Balkan Roadtrip: Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia

As usual when I write about my travels, my posts are riddled with anekdotes of the trip as well as observations and insights on the countries and cultures I visit.
I’ve been wanting to visit former Yugoslavia for a while since it’s such unknown territory, so I gained a lot of insights. It made me realize how little I really knew about the Yugoslav war, so fair warning, you might have to read through some things I learned.

Slovenia

Emilie and I started our trip in Slovenia to see my friend Rok again, with whom I had studied in Amsterdam. Katherina, another study friend who lives in Germany, had joined us in Ljubljana as well for the occasion.
Rok was an excellent tour guide and immediately plunged us into Balkan mode with his “favourite” collection of Slovenian Eurovision entries on the road to his house. He also treated us to some crazy ex-Yugoslavian music over the weekend, highlights being the genre “turbo-folk” and a band called Laibach, who are now playing in North-Korea as the first foreign band to ever perform in the dictatorship.

We visited lake Bled, a gorgeous lake where the only island in Slovenia is located, surrounded by the Austrian mountains. We then continued on to the beautiful lake Bohinj (don’t dare pronounce that J!) to take a swim.

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I lost the immensely stupid bet that those giant clouds and storm would not be coming our way, upon which we all got soaked, and I cooked us all dinner.

Rok showed us Ljubljana the next day, being our personal tour guide, and we learned that Slovenia basically invented democracy. It was a gorgeous little city, not too overrun by tourists yet, and its city logo is a dragon. A DRAGON. How badass is that?

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Ljubljana had apparently also always been kind of a rebel, resisting to the many occupations the city had gone through.

There were also a lot of Austrian influences to be noted in the city’s architecture, very pleasant to the eye. When the rain started again, we fled into the modern arts museum, where a little performance was planned at closing time. This resulted into us listening to the most famous Slovenian artist preaching for 45 minutes in Slovenian while we lied down staring at projections on the ceiling. Yes, I’m an impatient little child, so after 15 minutes I was already fidgeting and my imagination had run its course about what he was talking about. Apparently the artist is a really cool dude, who performs a play every 15 years in zero-gravity. Dragan Živadinov’s goal is to perform the last reprise in 2045 in outer space. Damn! If only I understood Slovenian…

On Monday we left to pick up our rental car at the airport to start our roadtrip, but we first still needed to buy a tent because we wanted to go camping. 4 shops at the weird outdoor shoppingmall, some negotiations and stress sweats later we had acquired a beautiful tent for a fair price!

We were going to drive to Plitvice lakes in Croatia, intending to arrive before 2 so we could still see the park. Three hours later than planned, we arrived at the camping, dead tired and sick to our stomach. Driving on stressful winding mountain-roads in heavy rainfall right after eating, and getting lost a few times by relying on the GPS had caused some damage to morale.
But we weren’t going to let the road get us down on the very first day! So we bailed on visiting Plitvice entirely, loaded up on good thoughts and made back-up plans for our full day drive to Sarajevo. We were told the Bosnian roads and drivers were really bad, so we expected the worst. Turned out the next day we had been worried about nothing and Bosnia was a breeze to drive. We also entirely relied on the roadmap we brought and the signs on the road. Not having to use the GPS felt quite liberating really.

Bosnia

It was instantly noticeable we were in a different, poorer country when we stopped for our first toilet break. “you cannot use toilet here. There iz no woter. No woter in region for last days”.
A few kilometers further, there was still no water, but Emilie was told in Bosnian sign-language she could use a little bit of the brown bucket water to flush the toilet.
We weren’t comfortable to pee on the side of the road since we had been told there were still landmines everywhere in Bosnia, especially next to roads, so bucket water it was!

Islamic Bosniaks and the War

From the moment we drove into Bosnia, we were taken aback by a sight we had never before experienced in Western Europe: minarettes of mosques riddling the landscape!

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When the Ottomans conquered the area 700 years earlier, they had spread their religion, still popular to this day. The Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians) make up 44% of the Bosnian population to this date so of course the presence of Mosques was as normal as church towers in our landscape. The Bosniaks were sadly enough heavily persecuted during the Yugoslav war 20 years ago, in which Bosnia was the main battlefield.
We all heard about the war, but most of us don’t know the details of it all, why it all started, and why it ignited a genocide against the muslims. I didn’t get to the bottom of why Muslims were so hated while we were still there, but I would recommend to watch BBC documentary series “the death of Yuguslavia” to know more about the causes of the ethnic tensions.

