Sunday, October 09, 2005

Balkans: Marble Palaces and Blown Up Buildings

I took a recent trip to what used to be Yugoslavia, and is now five different countries, and could be seven soon, if Montenegro and Kosovo get what they want. Not many of the places I visited are likely to become major tourist attractions too soon - land mines in the countryside and war-destroyed houses in the main streets tend not to be too popular. But there were some real surprises, places that I had never heard of but went to anyway that turned out to be gems.

We started inland a bit, in Ljubljana and Zagreb, both typical middle European places, like you might find in Austria or Germany. But then we took a four hour train ride over the mountains, past bombed-out and deserted farmhouses and villages, into the clouds and out again, to arrive on the Adriatic coast, in a city called Split. Suddenly everything had changed, from the dark, drab Art Nouveau buildings in gloomy Zagreb, to Split's dazzling marble in the bright sunshine, more like Italy or Greece or Spain.

The main attraction in Split is the retirement home of a Roman emperor, who built a colossal fortified palace, all of marble, surrounded by giant walls, and right on the seashore. After the Roman empire fell apart some invaders turned the palace into a small town, where the corridors became tiny streets of marble, the palace gardens became piazzas, and the rooms were converted into tiny shops and homes. It's still like this today.

Further along the coast is Croatia's pride and glory, Dubrovnik. This is a fortified city that was an independent city state for hundreds of years, always withstanding invasion. Living under enlightened leaders while all the rest of Europe was mired in feudalism, even in the 1300's they had a public retirement home, slavery was abolished, torture was forbidden, there were schools and a public health service. Nowadays it has fallen to modern invaders: it's on the itinerary of every Mediterranean cruise ship so its piazzas and streets-cum-staircases are too overcrowded with tourists.

We crossed the border into Bosnia and Hercegovina, to a town called Mostar which marks the limit of how far the Turkish Muslims invaded Europe. Today it's a city that's half Christian, half Muslim, so there are mosques and churches everywhere fighting for attention. It had a arched stone bridge connecting to the two sections of town over a deep river, symbolic of the supposed inter-ethnic harmony in the city with the most mixed marriages in the country but unfortunately it got blown up for fun during the wars.

It isn't Muslim life as you expect it in Mostar though - we took a quick look at a mosque, and a girl inside offered to give us a tour and tell us about her religion. Dressed conservatively with a headscarf, you're thinking? No way, this girl was ready for a night at the disco. She wore tight clothing - and not much of it at that - as she wandered inside and outside the mosque, which broke a few misconceptions for me. She told me that Mostar is the western-most Islamic city, in both the geographic sense and the cultural sense.

There were some things in Mostar that were very depressing. It was home to some of the worst fighting in the Balkan wars in the mid 1990's, wars which, no matter how much I listened and read, I couldn't quite make sense of. Serbians fought a joint Bosnian and Croatian army, then the Bosnians and Croatians went at each other. All sorts of awful stories, like snipers killing old people going about their shopping, and 10 year olds being amongst a crowd that received a grenade or two in their midst. Lots of people died pretty quickly and there wasn't enough cemeteries, so they turned parks and gardens into new cemeteries all over the place. In one cemetery in the centre of town every grave stone was marked with the year of death: 1993. In another, everybody died in 1994.

Next stop was Sarajevo, home to the Winter Olympics in the 1980's, and under siege for 3 years in the 1990's. The outer parts of Sarajevo have plenty of big ugly concrete apartment blocks, with the added feature of the occasional missing wall or roof where it was hit with a shell. Most of the inner city has been built and restored, but one notable blotch on the skyline is the totally destroyed parliament building. Somebody told me they are waiting for some aid money before they build it. Sarajevo has a good cosmopolitan feel to it, probably partly due to their being so many aid workers and UN peace keepers in town. It also has a infamous history of violence: here in 1914 the heir to the Austrian empire Archduke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian hothead anarchist, which ignited World War One.

From here the trip went downhill quickly. Our bus broke down in a non-existent, run-down and unpronounceable country called Republika Srpska, turning what promised to be an 8 hour ride in a fume-filled bus with a special technology designed to amplify every bump and pothole severalfold into something much worse. The destination of the bus ride was Belgrade, in Serbia-Montenegro. With the aftermath of the bus ride and the weather - rain came down in torrents the entire time I was there - the word Belgrade now conjures up very dark images for me.

We ended the trip in a Macedonian town called Ohrid. It sounded pretty nice in the guidebook, but was better than that. It's a peaceful old town with quiet streets, on a lake with a view to Albania on the other side. It spent time over the years as a Roman city, Byzantine, Turkish, Yugoslavian, and now Macedonian, and there is a little bit of all of this today. It's exactly halfway between nowhere and nowhere, so the only tourists who venture there are local ones, and the occasional idiot who didn't realise that there is a reason why nobody makes the effort to spend their holidays trudging through the more remote parts of the former Yugoslavia. It's got the Mosques-and-Churches-together thing happening, and people around Ohrid didn't get involved in the war so there's no bullet holes and grenade scars in the streets and walls like there were in the other towns we passed through.

My Balkan photos are here: