24.07.2018 - 25.08.2018
Hello from Kosovo!
After a couple of adventurous Summers off the beaten track in Africa, this year we decided to do something a bit easier by swapping the yellow flats of Qatar for the green forested mountains and bright blue lakes of South Eastern Europe.
We flew into Romania’s pleasant second city of Cluj-Napoca in the heart of Transylvania and was pleased to find the area really lived up to its reputation. Transylvania literally means through the forest and it was a gorgeously evocative and atmospheric landscape.
Blessed with fantastic produce and an easygoing pace of life, the country has a real bucolic charm which isn’t found frequently in Europe any more. You’d wake up every morning and without fail the landscape would be covered in a haunting fog. The Carpathians rise very steeply and almost without exception are thickly forested and home to Europe’s largest population of bears and wolves. It leaves a slightly frightening feeling as you hike around, like you could get lost or walk into something you don’t want to round the next corner. Of course Transylvania was most famously home to Vlad the Impaler and the Dracula legend based on him and all over the territory there are magnificently ruined mountaintop castles and spookily abandoned watchtowers adding to a sense of medieval mysticism as you travel through the area.
Unfortunately medieval is a word that can apply to too many aspects of life in Romania as the country has an odd feel to it, like it operates on different speeds.
Flush with EU development funds, all over the country are signs of development as you see new infrastructure projects going up and Romanian manufacturers successfully undercutting their Western European competitors. The country has managed to record impressive economic growth of upwards of 5% since it joined the EU but at the same time though, and in several different ways the country feels a long, long way behind other European countries and in some ways it’s staggering that it was accepted into the EU in the first place. For example it’s not at all uncommon for Audis and Mercedes to be stuck behind horse drawn carts carrying hay or refuse, even in the outskirts of major cities. The capital Bucharest had it’s heyday in the early 20th century and modelled on Baron Haussman’s designs got the nickname Paris of the East. Now however, the impressive buildings are simply falling apart and with the ubiquitous huge Communist era defunct factories and steelworks that dot the landscape it’s an ‘urbexor’s dream destination.
At different times, the country has been settled by Hungarians, Bulgarians and Saxons amongst others and they have all left agreeably identifiable communities dotted around. However, one group who absolutely have still not ‘settled’ in Romania (and the other countries on this trip) are the Gypsies. In London, Romanian Gypsies are known for sleeping rough by Marble Arch, fleecing tourists on the Embankment and a whole range of low level criminal activity. Seeing how they are expected to live in Eastern Europe it’s easy to understand how they’ve got to that stage. The EU made a very strong push to improve the quality of life for them throughout Europe a couple of years ago but discrimination is still rife against them as they struggle to access education, healthcare and any ability to get a job and generally ‘contribute to society’. Going through some of the Gypsy villages it was incredible to think people in the EU still live like this as everything from their ragged clothes to the poorly constructed hovels they lived in was just shockingly bad and pretty tragic to see. They hang around the edges of life e.g. at bus and train stations and everyone else is equal parts wary and contemptuous of them. It’s easy to see why they feel there’s nothing for them here.
We left Transylvania via the magnificent Transfagaran road that cuts through the Fagaras mountains. It was built at a cost of at least 40 dead soldiers over 10 years as a bizarre vanity project by Ceausescu before he was executed and was ranked by Top Gear as the best driving road in the world. Whilst there are others in Northern India and the Andes that might disagree with that, there’s no doubt that as you climb up 40 hairpin bends up to 2000m the view is pretty spectacular as the clouds clear beneath you.
Less attractive was the view entering Bucharest as endless Communist era apartment tower blocks seem to form a ring around much of the city. As with many other former Communist cities in Russia or Central Asia it did seem to fit the belief of no money or attention spent on private space e.g. homes but plenty on public spaces so at the same time there are some beautiful gardens, parks and squares in the city to enjoy.
Shortly after we left there was a major protest in one of the main squares at the government which quickly turned violent. Whilst the stats show that Romania is making excellent progress since joining the EU, critics say much of the economic growth is due to remittances from abroad and despite various EU attempts to limit corruption, it’s still a major problem in the country. At 20m Romania is a bigger country than most people realise but a full fifth of the population live abroad with this number only increasing at the perceived lack of opportunities in the country. Whilst it feels like it’s moving in the right direction it still has an undoubtedly long way to go.
After leaving the Carpathians we continued onto Bulgaria and the very different destination of Varna on the Black Sea coast. When Communism ended and the country started opening up, Bulgaria has seemingly always been tipped as the ‘next big thing’ in terms of travel destination and whilst it’s never exploded in popularity in the way that Czechia or more recently Croatia have, it’s definitely crept up in popularity and it’s very easy to see why. A fantastic variety of landscapes including mountains, forests, vineyards and coastline as well as a couple of interesting cities within a relatively small area make it a great choice for a 2 week holiday. When you throw in friendly people, an excellent climate in both Summer and Winter and wonderful value for money (a beer costs a pound!) it’s a cracking place to be.
Our first stop of Varna reminded me of Odessa further up the Black Sea coast in Ukraine where I visited a few years previously; the beachside location and huge parks gives it an atmosphere that doesn’t feel like a big city and the chic population and opera house add a surprising air of sophistication too.
Bulgaria is home to some of the ‘oldest’ history in Europe with the archaeological sites in Varna showcasing the first worked gold in the world and the remains of the 8,000 year old oldest settlement in Europe in the quirky second city of Plovdiv being particular highlights. This ancient history has helped give the country a pleasingly cosmopolitan feel. Located at the Southeastern end of the continent as well as being on the coast, it was predictably conquered by pretty much all the big Ancient empires, including Persian, Mongol, Rome and Greece. In later years it was conquered by the Ottomans and has obvious Russian influences too but there have also been periods when South Eastern Europe has been dominated by the Bulgarians too so it feels both culturally unique but also with a wide range of other influences.
We next headed into the mountains and thanks to an impressive range of cable cars and chairlifts built for the ski seasons, it’s easy to get up into the higher mountains. We joined hundreds of other Bulgarians in a rite of passage as they peaked Mt. Musala, the highest in the Balkans at 2,925m but my favourite hike was up to the magnificent Rila Lakes. After climbing up to 2,500m you reach a point where you can see 7 lakes below you in a truly beautiful sight. It was made extra special by a gathering of the local ‘White Brotherhood’ sect (a mixture between yoga and New Age beliefs) below. Dressed all in white, they formed a huge circle and sang and chanted for a few hours to give the experience an ethereal quality.
As with Bucharest, the capital Sofia wasn’t really a highlight but the country seems to be a little more settled. Whilst it has similar problems of a brain drain and depopulation in rural areas in particular, the country feels a bit more developed with a more up to date infrastructure and a population that seem to be pretty optimistic about the future.
After leaving Sofia we headed onto gorgeous Macedonia which has been in the news a lot this Summer as it may finally be changing its name to Northern Macedonia and ending the long running dispute with Greece. Since Yugoslavia broke up in 1992 Macedonia has had to go by the slightly ridiculous moniker of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) because Greece won’t let them call themselves ‘Macedonia’.
The northern part of Greece has always been called Macedonia and is the homeland of Philip II and Alexander the Great. Later on, when the Ottomans conquered SE Europe, they gave the name Macedonia to a much larger area including present day Macedonia and part of Southern Bulgaria. Hence, today many people call themselves Macedonian but ownership of the term is heavily disputed.
The row had rumbled on for over 25 years and has been a real impediment to Macedonia joining the EU and NATO but earlier this Summer the two leaders agreed on a deal for the new name and hopefully the young republic can move on.
Perhaps in part due to their lack of international recognition, Macedonia definitely flies under the radar but they’ve made an interesting attempt at rebranding in the capital Skopje. With its nondescript history and ‘between places’ location, it was somewhat reminiscent of Astana or Ashgabat in that they’ve spent a lot of money giving facelifts to buildings in the city centre and most eye-catchingly have erected dozens of big statues. Aside from Skopje born Mother Theresa there are plenty of Greek heroes (done at least partially to wind Greece up) and means the city is certainly not boring to look at, although it does feel very contrived.
