Melnik


“OMG THERE’S SNOW!” Yelled Jodon as he stood at our window over looking the small town of Melnik. “What??” I crashed my way across the hotel room to look outside. Our hotel was perched on the side of a hill right in the middle of the one-street town of Melnik. Our bedroom window looked out over the rooftops of the restaurants in the city. From where we were, we could pretty much see the entire town. It was our first morning in Melnik, and overnight it had snowed. The little rooftops, the river bank, the trees and the mountains were all lightly dusted with snow. It was like a perfect little Christmas village. 

With less than 300 residents, Melnik is the smallest city in Bulgaria. It also happens to be the wine capital of the country. The town is just one street long. One street filled with micro-wineries, restaurants and little shops that sell homemade jams and honey. The town is nestled in a small valley between jagged beige mountain peaks. A few of the wineries have spent years carving out small caves in the mountainside in order to store their wines at perfect temperatures. Low tables with traditional linens and short wooden stools are set among the barrels. Visitors are encouraged to sit, relax and taste the young wines straight from the tap. It’s freakin’ adorable. 

Most of the restaurants in the city also serve their own wine: something grown and bottled just a few kilometres away on a hectare or two of land. The wine is stored in label-less bottles or in plastic jugs by the litre and served in large glass decanters. The restaurants all look like traditional hunting lodges. Wood panelled rooms, with mounted taxidermy stag heads and antler furniture. The rooms are dimly lit and filled with antique decor. Hunting rifles hang on the wall along with countless bottles of aged wine. Bulgarian folk music wafts through the room. Everything feels cozy and warm; a welcome escape from the falling snow outside. 

We joked that during our stay in Melnik we supported every family in town. The place was deserted. As far as we could tell, we were the only tourists in town. We walked up and down the empty streets leaving only our own footprints in the snow. Locals looked surprised to see us as we stomped in from the cold to join them for a glass of wine or a hot lunch. They scrambled up from their chairs, adjusted their clothes and hair and put on a smile as we entered. I bet sometimes days go by without any customers at all. We drank wine at one restaurant, then had lunch at another. We stopped at the different museums, and tasted wine in the mountain caves. We bought wine from one shop and jam from the next. At the end of our two days we figured we’d hit nearly every building in the city. 

It was a perfect way to spend the last days of our trip together. Melnik was our last stop in Bulgaria and our last stop travelling just the two of us. To end off our adventures, we were meeting up with Kelsey and Peter for some fun in Greece before heading home for Christmas. Until next time Bulgaria! 

Advertisements

Vegas of the Balkans


“What IS this place?!” I said as we walked along Macedonia street toward the main square. In front of us, high above the trees, was a massive bronze statue of a warrior on a horse. The area opened up into an expansive plaza covering over 18500 square feet. Along its edges were towering, Greek style buildings faced with rows of thick ionic columns. High end hotels, a shopping centre, a museum, and important looking office buildings edged the decorated plaza. All the while, soft elevator tunes emanated from lamp posts and filled the air with music. 

A river runs through the centre of the square, separating the old bazaar from the new town. In the river are three full-sized pirate ship replicas; the ships have been transformed into fancy restaurants a hotel and a casino. And everywhere you look there are statues. So. Many. Statues. We dubbed Skopje “The Vegas of the Balkans” and apparently we weren’t the only ones. 

The statue of the warrior on the horse turned out to be Alexander the Great. Although that name is always said with a sly grin here in Skopje. The contempt that exists between Macedonia and Greece is insane. The Greeks will forever claim the name to Macedonia, and are appalled that the country wants to claim Alexander the Great as their national hero. In fact, they are so upset about it, they won’t even consider the country joining the EU unless it changes its name. But Macedonia could care less. When Greece was going through their recession, they took advantage of the situation and built a statue of Alexander the Great (officially referred to as “Warrior on a Horse”). This was to be the greatest statue of Alexander in the whole world. The statue stands at an impressive 8 storeys high (nearly 100 feet). It is made of Bronze, sits above a fountain surrounded by life-sized carvings of lions, and cost $13.5 million USD. But with the financial crisis in Greece, there was no way they could compete. Macedonia’s foreign minister stated “This is our way of saying [up yours] to them”. 

The statue was one of MANY erected in a project called “Skopje 2014”, the Prime minister’s attempt to modernize the capital and create a sense of national identity. It was projected to take 4 years and cost 80 million euros. To date, it’s been 6 years and is projected to cost over 1 billion euros by the time it is finished.

Although the consensus is that most citizens HATE the project and find it both hubristic and wasteful of tax dollars, it has definitely left an impression on Skopje. The city is unlike any I’ve ever seen. Prime Minister Gruevski has replicated some of the most impressive parts of the world and placed them together. An Arc du Triomphe, faux-classical architecture, figures of famous rulers from around the world, and soon, a replica of Rome’s Spanish Steps. Our tour guide called it “Copy-paste” syndrome. He says he prays every night that the Prime Minister never visits Venice or else all the streets will be torn up and replaced with canals!

I’m not sure if anyone can count how many statues there are in and around the city of Skopje (and even if you did, new ones are added all the time). I counted 21, life-sized statues on a SINGLE BRIDGE. If you count the three standing at the end of the bridge, the 20 or so on the roof of the two buildings, the 10 that run along the river side connecting the next bridge, and the 21 on the next bridge over, you have 75 statues within a single block! We’d heard Skopje was the city of statues, but not even we were prepared for this kind of over-the-top display. 

I vote Skopje as the most unique city in the Balkans. Other travellers have mixed views on the city: some like the over-the-top nature and others find it too kitschy. But, regardless of their view, everyone agrees that if you’re in the area, you HAVE to see it. 

