Friday, June 3, 2011

Balkan Adventure


It is time for my annual journey to some mad corner of the world to engage in my personal obsession, which is following the Irish soccer team. I have been to Israel, South Korea, Japan, Faroe Islands, Bulgaria and many other places to follow the Boys in Green. On Friday morning I am flying to Dubrovnik, Croatia. But the match isn't in Croatia. But for no other reason other than to have an adventure we (6 of my friends) are driving in a van from Dubrovnik into Montenegro, into Kosovo (and possibly into Serbia we are not sure yet) before we reach our destination which is the Macedonian capital Skopje where on Saturday the Irish soccer team take on Macedonia in a crucial European 2012 Championship qualifier. It should take us about 12 hours on the road. I hope along the way to take many photos of a political nature which I can share with Gubu World readers. I am very excited about driving through a part of Europe whose recent tragic history I have read so much about. I am not sure if I will see many things of relevance to the recent wars but I will be in constant look out for memorials and war damage. We fly back to Dublin on Monday from Dubrovnik. If I have time on Sunday I will pay a visit to Mostar inside Bosnia, which was the scene of many battles between Serb, Croat and Bosnian forces. It doesn't look like I'll be tweeting because it's too expensive but I really will try to do a post from over there. Wish me and the boys in green luck.

6 comments:

thesystemworks said...

Hi Ted,

Glad to hear you are headed to some of my favorite places on earth!

I was in Serbia and Kosovo during Kosovo's declaration of Independence. Belgrade was really something. Everything remotely American was being burned and looted, such as McDonalds restaurants, and the enormous US Embassy was surrounded. Travel was cut off to Kosovo and we had to get a private car to the border and cross over on foot. Pristina was so exciting. Celebratory gunfire and pro-American sentiment everywhere. It was great being on Bill Clinton Avenue with its Statue of Liberty replica.

One of the coolest things I did in the Balkans was rent motorbikes with friends, where we went through the mountains by the town of Omis (not far from Split, if you are around) towards the Bosnian border. If you are looking for some war damage, you can find some of it there. The mountains are dotted with tiny hamlets, many completely abandoned, and others marked from shell and gunfire.

Disgruntled Driver said...

Which one of us in the van do you not consider as your friend?

Ted Leddy said...

TSW

Thanks so much for yor excellent comment. I loved the trip, absolutely loved it and I can see why it is one of your favourite places. It has a great mixture of beauty, history and politically interesting things to see as well as great holiday locations to rival places like Greece and Spain.

The most interesting part of the trip was driving through Kosovo into Serbia. I would give anything to have been there during that time you described. I was in Pristina too, and Bill Clinton avenue. There are still American flags flying everywhere. It's good to see American so popular in a Muslim country. We generally didn't have much trouble at the border until our return journey. The Serbs wouldn't let us into Serbia after driving through Kosovo. We were told this was a possibility but decided to ride our luck because things were going so well. The Kosovo side of the border was manned by EU police who cleared us to enter Sebia but when we were forced to return a few minutes later the guard exlained that this sometimes happens. It apparently depends on how nationalistic the Serbian border guard on duty that day is. From what I gather the Serbs are more bitter about losing Kosovo than any other territory. It is not surprising really, It was clear driving toward the Serbian border that there is a large Serbian minority still in Kosovo. Driving through Kosovo reminded me of driving through Northern Ireland. When you enter a town you are immediately met by flags (either Serbian or Albanian) indicating what ethnicity dominates in this area. As someone who spent a lot of time as a kid up north during the troubles that was certainly familar.

Anyhow our detour around Serbia caused us major problems. We were supposed to arrive back in Dubrovnik at about 7 pm where we hoped to enjoy a night out (and I would have considered sneaking off to Mostar to have a look) but did not actually arrive until 4am. It turned out to be a 16 hour drive back from Skopje to Dubrovnik thanks to that miserable man at the Serbian border.

All in all in was a fantastic trip, plus we won two nil. But other than some delapidated houses inside Kosovo that I assumed were bombed I saw very little war damage. I will have to return soon and spend more time in the region.

Ted Leddy said...

Disgruntled Driver

Sorry, I should have mentioned there were 8 of us. Me and 7 friends (not 6). We had two disgruntled drivers, are you the one who ran over the cat or the one who took several wrong turns?

thesystemworks said...

Thats another thing: Croatia certainly had the beaches to rival Spain and France, but even at the height of summer we could find long stretches of quiet sand without a tourist in sight away from the cities.

Kosovo was a painful event for the Serbs alright. It was interesting meeting so many young people subsequently, including very progressive near-hippie types whose blood boiled at the mention of it. I could turn a nice young lady into an absolute fascist talking about it while strolling around Kalemegdan, where Arkan himself would cruise for lovely Serbian girls.

Serbian police are notoriously bad. You may have seen them around Belgrade drinking beer or even hard liquor on duty with their civilian buddies. One thing I'd love to see again is a Serbian officer using the clunky old typewriters in many of the police cars on his/her bonnet. They do engage in notorious tricks with travelers on the border (one of my friends, on a separate trip from me, was arrested) often to secure bribes. One of the major ones is with the 'Belgrade Card', a document you are meant to get if you are staying in Belgrade for a few days or more. Its meant to be periodically updated, but nobody knows about the card and every once in a while the cops will screw over some poor soul.

Ted Leddy said...

TSW

In terms of a holiday destination, the fact that is unspoilt is what makes it special.

I have heard simlilar reactions about Kosovo before from Serbs. A number of years ago I met some young people from "Otpor" the youth resistance group that helped bring down the Milosovich regime. They were pro democracy activists that hated the regeime in Belgrade. But Kosovo was a different matter. It was Serb through in through as far as they were concerned.

We quietly discussed bribing the Serbian guard but in the end decided not to risk it in case, like your friend, we ended up in a cell.