June 12, 2003

Balkanization: II


The discreet charm of the Kosovarese

Parts of Kosovo are very pretty. It was exhilirating, even after an exhausting 11-hour bus ride through the Albanian outback, riding through watching dawn rise above its green misty rolling hills. Unfortunately the pretty parts do not include the towns. And definitely not the hotels. I checked into the Stalinist-concrete-block Hotel Iliria, whose terrifyingly pallid receptionist had obviously gone to Gulag charm school, and discovered that my room's "ensuite bathroom" was a cube of rotting concrete featuring a sink, a shower head, a towel ring, and a hole in the floor (to be fair the rest of the room was reasonable). And then I went down and ate breakfast with 200 Bangladeshi peacekeepers.

I guess NATO-UN territories tend to have more than their share of Luis Bunuel moments.

Kosovars love three things: cigarettes, ice cream, and the Internet. In a town of 150,000 there must be at least 100 establishments vending each of the latter two, and the streets are carpeted with cigarette butts. And all three are cheap and high-quality. Ah, capitalism. The cities are squalid arrays of grim concrete cubes, but even the poorest apartment block is forested with satellite dishes, and the countryside is green and beautiful.

Kosovo anecdote #2: Not all of life's luxuries are well-represented, but to my surprise there was a reasonably well-appointed gym. I went to work out. Not 20 minutes later, an enraged and monstrously huge US Marine emerged from the locker room growling with menacing incoherent fury. It turned out that somebody, he suspected a group of "Albanian thugs" he had seen earlier, had stolen his wedding ring and mission ring from his locker. He seemed much more concerned about the latter. "I am _not_ the guy to do this to," he said repeatedly, chuckling with mixed chagrin and malicious glee. As the Brit next to me drily observed: "I hope those Albanians are as good at running as they are at picking locks."

On the canonization of John Wesley Hardin

From Kosovo I went to the even uglier town of Peja and then spent a draining day crossing all of Montenegro in a chain of wheezing local buses, although this did include a ride through the magnificent Tara Canyon. When I finally arrived at the town of Kotor both spirits and expectations were low. To my surprise Kotor turned out to be a hidden treasure. At the head of the largest fjord in southern Europe, its old town delimited by thousand-year-old walls that snake steeply up the looming hills, thronging but in a good way with Serbian tourists, it was easily the nicest place I'd been since Athens.

For all of one day. Because the next day I bussed, taxiied, hitched, and boated to the city of Dubrovnik, built around a magnificent walled medieval city, on the shores of the crystal-clear island-laden Adriatic, a truly beautiful spot. It didn't feel quite as old as Kotor, but then in truth it isn't really; there's a map near the Pile Gate showing which parts of the city were shelled (for no military reason) by the Serbs in 1991 and then rebuilt, resculptured, repaired. Short version: "all of it". But these days you'd hardly know.

I stayed in the YHA hostel in Dubrovnik, and while it was a breath of fresh air seeing fellow-travellers again, I think I may be getting too old and crotchety to stay in hostels. One night I had occasion to stay up late musing on the subject of John Wesley Hardin and how he was a much misunderstood man. Sure, he was a violent, murderous, hair-trigger outlaw; but once, as I understand it, he shot a man dead for snoring too loudly. We could do worse than do follow his example.

From Dubrovnik up to Split, yet another city built around a walled medieval marble-streeted old town, this one boasting Diocletian's Palace, the massive retirement home of that Emperor of Rome. Nowadays the Palace is integrated into a thriving, busy city, instead of being walled off and left to stagnate as a museum; very cool.

One man not in a boat

Two days ago I hopped on a bus to the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Little did I know that this particular bus had assigned seating, and was overcrowded, and -- terror of terrors -- I had sat in the seat assigned to an elderly German woman. (Who did have a seat; it just wasn't _her_ seat, and that _wasn't proper_.) The horror, the horror. After my attempts to play Stupid-Tourist and then Scary-Lookin'-Big-Bald-Guy had wilted in the face of her righteous wrath, the bus conductor intervened, and the problem was righted by having approximately sixty per cent of the bus move from the seat they were in to the seat they were assigned (as none of the Croatians had bothered matchup the two either.) To be fair, the musical chairs did manage to eat up a fair chunk of the three-hour bus ride. Didn't do any good for the German reputation in this part of the world though. But in the end I made it to Plitvice Lakes, used my travel radar to sniff out the cheapest accomodations, and crashed out.

Plitvice Lakes is a very civilized national park, if you want it to be. There are buses that take tourists up and down the east half of the park, and small ferryboats that ply the largest lake. But I was having none of this. "Such conveyances are for the old!" I thought. "For the weak! For German tour groups! While I, I am an intrepid explorer!" So I bought a Snickers bar and a bottle of water and set out on shank's mare, briefly troubled by the nagging notion that perhaps I should arm myself with a better map than the microscopic one on my entrance ticket, but quickly dismissing that as defeatist whining and going boldly forth to the lakes.

Six hours, thirty kilometres, a half-dozen muttered oaths, four paths not on the ticket-map, three trails found only on the ticket-map, two wet blistered feet, one explosive discovery that I had purchased sparkling rather than still water, and approximately 3000 dead mosquitos later, I staggered back into my room and flopped down on the bed like a crash test dummy. But I didn't regret a minute. The lakes at Plitvice are, for my money, the most startling beautiful sight in all of Europe. A chain of shimmering, luminous turquoise lakes, surrounded by verdant forest, connected by 200 metres of waterfalls ranging from towering 100-foot cascades to burbling mossy staircases -- a peaceful, magnificent paradise.

Just got into Zagreb. Up next: Bosnia. Which, incidentally, will be a minor milestone: country #40 on my lifetime list. Not that I'm counting.

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