The Balkans

CroatiaDestinationsEuropeThe Balkans

Going at it in the Lapad Peninsula

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I find it odd that a mere 1-hour time difference between the UK and the continent still has some sort of effect on my droopy eyelids. And even odder that just this morning I walked the length of the Lapad Peninsula (and once more in Old Town) in Dubrovnik, and type this late at night back in the UK.

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Sometimes it is too much to process. I set off early from the Pension in the hopes of catching the airport bus, only to have a taxi pull up at the buss-stop at the same time, offering the same price to the airport. It sounded too good to be true. But I hopped in, along with another couple whom I met just a week ago taking the same airport bus with me into Dubrovnik when we both arrived. What coincidence. It turned out that the taxi driver needed to pick some people up from the airport and thought of sending passengers there as well. Mutually beneficial, so he said.

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That couple who were also in the taxi waxed lyrical about Dubrovnik, its sun-soaked atmosphere and the friendly people, while the driver seemed pleased to hear it. The mutual sentiment amongst them was that Montenegrins have sold their souls when they sold their lands to the Russians.

“You have done a good job,” the woman said. “Everything is so nice, so well-done.”

I did not say very much throughout their animated chatter. Tiredness prevented me from reflecting too much, which, I suppose, in hindsight, is probably a good thing. Will I miss the spectacular scenery? Certainly. The daily dose of gelato? Sure. The sun? Well…perhaps, despite the outbreak of hives and a rather bad sunburn on my back and shoulders. There was a visible tan there after all! The people? I’m mixed.

I’m glad to be back here actually because I’ve always needed the cooler weather more than I like the heat. The blast of cold air that hit me in the face was rather welcome, despite the loud complaints from the other passengers.

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Bosnia and HerzegovinaCroatiaDestinationsEuropeThe Balkans

Division and Unity

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Only after buying a return bus ticket to Dubrovnik did I learn from Rezi that a little-known service that does door-to-door pickup from Korcula to Dubrovnik costing the same amount as the bus, with fewer people and at a sane hour existed. So I was still stuck with needing to catch a bus back at 6.45am, and spent most of the day indoors to prevent the hives from getting worse.

Yet the scratching continued, least helped by the next early day-tour taken to Mostar, a town nestled deep in the mountains and valleys of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which, away from the coast, boasted soaring spring temperatures that hit near 30 degrees. I was told that Mostar is one of the warmest regions in the Mediterranean (so they claim it is indeed a Mediterranean climate), but frequently gets 40-degree summers.

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It felt unreal entering Bosnia, a place that I vaguely remember in my teens as war-torn, and politically divided, and needing prayer, according to a teacher who said so during morning school assembly. Back then, we scoffed and laughed, and wondered about its relevance. But I wouldn’t have thought that I would, years later, step foot in the region, only to see the tragic scars of war on Bosnia-Herzegovina that remain. Reconstruction and rehabilitation continue at a snail’s pace for Bosnia. It remains an incredibly poor country with a 30% unemployment rate, and gypsies litter the surrounding streets of Mostar asking for money.

The bus went by the Neum corridor, a 9 km long stretch of Bosnia-Herzegovinian territory (border-checks included) that is 60km from Dubrovnik, and then slipped back into Croatia once more, before driving into the mountains and the Neretva Delta. Before long, the “proper” border-formality and check-point came into view once more.

It seemed that no one knew if my passport was valid for entry. But it was.

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Mostar, for all its Ottoman influence, feels like a miniature Turkey, stunningly familiar in some senses after having seen Istanbul twice. Its food and architecture are foundationally Turkish, a consequence of six hundred years of Ottoman rule. Its famous bridge that spans the Neretva river is much a symbol of division as it is of unity between sides, and guides are quick to point out the coexistence of multicultural groups rather than its tensions.

Men jump into the river for cold, hard cash and simply to amuse tourists who live out their thrill-seeking alter-egos by paying these men to do it. Erring on the side of caution, the german-speaking guide chose instead to point out particular spots of significance and its origin, but glossed disappointingly over the complexity of the war’s surrounding circumstances. I wanted to ask burning questions – how was it like as you grew up? What were such tensions? – but wondered in all good faith, if it hit too close to home, when such seemingly innocent questions might have, for them, meant a matter of death of life.

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We stopped for a “photo-break” in Pocitelj, a town to the south of Mostar, devoid of anyone until we came along it seemed. The last toilet-break was once more in Neum. To my horror, the bus parked beside many other large tour buses where all perspiring tourists queued for gelato, and crammed into the supermarket seeking cold drinks. That particular scene served as a timely reminder of the bane of a package tour, even if it was only for a day.

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A hive of (in)activity

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The bus journey to Korcula runs daily at 3pm from the bus terminal and seeing that the check-out time at Pension Stankovich is at 10am, the morning was spent wandering about in the sweltering heat and finally into the Taj Mahal, a small konoba off the Stradun that serves strangely, Bosnian rather than Indian food. Bosnian sweets and strong coffee at 11am in the morning couldn’t possibly go wrong. Thus came the tufahijia, a dessert dish made from baked apples, chocolate and walnuts, then topped with a layer of cream.

It was then back to the Pension begging for much needed relief found in a glass of cold water, Mac’s company and a suspicious Stankovich cat staring at me in the kitchen area while Zoran’s brother hung laundry outside to dry. For some reason he seems obsessed with Indonesia (and with the pirates along the Straits of Malacca), as he had, according to Zoran, spent some years ago in the Navy in Southeast Asia.

I found out just how much Croatia is about money and more money as the agencies squeeze the mickey out of the average visitor (and also out of the locals) – when I was informed to my incredulous amazement and stunned disbelief by the bus driver to Korcula that storing my bag in the luggage hold cost 10 kuna, in addition to the bus ticket fare, as well as the extra cost of reserving a seat number.

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The coast-hugging ride to Korcula was a 3.5 hr one (and obviously scenic) that included a 15-minute ferry ride across from Orebic. Finding the cheerful-looking Depolo Villa was rather easy as it was located along a lane that leads out of the Old Town into the residential area of Sveti Nikole. Rezi Depolo, its chatty owner, regaled me with a few of her travel stories, the stray cats she feeds, her sunday plans, and her dismal internet wireless, just as I requested for my laundry to get done.

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“You must try Maslina,” Rezi said, and launched into a rather complicated set of instructions on the Korculan restaurant’s location en route to Lumbarda. “There is another one in Old Town, but just 5 days ago, a French couple told me that they changed ownership and it’s not very nice, and not very friendly. Go to the one outside. It’s a nice walk. And there is a church on top of a hill, surrounded by cypress trees. You can have a nice view of the town. Before I could process all of it, I was then sent off to the small Old Town on her orders as the last rays of light faded. My full day in Korcula fell on a sunday, which meant most of the town closes to celebrate inactivity and rest.

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The sights that Rezi mentioned were a bit of a walk out of town and came at the cost of full-blown hives. Red, angry patches that started out as some pinkness on the arms appeared in full force and looked to spread quickly after I spent an extended length of time walking in the sun. What did I do after rubbing a lot of hydrocortisone that seemed to have absolutely no effect? I knocked on Rezi’s door apologetically to disturb her once again, and begged for some alternative Croatian “herbal” remedy. Rezi took one look at the increasingly leprous-lookalike arms, and gave me a glass of rubbing alcohol which helped calm the itch a bit but made the skin sore to the touch.

My alcohol-induced commandment of the day: Lead me not into temptation to scratch.

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Crna Gora: Shade is Salvation

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When someone has food and drink, sit closer. When they are working, move away. It is best not to disturb them. – One of the 10 commandments printed on a postcard of Montenegro

It is rather mind-blowing to enter a country that is a mere 3 years old but has a history that stretches over millennia. Montenegro – bordered by the Adriatic sea in the southwest and Croatia in the west – severed its ties with Serbia in June 2006 and declared its independence. It is an enticing region of monuments (and their ruins), beaches and great weather, situated in the allure of sparkling sea that continues as far as the eye can see.

The group I chose to do the tour with had thankfully, a small bus with a group of 14 persons, which meant nipping around more quickly. I was impressed by everyone’s punctuality and amused by the degree to which sunblock was revered by most of them; in fact, people were even early for the scheduled meeting times despite turning red in the face and hurrying around in the heat. I braved the sun, thinking that my skin must somehow be used to it, and managed to get an uneven browning instead. A crazy woman in the group kept asking for the beach, and wore clothes that were aimed solely for removal at first sight of water and shingle/sand.

We drove through 2 checkpoints, and soon reached Herceg Novi, a town whose industrial Soviet-era architecture sharply contrasts its picturesque setting – the La Dolce Vita standard that Dubrovnik has striven so hard to attain with its villas and available luxury – is still the missing factor in Montenegro’s package.

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The bay of Kotor lies further southwards, and winds inland so much that it is an area touted as Europe’s southernmost fjord, inhabited by the Illyrians in Classical Antiquity, overrun by the Romans, changed hands again and for a short time, belonged to Napoleon and the Austro-Hungarians. A city-guide met us in Kotor’s incredibly crowded old town, pointing out the number of aristocratic houses and churches crammed into a rather small square, rattling off way too many dates that flew just over my head. The guided tour meant however, that there wasn’t any time left to climb the 4km surrounding ramparts that provide a dramatic look down onto the city. A step out of the old town brings the local life into greater focus, and the daily market that lines up outside the town’s walls is probably the daily marketing congregational point of the Montenegrin natives.

The number of stray cats abound. It was after a time, difficult to get around the curious stares of shopkeepers and the slow-trudging of the tourists who arrive by the busload fanning themselves.

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Montenegrin beach tourism comes into full swing along the Budva Rivijera (Riviera), which supposedly rivals the south of France’s Riviera with kilometres worth of beach madness to explore. The Budva town itself is over 2 millenia years old and appeals to many because of pulsing nightlife and its beach bum status. Money rules the place: A staggering number of millionaires made their fortunes selling off lands to Russian development companies poured their new found wealth back into real estate in the surrounding towns of Podgorica and Herceg Novi.

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The Dubrovnik Gastro festival in the Stradun was gearing up for full swing at 7pm when I returned, going for an unbelievable 10 Kuna per ticket that I snapped up after some hesitation. The shoving that resulted once the gates opened was inevitable and annoying, and by the time I actually got to the food or what was left of it, all that was left really some black seafood risotto and a bit of dessert for dinner, a pity considering that Croatian specialities were up for grabs.

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The Adriatic treasures

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I’m starting to believe that I never pass up an opportunity to say just how much I hate plane journeys. Given that Edinburgh-Dubrovnik was a new route introduced by FlyGlobespan and seeing that I was on the first trip there, I was half expecting that the pilot would get lost or some other horrible thing would happen. A 45-minute delay just had to prove me right. It was a full and long flight (3.5 hrs) for an intercontinental one on a budget airline, and I tried sleeping to no avail, only to perk up a bit when the plane went over the Swiss Alps.

Things changed however, when the Adriatic coastline – that looked like the curly-wurly patterns that people doodle when bored in class – came into view, littered with islands surrounded by turquoise waters. The airport was 22km down south of the city and on high ground. It was relatively painless getting on the shuttle, which all but had a grand total of 6 people in a 50-seater bus. (Going back would be a more painful story I suspect) The route to town hugged the coast on some sort of elevation, and I found myself enjoying it thoroughly.

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Dubrovnik has been called many things and it’s highly unoriginal of me to repeat how much this small town has been lauded by critics, guidebooks and celebrities alike, and it seems to have shrugged its war-laden baggage 20 years on by turning to tourism. I had been given a room with a (spectacular) view that comes from the generous balcony that overlooks the old town within a family house, at the cost of 350 steps that come between the old town and me.

