Tim Goes To Serbia & The Balkans

Just last week we wrote about a fantastic video response to the twitter request of Timothy Skaggs made by David Hoffmann of davidsbeenhere.com, one of the most popular virtual travel guide on the net. Following his suggestions, Timothy Skaggs, a web designer looking to draw tech/design inspiration from travel, is now planning his trip to Serbia and the Balkans for May-June 2011. Skaggs has just launched his new Tumblr website where he is looking for as much information on where to travel in Serbia and the surrounding region. He is welcome to all suggestions, and he told me that he wants this site to be a great guide (how-to) for most Americans traveling Serbia (and the region). Then, he said to me, “I’ve never experienced so much support from an online community like Serbia. This makes me even more excited”. So, explore the website of Timothy Skaggs timgoestothebalkans and help him with all of your useful tips on traveling to Serbia and the surrounding region.

Serbia: Cycle Of Life

On most Spring and Summer mornings, if I am lucky enough to find myself in Belgrade, I like to start the day by cycling the bike path from Sports Centar 25 May to Ada, around the lake and back. It’s a round trip of around 20 km.

It’s a good workout, clears the head and helps to keep the waistline vaguely under control. It’s also a visual trip through history and a moving metaphor for life in Serbia.

History rolls past. Starting from the precise point where the Sava flows into the mighty Danube, the strategic confluence that is the very reason for Belgrade’s existence, you see the Austro-Hungarian border town of Zemun across the water, a reminder that you are riding along a geo-political fault line that has seen the ebb and flow of peoples and fortunes for thousands of years.

Turning onto the Sava path, you pass right underneath the towering walls of the Kalemedgan fortress, and maybe wonder what it must have been like to have been a soldier down here, trying to climb those steep cliffs and the imposing walls that top them, while other soliders inside the castle rained down all kinds of violence to thwart your ambitions. Now, as then, Belgrade warmly welcomes visitors, so long as they come in peace and behave themselves. Future Wizz Air passengers, please take note.

A little further, and you are on the Sava port side, which these days hosts only a pale ghost of the bustling commercial and passenger traffic that must once have embarked and disembarked here.

Further still, beneath Brankov Bridge, you’ll pass a ship graveyard, where rusting paddle steamers and hulks of all types gently rot at the water’s edge. They speak of better times and harder times. Each of them harbours stories; silent tales of travels, wars, illicit deals and wild parties. Tradegies and triumphs. Rusting.

Just before you arrive at Ada, you reach the huge construction site of the new bridge, towering confidently above the river, a symbol of a slighty more hopeful future for the city that has been levelled to the ground and risen from the ashes more than 40 times in its history.

The Ada lake, with its miraculous artificial beaches and expanses of green, open woodland testify to some of the better achievements during the communist years in ex-Jugoslavia.

But on reaching the lake itself, you are firmly back in the now. Thousands of Belgraders, especially the youth, full of hopes, dreams and, where the lads are concerned, a large dose of testosterone, pack the beaches all day, every day during the long, hot summer days.

Along with other people of all ages, vehicles and animals, they also pack the cycle paths around the lake, largely shunning the pedestrian-only pathways that have been put there just for them.

While the tourist organisations proudly boast about their dedicated cycle paths, most of the citizens of Belgrade do not recognise the concept at all, despite all the signs and markings. I have shared the path with vehicles of every kind. Cars and trucks both moving and parked, are quite common. I have even seen taxis speeding down the path. And, maybe most bizarrely of all, a driving school car, with the instructor teaching his grim-faced pupil the advanced art of avoiding the frequent jams of the ‘proper’ roads.

Motor bikes, scooters, and the horse and power-drawn carts of the Roma recyclers, seeking out cardboard, cans, bottles, maybe driftwood, all treat the cycle path as a useful highway.

There are other dangers too. I have been spectacularly unseated twice, so far. Once, by a volley ball that escaped from the playing court, landing in my face. The other by a mad dog that escaped from who knows where, making a suicidal dash right under my front wheel.

Food is of course an essential and important part of life in Serbia. Right on the cycle path, I have swerved to avoid barbeques, picnikers and one one memorable afternoon, an entire wedding feast, complete with spit-roast lamb, cauldrons of fish soup, musicians and people dancing.

