Driving Through the Balkans

Randy and I arrived back in Albania from the USA the second week of August so we could spend some time traveling before school started for me on the 26th. We rented a car for nine days and drove through the countries of Kosovo, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. We stayed in each country for one to three days depending on what we wanted to see. We only had one long driving day of 8 hours, the other driving days were between 2 and 5 hours. The unknown was always how long it would take to cross over the borders. At each country’s border we needed to wait in a line to leave the country and then wait in another line to enter the next country. Sometimes the total process only took about 15 minutes but sometimes it took up to 2 hours.

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This picture was taken as we were driving into Kosovo. We have used Google Maps to navigate our way all over the USA, Albania, Greece and several countries in western Europe. When we tried to use Google Maps to navigate through Kosovo the app would not work properly. I immediately blamed the problem on my weak technology skills and kept wondering what I was doing wrong. When we arrived at our hotel in Kosovo I asked the reception clerk if he knew why Google Maps would not work for us. He said Google Maps will not work in Kosovo because the country of Serbia has made the app unusable in Kosovo. He also pointed out that the weather app that we have used all over the world will not work in Kosovo for the same reason. Up to this point in the trip I had no pre-conceived ideas about Serbia but this was the first example of why we left the Balkans feeling like Serbia is not a friendly country.

Since Google Maps was unusable in Kosovo we depended on another navigation app called Waze. After leaving Kosovo we used a combination of the two navigation apps and usually ended up having very few problems driving through the Balkans.

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Our first stop in Kosovo was Prizren considered to be the cultural capital of the country. Here is a picture of the Old Stone Bridge built in the 1600’s. Kosovo and Albania are closely tied since 90% of the population in Kosovo is ethnically Albanian. Both the spoken and written language used in Kosovo is Albanian.

This is the Sinan Pasha Mosque, the oldest and one of the most beautiful mosques in the country. 95% of the population in Kosovo is Muslim. Prizren has more than 20 mosques, many more than Tirana has because almost all of Tirana’s mosques were destroyed during communism time. This destruction of mosques did not happen in Kosovo.

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Do you see the fortress on the hill in the background of this picture? That is where we are walking to next.

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Up, up, up the hill…

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We made it to the Kalaja Fortress which was built in the 11th century.

A beautiful, panoramic view of the city at sunset. In the picture on the right you can see the Old Stone Bridge lit up.

fullsizeoutput_f240 We were headed back down the hill when I took another picture of this gorgeous mosque.

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On the following day we drove an hour and a half to Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo. We passed a car flying the Kosovo flag. The people of Kosovo love and are proud of their country.

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When we arrived in Prishtina we went to the meeting point to take a free walking tour of the city. We have found this to be a great way to get to know a new city. The tours are usually about two hours long and are often given by young people who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their communities. Another part of the tours we have enjoyed is getting to know the other tourists. They come from all over and it is interesting to compare notes of where people are going or where they have been. I had conversations with people from Germany, Romania, Canada, Russia, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and others over the course of our trip. So interesting!! Love it! One other interesting part of these free walking tours is that Randy and I are usually the oldest people on the tours by about 25 years. 😮 Not sure why that is…

Anyways back to the picture above, our meeting point for the Prishtina, Kosovo tour. In the city center was a statue of the Albanian hero, Skanderbeg. There is a similar statue at the city center in Tirana. This was just another reminder of how closely Albania and Kosovo are linked.

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This banner was also in the Prishtina city center. We found out through our tour that people from Kosovo love Americans because the USA and NATO forces stepped in to stop the genocide by the Serbs in 1999 at the end of the Kosovo War. Also the US was the first country to recognize Kosovo as a separate country after Kosovo withdrew from Serbia.

Touring an Ottoman home owned by a wealthy family from 300 years ago.

Although only 2% of the population in Kosovo is Catholic this gorgeous cathedral was recently built in Prishtina. When our tour guide was asked how it was funded he explained that donations from outside of Kosovo made the building of the church possible. The cathedral is dedicated to Mother Theresa.