Prizren


Driving through the Albanian Alps was the first time I’d seen snow on the trip. The mountains looked unreal, floating above a layer of fog, delicately capped with snow. 

“Look!” I yelled at Jodon over headphones. “The mountains!”

It was exciting seeing real mountains again: jagged, snowy, treacherous mountains. It felt like home, it felt like winter. But it also came with a reality I was not prepared for: things were about to get very cold. 

It was zero degrees as we stepped off the bus into the dark streets of Prizren, Kosovo. I did NOT pack for this. If it was possible, our hostel room was colder than the outside world. Central heating is practically non-existent in Prizren. All of the homes and restaurants have wood-fired stoves that act as warmth for the rest of the space. Standing next to it is wonderful. The stove lets off a lot of warmth, and the burning wood makes the whole place smell like Christmas. But dare to walk into the next room and you might as well be a giant human popsicle! 

Luckily for us, however, the forecast called for sunshine and a high of 8 degrees during the day. Combine that with a hike up the mountain and the cold became tolerable. Which was good, because Prizren is too beautiful to miss. 

Prizren is small. It’s easy enough to see the highlights in just a few hours, and spend the afternoon eating 1 Euro bureks and reading a book over a hot mug of apple, quince kompot. 

My favourite sight was Dusan’s Fortress, a medieval fort on top of a hill that once served as the capital of the Serbian Empire. It’s only a 15 minute walk to reach the fortress gates, but the view is spectacular. From the walls of the fort you can see the whole expanse of Prizren (much larger than I would have thought). The small river running through the centre of town with its rows of old stone bridges, the multitude of minarets that cut into the city’s skyline, and snowy Pashtrik mountain in the distance: Prizren is not lacking in beauty. We arrived at the fortress just as the call to prayer began. The sounds of a dozen or so dueling mosques bounced around the city in a cacophonous echo. We sat on the edge of the wall, taking in what little warmth there was and listened to the prayers below. 

These days the sun sets early in the Balkans. By 4:30 the light is gone and the temperature dips below freezing again. It took all of my effort just to make it to dinner. We spent our evenings huddled up in coffee shops and sharing beers with new friends.  

Our time in Prizren, albeit short, made me want to explore more of Kosovo. The area has such an intense history and yet the people are some of the nicest we’ve met on our trip (The hostel owners at Driza’s House were incredible!). We heard that the capital, Prishtina, is WELL worth the trip, and yet, time is sadly not on our side. Our journey south must continue. Onward to Macedonia!

Albania


I dare you to look up “Albanian Beaches” on google image search: they’re breathtaking. Turquoise gems in an untouched land. Secluded sandy coves, long stretches of teal, and Mediterranean perfection. And if that’s not enough to make you hop on a plane to the southern Balkans, then the sweeping expanses of Albania’s Accursed Mountains will definitely do the trick. I saw a photo of Albania 8 months ago and fell in love. How did one of the cheapest and most beautiful countries in Europe not come up on my radar sooner? It was my new obsession. And as fate would have it, as we bounced our way over rocky highways and into long-awaited Albania, I ticked off another bucket list item: to reach 50 countries before my 30th birthday. It was going to be a good day.

Shkoder was the perfect way to begin our stay. The little city in northern Albania is filled with lively cafe’s and bars lined up along a cobbled pedestrian street. The locals were the friendliest people we had met in the Balkans, and the cuisine was exquisite! Just beyond the city is a medieval fortress perched on a hilltop overlooking the expansive plains. To the north, the misty waters of Lake Shkoder serve up freshwater fish served at all the local restaurants in town. The place was wonderful.

We spent a sunny afternoon exploring the fortress on the outskirts of the city. We acquired a stray dog as our tour guide for the afternoon ( a common occurrence for us these days) and he stuck by our side for hours and we hiked around the castle ruins. The view from the fortress was spectacular, you could see the beginnings of the lake, mountains in the distance and the surrounding homes that stretched out across the plains. Sadly, the storms we experienced in Kotor had not escaped Albania. The country just had the worst rainfall since the 1960’s. The plains were flooded and homes were half emersed in the water. Tirana, the capital, had to close their schools due to the flooding in the city centre. It put a damper on the otherwise idyllic setting. 

Unfortunately, despite all my pining for warm white sand beaches, we made it to Albania a little too late in the year. The rains and cold weather meant hiking trips in the mountains were near impossible (and totally out of the question with the clothing we brought). The coastal cities were all but empty, and the beaches were less tropical and more… grey. We decided that Sarande, one of the most popular coastal cities in the South, was just too far out of our way to make the trip in late November. Alas, my dreams were shattered! Regardless, we enjoyed our time in Albania.

Everything was affordable. Food and wine were dirt cheap, and both were excellent! Albania was the first country we had come across in a while that had it’s own unique cuisine. All through the balkans most of the food has been Italian. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Italian food. But there’s only so much risotto and linguine that a girl can eat before going crazy. And the wine? I have been SO impressed with the wine throughout the entire region. Balkan wine isn’t really on my list of “must-try” wine regions, and yet, it is top notch (And you can’t go wrong with a half litre for 3 dollars at a restaurant). 

After a few days in Shkoder we headed south to Tirana. I have friends that have been teaching at an International school in Tirana for a year and a half now. They were nice enough to let Jodon and I stay with them for the weekend. For most of our stay we wandered around the neighbourhood, checking out fun local pubs and favourite restaurants. 

