Bucharest: Ceausescu and Architecture

Romania’s capital, Bucharest, with a population of about 2 million, is in many ways just another big, not particularly beautiful, former communist city struggling to find its way in a democratic world. Its attractions for me were twofold: to learn about yet another nutcase communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu (see About Albanian for its crazy, Enver Hoxha), and his architectural legacy.

Neo-Classism Architecture:

Bucharest styles itself the Paris of the East. It earned this title after two traditional areas that speak Romanian, Wallachia and Moldovia, were united into a single country in 1866 and ruled by a monarch, King Carol 1, a German ex-pat who was invited to be king since kings were the way to go in the mid-1800’s. This was a glorious period in Romanian history, with the king spearheading modernization programs and constructing buildings in his favourite style, French neo-classism. Many such buildings today remain scattered around Bucharest’s centre:

Other Parisienne influences include passageways, pedestrian walkways through buildings, some in good repair boasting French style bistros and hookah bars, but others less so. A former hotel/brothel passageway has seen much better days:

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A not-so-nice passageway

Colourful umbrellas decorate another passageway, disguising the hazardous nature of the building, which was severely damaged during a massive earthquake in 1977. Hundreds of such buildings exist, with telltale red circles on the outside indicating they are prone to falling down. Owners lack the funds to repair or demolish the buildings, so they await the next big earthquake in order to complete the tear down. Bucharest is in a seismic zone which traditionally experiences a major earthquake every 40 years, so it is 2 years overdue.

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A nicer looking, but condemned, passageway

The monarchy had a checkered history. While the first two kings were benevolent and conscientious, the third one, Carol II was a notorious womanizer who rubbed shoulders with Adolf Hitler and assisted Romania’s fascist general, Ion Antonescu, in seizing power. In 1944, the king’s son, Michael re-seized power, arrested Antonescu, switched sides in WW2 and joined the Allies. He ruled until 1948 when the communists took over and promptly invited King Michael and his family to flee the country.

Ceausescu:

Born in 1918 to a peasant family, Nicolae Ceausescu managed to complete 4 years of grade school before being apprenticed to a shoemaker in Bucharest. The shoemaker was a communist and Ceausescu helped out by delivering communist leaflets. He was caught and sentenced to jail. This turned out to be fortuitous as it spared him service during WW2, but more importantly, his cellmate was Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, the communist leader who was installed as President by the USSR following the war.

Ceausescu was Gheorghui-Dej’s right-hand man and upon his death in 1965, ascended to the presidency. His first few years were standard communist dictatorship with farm collectives, a secret service (the Securitate) and a preference for atheism, but in 1968, he endeared himself to the Romanian people when he refused to commit Romanian troops to assisting the USSR’s suppression of the uprising in next-door-neighbor Hungary. That the USSR did not invite Romania to Hungary was overlooked by Ceausescu, but nonetheless marked the beginning of Romania’s attempt to divorce itself from Soviet domination. Ceausescu was not all bad. In his early years, Romania’s literacy rate increased exponentially, highways and metros were constructed and most of the people had jobs and food.

Ceausescu was less successful during this period in developing a unique architectural style. Much of Bucharest consists of social realism buildings, rectangular concrete blocks of differing sizes devoid of decoration or individuality. Ceausescu decreed that people needed living space of no more than 7 metres per person, so hundreds of apartments were built with units about 40-50 metres square, less than 500 square feet, for families of 4. He didn’t tear down buildings that exceeded this, but constructed communist style edifices in front of more attractive ones to hide them from view. The blocks still stand today, functional eyesores with deteriorating stucco, air conditioning units sticking out from the windows and laundry hanging on the balconies.

The People’s Palace:

The real craziness started in 1982, following Ceausescu’s visit to North Korea. Inspired by Kim II Sung’s character cult and his grandiose buildings, Ceausescu decided to remake Bucharest into a gigantic monument to himself. As he considered a house with 170 rooms too small for his family of 5, he commissioned the largest building in Europe, to be reached by the largest street in the world, with massive administration structures nearby.

A slight problem arose as the designated area, the centre of old Bucharest, was already heavily populated, but Ceausescu was undeterred. He gave the inhabitants 24 hours to vacate before bulldozing an area 7 square kilometers in size and displacing 40,000 inhabitants. Bucharest’s infamous stray dog problem came about as a result. Most of the dislocated people didn’t have the time or the ability to take their pets, so they were left to fend for themselves. Until 2012, packs of feral dogs roamed the city, but when a boy was killed by one, the government culled them.

Another problem was lack of funds. At about the same time Romania’s IMF international loans funding its infrastructure improvements became due, Ceausescu needed more money to rebuild Bucharest. Determined to pay back the IMF and construct his $3 billion palace, Ceausescu put Romania on an austerity path that saw extreme food rationing, electricity limited to an hour per day, hot water for only 2 hours a week and a substantial decrease in living standards. Borders were closed to imports, everything that could be exported was, including people. Ceausescu joked that Romania’s best exports were Germans (to West German) and Jews (to Israel) who were allowed to emigrate upon payment by the destination countries of between 4,000 and 13,000 Euros per person, depending on their education level. For those who remained, queuing in long lines at near empty food stores, hunger and freezing in the -20 degree winters became the norm. But in 1988, Romania became the only country ever to repay the IMF.

One architect, aghast by the wholesale destruction of Bucharest’s centre, managed to save 13 buildings, including 7 churches, by devising an ingenious solution. The structures were literally dug out of the land, put on railroad tracks and moved out of the demolition zone. Today, it is possible to see these buildings, all plopped down wherever they wouldn’t offend Ceausescu’s sight, such as the library building in the church courtyard, the heaviest building moved to escape the wrecking ball.

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The library in the church courtyard

The centrepiece of the project, the People’s Palace, rises on a mound, also created, to reinforce Ceausescu’s prominence. One side looks out over Victoriei Street, a few centimetres or a few meters wider, depending on who is talking, than the Champ Élysées.

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The People’s Palace

Ceausescu never inhabited the place. On Christmas Day, 1989, he and his wife were subjected to a 2 hour showcase trial, found guilty of genocide, taken outside and executed. His right-hand man, Ion Illiescu, in a speedy about-face, disavowed communism and took over as president, subjecting Romania to 10 more years of dictatorship, equally if not more so, greedy, but not quite as crazy as Ceausescu.

The People’s Palace was unfinished in 1989, but Illiescu decided to complete it and use it as the country’s Parliament, thus its current name The Palace of the Parliament. It is normally open for guided tours, but the EU set up shop inside for 6 months and closed it to tourists while I was there. Considered the second largest administrative building in the world, behind the Pentagon, it has 8 stories underground, including a nuclear bomb shelter (Ceausescu was paranoid about the USSR attacking him), two motorway tunnels, one leading out of the city and the other to the airport so Ceausescu could escape if needed. Inside are 1100 rooms, some opulently decorated with chandeliers and extravagant carpets, but many unfurnished and unused. It is also sinking to the tune of 6 mm per year due to its weight.

Not so the neighboring Science Academy. Another humongous building, the Science Academy houses researchers and their administrators. Despite Ceausescu’s wife leaving school at 14, she fancied herself a chemist. A university in Romania bestowed a PH.D on her even though her thesis (which was later discovered to have been written by others) was delivered without an audience. Some of the building is currently used for administration and research, its front side an unkempt forest while its backside reveals the extent of the incomplete structure.

Final Thoughts:

Bucharest, French new-classicism, mixed with Art Deco, social realism and monuments to Ceausescu’s ego, some meticulously maintained, others falling to pieces, is a crazy hodgepodge of styles running in parallel with its equally crazy governments. Its history and architecture are intertwined with its governments, for better and for worse.

Next: 

Castles, Fortresses and Churches in Transylvania along with a brief mention of Dracula.

