Sunday, September 28, 2003

Churches and mosques were international targets of all sides during the ethnic warfare of the 1990s.

Sojourn to
the Balkans

The area has had
a volatile history, but
visitors are rewarded
with awesome sights

This is the story of an 18-day, 2,500-mile car trip through all of the former Yugoslavia.

Ethnic warfare which may have killed 140,000 is just two years past in Macedonia, four in Kosovo and Serbia, and eight to 10 in Croatia, Slovenia (minor skirmishing) and Bosnia. Only Montenegro ducked the fighting, although Serb artillery used Montenegro's high mountains to lob shells into Croatia's walled city of Dubrovnik.

The current Blue Guide to Kosovo reminds you: "See page 27 for advice about road mines, booby traps and unexploded munitions." Lonely Planet's Bosnia guide cautions: "Regard every centimeter of ground as suspicious," and that the other risks to travelers include tick-borne encephalitis, hepatitis, rabies, typhoid fever and diarrhea.

And a half century of communism left the familiar fingerprints of ugly architecture and wrecked economies in the cities. Recovery is going slow, but yes, Americans can drive safely through Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bulgaria without visas, but with common sense.

You'll see dozens of destroyed villages but will be rewarded by awesome Byzantine, Ottoman and Hapsburg beauty in the hinterlands and the oldest cities. And you'll quickly sense the deep-seated, ethnic hatred that's Balkan history.

And brutality? In 10 weeks of the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, more than 200,000 soldiers were killed and nobody blinked. They were ready to get it on again in the World Wars of 1917 and 1941.

MY WIFE, Denby Fawcett, and I had expert guides. Our daughter, Brett Jones, is America's chief refugee coordinator in Kosovo. Her Danish husband, Henrik Villadsen, is one of Kosovo's civil administrators and a former international observer during the fighting in Croatia and Bosnia.

This kind of trip is for people tired of cruise ships and Las Vegas. It's also worth doing in part if your time is limited. Here are my recommendations for sightseeing, overnighting, eating and surviving.

Regarding the latter, just don't slip and say something in Serbo-Croat in an ethnic-Albanian enclave. Or vice versa. And, due to the presence of land mines, never ever wander off into an inviting field or forest for a picnic. And keep in mind that the once-mighty United States dollar is now just funny money. You must have either local currency or sometimes the euro. Credit cards are accepted in major cities and ATM machines are abundant, though neither are options in Kosovo.

Young boys eagerly took up arms during the 90s war and the culture of guns still pervades the Balkans.


If the capital city of Pristina is the first place you land in the old Yugoslavia, you may be tempted to get on the plane and go back home. It ain't pretty. But Kosovo is the heart of old Serbia, where its army fought the Turks and its leader Prince Lazar ordered that "whoever is a Serb and does not come to Kosovo to do battle against the Turks, let him have neither a male nor a female offspring, let him have no crop."

The Turks won but Serbia re-inherited Kosovo after World War I. It's now a United Nations protectorate. Most Serbs have fled for their lives. Remaining Serbs and the churches they abandoned in the majority Muslim, ethnic-Albanian areas are under heavy U.N. troop protection. These were items that made the news the week we arrived:

>> Two Serb teenagers were killed by machine-gun fire and four were wounded at a western Kosovo swimming hole. Earlier, three members of a Serb family were axed and clubbed to death in their home.

>> Assault guns were fired at the house of Kosovo's Muslim parliament speaker Nexhat Dachi. Nobody was hit.

>> A U.N. police officer was shot by sniper as he traveled in a U.N. police car 30 miles north of Pristina.

Serbia still considers Kosovo to be its province, but outsiders would wonder, why bother? Kosovo is dirt poor. More than 70 percent of its people are unemployed, and kept alive only by foreign donations. The country represents another Iraq for us, costly and forever.

Pristina is dreary and dusty and choked with cars. The city's ancient power plant belches tons of unscrubbed smoke into the local air. A multi-story-high photo of a smiling, waving Bill Clinton looms over the main street, Bill Clinton Boulevard.

