Welcome to the Balkans!

One thing I’m VERY grateful for is that my travels this summer are a mix of time with family (MOM!), time with friends (Jenn, Dani & Jaime in Croatia, Sam & Eric in Milan, and Phil whenever we can finagle our paths crossing 🙂 – and anyone else who will join me, the invitation is open!), time at workaway “homes”, and time exploring alone. I’m invigorated travelling alone; there’s a freedom that comes with travelling by your own agenda (or lack thereof). I do find however that it can get lonely, not necessarily because I’m “alone”, I interact with plenty of people along the way, but those connections in almost all cases are temporary and can start feeling empty compared to long time friends and family. So I was sad to see mom take off for the airport and head back to Maine, but was excited to hit the road with my pack and my own two feet and head on my shoulders! I hopped the train from Athens and Thessaloniki and watched as the (surprisingly HUGE!) mountains whizzed past. I arrived in Thessaloniki just in time for Saturday night, and soon found out that the city was ready to get after it! Within minutes of walking out of my hotel it became very apparent that Thessaloniki was quite a bit more Metropolitan than the area of Athens we were staying in…. The streetside cafes, bars and restaurants abuzz with customers stretched on for handfuls of city blocks in multiple directions and the sidewalks were shoulder-to-shoulder with men and women of all ages dressed to the 9’s headed to their venue of choice. The prominence of 3-inch heels was a wake up call that I wasn’t in Denver or one of my cozy mountain towns anymore! After grabbing a yummy dinner of salad, bolognase and too much wine (the rose came in a minimum of 500ml!) I people watched and wandered the streets for a bit but wasn’t feeling a proper Saturday night in my plans. I’ll leave the task to you Thessaloniki!
Plus, I had grand plans in the morning… I donned my running shoes, mapped my route, filled up my water bottle, and set out for a do-it-yourself running tour of the city! My route took me along the byzantine walls of the old city dating back to 300 BC, up to the Thessaloniki Castle, up to the top of the Trigoniou Tower, past numerous stunning churches and monastaries (this was the first time I’d seen the stunning dome structure of traditional mosques, and in Thessaloniki and other cities across Eastern Europe when Christianity reigned instead of destroying these beautiful buildings they’d often “put a cross on it”, add biblical imagery to the interior and tear down the minaret). I toured the remains of the Roman Forum, saw the Byzantine baths, passed through the Arch of Galerius and stood in awe the Roman Rotunda with beautiful frescoes from 300 AD. I then made my way to the White Tower which thuroughly yet interestingly presented exhibits detailing the history of Thessaloniki and its people, with the perk of having great views from the tower roof. From there I spent a couple hours in the Archeological Museum, documenting the findings from populations in this area from the Neolithic. That’s 20,000-6000 BC. There was even a cast of the skull found in the Petralona Cave, 40km southwest of Thessaloniki, that scientists estimate is from either 200,000 BC or 700,000 BC. To be face to face with (an edifice of) a human that existed so incredibly long ago just blew me away. There was also Roman statues and stunning gold leafed crowns found in burial sights in the area from Roman times. By then my feet were getting tired and even with the occassional snack of delicious grecian pastries from street vendors I was in need of more substantial food, so I ran along the waterfront back to my hotel to cap my discovery tour. My phone was dying but I’m estimating the route at around 10 miles. The day could not have been more perfectly capped; I found a perfect hole-in-the-wall restaurant thanks to Tripadvisor and devoured a scrumptious dish of roasted pork with plums, complete with a local amber ale and complimentary custardy-cake thing. I rounded the corner with thoughts of calling it a night, but was wooed into a corner bar by the sounds of live music. It was apparently the customary Sunday jam session; my new friend sitting next to me at the bar explained that these were a “revival” style of instuments resembling mandolins and guitars, and everyone in the bar sang along to the old time favorites. You can’t plan this stuff!
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The next morning brought another bus ride and a new destination… Sofia, Bulgaria! Again with the mountains on the bus ride – I could definately have some fun up in there, and may have the opportunity to do just that later this summer. When we arrived I made my way to my hostel and met the most kind and generous owner, Ivo, to find that not only would I not have to share a room, but I would have the entire 4 bedroom hostel to myself! Even Ivo, aside from setting up a generous breakfast spread in the morning, would be a WhatsApp message away at his own home. I’ll take it! I joined a free tour for a walk around the city, which was good but not as fulfilling as my solo-tour in Thessaloniki the day before. The architecture was stunning; mosques, cathedrals, mosoleums, statues and communist relics all stood in harmony within just a few blocks, with Mt. Vitosha beckoning just outside of city limits. I took the opportunity to run through the cities streets and parks the next morning with my personal highlight being stumbling on the huge daily farmers market only about a mile from “home”. I found that during my travels in Thessaloniki, Sofia and Belgrade English was very much NOT prevalent, so buying food often entailed smiling, pointing, and hoping for the best outcome of a purchase, potentially unsure of what you bought until the first bite. So far I’d say I’ve done pretty well, and either way that’s what experimentation is all about! My 24 hours in Sofia were up and the next bus arrived so off again…. to Belgrade, Serbia!

Oh Belgrade, I loved you from the moment I arrived… which partially probably had to do with the fact that thousands of miles away my realtor was successfully selling my house for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than I bought it for five years ago, but also because here it was a Wednesday night at 10:30, and the streets leading to the hostel were alive with music and people. Sofia, albeit beautiful, lacked a vibrant social scene. I was tempted to go check out a bar or two at midnight after the hour long phonecall with my realtor, but a storm rolled in so I took a walk in the rain with no particular destination. Belgrade displayed a beautiful montage of historical architecture and creative modern development. It was obvious that some tourists but mostly locals buzzed through the streets, throughout the parks and in the city establishments. I spent my day there wandering the city, first en route to the Belgrade Fortress which now houses a sprawling park on the north end of town, looking down onto the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. My route there took me first down a polished avenue of high end stores and coffee shops, and the way back had me meandering down a curving cobblestone alley complete with a band of men playing traditional Serbian music. I popped in to the Nikola Tesla museum and although the museum was small, they did a great job of presenting a summary of his work, specifically his harnessing of the AC electric current. His many of his inventions and ideas, most of which never had the funding or support to succeed, would be revolutionary achievements even now over a century later, such as a wireless system to transmit electricity. If only Elon Musk would have been around back then to put a financial backing to his genius… That night I met up with a friend I’d met on the bus to Belgrade to check out the Serbian nightlife, and it definitely did not disappoint… We stopped first at a small brewery, then a dark, smoky dive bar hidden away in an alleyway, and somehow to a posh club opening at a venue sitting on the Sava River, dancing until 3am (an early night by European standards).
Reasons why I love Belgrade beyond what I mentioned above (in no particular order):

  • adorable (and not yappy) small white dogs frolicking everywhere
  • beautiful people eating ice cream
  • creative craft beers
  • low cost of living (about half that of Denver CO)
  • and of course, the fact that its the namesake of my hometown, Belgrade, Maine! I can’t see any similarities between the two, but I appreciate the ode nonetheless. I think Belgrade Serbia is a little too busy for me to want to live there, but I loved my quick visit! Next stop: Croatia! 
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