Prague vs. Budapest

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Both containing remnants of the Hapsburg Empire and looking toward Vienna for both leadership and menacing competition, the cities of Prague and Budapest are often compared with each other due to their similar history and proximity. Having now traveled to both (gorgeous) cities, I can understand the comparison but am no closer to picking a favorite.

Crossing the chain bridge onto the Buda side of the city, my first night in Budapest amazed me. Having gone in with a blank slate and unsure of what to expect, the evening backdrop of magnificent buildings all lite up against the flowing Danube river still sticks in my mind as one of the most gorgeous cities I have experienced in Central Europe.

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We started our day with a walking tour (my standard when traveling to a new city – I recommend trying to find one of the free ones offered in nearly every western city). I discovered that Hungarians have basically been conquered by one neighboring empire after another, the most recent being Russia under the Soviet Communist bloc, making their sense of humor one of irony and fairly cynical.

Similarly, the Czech Republic shares a sorted past, more recently breaking from the communist Czechoslovakia into the modern, Baroque feeling the city shares today. While the Charles Bridge does not share the size and magnificence of Budapest’s Chain bridge, Prague’s old town and castle complex are definite highlights for those visiting the city.

Having already experienced the beauty of Budapest, Prague seemed smaller, more intimate, but also more touristy. I am not sure how Prague has grown into such a ‘must do’ city while Budapest has seemingly been saved from the mass crowds of American’s and Brits on a stag night out, but the difference is evident and takes away from the romanticism of the city. I suppose part of this is also due to the fact that we chose to visit Prague during Easter weekend, so this may be an unfair comparison.

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Fun fact: Easter tradition for Czech’s? Other than spending time with their families, there is a ‘whipping’ tradition. Pictured above are sticks sold at Easter markets scattered all over the city (#1 fav thing about this trip). Tradition has it that the boys or men of the village purchase these and knock on their neighbors door and ‘whip’ the women bringing them “1 more year of beauty”. Luckily there is retaliation for such behavior; the women then dump water on the men. All ends well, however, after such scuffles, the men are then invited in to share Easter chocolates and cakes.

DSC_0785These donut rolls (still haven’t figured out the local word for them) are slowly roasted over a wood burning fire and produce not only a lovely aroma throughout the markets in town but taste amazing. We basically subsided on donut rolls, cart sausage and local ‘pivo’ or beer.

Czech’s are especially proud of their lager taking credit for the creation of the type of beer called ‘pilsner’. Created in 1842 from the town of Plzeň or Pilsen the ‘pilsner’ recipe has since been used as a template for light beers around the world. You can easily take a day trip from Prague and try the stuff straight from the source. They have a special ‘unfiltered’ version of the beer that is distinctively more wheaty and comes straight from the oak barrels they use to ferment the beer

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DSC_0738   Translates to: Original Pilsner

So which city takes the cake? I suppose you will just have to travel to both and make the determination for yourself.

Yugaslavia — and the country thats not quite over it

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Many guidebooks will tell you Serbia and its people are wholly misunderstood. Given a bad rep due to their former leader Slobodan Milošević, who thankfully was indicted for war crimes in 1999, Serbians have a complex view on their most recent history and seem to celebrate their ‘golden age’ of power in the 1960s and 70s under the rule of Josip Tito.  

In many ways locals are not ready to talk about their countries most recent misgivings. Instead, they look back to the forming of the second Yugoslavia as a prouder moment for their country. In fact, many still refer to their country as such. Serbians are Yugoslav’s and their country is Yugoslavia

Nothing makes this more apparent than at the National History Museum. An odd building that showcases the merits of Serbia as the lead in the Yugoslav Republic, the museum itself has mock ups of what ‘life was like under communism’. An odd showcase to a time period that was not so long ago, it is easy to see why the locals still look to this period as the foundation for the modern era of their country.

Even more interesting than a museum dedicated to the glories of communism, was the burial site of Josip Tito himself. Set-up as a ‘winter garden’, the indoor mausoleum is a mini-museum dedicated to Titos life and rise to power. Set-up as a bit of a shrine, it is easy to see why this man was so loved by the communist party. He truly came from nothing and worked himself up into political power.

