When people ask you how you’ll be spending your vacation, and you reply ‘the Balkans’, it is expected you’ll be greeted with wide eyes and skeptical acknowledgment. Perhaps this is due to the turbulence in the region just twenty short years ago that conjure up memories of bloody news reports and siege, or perhaps images of a communist Yugoslavia under the reign of a ‘president for life’ - Tito, that is. Whatever images come to mind when one mentions ‘Balkan’, no one can quite understand what recovery and understanding looks - and feels - like until one steps foot in the Balkans themselves.
Riding in a taxi through the outskirts of Budapest, it is difficult to identify what makes Budapest one of the crown jewels of Europe - other than a modernized highway system and ads for unmistakably European goods. Even when you begin to hit the city streets, it isn’t until you make your way to the Jewish quarter that you begin to fall in love, but once you do, you can’t turn back. As our cab driver pulls onto the street paralleling the Danube, the majestic and iconic Chain Bridge comes into sight, with the Buda castle district looming on the other side.
Hungary, while not technically a Balkan, has the rich and tragic history that occupies the region. It went from a global superpower with the reign of the Austro-Hungarian empire to essentially a Soviet puppet state during the era of the Communist bloc before beginning the difficult transition out of communism and back into mainstream Europe. Budapest, originally Buda and Pest until the unification in 1873, is a shining example of Habsburg culture and architecture. Similar in style to Vienna, yet perhaps more charming and lively, the city is home to a massive cathedral, an old-world opera house, and an alluring cafe scene. One of its most prized areas - castle hill - was also one of the hardest hit areas during WWII, the palace being repeatedly bombed and destroyed, to the extent where the original castle can barely be seen in the new palace, which houses the Budapest History Museum and the impressive National Gallery.
As one drives out through the hills of Buda and onto the highway, it seems as if there couldn’t be a world-class city anywhere in the vicinity. Budapest’s suburbs recede to farmland and rolling hills quite quickly, and soon enough, you’ll find yourself moseying into Slovenia. With the European Union expanding into the former Yugoslav states over the past decade, don’t be surprised as you cross the border without so much as a passport check or a second glance. Slovenia is highly modernized - and it is probably the most so of the Balkans, even adopting the Euro in 2007. If you’ve spent time in Austria, you may feel some severe deja vu in Slovenia - as the Julian Alps tower over much of the country in a similar fashion, and the houses that dot the countryside have the familiar carved wood balconies and cutesy details. Ljubljana [lyoo-BLYAH-nah] - probably the world’s most mispronounced capital - lies in the center of Slovenia, and while it is small, green, and cute, many of the international visitors flock to Lake Bled in the upper region of the country, which offers a charming lakeside town (if not overrun by tourists) and spectacular views from Bled Castle, which is perched precariously on a cliff overlooking the lake. Although worth the trip, it is no secret that Lake Bled’s existence caters to tourism - which is evident in the rather ugly tourist complex that sits just across the street from the lake, parades of tour buses, as well as the assortment of license plates from various surrounding countries, including a steady flow of Italians and Austrians on weekend. You’ll notice the lack of Americans; Lake Bled, while popular for Europeans, has not yet been widely discovered by the American crowd. Truth be told, there’s no escaping the tourists. A drive around the small lake will lead you past one of the more interesting aspects of the town - Tito’s villa - now a hotel. Tito used to come here frequently to spend his time, and when you’ve got this scenery within your domain, I don’t see why you wouldn’t.
Driving out of Bled, the terrain changes from Austrian to something more reminiscent of the Irish countryside. Don’t be surprised if you are forced to yield on a major road to throngs of sheep being herded across - sheepdog and all. The Alps tower over as you wind through roads and tunnels, and everything seems as though you were thrown into a happy haven - everything seems so quaint and perfect. That is until you hit the Croatian border. Even if there wasn’t a border crossing, (note that unlike before, there is - despite Croatia having joined the European Union in 2013), you can easily tell that you have entered a new realm of being. The roads are not as cleanly paved as Slovenia’s, and when skirting around the capital, Zagreb, you begin to notice buildings that look oddly polka-dotted. As much as you tell your brain that it can’t be true - inevitably you’ll come to the realization as to what the mysterious dots are - bullet holes. It doesn’t end there.
