I am the kind of person who needs to go to a place and see it, then I can better understand the history and current events. In the recent past I have been to Iran, the five ‘Stans, the South Caucasus and this summer, the Balkans. All of them are now a little more understandable.
The Balkans are the former states of Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and most recently, Kosovo. The region is terribly diverse geographically, encompassing high mountains, great river resources, and the drop dead scenery of the Adriatic coast. It is historically an area of persistent conflict dating back centuries, pitting Catholics against Orthodox Christians against Muslims. Although virtually everyone in the region speaks the same language, albeit with different accents, it has been very difficult to unify the various parts.
Here are some thoughts on my trip; some serious and some just back of the envelope observations.
1. If you are interested in politics and history, the place to go is Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Stability in the Balkans seems to rest on how homogenous a country’s people are. For instance, Slovenia and Croatia are primarily Catholic and their people are similar ethnically – Croatia has mostly Croatians and Slovenia, mostly Slovenians. The same generally goes for Serbia which is mostly Serbian and mostly Orthodox Christian. The odd man out is Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) which is 50% Muslim and the balance Croatian Catholics and Serbian Orthodox. Things are stable today but, to my mind, not settled longer term. BiH for instance has four presidents, three of which (Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox) rotate every eight months. The leaders could not decide on a national flag so the EU gave them one. This is not a recipe for stability.
The two cities you should definitely visit are Sarajevo and Mostar. Sarajevo weathered a three year siege by the Serbians between 1992 and 1995 and Mostar, historically a peaceful city of Muslims (Bosniaks) and Serbians/Croatians separated by a historic stone bridge (see picture), erupted in ethnic violence in 1995. The city is peaceful now but scratch the surface and you feel the tension.
2. If you are interested in a ‘Holiday’, the Adriatic coast is your choice. From Split to Dubrovnik, you have crystal clear water and beautiful weather. The trick however is avoiding the modern day Roman Army – the cruise ships. Dubrovnik often receives four cruise liners a day in the summer, disgorging thousands of passengers who clog the narrow streets of the beautiful walled city. Instead of spears and shields they carry selfie sticks and sunscreen. If you don’t like crowds, avoid July and August.
3. Phillip Morris needs to move its world headquarters. I have been to smoking countries (Japan and China for instance) but they don’t hold a ‘Bic lighter’ to the Balkans. I would venture to say that 90% of men, women and children smoke. Non-smoking sections are more a suggestion than a rule.
Caveats aside, I rate the Balkans five-stars. You should go. As someone once said, “don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have traveled”.