Travel in Eastern Europe with Couchsurfing

Osteuropa

For me travelling is about the people I meet and the connections I make. Plus I acquired an interest in history which was pretty much non-existent before I started to travel six years ago. The Ottoman Empire controlled most of Southeast Europe and other areas for 400-500 years until the early 20th century. I am mentioning that because their Turkish influence can be seen especially in the food, music and religion. The Ottomans allowed different religions if you payed. If not, you had to convert to the Islam. Therefore, most of the Muslims in those countries are converted. To practise one’s religion was not possible that time in most countries in Europe. So a lot of people (e.g. the Jews who had money) moved to the Ottoman Empire.

The countries in Eastern Europe changed its state form and territory many times in the course of its history. And they keep changing. Just recently in February 2019 Macedonia changed its name to North Macedonia even though 63.7 % didn’t agree. Democracy seems to work there a bit differently 😛

Bratislava, Slovakia

While Chris had a meeting at short notice I left Krakow by myself on the 1st of April by bus to our first destination Bratislava. Chris joined me a few days later by car. The architecture in the old town of Bratislava is very beautiful and romantic. It is small and great to stroll around. Use the Michael’s Gate and the Main Square as points of orientation. Peter, my host, was the best company possible. We shared some of the most interesting talks I had on this trip about spirituality, nutrition, love, writing, travelling and life in general. It felt great to meet somebody with so many similar interests. One morning he even prepared for me his favourite breakfast with buckwheat, blueberries, chocolate and poppy seeds 🙂

Ljubljana, Slovenia

I love Ljubljana and I think it is a great city for a romantic weekend trip. It is a very green, small, and charming city with lots of international restaurants along the river, beautiful people, and great atmosphere! It reminds me a bit of Venice. Just cleaner 😉 Start at Tromostovje and you will be in a beautiful area. Last time I was here in 2015 it was summer. There was all kind of live music and people were dancing tango in the streets. Unfortunately it was raining this time. So we decided for a cosy day inside. Maybe April isn’t the best time to travel in Eastern Europe. I wanted to show Chris my favourite lakes around an hour north of Ljubljana: Lake Bled (photo from 2015) and Lake Bohinj. The latter one I actually prefer. It is less touristic, more beautiful and you can swim there as well.

Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Three big ethnic groups live in this country: Serbians, Croatians, and Bosnians. After Bosnia and Herzegovina gained independency in March 1992, the war started. It was a war about territory. But the politicians used religion as a tool to manipulate. Most of the Serbians are Orthodox, most of Croatians Catholic and most of Bosnians are Muslim. Whether they practice their religion is another question. The war lasted 44 months. Nobody knew when the war would stop and soon realised that it is best to continue their daily life like going to school and work. Some people fled in another country.

Đorđe hosted us in his house a bit outside of Banja Luka in the mountains. On the weekend his parents and some friends joined us. His mum prepared food in the morning for the whole day. The polenta muffins and the stew with beans and cabbage were even vegan. I was impressed. After lunch he took us on a hike to a canyon. It was breathtaking. The house and time we spend together was warm and filled with positive energy. Banja Luka is a nice city with a beautiful church (Christ the Savior Cathedral Church) and castle (Kastel Fortress) on the river Vrbas.

On the way to Sarajevo we stopped in Jaice which was built in the 14th century and served as the capital of the independent Kingdom of Bosnia during its time. And thanks to travelling by car we could stop at Vrbas river mountain view. It reminded me a bit of the Horseshoe Bend in Arizona.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Even though our host was in China he let us stay at his place. This is not the first time somebody I never met before let me stay at his or her place. But I keep being amazed how trustful people are. I loved to stroll around in the historic market in the city center. I felt like somewhere in the Middle East. Check out the Baščaršija Mosque. I think there are around 80 Mosques in Sarajevo. All public fountains are drinking water.

We had an amazing donation-based walking tour by sarajevowalkingtours the first day we arrived. I learnt so many interesting things about their history. Sarajevo was occupied for 40 years by Austria and Hungary (1878–1918). It was a short time compared to the Ottomans but a very productive period. They build art galleries, a high school, a theatre, a casino, and trams. Their architectonic influence is still present. Did you know that Sarajevo is the place where Franz Ferdinand (member of the Austrian-Hungarian dynasty) and his wife Sophie got assassinated by a guy from a Serbian terror organisation called Black Hand? Part of Serbia was independent and not ruled by Austria-Hungary. They wanted to promote the liberation of Serbians outside Serbia. This assassination triggered a series of events that resulted in Austria-Hungary’s allies and Serbia’s declaring war on each other, starting World War I.

