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The Balkans, Albania, our kitten from Ohrid and Auschwitz
Tallinn, 19 October 2003
As we are set to leave Tallinn, returning to Holland for two weeks before flying off to Ecuador on November 11th, here is a little update of what we did this summer.
After arriving back in Europe on July 21st 2003, we first spent 4 days in Holland, going through all the paperwork that had piled up during the six months we spent in Central America.
Our car, which had been unregistered in order not to have to pay the exorbitantly high road tax and insurance for diesel motors in Holland, while we would not even be using it, had to be reregistered. It also had to be re-certified for road safety, since the previous certification had long since expired. Re-certification set us back 620 EUR due to required repairs.
All this done we spent 1 week in Normandy with my parents. After which we returned to Holland for a weekend to meet up with some friends. On August 5th, we left again.
This time for Belgrade together with Hans, an ex-colleague from my time at the ABN-AMRO Bank. He and his wife had bought an apartment in Belgrade the previous year.
We made it to Belgrade in about 20 hours, taking turns driving. The total distance was about 1800 km, nearly all of which was highway, but unfortunately just after crossing into Serbia, some farmers (undoubtedly having learnt from the example set by their French colleagues) had decided to block the highway, forcing us to take small back-roads unfit for highway traffic.
We arrived in Belgrade and found a lively city, which still feels like the capital of a bigger country, as it once was. A few buildings destroyed by NATO precision bombs during the Kosovo war can still be seen, while neighboring buildings stand intact.
Since the war with NATO over Kosovo, Milosevic lost power to the Djindjic government. A government that promptly set out to restore relations with the rest of Europe and extradited Milosevic to The Hague. In a major setback though Djindjic was assassinated earlier this year by what seems to have been the last remnants of Milosevic's criminal gangs.
In May of this year Serbia unilaterally abolished visas for most Europeans and we could enter the country without any problems.
We embarked on a tour of the southern Balkans, after spending a few days in Belgrade and Pirot with Hans and his family. Not without having tasted Belgrade nightlife and homemade alcoholic drinks such as rakia and slibovitch, containing anywhere from 60% to 75% alcohol.
Our first stop was the famous Rilski Manastir, a monastery located in the Bulgarian mountains near Rila. On the road from Sofia to the monastery we saw the legacy of Bulgaria's communist-industrial past: vast wastelands of rusting factories. Some still operational, sending thick black smoke into the air from tall chimneys, but most of it just seemed to be rusting away.
The peaceful atmosphere of the monastery and fresh mountain air underlined the enormous contrast with what we had seen before. From the outside the monastery looks more like a fortress, but on the inside it is a monk's oasis: a courtyard, containing a beautiful Orthodox church, a clock tower and a couple of large pine trees. All entirely hidden from the outside.
We then embarked on a longer than expected walk through the mountains to the grave of the monastery's founder, Ivan Rilski. The surrounding mountains are amazingly unspoilt, no disfigurement of these mountains with ski slopes for example.
We spent the night in Melnik, a little village surrounded by sandstone hills, several hours away from the monastery. The streets are sandy, but it is pleasant and relaxed, the food is good and the town is not expensive at all (5 Euros for one night with a local family, for the two of us).
The next morning we drove to Meteora in Greece. This world famous site, consists of many monasteries on top of mountains. On our way we were stopped by the Greek police for about 10 to 15 minutes, after which they tried to make us believe that it was for statistical purposes.
Meteora is on the list of things that I must see in my life. This heightened the expectation and although it is a great place, with amazing, nearly unreal, scenery, it is a major tourist destination, which has probably made it lose some of its charm.
From a lookout point in the monastery we saw how people were climbing the near vertical mountain sides. A chilling sight.
After a night in Greece, we left as early in the morning as possible to cross the Greek-Albanian border. But it still took us 2.5 hours to cross that border!
While waiting in the border queue, our car was suddenly rocked from side to side. It wasn't until later that evening that we found out that Corfu had been hit by an earthquake.
Corruption is clearly visible at this border, I saw many people hand over 5 Euro notes, together with their papers, only to see the border guards put away those bills in their own pockets! So when we had to pay 10 Euros for a kind-of sort-of entry visa, which wasn't really a visa, I demanded an official receipt.