The city of Tirana is strange. It has an unusual combination of modern buildings and communist style architecture: such as the concrete pyramid that used to be the presidential headquarters. An impenetrable looking conical fortress that sits right in the heart of the city. Once an important government building, now an area where teens climb up the steep sides and sit, watching over the city. 

Jodon looked up some sites for us to see while we were in Tirana. 

“It looks like Bunk Art is the number one thing to see on Trip Advisor. It’s just ten minutes from here. Interested?” He asked.

“Sounds super hipster. I’m in.”

I imagined an abandoned old war bunker with graffiti. Something that had once been an eye-sore but that the city had now commissioned for more professional looking spray paint art. Colourful, creative, and a good use of old communist spaces. It was nothing of the sort.

I feel like the name “bunk art” is a little misleading. “Bunk,” OK. “Art?” No. But we were pleasantly surprised nonetheless. The place was an old war bunker built sometime after WWII. It was meant to house the government in case of a nuclear or chemical attack. The place was massive. It could hold a community of hundreds for years on end. The bunker was built into the side of a mountain and went deep underground. It was filled with narrow concrete corridors and bare rooms. Imagine the most depressing place to live ever: no windows, no art (ironically) and no creature comforts. This was Bunk Art. The rooms were decorated with photos and information about the communist rule over Albania. The fortress was a maze of small square rooms used as bedrooms or meeting spaces, but also, surprisingly, held a large theatre room for entertainment. We wandered around the bunker for a couple hours, lost inside the monotony of rooms, learning about Albanian history. The whole time I just kept waiting for the “art” part, but it never came. 

Our stay in Albania was nice, but not quite what I had anticipated. The crystal waters and white sand had disappeared with the warm summer months and we were left with rain and grey. It’s times like this that I realize why it’s called an “off season”. Although I still enjoyed Albania, I’ll make sure to make my next trip during the summer!

Kotor


Despite the gale force winds, the flash flooding and the expected tornado, it didn’t take long for Montenegro to be my favourite country in the Balkans. We set up camp in a spacious AirBNB in Kotor for a whopping $35/night. It was smack in the middle of old town, two floors above the noisiest nightclub I’ve ever witnessed. If you think about it, Montenegro had a lot going against it: it stormed, it flooded, and we had sleepless nights listening to the booming base of remixed 90’s top hits. And yet it didn’t deter from the country’s wonderful allure. 

The Old Town of Kotor never failed to surprise me. Four days of wandering the labyrinth of slinky alleyways and we never saw it all. Every time we left our apartment we stumbled upon a new courtyard, a medieval palace, a church we had missed: the city had gems around every corner. Though it took only 20 minutes to walk the circumference of the city walls, I never tired of the place. 

Kotor is set in a crevice at the end of a long inlet: sharp black mountains ominously behind it. The ruins of a fortress stand high above; a reminder of the city’s ancient history. The remains of old fortifying walls cling to the cliffs behind the old town, and at night, the whole place comes alive in a golden glow of artificial light. 

We spent the better part of our one rainless afternoon climbing the steps of the old empire. The view from the mountain looked across the windy Bay of Kotor. A white cruise ship towered above the old town; dark mountains swept down to meet the black water that meandered out to the Adriatic Sea. Kotor is stunning. 

We used Kotor as our home base for exploring the nearby region of Montenegro. Although our tour inland was cancelled, we had no problem exploring the coastline on our own. Budva, is a small resort town just 30 minutes from Kotor. At over 2500 years old, it is one of the oldest settlements on the Adriatic Coast. The walled old town was built by the Venetians as a defence against pirates. This was particularly exciting to Jodon and I since we are half way through “Black Sails” on Netflix and menacing pirates have been fresh in our minds. The storm hit as we explored the city. Huge waves crashed on the white sand beaches. Some of the swells were so large they splashed over the city walls, nearly soaking Jodon and I as we ran along them, through wind and spray, toward safety. We ate lunch inside the walls and listened to the rains outside, happy for the warmth and shelter. And miraculously, once we had finished, the skies cleared up enough for us to make our way home. 

The next day we set out to Perast, a sleepy town just 15 minutes North of Kotor. It was our anniversary, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it. 

Perast is made up of only two streets. There’s a small museum, a clock tower and a number of cosy seaside restaurants (all empty due to the off season). We hardly saw another person the entire afternoon. 

We walked along the boardwalk from end to end (about a 10 minute walk). It was cool, and the clouds threatened rain all afternoon, but the row of tall palm trees along the water suggested this place got much hotter in the summer months. We were lucky enough to have the sun come out long enough to explore the tiny islands just off the coast.

There are two small islets just off the coast of Perast: St George and Our lady of the Rocks. Although the former is a private island, Our Lady of the Rocks is open to both tourists and locals alike. The island is tiny: just large enough to fit the small church with a museum attached. A woman working in the church was thrilled to tour us around and give us the history of the place.

It is said that, in the 15th Century, local fisherman stumbled upon a painting of Madonna, perched upon a rock in the middle of the bay. Locals took this as a sign that a church needed to be placed in this spot. So over many years, rocks and earth were brought to this place in the bay to eventually create a small island. Soon after, a church was erected and the original painting was hung above the altar inside: it still sits there to this day. The church was believed to bring great luck to sailors in the area. Survivors of shipwrecks thanked Madonna for watching over them, and in return for their lives, donated a painting of their sinking ship to the church. The museum on Our Lady of the Rocks now holds countless numbers of shipwreck (or near shipwreck) paintings, each one from an actual event where sailors’ lives were spared. 

The little church is still used today for Sunday mass (weather dependant of course) and even while we were there, a few locals came in to pay their respects to Madonna.

