The Balkans, beauty as their lands are, are below the radar of many tourists due to their reputation for poor safety and infrastructure. Travelling from place to place without high-speed rail becomes (literally) a pain in the ass, but the region is safe: the local mafias do not engage in petty thefts and carjacking (it is, rather, done in Western Europe where there are nicer cars to steal, and then they get resold here).
Fortunately, that also means the Balkans are still untainted by the hordes of tourists on package tours which have afflicted the countries and cities that have marketed themselves better. In particular, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania still retain a ‘backpacker tourist’ atmosphere, which means that accommodation on the lower end of the market is still plentiful, incredibly cheap and of good quality – try that in London or Paris! There is also a considerable absence of the ‘party’ traveller crowd in the region as well, and most people follow the same route – you might even bump into the same people in the same few hostels again, and again…and again.
Time for some history: After centuries of domination by the Ottoman Empire, most of the countries in the Western Balkans became part of the former Yugoslavia, which arose out of the idea of a single state for all Southern Slavs. The breakup of the federation since 1990 led to the countries of Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. Basically, the other republics feared the dominance of Serbia ever since the demagogue Serb Slobodan Milošević came to power and wanted out, triggering bloody wars of independence and NATO-led air strikes. Fortunately, peace has now come and travel is now perfectly safe in the Balkans. Except if you’re going to the weed-producing region near Gjirokastër, Albania, that is: when the Albanian police arrived there to clear the plantations, they were met with anti-tank missiles and heavy machine guns.
With some friends from junior college, I took a long loop in the Western Balkans through Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, and then Montenegro, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia. I arrived at Belgrade in a cool morning after long train journeys all the way from London. Almost of all the countries speak the same language (though they’d like to disagree) and I hoped that an extremely rudimentary knowledge of Russian (when spoken very slowly, it is intelligible with Serbo-Croat), failing English, could help me get what I needed.
In Serbia, we went on a day-trip with our guide, Dejan, a veteran of the Yugoslav army (he was posted to the Croatian border, and boasts wounds left by shrapnel on his body), to the monasteries in the forest in Fruska Gora. After visiting a monastery, Grgeteg, founded by the despot Vuk Grgurević Branković, known as ‘Wolf the Fire-Dragon’, we stopped by Mirko’s (one of Dejan’s friends) ranch in Neradin for some siesta time. Situated in the rolling Vojvodinan countryside, Mirko explains that Neradin means ‘no work’ in Serbian, and we relaxed by drinking elderflower cordial and the house rakija (Serbian whiskey, families brew their own). He brings us to an old road that was used by the Romans – ‘they still find Roman coins there, and remember – Serbia produced the largest number of [the late] Roman emperors!’ – translates Dejan – and invites us to taste his produce – fresh apples and plums.
The former Yugoslavia has been burdened by its exceptionally recent historical baggage, and it still lingers in the psyches of many there today. There is ‘big, cool (but not necessarily good) brother Serbia’ – Belgrade boasts one of the best nightlife in the entire region, yet Serbian politicians ignore Kosovo’s plea for independence. Croatia (and also, Slovenia), has abandoned the family and went on to join the EU, but not without murderous exploits – for all the mutual animosity, they even teamed up with Serbia in an attempt to carve up Bosnia. On the other hand, Bosnia is now split into two, the Bosnian (Muslim and Croat) part and the Serb part (known as the Srpska Republic), and shrapnel can be seen all over Bosnia (our host in Mostar even had a personal collection of leftover ordnance!)
But nonetheless what all these people shared, after all these years of killing each other, was generosity, trust, and hospitality. After visiting sights, we walked into restaurants and locals invited us to share some of the food on their plates; dinner with friends involved sipping shot after shot of homemade rakija (my favourite is the peach). It wasn’t merely about the ticking of boxes and covering more ground and looking at the sights, but rather, as a visitor (invited or not), to see a different way of life in a foreign land.
Chin Zhi Hui