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The Kosovo War was fought because Serbia did not want Kosovo to be an independent country. They wanted Kosovo to remain part of Serbia. This monument was built after the Kosovo War as a tribute to the 20,000 women who were raped by the Serbs during the war. The Serbs were not being successful militarily so they decided to try to break the spirit and family ties within the Kosovo community by raping the women and murdering 3,000 young children under the age of four. All of this happened in 1998-99! Absolutely horrible and sickening! The USA had stayed out of this conflict until this information became public but then became involved in stopping this genocide.

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This is a close-up of the monument from above. Each of the 20,000 medals represents the rape of a woman during the Kosovo War.

Onto a  lighter subject…

Our final stop in Prishtina was visiting a bear sanctuary. Up until 2010 it was common for restaurants in Kosovo to have live bears in cages in front. The restaurant owners did this as a way to attract customers. It was decided that this was inhumane and so in 2013 this sanctuary was opened to house the bears. It was a beautiful facility that houses 19 bears.

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Serbia does not allow tourists to enter Serbia through Kosovo since they do not recognize  Kosovo as a country. So we had to drive out of Kosovo to Macedonia and then enter Serbia through Macedonia. This was about a two-hour drive out of our way.

Our first stop in Serbia was to visit the Red Cross Nazi Concentration Camp outside of the city of Nis. It was used to detain as many as 35,000 Jews, Serbs and Romanis between the years of 1941-44. The concentration camp is best known because of the escape of 105 prisoners from the camp. The largest number of escapees from any concentration camp. During the escape 11 German soldiers were killed. The Nazis then murdered 100 prisoners for each German soldier that was killed as punishment for the prisoner escaping.

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The tall building in the background is our hotel. It was lovely hotel at a very reasonable price. The only downside was that smoking was allowed in the hotel restaurant and lobby. Yuck! This was the only place on our trip where smoking was allowed inside, thank goodness!

The next morning on my run I came across this fort that included Nisville, obviously a play on Nashville, Tennessee.  🙂  I immediately thought of our friends. Sarah and Marty, perhaps you need to plan a trip to Nis, Serbia. 🙂

 

These are two maps that we saw as we toured Serbia. Both maps show Kosovo as part of Serbia. The maps have no indications that Kosovo has been recognized as a separate country by 154 of the 193 United Nations countries.

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95% of Serbians are Christian, primarily Christian Orthodox. This beautiful church is in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

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This is Belgrade’s city center which we thought was similar to many other European city center’s we have visited: vibrant, lots of good restaurants and shops, great people watching. We found the people of Serbia to be friendly and welcoming. We did not get the opportunity to talk with many Serbs but on our walking tour the guide made it clear that he thought Serbia was the best country in the world and that the mention of Kosovo was taboo. Serbia seems to be a bully to other countries: Kosovo, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Macedonia. To me it seems like Serbia is wanting to claim as much land as  possible after the break up of Yugoslavia.

More pictures from Belgrade.

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As many of you know, I LOVE ice cream. This was my favorite treat in Serbia!  🙂

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When we checked out of our hotel we were given this form. They said we might need it to prove that we had stayed in Serbia and to allow us to exit the country. We were never asked about it at the border but it made me feel a bit unsettled about being a tourist in Serbia.

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As we drove through Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria we passed by fields and fields and fields of sunflowers. Beautiful!

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As we drove into Romania the first thing we saw were the two images above. Romania is one of the most religious countries in Europe as evidenced by the cross. 92% of the population is Orthodox Christian.

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When we were trying to figure out where to visit in Romania, our reading suggested that Transylvania was in the heartland and specifically recommended two villages. We settled on spending two nights in Sighisoara and were not disappointed. This charming well preserved Saxon town was full of cobbled streets and architecture that reminded me of Rothenburg, Germany. Our hotel was located on the right at the top of these stairs.

