Back in Vienna it’s time to sum up experiences and some own thoughts which came to our mind travelling through the Balkans. 16 days ago a friend and me headed to Belgrade in order to gather an insight into some of the regions which had once been united within Titos pluriethnic empire. In the last two weeks we travelled to Belgrade and Zemuna (Serbia), Sarajevo and Mostar (Bosnia & Hercegovina), Ulcinj and Podgorica (Montenegro). The aim of the travel was to quit with some of this annoying but ever-present prejudices´ and enjoy a short vacation in southern continental Europe.
Belgrade and Zemuna are what travel agencies promise. But beyond the well-known sights and party scene, the capital of Serbia is a young melting-pot alongside the Danube. Alternative activities are promoted everywhere and it’s easy to get in touch with locals and people who became locals, once they had fallen in love with the city. After the nationalist era in Milosevic regime, the serbian capital city became an open-minded city which provides enough space to be creative and to just try out. But while writing and reading those lines by myself I got the impression that it is also a city where I’m not so sure what to write about. The above written sentences seem to be phrases and underline the similarities Belgrade has to other cities I’m familiar with. It’s a cool city, but I had expected it different; more different than it had appeared to me in those four days. What turned out in discussions with mostly young Serbians is the bipolarity they`re trapped in. Nationalism and the burden of former Yugoslavia is clashing with the liberal ideas of its young citizens. This could release the opportunities the urban structure in Belgrade offers.
Our sentiments on difference regarding expectations apparently switched after the first day in Sarajevo. The war still seems to be present in some streets of the inner city, some buildings have never been rebuilt and machine-gun craters shape the facades of houses; it is the siege from 1992 – 96 which very much influences also street art as well as contemporary art production and exhibitions in Sarajevo. But memories do not inhibit people anymore; nightlife is vivid and people of all ages hang out in the evening hours. Nights spent at the “Kino Bosna”, offered us lots of chances to get in touch with locals and travellers. It was about talking, discussing and dancing together in breath-taking scenery. It might be the size of the city, it may be the experiences from times of the siege; Sarajevo is charming and comes to a peak at every years Film Festival. I guess it is the city we’ve learned to love and admire most within this vacation.
Of course I can say many things only because this post is created out of single experiences which do not have the aim to take position for any of the war parties. But it turned out that especially Sarajevo touches its visitors also by the visibility of the crudeness of war-crimes which have been committed against the civil society. It still feels weird walking the main road, better known as the Sniper-Alley in the very heart of the city. And I’m therefore glad there are plenty of political-scientists and historians who try to enlighten the crimes committed in order to recreate a peaceful life.
Mostar is a touristic hotspot we didn’t really look for. As it was on our road to Montenegro we decided to hop off the train to have a glimpse at the old bridge and historic center. Beyond this, this tiny city once more emphasized an impression we already had from Sarajevo: War ruins are not necessarily places of fear and thread, but much more provide spaces to a new urban scene. Some of the biggest ruins in Sarajevo and Mostar had become something similar to the Berlin wall. After the war destroyed buildings became art galleries for critical street artists and housing areas for those who do not want to fit the regular understanding of a positive citizen and according duties and responsibilities. Already in Belgrade my colleague had mentioned: “This spaces are some of those places which are more and more absent in central European cities but are essential for the sensation we call urbanity”.
After several hours spent in a bus driving through mountainous landscapes at Bairans’ eve, we arrived in Ulcinj, an enormous holiday village next to the Albanian border. Although our desire was to enjoy some peaceful days at the beach with mainly Kosovo-Albanian and Montenegrin people, the city turned out to be one of the most interesting ones we’ve seen. In general Ulcinj has the flair and infrastructure of 1990’s Rimini. Loads of tourists fill a small but historic city center and give work to hundreds of Pizzerias and ice cream bars. The Balkans version of it adds Kebab-Places, Pekara (bakerys which mostly offer ottoman influenced food) and Cevapcinas to this Rimini experience. From the vehicles registration number it was in evidence that most of the high-end cars came from Germany or other center European states. However, people surrounding us in the restaurants, at the beach or in the discotheque talked in Serbian, Albanian or other languages we haven’t been able to identify due to little language knowledge – and German. Some of those people are still living in Germany but many others had made this experience earlier in their lifetime and returned to the Balkans after a few years. After a direct confrontation with really a lot of people, residents and tourists (I’m quite sure we haven’t met so many different people in the other cities on this vacation), we found out that most of the high-end car owners were migrants, people returning in their hometown for holidays once a year. Ulcinj therefore became a demonstration of expectations connected to those migrating and returning back home.
Leaving Ulcinj with those experiences we had become curious of Montenegro’s capital Podgorica. There aren’t many tourists in Podgorica, a city which communicates (at least to us) a kind of randomness in various matters. In the middle of nowhere huge industrial plants arise in the south, while single upper class hotel complexes in the city center surely attract more business travelers than budget tourists. New housing and old quarters, business districts and far too huge boulevards seemed to be mixed up without clear structure and sustainable planning. Maybe we just haven’t been able to read the language of the city, maybe we just were to tired, but it seemed very much just happening. Even though we had only few hours from lunch to early evening, it became very difficult to us finding positive aspects in this city. Hardly any people where walking the streets, cafeterias, if existing, mostly empty and museums closed. The missing of a detail market in the buildings first floor intensified the loneliness in the cities alleys in which in particular Sarajevo was very different and filled with life even in the suburbs. After some time spent in parks we wisely decided to move back towards the railway station where finally interactions with other people took place.
As a conclusion of this report, I’d like to admit that we suffered from travelling by public transports, train and busses. Hitchhiking or other ways of individual transportation would have offered us more flexibility especially regarding the difference between city-hopping and visiting more carefully also rural areas of the region. On the other hand we spent lots of wonderful time just at national and international railway and bus stations, offering to us the opportunity to get into contact with locals and travelers of all kind. Business men, party people, professors, holiday travelers, old and young residents, taxi drivers and refuges on their route and more we had been able to talk with – and enjoyed it. The sometimes as such considered non-spaces became very important places to us. Places which decided on our journey, our destinations and contacts in a very intense way and therefore shaped our own impressions of the Balkans. Thanks to Jonathan for travelling with me, and thanks to all of those people who made the journey as pleasant and unique as it was. We’ll come back soon.