3 out of 7: Our abbreviated Balkan Adventure
3 out of 7: Our abbreviated Balkan Adventure
Joy Lumawig-Buensalido (The Philippine Star) - November 24, 2019 - 12:00am

Before my trip to the Balkan countries, I visualized visiting medieval settings and seeing war-ravaged places, aware that these had gone through so much destruction from wars and political upheavals. Then, too, the names of these countries sounded exotically ancient.

Our destination was the former Yugoslavia, a state formed in 1918 that was composed of six Socialist republics before it split into seven countries – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia and Kosovo.

For our first foray into the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), my husband and I decided to pick only three of the seven countries: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. We joined a tour arranged by Meteor Philippines, which specializes in travels to the Holy Land, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Lebanon and, more recently, the Balkan countries.

The group had all seven countries in its itinerary but we sadly had to leave the group after Montenegro to head back home.

Still, those wonderful seven days in the Balkans spawned unforgettable memories of the unspoiled attractions of these relatively undiscovered countries, now touted to be the new Paris Riviera for European travelers.

Unhurried and leisurely

Our first stop was Zagreb, the capital and the largest city of Croatia. I was happy that Zagreb was our first taste of Croatia because it was exactly how a travel writer had described it: “Like a little black dress, Zagreb is a city that is timeless and elegant – it draws you in slowly.”

And that’s what it does. It is neither pretentious nor overdressed with pre-packaged tourist attractions. Instead it has a quiet, laid back style that does not urge you to gobble up traditional tourist sights.

We took the tram that goes around the city but as we discovered, the best way to get to know Zagreb is by walking. Leisurely and unhurriedly. We were told that if you want to experience Zagreb at its best, you have to match its languid and easy attitude and pace. 

In Zagreb, one learns how to be entertained without an agenda. To slow down and just enjoy the sweetness of doing nothing. Is that even possible on a tour? Well, that was surprisingly what we did. After a brief walking tour with our guide who showed us the historic Upper Town, St. Mark’s Church, the Cathedral and the Parliament, we were encouraged to go on our own.

What struck me most was when we allowed ourselves to stray and get lost in secluded green pathways, to chance upon interesting gargoyles and walk into an open-air street music and food festival where we ended up hanging out with the locals. We later found out that Zagreb loves to hold open-air festivals – coffee, street food, art performances and music, so we were fortunate to have experienced one such festival called “Bas Razs,” a gourmet and music festival, on the Sunday we were there. They had live music, open umbrellas swinging in the air, local street food booths and lots of booze.

But Zagreb does have its unique and quirky attractions and, oddly enough, one of them is called The Museum of Broken Relationships, which they say is the most raved about gallery of sad stories and remarkable pieces of how people from different countries broke up. One needs to read through each personal display of words and emotions to appreciate how a broken relationship can be memorably edifying.

Palace in the Garden

From Zagreb, we drove out of Croatia to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sarajevo means “Palace in the Garden” and our hotel was right in the center of the city beside the picturesque Turkish bazaar called Bas Carsija. Again, we had an interesting walking tour. Our first stop was the Gavilo Princip Museum where the guide recounted to us the history of how the first world war began. We stood right on the very spot where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia were shot dead by an assassin and this was theorized to have sparked the beginning of World War I. Sarajevo can be full of places for history buffs to savor.

Being surrounded by mountains, Sarajevo became the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics. The story goes that before the opening of the Winter Games, there was still no snow so the Catholics in Sarajevo prayed, as did the Orthodox Christians, the Jews and the Muslims. With so many faiths praying simultaneously, heavy snow soon came, and the Olympics was a success.

From Sarajevo, we went past many mountains along the gorge of the River Neretva and stopped at the town of Mostar to see the 400-year-old stone bridge Stari Most, built by the Ottoman Turks. With a population of only 100,000, Mostar attracts three million tourists a year. 

Pearl of the Adriatic

From Mostar, we drove back to Croatia towards Dubrovnik, considered to be the Pearl of the Adriatic. Its old walled fortress-like area has only 800 residents but gets about 10,000 tourists a day. Dubrovnik was totally destroyed by the Serb and Montenegro forces during the 1992-1995 Croat-Serbian war and after being completely leveled by daily bombardment from the surrounding mountains, it has bounced back beautifully, completely restored – thanks to UNESCO heritage efforts.

Today, Dubrovnik has become even more popular because the medieval settings of the walled town and the fort of St. Laurence were used for many scenes in the “Game of Thrones” series.

On our last day on the Dalmatian Coast, we took a trip to the Republic of Montenegro, south of Dubrovnik. We headed to the mouth of the beautiful bay of Kotor, the longest and deepest fjord in Southern Europe. It is the Balkans’ version of the fjords of Norway, a waterway between very high and steep mountains and connected to the sea.

We took a small boat ride to Our Lady of the Rocks, one of two islets off the coast of Perast. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest building on the islet, with a museum attached to it. We had a charming time at the church, which is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, in gratitude to her being the protector of the seafarers.

Travelers offer gifts to the Lady, which consist of anything they can afford to give – from paintings, hats and rings to tools, plates and even screwdrivers and many other ordinary implements that they consider important and personal to them. There were too many personal items on the donation table – even different currencies left by the visitors – so I placed a P100 bill as my way of thanking the Blessed Mother for our safe trip and prayed that we may return soon.

There’s a story that goes around that Kotor is populated by the tallest people in the world. It’s common to see 7-foot men although we hardly saw any locals. We also heard that the majority of tourists in Kotor are Russian. I wondered why,but I intend to find out on my next trip. We shall certainly be back and next time, we will complete our Balkan adventure by visiting Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Kosovo.

The medieval settings of Dubrovnik were featured in ‘Game of Thrones’ (above). Locals and visitors enjoy open air festivals like the Bas Razs in Zagreb (left). The 400-year-old stone bridge called Stari Most (top right). Get lost in the secluded pathways of Sarajevo and discover surpises like this sculpture (top left).


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