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Old Town is ensconced by a thick, high wall of varying heights, and against my better stewardship of my spending money, I found myself scaling the city walls – 2 km worth of fortifications that date from the 12th century at least – and looking down on the red roofs that make this place so famous.

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The old town is bisected into two parts by the Stradun, a long strip of shiny marble ground where everyone seems to take a stroll in the off-season months, and where everyone cramps into during the summer months. It is not difficult to see why its charm has never failed – and among the Hollywood celebrities – this has also driven prices up quite steeply.

It is only my second exhausting day; I don’t claim to fully understand Dubrovnik, and in its wider context, the political difficulties of the former Yugoslavia. Maybe all the trips to Dubrovnik I’ll ever be making in my lifetime will never amount to any modicum of understanding even. Yet I cannot in good faith, call upon the simplicity and trigger-happy bumbling that characterises the typical tourist precisely because the scars of war must still exist, simmering under the surface and waiting to boil over once again.

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The Former Yugoslavia

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Trying to make sense of the Balkan conflict is no easy feat, particularly when I’d aimed for a reasonable grasp of the region’s complicated, bloody history by the time the plane touches down in Dubrovnik. Then I found this rather illuminating article, which impressed me so much that I thought it should be given its space here.

The Former Yugoslavia
by Cameron Hewitt, co-author of the Rick Steves Best of Eastern Europe and Rick Steves Croatia and Slovenia guidebooks

Americans struggle to understand the complicated breakup of Yugoslavia (especially when visiting countries that rose from its ashes, such as Croatia and Slovenia). During the Yugoslav era, it was no less confusing. As the old joke went, Yugoslavia had eight distinct peoples in six republics, with five languages, three religions (Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim), and two alphabets (Roman and Cyrillic), but only one Yugoslav — Tito.

Everyone you talk to in the former Yugoslavia will have a different version of events. A very wise Bosnian Muslim told me, “Listen to all three sides — Muslim, Serb, and Croat. Then decide for yourself what you think.” That’s the best advice I can offer. But since you likely won’t have time for that on your brief visit, here’s an admittedly oversimplified, as-impartial-as-possible history to get you started.

Balkan Peninsula 101

For starters, it helps to have a handle on the different groups who’ve lived in the Balkans — the southeastern European peninsula between the Adriatic and the Black Sea, stretching from Hungary to Greece. The Balkan Peninsula has always been a crossroads of cultures. The Illyrians, Greeks, and Romans had settlements here before the Slavs moved into the region from the north around the seventh century. During the next millennium and a half, the western part of the peninsula — which would become Yugoslavia — was divided by a series of cultural, ethnic, and religious fault lines.

The most important influences were three religions: Western Christianity (i.e., Roman Catholicism, primarily brought to the western part of the region by Charlemagne, and later reinforced by the Austrian Hapsburgs), Eastern Orthodox Christianity (brought to the east from the Byzantine Empire), and Islam (in the south, from the Ottomans).

Two major historical factors made the Balkans what they are today: The first was the split of the Roman Empire in the fourth century a.d., dividing the Balkans down the middle into Roman Catholic (west) and Byzantine Orthodox (east) — roughly along today’s Bosnian-Serbian border. The second was the invasion of the Islamic Ottomans in the 14th century. The Ottoman victory at the Battle of Kosovo (1389) began five centuries of Islamic influence in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, further dividing the Balkans into Christian (north) and Muslim (south).

Because of these and other events, several distinct ethnic identities emerged. Confusingly, the major “ethnicities” of Yugoslavia are all South Slavs — they’re descended from the same ancestors, and speak essentially the same language, but they practice different religions. Catholic South Slavs are called Croats or Slovenes (mostly west of the Dinaric Mountains: Croats along the Adriatic coast, and Slovenes farther north, in the Alps); Orthodox South Slavs are called Serbs (mostly east of the Dinaric range); and Muslim South Slavs are called Bosniaks (whose ancestors converted to Islam under the Ottomans, mostly living in the Dinaric Mountains). To complicate matters, the region is also home to several non-Slavic groups, including Hungarians (in the northern province of Vojvodina) and Albanians, concentrated in the southern area of Kosovo (descended from the Illyrians, who lived here long before the Greeks and Romans).

Of course, these geographic divisions are extremely general. The groups overlapped a lot — which is exactly why the breakup of Yugoslavia was so contentious. For example, one of the biggest causes of this ethnic mixing came in the 16th century. The Ottomans were threatening to overrun Europe, and the Austrian Hapsburgs wanted a buffer zone — a “human shield.” The Hapsburgs encouraged Serbs who were fleeing from Ottoman invasions to settle along today’s Croatian-Bosnian border (known as Vojna Krajina, or “Military Frontier”). The Serbs stayed after the Ottomans had left, establishing homes in predominantly Croat communities.

After the Ottoman threat subsided in the late 17th century, some of the Balkans (basically today’s Slovenia and Croatia) became part of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire. The Ottomans stayed longer in the south and east (today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia) — making the cultures in these regions even more different. Serbia finally gained its independence from the Ottomans in the mid-19th century, but it wasn’t too long before World War I started…after a disgruntled Bosnian Serb nationalist killed the Austrian archduke.

South Slavs Unite

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell at the end of World War I, the European map was redrawn for the 20th century. After centuries of being governed by foreign powers, the South Slavs began to see their shared history as more important than their minor differences. A tiny country of a few million Croats or Slovenes couldn’t have survived. Rather than be absorbed by a non-Slavic power, the South Slavs decided that there was safety in numbers, and banded together as a single state — first called the “Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes” (1918), later known as Yugoslavia (“Land of the South Slavs” — yugo means “south”). “Yugoslav unity” was in the air, but this new union was artificial and ultimately bound to fail (not unlike the partnership between the Czechs and Slovaks, formed at the same time and for much the same reasons).

