Eastern Europe 2018: Former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Poland

A few years ago I wrote a number of Word entries about my late July to early September trip through Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I now think this blog is the best place to present my travel impressions and experiences. I’ll also update this with my 2019 late summer visit to Ukraine, Belarus and the three Baltic States.


While not considered per-sé a Balkan country, Slovenia was a constituent republic of the former Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito. In April 2018, while spending 5 weeks in Salzburg, I decided to take the train to Ljubljana for a quick reconnaissance of this small capital city. The train ride was about four hours and wound through magnificent Alpine scenery. When I got to Ljubljana, I snagged a taxi to the Hotel Mrak in the Old Town. I found it interesting to hear the driver’s fondness for the days of Marshal Tito, a sentiment that I was to hear frequently during the late summer trip.

After a quick drive from the airport, I checked in at the hotel and was impressed with the renovations. The manager walked me to my room, one of the newly renovated ones. After settling in, I walked over the river to have dinner at a place where I’d enjoyed a great grilled duck salad back in April. This time the food was equally great. I spoke with some Canadians at the next table and they mentioned that they planned a bike ride around Lake Bled, which is in the Julian Alps near the Austrian border. It’s an area that I’d like to explore at some point.

The next morning I rented a mountain bike from the shop behind the hotel. The staff was great. They swapped out the flats for some pedals I brought and also programmed their Garmin with a few long-distance rides. Katje, one of the managers, even provided me with a bike rental contact in Sarajevo, which turned out to be a great resource. Within a few minutes I was off to Mount Krim. About half of the road up to the summit was paved and then it turned into a well-maintained gravel road. As I got close to the summit, I ran out of water and was unsure how distant the peak was. A Slovenian Army Humvee pulled up alongside and the soldier asked if I needed anything. When I told him I was out of water, he pulled into a telcom station and returned with two bottles of water and told me I was less than one km. from the top. After thanking him, I continued up what had become a seriously steep climb. At the top, there was a little restaurant with outside seating, so I ordered lunch and enjoyed the amazing view, with Ljubljana in the distance. There was a young couple with their yellow Lab sitting nearby and we started a conversation. I commented on his excellent American-accented English and he told me that he’d perfected it watching American television. I said goodbye and descended the mountain at a nice clip and then returned to the city, after passing through a lovely farming region.

After the long ride, it was time to drop by Kolibri, a cocktail bar that Id visited in April. Back then, I spoke with the bartenders, who told me that they were opening a new restaurant in the summer. One of the guys was working the bar, so I had a Negroni and caught up with him. He offered to call his business partner at the restaurant in Old Town and made a reservation for me. After a short walk on a beautiful summer evening, I got to the restaurant and grabbed a table on the sidewalk. The food was incredible, served in square plates. I enjoyed some Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc and finished it off with a cheese plate and some local dessert wine. While enjoying the ambience, I started chatting with two younger women seated at the neighboring table and they told me how corrupt the current government was. Apparently, another young woman they knew threw them dirty looks. They laughed and told me she was in the ruling party apparatus. It was a fun way to end a leisurely dinner and I walked back to the hotel with a full stomach and a bit of a buzz.

In the morning, I went for a long walk through the Old Town and then enjoyed a great buffet at the hotel. Th ewoman at the front dest offered to call Boris, the taxi driver who drove me in from the airport, to see if he’d drive me to Rijeka, in Croatia, so I wouldn’t have to take the slow and non-air-conditioned train. Fortunately, he was free and we agreed on a reasonable price and agreed to leave around noon. After packing up, I went for another walk and enjoyed a pour-over at a hip coffee place in the local museum. 

The drive to Rijeka was scenic, especially after exiting the freeway and driving through beautiful orchards to the border control. Boris joked that Croatia was a little backward since they didn’t use the euro. I would come to hear about these Balkan rivalries frequently in the weeks to come. After an uneventful border passage, we made our way to Rijeka, where I’d booked two nights at a B&B overlooking the Adriatic.