The Grand Hotel isn't very. It has three commodes in the lobby bathroom. One had no paper. One had no seat. The third had a deteriorating seat and paper but obviously hadn't been flushing for a long time. The cost is $125 per night for a double .

I suggest you visit the Baci or the Victory (with a Statue of Liberty atop it) at about $200 for a double. Hotels are not cheap in the Balkans because no one but rich foreigners would use them anyway. But food in restaurants is very cheap because Balkans enjoy eating out and prices need to fit their skimpy budgets. Tiffany's serves Albanian food in a garden setting. Escargot has a London-trained chef. Turkuaz has a Turkish buffet. Pjata is great for lunch with soups, salads and pizza. Meals typically run $8 to $10 per person with drinks. Kosovo is home to great bread and tasty Peje beer.

Just south of Pristina is Gracinica, a small Serb enclave with a classic example of a 14th century Orthodox church (the Serbs are Orthodox and the Albanian Kosovars are Muslim.) A sign says you may not bring in your gun.

North, 45 minutes by car, is Mitrovica. One side of the narrow river is Serb territory and the other is home to ethnic Albanian Muslims. Serbs use the dinar as money and Muslims the euro. Crossings by residents can only be made with armed escorts in armored vehicles. The place -- marked by Serbian flags on one side, and Albanian flags on the other -- is reminiscent of divided Berlin. You'll also see a destroyed gypsy village, and flash demonstrations and gunshots are regular occurrences. The Serb side is a big source of pirated CDs selling for about $2.50. In Pristina they go for $2 to $3. "Charlie's Angels 2" is already there on pirated DVD.

We also found a Serb shop in Mitrovica selling many "F... the U.S.A." postcards. The owner was watching "The Simpsons" on a pirated satellite TV channel. People buy the satellite dishes for $50 and pay $100 for a pirated code box to pull down satellite signals.

Visit only. Don't stay. It's too volatile.

The south of Kosovo contains many tribespeople who live in the Sharra Mountains. The people above are from the Garani tribe.

In the south of Kosovo, two hours by car, is its prettiest city, Prizren. It butts up against the Sharra Mountains that rise to 10,000 feet. The city is home to gorgeous mosques and minarets, cobblestone streets, a river and lots of sidewalk cafes. Street markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays draw the colorful Garani and Torbec people from the hills. Torbec women wear a 2-by-2-foot piece of plywood sewn under their skirts in back to hide the outline of their buttocks, body parts considered too sexy to be shown publicly.

The town's only tourist hotel is the Theranda, which has a room rate of $40 for a double. You can safely drive through the many Albanian, Serb and Bosnian villages in the surrounding Sharra National Park district, but bring your passport because you'll likely run into checkpoints manned by Ukrainian U.N. troops. I didn't have mine on this day trip but they accepted my Hawaii driver's license.

It's worth the 90-minute drive southwest of Pristina to Pec (called Peje now in politically correct Albanian) to see the famous monastery started in the 700s and completed in 1331. It's the Serbian mother church and is guarded by Italian U.N. troops.

It houses charred and whole relics rescued from other Orthodox churches destroyed by the Muslims in the '90s war, when Serbs destroyed most Muslim mosques. Ask for Dubrila, an English-speaking associate who'll tell you some of the history. The only room-game in town is the Metohija Hotel, at $35 per double.

The only currency accepted in Kosovo is the euro, except in Serbian-side Mitrovica where you must use Serbia's dinar.


The country name is actually Serbia and Montenegro. For now. Montenegro is talking about seceding from Serbia as the others have done. It's a drop-dead-gorgeous mountain pass and gorge drive from Pec to Montenegro's capital of Podgorica, which most people bypass because of its horror of socialist architecture (OK, so we did call it a communist heap!) It used to be called Titograd. That should give you a clue.

Montenegro is also believed to have the tallest people in Europe. (Riley Wallace, UH head basketball coach, please take note.)

Keep going straight toward the Adriatic seacoast and the old harbor town of Kotor. This is a great introduction to the Yugoslavia that was once under Venetian control. It's a walled town and no cars are permitted inside.

