Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Blazing Through the Balkans!

From one former country called Yugoslavia seven new nations were created!
If you are like me, you get the Baltics and the Balkans confused. If you are really like me, you wouldn't know where they are! Both are in Europe and though the names are similar, one is up north and the other is down south. I use the "t" in Baltics to help me remember they are on "top".

Two years ago I wouldn't have been able find the Balkans on the map.
Last summer we visited all three of the "top" countries that make-up the Baltics: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It was a fascinating couple of weeks exploring countries that only became independent from the Soviet Union 25 years ago. If you are interested, in reading about our trip here is a link to those posts: http://seniornomads.blogspot.ru/2015/07/do-you-know-way-to-kosovo.html  http://seniornomads.blogspot.ru/2015/07/the-balkan-maze.html 

This is a beautiful part of the world - Montenegro is fast becoming a popular tourist destination on the Adriatic coast!
Since the Balkans are much bigger, we wove them into our travels over the past two years. By this summer, we had visited nine out of the thirteen countries: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey. We were down to the final four: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Moldova and Romania.

The Balkans refers to a very large peninsula just a boat ride across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. The region is made up of thirteen individual countries, although it wasn't always that way since most of those countries formed what was Yugoslavia up until 1989-92. Here is a short recap from Michael

From 1945 - 1991 six of the Balkan countries were united as one country called Yugoslavia under the leadership of Josip Tito. They were: Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Now they are all independent countries plus, Serbia was forced to give-up the southern part of their country to create a new country called Kosovo, which is recognized by 108 countries but not by Serbia.

All this is either confusing or fascinating. I don't think you will be surprised to learn that Michael finds it all very much in the fascinating column and I can tell you that after visiting every single one of these countries, I too have been caught up in the inner-workings of these brand new nations and how each of them has chosen to govern and present themselves on the world stage. And I also became a bit protective of them since Russia is just a stone's throw away and seems to feel a recent need to grab back some lost territory.

This truly is a sentiment amongst people who can remember being under Soviet rule.
Before embarking on this latest tour we had to get to Macedonia from Brussels where we'd spent a couple of weeks waiting for our Russian visas to arrive. Michael used his trusty Skyscanner app and found affordable flights through Cologne, Germany so we pulled over for a two night "pit stop". What a fine city.

Just when I thought we'd seen all the churches we'll ever need to see. Along came the Catherdral in Cologne.
Just one of the details in the entry way to this breathtaking cathedral.
We stayed in the center of the old town which was also a shopping mecca filled with very cool, independent boutiques. We squeezed in a walking tour and a visit to their world famous (and rightly so) cathedral. But most importantly, we found an American sports bar called Champs where we were able to catch the final two rounds of The British Open from St. Andrews in Scotland. Our Airbnb was very nice as well: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/6548097

From Cologne we flew on Wizz Air to Skopje, Macedonia to start our "Balkan Blaze." We are on a fast pace staying just four days in each of the four countries! Here's the first of two installments on our travels. First up Macedonia and Bulgaria.

Alexander the great's connection to Skopje is tenious - but he and his kin make great statues
Skopje, Macedonia: This city was just plain crazy. I am not sure I can wordsmith how strange it was. Michael describes it as a mash-up of Disneyland, Las Vegas (especially Caesar's Palace), a Hollywood movie set and Pyongyang, North Korea. All I can say is I've never seen so many statues, monuments, and neo-classic columns jammed into one square mile. Apparently most of them weren't there five years ago! And many buildings in the city center that were there are getting facade face lifts to match the "movie set".

A collection of bronze communists depicting a typical day at the office.
One of thirty statues spanning the "Bridge of Artists".
I am going to let England's well respected newspaper The Guardian tell the story - it's worth reading: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2015/apr/11/skopje-macedonia-architecture-2014-project-building We talked to a few locals about their strange cityscape and they shrugged, rolled their eyes and blamed it, as always on corrupt politicians, and the mayor in particular - a man who seems to put far greater value on reinventing Skopje's history as he sees it over addressing the needs of his citizens. He would not be the only megalomaniac we'd come across in this region.

