Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina

“Discovering the Hidden Gems of the Western Balkans”

August 2012

The Western Balkans is a region of south-eastern Europe steeped in history, a melange of religion, culture, ethnicity and bellicose confrontation. Here is where Christianity and Islam collide head first and where in the heart of Europe a mere 20 years ago, a most brutal war was waged resulting in the loss of over 200,000 lives. As it struggles to shake off the shackles of this distressing past, the Western Balkans look progressively forwards towards the future and the eventual goal of integration into EU membership.

 

For the discerning traveller, where other more tourist oriented European destinations are far more expensive, overcrowded or over commercialised, the Western Balkans remain far more authentic, anodyne and genial. Jagged mountain peaks, dramatic coastlines and pristine un-crowded beaches await your delectation. Today this region, at the heart of the former Yugoslavia, remains a hidden gem, where the adventurous traveller will be amply rewarded for having ventured tangentially away from the ubiquitous European travel agenda.

 

A Brief History

Farming was first introduced into the Western Balkans around 6000 BC. Among the earliest recorded inhabitants of the region were the Illyrians whose residency dates back to around 1200 BC. Some modern day Albanians can trace their family lineage all the way back to these atavistic primary settlers. The ancient Greeks were an early influence in the area, superseded from the 2nd century BC by the inexorably expanding Roman Empire. In 395 AD the Emperor Theodosius split the Roman Empire, the western half being ruled from Rome, and the eastern half ruled from Constantinople (present day Istanbul). This division left a fault line through the region that resonates down through until the modern day. With the nadir and disintegration of the Roman Empire, in the 5th century much of the Balkan region was overrun by Slavic tribes who migrated from the Caucases in Central Asia.

 

The 14th century saw the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, who over the next century would increase their control over European territory and greatly influence its culture. The early 18th century saw Austria’s incursion into the Ottoman domination of the region. By the mid 19th century the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of bankruptcy, its spiralling debts would eventually lead to a widespread European banking collapse. These events would ultimately give rise to the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, which would carve up the moribund Empire’s European lands.

 

The rapid atrophy of Ottoman power and influence in the region, along with increasingly immerging nascent nationalism gave rise to Pan-Slavism, the seminal pre-cursor that would eventually manifest itself in the foundation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

 

The two Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913 pushed the Ottoman Turks back to Constantinople and facilitated a rush of nationalist inspired territorial expansion. A seminal event in world history occurred in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo on the 28th June 1914. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the initiation of a domino effect whose ultimate corollary would be the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918). The termination of the First World War saw the states of the Western Balkans transformed into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which re-morphed itself in October 1929 into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

 

The Second World War (1939-1945) saw the Axis powers invade the Balkan region, and it is estimated that 1.7 million Yugoslavs perished. The conclusion of the war saw the pro-communist Partisans, led by Josip Tito, immerge as the dominant power brokers in the country. As Yugoslavia’s appointed President for life, Tito’s pithy brand of communism held together the various republics within what now became the Yugoslav Federation. This state of affairs was vigorously achieved by creating a one-party state, and rigorously expunging any opposition. After breaking its ties with the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia’s political structure gradually started to unravel after Tito’s death in 1980. As the democracy movement swept tsunami-like through Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered the starting point for the break- up of the Yugoslav Federation. Beginning in June 1991, one by one the member states declared their independence; some like Slovenia split without any great tribulation, whereas Bosnia’s road to independence was a bloody civil war resulting in over 200,000 deaths. The war ultimately spread into Kosovo and then into Macedonia. With the help of NATO forces, by 2002 the area finally succumbed to a relatively stable and peaceful disposition. This Balkan war that engulfed the region resulted in untold misery and suffering, and introduced the world to the term “ethnic cleansing”.

 

With the newly independent Balkan countries striving for EU membership, more and more war criminals are now being surrendered to the War Crimes Court in The Hague to answer for their crimes committed during this dark and truculent period of Balkan history.

 

After decades of communist isolation and the bloody war of the 1990’s, the Balkan region is finally embracing democracy and opening its doors to the peregrinations of the adventurous traveller.