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We mainly went to Serbia to celebrate the coming of 2015 in the Balkans most notorious party city, Belgrade. Set-up for outdoor celebrations, the city had several stages set-up with lively music. While we had prepared for the hearty drinking of rakia, and folk style dancing, we did not prepare for the bitter cold. Even with my two layers of pants and 3 layers of tops (and belly full of rakia), I could only hold until the striking of midnight then was forced to admit defeat and head home for the evening.

e56e57 (2)e58e57Pictured above is the local drink, rakia. As with many of the eastern nations, rakia is the drink of choice for all ages. It even comes with its own bottle which is designed to not spill when dancing around – they have their priorities straight.

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Not without its troubled past, pictured above is one of the attempts to improve the economy. Rather than traditional methods, the government added more zeros on the ends of the bill; prices fluctuated so much that it was unpredictable how much simple household items would cost day to day.

While we spent 4 days in the country, I feel like we only scrapped the surface on the countries multifaceted history and people. The people themselves remind me a lot of Americans; unapologetic of their past, and welcoming to anyone that will share a rakia with them.

People are People

Many I have encountered love the country of Macedonia (FYROM). While small, it is inexpensive, yet not as poverty stricken as its neighbouring countries and full of beautiful scenery. My sister spent a month traveling the entire country and especially raved about the cities of Ohrid and Skopje. So, naturally, these were our 2 stop-off points on our 3 day/4 night trip to the country.

Starting off in Ohrid, we stayed in a stunning apartment I would highly recommend (http://vilamalsvetikliment.com). With views overlooking the frozen lake, we were greeted with a kraft of homemade wine upon arrival and woke with breakfast in bed every morning.

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The town of Ohrid itself was quiet as it was off-season (this is a lake resort town), so our day trip/2 night stay was plenty of time to hike around the fortress, old roman ruins and famous 11th century church, St. Sofia. In the summer, the lake offers boat trips and other water activities, but I would say a weekend exertion is enough to take in the lake town and see the highlights.

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Having a wonderful start to our Macedonian experience, we started on our 2.5 hour drive to the capital city of Skopje – little did we know that this short drive would turn into a 30 hour test of survival.

Up until this point we had encountered little of the freezing temperatures and white covered scenery I had expected (with my Eastern-Europe = Russia thoughts). But then I got what I had envisioned – cold with snow. Lots of snow.

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There is only 1 direct road that takes you from Ohrid to Skopje, the A2 (the only other way is a roundabout route through Bitola). The A2, while considered a major highway, is a scenic one-laned road that winds though the Dinaric mountain pass.

We should have figured we would have trouble when we passed several snow-stuck vehicles and got stuck 2 times ourselves (but were rescued by a strong push by locals). Problem was, it was press on or go back to Ohrid, where the roads were just as bad.

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Just 15K shy of the town of Kichevo, we were finally defeated by the mountain. Our trusty Fiat Panda along with 20 or so other cars were forced to stop on a winding hill covered with 1 foot of snow. While some managed to move from this spot, our 4 hours of attempted pushing, rocking and hand shovelling did little to budge our car. And the snow simply fell.

6 hours on the road, and approaching 9pm, I decided it was time for some creative survival techniques. Attempting to talk to a bus full of similarly stuck people (cops, help, snowplow??) I managed to get the number of the local police, only to have the number not work. Later I found out so many people got stuck on that mountain that the line could not take the volume of calls.

Deciding the bus driver was a dead end for assistance, I moved to the Audi sitting next to it. Luckily these guys spoke perfect English and offered us a ride from their friends who were coming from Skopje to rescue them.

Heating the snow under their car enough to free themselves we decided to abandon our car in the hopes of finding a bed to sleep in and some food. Ironically, we got moving only to get stuck, yet again, 200 yards down the road where a Macedonian-one-lane traffic jam ensued. Blocking our rescue car from reaching us as well as lines of snow plows and police cars, we decided the only way to move was on foot. So we walked, caught a ride in the trunk of more Albanian-Macedonia’s and finally reached a place to sleep by 3am.