In hindsight, I would’ve avoided Rijeka, an industrial seaport formerly known by its Italian name, Fiume. Rijeka was returned to Yugoslavia at the end of World War II. While the place where I stayed was fine, there were no amenities nearby and the long uphill walk to restaurants and the supermarket was through unattractive and busy streets. That said, I had a late lunch with excellent local seafood and a Croatian vegetable dish consisting of braised Swiss chard and potatoes. After walking back down the hill, I read for a while before falling asleep.

The breakfast was rather mundane and the host only spoke Croatian and Italian. She was watching a Catholic mass on TV when I asked her to call a cab to take me to Opatija, a few miles away. The driver dropped me off right in the center of the Old Town, where I went for a very long walk along the coast.

Opatija must have been a resort for aristocrats during the Austro-Hungarian era since the main beachside pathway was called Franz Josef Way. There were rows of 18th century houses along the route which must have been getaways for the rich.

I was drenched with sweat given the heat and humidity and went through four bottles of water along the way. After walking about 3 miles, I stopped at a fancy beachside restaurant for an excellent lunch of freshly caught sea bass and the usual Croatian vegetable dish, washed down with a nice Croatian Pinot Gris. The shade felt great and the mountains and the scenery along the broad sweep of the Adriatic reminded me of Santa Barbara. 

After the great lunch I made my way back to the center of town and hailed a cab to take me back to Rijeka.

The taxi driver told me how much he admired the old Yugoslavia and Marshal Tito. In those days, he said, one could buy an apartment and a car with a 1% loan from the Yugoslav State Bank. He also related how the Yugoslav passport was the best in the world, allowing travel to more countries than any other. This nostalgia for the old Yugoslavia was one I was to hear frequently among older people, who found the shock of the capitalist economy tough to endure. Younger people either emigrated to Western Europe or Australia or found jobs at home that required a university degree.


The next morning I went online and hired a driver to take me to Zagreb, where I planned to spend two nights. I didn’t want to deal with buses or trains.

The drive to Zagreb was quite pleasant. We drove on a freeway through pretty country and went through several mountainous regions. As I was to find in Eastern Europe, the countryside abruptly ends and the cities begin, with no suburban ring in-between. The driver dropped me off at my Airbnb and I waited for the owner to arrive to check me in.

The apartment was new and well appointed, with air conditioning. The weather continued to be hot and humid. After unpacking, I took a long walk into the center to do some sightseeing. The city was pretty clean and, as I got closer to the center, the parks and nineteenth century government buildings and museums showed the strong Austrian influence in the capital. The central square was impressive as was the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Since it was early August, the city was relatively empty.

To escape the heat, I made my way over to an enoteca that was highly recommended online and sat down and chatted with the owner’s brother, Tomas. He suggested some Croatian wines from the Istra region, a coastal enclave that Croatia shares with Slovenia, which I’m told is like Tuscany. He also brought a marvelous charcuterie and some local bread and two Istrian EVOOs, which were superb. After that charcuterie, I finished up with some olives and a tasting of pumpkin oil. 

Since the restaurant was practically empty, Tomas and I discussed Croatian politics and sports. Just the week before, over 400,000 fans welcomed the national football team back from the World Cup, where they advanced to the finals only to lose to France. He told me that Croatia was the only team composed of Europeans to make the final. Almost ten percent of the nation’s population was there.

The next morning I took the tram to the center to have breakfast with a Croatian writer and former diplomat whom I had met several years earlier in California. We discussed the political and social situation in Croatia as well as his new book on semiotics. When I told him I was headed to Sarajevo the following day, he warned me to be careful and to call him if I needed any help. As I mentioned earlier, in the Balkans there is still a high degree of mistrust among the former ethno-religious groups of the former Yugoslavia.

After some more sightseeing in the Old Town, the heat and humidity began to bear down on me, so I returned to the enoteca from the previous evening and had a great seafood salad and a glass of wine. 