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Look how very German our hotel in Romania looks! During our visit to Sighisoara we learned that in the 11th century the king of Romania wanted to increase the population of Romania so he went to the Saxony part of Germany. He offered free land, no taxes for 50 years, freedom of religion and self rule to anyone who would resettle to the Transylvania part of Romania. They had to agree to help defend Romania from the Barbarians. This explains why so much of Transylvania has a German feel to it.

 

More German (Saxon) influence…

 

 

We visited the small village of Biertan with it’s fortified church. In the 13th and 14th centuries many small villages did not have castles to protect them so they fortified their churches as places for protection. This church had three walls built around it and eight towers as a defense against invaders. It was known as the strongest fortified church of Transylvania and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We visited another beautiful Saxon village called Malancrav where Prince Charles visits twice a year to enjoy the peaceful, natural surroundings.

The village included this Saxon Fortified Church with frescoes dating back to 1350.

 

We climbed to the top of the Clock Tower, the centerpiece of Sighisoara.

When we sent some of our pictures from Romania to our kids, Elizabeth sent us the picture of the puzzle on the left. Wow! We are standing in the exact spot where the puzzle picture was taken. Elizabeth said her family had just finished putting together the puzzle so easily recognized where we were.

 

This Romanian woman with her marionette was performing outside of the Clock Tower. I loved watching her!

Our final stop in Romania was Bran Castle. This was really our only disappointment on the whole trip. It was extremely crowded with loooooong lines to get in. Our guide was very marginal with limited English and it was obvious that she was an inexperienced guide. We went there because this castle is known as Dracula’s Castle and since Randy read the book and saw the movie he wanted to see what it was like. When we got into the castle we found out that the castle had very little to do with Dracula but instead was owned by Romania’s royal family specifically Queen Mary, daughter of Queen Victoria.

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As you can tell from the picture, we are now headed into Bulgaria. As we were leaving Romania the toll collector wanted us to pay 150 euros to leave the country. We questioned it and the toll collector became frustrated and ended up throwing our passports and rental car paperwork at us and waving us through. A big part of the problem was a language barrier. There was no signage indicating this type of toll was due. We never could figure out if we really were supposed to pay this large amount of money as a highway tax or if the Romanian woman was just trying to “line her pockets.” Who knows?

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As we drove through the countryside is was common to see horse drawn wagons carrying people, hay or some other crop.

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We have arrived in Plovdiv, Bulgaria which was one of my favorite cities we visited. It was clean, had a good combination of a charming Old Town and a bustling New Town and delicious food. Plovdiv claims to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. I wish we would have had more time to explore this city and it’s surroundings.

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Here is a model of a stadium built by the Romans in the first century. The stadium was large enough to seat 30,000 spectators! It was not until the 1960’s that this stadium was found in the city center of Plovdiv.

IMG_7517If the entire stadium was to be unearthed then many of the city’s buildings would need to be destroyed so Plovdiv made the decision to uncover only part of the stadium which is pictured above.

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We were told that if we went into the H&M Store we could see more of the stadium. Sure enough, as soon as we entered the store there was part of the ancient stadium. So interesting!

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At the top of the city was this ancient theater which seats 5,000 people. It was also built in the first century and was not discovered until the 1960’s. Plays and concerts are frequently held in this theater where the acoustics are perfect.

IMG_7539 The cover to this menu made me smile. The food in Plovdiv  was excellent!

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About 60% of the Bulgarians are Bulgarian Orthodox with the next largest sub-group being 20% of Bulgarians who are undeclared about their religion. This orthodox church is named Church of the Holy Mother of God.

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Another beautiful sunset in another beautiful city. Plovdiv is often referred to a city with seven hills. Here you can easily see three of them.

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As we are headed out of town the following morning, I snapped this picture to show how in Bulgaria two written languages are used, Cyrillic and Latin. Both languages are taught in school and Bulgarian citizens can easily move between the two. This was true in Serbia and Macedonia too.

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We spent the last night of our trip in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. Up until a few months ago North Macedonia was simply called Macedonia but because of ongoing disputes with Greece the name was changed.

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Look at our hotel! This ship/hotel was in the city center and the price was right so we decided why not. There is no historical significance to the ship or it’s location plus the river that it sits in is much too small to ever accommodate a ship of this size. It all seemed so random but fun at the same time.

Skopje is a city of statues.  They are everywhere with little information about their significance. It seems overdone at times.

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There were also huge beautiful buildings like this throughout the city. We found out that many of them have a faux front and the building is actually only a few feet deep.

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This was probably the most imposing (and beautiful in many ways) statue. Our walking tour guide said she was to call the statue “warrior on a horse”. It seemed obvious to us that it was a statue of Alexander the Great. This scenario also has it’s roots in disagreements with Greece.

Visiting another fortress on top of a hill…

My favorite part of Skopje was visiting where Mother Theresa’s home originally stood. In the picture on the right you can see the brass cornerstones of the home. Mother Theresa was born in Skopje to parents of Albanian descent.

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This museum was built within the last few years as a tribute to Mother Teresa.

The museum included several copies of letters Mother Teresa had written over her lifetime. I was surprised to see that they were written in English. I then learned that when she left Macedonia at the age of 18 she went to Ireland to become a nun. It was in Ireland that Mother Teresa became proficient in English. She then went from Ireland to Calcutta, India. Since Mother Teresa is considered a saint all of the original documents, letters and paperwork from her life are housed in the Vatican.

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip around the Balkans. At times, it was hard to keep up with the different types of money in each country: Kosovo Euro, Serbian Dian, Romanian Lei, Bulgarian Lev and the Macedonian Denar. We came home with lots and lots of coins! One of the overarching themes we discussed after our trip was that the Balkans have a long history of turmoils, wars, border disputes, some of which are still continuing. When a country has to put so much of it’s time and resources into settling these disputes then they can’t put those same resources into developing their countries. After this trip we now have a better understanding of why western Europe is more developed than eastern Europe. The people we met throughout our Balkan travels were wonderful. We wish them a peaceful future in this beautiful part of the world.

I am a bit slow in making this post because school has started. Yikes, all of a sudden I have limited free time again. We took one more weekend trip before school started which I will post about and then I will update you on Albanian College.

Thanks for reading my blog!

September, 2019

 

15 thoughts on “Driving Through the Balkans

  1. Sarah,
    Thanks for writing such a detailed diary, I learned a lot about the history of turmoil in the Balkans.
    Maria, the local shoe shop owner is from Romania. My sister, Amelia traveled there and loved it. The two of them love to chat about it when Amelia is visiting.
    I want to hear more about the Nashville town! You can fill me in on one of our land car rides! See you in a few weeks!
    Sarah

    Liked by 1 person

  2. SO interesting! I knew little about that part of the world, even though Vesna (para in my classroom) was from Macedonia. The concentration camp where the escape occurred, do you know its name during the war? Thank you again for blogging! I love your travelogues. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sarah, your writing transports me to a different world. Thank you for taking the time to share: I can hear your voice as I read and feel as if we’re having a conversation where I am learning so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Once again you have outdone yourself with your beautifully written blog ! I love seeing all your photos and reading your descriptions and interpretations. Thanks again for sharing your wonderful travels! I love getting these! Stay safe & enjoy another great school year!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. glad to see to see you safe and sound. what an amazing trip !–Jim

    On Thu, Sep 5, 2019 at 6:20 AM Teaching in Albania wrote:

    > Sarah Williams posted: ” Randy and I arrived back in Albania from the USA > the second week of August so we could spend some time traveling before > school started for me on the 26th. We rented a car for nine days and drove > through the countries of Kosovo, Serbia, Romania, Bu” >

    Liked by 1 person

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