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Transitioning through the former Yugoslavia

Written on: Monday June 29th, 2009

Travel is supposed to be fun...and easy.  But suddenly my relaxed journey around the globe took on the pressures and deadlines of an episode of Amazing Race.   I had overestimated the complexity in getting from Dubrovnik to Athens.  I expected that, with the relative closeness between the two cities, I would not have to put much thought into getting from one to the other.  I was very wrong.  There were no direct flights from Dubrovnik to Athens.  There were no busses and there were no trains.  WTF?  And to make this problem more urgent, I was meeting a friend in Athens at a specific time just two days from now and could NOT be late.  Assessing the situation, I quickly narrowed down the choices to the only possible option by way of eliminating all other travel methods as being already booked, too expensive or taking too long to arrive in Athens.  This left me with a six hour bus ride to Sarajevo, after which time I would have to arrange ongoing transportation from Bosnia to get to Serbia.  From Belgrade I would then be able to take a direct flight to Athens. 

So I booked the Belgrade-Athens flight, packed my bags and hopped on the bus headed to what was the heart of fighting during the Yugoslavian war last decade.  I was excited to see what this area looked like, and what the people were like.  The scenery throughout the countryside en route to Sarajevo was stunning!  Spectacular mountains covered with lush forest all falling into ice-blue rivers.  The diners at which the bus stopped along the way were interesting...filled with country women buying bread and fruit while the men smoked outside.  At one, five goats were being barbequed over a rotiserrie, filling the air with the succulent scent of tender meat.

When I finally arrived at the bus station, I had no idea how to arrange travel to Belgrade.  I quickly learned that busses from this terminal did not travel to Serbia.   Additionally, I learned that the private companies who offered their services between the two cities in question had already left for the day, and would be departing too late tomorrow for me to catch my flight.  Fortunately, I had an ace up the sleeve, which was already knowing that the nearby train station offered an overnight train to Belgrade.  It would likely be uncomfortable, but it was something.

After I confirmed the train's existance and vacancy, I met Ben, an interesting young Brit who was also touring the region as part of his extended European travels before heading back to uni.  So we decided to spend the day exploring Sarajevo on foot.  We toured some of the local neighborhoods, paying particular attention to the significant number of bullet holes still visible throughout everyday Sarajevo.  We hiked up to a lookout point, gaining access to brilliant overviews of the city, where I was surprised at the number of graveyards visible.  We saw the remains of bombed out governement buildings and bullet marked libraries.  And when we had seen enough, we chilled, taking refuge in a shisha bar.  The Arabic music blared as we sipped our tea and took turns hitting the water pipe.  It was a good way to reflect on the visuals we had taken in throughout the day.

Making my way back to the train station, I met Dave, a seasoned traveller from Kentucky.  We decided to share a cabin during the overnight ride from Bosnia to Serbia, making both for safer travels as well as interesting conversation throughout the night, a night was marked by six passport checks and four ticket checks, all for one simple border crossing.  Yup, it appeared that the former commandos in the Serbian army were definitely struggling for work.  Arriving in Belgrade weary-eyed and still cautious to count my chickens, I opted to skip the questionable bus service to the airport, instead choosing haggle with a taxi driver to take me the eighteen kms out of town to the airport.   Both my arrival to the airport and the flight were on time, and I soon felt the butterflies as the aircraft lifted off the tarmac en route to Greece!