The rains arrived in full force as we arrived back in the old town of Kotor. The streets began to fill up with water, and by the time we ventured out for dinner reservations, we were wading ankle deep in a rushing river. As a result, we were the only people who made the daring venture to Galion, a steak and seafood restaurant just outside the city walls. We arrived looking like drowned rats; our clothes completely soaked from the rain. But it was still a wonderful evening, drinking wine and watching the storm from behind the floor to ceiling windows in the cozy restaurant. It was our last night in Montenegro. The next morning we would hop on the early bus and make our way South to Albania.

Mostar


After my days in Mostar I feel at a loss for words. I’m not sure if it’s possible to describe the conflict I feel for this small town in Herzegovina. On the one hand, it’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to. Mostar immediately took my breath away. The view of the old bridge from the minaret of the Koski Mehmed-Pasha mosque is one of a kind. It’s looks like the painted backdrop of a fairytale. Old stone buildings dramatically hanging over the cliff side, dropping down to the river below. The old bridge, arching 24m above the icy currents, is one of the most perfect postcard settings I’ve seen in Europe yet. The old town is bustling with markets and restaurants, locals sit all afternoon in coffee shops, drinking Bosnian coffee and chatting with friends in the late October sunshine. It’s so perfect.

But this is just the surface of the city. This is the image that is set for those of us passing through: day trippers, tourists, backpackers looking for nothing more than to eat cevapi and seek the adrenaline rush that comes from jumping from the bridge, 8 stories down into the Neretva River. I wish so much that this was the real Mostar. I wish that this idyllic, post-war image that we were presented with was honest; that people drink coffee on sunny terraces because they have found the meaning of a life well lived, instead of being forced to due to a national unemployment rate of 47% (75% among young adults). Or that the abandoned wreckage of homes on the frontline, now overgrown with ivy, is an eerily beautiful reminder of the past, instead of a forgotten, needle-ridden dump that may never be rebuilt due to a corrupt government. Mostar has layers; and if you are willing to peel back the facade, there is a dark, almost hopeless truth to it. 

I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand what happened here. The deeper I get into Bosnia, the more I learn. And the more I learn, the more confusing it all gets. I am addicted to figuring it all out: googling, reading, talking to locals. I’m sure I’m nowhere near the truth. 

If you ignore the tourist information, you get the sense that, 22 years later, the war still isn’t over in Mostar, especially among the younger generation. The divisive lines that have been made are hard to break. The very identities of people in Mostar divide them. Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs refer not just to nations (Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia) but they are synonymous with religious heritage as well. Croats are Catholic, Bosniaks are Muslim and Serbs are Orthodox Christian. And yet, it seems many people of Mostar are only religious by heritage. If your grandmother was Catholic, you are Catholic. If your Grandfather was a practicing Muslim, you are a Muslim. The very names of people give away their heritage, and so, there is no escaping your chosen identity. 

The phrase “the other side” is used so casually in Mostar, it’s innate. One side is Croat, the other is Bosniak. One side is Catholic, the other is Muslim. The boulevard is the distinct dividing line, and although guides will tell you the war is over, locals will tell you that, 22 years later, they still do not cross those lines. 

It’s hard to know what to believe. Their is an air of paranoia in the city, but it’s hard to see the truth as an outsider. I take everything both sides say with a grain of salt but regardless of which side of the frontline you belong, the story is the same; the troubles are far from over. 

Jodon and I spent 12 hours travelling the Herzegovina region with a local Bosnian man named Bata. A large man with a thick neck and a “cevapi belly,” as he calls it, Bata is a communist at heart. He longs for the “good ol’ days” of Tito’s reign over Yugoslavia: things were better then. This is a popular opinion in the country. Bata took us to the Kravice Waterfalls, the medieval town of Pocitelj and the Blagaj, a 16th century Dervish house just 30km from Mostar. But the trip was not about seeing the attractions. Along the way, Bata told us his story. His story of being a young man, thrown into civil war; of losing best friends to “the other side”. The story of being defined by a religion he did not practice. The story of the people that risked their lives to save him from the firing squads of a concentration camp, to smuggle him in an ambulance out of the country, and to be sent as a refugee to Sweden. Bata told us the struggles he had to face returning to Mostar 14 years later, the therapy he’s had to endure, and the prejudices that still run so deep within the city. 

Bata is crazy; he’ll be the first to tell you. He is unapologetically loud, drives like a crazed madman with a few loose screws and has an energy that never slows. He is wild, and breaks loudly into song at random intervals. He spends more time speeding down the middle of a two-laned road, with his hands off the wheel, looking in the rear view mirror than not. He thinks seat belts are for SNAGS (Sensitive New Age Guys) and if you’re not afraid (mostly referring to his driving) then you’re not living to the fullest. And yet there is something wonderful and lovable about Bata. When you look past his eccentricities, you can see a man trying his best to come to terms with the atrocities of his life. A man trying to bring together his city with communal love. He dreams of a pre-war existence where 60% of all marriages were inter-religious. Where Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks lived together as one community.   

The world will tell you the only troubles that remain in Mostar are political. I want to believe this; that the war is over and Bosnia is beginning a new era of peaceful independence. But with Bosnia’s government now split into three religious groups, that utopia is hard to imagine. The Croatian government has given money to aid and rebuild the city of Mostar, but only on the Croat side. New malls, new roads and new schools are built while the Bosnian side of the tracks remains war torn. And all the while the tensions between the two sides grow stronger. 

We met a young Muslim man in a local pub one evening who was eager to tell his story.

