Friday, April 22, 2011

Life in the former Yugoslavia

This week I've been in Belgrade, capital of what used to be Yugoslavia and now capital of Serbia.  I've been in the region many times before but the political boundaries have changed so often in recent years that it is difficult to keep up. Whereas the entire area was formerly the country of Yugoslavia, today it is Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo with their respective capitals of Belgrade Zagreb, Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Podgorica, Skopje and Pristina. ( You have no doubt heard the term Balkanization: well this is what it means. The last three of these countries, plus Belarus, are the only European countries I haven't yet visited.

All of the Balkan countries are struggling to varying degrees to throw off the shackles of their former dictators and their communist economic systems. Most soviet-era factories stand empty and free market principles are still trying to take hold. Most people still reside in large tenements apartment and would either like to move elsewhere or are hoping that things will miraculously change overnight at home.

While Belgrade has a few charming areas and a lot of construction going on, the overall impression is still gray and drab. Old buildings which could be grand, look tired and are in need of plaster and paint. Sidewalks need repair and most shops don't entice.  The primary tourist destination is the Kalemengan Fortress ( which overlooks the confluence of the Sava River into the Danube and is quite interesting.  For cafe society, common throughout the Balkans, the downtown pedestrian zone has some appealing tables where one can sit, sip, chat and ogle for hours for only a few dinar. And the Skadarlija bohemian area has some good restaurants and an upbeat atmosphere with numerous small orchestras playing Gypsy and Eastern European music for tips.

But there are other cities and areas in the former Yugoslavia that I much prefer to Belgrade. The most attractive cities for tourists are of course those along the beautiful Dalmatian Coast of Croatia such as Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik.  Tourists swarm from Northern Europe to these ancient cities and nearby resorts that begin in Istria just Sourth of Trieste and run all the way down to Dubrovnik.  And well-healed Europeans, and even a few Americans I know, have their eyes on Dalmatian properties for their retirement years, and are thereby driving up the prices.      

Slovenia has had the greatest success in becoming main stream Europe and its Alps are a great holiday destination for lovers of mountains and nature.  Gertrud and I spend a week there last summer and fell in love with Bled.  We were in a wonderful small hotel with a balcony overlooking Bled Lake and had a hard time leaving because it was so romantic and tranquil. 

Lake Bled from our hotel window

In 2002, shortly after I retired from the Foreign Service, I was asked to return to the service for two months to fill a staffing gap at Embassy Sarajevo.  I thoroughly enjoyed this short working vacation and became very attached to Sarajevo which had such a proud history of religious tolerance before World War I (Sarajevo is where Prince Ferdinand of Austria was killed to start the war) and such an unfortunate history after the break up of Yugoslavia  ( Both Serbia and Croatia coveted Bosnia and Herzegovina to further their own national ambitions.  Lovely Mostar in Herzegovina with its famous bridge is also a wonderful city that has apparently risen up out of the ashes of the war.  Gertrud and I visited it during the late 1960s shortly after we were married and I visited it again from Sarajevo in 2002 to see the war damage to the city and bridge. 

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