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A Summer of Surprises in the Balkans

Posted by on Jul 29, 2011 | Comments Off on A Summer of Surprises in the Balkans

A Summer of Surprises in the Balkans

This month has been quite an eye-opening experience for me. I learned that I’m not cut out for high altitude marathons, that maybe I do enjoy cruising and most importantly that the six countries that once made up the former Yugoslavia have more to offer tourists than I ever imagined.

Over the course of 5 weeks, I visited 19 different countries – 12 of them new to me – bringing my final country count up to 103 by the time I set foot back on U.S. soil yesterday. It was an amazing month(+), here are some of the highlights…

The trip began with the uber-challenging Mont Blanc Marathon. While I fell instantly in love with the Alpine town of Chamonix, if I ever see Mont Blanc again it better be to ski down it. Lesson learned: Marathons + altitude + tallest peak in Western Europe = athletic disaster.

Chamonix Mont Blanc

View from the finish line at Mont Blanc

After moving on from Chamonix, I next met up with my friend Shannon in Barcelona for a week-long cruise around the Mediterranean. It was a delightful way to travel for a week and we were especially thrilled by our stops in Portofino, Capri and Tunisia. We followed up our week at sea with another week in Greece, Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia.

It was so great to have Shannon join me for those 2 ½ weeks of the trip – we hit a total 10 countries together in a whirlwind 16 days. She is living proof that even those with full-time corporate jobs can take off enough time to do a RTW trip (yes, it’s entirely possible to do a RTW in 16 days!).

After Shannon headed home from Slovenia, it was just me and the Balkans for the final two weeks. I’ll be honest, before this trip, I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know much about that part of the world. In fact, there is no way I could even have named the six countries that made up the former Yugoslavia. Now that I have visited all six of them (Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina), the region has come into better focus for me.

Catedral de Mallorca Balearic Islands

With Shannon in Mallorca

In the 1990’s while I was going to college and getting my first job, the people in the Balkans were dodging mortar attacks and burying loved ones. It is a sobering reality and one that stuck with me as I walked the streets of each country.

After my visit to Sarajevo, I got an e-mail from my friend Jack, who does some website consulting for me from time to time. He and his wife visited Sarajevo for the 1984 Olympics and he shared the story of their trip with me. With Jack’s permission, I’d like to share it with you all because I think his words do a better job of summing up the region than I ever could.

Here – in his own words – is his story (along with a few pictures he was kind enough to share):

“In 1984 I had been practically a commuter on Pan Am Airlines, racking up mileage, and got a phone call from the Pan Am marketing department asking if my wife and I would like to go to the Winter Olympics! As a dedicated skier and now world traveler, silly question.

1980 Olympics Sarajevo Bosnia

Team USA enters the stadium in Sarajevo

Pan Am had been offered rooms in a brand new, never occupied apartment building that were intended for members of the press corps but not fully occupied. They set up a tour for a small group of high-mileage customers — rooms, and tickets to any of the venues we wanted to attend. After a flight over in the company of Kurt Douglas, Lorne Greene and a bunch of other notables who I’ve forgotten, we spent a week hanging out with the International Press Corps — interesting people and stories, believe me! — and attended all the festivities and events we could stay awake for.

For the big event, Yugoslavia rounded up everyone who could speak English to work the Olympics, which meant college age kids from all over the country who were happy to leave behind any regional animosities back in their home regions. The kids assigned to keep us happy asked every evening what events we wanted to attend the next day. They then spent the night partying with the other kids drawn into Sarajevo for the event, swapping and trading tickets to get the ones we wanted. The next morning we were greeted with hung over and blood shot eyed guides — with tickets to every event we wanted to see!

1984 Olympics Sarajevo Bosnia

Lighting the Olympic Flame in 1984

We got to tour Sarajevo between events, and got a bit misty looking at the Bašcaršija shops — apparently, those were originally camel stables when Sarajevo was the Western terminus of the Silk Road, when camel caravans brought goods from as far away as China. We still have some copper ware we bought there.”

More personal, indeed, Jack.  Thanks so much for sharing that story and bringing pre-war Sarajevo to life for me.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Sofia Bulgaria

Celebrating 100 countries in Sofia, Bulgaria

In the weeks that followed, I was also lucky enough to get a tour of Serbia from two friends who live there and celebrate my 100th country in Sofia, Bulgaria.  If nothing else, I hope that my posts and photos from the Balkans have opened the eyes of those who have never considered traveling there. So many people skip this part of the world because they think it’s not safe or there’s not much to see. It is safe and there is so much to see!

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Shannon for putting up with my warp-speed style of travel for a full 2 1/2 weeks this time and also Magdalena and Milan for showing me Serbia through the eyes of those who live there. But mostly, I’d like to thank all of you for following along with me and posting so many comments. Your encouragement and enthusiasm are priceless to me in my globetrotting travels.

I’m back home in Atlanta for the moment but I think we all know that won’t last!

I’ve put together a photo gallery with highlights from the entire trip and if you missed any of the posts they are all linked below. ‘Til next time!

Stop #1    France for the Fearless:  Chamonix & the Mont Blanc Marathon

Stop #2    Spain, France, Italy, Tunisia & Mallorca – A Week at Sea in the Mediterranean

Stop #3    The Meaning of Mykonos

Stop #4    Montenegro & the Bay of Kotor

Stop #5     In Dubrovnik, Summer Sizzles but Winter is Wiser

Stop #6    (Not Exactly) A Ferry Tale:  The Jadrolinija Ferry from Dubrovnik to Rijeka

Stop #7     Ljovely Ljubljana

Stop #8     The Jerusalem of Europe:  Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Stop #9     Surprisingly Serbia

Stop #10   Skopje, Macedonia:  A Work in Progress

Stop #11    Sofia:  A Bulgarian Beauty

Stop #12     The Thrill of Albania & the Agony of Corfu

Stop #13     Brasov, Romania:  The Best City in the World…Probably

Stop #14     Ever Awesome Amsterdam

Click Below to View the Europe/Balkans Photo Gallery

    View photos at SmugMug