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.
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 ?¢‚Ç¨‚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 ?¢‚Ç¨‚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.
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 ?¢‚Ç¨‚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?¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t get from reading a text book.
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 ?¢‚Ç¨‚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?¢‚Ç¨‚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 ?¢‚Ç¨‚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?¢‚Ç¨‚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?¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t even touch the neighbouring building!
However the most striking thing I heard from Marko, was how NATO used cluster bombs. Cluster bombs don?¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t damage buildings. They are purely used to kill enemy soldiers, well technically anyway. Marko?¢‚Ç¨‚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?¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s parents. They didn?¢‚Ç¨‚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 ?¢‚Ç¨‚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!