Revisiting the 20th century’s bloody history in rainy Sarajevo.

April 6th is a very important date in Bosnia. It is a day of both celebration (the 1945 victory) and commemoration (the start of the 1992-95 Bosnian war).

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This monument to the dead of wars past has always had an eternal flame burning in front of it. But during the Bosnian War, the flame was out, as the Bosnian Serb Army besieging the city had cut off the gas supply.

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This was hardly the first war in which Sarajevo played a key role.  The street corner where this museum is located is the exact spot where The Great War started. Anarchists from the Serbian organization known as the Black Hand had planned to murder the heir to the Empire and had, that very morning, attempted to do so about where I was standing when I took this picture.

As far as terrorists go, Gavrilo Princip was not the most competent. If he had lived today, he would have been the Underwear Bomber. In the June 18 1914 plot, his colleagues had thus put him as the back-up guy number 7, in case the first 6 failed! For the record, the author of the first attack was no Jason Bourne either. He threw a grenade with a 10 second delay directly at his moving target! Obviously, it exploded under the fourth car behind, injuring the occupants and 12 spectators. He then swallowed a cyanide pill and jumped in the river. However, he had purchased a lot of expired cyanide, which only made him a little sick, and there was only 10 cm of water in the river, so he just smashed his face in the mud.

So after the morning’s failed attack, young Gavrilo went to the museum, which was then a cafe. A short while later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Duchess Sophie made their way out of the palace to visit the hospital where people injured in the attempted assassination had been taken. A confused driver took the wrong route and stopped in front of the cafe. Seeing the unexpected opportunity, Gavrilo leapt out of the establishment and shot the Archduke dead. Gavrilo’s poor marksmanship also cost the life of the Duchess, as he apparently admitted at his trial that he had no intention of killing her (he was firing at a range of 1.5 meter, just saying). Anyway, most conspirators were sentenced to death, but in the relatively progressive Empire, Gavrilo (and the first grenade thrower) had not reached the minimum age for capital punishment, 20. It turned out to be a moot point, as they both got tuberculosis in jail and died shortly thereafter.

But, as amateurish as their performances were, they did ultimately accomplish their mission and while both died before seeing it, the chain of event they initiated did result in the ultimate dismantlement of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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The remnants of a much more recent war, this abandoned building in a very central part of the city. It still lays in ruins not for lack of potential or capital, but because of persisting legal battles over ownership, a direct consequence of all the ethnic cleansing that occurred during the Bosnian War.

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The Pijaka market, where 68 people were killed by a mortar round in 1994, and 43 more in 1995, an event which triggered the NATO bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs, which resulted in the end of the open conflict and the signing of the Dayton Accords. Bosnian Serb leaders always pretended the Muslims had fired on their own people to create international outrage. All I can say is that if true, it certainly worked.

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Right next to the only remaining synagogue in Sarajevo stands this building, known as the ugliest in the city. Rents are higher than the area’s average, because residents have the benefit of not having the view of their own building! Continue reading

Mostar: beautiful and welcoming, yet still bearing the scars of war.

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Stari Most, or the Old Bridge, is to Mostar what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Built in the 16th century, it is one of the finest example of Ottoman engineering.

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Local men collect money from visitors and jump from the centre of the bridge. At first glance this may seem lame, but if you have ever stood on top of a 10 m diving platform, you will understand that this jump from 20 m into a freezing cold river is no small feat. The nerd in me couldn’t help but calculate what this means, assuming free fall. The drop takes a little over 2 seconds and they hit the water at about 70 km/h. Who knew high school physics would come in handy in Mostar?

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Did I mention it was a popular tourist spot? Now put yourself in the shoes of a local woman with a baby stroller who needs to get to the other side to pick-up her dry cleaning, and you will agree that living in a hyper touristy area is not always that great of a thing.

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Stupid tourists… Continue reading

Dubrovnik: one of the most beautiful places in the world to buy a fridge magnet.

Dubrovnik, the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and perhaps the most important touristic site in Croatia.

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This is nothing new, as this massive luxury hotel was built in 1897.

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Today the Old Town and the surroundings are peppered with massive hotels like this one and countless little pensions and vacation apartments.

