrade but I was smitten by the interest this girl was showing in me. I had only begun my Balkans excursion yet it was already becoming apparent that it would be an unforgettable experience.

My parents offered me a choice of high school graduation presents: a new iPod or an all-expense-paid two week trip to Europe. As if my body had a pre-existing tick, I responded abnormally fast, claiming the European vacation. Part of the conditions of going to Europe was that my older brother, Jamie, “had” to come along. Much to his delight, I deferred most of the planning to him, the historical buff and family European expert. Jamie is three years older than me, and at the time he was in between his junior and senior years at Dartmouth. We decided that we wanted to travel somewhere obscure; somewhere that we knew no one had ever been. The Balkans fit our profile perfectly. The finally peaceful, former Yugoslavian states had plenty to offer from beautiful women, sublime beaches, exciting nightlife, and an absolutely superb exchange rate.

To avoid the heavy midsummer tourist traffic, we decided to leave home the last week of August. Jamie and I had the advantage of attending colleges on identical academic schedules, so we could afford to travel so late in the summer. In fact, most of my friends had already left for college by the time I left for Belgrade. We used our down time both at home and on the trans-Atlantic flight to create a rough itinerary of cities we were going to visit and when. Prior to taking off, we had only booked two nights in a youth hostel in Belgrade, aptly named “Traveler.” Our plan was to remain relatively uncommitted, but have a general route, in case there were places we wanted stay longer in or avoid altogether.

We were greeted in Belgrade by a colossal heat wave that had temperatures pushing triple digits and humidity that rivaled anything I have ever felt in my life. The city itself had a distinct Soviet feel in both the architecture and Cyrillic signage. It was hard to ignore the bombed out buildings, still carcassed as a result of the mid-90′s war that ravaged and ultimately tore apart Yugoslavia. It was hard to truly capture what we expected from Belgrade and the Serbian people, but we were certainly a little bit skeptical of them. Their reputation of being over-aggressive and conniving preceded them, even in the guide books. However, we were met with intrigue by the locals who were not used to seeing Americans.

Our hostel was run by a young man named Milos, who could not have been any older than twenty-five. His English was far better than I had expected, and he was not shy about testing his fluency, quickly engaging Jamie and I in a conversation about Serbia’s biggest national hero, Gavrilo Princip. Princip, ethnically a Serb, of course was the man who assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia, an event many credit as starting World War I. This was so interesting because Milos spoke of Princip as if he was still alive and relevant; Jamie and I had grown up in an environment where national heroes become famous one day then disappear into the irrelevance the next.

After our discussion of Serbian national heroes, which also included tennis star Novak Djokovic and basketball stars Peja Stojakovic and Drazen Petrovic (actually a Croat, but lived during the Yugoslavia time), we left to go visit the Cathedral of Saint Sava, the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in the world.

(To understand Yugoslavia, Jamie explained, you need to realize that there was both an ethnic conflict and a religious conflict that tore the country apart into present day Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania and, depending on which diplomat you talk to, Kosovo. However, the geographical and ethnic separations were certainly based upon religious unrest. Before I get too complex, understand that ethnic derivations, nationalities and religious affiliations are not necessarily independent variables. Serbs are Eastern Orthodox, Croatians and Slovenians are Catholic, and Bosniaks are Muslim. A man can be a Serb, ethnically yet live in Croatia, thus technically being a Croatian by citizenship but a Serb by ethnicity.)

The cathedral was monumental in appearance, yet plain and lacking in the artistic character, whether it is the paintings at the Sistine Chapel or the architectural wonders of the Mosques in Mecca. Quite frankly, the Cathedral of Saint Sava was just a gigantic, off-white chapel, equipped with three sets of doors large enough to let an eighteen-wheeler drive through, and devoid of anything “churchly” inside (due to construction). The eerie emptiness inside the cathedral was a symbol of a resurgent Serbia, a pamphlet we picked up in the gift shop told us. The once proud state was forced into emptying its most prized religious site of all valuables because of a legitimate fear of having their church’s patriarchal temple bombed. The cathedral will once again glow with art and spirit, the pamphlet explained, but it must first mend its wounds along with its faithful Serbian people.

