Traveling the fascinating West Balkans: Montenegro, Serbia and Albania–the new name of former Yugoslavia
By Max Johnson
The West Balkans, for this is how the former Yugoslavia is now known, offer travelers an endless variety of opportunities and reasons to visit; from the picturesque villages on the Adriatic coast to the spectacular mountains of Montenegro, to the region’s vibrant, if quirky, cities.
Or, as in my case, a political and social landscape that has defied explanation for the past couple of decades and a desire to find out a little more by visiting.
I have had teenage daughters. And, as any parent of teenage daughters knows, the political intrigue that seems to be an inevitable part of their growing up is bewildering and upsetting; the playground squabbles and alliances of adolescent girls are mystifying and multi-dimensional, but in general they fall by the wayside and the girls seem to emerge strengthened and ready for the rest of their lives.
The West Balkans make these machinations of youth seem like child’s play, and I wanted to learn more about the tensions, wars, and resolutions that had formed the news background of such a long period of time.
A Train Ride
From these two seeds, the trip grew.
Rather than fly to the starting point in Montenegro, I fancied the idea of taking a ferry from Italy; the Bari/Bar route being temporarily suspended meant that Durres in Albania was the closest port, and I could reach there from either Bar, Ancona or Trieste.
Trieste, by virtue of it being the longest sailing, became the logical choice, and so, having spent one night in this remarkable city, I boarded the Adria Ferry ship bound for Albania.
Note to self. Go back to Trieste and spend some time. It is a remarkable place.
Just 70 Passengers
The ship was curious; seventy passengers on a thousand-passenger vessel do rattle around a little; the sea was like a mill pond, the food adequate and the cabin acceptable and the journey passed uneventfully, and tipped me out into the sunshine of Durres the following afternoon.
Albania actually turned out to be a fine starting point, although I remained in Durres for only a day, the city offered a fine look at the chaotic growth of the last years. Rusty soviet-era playground equipment lay beside shiny new seaside bars; young lovers strolled hand in hand along the front weaving their way through
bewildered and wizened pensioners.
The sun shone, highlighting both new steel and glass alongside the crumbling facades of the 1970s.
And so to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, some five hours away on a most comfortable bus (€13 at www.buscroatia.com). Catching the bus was a touch fraught, as the rampant capitalism of the Albanian bus system surged through the bus station; I defied all attempts to either redirect my journey or take a taxi and soon enough the bus arrived and off we went.
The Albanian countryside is distinctly odd and followed a pattern that I was to find repeated throughout the journey. With little left from the communist regimes, new construction was everywhere.
Only in the two large towns through which we passed were apartments older than about twenty-five years, and it seemed that each nook and cranny housed some shop of repair service. I wondered where on earth all of the money had come from.
Not Part of the EU
Albania was not a part of the EU and had little in the way of exports to fund all of the building. I asked a fellow passenger, there were only six others to choose from, and with a grin and a slight shrug he said: “Drugs and guns generate a lot of cash, you know.”
I left it at that, and with a swirl and a bend in the road we came to the Montenegrin border and passed into the baffling collection of republics that crowded this corner of the world.
The key to understanding, I now believe, is a solid grounding in the history of the region. Time and again, events of many centuries ago were cited and held responsible for today’s woes.
History seems to have a curious elasticity here, and as the past is retold, the ebbs and flows of (principally) the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs seemed never-ending; it felt as if they were pushing each other out every other weekend as they trooped back and forth between Vienna and Istanbul.
There were quieter bits and bits that saw more action. There were people and places, religions, and faiths, warriors and those trying to lead a peaceful life, alliances and betrayals, music and art and an evolving culture of change. And, it must be said, not much has changed in the past four hundred years.
Podgorica is a fine city for those whose passion is concrete. Shattered during seventy bombing raids in WWII, it is now an administrative center of function over form, and beyond its airport and railway station, it is a place to leave.
Leaving, of course, being the sole reason that I was here. The train through the Montenegrin mountains to Serbia and on to Belgrade has been written about at length and was a most attractive way to spend a day. I bought my ticket (€23 at the station), and waited impatiently for the train’s departure at 0930 the following day.
here were about fifty people huddled under the station awning waiting in the morning. The day was overcast, drizzling and frankly less than agreeable. However, it was the day, and as the train arrived, I clambered on board and looked at the utilitarian seats. Ten hours is a long time on a train, and this looked decidedly uncomfortable, but hey-ho, its Montenegro.
Fortunately, just before the train departed, I realized that I was on the wrong one and clattered onto the platform with my luggage, only to see it disappear toward the sea on a short, local run. The real train arrived a minute later, and again I clambered on, found my seat in a most comfortable six-person compartment with only one companion, Krsto Perović.
A Ph.D. Candidate
It was most fortunate. Krsto was interesting, knowledgeable and ideal company; he was working on his Ph.D. in Balkan security studies, and with four years at NATO in Brussels and a host of other interesting positions, his company was ideal. We talked for hours; we spoke of the Chinese who were building a massive road and rail system in the country and of the West who seemed to be leaving the region alone.
We spoke of mountains, history, communities, Moscow, touring, the beauty of Montenegro; we spoke of tunnels, bridges, of the relative peace of Montenegro during the wars and its place as an independent country in the 21st century. And before we knew it, we were ten miles outside Belgrade.