No writing about Belgrade can safely ignore the city’s legendary pretty girls. Around the Ada path, some of the elite constantly patrol, wearing the skimpiest of bikinis as they pump their bodies into even greater perfection on their rollerblades, usually with a mobile phone stuck to one ear as they speed along. They demand to be noticed, admired, but immediately reflect disdain to anyone weak enough to give in to the temptation to look a fraction too long or too obviously.

Whatever mode of transport they use, all Serbian people on the cycle path share two significant traits; first, it is not considered cool or necessary to be looking in the same direction as you are travelling at anytime; and second, it’s important to maintain an attitude of detached indifference to the safety, reasonable expectations and even the existence of other users of the path.

This is not a vindictive attitude. It is just that they are doing what they are doing. That is no business of anyone else’s and nothing on earth will deflect them. Inat lurks here too – people would rather risk their own life and limb than concede that they really need to move out of the path of a speeding cyclist who is frantically and hopelessly ringing his bell. That said, indifference can kill just as surely as intention, as I very nearly discovered the day when the floods forced me off the relative safety of the path and onto the murderous main road past the railway station.

Yes, all of Balkan life is reflected there on that path. Steeped in history, struggling towards a better future and meantime, eating, drinking, flirting, hanging out, showing off and enthusiastically enjoying the now, with the absolute certainty that all rules clearly apply only to everybody else and that showing consideration is a weakness. And anything is better than showing weakness.

It’s challenging, fascinating, envigorating, maddening, kaleidoscopic, sometimes dangerous, always exciting. That’s the cycle path. And that’s the Balkans. I love it.

Living In Britain vs. Living In The Balkans

“What’s it like, living in the Balkans?” Back home in Britain (I can’t bring myself to use the old Imperialistic adjective anymore) during the annual orgy of consumerism, excess and family stress that we call “Christmas”, the question was often put by family and friends.

Confessing to really not knowing where to start, I used the old mirror trick. “What’s it like, living in Britain these days?” My question was only partly rhetorical.

During those few short days, mercifully before a snowfall that would not have raised an eyebrow in Belgrade brought my old country to its knees, closing roads, schools, railways and airports, I had seen enough to remind me why I find life generally more civilised in ‘deprived’, ‘backward’, and ‘isolated’ Belgrade.

It starts soon enough after landing at Heathrow. Wait for an anxious eternity for your bags to arrive, find your way somehow to the bus station (queues are involved, naturally) and then try to while away some time before your bus arrives. Try to ignore the faint smell of fear and paranoia that terrorism has indelibly left hanging in the air. Be careful not to catch anyone’s eye. Study the departures board, with its rash of ‘delayed’ and ‘cancelled’ notices (no snow yet, remember). Queue again, for the privilege of paying 15 euros for terrible coffee and an indifferent sandwich and sit among rubbish and uncleared tables.

Much later, after a couple of expensive drinks (no table service – wait at the bar) and an hour or so of happy nostalgia with an old mate, walk home through the streets of your affluent, middle class home town. It’s only around 9pm, but there are already people throwing up in the street. Gangs of young girls, drunk before they left home, their micro skirts barely covering their “Christmas” underwear and their wilfully exposed cleveages and thighs glowing seasonably red in the bitter wind, hold each other up as they stagger on their high heels. They screech like sirens as they wobble to their next port of call, their heads adorned with flashing reindeer antlers or plastic mistletoe branches. It is hard to imagine their evening, or their lives, ending happily, somehow. Some of them will probably wake up with a hangover, a stranger and a present that may last for life, not just for Christmas.

Walk past shops that are still open, long after anyone is interested, in a desperate attempt to sell just a few more things that nobody really needs. Walk past many others that are boarded up, early losers in the game of recession. Stop to give a few coins to one of the homeless kids lurking in a freezing doorway. Wonder what Christmas means to her. Chose your route home carefully, to avoid potential danger, real and imagined, from drug-craving muggers and drunken yobs. Think about taking a taxi, but quickly forget it – 20 euros for a 10 minute ride, if you can find one at all. You are not allowed to hail one in the street. There are no buses at this time of night, naturally.

Mercifully, there are still a few individuals – kind, generous, loving people who selflessly offer welcome refuge and solace from the madness outside, and ask for nothing in return. They know who they are.

What’s it like, living in the Balkans? Well, it’s many things, both good and bad. But one thing I am sure about; it’s different. I love my country. We all do. That’s why it’s sad to see it suffering economic collapse, moral bankruptcy and social decay. I love my family and my friends dearly too. I just wish I could pick them all up and bring them back with me. Oh, and my local pub would be welcome, too. Especially if they leave the smoking ban behind.

Driving A Yugo Through Balkans’ History

Just yesterday I received an email from an American guy planning a trip to the Balkans next summer. He is asking me “Is the conflict between Serbia and Bosnia still going?” It’s becoming almost comical how often this happens. That’s why it’s great that the folks over at South East Europe TV Exchanges is producing a documentary about the Balkans, a road movie from Slovenia to Macedonia, via Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. Two writers, a Croat, Miljenko Jergovic, and a Serb, Marko Vidojkovic, share the driving in a Yugo. It looks like they have a lot of fun. They sing along to nostalgic Yugoslav favourites, comment on the radio news, and above all stop to take to ask those who can tell them how they got there… and where the highway of history is taking them next. The release of the new documentary is January 2010. Now, you can see photos from the documentary film. Don’t forget to check out the ‘Driving the Yugo‘ amazing photo gallery.

Serbia Warmly Welcomes All Foreigners

I am a British citizen, who has had the pleasure of living and working in the Balkans for over 3 years. There is no avoiding the fact that this is an exciting, enticing, endearing, wonderful place that is also often frustrating as hell, but is always facinating. As to danger, I tell people honestly that I would be in more danger in my small home town in the West of England on an average Friday night than I have ever been during my extensive travels in the region.

These are wonderful people (all ‘flavours’ of them), who are generally friendly, intelligent, warm and welcoming, and extremely tolerant of and intrigued by foreigners. I completely agree with David Faber’s comments about the need for respect and humility when we are visitors – but, having travelled in a lot of places, this rule should surely apply wherever we are in the world. It’s just common sense and decency.

Like all good hosts, Serbia warmly welcomes all guests who know how to appreciate its hospitality. I’ve had the great pleasure of welcoming quite a few friends here in Serbia for their first visit. Every one of them wants to come back. Enough said?

Is Serbia Safe For Americans And Other Foreigners?

Pozdrav iz Srbije!  My name is David Faber. I’m on a month-long trip to former Yugoslavia and Karl Haudbourg asked me to write something regarding safety in Serbia (I went ahead and expanded the subject to include the rest of former Yugoslavia). I’m honored to be able to offer my views on the subject.

Each of the three times that I’ve departed my home in Washington State for the constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia my friends and family are full of questions such as “isn’t it really dangerous there?!” or “don’t they all hate each other?!” or “aren’t Americans at risk for being killed in the Balkans?!?!?!” And chances are that if you’re considering a trip around the region you’re experiencing the same thing. Just treat it as an opportunity to educate and inform those who’ve heard only bad things about Serbia and the Balkans.

Let my start by saying: It is a common misconception that A.) Americans (and other foreigners) are in danger when traveling through former Yugoslavia (that’s: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia and, depending upon your opinion on the subject, Kosovo) and B.) that the average citizen of the former Yugoslav republics generally feel ill-will toward their ex-countrymen-and-women.

There are of course subjects that should be avoided until you get to know those around you – much like in the rest of the world. Such topics of conversation include issues of politics and religion.  If you wouldn’t
randomly discuss a given issue with people in your home country you should probably avoid such topics while in, say, Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is also true that in the hinterland of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Croatia (though it may no longer be accurate in the latter) one might run across the odd landmine or two, but you’re unlikely to find yourself in those dangerous locations randomly. Lastly, there are nationalists in Serbia or Croatia who are full vitriol toward those ethnic groups around them – much like you can find racist nationalists throughout America or France or Russia. It would be disingenuous of me to continue with this post without mentioning those things.

