Undiscovered Europe: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina
I had seen most of Western Europe when I visited the Balkans, but I wasn’t prepared for the beauty and raw elements of war I would see. Mountain views, lakes and valleys that would rival the best of Switzerland, rivers that rival the beauty of Idaho’s and untouched wilderness, the bridge in Mostar rival the arches of the canals of Venice, but evoke an emotional response. The worst of the war torn parts remind me of some parts of Beirut. Even the West Bank has been more cleaned up than some of the pits out of the buildings in Sarajevo. The stories of the rebuilding of the Synagogue in Sarajevo… How many times can a building be rebuilt?
In contrast, Roman emperors vacationed in Croatia. Dubrovnik and Split are incredibly scenic and would rival that of any ports in Italy or France, and a fresh seafood or fish dinner would cost you much less. I guess what I’m saying is, I loved it. Belgrade and Sarajevo are the hidden gems of Europe, the passion and life, and recent history to blow your mind. The travelers looking for secrets in Europe. Here’s a great place to start. It’s the Balkans. Some of my best friends in Europe. There’s something that goes deeper here. Relationships are stronger, and go deeper, you can feel it.
My trip started in Zagreb the capital of Croatia with a night tour. We met up for a great dinner and ended up walking around parliament, and old town Zagreb. Zagreb itself did avoid much of the conflict in the Balkan conficts/wars that happened back in 92-93.
Remnants of the war are still visible. There are more reasons to come and visit than the incredible night life. There are fresh memories that will teach the world a lesson… this lesson is war is not kind to anyone. War should be avoided at all costs, and the horrors and nightmares of war are real. Those who only vacation at Disneyland or Disneyworld and spend their vacations with the Grand Canyon as the ultimate bucketlist need to come for a visit. This land has a lot of lessons to teach. When we got close to the Republik of Srpska we came across these signs. After spending time at the Cambodia land museum, I have been convinced that land mines do more danger to the citizens that have to live with these than any good they do for the military. There are some crazy stats on how much the people are impacted by these.
Now before you think it’s all doom and gloom, that’s totally not the key take away. It’s the opposite. In fact my friend Michael, who I was traveling with, recently wrote about his experience on this same trip. I highly encourage reading about his writeup on the former Hapsburg empire – Serbia, Romania, Bosnia & Herz, Montenegro, and Croatia. This trip started with a fellow colleague who lived in Croatia, Toni Frankola, a speaking team of Michael Noel, and Paul Swider.
This place is amazing, but as an American tourist, that gets a rise out of seeing something unlike anything I can find within the US or Western Europe. I get excited. This was one of the best Europe vacations I’ve ever done. I’ve seen Dubrovnik and Mostar on the front page of Bing on multiple occasions. They really are spectacular. The castle in Belgrade was an awesome place to walk around. The cultural music and dancing we got at night was spectacular. Very fun environment. I think it was a good thing for Toni as well, as he recognized some of the tunes, and was surprised to see the similarities between Croatia and Serbia. Good stuff.
Before we get to the spectacular I have to share a couple of stories about not so spectacular bombing, that was done by the U.S. which we saw in Belgrade. (Pictured Above) This is one reminder. When we stopped to take pictures, we got some odd looks. We were treated just fine. No problems travelling in Serbia. We were wondering how a Croat and 3 Americans would fare, but we didn’t have any issues really. Well, over the course of our trip, we did end up having to pay off some police in Sarajevo, and in Romania. Both of those were under 100 euros, and the one in Romania got us out of having to pay the tabs. We weren’t spending more than a couple of hours there. It was a whim where I was like hey, we are so close… let’s go to Romania!
(Pictured a church in a small Romanian Village. With my crew. L-R: Me, Paul, Michael, and Toni)
After Driving through some amazing farm land, and seeing many horse drawn wagons, and lots of people wondering who we were and what we were doing there. (Yes, we were at times (subtlety) hanging out the window taking pictures of their animals and wagons. They really didn’t get tourists in their villages… No magnets! We decided we should head to Bosnia.
I was most fascinated with Sarajevo. As a host to the 1984 Winter Olympic games, and
I highly recommend you read up on Sarajevo. That city was shelled for over a year. There are vivid reminders. More than 10,000 were killed in Sarajevo, and there were mass exoduses. Imagine trying to live in a city and have tanks and big guns in the hills taking people out that are in line to get water or taking people out at a football match.
You can read about the siege of Sarajevo. From 1992 to 1996 during the Bosnian war. The longest siege of modern warfare for a capital city. A siege of 18000 were stationed in the hills around the city. Before the siege there were 525,000+ and after there are currently somewhere around 380,000. Beyond all the deaths, a lot of loss of the history and culture of Bosnia went up with it’s National Library, one of my favorite buildings in the city.
From Wikipedia: “On August 25, 1992 Serbian shelling during the Siege of Sarajevo caused the complete destruction of the library; among the losses were about 700 manuscripts and incunabula and a unique collection of Bosnian serial publications, some from the middle of the 19th century Bosnian cultural revival.”
In Most, Bosnia & Herzegovina a town divided by the newly independent Bosnians and Ethnic Serbs you’ll see churches on one side of the river and mosques on the other. The bridge itself is an incredible monument. When it was built by the Ottoman empire in the 16th century, it was the widest man made bridge in the world.
On side of the bridge you’ll see a “remember 1993” painted on an inactive land mine. It still haunts me. I can remember what I was doing in 1993. I wasn’t worried about war. I was reading about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski. These reminders do bring the possibilities fresh in my mind, and prevent me from being complacent about how I treat others and how I see others being treated. I think it’s one of the reasons I feel like I need to both look out for the Jews and the Palestinians. I worry about both sides of the walls in Gaza and the west bank, and I worry now about the Serbs in Kosovo, and the Albanian Kosovars in and around Serbia and Kosovo. If you haven’t been to the Ann Frank house, in Amsterdam you need to go. The concern for Muslims at the end of the tour is something that was vivid in the reflections part of how minorities might be treated in the future. The future is now.
This beautiful Stari Most bridge is from the 1600s, and was destroyed in the war and rebuilt in 2005. That story alone is incredible and the pictures are so graphic.
Dubrovnik, Croatia (pictured below). Another town that did not escape the war, was shelled from the surrounding hillsides for a period of three months, but really it is one of the most beautiful gems of Europe. It’s a must see. It is a port town, so quite easy to get on a Mediterranean cruise. Very easy to relax. There are some great little islands in Croatia, I’d love to explore some time. Croatia really is quite accessible. There is an airport in Dubrovnik that we had planned to take, but ended up on the night ferry to Anconna Italy from Split, Croatia a port town with Ferry’s to Italy. This trip would end with an exciting adventure to escape the ash cloud… but that’s another story.
(Pictured Right: Diocletian’s Palace in Split.)
As Michael puts it: As far as cities go, Dubrovnik has it all. Deep port on a beautiful sea, city walls for protection, beautiful architecture, great food, and warm friendly people.