I embarked on a journey this past August that would take me through a diverse set of nations, cultures, and landscapes in Europe. The heart of this trip was a segment in Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro. Holland and Hungary were other destinations along the way. It had been over a decade since I’d been in Europe, and this was the first time I’ve traveled there as an adult with a fuller appreciation of the places I’d be visiting.
I read Mark Mazower’s The Balkans: A Short Historyto expand my admittedly lean understanding about the history of the region outside of the role it played in instigating World War I, as well as the more recent Yugoslav Wars. One of the first points Mazower makes is to debunk the commonly held misconception that the Balkans are somehow especially prone to conflict for one reason or another. This caution led me to reflect on the history of conflict across Europe and not just the Balkans. I’ll elaborate below with an account of each stop on my trip. Given where I traveled, I found the trip especially poignant as it fell one year short of the centennial of the end of World War I. How conflict unfolded and how the people recovered afterwards in all of these areas are as relevant and instructive as ever, perhaps especially so in light of concerning trends as of late.
It’s hard to imagine while strolling along the harborside esplanade in Volendam, the placid polders adorned with windmills in Zaanse Schans, or the boisterous canals in Amsterdam that Holland has been through more than its fair share of destructive conflicts over the course of the last 500 years. Indeed, the Dutch Republic was born of the Eighty Years War during which the Dutch wrested independence from their Hapsburg rulers. The conflict took a horrible toll, but in the end, not only did the Dutch gain their independence, they also launched headlong into a golden age that has left a legacy across the globe. This includes my home in Flushing, which takes its name from the town of Vlissingen in the Scheldt estuary.
The marks of earliest conflicts in Dutch history are still visible today. The Eighty Years War broke out in part due to the religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the wake of the Reformation (the 500th anniversary of this just passed). In Utrecht, on a casual night out, my gracious hosts took me to a bar in a building that once housed an underground Catholic church. The facade of the building is understandably undifferentiated from the surrounding buildings, but on the inside, the ceilings are massive. Adornments typically found in a Catholic church occupy the inside, including an organ. Many are unaware of Utrecht’s history as a Catholic stronghold in Holland even well after the Reformation. There is even a historic papal residence in town. Utrecht’s strategic importance as a nexus of trade routes sitting astride a now defunct channel of the Lower Rhine ensured that it would be fought over. Catholics were surrounded on all sides by Protestants and faced such persecution that they felt the need to clandestinely convene away from their neighbors. The Dom Cathedral in the heart of the city was burned and vandalized. The desecrated statuary and other relics are preserved for visitors and natives alike as a silent memorial to this unfortunate chapter.
A defaced relief sculpture inside Dom Cathedral in Utrecht
Anne Frank House in Amsterdam stands as a stark reminder of the horrendous cost conflict fueled by religious hatred. And yet Holland at this point looks no worse for the wear having survived two world wars. It’s a thriving place where the investments the Dutch people have made in building up their infrastructure and institutions put many others nations to shame. This is in no small part due to effects of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after the cataclysm of World War II, in stark contrast to Bosnia which I’ll address later.
Religious conflict continues to afflict northern and western Europe today. This time it’s a renewal of the longstanding tension between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. Extremist groups like ISIS have conducted a wave of terrorist attacks across France, Belgium, and England. Geert Wilders, the firebrand Dutch politician, offers among the most vociferous and impassioned resistance to extending an open hand to immigrants and Muslims in response. He is not alone in this sentiment, as the next destination I visited is also seeing a rise in nationalism in the face of a wave of immigration from Muslim nations.
Budapest was a true delight to visit, and its impressive panoply of architectural styles captures in stone the city and nation’s long and diverse history. Gleaming new glass and steel constructions, Soviet apartment blocks and metro stations, the iconic Hungarian Parliament, Turkish bathhouses, medieval palaces and churches, and Roman ruins each bear witness to a distinct era. Throughout all of these periods, this crossroads of Europe has been the scene of sweeping changes and has seen wave after wave of invasions.
At the ruins of the Roman city of Aquincum, one can picture what life was like on the very edges of the empire. The threat of invasion from any number of barbarian tribes was ever-present. The high cost in blood and treasure incurred by securing this long Danubian frontier was among the factors that eventually led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. The vacuum of power left by a retreating Byzantine Empire set the stage for Árpád and the first Hungarians to invade and settle the fertile plain created carved out by the Danube and TiszaRiver.
Ruins of a Roman bath at Aquincum, just north of the Buda side of Budapest on the west bank of the Danube
The Hungarians established a burgeoning kingdom that lasted for several centuries before they themselves were taken over by the Ottoman Empire, a force that will figure prominently in the rest of this essay. Traditional Turkish style bathhouses the Ottomans built in Budapest stand as the most visible testament to their legacy, since mosques were largely destroyed after Christians reconquered the area. It is remarkable to think that I could have soaked in the very same baths that pashas, sultans, and their entourages would have visited 600 years ago.
