Cooke and I and Rebecca West departed Vienna in our rented car on the morning of Feb. 9 and drove toward the Austrian-Yugoslav border three hours away. It was a snowy, pewter-colored day, and we did not feel particularly festive. We were, after all, leaving the enormously civilized environs of Vienna—birthplace of the Sacher torte, the waltz and much of the best of Mozart—to spend the next three weeks in Yugoslavia, a socialist land in the Balkans, which is in serious economic trouble now and which has been both the scene and the source of grand disruptions that have caused great changes in Western civilization.
None of us was new to Yugoslavia. Jerry Cooke, whose 41 years in photography have taken him to more than 90 countries, first journeyed to Yugoslavia in 1954. Over the past two years he has spent several weeks in Sarajevo, that teeming city of old mosques and new smog that from Feb. 7 through Feb. 19 will host the 1984 Winter Olympics. I'd been to Sarajevo in the winter of 1982 but knew little of the rest of Yugoslavia. Dame Rebecca, of course, had made her famous journey to the Land of South Slavs in 1937. From that she had produced her monumental work, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia, a marvelously uncategorizable book of 1,150 pages that touches on politics, travel, journalism, sociology, history, art, biography, autobiography, etc. All of those subjects are tied together by West's luminous opinions, which range from the purely poetic to the blatantly bitchy, from profound social criticism to the juiciest of historical gossip.
Alas, West wasn't actually in the car with Cooke and me as we sped along the autobahn toward the border. On Feb. 9, she lay very ill back in London. She would be dead very soon at the age of 90. But Cooke and I each had brought a much-thumbed copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and we talked of West so much and with such admiration that she came to be with us in something more than merely spirit.
As we approached the border, the snow lightened and we could clearly see armed soldiers. We could also clearly recall the opinion West held about Yugoslavia and its neighbors before her visit. "Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans, all I knew of the South Slavs," she wrote. She explained that the savagery of Turkish conquerors over the centuries was responsible for staining the reputation of the region so dark that the French habitually made the word Balkan synonymous with barbarian. She remembered that she had once been startled out of sleep in a Paris hotel by noises in the next room—"the sound of three slashing slaps and a woman's voice crying through sobs, 'Balkan! Balkan!' "
October 23, 1983
The soldiers at the border were rosy-cheeked boys. We passed into the Land of the South Slavs and noticed no semblance of anything barbarian. As we drove into Yugoslavia, we saw the unmistakable black stick patterns of dormant vineyards rising up snowy slopes on all sides. Even in winter the sight of hills cultivated to produce wine lent a tranquillity to the countryside that was the antithesis of violence. But West had been referring to the deep past, to savage battles with Turks who occupied most of what is now Yugoslavia for nearly 500 years and weren't entirely driven out until 1913; to conquests of the region by the Romans, by Napoleon, by the powerful navies of Venice and by the arrogant armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Perhaps most of all, her pervasive impression of violence was based on—what else?—the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in June 1914, which ignited World War I.
But seeking out the roots of such violence was hardly part of the journey that Cooke and I arranged last winter. The point of it all was pure pleasure. We would start in Vienna and end up in Thessaloniki, Greece, with a huge sampling in between of Yugoslavia. And in the process we would produce an itinerary that might be followed—backward or forward—by any curious traveler who attended the '84 Winter Games. Sarajevo is close to being at the dead center of Yugoslavia, so there are a number of routes one can choose to reach there and to leave there. Our choice was made with the gracious help of the Yugoslav National Tourist Office, in New York City. Dejan ≈Ωivojinoviƒç, a beefy fellow, alternately boisterous and businesslike, with a typically Slav jawbreaker of a name, is director of the office, and our itinerary of stunning mountains, glorious seacoast and not many cities at all was his creation. ≈Ωivojinoviƒç told us, "If I had never been to Yugoslavia, this is how I would wish to see it first."