It was kind of a weird realization that Islamophobia was just as prevalent in these regions as it was in our Western-European society. Only here the Muslims weren’t immigrants that could “go back to their own countries with their own customs”. Muslims had been here for centuries!

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They had always lived together in peace with Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jewish (who were unfortunately almost entire driven out during the 2nd World War). A lot had changed over the last few decades though, and even 20 years after the war, ethnic tensions were still there. We met a traveler who was in the mainly Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia (Republica Srpska) who saw the outspoken hatred against Muslims when he walked around with a Pakistani traveler. Obviously the rivers between the ethnic groups still run deep.

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Driving through Republica Srpska we saw that most of the signs were in Cyrillic and Latin alphabet, but the Latin letters were often spraypainted away. And the reverse happened when we left Republica Srspska, the Cyrillic intended for Serbs would be erased, as a clear sign who doesn’t belong there.

We were told that, to cool things down after the war, the three main ethnic groups of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks were given their own political rights and their own president through the Dayton accords. Sadly enough, ONLY those three are represented, but there’s no representation or even administrative definition of Jews, Roma, Atheists,… Our guide in Sarajevo told us, if you request the Bosnian nationality and your parents happen to be Catholic, you administratively become a Croat, even if you’re not from the region, because that’s how the Croat’s identity is defined. There was a European court of Human Rights decision about the unfair division of power to only those three ethnicities, but apparently nothing changed.

Such a weird system…

I shouldn’t go too deep into the politics of Bosnia, they’re far too complicated and I am myself a novice at understanding it. I’ve just learned that identity in Bosnia is a hypercomplex concept (at least for me it was, I had a hard time grasping it) and the idea of accommodating ethnicities through politics is a very rocky road in a country with centuries of changing identities and a war started by nationalistic feelings.

Between the political questionmarks popping up above my head, I also really enjoyed the Bosnian countryside. We stopped at a village called Jajce, which really impressed us with its inconspicuousness. A gigantic waterfall practically fell out of the city, and there was almost no mention in our guidebooks!

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The country is truly beautiful, and should not be overlooked by nature lovers. I am quite sure if Bosnians can get over their trauma’s and start rebuilding the country, they could become the tourist hub Croatia turned into. Sadly enough, we were told too many people are still too broken to work on tourism, and it’s understandable they still have different priorities. I’m sure the next generation will fix this, if only they can recover from the scars of their parents.

Sarajevo

Driving into Sarajevo proved to be a challenge. Not only because we were staring our eyes out at the war torn buildings, the mass graves on the hills and the Olympic remnants of the golden times of Yugoslavia.

But also because we made the mistake of relying on the GPS again. The camping owner had sent us directions for a different road to his camping on top of the hill and advised us not to follow the one on the GPS. After 3 tries and difficulties finding his directions, we gave up and turned on the GPS. It led us through the traffic infested centre of Sarajevo, and through ridiculously steep and small village roads up the hill. I drove up in 1st gear, with a howling engine, dodging pedestrians all the while fearing any opposing traffic on the tiny road with 30% inclination. We would have almost made it entirely up the hill, were it not for a car parked at the end of one of the steepest roads. When the car got out of the way, it proved to be impossible to start our car again on the hill. With the car still gently rolling down the hill after the handbrake had given up functioning, we backed into a little resting space and pleaded to the Bosnians that had blocked the road to get us out of here.

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(we noticed when we went back to the hill later that it said “welcome to the Ghetto” on the side. the Irony.)

Thank god our camping owner wasn’t angry for not following his instructions when the Bosnians dropped us off in what we translated as “your tourists got stuck again!” but welcomed us with open arms. Camping Olywood was basically the backyard of Oliver’s house, and the atmosphere felt a lot less formal than most campings.

The next day we descended from the hill to explore Sarajevo. Also called the Jerusalem of Europe, Sarajevo is a very unusual melting pot and it was difficult to believe we were still in Europe. The little streets riddled with shops and arab ornaments made it feel like we were in Istanbul, or some kind of Turkish Bazaar.

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From one street to another we were back in Western Europe, with H&M and Zara and cocktail bars.