For the Ottomans, Budapest was a convenient staging point for their ultimate goal: the conquest of Vienna. This was a goal that would occupy The Porte for centuries. The thrust on Vienna was also the galvanizing moment for Christian Europe to organize a united defense against the Islamic armies of the East. Austria gained territory as it pushed the Ottomans back, and it became the next sovereign over Hungary. The restlessness of the Hungarians in wanting to throw off the Austrian yoke would force the Austrians to negotiate the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, establishing the Dual Monarchy with Hungary as a co-equal in the newly established Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The half century following the Compromise would see the ascendancy of the Dual Monarchy and elevate it to Great Power status. The famed Szechenyi lanchid, and Metro Line 1, the first subway in Continental Europe would be built in Budapest during this time. Culture also thrived, Franz Liszt being among one of the exemplars of this period. It was multi-ethnic state in every sense of the word, but in the end the experiment in multiculturalism would come to a catastrophic end, embroiling the entire continent in a war like none before it.
The economic dislocation brought on by the collapse of the Dual Monarchy has consequences that still endure. A much weakened Central Europe would later be no match for Germany and the Soviets after that. Europe has done what it can to re-integrate the continent with the institutions of the European Union, but the same tensions that pulled apart the Dual Monarchy a century ago persist. Viktor Orban’s administration has taken a hard-line stance on issues of immigration, just as Geert Wilders advocates in Holland.
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA
If there’s one itinerary item that highlights the rapidity, brutality, and ever-present threat of conflict, while also showcasing the ability of a people to recover from such conflict, it’s Bosnia & Herzegovina. This crossroads of the Balkans was a centerpiece of Ottoman Europe, and was the heart of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Over centuries, trade interests and invasions brought a mix of Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims to settle in the area. The capital, Sarajevo, retains the physical legacy of these heterogeneous origins. Ottoman era mosques dot the skyline. The main landmark is a square around the Catholic Cathedral of St. Mark. This diversity of religion has been at times a auspicious blessing for Bosnia. Other times, disaster can and has unfolded when there’s been a confluence of the currents of ethnic and religious tension.
The old and the new share space in Sarajevo’s skyline
One point Mazower drives home in his history of the region is that these ethnonationalist identities were almost non-existent prior to the late 19th century — they arose in part due to the intervention of Great Powers who sought to sow unrest in Ottoman Europe so as to resolve the “Eastern Question”. Even religious identities were fluid during the Ottoman Era as people often found conversion to and away from Islam could be expedient at different times. Mazower recounts that some people would go to mosque on Fridays and attend Orthodox mass on Saturdays. If the imam failed to remove a hex on you, you might go and see the patriarch. Ottoman rule, though clearly flawed and unfair, was at least stable up until the advent of ethnonationalist movements.
The resolution of the Eastern Question cost the Great Powers a world war. It brought about the demise of Dual Monarchy and the Romanov Dynasty, destroyed by the very forces of nationalism they had seeded in Ottoman Europe. The interwar period didn’t bring much relief as economic woes spread. The economic gap between former Ottoman Europe and the rest of the continent was wide, and it could not be closed easily. World War II brought a fresh set of horrors, occupation by yet another in a line of aggressors, but it did spark a successful partisan movement led by the charismatic Tito that would set the stage for a unified Southern Slav state after the war.
The infamous Latin Bridge on the Miljacka River that runs through the old city (Stari Grad) area of Sarajevo. This was the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip that sparked World War I
By some of the accounts of the people we met traveling, Tito’s rule was not only stable, it was also fair and led to prosperous growth in Yugoslavia. But it didn’t last. Brotherhood and Unity began to unravel almost as quickly as Tito was put to rest in 1980. What transpired next was a descent towards internecine and religious conflict. We were led by a tour guide named Meme (short for Memović) on a journey back to the brutal Siege of Sarajevo during which he was born.
Meme noted that even in the 1980s one could see the bonds of unity that Tito had carefully cultivated fraying. Yugoslavian flags and anthems were replaced by those of the constituent republics even before any formal move towards dissolution of the union took place. This process began as Slovenia, then Croatia declared independence and were welcomed by the international community in the early 1990s. Bosnia & Herzegovina was not so lucky.
Meme took us up to the hilltops overlooking Sarajevo and recounted to us the background and setup for the Siege of Sarajevo. This siege lasted 1,425 days (3 years and 5 months), the longest ever in modern warfare, longer than the infamous Siege of Leningrad in World War II. Bosnia’s diverse makeup of Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks, held as a shining example of Brotherhood and Unity, now became the trigger for regional conflict. Yugoslav forces composed primarily of Serbs and Bosnian Serb forces undertook any means necessary to turn back the renewed tides of ethnonationalism that threatened to break apart Yugoslavia. Croats at times fought with and against Bosniaks as they tried to secure their own future as independent entities. The scars of the savage fighting between these sides are still plainly evident in the holes on buildings created by bullets and mortars.
