A quest to visit every country takes St. Louisan Gig Gwin to Trans-Dniester, Kosovo and Srpska.
Three new countries have joined the world's stage! Let there be joy and celebration, a raising of the flags.
In January of this year, the Travelers Century Club, an organization dedicated to listing all valid countries of the world, announced that Trans-Dniester, Kosovo and Srpska had separated from their mother countries and formed new republics.
As a faithful member of the club - one who has visited all 314 countries of the world - I felt a yearning to add these new sovereignties to my list.
The yearning came in February, but that area of the Balkans and Ukraine is prone to snowstorms and deep cold periods in winter. The yearning was held in check until April.
My first goal was Trans-Dniester. The plan was to make a two-hour drive from Odessa, Russia, on the Black Sea to the border of Trans-Dniester, cross over for a few pictures and be back in Odessa for dinner. Ukrainian border guards interrupted that plan, arresting me for no apparent reason and holding me for five hours.
They took my money and released me as a spring blizzard whipped up. I crossed into Tiraspol in Trans-Dniester and found a city that once flourished with grand buildings but now seemed the pothole capital of the world. One pleasant parting thought - the refurbished Hotel Arcadia in Odessa had Old World charm with great food and hospitality.
Kosovo was the second goal of my trip. Vienna has daily flights into the capital of Pristina. First impression: New airport, good roads, rich farmland and a burgeoning economy based on U.N. personnel. White vehicles with large U.N. signs dominated the roads. Soldiers and peacekeepers were everywhere. The modest city of Pristina was well kept, and safe.
Kosovo is part of Serbia - maybe - but it governs itself. In a sense, it's a country in limbo with a new order and seemingly on the right track. There were no landmarks for sightseers but several handsome mosques and churches and the occasional bombed-out building.
From the gateway city of Zagreb, Croatia, it was on to the sovereignty of Srpska, an impressive little country with a wonderful modern infrastructure. Zagreb's old town, with St. Stephens Cathedral, was reminiscent of a classic European city.
It's a two-hour drive south to the border of Srpska. So many Serbs live in the area that they have branched off from Bosnia to form the small republic of Srpska (pronounced serb-ska). Farms and tractors dominated the road to Banja Luka, its major city. Safe and bustling, the modest town came complete with a walled fortress, charming cafes and one-way streets, which I discovered while driving the wrong way.
As I ended my three-country journey, I reflected that London, Hawaii, Sydney and other global tourist destinations will not suffer a loss of travelers due to these three emerging countries.
Yet each has droplets of charm and provides good enough reason for travelers like me to stray off the beaten paths of the world.