NEE’s very subjective travel guide
We asked New Eastern Europe’s authors and editors to tell us which places in the region have caught their attention. Here are their picks:
“Shusha, where Azeri sang best”
There is a place in Nagorno-Karabakh where the beauty of nature, fresh air and the locals’ unique sense of humour give respite to a wayworn traveller. This is Shusha. Picturesquely located 11 kilometres from Stepankert (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh), the city stretches out over a hill. It is an explosion of green: old trees, juicy grass, wild flowers blossoming in dozens of colours and the wounds of a war that ended only two decades ago. The city slowly rises from the ruins, but its roads end abruptly and many houses carry traces of bullets. In Shusha, where neighbour stood against neighbour, the memories of war are still vivid. If one is to understand the South Caucasus, this place is a must-see.
In Soviet times, Shusha was predominantly inhabited by the Azeri population; Armenians, who were the majority in Nagorno-Karabakh, were here in minority. After the war, Azeri people were forced out of Shusha and Armenians took over their houses. Now, one would like to close her eyes, go back in time and see the multicultural city for herself. In this image a muezzin calls for prayer and an Armenian priest says mass. In the streets languages mix. Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha and Christians, Christmas. Armenian and Azeri children play together. Has such a city ever existed? Armenians were discriminated against and important posts were offered to Azeri. Quarrels between the two groups were always present and often ended violently, or even with bloodshed. But in their shadow there were also friendships between Azeri and Armenians and at times even love stories. Today only the architecture reminds one of the city’s past; the two mosques – formerly beautiful, now falling to ruins, are locked. Against the blue sky stand the characteristically embellished towers, which invoke sorrow and tenderness. Some of the windows still have a characteristic shape of a sharp arc. After a couple of days in Shusha, a traveller feels nostalgic. Azeri are the missing piece in the city, which without them has lost its unique character. But Azeri people are also missed by the Armenians, who ask us to send their greetings to their former neighbours if we happen to meet them in Azerbaijan.
In the evening, when the heat begins to fade, people gather in front of their houses. They bring vegetables, bread, stewed fruit and something stronger (mulberry vodka). If asked, they will recall the old Shusha – the one they used to share with Azeri and the one torn by war and conflagration. They will long for it and laugh – their jokes are sublime and the sense of humour of Shusha’s inhabitants can be compared to Odessa’s. A light wind will blow, but it will not carry any song. As in Shusha the best signers were Azeri.
— Małgorzata Nocuń, deputy editor-in-chief of Nowa Europa Wschodnia, co-author (with Andrzej Brzeziecki) of the book Armenia. The caravans of death
(Image by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska)
“A small church in Tallinn”
I came to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Churchin in Tallinn (Estonia) by complete accident. This tiny “monastery” and a churcht that is dedicated to “the Virgin with three hands” is located at 22 Laboratorium Street. Its outside and old wooden doors do not tell you much about what you will see inside. Thus the moment you step in and discover a place emanating with spirituality, the scent of old wood and the richness of colour exposed in beautiful icons is truly magical. Less than half an hour of a visit (as wonderful as the interior is it would be difficult to spend more time there) will give you images that you will not be able to erase from memory for a long time. You may know a lot about Greek Catholicism, you may even know a lot about Eastern Orthodoxy, but if you want to try to get into the core of their spirituality you need to be able to experience the smell of the burning candles or the scent of the wooden pews in this tiny church built into Tallinn’s city walls.
— Iwona Reichardt, New Eastern Europe’s deputy editor-in-chief
(Image by Guillaume Speurt)
“Lazica. The Manhattan of Georgia”
Lazica is an unfulfilled dream of Georgia’s former president, Mikheil Saakashvili. The plan was the following: to build a New York and Las Vegas in one on the Black Sea coast. The glass and metal city from the visualisations was meant to become the home and workplace of 500 thousand people, more than live in any other Georgian city apart from the capital, Tbilisi. Preferential land prices were meant to encourage small investors from all over the world. “Seven star hotels”, as the president promised in his expose, were to encourage the Abkhaz to re-join Georgia. Saakashvili, however, lost the election, and with it his megalomaniac plans. No one dared to invest a billion dollars in the project while Georgia’s GDP is only 16 billion USD. In Lazica only a glass town hall building, a small platform and a few hundred meters of a six-lane highway were constructed. The latter now serves as a pasture for cows, and sometimes young people from the surrounding villages come here for car racing. The beach is full of trash.
Lazica is a must-see for anyone interested in the light and dark sides of Eastern Europe’s westernisation. And for those who go to the Black Sea only to sunbathe – it will be an interesting addition to their holiday (the remnants of Lazica are located only a few kilometres away from Anaklia, a popular Georgian resort).
— Kaja Puto, journalist
(Image by Mateusz Kamieński)
“Where Europe’s biodiversity flourishes”
Montenegro is a country that has been independent from Serbia for only ten years. It is a relatively young European state but one that is also seen as a strategic state in the Balkans as it shares a border with Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. Its strategic location is most reflected in the fact that Montenegro will become the 29th member of NATO as confirmed during the recent Summit in Warsaw.
Beyond geopolitics, however, Montenegro is also a hidden gem for lovers of nature and history. Not only does it have an extensive Adriatic coastline for beach bums, high mountains for avid hikers or three UNESCO world heritage sites for culture buffs, it is also home to one of the most biodiverse lakes in Europe – Lake Skadar.
Not far from the capital city of Podgorica, Lake Skadar is a protected national park that has become a haven for Europe’s endangered species. Bird watchers can find up to 50% of the total number of Europe’s bird species (around 280 different species) in the area, some of which are quite rare. The aquatic life is equally diverse, with almost 50 different species of fish found in the lake.
Luckily, Montenegrins (and their Albanian counterparts, as part of the lake is found in Albania) understand the natural importance of Lake Skadar by ensuring that man comes only for visits and observation. For nature lovers interested in visiting, a day-long canoe trip (with binoculars) is highly recommended.
— Adam Reichardt, New Eastern Europe’s editor-in-chief
(Image by Adam Reichardt)
“Soviet-forbidden art in the middle of Uzbekistan’s desert”
Avant garde art was among the many enemies of the Soviet Union, whose power apparatus made sure that dissident imagery would not spoil the minds of its people. Social realism was heavily promoted as the only acceptable style of artistic expression and unorthodox painters were persecuted or in extreme cases placed in gulags.
What could one do to save the work of Soviet avant garde artists from destruction? Open an art museum in the middle of Uzbekistan’s desert. Nukus, one of the poorest regions of the Soviet Union, the remote capital of the autonomous Karakalpakstan Republic, located over a thousand kilometres from Tashkent, seemed like a perfect location.
In 1966, with the risk of being denounced, a Russian painter, archaeologist and art collector, Igor Savitsky, founded the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art (also known as the Nukus museum), in which he placed all the forbidden avant garde paintings of Soviet artists he had collected over the years, together with local folk art and archaeological artefacts. Referred to as Le Louvre des steppes, the museum hosts one of the most remarkable art collections in the world with about 90,000 items. It is also one of the most surreal art museums, a gem in the middle of the desert, a testimony to the courage and devotion to art of its founder and a mockery of Soviet totalitarian control. Well worth a visit.
— Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, New Eastern Europe’s editor
(Image by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska)