I cannot stress enough how important this part of my trip was to me, because of the region itself and because of all the fun times that were had. It is easily one of the most interesting parts of the world that I’ve seen so far, and I think it’s overlooked by a lot of people who travel to Europe, with Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina in particular being dismissed as war-torn. Personally, I knew very little about the region before going, but the fact that it has seen so much conflict is the reason it was such an eye-opener. Add to that the unexpected beauty of both city and nature and the festive nightlife, it was truly a memorable week. Eastern Europe is a beautiful, culturally rich and mostly inexpensive place to travel. I urge everyone to visit.
I travelled the Balkans with Topdeck on the 8 day tour – the ‘Balkan Trail’. I went into it with low expectations, in fact I nearly cancelled this tour to make a quick trip to England instead, but decided to continue to avoid the unnecessary costs. So much happened in one short week, that I went from expecting nothing and wondering what else I could be doing, to missing the group dearly and regretting that I did not book the second leg of the trip. See, I’ve done a few group trips now and it is actually kinda rare to find a group where everyone is so in sync with one another. I think it comes down to the fact that we were not visiting the typical bucket-list summer Euro-trip destinations (Paris, Rome etc.). As far as Euro-trips go, this might even be considered ‘off the beaten track’. As such, each passenger, including our Trip Leader, was drawn to the area for the destination itself, rather than its popularity. And so, we shared an interest in history, open mindedness, a great sense of fun and humour and an enthusiasm for alcohol.
Though not technically a part of the Balkans, the tour began in Budapest, a city I enjoyed so much that I later returned during winter. The capital and largest city of Hungary was originally two cities – Buda and Pest which lie on either side of the mighty Danube, Europe’s second longest river. I arrived a day early and stayed in a hostel on the Buda side in a street that turned out to be the most happening laneway in town, complete with ruin pubs and a street food garden. The next day, I went for a short stroll then made my way to the historic Hotel Gellért on the Pest side, where the tour began. Architecturally, Budapest is one beautiful city, with some of the most imposing, most impressive and most intricately designed buildings and bridges that I’ve seen in Europe. It’s also got a very interesting history, from the Ottoman occupation of the city, to being a twin capital of the former Austria-Hungary, and then to being the hub of Hungary’s allegiance with Nazi Germany. Here are some highlights.
Hungarian style pork medallions. Fun fact: Paprika is a Hungarian spice
Cool street food place on Kazincy Utca, with great icy poles
Great high up view of Budapest!
One of my favourite buildings ever, Fisherman’s Bastion, a terrace built around Matthias church. It looks very medieval and gothic, but it was actually only designed and constructed between 1895 and 1902.
The view from the top, you can see the staggering Hungarian parliament building in the distance.
Delicious Sangria. Strong with a generous scoop of strawberry sorbet!
Goulash, a must in Hungary. Meat stew served with noodles/pasta.
The Liberty bridge over the Danube, with the Gellert hotel in the back.
Inside St Stephen’s Basilica, where the arm of St Stephen is still being kept.
Rose shaped gelato from a shop outside the basilica.
The house of terror, a museum dedicated to displaying the atrocities of the Hungarians’ Naziism, at the location of, and in the same building as, the Nazi headquarters. There is also an old underground military hospital, which I visited and gives a startling look at the conditions in which soldiers and civilians were undergoing treatments and surgeries.
The famous baths. I realise this is a terrible photo and doesn’t show much, but that’s the wave pool and I was too busy getting ready to jump in!
The Szimpla bar – the city’s most famous ruin pub, where all kinds of junk adorn the walls.
Next, we headed off to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and the previous capital of the former Yugoslavia. With evidence of nomadic inhabitance dating as far back as ‘caveman’ days, Belgrade has changed hands many times, the most notable conquerors being the Roman, Hungarian and Ottoman empires. As such the city has been destroyed on numerous occasions, including during both world wars, and experienced some damage during the break up of Yugoslavia. There was, however, significant destruction done to the city by the NATO bombings during the Kosovo war of 1999, which has been left as it was to serve as a memorial for the destruction and casualties. It’s worth noting that the city is still bustling, with art displays in the middle of town, quirky cafes and a reputed nightlife.
Beautiful church built according to plans of the Hagia Sofia museum in Istanbul, Turkey.
Art exhibit in the city.
The old fort.
Belgrade from above, where the two rivers meet!
Quirky little bar.
Even quirkier cafe called ‘?’.
Building ruined during the NATO bombings.
