Editorial: June 2016
Wow – it’s been a full three months since I last posted an Editorial. That feels like an eternity, considering how much has happened in the meantime. To bring you up to speed then, here’s a review of what I’ve been doing for the last few months… and it’s probably going to make this the longest editorial I’ve ever written.
APRIL: Exploring the Balkans
I realise that I’ve been quite slow about sharing details of my Balkan expedition, back in April. To be honest, the whole thing left me somewhat overwhelmed and disorientated. This past month I have been gradually sorting through photo albums and typing up my notebooks, ready to eventually open the floodgates and begin sharing a huge amount of new content. In this Editorial, I’m going to give you an advance preview of what that’s going to look like.
My main target on that trip was visiting monuments: those massive, WWII-era spomeniks that lie scattered across the mountains of former-Yugoslavia. I haven’t even begun to sort my photos from those places though. There were so many fascinating destinations along the way, experiences that deserve to be featured in full blog posts of their own, that I suspect I’m going to be writing about this trip for quite some time.
To give you an idea of what’s to come, in the overview below I will underline the locations that I expect to write about in more depth. If I’ve already uploaded photos, then I’ll link to them. But I’ve also got a collection of 30 spomeniks to publish, in time, as well as enough material to fill an entire book on brutalist architecture in the Balkans (naturally, you’ll see previews here first).
I plan to publish a blog post about the trip as a whole, too – a series of vignettes, short stories from each of the nine countries I visited. I guess for now you can consider this Editorial as the blueprint for that; the first draft of a longer, more visual travelogue of the trip.
So without further ado… here’s what happened in April.
This month-long road trip was supposed to begin with a bus into Serbia on April 1st: but four of us met up in Bulgaria, a few days early, for a little pre-tour warm-up.
We started in Plovdiv. This city is famous for its hills, one of which I’d previously noted had what looked like an abandoned hotel perched right at its peak. This time, we decided to check it out – climbing over the fence at night, to go and take in the glowing cityscape after dark.
After Plovdiv we drove to Buzludzha – of course – then north of the mountains, following a tip-off I’d heard about an abandoned military facility. We were thwarted there by security, though; and so instead we raced up to the monument in the Beklemeto Pass just in time for sunset, and from there we watched the daylight die a deep shade of pink across the mountains.
That night we slept in Sofia, and the very next morning we were on our way.
[PICTURED: The Church of Sveti Sedmochislenitsi, Sofia, Bulgaria.]
In Serbia we started in Niš, and checked out the famous ‘Skull Tower’: a place I’ve always wanted to visit. We also saw the local Bubanj Spomenik, then from Niš we hired a car and drove to the west Serbian city of Užice – on the way, visiting the spomeniks at Krusevac, Popina, Čačak and Kraljevo.
We got into Užice after dark, and paid a night-time visit to the Kadinjaca Memorial Park – a beautiful monument complex sat on a hilltop 20 minutes north of the city. I managed to get a few decent night shots, then we returned in the morning to finish the job.
The next day we wandered around Užice a little. The city has some of the best concrete I’ve ever seen, and a near-completely brutalist-styled centre. I was in heaven. After lunch we hit the road, driving to the spomeniks at Kragujevac and then Ostra.
By the time we got close to Belgrade it was already dark. We paid a night visit to the spacey-looking Kosmaj Spomenik on a mountain just south of the capital, then found our way to a hostel, had a couple of beers and collapsed from exhaustion.
The next few days we spent in Belgrade – visiting an abandoned brewery, sampling some fantastic Serbian cuisine and then stopping by Tito’s grave at the ‘House of Flowers.’
[PICTURED: The Bubanj Memorial Park, Niš, Serbia.]
The contrast between Serbia and Slovenia was staggering. In many ways they felt about as different as any two European countries can be, and one of my first thoughts was how strange it was that Slovenia was once governed out of Belgrade. Perhaps that explains, at least in part, why Slovenia was the first republic to break off from Yugoslavia.
In Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, my main target was Metelkova – an autonomous commune that has grown up inside a former Yugoslav People’s Army barracks. The place was even more interesting for the fact that it’s currently housing a large number of Syrian refugees.
Another day we got out of the city: a Slovenian friend came to collect us from Ljubljana, and took us on a daylong tour around the beautifully scenic town of Kamnik just north of the capital. While there I explored an abandoned gunpowder factory, an experience made all the better for having a former site employee as a tour guide.
[PICTURED: Kamnik, Slovenia.]
I saw a huge number of abandoned buildings in Croatia. Outside the capital, Zagreb, we drove up the mountain one day to visit Vila Rebar – the former home of a WWII-era dictator, now a crumbling ruin with a network of tunnels beneath it. That same day we saw Brestovac Sanatorium, an abandoned medical facility that stands in mists near the mountain peak.
Croatia also has some fantastic WWII-era monuments, so we hired a car and went hunting for some of the more remote ones. Later we headed south, on the way stopping at the underground Željava Airbase as well as exploring a ruined vila that was once home to Marshal Tito himself.
Hitting the Dalmatian coast, we spent a few days in Dubrovnik. I really didn’t like it there (sooner or later, I’ll probably write an article explaining why) but it did make a good base for a few more day trips: most notably, to the nearby ‘Bay of Abandoned Hotels,’ and another day, a boat ride to Daksa Island. That last one was an interesting trip – the island was the site of a massacre during WWII, and ever since then the superstitious locals have avoided it. These days, there are dozens of ghost stories associated with the deserted island.
[PICTURED: Tunnels beneath Vila Rebar, near Zagreb, Croatia.]
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Bosnia was full of surprises – partly because I just didn’t have much idea what to expect. The country is breathtakingly beautiful, the people are kind, and as for the monuments… some of those Bosnian spomeniks were just insane. We spent a while driving around the north, looking at memorial complexes, which is when we ran into that rather disconcerting place near Grmeč.
We were using buses again by the time we got to the south of Bosnia. Mostar was fascinating, and I had the chance to climb the sniper tower I had heard so much about for some beautiful, yet troubling, views across the city.
After arriving in Sarajevo we hired a car and went adventuring again. First we headed south, into Bosnian Serb territory looking for monuments and memorial parks. We stopped at the former Winter Olympics sites around Sarajevo too, including a visit to the abandoned bobsleigh track.
The next day we drove north from the capital, and went to Visoko – a town that stands in the shadow of a huge, almost perfectly square hill. Some local archeologists believe the hill to be a buried pyramid, built by an ancient civilisation perhaps some 12,000 years ago. I spent a day there investigating theories about these Bosnian Pyramids.
I dedicated my final 24 hours in Bosnia to learning about the Siege of Sarajevo; a difficult, yet thoroughly worthwhile experience, which I plan to write more about very soon.
[PICTURED: View from the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia.]
People who’ve been to Montenegro seem to rave about Kotor. That always makes me cautious though, when I get too many recommendations – and I’d already been stung by the awful tourist hellhole that is Dubrovnik, so I decided to give Kotor a wide berth on this trip.
The Montenegrin capital on the other hand, Podgorica, was once voted the ‘Most Boring Capital in Europe.’ It sounded much closer to what I was looking for. Montenegro isn’t big, and the buses are pretty good – travelling along highways that fan out like spokes around the capital. For that reason, Podgorica made the perfect base for the next few days.
We visited Nikšić one day, checking out the local spomeniks as well as exploring the House of Revolution: a Yugoslav-era memorial house that now stands in ruins in the city centre. Another day we travelled to Kolasin, with its incredibly brutalist Town Hall building, and further north we saw yet another bizarre WWII monument up at Berabe.
[PICTURED: National Radio & TV Building in Podgorica, Montenegro.]