Montenegro

For the past two years I have been joking that I will move to Montenegro one day. I have never been but somehow I had the feeling from what people told me that I will love this country. And to be honest, it is even better than in any of my dreams. The sea is turquoise blue surrounded by mountains. There are different national parks. We visited Lovćen national park and Skadar Lake national park. Most popular is the Durmitor national park. The season starts middle of April since it is in the mountains. So we skipped it. Best time to visit is in the summer. Figs are growing wild. The food is influenced by the Middle East, Mediterranean Sea and of course Eastern Europe. What an amazing combination?! There are medieval villages (e.g. Perast, Kotor, Budva, old town of Bar), modern harbours (e.g. Tivat), wild horses and goats, lots of hitchhikers (mainly locals), the air is clean. It was even possible to touch snow and lie on the beach on the same day. The capital Podgorica didn’t really attract me.

We stayed with Sergej in Sutomore. This was a great place to explore the South of Montenegro. Sergej is one of the most amazing people I ever met. He has an amazing heart, interesting stories and viewpoints to share, is content with his life, spreads an incredible positive vibe and spoilt us for days with amazing, beautiful decorated dishes. From stuffed cabbage leaves, a delicious bean soup, risotto with roasted vegetables, pancakes and peanutbutter and hummus for breakfast. He called it the 4-day vegan challenge. Only on the last day he let me in the kitchen. He is a huge inspiration for me. Since he knew from my profile that I love to cook he even organised a cookbook from this region for me. He said it was hard to find one that contains some vegan recipes plus is in English. One day he even prepared an amazing picnic basket for Chris and me. I am so grateful that we had the chance to meet this very special human being.

Albania

On our way to our host we stopped in Shkodra and Tirana to explore a little more of Albania. I was surprised how modern Tirana is. Shkodra is beautiful and looks still very authentic. Albania has a big Italian influence because of the Invasion of Italy from 1939-1943. This is especially noticeable in their food: Lots of pasta, bread and cheese. Even the coffee is Italian. Important to know is that at most places you can only pay by cash; even at the gas station. Each ATM takes an additional fee and some cards do not work to take out any money. I love the sound of the Albanian language. Their language is very different from the other Slavic countries.

Enea, our host, is Chief Management of the Divjaka-Karavasta national park. He took us there for the whole day and showed us around with the bicycle. We didn’t have time to explore the south of Albania. But I heard there are beautiful beaches. I mean it is close to Greece 😉

Skopje, North Macedonia

In 1963 an earthquake destroyed over 80% of the buildings in Skopje. Most buildings in the centre are only 10 years old; even though they look like from the Baroque age. The project is worth 700 Mio. €. It is paid with the money from the people living in Macedonia. As you can imagine most people are not happy. They wish the money would be invested in a better health and education system. Oh, I forgot to mention the countless statues. The Macedonians like to joke that there are more statues than people living in Skopje. Eye catchers are the red double-deck busses. Later I learnt that after the earthquake London borrowed Macedonia some double-deck busses. Since the people in Macedonia like them, they decided to introduce new ones that serve as public transport. I actually really enjoyed my stay in Skopje. It is the place that surprised me the most. I think our hosts Goran and Elena played a major role.

Goran, as an architect, took time to show us the city centre and shared all his knowledge which was very interesting. They took us to a local pub (Kancelaria) where we tried a lot of different mezes. A meze is an appetizer usually served with alcohol. We had a roasted pepper-tomato sauce with garlic bread, sautéed mushrooms, fried zucchini slices, and fries. They get served individually. So we just spent hours snacking and drinking. I love this tradition 🙂 Another night we went together to a live concert. Both of them have an incredibly positive energy, are very sweet, fun, and caring. They even prepared some vegan dishes for me. I loved spending time with them. In Skopje I liked most the old Skopje bazar. Please check out Ohrid for me. We didn’t go there because Chris was tired from driving. Everybody says it is more authentic than Skopje and right next to a beautiful lake.

Sofia, Bulgaria

I think the highlight in Sofia is the Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski. The Boulevard Vitosha is nice to walk along. And there are many beautiful parks. But my personal highlight was our meetup with some people from hangout on Couchsurfing and our visit at Café Parallel 43°. We didn’t spend much time with our host since she was sick.

Belgrade, Serbia

Our host lived 50 km south of Belgrade in Arapovac with lots of farm animals. Since the farm is illegal the animals don’t have much space. Only the chickens are free to walk around. The mother cows are separated from their babies so his family can use the milk to make cheese. He prepared chicken for us. We kindly refused. I didn’t even try to mention that I don’t eat any dairy products. We prepared some additional vegetables and I cooked the second night 🙂 In Belgrade I liked to walk around on the island Ada Ciganlija. Belgrade is famous for its nightlife. Check out belgrade nightlife if you want to know more about it.

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Budapest

Each time I visit this city I love it more and more and discover new details (e.g. Fiume Road Graveyard). Our host borrowed us bicycles to explore the city. The interactive fountain in the Liberty Square is fun, same goes for the escape games (e.g. Trap). I recommend hiking to the Citadel lookout shortly before sunset and walking along the river Danube. Szimpla Kert, a huge pub with old mismatched items and a garden, is worth to visit. Budapest is famous for its thermal baths which makes it a great destination for a wellness weekend. I can recommend the Rudas Baths or Kiraly.

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