Tattered Atlas Tales

“Traveling, it leaves you speechless,
then turns you into a storyteller.”
– Ibn Battuta

Solo Travel in the Western Balkans 2020

Travel During a Pandemic
October 2019

I haven’t said much about this trip yet because
a) I was pretty sure it would just get cancelled and
b) I know some of you will not agree with my decision to travel.

It’s happening though. My flight to Belgrade takes off in 24 hours.

Serbia does not require a PCR test to enter, but I got one anyway. I should have my results back by the time I land.

I am expecting them to be negative, but if the test comes back positive, I will do the responsible thing and quarantine myself.

I don’t have an itinerary because the travel rules can change with very little notice. I just know six countries are all possibilities. I also know I have a flight back home from Albania.

I’m hoping to rent cars and explore on my own; spending little time in big cities and avoiding crowds.

This is not a part of the world that’s ever been high on my list, but every country is on my list and the Balkan countries have a good handle on the virus and are one of the few regions that are open to Americans, so the Balkans it is.

I’ve followed all the rules, stayed home more than the average person, and plan on following all the rules while abroad. I’ll also take another test when I get home. That said, I’ve gotta live my life.
Flying the Friendly Skies

First flight in 224 days!
Feels pretty good.

The check-in process was easy: Scan passport at kiosk, United agent comes over and verifies you have everything needed for the countries you’re traveling to (she scared me when she asked for my Serbian visa before realizing I won’t be staying over 90 days), then print boarding passes.

Security with TSA Pre was a breeze.

No social distancing happening at the airport though. Train was packed. Restaurant area was packed. Boarding area was packed.

I am on a flight to D.C. now, then I fly through Frankfurt to Belgrade. Americans are not allowed in Germany (or anywhere in the EU), but we can transfer through certain airports.

United is selling middle seats, but they text yesterday warning me the flights would be pretty full. The gave me the option of changing at no charge. I stuck with my flights but upgraded to Premium Plus seating for the long flight to Germany.
Getting into Serbia was a breeze. The agent didn’t even say hi. Just stamped the passport, no questions asked.

My PCR test results had not come in yet, and I had been traveling for 24 hours on little sleep, so I (over)paid a taxi to take me to a $14 Airbnb studio.

Took a nap, woke up to my negative results, booked my flight to Montenegro, and walked the streets a bit.

People here are not the mask-wearing kind (driver told me “you can take that off, welcome to the land of the free”). It’s a rule on public transportation, but even that isn’t followed by all. A bad day is when more than 1 person dies of COVID though, so they just are not as concerned.

Lots of people out and about, but pretty mellow for a Friday night…at least where I am. Most were eating and drinking at outdoor tables. I hear there is a happening club scene in this city, but I’ve hated that shit since way before COVID.

Montenegro is a little more locked down, so it’ll be interesting to see how it is there. It’s also supposed to rain quite a bit the next few days, so we’ll see how that is.

I am going to rent a car and head to Kotor as my base. I booked a 3 room penthouse overlooking the bay for $77 a night.
Getting into Montenegro was easy, but only with proof of a negative PCR test less than 72 hours old.

Social distancing in a country with a population of around 600,000 isn’t very hard, especially when there are very few tourists, no cruise shippers flooding in each day, and plenty of Airbnbs and markets to get food to make at home.

There is nothing better than having a home base, renting a car, and exploring a foreign country with no itinerary. That’s exactly what I’ve done here. I’ve setup in the Bay of Kotor and have been exploring from here. It’s amazing how much there is to see in this tiny place.

Such a gorgeous country. Just need to watch out for wild boars. I stopped to take a photo of an old Soviet statue and a couple of them came out of the woods. Scared the shit out of me!

There are not many people around and a lot of businesses are closed, but I’m not sure if that’s because of COVID, or because I’m here on a shoulder season, or what, but I can’t recommend coming to this country in the fall enough. It’s the perfect place to be this time of year.

People wear masks in stores but COVID isn’t a big topic of discussion around here. Roads are mostly well maintained, but are very steep and very narrow when you get off the main highways, especially in the small towns around the bay.
Private PCR Brain Swab
Had a nurse come to the Airbnb to give me a PCR test so I could travel to Bosnia. I messaged the clinic on WhatsApp, they sent out the nurse for the swab (evidently they needed to swab my brain, via my sinuses…this was much more invasive than the test I got in the US), then I received my negative results about 11 hours later. I am COVID free and fit to travel.

Yesterday (or today for those in the US) wasn’t the best. I was tired, felt worn out, made a mistake on Airbnb dates that cost me money, had to argue with the rental car agency about some scratches on the car, had to fly with a yapping dog, had my brain swabbed…

But it all worked out. I’m back in Belgrade for a couple nights before heading into Bosnia.
Back in Belgrade
My initial impressions of Belgrade were wrong. This city is very much alive. Being here for a full day and a couple nights made me realize that.

I’ve only seen a handful of tourists, but the locals are out living. It’s a busy place. About 20% wear masks on the street. There doesn’t seem to be any logic as to who wears them (young, old, etc.) so I think it’s just a matter of “wear one if you feel you need to.” They are mandatory indoors in public places though.

Belgrade isn’t an extremely pretty or interesting city, but it’s a very walkable and comfortable city. I walked 8 miles of it.
The city been around a very long time, but it’s also been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The building which held the Ministry of Defense, before Clinton had something to say about it, still stands in ruins.

I enjoyed my 36 hours here. I’m ready to move on though. With a few exceptions, big cities are not my thing when traveling.

People don’t go out of there way to engage, but are extremely friendly when there is a reason to. My Airbnb host was one of the best I’ve ever had; always going out of her way to make sure I had everything I needed to experience the city in the best way possible. My CarGo (Serbian Uber) drivers have been extremely talkative and friendly. Wait staff have been nice too (acting almost embarrassed if they didn’t have a English menu for me). Google translate said I had chicken with bread sauce and rockets for dinner last night.

Most of the younger people (under 60) speak English. The very young speak perfect English.

Everything is cheap. Post-war Serbia is poor, but doesn’t feel poor. It’s in Europe, but only kinda feels like Europe. It also reminds me of Ukraine.

They are very proud of Nikola Tesla and Tito here.
Novi Sad
A quick stop in the capital of Vojvodina, Serbia on my way to Bosnia.
1984 Olympics Site
We drove up to see the abandoned bobseld course above Sarajevo, but couldn’t access it.
Being in Sarajevo was surreal. It’s like another world coming from Belgrade.

There are no Serbs in Sarajevo and it has a very middle eastern feel. There are signs everywhere of the hell the city went through while it was under siege for 1,425 days in the mid-90’s.

A Sarajevo rose is a spot on the ground where the concrete, scarred by motar shells, is filled with red resin as a memorial to those killed.

I wish I would have spent more time in Sarajevo, but I didn’t expect it to be so interesting.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
I hired a driver to take me from Belgrade to Mostar, with stops in Novi Sad and Sarajevo. He was 41 years old and spoke perfect English. He had a PCR test yesterday and was proved to be COVID free.

We had no problem crossing the border, but I had to present my negative test.

We hit it off immediately and I learned so much from him. He is a Serb who lived in Bosnia during the war. He experienced a lot. I was glued to every word as he explained the history of the region from the Serb point of view. “Every war has to have the good guys and the bad guys, even though sometimes there are no good guys or bad guys.” It was eye opening.

One of my favorite quotes didn’t have anything to do with Serbia though. He said Trump is good for Serbians because he forces Americans to focus on themselves so much they don’t have time to focus on anyone else.

He took me to his favorite local restaurant for Ćevapi with kajmak, which I inhaled…while leaving the onions on the plate.

We also worked out a deal (off the books) for him to get me to Macedonia next week. I hadn’t thought that far ahead and had no clue how I was getting there. He offered to take me to his hometown where they do quick PCR tests and invited me to stay at his parents’ home for a night. You might think that sounds strange, but it’s not out of character at all. People here are just that nice.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is an interesting country. It’s kind of two countries in one, neither of which are called Bosnia or Herzegovina.

Republika Srpska has a Serb majority, while the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina has a Bosniak majority.
Part of each “entity” resides in both the Bosnia and the Herzegovina regions.
This all used to be part of Yugoslavia.

Confused yet?

In the city of Mostar; the Croats, the Bosniaks, and the Serbs all live in different sections and shop at different stores and send their kids to different schools.

Most Bosniaks are Muslim, but not all of them.

They all used to live together (and had inner marriages) before the war, but then neighbor fought neighbor in a bloody civil war and everything changed.

Religion and Nationalism!

Anyway, it’s beautiful in Mostar. It’s like a fairytale town with bullet holes.
More COVID Testing
I ended up getting a blood test (vs. PCR test) in Mostar before crossing back through Montenegro
My new friend and driver, Vlad, took me to his hometown.

I explored the city center while he got the car serviced, then he took me to dinner at his favorite lamb spot before taking me to his parents’ house for the night.

We drank homemade wine and rakija for a couple hours, then he went to meet friends. I was too exhausted to join him.

Such a cool local experience. Exremely nice town.

A beautiful day in sunny Kosovo.

Not at all what I expected.

People were out. Lots of people. Thousands of people on the streets, wearing their Sunday best.
Families with kids eating ice cream. Guys drinking beer on patios. Older people enjoying coffee or tea.
The only masks to be found on these crowded streets were hanging around people’s necks.

Out of the 5 countries I passed through today, this is the only one I hadn’t been to (or will be going back to) on this trip.

Didn’t spend much time because it is the one place my travelers insurance is void because of the Level 4 Travel Advisory.

Why is it I’ve always felt safe in countries my government says are unsafe? Could those advisories be political?

I don’t know what to say about Skopje; the capital of North Macedonia. It’s a city that doesn’t know what it wants to be; a city, in an extremely poor country, where the government decided to spend millions on putting façades on old run down buildings, while peppering the place with gigantic statues and pirate ships that have nothing to do with Macedonia.

The main square is entered via a giant arch with this quote from Mother Teresa “The greatest threat to world peace is abortion!!!”

Strangest place I’ve ever been.
Roger’s Apartment
The most bizarre Airbnb in the most bizarre city I’ve ever been to.

Evidently, Roger and his family were quite famous in Skopje, before they were ran out of the country by the government or mafia or something.

They left portraits and photos and a Dalí meets Gaudí apartment though.
The Road to Orhid
I haven’t considered more than 2 days in advance on this trip, so I decided to rent a car in Skopje I could return in Tirana. That way I’d have 6 days of freedom when it came to where to go between that oddball city and my flight home.

Ohrid Lake has been my home base the past couple days. It’s been a relaxing retreat from the rest of this crazy country. Having a car here has allowed me the freedom to explore, but it has also been a hassle when trying to drive around the narrow, cobblestone streets of the old town. I almost got myself into trouble with the car tonight. The freedom is worth it though.

Macedonia seems to take COVID more seriously than the other countries I’ve been in. Most people wear masks and it sounds like it might be mandatory soon. Along with many countries in Europe and the UK, stricter measures are coming or are already in place.

The weather is changing as well. I had the heat on in my room for the first time the last night. It’s getting darker earlier. And the leaves are falling.

Tomorrow afternoon I head into the first country that wasn’t a part of the former Yugoslavia.

Albania is a country I know nothing about, but am looking forward to. I don’t have much time there, so I’m going to limit myself to Berat and Tirana (the city I fly home from).

It’s gonna be hard to leave Orhid. I’m very comfortable here. But it’s time to start heading in the direction of home.

Ilinden in Kruševo
Cool town, bizarre monument dedicated to all the fighters and revolutionaries who participated in the Ilinden uprising of 1903.

Because why not, Macedonia? Nothing seems to be off the table in this country.

Been here a couple days. It’s been relaxing. Extremely cool Ottoman architecture, interesting (in a good way) local cuisine, and slow pace of life.

There was a storm last night so I took advantage of the nice apartment I rented. I made dinner, had a few beers, and watched movies for the first time since I’ve been gone. It was nice to chill out after a 16 days of travel.

Another first tonight: An American friend I met in Skopje and I were walking in old town when we were stopped by the police and told to put on masks. At first I thought it was because we were foreigners, but then they started telling everyone to. Things are tightening up a bit.

The crowds died down pretty early out there, so I’m back to watching movies.

Tomorrow I will drive to the coast to see the Adriatic before heading to the capital to fly home early Sunday morning.
The trip is winding down.

First time at the sea this whole trip. Didn’t spend much time, just grabbed some food with a view.

It was hard to be so close to Italy, yet so far away.

If the U.S. goes back on lockdown, I’m gonna have the girls pack a bag. We can go live in Italy for the winter. We just have to spend 14 days in Croatia before we can cross the border.
Albania is an interesting country with a dark past; a country that was cut off from the world for about 40 years.

They love George W. Bush here almost as much as they love Clinton in Kosovo.

The capital was much bigger and busy than I expected. Driving into the city center tested my abilities and patience.

It all worked out though.

I walked its streets, climbed its derelict pyramid, drank its raki, and ate its food with the few other Americans in town.

I didn’t even scratch the surface of this country, but now it’s time to head home.

They let me back in!

Got an earlier connection out of Frankfurt and just got an earlier connection out of Newark.

Should be home about 5 hours earlier than expected, which means before Isobel goes to bed