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Border Hopping in the Balkans

Since my last post, we have briefly visited the Balkan region, driving through Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia. We have had long, busy days while travelling in the area and I am pretty exhausted, so I haven’t had much time to draw. I only have two rough sketches to share which occupied me for ten minutes on the bus this morning. I am very sleep-deprived at the moment and at night every small sound seems deafening. Someone rolling over on the other side of our dorm room is enough to wake me up. It is maddening and frustrating. We have been on the go for about eight weeks now; the change of diet, long drive days and constant activity is really catching up with me.

On our way to Tirana, the capital of Albania, we drove along winding dirt roads through some very beautiful countryside. It was the rustic Albania that I had imagined, complete with tractors, dilapidated wooden houses and horse-drawn carts. The landscape is pockmarked with concrete domes that were once machine-gun shelters; too expensive and difficult to dig up, these eye-sores are now surrounded by indifferent dairy cows and tiny purple flowers. I believe Albania is the poorest country in Europe and the state of the roads really reflects this. They often aren’t wide enough for two large vehicles to pass each other, which makes for some interesting reversing maneuvers on blind corners. We came to grief because a truck tried to pass on the inside of our bus as we rounded a corner. The edge of the road crumbled, leaving our bus teetering on the edge of an embankment. We all bailed out into the onion field below – and this is where we stayed for about three hours while we waited for a crane truck to arrive. The bus was eventually lifted back onto the road, with the encouragement of about fifty yelling Albanian men (all of which had in the past couple of hours become experts at craning twenty tonne tourist buses off hillsides).

Further complications awaited us the following day as we drove from the Albanian capital of Tirana to the Croatian border. The bus was loaded onto a ferry to cross a wide river in Montenegro but failed to start when we reached the other side. The electronics warning light was on, so the engine wouldn’t turn over. We were stuck in a picturesque fishing village for about three hours while some local mechanics fumbled around inside the luggage compartment to jump start the bus. The following day the bus was put in for a service in Dubrovnik; it was initially believed that our roadside incident in Albania or just the bumpy Balkans roads had dislodged one of the key electronics cables from its socket. The truth was far more interesting than that!

An Albanian border-jumper was discovered in a one meter square cavity behind the rear axel. The space was dark, hot and dangerous, with the open road rushing beneath. He must have been with us since the bus was parked overnight in Tirana; the poor guy must have seen the Dutch number plates and had high hopes for making it to Western Europe. He had lined the inside of the compartment with drink bottles but took nothing with him when he crawled out from under the bus and ran away down the street. I wonder how he felt about ending up in Croatia – and whether he found another bus to take him to Germany or France.      

A Tim Burton-esque scribble of the Sleep Monster

Whilst in Croatia, I happened upon a form of native artwork in a small Dubrovnik gallery tucked into one corner of the city wall. The artists paint in reverse on a pane of glass, from foreground to background. This requires a lot of planning and skill. All the detail, including the artist’s signature, has to be laid down first. The artwork is viewed from the unpainted side of the pane and the result is incredibly vivid – unlike canvas, the glass does not absorb the oil paint. This painstaking style is practiced exclusively by artists from the Podravina region of former Yugoslavia and a small town called Hlebine, about 50 miles from Zagreb. The attendant at the gallery said that 98% of the artists are over 55 years old and that the technique is on the brink of extinction. The artwork has an intriguing storybook feel about it.

Native art by Ivan Generalic

Moving on from Croatia, we drove through the snowy Bosnian mountains, blatantly bribing some sinister-looking policeman with coke-cola and Euro notes, before entering the flatlands of Serbia. We spent most of our time in the Balkans on the road; the pace was tedious at times, but the scenery was surprisingly varied. One morning we had a snow ball fight in a pine forest, and two hours later found ourselves driving through green valleys dotted with rusting oil rigs and belching brick chimneys. Of course, the cities still bare the scars of the Yugoslavian conflict. There is barely a wall that isn’t riddled with bullet holes and Belgrade in particular felt very grim, framed by slate grey skies and a thin curtain of rain. In Sarejevo, shell holes are filled with red concrete in memory of those who died, a bloody splash that is now known as the Sarejevo Rose. We also saw roses and winged cats painted on the walls of shelled out buildings, along with white crosses denoting the number of people who died within. All harsh reminders that this conflict occurred within my lifetime and that the locals still feel the weight of these losses everyday.

Memorial art in Sarejevo
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