From the very beginning, the various ethnicities struggled for power within the new union. Croats in particular often felt they were treated as lesser partners under the Serbs. (For example, many Croats objected to naming the country’s official language “Serbo-Croatian” — why not “Croato-Serbian?”) Serbia already had a very strong king, Alexander Karađorđević, who immediately made attempts to give his nation a leading role in the federation. A nationalistic Croatian politician named Stjepan Radić, pushing for a more equitable division of powers, was shot by a Serb during a parliament session in 1928. Karađorđević abolished the parliament and became dictator. Six years later, infuriated Croatian separatists killed him.

Many Croat nationalists sided with the Nazis in World War II in the hopes that it would be their ticket to independence from Serbia. The Nazi puppet government in Croatia (called the Ustaše) conducted an extermination campaign, murdering many Serbs (along with Jews and Roma) living in Croatia; other Serbs were forced to flee the country or convert to Catholicism. Most historians consider the Ustaše concentration camps to be the first instance of “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans…and the Serbs’ long memory of it may go far in explaining their own ethnic cleansing of the Croats in the 1990s.

At the end of World War II, the rest of Eastern Europe was “liberated” by the Soviets — but the Yugoslavs regained their independence on their own, as their communist Partisan Army forced out the Nazis. After the short but rocky Yugoslav union between the World Wars, it seemed that no one could hold the southern Slavs together in a single nation. But there was one man who could, and did: Tito.

Tito

Communist Party president and war hero Josip Broz — who dubbed himself with the simple nickname Tito — emerged as a political leader after World War II. With a Slovene for a mother, a Croat for a father, a Serb for a wife, and a home in Belgrade, Tito was a true Yugoslav. Tito had a compelling vision that this fractured union of the South Slavs could function. And it did. For the next three decades, Tito managed to keep Yugoslavia intact, essentially by the force of his own personality.

Tito’s new incarnation of Yugoslavia aimed for a more equitable division of powers. It was made up of six republics, each with its own parliament and president: Croatia (mostly Catholic Croats), Slovenia (mostly Catholic Slovenes), Serbia (mostly Orthodox Serbs), Bosnia-Herzegovina (the most diverse — mostly Muslim Bosniaks, but with very large Croat and Serb populations), Montenegro (mostly Serb-like Montenegrins), and Macedonia (with about 25 percent Albanians and 75 percent Macedonians — who are claimed variously by Bulgarians and Serbs). There were also two autonomous provinces, each one dominated by an ethnicity that was a minority in greater Yugoslavia: Albanians in Kosovo (to the south) and Hungarians in Vojvodina (to the north). Tito hoped that by allowing these two provinces some degree of independence — including voting rights — they could balance the political clout of Serbia, preventing a single republic from dominating the union.

Each republic managed its own affairs…but always under the watchful eye of president-for-life Tito, who said that the borders between the republics should be “like white lines in a marble column.”

Tito was unquestionably a political genius, carefully crafting a workable union. For example, every Yugoslav had to serve in the National Army, and Tito made sure that each unit was a microcosm of the complete Yugoslavia — with equal representation from each ethnic group. (Allowing an all-Slovene unit, stationed in Slovenia, would be begging for trouble.) There was also a dark side to Tito, who resorted to violent, strong-arming measures to assert his power, especially early in his reign. He staged brutal, Stalin-esque “show trials” to intimidate potential dissidents, and imprisoned church leaders, such as Alojzije Stepinac. Nationalism was strongly discouraged, and this tight control — though sometimes oppressive — kept the country from unraveling. In retrospect, most former Yugoslavs forgive Tito for governing with an iron fist, believing that this was necessary for keeping the country strong and united. Today, most of them consider Tito more of a hero than a villain, and usually speak of him with reverence.

Tito’s Yugoslavia was communist, but it wasn’t Soviet communism; you’ll find no statues of Lenin or Stalin here. Despite strong pressure from Moscow, Tito refused to ally himself with the Soviets — and therefore received good will (and $2 billion) from the United States. Tito’s vision was for a “third way,” where Yugoslavia could work with both East and West, without being dominated by either. Yugoslavia was the most free of the communist states: While large industry was nationalized, Tito’s system allowed for small businesses. This experience with market economy benefited Yugoslavs when Eastern Europe’s communist regimes eventually fell. And even during the communist era, Yugoslavia remained a popular tourist destination, keeping its standards more in line with the West than the Soviet states.

Things Fall Apart

With Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia’s six constituent republics gained more autonomy, with a rotating presidency. But before long, the delicate union Tito had held together began to unravel. In the late 1980s, Serbian politician Slobodan Milošević took advantage of ethnic-motivated conflicts in the province of Kosovo to become president of Serbia and grab more centralized power. Other republics (especially Slovenia and Croatia) feared that he would gut their nation to create a “Greater Serbia,” instead of a friendly coalition of diverse Yugoslav republics. Some of the leaders — most notably Milan Kučan of Slovenia — tried to avoid warfare by suggesting a plan for a loosely united Yugoslavia, based on the Swiss model of independent yet confederated cantons. But other parties, who wanted complete autonomy, refused. Over the next decade, Yugoslavia broke apart, with much bloodshed.

The Slovene Secession

Slovenia was the first Yugoslav republic to hold free elections, in the spring of 1990. The voters wanted the communists out — and their own independent nation. Along with being the most ethnically homogeneous of the Yugoslav nations, Slovenia was also the most Western-oriented, most prosperous, and most geographically isolated — so secession just made sense. But that didn’t mean that there was no violence.

After months of stockpiling weapons, Slovenia closed its borders and declared independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991. Belgrade sent in the Yugoslav National Army to take control of Slovenia’s borders with Italy and Austria, figuring that whoever controlled the borders had a legitimate claim on sovereignty. Fighting broke out around these borders. Because the Yugoslav National Army was made up of soldiers from all republics, many Slovenian soldiers found themselves fighting their own countrymen. (The army had cut off communication between these conscripts and the home front, so they didn’t know what was going on — and often didn’t realize they were fighting their friends and neighbors until they were close enough to see them.)

