Balkan Beauty, Balkan Beast – Croatia

Balkan Beauty, Balkan Beast

With my Balkan experience over, I have had time to reflect on the many things I have seen. Back on the “mainland” of Europe in Italy, as I like to call it, since the Balkans seems like a European tangent to me, another world away from the main tourist sights (well, except for Italian tourists that is). The Dalmatian Coast in Croatia is a land of beaches, turquoise waters, and medieval, red-roofed towns. I was on three islands: Brac, known for Bol, which is a beach that sticks out like a finger and changes shape according to the wind and the tides; Hvar, the party island and destination for thousands of Italian tourists. The last island was Korcula, the beautiful island and home of Marco Polo, and my favorite.

Last I was in Dubrovnik, almost the final city in Croatia and for that reason, and its beauty, I understand why they call it the “pearl of the Dalmatian Coast.” It is a walled city sitting atop high, rocky cliffs overlooking the clear blue sea. Sitting atop the walls at our favorite bar, where all we could see was the walls, rocks below, and sea, I really felt like I was at the end of the world. Maybe how Christopher Columbus felt setting off on his journeys. The world wouldn’t be such a bad place if it ended in Dubrovnik.

As usual on my journeys throughout Croatia, I met up with some wonderful French people and got an apartment with them right in the main square of town, with the fruit market right behind us. This made for noisy mornings but was well worth it. I knew these French guys were cool when one of them sported an obnoxious Jackie Chan t-shirt for going out. Only someone who could laugh at himself could get away with such clothing.

After frantic searching and emailing, I finally found Katherine and her boyfriend, Thomas, the next day after my arrival. We spent a great day on the rocky ledge beneath the high walls, where men demonstrated their masculinity by jumping off cliffs, and we swam in the turquoise waters where you could see 30 feet to the bottom and your own shadow on the depths below. The statues of saints watched over us, and gazed to the horizon for further lands to explore.

Unfortunately, our culinary experience did not match our beach time. Besides the usual wait of one hour for food at restaurants, we knew we were in trouble when our moustached, hair-lipped waitress with a t-shirt that read, “Don’t kiss me without permission” arrived at our table. The drunken cook that walked around with a full carafe of wine, mumbling to the tourists and looking in vain for the canary that chirped from a cage, didn’t help matters much. Our food was almost inedible.

But, after some discussion, we decided to set out for “forbidden” territory, to Sarajevo, only six hours by bus (well, supposedly). The route was unbelievably beautiful – after leaving the coast, we entered high, rocky mountains that reminded me of Yosemite or Switzerland, with rivers the colour of ice running through valleys. And this was when the Kodak moment was spoiled – hour number 5, and what happens but, FLAT TIRE number 2 of my trip. Why me????? Maybe I am jinxed for public transportation.

As I would come to realize later, the area in which we broke down would come to mirror Bosnia as a whole. We were surrounded by garbage! You name it, from cattle corpses to decapitated dolls to discarded clothes to leftover food, it was all there. With us in the middle of it. Lovely.

This combination of beauty and destruction is a symbol of Bosnia as soon to be seen in Sarajevo. This city is in the middle of a beautiful green valley, with red-roofed homes perched high on the hills, and the minarets of Turkish mosques peeking out from all corners. But the ravages of war were everywhere, almost no building was left untouched. Bullet holes, shell marks, the insides of tall buildings spilling out like intestines, the faces completely blown off, black marks from fires caused by shelling…the scars of war became the main tourist attraction.

This beautiful city had been blackened by ethnic hatred. But it is making a comeback, and people fill the streets at night and go about their business like any city, it is a lively place. Our view from our hotel room (which we called the “attic) was a shell hole in a roof and blown up buildings. Quite the contrast from Dubrovnik (that city had also suffered, but not to the same extent and was fully repaired).

The most moving experience was when we visited the Tunnel Museum. During the war, Sarajevo was under siege by the Serbs for three years. The Serbs had the city surrounded, and the only lifeline was a 2km tunnel built by hand in four months under the airport. I really don’t think the world understood that Sarajevo and its Muslim population was slowly being strangled by the Serbs, thousands of people were dying – no food, no weapons, no electricity. We watched a 20 minute video that almost brought us to tears. The tour guide was very somber the whole time, for it was his house that was used as the entrance to the tunnel, and the horror he had been witness to was evident in his face. He was younger than me.

If we thought Sarajevo was in bad shape, it paled in comparison to Mostar. This city was completely destroyed. And not by the Serbs this time, but by the Croats. I still do not fully understand this war, but all I do know is that the Bosnian Muslims got SCREWED! The symbol of this city was the Old Bridge, a beautiful bridge that spanned a sparkling river, connecting the Muslim and Croat sides and charming, medieval shops and restaurants. This bridge no longer exists, blown up by the Croats. This would be like San Francisco blowing up the Golden Gate Bridge if it was at war with Marin County. What evil things war makes men do. Mostar is practically leveled, almost every building is just a shell. Yet beside the ruin of a house or building a brand new cafe will sprout, like flowers growing between the cracks in concrete. I guess life will thrive if given sunshine and light, room to breathe.