Museum of Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla. Interesting, but I couldn’t go far in. I’d recommend it though, he was highly influential in the development of modern electricity.
Some of the best fun we had was at the fake beach. It’s a man-made pebble beach built on the edge of the Sava river. We took a ball with us and played some games.
Huge grilled meats platter, typical of the Balkans.
Rakia, deadly stuff.
One of many cool bars in Belgrade!
From Belgrade we drove to Srebrenica, our first stop in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Srebrenica rose to international prominence during the Bosnian war, which was a part of the break-up of Yugoslavia and primarily a territorial war, which escalated to acts of genocide. It is the site of the worst massacre on European soil since the second world war. It was a UN protected safe-zone that was held under siege from 1992 to 1995 and later fell to Bosnian Serb forces. Bosnian Muslim or Bosniak men of fighting age who had sought refuge there were systematically massacred with the objective of ethnic cleansing, while women and children were assaulted, raped, displaced, or also killed. We visited the memorial and heard a first-hand account from a survivor. It was confronting but important.
This is a memorial with a small white post for each person who lost their life. My photo doesn’t even show all of them. And even all of them are less than the actual number of casualties.
On to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina situated along and across the Miljacka river. At first glance on the way into the city, Sarajevo appears quite grey and concrete. But approaching the centre of the town, it starts to become more colourful and more historical. At its heart, Sarajevo is home to one of the most charming old towns I’ve been fortunate enough to visit. Formerly an Ottoman stronghold, the city has a very Turkish look and feel and until the late 20th century, it was the only European city to have a mosque, synagogue, catholic church and orthodox church in the same neighbourhood. It was the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, and soon after fell victim to the longest siege in modern war-fare history, from 1992 to1996 during the war. Significantly, Sarajevo is the site of the assassination of the Archduke of Austria, which took place in 1914 and triggered the beginning of World War 1.
Old town Sarajevo, with the iconic fountain in the middle.
Ćevapi, skinless spiced sausages in flatbread with sour cream and fresh onions. Delish!
Krempita – Bosnian vanilla slice, incredibly light and fluffy!
Underground wartime tunnel just outside of town.
Old ruins and new buildings in the same spot!
The Sarajevo Rose – there are many of these all over town, where shrapnel that has been lodged in the concrete from when the city was shelled during the siege was painted red in memory of what took place. Powerful.
The site from which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot and World War I was effectively started. WOW.
Preserved red peppers and local feta.
Zeljanica, a Bosnian spinach and cheese filo pie
Sizzling meat stew.
The group having a moment during our night out on the town, just before hitting up a Bosnian karaoke bar. Were the songs in English? No…but that doesn’t mean we didn’t participate.
Heading towards Dubrovnik, we stop at Mostar, after one of the most beautiful, most scenic drives I’ve been on. Quick lunch in the old town and stroll over the Old Bridge, built by the Ottoman Turks and a stunning symbol of Islamic architecture. The bridge is built over the Neretva river, and the town is named for the ‘mostari’, the guards who kept watch over the bridge in medieval times. The site of the bridge is a very lush, green part of town.
View from the top of the Mostar bridge.
The Mostar bridge.
My final stop on the trip was in Dubrovnik. Cue Game of Thrones theme music! Yes, I did sit on the Iron Throne, and the town is as amazing and medieval looking as it is in the show, however due to the influx of tourists in the last 5 years it has become a rather expensive destination, especially compared to the other cities. A unique city in the Dalmatia region on the Adriatic sea, Dubrovnik is of mixed heritage, deriving cultural influence from the Ottomans (yes, again) but also the Austrians and, interestingly, the Venetians. It’s famous for the city walls, built to a perimeter of almost 2 kilometres, with a system of towers and turrets designed to protect the vulnerable city from enemies. In 1667, the city had been badly damaged by a severe earthquake. In the 90s, it was also held under siege and shelled during the break-up of Yugoslavia, however today it is very much intact.
The beautiful coastline…
Bunch of legends ready to paint Dubrovnik red.
Like any good holiday destination, cocktail buckets and things that glow.
Yet another group moment…God I miss these.
The town in the daylight.
From a little higher up, but not quite on the walls. I would have liked to do the cable car ride up above the town, but it was closed on the day due to the wind.
The COOLEST basketball courts I’ve ever seen.
It’s been exactly a year since this trip, and reminiscing is bringing back all the feels. I really hope I can return and see more of the Balkans, but for now I’ll just hang on to the memories.