North Macedonia: Architecturally Amusing

The Republic of Macedonia became independent from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, but because of disputes with Greece over the name “Macedonia”, it changed its name in 2018 to the Republic of Northern Macedonia or North Macedonia for short. It was the 6th of 7 countries of the former Yugoslavia I visited. I began in the lakeside town of Ohrid, before heading to its capital, Skopje. Ohrid’s architecture is primarily Ottoman, but I’m struggling to find the words to describe Skopje, so I will settle on Las Vegas meets Ancient Greece.

History:

North Macedonia’s history begins with the usual Balkan inhabitants. Neolithic settlements have been found, as have Bronze and Iron Age ones. Illyrian tribes settled the nation, but the world first took notice of the area when a distinct tribe, the Macedonians, led by Phillip II defeated Athens in 338BC and paved the way for his son, Alexander the Great, to conquer a good part of the known world.

Following Alexander’s death, the Macedonia kingdom weakened. Eventually, Northern Macedonia and Ohrid became Roman colonies and remained thus until 395AD, when the Byzantines incorporated it into their empire. Slavs invaded in the 7th century and were conquered and became part of the Bulgarian empire in 842. Although they integrated with the locals, Macedonians remained a distinct group and, in the 10th century, Macedonia briefly established its own kingdom. After 1042, it changed hands between the Bulgarians and the Byzantines, with a small interlude as part of Serbia until the Ottomans captured it in 1395, keeping it through to 1912 when it was lost again to the Serbians.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria occupied Macedonia between 1915 and 1918. After WW1, the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes incorporated Macedonia. During WW2, it was occupied first by Italian ruled Albania, but in 1941,  pro-Germany Bulgaria took over. Following WW2, it was part of Yugoslavia. In 1990, the government peacefully transitioned from communism to social democracy. It declared independence in 1991 and avoided becoming embroiled in the wars engulfing the region, although it did suffer economically when 350,000 Kosovars sought refuge in the country in 1999 during the Serbian-Kosovo conflict.

Ohrid:

Ohrid has all the trappings of a modern resort town on Lake Ohrid, including a pedestrian walkway bustling with ice cream vendors, stores selling bright flotation devices, buckets and pails, beachwear and book stores. Along the lake were restaurants and coffee shops and ticket booths selling half day and full day trips around the lake. Beginning at the lake and rising high on the hill is the old city of Ohrid, a UNESCO world heritage site, a history buff’s dream and my destination for the night.

Standing proud over the city is Tsar Samuel’s Fortress, named after the emporer Samuel who ruled the first state of Macedonian Slavs between 976 and 1014 and to whose era the current fortress, towers and ramparts are attributed. But archeology reveals that the foundations date back to Phillip II.

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Tsar Samuel’s Fortress Gate

Also Greek in architecture is the Ancient Theatre, dated to 200 BC, but still used today for opera and concerts.

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Ancient Theatre in Ohrid

The Church of St. Sophia was built during Byzantine times between 852 and 889. Converted to a mosque during Ottoman times, it still retains many Christian frescoes:

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Nearby, the remains, and particularly the mosaics, of a 4th century basilica are protected by roofs. A few feet away are the best views of the lake.

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Of all the sites, my favourite was the one right outside my hotel, Small Saint Clements Church, a 14th century Byzantine gem. My hotel, the Villa & Winery Mal Sveti Kliment was also unique; it was both a hotel and wine tasting room housed in stones buildings hundreds of years old. After dining at a restaurant on the lake, I returned to the Winery. Only the two people working there, both named Elena, were present. The cook had been ill so there was no diners. They poured me a glass of white wine, from the rkaciteli grape (“the only good thing Stalin ever did for Macedonia,” said Elena#1, one of 2 Elenas working there). The Elenas and I went outside and sat on the ancient steps, on a beautiful, hot June evening, stars twinkling in the sky, drank wine and talked. Elena #2 had worked as a cruise ship photographer for 7 years, had a Macedonian boyfriend living in Toronto and just left the cruise industry to be closer to her mother. Elena #1 explained Macedonia was a bit backwards; people had old fashioned ideas. I asked for an example. Elena#2 piped up “my mother doesn’t like my 7 tattoos.” I told her I agreed with her mother. It kind of killed the discussion.

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Outside the Winery

Skopje:

Having been to a half dozen Balkan capitals already, I figured I knew what to expect in Skopje: a city built across a river encircled by high mountains, a fortress atop a hill, an Ottoman bazaar, an Ottoman stone arch bridge, maybe a Greek Orthodox Church or two and a Cathedral. Skopje has all those.

And certainly there were statues of its most famous citizen, Alexander the Great:

But there were surprises. It had its own Arc de Triumphe:

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Porta Macedonia

And a Brandenburg Gate lookalike:

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Along the river and in the main square, buildings were constructed along classical Greek lines, including the round one on the right, which serves as the government water management headquarters:

 

 

All the buildings are relatively new as 80% of Skopje’s buildings were heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1963. The former railway station was left standing as a memorial. If you look closely, the remains of the former left wing are visible hanging from the building’s central hall.

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When the government embarked on rebuilding and adding statues around the river and main squares, my walking tour guide explained its 3 goals:

  • to provide office space for government workers;
  • to instill a sense of pride amongst Macedonians about their heritage; and
  • to attract tourists.

He said the first objective had been achieved.

The Archeological Museum had the suitable antiquity elements, as did most of the other buildings around. A walking bridge was adorned by statues of notable Macedonians. As for three large, permanent boats on the river, our guide just shrugged and said “go figure. Macedonia is landlocked and never had a navy.”

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It was all a little kooky, maybe a little unbelievable and quite amusing to walk around the city, spotting all the nods to ancient Macedonia.

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The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia:

The only building in the main square rightfully devoid of any reference to antiquity is the Holocaust Memorial Centre. Opened in 2011, it was built on the grounds of the old Jewish quarter and contains 3 sections. The first details Jewish history in North Macedonia, starting with the Romaniote Jews fleeing Romans in then Palestine and constructing the oldest synagogue outside of Constantinople in nearby Stobi in 163CE, which remnants still stand. Crusaders passing through in the 10th to 13th century mention the Jewish community, destroyed parts of it, but in 1366, Skopje got its first synagogue.

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The Holocaust Memorial Center

The next section exhibits the ballooning Jewish population in Macedonia following the Spanish Inquisition and their expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Ottomans welcomed the fleeing Jews, allowing them to settle in Skopje, govern themselves and speak their own language, Ladino. Numbering about 10,000, they were an integral part of the trading, legal and medical community in the country.

The final section is about the Holocaust and how it devastated the community. Bulgaria, a Nazi ally, occupied the area in 1941 and enacted strict anti-Semitic laws. In 1943, Bulgarian forces, acting on orders from Germany, rounded up all the Jews and placed them in Monopol, the former tobacco warehouse in Skopje. There, 4 managed to escape, those with foreign passports were released and a few medical professionals were allowed to stay in order to ensure there was not a shortage of doctors in Skopje. Everyone else, all 7,215 people, were put into cattle cars, transported to the Treblinka concentration camp and killed. Not one person who was transported survived.

Today, there are only a few hundred Jews in Macedonia, mostly descendants from Jews who had escaped Treblinka by joining the partisan forces battling the Nazis.

Final Thoughts:

North Macedonia was a treat to visit. Small, scenic and modern, it has historical characters, ruins and stories spanning from the 4th century BC to the current day. Ohrid is picturesque, Skopje is unabashedly Ancient Greece with a touch of Disney and thoroughly inviting.

 

 

 

 

Revisiting Bill Clinton: Kosovo

My reason for visiting Kosovo was not particularly noble – it would be the last of the 7 countries that made up the former Yugoslavia to check off – and I was curious since most of what I knew about the country (more about its status later) came from biased Serbian guides and negative YouTube videos that described it as the black hole of Europe, governed by the Albanian mafia, best known for disseminating drugs to the rest of Europe, human trafficking and selling organs from unwilling donors.

