Tag Archive for 'Croatia'

Croatia/Slovenia

Greetings from sunny England. How did I get here? From a flight out of Slovenia. But hold on, wasn’t I in Bosnia just a few days ago? Well your confusion has something to do with that fact that I am a sloppy bastard in updating this blog. I have actually spent a week in Croatia (21st until 27th June), with a rushed train ride to Slovenia for my last minute flight on the 28th. So, now that you have your bearings, I will talk about Croatia!

From Mostar, I caught a bus to Dubrovnik, which is a city in the far south of Croatia. When I got there, I was pretty annoyed. Not because anyone had done me wrong, but rather it was exactly the type of destination I am trying to avoid on my trip: a tourist mecca. Dubrovnik, for you uneducated fools (which included me a week ago) was a powerful city state that has an impressive history, whereby it controlled all trade in the Balkan region (all important cross road from East to West), as well as successfully maintaining independence despite having the Ottomans on the East and the Venetians in the West constantly breathe down their neck.

Drubovnik

But back to complaining. The poet Lord Byron called it “the Pearl of the Adriatic” in the early 19th century, whilst the playwright George Bernard Shaw said that ” … Those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik … “. Well, not on my first day. As far as I was concerned, it was just a city of tourists. Where the hell were the Croatians?! The prices are a rude shock, even by the standards of Australia, and all it was to me initially was just a big old stone city that was being abused for tourism – I even saw two Australians playing a didgeridoo next to the gates. Can someone please explain the link between an aristrocatic city state that adopted technology to become a leading naval and trading power, and the nomadic Australian indigenous people on the other side of the world, who would use technologies like petrol and glue, to get high?

But as I said, that was my first day. On my second day I walked the walls of the city (two damn hours in 30 degrees of sun), and did the audio tour (a rip off, but I was willing to give the city another chance to impress me). And impressed I was! That is, in the way they ran their republic. Dubrovnik is best described as a living museum. And those annoying tourists that inflated the prices, actually helped recreate the city as it was in its hey-day: a busling, freedom-loving, vibrant city that respected its citizens and understood how the world worked, which in turn enabled it to survive for so long.

But having said that, it is the history of Dubrovnik that hooked me. As a tourist destination, it is the type of place you bring your girlfriend too when you are 50, while your wife stays at home. Actually, with the money you would need, you probably would be able to afford to convince them both to join you, as you do the typical tourist package holiday. (Manged to offend Aborigines and women..something is missing…on yeah, American bashing). And those loud freakin’ yanks, who seem to think US Dollars can be used on anything from souvenir shopping to grocery shopping at the local store (“what? You can’t give me exact change in US dollars??”). So whilst I’m doing some history reading now, I was glad to get the hell out of there.

I met Kelly in Belgrade. Kelly, a varsity girl from white-trash America a crazy hippy from Ohio, who three days after she had arrived in Dubrovnik, discovered the city was actually not on an island but on the mainland, and learnt the words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ two weeks after she had travelled through a region that speaks the same language – had been doing the same route as myself. Actually to give her credit, she is hilarious and a lot of fun. Even though she has a laugh the beats my own in terms of loudness, she is the type of person that gets along with anyone. And so that is how I met Steve and Alice from California, at the hostel.

With little convincing, I ditched my plans for Hvar island and joined them to the island of Corcula, with a group that also included George the Swede, and two Canadians called Kyle and Zoe. When the ship docked at Corcula, and we were walking off the vessel, I saw an Australian flag on the backpack of the girl standing in front of me. Without even thinking, I said “Are you an Aussie?”, and before we knew it, another three people joining our group – two Aussie girls from Sydney (Epping) and a Canadian that those girls had found on the Greek island of Ios six weeks earlier. Add the two Swedish girls Kelly and I had become friends with from Belgrade, and who joined us the next night, and as you can imagine, we had some good times!