Slovenian civilians bravely entered the fray, blockading the Yugoslav barracks with their own cars and trucks. Most of the Yugoslav soldiers — now trapped — were young and inexperienced, and were terrified of the ragtag (but relentless) Slovenian militia even though their own resources were far superior.

After 10 days of fighting and fewer than a hundred deaths, Belgrade relented. The Slovenes stepped aside and allowed the Yugoslav National Army to take all of the weapons with them back into Yugoslavia, and destroy all remaining military installations. When the Yugoslav National Army had cleared out, they left the Slovenes with their freedom.

The Croatian Conflict

In April of 1990, a historian named Franjo Tuđman — and his highly nationalistic, right-wing party, the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) — won Croatia’s first free elections. Like the Slovenian reformers, Tuđman and the HDZ wanted more autonomy from Yugoslavia. But Tuđman’s methods were more extreme than that of the gently progressive Slovenes. Tuđman immediately invoked the spirit of the last group that led an “independent” Croatia — the Ustaše, who had ruthlessly run Croatia’s puppet government under the Nazis. Tuđman reintroduced the Ustaše’s red-and-white checkerboard flag and their currency (the kuna). The 600,000 Serbs living in Croatia, mindful of their grandparents who had been massacred by the Ustaše, saw the writing on the wall and began to rise up.

The first conflicts were in the Serb-dominated Croatian city of Knin. Among Tuđman’s reforms was the decree that all of Croatia’s policemen wear a new uniform, which bore a striking resemblance to Nazi-era Ustaše uniforms. Infuriated by this slap in the face, and inspired by Slobodan Milošević’s rhetoric, Serb police officers in Knin refused. Over the next few months, tense negotiations ensued. Serbs from Knin and elsewhere began the so-called “tree trunk revolution” — blocking important tourist roads to the coast with logs and other barriers. Meanwhile, the Croatian government — after being denied support from the United States — illegally purchased truckloads of guns from Hungary. Tensions escalated, and the first shots of the conflict were fired on Easter Sunday of 1991 at Plitvice Lakes National Park, between Croatian policemen and Serb irregulars from Knin.

By the time Croatia declared its independence (on June 25, 1991 — the same day as Slovenia), it was already embroiled in the beginnings of a bloody war. Croatia’s more than half-million Serb residents immediately declared their own independence from Croatia. The Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army swept in, supposedly to keep the peace between Serbs and Croats — but it soon became obvious that they were there to support the Serbs. The ill-prepared Croatian resistance, made up mostly of policemen and a few soldiers who defected from the Yugoslav National Army, were quickly overwhelmed. The Serbs gained control over a large swath of inland Croatia, mostly around the Bosnian border (including Plitvice) and in Croatia’s inland panhandle (the region of Slavonia). They called this territory — about a quarter of Croatia — the Republic of Serbian Krajina (krajina means “border”). This new “country” (hardly recognized by any other nations) minted its own money and had its own army, much to the consternation of Croatia — which was now worried about the safety of Croats living in Krajina.

As the Serbs advanced, hundreds of thousands of Croats fled to the coast and lived as refugees in resort hotels. The Serbs began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, systematically removing Croats from their territory — often by murdering them. The bloodiest siege was at the town of Vukovar, which the Yugoslav army surrounded and shelled relentlessly for three months. At the end of the siege, thousands of Croat soldiers and civilians mysteriously disappeared. Many of these people were later discovered in mass graves; hundreds are still missing, and bodies are still being found. In a surprise move, Serbs also attacked the tourist resort of Dubrovnik. By early 1992, both Croatia and the Republic of Serbian Krajina had established their borders, and a tense ceasefire fell over the region.

The standoff lasted until 1995, when the now well-equipped Croatian Army retook the Serbian-occupied areas in a series of two offensives — “Lightning” (Blijesak), in the northern part of the country, and “Storm” (Oluja), farther south. Some Croats retaliated for earlier ethnic cleansing by doing much of the same to Serbs — torturing and murdering them, and dynamiting their homes. Croatia quickly established the borders that exist today, and the Erdut Agreement brought peace to the region — but most of the 600,000 Serbs who once lived in Croatia/Krajina were forced into Serbia or were killed. Today, only a few thousand Serbs remain in Croatia. While Serbs have long since been legally invited back to their ancestral Croatian homes, few have returned — afraid of the “welcome” they might receive from the Croat neighbors who killed their relatives or blew up their houses just a few years ago.

The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia four months after Croatia and Slovenia did. But Bosnia-Herzegovina was always at the crossroads of Balkan culture, and therefore even more diverse than Croatia — predominantly Muslim Bosniaks (mostly in the cities), but also with large Serb and Croat populations (often farmers), as well as Albanian Kosovars.

In the spring of 1992, Serbs within Bosnia-Herzegovina (with the support of Serbia) began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Bosniaks and Croats. Before long, the Croats did the same against the Serbs. A three-way war (between the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats) raged for years. Even the many mixed families were forced to choose sides. If you had a Serb mother and a Croat father, you were expected to pick one ethnicity or the other — and your brother might choose the opposite. As families and former neighbors trained their guns on each other, proud and beautiful cities such as Sarajevo and Mostar were turned to rubble, and people throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina lived in a state of constant terror.

Serb sieges of Bosnian Muslim cities — such as the notorious siege of Srebrenica in July of 1995, which ended with a massacre of about 7,000 Bosniak civilians — brought the ongoing atrocities to the world’s attention. Perhaps most despicable was the establishment of so-called “rape camps” — concentration camps where Bosniak women were imprisoned and systematically raped by Serb soldiers.

The United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) — dubbed “Smurfs” both for their light-blue helmets and for their ineffectiveness — exercised their limited authority to try to suppress the violence. This ugly situation was brilliantly parodied in the film No Man’s Land (which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2002), a very dark comedy about the absurdity of the Bosnian war.

Finally, in 1995, the Dayton Peace Accords carefully divided Bosnia-Herzegovina among the different ethnicities. Today, Bosnia-Herzegovina continues to work on its tenuous peace, rebuild its devastated country, and bring its infrastructure up to its neighbors’ standards.

