It was a long summer of travel, fraught with a multitude of highs and lows, new cultures, immense growth, and even ill-fated love.
Four months went by, and slowly, it seems. It wasn’t one of those summers that disappears in an instant. No, these four months took their time. Not that I’m complaining, of course. Travel always bestows its lessons.
Traveling in the Middle East was more than interesting, and Greece was stunningly beautiful, but of course not what I had expected. Then again, travel experiences are always the most compelling when you least expect them.
It was my first foray into Europe, actually. With the exception of a one-week jaunt to London at the age of 15, I have never set foot on European soil before this year. But instead of going to Paris or Rome, I went east.
Traveling in the Balkans was something entirely different, and unlike anything I possibly could have anticipated.
“You pay six euro!” the portly man announced in a cold, harsh staccato. “No no!” I shouted back. “We agreed on three, so I’ll give you three.”
I crumpled up the 10 euro note in my palm and searched my pockets for exact change. Once I had heard the inflated price, I knew exactly what type of cab ride this was — the type where you get screwed.
He wasn’t having it. The price was to be six euros. He was charging us extra for luggage, only he hadn’t informed us of this in the first place. I scoffed, and declared that we absolutely would not be paying that price.
It’s not about the three euros, it’s the principle.
I removed myself from the car, dropped three coins on the front seat, and walked behind the taxi and opened the trunk to remove our luggage.
The cold metal door nearly crushed my fingers as the stout man forced the trunk door shut in front of me. He was holding our bags ransom inside his car until we paid the full price.
He began yelling, and I yelled right back. It was late at night and we just had an intense experience with a mob of Syrian refugees. I was not in the mood to get taken advantage of. Not right now.
After much confrontation, the stocky man agreed to honor our original agreement. He opened the trunk, outstretched his palm, I handed him three euros, and the three of us walked away with our luggage.
It wasn’t until two days later that I realized what had actually happened. Not only had I dropped three euros in his front seat when I got out of the car, but I paid him three more as we retrieved our luggage. We weren’t the winners that we thought we were. He tricked us.
And this was only our first night in Macedonia.
Inland, you’ll find gaping canyons, rugged mountain ranges, and placid lakes. You’ll find bustling cities, dusty roads, and communist architecture. Head to the coast, and you’ll find ancient cobblestone cities and a uniquely lavish coastline.
My friend, Adventurous Kate, visits the Balkans every summer.
One reason is its beauty–both natural and cultural. Not only are the eastern Adriatic and Ionian coastlines some of the most naturally beautiful seascapes in the world, but the locals outdid themselves by building incredible cities and towns beside them. Walled cities in Croatia with terra cotta roofs like Dubrovnik, pastel-colored old towns like Rovinj, and even inland cities like Mostar, Bosnia and Bled, Slovenia are brilliantly set against bright teal rivers and lakes. In no other place in the world does such natural and cultural beauty blend so seamlessly.
Indeed, the landscapes are varied. Not to mention, everywhere you go, you’ll find an intricate labyrinth of culture to navigate.
Traveling the Balkans is not your typical travel experience, and “what should I do there?” is not the question you should be asking. In fact, it’s not so much about what to do, but rather observing the nuances and allowing your experience to just play out for itself.
It’s tough to put a finger on what makes the Balkans so unique. It may not be the largest region in the world, but it could very well be one of the most diverse. It’s culturally complex; the Balkan Peninsula consists of ten-and-a-half countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, the Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, and the European part of Turkey.
That last one, Turkey, which accounts for “half,” might actually be the most historically significant.
For six centuries, the Ottoman Empire, a multinational, transcontinental power originating in Turkey, ruled much of Southeast Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia/The Middle East. During its reign, and through many wars and much contention, countries were won and lost, borders changed frequently, and revolutions came and went.
There were so many different powers at play, for so many hundreds of years, I simply cannot attempt to delve into the specifics. It’s too complicated.
In a place that, politically, can only be compared to the Wild West, there are some very interesting dynamics left over in today’s iteration of the Balkan nations.
While hitch-hiking in Albania, I met a man–a local newscaster–who received daily death threats from politicians. But what could he do? He was making his wage, and he was proud to be telling the truth about a country that he loves dearly.
He explained that the Albanians are a proud people because, for centuries, they had no allies, yet they fought for their country (literally) and they persevered.
The Albanians don’t have a lot. Their country is small, and they are the poorest country in all of Europe. But in recent wars, they fought for their land, for their people, for their lives, and they did it alone, with no help from neighboring countries.
They are proud, not for what they have, but for what they STILL have. They are proud, quite literally, because they are here.
Skopje, Macedonia, the capital city of what is also referred to as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), is littered with communist architecture. On seemingly every corner, and in every square, rest bizarre statues of Macedonian heroes and animals representing strength, like horses and lions.
An earthquake flattened much of the city in 1963, and the city is on a road to redevelopment, hence why the city of Skopje is almost always under construction, and why new buildings and statues are always being built. To most, they are regarded as tourist attractions.
But there’s another side to the story, something which is often not spoken of.
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