Sarajevo Roses — the blast marks from mortar rounds hitting concrete
The Sarajevo Rose and the ever watchful white tombstones that dotted the hillsides surrounding the city were ample reminders of the war, which is why there are few actual war memorials as Meme pointed out. Divisions still remain. Meme alluded that the potential for renewed conflict was real, especially if the economy continued to stagnate. On our ride up to Trebević Mountain, we passed into territory administered by the Republika Srpska, an autonomous region governed by Bosnian Serbs. Immediately, you could see Serbian flags flying. It was from the abandoned bobsled track that Serbian forces launched mortars down on the city, and from the side of Trebević Mountain, their troops took hold of the skyscrapers overlooking what would become known as Sniper Alley.
At Trebević Mountain, you can see the themes of renewal and rebirth, too. The entire bobsled track is functionally an outdoor gallery of street art and there are people who do actually use it for luge. The city and its people stand as a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit even in the face of overwhelming odds and prolonged suffering. Stari Grad is rebuilt. Wandering around the streets at night, you could be forgiven for forgetting a war happened here only 20 years ago. We were there during the bustling film festival, and throngs of tourists eagerly soaked up the atmosphere of the renewed city. But unlike Western Europe after World War II, the nations of the former Yugoslavia didn’t have the benefit a Marshall Plan recovery program and fund, and sadly, the differences are stark in comparison to Holland.
CROATIA & MONTENEGRO
Resiliency in the face of conflict when combined with adequate resources in recovery and renewal can work wonders — Dubrovnik in Croatia is a sterling example of this and provides a more proximate contrast to Bosnia. Though Croatia was far from being immune to the impacts of the war, it fared better than Bosnia, partly because it served as the entry point for aid UN ad deliveries. Today, the streets of former Ragusan Republic are teeming with hordes of tourists. You can hardly tell the city was shelled extensively from nearby Montenegro during the Yugoslav Wars. The superficial damage has largely been repaired. Indeed, looking out from its daunting defensive walls over its rooftops, you can see some of the only signs of this conflict in the bright orange tiles of restored roofs compared to the aged brown tiles of older roofs that stood through the war. Bullet holes are there, if you look closely, but not nearly as noticeable as in Sarajevo.
Dubrovnik from atop its famed city wall
Perhaps Dubrovnik’s quick ascendancy can be in part attributed to its historical legacy as a powerful, independent city-state with a prowess for trade. At its apex, Ragusa vied with Venice for control of lucrative Mediterranean trade routes along the network fostered by the Ottoman Empire that eventually connected with the Far East. Circumventing this monopoly was in part a trigger for the Portuguese to seek a new route towards India and China around Africa. Ragusa’s imposing defenses were built with the riches from this trade, in order to protect this very lifeline. To this day, the old harbor of the city continues to be a place teeming with activity. But even this prosperous place was quite literally built on foundations of parleyed conflict. It is said that the Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik, was once a channel that separated one part of the city as an island. Greeks and Romans inhabited this island while the “barbarians” were kept at arms length on the mainland.
The Stradun at night
From Dubrovnik, we journeyed onward across a short, but painfully time-consuming border crossing into the picturesque environs of the Bays of Kotor. This ria (not a fjord) has also been a point of contention between multiple parties over history. The bay itself provides a sheltered, deep water harbor, so it’s no wonder that it has attracted the eye of empire builders from the Ottomans to Austrians to the Russians. This has kept up even to this day. Montenegro only recently left the orbit of its traditional protector, Russia, in favor of joining the EU despite of heavy investment from Russia. Opinion on this decision remains divided.
In light of all this, the Montenegrin national identity has developed a strand of fierce independence, dogged resistance to external aggressors, and defiance in the face of overwhelming odds. We saw abandoned as well as extant villages and farms deep in the remote mountainous terrain of the rural areas of the country. Whenever the Ottomans or whatever other imperial power with designs on Montenegro invaded and captured its urban centers, its people would simply retreat into the relative safety of the isolated mountains. Such a scene is visible just on the other side of the commanding heights of the fortress of Kotor.
It was fitting one of the last sights I saw in this trip was the mausoleum of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš. Njegoš was known not only for his leadership skills but for his contributions to the canon of Serbian literature. His seminal work, an epic poem entitled Gorski vijenac (The Mountain Wreath) tells the largely apocryphal tale of a tortuous decision Christian Montenegrins of old make regarding what to do with their Muslim family, friends, and fellow countrymen. An ultimatum is handed down to the Muslims to convert back to Christianity on a certain Christmas Eve or face the consequences. Those who refuse meet a predictably fiery end. This work is considered seminal to both Serbian and Montenegrin culture, and yet is so controversial that it is sometimes not taught in an ethnically and religiously mixed setting like Bosnia. This, I think, speaks volumes about the scars that many centuries of conflict have left in this region.
Mausoleum of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, constructed during the Yugoslav era
As Mazower cautions, it’s all too easy to buy into the tropes presented to us about the Balkans having some propensity towards bloodshed, a place where divisive nationalism is as much a part of the landscape as the dramatic mountains and coastlines. Indeed, the Balkans are hardly alone in inheriting this kind of legacy, as I’ve alluded to throughout this piece, and there are crucial lessons for us all of the various histories and geographies detailed above. From what I saw, signs of historical and contemporary conflict are everywhere. While we were ambling along the alleys and plazas of Dubrovnik, we were also getting news about the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and its violent aftermath. Meme’s caution that “when ethnicity becomes more important than nationality” you’re in serious trouble seemed particularly apropos at this time.