The Journey

 

Our point of embarkation in the Western Balkans is the delightful former fishing village of Cavtat in Croatia. Situated around half an hours journey down the coast from Dubrovnik, Cavtat appears these days to be a playground where the rich come to moor up there very expensive large yachts. Dinner at a restaurant on the harbour front, bathed in early evening sunshine is the perfect recipe for unwinding and relaxing into the rhythm of the adventure that lay in wait over the next couple of weeks.

 

It’s a half an hour drive along the scenic coast road, with the constant backdrop of the azure blue Adriatic Sea; the road winding its way around the headlands to Dubrovnik, the aptly named pearl of the Adriatic. Founded some 1300 years ago, by the 14th century this city republic had become a major trading rival to Venice throughout the Mediterranean region. An earthquake in 1667 sent Dubrovnik into decline, its fate finally sealed with Napoleon’s conquest in 1806. Today Dubrovnik is a tourist mecca with around 2 million visitors per year. During the high season in the summer months up to 10 cruise ships dock here daily, disgorging thousands of tourists onto Dubrovnik’s narrow labyrinthine streets. The old city is a maze of alleyways radiating from the main thoroughfare. Exuding a unique atmosphere, the city has a wealth of architectural masterpieces. For the inquisitive visitor there’s a pot-pourri of sites to take in including numerous Catholic churches and Orthodox monasteries, a synagogue, a 16th century palace, and the third-oldest operating pharmacy in Europe which was first opened in 1391. A walk on the ancient city walls that enclose Dubrovnik gives a magnificent over view of this picture postcard city. What is quite striking to note is the vast number of newly tiled roofs, a stark reminder of the bombing of this city that took place during the war here in the 1990’s. The city is a melange of cultural attractions, tourist shops, restaurants and wonderful photo opportunities. The hoards of visitors thronging the narrow streets somewhat derogate from the enjoyment, but for world class destinations such as Dubrovnik this is par for the course.

Crossing over the border into Montenegro, our destination is the medieval town of Kotor. A bijou version of Dubrovnik, Kotor is much less crowded, far more interesting and more accessible to photograph, quite the antithesis of Dubrovnik and altogether a much more pleasant visitor experience. After a short orientation tour there was a couple of hours free time to explore this enchanting town. Most of the towns sites of interest were churches, the most impressive being St Tryphon’s. Originally built in the 12th century, St Tryphon’s has been reconstructed several times after being subjected to earthquake damage. Kotor’s labyrinthine streets proffer wonderful photo opportunities, made the more impressive with the strikingly brooding mountains as a backdrop to the townscape. Architecturally the town owes much of its present day appearance to the almost 400 years that it was subject to Venetian rule (1420-1797). The town’s impressive enclosure walls were started in the 9th century and added to piecemeal down the years. Packed during the summer months, the marina is a haven for the multi-million dollar yachts of the super-rich. The highlight of the day was a boat trip from Kotor to the exquisite 17th century church of Our Lady of the Rocks. Magnificently located on a small island in the Bay of Kotor, and surrounded by turquoise blue waters and majestic mountains. The church was founded on the site where two sailors found a holy icon washed up on the rocky shoreline. Our boat trip terminated at the extremely picturesque bijou town of Perast. The 55 metre high bell tower of the Church of St Nicholas, one of 16 churches in this tiny town, is an irresistible temptation that just demands to be climbed. The vistas from the top are beyond description and are worth every ounce of effort that the climb extracts from just the one crazy visitor.

 

Winston Churchill once stated with acute perspicaciousity that, “the Balkans make more history than they can consume”. Today that statement probably still rings true with the various deep ethnic divisions within these relatively recently independent states of the former Yugoslavia. Macedonia only gained full independence some 5 years ago, whilst Kosovo, although independent, has not had this status recognised by the United Nations or by a number of other nations with political agendas to grind. The Balkan War of the 1990’s is still a very raw wound whose memories, mental scars and physical scars still linger through until the present day. Looking back at the region’s turbulent history, it has been quite condignly described as “the tinder box of Europe”

Montenegro is probably the least visited of the Western Balkan countries. It uses the Roman alphabet as well as the Cyrillic one, it also uses the Euro as its currency even though it is not in the EU and it is not in the Euro zone. This anomaly stems back to when the country first became independent and it adopted the German Deutch Mark as its official currency. When Germany implemented the Euro Montenegro then inevitably had to follow suit.

