September 2009

Graves from the war – Mostar

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

The thing I just can’t wrap my head around is meeting all these nice Montenegrins, Croatians, and Bosnians, and picturing them all trying to kill each other less than two decades ago.

Yugoslavia was created as a kingdom after World War I, then again under the rule of Marshall Tito after World War II, and therein lies the problem: the country was a creation. Yugoslavia means “land of the south Slavs” and most of the people in the country did at least have their Slavic origins in common and most spoke a common language, Serbo-Croatian, but they had different ethnicities.

It gets complicated quickly. There were six republics in Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. But Tito and Yugoslavia also officially recognized nations, such as the Croatian nation and the Serbian nation. The republics had borders that could be drawn on a map, but the nations represented an ethnic identity. Most Slovenes live in Slovenia, most Croatians live in Croatia, etc., but there were Serbs in Croatia, or Croatians living in Bosnia, and so on. There was no Bosnian ethnicity or nation, but the Republic of Bosnia was home to Croats, Serbs, and Muslims (who were officially given the status of being a nation by Yugoslavia in the ‘60’s).

There were more people who identified themselves as Serbian than any other nationality in Yugoslavia, so Tito came up with a system of checks and balances to keep everyone under federal control, or at least keep them from killing each other. Most of the republics were given a fair amount of autonomy, but not Serbia, since it was potentially so powerful. To ensure the Serbs didn’t get their noses out of joint, he then gave most of the administrative jobs in the other republics to ethnic Serbs.

Communism collapsed in the late 1980s, and people in former communist states in Europe began to feel a strong sense of nationalism. This new sense of nationalism resulted in republics like Slovenia and Croatia declareing themselves independent from Yugoslavia. After a short 10 day war, Slovenia was allowed to leave Yugoslavia, but not Croatia. The difference was there were quite a few Serbs living in Croatia, many clustered in Serbian-majority towns and regions, and the Republic of Serbia wouldn’t let them go.
Almost everyone in Slovenia was ethnically Slovenian.

Once Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, Serbia, led by the completely amoral and opportunistic Slobodan Milosovic, helped ensure the Yugoslavian army would be used to attempt to keep Croatia as part of a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. Once Slovenia was allowed to leave, however, it became clear it was really at heart a war between Croats and Serbians, with everyone else caught in the middle.

Bosnia was in the worst situation. Physically located between Croatia and Serbia, with a mixed population of Croatians, Serbians and Muslims, it had three choices, none of which were good: declare their own independence (which Serbia would reject since they wanted to keep all Serbs together and have as large of a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia as possible); stay in a rump Yugoslavia ruled by an unfettered Serbia (which the Croats and Muslims in Bosnia were loathe to accept); or allow itself to be split in two and annexed into Croatia and Serbia (which was intolerable to the Muslims or those still hoping for a Yugoslav state).

Throw in tensions from ethnic Albanians living in the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo, memories of fighting between Croats and Serbs during World War II, and countless other factors, and war was almost inevitable once the strong hand of the communist rulers was removed. The resulting war (or wars, depending on how you see it) devastated cities and regions. Atrocities were committed on all sides, although there have been far more war crimes indictments against Serbs.

Again, the people we met were all so friendly but it must be difficult to live with the daily reminders of the war. In Mostar and Sarajevo, for example, some buildings still show the pockmarks from bullets, and some are just burned out shells. In cemeteries, there are many headstones showing men who died in 1991 to 1993 at around age 20, and I realized that I was born the same year as many of these men. Seeing all this made us realize we didn’t know as much about the war as we should and we’ve been reading Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia. It’s not always an easy read but it is informative.


Sidewalk cafe – Zagreb

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Who thinks of Zagreb as a great place to visit? People who have been there, that’s who. Zagreb ended up being the best surprise we’ve had in our travels.

Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, which used to be in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so there are sections of Zagreb that look a lot like Austria, and it’s a beautiful city. The main square, Trg Bana Jelicica, and the area around it seem to have found the way to mix the old and the new. Most of the buildings are from the 19th century or earlier but the businesses in them sell the latest fashions and electronics. The city just made us feel content. There was always something happening as well as an abundance of sidewalk cafes where we could sit and watch the world go by.

The food in Zagreb was good, and generally not very expensive, but accommodation costs more than in most places in the region. The best example of this was the hostel we stayed in just north of the square. To get a single bed in a dorm cost almost €20, which is expensive for a hostel, but we could get delicious plates of pasta for less than €4.

