I believe in the Balkans
Travels through Eastern Europe
20 August 2015
The Balkans conjures up idyllic images of mountain villages, deserted beaches and slow-paced cities. And after the fall of the iron curtain, its splendour began to be slowly discovered by the West. However, its vast potential for tourism was shaken by the conflict over Kosovo and the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. But times have changed.
While still recognized as being in a period of transition, tourism has picked up, infrastructure is sound and streets are safe, with relative good value for your dollar when it comes to dining and shopping.
Mackerel takes you on a whirlwind guide through the hills, valleys and cities of the Balkans.
Belgrade is a layered city; steeped in history, culture and centuries of being rebuilt and occupied due to its strategic location at the confluence of two major rivers, the Sava and the Danube.
Walking around, what grabs the attention is the variety of architectural styles of its buildings, testament to the many influences that have shaped the city ever since it was first settled somewhere in 300 B.C.
It’s a walkable, friendly city, with decent museums (Museum of Applied Arts, Nikola Tesla Museum), nature (Ada Ciganlija Island and Kalemegdan) and historical sights (St Sava Cathedral).
Must try food: Rakia, a locally distilled brandy, made from fruit. Potent!
Day trip: Zemun, a sleepy seaside town on the banks of the River Danube.
Getting there: Air France flies from Singapore to Belgrade (from S$1300), or you could always hop over from major hubs like Paris or Milan.
SARAJEVO, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA
Famous as the city that held out in the longest siege experience in modern warfare, (1992-1996), Sarajevo today nestles prettily in the Balkan hills. Houses line the steep slopes and the old market is ever bustling with a variety of cafes and trinket shops. Evidence of the war isn’t scarce though, take a walk in the calm walkways between tombs in the Shahid Cemetery and do visit the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum, a tribute to a tunnel built to smuggle food and people in and out during the siege.
Must try food: Piescavisca (giant meat patty)
Day trip: Mostar, an eminently pretty town today, was one of the most shelled towns during the latest Balkan war. Rebuilt buildings stand side by side with gunshot-riddled hulks. A two hour train ride from Sarajevo (5£, one-way).
Getting to Sarajevo: From Belgrade, you could fly (85£, Jat Airways), but a better bet, and a way to see beautiful scenery, is to take a minibus (25£, 5 hrs).
Montenegro stakes its claim to pleasure-seeking travelers with its beach party cities, but the Bay of Kotor is gaining a cult following among backpackers who shy away from its more crowded counterpart, Dubrovnik, in nearby Croatia.
Stay in the old walled city of Kotor for a complete immersion in gentle cobblestone streets and quaint old cafes. Climb the hill for a stupendous view of the town spread out below, as the sun drops over the hills and the bay is bathed in orange and purple hues. Bar hop at night if you‘re so inclined. Good music and company is a guarantee.
Must try food: Shopska Salad - tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, soft cheese, parsley and olive oil.
Day trip: Risan. A short bus ride away from Kotor, walk along the promenade of this sleepy little town and visit a tiny church on an island in the bay, one with an incredible story of how it was created. (2£ one way, 30 mins)
Getting there: Buses are the de riguer mode of transport in the Balkans. Go by day from Mostar (8 hrs, 33£) if you want some piece of mind. A night bus is cheaper and saves a night‘s accommodation, but is decidedly a little more risky.
Most people still associate Kosovo with memories of conflict and violence, but with the exception of some scattered areas of high tension, the country is calm and full of young people drinking endless cups of excellent latte macchiato in sidewalk cafes.
The unique architecture of the University of Prishtina‘s library is worth checking out, along with the statue of Bill Clinton on, you got it, Bill Clinton Boulevard; a necessary photo opportunity.
Must try food: Veal stew
Day trip: Mitrovisce. A divided town about an hour away from Prishtina, walk across a bridge blocked by rubble to vehicular access and cross from Albanian soil to a little bit of Serbia. Even the currency changes here. (1 hr, 4£ by minivan from Prishtina).
Getting there: I took a circuitious route to get to Kosovo, taking a local Montenegran bus (2.5 hrs, 5£) to the capital of Podgorica, before jumping on a night bus to Prishtina (8 hrs, 15£).
Known as the city of seven gates, at first glance Skopje strikes one as statuesque. There are, literally, statues everywhere, and the country seems to be in a momentous phase of nation-building. Numerous large edifices are under construction, jostling for space with older remnants that have survived from a 1963 earthquake that leveled the city.
Must try food: In this case, any dish from Makedonska Kuka, a culinary gem of a restaurant.
Day trip: Lake Ohrid. If you have time, do spend up to two or three days here at this picturesque retreat high in the mountains. (Bus, 3.5 hrs, 8.5£)
Getting there: Buses run to and from Belgrade, Prishtina, Kosovo and Zagreb with clockwork regularity.
Sofia offers the traveller a comfortable combination of sights and dining. The city was a key Roman town in the past, and the current city is built above the remains of old Roman roads, with Ottoman overtones in its architecture.
Sofia is the only capital with a full-blown mountain (Mt. Vitosha) so close by, which makes it an essential half-day sidetrack.
Must try food: Shkembe Chorba (a type of tripe soup)
Day trip: Rila Monastery on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Nestled high in the Rila mountains, the monastery was founded in the 10th century. Combine a visit with a walk in the magnificent landscape surrounding it.
Getting there: From Skopje, Sofia is a five hour bus ride away (15£)
Best time to visit the Balkans: Summer (June to August) has the best, if warmest weather. Eastern Europeans travel within the Balkans as well in this period, so prices do tend to be higher.
Text and photos: Marc