It was hard to leave Sarajevo — the city had really grown on all four of us — and we talked about “next time we’re here…”.
Next on the itinerary was Mostar, which is worth seeing, but not in the middle of an unseasonably hot August. Very crowded, very tourist-y. The young men who jump off the bridge have the whole thing down to a science — several of them work the crowd (and re-work the crowd, and re-work the crowd…) “we just need 25 more Euros for my friend to jump!” And then he finally does, rather anti-climatically. We joked about their tag line throughout the rest of the trip “for 100 Euros I’ll throw my sister off this wall!” was my son’s personal favorite. The souvenir stands in Mostar were for the most part quite tacky, but they did offer some interesting insights. The top shirt says “Come back, Comrade Tito” to which he answers “I wouldn’t, you don’t have money.” The red one says “Comrade Tito, come back to us. You are loved by Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. You stole from us but also gave to us. These now just steal.” I did sense a certain nostalgia for the “good old days” — not just in these teeshirts, but in several conversations I had both in Serbia and BiH along the lines of “Yes, we were better off when it was Yugoslavia.” Even my aunt/cousin B, who comes from a long line of Serbian royalists, said on several occasions “We were better off under the communists.” Sigh…
The old bridge (“Stari Most”) dates back to — 2004. It was rebuilt to replace the original, commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and destroyed during the war in Bosnia/Herzegovina (Mostar is the unofficial capital of Herzegovina). In that area, initially Bosnian ethnic Croats were allied with Bosnjaks against the Serbs, then the Croats turned on the Bosnjaks. Mostar was the scene of intensely heavy fighting and a lengthy siege; most of the eastern (Bosnjak) side of the city was reduced to rubble. This link offers a poignant reflection on what is lost when emblematic architecture is destroyed. Stari Most, the symbol of the city, was destroyed by the Croatian forces in November, 1993. To this day the city remains largely segregated on either side of the Neretva river. It was more than a little unsettling, as we drove farther south in Herzegovina, to see Croatian flags everywhere, the (required) Cyrillic names for village and town names blacked out, and a bridge downriver of Mostar on the Neretva river, still in BiH, named for Franjo Tudjman, who was the Croatian leader during and after the wars. Not sure what is more worrisome — losers (i.e. Serbs) playing the victim card or victors playing the triumphalist card. As Adnan of CNA observed during my conversation with him a few weeks ago “history gets written by the winners.”
Our next two stops were also still in BiH — Blagaj, the source of the Buna River and site of a Sufi monastery, and Medjugorje. We didn’t actually visit either the church or the site of the apparition in Medjugorje; the town was packed to the gills with participants in the annual international youth festival so we decided to have an early dinner and pack it in. Earlier in the day, while visiting the monastery at Blagaj, we had to be dressed appropriately. C was wearing long pants, but K, S, and I were given coverings. All I could think about was how hot I was; I don’t know how Muslim women who are completely covered do it. The Buna river comes out of a cave in the adjacent mountain and the crisp, cold water is a deep shade of turquoise. Stunning!
The next day we crossed over into Croatia en route to Dubrovnik. Not an easy proposition, especially during the height of tourist season. There is a thin sliver of BiH which extends to the Adriatic so that means there are three — count ’em, three — border crossings with check points on each side. BiH into Croatia, Croatia back into BiH, then BiH into Croatia. The reason for the sliver had to do with the realpolitik of medieval Dubrovnik (aka “Ragusa”) which maintained its independence from 1358 until 1808, in large part by playing off the rival Ottomans and Venetians. Dubrovnik sold that slip of land to the Ottomans in return for their promise to defend Dubrovnik should the need arise. All that didn’t matter in modern times when it was all one country, but after the break-up the original borders were restored and voila! — a lengthy process to get from Croatia to Croatia. Talks between Croatia and BiH are on-going; meanwhile the border(s), especially in August, continue to back up.
After surmounting a number of logistical challenges (the aforementioned borders, a dispute with our GPS about exactly how to enter Dubrovnik, getting all our luggage up the stairs of our street to the apartment, and finding a garage to store the car) we made it to our Dubrovnik airbnb apartment. My only caveat about traveling to Dubrovnik is twofold: don’t go in August and if you drive, pay the extra for accommodations with on-site parking (because you’ll end up paying that and more for the garage any way). Other than that, Dubrovnik was everything I remembered it to be and everything the others had hoped it would be. It has always been, and continues to be, one of my favorite places in the whole world. It was magical walking through the old town that first night, and when the street lights came on the whole main street, Stradun, began to sparkle. Centuries of people walking on the streets of Dubrovnik have polished them to a high gloss.
