Sunday, March 29, 2015

balkans outtakes you don't want to miss

Ljubljana. July 2014.
It’s been three-fourths of a year since that road trip through the Balkans last summer that I promised to write about more here. I must apologize for the whole not-keeping-my-promises thing. I suppose you’re hugely disappointed and have had to seek counseling to overcome your rage. So sorry. ;-)

Anyway, I’m presently revisiting the trip for a travel story pitch that, in the way of publishing’s slow-turning wheels, has finally been picked up, which means I’m plumbing my memory, my journal, and my notes for all the details I can get my fingertips on from that trip.

Here are a few overview thoughts that won’t make it into the article. These are the outtakes, I suppose. But brilliant outtakes they are, so read with attention, please. ;-)

To recap: I went on a little 12-day road trip with my friend Olivier to visit some other friends. We started out in Aix-en-Provence, France, drove across Italy, and slept our first night in the Balkans in Ljubljana, Slovenia (though apparently some scholars don’t agree over whether Slovenia is officially Balkan…if I’d known this ahead of time, I would have polled the Slovenians I met ;-) ). From there we traveled south, eventually traversing Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and northern Albania, before driving through all those countries again on the return trip.

Of course, one road trip does not Balkans experts make us, but the choice to descend the peninsula by road gave us a chance to observe a little the ways these countries aren’t all the same as well as how they do fit together with some regional commonalities.

For starters, a somehow-comfortable melancholy seemed to pervade the landscape all along our route. Melancholy can be soft or harsh, and this version seemed to veer toward soft, honest.  

A lingual current also ran south with us. Though the languages are different, key words for tourists were similar—the restaurans, the stari mosts, and more.

To Each His Own
But each country also seemed to have its own personality—one it would have been nice to mine more deeply:

Slovenia seemed lively yet calm, two adjectives that admittedly don’t seem to go together, yet they meet in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital. This country has seen less war than Croatia and Bosnia, and one can sense this.

Croatia is absolutely beautiful yet feels already discovered. It didn’t feel so off-the-beaten path as the other places we visited. Like Slovenia, it’s already a member of the EU, though it’s not yet in the eurozone while Slovenia is. And tourism is already a big deal in Croatia, which has a good reputation for knowing how to showcase its part of the region’s treasure collection. Overdone tourism can make a place seem stripped of personality. But we also didn’t have any local guides in Croatia, so it’s possible we just missed the good parts.

Bosnia felt potentially dangerous, courtesy of its recent past, without actually being dangerous at all. Thus, it felt like a place not-yet-fully discovered. Tourism hasn’t been overdone here yet (YET!), while at the same time, there are growing resources for tourists.

Montenegro was just green and beautiful. We didn’t stop off in any large cities, so our route through Montenegro’s mountains gave the impression of a country of tucked-away hamlets that keep to themselves but are welcoming when you enter them.

And Albania felt like a place wrestling more than all the others with its past and its present. It’s in that awkward adolescent stage. Where Bosnia appears to have chosen a direction, Albania is still working to fully aim itself, but this is part of its charm for those travelers who enjoy discovery and a little dirt mixed in with glitz, antiquated farm implements and the occasional donkey mixed in with modern multi-story homes and lots of new-looking cars. Tirana, Albania’s capital, is a happening place, with plenty of nightlife, a place definitely in transition.

For the super-motivated and curious, here’s a link to a very helpful overview of the region’s complicated (for us outsiders anyway) recent history: “Understanding Yugoslavia.”