For ten days in May, a dozen friends of American Councils ventured through pre-history to Greco-Roman times, from Slavic Middle Ages to Ottoman rule, and from socialism to contemporary everyday life in Bulgaria and Macedonia on the 2017 Balkan Insider Tour. Along the way, the group of retired foreign service officers, philanthropists, researchers, and American Councils board members and volunteers was joined by American Councils’ field staff, current program participants, program alumni, and locals as we examined the explored the competing histories of the many peoples and places of the region.
Starting from Sofia with a warm welcome from the US Embassy in Bulgaria, the Balkan Insider Tour traveled to Nessebar and Varna on the Black Sea and then back into the heart of the Balkan Peninsula by way of Lake Ohrid, a meeting point for ancient Greek, Byzantine, Albanian, Slavic, and Ottoman cultures. We compared the banitsa of Bulgaria with the gibanica of Macedonia—savory pastries in the hotly-contested Balkan “pie” category—alongside the shared, but disputed sweet pastry, baklava. Each stop along the way offered up its best wines and fruit brandies (rakija). In both countries, we were offered the chance to enjoy local hospitality in the homes of YES alumni and program participants. YES alumni and YES Abroad participants also served as local guides at nearly every destination, sharing their perspectives on local culture as well as their exchange experiences.
Throughout the trip, we experienced the patchwork of diverse languages and cuisines sewn together by Turko-Ottoman influence and encountered the idiosyncrasies of religious and ethnic minorities. We contemplated the glocalism of the street art in Sofia. In Kurdzhali, Bulgaria, we had a chance to learn about the Alevi Turks, an almost unknown so-called double minority (minority within a minority group). In Krushevo, Macedonia, a traveler used her knowledge of Romanian to exchange greetings with an Aromanian speaker, whereas in Tetovo we were lucky to have met in person a Shi’a Albanian dervish who introduced the tekke (Bektashi shrine). We observed a christianized pagan practice of nestinarstvo (barefoot walking on live coals) in the hills above Sofia, heard the myth of the death of Orpheus at his symbolic grave at Tatul in Southeast Bulgaria, and listened to the mysteries of St. John of Rila in Bulgaria and St. Naum of Ohrid, Macedonia. Wrapping up the tour, Skopje‘s new abundance of statuary, fountains, bridges, museums, and other structures defined the changing national identity. We traversed time across the 15th-century Kameni Most (Stone Bridge), which led us directly from the hub of new construction into the old Turkish bazaar, site of the farewell dinner joined by the US Embassy in Macedonia.
Like a Balkan table crowded with food and drink, the Balkan Insider Tour was packed with all manner of sights, experiences, knowledge, and friendships, making for an inspiring trip for staff and participants alike. As one participant put it, “The Balkan Insider Tour was a unique opportunity to experience spectacular scenery and architecture, delicious cuisine, amazing culture, and fascinating history.”