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We were so overwhelmed by the assistance we got from these fellow travelers. Not only did they give us a lift, they brought us food, found a hotel for us and kept us company through 7 hours of snowed-in adventure – and I still don’t know their names.

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The following morning proved an even more interesting experience. While we were able to eat and sleep, we now had the task of figuring out how we were going to dig our rental car out of the mountain side still 15K from the town of Kichevo where we spent the night.

Apparently taxi’s were out of the question – asking our hotel for a taxi/ride, he simply laughed and replied “this is not America. There are no taxi’s”. Thanks buddy, believe it or not that is why I traveled to this country – because I am looking for some place that is not like America!

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So 15K on foot it was. We managed to get a shovel from the hotel (thanks) and started our journey with our GPS that we had luckily grabbed and pin-pointed our cars location. About 2K into our winter wonderland hike, a local stopped and asked if we needed help. My husband, being the proud man he is, fell silent, so I quickly interjected with a “Yes please!”

Yet another kind gesture by a complete stranger. Drajon (sp?) ended up giving us a ride for 10K of the journey, but unfortunately was forced to stop short due to a police blockade. So again we were on foot; only to be rescued again by the snow plows that were doing an excellent job of clearing the mountain pass (it was clear they had worked through the night and had cleared the 200 car traffic jam as well as the roads).

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Hoping onto the small platform of a JCB/snowplow, we got to be part of the plowing experience as the vehicle slowly moved the 5 kilometres to our Fiat, barely visible in the towering snow. After some assistance by the large machines, we were able to shovel out our car and pushing it free within 30 min. After such an ordeal the night before it seemed ironic to have such an easy escape – all we needed was a snowplow and a shovel!

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The best thing about this whole experience was to see human nature at work. We were helped over 5 times by random strangers. One even got in our car and drove it for us to help us get unstuck. Others brought us food. It was amazing to see how the community came together to help each other when public officials, who are usually charged with this duty, were unavailable or unable.

Many fear traveling to countries where the infrastructure is simply not there. This is a great example of why you should go there. We heard stories of working abroad, local food, pride in ones homeland and helping others. It shows us that with all our varying cultures, backgrounds and history that people are simply people, no matter where you go.

Northern Albania

Crossing from Serbia into BiH and BiH into Montenegro, you did not feel like you were crossing countries; the border was simply something on a piece of paper – Crossing from Montenegro to Albania however…you felt it.

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It was easy to forget you were in Eastern Europe in Montenegro. While there were some impoverished parts of town, the country uses the Euro, resorts are pristine, the roads are paved; it was gorgeous. Leaving Montenegro the road went from paved to dirt. Many a Horse drawn cart could be seen and, what I found the most fascinating, there were many tri-mopeds that had been constructed into a sort of single use truck.

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Driving was an experience in and of itself. Ciaos is King on the roads of no lanes or pedestrian crossings. Additionally, much of the major roads went quickly from paved to dirt as the country is slowly working through paving most of its main roads. As a result journey’s on the GPS that said 2 hours turned into 4 hour adventures in road safety.

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We spent a night in Tirana and took a day hike to the top of Dajti Mountain. This is worth checking out, even if just for the cable car ride, which provides picturesque views of the city below.

The city center of Tirana is recently rebuilt with a 100 meter radius of new a Opera house and a center square. Outside of this area, however, the capital is very much a developing city. Stray animals scatter the streets, trash is strewn everywhere and the locals hang about in shops. The good thing, however, about developing countries is the opportunity to be one of the few tourists around. Opportunities remain to hike in more remote villages and meet indigenous populations that are not yet tarnished by the outside world.

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Interesting Fact: Farmers let their horses run wild in the winter to save money on feeding them. The catch? Catching them in the summer when they are needed for harvest. Always an adventure!

Outdoor adventure and ancient ruins are the way to go in this country. Tirana can easily be skipped in favor of the much more picturesque town of Berat.

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Named the “city of a thousand windows” Berat is a relatively small town. With no shortage of picturesque views from the Citadel, the town can easily be covered in a day of sightseeing. Pictured above is a view of the most prominent street in the city overlooking the 50 or so houses that make the town famous. Do you notice anything odd in the picture above? I did. There were absolutely no women on this street or in most of the town. Still heavily Muslim and largely conservative, it seems coffee shops and public gatherings are still a mans business.

