Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Balkans Good

Serbia is well off the worn tourist trail even by Eastern European standards. This nation has a big PR problem from the breakup of Yugoslavia and the seige of Sarajevo. I sometimes wonder if these mitgating factors led the locals in that country to be so welcoming. I always felt a sense of ease and comfort while travelling around Serbia and would not hesitate to return. Perhaps it was the just Vojvodina province that is like this and the south is different since the two parts have a much different history to them.

I was warned in guidebooks and by expats of all the swindles and thievery that goes on in Romania to the point of pre-trip apprehension. People everywhere we went were totally honest in every transaction. As a grand finale on our last day, I left a $100 Canadian along with $5 US dollars and a pair of Oakley sunglasses under the rental's seat. The third party car cleaner/finder relayed the cash and glasses through 3 sets of hands back to me

The natural scenery and national parks of these countries is comparable to anywhere else in the world and makes it difficult to believe you are in crowded Europe. The timber, mineral and tourist potential is enormous. Serbia's Vojvodina province is perfect, flat black soiled farmland and an important food grower.

I would like to return to the Balkans, starting with something like the an electronic music fest that was started to protest the Serbian nationalist Milosevic in 2000. It has evolved into an acclaimed, electronic music and arts fest and just so happens to play much of what is on my iPod to. It takes place in the fortress overlooking Novi Sad and that setting seems ideal with its acreage of tiered lawns and spectacular views.

From here a trip through the southern reaches of Serbia and into Montenegro then travel the Black Sea coast up to Moldovia and north Transylvania all via motorcycle.

 These nations offer a low cost adventure holiday into the remnants of communism, an area rich in history and culture as all of Europe is but at a 50% discount. The people are genuinely interested in where you come from and how you live back in your own homeland. Of course this interest is proportionate to how far off the beaten tourist tracks you are. In the heavily tourist-ed zones you get the same jaded zombie service employees you'd find in places like Prince Edward Island or Orlando.

My aunt likely summed it up best when she said you'd better hurry up and do your motorcycle tour, you're not getting any younger. While I am on the subject, my aunt and mother did very well on this trip for a couple of 70ish ladies. Most their age would not have attempted this.

People here seem to have a real optimistic spark for their future in spite of some of the tough challenges they face. I see good things for this part of the world as ex-pats return to live and bring their foreign capital and skills back. Much of the population is highly educated as many communist countries placed a high priority on education and training and this bodes well for economic development. Make no mistake about how tough it is though. Things are cheaper, yes but when you are making 200-300 Euros per month, day to day living stress is shall we say increased. In spite of limited budgets for many everywhere you travel in the cities of the Balkans people make the effort to dress fashionably and just look good. These folks have figured out how to stretch every last Dinar or Lei.

Alas the world is a big place and there is much to see.  I don't know when I will get back to the Balkans, if ever, but this trip was important to me to see my roots and reconnect with my aunt and mother.

This blog was started on a spur-of-the-moment idea to allow friends and family to follow our trip.
The results have exceeded all expectations with over 2000 unique web hits from 14 different countries and I thank all who were interested enough to follow my amateurish attempts at documenting our journey.

I do intend to keep the blog alive for a bit longer as I have some personal wine reviews to publish for the Christmas season so stay tuned..

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Pointy headed Romanian rock king or King Carol I
Back to reality as I hit the ground running back in Canada trying to re-enter civilian life.

Our Air France flight was largely uneventful except for the 2 screaming babies nearby and the 2 illegals hauled off the plane by border guards as soon as the fuselage doors opened in Montreal.
I drove home with my ride and my aunt and Mom flew on to Toronto and drove back to Peterborough arriving just after midnight eastern standard time.

 So how did you like the Balkans?

This is the question I have already been asked by locals and friends and family upon my return to Canada.

Firstly Serbia and much of Romania is not a destination for the all inclusive resort, cruise ship lounging set. You will not get North American style service and food without looking really hard. There are some high end places that can cater to this set but they tend to run at very high prices.

What typically passes for a three or four star hotel in these countries is not what you would expect from the same rating in Western Europe or N. America. to complicate matters sometimes a hotel exceeds their rating but generally, you can knock a star off to represent true conditions. Service is varied with some surly or incompetent hotel/dining staff and then get first rate service when you least expect it at another establishment.
What happens when you get to zero stars?

The infrastructure is at its limits with power outages, potholed roads and random internet outages. These infrastructure limits have translated into economic growth limits now as foreign investors start to pull back due to poor returns. Ecologically the air quality is poor as coal fired power plants, mass burning of crop stubble on fields, wood source heating and being downwind of 400 million Europeans. Littering is still rampant at road sides and scenic mountain passes and water course quality is poor in many locations. Government and police corruption is still a concern and the EU is taking steps to deal with these Infrastructure, ecologic and corruption problems.

 Women's issues are also a concern in Romania as is witnessed by the many older women in poverty struggling to supplement their living at road side stands and a thriving business in the exportation of sex trade workers.

The Roma or gypsy population face their own discrimination and lower living standards than the general population reminding me of Canada's struggle with it's aboriginal citizens. Of course in Serbia there is still the specter of more war as the Kosovo situation drags on with no real solution in sight.

I hope you are still reading this because there is a big but attached to all the bad news above and it doesn't belong to either of my traveling companions.

Tomorrow I will tell you what the good stuff is.
In the mean time here are pictures of a streetcar to amuse you:

No nefarious intent driver, just a pretty streetcar