Many of the same threads of risk factors for serious internal, internecine conflict that I saw along my journey are present in the United States today. Political ideology is becoming identity: the new tribe. Underlying racial, religious, and cultural differences are increasingly in sharper relief. Economic dislocation and inequality allows some to genuinely not understand how others are struggling or only just making it. We’ve been waiting for political saviors of our chosen tribe to fix our problems the way we want them fixed, while refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of other people’s grievances. We demand instant solutions for problems that have slowly accrued over generations. These trends are not new to the Trump era. They have simmered for decades. In many ways, these are echoes of the traumas of our own prior internal conflicts that we’ve never truly recovered from.
Violent conflict arises when people refuse compromise and only choose to see irreconcilable differences, eventually dehumanizing those they have no common cause with. But conflict, internal or external, is not inevitable. How we as individuals, communities, societies, and nations cope with a bewilderingly diverse world in which integration is accelerating at the expense of established identities will be decisive. This will be complicated by real physical constraints from continued growth and climate change. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented, and indeed can seem paralyzing.
When I ask myself what I can do, I think the only practical answer is to start from a foundation of sound knowledge of myself, genuinely understand and embrace the diversity around me (especially the views of people who I don’t agree with), draw on these lessons from history as a guide, and commit to serving the greater good, organizing with others to enhance my impact. I’m betting I’m not alone.
The last time I was here was when I was 9 years old, but all I can remember from the dregs of my childhood memories is an image of the Marriott Hotel across the riverbank. That’s it. And there’s also an entry I wrote in my first diary.
And yet, all I can think about after tonight is the burning desire to return here on an official monsoon with a group of like-minded weekend warriors — this city has everything you need for a perfect and affordable 2-3 day getaway.
The remaining monsooners headed out in the morning for Tirana International Airport, where despite its spartan layout, had a pretty decent business class lounge — although there was little to no wifi access here.
Freak thunderstorms delayed our flight from Tirana by an hour, and coupled with an extremely tardy airport pickup we didn’t end up starting our exploration of Budapest until 9pm at night.
If you want to do this twilight walking tour right, start at the top at Heroes’ Square. Part UNESCO World Heritage site, this square features statues of the 7 tribal leaders who founded Hungary.
Head south from here along Andrassy ul and pass by House of Terror, a museum about life under Nazi and Soviet occupation in Hungary. In front is another piece of the Berlin Wall.
The Hungarian State Opera House is about 5-6 blocks further south along the same street.
The impressive Saint Stephen’s Basilica, is another 3min walk southwest:
Saint Stephen just got served
From here, walk along the lively souful streets of Muzeum krt. for a glimpse into what a Tuesday night (or every summer night for that matter) can look like:
Take a slight detour along Dohany Street for Dohány Street Synagogue, a moorish style synagogue that houses a cemetery, Holocaust memorial and museum inside.
Return onto Muzeum krt and stay on it to get to massive Central Market Hall — a 19th century market hall still in use — as you approach the Danube River (where we were also at only 3 weeks earlier at Belgrade!).
The nightlife continues as you cross Szabadsag Bridge to the west side of the city. Tons of teenagers were on the scaffolding, playing music and drinking the night away.
If you’re feeling up to it, start the 20 min climb up the 235m high plateau of Citadella, which remains open to explore in the middle of the night.
On your way up, don’t miss Gellért Hill Cave, a grotto church that also formerly served as a monastery and a WW2 field hospital.
Don’t miss the views either:
Once you’ve reached the top at Liberty Statue, recharge with the restaurants, shops, and cafés that stay open for the insomniacs.
Citadella just got served
Head back down the other side back to the bank of the Danube River for views of 19th century Széchenyi Chain Bridge.
While by the Budapest Castle Hill Funicular, you can either take the funicular, continue climbing up by foot, or just say screw it and hire a cab to take care of the rest.
For art lovers, the Hungarian art collection reside in the stately venue of Buda Castle:
And then a little to the north, the next place to get a sweet view of the city is Fisherman’s Bastion, a 19th-century fortress featuring 7 turreted lookout towers that deliver panoramic views of the city. There’s also a sweet café here.
Right by the fortress is 14th century Matthias Church.
Afterwards, head back down to sea level and head back across to the other side of the river to check out the immense Gothic-style Hungarian Parliament Building:
A few meters south facing the water is the poignant Shoes on the Danube Bank sculpture piece commemorating those 3,500 vitctims — 800 of them Jews — who were killed at the river by the fascist Arrow Cross party during WWII.
Further south is the playful Little Princess Statue, the first to be erected after Hungary’s regime change.
And that’s it! All of this took about 4 hours to see everything, which can also be done by taxi for about 9,000 forints. Celebrate with a pint and shisha at legendary nightclub/pub/café/bar/lounge hybrid Szimpla Kert.
I’m pooped — tomorrow morning, I return home. Another monsoon in the books!
