As I strolled along ancient ramparts that encircle a small medieval city, the view changed with each twist and turn. On one side was a labyrinth of narrow streets lined by tile roofed stone buildings. In the other direction were stunning views of the Adriatic Sea.
Not far away, the setting was very different. There I traveled through a terrain of rugged mountains, deep canyons and inviting beaches. Criss-crossing four miniscule countries that once were part of Yugoslavia, I delved into intriguing chapters of history, oohed and aahed at the breathtaking scenery and checked out local life in tiny towns and magnificent cities. That nation was born following World War I but because a number of different ethnic groups were patched together, the seeds of conflict were sewn right from the start.
The areas of present-day Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia; Herzegovina, and Slovenia were part of Yugoslavia when it fought against Germany in World War II, under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito. After the war, he headed a socialist government until his death in 1980. While authoritarian, Tito earned a reputation as a benevolent dictator who kept in check tensions resulting from ethnic differences. Following his death, those differences flared, the country splintered along the borders of the former republics, and fighting soon raged in what became known as the Bosnian War.
While the peace agreement which ended the fighting didn’t erase old ethnic tensions, today they’re expressed with words rather than war. Visitors are likely to hear good-natured but pointed jokes about people in neighboring states who once were fellow countrymen.
The tiny sizes of the countries — the four together have a total area about equal to New York State – makes traveling between them convenient. At the same time that similarities became evident, so do interesting differences. A major attraction is the appeal of cities. Dubrovnik in Croatia is one of the most prominent tourist resorts of the Mediterranean. Its Old Town neighborhood exudes a Middle Ages atmosphere from when it rivaled Venice in wealth and power.
The main feature is ancient fortified walls that encircle the old city, set off by a series of turrets and towers. Walking along the top of the fortification provides the dramatic views of architectural treasures which I enjoyed. Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, has been a cultural center since the Middle Ages and boasts an inviting array of museums. Many of them are perched in the hilly, historical Upper Town. The pedestrian-friendly Lower Town has inviting squares and parks where locals gather to stroll and socialize at outdoor cafes.
Ljubljana (pronounced Loo-blee- AH-na) is a bustling urban center with broad promenades and pleasant pedestrian walkways. Statues, mosaics and a section of stone wall are among reminders that this was the site of a Roman town beginning in 14 A.D. Overlooking the setting from a hilltop is Ljubljana Castle, which dates back to the early 12th century.
Small in size but equally as enticing are towns and villages. Karanac, a community of about 1,000 people in Croatia, exemplifies rural charm. It’s located in what is known as the Bread Basket of Croatia, and grapes have been grown on the surrounding hills since Roman times. Hum is little more than a dot on maps. A 2001 census counted 17 residents, but I was told that a mini-population explosion has increased the number to 25.
Mostar is stretched along the shore of the Neretva River in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and has a history as one of the most ethnically diverse towns in the region. Its attractions range from 16th and 17th century mosques to crowded shop-lined streets.
The graceful Old Bridge over the river was built by the Ottomans in the mid-16th century, and stood for more than 400 years before being destroyed during the Bosnian War. Visitors today see an exact replica. If any city may be said to share both a happy and tragic past, it is Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For several hundred years, it was a cultural and religious haven where Serbs, Croats, Turks, Muslims, Jews and others lived in harmony. That peaceful picture came to an end during the fierce fighting which followed the death of Tito.
Visitors receive a stark introduction to that bitter warfare in the Tunnel of Life, a mile-long underground passage which was dug beneath the city’s airport.. Men, women and even children made more than five million trips through the tunnel carrying food, medical supplies and small weapons which were the only source of supplies during the city’s siege which last nearly four years.
Very different and much happier settings are encountered at water-related attractions. For those seeking a sun-and- sand respite, Croatia has beautiful beaches along its Dalmatian Coast. More than 120 beaches also line the short shoreline of Montenegro.
More dramatic scenery awaits visitors to Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. Water fills a line of 16 lakes that are separated by natural dams and spills down hillsides in a series of cascades. Adding to the portrait-like setting are colors of the water – sky blue, emerald green, rock gray — which reflect the surroundings.
Equally magnificent in a different way is Lake Bled in Slovenia. Overlooking the lake from a steep cliff is the Bled Castle, which dates back to the early 12th century. On a small island in the lake stands a graceful 17 th -century church. The little house of worship is a popular wedding venue, and a good luck tradition calls for the groom to carry his bride-to- be up the 98 stone steps to the building, then for
the couple to make a wish and ring the bell so it will come true.
By the time I pulled the bell rope, my wish had already come true. I was experiencing four intriguing countries that are small in size but large in terms of attractions and appeal.
If you go, The Crossroads of the Balkans trip that I took is one of dozens of itineraries offered by Overseas Adventure Travel. Along with the must-see attractions in destinations it visits, that tour company’s itineraries include lesser-visited but equally inviting places. For information about OAT trips throughout the world, call (800) 955-1925 or go to oattravel.com