Friday, July 17, 2015

Do You Know the Way to Kosovo?

Prague and Budapest were perfect stepping stones on our journey to the less traveled parts of Eastern Europe that include Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. 

As we left Budapest for Belgrade, the capital of Serbia I wondered if this time we would begin to leave creature comforts behind. Serbia certainly isn't a third world country, but it is definitely off the  tourist path and has some unique challenges as it tries to balance a historical attachment to Russia and the present-day desire to be a part of the West and the EU. Serbia earned its reputation of being the neighborhood bully while Yugoslavia fell apart after the death of their founder Josip Tito in 1980. We wanted to visit Serbia, the supposed instigator behind the conflict in two recent wars, as well as visit the "breakaway" republic of Kosovo.

Last year we spent time in three of the former Yugoslavian republics of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina so we were familiar with this part of Europe and it's past. WWI and WWII took place before we were born but the Bosnian War (1992-95) and the Kosovo War (1998-99) are painfully recent. Last year while in Sarajevo we learned in-depth about what happened during the Srebrenica massacre and the Siege of Sarajevo. We wanted to learn more by visiting "the other side" and the home of the infamous war criminal, Slobodan Milošević. We both were moved by the book The Cellist of Serajevo.

Belgrade is a beautiful city full of surprises
But first we had to get there. We arrived at Prague's faded beauty of a train station an hour early. We were feeling good about the extra time and found a comfortable bench just a short walk to platform 3 where we would catch our train to Belgrade. I left Michael happily reading a rare copy of the International Herald New York Times while I gathered a few travel snacks, and enjoyed a slice of pizza for breakfast.
Just off the train in Belgrade.
We strolled over to our train with about ten minutes to go only to discover our departure platform had changed from 3 to 12. That would be 9 platforms on the complete opposite side of the station from where we were! Nomads on the run! We sprinted the width of the station with our heavy bags and barely got on board before the departing whistle. In less than five minutes we had drained every ounce from our previous Zen like state.

We had an eight hour ride ahead of us, so we certainly had time to recover. And at least three of those hours were spent chugging along at about 15 miles an hour because apparently train tracks in Serbia cannot handle fast speeds. There wasn't a dining car on this journey which seemed crazy for such a long distance - there wasn't even a tea trolley. Thankfully, I had a few snacks and water tucked away for situations like this. Once a mom, always a  mom. 

Gummy Bears and peanuts continue to be staples in our emergency snack bag.
Choose your taxi drivers carefully in Belgrade. These fellows assured us this was non-alcoholic beer. Really?
The historic city of Belgrade has the unfortunate distinction of having been leveled and rebuilt 40 times. As we traversed the city on our walking tours, and did some further exploring on our own, the destruction from intense bombing by the Allied Forces in the late 90's and a general purveyance of  hard times became obvious. There is yet another rebuilding in the city's future, but it will be a long time before this tattered country has the resources to replace and repair the damage.

The destruction from bombing in the nineties was widespread in both residential and commercial areas.
I wasn't sure what to expect from Belgrade as a city or as a place where Americans might be welcomed. I was pleasantly surprised to find a vibrant, cosmopolitan city full of very welcoming citizens.
These very welcoming utility boxes sat outside our front door.
Our balcony facing the park.
 Our Airbnb also exceeded expectation! The apartment was modern and clean and the location was perfect. We were just across the street from Kalemegdan, the city's largest park. This forest refuge rambled for almost a mile along the edge of the Danube to where it meets the Sava River. The imposing Belgrade Fortress sits in the center of the park on a bluff overlooking the river and beyond. There has been a working fortification on the site since Roman times.

The Belgrade Fortress with stones dating back to the 2nd century.
My favorite spot in the morning - bench in the park overlooking the river.
Around the corner in the opposite direction from the park was a wide pedestrian-only shopping street. On our first night we headed out to find a grocery store for a quick dinner, and instead, lingered to enjoy the scene. Even though it was almost midnight, there were families out eating ice cream (ourselves included), drinking coffee or beer, crowding around the street entertainers or enjoying live music that flowed from one place to the next.

Street art abounded in Belgrade. These red umbrellas danced across a little side street.
Grilled meat is a staple of the Serbian diet. Here's just one of many fast food kiosks.
Just one of a dozen robots made from salvage that stood tall on the main street.
Our free walking tour was as always, informative and fun. There is a lot to cover here and our guide did a great job of blending current history with the city's colorful past. Michael took the Communist Belgrade tour the next day that included a stop at Tito's tomb.

Our walking tour guide Jovana. She was so proud of her city and very knowledgeable.
Final resting place for Tito. Love him or hate him.
A short walk to the Skandanska neighborhood made for a truly Serbian experience. The cobbled streets were lined with small restaurants and brew-pubs where enthusiastic musicians strolled from table to table under twinkling lights. They take their work seriously - the more you enjoyed their serenade the more they'd play, and the harder they'd work. The traditional way to offer appreciation is to slap a 500 dinar bill ($5.00) onto their sweaty foreheads! Speaking of Serbian money - at one point during hyper-inflation in 1993-94 you could easily have a 500 BILLION dinar bill in your wallet!