We found what looked like a great free walking tour online, so to warm up we walked a mile to the meeting point. We waited under a blazing sun until well after the start time along with a few other would be walkers, but the guide never showed. Frustrated, we went across the street to the tourism office and asked the person behind the desk to call the number on the website. Eventually he found the guide (fresh out of the shower) who said "he just wasn't feeling it lately." What? The least he could do was take down his website! Good news, we found another tour the following day with a more than willing guide (maybe even over zealous) who took us on a four hour march in 90 degree heat, but helped tell the tale behind this enigmatic place. Luckily the statues were so huge you could find a little shade and if you stood in just the right place you caught some spray from the fountains. We had a fine lunch in the old town - grilled Kebabs,  beans baked in a casserole and a fresh cabbage salad, all washed down with a frosty local beer. 

Our guide pointing out another massive statue. This on sits in front of the 1950's Parliament building.
A delicious lunch of grilled kebab and bubbling casseroles filled with smoky beans.
Our Airbnb was about a half hour walk from the city center in an area that had not yet benefited from "State Beautification", but by the time we stumbled up the dark stairwell all we wanted was to be off our feet and down a cold beverage from the fridge. The fridge wasn't in the kitchen itself, but sat outside the apartment on the porch. The apartment was a bit of a time warp - we met our young host who grew up in this flat with his sister and their parents, who also lived here with their parents, etc. Not much in the way of upgrades, but comfortable. Here's the link: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/717852

We took a break from the oppressive heat and spent the next day on the water in nearby Marta Canyon. The main activity on offer was an hour-long boat ride to the top of the lake to visit a cave. So as the saying goes, at least in Alexander the Greats Skopje "When almost in Rome do as the Romans do". We hopped on one of several rickety tour boats (life jackets optional) and pushed off.

A straight forward message in a beautiful park, but this sign could work in many place.
Note: there are often times we've come across a situation and say "that would never happen in America!" - and most of those times human safety is involved. Like the time we saw a man welding with no eye or hand protection, and a lit cigarette nearby, and certainly no steel-toed boots or hard hats for the macho men on construction sites in most places we've been lately. We've lept over potholes that could swallow a dog whole, raced across intersections that showed no regard for pedestrians, resisted the urge to snatch babies from the laps of mothers riding in the front seat of cars, eaten food that as near as we could tell had never met a single health standard, and, even with all that knowledge, decided to take a boat cruise to a cave.

This could have been the last picture you ever saw of the Campbells alive.
Off we go to the Cave of Potential Death.
After a picturesque run up the lake we pulled up against a creaking dock with a tangle of stairs that led to the "trail head" to the cave. Getting out of the boat and onto the dock was the first life threatening experience. The second was climbing the steep path to the cave on uneven stone steps and narrow switch-back trails with just the occasional hand rail. The third opportunity to never be heard from again was on the decent into the dark, deep, wet, bat-infested cave itself. Again, no handrails, slippery stones and meager light from single bulbs relying on a groaning generator. If that beast had given out for any reason ... well you can guess the rest. Now I know why we have never taken to Spelunking. Although the stalactites and stalagmites were interesting - even more interesting was the man teaching his children how to remember the difference - "tits" hang down. Stalactites! Get it?" Happy to emerge in daylight, we practically scampered down the trail feeling lucky to be alive. 

Our ride to Sofia. Nice be be back on a comfortable bus.
Sofia, Bulgaria: After our time in Skopje,  we took a 5 hour bus ride to Sofia. It wasn't bad - there was plenty of leg room and interesting scenery, and as always we were both deep in our books. Our Bulgarian host met us at the station and drove us to our newest home. The front door wasn't much to look at, but that was becoming more and more the case in this part of the world.