After passing the border we saw that the queue on the other side was even longer! Greece and Albania don't get along very well and the Greeks are wary of their poorer neighbors entering their country.
We were planning to return to Greece before making our way to Macedonia. But since Greece and Macedonia also have a dispute over the actual name Macedonia, that border could well be a problem too. Anyway, upon seeing this queue and considering the Greek-Macedonian problem, we decided not to return to Greece but go directly to Macedonia from Albania.
Our stop in Albania was at Sarande, host to Albania's nascent tourist industry as visitors come over from Corfu on day trips; a crossing that would have gotten you killed during the cold war. From Sarande the Greek island is so close and clearly visible, that we tried to imagine what people must have thought at the time about never being allowed to actually go there.
Close to Sarande are the Roman ruins of Butrinti, fairly big and mixed in with the ruins of a medieval city. Many archaeological items are still covered with sand to protect them against the elements. There is a well preserved Roman amphitheatre and a large section of the ancient city wall to admire.
The roads in Albania have a bad reputation and unfortunately there is good cause for that. It took us 12 hours to drive 360 km from Sarande to Ohrid, just across the border in Macedonia. A few sections of road have been rebuilt with European Union assistance, as is pointed out by information panels with big EU flags on it, but all in all the roads are of terrible quality. Certain sections of road are so narrow that you need to stop when a vehicle comes from the other direction.
Ohrid used to be a major tourist destination for West-Europeans when it was still part of Yugoslavia, but the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, the resulting UN sanctions on Serbia and Serbian imposition of visa requirements, practically ended the influx of visitors from Northern Europe. Alternatively visitors could come through Greece but the dispute I mentioned earlier between those two neighbors has not encouraged that either.
It is easy to see why Ohrid was so popular, it has an idyllic setting on the shores of one of Europe's largest fresh water lakes and the deepest at 294m. The town is full of life, and there is an endless choice of accommodation and restaurants. Musicians play in most restaurants.
A fortress on the hilltop, is an easy climb and a wonderful place to see a sunset. That same hill has many beautiful Orthodox churches, such as Sveti Johan, which with the lake as a backdrop is probably the most well known sight of Macedonia.
On August 17th, what was supposed to be our last day in Ohrid, we were walking through the lake side park when Maris heard meowing. It was a little kitten. We thought the mother might still be around, since a big cat was walking around, so we left it for a while and decided to check on it a little later.
When we returned the kitten was still there, we noticed that her eyes were closed, actually stuck. She was also underfed and had a bloody nose. This indicated to us that she had most likely been abandoned quite some time ago and that she would have no chance to survive. Given the summertime heat she would have probably died within a day.
So we picked the kitten up and took her to our room. We cleaned her eyes. It was wonderful to see 2 little blue eyes appear and touching to see her reaction when we made the first drop of milk go into her mouth. We got a carton box from a shop and sacrificed a T-shirt to serve as her bed. She meowed at regular intervals during the night waking us up.
We postponed our departure from Ohrid and instead took her to a vet, the vet told us she was most likely a she, gave us a "cat-passport" and vaccinated her against rabies. "Now she can travel", said the vet, "and cats don't need a Shengen visa!" (A Shengen visa, is a visa that is valid for most of western Europe).
She was going to travel with us to Estonia and maybe to Holland in the hope of finding an adoption family for her since it would be impossible to take her with us to South America.
We named her Dulcia (which later became Dulcio).
Driving back to Pirot we had to drive through Presevo and Bajanovac, places which have been listed by most western embassies as areas to NOT travel through. Unfortunately the road goes through this area and there is no practical way around it. Nothing happened however but we did hear later that there had been shooting in the area between Albanian insurgents and Serbian security forces.
We spent a couple of days in Pirot and Belgrade again, visiting amongst other things the Niš skull tower. This tower was built when Serbia was part of the Turkish empire in the beginning of the 19th century. After a failed rebellion by Serbs, the skulls of those killed in battle were used to "decorate" the outside of the tower in order to scare the Serbs from ever rising up again.
