November 03, 2008

Balkan Express, part 2

There's no toll booths on the highways of Slovenia. Nothing but smooth sailing around that tiny country. That's the good news. The bad news is that when we entered Slovenia from Croatia we had to pay 35 Euros--something like 45 bucks--for the highway tariff. It came with a happily colored little sticker for the upper right windshield. We raised our eyebrows at the border guard, to which he informed us that the sticker is good for one year. Great.

We weren't going to be in Slovenia for one year, only three days. We were in the midst of an all-out, fast-as-you-can Balkan road trip (see previous post below) and as we drove away from Ljubljana, a mere 45-minute drive from either the Croatian, Austrian or Italian border we realized what a colossal waste of 35 Euros that sticker was. I think secretly Frank and I computed how many beers we could get for that, and Jillian, Kathy and Erin mentally measured the size of hand-crafted Slovenian bracelet that would fetch.

Anyway, an hour or so later we hit the Croatian coast and forgot all about it. For Jillian and I, recent inhabitants of San Diego, Seattle, Rhode Island and Maine, this was our first real glimpse of ocean (ok, it was actually the Adriatic Sea, but close enough) in quite awhile, if you discount the fleeting glance of the Black Sea we caught on our boat trip north of Istanbul. The Adriatic did not disappoint, nor did our first stop along its shores in Split.

Old Split is a resort town. There were at least four cruise ships docked during our night there. Well, it's easy to see why--the seaside is lined with palm trees and cute cafes and the interior is a fascinating historical tour of the powers of the Mediterranean. See, Diocletian, a rather famous Roman emperor (mostly for torturing a whole lot of Christians) was born just a few miles from present-day Split and he chose this spot for his retirement home, er, palace. The thing took seven years to build and cost (only!) two thousand slaves their lives. More recently, Split was an important trading outpost for the Venetians, the very definition of a maritime power, for a few centuries beginning around 1400. So today, Split is an awesome mix of Italian architecture built around Roman ruins. One store boasts that it stands in the place of Diocletian's dressing room.

While I'm on the subject of Venetian towns, let me skip ahead to Dubrovnik, another Croatian beauty further down the coast. Its just downright unfair how beautiful this town is--there was a collective gasp inside our little white car when the old, walled-in city came into view. Apparently Dubrovnik had been quite the trading post in its day, rivaling any city on the Mediterranean. During the wars of the 1990s, the Serbians, for no other reason than spite, shelled the city and caused extensive damage. Not that one can see evidence of that today--it looks fantastic.

Dubrovnik rests on a tiny jut of land and, as I mentioned, is completely walled-in. The streets are cobblestone and narrow and there are several grand plazas marked with bronze statues and clocks. For obvious reasons, it appears prominently in Croatian tourism commercials, seen often on Macedonian television under the slogan, "See the Mediterranean as it once was." I can't argue with that. Dubrovnik was perfectly and undilutedly old-world. We were nearly giddy as descended down the hill from our rented room (the back of a nice lady's house), crossed the drawbridge (not kidding) and strolled the streets, our noses full of ocean scent.

If Dubrovnik was an idyllic reminder of a faraway time and place, our stopover between it and Split was not. Between those coastal towns was the turnoff to Bosnia, that country whose name became a byword for horror and bloodshed between 1992 and 1995 when hundreds of thousands lost their lives. Today it is a relatively peaceful, albeit struggling, multi-ethnic country comprised of Croatians (Catholic), Bosniaks (Muslim) and Serbs (Orthodox). Indications of disharmony were immediately apparent: In Bosnia road signs are written in both the Latin alphabet (for the Croatians and Bosniaks) and the Cyrillic alphabet (for the Serbians). In the first major town we came upon, on literally every sign we saw, the Cyrillic had been spray painted over in black. This was an ethnically Croatian town.

Then we came to Mostar, one of the front lines in a war that pitted the three groups against each other. Mostar was famous for its old bridge, a bridge that stood for 457 years until a Croatian mortar destroyed it during the war. And the bridge wasn't the only thing. Mostar had been almost completely razed during the conflict and around the periphery of the old town, many buildings stand as testaments to the destruction. Calling these structures bullet-riddled doesn't even scratch the surface. It's amazing many are still standing.

But inside the old town it's a different story. Mostar has been reborn, it's bridge rebuilt. Seeing pictures from the devastation, it's hard to believe it's the same place. And perhaps more important than the rebuilding, Mostar has an indescribable spirit, palpable to us visitors, a mix of sorrow and triumph, beauty and ugliness. Atop the highest peak overlooking Mostar is a large cross; from the old town we could count no less than ten minarets from the community mosques. It is very much a divided city.

After Mostar we continued on to Sarajevo. Maybe no city in recent history has suffered such a reversal of fortune. In 1984 it hosted the Winter Olympics. By 1992 it was under siege, surrounded by the Serbian (Yugoslavian) army. Much larger than Mostar, Sarajevo nonetheless shared in much of that aura. We had the good fortune of staying with a Turkish police officer who is living in the city as part the EU Police Mission. His apartment building, like many in Sarajevo, has the scars of war. He proved to be an excellent tour guide, going way out of his way to show us around and tell us much about the city's recent, tragic story.

His narration was highlighted by a trip to the Tunnel. As the Serbians besieged Sarajevo from the surrounding hills, there was but a narrow strip of land that they did not occupy. This was the airport and it was controlled by the (supposedly neutral) United Nations. The only way for the cold, hungry, terrorized citizens of Sarajevo to get supplies and for its army to get weapons was via an underground tunnel built from the edge of the city for a length of about 800 meters under the airport. The Serbians knew of this tunnel, which is why the entrance and exit to the tunnel were dubbed "Sniper Alley." Today a small portion of the tunnel remains for visitors to tour. At about 5 feet high and 3 feet wide, it is a stark, stunning leftover of those four terrible years.

Old Town Sarajevo is a charming jumble of windy streets of cafes and shops. We had the best burek we'd ever tasted there (a pie of meat or cheese and phylo, ubiquitous in Macedonia) and our host took us to a cozy Turkish restaurant for some late night Turkish tea and rice pudding. He talked about Sarajevo before the conflict, about its ethnic diversity and religious tolerance. In Sarajevo, he explained, mixed marriages were not uncommon. The road back to that place will be long and difficult.

We drove out the next day with swirling emotions. For Americans, the last two decades have had their share of tragedies "over there," whether it be Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur or Congo. And while each one calls up that old question about America's use of power--world's policeman?--it ultimately has seemed easier or more prudent to defer to the international community and the carrot of diplomacy. I'm not necessarily condemning this strategy--certainly our tenacity at the negotiating table helped end the Bosnian crisis. But seeing this country up close, with its still ravaged buildings and divided population, well, it makes those decisions seem just a little bit harder.

Our final stop was in Kotor, Montenegro, a picturesque little sea town on wonderfully wild Kotor Bay. Though the old town could not measure up to the beauty we had seen in Dubrovnik, the old city walls extended well up into the adjacent hillside. This offered us the chance to climb the 1,500 stairs and take in the town and bay from far above.

Then we drove home through the ridiculously mountainous and windy country, dropped the car off and returned to Macedonia, exhausted and totally happy about this choice of trip. Sure, we may not want to hang out again any time soon after being trapped in that small car for eleven days, but seeing the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia, made being in this part of the world all the more special.

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