Friday, 28 July 2017

Five Not-To-Be-Missed Cities around the Balkans for 2009   
To many the Balkans region may be more popular for its nature than for its sprawling metropolises. And while the majestic mountain ranges of Bulgaria, Montenegro and Albania or the crystal sea waters of Croatia and Greece are impressive, the region also boasts an amazing collection of cities. From ancient to newborn, from forever frozen in time to postmodern, or from entirely western to clearly oriental, the diversity of the Balkans’ urban culture is well worth exploring.

What seems quite certain is that the Balkans more than any other region in Europe boasts cities and towns yet to be discovered. And while the places we could recommend possibly number over 30, there are several destinations that should definitely not be missed in 2009.

Istanbul with its rich, dense and dramatic beauty - a city of undeniable excitement, is on the rise again. Bucharest and Belgrade seem to be brushing off some long-lasting neglect. Prishtina – the Balkans’ youngest capital, is beaming with an air of a débutante and appeals with remarkable energy and high spirits. Varna –Bulgaria’s so-called “seaside capital,” steadily moves to outshine Sofia with its pleasant, beautiful and exciting life and with the plenty of attractions in its vicinity.

Istanbul: The Unrivalled

There is no such city as Istanbul anywhere in the world. The New York, the Rome and the Mexico City of the Balkans, this sizzling, dazzling and puzzling place has been a prime destination for adventure-loving Europeans for centuries, and it doesn't seem likely it will be off their list any time soon.

While Istanbul’s night life intensifies and its luxurious new malls and infrastructure boom, its intellectuals and politicians keep walking quietly along their eternal path in pursuit of an identity between two worlds.

Whether for its historical landmarks, its delicious food, stunning location, or fabulous, intriguing shopping, Turkey’s biggest city has managed to continue to flourish while retaining its freshness.

Anyone who’s relatively well-travelled (or read) can easily name Istanbul’s chief landmarks – the Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmet Mosqe, the Topkapı Palace, the Kapalıçarşı…. And although they are indeed a must-see for any first time visitor, Istanbul’s draw lies in the fact that it can provide new and exciting things to see, do and eat to the third-, fourth- or fifth-time visitor as well.

The recent stars – the quarters of Nişantaşı and Ortaköy remain pleasant, but the old Christian hill of Pera and the pedastrian Istiklal leading to it from Taksim square are the in-vogue areas now. The small train that climbs from the Galata Tower has been renovated and the numerous little passages in the area of its upper station contain some of the trendiest places to dine, browse little bookshops and boutiques, or taste wines.

For a dip in the authentic contemporary Turkish society, cross to the Asian part and sink into any of the quiet, comfortable residential districts in Üsküdar or Kadıköy.

Belgrade: The Survivor

The 1990s war was the fourth armed conflict endured by the city only in the twentieth century. But apart from an illustration of the entire region’s turbulent history, this fact also shows the city’s perseverance and its ability to spring back as an attractive and exciting urban centre. Since the latest conflict, Belgrade has been able to stand up, dust itself off and resume shining with its mixture of European and Balkan charm.

A true sign of recovery is being able to laugh at one’s self and Serbia’s capital does that in a way through offering visitors interesting alternatives to traditional sightseeing activities: a visit of the places destroyed during the 1999 NATO bombing raids and tours dedicated to former Yugoslavia’s communist leader Tito, the famous Serb-American electrical inventor Tesla, the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević and the recently captured war crimes suspect Radovan Karadžić enjoy popularity among foreign visitors to the city.

But Belgrade has plenty of more traditional pleasures to offer as well – its numerous museums and diverse architectural styles won’t let any visitor get bored. Nor will its pleasant open-air restaurants all along the traditional pedestrian areas of Knjez Mihajlova and Skadalija.

But perhaps one of Belgrade’s most pleasant aspects is its location on the Danube and Sava Rivers. The city has made good use of it too– numerous houseboats on the rivers function as restaurants during the day and discos during the night, which have a bit of an underground feeling, and are a curious feature of local community's life.

Varna: The Rival

Although in people’s conceptions Varna often falls behind the capital Sofia as an urban destination and behind the numerous Black Sea resorts as a summer holiday one, it does not disappoint those who decide to visit it – either for a city or a beach break.

Voted for a second year in a row as the country’s best city to live in, Varna beat Sofia and all the Bulgarian cities with its geographical location on Bulgaria’s northern Black Sea coast, a busy cultural life, daily amenities and many and high-quality educational institutions.

In addition to regular cultural events, Varna hosts an array of periodic happenings, including the Varnenso Lyato (Varna Summer) theatre and music festivals, an International Jazz Festival and the Love is Folly film festival.