We rolled past those cold vineyards into the small city of Maribor, a bustling place full of fair Teutonic types who typify the citizenry of the republic of Slovenia, which was never occupied by the Turks. Cooke and I checked in at the Hotel Slavija and found our rooms to be in the proletarian-Spartan style found from Sofia to Shanghai—clean but shabby and furnished in a mode endemic to Wichita, Kans. circa 1935. We ate in the dining room. The food was an excellent Serbian soup of sweet peppers and chick-peas plus pleskavica, a beef and pork mixed grill. Grilled meat is the national dish of Yugoslavia, as unavoidable as raw fish in Japan but a lot less interesting after a few dozen meals of it. ƒåevapƒçiƒái, grilled chunks of lamb and/or pork, is utterly inescapable, and Cooke referred to it as the "Yugoslav hot dog."
The meal in the Slavija—not a banquet, but a solid repast—cost 200 dinars each. At 65 dinars to a dollar, that was less than $3.10. And this, I am delighted to report, was the economic situation throughout the trip: Prices for everything were spectacularly low. And every day, the value of the dinar against the dollar kept dropping—from 65 to a dollar when we started to 72 to the dollar when we left. (The rate of exchange at the end of last week was 110 dinars to the dollar.)
Maribor is resolutely up-to-date. There are ski areas in the nearby hills, and for many years there has been a World Cup race for women at Maribor. The day before we arrived, such a race had been held, and I stopped at the hotel of the American team. Tamara McKinney, who would make history later in the winter by becoming the first American woman to win the overall World Cup, had fallen in this race, but diplomatically commented, "The skiing was terrible, but the people are very sweet."
True on both counts. A dense sky lay over the mountains while we were there. Our guides insisted that on a clear day you can see a huge distance into the Austrian Alps, but we skied in flat dim light on flat dim runs at Pohorje, Maribor's major area. More interesting than the skiing were the low prices: At the Areh Hotel one could hire a well-windowed though tiny room looking out on Austria, eat three good meals and use all ski lifts and the cable car for $11 a day.
The subject of tourist spending came up during a dinner of kraca ("pig's thigh"), cheese and horseradish, which Cooke and I shared with two bright young men from the tourist bureau of Slovenia—Franja, a former ski instructor at Pohorje who had become a travel marketing expert, and Vlado, a tall, blond fellow from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Franja outlined the problem of tourism in Yugoslavia: "Tourists spend an average of $60 to $80 a day in Italy or France. Here, the figure is more like $35 a day. This is good for the tourist, perhaps, but it's not good for the economy."
Vlado chimed in: "There isn't enough to do to spend money on. There's nothing to do at Pohorje but ski and drink, and you can't drink more than a liter of wine if you want to ski all day."
Franja continued: "Our businesses are run by workers' councils. We call it self-management. There are professional managers, of course, but it's the workers who make the final decisions on all policies. There's no government source that dictates how the good of the state—or the economy—can be best served."
Vlado went on: "Too many workers' councils tend to vote policies to serve their own special interests. Some shop workers won't open shops during hours when they could sell many more items. Why? Because they want their own convenience served. It's a perfect democracy, in which each worker votes for his own best interests, and the general good is very often ignored."
The next day we drove west on a wide road, which led Cooke to reminisce about the conditions in Yugoslavia during his first trip in 1954. He had bought a blue 1949 Plymouth convertible in New York, shipped it to Europe aboard the He de France and then used it throughout Yugoslavia. "People gathered around like it was a circus car full of clowns," he said. "We kept breaking the oil pan. The rocks were murder. There was one wide autobahn built then, but no one used it. I drove on it for miles and miles and never saw another car. Then far ahead I made out a tiny figure standing on the highway. As I came close I saw it was a policeman, who was signaling me to stop. I stopped. Then he waved me on again. There was nothing in sight. I asked him, 'Why did you stop me?' He answered, 'Because it is my job.' I said, 'But there isn't any traffic.' And he said, 'But there will be.' "
Our destination that morning was Lake Bled in the Julian Alps. In summer, Bled is one of Europe's celebrated health resorts. In winter, however, it's nearly dead—which, it turned out, is a fine way to find the place. It was dreamlike, the still waters surrounded by peaks and guarded from 325 feet above by a medieval castle, walled and moated. The promenade around the lakeshore lay beneath arched black branches pillowed with snow. Swans glided on the gray waters. The lake was not frozen, an unusual condition so deep into winter, so skating, a celebrated local custom, was out of the question.