EDIT: So after sitting through an unexplained 6+ hour delay at Budapest airport with EasyJet (NEVER AGAIN!) that would cause me to miss my Norwegian Air Shuttle Paris-NYC flight home, my only option to make it back in time for work tomorrow morning was to purchase a separate flight home that would be leaving within the hour.
Initially I tried to use miles on multiple carriers, but that failed multiple times: American Airlines couldn’t get me this British Airways flight back to NYC because they needed at least 2 hours to make it work (that flight was leaving within the hour). I then called Chase Bank to immediately transfer an emergency 70,000 Ultimate Reward miles to United Airlines so I could snag a SWISS Airlines flight, but that itinerary frustratingly disappeared as soon as I tried booking it online (only to be confirmed when I tried booking it again with United by phone).
So I bit the bullet and purchased a last minute $1600 USD Lufthansa flight from Budapest – Munich – NYC 45 minutes before it departed. It was either that or miss work, which I’ve never done, and I was not about to ruin a perfect record during residency.
Then while in Munich, we were delayed another 2 hours on the tarmac because of “coolant malfunctioning”, causing the cabin to heat up to 80F inside. When I thought things couldn’t get any more unlucky for today’s bouts of flying, the plane got fixed and we flew out to NYC.
Two good things are that my last minute seats got me an aisle seat with tons of legroom and Lufthansa’s onboard WiFi is surprisingly fast and reliable for an airplane.
Anyways, this marks the most I ever paid for a single flight, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
- At time of posting in Budapest, Hungary, it was 17 °C -
Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 2km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear, perfect
On the right bank of the river Osum lies Berat, Albania’s Town Of A Thousand Windows, where we as a group this morning collectively decided to visit as a daytrip from Tirana.
But instead of trying to find and take the morning public bus for 400 leks, we instead rented 2 cars for 45 euros per car from the local Enterprise branch for the 3 hour drive. Alfred and Andy were the stalwart drivers to lead us there.
The registration and rental process was pretty painless, as USA driver’s licenses were accepted and there is no minimum age requirement. We managed to get our cars within 20 minutes and went on our way dodging through Tirana’s gnarly Monday morning traffic . . .
After about an hour of driving we passed through the overcrowded coastal town of Durres, Albania’s former temporary capital.
About 2 hours in the drive we began to hear sputtering from the back. Pulling over on the highway we then saw that a giant random nail had popped our back left tire. We tried continuing onwards to the closest the gas station but then after 10 minutes we felt like we were almost driving at the rim!
Without a spare tire in the trunk (the Fiat is too small!), we initially considered having our other car to ferry us back to a gas station rather than risking losing the tire entirely. However, we managed to figure out how to use the pump that was provided by Enterprise in the trunk, temporize the leak, and limped over to the nearest town of Lushnje where luckily the first thing we saw was a tire shop.
Photo Credit: Taylan Stulting
They repaired our tire with a patch within 10 minutes, and charged us only 200 leks ($2 USD!) for the deed.
We then resumed course, arriving in Berat at around 2:30pm and having lunch at Ajka for the best views of the old town.
After lunch we tried driving up to Berat Castle at the top, but our Fiat struggled to catch on the slippery cobblestone path; Alfred said he felt the car slipping downhill. So we backtracked and walked up the hill instead, taking us 15 minutes to reach Berat Castle (now imagine doing this in Flip Flops like I did — I don’t recommend it!).
It costs 100 leks to enter, although if you take the zig zag path on your left up the hill through the woods, you can sneak in for free.
Once in the castle, you’re in the Kalasa neighborhood of Berat, which still has people living within. Once you pay the admission fee, the whole place is yours to wander and climb to your heart’s content.
Just be careful though, there’s no railings anywhere so if you fall, that’s on you.
Go inside further to explore the still active residential town embedded within the castle walls.
Upon on another hill within the castle is an elevated inner citadel with a 13th century Byzantine church enjoying its views of Berat below.
Inside the upper citadel are the ruins of an ancient water cistern that can double as an adult jungle gym.
Albania just got served. Photo Credit: Andy Chen
We then headed back down from here to get even better views of Berat.
Afterwards we walked down to Old Town which has its own alleyways, nooks, and crannies to explore. Chances are you’ll wander into someone’s backyard, but that’s expected.
At around 6pm we began our 3 hour journey home, enjoying an Albanian sunset along the way.
And yet to continue adding to the car drama, the clutch suddenly stopped catching gears on our way back; we felt the car suddenly stopped accelerating at 70kmph despite flooring the pedal to the metal, as if the power just went out. . . a sucky thing to happen when you’re trying to get back in time as it’s getting dark in a completely foreign country. But we ended up surviving the ordeal, limping back to Tirana at a snail’s pace by 8:30pm for dinner.
“Fiat, never again” – Mihaela.
Tonight the group says farewell with a final dinner at Artigiano as we all part ways tomorrow on our return flights home!
I, however, head onwards on a layover in Budapest and Paris before returning home in 2 days.
kenopsia n. the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet—a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds—an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs.
