Building Bridges – A Journey Through the Balkans
Building Bridges – A Journey Through the Balkans
‘We don’t realise in our own comfortable, well-ordered lives what it must be like to lose everything in one of these political upheavals that bang and clatter senselessly round the world like thunderstorms uprooting peoples right and left.’
JG Farrell The Singapore Grip
Bridges fascinate me. From the beautiful ancient Roman aqueducts to the exquisite miniature bridges in Chinese and Japanese gardens, from the bridging of cultures to the bridging of gaps – bridges link places and people.
And so, it was appropriate to start our voyage in Istanbul – the 6th largest city in the world and one that has always stood as a bridge between East and West. At times in its history both Christian and Moslem, it is a truly cross-cultural hub. And today, it is the starting point for many fleeing war and hoping for a better life in Europe.
The Bosphorus Strait divides and connects the east and west sides of Istanbul and also Europe with Asia. Taking a slow boat down the river, I marvelled at the myriad of different architectural styles of buildings that lined the river on both sides – from the beautiful old palaces, gardens and mosques to the modern apartment and town houses. It is a city where the secular and the religious, Eastern and Western cultures and customs seem to co-exist quite happily.
We stayed on the eastern side in the district of Beyoglu, at the fabulous l’zaz ‘hotel’. With only 4 rooms, one on each floor connected by a spiral staircase, it felt more like staying in a miniature lighthouse that had got stranded in the centre of the old town!
A flight from Istanbul to Izmir and a local bus to Cesme, a serene and beautiful coastal town on the most western end of Turkey. A delicious seafood lunch listening to the susurration of the boat lines and masts was a soothing way to while away a few hours till our next trip.
From Cesme we took a short ferry ride across to the island of Chios in Greece.
When we started our trip, we knew we would be taking the same route as many refugees were taking – through Turkey to Greece and then into mainland Europe. We had seen our first ‘refugees’ (albeit Romanian) in Istanbul – women lying in the street, babies clutched to their chests, begging. This was the tragedy for me – seeing children with an uncertain future ahead of them.
In Chios, there were more refugees and yet, the Greeks themselves facing financial hardships, were welcoming to the many Syrian, Afghani and Iraqi refugees. A camp had been set up in the park in the main Chios town – incredibly well maintained and clean. The people in the camps collecting their recyclable items, keeping the park clean, the locals organising food parcels and day care centres. There was no sign of any antipathy or animosity. This was truly a welcome bridge for those escaping war and destruction.
Chios itself is a lovely unspoiled island with loads of character and charm.
A few days later we took the overnight ferry to Piraeus and, waiting at a restaurant near the port, I got into conversation with a young Syrian couple with two small children. They were on their way to Germany to stay with their family. They had all their belongings neatly packed. The father pointed out a table of men not far from them; ‘those are bad men,’ he said – obviously human traffickers. It was like a scene out of Casablanca!
On the overnight ferry, more refugees – a young Iraqi boy whose goal was to have a dog of his own, 2 young Iranian men fleeing Iran because they could not openly be gay… anyone meeting any of these people could surely not deny them a home. It is only when we meet people face to face can we understand their stories and sympathise with their hopes and aspirations. But we have to want to bridge that gap…
The next few days we passed from historical Meteora with its impressive rock caves…
… To vibrant Thessaloniki and on to Macedonia and its capital Skopje. We could not get the train from Thessaloniki itself as it was closed to stop refugees getting on the trains so we took a bus to Macedonia.
Skopje is that wonderful amalgam of the east and the west that we were to find all along our journey through the Balkans. Gaunt Soviet architecture on the one hand and meandering old town lanes on the other. Skopje is a bit whacky and a bit whimsy.
Kosovo has an energetic, frontier town feel – a bit like China in the 80s. I had very mixed feelings about the place, the ostentation of the UN and NGO presence was in marked contrast with the simplicity of the lives of local people. Though we did have one of the best meals at Tiffany – a restaurant oasis that would not feel out of place in Beirut!
Probably of all the countries we were going to pass through, we had the least expectations from Albania but, in many ways, it surprised us the most.
Taking the bus from Pristina to Tirana, one thing that struck me was the mix of Middle Eastern music and the apparent love of Rap music! The countryside we drove through was beautiful and the people incredibly friendly.
The Ish-blloku district in Tirana, the capital, used to be an area forbidden to the general public under Hoxha but is now an upmarket entertainment and shopping area. The dominant landmark being the pyramid designed by Hoxha’s daughter – she certainly had a bizarre approach to design! …
We took the wrong road to Berat but it was nevertheless an insight into the Albanian work ethos – numerous houses under construction and each one showed quality workmanship, whether in the materials used – timber window frames instead of ugly plastic or aluminum, attention to detail in the plastering and painting and overall sympathetic design concept…
What struck us also was how clean all the countries we had so far visited were, whether roadside bathrooms we stopped in, guest houses we stayed in, restaurants we ate in or trains and buses we travelled in.
The more developed ‘Western’ Europe has much to learn…
The gregarious John drove us from Shkoder to Montenegro. He is a true example of a refugee who ended up in London, worked hard then and headed back to his home country of Albania a few years later. He had integrated into British life but wanted to go home. Not all refugees go to countries to ‘take our jobs’. They are dedicated to making a better life for their families than they themselves had.