As I walked the 15 minutes from my hotel to the city center of Pristina, the capital, I kept a look-out for Don Corleone like characters, druggies and women screaming to be set free. Instead, I noticed large numbers of people cutting lawns, cleaning up garbage and planting flowers. Then, this is what greeted me:

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A few feet away, another sign and a nearby ladies clothing store:

I looked around and noticed I was on Bill Klinton (with a K) Boulevard.

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And there, standing proudly, 11 feet tall, was good, old Bill himself. To be honest, it wasn’t the strongest likeness of Clinton, but the sign behind made no mistake about who it was:

Now, I had come to Kosovo expecting to hear about its history and after 7 former Yugoslav countries, I was getting pretty good: Illyrian tribes, Roman colonies, Byzantines followed by Slavs bringing Christianity, 7th to 12th centuries saw local tribes create different empires in different regions at different times (Serbian, Croat, Albanian, Macedonian, Bosnian, etc.) before the Ottomans conquered everything and moved Islam into the neighborhood. Nationalism erupted in the 19th century, with rebellions against the Ottomans who suffered their ultimate defeat after WW1. Enter the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, then WW2 followed by the Republic of Yugoslavia until Tito’s death in 1985 when the whole area fell apart and erupted into various wars.

My walking tour guide glossed over the history and moved right into Bill Clinton. The reason soon became clear. It was June 11th and tomorrow, June 12th, was the 20th anniversary of Serbia’s withdrawal from Kosovo, encouraged by 78 days of NATO air strikes bombing the heck out of Serbian strongholds in Kosovo and military targets in Serbia, including some in its capital city of Belgrade.

Bill Clinton was the US president who had authorized the NATO air strikes, despite the UN’s refusal to do so (Russia, a friend of Serbia, vetoed UN air strikes), along with the then US Secretary of State Madeline Albright. Both are regarded as heroes in Kosovo. Clinton had been thanked with the boulevard name, the statue and, tomorrow, he would receive Kosovo’s Order of Freedom. Madeline was also in town; her statue would be unveiled tomorrow. George W. Bush had been also honoured, but just with a street name, for his willingness to recognize Kosovo when it declared independence in 2008, something that Russia, China and Serbia have refused to do so far. Though there are flare-ups between the mostly Albanian Kosovars and the Serbian Kosovars that tests a normal relationship between Serbia and Kosov, the oft-heard rumour is that Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo will be made a pre-condition of its entry into the EU, something it desperately desires.

Back to Bill. Not everyone reveres him as a hero. My guide in Belgrade said Clinton’s decision to bomb Serbia in 1999 was completely self centred – he believed that Clinton was a major shareholder in Kosovo entities owning its vast mineral rights; the chance for personal gain motivated Clinton to order the air strikes. A YouTube video by Graham Phillips is titled Bill Clinton, A Hero for War Criminals and is decidedly anti-Clinton. My understanding was that the West had been embarrassed by allowing the ethnic cleansing by Serbs in Bosnia Herzegovina right under the noses of UN troops, as well as for standing idle when the Rwandan genocide happened. Clinton was determined not to let another massacre occur; which all signs pointed to when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.  I don’t disagree with most of Clinton’s politics, but he will forever in my mind be a sexual predator who abused his position of power with a vulnerable young intern and then proclaimed “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Astrit, our guide, managed to steer the group away from Bill Clinton and towards Pristina’s other highlights. A statute of Skanderbeg graces the central square – the same man who stood up to the Ottomans in the 15th century and who has a similarly impressive statue in Tirana’s main square. Also, just as in Tirana, Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian, is honoured, but in Pristina by a recently built Cathedral in the town centre completely out of proportion to the number of Catholics in the country.

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Mother Teresa Cathedra

Remnants of the old Ottoman district with a few Ottoman houses and mosques remain standing, but the old Turkish bazaar is now made up of umbrellas. More impressive bazaars, mosques and houses are visible in Albania and Skopje, Macedonia.

A sign, NEWBORN, stands outside a sports complex. Originally unveiled on the first day of Kosovo’s independence on February 17, 2008 to mark its birth as the newest country (South Sudan has since taken that honour), it is recovered every year on the anniversary with new, symbolic motifs. Its current incarnation contains the faces of 99 Kosovar women, designed to showcase their individual struggles in making Kosovo a nation.

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The National Library is, for better or worse, a unique architectural creation. My first impression was, ugggghh, but once Astrit explained it, it started to make sense. Supposed to represent Kosovo, the cubes are a throwback to Roman times, the white domed roofs are reminiscent of Byzantine church roofs and the strange wire mesh is shaped like honeycombs, emblematic of the country’s bees. As Astrit said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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Which brings me back to Bill Clinton. On June 12th, I walked back to the center square where Clinton would be speaking later in the day. The pedestrian walkway was partially blocked off, with hundreds of police officers lining the path. Vendors sold American flags, people’s faces were painted red, white and blue and crowds were starting to form near the viewing area.

Even if I had wanted to get a glimpse of Bill (which I didn’t), I had a bus to catch.  As I was checking out of my hotel, the 30 year old hotel clerk expressed surprise that I wasn’t going to stay to hear Bill Clinton.

“I’m not a fan of his,” I explained. “Do you know what he did to that girl?”

“Yes,” he said, “but he was a hero for us. If he hadn’t authorized the bombing, Kosovo would not exist.”

“But that doesn’t excuse what he did to Monica Lewinsky. I cannot forgive him for that.”

“Yes, that is a fact. But it is also a fact that without him, I would not be here today.”

Hero, war criminal, sexual fiend? All are sort of correct, none are completely wrong.

Which, at the end of 6 weeks traveling though the Balkans, seems to sum everything up. The basic facts are not in dispute, but the reasons, the motives, the slant, are all subject to widely differing interpretations depending on which side you are on and the perspectives of the news outlets you watch. It has been a great learning experience, especially the realization that absolute truths I held for decades are more fluid than I imagined, shaped largely be my pro-Western, slightly lopsided, upbringing.

Next: Backtracking to Macedonia

 

Next: Backtracking to Macedonia

About Albania

In 1979, when I back-packed around Europe, Albania was strictly off-limits. Its Communist regime, considered the most radical of all governments, closed its borders, imprisoned its citizens and deterred any foreign contaminants, including tourists. Those few who were permitted to enter underwent rigid border controls to ensure no improper looking visitors might corrupt the locals. Men were required to have short hair, no facial hair and no sideburns. Women could not dress in mini-skirts or maxi-dresses; even the hijab and abaya were banned in this country where half the population was Muslim. For those foreigners who failed to pass muster, there were barbershops and clothing stores at the border from which a suitable haircut could be had and appropriate dress could be bought.

I encountered no such scrutiny. As my bus from Kotor, Montenegro approached the border, the conductor (all Balkan buses have both a driver and conductor) gathered everyone’s passport and, once at the border, he hopped off and went inside a booth. We sat inside the bus for about 20 minutes, he returned and the bus resumed its journey, with the conductor handing the stack of passports to the first passenger, who took hers and handed the stack back to the next person. That was it; welcome to Albania, without so much as a glance or scowl in my direction from the once most feared border guards in Europe.

Tirana, First Impressions:

As soon as we neared the capital city, Tirana, traffic became increasingly worse, until only turtles proceeded slower on the overcrowded main road. This was not surprising. Tirana’s road system was built when the city had less than 200,000 people and none were expected, or allowed, to own cars, save for the chauffeurs of a few party officials. Today, Tirana has close to 1 million inhabitants, many of whom drive cars which would not have passed a safety test in Canada.

The bus drew into a large parking lot which doubled as the international bus terminal. As was becoming the norm, the instant I stepped off the bus, I was singled out as a foreigner by a dozen taxi drivers, all eager to take me wherever I wanted to go. This happened in every bus station in the Balkans and never ceased to amaze me. I understand in Africa or South America or India where my clothes and skin colour make me stand out, but why in the Balkans before I open my mouth to reveal my lack of local language skills or retrieve my obvious non-Balkan suitcase (Samsonite, which are for sale in the Balkans, but are too expensive for the average person) am I so easily marked as a tourist?