Albania continues to linger in the collective consciousness among travelers who pursue lesser-traveled destinations.
Following the end of World War II, Albania was established as a hermit, isolated, Communist government led by resistance leader Enver Hoxha. After breaking with the Soviet Union, Hoxha chose to take after Maoism instead as well isolating his nation not only from the free market democracies of Western Europe and the United States, but also from the Soviet Union, China, and even Tito’s neighboring Yugoslavia that formed the rest of The Balkans.
Although Hoxha rebuilt post-WW2 Albania, constructed its first national railway, eliminated illiteracy, and advanced women’s rights, he was also known for his oppressive and ubiquitous secret police, who sent 25,000 Albanians to their deaths with forced labor camps, extrajudicial killings and executions. It was not until after his death in 1985 that the first foreigner was allowed to step foot in Tirana for the first time in 1988.
Everyone that you see walking these streets of Tirana is more a less a survivor.
So with Albania’s resurgence into economic freedom, commitment to democracy, and its recent invitation to join NATO in 2010, you would expect here a flurry of newfound confidence, rebirth, and progress here that would usually accompany a city eager to forget its dark, isolated past. However, the city of Tirana remains anything but, permeating with a odd feeling of recent abandonment and residual scars of times past. It reminded me a lot of how I felt when I explored Minsk, Belarus 2 years ago.
After an uneventful night in Ohrid, the group slept for a few hours, getting up at 6:30am just in time to catch the tail end of the Mayweather-McGregor match. We then took 3 cabs at 7am to the Bus Station.
Instead of attempting the public Ohrid-Struga-Tirana route that everyone knows about, we opted instead yesterday to have our hostel in Ohrid prebook and reserve Delfina Tours’ direct 7:30am bus from Ohrid to Tirana for 50 denars/person. We would pay the full 800 denars/person bus fare to the driver when we boarded.
We crossed the border rather quickly at around 8:15am, with the bus driver collecting your passports for the border guards to stamp in and out.
We arrived into Tirana by 10:30am, with the driver asking where you wanted to be dropped off.
. . . That’s right, as of this posting in 2017 there still does not exist an actual official, permanent, bus station within the capital city of Albania. Given that our Tirana hostel was right next to a well-known eyesore/landmark, Pyramid Of Tirana, we chose to be let off here:
Once dropping off our bags and checking in at Cosy Hostel, we had lunch at charming and highly recommended next-door Kafe Librari E, a hybrid café/restaurant/bookstore.
We then started our walking tour by first crossing Lana River north to get to Tanners’ Bridge, an 18th-century Ottoman stone footbridge named after the nearby Tanners’ Mosque.
From there we snaked up George Bush Street through Toptani Shopping Mall. . .
. . . past The Plaza apartment complex . . .
. . . and exited out onto the 30m high Clock Tower, which you can climb up. . .
. . . and 18th century Et’hem Bej Mosque, which is free to enter.
Right by the mosque is the immense Skënderbej Square — Tirana’s equivalent to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square — which was closed to all outsiders until 1988.
Northwest of the square is The National History Museum, most notable for its large mural mosaic titled The Albanians that depicts storied ancient to modern figures throughout Albania’s history.
Heading south from here down Ihrahim Rugova Street, we took a stop at Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral that was completed in 2012.
Then we strolled down a leafy pedestrian mall . . .
. . . and paid the $4 USD/person entry fee to explore Bunk’Art, a Hoxha bunker converted into an underground museum that depicts life during communist Albania.
If you weren’t aware, during his rule Hoxha’s paranoia led him to force the construction of over 172,000 bunkers in Albania to defend anything that could be defended — graveyards, city streets, beaches, playgrounds, schools — with the belief any Albanian could man these bunkers and defend their country during war. However, not a single one of his monstrosities was used for their intended purposes during his lifetime, leading many to ridicule his decision for draining much of the country’s economy for an totally unnecessary venture.
They make for great, kitschy museums though.
After about 45 minutes here, we swung by funky public art installation, Cloud Pavilion:
We then crossed one of the many wide open streets of Tirana to stroll through interestingly named Taiwan Pool (nobody we asked knows why it’s named after Taiwan).
We then crossed the Lana River again and headed down south 2 blocks to visit Enver Hoxha’s Former Residence.
Perhaps out of irony or out of mockery towards Hoxha that would cause him to turn over in his grave, his former residence is located in Blloku, an upmarket part of Tirana known for casinos, bars, cafés, restaurants, and high-end shopping.
We then turned a corner and walked back east along Rruga Abdyl Fresheri to take a look at Albania’s Congress Hall:
We then turned the corner again and headed back up north along Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit for 1 block to take a peek at Postbllok – Checkpoint, a memorial installation dedicated to the political prisoners who lost their lives during Communist isolationist Albania.
The memorial is composed of one of Hoxha’s enigmatic bunkers, concrete supports from the mine at the notorious Spaç labour camp, and part of The Berlin Wall from Postdamer Platz.