The apartment itself was really very nice and the location was great: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/4543540  I was happy to see a big screen TV with tons of English speaking channels - including The Food Network! I was so excited, and it seemed like ages since we'd just plopped on a couch and channel-surfed. There wasn't a button on the remote that listed the stations, so I started flipping through the channels: Eurosport, check. BBC, check. Sky, Fox, E! and CNN, check. This was getting good! Then, just after I whipped past the Disney Channel, National Geographic and Nickelodeon, I landed on a string of stations serving up eye-popping, hard core porn! Luckily we didn't have any grandchildren with us because this stuff was one-click of the remote away from Sponge Bob Square Pants (a kinky show in it's own right). Luckily I had been jotting down the channel numbers of stations we wanted to watch - and anything else became optional.
I came across Seinfeld reruns and so much more...
It was hot so we were happy the free walking tour started at 6:00 pm that evening just a few blocks away. There is a lot of ancient history in this country - we came across many excavations of Roman ruins and Byzantine churches alongside muscular communist structures that overtook the city after World War II. I would say that Sofia is a bit of a snore - unless you are trying to sleep. It turned out our bedroom window faced a busy road with late night drag racing and early morning (as in 5:30 am) daily garbage collection.

There were many of these knee-level kiosks in Sofia. You just sort of squatted down and bought what you needed.
In most cases it was beer and cigarettes.
Bleary eyed, the next morning we split up and  I took a Bulgarian Cultural Walking Tour and Michael took the Communist Walking Tour, it being his 3rd such tour in the former Soviet Union countries we've visited. I'm sure he could teach a class when we get back.

The architecture in Sofia was a mix of stunning buildings like this next to concrete postwar monoliths.
Ancient ruins dotted the city and were open for exploration.
Having time with a local connection beyond chatting with our host or tour guides is always a treat. We were able to spend an afternoon with a friend of friends while we were in Sofia - Ivo. He met us for a long lunch followed by ice cream desert at a 2nd restaurant - he was welcoming and gave us insights on living in Sofia. He was optimistic about the future for his generation, but echoed what we heard from others that the older generation, including his parents, remembered better days under Soviet rule. More stability. Less stress. More certainty about their future.

Our new friend of friends,  Ivo - we spent a great afternoon together.
Time for us to head to Bucharest. Not Budapest. Apparently the confusion between the two is one of the leading geographical mistakes on record - we'll triple check our tickets.

See you there for Blazing Through the Balkans II in Romania and Moldova, and thanks again for following along.

Debbie and Michael,
The Senior Nomads

P.S. During this period of travel we sold our house in Seattle. We are truly nomads now!

The Senior Nomads


  1. In 2009, I went to Skopje, Macedonia, and I was only amazed by the fantastic food we got to experience. And we also had a day trip to Ohrid, the most beautiful deep lake I've ever seen. But when we went to the airport to fly home, our airline had gone belly up overnight. We ended up getting a flight to Geneva before heading home. I loved many things about Macedonia, but it sure is an... experience! :-)

  2. When I think about the Europe I'd like to experience, I'm always drawn more west and south (particularly France, Austria, Italy, Spain). Typical. But hmmm...I'm glad to read such posts about these other special places...And glad overall to have discovered this blog recently. Your openness about what it takes to make this lifestyle work for you - it shows that there's nothing simple about it. It's a hustle. But the returns seem incredible. I also like the way you often try to look at the upside of the few funkier situations you encounter. Lends a nice tone to the blog. And congrats on selling the house! Shows how "home" can be experienced in many different ways. That said, I hope you do take up in Italy one day :)

    1. Thank you Dar! I am running behind because of a harried 'final run' on travel and a family reunion, but am about to embark on our feelings about Russia and beyond. Readers like you keep me going. Deb

  3. Great post. I'll be curious to read how re-entry works for you nomads and how and where you'll live. I second Italy as a choice.

  4. I am laughing so hard right now at my desk in my classroom!! The cave adventure was so funny. Haha, not to you of course!! :) You both need to write a book about your adventures...!!!!