“No one goes to the other side,” he said nonchalantly “they will kill us.” Then he lifted his shirt to show us the long-healed stab wounds from a knife attack he endured after “crossing over” one day. We’d heard the same story from two young Croat teenagers just two days earlier and took their tale to be exaggerated stories kids tell tourists. I’m still not sure what I believe. 

And yet, the city of Mostar carries on; tourists come and go by the thousands, taking photos of the old bridge and buying trinkets in the market, oblivious to the realities. And Bata’s Crazy Tour continues, every day, passing on the truth to those who are willing to listen. 

It’s been three days since Jodon and I left Mostar, but we will never forget the truths we found there. We’ve spent hours watching documentaries, and researching the facts we were told, trying to find some meaning behind it all, some hope for the future. But in the end, I guess, only time will tell. 

Sarajevo


Sarajevo is one of those cities you can fall in love with at first sight. It’s lively and charming and has a beautiful history tainted with the sorrows of warfare. The old town is filled with cafe’s and restaurants; tiny joints that serve cheap cevapi (small grilled sausages served with bread and raw onion) and a thick yogurt to drink it down with. The city oozes with Turkish influences while still maintaining the scattered Austro-Hungarian landmarks that give the city a European edge. I could easily spend a week relaxing in the Bascarsija, sipping on Bosnian coffee with a good book. Nothing more. But Sarajevo has a tragic history that is hard to imagine as you walk the colourful streets of the Stari Grad markets. Apart from being known as the city that sparked WWII after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Sarajevo also is noted for having the longest city siege in the history of modern warfare. 

The siege on Sarajevo during the Bosnian war began April 5th, 1992 and lasted 1425 days: just shy of four years. That’s three times longer than the infamous Battle of Stalingrad. The city was surrounded by Yugoslav forces from Serbia. At the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Bosnian-Serbs hoped to create an independent republic of their own, with the capital as Sarajevo. They surrounded the city and strategically placed themselves in the hills around the capital. For the next four years, they never even had to enter the city; instead, they used sniper fire and bombs to wreak havoc. It was Hell.

Our tour guide in Sarajevo was a young man named Neno. He was only a boy when the war struck in Sarajevo, but he remembers it well. He and all his neighbours were forced to move into the basement of their building. They lived together as a small community, eating whatever food they received from UN air drops, listening to the bombs above: for four straight years. The city was torn to pieces; major landmarks, including the city hall and local brewery were prime targets. The brewery in Sarajevo was built over a fresh spring. It was the city’s only source of water during the war times. Hundreds of civilians died while waiting in line for water. Snipers attacked soldiers and civilians as if they were equal. By the end of the 4 years, nearly as many civilians had been murdered as soldiers. 

But Sarajevo remembers. At each place where a shell exploded and killed citizens, a red “rose” is now painted into the concrete. It’s a sobering realization when you stumble upon one of the many splotches of red paint that scatter the city streets. 

This was the first point in the trip where I realized I understood very little about the decline of Yugoslavia. And this epiphany only grew stronger as we travelled deeper into the Balkans. 

But despite spending a significant amount of time enveloped in the horrors of war, we actually had a wonderfully relaxing time in Sarajevo. Cafe hopping in the day, a museum here and there, and late afternoon hikes into the hills. The view from the Bijela Tabija at the edge of Sarajevo is well worth the climb. Low hanging mist in the valley made the city seem as if it were emerging from a dream. Young teens and couples hang out on the walls of the abandoned white fort while the sun sets. Wild sheep and stray cats graze the last green patches of grass within the old walls. The structure is nothing more than stone ruins, towering over the sprawling city below. It is beautiful. 

I was surprised at how quickly Sarajevo captured my interest. It’s middle eastern influences were unlike any other city we had come upon in Europe yet. The place was both exotic and familiar at the same time, and everyone was more than welcoming. Sarajevo is a gem in the mountains of Bosnia, and as we head South through the region, I hope to find more places like this. 


Belgrade


Just like Romania, we arrived in Serbia knowing very little about the country. Apart from the very basics, Belgrade was totally new territory to us. So our first morning in the city, we joined the walking tour to learn a little about the country we’d spend the next week or so exploring. 

Belgrade has an insane history. Even in the last 150 years the country has undergone more changes that most countries see in half a millennia. Belgrade sits in one of the most strategic places in Europe. It is at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube rivers, two of the most important rivers in Europe. It sits perfectly at the divide of what was once Yugoslavia and the Austro-Hungarian empire. It is perfectly positioned geographically with its back to the mountains and yet sits on a plain with fertile soil. This makes Belgrade a wonderful place to control. And also, a wonderful place to fight over.

Belgrade has been overtaken about a million and a half times (Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it must be pretty close). It has been occupied since the Romans and continued to be a city of contention right up until 1999. It has been the capital city of TEN different countries in the past 150 years. Four of which were only in the last 25 years. In the past century, Belgrade has been bombed on over 70 different occasions. It was even the ONLY city to have been bombed by both the Nazi forces AND the Allied forces in WWII. And was most recently bombed again in 1999 by NATO. The poor city of Belgrade has rebuilt itself a total of FORTY different times in the past century. FORTY. That has got to be exhausting. Finding a building in its original form in Belgrade is a miracle. We walked past an old mosque just outside of the bohemian quarter that was built in the 16th century. I stared at the mosque in awe. The things it must have seen. The chaos it must have endured. The leadership, the destruction, the rebuilding: it’s amazing that it’s still standing there. Peacefully placed on a quiet street with rows of trees, slowly losing their yellow leaves as the seasons change. It’s hard to imagine what this city has gone through. 