We left Belgrade with a wholly different view on the entire region. The nationalism overwhelmed Jamie and I; we had never seen anything like it back home, not even in our post-9/11 world. Our bus drove on local roads, through small farming communities and in every village, Serbian flags flapped in the wind on telephone wires and flag poles. Along the route to Sarajevo, we began to climb into the Dinarides, or the Dinaric Alps, named after Dinara Mountain, a prominent peak on the Bosnian-Croatian border. Sarajevo, which entered into view from the mountain pass, was a majestic city nestled into a large valley. Surrounded by rough terrain gave Sarajevo a sheltered feel, almost as if the city had mountains for castle walls. Ironically, it was those “castle walls” that enabled Serbian and Croatian to gain an advantage while launching offensives from up high in the mid-90s. Sarajevo held amazing intrigue, yet Jamie and I were most nervous about how we would be received in such a foreign city.

Our bus dropped us off in front of a mosque, one of hundreds in the predominantly Muslim Sarajevo. It was a dark building, with an almost hidden gate, which from what we could tell, led to some sort of grassy courtyard. To the left of the courtyard sat the actual mosque, a one story building with rounded walls and ceilings. Directly next to the mosque stood the four story minaret, with a pronounced spire at the top and loudspeakers hanging from three sides. Granted it was only one mosque of many in Sarajevo, there was very little traffic around the mosque for a city that is more than 90% Muslim. Later on, we realized that Sarajevo was quite secular, but our initial reaction to seeing so many minarets poking through the city’s skyline was that we were visiting a highly religious city, and we felt like true outsiders.

From there we hiked up to our hostel, a decent climb, but worth it because of the views from the hostel porch. On our way up, we passed a grave yard with geometrically scattered, identical white grave stones. We would later visit the grave of Peter, our hostel host’s father, a victim of the war. Peter gave us a poignant explanation of how he had to take control of the day to day operations at the hostel when he was only thirteen, while his mother handled the books. While solemnly offering our condolences to our gracious host, I happened to notice that every grave I saw had death dates between 1994 and 1997. Hundreds of deaths in such a short span. It felt like a military graveyard, but these were all innocent civilians. Such somberness set the mood for the vibrant, yet quiet city we were anxious to explore.

The next morning, I was jolted out of bed at around 5:30 by an echoing prayer, eerily blasting through loud speakers on all the mosques throughout the entire city. I was quickly calmed by one of the many Australian travelers in the hostel, who explained that it was simply just a Muslim call to prayer and that this happened five times a day. Jamie and I rose soon after to get an early start to our day of exploration. We first made our way through the bazaar at the bottom of the hill, weaving our way through rug salesmen, tea cafes and many young men hawking Zlatan Ibrahimovic jerseys (“Zebra” as he is affectionately known in Bosnia, is an expatriate who fled to Sweden as a child during the war and subsequently became an international soccer superstar. They were hawking his Swedish national team jersey; that shows how rabid the fans were about Ibrahimovic – even after he chose his adopted nationality over his birth nation, the Bosnians still love him). After stopping for a quick pastry at a local bakery, we headed straight for the spot of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. Expected a large statue or monument memorializing the event, we were astonished to find only a small plaque, written in Bosnian and English, explaining the significance of the site.

By the time we had finished exploring Sarajevo, we headed back to the hostel to question Peter about the assassination site. He immediately grew tense and spoke in a noticeably reserved manner. Gavrilo Princip’s actions, Peter explained, are among the most embarrassing for Bosnians. He said that even before the assassination, Bosnians disagreed with the radical Serbian movement that claimed responsibility for the assassination. Though he earnestly admitted that part of the reason Princip is still shunned in Sarajevo is because he is a Serb and the Bosnian people could not justify celebrating a Serb, their primary enemy in the Yugoslavian Civil War.