This is a good time to visit because the city has not yet made it onto tourist's radar and you're unlikely to see an American, Brit, Frenchman or German there. The euro is used here for now by special arrangement with the European Union even though Montenegro is not a member. Stay at the central Hotel Marija, which charges $75 per double.

Kotor has palm trees (really!) and not far away is the island called Hawaii (really!) with beaches accessible by 10-minute ferry ride.

Outdoor restaurants abound in Kotor. The Scala Santa was OK, not great, at $20 per person with drinks, but the owners need to get rid of the horde of feral cats which disturb diners. Make the morning or late evening trek in cooler temperatures up the Sacred Steps to the church and the old castle.

Croats display their national flag in a tile mosaic on an old building in the Croatia capital of Zagreb.


A 10-minute ferry ride from Kotor across a small bay and a two-hour drive up the coastal road brings you to Dubrovnik. So much is written about this spectacular walled city that I'll skip over it and just recommend that you stay at the premier Excelsior Hotel outside the walls. Yes it's $270 per double but it's heavenly and has swimming conditions as good as Hawaii's.

There's no beach, but you just step off the wall into clear, warm water. Do splurge and demand an oceanfront room.

I also suggest you eat at least one dinner at the outdoor Ragusa 2 restaurant inside the walled city where a magnificent cannot-eat-it-all seafood platter for two with much wine costs about $25 per person and the waithelp is exceptional by any standard.

Keep in mind that almost everyone smokes in the Balkans. One restaurant gave us coffee and a free cigarette after dinner. A "no-smoking" sign is a great rarity. So always try to sit outside.

The Serbs have lobbed a few shells into this U.N. World Heritage Site and damaged some roofs and tiles. I think this was mainly to discourage tourists because Dubrovnik's tourism is Croatia's money maker.

North of Dubrovnik (you'll pass through a tiny sea-outlet part of Bosnia en route) are Split and Trogir. These old Roman towns sit side by side on the Dalmatian Coast and you'll fall in love with both. Split has harbor-front cafes that will remind you of the Riviera, and has a city fort from Diocletian's time, about 300 AD.

We picked sightseeing at Split and staying in Trogir, a small, walled city built on an island connected by a 50-foot bridge. It has narrow, rabbit-warren streets, grape arbors, palms and many appealing restaurants. We drank at Big Daddy's Cafe where local beer costs a dollar (Croatia's currency is the kuna) and a rum and Coke is $1.50. You can also have a "Hawai" (spelled that way) with rum, curacao and banana liqueur.

We stayed at the Ivica Jarebec-Covo House, where clean, romantic, two-bedroom, air-conditioned flats have a sitting room, private bathroom, kitchen and private grape-arbor balcony, all for $85 per double including breakfast (all Balkan hotels include a huge breakfast). You can book a stay through the nearby Hotel Fontana. But beware. You might say "this is as good as it gets" and never see the rest of the Balkans!

It's an eyeful of a drive northeast through old Serb enclaves in Croatia of Knin, Gracac and Gospic, to the Lakes National Park at Plitvice. You'll pass abandoned and destroyed villages. Serbs hold legal titles to the land but are afraid to return. Some buildings house Croat squatters but many of the former homes remain abandoned skeletons, looted or burned or picked apart by brick thieves. Minefields and booby traps are everywhere. Don't even think about going inside some shelled house you see on the roadside.

Lakes National Park is one place many tourists miss and should not. It has about the bluest lakes you'll ever see, wonderful walking paths, electric boats and gorgeous boardwalks. It's haunting and very photogenic. It's worth a two-day stay at the government's Jezero Hotel at $100 per double. "Government" in the Balkans has come to mean "without charm or efficiency," but this hotel is very comfortable and puts you right on the lake pathways and steps from the boat landing. You need to see this park to appreciate it. I can't do it justice here.

Zagreb is the Croatian capital and a long haul from Split so we worked our way there through Bosnia. It's a great capital of Austro-Hungarian architecture and I really love the place. It reminds me of Paris or Vienna and I feel I could easily live here. It must be even more charming and cozy in winter with its snugly bierstuben. There's an old city section called Gornijgrad, with full public transportation and great cleanliness -- a Croat virtue they never fail to boast about.

Zagreb is loaded with hotels, so you don't have to stay at the Sheraton at $380 to $455 per day double (I'm happy to say this hotel and some others gave us sizable U.N. discounts) for central location and comfort.

There are two do-able, worthwhile day trips from Zagreb. One is to visit the Neanderthal Museum and cave-excavation site at Krapina, where admission is free. The other is to go to the magnificent castle at Trakosan with intact furniture and art of the Dragovic family, its last inhabitants. Their portraits look as if they suffered a serious case of in-breeding. Admission is $2.

Or, 20 minutes away across the border in the near-fairy-tale nation of Slovenia (like Croatia it is Roman Catholic) is the Hotel Golf Castle Mokrice, with an 18-hole green fee of about $40 and $10 to rent clubs. You can stay for $130 per double. Visiting Slovenia is not to be missed because it's like driving through a "Sound of Music" movie set. And the best beer we had on this trip, Pivovarna Lasko, is made here.

Slovenia uses the toler as its money but most establishments seem to accept the euro. You've got to use envelopes to separate the various currencies when touring the Balkans.

Other easy but essential trips from Zagreb are to visit the towns of Osijek and Vukovar. Before the Croat-Serb war of the '90s, Osijek was considered one of the most beautiful old towns on the Drava River. Croats and Serbs lived peacefully side by side.

Then Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic riled up the Serbs. Some Croats attacked a Serb police station. Serbs began burning Croat villages. The slaughter was on and eventually the Croats prevailed. Rebuilding the damage continues, but Osijek is a reminder of a cultured past. It has the most vibrant riverfront cafe life I saw in the Balkans. The Cuba Cafe with its leopard-skin-like couches offers such drinks as the "Hawaii" and "Sex on the Promenade." Osijeska beer rated third best of the Balkans with us.

We stayed at the Hotel Osijek at $80 per double. By 8 a.m. the bartender was standing at the ready, bow tie and all, in the empty bar.

The finest restaurant must be the Slavonska Kuca in the old city. Order the paprika fish soup with noodles. Dinner for four with many plum brandies and a $20 local wine was $45.

Vukovar on the Danube is a must see. Watch the movie "Harrison's Flowers" before you go. More than 1,700 civilians died and 4,000 were wounded in the long Serb shelling that took place here. The shattered buildings remain.

The Serbs also killed most of the patients at the Vukovar hospital when they entered the city and buried them in a mass grave outside the town. But don't blame the Serbs only. During World War II, the Croats killed and imprisoned ethnic Serbs within their borders and teamed up with the Nazis in their own practice of ethnic cleansing.

Don't stay here. There's not even a semi-worthy hotel left. This would also be a good time to get rid of your kuna. Serbia and Bosnia won't accept them.

Relative peace reigns in Bosnia and Kosovo only because of the presence of UN troops.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

This is the most troubled spot right now outside of Kosovo. About 2,500 American troops are among the United Nations forces helping to keep peace in the region. Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Division from Schofield served here. This is landmine country. Never step even a few feet off a road.

B&H is divided by the Dayton Agreement into a Serb Republic and a Federation of Croats and Muslims. They rotate the presidency. You must be very careful what language you use - feelings run very raw. The common money in the Republic and the Federation is the convertible mark.

We drove to Banja Luka, Mostar and Sarajevo.

Banja Luka is Serb country and the people here are much more nationalistic and jingoistic than almost anybody you'll meet inside mother Serbia. The city was bombed during World War II, leveled by a 1969 earthquake and shot to pieces during the '90s war. Serbs destroyed all 16 mosques in the city. It's the Serbian flag that flies here, not the Bosnian national flag.

Nobody seems to work, instead spending time hanging out in cafes, nursing one beer or one coffee for hours and talking.

The atmosphere struck us wrong. The hotels were over-priced dumps with no air conditioning in the hot summer. We canceled our plan to stay there and moved on.

