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Eastern Europe: Grittier, Edgier, Cheaper

8/2/09

11:50 am, Belgrade

I’m writing this from the nice hostel we checked into late (~3 am) last night, while I’m waiting for T$ and PP to rouse themselves. The last few nights our driving has fallen into a pattern – get up around 10 am, explore a city until ~4pm, then drive into the evening and night to get to our next destination. While ok, this has been a bit fatiguing, so we’re taking a ‘down day’ in Belgrade to recharge our mental and physical batteries before continuing east. We need to do a better job of planning our route- the atlas we have is good, but it would be even better to google-map our ongoing route to help us with directions. It’s time consuming to drive into a city and try and find a place to crash when we arrive in the dark, rather than making a reservation beforehand and taking advantage of the daylight. In Slovenia and Switzerland, we could get away with camping near town, but in the large cities of the Eastern bloc, this is less viable. The good news is that these cities seem not to sleep, so we have been always able to find some place to crash. Signs have switched to Cyrillic, so PP has proved invaluable in helping us navigate. We’ve also had some interesting experiences at the borders, more about this later…

Resuming the narrative from last time: Dubrovnik is certainly a popular destination for Europeans. While packed to the gills with tourists, it’s also a pleasant destination, a charming old city overlooking the sea. Temperature was hot – 90s, so it was a struggle to stay hydrated as we navigated the city walls. One of the highlights of this town is that one can circumnavigate the entire old city by walking along the ramparts – takes about 45 minutes, and you are afforded great views of the shimmering, clear Adriatic. In the morning, I took a brief swim in the sea, cold but refreshing.

From Dubrovnik, we headed east towards Sarajevo, into Bosnia-Herzegovina. And it was on this portion of the road that the character of the land changed. First, as we were driving, cars became noticeably older (see a lot more of the Russian made Lada Niva – a 4×4 offroad vehicle). The land east of Croatia is pretty dry this time of year, but we still came across a lot of individual farms, rows of vegetables and corn, and the occasional greenhouse. Population density is a lot lower than before, and we saw far fewer cars than in Western Europe. A few times we encountered scenes that seemed to have been lifted from decades earlier – small refineries, groups of sheep, an isolated goat or two atop a rock near a small dwelling.

En route to Sarajevo, we passed through the beautiful old town of Mostar. This centrepiece of the town was the picturesque ‘Most’ or bridge, bombed during the Balkan wars of 1992-1994, but largely rebuilt and restored, and in the middle of a gentle valley. Walking along the cobbled lanes that led to the bridge, the Turkish/Ottoman influence was obvious – we came across a few mosques, the sounds of Arabic chanting lilting in the air, and were served ‘Bosnian’ (Turkish) coffee at a nearby cafe. I saw an old man with a long white beard – reminded me of caliphs or imams that I imagine I’ll see more of as I journey into Turkey. The physical characteristics of the people here are also a testament to the melting pot that is the Balkans – skin color is more olive than white, hair tends to be blacker, dress is more Muslim as I see more women are covered up. As romantic the bazaars were, venturing outside of the main drag one could notice that buildings had holes taken out of them, from shells. Its sobering to think that many people were killed here ~15 years ago, and one wonders how the shelling and shooting have affected the cultural psyche of the natives.

The shelling was more evident in the streets of Sarajevo – most of the buildings exhibited signs of light to moderate damage, and it was easy to pick out those buildings that were less than 15 years old. We drove down a byway that was nicknamed ‘Sniper Alley’, for obvious reasons. The scene here is gritty – streets are less clean, graffiti more prevalent, people exhibiting a little more machismo than in the more ‘refined’ cities I had seen further to the west. In one corner of town, a group of old men were playing and watching chess on a life-sized board, concentrating fiercely as they sought to predict the next moves. I wandered into an abandoned apartment building near the edge of the Old Town, again struck by the damage the building had sustained. I try (mostly unsuccessfully) to imagine what it was like during the height of the craziness, when ~11000 Sarajevans perished, and you couldn’t predict where the next shell would fall or whether it would be safe to walk outside the questionable haven of your room. Despite the war, life seems to have picked up again. There is a bustling tourist scene in the old town, with many a bazaar or restaurant offering up grilled meats, spinach pies, coffee, or other eastern treats. There is a sense of the western European chic as I venture into New Sarajevo, with girls heavily done up and in fashionable attire. Here, as in western Europe, there are the designer stores, but amidst a general sense of dilapidation, unlike the grand, well preserved buildings of Vienna. More on Belgrade and borders later – my friends are awake and we need to plan our day.

– Hari

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