Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Balkan Adventure

Hitler had to postpone Operation Barbarossa for 6 weeks in 1941 as his Italian allies were not just pushed back from Greece, but were driven back through Albania and back in some disarray into what was then the kingdom of Yugoslavia.  So he turned his troops right and pounded through Yugoslavia into Greece and in so doing turned up the gas under the already bubbling melting pot that was the Balkans.

Yugoslavia had come into existence at the end of WWI in 1918 with the dissolution of the Austrian Hapsburg empire when several of its southern provinces were bundled together into a new Kingdom combining pre-WWI greater Serbia as well who had had the temerity of being forced to capitulate to the Central Powers in 1917.  The 6 provinces were Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia (where it all started -- that'll teach them), Montenegro and Macedonia and it would prove to be only Macedonia that our tour didn't reach.

Post WWII, Croatian communist partisan leader Joseph Tito kicked out the king who had sat on the fence throughout the war and re-established pre-war Yugoslavia under tight control.  However there's precious little evidence he was as strict as the Soviets in their other conquered territories as western tourism quickly bounced back and after the various Soviet repressions in Prague and Budapest, Tito distanced himself from the Soviets and essentially suggested they just 'try it' with him.  Having seen the topography of the country and read a little of the military endeavours throughout the region, Tito was pretty confident that he could sit out any threat because boy are there a lot of mountains, precious few roads and virtually no people.

The mountains start pretty well immediately from Italy as the Alps morph into the Julian Alps and then the Dalmation coastline which was called Illyria in Roman times.  These days transport is possible but at any time in the past, it is difficult to see how any serious overland movement could be conducted.  In Italy and Switzerland there are villages all over the hills and in the valleys.  In the Balkans there are trees and of course rocks of any size you care to chose.

I don't know if it has been the multiple past wars in the region that has depopulated the entire region but relatively speaking there's simply nobody there.  Slovenia has 900,000 people.  Croatia 4.4 million (mostly inland) and Montenegro 2 million.  Plus a load of mountains and trees.  This said the entire region is hell bent on catching up with the west and thankfully for Slovenia and Croatia, they were both the nearest to Italy (the west), the furthest away from Serbia and had the most mountains.  Indeed Slovenia is pretty well all mountain.  Slovenia managed to extricate themselves from the post-Yugoslavia/Greater Serbia mess in the first 2 weeks (they had a 10-day war in 1991) while Croatia had to battle it out to 1995 before shedding the Serbs (and Montenegrins).  Slovenia therefore joined the EU ASAP, adopted the Euro and borrowed shedloads more at cheap rates to build roads and bridges.  Croatia took a while longer (currency is the Krun) but managed to borrow the shedloads of cheap Euros on offer and built their roads, bridges, tunnels and infrastructure.  And they are magnificent.

Bridge pillars during construction ... still building roads
I think it was the Top Gear people who said that the finest highway in the world is the Autoroute du Sud from Nice to Genoa -- which we travelled and there were dozens of huge bridges and amazing tunnels -- but they are not a patch on the new Croatian roads.

View from coast road of one of the dozens of islands
People rave about driving along Big Sur in California with the winding roads atop and alongside cliffs above the surging Pacific Ocean.  Well the Adriatic is nowhere near as rough as the Pacific but having driven Big Sur and now Croatia's equivalent coast road that stretches all the way down the coast past Dubrovnic in the far south, Croatia has it on that count too.  That is just fantastic big biking country and there were loads of them from the north just enjoying the winding roads and fabulous views.

More roads and islands ... 
Our Balkan tour first took in Rijetka which is at the top of Croatia's riviera and the start of the motorway system.  It is a port town and we stayed overlooking the container docks but everyone (under 40 that is) speaks English ("if we don't spik Eenglish, we are nothing") and more than helpful.  Ali and I pigged out on home made pasta/gnocchi washed down with a 1.4kg T-bone steak Ali said was for tour bonding purposes.

