20 Years of Travel #17: The Balkans

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with my undergraduate study abroad program to the Balkans in 2002. I am sure that everyone experiences moments that change their lives. The Peace and Conflict Resolution program I took through American University that took me to the Balkans literally changed my life.

As silly as this seems to talk about, years later, I went through a rough patch in 2002, as I got my heart completely shattered when a boyfriend and I broke up. The 2-year relationship ended almost as poorly as it could. I was struggling so much and didn’t even know if I wanted to continue with school, when I was accepted into this program at American University. I now had this intensive educational program to focus on, which left me little time to think about my broken relationship. As part of this research program, we were heading to the Balkans, which was still recovering from the Balkan War of the 1990s.

*Side note – all pictures featured in this post have been scanned from physical photos taken with an old film camera that I was using in 2002.*

HUNGARY

Our tour of the Balkans included a very intense travel schedule, so our professor arranged to begin the trip with a weekend in Budapest (to overcome jetlag) and end the trip with a weekend in Vienna (before heading back to the States). This is now a trick I try to incorporate in as many travel experiences as I can – making sure you allow some free time at the beginning and at the end, especially when you are taking adventure trips and tours. While we were suffering from jetlag, we did get to experience some fun things in Budapest, like the market, the parliament building, a Hungarian opera, amazing food and a beautiful, early-morning walk to and from attending a church service at Matthias Church (Mátyás-templom).

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SERBIA

Our home base for much of our time in the Balkans was in Belgrade, Serbia. Belgrade was bombed by NATO in 1999. Three years later it was still recovering and rebuilding. It was my first experience actually seeing the structural effects of war, so of course I wanted to document that with my camera, which I found out quickly was illegal. In Belgrade, we would learn about the steps the former-Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro – at that time) was taking to change their system of government from a socialist one to a democracy. This transition would take years. Occasionally, we would take trips outside of the city to meet with human rights groups and religious leaders to discuss the effects the war had on society and religion in Serbia.

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MONTENEGRO

At this time, Montenegro would still be part of the former-Yugoslavia with Serbia. They would not gain their independence until 2006. While traveling through Montenegro, I remember thinking that it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. It was hard to imagine that horrible things were taking place there just a few years before. While in Montenegro, we stayed at a large orphanage that housed many kids who had lost their families in the war. It was heartbreaking, but through these kids, you could also see hope and a promise of a better future.

CROATIA

We traveled to Croatia a few times. We took one such day trip to Zagreb and Vukovar from Belgrade. This was one of the most intense travel days I had ever experienced. On the way into Croatia, the bus driver was trying to accommodate our need to use bathroom facilities by just pulling over on the side of the road. Normally, if I had to go bad enough, that might be sufficient for me. However, the location did not seem like aserbia great idea, as I came face to face with my first mine field (see picture on the right). Demining operations are still ongoing in parts of the Balkans. We spoke to some officials in Zagreb about Croatia gaining its independence from Yugoslavia and what their goals as an independent nation were. Then headed to see Vukovar, which was completely destroyed during the war. The city was under siege for almost three months straight. Its residents had to flee and thousands died. All the structures were just covered in bullet holes. We headed back to Belgrade after this but were stopped at the Serbian border. Border crossings were still pretty strict at this time, and they frowned upon multiple crossings in one day, which we were doing. After keeping us there for hours, holding on to our passports the whole time, we were able to monetarily bribe our way back into Serbia. That would be our only time doing multiple border crossings in the same day. Our next trip to Croatia would take us to the coastal town of Dubrovnik, long before it was made famous by Game of Thrones. Here we met with a women’s group who would make by hand items like purses, scarves and sweaters to be sold. These items would go directly to support women and their families who have lost husbands and fathers in the war. Meeting these women who had lost so much, trying to do whatever they could to support their families, impacted me so much. Later that day, one of our guides, from Bosnia, who had been with us the whole time, told us his story of living through the siege of Sarajevo. That story will stick with me for the rest of my life. That evening, a group of us sat watching the sunset over the Adriatic talking of different psychological topics, when we started talking about relating to people by reading people. I didn’t quite buy into the concept of reading people, because I did not believe that people could be that readable. I asked someone to read me. That same guide from Sarajevo decided to take on that task and told me that I had fallen in love with the wrong person but would get over it. I had not told anyone anything about my life or relationships, so this completely threw me. This was the moment my life changed. I realized that my broken heart was so insignificant compared to what so many people in the Balkans were going through. For the first time, I started to think about my future goals and what I could do to help others. It was not just that he had seen my hurt and pain, but that he had seen a strength I possessed that I did not know I had.

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SLOVENIA

We would take a cruise along the stunning Croatian coast and head to Slovenia. Slovenia was the first country to declare its independence from Yugoslavia. It had also managed to, for the most part, stay out of the war. We took a short trip here exploring caves, Lake Bled and spending a night in Ljubljana before heading to Vienna for our last few days in Europe.

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AUSTRIA

By the time we made it to Vienna, Austria, I was exhausted both physically and emotionally. This had been one of the most intense and moving experiences of my life. While in Vienna, my mind was on everything we had just learned, seen and experienced, and where I would go from there. I barely remember going to St. Stephen’s Cathedral or the Secession Building that housed contemporary art. Luckily, I got to revisit Vienna a few years later.

Vienna

This tour through the Balkans was one of the best travel experiences of my life. I believe that every trip should be an educational one, whether you are learning about the culture of the location or even just learning how to travel. This was more than an educational experience, it was literally life-changing, and that is why it made my list of 20 favorite travel experiences.

Location-related posts:

BUDAPEST AT NIGHT (November 2015); The Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Christmas – Budapest, Hungary (November 2015)20 Years of Travel #13: Mediterranean Cruise

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!!

20 Years of Travel #1: German Class Trip

Per my last post, I am celebrating 20 years of travel by writing about my top 20 travel destinations over the last 20 years. It seems fitting that I would start with my first oversees travel experience.

In July of 1998, I got to go on a trip to Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy with my high school German class. While that was 20 years ago, I’m going to list the places and events from this trip that I remember most. Enjoy a look at these places through the eyes of a sixteen year old (including pictures taken with disposable cameras):

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Cities visited in order of the Itinerary (see picture above):

  1. Frankfurt, Germany
    • To overcome jet lag, our teacher/tour leader signed us up for a Rhine River boat tour with a wine tasting. That may have been my first taste of wine. Lesson learned: drinking wine might not be the best way to overcome jet lag.
  2. Rothenberg, Germany
    • What I always pictured a European town to look like.
    • Largest Christmas store I’ve ever seen.
  3. Munich, Germany20180604_214421
    • Seeing a 1998 World Cup Soccer game on a big screen in the main square
    • We stumbled across a large crowd of people outside Planet Hollywood. I sat on my friend’s shoulders for 45 minutes. We had know idea what was going on. Eventually, we realized that this crowd was waiting for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He threw me a t-shirt that I actually still have.
    • My teacher bought us giant mugs of beer at the Hofbrauhaus.
    • The Glöckenspiel. – Munich was one of my favorite places, and I would finally revisit it 18 years later.
  4. Berchtesgaden, Germany
    • Saw my first mountains as we headed in to the Alps.
    • We all had a snowball fight in July.
  5. Salzburg, Austria
    • Obviously the birth place of Mozart, but I’ve always been a huge fan of the Sound of Music. We took a Sound of Music walking tour, which I thought was perfect as I was “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”.
  6. Lake Maggiore, Italy
    • The lake district of Northern Italy is just gorgeous. We stopped on Isola Bella and toured the stunning Palazzo Borromee.
  7. Innsbruck, Austria
    • I was unimpressed with Innsbruck. It was a brief stop anyway.
  8. St. Moritz, Switzerland
    • My first of many European train rides. The train from St. Moritz to Tirano, Italy has the best views (see picture above).
  9. Lugano, Switzerland20180604_212955
    • With some allotted free time, a few friends and I rented a speed boat on Lake Lugano. See pic on the right of me driving the boat. My friends and I also got into a lot of trouble for this, because we missed our curfew, and apparently everyone was looking everywhere for us. However, I have no regrets. It was amazing…just sitting in the boat with the wind blowing your hair and looking at the mountains coming out of lake. It was the most memorable moment of the trip for me.
    • While Lugano holds a special place in my heart for the enjoyable boating experience, I have not returned, which may have something to do with the cockroach infested accommodations we stayed at while we were there. Insects everywhere…in the shower, in the beds….
  10. Zermatt, Switzerland
    • It is pretty remarkable that my first experience with mountains also included viewing the Matterhorn (see picture at the top of the page). We took a train to a higher elevation to view it. Then some of us walked back down to the town of Zermatt, which was just a beautiful little Swiss town. I loved it there.
  11. Gruyere, Switzerland
    • CHEESE!!!!
  12. Lucerne, Switzerland
    • Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) – I remembered seeing this bridge in picture albums my Grandmother had, and it was really amazing to be able to see it in person.
  13. Heidelberg, Germany
    • I vaguely remember a boat ride, but I think I was so exhausted by the end of this tour that I have little recollection of doing anything in Heidelberg.

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Since this trip almost 20 years ago, I’ve been back to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland many times and lived in Italy for a few years, so this area of the world has always meant so much to mean. While this trip was not the beginning of my love of world travel, it was the beginning of making world travel a reality and a way of life for me.

I hope you enjoyed this walk down memory lane with me. Next post on the 20 Years of Travel series will be a location a bit closer to home.