 

The old town of Budva is a miniature version of Kotor, the atmospheric marbled alleyways are replete with numerous ice cream and coffee shops awaiting your indulgence. A walk along the ancient Venetian town walls provides some exciting photographic opportunities.

 

Milocer is the former residence of the ex king of Yugoslavia. Set in its own grounds this rather large opulent building is now a very up-market hotel, where rooms will set the visitor back around 750 Euros per night. The private beach is patrolled by very smartly dressed officials and is available for your patronage for a charge of 75 Euros per day, beautiful bodies only allowed. A short walk along the coast is Sveti Stefan, this tiny island connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, houses a collection of secluded terracotta-roofed residences frequented in the past by the rich and famous. In the 1960’s Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren were amongst the glamorous stars that stayed here. Now days Sveti Stefan is slightly passé, and although today’s residents are somewhat less glamorous they will still need to be reasonably well moneyed. Of course Sveti Stefan has its own private beach, which the general public can use, at the bargain price of 50 Euros per day, sun loungers are mandatory.

 

As with many of these adventure holidays where large distances are covered in a relatively short period, there will inevitably be a number of days where innumerable hours are spent on the road. Our journey today is punctuated with a few stops of interest and a dramatic change in the scenery. Gaining altitude the coastal topography gives way to soaring mountain peaks and deep valleys as we travel on a road that literally clings to the side of the mountain for dear life. The Djurdjevica Tara Bridge is a concrete multi arched curved bridge that spans the canyon over the Tara River, towering 135 metres above the river bed. The canyon here drops 1300 metres at its deepest point making it the second deepest after America’s Grand Canyon. Having started the day at sea level, the day ends at an altitude of 1450 metres at Zabljak in the Durmitor National Park. The park is an untamed patch of wilderness, a haven for outdoor activities; water sports, walking trails, ski slopes in the winter season and picturesque glacial lakes nestling beneath dramatic mountain scenery. After a long day on the road it’s a real pleasure to take a relaxing stroll for a couple of hours through this wonderful pristine wilderness.

 

Leaving Montenegro we cross over the border into Serbia. Wherever you travel in this region, there are always two topics that are constant – the Balkan War of the 1990’s and the Ottomans. Serbia is the country most associated with the atrocities that occurred during this dark period of Balkan history in the 1990’s. The Balkan War brought destruction, death and misery to the region. The Ottomans we are paradoxically informed also brought destruction here, along with Turkish coffee and baklava. Our overnight accommodation is in the eco-village cum open air museum of Sirogojno. The village is a reconstructed representation of rural life as it would have been in Serbia back around 100 – 150 years ago. Consisting of small high roofed wooden houses relocated from around the country, the numerous buildings would have accommodated the various trades and other erstwhile needs of the village including;  a stable, a blacksmiths workshop, a church, a dairy and family houses amongst the specialised accommodation set aside for guests. Spread out across a picturesque mountainside, this rural haven makes a most idyllic and restful bucolic stopover, a wonderful antidote to the average bland hotel experience.