And not just bombing. Serbia has endured nearly every political system out there. A monarchy, communism, democracy: they’ve seen it all. Not to mention, they’ve seen their currency implode due to inflation. Our guide had told us that when he was 6 years old, about 22 years ago, the country’s currency went into a state of frenzy. The deficit of Yugoslavia under Tito’s reign was horrendous. To correct things, the government started printing more and more money. They added zeros onto the end of the bills in an attempt to fix the problem. Eventually, the change became so extreme the money’s currency was changing by the minute. People had to spend all their money the moment they were paid, or the value would change and their money would be worthless. He said people would stand in line for hours trying to buy bread and oil with their latest pay cheque. But sometimes, by the time they got to the front of the line, the government had already added another 0 to the end of the money and they could no longer afford the bread. The Dinaras were soon in the multi billions. So inflated that the entire currency collapsed. You can now buy the old currency as a tourist souvenir; otherwise, it’s entirely useless. 

It’s true that Belgrade has had a wild ride through the past years. But it doesn’t seem to have an affect on the people themselves. Apart from a tough, gruff exterior found in much of the service industry, Serbian people are incredibly welcoming and carefree. They drink Rakia (a popular, strong, flavoured liquor that is found everywhere here in Serbia), they are proud of their nation, despite having had so many others previously, and they are very, very appreciative of peaceful times. 

Overall I enjoyed my short time in Belgrade. And Jodon and I were so enamoured with the country, we decided to head out into the countryside to explore some smaller regions of Serbia. 

Timisoara and Romania’s Revolution


It was dark and rainy as we stumbled off the train into the deserted station of Timisoara, a small city in the north of Romania. The few locals that departed with us scrambled over the tracks to take cover under the eaves of the empty platform. The place looked poor and broken; the uninviting, communist style station was all but closed down at this time of night. We stood, looking out at the edge of the city, not knowing how to start our journey. How did we end up here?We knew little about Romania and practically nothing about the city of Timisoara when we arrived. It was a convenient stop over on our way to Serbia. We clunked along on the tram through the rainy night and eventually found our hostel on the other side of town. It was cold. We were tired. 

But the next morning the sun came out, and the world looked less bleak. We grabbed a map and a few tips and walked into the new world of Romania. It was eye opening. We had no idea how important the city was to Romanian history.  

1989 was the year of changes for communist dictatorship around the world. The Velvet revolution in the Czech Republic, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the protests in Tiananmen Square caused irreparable changes, specifically among eastern European nations. When the people of Timisoara caught wind of these revolutions, they took a stand against their own tyrant: Nicolae Ceausescu. Only a few days before Christmas, small groups began protesting in the city squares. No one realized that, by the end of the week, their world would be forever changed.

The Memorial Museum in Timisoara is supposed to be the number one attraction in the city. The museum recounts the events of the 11-day revolution that began in December 1989. The building is an unassuming, 2-floor, Communist-style, concrete structure. The yard out front is in shambles, and the door has no sign. We thought we had the wrong place. We tried the door and it opened into a long, concrete hallway. There were maps and photos haphazardly nailed to the walls. A small desk was positioned to the side and a man sat behind it. 

“Is this the museum?” We asked

The man looked up and gave us a big smile. 

“Yes! Yes!” He said. He got up quickly and scampered around the desk to greet us. He looked so thrilled that someone was there. The entire building was empty. We paid our small fee and were ushered into a room with classroom-style seating. Strange mannequins with gas masks and army gear sat in the chairs around the corners of the room. Posters of the revolution covered every niche of the unpainted walls. We sat down in the centre to face a TV and the man played us a half hour video to begin our tour. 

This was the first information we’d had on the Romanian Revolution. We knew absolutely nothing about the history of the city. It was eye-opening to say the least. The protests started on December 15th after the mistreatment of the Hungarian Priest Laszlo Tokes. But it was only a matter of days before the event grew into a revolt against the oppressive leadership of Nicolae Ceausescu. People wanted food. People wanted freedom. 

Ceausescu ordered the military to gun down the protestors. And when they did, things only grew worse. Nearly 100 people were murdered on the first day of the shootings in Timisoara. The government tried to cover up the massacre. They took the bodies of the murdered protesters, transferred them to Bucharest, and burned them; it was as if it never happened. The protesters grew in size from hundreds, to tens of thousands in just a few days. 

Strikes. Protests. Tanks. Tear gas. The army opened fire, and the protesters grew and grew. They chanted “Down with Ceausescu!”. The revolution quickly spread to neighbouring cities.

Ceausescu ordered the execution of the Minister of Defence because he failed to stop the rioters. He told the country that Milea had committed suicide. But the army saw through Ceausescu’s propaganda and the soldiers began to defect. By the next day, the army sided with the protesters and Ceausescu stood alone. 

By Christmas day 1989, only 11 days after the protesting began, Ceausescu and his wife were captured and shot by firing squad for their crimes. It is estimated that Ceausescu was responsible for over 60 000 deaths. Just like that, the revolution was over. 

You can still see the bullet marks in the street as you walk through the main square in Timisoara. Most of the population here would remember the revolution. The man working at the museum ticket booth would have been a part of the protests that occurred. Its eerie to think of what these people have lived through. That the history we learn about is not some long past event to discover. That these people LIVED the revolution. 

The rest of the museum showed more of the same. Just room after room of pictures lining the crumbling concrete walls. It was one of the strangest museums I’ve been in, and no one was there. 