But the Grand Hotel Toplice was open. It's an elegant five-story anachronism from the days before socialist taste dictated that only streamlined buildings are to be considered the epitome in architecture. The Toplice was built in 1931 with an Old World attention to detail—parquet floors, silk wall covering, thick floor-to-ceiling drapes. A smiling, dapper man introduced himself as Mr. Jarc (pronounced Yotz) and said he was the sales director of the Toplice. In the course of conversation, he said that he possessed two university degrees, that he spoke seven languages and that he had been at the hotel for 25 years. He said that King Alexander of Yugoslavia had visited the Toplice in the 1930s and may have witnessed the first hockey game ever played in Yugoslavia, a match between Hungary and Czechoslovakia on Lake Bled in 1932. Jarc spoke of Dr. Arnold Rikli, who had spurred tourism at Lake Bled in 1855 when he started an open-air camp to treat people with tuberculosis. Jarc mentioned that the Toplice was filled with Nazi generals—"generals only"—during World War II. This region, he said, was a hotbed of Yugoslav guerrilla activity, and his own father had been a heroic leader of the partisans. Jarc also recalled that Bobby Fischer had won an important match at the Toplice in 1961 when he beat Mikhail Tal of the U.S.S.R., and he said that there had been many guests of international significance at the hotel—U Nu when he was prime minister of Burma, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, King Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, to name a few. Jarc brought out a guest book and fondly displayed the inscriptions therein of a variety of celebrities, including Carlo Ponti, Simon Wiesenthal, Walter Slezak, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Jarc was proudest of the page signed by Josip Broz Tito and his wife, but then he made a sour face and said, "Some bad-mannered British couple has chosen this same page to write their foolish names."
That night a man from the Lake Bled Tourist Association met Cooke and me for a drink in the congenial hotel bar. His name was Bogdan Sanca, and we asked him if he thought the Olympics in Sarajevo would be well run. He frowned and said, "Tourism is not traditional in Bosnia [where Sarajevo is located]. There will be problems."
Before I recount the rest of his answer, let me explain some facts behind it: The Land of South Slavs is a patchwork nation of six republics (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Serbia), plus two autonomous provinces in Serbia (Vojvodina and Kosova). There are large numbers of six different ethnic groups within the country (Montenegrins, Croats, Macedonians, Muslims, Slovenes and Serbs), as well as 18 nationalities of which Albanians, Hungarians, Turks and Slovaks are the most numerous. There are three major languages spoken (Serbo-Croatian, Slovene and Macedonian), each different from the other. In the north Yugoslavs tend to show more the characteristics of central Europe, while those in the south reflect the influence of Turkey, Greece and Albania. This makes for deep ethnic differences—and dislikes—within the country, and as often as not there will be provincial prejudice in any opinion expressed by people in one part of Yugoslavia about people in another part.
With that perspective, here's the rest of Sanca's opinion concerning the possibility of a well-run Olympics: "The problem is the small things. Nobody changes light bulbs. The running water stops and no one fixes it. These are small things. But, of course, it only takes small stones to make a full mosaic. The difference between Slovenia and Bosnia is plain. They have looked to Allah to produce for them, and they patiently wait until tomorrow if Allah does not do it today. For hundreds of years they have lived in fear of Turks coming on horses, so they do little until tomorrow—just in case the Turk comes today. Do you know this word 'phlegmatically'? This is what may prevail in Sarajevo. The big things, the competitions, will be very good. But the small things, the small things might make the big mosaic everyone remembers after the Olympics have long left Sarajevo."
