November 02, 2008

Balkan Express, part 1

So I originally jotted down this post on some graph paper while sitting in the small auditorium of NOVA High School, an American-financed private school in Skopje. I was waiting for two students, the previously-praised Bube and Tina, to finish taking their four-hour SAT and I was operating on even less hours of sleep after a Halloween party the night before. In case you're wondering I went as Jesus, an idea which, I have to be honest, probably wouldn't have even occurred to me without the daily volleys of "Jesus!" (pronounced in the Spanish "hay-soos" manner) I hear from the town children. At first just sort of weird, being called the Messiah is now just downright hilarious.

Jillian was not present to see the costume manifestation of my newfound (son of) God complex, because she was home beginning the decompression process--on Thursday we returned from a whirlwind tour of the former Yugoslav republics, a trip that took us to elegant Austro-Hungarian streets, to incredible Adriatic coastline and to sad, powerful reminders of recent conflict. Really sweetening the deal was our rental car and the three other volunteers we shared this trip with. This two-thousand kilometer scramble was the very essence of the Road Trip. The Magical Mystery Tour is dying to take you away...

One of the few annoying elements to this trip was the multiple currencies--four in total, as only two countries used the same--and things got off to an auspicious start when we converted some Macedonian denars into Serbian dinars at a joint that took--get this--a 25% cut in the transaction. I know, I know, we didn't really think things through too well, but we really needed some Serbian bills for the nearly constant (and super pricey) toll booths that dot the Balkan highways.

We cruised through southern Serbia as quickly as possible, eager to get to Belgrade. Serbia is singular among the Balkan countries for its rather intense anti-Western, anti-EU, pro-Russia stance. Much of this can be traced to its historic partnership with Russia, the wars of the 1990s and recent events surrounding Kosovo's independence. We saw a lot of evidence of this on the streets of Belgrade, where concrete walls, steps and sidewalks were prominently and often tagged with spray paint condemning the EU and supporting accused war criminals such as the now-on-trial Radovan Karadzic.

Not that we felt any threat or tension as Americans. On the contrary, people were very friendly and mildly amused at our use of the Macedonian language (very similar to Serbian). All told, though, Belgrade was not a particularly impressive city--certainly large and interesting after coming from Skopje, but somehow lacking in that certain savoir faire and, in retrospect, it pales in comparison to the other towns and cities we visited. To wit, we ate dinner in a cavernous, traditionally-styled restaurant that served the exact sort of food we'd find here in Macedonia. So we looked forward to Croatia.
[Food side note: Perhaps the most fascinating thing I saw in Belgrade was a McDonald's. A plaque beside the entrance reads: "The first McDonald's restaurant in Belgrade was opened on March 24th, 1988." With Yugoslavia--and the worldwide communist system--teetering on the verge of collapse, this McDonald's must have been a huge deal when it opened. More than simply Big Macs and fries, wasn't this restaurant the very thing the people wanted? The consumer choices the West had always taken for granted?]

Before I describe Zagreb, some important history: by crossing the border into Croatia, we were entering the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Current-day Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia were all part of that multi-ethnic conglomeration and that produced some important differences between these countries and their southern neighbors of Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and the other Slavic Balkan countries such as Bulgaria. For starters, Croats and Slovenes, while Slavs, are Catholic, not Orthodox, and as a result of that influence they use the Latin alphabet, not the Cyrillic. More interestingly (at least as tourists), Slovenia and inland Croatia are blessed with the architecture of late-1800's Austria-Hungry, much like Prague and Budapest. Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and, to a lesser extent, Zagreb were beyond charming.

Zagreb's city center is small and was quiet during our brief stopover, but this didn't prevent it from being winner of the Driving Nightmare Of The Sort That Severs Friendships Award for the trip. Narrow one-way streets with incomprehensible parking rules and seemingly unnecessary round-abouts turned what should have been a fifteen minute parking job into something akin to a trip down the Styx. We grumpily climbed out of the little Peugot and made our way to a hostel.

Despite being rather petite, Zagreb is a very elegant, understated city. The aforementioned architecture is complimented nicely by 50s-vintage street cars shuttling citizens around and some really beautiful greenspace. We spent an evening and the next morning wandering the cute streets and eating at a cafe with a picture window view out into the main square. We were definitely impressed and didn't yet know that this was but a minor preview of what awaited us in Slovenia.

A tram in the early morning fog of Zagreb

Outside a church in Zagreb

Slovenia is in the EU, which tells you something about its level of development and standard of living. It was always the best well-off of the republics in Yugoslavia due to its metal industry and border with Austria and Italy (unlike Warsaw Pact countries, Yugoslavia was not completely closed off to the west--remember the Yugo automobile?--because Tito had firmly resisted joining into any sort of alliance with the USSR). Situated at the base of the Julian Alps, Slovenia is a positively gorgeous country. Rolling green hillsides followed the highway into Ljubljana and many of the homes on those hillsides sported Alpine roofs.

For the five of us, Ljubljana was pretty much love at first sight. Located near the confluence of two rivers (Ljubljanica and Danube), the city has an old-world feel that left us constantly remarking "This was Yugoslavia?!" The three ladies (Jillian and friends Erin and Kathy) thoroughly enjoyed perusing the shops along the river, while Frank and I thoroughly enjoyed a beer or coffee while waiting for them. The eating and drinking options were bountiful and the nightlife was vibrant. Indeed, we felt a very, very long way from Macedonia.

Old Ljubljana

Ljubljana's famed Dragon Bridge

A castle overlooks the city and provides and excellent view of the region as well as a really nice hike up. Adding to that regal feel, we had a close encounter with Queen Elizabeth of England, who was in town the same weekend as us. Slovenes lined the street to see her walk past with other dignitaries and I was having a difficult time figuring out where she was when, suddenly, the crowd parted and she was no more than fifteen feet away from me, waving grandly. Well, that was unexpected.

Because we had (smartly) planned on three nights in Ljubljana, we had time for a day trip to Bled, a lake town at the very base of the Alps. Throughout our trip we had positively perfect weather--sunny and 60 inland, sunny and 70 along the coast--except in Bled, where clouds, rain and fog hugged the mountains. Taking the slippery trail towards the castle overlooking the town and lake, I got this feeling we were approaching the House of Usher.

So the view was ruined and the town was deserted, but the day was saved by a gem of a hike through a gorge just outside of Bled. The gray weather was actually a plus there, as it enhanced the mood as we walked along the wooden platform constructed through the gorge. Standing among the evergreens, watching salamanders dart out from under mossy roots, it was hard to believe that just the next day we'd be standing among palm trees in a seaside resort town built among the ruins of a Roman emperor's retirement palace. But in Split, Croatia, we found just that.

But that's next time...and don't forget, more pictures can be found in "Our Photos" in the right column.

Hiking outside Bled

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