Discover the unprecedented cultural mix of Europe’s busiest historical crossroad | Enjoy the flavors and the magic of countries rich in traditions and legends | Through the scars of the wars from the 90’s, the beauty of the nature and the people of the Balkans tell the story of nations who’s fate was and will be to survive together
“Of everything that man erects and builds in his urge for living nothing is in my eyes better and more valuable than bridges. They are more important than houses, more sacred than shrines. Belonging to everyone and being equal to everyone, useful, always built with a sense, on the spot where most human needs are crossing, they are more durable than other buildings and they do not serve for anything secret or bad.”
― Ivo Andrić
Sometimes the most amazing discoveries on a journey are in places we think we know well. Is it possible to visit 8 countries on just a two weeks tour in a relatively small region? I am not talking about crossing borders, but really being in 8 different places with their culture and language distinctions. I don’t mean a spot like the Four Corners Monument, where in a second you can step across from Arizona into New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The places I will tell you about are well known from the news for the last 20 years. Yet they are quite unknown not only for Americans or Asians, but for its European neighbors as well.
I will take you in a journey to the Balkan Peninsula and in particular to its west part, most of which was a battleground just a decade ago. The trip starts in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. But we will keep Sofia for a dessert in the end of the journey. Our first goal is the Serbian town of Krushevac and the Studenica Monastery. Studenica is one of the most important Orthodox Christian sites. For Serbs it is not only a cultural monument included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but much more. The immense fortified monastery is a symbol of the foundation of the Serbian state and nation back in 12th century by King Stefan Nemanja. The Nemanjic dynasty established the kingdom as a key factor on the Balkans during the next turbulent centuries before the Ottoman invasion in Europe.
You need to dive deep into the complicated history of the region to understand why today’s nations of the West Balkans are so divided and yet so close. Frankly, I hate the term West Balkans. It has neither geographical, nor cultural or historical sense. It was created by the NATO allied forces to explain the destruction of a single multinational and multicultural state in the South East part of Europe for simple geostrategic reasons. Sad, but true.
Today we face the same kaleidoscope of nations, culture, traditions and religions, which defined the Balkans since the times of the Roman Empire. Once again they are making an effort to coexist together in peace. Living on the Balkans is like an anthill. Countless ants are building their complex home. Every time after someone or something destroys the anthill, they start to rebuild their ant home with surrealistic persistence and patience. These are the consequences of choosing to live on history’s busiest crossroad. Today again people are building new and rebuilding old bridges. Bridges are an important symbol here. They literally and metaphorically connect and divide people, heal wounds and serve as battlefields. Our trip is crossing many of them. But the most important of all is the Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic Bridge on the Drina River near Visegrad in Bosnia. This is the site of the iconic novel “The Bridge on the Drina”, for which the author Ivo Andric was awarded with Nobel Prize in 1961. But even if you can’t find the time to reed the novel, today you can follow the steps of its characters in the recently built Andricgrad. This is a tourist attraction built recently by the world famous Bosnian film director Emir Kusturica. Andricgrad or Kamengrad (“Stone Town”) is dedicated to the work of Andric and the story his novel tells. This is the second similar project of the film director from Sarajevo in its native Bosnia.
Going deeper in the mountains you stop at Drvengrad (“Timber Town”) a.k.a. Kustendorf – the first of Kusturica’s projects. Near the Mokra Gora village Kusturica made a tourist attraction out of the abandoned set of one of his films. It is restored into an ethno village, with its authentic wooden houses and magic atmosphere, surrounded by the mighty Zlatibor Mountain. For this development, Kusturica received the “Philippe Rotthier European Architecture Award”. You walk the streets named after persons Kusturica finds to be significant for him, such as Nikola Tesla, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Diego Maradona, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Joe Strummer, Novak Djokovic. And of course, Ivo Andric, after whom the main street is named. Since 2008 Kustendorf is a site of a film and music festival organized by Kusturica.
The last stop in Bosnia is the capital Sarajevo – another town with a destiny defined by its bridges. Like the Vrbanja Bridge over the Miljacka River dividing the town into a Muslim and Christian parts. Or the site of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, igniting World War I – the Latin Bridge. Today you walk the bridges and the streets, not long ago controlled by Serbian and Bosnian snipers.
