Archive for May, 2015

Luka and family-smallThe guide on our trip is Luka Esenko, an engaging young Slovenian with an impressive knowledge of photography and a passion for his country. Luka was born just as Tito died. He was in grade school in Ljubljana when Slovenia declared independence; his family fled to his grandfather’s home in the countryside as troops began shelling the city. Two tanks, manned by young JNA soldiers, drove into the village where they stayed, up a hill on a narrow path, then one of them rolled off the path. The young soldiers were stuck, got out of the tanks and just stood around. Locals came and dismantled the tank as best they could – one man managed to get the machine gun and hid it in his basement. Luka and his brother got an antenna and ran it back to their own house. The “war” for Slovenia ended ten days later.

Luka’s able to keep everyone cheerful during hikes on cold and wet days, to find our enthusiasm. There’s been some grousing about endless cheese and lard lunches, but the only real rebellion so far was one afternoon when he went off to a waterfall shoot, and the rest of us either napped or walked to town to buy wine.

waterfall 2Mostly, we’re docile. We’re at the far northwest corner of Slovenia, in the Julian Alps. After several days on the Soca River (which runs near the border with Italy) and one spent walking around the spectacular Triglav National Park, a wildflower filled meadow surrounded at every side by impressive peaks, we are taken in by a landscape that is as pristine as it is beautiful. The waters of lakes and rivers are completely clear, reflecting a range of colors that come from the simple silt and biomes and vary with the seasons. Don’t see much of this at home!

Our last major jaunt along the Soca took us up a mossy canyon via a slippery limestone path and a few teetery foot bridges into a rocky opening where the Kozjak Brook joins the Soca River in a spectacular 300m waterfall. It was a wonderful find, and it’s just there – no park, no entrance fee, almost no signage.

As we made the climb we passed a few caves built by partisans during WWII, but the big wartime involvement of this region was in WWI. Italy entered that war on the side of the Allies in April 1915 with an assurance from France and England that they could take the territory of Slovenia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) for themselves. They grabbed the town of Kobarid at the border in a surprise attack, then over the next 29 months they launched 10 more offences against the Slovenians, across the Soca River and straight up into the mountains, losing every one. The terrain here is steep and inaccessible – it’s hard to imagine how the Italians thought they would succeed. By the fall of 1917, trenches were dug into mountain rock on both sides and hundreds of thousands of soldiers had died from fighting and from freezing – 60,000 were killed by avalanche alone.

Finally Germany joined Austro-Hungary with a large offensive in October of 1917 designed to push the Italians out of A-H territory. They caught the Italians off guard and forced them to retreat within three days. On the German/ Austro-Hungarian side, this battle is called the “Miracle of Kobarid;” on the Italian side it is referred to as the Battle of Caporetto (the Italian name for the town) and the Italians now consider “Caporetto” to be their Alamo.

On the Italian side, Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver during these fights and used his experiences as a basis for “A Farewell to Arms.” The Germans experimented with battlefield innovations, including the surprise “Blitzkreig” warfare, and empowerment of field commanders to react without direction from high command, both of which they perfected in WWII. A young officer named Erwin Rommel, later the “Desert Fox,” fought here.

Austro-Hungary held the territory until the Germans lost the war a year later.






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signSlovenia is a flattened Switzerland, a kindergarten Austria, packaged in an area the size of New Jersey with about 1/5 its population. Slovenia sits at the northwest corner of the former Yugoslavia, surrounded by Italy, Austria and Hungary as well as Croatia. The people are almost all Catholic. They’re almost all friendly. The homes that dot the countryside are neatly-tended wooden chalets. Their signature food is a white cream cake, and their most unique totem is a roofed woodpile.
The land is beautiful, and we’re here to fogphotograph nature. We spend the first days at two glacial lakes, Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj. These are set in the mountains, decorated by ancient churches and castles, all ideal and picturesque but the weather isn’t with us. At Lake Bohinj we have ducks, we have fish, and we have clouds – low hanging gray clouds that ruin the magic. The clickers are desperate. They spend the morning betting on which duck will make it to shore first. As the sun breaks through the conversation changes to Lightroom, the colors become lovely and the day is saved.

Slovenia was the economic powerhouse of the former Yugoslavia, an industrious people with a GDP 2.5 times that country’s average. It also had an outspoken youth and intellectual class which poked at the ruling communist party, along a crafty president, Milan Kucan who was able to walk a tight line between that party and his own people. In 1989 Kucan led a drive to adopt constitutional amendments and then held free elections in April, 1990, the first Yugoslav republic to do so. In December of that year Slovenia voted to become independent from Yugoslavia. The Slovenes secretly stockpiled weapons, and on June 25, 1991, they closed the borders with Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav National Army marched in but after ten days and only a few hundred deaths, the Slovenes prevailed, and the Serbs relented and left. It was the first, and by far the easiest, winning of independence from Tito’s former communist country.

