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 #6: Lucca, Italy

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with an obvious location, as it was our home for 3 years: Lucca, Italy (in the Tuscany region). This is actually a difficult post to write, because how can I put down into words how much Lucca has meant to us.

I’m going to start with the obvious….
Food/Wine

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My husband and I loved starting every day by going to our local cafes for our cappuccini

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and pastries…normally a cornetto or sfloglia. We would frequent Piccola Soave during the week and Da Sara on the weekends. It is worth mentioning that food shopping can be a bit different there. If you want the best vegetables, you go to the vegetable stands; for the best meat, you go to your local butcher (pictured on the right – preparing our turkey for our Thanksgiving celebration); and for the best “unsalted” bread, you go to your local bakery. The food there is so flavorful and fresh.

You can’t visit or especially live in Tuscany without having some wine! It is really hard to

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find bad wine there. Plus, for €3 you can get a great local wine that would cost 5x that in the USA. The nearby hill-town of Montecarlo has its own wine festival and is home to the well-known Fattoria di Fubbiano winery. However, the hills around Lucca provide some of the best wineries. We enjoyed our trip to Fattoria Sardi, but our ultimate favorite place for wine is the Fabbrica di San Martino. We’ve been there many times and never leave without cases of wine. Even my friend, who is not a wine drinker, found a wine she loves there.13055839_10153604589492986_7423048710852422585_o (1)

Favorite eatery options:

  • Risto-Bar il Caffe on Corso Garibaldi – was a favorite spot for lunch. I BIG hello to the owners: Roberto and Sabrina. I miss your food and company so much!!!
  • Trattoria da Ubaldo – it is possible that you may find a local comic book series that features the owner of this restaurant. He is an interesting character and a favorite with the locals.
  • Ammodonostro – provides a great sharing meal that includes bistecca alla fiorentina.
  • Osteria Miranda – located in Piazza Santa Maria is one of the few restaurants around that serves our favorite San Martino wine.
  • Trattoria da Leo – a favorite restaurant of the locals. Make sure to have the table wine and the after dinner refreshment of limoncello and grappa that is offered to you before you leave.
  • L’isola Che Non C’era – a great place to take a lunch break while your shopping on Via Fillungo.
  • Le Bonta – everyone in Lucca has their favorite gelateria (gelato stand) and this is ours. It is located right outside the Lucchesi walls.

Our second favorite thing about Lucca are the festivals, holidays and celebrations…

Festivals

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During the summer and fall, it feels like Lucca has a festival or celebration almost every day. Drums and flag throwing are included in many holiday festivities. These are some of our favorite celebrations:

  • Luminaria di Santa Croce – a candlelit procession takes place from the Church San Frediano to the Cathedral of San Martino (Duomo – pictured above). This processional represents the miracle of the Volto Santo (holy face crucifix) relocating 17011_10153061958712986_8573529136269828547_nfrom San Frediano to the Duomo.
  • Lucca Summer Festival – a large summer music festival that has brought many bands and musicians. During my time in Lucca, I got to see Stevie Wonder, Elton John, the Eagles, Backstreet Boys, the Script, Gary Clark, John Legend and Lenny Kravitz (pictured on the right).
  • Effetto Cinema Notte – a celebration of cinema with musical performances all around the town from movies like Grease, Labyrinth, Chicago etc.
  • Verdemura Lucca – a portion of the Lucchesi wall is set up to sell plants and flowers and other organic products. It always made me wish I had more of a green thumb.
  • Lucca Film Festival – where directors are honored for their work and cinematic features. David Lynch and George Romero were previous honorees.
  • Il Desco – a market to sell local foods and wines.

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Favorite Highlights of Lucca

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So many wonderful things to see and do in Lucca. If you like churches, there are more than a hundred of those in this tiny walled-city. Here are some of our favorite things to see and do in Lucca:

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  • The Lucchesi Walls – Lucca is a walled-city. These walls are more than 500 years old.13407250_10153717328072986_8324403784892229909_n The top of the walls have been converted into a park for pedestrians, runners and bikers to wander around the city. My husband and I use to walk the walls almost every night. My friends and I would also take a walk around the wall after enjoying a hearty lunch.
  • Cattedrale di San Martino (Duomo) – the main catthedral of Lucca. This is also where you can view the Volto Santo (mentioned above).10516688_10152228726137986_4388737566867241416_n
  • Home of Giacomo Puccini – Lucca is the birthplace of the famous opera composer, Giacomo Puccini. Puccini created operas such as Madame Butterfly and La Boheme. I highly recommend seeing one of the daily Puccini performances. The singers are just amazing!
  • Museo di Arte Contemporanea Lu.C.C.A. – This is the Lucca Center of Contemporary Art. I got to see a display of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, who was a famous French photographer. The museum did a good job displaying such a large collection.
  • Villas & Palaces – Within the city center, you can visit Palazzo Pfanner and Palazzo13466250_10153717336682986_5258876858347279934_n Orsetti. Outside of the city center, you can visit popular villas, such as Villa Mansi and Villa Torrigiani.
  • Torre Guinigi (pictured on the right) – This is a tower in the center of Lucca that has a botanical garden on the top. It is a bit of a climb but worth it.
  • Lucca Italian School – When I first moved to Lucca, I decided to take a two-week Italian course at the Lucca Italian School. While I was nervous at how intense the classes were, because I didn’t know any Italian at all, I was blessed with a great class filled with wonderful people that I still communicate with on occasion. This course includes classroom work in the morning and then an afternoon excursion (field trip to nearby location) or event (cooking class, movies, etc.). It was a great experience, 1932335_10151990359127986_922716397_nand one I would recommend even if you are just coming to visit for a few weeks. This is the best way to immerse yourself in the town and Italian culture.
  • The Anfiteatro (pictured on the right)- a piazza completely surrounded by apartments and restaurants.
  • Shopping on Via Fillungo – there are many popular and also boutique shops on Fillungo. However, my favorite place to shop is a leather store called Officina della Pella, located right off of Piazzo San Francesco.
  • Chiesa San Michele (see picture below) – This ornate church is located on what used to be the town square. It is nice to just sit in one of the nearby cafes that overlook this church, but on a side note: you will pay for the view.

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If you are looking to explore Tuscany a bit, I highly recommend using Lucca as your main hub, as much of Tuscany is accessible via train from Lucca. It is hard to really describe how much our time in Lucca meant to us, and I hope this post does it justice.

For more information about things to do and places to see around Lucca (mostly day excursions we took), see the following posts: