Trip to the Balkan Countries

May 26, 2015 - June 14, 2015

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.

The first 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.