You’d almost forget this was also the place where Franz Ferdinand was murdered, igniting the fire to the First World War.

The most recent history was still very visible, and it was apparent in a lot of areas that this was the same city that was under siege for three years. Sniper fire and shelling had been part of the daily routine for all Sarajevans.

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We learned that the Sarajevans wanted to be as normal as possible during the war. The owner of our camping opened a club during the siege of Sarajevo. “We tried everything to keep a feeling of normalcy, and it was our way to say “Fuck You” to the war”. He also talked about how he helped organize the legendary U2 congress in 1997, when the war was officially over. It was all an attempt at going back to normal, though 20 years later we didn’t feel like the city had fully recovered from the war. People still seemed very scarred, and restoring all the buildings and hiding the bullet holes was the last of their priorities. The national museum was closed for lack of governmental funding, and the historic museum that recounted the Yugoslav war was struggling to survive. The employees of the historic museum told us they kept working with minimal pay, no heating in winter and the building falling apart. A shame really, because the museum tells the amazing story of daily life during the siege of Sarajevo, in which 10.000 Bosnians died.

All in all, the air was thick with the amount of history this city possessed.

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One and a half day was definitely not sufficient to grasp the complexity of Sarajevo, and both me and my travel companion decided we should definitely return one day to ponder the city more.

Mostar

We continued on to Croatia, with one last stop in Bosnia, visiting Mostar. Mostar is famous for its historic bridge that had been there for centuries, which was brutally blown up during the war. It was restored with UNESCO money, and turned into the main attraction point for tourists, with guys jumping off the bridge into the water and demanding money for their stunt.

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Again the GPS failed us when we were instructed to drive onto that small historic bridge, sprawled with people, and with steps before and after the bridge -_-

Mostar also had a lot of battered buildings, and had been one of the main battlegrounds between the Croats and the Bosniaks. Tensions were still not entirely over, and apparently the city still has a separate bus station for Croats and Bosniaks.

Fistpumping in Croatia

When we continued to Croatia, we were greeted with the glistening Adriatic sea, an Ibiza beat and beach resort vibe. It was all a tad too weird, coming from a really intense trip through Bosnia, to land at this naive coast, filled with flipflop-wearing, cocktail slurping, suntanning party people.

Finding a simple, nice and quiet spot on the beach proved to be impossible when we couldn’t find any parking spots. We very quickly decided it’s no use to try finding a spot on a beach in little towns, and continued to drive along the coastline. Emilie had a very good eye for spotting semi-hidden beaches on the side of the road, and we managed to cool down in the water without having to fight for every square cm of shade on the beach.

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Even though we were only in Split for an evening, I was impressed with the well preserved ancient-roman city centre. The very narrow streets used to be part the palace of Diocletianus, who was once the emperor of Rome. the streets were later occupied by the citizens when the barbarians came, and it did feel like people actually lived in the city. The delicious sea-food and Italian inspired pasta’s were also a feast to our mouths after all the meat and shitty camping cooking we had indulged in before.

We visited the Krka waterfall, which were beautiful, but packed with crowds. At least we finally had our portion of waterfalls!

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Our last visit was the historic beach town of Zadar. Entering Zadar, we saw the familiar sight of bullet-ridden buildings again. It was a rare sight in Croatia, most of the war-plagued buildings in Croatia had been renovated and restored. Croatians had left the war behind and their coastal line was now the place to be for parties.

Zadar had also two of the coolest art installations;  A sun greetings-disco floor

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and a sea organ, that made music with the patters given by the sea. I suggest you visit and sit there for a while to understand why it’s so awesome 😉

On our drive back to the airport, we couldn’t resist to stop at Plitvice lakes again, which was on our route home. We “Nope”d out of there as fast as we could when we saw the packed crowd at the ticketline.

A last pick nick in the woods would suffice we said. Parking our car not too far from the lakes, we walked into the forest and suddenly noticed we had entered the park… oeps! While we unpacked some food and sat on some rocks, tourists would pass us by and stare as if they had just seen 2 mountain goats picknicking on a mountain.

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Splendid ending to this trip, was what we both thought.

We decided to definitely come back one day to see other parts of former Yugoslavia as well, with a good mix of discovering the history and identity of the place, and relaxing 😉

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