I had the feeling, though, that most people in Zagreb have a slight inferiority complex. I bought a CD from a street musician and he asked if we were here on business or “for curiosity.” When I explained we were here as tourists and loved it, he smiled, waggled his head a little, and said, “It’s big but it’s so slow.” I noticed at other times that when we would compliment the city or country people seemed pleased but a little surprised.

Before we got there I never would have thought I could enjoy travelling in the former Yugoslavia for almost a month, but it is a wonderful place. If you get the chance, you really should visit.

At the end of our first full day in Bihac, I asked Amy if she could think of a town that we liked less, that was more depressing, and that we wanted to get out of sooner.  She thought for a moment and said no.  I agreed.

To be fair, we weren’t seeing Bihac at its best.  We arrived after spending over 6 hours on a bus and the sky was overcast.  And it was Sunday, so nothing was happening and nothing was open.  The town itself was at a low-point, since the main bridge over the Una River was blocked off for reconstruction, with a tarry smoke rising from it, and a green space that looked like a nice park in aerial photographs now looked like an abandoned construction site, with lots of litter and the occasional pile of lumber.

The river itself was a bit of a disappointment, since it was reputed to be the most beautiful in Europe.  It wasn’t.  It’s very pretty, to be sure, but it wasn’t even as beautiful as the river we’d seen less than a week before in Mostar.

The people weren’t as nice and helpful as we’d encountered in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.  We were hauling our bags toward the river because we’d read that Bihac had more B & B’s than most towns in Bosnia and most were by the Una.  It doesn’t.  Walking down the street near the river, we spied a building proclaiming it had rooms, but a man on the street asked us if we wanted a room, and when we said yes, he said they didn’t have them anymore.  We continued down the street to see what else there was but it turned out there was nothing.  Why the man didn’t let us know that and save us a walk is a mystery.

Later we stopped at an internet cafe and were told they were cleaning the computers, four laptops on a table, so we couldn’t use them.  Sure enough, they were dusting them, but we never quite got why we couldn’t use one.  Later, at a second internet cafe we went to, the woman running it turned me away saying there wasn’t a computer available.  Actually, though, she was using one, and when we’d been in there earlier we saw that all she was doing was chatting with her boyfriend online.  We use internet cafes a lot, and it’s not unusual for the employees to use a computer when one is free, or to let a young family member or someone have free use, but they always, always, give up the computer for a paying customer.  Except in Bihac, where the customer is always last.

Every meal we had here was unexceptional.  The hotel was clean and roomy, but also with one of the worst planned bathrooms I’ve ever seen.  To give you just an idea how bad it was, the towel warming rack is on the wall directly facing the showerhead, less than 4 feet distant.  Put your towel on the rack and it will be nicely soaked by the time you need to dry off.

The town center is so small it can be walked in about 5 minutes, and that is not an exaggeration.  We’ve been to lots of big cities and small towns, and we usually seek out the center, which is almost guaranteed to be one of the oldest and most interesting (though usually also touristy) parts of any city.  Unfortunately, Bihac’s town center was mostly new buildings and utterly without charm.  Even the theatre was taunting us, showing Marley and Me, which was not on our to-see list.  To paraphrase a line from Bill Bryson, I would rather have bowel surgery in the woods with a stick.

Amy suggested that it might not be any fun to visit but it could be okay to raise a family there, and I agreed, except for the landmines.  Did I forget to mention the landmines?  The town is at the northern end of a national park, but two sources suggested not walking out of town without a guide, since there are still many unmarked landmines left over from the fighting of the early ‘90s.

So it may have just been the atmosphere, the people, the food, the accommodations, the dull town center, and the landmines, but for some reason we just didn’t like Bihac.

Old Town – Sarajevo

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

We usually have a plan for where we are going although the plan changes hourly. Still, I think Sarajevo marked the first time our travel plans changed because of a good steak.

When we left Montenegro, we headed up the Adriatic coast to Split, Croatia. We first got a room for one night, then a second, then two more. We liked Split and Diocletian’s Palace and it was a pleasant break.

As we travelled in Montenegro and Croatia, people kept telling us that Sarajevo was the most beautiful city they’d seen, and a couple of people also mentioned Mostar, which was on the way to Sarajevo. So, off we went to Bosnia and Herzegovina for two nights in Mostar and three in Sarajevo. Mostar has anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 people, depending on which person you speak to or which source you read, but by staying in the old city center near the bridge, it seems much, much smaller. It’s a lovely town. Sarajevo is bigger, but it has a nice old town, and it felt comfortable. We enjoyed the food, too, filling up on burek and čevapi most days.

