Balkans, now at peace, are worth a visit

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Victor Block

Ban Jelacic Square in Croatia’s capital of Zagreb is a gathering spot for locals. Zagreb’s history dates to Roman times, and today the city has a population of about 800,000.
Photo by Victor Block

As I strolled along ancient ramparts that encircled the small medieval city, the view changed with each twist and turn. On one side was a labyrinth of narrow streets lined by tile-roofed stone buildings. In the other direction were stunning views of the Adriatic Sea.

Not very far away, the setting was very different. In an area about the size of Connecticut, I traveled through a varied terrain of rugged mountains, deep canyons and inviting beaches.

And mountain villages, rolling meadows, and a city that ranks high on many a traveler’s favorites list greet visitors to an adjacent country that shares a history with its neighbors.

Few trips I have enjoyed anywhere included as much diversity and diversion as my “Crossroads of the Adriatic” tour with Overseas Adventure Travel.

Crisscrossing four miniscule countries that once were part of Yugoslavia, I delved into intriguing chapters of history, cultures and religions, oohed and aahed at a kaleidoscope of magnificent scenery, and checked out local life in both tiny towns and magnificent cities.

Tiny but diverse lands

Border checkpoints through which my trip group passed reminded us that we were traveling between independent nations. They also served as reminders that, not long ago, bitter warfare raged in the region.

But the only shooting we did was with our cameras, and taking pictures of scenery as dramatic as that which surrounded us, the results had to be outstanding.

Forest-clad countryside lies in the shadow of craggy mountain peaks. Ancient walled cities and tiny hillside towns are rich with life and allure. Mother Nature displays her handiwork in scenic gems that include inviting beaches, stunning coastal scenery, and cascading waterfalls that compete in beauty if not size with Niagara.

The pre-departure Information I received referred to the trip as “Crossroads of the Adriatic,” and to the four compact countries on the itinerary — Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Slovenia – as “multicultural lands of forgotten beauty.” We did not visit Serbia and Macedonia, which were also once part of Yugoslavia.

The tiny sizes of our destinations — the four together have a total area about equal to New York State – made traveling between them convenient. At the same time that similarities became evident, so did differences based in part upon divergent ethnicities and cultures.

Dubrovnik and Zagreb

Major cities, as well as charming towns and villages, are among the attractions. Dubrovnik, which clings to a narrow stretch of land at the southern tip of Croatia, is one of the most prominent tourist resorts of the Mediterranean. It doesn’t take long to understand why.

Its Old Town neighborhood exudes a Middle Ages atmosphere from when it rivaled Venice in wealth and power. A number of palaces and other prominent landmarks date back to that golden era.

The main feature is ancient fortified walls that encircle the city, set off by a series of turrets and towers. Walking along the top of the fortification provides dramatic views of the architectural treasures in the Old Town, and an understanding why Dubrovnik is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

 Zagreb, the capital of independent Croatia since 1991, has been a cultural center since the Middle Ages and boasts an inviting array of museums. A number of them are perched in the hilly, historical Upper Town, which visitors may reach on foot or by a 55-second ride in what’s said to be the shortest funicular in the world.

The pedestrian-friendly Lower Town has inviting squares and parks. The center of action is Ban Jelacic Square, where locals gather to stroll, socialize and sip refreshments at outdoor cafes.

Despite the appeals of Croatia’s major cities, it was the capital of tiny Slovenia that became the new favorite European metropolis of many in my tour group. Ljubljana (pronounced Loo-blee-AH-na) is a bustling urban center with broad promenades and inviting pedestrian walkways.

A section of stone wall, statues and mosaics are among reminders that this was the site of a Roman town dating to the year 14 C.E. Overlooking the setting from a hilltop is Ljubljana Castle, which dates back to the early 12th century and was reconstructed following an earthquake in 1511.


The Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina was originally built in the mid-16th century. After it was destroyed in the Bosnian War 20 years ago, this exact replica of the historic bridge was built.
Photo by Victor Block

Visiting villages

Small in size but no less interesting are towns and villages scattered about the Balkans. While many have attractions worth exploring, several stand out in my mind.