Apart from drinking games, and celebrating the Swedish mid-summer , we got wicked sun tans. The island wasn’t all that impressive – the kids explored the ENTIRE town comprehensively in half an hour, and the beaches were disappointing (although one day, we ferried out to one of the islets and had a great time – despite the incredible roughness of the rock). Three nights later, Kelly, myself, the two Aussies (Rach and Katie) and Matt the Canadian from Ios, caught a Ferry to Split. I fell asleep on the ship for an hour or two, and when I awoke, there were two South African girls and their mother at our feet. Within half an hour, when we hit the first port of Hvar, they had asked us if we wanted to join them, and 15 minutes later, I was organising my stuff to get off the boat! And so I spent another night on an island, on the much more pictureresque Hvar, with Kath, Janice and wait for it, their mother – Sheila!

Swedish midsummer

After learning South African, I managed to somehow get to Slovenia that next day, meeting up with Kelly and Co, just in time for my flight the next day. Talk about tight timing though. I managed to spend a few hours taking pictures in Ljubjiana. And from what I have seen, and read in one of their local english newspapers, I hope to be back there again.

Croatia (and Slovenia) are very much Western European countries (although the Slovenes seem adamant on aligning themselves as Central Europeans – regionalism seems to be the new trend in Europe). They definitely are not Eastern Europe though. The difference from Croatia with Serbia and Bosnia could not be more stark. Everything from the climate, the prices, to the attitudes of the people. Whilst the average wages in Croatia and Slovenia are dirt low just like the rest of the Balkan region, there is this feeling (from me, that is) that the countries are developed and well on the road to rich country status. Slovenia in a recent survey, ranks higher than Greece and Portugal in per capita income, and has a higher satisfaction rate amongst the local population.

Croatians and Sovenians despise the Yugoslavic tag – a reminder of the 50-100 years that in modern times has replaced their previous historical identities. Both countries are what started the original Balkans wars, as the Yugosav state disintegrated, but because of Croatia’s tourist industry and Slovenia’s relative autonomy under the Yugoslav Federation, it meant that they managed to get their acts together as countries fairly quickly – unlike the rest of the region like screwed-over-Macedonia.

Would you believe, in Dubrovnik, I stumbled on a museum that had an exhibit on Australian-Croatian ties. After the boring crap about some Croat living in Wagga Wagga, it was interesting to see how Australia helped the Croats achieve their dream of nationhood. Serbian and Croatian were previously considered dialects of the same language, but in the 1970s sand 1980s, students in Australia pressured the government to recognise Croatian to be taught as a separate language in the higher school certificate. There was also a token Croatian embassy during the late ’70s, which symbolically helped the cause, even though it was shut down (but the damage had been done).

A thing I have noticed in every country I visited in the last month, is the question of identity. What is it? These are new countries, and like Australia has in the last century, are struggling to find an identity. Or rather, differentiate themselves from their neighbours. The Croatian language is a classic example – it is literally the same language as Serbian. But they are adding new words, and even changing existing words, just to make it unique. It makes little sense to want to create differences in a language, but it makes plenty of sense when it is one of the few things to differentiate yourself from your extremely loathed neighbour/s. Religion, language, and historical achievements are what these countries cling to differentiate themselves.

The French and and Dutch voted no to the new European constitution, and quite rightly so, because it is a complicated, esoteric document, that was put together by elitists. Nevertheless, it is fairly evident that despite this setback, the European continent will one day, evolve into a superpower comparable to the empires of the past. The present difficulties with support for the Union, are because it is happening too fast – this European empire has been in the works for over 30 years now. With such a diverse region, it needs to evolve slowly – it can’t just happen overnight. However before everyone gets hot and heavy about the wording of a constitution, they need to remember the original reason why the European Union was formed, and that was to prevent another world war. The border disputes, and tensions in the Balkans – as well as the economic difficulties – could be made a non-issue by adding these countries to the Union. Anyone listening?

Drubovnik moon

Serbia

Zdravo!

Some background first: A few days before I left for my Balkan Bash of a trip, whilst I was still in Greece, I posted a question on Lonely Planet‘s website, on a thing called the ThornTree. Basically I posted my itinerary, and asked people to recomend how I can improve it. And that they did!