Kosovo

The ongoing Yugoslav crisis finally reached its peak in the Serbian province of Kosovo. After years of poor treatment by the Serbs, Kosovars rebelled in 1998. Milošević sent in the army, and in March 1999, they began a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Thousands of Kosovars were murdered, and hundreds of thousands fled into Albania and Macedonia. NATO planes, under the command of US General and Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark, bombed Serb positions for two months, forcing the Serb army to leave Kosovo in the summer of 1999. In February of 2008, Kosovo declared independence from a very unhappy Serbia.
The Fall of Milošević

After years of bloody conflicts, Serbian public opinion had decisively swung against their president. The transition began gradually in early 2000, spearheaded by Otpor and other nonviolent, grassroots, student-based opposition movements. These organizations used clever PR strategies to gain support and convince Serbians that real change was possible. As anti-Milošević sentiments gained momentum, opposing political parties banded together and got behind one candidate, Vojislav Koštunica. Public support for Koštunica mounted, and when the arrogant Milošević called an early election in September 2000, he was soundly defeated. Though Milošević tried to claim that the election results were invalid, determined Serbs streamed into their capital, marched on their parliament, and — like the Czechs and Slovaks a decade before — peacefully took back their nation.

In 2001, Milošević was arrested and sent to The Hague, in the Netherlands, to stand trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Milošević served as his own attorney as his trial wore on for five years, frequently delayed due to his health problems. Then, on March 11, 2006 — as his trial was coming to a close — Milošević was found dead in his cell. Ruled a heart attack, Milošević’s death, like his life, was controversial. Supporters claimed that Milošević was denied suitable medical care while on trial, some speculated that he was poisoned, and others suspected that he’d intentionally worsened his heart condition to avoid the completion of his trial. Whatever the cause, it seems that in the end Milošević avoided coming to justice — he was never found guilty of a thing.
Finding Their Way: The Former Yugoslav Republics

Today, Slovenia and Croatia are as stable as Western Europe, Bosnia-Herzegovina is slowly putting itself back together, Macedonia feels closer to Bulgaria than to Belgrade, and more pieces of “Yugoslavia” — such as Montenegro and Kosovo — declare independence every year.

And yet, nagging questions remain. Making the wars even more difficult to grasp is the fact that there were no “good guys” and no “bad guys” in these wars — just a lot of ugliness on all sides. When considering specifically the war between the Croats and the Serbs, it’s tempting for Americans to take Croatia’s “side” — because we saw them in the role of victims first; because they’re Catholic, so they seem more “like us” than the Orthodox Serbs; and because we admire their striving for an independent nation. But in the streets and the trenches, it was never that clear-cut. The Serbs believe that they were the victims first — back in World War II, when their grandparents were executed in Croat-run Ustaše concentration camps. And when Croatians retook Serb-occupied areas in 1995, they were every bit as brutal as the Serbs had been a few years before. Both sides resorted to ethnic cleansing, both sides had victims, and both sides had victimizers.

Even so, many can’t help but look for victims and villains. During the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, several prominent and respected reporters began to show things from one “side” more than the others — specifically, depicting the Bosniaks (Muslims) as victims. This re-awakened an old debate in the journalism community: Should reporters above all be impartial, even if “showing all sides” might make them feel complicit in ongoing atrocities?

As for villains, it’s easy to point a finger at Slobodan Miloševic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, and other military leaders who are wanted or standing trial at The Hague. Others condemn the late Croatian President Franjo Tudman, who, it’s becoming increasingly clear, secretly conspired with Miloševic to redraw the maps of their respective territories throughout the course of the war.

Finally comes the inevitable question: Why did any of it happen in the first place? Explanations tend to gravitate to two extremes. Some observers say that in this inherently warlike part of the world, deep-seated hatreds and age-old tribal passions between the various ethnic groups have flared up at several points throughout history. According to these people, there’s an air of inevitability about the recent wars…and about the potential for future conflict. Others believe that this theory is an insulting oversimplification. Sure, animosity has long simmered in this region — but it takes a selfish leader to exploit it to advance his own interests. It wasn’t until Miloševic, Tudman, and others expertly manipulated the people’s grudges that the country fell into war. By vigorously fanning the embers of ethnic discord, and carefully controlling media coverage of the escalating violence, these leaders turned what could have been a healthy political debate into a holocaust.

Tension still exists throughout the former Yugoslavia — especially areas that were most war-torn. Croatians and Slovenes continue to split hairs over silly border disputes, and Serbs ominously warn that they’ll take up arms to defend their claim on Kosovo. When the people of this region encounter other Yugoslavs in their travels, they immediately evaluate each other’s accent to determine: Are they one of us, or one of them?

But, with time, these hard feelings are fading. The younger generations don’t look back — teenaged Slovenes no longer learn Serbo-Croatian, can’t imagine not living in an independent little country, and get bored (and a little irritated) when their old-fashioned parents wax nostalgic about the days of a united Yugoslavia. A middle-aged Slovene friend of mine thinks fondly of his months of compulsory service in the Yugoslav National Army, when his unit was made up of Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, Albanians, Macedonians, and Montenegrins — all of them countrymen, and all good friends. To these young Yugoslavs, minor ethnic differences didn’t matter. He still often visits with his army buddy from Dubrovnik — 600 miles away, not long ago part of the same nation — and wishes there had been a way to keep it all together. But he says, optimistically, “I look forward to the day when the other former Yugoslav republics also join the European Union. Then, in a way, we will all be united once again.”

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DestinationsEuropeThe Balkans

Insane Balkanology

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“I don’t know why you always plan your trips like it’s the first and only time you’ll ever see these places,” TC told me. “When we were in London, it was like boot camp! No wonder I was so grumpy always.”

How was I to articulate that spontaneously that it could very well be the last time I stepped foot into some place, when there are so many other places in the world to see, so urgently? It certainly wasn’t because I feared that ageing would slow me down, or that inertia would catch up. The idea of seeing more and more countries as displaying the “traveller’s trophy cabinet” sounded equally ludicrous.