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And people go because the architecture is magnificent.

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You can’t really see the damage that was done during the 1991-92 siege of the city by Serbian forces, but it was extensive. This map shows the various points of impact and shrapnel damage throughout the old town. In red, the buildings that burned down. In total 56% of the buildings were damaged. This was a scandal in Western media at the time. The death of 114 people, not as much. Continue reading

Montenegro: a lot of history for an 8 year old country!

Because August in Europe is crazy busy, and because I travelled with my girlfriend and friends most of the month, I had pre-planned almost everything. But when I hit Montenegro, I had nothing prepared whatsoever. Because of a cancelled tour and a lot of rain, I only stayed 3 days and I learned very little about the country. But I did go on a very cool, 12 hour long day trip. So here’s what I saw.

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Photographed here at the worst time of the day, Sveti Stephan, a very old fishing village that was eventually abandoned and, in time, turned into a 50 room luxury hotel. The good thing for the rich and famous is that non-guests are not allowed on the tiny island, so if you book the whole thing you should be paparazzi free. Curious, I checked their website and found a hilarious note about the rates. Various rooms and suites cost between 950 and 3850 euros a night, but there is a note: “Rates do not include tourism tax of 1.3 euro a night”. Good, nobody wants the sticker shock of a 3,851.30 euro suite when you had budgeted for 3,850.00.

Sveti Stefan is located very close to Budva, the most important touristic destination in Montenegro. The town of 14,000 gets well over half a million visitors a year. I was told it is an excellent clubbing destination, but since I hate nightclubs, for me Budva is one of the worst places to vacation on the planet. A little town with a few beaches, and catastrophic daily traffic jams. When I exited the town, the line of cars waiting to get in was at least 1.5 km long. I read the wait to get into a parking was often over one hour. Demand on local infrastructure is so bad the town sometimes runs out of tap water! I would rather vacation in Afghanistan.

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Kotor is not as bad, but the old town has long ceased to be a town and is now an Disney-like attraction. I walked all around and saw only 2 businesses that were not directed specifically at tourists (one lawyer’s office and a hairdresser). You can’t see the old town on this photo because it is entirely hidden by the ship! I actually went to a shopping mall in the “suburbs” for lunch because it felt more normal to me.

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Inside, you see groups like these everywhere, from the ship or tour buses.

OK, so I didn’t like the coastal resorts, but enough about the negative stuff. Here’s the photos from the big, nearly 300 km day tour, mostly conducted in pouring rain and thunderstorms.

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Boka Bay from a winding mountain road, with Kotor itself hidden behind the tree. Continue reading

Last stop in Albania: the surprising cool capital, Tirana.

We arrived in Tirana with very low expectations. While tourism along the Albanian Riviera is rapidly developing, the capital has the reputation of having little to offer to visitors.

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To be honest, there is some truth to this. There aren’t many attractions for tourists. And just our luck, the National Historical Museum was closed for renovations until mid-September, possibly in preparation for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis. But for what it lacked in “sights”, Tirana easily made up with tons of cool bars, good restaurants, both traditional and trendy cafes, nice parks and quiet pedestrian streets. I am not sure what we would have done had we stayed there a week, but we agreed that based on our first impressions, coming here for some sort of job, on a contract of say a year, would be pretty cool and probably enjoyable.

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For one thing, I would strangely feel at home! While we didn’t try the Albanian Colonel’s secret recipe, we did eat at local eateries for very cheap. Not 100% sure what we were ordering, but the locals, especially the young ones, spoke enough English to get by. In trendy places, communication was not a problem at all.

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Dark selfie at Grandma’s Bar, a very trendy place in the most expensive part of town, which used to be restricted to the senior communist bureaucrats (then known as the “black area”). Side note: living anywhere in Tirana used to be restricted to those deemed loyal. After the fall of the regime, the capital’s population exploded, more than doubling in a few years.

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This is the kind of cocktail they serve, complete with fresh berries and all. If you go to the grocery store, for the price of this drink you can get 6 litres of beer! But for the three of us, earning money in dollars, swiss francs or euros, it’s still only $5.