DSC00172Meals here are fun. Best has been lunch at a local farm that caters to
tourists – homemade bread with homemade sausage, prosciutto, cheese, cottage cheese with walnuts, and lard. Lard! Its not bad – some meat still in it so it looks a bit like pate, but they do need to change the name to something more benign. And then a huge walnut streusel. Everything made right at this farm or a neighboring one.

Eating here is very different from the US. Meals are sit-down. There is no way to get anything ‘fast’ – not a sandwich, not a slice of pizza, not a coffee can be had outside of a formal meal. You must go in to a restaurant, sit down and order and wait. It’s an effort, and time consuming, but maybe that’s why everyone here is so thin!!

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Today’s driver, Mladin, is also a Croatian, but not nearly so Croatian in spirit as Pepo. He worked at a hotel in the old town of Dubrovnik during the war, taking care of refugees, but he did not fight. His summary was much more circumspect, “In WWII, good guys and bad guys are clear. Not so in ’91 war.”

He’s taking us to Mostar, an old town in B-H famous for its Stari Most – old bridge – built across the Neretva River by the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in 1566. It was an engineering marvel in its time, the longest single span stone arch on the planet, predating even the Rialto bridge in Venice, and strong enough to withstand the weight of Nazi tanks in WWII.

B-H is the most ethnically mixed republic of the former Yugoslavia – 40% Muslim, 37% Serb, and 20% Croat. Mostar itself is right at the meeting of the DSC00122Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires; today there are three faiths, three languages and two alphabets working here, overwhelming to tourists as every sign has to be written in both alphabets. It’s an amazing old town with winding, narrow streets and Turkish-style homes. A 17th century mosque hangs on cliffs overlooking the town and bridge, protecting its sanctity from the visitors with a direct sign.

Tourism is the dominant industry in this part of town today, layering museums, restaurants and ice cream vendors onto the historical buildings. The bridge is packed; young men, topless in swim trunks, will jump from its edge into the water (cold and pretty far down) if you pay them enough money. There’s a carnival atmosphere that belies the fact that this town was a part of the longest portion of the war.

In 1991, as Croatia and Slovenia were trying to gain their independence, president Alija Izetbegovic pushed for B-H to get the same. But the Serbs were now becoming dominant across the country and didn’t want to be a minority in this state, so they created their own, “The Republic of the Serb People of B-H” led by Radovan Karadzic. It was immediately recognized by Slobodan Milosevic and the JNA (Yugoslav National Army, dominated by the Serbs.)

In Spring of 1992, Karadzic began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, wiping out everyone in the towns along the Drina river, killing most of the Muslims and Croats and putting the rest into concentration camps (the Serb soldiers had of course come through and given a secret word to the Serb residents to leave before it began.) They set up “rape camps,” where soldiers impregnated Bosniak women and held them captive until they came to term forcing them to raise their half-Serbian offspring. The capital of B-H, Sarajevo, was surrounded by the Bosnian Serb army and besieged for 3 ½ years. Eventually the west stepped in: the US began training Croatian forces and Nato bombed Serbian positions in the summer of 1995. The Serbs were pushed back, enough that they could be dragged to peace talks. On September 14, Richard Holbrooke got the presidents of the Bosniaks, Alija Izetbegovic, the Serbs, Slobodan Milosevic, and the Croats, Franco Tudman, to meet in Dayton Ohio along with representatives from US, UK, France, German, Italy and Russian. B-H was divided into three countries.

Mostar itself suffered primarily from retribution from the Croats for the destruction of Dubrovnik. As the town got pulled into the fighting, local residents hung tires to protect the bridge. But in November 1993 CrDSC00104oats began shelling it directly from their location on the adjoining mountains, and on November 9 it fell in pieces into the river. It was rebuilt after the war, reopening in 2004.

Mostar itself suffered primarily from retribution from the Croats for the destruction of Dubrovnik. As the town got pulled into the fighting, local residents hung tires to protect the bridge. But in November 1993 Croats began shelling it directly from their location on the adjoining mountains, and on November 9 it fell in pieces into the river. It was rebuilt after the war, reopening in 2004.

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The very first story we hear from our Croatian driver Pepo was the saga of the defense of Dubrovnik from the Serb attack of 1991.

