For my two-week Christmas break, I spent the first back home in Georgia (USA) and the second visiting three former Yugoslavian countries: Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. My primary reason was that I had served for three years on a national Fulbright selection committee for the Balkans, yet I hadn’t visited all of my assigned countries; this was my chance. A second reason was (and is) my continuing desire to visit as much of Europe as possible before I leave this coming July.
Given the high prices for flights and hotels during the holidays, I had searched for bargains, the best of which was to head out of Bucharest on New Year’s Day and return one week later, flying on Air Serbia routed through Belgrade. I flew to Ljubljana (Slovenia) for a three-night stay, then to Sarajevo (B&H) for two nights, and finally Zagreb (Croatia) for my last two nights. Typical for this time of year, the week was very cold but with heavy snow only in Sarajevo (and Bucharest, when I returned).
Ljubljana is a favorite of my sister, Linda, who had insisted that I visit. With only a quarter million residents, this capital city is postcard Europe, so charming with its pedestrian-only, cobblestone streets and a medieval castle perched atop a nearby hill. The festive decorations still were up and the Christmas market open. Being able to walk everywhere was a real treat (and change of pace) for me. Most memorable was visiting the small squatter’s village of Metelkova, climbing the highest tower at the castle, sharing supper with a table of Slovene grad students, a day trip to nearby Bled and its glacial lake, and eating a horse meat burger at Hot Horse. [Sweet tooth delight: the cream cake.]
Next, I flew to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, which is about the same size as Ljubljana, but feels distinctly Balkan with its many Ottoman influences. The Old City with its winding bazaar and many mosques is the historical center and, for me, the most interesting part. A short stroll beside the river provides views of countless buildings with bullet pocks from the nearly four-year long siege in the mid-1990s during which almost 14,000 people were killed. That this city has rebounded is testament to the tenacity of its Bosniak (Muslim) majority. I long will remember the conversations I had as well as the best cevapi (grilled sausages) I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, during my final hours in the city, I forgot to get my tram ticket stamped when I boarded and, consequently, was busted and made to pay a fine on the spot—not an exorbitant amount but still as much as I had paid for my three previous meals combined. Live and learn seems to be my MO on all these trips. [Sweet tooth delight: baklava.]
Finally, I ended my trip with two nights in Zagreb, the much larger and flatter capital of Croatia. (Note: “Hrvatska” is the word, language, and country in Croatian.) Compared to my home base of Bucharest, Zagreb seems so well-tended, organized, and clean—so comfortable and livable. Yet, given its size (over three-quarters of a million), it felt less personable and interesting than Sarajevo and Ljubljana. Eye of the beholder, no doubt. Still, I greatly enjoyed my visit, particularly the medieval Upper Town with its churches and government buildings. I also got to stay in one of the grand old hotels on the park, The Palace, and have a massage and sauna…all at a bargain price. [Sweet tooth delight: all the cream desserts!]
Growing up, I never realized how diverse and wonderful this former Yugoslavia is/was. I hope to return to this region in warmer weather to experience the Dalmatian coast, particularly Dubrovnik and Split. I also have one last Balkan country to visit: Montenegro.