Varna’s Sea Garden – one of the city’s symbols and the largest artificial park in the Balkans, is where both residents and visitors of the city like to spend many pleasant summer days and evenings, either just strolling around or in one of its many cafés, bars and entertainment venues.

Other attractions in Varna include the city’s history and archaeology museum, which displays the world’s oldest gold treasure, dating to 4200 BC, the Naval Museum, the Aquarium and Dolphinarium, the medieval rock monastery Aladzha, the Astronomical Observatory and Planetarium and the Cathedral Uspenie na Sveta Bogoroditsa.

Apart from that, the Albena resort’s splendid beaches, Kavarna’s mussel farms, the mystic palace of the Romanian queen Marry in Balchik, and the dreamy rocks of Yaylata and Kaliakra natural reserves are all accessible for day-trips from the city.

Prishtina: Une cité debutante

Prishtina has found itself in the position of the Balkans’ and Europe’s youngest capital since Kosovo declared its independence in February 2008. After decades of unrest, Kosovo’s recently resolved status has also brought good news to travellers seeking off-the-beaten track and undiscovered spots. One of them is Prishtina which attracts not only with historical sites but with its energetic and youthful vibe.

Calling Prishtina a beautiful place would require a stretch of the imagination, but the town’s chief attraction is its spirit. Fashionable cafés and restaurants serving delicious food, its welcoming people with an average age between 25 and 30 and its energy and optimism are what makes up for the construction work, going on literally on every corner of the town, and its unremarkable architecture.

Yet there are buildings and places that shouldn’t be missed in Prishtina. In one of its main squares stands the fifteenth-century Sultan Mehmet Fatih Mosque, one of the most beautiful Muslim buildings in Kosovo. Converted into a Catholic Church at the end of the seventeenth century during the Austrian-Turkish War, and decorated with swastikas by the German troops during the Second World War, the mosque was given a facelift by the international community in the last decade. Next to it stands a hammam, a Turkish bath from the same historical period and a clock tower from the nineteenth century.

The historical museum of the town should also not be missed, as it contains a splendid collection of ancient artefacts, including the small clay statue of a fertility goddess, which is used as a symbol of Prishtina. In 1998, 1,247 of its valuable objects were taken to an exhibition in Belgrade, never to be returned.

The museum is situated in an Austro-Hungarian inspired building, initially constructed for the regional administration, though between 1945 and 1975 it was used as headquarters for the Yugoslav National Army

Up the hill from the monument of Skenderbeg – the Albanian national hero known for his struggle against the Ottoman Empire, on a green lawn, stands a concrete monument to the victims of the latest ethnic conflict between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs. It is surrounded by the grave of the charismatic late leader Ibrahim Rugova, and with a long row of graves of Albanian freedom fighters, immersed in heaps of artificial and real flowers.

Another site that contains the recent past’s memory is the Orthodox Church, built by Milošević shortly before the eruption of the ethnic conflict. Its brick walls and concrete domes are topped off with a huge shining cross – a daily reminder to the citizens of Prishtina, which are almost exclusively non-Orthodox Albanians of the town’s bitter modern history.

Bucharest: The Surprisingly Eclectic

If Bucharest occupies the collective consciousness in any way, it is as a gloomy monstrosity of a city, forever scarred by dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s totalitarian regime and megalomania. In fact parts of the latter are true, as symbolised by landmarks such as the Palace of the Parliament, which required the demolishing of much of Bucharest's historic district when it was constructed by Ceauşescu in the 1980s and which remains Europe’s largest building until today.

But there is so much more to Romania’s capital than it is commonly given credit for – actually, if its architecture, appearance and cultural life had to be summed up in one word, it would be eclectic. That eclecticism makes Bucharest a trendy, albeit yet not very traditional urban destination.

Although Bucharest used to be known as “the Paris of the East” (and even has its own Triumphal Arch, modelled after the French capital’s one), the city’s architectural diversity, a result of the varied influences throughout its history, is readily apparent.

Medieval, classical and Art Nouveau buildings stand side by side in the centre of Bucharest, supplemented by turn-of-the-century Romanian-style buildings and more modern ones from the 1930s and 1940s. Added to that are the Communist-era neighbourhoods, filled with high-rise apartment buildings, and contemporary structures, some made of glass and steel, such as skyscrapers and office buildings.

The cultural life of Bucharest is no less of a mixture – the music, theatre and nightlife scenes are diverse and growing, incorporating elements from both traditional Romanian and international culture.

In addition, if authorities keep their word, Bucharest may gain an additional charm on its already long list – if a planned canal connecting it to the Danube is indeed completed as planned, it will become the fifth capital to be based on the river.




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