Mostar is the town made famous by the Ottoman arch-bridge destroyed by Croat tank fire during a long siege. The great beauty of this riverside setting is marred by the many gutted buildings. It looks like a German city after World War II. Croats and Muslims traded artillery fire across the river for a year, destroying old churches and mosques. The main hotels, which are on the Catholic Croat side of the town, are drab and over-priced so we stayed at the Vila Ossa Pension on the west bank for $25 a night for a double. The many taverns and restaurants literally hanging over the river will melt your heart. How can the people of a town so hauntingly beautiful do such horrible things over an argument about Roman Catholicism or Islam?

Until 1981, the town of Medjugorije had no running water, no electricity and no telephones. Only its neighbors knew it existed. Then six youngsters swore they had seen the Virgin Mary here. The "sighting" became a tourism-and-business marketer's dream come true. Ever since, the town and its rather garish Catholic church have been swamped by pilgrims from all over the world. Dozens of shops have sprung up to sell religious items, postcards and food. The place is overrun with Mary statuettes and rosary beads. It's like the International Market Place with a church attached. The town now has running water, electricity and phones -- and too much traffic with too little parking.

Sarajevo was one of our main destinations because of its TV prominence during the '90s war. We drove there via a 130-mile roadway from Banja Luka and through the picturesque Bosnian Muslim town of Travnik, former seat of the Turkish vizier in Bosnia.

Travnik is worth a stop. Bring lots of film! Climb to the overlook castle. Dine at the Lutvina Kahua outdoor restaurant for $5 per person. No alcohol is served but if you ask for water the waiter will dip your glass in the river. I guess the water's OK because that's what everyone drinks. We stayed at the Pension Onix at $30 per double. Accommodations were pretty basic but whistle-clean.

Sarajevo was once known mainly as the place Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serb nationalist, touching off World War I. It was also known as the home of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Then it became a staple of television news as Muslim and Croat residents endured two years of Serb shelling. The town center was obliterated.

Today, rebuilding is going fast and the town seems normal again. But Sarajevo is a city of ugly communist-era high rises and bombed-out buildings still surround a charming old town area with enough bazaars to satisfy the most jaded shopper. Tourist guide Zajid Jusufavic offers a two-hour walking trip for $12 per person. You may be able to find cheaper rates by inquiring at the tourist information office. The best hotel deal we found was the new Villa Orient in the old city center for $90 per double. There are also restaurants galore here.

We enjoyed a sumptuous meal at the Bosnian House, where my "Happy Bosnian" veal roulade dinner with prosciutto, spinach and cheese was $4. Four of us ate and drank for $50.

On a hill above Sarajevo we ran into a U.S. Army major named Charpentier, stationed at Camp Eagle in Tuzla. He had just been working with the air defense unit of the Hawaii Army National Guard and says he misses Oahu. He even loved the Kahuku Training Area.

A McDonald's om Osijek, Croatia, warns of no roller skates, no dogs, no smoking and no guns.


It feels very odd to arrive as a tourist in a country we bombed the bejesus out of in 1999. But nobody spits on Americans or even gives us a dirty look. I guess the Serbs were ready to get rid of Milosevic anyway. And our bombs generally were targeted at specific government buildings, leaving civilian buildings next door intact save for some broken windows. You can see them all.

We did accidentally hit a trainload of civilians crossing a bridge and killed 16 people working inside Belgrade TV. Belgrade's been destroyed 40 times in its history. It's very new, unattractive and is home to some very expensive Western hotels.

Frankly, I'd skip Belgrade, but my three traveling companions picked it as the city they'd choose if they had to live in the Balkans. It is culturally vibrant and is home to some very upscale shopping.

There's good afternoon cafe life in the Zemun district along the Danube and many restaurants along the Montmartre-like Skadarska Street. But perhaps the best continental dining is in the restaurant inside Kalemegdan Castle. We scanned the menu and the wines but picked a visit to Skadarska for its raucous street life.

Incidentally, the castle walls are now used as a billboard for advertisement posters. And you were upset about putting advertisements on the sides of our buses?

