the Balkan Countries
May 26, 2015 - June
The Balkan countries were always
interesting to me and the history is complex and key to
many 20th century events. Growing up, it was always
Yugoslavia, but after the Iron Curtain fell, nationalism
grew within Yugoslavia and it broke apart into several
pieces. First to leave was Slovenia, followed by
Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. These last two
resulted in war with Serbia, who tried to keep Yugoslavia
together under Serb domination. The 90's were a
terrible time and much bloodshed was spilled. By the
end of the decade, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo split
away as well and Serbia was all that was left of the old
Yugoslavia. Animosity and hatred remain after 25
years and it was interesting to see it first hand as we
toured four of the Balkan countries. The trip also
included Albania, that formally isolated little
mountainous country nestled between Croatia and the
Adriatic Sea. It was never part of Yugoslavia and
had its own bizarre history in the 20th century as an
isolated Stalinist country which was one of the poorest in
Europe. Notwithstanding all the turmoil, there are a
number of beautiful and interesting sites to see and the
OAT tour did a great job of showing them.
stop was Tirana, the capital of Albania. This is the
main square called Skenderbeg Square, named after the
"George Washington" of Albania, who held the Turks back
for awhile in the middle ages. The Turks eventually
conquered Albania and all of the Balkan countries and held
then for over 500 years until the end of WWI. Ruled
by an isolationist, Stalinist dictator for decades after
WWII, Albania became a democratic republic around the time
that Yugoslavia split up. It still lags behind most
of Europe in development, but the capital, Tirana, looks
like any other Eastern European city. The country is
replete with Greek and Roman ruins and medieval castles.
The next stop was Dubrovnik, the jewel of
Croatia on the Adriatic. It has been a popular tourist
destination for the past 100 years and has striking Venetian
and Austrian influences. It was bombarded in the
Croatian-Serbian war in the 90's but has been rebuilt and
restored. The castle is the main site.
After a brief sojourn to Kotor in
Montenegro, we headed into Bosnia-Herzegovina.
First stop was at Mostar ("most" meaning bridge in
Slavic languages). On the left, above, is a picture of
the bridge, which has been a large part of the history
of this region and the multiple wars that took place in
and around Mostar. It was built during the reign
of the Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.
On the right is an old house that is pockmarked from
shells from the siege of Sarajevo during the
Bosnian-Serb war of the mid 90's. From its
basement, a tunnel was built through the Serbian siege
lines and into downtown Sarajevo so that food and other
supplies could be brought to the beleaguered residents.
It was called the Tunnel of Hope.
One of the most important historical
spots in Sarajevo and from the trip as a whole is the
site of the where Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian
nationalist assassinated the Austrian Archduke, Franz
Ferdinand in 1914, which was the spark that started WWI
and the terrible wars of the 20th century. The
original cafe is now a museum with many pictures and
artifacts from that time. I'm standing on the spot
where he exited the cafe and shot the Archduke.
There are beautiful parks in Croatia and Slovenia and on
the left is a shot of the Plitvice lakes in Croatia - a
beautiful lake system that runs through Karst rock
formations. On the right is Lake Bled in Slovenia
- a beautiful Alpine lake with a castle in the middle,
which we got to by boat.
Finally, as we drove into Slovenia and up to Ljubljana,
the capital. We went to the beautiful Postojna
caves, which were so big and complex that we took a
small "amusement park" type train for almost 5 minutes
to get to the large caverns in the middle. On the
way north, we passed this interesting site of a castle
by a cave mouth. Our last stop was Ljubljana,
which is a charming city and capital of Slovenia.
Since Slovenia was spared most of the fighting in the
Yugoslav wars, Ljubljana shows no ill effects from
them. By the way, if you have a problem with
pronunciation, the most important rule is that a "j"
sounds like a "y". Once you get that, it's easy.