Karanac, a village of about 1,000 people in Croatia, exemplifies rural charm. It’s located in what’s known as the Bread Basket of Croatia. Grapes have been grown on the surrounding hills since Roman times. Another claim to fame is its multi-ethnic population of Croats, Serbs, Hungarians and Germans who live together in harmony.

Tiny Hum is little more than a dot on maps. A 2001 census counted 17 residents, but I was told that a mini-population explosion has increased the number to 25. Documents date the settlement to the early 12th century, and some houses are built into defensive walls that were constructed to protect the town.

Mostar follows a stretch of the Neretva River in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and has a history as one of the most ethnically diverse towns in the region. Its attractions range from graceful 16th and 17th century mosques to crowded shop-lined streets.

The Old Bridge over the river is one of the country’s most recognizable landmarks. Originally built by the Ottomans in the mid-16th century, the graceful stone span stood for more than 400 years before being destroyed during the Bosnian War. Visitors today see an exact replica.

If any city may be said to share both a happy and tragic past, it is Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. For several hundred years, it was a cultural and religious haven where Serbs, Croats, Turks, Muslims, Jews and others lived in harmony. That peaceful picture came to an end during the fierce ethnic fighting that followed the death of Marshal Tito and only ended in the 1990s.

Visitors to Sarajevo receive stark reminders of the bitter warfare that took place when the city was surrounded and its mostly Bosnian population came under constant attack by Serbian forces.

The most dramatic introduction is in the Tunnel of Life, a mile-long underground passage that residents began building in 1992. By the end of the siege, nearly four years later, men, women and even children had made more than five million trips through the low tunnel carrying food, medical supplies and small weapons.

Beautiful beaches and lakes

Very different and much happier settings are encountered at water-related attractions in the Balkan countries. For those seeking a sun-and-sand respite, Croatia has beautiful beaches along its southern Dalmatian Coast. More than 120 beaches line the short shoreline of Montenegro.

 More dramatic scenery awaits visitors to Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. Water that fills a line of 16 lakes separated by natural dams spills down hillsides in a series of cascades toward a river at the bottom. Adding to the portrait-like setting are the colors of the water — sky blue, emerald green, rock gray — that reflect the surroundings.

Equally magnificent in a different way is Lake Bled in Slovenia. Overlooking the lake from a steep cliff is Bled Castle, which dates back to the early 12th century.

On a small island in the lake, which may be reached in a pletna boat (the local version of a gondola), is a small but graceful 17th-century church. The little house of worship is a popular wedding venue, and a good luck tradition calls for the groom to carry his bride-to-be up the 98 stone steps to the building, and for the couple to make a wish and ring the bell so it will come true.

By the time I pulled the bell rope, my wish had already come true. I was experiencing four intriguing countries that are small in size but large in terms of attractions and appeal.

If you go

Overseas Adventure Travel lives up to its motto of “Learning and Discovery.” In addition to the must-see attractions of a destination, its itineraries include lesser-visited but equally inviting places. In addition, guides have flexibility to alter plans in order to take advantage of unexpected opportunities that crop up.

On my trip, these included stopping at a tiny 18th-century church whose parish priest served blueberry strudel he had made, and accompanying a truffle hunter and his dog on a search for that prized fungus.

For information about OAT trips throughout the world, call (800) 955-1925 or log onto oattravel.com.

With learning and discovery, both accommodations and food become part of an OAT trip. We spent one night in a traditional century-old farm house in Karanac, meeting the resident livestock and enjoying a hearty homemade breakfast.

We also stayed in a city hotel built adjacent to the remains of a 16th-century inn that once provided overnight shelter to caravan drivers.

Our food discoveries focused on the specialties of wherever we happened to be. We became used to hearing our guide, Ivana, insist, “You can’t leave (name of town or area) without sampling the (gastronomic specialty).”

Among treats for our taste buds were truffles that aficionados rate among the best in the world, Slovenian sausage, diet-busting Croatian custard cake and heart-shaped gingerbread cookies, and locally made brandies just about everywhere.