On a lighter note, we also met Darko Kolar, a painter from Pirot who specializes in portraying women in their natural state.
But eventually we had to continue on our way to Estonia. Because of the day time heat we decided to leave from Belgrade late in the afternoon and drive through the night, hoping to reach southern Poland early the next morning.
In southern Poland, we first visited the Wieliczka salt mines near Krakow. This is a centuries old complex of underground tunnels to mine, guess what, salt. The striking thing is the amount of space there is in some of the underground "rooms". There is an entire church with wall carvings, salt lakes and carvings made by mine workers as well as a post office where you can post a letter at 140m underground.
Our next stop was the place where the worst crime in the history of mankind took place: Auschwitz.
There were actually three concentration camps, two of which we visited: Auschwitz I, the first concentration camp and Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau and the largest of the three. Auschwitz II and III were built by the Nazis because the Auschwitz I did not have enough "capacity".
In the beginning every person interned in Auschwitz was documented and had their picture taken, some of these pictures are now on display in the Auschwitz Museum, but from 1942 onwards the Nazis figured this was too much work, so those people that came off the trains and were sent directly to the gas chambers where never even registered. Because of this the real number of victims in Auschwitz will never be known, but it is estimated to be close to 2 million.
Entering the Auschwitz camp you walk under a sign that says "Arbeit macht frei" (work makes free). A gate which for so many people was the last gate they passed.
A reluctant music band of Jewish musicians would have been forced by the Nazis to play happy tunes to the newcomers as they entered the camp.
In Birkenau the rail line goes directly into the camp, no need to walk the prisoners from the station to the camp. You recognize the place immediately, images from the movie "Schindler's list" come to mind and suddenly you realize more than ever before that it was a real place.
We had joined a guided tour, which turned out to have been a really good idea, the guide did a great job explaining how the camp had worked, what the Nazis did and how the prisoners lived and died in the camps.
A particularly emotional moment is when you enter a gas chamber. You then walk to the next chamber to see the furnaces where the bodies would be burnt.
To make things even worse the Nazis kept everything, even hair. Women's hair was sold to the textile industry. Some of the hair is now on display. You can still see pony tails of some women, cut off, the hair of real people, innocent people, killed as if their life was worthless, their hair sold for a couple of pfennigs.
People were told that they were going to be relocated and were allowed to take 1 suitcase with them. But before boarding the trains to Auschwitz, they were told to write their names on the suitcases. The suitcases would be put on a different wagon and returned to them at arrival. They never got their suitcases back.
In another room some of these suitcases can be seen, the names of their owners still written on them. The contents looted by the Nazis.
Auschwitz was in the part of Europe that was occupied by the Soviet Union after the war. Under the resulting Communist rule emphasis was put on the fact that people of many different nationalities had died here. Although this is technically true, the proportion of Jewish victims was 85 to 90%. The remaining 10 to 15% consisted of Gypsies, homosexuals, political opponents and a long list of European nationalities.
These days the proportion of Jewish victims is no longer downplayed in the memorials and the museum on these sacred grounds.
One cannot visit Auschwitz as one can any other tourist destination. This is a place of pilgrimage, a place that everybody should visit at least once in their life, to face the inescapable facts of European history.
It would be too simple to pass the Holocaust off as merely a German atrocity, while in fact it was the culmination of nearly 2000 years of discrimination, hatred and jealousy directed against Jews, by governments, religious groups and people in general in all European countries.
But it also exposes an evil side to mankind. Ponder how people can be driven to do to other people, that what they did here! How could any individual participate in something like this?
We are still the same species, so is this evil still in us? I fear it is, it is called hatred and we are still seeing it these days, as the ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia during the 1990s or the terrorist acts of September 11th have shown us.
Auschwitz will leave you thinking about mankind, about Europe and its history and about the nature of human beings. We must learn something from Auschwitz. All of us.
If you want to be notified when we write more about our trip, just send us an E-mail.
e-mail Otto de Voogd
To my knowledge the information provided here was accurate at the time of our visit. However time passes and things can change.
(ATMs for Maestro/Cirrus bankcards)
Serbia: Difficult but not impossible to find ATMs.
Cash Euros to pay with or exchange is still best.
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