I still can’t explain it. But that urgency is alive and, shall we say, far too driving to ignore.

The frustration planning this 1-week trip to the Balkans has been more of than not, hairy, frustrating, insane, merry-geese chasing and many more adjectives worth than my muddled mind can come up with at the moment.

Bus journeys/ferry timetables (multiple companies running similar services!) are particularly difficult to plan off-season, coupled with the fact that the language is in no way comprehensible. Now throw in possible day-tours and excursions, and other trips to some other islands. Many forum posts, furious but surreptitious perusals of itineraries and other trigger-happy travel blog posts aimed to show off the extent to which a human being can get absolutely plastered, I was led back to the very beginning of it all.

A very knowledgeable and wonderful website I’ve come across in the initial stages of planning, reminded myself to go back to it, but never did.

Balkanology: A comprehensive and traveller-savvy site by someone who know the region like the back of his hand.

And finally, bus timetables that make sense:

Balkanology’s Croatia links

Less than a month away, I’m scrambling madly for things to make sense still.

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DestinationsThe BalkansTurkey

Istanbul Revisited

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There are probably many existing copies of the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque that I have in my photo database, but I took more yet again, in the hope of getting clear shots during a rare, clear winter day. The weather was for most part, as irritatingly cold and damp as I remembered, and did wonders in exacerbating TC’s cough and foul temper.

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Istanbul was meant to be our last stop, and a last-minute, relaxing, browsing and shopping one at that – for me at least. Having covered the ‘necessary sights’ the first time around 2 years ago, the game plan was to catch a couple of things that were missed the previous time around like the book bazaar, eating at the Lokantasi, visiting Suleymaniye Mosque.

We landed at night, and found the place (downhill on cobblestones!) we were staying at after much huffing, puffing and asking around. TC, on the other hand, gave himself impromptu Turkish language lessons by listening carefully to how words were pronounced by the tram’s pre-programmed announcer.

Mehdi, the owner of the guesthouse, seemed determined to introduce the entire city to us with the aid of 2 guidebooks, claiming that our last 3 days were not entirely meant to be ‘relaxing’ if we were to cover everything. A big and well-travelled man, long-winded and sometimes a bit too enthusiastic, he gave TC a long run-down of the problems he went through in setting up the guesthouse when all TC did was to ask about the non-functioning wireless Internet connection. It turns out that Mehdi had been running the guesthouse for about a year, and is still doing (and expects to be doing) modifications for the next 2 years.

Our tries to rectify the wireless problem were still fruitless, even after shifting the range expander around. TC snooped about more and did bit more unspeakable things with it – to which I suspect he secretly enjoyed because it is after all the nature of what he does back home at work. We spent the rest of the time surfing the web on the 2nd floor of the spiral staircase after being ensconced on the 4th floor of the building. Calling the family by Skype thus meant that the entire guesthouse was also privy to my conversations.

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There was some time in which I took to reacquaint myself with the city and its inner working, its uneven terrain and the most bewildering mazes of streets through which trams and unsavoury people sometimes run. Almost immediately we went to catch the rather expensive whirling Dervish show at the Print Museum, an anonymous building stuck in the middle of shops, monuments, an intrusive tramway and a bus interchange.

The exquisite whirling that characterises the dervish dance is found in the Mevlevi Order, established on Rumi’s writing (they incidentally celebrate his 700th Anniversary this year) and is done to soaring music that is supposed to induce one to ecstasy and mystical flight. The Mevlevi sect was never quite known for its orthodox approach to Islam, and was occasionally criticised for being too radical. The Dervishes today perform merely for ‘heritage’ purposes, beginning with their arms clasped around themselves, gradually raising them skywards in a gesture of surrender as they whirl around the room.

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Done in 4 parts under dim lighting, half of which comprised instrumental music as the Dervishes appeared for only about 15-20 minutes, it seemed that the audience at the Press Museum spent more time asleep than awake.

I wonder why I remembered Istanbul as a very compelling city after my first visit there, despite the harassment that single females tend to receive from the heavily touristed imperial Peninsula, and the rather forlorn experience I had at the surly Berk Guesthouse.

My second visit confirmed my impressions of the city as chaotic, incomprehensible, obscure and still near un-discoverable. TC, on the other hand, hated it with a passion (the number of swear words that punctuated each sentence describing the place and the people hit a record high), having played for a while to the tourist lure of visiting monuments that he called a blatant rip-off. The monuments, TC felt, were relics of a time too long gone such that the effort to preserve the Ottoman remnants was fruitless; the modern city holds no empathy and connection to this past made even more remote by the reverence held by the people for their military and revolutionary leader Mustafa Kemal (aka Ataturk). TC got more than a little annoyed at the touts and became churlish at times, citing ‘maleness’ for his behaviour, and got particularly angry at the rip-off that he felt the tourist sites had become.

I think he got even more upset on a day when we finally decided to venture out to the ‘great unknown’ and got lost on a public bus that brought us to the coast of the Marmara Sea in the middle of nowhere – to the Asian shore in Kadikoy on a street called Bagdat about which I read about in Istanbul Time-Out Magazine so well-liked by expatriates.

“Next time, don’t go anywhere without a map!” TC said rather reproachfully to a contrite me.

We did manage to get ourselves back on track after realising that the bus routes took the one-way streets, and there was no way we could have figured that out en-route there.

The day we decided to visit the working class district of Zeytinburnu (past the district and ancient walls of Topkapi) to get to Olivium would be immortalised as the day I paid awed and hallowed tribute to reckless driving in bad conditions. Out we stumbled of the tram onto a nondescript shuttle van pointed out by a tram officer parked by the side of the road. I wonder now if we would have made it there had we not been told that a shuttle van was necessary.

The driver spoke no English, and we spoke no Turkish, and sat in a bouncy seat appearing annoyed with everything. He accepted whatever money we paid him in coins, a probable sign of exasperation at stupid tourists when the fare was clearly not the amount we dropped into his impatient hand.