The lovely neighborhood of Skandanska.
I had a haircut that cost 15,000 dinar (about 17 US dollars) It could have easily cost billion dinar a few years ago!
Our next stop was Kosovo, the newest country in Europe, but first we had to get there. That turned out to be not so easy since Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country and because Serbians have little or no interest in visiting this breakaway republic. Here's how it all unfolded.

Earlier in the week we trekked through some grimy parts of Belgrade to the equally grimy bus station to buy tickets to Pristina, Kosovo's capital city. We'd learned our lesson about Serbian trains and there wasn't any straight forward service to Kosovo, so it bus by default. In the past we have enjoyed bus travel, so we thought it would be okay. The weather was hot and sticky and nothing was coming easy to us Nomads (including my MacBook Air deciding it would no longer provide sound). We'd meant to scope out the buses before buying tickets, but we'd spend a good deal of time with an Apple tech with no results other than a good cleaning and reboot of my system. We were tired and grumpy.  There were challenges to buying tickets and after a lot of hard work, we discovered we'd bought them for the wrong day, so we had to get back in line and replace them. Should have noted that the journey was now longer (a grueling 8 hours) and had a dozen stops along the way.

The rattling city buses were in very poor condition.
Two days later we arrived at the Belgrade Bus Station with our bags and found our bus. Well, not exactly a bus. I guess the demand for travel to Kosovo from Belgrade is limited. Certainly low enough to not warrant using a large, comfortable air conditioned bus when a 15 passenger van that had seen better days would suffice.

The two most startled faces on the scene were mine when I realized we would be traveling in this rattle-trap and the driver's when he saw the size of our suitcases. Somehow the bags were crammed in the back and we were crammed in the last two remaining seats.

People got on and got off regularly along the way. Sometimes we picked up passengers from the side of the road (seemed to be the polite thing to do) and they stood in the aisle for a ride to the next stop.
There were three children in the van that were so well behaved, you wouldn't have known they were the winding roads made one of them sick. Lovely!

Our ride to Kosovo. I wish you could see the 80's carpeting that lined the interior.
On the road. Every seat full and every disco song you've ever loved on the radio.
Pit stop in the rain about half-way to Pristina.
Since Kosovo is considered by the majority of Serbs to still be part of Serbia, the northern part of Kosovo was festooned with Serbian flags hung from most every light pole. It wasn't until we were further into interior that we started to see Kosovo flags. But when we reached the capital city of Pristina we began to see Albanian flags, because 90% of Kosovars are Albanian. Confusing? Kosovo gained its independence from Serbia in 2008 but is not recognized by Serbia, Russia and lots of other countries. Having said that, it is recognized by 108 of the 193 United Nation countries and they are hopeful that someday Kosovo will become a member of the UN itself. And we met the president.

The press conference for the joint efforts between Kosovo and the U.N. to register their diaspora.
There wasn't much to do in Pristina - not a tourist office in sight nor a city map to be found anywhere. But we set out to observe what we could of life in this conflicted country. As we were walking down the main pedestrian street we saw what looked like the start of a fun run. There were clusters of people in colorful hats and printed tee-shirts standing around a few tents. As we got closer we saw several media photographers along with reporters from local radio and television stations setting- up. We worked our way to the front of the crowd and started asking questions. Never shy, Michael marched up to a group of official looking types with clip boards and found out that the Kosovo Ministry of Culture, in partnership with the United Nations Development Program was launching a program to locate the country's diaspora. By finding Kosovars that left the country during the recent conflicts, they hope to encourage them to return, and or support their fledgling homeland through investments. Turns out, we had stumbled upon the press conference to announce the program.

Michael having a great conversation with Kosovo's President Atifete Jahjaga
The Senior Nomads with the president and the Minister of Culture, who is obviously wondering "who are these people?"
We stayed to watch. Much of the program was in the local language (Albanian) but an official representative from the U.N. spoke in English with a translator. He was followed by Atifete Jahjaga Kosovo's female president. Before long, we had worked our way so close to the podium that before you knew it we were embraced and joined the official party. Michael asked to meet the president since she was about 5 feet away sipping cider.  She was lovely and happy to have American tourists (very rare) visiting and interested in her country. Then we met Andrew Russell, the UN official that spoke. He lives in Pristina and a few days later, we had a really fascinating lunch with him at the UN Development Program offices. Learning more about this part of the world has been a priority for us so chance meetings with the leaders who are working to build a new democracy was all we could have asked for. A special Senior moment!

The flags of nations flying in front of the hotel near our apartment.
Next up is Podgorica the capital city of Montenegro. From there we head to the coastal towns of Budva and Kotor for a much anticipated seven day cruise along the picturesque Montenegrin and Croatian coasts. People are saying that Montenegro is the "next Croatia". We'll see.

Thanks for following along!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads


  1. Fascinating! I am so impressed with your determination to go to these distant parts of the world. I learned a LOT from this post, so thank you very much! I'm glad I wasn't forced to be on those buses along with you. Oh my! :-)

  2. Your next two posts: "Dream Boat' and 'Packing' are blank.