Yet, if you expect to see a dirty oriental town, marked by the destruction of the war, you will be surprised. You find yourself into a cozy, tourist friendly and charming place. Perhaps Sarajevo, like no other Balkan capital demonstrates the magical mixture of cultures, representing the encounter of the East and the West. The co-existence of Catholic and Orthodox Christians with Muslims and Jews painted the colorful picture of an ancient town with a young soul.
The next day, on our way to the Croatian gem, Dubrovnik we stop at Mostar. Another town divided and connected in the same time by an ancient bridge. The Old Bridge is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most recognizable landmark. It is one of the best examples of Islamic architecture on the Balkans. Do I need to tell you it was a battleground many times? Destroyed by a Serbian shell, recently the beautiful bridge and the whole old town were restored, resurrecting the spirit of medieval times.
At the end of the fifth day we arrive in the Croatian town of Dubrovnik. After the mountains and the cultural mix, you get into a different time and place. Dubrovnik resembles with its subtropical climate and architecture more to an ancient Italian town, than to any of your ideas of a place on the Balkans. And there is an explanation to this. Dubrovnik is much more connected to the Mediterranean civilization than to the rest of the peninsula. In the Middle Ages it was ruled and built by the Republic of Venice. Later it became one of the first European Republican states, preserving its autonomy almost up until modern times.
Going further south along the Dalmatian cost we reach the other Adriatic jewel – the Montenegrin town of Kotor. It is situated in a beautiful, fjord like bay, surrounded by steep mountain slopes. Much like Dubrovnik, Kotor and the region is more related to Italy than to the rest of the Balkans. It has been part of the Republic of Venice, the Italian Kingdom or even Napoleon’s French Empire, before becoming part of Yugoslavia in 1918. Montenegro is a miniature state with remarkable history and breathtaking nature sights. Yet Montenegrins have the ambition and zeal to build a modern state. This is the only non-EU country, which adopted the Euro as official currency.
Going Nord deep into the mountains again, Kosovo is the next stop. After years of conflicts, today the former Serbian county populated with Albanian majority is becoming a new state. Former rebels are the new governors in the capital Pristina. It is weird, especially for an American to walk the boulevards named after Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Centuries ago Kosovo has been an important part of the Serbian kingdom. But even from medieval times the region was populated with Albanians. They brought their religion and culture. And yet, when you see the Visoki Decani Monastery you can understand the bitter feelings of the Serbs. This is the burial site of the Serbian king Stefan Uros III, canonized by the Serbian Orthodox Church. The church of the monastery is covered with one of the best preserved Orthodox frescoes from the 13th century. The monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thanks to this it is still under protection of KFOR tanks, since angry Kosovars tried to blow it up several times.
On the way to the Albanian border there is one more Kosovo town to visit. Built along the river of Prizrenska Bistrica, the picturesque town of Prizren is another ancient place preserving the atmosphere of the middle ages. And just like the Bosnian Mostar, the landmark of Prizren is a beautiful bridge, connecting the two parts of the old town.
Albania was the most isolated of all former Soviet satellites. It was to be compared only with the North Korean regime. But in only two decades, the country changed completely its face into a sometime grotesque urge to look modern. This counts for the capital Tirana, but there are still places like the ancient town of Berat. The name Berat derives from Belgrade, “beautiful town” – just like the Serbian capital. It is built on the banks of a deep gouge of the river Osum and its landmark is the ancient Citadel on the slopes of the mountain above the city.
One of the most beautiful sites on the Balkans is the Lake Ochrid. When you enter Macedonia from Albania, the first place not to miss is the St. Naum Monastery on the Lake. Naum and Climent, the creators of the Cyrillic alphabet, founded the place. They were scholars of Cyril and Methodius the two brothers, who dedicated their lives to the creation of a Slavic alphabet. After their death the Bulgarian Tsar gave sheltered the disciples of the two brothers. He sent Naum and Climent to Ochrid, where they created an alphabet, which was named after their mentor, Cyril. Ochrid itself is another little town with unique atmosphere, keeping the spirit of old times.
The last stop, closing the circle of the tour is Sofia. The Bulgarian capital is the same mixture of Europe and Orient as most of the sites on the tour. It may be bigger or more modern than some of the towns visited. But you somehow have the feeling that you are in the same place wherever you are on the Balkans. People sometimes are divided by their history and their quarrel. Yet they bring the same spirit and the same wisdom of their turbulent history throughout the centuries. After all conflicts and tragedies, it is the wisdom of the time that keeps this colorful mix of nations as one spiritual entity. Yes, Sophia – the wisdom is the best final point for this journey.