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Grandma’s Bar! We asked the barman if there was a good local cuisine restaurant nearby. “No, this is the rich area, there is no traditional food”. So we just went randomly looking for a restaurant and saw one that actually looked like a traditional place. We paused and discussed it.

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And there arrived the owner (seen here bossing the boys around), talking to us in very good French! She didn’t bring us menus, or even asked what we wanted, beyond Albanian food. She informed us we would have a mixed grill plate with some sauces, and asked what we wanted to drink. Continue reading

Berat, Albania: where for the first time I met a guy actually named Elvis!

From Gjirokastër, we headed north to the city of Berat. It is an old town which used to be very important, but much smaller.

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The housing blocks you see in the valley, the new part of the city, were built to accommodate the influx of workers required when China opened a massive textile factory here, which required a workforce of 50,000! Today, the idea of China opening a textile factory in Europe is quite funny, but in these days, Albania was very close to China, having decided that the USSR was not communist enough!

The white building in the middle, which looks like the Capitol in Washington, is not a Government building but a private university. Albanians I talked to agreed that public universities in the country are under financed and professors are often underpaid and not very motivated. This results in a somewhat deficient higher education system. In recent years, dozens of private universities have opened up. You might think that they stepped in to provide top quality education to those who can afford to pay for it. Unfortunately, they are worst than the public universities and in fact simply provide a diploma to those who can buy it.

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The old area known as Patrea.

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And on the opposite side of the river, Antipatrea, of course, below the massive castle. The urban design, with houses packed on top of one another, is what gives the city it’s nickname, “The City of a Thousand Windows”.

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Like most communist leaders of his generation, Albania’s ruler for over 40 years (1944-1985), Enver Hoxha, liked to be worshiped as some sort of living god. Among other schemes to emphasize his alleged awesomeness, he had this beautiful mountain defaced with the inscription of his first name “ENVER” (very similar to what I saw in North Korea). A few years ago, artist Armando Lulaj spent 6 month changing the word to “NEVER” (you’ll have to click on the picture to see it). Continue reading

Albania, part 2: getting a lot better as we travel to the old town of Gjirokastër.

Leaving the nice beaches of southern Albania (with not so nice architecture), we headed across the mountain range to the 14th century town of Gjirokastër. The town of 43,000 has a significant Greek minority and was even the centre of a little war about a hundred years ago involving Greeks wanting to separate it from newly formed Albania. I Googled this because my friend Ines asked the hotel owner why some street signs were in Greek.

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There we found cool architecture! I don’t know how these slate stone roofs compare in functionality to the concrete hotels of Saranda, but they sure look nicer.

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The pleasure came from the fact that despite being a major touristic attraction, the old town remains a real town, with normal people going about their business. We asked for a restaurant recommendation, and were told to look for the one next to the optometrist. This may mean nothing to some people, but to me the presence of such a business means the town is still alive. There is no optometrist in the Old Town of Dubrovnik, Prague or even Riga. They long ago moved away to the suburbs and what use to be their shop now sells souvenirs or ice cream.

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I even got to experience local driving. On the winding cliffside road, you often have to go a few blocks backwards, because there is no place to turn around. Barely wide enough for a car, the roads almost all have 2 way traffic! This little escarpment was the hotel’s parking lot, for three cars. Glad I didn’t rent a GMC Yukon XL, or I would still be there, trying to turn it around without falling off the cliff! By the way: if you are from North America, you probably don’t realize the size of this thing (a Fiat 500); I’ve driven larger lawnmowers!

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Ines, Marion and I, happy to be out of “tourist-only land”!

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And the Albanian lunch, which, unsurprisingly, shares a lot with food inherited from the Ottoman Empire. Qofte (the ground beef pieces), grilled lamb, grilled vegetables, a yoghurt sauce and Qifqi, a fried ball of rice, egg and herbs, traditional specialty of Gjirokastër. Fish and pizzas were good in the south, but for us, this was typical and delicious.

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On the top of the Gjirokastër Castle, the second largest castle in the Balkans. In front of the clock tower, the Albanian and European flags. As you probably know, Albania is not part of the EU, but it is now officially a candidate. The requirements this status imposes is having major impacts on Albania, but I will talk about it in a future story.  Continue reading