Balkan you believe how things have changed here

Union beer Slovenia
For lager lovers out there (the decent kind, not anything served within the British Isles), Ljubljana-brewed “Union” was our favourite and is an unmissable tipple if travelling through Slovenia on any sort of Balkan adventure. (Image | Chris King)

The Balkans, for all their beauty, varied landscapes, and wonderfully inviting people, have had a deeply troubled history. No more than 20 years ago, the city of Vukovar in Croatia was being pounded into rubble by the guns of paramilitaries and the tanks of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), working on behalf of the disintegrating Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which once spanned these scarred lands. Sarajevo, the enchanting capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was on fire and the United Nations’ “protection” it was receiving never once prevented the continual encirclement and besieging of the city.

Today, the only thing exploding is the tourism industry. Long established along the picturesque, postcard perfect Dalmatian coast, this wave of visitors is moving inland, as the region’s less obvious cities forge their own reputation as viable locations to visit for tourists of all ages, interests and financial situations. Belgrade, back in 2000, was being subjected to North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) bombing. Ruled by a man many considered to be a despot, Slobodan Milošević, Serbia was an international pariah, and Belgrade a relic of the Communist era, barely worth a footnote on any reputable travel guide. How different it is now. The city is almost bursting with life, and its reputation now is one to be proud of: although no sort of consensus has been established, Belgrade is certainly the leading city for nightlife in the Balkans, if not in the whole of Europe. Barge parties, clubs that may as well serve a continental breakfast with coffee as they are open so late, and more bars than anyone could possibly visit, Belgrade’s somewhat rough edges are smoothed out by its character, and its infectious sense of fun.

Life in central Ljubljana is based predominantly in and around the beautiful Prešeren Square. (Image | Chris King)

Ljubljana is undoubtedly Yugoslavia’s “gateway to the West”, the most “presentable” part of the region. Rather like the room of your house that is always the tidiest, and you would show to visitors before any other. Its small cafes, riverside bars, higher standard of living and insular, proud, understated nationalism set Slovenia at odds with Milošević’s rigidly centralised regime in the late 1980s. Even now you find those in other Balkan cities with negative perceptions of the Slovenes. When I asked a Slovene if she and her fellow countrymen and women felt guilty for having “gotten away” from the Yugoslav collapse, her answer was intriguing. Guilt, no, she said. But she admitted that the Slovenes’ exit from the crumbling Yugoslav framework had been timely and they had avoided all the bloodshed and suffering to come. It must be hard living in the knowledge that you avoided the fate of your neighbours, the inhumanity and brutality of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Visiting Croatia really demonstrated in a vivid and unavoidable way that history is written by the victors. No matter the aggressive, belligerently pro-Serbian sentiment emanating from Belgrade during the period of 1986-2000, Zagreb’s Museum of National History is, in itself, a hotbed of nationalism. Franjo Tuđman, a man whom many believe ought to have faced trials for war crimes prior to his death in 1999, is venerated here as the Croatian “liberator.” Now, as the first leader of independent Croatia, naturally Tudjman deserves his place in Croatian history, but there has been no effort made to subdue praise for a man suspected of war crimes, particularly in Operations Flash and Storm, both of which saw widespread ethnic cleansing of Serbs in territory re-captured by the Croatian Army.

Hajduk Split
In Croatia, symbolism is all important. Nothing screams Croatian nationalism more than a flag, adorned with the symbol of the legendary “Torcida” – Croatian Football Club Hajduk Split, to give them their full name. (Image | Chris King)

Croatian nationalism is unabashed and everywhere. Flags fly from all buildings, and a deep, almost defensive sense of pride is palpable in the citizenry. And you can understand why. But in Serbia the world views such nationalism as capable of re-opening the Balkan conflicts which are widely agreed to have been started by that state. It is strange how history, and the political decisions made to end wars, have ramifications far beyond their immediate purpose. In terms of tourism, Croatia’s beauty runs parallel to that of neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Boasting the vast majority of the coast of the former Yugoslavia, the cities of Split and Dubrovnik heave with tourists even in the off season. With rain pounding down onto the walled city, shelled and devastated by Serb attack in 1992, tourists can still be seen walking along the city walls in the most inclement of deluges.