On October 1, the JNA (once the ‘Yugoslav People’s Army,’ but at this point, simply a Serbian army commanded by Slobodan Milosevic) attacked Dubrovnik. The onslaught was unexpected – virtually no Serbs lived in Dubrovnik, and there were not JNA military facilities to “protect” – and it was complete. The few young men available to defend the town fled in the face of overwhelming numbers and went up the mountain above the city to an old French fort bringing only the few weapons they owned, while the Serbs completed their capture and marched through the local countryside, looting first, and then burning, every house. They captured everything up to the walls of the old town, which were heavily fortified.

Pepo and the others who had climbed the hill on October 1 numbered 163 and called themselves the163 Brigade. They shot at the troops as best they could, but the Serbs prevailed, stationing themselves around the walled Old Town and proceeding to shell and bomb the buildings and churches inside until it was destroyed. As a last measure, in November, they destroyed every private boat in the harbor.

The Serbs also fired at the defenders on the hill, but were pushed back and never took over the fort. Eventually, as the destruction of the city that Byron had called the “Pearl of the Adriatic” became notorious around the world, funds came to them from the US, Israel and other countries and they were able to buy more munitions to shell the intruders more aggressively. Croatian soldiers left the JNA and joined the Brigade. The siege of Dubrovnik ended after 9 months. Official accounts say that the destruction of the city was enough for the Serbs and that the war effort had shifted to Bosnia-Herzogovina. But, according to Pepo, 163 Brigade pushed them into the Bosnian hills.

It was a satisfying story, told on a rainy ride around the countryside and finished in a rural restaurant drinking Croatian wine. But this area, once Yugoslavia and now multiple countries, has been a complex mix of religions and ethnicities for more than a millennium, and the issues among its peoples are multilayered and intractable. Here’s a quick analysis from a chart on one of our guidebooks:

  • Serbs: Orthodox
  • Croats: Catholic
  • Bosniaks: Muslim
  • Slovenes: Catholic
  • Macedonians (like Bulgarians)
  • Montenegrins (like Serbs)

But….. not really. For example, Bosnia is 40% Muslim, 37% Serb and 20% Croat.

Additionally, rulers have changed often, even recently. Pepo, a Croat who is from a family that is Catholic and has always been Catholic, and always lived in the same area of Croatia, gave us rundown of his own family history:

Grandfather, born 1875 into the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Father, born 1920 into the Kingdom of Serbians, Croatians and Slovenians; Pepo, born 1966 into Yugoslavia; Pepo’s son Carlo, born 2004 into Croatia

How did this all happen?

A Quick History

The Balkan Peninsula – just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy – is populated by Slavs who migrated to this region during the 6th and 7th Centuries, becoming the Croats, Slovenes, Serbians and Bosniaks of today.

The region was at the interface of three major religions. The Christianity found here by the coming Slavs was in two forms – Roman Catholic in the west and Byzantine Orthodox in the east. The Muslim Ottoman Empire invaded the south Balkans, home of the Serbs, winning the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389. This forced the Serbs north into Croatia and Bosnia, angering the Croats. The Hapsburgs forced the Orthodox Serbs to stay at the border with the Ottomans, using them as a human shield to protect Catholic Austria and Croatia, angering the Serbs. When the Ottoman Empire finally died out, the Austrians took over everything. The Serbs felt pushed around and wanted their own homeland, so Serb Gavrilo Princip shot Austrian Duke Franz Ferdinand inadvertently triggering WWI.

After WWI ended, the country united into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, but still, not everyone was happy. The Kingdom was run by Alexander Karadordevic, a Serb, which angered the Croats. The Croat leader, Stepan Radic, initially opposed the union, but was forced by the world to concede. He fought the Serbs at every turn, and finally they shot him in 1928. The Croats got their revenge by shooting Karadordevic in 1934, and the country was ready to collapse by the beginning of WWII.

After Hitler’s Luftwaffe brought the area to submission, Croatia (and Bosnia-Herzogovina) was run by a puppet government, the Ustase, Serbia was occupied by the Nazis, Slovenia had its own puppet government, and Montenegro was occupied by Italy. It was a mess. The Ustase in Croatia set up their own concentration camps, and slaughtered Jews, Romas and hundreds of thousands of Serbs. (The Serbs used this as excuse for their treatment of the Croats and Dubrovnik in the 1990’s.)

After WWII, Tito rose to power and held the country together until his death in 1980. He was a heavy-handed dictator as he came to power, brutally eliminating opposition, then put on a warm and fuzzy face as he worked to unite the disparate parts of the country and walk a line between Russian Communism and the Western Powers. But, things unraveled quickly after his death.

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