Emotionally moved by our entire experience in the recovering and picturesque Sarajevo, we knew we needed a break from the remnants of war. Fortunately, our journey led us next to Dubrovnik, a blossoming city on the Adriatic coast in Croatia, known for its romantic scenery and incredibly salty ocean water. But before we hit the coast and passed through the white-washed towns and arid terrain of Croatia and Bosnia, our bus made a stop in Mostar, a smaller Bosnian city near the Croatian border.

We made a spur-of-the-moment decision to get off the bus and continue onto Dubrovnik later in the day, allowing ourselves a few hours to see one of the most symbolic cities in the entire region. Though not possessing any geographical significance, Mostar became a popular reference during the war because of its city-wide division between equal populations of Bosniaks and Croats. Like the proverbial train-tracks, the two sides were divided by the Neretva River. During the war, Croatian bombers destroyed the Stari Most (Old Bridge) an icon of the city and a symbol of unity between the two sides. The bridge remained in shambles for years after the war, finally being rebuilt in 2004.

As Jamie and I sat eating cevapi, a Slavic dish impossible to eat enough of, that was made up of ground beef, pork and lamp formed into little rolls with onions then fried and served on a flat bread with more raw onions, we watched the Bosnian Olympic diving team pass around a hat collecting money from tourists in an attempt to raise enough to get to Beijing and back for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. After they reached a certain amount of money collected, one of the divers would hose down with cold water then majestically dive off the bridge into the chilly Neretva waters. These divers exhibited unmistakably charisma, never showing frustration at their lack of funding, knowing full well that their American, Australian and other challengers were receiving thousands from sponsorship deals. Considering the Bosnian diving team had yet to exist in 2004, it was quite an accomplishment that they had even qualified for Beijing, and they were extremely excited to share their achievements with their fellow Bosnian people.

Mostar was the last city we visited with bullet holes in buildings. The effects of the war had not yet disappeared. Despite the reconstruction of the iconic Mostar Bridge, there was still a crippling divide between Bosniaks and Croats in the city. On one side of the Neretva there were cafes, well kept gardens and many flying Croatian flags. On the other side, there was an expansive bazaar, ransacked store fronts and blue and yellow Bosnian flags proudly waving in the breeze. The city foreshadowed the juxtaposition of Croatian and Bosnian culture.

Croatia and Slovenia had a completely different feel than Serbia and Bosnia did. In Dubrovnik, Croatia there were street-side cafes on every corner, palm trees lining the roads and topless beaches down by the Adriatic. I commented to Jamie upon arrival that I felt as if I was in a completely different world, not that it was a more beautiful location necessarily but more because it became apparent that Croatia had lifted itself up from the war far quicker than Serbia or Bosnia.

What was consistent throughout Croatia and Slovenia was the sense that the locals were desperate to westernize themselves; they felt the best way to do so was to create distance between the concept of a Croatian or Slovenian identity and a Yugoslavian identity. In Croatian marinas, we saw the multi-million dollar yachts of some of Western Europe’s swankiest business men. In Slovenia, we noticed all the signs had German subtitles, to appease tourists from their northern neighbor Austria. In fact, Slovenia had already joined the European Union and used the Euro as currency while Croatia was campaigning hard to do the same. Of course, Croatia and Slovenia were beautiful places with incredibly nice people and many tourist offerings, but they lacked an original cultural identity. Belgrade and Sarajevo were so distinct in their ethnic feel that you felt completely separated from the Western world.

I have never lived in a post-war world. I could never imagine what America would be like after a massive civil war on its own soil that resulted in the formation of multiple new nations. What I can tell you is that Serbia is desperate for acceptance by Western Europe, prosperous but idling because of a Soviet-bloc stigma. I can tell you that Bosnians just want to be safe from attack, so their once proud people can build a strong, successful nation and rid themselves of their war-ravaged, third-world reputation. I can tell you that Croatians are insecure about their standing in Europe; that they long to be part of the European Union and introduce the Euro, like their Slovenian neighbors have. I can tell you that I visited a special place in this world, thought of only by its civil war and ethnic segregation, but a place burgeoning with stunning tourist attractions and vibrant cities.