Montenegro is breathtaking with its myriad coastal walks, beaches and stunning coastline. A couple of peaceful days ensued marveling at the dramatic scenery, taking boat trips wandering around like nomads!
I had been looking forward to seeing Dubrovnik and, indeed the old walled city is beautiful.
Unfortunately, Dubrovnik was spoilt for me by the swarms of tourists only interested in selfies! How can a tourist be encouraged to think like a traveller and appreciate history and culture without resorting to endless photo ops?
Mostar is hauntingly beautiful. The ‘Stari Most’ built by the Ottomans in the 16th Century is among the finest pieces of Islamic architecture in The Balkans.
The Stari Most bridge: 28 meters long and 20 meters high (90′ by 64′), quickly became a wonder in its own time. The famous traveler Evliya Çelebi wrote in the 17th century that: the bridge is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other. …I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky.
The bridge stands as a testament not only to the vagaries of war – it was destroyed during the Bosnian war in the ‘90s and yet this amazing bridge is also witness to how countries come together to rebuild and regenerate. The Stari Most is now a UNESCO Heritage site.
We came across so many bridges on our journey and we were bowled over by the bridges on the drive from Mostar to Sarajevo clad in rich autumnal colours – mountains, valleys, rivers and dams.
Sarajevo was incredibly moving and still visibly scarred by the siege that lasted 1425 days – the longest city siege in modern warfare. Walking along the streets, we came across numerous ‘Sarajevo Roses’ – the scars on the pavements and roads caused by mortar shells explosions. The explosions left holes that look like flowers and were later filled in with red resin – a tragic reminder of the war, yet oddly beautiful.
One of the most one of the most heartrending exhibitions I have ever seen was at Galerija 11/07/95. This is a photographic testimonial to the Srebrenica genocide in 1995. The passion and commitment of our young tour guide will always stay with me.
Our journey from Split to Rijeka in Croatia we had to change trains at a station in the middle of nowhere. Just us, the stationmaster and the quiet of the countryside. I was hoping a donkey and cart (or even a tractor) might come along and offer us a lift into town. Instead the stationmaster called his friend in a worn Mercedes to drop us in Ogulin, a charming little town, where we whiled away the two hours till our next train over a leisurely lunch.
In Ogulin we boarded a two-carriage train to Rijeka. I felt I was on the set of Hitchcock’s A Lady Vanishes. A gentle 50-kph ride through lush, autumnal forests and picture postcard village stations. This, I thought was how train travel should be – meandering and charming – though we didn’t have the benefit of a buffet car and a vanished lady!
We woke to a beautiful morning in Opatjia. This gorgeous coastal town reminded me of Villefranche with its Belle Époque villas and palazzos, trimmed public gardens and little restaurants perched on the cliffs. In the 1880s, Opatjia was a favourite summer destination for the Austrian royal family and the aristocracy and luxury hotels abounded. They are still there some restored and some still vaunting their faded grandeur.
A long walk along the coastal promenade brought us to Volosco a picturesque fishing village and home to one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. Suffice to say – fab location and fab food!
After this idyllic interlude in Opatjia, once again we faced closed train stations as we tried to make our way to Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia.
Ljubljana was possibly one of my favourite towns on our trip. Compact, full of history and narrow winding streets, a lively student population, a meandering river that bisects the town and creative design, this was a town we could have spent a few days in…
But Vienna beckoned and off we went. It is a very livable city. For me most memorable was hearing the distant sound of a violin and following it to find myself in a music school courtyard filled with the sounds of students practicing. My own private concert in the heart of Vienna!
Our final stop before Krakow was Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. This was a bit of an anomaly – the very modern new town, the charming old town, which is a mixture of trendy and quaint – lunch at Taste, a chic wine bar – then off to the UFO.
Built in the late 60s on the Danube River, the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising is the seventh largest cable-stayed bridge in the world.
The bridge has 2 decks – the upper deck for car traffic and the lower one for pedestrians.
perched on top of the pylon is the ‘UFO’, a restaurant with panoramic views across Bratislava and the surrounding area. It was quite bizarre sipping a glass of wine and juddering every time ad lorry crossed the bridge!
On to Krakow – a charming town where as soon as you leave the station there is palpable feeling of amiability. The Polish people are incredibly warm. We stayed in the old quarter not far from the new Jewish cemetery. A long walk to us to the Schindler Factory. The Museum gave an in depth history of the Nazi occupation and Schindler’s role in saving over 1,000 Jewish people from deportation to Auschwitz.
Inevitably, we went to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Fittingly, it was the coldest, bleakest day of our entire trip. It is still impossible to comprehend man’s inhumanity to his fellow men and if we can’t remember to learn from history, how can we stop it happening again?
What stayed with me, and what took me so long to finally write this, was that we travelled through so many beautiful places yet there was always the realisation that we could travel so freely and easily while so many other people could not…
Today, The Balkans and indeed the whole of Europe is facing a humanitarian crisis. We urgently need to start building bridges…