In the early evening I booked a bike tour of central Zagreb and proceeded to the meeting point. The guide was a young student named Ivan. Also on the tour was a large Belgian family that had been traveling through the Balkans and a single German woman. When the German tried to engage me on the Trump issue, I told her that I was on vacation and had no interest in discussing American politics. After that, she became quiet.

The Belgians were delightful and interesting. They had been on an extended househunting trip to the Balkans and the parents wanted their children’s input on the relocation. It seems they settles on Bulgaria. The father told me that, as devout Catholics and traditionalists, Belgium held no future for them given its increasing secularization and the mass Muslim immigration in recent years. I thought it was sad that this family with deep roots in Belgium felt compelled to flee their homeland for a new life in a foreign land. 

Zagreb looked magical in the evening, and Ivan took us to places less visited by tourists. We ended up at an outside café where we had a drink and continued our conversation. When we returned to the bike shop, the kids shook my hand and wished me well. What a nice way to end the tour.

The next morning I grabbed a latte and walked back to the city center past the university and some superb late 19th and early 20th century government buildings and mansions. Croatia had been a part of the Hungarian Crown Lands until the end of World War 1, so the architecture was similar to that found in Budapest and Vienna. Since I had to check out and head to the airport for my flight to Sarajevo, I took the tram back to the apartment, packed up and hailed an Uber for the airport.


My seatmate on the short flight to Sarajevo was an American of Bosnian descent and she gave me a nice overview of Bosnia-Hercegovina. As we got closer, I was struck by how green and mountainous Sarajevo was. My seatmate pointed out some massive graveyards below. She said that they contained the remains of the thousands of civilians and militia killed by the Bosnian Serbs during the almost four-year siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996. That war was to be an ongoing topic of conversation during my stay there.

I had arranged a pickup with Haris, the owner of Hotel Vila Hayat where I’d be staying for three nights. After the hilly and interesting ride to the hotel, I was effusively greeted by Haris and invited to sit with him for a few minutes. Here was the famous Muslim hospitality that I’d read about. His English was quite good, but his dialogue was almost non-stop. He praised the Americans as saviours from the Serbs and then told me more than I needed to hear about the perfidy of the Serbs. The Bosniaks, their term for Bosnians of Muslim confession, are enamored of Bill Clinton, who ordered the NATO airstrikes that finally dislodged the besiegers of the Army of the Republika Srpska from the heights surrounding Sarajevo. Haris was concerned that Trump wasn’t interested in the fate of his country and asked me what Americans thought of the Balkans. I responded that, unfortunately, very few Americans had ever heard of Bosnia, despite its being the flashpoint of World War I.

The hotel was on a bluff above the main city and a circuitous path led down to the center, past neighborhood mosques with Ottoman-style minarets and the Sarajevo Brewery (Sarajevska Pivara) built in 1864. From the brewery I walked down to the Miljacka River and crossed the Latin Bridge, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914, precipitating World War I. I walked through a throng of locals and tourists in the bazaar, noticing a fair number of head coverings on the women. There was a major restoration project on some of the Ottoman buildings and mosques, all prominently noted as being financed by Turkey. I decided to look for a nicer restaurant than those on offer in the bazaar and made my way down the river embankment to the Nova Bentbaša. Once seated, I encountered a drunk Australian couple. The woman loudly asked “are you American”. To which I answered “yes”. She then staggered over to my table and stated that she normally despised Americans. Fortunately, the maître d’ walked over and escorted her out. After a nice Bosnian meal overlooking the river, I called for a taxi and returned to the hotel.

The next morning, after an ample breakfast served in the hotel dining room, I decided to walk up a long path to Mount Trebević, one of the abandoned sites from the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics. As I got closer to the abandoned luge run I passed a number of buildings partly leveled by the Serb bombardment during the siege. The Serbs held all of the high points around the city except for Mt. Igman and fired at will. As I approached the bottom of the concrete luge run, a huge thunderstorm erupted and I grabbed refuge under an abandoned bridge, where several other storm refugees had gathered, including a young Danish couple and another couple from Argentina. We spent the next hour discussing our travels. The Argentines were traveling around the world for a year. After the storm abated, we parted and I walked up to the peak along the graffiti-covered luge run. At the top I hopped on the cable car for a panoramic descent into the valley and the city center. The cable car, or Žiĉara, was destroyed during the siege and rebuilt in 2018.

When I got back to the hotel, Haris was seated with his son and another fellow, all chain-smoking, as seemed common among the Bosnians. To avoid getting another Bosnian history lesson, I said I needed to check email and take a shower. I decided to take a break from pork and beef and visit a well-reviewed vegan restaurant up in the mountains and asked Haris to call his taxi to drive me. When I told him the address a look of horror came over his face and he said “That’s in Republika Srpska and they hate Americans. You won’t be safe.” I’d forgotten that the Serbian part of the Federation was close by. In fact, I’d been there the day before on my hike up Mt. Trebević. Rather than argue, I agreed to eat at a Bosnian restaurant, Avlija, on the north side of the city, across the Miljacka. The food was pretty heavy and I left a third of it on the plate. I couldn’t get any taxi to pick me up, so I walked the five miles back up the hill to the hotel, arriving around midnight. Of course, Haris was still up. I asked him if he had a lamp for bedside reading. He finally came up with one. I decided that I should have booked the Courtyard by Marriott by the river. The incessant smoking and babbling was beginning to get on my nerves.

After breakfast the next day, I had the driver take me down to the old Olympic Village where I was scheduled to rent a mountain bike from a fellow named Thierry, who had been referred by Katja, the manager of the bike shop in Ljubljana. Thierry was a nice guy, a Dutchman who had married a Bosnian before the war and decided to stay. The bike was a new Santa Cruz with a new preprogrammed Garmin Edge 1030, which runs around USD 599. He gave me a quick overview of the Garmin and the route, which would take me around the airport, through some countryside and the Bosniak village of Hrasnica, and then up a gravel road to the ski resort on top of Mount Inman. I had barely gotten past the airport when another epic downpour hit. The temperature dropped by about 20 degrees and I found shelter under a bus stop. The rain lasted for about an hour and I was freezing and soaked. I had to relieve myself so badly that I simply stood in the rain and went in my Lycra shorts. That was a first! When the rain let up, I headed towards the mountain. The sun came out and it got much warmer. As I pedaled up the mountain, 1,510 meters high, I passed an odd factory as well as a pulverized bunker. I wasn’t able to see the French Army APC that had been hit by Serb artillery and rolled down a deep ravine, but a sign marked the spot. The views from the summit were stunning-a lush green panorama. The descent was fun and I got back to the airport area pretty much on time. I did pause to see the famous airport tunnel that was used to ferry in arms and supplies during the siege. 

The gravel road I was biking on was the only way into the city for a few years. I passed some Communist-era housing blocks with walls pitted and cratered from heavy-caliber machine fun and mortar fire. I also was almost hit by a city bus on the shoulderless road. When I got back, still pretty muddy, Thierry and his assistant invited me to wash up and then he graciously gave me a ride back to the hotel. I told him about the vegan restaurant incident and he just laughed, saying that I would have been fine. He has Bosniak and Serb women working for him and they got along fine. 

After doing a walking tour, which are a great way to see the sights in the Balkans, I checked out of the hotel and headed to the airport for my flight to Belgrade on Air Serbia. The Bosnia Hercegovina girl’s national basketball team also was on the plane. I sat next to one of the coaches who spoke English well and we had a nice chat on the hour flight.Despite the poor choice of lodgings, I found Sarajevo fascinating.