I arrived in the city of Ni?° in Serbia in the late afternoon from Skopje (Macedonia), which was a city I was told to visit by one of the ThornTreers. It was raining buckets of water. Every person I asked for help at the bus station didn’t speak English. I knew absolutely nothing about this city, other than it was a semi-major city in Serbia. Heck, I didn’t even know how to pronounce Ni?°! (It is pronounced, and spelt ‘Nish’ in Latin script). And with only ten Euros in my wallet, and a bladder that was about to explode, I had a bit of a problem. I suppose, it is one of those situations when you pull out a cigarette, and have a puff with the look on your face that says “Yeah shit, what now?”. Except I don’t smoke. And I didn’t want to say shit, because any reference to the excretionary system of my body, only reminded me how badly I needed to go to the toilet.

Anyone to cut a long story short, I checked into this over-priced classic communist hotel near the centre of the town (luckily, the bus station was a five minute walk from the centre). And at 6pm, I crashed on my bed, sleeping for well over 16 hours.

I woke up the next morning at about 10.30, and as I was about to enter the shower, my hotel phone rang. “Hello this is Marko”. Um, hi I replied, thinking who the hell is Marko. It turned out Marko was the guy who insisted I visit Nish on the ThornTree! He was in the foyer, and asked if I wanted to join him for a beer! And the 10 minutes between that phone-call and when I reached the foyer, I was wondering how the f..k did this guy find me! It turns out, he had read my post about Macedonia on my blog, and he logically assumed I would be in Nish by now. He also assumed I would check into the Hotel Ambassador, because most taxi drivers take tourists there. He asked the hotel reception if his Australian friend Elias had checked in (he knew my name from the website), and if he could call me because he didn’t have my number or something like that. So in other words, I got stalked!!!!

However Marko wasn’t some weird person, and his intention of a quick chat over a beer ended up turning into a two day fully-guided tour. I think he felt a little obliged to help me out, as he was the reason I was in Nish. But nevertheless, what is a fairly freaky story, turned into an absolute God send as I was able to learn about Yugoslav and Serbian history, politics and culture. We got along so well, that I even had dinner with his family, and they insisted I stay the night to save money! (Which I didn’t, but only because I couldn’t get a refund on the hotel Marko helped me find earlier that day). I was lucky because Marko has an intimate knowledge of history, so that he was able to tell me things that even the average Serbian didn’t know (like a hidden, old building, where the concept of Yugoslavia was created).

Nish is a bustling city, with a smart looking crowd, and a powerful history that if you know what you are looking for, will blow you away. Had it not been for Marko, I doubt I would have such a favourable opinion of the city. For example, my second hotel that Marko help me find was in the hot springs that were famous even in Roman times. And between my hotel on the edge of the city and the city-centre, was Mediana and the Skull Tower. The city also has an impressive fortress.

Skull Tower

I spent two days in Nish, and about a week in Belgrade, which included a day trip to Novi Sad. Most of the travellers I met in Belgrade were there as a transit point for the more exotic Bulgaria, or the scenic Croatia. However everyone seemed to love the city ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú it is one of the best cities I have even been too, and some very experienced travellers at the hostel agreed with that claim. The city lies on the outfall of the Sava river to the Danube river, which in itself is impressive. The city is built on several hills, and every day you stayed, you would find a new reason to stay. Whether it was the nightlife, or the friendly people, the beach or the archaeology ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú Belgrade is a hidden gem. Probably what makes Belgrade so impressive, is that it has been was under some form of attack 54 times since AD 1. And with each battle, a new conqueror has added a fresh aspect to the cities culture, giving the city a very unique character, not just in architecture, but in spirit that you feel.

Children playing music in the middle of Belgrade?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s Pedestrian walk

Novi Sad, which is the capital of the autonomous province of Vojvodina, was a different place yet again. The architecture was completely different, which is due to the fact that that part of Serbia was never controlled by the Ottoman Empire and was saved from their uncreative building works and graced with the more stately Austro-Hungarian. The people, however is what struck me, as they looked different from the rest of the Serbia I had seen. They looked a lot more Hungarian, and the Slavic look which is clearly evident in Nish and Belgrade, was almost non-existent.

In Belgrade, I met this girl Irena, whom I went for a coffee or three with. She also introduced me to her friends ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú girls whom were drop dead gorgeous, and guys who were super friendly, and well educated (all of them). Actually, it turns out these friends of hers are heavily involved in the Democratic Party in the country, a centrist party that has a lot of influence in the Coalition government. I also met countless other people, but the point I am getting to is that despite all these conversations I had with different people, I found a remarkably similar attitude to a lot of subjects.