To combat point A from above (that Americans and other foreigners are in danger while traveling through former Yu.) I only offer anecdotal evidence – I’ve never been harmed, mistreated, yelled at or even felt anything other than incredible levels of hospitality and warmth. In the interest of full disclosure it should be noted that while in Serbia I’ve almost exclusively stayed with locals which has potentially (thought doubtful) insulated me from such unpleasantness. I’ve also rarely, if ever, heard reports from foreigners traveling there that indicated were treated poorly and the only foreign fatalities I’ve heard about were either military (in Kosovo or Bosnia during the 1990s) or due to accidents such as transportation accidents or drunken idiots at the EXIT festival in Novi Sad. HOWEVER, It is true that an American, or other foreign visitor, acting foolish or disrespectful can quickly earn the ire of the people around them in the Balkans – much like they can elsewhere in Europe and indeed the world.

I’ve spent more time than I care to remember busting the myth about “ancient ethnic hatred” in the Balkans. Too many people are guilty of making the claim that Serbs hate Croats, Bosniaks hate Serbs and Croats hate Montenegrins, etc…. I’ve even heard people in Croatia and Serbia repeat those rumors (though they’re quick to point out that they don’t feel that way, only that other ethnic groups do). Such erroneous assumptions don’t flush with the facts on the ground in the 1990s let alone any other decade.

Prior to the first World War most of the resistance movements started by Croats and Slovenes living under Austro-Hungarian rule and Serbs and Macedonians living under Ottoman rule were undertaken with the explicit goal of uniting the south Slavic people. Croats fought to be bound in a state with their eastern neighbors and visa-versa.  The first Yugoslavia, established following World War 1, wasn’t universally welcomed by its inhabitants but there was significant support for a sovereign state of the South Slavs.  Much, though not all, of the resistance to the new state took the form of dissatisfaction with the way government policies were implemented and rejection of the form of government (monarchy).

It was the communist and multi-ethnic Partisans, led by Josip Broz “Tito”, who beat back the Nazis, Croatian fascist Ustashe and Serbian pro-monarchist Chetniks, among other groups, in Yugoslavia during World War 2. The partisans attracted people of all Yugoslav nations in full knowledge that they were working to establish a new form of Yugoslavia. This despite the fact that the allies initially supported the Chetniks and the Nazis supported the Ustashe. Who, then, appears to have garnered the largest amount of public support during the war? Conventional wisdom points to the partisans.

Ante Markovic, a professed Yugoslav and pro-unionist, was the most popular politician in 1980s Yugoslavia. Milosevic used dirty tricks to destroy Markovic’s political life.  Milosevic did not, in general, enjoy popular
support. This is highlighted by the fact that Serbia had an ~80% military desertion rate during the 1990′s (and in larger cities that rate was closer to 95%) which tends to suggest that there was not popular support for the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, nobody had the political capital to resist Milosevic in Serbia, Tudjman in Croatia or Izetbegovic in Bosnia and Herzegovina, among others.  Yugoslavia became the victim of shock-capitalism and warfare. Serbia lost more than a decade of potential economic growth. Had Yugoslavia remained a unified state they would have walked straight into the European Union, been on the Euro by now and been one of the largest voting blocks in Europe. As it stands now they are a fractured group of small states with economies still trying to figure out how to catch up with much of the rest of Europe. It’s a very different story from the post-WW2 era Yugoslavia which experienced the fastest rate of industrialization and economic growth internationally at that point in time. It’s a very unfortunate story and one that – if each state gets its wish – will end with them all being reunited in a common state once again: the European Union.

So, despite what people may say – even some people of former Yugoslavia – the average person in Bosnia or Montenegro tends to have (both now and historically) no general feelings of hatred for any ethnic group.  As long as Americans (and other travelers for that matter) behave in a reasonable manner they’re likely to find Serbia and the other former Yugoslav republics a bit safer than most of the rest of Europe.  Street crime is virtually unheard of. For me it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience being in this part of the world.  Unprecedented levels of hospitality abound, the food is fantastic, the scenery incredible and varied, the cultures are deep and intriguing and the history is fascinating and complicated.  I make no promises regarding your safety here because I’d hate to be proven wrong but it’s highly likely that your travels in Serbia and the rest of the Balkans will be wonderfully unforgettable and amazing.