Yugoslavia was such a good idea

As a country, the idea of Yugoslavia was not obvious.  Even though most of the people in this corner of the Balkans spoke the same language and ate the same foods, there have always been greater forces working to split the “South Slavs” from each other.  (Yugo, also spelled зуго, means south.)  The centrifugal forces include waves of successive empires and the effects of all those mountain ranges separating, say, an Orthodox village from a Catholic one.

The people here were once subjects of the Roman Empire (Italy is just an eight-hour ferry ride across the Adriatic Sea).  And the Byzantine Empire.  And the Ottoman. And Austro-Hungarian.  The western parts tend to be Roman Catholic, and the eastern parts Orthodox.  And a bunch of utterly European Muslims, mostly in Bosnia.

But the idea of all these people having a free and diverse country pleases us Americans a lot.  They weren’t going to be subjects of a foreign emperor or king, but instead would cooperate as fellow South Slavs in this beautiful and mountainous land.  Besides, the so-called “nations” were all really similar.  Of course, that didn’t make unifying other countries around here easy, either.  Think of Germany and Italy, which after 150 years are still not convinced they are really unitary.  So we set our aim at Yugoslavia, hoping to learn more about diversity

We ferried over from Bari, Italy, about ten days ago, and set up our van for four days of sun in Dubrovnik, on the coast of Croatia.  Yugoslavia spent the nineties in an awful break-up, and the six former republics became independent states.  Croatia is most famous for its coastline and islands.  We loved the beach, rented an umbrella on two days, and just plain gaped at the gorgeous scenery.

View of Dubrovnik Harbor from our van

We also went into the old walled city, with its polished stone streets and perfect tile roofs, and walked along the ramparts.  Unfortunately, we learned that the roofs were so new because Serbian fighters shelling the city from the mountainside above had burned or blasted all the old ones in 1991.  The “Yugoslavian People’s Army,” basically were punishing Croatia for seceding from Yugoslavia.

We took a side trip to Montenegro (another of the six former Yugoslavian republics).  We were greeted by a 60-minute line of cars at the border and were surprised to find out we had to buy car insurance for 18 Euros.  We thought it was a scam, but the same thing was to happen a few days later entering Bosnia, and Lynnell recalled that many European car rentals do not allow you to enter those two very poor non-E.U. countries.   Here’s the border crossing:

Border from Croatia into Montenegro

And here is the insurance office.

Montenegran Insurance Sales Office at Border

Rick Steves’ Guidebook advised us to drive around the fjord called the Bay of Kotor, and it was great advice.  Huge forested mountains slope steeply into the water.  Villages of houses that look like Monopoly game pieces cling to the shore.   I had mussels for lunch that had been in the fjord a few hours before.

John Loving the Mussels

Lynnell ordered grilled fish, choosing from five actual just-caught fishes on a giant platter.  We continued our drive and reached the Kotor Fortress in mid-afternoon.  Much like Dubrovnik, Kotor is a red-roofed sanctuary from naval and land attacks.  The walls are immense, and climb up the mountainside maybe a half-mile to a lookout and artillery post on the top.   We took this photo from a little chapel halfway to the top (and then turned back!).  The modern city lies outside the walls along the bay.

Kotor seen from Church on Mountainside

After the wars in the 1990’s, at least one of the new countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina, resisted the insane nationalistic fervor that drove Serbians and Croats to atrocities, ethnic cleansing, mass deportations, and state-sanctioned acts of terror I will not name here.  B & H had been, and to some extent still is, a multicultural place.   You see minarets and steeples in the same village.  And even the road signs, unlike in the other former Yugoslav Republics, are multi-language.   Or more accurately, multi-alphabet.  Serbs and Croats are always finding ways to diverge, and during the 1800’s, a Serbian invented a cyrillic alphabet which is now the official alphabet of Serbia.   People are free to call their restaurant a ресторан or a restoran.  On road signs, the government spells town names both ways: мостар is Mostar, and сарајево is Sarajevo.  But sometimes, vandals who disapprove make changes:

Serbian (Cyrillic) Sspellings crossed out

Even calling the language everyone speaks “Serbo-Croatian” is sort of like “Scottish-English” or “Americo-Canadian.”  It’s the same language, with small variations, but the Orthodox people call themselves Serbs (сербс).  Catholic people call themselves Croatians.  It’s one of the only examples in the world of people being able to use two different alphabets.  According to Wikipedia, 47% of the 8 million or so Serbians in the former Yugoslavia prefer the Latin alphabet, and 36% prefer the цзриллиц.

OK, a couple more pictures before I sign off.  The internet here is spotty and it’s been too long between posts!  Here’s the Bosnian guy at the border selling us insurance for his country.  He used a manual portable typewriter and carbon paper.  It’s a really poor country.

Clerk sells us Bosnia Road Insurance with Manual Typewriter

But we found him and his fellow Bosnians helpful, even if we had to use sign language and google translate sometimes.  Below, Lynnell asks where we can find a B-H Telecom store where we could buy SIM cards for our precious phones.

Asking for help with getting SIM cards

That’s all for now.  In our next post, we’ll have more about the geographic beauty and human tragedy of this former country, a cautionary tale about the dangers of religion, patriotism, and nationalism.



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I am an Episcopal priest, retired Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, MN, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on amazon.com. I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

One thought on “Yugoslavia was such a good idea”

  1. Love this post. 40 years ago, i traveled with college friends from Italy to Yugoslavia, and based on a recommendation at a cafe, we went to plitvice national park. I always wanted to go back…so I would greatly appreciate if you could go and take pictures for me. ;).
    It’s a world heritage site…and those are always at risk…


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