Sunday, 21 June 2015

Backpacking the Western Balkans - First Reflections

Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Instagram know by now that I spent the last two weeks backpacking the Western Balkans. As two weeks isn't obviously enough to see all there is in the area, I limited myself to the coast of Croatia (with an excursion to Plitvice Lakes in the interior of the country), and then went also to Montenegro and Bosnia. I consider this to be the first part of a longer trip that would also lead me to Serbia, Macedonia and Albania.
Whenever I told my friends and colleagues that I was travelling for two weeks through these three countries, they would always tell me that they heard Croatia is very beautiful, but they would forget that I mentioned two more countries. Croatia gets all the praise with its beautiful beaches and many islands to explore, its historic towns and natural parks. Montenegro, on the other hand, is a small country that only recently separated from Serbia and most people don't know a thing about it, while sadly Bosnia and Herzegovina is remembered only for the bloody war of the 1990s.

A church of overlooking the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro
The reason why I wanted to visit the Balkans is that this part of Europe is extremely diverse in terms of landscapes and faiths, with a complicated and interesting history, and a mosaic of influences that is fascinating, to say the least. Being from a small town near Venice, I wanted to see with my own eyes in which ways the Venetian domination in the coastal towns of Croatia and Montenegro has shaped the architecture and the culture of these towns, then I wanted to go inland and see how the Turkish influence plays a big role in that area. Venice and the Ottoman empire, so far away in the map, were always fighting for one or the other corner of the Mediterranean, and it is a part of the history of the Republic of Venice that I find intriguing.

The lions of Saint Mark in the city walls of Kotor, Montenegro

My trip started with a flight to Dubrovnik, on the southernmost tip of Dalmatia. The "Pearl of the Adriatic", as it is nicknamed, is a great place to start a trip through the Western Balkans, because apart from being one of the most beautiful walled towns in Europe, it offers great connections to Montenegro to the south and to Bosnia to the east. From here, traveling up the coast of Croatia is also easy and convenient, offering great possibilities to stop at Split, Hvar and Zadar.

A view of Dubrovnik from the city walls
The Venetian influence is indeed palpable in the coast. I chuckled when I saw that the restaurant I was eating at in  Zadar was called "Kalelarga", a common street designation in Venice, or upon seeing all that cuttlefish risotto in the menu at the restaurant. The culinary options were particularly interesting: pasta and pizza are not particularly Venetian, but other more traditional Dalmatian dishes, like brodet, a fish soup, or fritule (doughnuts) have obvious Venetian origins.

Fritule for sale in Split

Bosnia was another story: indeed I felt like I was in Turkey again, Ottoman-style mosques replacing Catholic churches, cevap - a local variation of kebab - replacing grilled squid at the restaurant. While in other parts of the world, for example in Greece, the Ottoman culture was perceived as an imposition and it is now considered mostly foreign to the country, in Bosnia it is worn with pride, as an important part of one's heritage. I've seen a cafĂ© named "Istanbul", a festival of Turkish-Bosnian music and friendship, and several Turkish flags. 

The fountain of Gazi Husrev-beg mosque in Sarajevo

When I went back to the coast - a long bus ride from Sarajevo to Split - the reverse cultural shock was incredible and total. The coast of Croatia is much more Italian than I imagined in the style of shops you can find, in the way people dress, and the way towns are developed. It is also economically richer, and more sophisticated if you want, while Bosnia still seems to struggle economically. Reconstruction and recovery after the war hasn't been as quick here.  During the bus ride I observed the landscape a lot: humble villages dotted with the minarets of mosques for many miles, but suddenly, after a mountain pass and entering into a valley, the first thing I could see was a church and a Christian cemetery, while I was still within the territory of Bosnia.   

A Catholic image in Split, Croatia

While in Croatia and in Montenegro the reminders of the conflicts of the 1990s are few, and the two countries seem to prosper after a dark period, in Bosnia you are constantly reminded of the war, even though people don't like to talk about it. There are still many abandoned bombed buildings riddled with bullet holes, in the countryside as in the main cities, while cemeteries with the characteristic white gravestones dot the landscape. The riddle of why these horrors could happen in Europe in the 1990s has been only partially clarified for me during this trip.

A bombed building next to a new modern one in Mostar,in Bosnia 

It is extremely easy to travel in this area of the world: buses are reliable and frequent, often connecting cities and towns across multiple borders, plus people speak good English, and are always kind and available to give directions and advice. Moreover, it is safe and it doesn't provide particular challenges for women travelling alone. As a matter of fact, I didn't hear a single rude or sexist remark in my whole trip. Bosnia and Montenegro are fairly cheap, while Croatia is only moderately so, apart from towns like Dubrovnik or Hvar that can be very expensive. There are plenty of good-quality hostels, actually some of the best I have been to. Yet, the majority of the travellers I have seen travel in tour groups, clinging to their guide and rarely taking public transport. The great majority of the tourists that visit Croatia don't venture into the other countries of former Yugoslavia, thinking it is dangerous and unsafe, but to be honest I felt as safe in Montenegro and Bosnia as I did in Croatia.

The main square of Hvar, in Croatia

Have you been to the Western Balkans? What were your general impressions?
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