When my friends travel to Europe, they typically go to the west: UK, Ireland, France, Spain or Italy. Sometimes, they might visit Germany. If they’re really adventurous, they’ll try Norway or Portugal. Me? I’m fascinated with eastern Europe, and specifically the ex-Yugoslavia.
It’s a unique place. It was a communist country, but unaffiliated with the Soviet Union. It leans West but speaks a Slavic language. It has beautiful landscapes and bustling cities. And of course, it was recently embroiled in a hideous series of wars.
While gawping at bullet-ridden buildings and artillery-burned houses may seem interesting, it wears thin pretty quick. I didn’t go here to see how badly the place was affected by war. Instead, I went to see how well the region is rebuilding.
I wanted to see the legendary mountains of central Bosnia. I wanted to see the noisy streets of Sarajevo. I wanted to see the walled cities and the stunning coastline of Croatian Dalmatia. I wanted to see something beautiful, not something ugly. If Germany could attract visitors in 1960, why can’t Bosnia attract visitors in 2010?
The Bosnian and Croatian landscapes are hauntingly beautiful, as are the Bosnian and Croatian women. More and more folks are finding Bosnia to be the next gem in the Balkans (after Slovenia and Croatia). It’s still split along ethnic lines, but signs of warming continue. I am convinced that today’s Bosnian youth will be the peacemakers that unite the country.
This year’s travels took me and my travel buddy Mike to central Croatia, across the border to Republika Srpska, through central Bosnia, then south back into Croatia, where we enjoyed an amazing journey up the Dalmatian coast.
We’ll look at each stop, then I’ll add a slideshow of some of my best photos at the end. Here we go!
Zagreb is the capital of Croatia and was our official ingress/egress point. It’s a cosmopolitan city, a working city. You can find touristy stuff, but for the most part Zagreb is a staid, stately city in the central European mold. Watching folks emerge from trams and wander off to their workplaces reminds me of Prague or even Vienna. While much smaller, Zagreb has similar architecture and its people are similarly disposed.
I really like Zagreb.
This town surprised us. We planned to use it as a convenient crash spot after a day’s drive, but rather than bore us as a middling provincial capital, Osijek impressed us as a cool, modern town. I was surprised by the huge number of young people everywhere. Fact: fresh young faces really brighten up a place. You can idle in the Centrum, walk along the riverfront with its many pubs and clubs, or gawk at the three centuries of architectural history on Ulica Europska. I wish I had more time to spend in Osijek.
Tuzla is the second-largest city in Bosnia. When Marshall Tito was still running Yugoslavia, he turned it into an industrial city, replete with nuclear power plant. The plant is still running and while the long, ugly industrial strip leading into the city may be a turn-off, the city itself is surprisingly neat and very busy. Prices are cheap and life is good here. Signs of ethnic integration are everywhere despite the horrors of the recent war.
Bosnia’s capital is known to everyone as “war-torn” Sarajevo. This is unfair. In 1960, was Hamburg, Germany called “war-torn” Hamburg? No? Then shut the fuck up.
Sarajevo is a jewel of a city. Successive waves of leaders, architects and civic engineers created in Sarajevo a fantastic blend of bold Ottoman design, stately Viennese solemnity and crass modern excess. You’ll find Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs living together peacefully (for the most part) as they have for centuries in this Neopolitian mix of cultures. Sure, resentments still linger, but Sarajevans seem more interested in creating a better future than dwelling on an awful past.
Our guide showed us the city sites and took us into the mountains for a celebration of small-scale organic farming at a tiny Bosniak village. Mike and I were treated like honored guests at this place, and I will never forget the kindness and good humor of these people – people who had lost everything and now struggle to get back a piece of what they once had.
Don’t write off Sarajevo as “war-torn”. It’s one of the world’s most beautiful and inspiring cities.
I am ashamed to admit that we treated Mostar like everyone else does: as day trippers with no interest in staying long. Mostar deserves better. Its famous bridge was built in 1567 and was, at the time, the widest man-made arch on Earth. It stood for 427 years, until the Croats destroyed it with artillery fire in 1993. After the war, divers retrieved as much of the original stone as possible and the bridge was rebuilt brick-by-brick in the exact same design as the original.
The bridge is very beautiful, as is Mostar itself. Its old town has stunning stonework and a compelling skyline. Unfortunately, the old town is also crawling with day trippers, most arriving by bus from Dubrovnik. They bring lots of money for trinkets and lunches, but they also poison the environment by being…day trippers. I think Mostar is a romantic place, and lovers everywhere could do worse than spend a weekend there.
Dubrovnik is among the best-preserved walled medieval cities in the world. Imagine Venice without the canals, and you’ll get an idea of how strikingly beautiful this place is. As the center of the Ragusan maritime empire, Dubrovnik carefully danced between Venetian, Ottoman and Hungarian domination. Their independent streak continues to this day.
Mike and I scored a hotel with a huge veranda just outside the eastern gate. It was fucking fantastic! Of course, being the jewel of the eastern Adriatic means lots of tourists. But unlike Venice, the circus of humanity was more of a crowd than a crush. I felt comfortable walking the city and I got a bazillion amazing photographs.
Before you die, see Dubrovnik. Period.
Split, the second biggest city in Croatia, is famous for two things: the palace of Roman emperor Diocletian and the soccer team Hajduk Split. Diocletian’s palace is an enormous walled complex and I was happy to score a hotel within the palace walls. It isn’t often you can walk out of your hotel and turn the corner into a scene like the one above.
We hired a tour guide for the palace area. She was wonderful and informative and patient with my photo-crazy ass. After the tour, I took a hike into the enormous park that rises high above the city. I was rewarded with a sudden rainstorm, but I kept my spirits up by drinking lots of espresso and avoiding loud Americans.
Split was another surprise, like Osijek. It was much more beautiful and interesting than I had expected. One day, when I’m rich, I’ll build a villa just north of Split and live the good life.
Few people are hip to Zadar. Most Europeans know the place exists, but few Americans have ever heard of it. It’s not a tourist mecca like Dubrovnik and it’s not a famous capital like Sarajevo. Instead, Zadar sits quietly on the Adriatic Sea, minding its own business. And business is good, considering that the city was all but cut off during the recent war.
Zadar has plenty of Roman, Venetian and Austrian history for tourists, but the city seems more interested in its core: being a powerful maritime port city. They’ll take your tourist dollars, but they’d like it better if you opened new offices here and maybe parked a yacht or two. If you need to site your import/export business on the Adriatic, Zadar would like to have a word with you. And you should listen because this city is pretty damn cool.
Here’s some photos from the trip. Enjoy.
Click on image to cycle through the slideshow.