Words by Kirill Korobkov, photos by Alexey Lapin
The Balkans region has been on my travel wish list for a long time. That area is less travelled than any other part of Europe and virtually forgotten among skaters. Unknown things always magnetize. It all used to be united as Yugoslavia, but now comprises of 7 different countries. When Kenny Reed offered me the opportunity to organize a trip with mutual friends to the Balkan Peninsula I was keen to make it happen. Russians Gosha Konyshev and Leo Lukin joined us and Michael Mackrodt was in too. We wanted to start the trip in Bosnia and Herzegovina but everything went wrong from the very beginning.
At our flight connection in Belgrade, Serbia we were risking it straight away with a mere 30 minute transfer, when we were asked for our voucher we showed our hotel booking and tickets without any concerns – Bosnia was supposed to be visa free for us. Turns out that this voucher is proof of an original booking confirming 100% prepayment complete with real signature and stamp, a document that had to have been sent by snail mail from Bosnia to Russia. Who seriously does all this these days? Modern booking through the Internet wasn’t enough. They decided we were blowing it and didn’t let us onto the second airplane, leaving us with only one option: Serbia. We picked out our luggage and started work on a new plan. Luckily Michael Mackrodt was changing flights in Bosnia at the same time and he was able to meet up with us. The plans changed and we made up our minds to the new beginning.
Serbia is right in the heart of the Balkans, on the south-eastern edge of Europe. It’s the biggest country of the region and one of the keystones in the history of the land and after the collapse of Yugoslavia it was involved in all that happened in the Balkans. Ethnically the Serbs are close to the Russians and the Ukrainians, they all are from the same Slavic ethnic group; the languages are similar, the church is the same. On the other hand Serbia and Western Europe have had a lot of tension over the past 20 years. Having Russian, European and American guys in our crew was interesting, seeing how different the Serbian attitude was towards different members of our possie.
Since we found ourselves in Belgrade way earlier than we expected we didn’t have anything booked or any place to stay. It was around 10 pm when we arrived downtown and luckily right next to the bus stop there was McDonald’s with free WI-FI. We found some random hostel through the Internet and made our way over there. Once there we realised we’d made a really good choice as there was the best ledge spot ever right in front of our building, the view from the room was great and we had the central bus and train station 2 minutes away for all future maneuvers.
The different parts of Belgrade vary massively, at times I felt I was in Berlin, other parts felt more like Bratislava, Sofia or Prague; and the neighborhoods on the outskirts looked really similar to Soviet blocks of flats. We all agreed that we liked the vibe of the city: it’s close to the European style but they have more freedom in the details. I am talking about the freedom and excitement born of Eastern European countries after the collapse of the soviet block and the birth of European reunion. Serbia is less regulated and strict than good old Western Europe and this makes for fun times.
We befriended the local skate crew from the first day, foreign skaters seldom visit Serbia so the guys were hyped to show us around and we were glad to of their help. Belgrade’s got spots. There is nothing particularly famous to skate, but the spots locals skate on daily basis are good and varied: plazas, ledges, banks and natural volcanoes. You don’t really need to pay for the public transport and problems with security are more than rare, and after a few days in Belgrade we realised we were having awesome time out there.
The nightlife of Belgrade is another memorable thing too, and somebody told us than official party capital of Europe moved from Berlin to Belgrade in 2012. We could believe it as our crew was partying every single night. We attended boat parties and underground clubs, house parties and crazy raves in abandoned industrial buildings like it was back in the 90s. Young people like to go wild out there trying to get the most out of every single night but all in all everything stays pretty safe. The Serbs in all the different places and situations were happy to see Russians visiting them and Michael Mackrodt, Kenny Reed didn’t have any problems either.
We tried to go to the Serbian second biggest city Novi Sad for 5 days in a row but our night schedule didn’t let us make it over there – we loved Belgrade so much, we couldn’t leave. It was a solid week (and not than the 3-4 days we had planned) before we finally managed to pack our luggage, pay our hostel bill and say goodbye to the Serbian locals. I think it was all meant to be this way.
We hadn’t known much about Serbia before going there but we knew even less about Macedonia. It’s just one of those places you never hear about in the news. Their current national identity is based on an antiquated past and right now they are trying to restore the spirit of those days. The downtown of the capital, Skopje, is under global reconstruction right now. All the governmental and official buildings are being rebuilt in ancient Greek style. It’s like you found yourself in the middle of the movie set of a film about ancient times. It all looks pretty bizarre and makes the city special.
Another feature that stands out is Skopje is amount of statues. They are literally everywhere around downtown: on the roofs, in front of the buildings, around squares and parks; even in the middle of the river. At one point I turned around and counted 15 different statues. Some of them are dedicated to certain people; others are just pieces of beauty. It’s a simple and cozy place to be.
Talking about our time in Macedonia I can’t not mention the food; the size of portions in local cuisine is beyond all limits. People know about big American meals, some Asian dishes are big but the Balkan food traditions are on the next level. The fast food sandwiches are the size of a steering wheel and you need to hold them with both hands. They all are pretty much limited to meat and bread. According to the local gastronomical culture, meat is a thing by itself and people shouldn’t spoil it with too many vegetables. It’s almost the same in the restaurants: meat dishes are enormously big and it feels like you can feel 2-3 people with one order. Add to this really low prices in Serbia, and more so Macedonia, and there is no surprise that each of us gained couple kilograms by the end of the trip.
We didn’t get too much skating done in Macedonia. Michael left us early. It rained for couple days and on the nice day we were bad with our time management. Still it was nice to meet locals and hang out with Macedonians skaters. The guys supplied us with the warmest hospitality and entertained to the limit. Kenny stayed there for extra month after the tour was done. (If you ever go Skopje stay look up for Shanti hostel. This is the place.)
The trip didn’t start smooth and it ended spontaneously too. We went to some bar in Skopje to fill in time before our flight. Our spirits were so high that we didn’t want the trip to end, it was too good. When Kenny jokingly proposed to keep it going and stay there with him it turned out to be our next move. Gosha and Leo went home but photographer Alexey Lapin, filmer Anton Beliaev and myself decided to miss our flight and stay on. When we got through a little shock the next morning we looked at the map and realised that it was a great chance for us to visit the Republic of Kosovo.
Kosovo used to be part of Yugoslavia too and later it became a part of Serbia. Since the middle of the 20th century more and more Albanians moved to this area and at some point the Serbs who lived there became a minority. The Albanians started a movement for independence. It all led to the brutal Kosovo War of 1998-1999. I don’t want to talk politics inside a skateboarding magazine but right now but the Republic of Kosovo is a partly recognised state of its own. The place is under a big Albanian influence and you can see it everywhere. They are Muslim and there are mosques instead of churches. The architecture is less European with a much more Middle Eastern influence and it’s more chaotic and loud.
We didn’t have any connections in Kosovo so we totally freestyled it rolling around the whole city looking for spots. It was almost a forgotten feeling not having a tour guide, just us and the new city. We were not too lucky with spots. And after checking out different districts and the whole downtown area we managed to find just two spots. Even the Bill Clinton statue wasn’t really skateable (a monument from the war). After getting few souvenir tricks we were done with Kosovo. Kenny went back to Macedonia and we flew back to Russia.
We all already want to come back to the Balkans, it’s a crazy melting pot of different nations, cultures and traditions, and the short distances and big contrasts make it exciting. If you get along with locals you will never be bored over there.