Outside, the pretty little town of Timisoara lived on. It’s a university town with a lively nightlife and great cafe culture. I wonder now if any of the other backpackers visited the museum. It would be easy to miss without a guidebook. I wonder if most people passing through are here for the nightlife and the surrounding nature. Timisoara is a popular base point for nearby day-hikes in the region. The streets are quaint and the restaurants lively. It makes me sad to think you could move through without ever knowing about it’s bloody past. 

Our time in Romania was less than 48 hours, but it left a big impact on my mind. We had a choice to continue East through Branov and into Bucharest or head West to the Balkans. The rains swayed our decision and we moved eastward on the train. But Romania hasn’t seen the last of us!

My Purse has a Little Chair: Dinner at Onyx


It’s no surprise that I freakishly adore food. So when Jodon announced that he was going to treat me to an evening at a Michelin star restaurant, you can imagine how I reacted. I was beside myself to say the least. I love long, drawn out dinners with multiple courses. I pour over each episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix as if I was there: I salivate, I cry, I completely envelop myself in the story. It’s crazy. But for all my love of food, I have never been to a Michelin Star restaurant. And let me tell you, it’s a totally different experience than just “going for dinner”. 

We arrived at Onyx, for our 6:30 reservation, just as they were unlocking the restaurant doors to open. We were greeted by three smiling staff members, helping us with our coats and bags, hanging everything up and ushering us toward our table for the evening. We were the only ones in the restaurant. It was so uncomfortably quiet. Just us and a plethora of staff at our attendance. We are certainly not used to this much attention, and we awkwardly smiled as we made our way across the room. My chair was pulled out by a fourth server, and pushed back in as I sat down. I went to place my purse on the floor by my feet, when another man came out of nowhere. 

“Excuse me miss, a little seat for your purse?”

He placed a small, velvet cushioned stool next to my chair for my purse to sit softly upon. A chair. For my purse. A freakin CHAIR for my purse. 

I looked up at Jodon and whispered “Oh my god, my purse has it’s own seat at the table. What is happening?” 

The little chair, and the now six staff members around us, and the empty, quiet restaurant were too much for me to handle and I started giggling. I am so not meant for classy restaurants. 

I looked down at the plethora of utensils and plates and glasses in front of me. Each one sitting in perfect position on the crisp white tablecloth beneath. As I contemplated the perfection of it all, a woman came over to offer us water and leave us with the menu.

There were two options for dinner. The 6-course, Hungarian Evolution menu, and the 8-course Chef’s Menu. There was also the option for a wine pairing with each menu. The food descriptions were vague at best.

“What do you think ‘violet, pine, blueberry’ means?” Asked Jodon quietly to me.

“Who knows” I giggled. The silence made everything funny. 

Suddenly a man came around the corner dragging an entire cart full of alcohol. It was as if he brought the entire bar selection to us.

“Would you care for an appertif? A glass of wine perhaps? Something to excite the palate before dinner?” 

We ended up with a glass of Hungarian sparkling wine to start off what was to be an epic, 4-hour food experience. We ended up choosing the 8-course chef’s menu with sommelier recommended wine pairings for each course. Go big or go home, we figured. But it was much more than eight courses. We had three amuse bouche starters, a small frothy soup to cleanse the palate, a beautifully plated beet salad with violet flowers on top and a massive selection of freshly baked breads before the first course even came out. Each dish put in front of us was more impressive than the last. Even the bread was amazing! There were about 12 different flavours of still warm bread placed in front of us: homemade rye, sourdough, chili bread, wild garlic loaf, cheese bread, squid ink bread (Jodon’s favourite), bread with dates, bread with paprika, traditional hungarian rolls. The list was endless. “Bread guy” as we called him, was so enthusiastic about each new flavour. He described each one, making sure to emphasize his favourites. The breads were served with spoons of butter and pâté and pumpkin seed goat cheese as spreads. It was sensational. And when we had finished the massive bowl mid-meal, Bread Guy came back with an entire cart of more fresh-out-of-the-oven breads to fill up. 

“Which was your favourite?” “You must try this new one!” “More?” “Let me fill this!” He tittered on about each new loaf, and filled our bowl with more bread than the two of us could ever stomach. It was amazing. 


By the time our first course came, with it’s proper wine pairing of course, we were already half full. A decadent looking asparagus salad with chervil and elderflower was placed in front of us. Two waiters worked as a team to describe the dish.

“And as you see, the salad is topped with shaved apples…” they went on and on. Jodon never heard any of it, although they always explained the dishes to him alone. I never knew how to react when they’d finish their description. Do I grab a fork and dig in, do I smile politely, do I thank them and bow? There is so much more etiquette to fine dining than “start at the outside and work your way in”, and I was completely unaware of it until now. I ended up giving a half smile, a whispered “thank you” and a super awkward head nod than was part “I understand” and part “Yes, Mr. Miyagi, I am your Sensei.” It was weird. Every single time. 

But we dug into the food regardless. Our spoon clashing loudly on the side of the bowl with each scoop.

“I feel like they could have done a better job picking the dinnerware. This bowl is so loud!” Said Jodon as he clanged his spoon noisily on the side again.

I snorted a laugh. ” I feel like I’m eating out of a bell!”

And we agreed that was EXACTLY was it was like. Try eating soup out of a bell and see how quietly you can do it. Even the slightest touch of the spoon let out a ring across the now crowded restaurant that proved we were even more out of place than we looked. I found this even more giggle worthy and I was only two glasses of wine in.


As the restaurant filled, and we drank more wine, we felt slightly more comfortable with the insane amount of people we had waiting on us. It was still strange to have a man come around and scrape the crumbs off the table after each meal. 

“Sorry, we’ve made a mess” said Jodon apologetically as he scraped away a few crumbs. 