The Mokra Gora valley is home to the mountain village of Kustendorff, the brainchild of Serbia’s most famous film director Emir Kusturica - this is Serbia’s equivalent of Disneyland. The village is built in the 19th century style typical of the region, with innumerable twee buildings, restaurants and tourist shops. Frequented in the main by day tripping locals and their families - they stroll up and down Novak Djokovic Street, Che Guevara Road and Frederico Fellini Street, or stop for a coffee on Diego Armando Maradona Square. This small paradigm of tourist-ville Arizona is a peek into what full-on mainstream tourism could offer Serbia in the future. A short distance from Kustendorff is the narrow gauge Sargan Eight Railway. Once part of a railway network that linked Belgrade with Sarajevo and Dubrovnik, the line was completed in 1925. The railway discontinued service in 1975 and was left to decay until its recrudescence in 1999, when it then reinvented itself as a museum and a tourist attraction. The line runs through a region of incredible beauty with the track perched high up on the hillside affording spectacular vistas and sheer drops of 1000’s of feet down to the valley below. The views are ever changing as the train pops in and out of the 22 tunnels en route.

Leaving Serbia it is yet another border crossing as we enter Bosnia & Hercegovina, the undoubted apogee of this trip. The town of Visegrad is the site of the famous “Bridge on the Drina”, from the novel by Bosnia’s Nobel Prize winning author Ivo Andric. Built in the period from 1571-1577, the Mehmet Pasa Sokolovic Bridge is strategically located on the road that connected Bosnia with Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The bridge was an endowment of Mehmet Pasa, who was the Grand Vizier to the Ottoman sultans, and was born in Visegrad. This most elegant multi-arched stone structure was designed by Kodza Mimar Sinan who was chief architect to the Ottoman court, and responsible for some of the most iconic Ottoman buildings of the day, not least the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

 

Sarajevo is a true gem in the Bosnian crown, totally different from anywhere else visited so far. The Turkish influence here is all pervasive, blink and you could imagine yourself transported to Istanbul itself. Founded in the 15th century by the invading Ottoman Turks, Sarajevo became wealthy as a hub for the importation of silk into Europe. In 1984 the city grabbed the world’s attention by hosting the Winter Olympics Games. A few years later it would once again grab the world’s attention, but this time for all the wrong reasons. Between 1992 and 1995, in the course of the Balkan War, the city endured a siege that virtually pounded six centuries of heritage into rubble. It is estimated that over 10,500 Sarajevans died and 50,000 were injured. The endless gravestones that fill the city cemeteries are a poignant reminder of those terrible times.

 

Sarajevo boasts mosques galore with their trademark Ottoman pencil minarets. The Ottomans built their mosques approximately 100 metres apart, as this was the distance that the call to prayer could be heard by the faithful. Each mosque would thus serve its own community which had a nominal size of approximately 45 houses. Walking through the maze of streets is reminiscent of the nuances of a Turkish bazaar, the senses being assaulted by the intoxicating sights and smells that pervade the cobbled streets. Sarajevo is a repository of wonderful visitor experiences, there are orthodox churches and synagogues to visit, a multitude of museums as well as a chance to immerse yourself in the historic ambience that the city exudes. A walk around Sarajevo very soon also reveals the large amount of damage that was sustained during the Balkan War, many buildings still stand either as roofless shells or pot marked with bullet holes. Where the city’s architecture is not of the Ottoman style, then the Austrian influence is prevalent as Bosnia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to the First World War, this lends the city a fascinating east-meets-west atmosphere.

 

The chillingly named Assassination Museum is dedicated to the shooting of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on the 28th June 1914. Situated on the exact site where this event was perpetrated, the assassination started a domino effect which a few months hence would lead to the outbreak of the First World War. It is quite an incredible feeling to stand on the exact spot where such a momentous event in world history was enacted.

 

The 18th century Surzo House is a beautifully preserved old style Ottoman residence, all the rooms presented as they would have been originally back in the days of Ottoman rule. Beautiful wooden balconies lead off from highly ornate traditionally furnished rooms which overlook a secluded courtyard.

 

The 16th century Gazi Hursev Bey Mosque represents one of the most beautiful achievements of Islamic architecture in Bosnia. Impressively styled arabesques, gilded ornamentation and an expanse of marble lend an air of cool serenity to the building. The walls are decorated with citations from the Koran written in stylised calligraphy, whilst the floors are covered with highly valued carpets, many bestowed as largesse by foreign dignitaries. The harmony of the mosques grandiloquent design is complimented by its 45 metre high pencil minaret, which is a visible lodestar from almost everywhere in the city.