The finest hotel in Belgrade and probably all the Balkans is the Hyatt Regency. You have to see this one to appreciate the luxury. We did. The rack rate is about $335 per double, with a knockout breakfast including made-to-order omelets, crepes and waffles. There's a full-sized pool, gymnasium and sauna. The guest rooms are enormous.

Cheaper and more central is the venerable Hotel Moskva, the 100-year-old home to actors, politicians and German generals in World War II, who insisted it be temporarily renamed the Hotel Belgrade. It has rooms on two levels, with antique furniture -- no two rooms are furnished alike.

But it's my minority opinion that if you skip Belgrade you won't have missed a thing. My wife sharply disagrees. No, more than that. She says my view is simply untrue.


This is the only place I know of in the world where people can argue over a statue of Mother Teresa. The late missionary is likely to be named a saint of the Catholic Church even though she's from an Orthodox upbringing. But that's another story for another day.

Macedonia's probably two-thirds Orthodox and one-third ethnic Albanian (nobody's done a good count). Mother Teresa was born in Macedonia in 1910, and a statue to be donated to Rome was to identify her as "a Macedonian daughter." Those are fighting words to the ethnic Albanians, who fought with the Macedonian Slavs until two years ago. Albanians say she was one of them. Others say she definitely was a Serbic Slav and didn't speak more than three words of Albanian. Things like that can rekindle warfare in this touchy nation between Greece and Kosovo.

The time we were there, fighting broke out again in the north and Muslim refugees started coming, again, over the mountain passes into Kosovo. That meant more work for my daughter at Kosovo's U.S. Embassy, called the "U.S. Office" because of Serbian political sensitivities.

Macedonia's quite green and attractive. Too bad it's always on the edge of violence on its Albanian and Kosovo borders. After the militia war which threatened to spill over into Greece in 2000, the government put a huge, lighted cross atop the mountain overlooking the capital of Skopje to taunt the Muslims and remind them that this is a majority-Orthodox nation.

Macedonia also has its own currency called the diner, a one-letter separation from the Serbian dinar.

Much of the architecture can only be described as godawful but part of the city center has been reserved exclusively for foot traffic. Why didn't we ever think of that?

The Holiday Inn was booked for a big soccer match so we accidentally discovered the hidden, yet more central Best Western Skopje with generous rooms at $130 per double.

The main attraction of Skopje is its morning market in the old Turkish quarter. Macedonia was about as Turkish as you could get in the old days. But Yugoslavia brought it back into the Orthodox, communist fold.

Most people in the old Yugoslavia just picked whatever religion matched the current rulers, which made life easier for commerce. Church and mosque attendance has dropped off significantly. Only ambitious politicians can get Balkan people to murder each other over religious differences. After all, they are all Slavs. But aggressive Albanians keep pushing for a Greater Albania. And they've gone from being minority victims to an intolerant majority in some areas. They want other ethnic groups kicked out and traditional languages changed in their favor.

I went to the Balkans assuming the Serbs were the bad guys. I left knowing there are no good guys.


If you go

There are daily flights into Pristina, Kosovo, on British Airways out of London Gatwick ($465 round trip during sale periods), Lufthansa out of Frankfurt and Austrian Airlines out of Vienna. But you also can fly daily into Belgrade, Zagreb, Dubrovnik, Split, Sofia and Skopje.

Clothing: Everything is casual in the Balkans. Long pants, casual sport shirts or T-shirts; skirts and blouses or pants for women. A rain jacket and sweater will see you through everything from road travel to upscale restaurants. Leave the suits, ties, evening dresses and high heels behind.

Language: English is not readily spoken outside major cities but you can get along fine everywhere with a little of this and that. Serbo-Croatian, Albanian and Macedonian are the main tongues.

When to go: Spring or fall. Summer is much too hot and winter much too cold.

Information: Internal tour companies such as Reise Kosovo, UHPA of Croatia and Argus Agency of Serbia are linked at Internet search-engine sites under Balkans Travel.

Bob Jones is a columnist for MidWeek and can be e-mailed at


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