Perhaps it is a necessary survival skill learned by taxi drivers in lieu of learning how to drive, since none of the taxi drivers I used exhibited any knowledge of the latter. I learned later that one of the consequences of the populace not being allowed to own cars until the fall of communism in 1991 was that no one knew how to drive. It took the new government a few years to institute a system of licensing drivers and, to this day, I doubt that driving lessons or passing a driving test are prerequisites to obtaining a license. The drivers were uniformly aggressive, ignored lanes, lights, pedestrians and anything else that hindered their single minded goal of getting to their destination as fast as possible. Three Canadian girls from northern Ontario whom I later met were driving through the country and confirmed the hazardous nature of being on the roads all over Albania.

In this poorest country in Europe, I chose to stay (yes, I am slightly embarrassed) in the Hilton. By way of explanation, it was only a year old and must have been struggling with occupancy as it was offering rooms for $50 a night. At that price, I upgraded and took a king room with a balcony at roughly the same cost a hostel bed goes for in Amsterdam or Paris. Clean, modern, with English speaking staff, it was hosting a conference of Israelis, who also seemed to be the only other guests there. A pleasant 30 minute walk down a river path took me to the city centre

History of Albania:

It was a relief, after 5 weeks in the Balkans, to not be in a country that was part of the former Yugoslavia, with all the conflicts created in its breakup, but the history of Albania is even more frightening.

Three to four thousand years ago, two tribes, the Hellenes and the Illyrians made their way to the region, The Hellenes settled in Greece; the Illyrians in the Balkans. A busy area in antiquity, Albania was visited, not always peacefully, by Greeks, Romans and the Byzantines, all of whom left their mark. The southern area was generally associated with the East and Byzantine empires while the north was more influenced by the Holy Roman Empire. In the 7th century, Slavs from the Russian steppes invaded and settled the area, reducing the influence of Rome, while in the south, the Sicilian Normans battled the Byzantine empire. Whether the Albanians are descendants from the Illyrians or Slavic is open to debate; what is certain is that the Albanian language, Shqip, is one of the oldest languages still in use and unlike any other.

Albania was predominantly Orthodox Christian after the Slavs settled in the region. Albania first emerged as a distinct entity in the 10th century, but remained part of Byzantium until captured, at various times and in different areas, in the ensuing centuries by Bulgarians, Venetians and the Serbian Kingdom. When the Ottomans subdued Serbia in the 15th century, they also became the overlord of Albania, converting many native Albanians to Islam and settling other Muslims in the region. The greatest Albanian warrior, Skanderbeg, rebelled against the Ottomans beginning in 1443, enjoying numerous victories and earning Albania de facto independence. Upon his death, the Ottomans reasserted their authority over Albania.

The 19th century was marked by frequent Albanian rebellions against their Ottoman authorities, with independence finally achieved in 1912 following the Balkan Wars. WW1 saw the population’s support split along religious grounds, with the Muslims supporting the Axis powers and Ottomans and the Christians rallying to the Allies’ cause. Italy overran most of the territory with Serbia also occupying part of it. Despite secret deals and backroom shenanigans by the victors about how to divide Albania, it managed to emerge after WW1 as a single, independent entity although internal politics were chaotic.

In 1939, fascist Italy invaded and occupied Albania. When Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, Germany took over. Tirana was liberated by its partisans in 1944, led by the communists and its leader, Enver Hoxha. A side note, Albania was the only continental European country in which the Jewish population increased during WW2 as the Albanians refused to participate in the deportation of Jews. Many Jews made their way to the country as a place of refuge, but there are very few left today.

The Communist Period: 1944 to 1991

Hoxha quickly set himself up as dictator, executing political enemies, stifling the media and rounding up intellectuals. Estimates for the number of people killed vary between 5,000 and 25,000. In 1945, elections were held with all the candidates nominated from the Democratic Front (Communist) party. Guess who won?

Hoxha hugely admired Joseph Stalin. His short-lived alliance with Tito in neighboring Yugoslavia fell apart in 1948 when Hoxha accused Tito of being too liberal. Relations with the USSR broke off in 1961, following Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s ascendancy, for “not being enough like Stalin.” Hoxha, needing foreign aid, wooed China, which wanted a foothold in Europe and Albania was the best it could do. However, Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 infuriated Hoxha, who again broke off relations with China, lost all sources of foreign funds and plunged his country into a terrible economic crisis.

Hoxha decreed that Albania would be entirely self-sufficient, importing very little, but exporting natural resources and electricity. Rationing, everything from food to cars to electricity, was pervasive. No one was allowed to own private property; farms were collectivized, full employment was guaranteed. People were hungry, clothing was mundane, productivity sank and things we take for granted, like banks, credit cards, insurance, were unknown to the populace.

Differences were not allowed. Ethnic Greeks suffered discrimination and could not be educated in Greek. When ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo to Albania, they were returned for fear they would pollute the country with western ideas. Religion was banned; Hoxha proudly proclaiming Albania to be the first atheist country. Mosques and churches were demolished; some priests burned or otherwise executed. Even today, the country remains fairly non-observant. Although 50% of the population is Muslim, 90% of those are non-practicing.

One of my guides told me the story of the symbols of the fall of communism. The first companies into Albania were Coca Cola and Mercedes Benz. The red Coca Cola logo became synonymous with capitalism. Mercedes was quick in because the Communist rulers all had Mercedes cars and, even today, a large number of vehicles are Mercedes, albeit 20-30 years old. But the biggest emblem of freedom from Hoxha is the banana. As the climate of Albania does not support banana trees, none were grown in, or imported to, Albania, until after 1991. An entire generation grew up not knowing what a banana looked like or how one tasted. Today, the supermarkets and fruit stalls all sell bananas in a nod to the country’s freedom.

Albanians were not allowed to travel. The border force’s mandate was to ensure Albanian citizens stayed in Albania. At Bunker Art2, a museum dedicated to showcasing the state agencies employed during the Hoxha regime, the weapons, uniforms, listening devices and other paraphernalia used by the elite Border Force are on display. My recollection is about 9,000 people tried to escape the country in the 40 years of Hoxha; of those 1,000 were killed in the process. Brutal labour camps were set up for the prisoners and for the families, the wives and children, of those who tried to escape, a huge deterrent. The Museum of Secret Surveillance, housed in the former Sigurmi headquarters, showcases the technology and methods used by the Sigurimi, the brutal interior police modelled after East Germany’s Stasi.

About those bunkers… In addition to his other faults, Hoxha took paranoia to an extreme. Convinced that a Russian invasion was imminent, he embarked upon a scheme of building concrete bunkers, 170,000 in total, between 1967 and 1986, estimated to cost 2% of the country’s GDP. Varying in size from tiny 2 person cells to nuclear fallout shelters with over 100 rooms, their grey, mushroom shaped entrances dotted the landscape. When one of Hoxha’s generals suggested they might not be too effective, he was executed. Today most of the bunkers have been removed, to where no one is sure, but a few remain around Tirana as reminders and as entrances to museums, tearooms and mushroom farms.

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Me at a bunker’s entrance

Following Hoxha’s death in 1985, Ramiz Alia took over. He realized the winds were changing. He initiated trade with with Italy and Greece and allowed people to travel abroad. Elections in 1991 kept the communists in power, but non-communists were also in the cabinet. In the 1992 election, the Democratic Party won, ending communist rule in Albania. Today, it is a member of NATO and is seeking admission to the EU.

Tirana Walking Tour:

Eriv (pronounced like Eric without the “c”) guided me and 15 others through the sites of central Tirana, in addition to providing much of the history and the stories here. Meeting in the central square, Eriv pointed out the National History Museum with its communist inspired mural depicting Albanians throughout the centuries, from Illyrians to the 3 communists marching victoriously in the centre. Painted in 1981, the only change to the mural has been the deletion of a star on the flag.