Eventually our last night in Sarajevo arrived and we were at a loss as to where to go next. No one was pointing out the next great city, or telling us where they’d just come from and had the most wonderful time. We were in quite a funk because all the options seemed to have problems. We knew eventually we were heading northwest toward Venice, and we didn’t want to head in the opposite direction, but the Schengen treaty would keep us from heading out of the Balkans too soon. Staying in Sarajevo was an option, but while it is quite pretty and we were enjoying it, we felt we needed to move on. If Sarajevo ends up feeling a bit of a disappointment to us, it’s not because the city isn’t wonderful, just that it didn’t live up to the hype of being the most beautiful city in Europe.

As we pondered what to do, we sat down to dinner. Then our steaks arrived. Now, Amy is from Texas, where they have good beef and they know how to cook it, but this steak rivalled anything we’d had there. It was tender and tasty and the only problem was it needed to be about twice as big as it was. After the first bite or two we agreed we needed to stay in Sarajevo another night, just so we could come back to the restaurant to get the steak again.

We had to find another place to sleep for the extra night because the pansion where we were staying was booked, and we didn’t have much else to do or see that final extra day, but the steak was worth it.

Last night at dinner, I handed the waiter a 50 mark note (25 euros) to pay for a dinner that cost 15 marks, but the waiter said he had no change.  None.  He had to go to one of his colleagues to get together the proper change to give me.  That a waiter was completely unable to make any change for his customers should seem surprising, but it isn’t.  In our travels in Europe we’ve noticed a difficulty for anyone to make change.

Earlier yesterday, when I paid for our room in Sarajevo, and gave 250 marks for a bill of over 240 marks, our hostess struggled to make change and had to give me some of it in euros (I’ve read that mixing currencies can be a tactic to cheat tourists out of the correct change, but that wasn’t the case here).  In Zabljak, a woman in line ahead of us at the largest store in town (okay, it was still just a mini mart but it was the largest) was refused when she attempted to buy batteries with a €20 note.

Twice in two days in Grenada last year, in two different stores, I used a €2 coin to pay for a Coke that cost more than €1.  In both cases the clerks looked at the coin, asked if I had something smaller, and when I said I didn’t, they took the coin to a nearby store to break the coin into something smaller so they could make change for me.  For those of you who are math-challenged, the change was less than one euro both days.

What makes it even more difficult is this odd habit of banks to give very large notes.  In most places in America, banks dispense $20 bills, but in Europe the most commonly dispensed bill is a €50 note. We’ve noticed that the less things cost in a community, the larger the bills the bank will dispense.  In Zabljak, for instance, where things cost about 40% what they do in Ireland, the bank gave out €100 notes.  Figuring out how to break these large bills is a challenge in a place where right next door to the bankomat was a pharmacy where I bought a box of ibuprofen for €.82 with a €5 note (the smallest bill in euros) and was asked for something smaller. The pharmacist seemed quite disgusted that I couldn’t produce something more appropriate.

Hoteliers should never be allowed to create maps or write directions to their establishments.  The instructions on Hostelbookers for our hostel in Sarajevo said the taxi ride should cost €3 at most so of course it cost €5.  I know, it’s not that much of a difference, but I don’t see why they can’t provide accurate information.

We’ve commented before that any street that has a street sign won’t be on the map, and any street on the map won’t have a street sign.  But then there are the cases like the campground in Pisa that said to exit the train station and look for the bus stop by the Cavalier Hotel.  It turns out the hotel in front of the station is the Jolly Cavalier Hotel, but they only put Jolly on the signs, so the directions are worthless.  It later turned out that after waiting about 30 minutes for the bus to arrive, taking a 20 minute bus ride, and finally walking another 20 minutes, that there is another train station, one stop before the main station,  just a couple of hundred meters from the campground. The campground website neglects to mention this, of course.

In Nice, the directions told us to ride a bus to a particular stop, then cross the street and turn left.  It turns out that it’s not necessary to cross the street, but because we did, everything from there on out was reversed.  Finding the right stop in the first place is almost always a challenge, unless it’s the last stop on the route.  As we noted recently in one of our postings on getting to Greece, hotels will usually tell you to get off at a particular stop and might suggest asking the driver to tell you when that is, but it never works in practice.

We now print or copy the directions and the map given or get one from google maps, as well as carry a compass.  Seriously, a small compass makes things so much easier when you pop out of an underground metro system and all you know is you have to head south.  But compasses only help if you know what direction to go.