After I collected my bag at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport, I walked outside and hailed a cab to my destination, what turned out to be a superb Airbnb close to the center, on Marŝala Birjuzova, named in honor of a Soviet general who led the “liberation” of Serbia. I’d texted with my hosts in Sarajevo and they had the place ready for an early check-in. After putting things away, I headed out to grab dinner in the hip Skadarlija district. After reconnoitering the neighborhood in the heart of the Old Town, I sat outside to a wine bar, Vinoteka Skadarlija, and sampled some Serbian wines and appetizers. I was a bit tired, so I walked back to my flat through some busy neighborhoods and retired around 9.

The next day I’d scheduled a bike tour at iBikeBelgrad, a short walk from my place. There I met the manager Vojn and my guide, Simon. The bikes were in great shape and we headed off for a tour of the riverside and New Belgrade. Simon shared that he took part in some antigovernment demonstrations and had sustained a leg injury. As I was to discover, there was a feeling among the young that the Serbian government wasn’t that much different than the old Tito-era authoritarianism. It was a beautiful early August day and the bike paths were easy to navigate. Simon showed me some famous examples of the Brutalist architectural style, which the Tito regime embraced. Among the buildings were the Palace of Serbia, the Genex Tower and the Hotel Jugoslavija. A rather macabre site we passed, the old Belgrade Fairground, built in the late 1930’s for exhibitions and car shows, had been used after the 1941 German invasion as a killing site for Jews. It was the first time the SS experimented with mobile gas vans, according to my guide. This part of the city had been part of the Independent State of Croatia at the time, since it was on the other side of the Danube. There was no monument at the abandoned site, since Marshal Tito didn’t want to incite ethnic tensions. There is a Brutalist memorial on the other side of the river, but it’s pretty obscured.

During our ride, Simon told the famous story of Stalin’s three attempts on Tito’s life, after the latter broke with Moscow in 1948. After the third NKVD assassination failed, Tito wrote to Stalin and stated that, if a fourth attempt was made, Tito would send a team to kill Stalin and that his team would be successful. 

After we got back to the bike shop, I chatted with Vojn and decided to join him the next day for a 70 kilometer tour of the Pannonian countryside on the northern bank of the Danube. I also met a young guide named Jovanka, who was about to take a bike tour of Belgrade itself. Since I was the only customer, we set off and spent the afternoon seeing the major historical sites, including the famous fortress overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers and known as Kalemegdan. We stopped at a farmer’s market and bought a selection of delicious berries and I was amused by the farmer’s compliments directed at my lovely guide. 

As we were leaving the government complex, we stopped at the Ministry of Defense complex to see the ruins of the 1996 NATO airstrikes. The Serbs have left the ruins intact. Across the street were the ruins of the television station, where a few employees died in the airstrikes. Heading downhill towards the river, Jovanka pointed out a statue of a young man bedecked with flowers. She asked me if I knew who it was and I shouted “Gavrilo Princip!” She was a bit shocked that an American would know that. The plaque in Sarajevo wasn’t covered with anything but anti-Serb graffiti.

The next morning I met Vojn at the shop and we headed across the river and onto a local road heading away from the city. In Eastern Europe it’s striking how few suburbs there are. One goes straight from the city into the countryside. I first noticed this in Zagreb. Vojn told me his name means war and that he was a Vlach, rather than a Serb. The Vlachs were a major tribe in present day Romania. Along the way to a rustic village and restaurant, Vojn told me about the Serbs in World War I and their struggles against the Germans and Austrians, although they fared well against the latter. I then told him about the US Civil War, which he found fascinating. We visited a working monastery along the way and he mentioned that only Orthodox monks were celibate. Orthodox priests were required to be married and have children to be an example of Christian living to their parishioners. The lunch was enjoyable outside under ancient chestnut and beech trees. The long, but moderately paced bike excursion was a superb way to spend the better part of a day exploring an area that few Americans have ever seen.

That evening I went back to the Skadarlija for dinner at an outside café. I met an English couple whose daughter was competing in a gymnastics competition. We three enjoyed speaking in English over dinner and exchanged contact information. Later, I texted my hostess to arrange a late morning pick-up for the ride to the airport and my flight to Podgorica, the capital of neighboring Montenegro.

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