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National History Museum with Mural

Eriv walked us to the Arts Museum to see a a collection of statues. Stalin is there twice, Lenin once and the white bust with the missing nose is Hoxha. Although they previously stood in the main square, they were toppled by crowds in 199O and 1991 and put out to pasture behind the Museum.

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The Statues

A statue of Mother Teresa graces the podium outside the Cathedral of St. Paul. Although Catholica make up only about 10% of the population, Mother Teresa is admired by all, as the only Albanian Nobel prize winner and as a representative of Albanian tolerance and kindness.

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Statue of Mother Teresa

We walked to another quirky monument to communism, the Pyramid. Originally built as a mausoleum for Hoxha’s remains by his daughter, it never served that purpose. Today, it remains derelict, graffiti laden,  its windows broken, behind wire while the country figures out what to do with it.

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The Albanian Pyramid

During the communist period, senior government officials lived in Blloku, a community gated to keep the population out. Today, the walls are gone and coffee shops, bars and night clubs welcome all. Hoxha’s house still stands, Closed to the public, it is now subjected to a delicious irony. Across the street from the residence of the world’s strictest communist is that symbol of capitalism, Colonel Saunders, grinning from a KFC into the windows of Haxha’s home. In case you are curious, Albania doesn’t have a MacDonalds, but one is scheduled to open later this year.

Berat:

Albania has far more to offer than a communist past. Across the countryside rests ancient ruins from dozens of civilizations, many in excellent shape. Apollonia has extensive and well preserved Roman ruins; Durres has one of the largest existing amphitheatres. Albania’s Adriatic coast is as beautiful as can be, but has suffered recently from overbuilding of cheap beachside hotels catering to Poles, Germans and Russians.

I visited the city of Berat, a UNSECO world heritage site often called the city of 1,000 windows. One of the very few downsides of visiting a less touristed country is many tours offered only proceed if minimum numbers are met, so despite TripAdvisor and GetYourGuide promoting dozens of day trips to Berat, none were going when I was there or only if a horrific single only price was paid. I chose instead to try the local bus system, which cost the equivalent of $5 for a one-way, two hour bus ride to Berat.

High atop the hill is Berat castle. Mostly constructed in Byzantine and Ottoman times, but some of its walls date to the Roman period. Inside, little remains of the palaces, but like Diocletian’s Palace in Split, locals have constructed houses inside the walls and lived there since the 13th century. Also inside are 20 churches, again most from the 13th century.

It stands atop a hill overlooking the Berat, also called the white city and the city of 1,000 windows, after the Ottoman architecture. Sadly, most of the houses have been abandoned, too expensive to fit to modern standards.

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Many of the 1,000 windows in Berat

Final Thoughts:

Albania was one of those countries I always wanted to visit and it didn’t disappoint. Tirana is fascinating, not for its beauty or architecture, but for its role as the epicenter of Albanian communism which I would describe as quirky and radical but for the reality that the Hoxha regime was brutal, crushing all opposition and inhibiting individuality. I didn’t spend long enough in Albania to enjoy its plentiful archeological wonders, but that is a good reason to return.

Next: Kosovo and Bill Clinton

Meandering through Montenegro

Montenegro is a new country, declaring independence, and amicably divorcing itself, from Serbia in 2006. A third of its 600,000 inhabitants live in the capital, Podgorica. It is small (about 400 kilometers long), but contains rugged mountain peaks, forests, waterfalls, lakes and 295 kilometers of Adriatic coastline. As it neighbors Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania and Croatia,  it has had its shares of troubles over the centuries.

History:

Montenegrians are Serbian speaking Slavs, who emigrated to the Balkans in the 7th century. They became part of the Byzantine empire, but in 1042 revolted and achieved an independent kingdom. The kingdom existed until the mid-15th century, when Montenegro was captured by the Ottomans. It managed to regain independence in 1692 and remained more or less a self-governing state until the aftermath of WW1, when it became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and, post-WW2, part of the Yugoslavian Republic. Following the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1990, it stayed as part of Serbia, thus experiencing  the global embargoes and economic crises that plagued Serbia in the 1990’s, but luckily sustained little damage from the NATO air strikes in 1999.

Podgorica:

A dramatic train ride from Belgrade, through high mountain passes and hundreds of tunnels, until the train slowly descended into the valley brought me to my destination, the capital city of Podgorica. Although founded in the 10th century and occupied by just about everyone, it was heavily bombed during WW2 and retains little of historical architectural interest.

My walking tour of Podgorica was cancelled for lack of the minimum participants. The city is not heavily touristed, a much welcome change from Dubrovnik, but not great for group tours. Undeterred, I grabbed a map and walked towards the city centre. Fifteen minutes later, I came to the football stadium, which my map indicated was on the other side of downtown. I had walked through it and completely missed it. As I said, not too much of interest. I crossed the newly constructed Millenium Bridge, which looked very similar to other millenium bridges in Belgrade and Novi Sad in Serbia, walked back across another bridge, then walked to the old Ribnica bridge and couldn’t figure out what else to do. I went to the mall, which had lots of shoe stores, a few telephone carriers, some toy stores and food kiosks. The walk around the mall took 15 minutes. So I walked 45 minutes to the nearest laundromat, did my laundry and had a pedicure on the way back.

 

And so it went. My 3 days in Podgorica were pleasant, but unexciting.

From Podgorica to Kotor:

Podgorica is inland about 55 kilometers, but a slow drive to the coast reveals spectacular scenery and architecture that spans thousands of years. I arranged a private transfer/tour with Tanya, a local Podgorician who along with 2 friends started a travel agency. Out first stop was Lake Skadar, a mountain lake that straddles Montenegro and Albania. Popular for picnics and lazy boat rides, we instead went high into the mountains for a bird’s eye view.

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Me and Lake Skadar

The next stop was Budva,  a coastal town with an ancient centre, dating from the 9th century, with Venetian inspired buildings and Ottoman era Orthodox churches.

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Budva Church

Our last city was Tivat, modern and  notable for its tricky-to-land-in airport due to the nearby mountains. Its harbour is routinely filled with mega-yachts and high-end retail stores abound. I found the whole place pretentious.

Kotor:

Kotor is Montenegro’s jewel and deservedly so. Its bay stretches from the Adriatic inland for 30 kilometers and is often, wrongly, referred to as Europe’s most southern fjord. It can be reached by a short tunnel under the mountains or a long drive along coastal towns before snaking around the bay on a single lane, curvy road following the water. We chose the latter. Tanya was underwhelmed by the towns. The first we passed, she said, was occupied mostly by Russians, laundering their money and driving up prices all over the coast. Another town was predominantly Turkish, “a safety net from Erdogan” Tanya offered. Nestled in the mouth of the bay are two islands, the natural Sveti Dorde and Gospa od Skrpijela.

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An island just before Kotor Bay containing an exclusive hotel

We entered the walled city of Kotor. Inside are 17 churches, some right across from each other, ranging in age from the 10th century to the 20th century, mostly Orthodox. Palaces, former homes belonging to wealthy Kotor citizens, are signposted. Most resemble Venetian constuction, built at the height of Kotor’s prosperity in the 16th and 17th centuried. The inevitable souvenir shops, ice cream vendors and banks were present, along with touts offering speed boat tours of the bay. That seemed like a waste to me; the harbour should be savoured slowly, not raced past in a flurry trying to get from island to cave as quick as possible.

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One of the Palaces inside Kotor

Above the town, a fortified wall rises steeply upwards to first, the church of St. Nikola, then to St. John’s fortress. 1450 steps lead up to the fortress and Tanya warned me it was a demanding, 2 hour climb, Unfortunately, it was the only way to see the Bay from above as the driveable Serpentine way to the view site was closed for go-cart races. I pondered the climb for about a second before deciding I could just as happily enjoy someone else’s picture of the the view on Instagram. Needless to say, I didn’t do the climb.