Taking the bus from Podgorica to Tirana, the first thing I noticed about Albania was the insanely chaotic traffic on the roads. I spent only 48 hours in the Albanian capital, and it rained hard for pretty much all of that time.
I found Albania disorientating. For me, April was all about coming to understand Yugoslavia – and so to throw another, completely different dictatorship into the mix halfway through, was confusing to say the least. Quickly I realised that Albania was nothing like any of its neighbours; nothing like any place I’ve been to, in fact. Two days was a criminally short time to spend there, but at least it was enough to make me realise I need to visit properly someday.
Still, we didn’t do badly with the time we had. I took in a political tour of Tirana; checked out some of the notorious bunkers that litter the Albanian countryside (at one point there were more than 700,000 of them); I saw the famous Tirana pyramid, and also got to explore a recently-memorialised five-level nuclear shelter built for the dictator, Enver Hoxha.
[PICTURED: The ‘Pyramid of Tirana’ in Tirana, Albania.]
Arriving into Macedonia felt like a homecoming. The place just feels so familiar to me, the language easier to understand and the culture that much closer to what I’m used to. We took a bus to the capital, Skopje, initially: wandering straight into an ongoing political demonstration that has become known as the ‘Colourful Revolution.’
In Skopje we hired a car and took it back south – driving to monuments in Veles, Kavadarci and Prilep, before stopping for the night in Krusevo where I paid another visit to the Ilinden Spomenik.
We did have a minor accident along the way, when another driver (a drunk police officer, in fact) drove into the back of us. The paperwork would have to wait until we got to Ohrid though: a picturesque town in south Macedonia, sat on the lake of the same name. I’ve posted a photo album from Ohrid before, but this time in addition to the town itself we also visited the Bay of Bones, a reconstructed bronze age settlement that sits on stilts in the lake.
After a few days relaxing in Ohrid we hit the road again – driving north to the spomenik at Struga, then stopping to look at brutalist architecture in Tetovo before heading up through Skopje and on to our ninth and final country.
[PICTURED: View across Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.]
By this point in the trip, I was exhausted. I almost didn’t visit Kosovo – I feel like I’ve covered it pretty well on this blog already, and I was more interested in discovering places I hadn’t seen before. However, if my plan was to visit all the Balkan countries then I decided that Kosovo was the worst place I could choose to skip; there are already enough people out there who refuse to acknowledge Kosovar sovereignty, and I had no intention of appearing to support them.
When I wrote previously about Dark Tourism in Kosovo, there was one city that I never quite made it to: Prizren. And so, that became our destination for the day trip.
We stopped off at a spomenik along the way – located in Brezovica, a small Serbian enclave in the mountains of southern Kosovo. In places like these the tension between ethnicities is at its most tangible: the town was visibly scarred by poverty and decay, vandalism and nationalist graffiti.
It was quite a contrast then, to come out the other side of the mountains into the predominantly Albanian Prizren, a characterful little town with its mosques, coffee shops and Ottoman architecture.
And after that: back home. The slow way. We had an incredibly tense drive back out of Kosovo, along mountain roads, after dark and in a heavy storm. Another night in Skopje followed, and then finally a bus to Sofia to close the circle.
[PICTURED: The badly vandalised spomenik in Brezovica, Kosovo.]
MAY: My First Private Tour
I did something completely new in May… I ran my first one-person private tour. That person in question turned out to be a great guy to travel with; an Armenian-American travel blogger, who liked the sound of my itineraries but couldn’t make the official group tour date (Check him out here).
I’m going to tell you a little bit about that tour – largely, as I’ve just recently published an essay about a disastrous road trip through Bulgaria and this one tells the exact opposite story. I love how unpredictable Bulgaria can be, and these two very different experiences act like book-ends to the limitless range of surprises the country has to offer.
Everything started according to plan. It was Day One, and we’d just seen the ‘Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State’ at Shumen. (We even paid a highly successful visit to that abandoned mansion in the forest, this time without running into hostiles.) Right after that though, things took an interesting new turn. My guest, Ric, wanted to check out an Armenian church he’d heard about in Shumen. We went along to find the place closed… but there was a social centre next door, the ‘Armenian People’s House,’ where we decided to stop in for a look.
Twenty minutes later we were sat at a table eating fantastic, home-cooked Armenian food while the chef, a giant of a man, chatted with Ric – in Armenian – as he brought round after round of food to us. Then the local preacher turned up, we chatted with him too, and soon enough he was giving us a private tour of the beautiful Armenian orthodox church.
What an amazing experience that was. I was the one supposed to be leading a tour, yet I quickly found myself in completely new territory, and with my guest translating from Armenian into English for me.
[NB. If you’re coming on one of my tours this year, you’ll see the place for yourself – I’ve now factored an Armenian lunch into the itinerary.]
We stayed in Varna that night, and the next day drove through the south of the country. Near the city of Yambol there’s an interesting monument up on a hilltop, and I was planning to take Ric up to see it. I didn’t plan on driving into the middle of a Biker Rally, though.
We’d been noticing motorbikes all afternoon, and there were more of them the closer we got to our destination. The riders all wore leather jackets with club patches – and by the time we’d been passed by the fourth club that day we knew it was no coincidence. Funnily enough, they were heading for the same place as us. A makeshift barrier blocked the access road to the monument, and a couple of heavies in leather jackets and shades waved us over. It was an annual bikers’ meet, they explained – but for 10 leva (about €5) per person we’d be welcome to join the party.
“Meat, beer and strippers,” promised the man with the Vice President patch across his jacket.
The meadow beneath the monument was set up for a festival, with bars and barbecues, and a huge sound system surrounding a stage. Motörhead was blasting through the speakers and the sun was beating down on us hard; so I grabbed some cold drinks from the bar and found a seat. It was fun just sitting there, and checking out all the different patches as people arrived. Bulgarian bikers seem to have some excellent club names: the Old Bastards, the Thracians, the Jackals, the Riders, the Black Roses and, my personal favourite, the Black Sea Hooligans.
It was chaos there, a huge number of people – and bikes – all churning up the narrow track and spilling out of beer tents; but it was friendly enough. I did spot a couple of people brandishing weapons, hunting knives that swung from belts, but at this time of day there were still children and families about too… likely, the other sort of business wouldn’t kick off until much later.
Perhaps it was a mixed blessing that we left when we did. We might have missed the bands (and the strippers too, apparently), but we also got to see the party at its most sober and respectable. I’ve got a feeling that it wouldn’t have stayed that way all night.
And that was just the first two days of the tour!
I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow account of the whole thing, but suffice to say it was full of unexpected treats at every turn. It’s funny, really – although they followed more-or-less the same route, this private tour and my previous practice tour (as detailed in that How Not to Do a Tour piece) could not have been more different in terms of the outcome. It just goes to show: Bulgaria is as unpredictable as it is beautiful.
So I guess that brings us up to Now.
Right this minute I’m back in Bulgaria, sat at my desk and working through a massive backlog of Balkan photographs. I’ve got wedding photos to sort through too, after getting roped into being the official photographer at an old friend’s wedding just last week (now that was a strange and terrifying new experience).
Due to various issues back home in England, it doesn’t look like I’ll be travelling much this summer – but then maybe that’s for the best. I’ve already got enough new content to keep the site fresh and exciting for months to come, and it probably makes sense to stay focussed now rather than filling my head with new information… rather than packing a bag, and running straight out the door again.
So for the next few months I’m going to be catching up, finishing projects, putting new articles out, and so on. I have finally got a web developer working on some new features for the blog, and I also have big plans for setting up future tours around the Balkans.
All in all, I have a feeling this is going to be a very productive summer…