The scenery had been extraordinary in places, but moody as the clouds lay heavily in the valleys, the bright blue water careened through the canyons and the engineering feats of bridges and tunnels pushed through by Tito in the 1950s flickered back and forth through the rain.
It was a fine journey, and the bonus two hours, caused by the line running out of electricity (or so I understood) and resulting in a late arrival in the Serbian capital was of no consequence.
A Fine City
And Belgrade is a very fine city. Not beautiful in any conventional way, but interesting and with the assistance of Vladimir Dulović, a terrific local guide (€90/four hours through Walking Belgrade), the city opened and let me glimpse its rich history and admire its fine collection of the twentieth-century architecture.
From Art Deco to Communist Realist, it is all there; some bits grubbier than others, but the collection and jumble of styles and eras are wonderful, and the city, known far and wide as a party town, comes alive with the weather and light.
Traveling within the region can be tricky; both political expediency and history make simple journeys complex, and my next two stops, Sarajevo and Pristina were not a straightforward combination.
I flew to Sarajevo (US$100 with Air Serbia). The snow was falling in the mountains, and the alternative six-hour run in a minibus was not quite right. And so after a forty-minute flight, I arrived in the Bosnian capital, rented a car and headed to Mostar, an important city in the south of the country.
Bosnia was the most severely battered part of the region during the civil wars of the 1990s. Photographs of the Old City “then and now”, show a degree of wanton destruction that is hard to imagine. What possible military purpose the city’s Old Bridge had is hard to tell, and why it was necessary to bomb the historical center is difficult to fathom.
The resulting reconstruction, though, gives the city a faintly false patina. The aging process is gradual, and real old cities show this evolution in a number of ways. Reconstructed cities are different, and however well the work has been done, there is a veneer of sameness, and Mostar is such a city. It is pleasant, worth a day, but a little disappointing.
It was in Mostar though that I met Seno Hadžiosmaxioxić. A man of a certain age, not a million miles from my own, I couldn’t help wondering about his life.
He lived through the 1970s when communism was peaking, challenging the west and Yugoslavia was prospering to the 1980s when the whole economic and political system collapsed.
Then the 1990s of brutal civil war to the 2000s when rampant cowboy capitalism was the order of the day and on into the 2100s when, for now, peace seems to be holding and lives are coming back together.
A single life, holding layers of contradiction and change like the eras exposed by an ancient midden was hard to contemplate. However, so many here have had their life’s structure ripped apart and reformed each decade or so that the present seems fleeting and only temporary.
Back to Sarajevo
So many young have left, 150,000 from Bosnia alone, that rebuilding will be hard. Those left are waiting for their chance to emigrate, and the country, a fragile trifecta of three constituent parts, Serbian, Muslim and Catholic, prowls and tries to find a future that is satisfactory for all.
I drove back to Sarajevo, it is an interesting city and the country’s capital. It is a two-day town, and the juxtaposition between the 1984 Olympic Games and the brutality of the following decade are stark and jarring. They are also most interesting, and wandering through the city’s old streets, watching silversmiths ply their centuries-old trade offers a glimpse into the fine mosaic that is The West Balkans.
My final stop was Pristina in Kosovo, and as a consequence of the local politics, from Sarajevo I had to fly 250 miles north to Ljubljana before turning around and flying 400 miles south, and passing over Sarajevo en route, to reach it.
And I am glad that I did; it was different, a very different place. It is a land of oligarchs and peasants, of returning emigrés and a beleaguered local population. By observation, casinos and gas stations are the most lucrative businesses followed closely by construction. Piles of bricks, pipes, tiles, insulation, bird baths, roofing frames and bags of cement lie in shops everywhere.
Hotels are everywhere, although their clientele is not obvious; shiny wedding palaces and dinner clubs lie at the edge of small villages, each highlighting the prosperity of a villager returning from a decade in America or Europe. “Why can’t they build school halls instead?”, I kept thinking.
And then I realized; it is difficult to launder money through schools, and like Albania, Kosovo is struggling to make itself heard in the 21st century. There is an uneasy truce between the Serbian population and the Albanians of the south, that for now is holding.
Where will Kosovo End Up?
Such political limbo, however, cannot last forever, and it is anybody’s guess where Kosovo will end up. In the meantime, for visitors, it is a fascinating country to drive through, to observe and to ponder.
And, after two weeks wandering around these countries, its complexity both enchanted and exasperated me. I had come to see if I could understand the region, and while there are certainly elements that are now clearer, the best that I can say is that I can now ask more intelligent questions.
For any travelers seeking an interesting and scenically dramatic destination, this is it. From the picturesque islands of the Adriatic to the central mountains, and from the ancient hilltop communities to the proud capital cities, the former Yugoslavian republics offer a very fine destination indeed.
I will be back.
Max Johnson is a Winnipeg-based travel writer, commentator, and tourism consultant. Having spent thirty-five years operating a travel company that specialized in visiting the more unusual corners of the world, he now works with developing regions in building community-based tourism strategies. Having visited over 160 countries, he still has several to reach, and will likely not stop until they have all been reached. Read his travel blog, Max Globetrotter.