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The Church and Fortress above Kotor

My pension was a peaceful 30 minute walk along the sea from Kotor centre. Not only did I not contend with the crowds and noise in the center, but my room had a balcony with a view of the bay. I spent joyous hours sitting there, watching the sunset and sunrise. On my last day in Montenegro, 2 cruise ships sailed up the bay to dock in Kotor to dump thousands of passengers on shore excursions into the city. I was not unhappy to leave.

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View of Kotor Bay

Next: Albania

 

 

 

Serbia: Difficult to love

I learned, too late, that one cannot go to Serbia with an open mind after visiting Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. There is just too much hideous, recent history between the countries and so much in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina tells of Serbia provoking the wars in the Balkans, how Serbia armed and incited Croatian and Bosnian Serbs to fight for a Greater Serbia, how the Serbs massacred tens of thousands in the name of ethnic cleansing.

The last museum I went to in Sarajevo, the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity, graphically and with excruciating detail, displayed the worst of the atrocities committed by the Serbs, characterized by the Museum as drunks, criminals and the insane unleashed by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to run roughshod over the innocent Bosnians. To be fair, the Museum also portrayed negatively the Bosnian Croats who attacked Mostar, but, perhaps less fairly, the Museum made no mention of any atrocities by the Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians).

I resolved to keep an open mind toward Serbia. My visit started well, on a tour through the Bosnian Republic of Srpska, a Serbian autonomous zone, and into Serbia. It was a pleasant drive, through hilly lands heavily given over to agriculture, the round roofs of Orthodox churches dominating the towns, occasional wooden churches and pretty rivers bisecting the land. But it wasn’t quite as scenic as Bosnia Herzegovina. The mountains had no snow peaks, farm land replaced forests and waterfalls, so prevalent in Bosnia Herzegovina, seemed to end at the border.

We approached Belgrade, the capital with a greater population of 2 million, and my initial reaction was of a big, ugly city. Buildings were either varying shades of grey or varying shades of beige. Social realism, meaning rectangular boxes sprouting up from the ground, flanked the sidewalks, decorated only by the ubiquitous air-conditioning boxes that protruded below every window. My hotel was right on the main square, Trg Rebublike, with the National Theatre and the National Museum fronting onto a statue of Prince Michael, but the square was under construction and blocked off entirely. It was not a pleasing first impression.

History:

There is good reason why Belgrade is not particularly attractive. It has been sacked, razed and bombed 140 times in its long history, most recently in 1999 when NATO air strikes dropped thousands of bombs in hope of encouraging then president Milosevic to resign. How it came to that is a long, convoluted story and the commentary below is through my western perspective.

The Serbs were part of a great migration south from the Russian steppes that arrived in the Balkans in the 7th century, integrating with, or displacing the local tribes and the remnants of the Roman Empire. They converted to Christianity willingly, but of the Orthodox variety, not Catholic and not part of the Holy Roman Empire. In the early Middle Ages, many revered Orthodox saints came from, or practised in, current Kosovo when, by the 14th century, the Kingdom of Serbia covered vast parts of the Balkans, including parts of Bulgaria and Albania.

The Ottomans captured the region in 1540 and began settling Muslims or converting locals to Islam, with the promise of lower taxes and other state benefits. The Ottomans focused on the south, in current Albania, but gradually pushed many Serbs out of Kosovo where the Muslims became the majority. Throughout the Ottoman period, the Hungarians controlled the north areas and encouraged Serbians to settle there and assist in their constant wars against the Ottomans. Finally, Serbia rebelled against the Ottomans and achieved a sort of independence in 1817. Following the 1912 Balkan Wars, Serbia encompassed present day Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo.

After WW1, Serbia joined with Croatia and Slovenia to form the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which it dominated. During WW2, it was occupied by first Italy, then Germany and suffered extensive damage from Allied bombs. Post WW2, it was 1 of 6 regions in Tito’s Republic of Yugoslavia; Belgrade was the country’s capital.

Upon Tito’s death in 1980, things became difficult in Yugoslavia. The many loans Tito had secured from both the East and the West, while allowing Yugoslavia a greater prosperity than other communist countries, became due and no new money could be found. Unemployment and inflation increased; nationalism in each of the regions started to flourish as regions sought independence and, by 1992, Yugoslavia had disintegrated into chaos and war.

The region of Serbia, and Serbians living in other regions, were at the forefront of trying to maintain the boundaries of the former Yugoslavia as a single entity. The Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, spoke encouragingly of the Greater Serbia and armed and assisted Serbs living in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina to resist those countries’ goals of independence, massacring large numbers of non-Serbs in an effort to ethnically cleanse areas the Serbs claimed, rightfully or wrongfully, as their own.

The world basically stood by and watched, to intense criticism and humiliation to the token UN force stationed in Bosnia Herzegovina, as hundreds of thousands were killed or displaced in that country. A ceasefire and truce was negotiated in 1995, but when matters started heating up in 1998 in Kosovo, with the potential of more ethnic cleansing and actual widespread displacement by Serbians against primarily Muslim Kosovans, US President Bill Clinton ordered NATO air strikes against Serbia. For 78 days beginning March 24, 1999, NATO bombed Belgrade and Serbia. Between 400 and 1,500 people were killed, depending on who you ask. Although initially the targets were strictly military, the bombings soon expanded to include dual purpose structures: bridges, power plants, factories and the main television studio. Its shelled-out remains stand as a memorial to the victims of the bombing, including the 16 civilians who died inside it. Milosovic was warned in advance about the bombing, but he chose not to evacuate the building in the hopes of gaining more sympathy for his stance if NATO was seen to be killing innocent victims.

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The bombed TV building in Belgrade

The bombings ceased after Serbia agreed to withdraw its Yugoslav forces from Kosovo. In 2008, Kosovo voted for independence from Serbia, a status recognized by 110 countries, but not Serbia. Milosovic remained president of Serbia until 2000, when he was overthrown and a year later, sent to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague to stand trial on charges of war crimes. In 2006, he was found dead in his prison cell, apparently from an heart attack but at least one video I watched claimed he was poisoned by Western forces.

Walking Tour:

Davor, a former history teacher, led the history and cultural tour of Belgrade. Starting at the under construction Republic Square, he noted that no one ever really knew when construction projects would be completed in Belgrade and the anticipated opening date before the summer season was optimistic. “Maybe by next summer season?” he suggested.

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Under construction Republic Square

Davor gave us a short history of Serbia, emphasizing its long history as an independent kingdom and its pivotal place in the former Yugoslavia. Our first stop was at the Moskva hotel, built by the Russians to house passengers on the Orient Express train, which used to stop nearby on its way from Paris to Constantinople, but the route ceased in 1977.

We passed the House of the National Assembly building, where a protest was occurring, apparently an everyday occurrence, crossed a park, saw a number of statues of famous Serbians on horses where I learned that if the horse has a single leg raised, its rider died in battle, two raised legs meant the rider had been assassinated and none raised meant a natural death. We then passed by the gargantuan main Post Office, a strikingly hideous example of socialist realism architecture. Davor said the Post Office was deliberately constructed largely so as to obscure the view of Church of St. Mark, nestled behind it.

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Part of the Post Office Building

We stopped at the former TV building which had been bombed by NATO. Davor explained why he thought NATO bombed Serbia and the reasons were very different than what I had been led to believe. Kosovo, he said, is very rich in minerals, with coal, copper and silver mines. Bill Clinton is a major shareholder in the largest Kosovo mining company, so he ordered the bombing to enrich his holdings, I am not making this up; it was what Davor told us and what he believes.