The next port of call was Split (home of the biggest football team in the country) which is towards the bottom of the first part of Croatia.  I don't know how they did it actually.  First Bosnia and then Serbia comes down to within 15km of the Adriatic at times yet even with a war, Croatia was able to (a) hold on and (b) convince whomever drew up the boundaries that these regions were mainly ethnically Croat.  The southern part is even more extreme in this regard.  But Split is wonderful.

The entire old town is built on top of the Roman emperor Diocletian's palace (3rd century AD).  Diocletian is the ONLY Roman emperor to voluntarily step down after an extraordinarily successful career that saw him expand the empire to its all time greatest point and then divide it into two parts ruled from Byzantium (later Constantinople and now Istanbul) and from somewhere down the coast in Greece.  Diocletian based himself there and not Rome because he was a historian and spotted a trend -- i.e. emperors based in Rome tended to be assassinated.  Once he stepped down after appointing twin successors and assistant emperors (4 in all to rule the combined empire, all his mates), he retired to Split and became the Jimmy Carter of the 3rd century: visiting, giving advice and hosting friends.  Happily according to our tour guide, Ivo, he died of natural causes, rumour has it by being starved to death by one of his disgruntled 'mates' -- couldn't work out where the natural causes bit came in.  Anyway in the 7th century, the place was overrun by barbarians and everybody fled only trickling back after the bad guys left to set up in the palace itself.  And that is how Split restarted and how it has become today.  It is a World Heritage Site of course and the centre of everything going on there.

First glimpse of Split's old town
We also had our first outing of Croatian food and 'mystery meat'.

We were recommended a real Croatian restaurant near the harbour (everything is near the harbour) and had the non-fish option which was 'beef' in a rich dark sauce with home made gnocchi.  Interesting.

Next we had 2 days in Dubrovnic to do laundry (it was a weekday) so drove to start with along the coast road south and then into Bosnia for 15 minutes and then back into Croatia.  This is where it gets weird as the southern part of Croatia is about 150 kms along the coast and 10-15 kms maximum inland.  Inland is first Bosnia, then Serbia (boo!) and finally Montenegro (formerly boo! but now OK just about).  During the 1990's war Croatia's army was all in the north and Serbia/Montenegro sent their 10,000 troops against Dubrovnic but forgot all about Napoleon Bonaparte.

The furthest south Old Boney had made it was Dubrovnic which then was surrounded on all sides by the Ottomans that he had pummeled to bits in Egypt and Palestine 10 years earlier.  Well they weren't exactly there as there was/is nothing there other than endless ridges and mountain ranges.  He chose the highest one above Dubrovnic to site a fort as the defence line for the city and region and just like everything related to stuff like this, he chose well.  Scroll forward to 1991 with 10,000 Serbs etc coming up and down over the ridges and mountains, with artillery and air support and the tiny militia garrison sitting in this fort held them off throughout the winter offensive.  In this day and age I don't know why this could happen as the fort is isolated and they had few weapons.  Ivo said it was because the Serbs wanted to make a point that they "could" take Dubrovnic if they really wanted to, but ...

Boney's fort
The Croats don't much care for the Serbs (nor the Bosnians and Montenegrins for that matter, we didn't ask about the Macedonians even further south).  Ivo nearly spit when Ali told him we were off to Montenegro afterwards.  "There's nothing there", he said.

We stayed out of town and with Ali's football played some one on one, swam and generally gloried in Dubrovnic.  We did a bus tour, cable car (up to the fort and museum) and walking tour around the amazing walls.  Great, just great.

Dubrovnic old town from Boney's port... pretty darn strategic, I'd say
Our laundry just about got done too as even though it was a week day, we arrived at the start of their 5 day national holiday celebrating liberation and nationhood.  It really does pay to look at the calendar some times!

Next stop Montenegro (spit, "what do you want to go there for?") and part of the UK Melvin clan.

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