Travels in far off lands

Well, they are not that far off - just three hours on the plane coming back from Bucharest - but, in anticipation, the Balkans seemed a long way off.  Images of mud and ox-carts with solid wooden wheels, Vlad the impaler and Dracula.  Even UKIP’s fulminations against benefit scroungers, flooding the UK labour market, had made an impression.

Of course, it is not like that at all, I am happy to say. Ljubjana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia and Bucharest are quite similar in essence to dozens of towns and cities across Europe.  Neo-classical government buildings and banks, cathedrals, parks, good hotels, kids with smart phones, old people walking dogs, Armani, United Colors of Benetton, and McDonalds.

I flew Easyjet to Ljubjana, capital of Slovenia.  I flew back Easyjet from Bucharest, capital of Romania.  I linked them by rail with an Interrail ticket.  For just over £200 I could have travelled across 30 European countries, any distance, for five days within ten days.  It just invites adventure.  And it is great to see young people taking advantage, let alone the grey vote like me.

My main interest was to see the newer members of the European Union.  Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania are in the Union, Serbia is not.  Slovenia joined the Union back in 2004, Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and Croatia only last year.  Slovenia is also in the eurozone and the Schengen Area and you feel that its obvious prosperity has something to do with that.  In fact, length of membership of the Union seems to correlate very well with the appearance and no doubt the actuality of prosperity.  Romania and Bulgaria come behind Slovenia, and Croatia is ahead of Serbia. The rust, the widespread graffiti, the poor crops and the general unkempt appearance of Serbia leaves the visitor taken aback.  The sad state of the railway system is indicative.  But then, if you based that opinion on the filthy train loos you would have to include Romania and Bulgaria.  And two of my journeys were over ten hours!

Distances are indeed great.  The countries are big.  Romania  is the size of the UK and the other four countries account for as much again.  Population-wise, putting all five countries together, we get to two-thirds of the population of the UK.

The idea of travelling by train is not just to avoid the hassle of air travel these days but to see the countryside and appreciate the geography.  The train from Ljubjana to Zagreb wends its way down by the Sava river as it negotiates high mountains.  When it reaches Croatia, the river goes on winding but the train can pick up speed as it crosses straight across the plain. The endless flat landscape continues to Belgrade, where the Sava joins the Danube.  Now we join the corridor that was the old trading route north to Budapest, Vienna and the heart of Europe, and south to Sofia, Constantinople and the treasures of the east.  Travelling north east from Sofia to Bucharest, the train has first to negotiate more mountains before flat flat land, eventually crossing the mighty Danube marking the boundary with Romania. The only interest then is a flurry of small “nodding donkey” oil wells.

All in all, having expected mountains, I looked out on a flat landscape most of the way.  Much of it was scrub land.  Where there were crops it was usually maize, except in Bulgaria where it was sunflower.

We all know that the history of the Balkans could not be more fraught.  Centuries of war between the Ottoman empire and Austria and Russia were followed by the nationalist uprisings of the nineteenth century and the vicious squabbles leading up to the First World War.  We remember the atrocities committed as Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990’s, including the Kosovo conflict. Serbian leaders finished up in The Hague.  The scars of NATO bombing are still there in Belgrade as well as the economic scars of hyperinflation at the time.  At its height prices were rising 113% a day.  The wealth of the people was decimated.

Going back in time, most of the area was in the Roman empire and Sofia, in particular, is assiduously uncovering the remains as it extends its excellent Metro system.  The long years of Ottoman rule have surprisingly left little trace as mosques were destroyed when nationalism created Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria in the 1860’s and 70’s.  Today, nationalism is not the issue.  The EU has worked its magic even to reconcile Serbia to the loss of Kosovo.  Now the problems are those of us all - globalisation, the fickleness of international finance and disparities of wealth.  The European Union is an easy scapegoat as the rich get very rich and the middle class is squeezed.  

When I spoke to younger people several said their parents looked back to communist times as being better and, as for themselves, they were uncertain what benefits the Union had brought.  The euro when it comes will simply raise prices, they thought.  Corruption is just as bad as before.  Governments come and go, blaming their predecessors and performing just as badly.  I saw a demonstration in front of the mighty justice ministry in Sofia denouncing the corrupt courts.  At least they were able to demonstrate.

I had hoped when I set off on my travels that there would be an air of optimism that the European Union was a good thing, even though the countries were poor.  I didn’t find that.  People had expected more.  And yet in all the five capitals the pavement restaurants were doing excellent business in the warm mid-September evenings and the roads were jammed with traffic.  I didn’t see an ox-cart in all those many miles.

Keith Tunstall

Ljubjana is a jewel.  Here in the central square, on a warm September evening, a choir sang songs from around the world

Flags outside the Croatian parliament in Zagreb proclaim the newest member of the EU.

Statue of Prince Mihailo, independence hero, in Belgrade’s Republic Square

Synagogue, cathedral and mosque in Sofia

When you see a photograph of Ceausescu’s Parliament building in Bucharest, it looks like a dull concrete block because its huge size means the photograph has to be taken from a great distance. However it is rather exquisite close to - acres of finely carved marble, inside and out eg, as above.  It claims to be the second largest building in the world, after the Pentagon - a comparison that somehow puts the spotlight on the size of the Pentagon rather than on the size of this parliament building.

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