Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Balkan Recap

So how does one sum of 1600 plus (1,652.3 to be exact) miles through six countries over the course of fourteen days?   

A Balkan overview

Upon learning about our summer plans some people told us we were crazy while others were simply intrigued.  (I mean, who goes to Bulgaria and Romania for their summer vacation?)  I have to admit, I was thinking that we were a bit of both.  Just by looking at the map I could tell that the trip would entail a lot of driving and I hoped our poor little Honda would be up for the challenge.  And there weren't a lot of roads where we were going.  Sure once we were out of Albania our Tom Tom was able to map out a route for us but we weren't so sure about it all.  With a three and a half year old any road trip is always an iffy proposition; just how many hours is he willing to be strapped into a car seat before demanding to be set free?  And I knew it would be hot.  Very hot.  After all, the residents of the places on our itinerary flee the area in July and August to escape the heat.  So why were these crazy Americans actually going into the depths of the heat?  For the adventure and to be able to say we did it.  (And we are glad we did).  So here's a recap of the highlights and commentary about the trip.
  • The monasteries of Meteora are amazing and if you ever have a chance to visit, do it.  Yes it was hot but because of the heat it was "off season" for the area so we had much of the place to ourselves.  It was breathtaking to take in the sweeping views from the mountain peaks and with an occasional breeze, the heat wasn't so bad.  And at night I loved sitting on our hotel balcony and looking back up at the looming hills.  I can completely understand why the monks settled here.
  • We didn't love Thessaloniki.  We wanted to but we just couldn't.  With the exception of a few hidden gems and the fabulous view from our hotel room, we found the city to be dirty, graffiti covered, and down trodden.  Venturing outside of Thessaloniki was better and afforded us the opportunity to explore ancient ruins and take in a waterfall or two.  
  • The vast area in between our two stops in Greece was flat, dry, and seemingly endless.  We witnessed firsthand how the depressed economy has effected northern Greece.  The bright spot along this stretch of road was the road itself.  Maybe I have been in Albania too long but I found the road, or divided highway as it was in most places, to be well maintained.  (Greeks love their signage as well.  I quickly lost track of the number of signs we saw warning us of the presence of bears or cows).  The main highway was obviously new and in places, still under construction.  You just don't realize how important the quality road is to a place until you live in a place that doesn't have them!

  • We absolutely loved Bucharest.  This up and coming city felt grungy yet hip.  It appears that the city is slowly awakening from a dark past and being renovated without becoming completely gentrified.  From churches and cafes to public parks and large scale apartment buildings, everything seemed to be under going a slow renovation. (I say slow since our Romanian friends say that they work just isn't being done fast enough).  And Bucharest has plenty of true pedestrian only areas.  I love being able to meander through these areas without the fear of being run down by speeding mopeds.
  • You only have to walk down a Bucharest street or two to witness Romania's Communist past first hand.  During Ceauseascu's reign, entire neighborhoods had been demolished leaving areas devoid of character yet so many of the churches dating to the Byzantine Empire had been left untouched.  Combine this with architectural influences from both western Europe and the Ottoman Empire and Bucharest is nothing if not eclectic.  All of this made for a interesting city where we never knew what we would discover around the corner.  

  • Who knew that Bulgaria is expected to produce 1.4 million tons of sunflowers in 2013 and 2014.  I didn't and it wasn't until we spent hours driving through field after field of sunflowers that I began to understand the extent of Bulgaria's sunflower oil production.  Bulgaria also produces corn and corn oil and we saw our share of these crops as well.  Having driven a large portion of the country my impression of Bulgaria is that of a largely rural and agricultural nation.  These rolling fields, mountains, and deep gorges were beautiful and my favorite part of Bulgaria.
  • Customs and passport control in and out of Bulgaria is tough.  We had our required visas but even (or perhaps) of our diplomatic passports and Albanian license plates border crossings were long and a bit tedious.  Crossing from Greece into Bulgaria resulted in our (and Russian plated cars) being pulled over on the side of the road for close to a full hour as other cars zipped past.  Crossing into Bulgaria from Romania was slightly easier.
  • Signs of Bulgaria's Communist past were readily evident whenever we entered a city or urban area.  Blocky concrete high rises ominously filled the skylines reminding me of how harsh living conditions had been for so many people.  This was particularly evident in the city of Ruse which is located across the Danube River from Romania.  Here kilometer after kilometer of depressing and dilapidated buildings lined the highway reminding me of many of America's public housing projects.  The fact that they are still occupied by hundreds of families reminded me how poverty stricken this part of the world really is.
  • We covered a lot of miles here but spent our time in two Bulgarian cities, the historic city of Veliko Tarnovo and the capitol city of Sofia.  In between were hundreds of miles of narrow but paved roads and unexplained detours.  (Well, maybe they were explained but in Cyrillic only).  Veliko Tarnovo was hot and interesting but not my favorite stop along our journey.  In many respects Sofia felt like a smaller version of Bucharest.  It was both historic and modern.  It may be because we ate better food there, but I just might have liked Sofia better.  
  •  Macedonia produced the biggest surprise of our entire vacation.  Skopje proved to be a small vibrant city filled with a surprisingly high level of buildings and reconstruction going on.  Not only is the city investing in new municipal buildings but the building boom includes a large number of monuments, statues, and fountains.  Our brief Skopje stop was the perfect way to end our trip.  So much so that we are trying to find a time to go back.
We then passed through Kosovo on our way back to Albania.  We've been there before and in many respects the country feels like a slightly more developed version of Albania.  We were greeted by Albanian flags at the Macedonian-Kosovo border where our passports received only the slightest glance by the Albanian speaking customs official.  Crossing into Albania was even less stringent with a mere wave of the hand before we sped off.  But we didn't go too far too fast; a herd of cows was standing in the middle of the divided highway.  Yes, at this point we definitely knew we were back in Albania!  (And unlike Greece, there were no signs warning us beforehand).  
So this was our summer vacation.  It was a far cry from our much more relaxing Scandinavian adventure of last year.  This year we returned home weary and travel worn but so glad we had undertaken this endeavor.  We saw places we had only heard about and experienced a culture that is so unlike what we are used to.  From the Cyrillic language to the local cultures we were pushed outside of our comfort zone but for me, that is what travel is all about.  So if you want clean and pristine, go to northern Europe; if edgy and up and coming is more your style, then come visit the Balkans.  It won't always be easy or comfortable but it will be an adventure.  

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading your Blog. I really love the Balkans.

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