When we approached Croatia, the words of the doom-mongerers in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia (and their slight bias) reverberated around our heads: you will not be able to afford anything in Croatia. I can reveal now that this is a fallacy of the highest order. While Croatian food and drink is somewhat more expensive than the dirt-cheap prices of Sarajevo, Mostar, Belgrade and Novi Sad, it hardly qualifies as anything but entirely affordable. Our favourite bar in Zagreb, for instance, boasted a “happy hour”, which naturally lasted for three, in which beer could be bought for little over a pound. Another major aspect of our sojourn in Croatia was the eminent hostility expressed publicly, in graffiti and by local residents, to joining the European Union. Croatia is a candidate for admission on 1 July 2013, but judging by the plethora of EU signs with black crosses through them in Split and Zagreb, clearly Balkan residents are cynical, and perhaps rightly so, about exactly what fruit joining a troubled market system could bear.

Yugo
Zastava “Yugo” automobiles and ugly tower blocks. Once images that went hand in hand across communist Yugoslavia, sadly little has changed. (Image | Chris King)

The same goes for Serbians. Žarko, a hostel owner in Novi Sad, the charming student city just north of Belgrade that is more Austro-Hungarian than Eastern Bloc, rejected emphatically any suggestion that Serbia could join the EU. Cynicism and negativity were pervasive in his voice as he lamented the plight of the modern, post-Milošević Serbia. All the best, brightest and most talented young people are leaving, he said, in a pattern by no means unique to Serbia. Our money goes to Belgrade, it makes nothing but takes everything, he adds. Hostility to the capital city is also not unique, but the image of Belgrade as this monolithic, unyielding, unprofitable power base hardly enhances the idea of Serbia as a credible EU candidate. But, at least judging by Žarko, do Serbians even want the European Union? The answer would be no. Even the Slovenes are dissatisfied with it, he says. The Croats don’t want it either. Perhaps someone should put him in touch with the Greeks …

However, the problems of contemporary politics didn’t end in Novi Sad. Our guide on the immensely fascinating tunnel tour in Sarajevo revealed, at great length and with some degree of anger, his latent mistrust of the Bosnian politicians who, in his view, “stole” the reconstruction money given to the state. Sarajevo, despite all its charm, the wonderful Ottoman corner and juxtaposition of three major European cultures, is a scarred city. Once the centrepiece of the Yugoslav “project”, in 1984 the Winter Olympics showcased a city united, ethnically-mixed, with regular inter-marriage and tolerance on a level unmatched throughout the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). In November 1995, when a bloody siege that had lasted nearly four years and claimed the lives of 11,500 people had come to an end by decree, it was a shell. Homes had been torn apart, families decimated, and the battle lines drawn by ethnicity in one of the most pointless, and vindictive articles of modern warfare. The reminders are everywhere. From the “Sarajevo Roses”, mortar craters on many a street corner, to the endless field of white gravestones emblazoned with Islamic writing next to the former Olympic Park, Sarajevo will never forget what it went through.

Mostar war damage
Believe it or not, this used to be a school. Nothing was spared bombardment in Mostar, in the same way that no citizen escaped the suffering and chaos of war. (Image | Chris King)

Nor, it must be said, will Mostar. Our hostel owner, Edin, on a one man crusade to bring the truth about what happened there to the world, will make sure of that on his own. His words, however, only back up what you can see. Houses still riddled with bullet holes, the Stari Most, or Mostar Bridge, painstakingly reconstructed at huge expense after its senseless destruction by Croatian Defence Council (HVO) forces in 1993. The re-development money is coming in, but only in a trickle. Brand new apartment blocks stand side by side with empty shells, buildings where barely a centimetre isn’t covered by bullet holes. Spanish Square, the beautiful centrepiece of the far bank, is a monument to reconstruction but a testament to the lack of rehabilitation. A school is located here. Children, when they leave, socialise as they please; in school, however, they are separated by ethnicity, tags that long ago ceased to have any meaning in many modern states today divide communities irreparably. Next to this lies the Mostar Parliament building: it stands empty, a monument to the incompatibility of the Croat and Muslim communities, who, after the former turned against the latter, now find cohabitation to be far more of an endeavour than simply a treaty signed thousands of miles away at Dayton, Ohio.

One thought to leave you with, however, is that the Balkans stands out in European travel destinations not for fractured pasts, a recent history of warfare, suffering and brutality, or cynical attitudes towards integration into western Europe. It is the sheer, incredible beauty of these lands that set them apart. Journeying by bus, we hardly missed a mountain, cliff-edge, sea view, or valley pass. To sum up what the Balkans has to offer, however, one need only look at Lake Bled. Located almost an hour outside of Ljubljana, this picturesque spot has it all. A sense of peace and escape impossible in any comparative destination in Greece, Spain or France; the authentic feel you don’t get with a high-rise resort on the Costa Brava and a multitude of water sports and outdoor activities that have received international acclaim. In fact, I should stop writing now, let the pictures tell you the rest.

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To view my gallery of photographs, visit Photobucket.

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