The directions to our last hostel in Mostar included a map, but it turned out that map along with the large map at the bus station and the tourist maps are all oriented with west at the top of the page.  (Oriented is the wrong word to use with a map having west on top, since orient means east.  I learned in an anthropology class that we “orient” ourselves with maps because centuries ago maps had the east on the top).  None of these Mostar maps made it quite as clear as we would have like that everything was 90 degrees off what we expected.  That wouldn’t have been a huge problem except the directions, like almost all directions to hotels and hostels, were crap.  They said to exit the station and go left, which you’d understand is a little unclear if you’ve been to the bus station in Mostar (as I’m sure most of you have).  Also, they said to go down “streets “ that turned out to be one-lane alleys, and gave names of streets where there are no street signs.

Somehow, we always find where we’re going, but it almost always takes longer than it should.

Zabljak – where we stayed

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

We usually check Hostelbookers or Hostelworld online to find a room when we travel. They list inexpensive hotels and hostels, but hostels these days aren’t like in the old days.

Before setting off for Europe, I thought of hostels as places with bunk beds in communal rooms, no sheets, and where the guests had to help with the chores as part of their stay. But many hostels now have private rooms, often with bathrooms en suite, linens (although usually not towels), and there are no chores to do except to clean up after yourself if you use the kitchen. Also, because the websites let guests rate the hostels, we can weed out the bad ones, and find those that best suit us (high cleanliness rating, low fun rating). Hostels are usually the cheapest options, and in all our travels we’ve enjoyed our hostel stays the most because of the conversation with the other guests in the common room.

But not every town has hostels, or at least hostels that are listed online, and there weren’t many anywhere in Montenegro. We had read, though, that as we left the bus station in Budva or Zabljak we would be greeted by a host of hosts wanting us to stay in rooms in their home, and it would be cheap. Homey and cheap describes us to a tee so we thought we’d give it a try.

At Budva about 10 older women and one man greeted us as we left the station. They all cried out that they had a room to rent, and we asked if anyone spoke English (the local language is officially Montenegrin, but most people speak Serbian, and the languages are apparently almost identical in everyday use). Heads shook no, and the man asked, “Sprechen zie Deutsch?” and I regretfully replied “Nein.” Because of the language barrier, we were having some difficulty figuring out prices but there was one younger woman who spoke English quite well and she acted as a kind of agent, so we followed her and one of the older women out of the station.

The older woman’s name sounded like Drah-geet-sah, and after we dumped our bags in the bedroom we sat with her on the balcony getting a lesson in Serbian. She would point to something and say the name, and once we repeated it correctly she would grin broadly and pat Amy on the leg.

This was fun, and cheap (€24 per night total), but it was also a bit odd. When we arrived at the apartment, there was another woman asleep on the couch (it was about 6:45 in the morning), and another empty bed in the living room. We realized we were taking the one bedroom, but also that Dragitsa was happy to have gotten us and taking in guests seemed to be her livelihood.

A smaller group of potential hosts greeted us in Zabljak, mostly a bunch of young girls and one older woman dressed in black. Rooms here were even cheaper (€5 per person per night), so we followed the woman in black to her house, with the young girls following along hoping we wouldn’t like it and would decide to follow them.

The house looked basic on the outside, and inside it was a bit like a treehouse. It was all wood, there were posters on the wall in the entryway (Michael Jordan, the Spurs, and some rock band from the ‘80s, amongst others), and nothing quite lined up. The steps up to our room were of different heights and widths, and we had to duck under the ceiling as the stairs did a U-turn. But it was clean and felt comfortable, so we stayed.

The house in Zabljak was bigger than Dragitsa’s apartment in Budva, so we didn’t feel quite so much like we were intruding, but it’s still not quite as private as most hotels would be. On our second day there, we were in bed and we heard loud footsteps and a man’s voice outside the door as he showed the second upstairs bedroom. We heard him explain (in accented English) that the “other room” (ours) would be available the next day and was “much bigger room, much bigger.” Without knocking, he opened our door, said a few more words, closed the door, said a bit more, then opened our door again to say, “Excuse me. Excuse me.”

We moved to a hotel for our anniversary, then back into a private home, this one a bit nicer and more expensive (€20 total per night). As Amy explained in the last post, our hostess Milena did feed us crepes one morning, and gave us plenty of juice and Turkish coffee, but this still isn’t a B & B experience. If we ever come back to Zabljak, though, we’ll stay with Milena.

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