In the spring of 2007 we treated ourselves to a road trip through the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia. We passed through Serbia on our way to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, then through Montenegro and Albania on our way to Macedonia and Greece. We did the trip Farber style, a day here and two or three days there, but this time instead of using public transportation, we drove our Renault Scenic.
The trip was actually instigated by our friends Larry and Susan Blount who invited us to join them in Zagreb on May 23rd and proceed to Sarajevo and Dubrovnik where they would rendezvous with a group of British and Americans for ten days of sailing among the Croatian islands.
We met our friends in Zagreb as planned and spent a relaxing day and a half exploring the town. It was in Zagreb that we first became acquainted with the work of Ivan Mestrovic, an early 20th century sculptor of the first rank.
Mestrovic was a peripatetic individual whose various workplaces included the United States. In fact, he died in South Bend, Indiana. One of his homes and an atelier, now a museum, are in Zagreb.
An interesting aspect of the trips we take is that we have the opportunity to discover the work of wonderful artists unknown to us. Last summer we learned of Zlatyu Boyadzhiev in Bulgaria and Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Helene Schjerfbeck in Finland.
After Zagreb, our itinerary took us to Sarajevo. This was a memory trip for Larry, who had served there in a U.S. Army Civil Affairs Unit in 1996. His tour came shortly after the Dayton Accords (signed in November of ‘95) began to end the four-year siege of Sarajevo by the Yugoslav National Army and the Bosnian Serbs. Before that, since May of ’92 the city had been totally blockaded. The only supplies reaching Sarajevo came in by air. In order to get these from the airport into the city, the besieged used a 700-meter tunnel whose ceiling was so low that an adult couldn’t stand upright. From the start of the blockade until February of 1996, 4,000 shells a day rained down on the city. The result was atrocious: 10,615 persons were killed, including more than 1,000 children.
From the days of the Ottoman Empire until now, Sarajevo has practiced religious tolerance. Muslims, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews lived for centuries in relative harmony. One very interesting feature of this city is the number and age of its many religious buildings. One wonders if the attacking forces would have discriminated among the various religious populations if they could have.
Until this trip, Larry hadn’t returned to Sarajevo since his tour of duty finished ten years before. According to him, the change since the war years is startling. Much of the physical damage has been repaired. One exception is the City Hall and library, a magnificent oriental-style building that still awaits restoration. The aspect of the city today is so different from what it was during the war that our friend had difficulty getting his bearings. Where exactly was his office building? And where was Tito’s former summer house that had been his unit’s headquarters? It became our mission in Sarajevo to answer these questions.
To travel in this part of the Balkans is to encounter much sad evidence of the vicious hostility that took such a toll in the 90s. The border lands of Bosnia-Herzegovina, that we passed through from Croatia, looked desolate and forsaken. Bombed out buildings hadn’t been repaired nor did the abandoned factories show any signs of new life.
In Sarajevo all that looked new were the acres of white grave stones. In the countryside, we didn’t dare stray from the beaten paths for fear of stepping on one of the landmines that still contaminate many areas. And yet Sarajevo itself was one of the highlights of our trip.
For 500 years this town was an important administrative and trading center of the Ottoman Empire, and the evidence of this abounds in the mosques, the markets, the food, and even in the language. Many Serbo-Croatian words were familiar to us from Turkish.
One bridge across the river Miljacka had a special historical interest for us. It was at the entrance to this bridge on 28 June, 1914 that the young Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, thereby precipitating World War I. Across from the bridge is a small museum devoted to the event with photos of the archduke’s procession and mannequins gotten up to look like the royal couple. In style it was a very different world and less than 100 years ago.
Old Dubrovnik, on Croatia’s coast, must have been a prized destination for centuries. From medieval times until Napoleon ended finally ended its independence, present-day Dubrovnik was a city-state known as the Republic of Ragusa. Most of the time the Republic was a great money maker and maintained its independence through canny diplomacy and its ability to pay off its more powerful rivals.
Today’s Dubrovnik is still making money; only now it’s the tourists who supply it. These come by the ship and bus loads and fill the town’s streets and squares to capacity. These tourist surges were the city’s only drawback for us. Like other ancient towns on the Adriatic’s eastern shore – Trogir and Kotor, for instance – Dubrovnik is still surrounded by the 25-meter-high walls that protected it from barbarians and pirates in earlier times. The birdseye perspectives on the town that one gets while walking along the tops of the walls are an unusually interesting way to view a city.
From ground level, the town has an elegant beauty. Evidence of its former wealth is everywhere one looks, captured in line and proportion, marble and stone. Like a spine running the length of the town, the Placa is a wide pedestrian promenade flanked on either side by harmonious rows of three-storied buildings whose limestone facades, identical cornices, and green shutters speak of a single grand design for the avenue. Here and there a building stands out.
One such is the Franciscan Monastery and Museum which houses a Renaissance cloister where each double column has a uniquely carved capital. Among the different figures my favorites were the animal figures with their individual expressions.
Architecturally speaking, Dubrovnik, or Ragusa, was a city of the Italian Renaissance, and although many of its buildings were destroyed in a severe earthquake in 1667, the ones that survived are all the more precious. Typically, the Renaissance atrium or inner courtyard has a fountain and statuary. It also features an uncovered stone staircase with carved balusters leading up to a four-sided gallery. These courtyards with their harmonious proportions, exquisite details and diffused light give them a grace and a serenity that we love.
Here I’ve written three pages, and I’ve only gotten nicely started with descriptions of our travels. Obviously, it’s impossible to continue at this leisurely pace, or you’ll never forgive me. Before saying goodbye, here are some highlights I’ve left out:
There is Split, the attractive, Croatian seaside city that features the remains of the Emperor Diocletian’s Palace, an imposing Roman ruin, whose vast precincts are currently home to stores, hotels, restaurants and a cathedral inside what was originally the emperor’s mausoleum.
When one learns that Diocletian was famous for his persecution of Christians, the irony of his resting place having been converted to an important Christian monument is amusing.
Other experiences I’ll mention include the awe we felt upon entering Montenegro’s Piva Gorge, which contains some of the most dramatic scenery we’ve ever seen . . .
. . . and our curiosity driving through Albania where every third car is a Mercedes and the highway is lined with auto junk yards. As we navigated the traffic-choked streets of Tirana, we recalled that not so long ago Albania was a closed country with where people walked or traveled by horse cart. How could such a transformation in personal transportation happen so quickly in such a poor country?
After three interesting days in Macedonia, we headed for home by way of Greece. At the border, a Greek customs agent asked be where we were headed, and I answered, “Istanbul.” “Constantinople,” the agent corrected me, and I remembered what I had already known. Many Greeks have never become reconciled to losing the city to the Turks. Oh well, it’s only been 600 years or so.