We continued walking, passing yet another Nicholas Tesla museum (he was born in Croatia of Serbian parents, which is why both countries, along with the USA, claim him as their own). To the delight of Davor and the men in the group, we came upon a Yugo, the Yugoslav made automobile that was the darling of the communist regime. The company ceased manufacturing the cars in 2001. I had heard in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina about the unreliable reputation Yugo had, but Davor had a different take on it. “It was very reliable,” he said, “because every Yugo owner had to be able to fix his own car.”

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A Yugo

We finished the tour at the Church of St. Sava, the most revered saint in Serbia. The Church, started in 1935 was finally finished in 2017. It is impressive and entrance is free, but the 2 hour tour was entering its 4th hour, so I was not too appreciative of the extensive murals in the crypt area.

The Sava and Danube:

Despite the walking tour showing us the highlights of Belgrade, I couldn’t shake my impression that it was not a pretty city. A YouTube video I watched extolled the loveliness of the city by the water, so I went for a walk along the Sava River. Sadly, I was met with more construction, busy roads, unsightly industrial buildings and gas stations. Boat based bars lined the river, but I am too old to be into the nightclub scene. I did end up at Belgrade fortress, where views of the Sava River meeting the Danube were had, but maybe it was the overcast day or my pessimistic attitude, but I could not see anything of beauty.

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The Sava riverside

Day Trip:

Given my disillusionment with Belgrade, I signed up for a day trip out of the city. Following a drive through rich agricultural land, we arrived at Fenek Monastery. Originally built in the 15th century, the current Church was reconstructed in the 19th century and is typical of many Orthodox churches that dot the landscape.

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The church as Fenek Monastery

I had listened to a podcast extolling the virtues of Sremski Karlovci, a town not captured by the Ottomans, but occupied by the Austria-Hungary empire, with architecture to match. Its buildings would have been at home in Vienna or Budapest, their facades ornately decorated and painted in reds, muted greens and other colours completely absent in Belgrade.

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 Sremski Karlovci

Our guide, Bajan, was another history and archeology scholar. As we approached Novi Sad, also bombed by NATO, I asked:

“What were you taught in university about why NATO had bombed Serbia?”

He initially responded: “it is not taught as all the records are sealed and will be for another 15 years.”

“You must have your own thoughts on the reasons why,” I persisted.

“Well, there are two reasons,” he explained. “First, you must understand that before WW2, the US had a giant base in Kosovo and they want it again to keep an eye on Serbia. Second, Kosovo has all the rivers and the US wants to control the water.”

That’s what he told me. You can believe what you wish.

Novi Sad is Serbia’s second largest city, with a fort built by Austria-Hungary to keep a watch out for the Ottomans. The old military houses are still visible, not having been bombed by NATO, but the bridges were and have all been rebuilt. The city centre has a few churches, some Baroque buildings, a pleasant pedestrian walkway and a kiosk selling the best ice-cream I tasted in Serbia. I’ve not much more to say about it.

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Novi Sad from the fortress

A Wonderful Departure: 

Those who know me are aware of my fondness for train rides and the quirkier, the better. Though the former Yugoslav countries boast a number of trains, the granddaddy of them all is the Belgrade to Bar line. Completed in 1976, the 476 kilometer track boasts 254 tunnels and 234 bridges. Running from Belgrade to the Adriatic Coast, it crosses 3 countries (Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro), starting in the foothills of the Dinaric Alps, carving through the Balkans, past deep green valleys, over vertigo inducing bridges and, in the final 150 kilometers before Montenegro’s capital of Podgorica, towering mountains looking over deepest canyons.

The cars themselves have seen better days; no one would mistake it for a luxury train, especially at the price of about $40 between Belgrade and Podgorica, where I left the train after 10 hours. It reaches its terminus in Bar an hour later. There is no dining car, no food whatsoever for sale on board and the bathrooms require your own toilet paper.

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My train car on the Belgrade to Bar line

The windows hadn’t been washed forever; fortunately the windows in the passageway opened to allow for photographs. But that was a cat and mouse game. The train entered long tunnels and I stood with my finger on the photo button hoping to get a good shot in the seconds after emerging from one tunnel and before entering the next. I managed a few, but they don’t do justice to the stunning scenery.

Final Thoughts:

Serbia is one of the first countries where there was a palpable anti-West feeling and it has nothing to do with Donald Trump and everything to do with Bill Clinton and the NATO bombing in 1999. It’s not surprising; if the Warsaw Pact had bombed Toronto, killed thousands and destroyed its economy for the foreseeable future, I would not be enamoured with Russia. I came to Serbia to try and understand their perspective and that much was accomplished: its claim to the Kosovo lands run long and deep and to a large extent, the Serbs have disavowed Milosovic. What I found unfathomable and disturbing was the Serbians inability to face or accept any responsibility, even the Croatian “we all committed wrongs” attitude. No “Belgrade during the war” tours are offered, no museums are dedicated to the wars, nothing is taught about it in the schools or universities. Instead, the people are fed what I consider to be erroneous and biased information about the causes of the wars. I doubt that the Western version I learned is completely accurate, but at least its veracity is debated and challenged. I doubt the same can be said for the Serbian propaganda.

 

Next: Montenegro

 

 

 

 

Bosnia Herzegovina: A Country of Bridges

I visit some countries to see a particular city,  a specific site or an event. Others are just in the general neighborhood and I think, if I am there, I might as well see what the place has to offer. Bosnia Herzegovina fell into the latter category, although I had always wanted to see the bridge at Mostar. I did no advance reading or research; I just showed up and asked: “what is of interest here?”

It turns out, a lot. Bosnia Herzegovina was one of the most inviting, friendly and beautiful countries I visited. It is abbreviated “BiH”, the “i” being “and” in Bosnian and to which I shall henceforth refer. BiH is a country which my lack of prior knowledge prevented me from fully enjoying and one to which I hope to return.

History:

As usual, a brief history recitation to understand the country. Mostly landlocked, Bosnia is nestled between Croatia in the north and west and Serbia in the east and south. Much of the country is in the Dinaric Alps, hence the whole north is mountainous. The Sava River, a Danube tributary, flows through it, as does the Drina river on the Serbian border and the Neretva in the south. Being where it is, it was a crossroad for every ancient empire marching between Constantinople in the east and Greece/Rome/Venice in the west. It was settled by Slavic tribes in the 7th century, including large numbers of Serbs and Croats. In 1377, it became its own kingdom.

In the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire conquered the territory and set up shop, establishing Sarajevo as the regional capital (it is the capital of BiH today). Mosques were built, Turkish-like bazaars opened and the majority of the people became Muslims. The old city today retains its Ottoman architecture, although the shops sell copper and leather souvenirs and offer Bosnian coffee.

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The Ottoman area of Sarajevo

In 1878, the Austria-Hungarian empire drove the Ottomans out and Sarajevo’s architectural style followed suit, with the new city looking decidedly Viennese. The majority of the population remained Muslim, but it was tolerant of other religions and proudly called itself the Jerusalem of Europe, because within a few hundred meters of each other were Islamic Mosques, Catholic Cathedrals, Jewish Synagogues and Serbian Orthodox Churches.

The Assassination:

BiH was in the Austria-Hungarian empire June 28, 1914, when a young Bosnian Serb seeking independence from the empire assassinated the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on a bridge in Sarajevo, and set in motion the events leading to WW1. The bridge still stands today.

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The Latin Bridge where the assassination occurred

After WWI, BiH lost its identity when it became part of the Serbian, Croat, Slovenian Kingdom of Yugoslavia. During WW2, it was made part of Nazi Croatia and occupied first by Italy and later by Germany. Following the war, it became 1 of 6 regions in the newly formed Yugoslavia state under Tito.

The Olympics:

Sarajevo’s crowning achievement was hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics, a first for a communist country. Sporting events were held on and around the mountains surrounding the city. A bobsled and luge track, along with a cable car, were built. Sadly, the last event was held on the tracks in 1989. During the siege of Sarajevo, the tracks were convenient sniper points for the Bosnian Serbs, but today they bear the artwork of graffiti artists. Once a year, they become a racecourse for totally crazy bike riders, but not on the day we visited.

