I have reached the point in the semester where the is more time behind me than before me. In the past, this has induced a sort of a panic: the fear of finals, the rush to find an internship, the knowledge that another year of college is about to be over. This semester may be my last chance to travel for a while, so I intend on taking full advantage of it.
This, for lack of a better term, “panic” has caused my mad rush to see all that can be seen, to do all that can be done in the shortest time, and to not miss out on anything. So much has happened in the last few months (or the last year, considering my earlier study abroad in St. Petersburg), and even more has changed in the last four years. I would not go as far to say that I am a completely different person when compared to that Freshman me, but I have changed, and my study abroad(s) has been a big part of that. Over Easter, I had the opportunity to see the truly vast amount of change that has occurred in the Balkans over the last 21 years.
In 1992, only months after I was born, the Balkan nations stumbled into a frighteningly violent war, and yet in the years since, they have become new, relatively stable, independent nations. The marks of war still exist in many places, and for me, just a baby when the war began, it is beyond interesting (and slightly unnerving) to learn more about the events that occurred when I was a mere toddler.
The Balkans do not cover a large geographical area. They do not have a great amount of military or economic power. Or at least they don’t now. Historically speaking however, so much has happened in this tiny spurt of land. Empires have invaded, risen, and fallen within this territory. Perhaps, that is the problem with Europe, especially Eastern Europe. At some point every country was “great.” Even the now miniscule Lithuania used to control the great Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Throughout history, parts of the Balkans have controlled immense power. Bosnia’s Sarajevo was a great European capital of the Ottoman Empire. Serbia was a political and military leader under Yugoslavia. Croatia is a historical center or trade controlling a powerful economy as a result of its lengthy sea coast. Now, especially as a result of the Balkan Wars in the 90s, it is hard to contemplate traveling there without seeing the influence of its great history.
I mentioned in a previous post that I had earlier travelled to Belgrade, Serbia. Buildings bombed by NATO have been left in ruins in symbolic locations (such as directly across from the US Embassy), but it becomes obvious in talking to Serbians my age that they either do not care about the previous war or have simply not learned much about it aside from NATO’s role.
Personally, I did not know much about the wars in the Balkans during my youth either until recently. And, as expected, at our first stop Sarajevo my mom and I got a full dose of history. Sarajevo was created by the Ottoman empire in the 1450s as a state capitol. It was a center of trade for the great caravans coming from the East. As we wandered through the bazaar, it resembled Istanbul more than any truly European city I could think of. Though our tour of the city began in the ancient history of the Ottomans, we quickly moved to the 1900s and WWI. Arguably, Sarajevo was the spark that started the war with assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and this fact is commemorated with a plaque and some grainy photos depicting the auspicious event.
Then, jumping ahead to modern history, when Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia, Sarajevo played host to the Olympics. Now, almost all remnants of those Olympics have been practically erased by war. Instead, those sports stadiums that once captivated the world audience were used as graveyards, and the streets are now decorated with Sarajevo “roses,” the flowery shapes left behind by Serbian shells.
But not everything was sad about are visit. Our guide Muhammed was a jovial fellow, and though he was certainly serious and saddened by the siege that occurred when he was still a young boy, he was more than happy to show us the modern Sarajevo, practically a bustling mini-metropolis. Though there are still unavoidable marks of war studding the city, Sarajevo is full of restaurants, bakeries, hotels, and tourists. I was surprised by the amount of tourists, quite frankly. Seeing that it was off season, rainy with recently melted snow, the number of people snapping photos and trying out the local cuisine (To die for, by the way. As long as you like grilled meats, that is.) was astonishing. It was nice for me to know that I am not the only Balkan obsessed person in the world. My personal favorite tourists were a group of Scots (complete with kilts, no joke) who we saw not only in Sarajevo, but later when we travelled South to the ancient city of Mostar. They were pretty hard to miss.
In the end, my trip to the Balkans fulfilled and grew above every expectation that I had. I have fallen in love, I think, with the food, the people, the architecture, the history, the nature … well, I could go on. My Easter in the Balkans was unforgettable, and I would recommend a trip there to everyone and anyone.