Mildly put, it was disconcerting to see the bus driver wheel around recklessly, talking and waving around money while weaving through gridlocked traffic. He stopped whenever people asked him to stop on untrustworthy brakes, accelerated again on squealing wheels, counted money, collected fares and talked while he drove, never hesitating to honk many times at the slightest of traffic grievances.

The return trip was equally reckless, equally random, incomprehensible, confusing route-wise and even more bad-tempered. A stunned TC confirmed it as ‘hell of a ride’, and robbed momentarily of his eloquent self, all he could say post-ride was that it was ‘really something’.

I cannot leave Istanbul with condemnation being the order of the day – something in me refuses the superficiality of that emotion especially so that I could not bypass the first of the cultural barriers – the Turkish language. Istanbul (and Turkey) disqualifies us without second thought, as Turkish is especially extraordinary to the Turks.

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DestinationsEuropeSloveniaThe Balkans

The stop in Lake Bled

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We woke the next morning to discover that the ceiling had not caved in on us despite the large strip of paint hanging down from it. As it turned out, the same strip of paint was still hanging from the ceiling the day we left Slovenia. I guess paint in Slovenia must be pretty strong stuff.

A quick breakfast, and we were off on our way to the old town, waylaid only by the lure of a large toiletry store. As we soon discovered, Ljubljana is actually very walkable and it is nearly impossible to get lost walking around.

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In the middle of the old town, we found a Christmas market. It was here that during a lunch of a humble hot dog (albeit with a much fancier sausage than the usual franks served back home), that I discovered the joys of glogg, or hot spiced wine. I had heard of glogg before but I never knew there was a white wine version. Amidst the knick knacks sold at the Christmas came odd strains of various Bee Gees songs being played through loud speakers. This was at least better than the Roxette Greatest Hits which seemed to be popular in Italy for some reason. The area soon became filled with tourists, among them Italians. It was a little odd seeing as we were the tourists in Italy only a short time earlier.

Nightfall found as back at the Christmas market, which by now was quite nicely lit up. The piped in music had changed to Simon and Garfunkel, although this was offset by a man in one corner of the market, thrashing away at an old acoustic guitar and shouting a rather mangled version of “Tobacco Road”. It became evidently clear to me why the streets had seemed so empty the previous night – everyone was down at the Christmas market in the old town, drinking and eating.

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Our trip to lake Bled came courtesy of a somewhat gruff bus driver who deliberately mispronounced the names of the places the bus went to in the way someone who did not speak Slovene would. We arrived in Bled on a somewhat misty Sunday morning which as it turned out, meant less tourists were around. I kept hoping that the clouds and mist would clear so that we could see the Julian mountains. As I later discovered, I was looking at the wrong side of the lake all along – the mountains were behind me. Once we went over to the other side of the lake, the view of the mountains was as beautiful as the pictures of the official Bled website showed.

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On our last day back in Ljubljana, I spent most of the day fighting with an idiotic dryer in an attempt to get our laundry done. The dryer had controls that made no sense and a broken LED panel. Having just discovered that it is possible to download the user manuals for these machines from the manufacturer’s web site, I will try not to swear. Overall, Slovenia proved to be a rather easily accessible place, with some home town charm, even if it was starting to get a little touristy.

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DestinationsEuropeSloveniaThe Balkans

The Beloved City

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I was grumpy. A four-day head cold will do that to you. Mind you, this was an improved version of me. Two days earlier, saw me reduced to a gibbering idiot, staring owl eyed at the wall.

The situation in the train station did not seem very promising. The place appeared to be cast in cold, grey stone. The design of the place seemed functional, but only just so. Only one or two shops were open, one a bar and the other a mobile phone shop of some sort. The coloured signs of the shops seemed almost reluctant in the way they shone, barely adequate in piercing the gloom of the place. The Babe (TB) went to the phone shop to try to get some directions to our hostel. After a protracted discussion, it emerged that we had to take a bus from some bus stop.

We emerged from the Ljubljana station into a cold drizzle. TB stopped a passer-by who amazingly, did speak English. We were given directions to a bus stop around the corner, where a mystical bus would take us somewhere near the hostel where we were supposed to be staying. The walk to the afore-mentioned bus stop did nothing much to change my mood, the buildings looked stark and military. I started to wonder if I had somehow made a mistake in wanting to visit there.

On the way, TB stopped another passer-by who confirmed what bus we should take. The contrast in things seemed quite odd. The buildings seemed cold and pedestrian, but the people seemed warm. After a fair amount of rigmarole, it emerged that we had to take a certain bus number 14 to a certain obscure road. The first bus that appeared came with a grumpy bus driver who did not speak a word of English and was more interested in driving off than saying very much. Fortunately, TB yelled at him to stop and we got off the bus. Amazingly, the same woman who told us about the bus appeared again at the bus stop and told us that that was indeed the correct bus. She explained that bus drivers in Ljubljana are usually unable to speak English. Asking for a pen, she proceeded to give us a list of roads to ask the bus driver about. With her help we were able to fumble our way through the journey of the next number 14 that arrived. Ljubljana seemed to be a different animal from what its gruff, military surroundings portrayed initially.

Upon arriving at what seemed to be the right bus stop, we were left staring in the dark at a somewhat distant highway road that dipped underground. With this somewhat ominous spectre, we somehow managed to stagger our way into a side road, which when we got to the end, turned out to be the very road where the hostel was located. We had help from a woman who walked out of the street and confirmed that this was where the hostel was located. Another odd pairing of cold and warmth.

The hostel itself turned out to be a cheery sort of place in bright colours. It screamed “student budget” in every way, and was practically an Ikea budget showroom. Upon checking in, we found that we were upgraded from a 4-bed room to a 2-bed room, a very nice touch, the only alarming thing being that the ceiling in one corner had a huge piece of paint that looked like it was about to fall off at any moment. It was very livable, once you got past the fact that nearly everything seemed to come from Ikea.

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