The biggest thing to mention, is the nationalism of the Serbs. Marko summed this attitude best when he said that the Croatians, Bosnians, Macedonians and Serbians are basically one race, with the only difference being the Croats are Catholic, the Bosnians Muslim, and the Serbs Orthodox. It was a view I heard several times. Having heard what the Macedonians think, as well as the Bosnians (where I am now), I must say, it is very interesting to hear this. I never knew much about the Balkans conflicts before my trip, but I definitely feel I have learnt a lot, with an extra dimension you wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t get from reading a text book.

Belgrade Fortress

Most young people, especially the English-speaking ones, want to leave the country (Irena reckons). But it is this intense nationalism and patriotism, that makes them want to do it only temporarily ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú as opposed to Macedonia for example, where people just want to to leave permanently! There is a strong sense of identity in Serbia, but perhaps, a little too strong.

The economy seems to be a real sticking point. Mitcho, a middle aged man I met in the street when I was trying to find a landmark, said religion and the economy were the root of all the problems in the region. What he said about the economy though is what was interesting. The average Serbian makes peanuts, much like the surrounding countries. However I would argue, the cost of living was super cheap, and so it didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t matter. But the problem is that when you hear your neighbour, like Hungary, has workers being paid twice as much for the same job type in Serbia, with a similar cost of living, you get annoyed. Or as Mitcho said, you feel used.

The owner of the hostel, a mammoth of a guy who served in the military, and was fairly intelligent, told me the unemployment rate in Serbia is 34%, which I thought was a little far fetched. However I heard from a fellow traveller today that it is something like 50%, so it possibly is true, given she must of heard it from a different source.

Marko reckons Serbia should join the European Union, but not for a while. The economy is just too weak, that if it were, the Serbs would just be economically raped and become slaves to the more developed industries and companies in Germany and the UK. And yet whenever I would get into a political discussion with my friend Irena, she would passionately moan at how the Serbs just cant seem to move forward and work together. So on the one hand, you have this strong sense of Nationalism and superiority as a country, but an inability to move forward because the Serbs just cant work together. There is this feeling of being stuck.

The passport thing seems to annoy Serbs. A guy that helped me find my hostel for example, was making some small chit chat until we found it. After a few questions about my trip, he immediately launched into a whinge at how he cant do what I can do ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú a lament I heard several times over by others. Serbians need to have a visa for every country they visit, with the exception of the former Yugoslav countries. This points to a bigger attitude at how annoyed they are about their country. At the hostel I was staying at, one of the guys working there told us all that there simply isn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t any hope in the country. One of the Americans at the hostel mentioned it after, when we were on our own, and said how sad that was.

Nationalism and economics aside though, hearing about the Kosovo war was very interesting. Whilst I would join the conversations the hostel workers would have with the other travellers, I think I had the most in depth conversation about this with Marko. He showed me the military headquarters in Nish, which was the last part of Nish to be reconstructed. What was cool though, was how the smart bombs that hit it, didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t even touch the neighbouring building!

Tanks

However the most striking thing I heard from Marko, was how NATO used cluster bombs. Cluster bombs don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t damage buildings. They are purely used to kill enemy soldiers, well technically anyway. Marko?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s parents, whom work at the university, were on their way home one day, and five minutes earlier, a street they had to walk though, was hit by cluster bombs, in the middle of the city. I met Marko?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s parents. They didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t look like soldiers to me.

As an electronic university student, Marko would also explain to me the electrical bomb, whose purpose is purely to burn fuses. When they bombed the electricity plant, it was in the middle of the night, and for a full five minutes the explosion created such a strong light that it was like a sunny summer day!

From the time I landed in Athens, I was told by every male I spoke to, that Serbian women are the most beautiful women in the world. Serbian men trumpet this fact as well (its not opinion, I came and saw ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú it is fact!). Anyway, I just felt like I had to mention that because it is such a hot topic.

It is Saturday night, and I am in Sarajevo in Bosnia, which is a whole story in itself (I arrived two nights ago). Last night I taught the Americans in the hostel some drinking games, and three Irish girls arrived today and based on our conversation this morning, tonight will be trouble. So I better fill myself up with food. Ciao!

Belgrade in the evening