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The bobsled track

The Bosnian War and Siege of Sarajevo:

Although there are differing perspectives of the precise causes of the wars that besot the former Yugoslavia, the following was the one provided by three guides from Sarajevo, all Muslim Bosnians. The death of the Yugoslav president, Joseph Tito, in 1980 unleashed a wave of nationalism. The Orthodox Serbs, centered in Belgrade wanted to keep Yugoslavia together, but in BiH, the 50% Muslims and 15% Croat Bosnians (Catholic) voted for independence in March, 1992, notwithstanding the desire of the 35% of Orthodox Serbians living in BiH to remain part of Serbia. On March 3, 1992, the day after the referendum BiH declared independence and hostilities broke out very quickly.

The siege of Sarajevo began in April, 1992, with pro-Serbian forces holding the mountains that surround the city, effectively isolating the city. The U.N. imposed an embargo, resulting in the Bosnians having no weapons but the pro-Serbians having all the fire power of the Yugoslav People’s Army. For 3 years, their artillery pounded the city, their snipers killed anyone unfortunate enough to be in their sights. Water, sewage and electricity were cut off for all but 3 hours of the 3 year siege, coinciding with the 1994 World Cup soccer final. Over 3,000 people were killed. Of its 500,000 pre-war population, only 200,000 remained. Today, its population is just 350,000.

The people of Sarajevo were stunned that the world did not help them. They could not believe that, at the end of the 20th century in Europe, a full blown war was allowed to occur and continue for 3 years. The U.N. did impose a no-fly zone over the city, to prevent Serbian air strikes, and U.N. troops occupied the airport, receiving drops of food and medicine to distribute to the inhabitants. But the U.N. forces were under strict orders not to use violence except to protect themselves and the locals began to refer to them as the United Nothing.

In 1993, Bosnians dug a tunnel from the mountains, under the airport, and into the city to move people, food and arms in and out of the city. The tunnels remain today and I entered one during a Siege of Sarajevo tour.

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A tunnel under the airport in Sarajevo

After 3 years of the siege, war, concentration camps and mass murders in the name of ethnic cleansing, a country-wide truce was negotiated. Called the Dayton Agreement, it  divides BiH into 2 basically autonomous regions, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Srpska. The latter is dominated by the Serbian population.

Mostar:

For centuries, the city of Mostar had been a figurative bridge between the Ottoman east and the Byzantine and later Austria-Hungarian empires in the west, bisected by the Neretva River. Over the river stood the Mostar bridge, completed in 1566 and considered to be one of the finest examples of Ottoman arch bridges.

During the Yugoslav Wars, the Croats had originally supported the Bosnians in their battle against the Serbs, but in 1993 began secretly negotiating with the Serbs to divide BiH between Croatia and Serbia. While the Bosnians were under siege in Sarajevo and being massacred in eastern BiH, the Croats turned on them and tried to capture Mostar. Battles raged between Croats and Bosnians and, finally,  on November 9, 1993, after extensive shelling, the world watched in horror as the Mostar Bridge collapsed, instantly becoming the symbol of broken relationships between the ethnic factions.

Thanks to international funding, the bridge was rebuilt in 2004, using Ottoman building materials and techniques as much as possible. Today, tourists make the pilgrimage to Mostar, not only to admire the newly built bridge, but to pay homage to the victims of the wars and the hope for the future.

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Me at Mostar

The Sarajevo Haggadah: 

All the tours I took proudly mentioned the Sarajevo Haggadah. I’d never heard of it, but a Haggadah is the book read during the Jewish Passover dinner retelling the story of Moses and the Jews leaving Egypt. The Sarajevo Haggadah was commissioned by a Jewish family in Spain in the early 14th century and contains exquisite miniature artwork of the story and the Seder. Interestingly, the paintings recount the Genesis story, with a round world, some 150 years before Columbus came to the same conclusion.

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Copy in the Museum of the Haggadah

How it got to Sarajevo is not known. It likely left Spain in 1492, following the expulsion of the Jews during the Inquisition; a large Sephardic (Spanish) Jewish population had lived in Sarajevo since the 15th century. Notations in the Haggadah trace it to Italy in the 17th century. In the 19th century, a Jewish family in Sarajevo sold it to the BiH National Museum.

During WW2, Hitler ordered it, and many other Jewish artworks, to be destroyed, but the story goes that when his soldier asked the Muslim guard at the Museum for it, the guard said it had already been taken by the Nazis. The guard then arranged for the book to be hidden in a Muslim mosque for the remainder of the war.

Its survival was also threatened during the war in Bosnia and the Sarajevo siege. Again, a Muslim, this time the director of the Museum, rescued it despite heavy shelling of the city and the Museum. He put it in an underground vault for safekeeping during the war. One of the greatest tragedies of the war was the loss of hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable books when the National Library was bombed and burned. Thus, the Haggadah’s continued existence is a cherished link to the city’s past and a much heralded example of different religions working together in this city which religion tore apart.

It remains on display at the Museum, but only for 2 hours per week and I was not there for either of them.

Srpska

I discovered an entirely pleasurable way of moving from one town to the next that didn’t involve bus rides, which had become my usual means of transport in the Balkans. Offered by a company in Sarajevo called MeetBosnia, it provides transfers between cities with a tour on the way. As the alternative was a 6 hour bus ride from Sarajevo to Belgrade, it was a welcome choice.

Our driver was Adenne, who picked me and my two traveling companions for the day up in a Mercedes and announced we would be taking the backroads so as to enjoy the best of the countryside.

Our first stop was at in Visegrad, at the Old Stone Bridge over the Drina River. A stunning Ottoman arch bridge built in the 1577, the original withstood the wars and is a UNESCO World Heritage site:

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Old Stone Bridge

We drove to Kamengrad, a theme park type town with 4 replicas of typical Byzantine, Ottoman, Viennese and Renaissance villages. It was a tad artificial and Adenne admitted it had not attracted the crowds its developer had hoped for. More successful was the Ethno Village in Drvengrad, with all buildings constructed entirely of wood. It now hosts a successful film festival.

The real star of the drive were the views. The highway meandered around mountains, through forest after forest, providing spectacular panoramas of the valleys below. Although not quite as awe-inspiring as the western part of Bosnia, with its waterfalls and snow peaked mountains, it was still beautiful.

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Countryside View

Our last stop was a Serbian Orthodox monastery at Kolubarski. We were welcomed in by the caretaker. Inside, the church was covered with murals depicting Christ, as in all Orthodox churches, the Virgin Mary and some of the Apostles.

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The Monastery

Final Thoughts:

I wish I had spent more time in Bosnia, especially enjoying  nature around Mostar. The countryside is unbelievably gorgeous. All the people I met were friendly; their worst fault is they smoke too much, even inside restaurants. The Bosniaks also practiced the most liberal form of Islam I have encountered. All of my Muslim guides admitted to drinking alcohol. I saw only one woman in a body covering Abaya and just a few wearing the Hajib. Even though it was Ramadan, when Muslims fast and don’t smoke during the day, restaurants were open as usual and plenty of tourists (and locals?) were enjoying coffee, a glass of wine and pizza, which was ubiquitous. The mosques did not use loud speakers to broadcast the Call to Prayer 5 times a day. Only the roar of a cannon at sunset to announce the end of the daily Ramadan fast broke the silence.

I came to BiH expecting to see a country recovering from a horrendous war. Obviously, the war and its after effects weigh heavy and are hard to miss. Shell holes mar many buildings in Sarajevo, mine signs warn not to step on certain land, pre-war industry has yet to recover with the result that BiH has huge unemployment and relies heavily on foreign aid. But my departing impressions were of a beautiful country with people trying hard to recover their reputation for tolerance which they had enjoyed for 500 years.

Next: Serbia: Subtle propaganda and anti-West sentiment.