Outside the city though there is no need to rebrand as the countryside is blanketed with gorgeous green forests and Balkan peaks. My favourite part though was undoubtedly the beautiful blue twin lakes of Ohrid and Prespa. Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes; they straddle the tri border area with Greece and Albania and are a marvelously relaxing area. We spent our days climbing nearby mountains, kayaking in canyons, checking out the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ in Ohrid (there are 365 churches) or just relaxing on the wonderful beaches. As with Bulgaria I couldn’t help but feel that with it’s natural charms it will grow in popularity and if it joins the EU will surely open up even further.
We were then delighted to finish our trip in the ‘disputed’ country of Kosovo which turned out to be a really pleasant surprise. Growing up in the late ‘90s in London Kosovans did not have a good reputation. Due to the fighting against Serbia, several thousand arrived in the UK and were a controversial addition to the population; heavily blamed by the tabloid press for a spike in various crimes including people trafficking and muggings, I remember being quite wary of them as a teenager.
When NATO intervened to stop the war many returned to Kosovo and if they stayed in the UK, they gradually started to assimilate into Britain and 9/11 happened and the press developed other ethnic targets.
In Serbian culture Kosovo is considered one of the founding locations of their civilization after they won a pivotal battle in the 14th century against the Ottomans there. There had always been an Albanian population but gradually their numbers increased and about 200 years ago overtook Serbs as the majority community. During the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s few Albanian Kosovans wanted to stay as part of Serbia but Serbia was not prepared to let it go under any circumstances and in 1995 the two sides started fighting. Whilst not as bloody as the earlier Bosnian war, an estimated 10,000 were killed with plenty of war crimes committed by Slobodan Milosevic’s forces. Supported by Albania and NATO, the Serbs were fought off and as they retreated, Kosovo started to stabilise and eventually and controversially in 2008 declared independence.
Heavily supported by the likes of USA, Germany and Britain it’s now recognised by 113 countries but plenty of countries including Spain, China and of course Serbia don’t recognise Kosovo as they fear for their own separatist regions doing the same. Therefore Kosovo stands as one of the 10 de facto but not de jure countries in the world; recognised by some countries and organisations e.g. UEFA but not by others e.g. the UN.
Being ethnically Albanian it is a Muslim country but is probably the most relaxed Muslim country I’ve been to. Alcohol flows freely and dress codes are a world away from the Arabian peninsula, in fact aside from the occasional noise of the azan or masjid on the streets you could be in any Eastern European country.
As both the youngest country in Europe but also the youngest population (nearly half the population are under 25) it’s a surprisingly cool place to be with trendy artists, bars and cafes lining the capital Pristina. The population are extremely friendly and aiming to build up their country, seemed very proud to welcome tourists and show them their culture. That said, the situation hasn’t completely calmed down, Serbia has absolutely not given up their claim and the election of a recent right wing government that has threatened potential military action means that NATO forces will not be leaving any time soon. There are still pockets of Serbians in Kosovo and going past them on the bus is almost like entering a militarized zone as heavily armed NATO troops behind barbed wire protect them from any revenge attacks by the Kosovans. As we passed through I got talking to a Kosovan back visiting who’d lived in London since being forced to leave in ’98 and he was quite forthright on the subject. “We’re not Kosovan we’re Albanian. We called the new country Kosovo to stop the Serbs declaring war again but we’ll always be Albanians and they’ll never accept us here”.
The creation of Kosovo reminded me a bit of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucuses and the failed attempts to broker a permanent solution to the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The US has recently proposed a land swap but time will tell if the plan is accepted by any party and many feel that mono-ethnic states should not be a goal in the 21st century anyway.
We finished our trip on our final day by taking a wonderful trip to a bear sanctuary, one of several that have been founded in the region in the last few years. Thanks to the perfect terrain, SE Europe still has quite a lot of bears and for centuries they’ve been captured and used as a tool to make money by people forcing them to ‘dance’ in town squares or as ‘curiosities’ to poke and tease outside of restaurants. Thanks to the EU and pioneering work by several charities these have now been completely stopped but the rescued bears need somewhere to be rehomed and so several sanctuaries have been created. Whilst some of the bears sadly show signs of mental illness, the majority seem completely recovered it was wonderful seeing them play around and going swimming. In gorgeous forest by a big lake, the happy, rejuvenated atmosphere of the bear sanctuary felt like the perfect place to finish a lovely month.