I have spent most of the last two months traveling, of which some weeks in the Balkans, that I’ve decided to describe in this article. The two friends I was traveling with and I were curious about this part of Europe, that we expected to be the most authentic and “different” compared to the Europe we’re familiar with.
We were certainly not disappointed: the result has been a very interesting trip, even if frankly I’ve seen some of the most absurd places of my life. In fact often during the trip we joked saying that we were constantly trolled by the Balkans, that were presenting in front of our eyes some scenarios that were so weird and inexplicable that we were left uncertain and with the feeling “what the heck are we seeing?”.
This is the video that I produced, that contains some of the things seen in the countries I’ve been to: Albania, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia.
General impressions I had during the trip
There is an impressive amount of unused land in these countries, that is not farmed or used for pasture. It’s surprising to think that many people kill each other to live in arid areas of the middle East, while here in the Balkans there is so much fertile land that no one uses. The little agricolture and animal farming often are translated into food with quality that varies from “ok” to “dreadful”.
I perceived a general vibration of obliviousness and sleepiness, mixed to a certain disinterestedness for the environment and the people around, that especially in the inland Balkans produce insanely irregular neighborhoods, chaotic traffic, rows of street vendors and shops that offer all the same products (empty, and I don’t know how they carry on).
Even if here and there there are churches with delightful proportions, and some of them appear in this video, the sense of aesthetics and art is missing a lot. The difference for me, coming from Italy, is really dramatic. I’ve seen entire cities where apparently the idea of decorating a neighborhood with a fountain or a garden has never been taken into consideration.
In return people seemed rather friendly everywhere, and all these places gave me the impression of being safe, where street crimes and robberies are not common events. Also, even if currently I would definitely prefer not to live there stably, I’ve seen a lot of potential in the Balkans: who knows how they will transform in the future?
Specific impressions on the individual countries
Albania: a very, very strange country. The most inexplicable thing are the thousands (many thousands) of unfinished buildings scattered everywhere, built without any criterion. I don’t think that the concept of urban plan exists in Albania. You see a thirty floor skyscraper without windows -abandoned- next to a gas station -abandoned- next to a series of five multicolor condos in ruins -abandoned- next to a roman empire style villa without windows -abandoned-.
There are mosques scattered here and there in the industrial areas, in the countryside, on the mountains, that is hard to imagine they’re ever reached by anyone. In the countryside you see cement bunkers, skeletons of houses that could be inhabited, but with toys and puppets hanging on a rope from the balconies. In the rural areas donkeys are used a lot to transport materials, small ones, like mini-donkeys. In the cities, surprisingly, cars are rather high level, in fact I think I’ve seen many more suvs in Durres and Tirana than in Rome.
Among the best trolls by Albania: seeing two men playing cards on an improvised table, at the side of a highway and under the sun, in the absolute middle of nowhere and very far from any town or city, that make you wonder: a) how did they manage to get there since they don’t seem to have a car b) why there c) why are they playing cards few feet away from the border of the highway, at risk of being hit by a truck. At least go a little bit further and in the shade!
Greece: in this trip we only visited the north part of Greece, that seemed to me depopulated and with a rather dry ladscape. The cities I’ve been to, for example Ioannina and Kastoria, left me the impression of sleepiness I was mentioning above, of not having charisma. Thessaloniki, much bigger, is without any doubt more animated, but too touristy and chaotic for my taste.
One thing that surprised me a bit is that everywhere, especially in the lesser known and more isolated towns, it seems like there are no ancient buildings. I’m used to the picturesque towns of Italy, full of castles, towers, stony buildings and with a medieval appearance. In the north of Greece instead I haven’t seen any town that would suggest a long history. Many small towns are simply groups of houses with the aspect that I would define “normal”: with facades in cement, built recently. And the ancient houses, where have they gone?
Surprisingly, at least for what I was expecting considering the previous trips to Athens, it wasn’t easy to find quality food in the north of Greece. In the supermarkets there was a predominance of processed foods, and little fresh fish. Even finding a restaurant where to eat a real meal has been difficult. In Ioannina for example it seems like there is only a plethora of coffee-bars, where they serve drinks and snacks, but very few restaurants.
Misteries: in the countryside we noticed here and there small fields of tobacco and cotton. What do they do with such small harvests? The tobacco maybe is smuggled, but the cotton? Another mistery is the exaggerated number of pharmacies. In a small town with very small population we counted five, almost one next to the other.
Macedonia: after the break of “normality” in the north of Greece, close anyway to the Europe I’m familiar with, the trolling took off in Macedonia. It’s here that I’ve seen some of the weirdest scenes of the Balkans.
The absurd way of routing the electric wires to the buildings, of which I already had a taste in Albania anyway: large tangles of wires hanging on top of the poles, from which webs depart in all directions. I wonder: if there is a damage at one of the wires, how does the repairman find it in that mess? Again I’ve seen many unfinished and unused buildings (but not as many as in Albania) and an architecture with a style “slightly” inhomogeneous.
One bizarre thing is that several times I observed people trying to find what were the typical traits of people from Macedonia, and I didn’t succeed at all. In Albania, for example, I had found a certain recurrent scheme in the facial structures. In Macedonia instead I’ve been to a couple of cities where, no matter how hard I tried, there was no way, until I surrendered to the evidence: everybody seemed to be completely different from everybody.
In Macedonia I’ve seen one of the highest levels of obliviousness regarding aesthetics (the historical visit to an art gallery containing “artistic” posters that I commented -even if with arrogance- of being able to scribble with a pen myself, maybe while I’m chatting on the phone) and regarding the “concept” of food. The quality of fruits and vegetables seemed ok to me, the problem was to find protein: lack of fresh fish everywhere (anyway forgivable for a inland country) and especially good quality meat (there’s a lot of processed meat and predominantly pork). I’ve never noticed organic food in the supermarkets I’ve been to.
Serbia: I’ve seen very little of Serbia, we just did a raid of few hours with the car, in the south, passing some tiny villages on the road and until we reached Vranje, a town that has very vaguely the appearance of a town on the mountains of north Italy. I haven’t seen enough anyway to notice particular differences from the other countries of the Balkans nearby.
Kosovo: we entered from the south of the country and drove along all the big road that leads to the capital, Pristina. Initially Kosovo fooled us with a landscape full of green and nature, but the scenery changed quickly: the sides of the road gradually started to become crowded with large shops: car dealers, distributors of construction materials, restaurants. An uninterrupted chain of businesses, until the capital, that definitely slows down traffic. All these shops anyway gave me the idea that they had absolutely no customers, and yet they were there: open.
The scene repeated in the city, at Pristina, an impressive quantity of shops of every type, from beauty centers to electronic stores, that seemed open and most of them without customers. I couldn’t understand why they opened those stores and how they were carrying on.
Pristina itself has a wild architecture: skyscrapers mixed with mosques mixed with cement barracks. Here too the tangles of electric wires camp everywhere. It was interesting to discover that the center is patroled by american soldiers, most of them twenty years old unaware guys and with the attitude “we’re saving the world”. Actually, from the little I know about the history of the country, I deduce that they’re kept there walking aroung by America as a warning, after Kosovo has been taken away from Serbia.
To notice, again about businesses, a particular obsession for car washes, seen everywhere, even in the most lonely countryside, but many abandoned long time ago. Also in Kosovo I’ve seen many unfinished and unused buildings. Food situation similar to Macedonia: fruits and vegetables ok and cheap, but a lot of processed food, zero fresh fish and meat mostly industrial. General level of trolling, anyway: extremely high.
Montenegro: according to the statistics the people of Montenegro are among the tallest in the world. Interestingly, as soon as we arrived in the first town in the more internal and mountainous area, we found that everybody did seem taller. We had a confirmation of it even later, looking around in the capital (Podgorica) and on the coast: for some reason montenegrin people are definitely tall.
After the extreme trolling we had by Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo, the feeling I had entering Montenegro has been of a -partial- return to normality. Even if actually I could have suspected it from the name, or do a minimum of research before, I found that Montenegro is almost entirely mountainous, and mountains that are very high. It’s already on the mountains that the quality of the food took a little step forward: in the supermarkets healthy products started to appear, until we reached the coast where finally also some fresh fish appeared (even if less frequently and less cheap that I was hoping).
There are beautiful places on the coast, obviously not those already spoiled by mass tourism like Kotor and Budva, but in general they gave me the impression of lacking character and being a bit “off”. Montenegro is another of those places that transmitted to me a general vibration of sleepiness.
Bosnia-Herzegovina: also in this country we just did a raid in the car of few hours. The area we drove through is one of those that particularly made me have the thought “look how much free land”. I’ve seen entire plateaus without the minimum trace of human presence.
Outside the towns, once again, I noticed the almost total absence of agricolture and animal farming. In the few fields that were farmed I’ve seen basically just tobacco, that I had noticed also in Greece.
Croatia: Croatia became a very popular touristic destination approximately twenty years ago, as it was cheap and with a beautiful sea. The impression I had from this trip is that the situation has changed a bit: the coast is still beautiful, but I fear that tourism eroded the charm of several places.
It’s in Dubrovnik, despite the gorgeous view that I took in my video, that I’ve seen the final phase, and the most extreme, of the effects of mass tourism: rows of clubs, restaurants “for tourists”, souvenir shops, and sleepwalker tourists wandering in the middle. Very far from my desire of seeing authentic places, but definitely interesting from an “anthropological” point of view, as commented by one of my friends.
From the few days I’ve spent there during this trip, Croatia transmitted to me a vibration similar to the one of Montenegro: beautiful, very beautiful in some places, but skimmed of the touristic buzz a little bit off, and lacking charisma.
Notes: I learned that the puppets hanging from the balconies of Albania are “dordolec” (scarecrows), that according to the popular belief protect the house, the family and the animals from evil eye and envy. -Article originally published in italian on October 31, 2016, this is its translation to english.-