K and S visited Game of Thrones sites, we walked around the city walls at sunset, we attended a folklore evening of music and dance on top of one of the fortresses, we spent an afternoon on the island of Lokrum, we had some amazing dinners, and we enjoyed just sitting and gazing at the incredible view from the apartment. More pictures to follow on the “Pages” part of the blog — and you can imagine I too a lot of pictures of this drop-dead gorgeous city.
Our second day in Dubrovnik we drove to Montenegro, which used to be a 45 minute drive, but, you guessed it, another border crossing… There we met up with my cousin A, a theologian and archaeologist who was working on a monastery site near Tivat. I only knew A via facebook — we connected through a series of remarkable coincidences: turns out that the sister-in-law of my friend B here in Miami is A’s best friend since childhood. I am so glad we connected — it was uncanny how much we had in common — and I look forward to staying in touch with her. Together with A we visited the walled medieval town of Kotor — “Dubrovnik off steroids” — as I dubbed it. I wish we could have spent more time there as it is truly lovely. Montenegro was the last country to break away — not until 2006. Relations with Serbia continue to be cordial; we spotted a lot of cars with Serbian plates there (not the case in Dubrovnik). Another casualty of the war: Serbia has no sea access, so Serbs used to flock to the Dalmatian coast in the summer (which is why Dubrovnik is so formative in my memory). No longer.
A few days later, K and I took the cable car to the top of Mt. Srdj above Dubrovnik. The views were stunning. At the very top of the mountain stands the Napoleonic “Empire Fortress,” which played a key role in the defense of Dubrovnik during the war. It houses an exhibit about the battle for Dubrovnik and the battering it took at the hands of Serbian forces. It was incredibly difficult to look at — it is still incomprehensible to me why the ethnic Serbian forces within Croatia, with the full backing of Milosevic, chose to attack this gem of a city. The human cost was of course terrible and the destruction of a city internationally known and loved, a UNESCO world heritage site, was the epitome of madness. Yes there were genuine reasons for the ethnic Serbs in the Krajina region of western Croatia to be afraid. Yes Franjo Tudjman sanctioned ethnic cleansing there. But all of that was negated in the eyes of the world by the wanton destruction of Dubrovnik. The city has since been rebuilt and it is (almost…) impossible to tell what happened, but the animosity will take generations to heal.
After spending five nights in Dubrovnik it was time to say goodbye to it and to K who had to get back to DC for work. I drove him to the airport at 0-dark-30 and then C, S, and I continued on to Split where we spent one night in a great little boutique hotel built right into the walls of Diocletian’s palace. Actually, everything in Split’s old town is built right into the walls of that Roman emperor’s palace. There was a Roman town, Salona, above what was to become Split. When it was sacked by invading Slavs and Avars in the 7th century, the people fled to the surrounding islands as well as into the palace below–which eventually morphed into Split.
Split was the only place we were genuinely worried about the Serbian license plates on our rental car. Unlike Dubrovnik, there was no indoor garage and keeping the car near the hotel was not an option (the entire old town is a pedestrian zone). We reached the gates of the old city, called the hotel, and they sent a young man to guide us to a public parking lot and help us with our luggage. When he saw our plates he expressed genuine concern: in the past Serbian guests at the hotel had had their cars vandalized. We hit upon a scheme which involved plastering several “HR” stickers on the car and displaying a Croatian flag on the dashboard. We were very fortunate; the next morning the car was unscathed other than the stickers having been removed. Go figure.
As we were walking to the hotel with him, the young man from the hotel told us his story. He was actually Serbian himself. His parents had met in Sarajevo before the war and settled in Split (I wasn’t quite clear if only one or both of his parents were Serbs). During the war they fled to Novi Sad in Serbia. “Oh, you had to go back?” I said. No — they had to go there, not go back. Split had always been his home. There are certainly thousands upon thousands of stories like his — people from all the ethnic groups and from throughout the whole area — uprooted and displaced by the wars, having to flee the only home they ever knew.
A glimmer of hope, though, struck me — he, at least, has come back and is once again living his life in his hometown of Split.
Next: Slovenia, Italy, and home again.