Finally, it’s a diagonal up northeast through the park to reach Pyramid of Tirana, a former museum that was supposed to be dedicated to Hoxha (as it was designed by Hoxha’s daughter). It was then turned into a conference center, a nightclub, a TV station, and now unofficial and heavily dilapidated and vandalized homeless shelter.
Feel free to climb up to the top as long as you have the proper footwear.
Getting down might be the hardest part.
And with that, we concluded our 2 hour walking tour of Tirana’s City Center.
I have to note that the entire time, many of us felt an odd energy pervade throughout the entire city, making it feel like we were wandering through a place that had seen so much transformation and drama, only for it to become a hollow shell of a former potential. Perhaps it was the stifling summer heat keeping everyone indoors or that it was a Sunday, but even the design of the city made walking these streets feel pretty desolate compared to other livelier cities that we had visited in The Balkans.
And yet, our opinions may still change when we head out in a few hours for dinner at Era and drinks at Shisha Room. . . .
- At time of posting in Tirana, Albania, it was 27 °C -
Humidity: 53% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly sunny
Not all fails are permanent. Last night in Skopje Alfred and Ted was kind enough to go back and check if my card was still in the ATM machine, and a passer-by informed them of a safety feature where the ATM automatically eats up the card for safekeeping if it is not withdrawn within 40 seconds of the end of session.
None of us knew about that with ATMs, even though nearly all of us had the same experience of leaving our cards behind while traveling or back home.
So this morning I gave this a shot, waking up early to retrieve my ATM card from the bank it was attached to and … success, the staff was able to open up the machine for me and give me back my card. I only showed them my passport as proof of identity. Huzzah!
On even more of a downer, our body count in these Game of Thrones has risen to 7 with Taylan and Mihaela now getting sick after drinking from a public water fountain earlier yesterday afternoon. They join Alfred, Sidian, Anthony, Maria, Beverly in the infirmary. Who will be next?
After I returned with my ATM card at 11am, we all took quick short cab rides back to the bus station from our hostel to board the 12pm (520 denars each) 3.5 hour bus ride to Ohrid. Bus seats are assigned at purchase, much to our surprise after traveling through the Balkans the past 2 weeks on buses, which led to a game of chess so that we could sit close to one another without getting too close to the sick folk.
This resulted in meeting other friendly American travelers and breaking in an already broken bus seat: aka “this seat won’t lean back” to “yeah OK we just turned it into a flat bed.”
We arrived in Ohrid at 4pm.
Ohrid is one of the oldest human settlements in all of Europe with a 3 million year old lake and a mention by the Greeks in 353 BC, when it was known as Lychnidos (“the city of light”). It then became a significant economic and cultural center during the Byzantine Empire, the site of the first Slavic universities in the 9th century, and briefly the capital of the Bulgarian Empire under the rule of Car Samuil.
Unfortunately in Ohrid, the bus station is quite far away from the old town, so we took cabs to our hostel (Sunny Lake Hostel) and dropped off our stuff.
We then walked up Clement’s Univeristy street which is a steady, easily climb up to where everyone should start their walking tour of Old Town: Upper Gate, built as early as the 3rd century BC.
Curve southeast to visit Holy Mary Perybleptos for the frescoes inside (100 denar entry) and views of the lake.
Return to Upper Gate and then curve south along Ilindenska street to visit the ancient theater, the only remnant of ancient times in Ohrid. The upper part has been removed, but it was likely an arena for gladiator fighting. Entry is free.
Again, return to Upper Gate and this time head directly northwest along Kuzman Kapidian street for a steady climb to Samuil’s Fortress. 30 denars to enter.
You can climb up the fortifications to the very top for these insane views of the lake and city:
From the fortress, we turned right and headed into Old Town Park, walking downhill.
Within the park is the Saint Pantelejmon-Plaoshnik Archaeological Site, arguably the oldest university in Europe when it opened in the 10th century and where the Cyrillic alphabet was created. 100 denars to enter (30 for students).
Head further downhill to the edge of the lake and you’ll reach the Kaneo settlement and Church of St. John the Theologian, where you can get the classic views that define Ohrid.
Don’t forget to pose.
And definitely come here for the sunset. I think we timed this walking tour pretty well.
After sunset we headed down to the beach where we had dinner at Kaneo Restaurant.
We ate an aquarium.
After a leisurely dinner, we decided to amble along the beach at night and its medieval-like boardwalk, which becomes so frustratingly and beautifully atmospheric that it makes you want to linger forever and stay . . . even though you know you have way more of the city to explore.
But alas we must press further, curving up Ilendenska street to reach Saint Sophia Church.
From there, walk along Car Samoil Street to take a look at traditional Ohrid architecture exemplified by the Robev Family House and The House of Urania.
Continue onwards along this path and you’ll reach Lower Gate.
You’re now by the docks, where the city comes alive at night.
Walk to the very edge of the Port of Ohrid to look at Ohrid from the lake:
The lively pedestrian mall of Ohrid is along Boulevard of Macedonian Educators where you can do your obligatory shopping and ice cream/gelato tasting.
At the end of it will be the City Center Roundabout, which officially separates Ohrid’s Old Town from the rest of the city.