“No, no!” Said the man emphatically, “It is good. The bread makers get very sad if I don’t find any crumbs on the table!” 

And it was equally unusual having my napkin perfectly folded as I returned each time from the ladies room. But the courses continued: sturgeon caviar with cucumber soup, ground lamb wrapped in crispy kale, trout marinated in grape seed oil with wild garlic and horseradish. Each flavour was a tastebud explosion!


At the end of each course, the waiter would ask how we liked the dish. I made it my personal mission to never use the same descriptive word twice.

“It was wonderful, thank you,” “Absolutely sensational,” “This was fantastic” 

I was doing fairly well until I was asked again by the sommelier about the wines.

“Superb!” “Phenomenal,” “Extremely delicious”…. by the time the main course came, I had already needed to use at least 18 descriptive words. Jodon laughed each time I politely responded to the server, he couldn’t wait until I slipped up and used the same word twice. This game got significantly more difficult as we each finished our 5th glass of wine.

“The goulash was exceptional” I said as I did my classic awkward nod as if my waiter was royalty. As one point the sommelier surprised me and asked me about the wine before I had a new word in mind.

“Ahhh, GOOD!” I said, unusually loud and high pitched. It wasn’t good. It was great. But I’d used “great” already so I said good, but I said it LOUD and I said it HIGHER so as to emphasize just how GOOD it really was. I’m a loser. I realize this.

Jodon has exactly four descriptive words when it comes to anything.

“Bad”

“OK” (The go-to for most everything)

“Good” (Anything from a 6 – 8.5/10)

And “Very good” said super regularly, without any high-pitchness or over emphasizing. Sometimes, to my horror, even with a shrug and half nod. Michelin star restaurants are “Very good” in his books. And that is all. 


Our main course was a rare venison steak with black pudding and an apple, celery mash. It was mouth-watering (a descriptive word, I realize now, that I never used). At this point I was stuffed to the brim and feeling tipsy. The wine we were drinking was all Hungarian, from different regions of the country. I had never had Hungarian wine before Budapest, but it is top notch! To be honest, if Jodon hadn’t told me the wine was “very good” in Hungary, I’m not sure I would have categorized Hungary as a wine nation at all! But I’d be sorely mistaken, because not only is their wine excellent, but they were also the inventors of the famous summer sipper, the spritzer! Fun fact. 


After the venison came an apricot sorbet with mango and vanilla sauces and small spots of white and dark chocolate.

“This is your pre-dessert before your pre-dessert” said the server as he placed it in front of us and started his description. Was I getting drunk? Did he just say pre dessert to our pre dessert. Turns out this was just another course that wasn’t even included in the menu. So it was a little palate cleansing dessert to prepare us for the next course, which was in fact the pre dessert to the actual dessert. It was confusing, but too delicious for me to contest. So I ate it dutifully with my favourite awkward thank you bow. 

Then followed our pear and thyme pre dessert, set in a cold chamomile tea. “Outstanding”

And finally our “real” dessert, with the very confusing caption “violet, pine, blueberry”.

I’m still not entirely sure what this dessert was, but it was beautiful. Thin, frozen dark chocolate shavings in a nest beside violet, house-made ice cream. Freeze dried blueberries that popped with flavour, pine nut crumble and white chocolate spatter presented in a modern work of art. Holy crap. 


“I am so sad for this dinner to end, but also SO happy this is the last course” I said to Jodon, leaning back in my chair, happy that my dress was stretchy. 

“I’m so full” he agreed as we sipped the last of our late harvest Tokaji cuvée (I don’t recognize ANY of the grape varietals here in Hungary) sadly happy to not be served any more food.

And then Bread Guy came back.

“Hello” he said dragging a giant cart full of small chocolate treats, “May I offer you some chocolates to finish the dinner?” And he continued to describe each of the 15 or so different chocolates and creams and crunchy cookie-like desserts to us. Oh my god. There’s more! Knowing I’d never be able to choose I asked if he would just pick his favourite and I would have that one.

“Yes, thank you” he said, picking up a plate and some tongs. Proud to be picking out the best of the best for us. By the time he finished we had six different desserts on our plate. I was expecting him to choose ONE and offer it. But he picked and prodded through them and kept mutter “maybe this” “you must try these” “This one” as he placed each one on the plate. “Any more that I missed?” He asked with a smile

“NO!” We both said, a little too emphatically. Six was more than enough. 

And low and behold, the chocolates were just as delicious as everything else we had had that evening. 

The bar cart was brought back around and we were offered coffee and liqueurs and or anything we wanted to accompany our post-dessert. But it was all too much. We had been sitting at that little table for over four hours just the three of us: Jodon, myself, and my purse, still perched politely on it’s velvet chair beside us. 

But it was not over.

With the bill came two white boxes with the Onyx insignia and a violet ribbon. “A treat for tomorrow for you both” said the server as he dropped off the bill. 

“They’re even feeding us tomorrow?!” I exclaimed “This is insane”

I have always known that Michelin starred restaurants were “a cut above” other restaurants, but I had no idea what I was getting into when the staff unlocked the front doors for us four and a half hours earlier. It wasn’t just dinner; it was an experience. It wasn’t just service; it was knowledge. There was even a staff member on hand who was a connoisseur of mineral water, in case any questions arose. A mineral water expert! HOW DOES ONE EVEN GET THE TITLE OF MINERAL WATER EXPERT??? 

It was hands down the best dinner of my life, with no close seconds. And I consider myself the luckiest girl in the world to have been treated to such an occasion. Jodon’s a keeper.