Under the benevolent (most would say) dictatorship of Josip Tito, the former Soviet Republic of Yugoslavia remained intact and in domination of most of the landmass in the Balkan peninsula in the years following World War II; the victors of the war had drawn an arbitrary political boundary around this huge area, and in so doing joined several races, religions, and ethnicites under the umbrella of one homeland. This was not the first time in history this happened, nor would it be the last, but the result was an area of the world doomed to conflict in the years to come. One by one, after the dissolution of this large state in 1992, the various ethnic peoples of the Balkans exercised their right to national self-determination, and borders began to be redrawn: Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina all broke away from Yugoslavia, which today remains as the Republic of Serbia. In the mid 2000’s the last to separate were Montenegro and Kosovo, the former being the destination of our next bus trip around the Balkans.
Montenegro, or “Black Mountain” (I’ll what for a sec while you have your, “oh, yeah… duh” moment), is the beautiful tiny country lying just to the south and east of Croatia on the Adriatic Sea. How lucky we are these days to have Google image search: after about two seconds of looking at photographs of this place, we decided we’d be out of our minds to miss this. Although all of the countries are tightly packed together in the former Yugoslavia, traveling to a few of them revealed just how different their people were; differences at times so intense which led to conflict, but to a casual traveler provided an opportunity to glimpse people who are worlds apart but neighbors in the course of only a few days. Croatia had offered serene islands rich in wineries and proud in their local culture; incredible port cities teeming in tourists and fully embracing the new century. Bosnia a little further behind, still showing scars from war, and having a tension which was palatable. Montenegro? Maybe the younger brother of its two western neighbors, not in the limelight, but also free of the turmoil which you can still be felt in some places. The residents of Korcula boasted of their wines, claiming them to be among the first grapes planted in Europe, a proud history not to be forgotten and to be respected by the world. Montenegrins? The waiter at a tiny restaurant on our first night brought out a bottle of their national wine along with sparkling water.
“What do we do with that?” we asked.
“Mix it with the wine,” he said with a smile, “you do not want to drink this wine by itself.”
Immediately I appreciated the honesty of these people. Their laid back and accommodating way of life. While I will remember the Adriatic for its calm and endless expanse to the horizon, I will remember Montenegro for the embrace of its mountains and its seclusion. As you enter the bay of Kotor by a narrow inlet, it opens up into a body of water 20 miles across, surrounded by mountains on all sides. You expect to pass under the legs of some giant bronze colossus of the ancient past guarding the bay as you enter. No wonder the Balkan coast was chosen as the filming location for the fictional land of Westeros in HBO’s Game of Thrones. The town of Kotor itself was not large, and everything about it seemed ancient. No pavement to be seen, just cobblestone. Even the ice cream shops and liquor stores occupied buildings that made you feel as if you were traveling in time to the middle ages, there to buy honey meade or have horseshoes made.
This small town marked the end of our Balkan adventure. Our brief trip here was a reminder of an incredibly troubled and not so distant past, of the tenuous peace which has been made only in the last decade or so. This land has been known for centuries as the ‘power keg’ of Europe, the spark which ignited the first World War; you can certainly ignore this darker side, get off your cruise ship in Dubrovnik, go on your Game of Thrones tour, and be on to Santorini… but it’s a past which deserves remembering. Not only to remember the stories of those that have lived through the wars, the bombs, the genocides, but because as the saying goes, those that forget the past are condemned to repeat it.