We’re on our way to Plitvice Lakes National Park, and while tucked away in the middle of upper Croatia, it happens to be one of the most beautiful natural sites in all of Europe. Coming from the north, there is one road that essentially is the most direct path there, but it also cuts through one of the most devastated and hardest hit areas in Croatia. Houses line the road, boxy, peach colored and surrounded by overgrown grass on every side; it’s a beautiful and serene area, and it’s hard to imagine that just twenty years ago, snipers and landmines were facts of life. In fact, you wouldn’t be able to tell this area was war torn if it wasn’t for the houses. One comes to realize more and more as you drive down the road that every other house has some form of war damage - whether it be bullet holes, structural damage, or houses that look like gray shells of their former selves. Every now and then, a bigger gray shadow of a building comes into view - unmistakable by their cross shape…
Arriving in Plitvice Lake National Park is somewhat anti-climactic - that is until you take an overly crowded, questionably stable boat to either the lower lakes (pools of deep blue enveloped by steep cliffs on either side; don’t fall on the precarious paths) or the upper lakes (a swampy wonderland draped in waterfalls and charismatic wood walkways) - pick your poison. Perhaps you’ll encounter a monument adorned with flowers on your journey through a woodland path; a tribute to a fallen police officer killed during the “Plitvice Lakes Incident” - a rather euphemistic coined term referring to the first shots of the Croatian war.
If you haven’t been bitten by one of the park’s deadly snakes by now, you’ll continue the drive down through Croatia - through oddly desert-like conditions until, eventually, you strike treasure. The Adriatic, that is. Closing in on Split (home of Diocletian’s over-the-top retirement home), you spot your first glimpse of the turquoise water of the sea. Descending into the valley, the atmosphere turns ever-so-Italian - houses with worn, tiled roofs and thin cypress trees dotting the landscape. And the similarities don’t stop there. Sitting down at one of the many cafés or restaurants contained within the maze-like streets of Diocletian’s palace may seem like one of the best decisions one could make all day - particularly as you’re feasting on handmade pasta in some delectable sauce, although reproducing said sauce is an impossible feat - particularly since the ingredients are deliciously mysterious.
The best time to see Split, however, is most certainly at dusk - where strolling the merchant lined street just outside the worn walls of the palace will have you staring at your reflection in the silvery water and asking yourself why you haven’t found a realtor yet. You’ll begin to look for a realtor - wandering back inside the palace through the underground chambers until you pop up in a sunken square formed of polished limestone known as the “Peristyle”. You’ll sit down on the steps and stare up at the rich blue sky as it fades to darkness; you’ll then forget what a realtor is.
Dalmatian coast adventures don’t end with Split, however, and once you tear yourself away from the sky (hopefully after a good night’s sleep), the drive down the Dalmatian coast begins. As difficult as it may be to refrain from gawking at the way the sun playfully dances with the aquamarine water, be sure to look at the road. A brief stop for oranges at one of the rickety and colorful roadside stands is a must. Eventually, stomach full of those candied oranges we couldn’t help buying for only 30 kunas, we reach… the Bosnian border? Bosnia and Herzegovina governs a small 20-kilometer strip of land along the Adriatic that actually dates back to an Ottoman buffer zone - in an attempt to contain strife between the Venetians and Dubrovnik’s small but mighty republic. Today it’s simply an oddity - rather, an annoyance. At least one can stare at the water while one waits in line.
Back in Croatia, nearing the walled city of Dubrovnik, you’ll begin to see buses and ads - signs of a larger city. The actual old town itself, however, looks as though it hasn’t changed much since its days as an independent city. Walking across the almost playfully charming and historical drawbridge of the Pile gate, you’ll feel as if you’re in a Croatian version of Disneyland - then you’ll come out onto the Stradun (the wide, polished main street) and you’ll realize these guys weren’t joking around. A bustling city greets you - with shops, restaurants, and a multitude of tourists. Walking along the city walls are a must - if not somewhat nauseating - where you can peer down at the rocks in the sea below and marvel at the sloped red rooftops. The old city harbor elevates the charm of the city - provided you look past the stands advertising boat rides for a ridiculous fee to the small sailboats with metal masts reflecting the sun’s rays as they bob in the water. If you’re so inclined, you can even walk around the city walls on uncomfortably thin walkways and bask in the sun on the rocks outside. Not all is happy in this paradise, however, as the locals make an effort to educate their company on the brutal shelling of Dubrovnik - in which many of the city’s houses were damaged, even destroyed. Some, you may notice, remain in disrepair to this day.
Leaving the coast may not seem all that enticing at this point - especially as Dubrovnik grows smaller in your rearview mirror and you reach the Bosnian border crossing - a rather decrepit structure complete with large, unfriendly guards. You may have time you pray you don’t get thrown in a Bosnian prison. The drive through Bosnia to Sarajevo is, to put it frankly, humbling. Evidence of a former reality is ever present - what looks like a lively, glamorous ski lodge proves to be a shell of its departed self; signs outside deserted restaurants advertise goods that were consumed decades ago. This is the price of war.
Nearing Sarajevo, conditions don’t necessarily improve. Nor will you be stunned by the developing city itself - with a few awkward skyscrapers and a plethora of communist-era apartment buildings littered with bullet holes. It isn’t until you meet Sarajevo that you fall in love. Walking down the main drag, which is tucked away from the discovery of cars, you’ll find yourself immersed in a culture that, instead of choosing one, chose all. Vienna meets Istanbul - quite literally - with the grand, clean cut Habsburg buildings recede into offbeat, earthy Ottoman bazaars. Wandering through these bazaars, you’ll discover the people of Sarajevo. They’ll happily explain to you their beloved craft of metalworking or aid you in finding your way out of the maze of stalls. You’ll notice the coexistence of numerous religions; minarets stand next to cathedral bell towers which neighbor stained glass windows of synagogues.
Unfortunately, this city isn’t known widely for this wonderful unity - it is known more so for the siege of Sarajevo - a climax of the wider Bosnian war that lasted 1,425 days. For nearly four years, the people of Sarajevo were surrounded by Bosnian-Serb troops - cut off from food, water, electricity, medical assistance, and means of communication. The streets were monitored by snipers, and the city was often shelled - reminders of which can be seen today in the form of red resin-filled divots in the sidewalk. Over 10,000 people died in the siege, including over 500 children.
Sitting in the petite restaurant called “To Be or Not to Be” (people in Sarajevo definitely want to be), I study the numerous newspaper clippings, photos, and other curiosities hanging on the wall - all referencing the siege, which is the figurative cloud that hangs over the city. The soft flicker of the candlelight is calm in contrast to the rain battering against the window as I consider the strength of the human spirit in those dark times. I could never imagine the woman who cooks our meal in the tiny open kitchen was forced to survive with so little just over two decades ago. I could never imagine sitting, scared in the darkness of my home as I hear distant shells exploding on the pavement of the streets in which I used to walk. I could never imagine having to muster up the mental strength needed to tirelessly preserve a culture that is so uniquely and delicately balanced and inclusive. I smile at the woman as she proudly hands me my food. And she smiles back.
In a region which has only seen international attention for all the wrong reasons, the best of the human psyche perseveres. The raison d’être of this group of people has shifted to restoration, reflection, and remembrance - however, what seems to have not changed is the innate fortitude on display throughout. Through conflict and separation, courage. Through anguish and sorrow, hope.