And with a job well done of exploring all of Old Town in 5 hours, we headed back to our hostel along the winding alleyways and kicked back with shisha and music on our balcony until 2am.
After a quick stop at Gracanica yesterday, we got our 10 tickets (for 5 euros each) at the Pristina Bus Station for the 2 hour bus ride to Skopje.
We got on a 3pm bus, which reached the Kosovo/Macedonian border at around 4:30pm.
A Kosovo border guard comes onboard to collect your passports, stamp you out and then the process repeats itself with a Macedonian border guard to stamp you in.
We arrived into Skopje Bus Station at 5pm.
After getting our stuff settled in at nearby Shanti Hostel, we decided to take it easy with a wonderful riverside dinner at Kej Restaurant.
Then we sauntered along the Vardar River as night fell, becoming allured and pleasantly surprised at the unfolding magical lights of Skopje.
With speakers on every Victorian style streetlight playing atmospheric orchestral music from Hollywood movies and larger than life statues placed every 5 feet, it felt like we were strolling through a Balkan version of Las Vegas.
Once we reached Stone Bridge — the symbol of the city and built in the 6th century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian —we reached the center of the city.
To the north is Old Bazaar which welcomes you with The Monument to Olimpija, The Mother of Aleksandar Makedonski and Monument to Philip of Macedonia behind it:
If you keep going further into Old Bazaar, you’ll have at your fingertips the city’s unlimited café nightlife on a Wednesday night.
The most happening place were the hookah bars along Jorgandziska, where we chose Café Harem to chill out.
We stayed here until midnight, after which we walked back to Macedonia Square to check out the humongous 26m high Alexander The Great Memorial.
The official name of the statue is Warrior On A Horse so to not piss off the Greeks; Greece still claims Macedonia (and Alexander The Great) as part of their own land, which is why in turn the official name of Macedonia is also FYROM: The Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia.
We were reminded of this a lot when Sidian, who’s Greek, was traveling with us during Week 1. This paragraph’s for you man.
And a short walk away is the Macedonia Gate, resembling the Arc de Triomphe and dedicated to 20 years of Macedonian independence:
And after that, we headed back at 1am to catch a late night viewing of the latest Game of Thrones episode before heading to bed.
The next morning we woke up at around 10am and headed out to explore the city by day, the first stop being the Assembly Of The Republic Of Macedonia:
Nearby is the Memorial House To Mother Teresa, as she was born here in Skopje. It is free to enter.
Upstairs is a humble glass chapel that has views over some new construction in the area.
Behind the memorial house stands a Feudal Tower. Nobody knows why it was built just that it was built a long time ago. Fittingly, or ironically, it was a souvenir shop now turned abandoned building.
After a quick lunch in this area, we then had to say goodbye to Anthony as he had to catch a 3:30pm flight home. We’ll miss ya and your snarkiness!
We then walked along the pedestrian mall further towards Warrior On a House, crossing Stone Bridge, and into Old Bazaar.
Our first stop in Old Bazaar was to see the Church of the Ascension Of Jesus, which costs 120 denars to enter.
Around the corner, we checked out Chifte Hamam, a 15th century hamam that was built by a Bosnian general and is now a modern art gallery.
Next to the hamam is Suli An, a former 15th century caravansarai that has been turned into an Academy of Fine Arts and history museum.
A few paces northwest from Suli An is renovated 15th century Mustafa Pasha’s Mosque.
Then we crossed the street and hiked 5 minutes up the small hill of Skopje Fortress to get city views of Skopje. The city’s museum of contemporary art is also here, although it was closed when we visited.
We then snaked around the north side to Kurshumli An, another 15th century Ottoman caravanserai that was formerly both an inn and a prison.
Finally, we exited Old Bazaar and wandered through a covered market. . .
. . . before crossing the main boulevard on an elevated walkway . . .
. . . to try to check out Sultan Murat Mosque. However, this one was under renovations and we couldn’t go inside. Therefore, we headed back south to the hostel and took a 30 minute cab ride for 500 denars to Matka Lake.
About a 10 minute hike up the road you can either kick back at any of its numerous restaurants or pay a couple hundred denars to kayak down the lake to see some caves.
Photo Credit: Mihaela Kracun
Photo Credit: Mihaela Kracun
Photo Credit: Mihaela Kracun
The kayak ride takes about 30-40 minutes each way.
Photo Credit: Mihaela Kracun
We then haggled return cabs for 450 denars per cab back to Skopje city center, returning by 8pm, where we showered up and then headed back out for a late dinner and salsa at one of the party boats.
And somehow it would be today where I would stupidly leave my GoPro behind while being distracted paying for the kayaks, AND THEN my damn’ ATM card while taking out cash an hour later. Total freaking brain farts. I deserve it.
. . . and alas, I must remind myself these are still first world problems and such tragic losses may be the necessary sacrifices for a good trip . . .either way thank goodness I had transferred the photos from the GoPro right before losing it!
Photo Credit: Mihaela Kracun. Farewell to my GoPro...
- At time of posting in Skopje, Macedonia, it was 13 °C -
Humidity: 65% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear