CROATIA: Tito's Island
If you are scared of stuffed animals, don't go to Veliki Brijun Island, but if you don't mind looking into the glass eyes of a pair of long-dead lions and suchlike, the tour around the former villa of Croatia's maverick Communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, is an adventure full of discoveries. The wild animals of his private zoo, donated by dignitaries such as Indira Gandhi, still roam the island, while those who have passed away have been lovingly, although not very skilfully, stuffed and exhibited in a special room. Meeting Tito's own talking parrot, Koki, is a bonus. If you are lucky, he will swear back at you in Croatian.
Recovering from the decades of oppression, paranoia and the isolation of Enver Xoxha's self-styled Stalinist regime, Albania is Europe's most fascinating place at the moment. The country is in the throes of transition between the past and modernity, and few places illustrate this better than the traditional town of Berat, the City of a Thousand Windows. Click here to see why.
KOSOVO: Kosovo Polje
Entering the newest state in Europe, the Republic of Kosovo, is possible from Albania or Macedonia, but not from Serbia, as the latter still disputes its legitimacy. The reasons are many and varied, but it all started on St Vitus Day in 1389, when the Serbs gloriously lost a battle against the Ottomans at Kosovo Polje, near Pristina, the capital of today's Republic of Kosovo. This battle left a permanent scar on the national psyche of the Serbian people, and still reverberates in the Balkans. We did our best to recreate the eerie atmosphere of the battlefield and to unravel the stories surrounding it, in issue 49/50 of Vagabond.
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: Sarajevo
Small, diverse, and still traumatised by the Bosnian war of 1992-1996, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a treat, provided that you don't try the local version of Shopska, which includes cabbage and pickled gherkins (yikes!). Sarajevo, the capital, is the best place to start your Bosnian journey, and in issue 40 we offered you at least 10 reasons to do so, from the beautiful and lively Ottoman-era marketplace to the bridge where a fatal shot at the crown prince of Austria-Hungary set off the First World War to the beautiful fin-de-siècle architecture and the souvenirs made from empty shells from the 1990s brutal Siege of Sarajevo.
FORMER YUGOSLAV REPUBLIC OF MACEDONIA: Tetovo
Nowadays, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia's main attraction is Skopje, with the disfigured statues and the neo-neo-neo-Baroque buildings in the centre, created to emphasise the nation's ancient roots and enduring greatness. For a more balanced view of the country, you shouldn't miss Tetovo, a city dominated by Albanian people and their heritage.
The Roman poet Ovid hated Tomis, modern day Constanţa, because of its harsh winters and unsophisticated inhabitants, but mostly because he couldn't leave it, as he had been exiled there by the emperor. Today, Constanţa is one of Romania's most interesting places, a city right on the Black Sea and full of dilapidated, melancholic buildings left over from the times of pre-Communism economic prosperity.
The mysterious monastic republic, which bans all females, is a place stuck in the past, where people still organise their day in accordance with Byzantine time, are strict vegetarians and seek to worship in the austere medieval manner. Who could resist such a place? We didn't, and wrote about Mount Athos twice, in issues 19 and 90 of Vagabond.
Many places in the Balkans claim to have "the most beautiful sunset in the world." We have covered a lot of these, including the sunsets of Santorini and Zadar. The winner for us, however, is Cape Sounion, near Athens, for its heartbreaking history and magnificent ancient temple, vandalised by thousands visitors, including Lord Byron, who left his signature on one of the columns.
Everyone knows Kotor, the "Pearl of Montenegro," which extends into the impossibly beautiful bay of the same name. Even the Russians do, and buy holiday properties all over the area. Fewer foreigners, though, are familiar with Cetinje, the old capital of this small and fiercely independent Balkan state. The straight streets of the town are lined with palatial buildings in various stages of dilapidation. Many of them used to be foreign embassies, and their architecture mirrors the characteristics of the nations they belonged to. The Russian is imperial, the British is Edwardian, the French is Moorish, and the Bulgarian is humble, and today houses a tavern.
Combining madness, music, alcohol and nationalism in the Balkans should be a recipe for disaster, but the Guča Trumpet Festival blends them perfectly well, and peacefully too. Organised each August since 1961, the festival gathers about half a million Serbs and foreigners into the tiny village of Guča. For three days, the crowd drinks rakiya, eats grilled meat and dances to the booming music of competing brass bands, providing one of the best examples of the meaning of cacophony. Miles Davis himself visited the Guča festival, and was smitten, as you will be, too.
Traditional Wrestling, Edirne
Few sporting events in the world can compare to the annual wrestling tournament at Edirne. Organised since 1362, it is the oldest uninterrupted sports event in the world, a spectacular feast where men in leather breeches wrestle under the hot July sun, their naked skins shiny with sweat and the olive oil poured over their bodies. Only one of them becomes a champion, and those who have lost often weep on the greasy ground. It is no wonder, then, that Dave Freeman included this event in his 100 Things To Do Before You Die list.
The megalopolis on the Bosporus has been a favourite of Vagabond through the years, and we have covered its many facets, from its food and hidden gems to its melancholy and vibrancy. One thing we have learnt in the process: the greatest city in this part of the world is like a river, it is different each time you immerse yourself in it. So, brace yourself for a revisit soon.
Mount Ararat is technically not in the Balkans but, since it is in Turkey, the magnificent mountain ended up in issue 23 of Vagabond. We did that not only to introduce you to one of the least known corners of Turkey, but the temptation to introduce you to Hasan Baba, the stately septuagenarian who is the keeper of what one American researcher believes to be the remains of the Noah's Ark, was too strong to resist.