Overall, Albania is worth a visit for its still gritty reality. It is evident the country is still recovering from its brash exit from communism and attempting to find its foothold in the world. As our guide said “you can do anything in Albania and be the first to do it.” He cited a book of all the flora and fauna in the country. Apparently the feat of trying to name all the plants and animals in the country has only been attempted once in the 50s, printed in only 4 copies and is in need of updating.

Tourism is another one of those still new categories. We booked through outdoor Albania (outdooralbania.com) and would highly recommend their tours and trips throughout the country. Day trips can be also be made from the island of Corfu to the Southern town of Butrint, where ancient Roman ruins remain in great condition with little red tape.

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Bunkers: Thousands of Bunkers still scatter the country of Albania. Left as a bitter reminder of communism, they were originally created by the state for fear of invasion from neighboring countries. Having no allies in the region, Albania’s communist leadership prepared for a fight creating these expensive (but effective) bunkers throughout the country. New innovative entrepreneurs have found a way to make a buck though by destroying them and harvesting the massive amounts of iron that lay underneath the concrete shell. As our friend  said, anything is possible in Albania.

Merry Christmas from Montenegro

Winding through what seemed like never ending mountains, the twists and turns miraculously opened to a valley of water.

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What lay in front of us was the Bay of Kotor, one of Montenegro’s most popular vacation spots. Hitting the old town of Kotor in off season (this is a beach resort town), we felt like we had the place all to ourselves.

A maze of all pedestrian streets and independent shops, Kotor is a stunning place to see. Straight out of the Game of Thrones movie set (actually filmed in nearby city Dubrovnik), the steco rooftops and romantic streets provide a small maze to discover – although you can circle the town in about 10-15 minutes.

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The old fortress walls overlook the city and provide an outlook point to the bay. We hiked up to the top for a great view and bit of exercise.

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One of the great things about exploring ruins in non-western countries is the lack of fences and ‘protective’ safety nets cluttered around any high point or historical site. There is a certain freeness, yet lawlessness that is awesome but slightly worrisome at the same time…these ruins are a good example of that. Dating back to the 6th century, as well as the town, we climbed, overlooked and jumped around the stone structures.

Exiting this stunning town, we drove the coastline hitting Bar (do not bother), Budva and Sveti Stefan (do bother).

This gorgeous island turned resort is smaller than one would imagine for such a famed place. Unfortunately it was closed to visitors (yes the entire island), but no matter we still got the iconic views (and pictures) that made the place famous.

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Northern Montenegro

We focused on the coastline during our trip, however, if you have the time there are several national parks that are worth the trip. Lake Skadar offers ferry rides out of Virpazar, but they start extremely early so plan a day to take the trip. Biogradska Gora and Durmitar National parks border Kosovo, BiH and Albania. The outdoor adventure industry is still picking up, however Outdoor Albania (http://www.outdooralbania.com) does treks through all 3 countries on a 12 day mountainous adventure. Not for the light hearted.

Overall Montengro is a stunning resort town with a strong economy far beyond the rest of its neighbouring countries. Nice, but not overly interesting – I would recommend going for what it famous for – beaches and a bit of outdoor water adventure.

The road that led us to Montenegro

We came to Eastern Europe for an adventure – and adventure we have found.

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Picture: Some of my favorite samples of all too frequent street art/graffitti on any free surface in BiH

First stop from Sarajevo to Kotor Bay (Montenegro) was in the town of Mostar.

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Pictured above is ‘Stari Most’ or the Old Bridge, BiH’s most iconic symbol. Built in the 15th century by Ottoman architect Sinan, it was sadly destroyed during the 1990s conflict along with ‘Stari Grad’ or old town.

As you can see the structure has been rebuilt along with the winding, all pedestrian market area of Stari Grad. We wandered the streets past the bridge to a historic mosque. For $2 you can enter the mosque and wander into the courtyard for fantastic views of this UNESCO heritage site.

Exiting Bosnia through the Dinaric Mountain range, we were about to get our first taste of Balkan back roads (little did I know this was just the start of our off-roading experience). Following our trusty GPS, we turned onto our 5 mile (which actually turned into 20 miles) unpaved, single lane mountain pass.

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What may not be apparent in the above photos is the 100ft drop on the other side of the car. No safety rails. If another car came, you simply had to wait until there was a patch of road big enough to scoot over and then play chicken on who was going to go first.

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I think probably the best part of this drive – other than the obvious views through the mountain side and untouched local villages – was my husbands reaction when initially turning onto this path. To quote “Nahh…No Way.” “Well it says turned onto the ‘unpaved path’ ” , my reply. Luckily a blue truck also turned onto the same path so we shrugged and started the most eventful drive we’ve had in our trip. Humorisly, Albanian roads are 10 times worse than our 1 way mountain pass and we have since never doubted the need to turn onto dirt paths to get to our final destination.

Is driving recommended in the Balkans? Hell yes. Just prepare yourself (and rent a car).

Entering Bosnia (BiH)

Crossing two border patrols, 5 tolls and countless small villages, we made our way to Sarajevo from northern Serbia.

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In many ways Sarajevo represents everything interesting about BiH. It has an odd mix of super modern shopping malls next to a bullet holed, spray painted buildings. The air smells of burning wood, smoking takes place anywhere (while cooking, eating or drinking) and mosques sit beside orthodox chuches.

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While the country has had a long list of ruling empires, the Ottoman Empire has left the most prominent cultural impact in the region of Sarajevo. Turkish coffee shops dot the town, and mosques blare the call to prayer 3 times a day (although not all in sync I might add). It is for this reason, this mix of so many cultures and backgrounds, that Sarajevo is a fascinating place to be.

We stayed in the middle of Sarajevo’s Baščaršija (http://hoteloldtown.ba); an ancient market established in the 15th century, it is an all pedestrian area that is filled with locals and tourists alike. Walking through the rows of shops its easy to forget the troubles that plagued the region in the 90s – there is little evidence it ever happened. Peaking a little past the tourist-veiled-smiles, however, the poverty of the country is still evident.

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Picture: Formerly a public drinking fountain, this reconstructed design marks the beginning of the maze of shops in Baščaršija

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Picture: Barely marked, the Latin Bridge pictured above marked the start of WWI with the assassination of Archeduke Franz Ferdinand

One worthwhile must-see is a trip to the tunnel museum (http://www.sarajevoinsider.com/tours/tunel-more.html). Driven by a local tour guide, we took the main street which was once known as “sniper alley” (Ulica Zmaja od Bosne). Sniper Alley – a road that is back to normal traffic nowadays – is the main road connecting central Sarajevo to the Airport (primary outpost for UN peacekeepers during the war). As such it was the most central way to get out of the siege that encompassed the capital for 4 years – the longest of sieges in modern warfare.

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With conventional means of exiting the city impossible, Bosnian Army engineers designed and dug a 340m tunnel under the international airport to their alley territory on the other side. A primary survival method during the war the tunnel brought food, supplies and weaponary.

A little known fact on the tunnel is that it was built under the home of a local family who have donated the structure to be a museum so that others can learn from the mistakes of the past. One can only hope that others learn from the errors of the past.

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Although talking with our local guide, it seems the Dayton accords have done little to assist the country in moving past its history. Set-up as a temporary fix, 3 presidents from each side of the war (Croats, Bosniacs, & Serbs) rotate annually as a means of compromise. Instead of compromising however, each president simply undo’s what the other has accomplished leaving a frustrated political system that digs deeper divides.

What is more troubling though is the education system. Children pile into segregated schools along religious/ethnic lines with different history books. Even if a child may attend the same school as another Serb/Croat/Bosniac, the school has a different name depending on your background.

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Walking through the city, ‘street art’ (aka graffiti) depicted many of the above messages – never forget.

Learn, yes. Forget? Sometimes a society needs a little forgetfullness. It is no contest that each side had its own set of atrocities committed, although many could belabour this point. More difficult than holding onto the pain of the past is something so simple, yet so difficult in war: Forgive.

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