The road between Sarajevo and our next destination of Mostar is the most spectacular travelled so far. The road follows the course of the Neretva River, with towering mountains soaring skywards and views that take your breath away at every twist and turn. Mostar is the undoubted star of this Balkan sojourn, one of those rare places that challenges the ability to proscribe it into any adequate form of descriptive appraisal. It was in actuality the one outstanding reason for my choosing this particular trip. The principle attraction in Mostar is the Balkans most celebrated bridge, a majestic stone arc spanning the Neretva River. The world famous Stari Most (Old Bridge) was completed in 1566 and was recognised as one of the engineering marvels of its day. After standing for 427 years it was mindlessly destroyed by the Bosnian army in 1993 during the Balkan War. This pointless and barbarous act touched the conscience of the world as media footage of the bridges destruction was beamed across the planet. By 2004 the bridge had been meticulously reconstructed using 16th century building techniques and stone extracted from the original quarry. The commanding panorama of the Stari Most and the surrounding area is appreciated best from the top of the minaret of the 17th century Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. The claustrophobic climb to the top of the minaret repays the effort with a view to die for, and the opportunity for this avid photographer to worship at the altar of photographic heaven. At the western end of the Stari Most is the medieval Tara Gunpowder Tower, this is now the club house for the towns unique bridge diving club. Now days more of a tourist attraction, these macho-men pose for photographs before plunging the 21 metres from the bridge to the icy cold Neretva River below. Mostar’s delightful narrow cobbled streets are a pleasure to meander through, there are mosques to visit and coffee shops to frequent, and all the time a myriad of different view points from which to photograph that magnificent bridge.

 

Like in Sarajevo, here in Mostar the scars of war are everywhere on the faces of the buildings, the ghost-like structures are a grim reminder of how the region tore itself apart. These physical scars will in the future no doubt be eradicated, the psychological scars will take far longer to heal. During the Balkan War Mostar was virtually reduced to rubble, all but one of its 27 Ottoman-era mosques having been destroyed, along with most of the churches and seven of the bridges crossing the River Neretva. With international help most areas of old city have now been rebuilt, restored once again to their former splendour.

 

A short distance outside Mostar in a glorious setting nestling amongst vines, beehives and orchards is the delightful Tvrdos Monastery. Belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church, the original monastery was built in the 15th century, but what stands today is a 20th century reconstruction. The tranquil gardens and impressive collection of ancient icons are not exactly the main attraction here for many visitors. The monastery has a substantial sideline business of producing high quality wine. They export around 150,000 bottles per year, the European market being their major customer. Obviously we could not leave without researching further; a wine tasting session was duly offered and gratefully accepted.

 

The small conurbation of Trebinje was the last stop on our itinerary, it also serves as a convenient stopping off point for a quick crossing over the border back into Croatia, then onto our departure point of Dubrovnik airport. An interesting compact town, Trebinje is partially surrounded by the original ancient walls. The town’s most alluring quality is appreciated in just chilling out in one of the numerous cafes and soaking up the unhurried laid-back atmosphere. Trebinje boasts one quite magnificent iconic monument, the Arslanagic Bridge. Completed in 1574, this unique double-backed Ottoman structure was reassembled here in 1972 after being submerged beneath a 1960’s hydroelectric scheme at its original location.

An Overview

This exhilarating peregrination through the heart of the former Yugoslavia traversed 4 of the 6 of its former republics, only missing out on Kosovo and Slovenia. Travelling through the Western Balkans has been a wonderful experience. The region is redolent with history, culture, natural beauty and no shortage of wonderful surprises along the way. Although some of the major sites were inevitably quite crowded, most places were blissfully free from the vagaries of mainstream tourism. The sheer diversity of the sites visited guaranteed that there was never any chance of being overloaded with any one particular genre of interest. Dubrovnik, Sarajevo and Mostar afford the visitor world class attractions, with numerous other destinations supplementing the itinerary, making this a truly memorable journey through this much underrated region of Europe.

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