The next morning, a glistening frosty morning at that, we set out for Kranjska Gora in the farthest northwest corner of Yugoslavia. It has been the prime Alpine skiing center for more than 50 years. It's located in the magnificent Julian Alps, named not after Julius Caesar, as one might assume, but after a German biologist named Julius Kugy, who settled in this part of Slovenia in the 18th century. Kugy's mountains include Triglav, at 9,395 feet the tallest in Yugoslavia. Cooke and I skied at Kranjska Gora with Leopold Ferjanƒçiƒç, head of the local tourist bureau. The skiing is pleasant, but this isn't Sun Valley. Later, Ferjanƒçiƒç led us to a small restaurant with a dazzling view of peaks and pistes all around, and treated us to a glass of slivovitz. While we sipped, an urgent voice speaking in some Slavic language spilled forth from a radio. When the voice stopped, Ferjanƒçiƒç slammed his hand on the table and the whole restaurant burst into applause. He said, "Bojan Kri≈æaj, our fine slalomist, has just won a World Cup race. He is our premier athlete now. If he wins a gold medal in our Olympics, he will be as big to us as Babe Ruth is to you."
That evening we retraced our route to Maribor. On the following day, the last Sunday before Lent, a carnival was to occur in the ancient town of Ptuj, pronounced Ptooey, as in spitting tobacco. A crowd of several thousand had gathered at the town square, which is surrounded on three sides by old stone walls. Our guide for the occasion was a handsome blonde woman named Nevenka, who introduced herself as being from Radio Ptuj. She explained that we would see groups from various villages in the area, each acting out a different local ritual. "Mainly," said Nevenka, "these things are about the coming of spring and the parting of winter. The idea is to scare winter away. The costumes are authentic, except sometimes you will see an ancient ghost wearing Adidas running shoes. We overlook these things."
There was a complex dramatization of an ancient wedding ceremony in which a virgin was married to a tree. There were bell ringers, folk dancers, men dragging plows and men snapping whips. Mainly, there were the kurents. They're a Slovene specialty, designed to scare the hell out of winter and bring spring in immediately, if not sooner, and they come in several varieties. Some clanked with bells, some had drums, some carried clubs. They tended to advance into the square using curious ambulations, some of which owed much to Groucho Marx and some of which the Monty Python Department of Silly Walks would be delighted to have invented. Some wore shaggy sheepskins, some chicken feathers, and some did sport Adidas shoes. At noon all the kurents gathered for a mass winter-scaring dance in the square. They set up a terrible din with their bells and chants. The morning had been dark gray, dim and wintry as death, but at the very moment the dance began the sun broke through and bathed us all in springlike light. Cooke said, "Hey, this works pretty well. Maybe we will have to transfer this to Sarajevo next winter." Nevenka smiled and said, "I doubt if kurents have power over smog."
The next day we were in Lipica, the original home of the 400-year-old Lippizaner breed of horses. It all began here in 1580 when the area was part of Austria and the Archduke Charles bought the village of Lipica and set it aside for a stud farm. The superb breed of horses in the region was crossbred with Spanish stallions and mares, renowned for their regal bearing and their high-stepping pace known as the Spanish walk, and later Arabians, to develop the world-famous Lippizaners.
Centuries of off-and-on war have disrupted the stud a number of times. In 1943 the Nazi occupiers of Lipica shipped 179 horses to a "united stud" in Czechoslovakia. Only 11 came back after the war.
Things have brightened since then. The director of the farm is a dignified fellow named Andrej Franetiƒç, and he's happy to report that the stud has now grown to 250 horses. Franetiƒç took us on a tour of the farm. He showed us the stalls, where he pointed out the faint L tattooed on each Lippizaner's cheek. He showed us several colts, which are born black, and the dirt-floored arena used to train the show horses. One handler put his horse through the famed capriole—the graceful, yet brutal maneuver in which the horse springs off the ground with all four feet and snaps out his rear hooves in a violent midair kick. This, legend has it, was intended to decapitate enemy foot soldiers during battle. Franetiƒç announced with zest that he would now take us to the "hall of marriage." Since his English was coming to us through an interpreter who was admittedly out of practice, Cooke puzzled briefly over this term and then said, "Of course, he means the breeding shed." That made sense. But when Franetiƒç threw open the door to the "hall of marriage," we gasped. The place had marble floors, a great chandelier and what looked like an altar. Cooke and I stared at each other. Breeding shed? Good God, any stallion working in environs like this had to produce kingly progeny. Through the interpreter, Franetiƒç said that about 150 "couples" were "married" by him here each year. We thought the terminology was ungodly cute for a man involved in a full-time career of getting horses to copulate on demand, when suddenly it dawned on us: It was a marriage hall—for human beings. Franetiƒç, as director of a stud farm, had roughly the same powers as a ship's captain and was allowed to marry people.
That hilarious little misunderstanding cleared up, we adjourned to his sunny office, sipped slivovitz and admired one of the best photographs ever taken of the late Marshal Tito, who though dead three years still lives pictorially in the form of a portrait on the walls of almost every public place. At Lipica, however, the marshal is seated comfortably on a Lippizaner, handsomely dressed in tweed jacket and a jaunty checkered cap, looking as much like an aristocrat as any tough old socialist dictator could ever manage.
That night Cooke and I made a quick run across the border into Italy. We drove down the mountain seven twisting miles to Trieste. We'd already eaten in quite a number of Yugoslav restaurants, and the preponderance of grilled meat was beginning to pall. So the sight of the harbor in Trieste with its plethora of seafood restaurants was positively glorious. We dined at the Nastra Arbruzzio and picked our seafood from fresh iced specimens displayed on a rolling table. We drank two full bottles of superb Italian wine, one red, one white. On the way out of town we stopped at the railroad station and bought the International Herald Tribune, which along with all other foreign newspapers had been temporarily banned from Yugoslavia as one small way of helping the country correct its weighty balance-of-payments problem. We returned after dinner to Lipica.
The next morning was radiant, but an arctic gale was blowing. Yugoslavs call this wind the bora. It blasts down from the mountains in the north and keeps up its high-velocity chill for one, three or seven days. We headed to Portoro≈æ on the Adriatic Sea, assuming that that great body of blue water would lake some of the bite out of the bora.
Definitely not. If anything, the wind blew harder at the seashore. Portoro≈æ, part of a kind of Slavic Italian Riviera, and its streets were almost totally deserted at this time of year. There was also nothing in sight at sea except for two windsurfers in wetsuits who zipped about on the shimmering blue harbor. When they saw us watching, they steered close and one shouted something that we didn't understand and so indicated. He swung about, flashed past us again and shouted in English, "Bora-surfing: better than wind!"
We stayed at the Metropole Hotel, and found the rooms smartly modern and spacious, with grand 10th-floor views over the sea. The tourist bureau man who met us was a professional enthusiast named Roman, who told us that Portoro≈æ was once favored by the Hapsburgs as a resort. Roman also told us with pride that in 1928 Portoro≈æ was awarded first prize as the best thermal spa in all of Europe. The major reason for this ranking, he explained, was the salty black mud obtained from the vast salt plains outside town. The thermal bath business is still thriving today, Roman said, and he took us into an aging yellow stucco building operated by a hard-eyed, hard-selling doctor who led us on a tour mainly consisting of his flinging open doors to reveal startled women, immersed to the neck in pits of smelly black mud. The doctor told us that he could treat everything from obesity to "female problems" with this mud.
There was a casino in the Metropole replete with crystal chandelier and cynical-looking croupiers in tuxedoes. Cooke and I changed Yugoslav dinars into Italian liras—only foreign currency and foreign gamblers are allowed in Yugoslav casinos—and played blackjack and roulette. We were 85,000 liras ahead, about $55, when we quit well before midnight. At the time, there were five croupiers and two gamblers—us—in the place.
The bora still blew in the morning. We headed inland, through some Vermont-like mountains, and then down again to the sea and through the port of Rijeka. We climbed again into some mountains, as steep and jagged as those around Telluride, Colo. We crossed passes where snow rose to 10-foot heights on each side of the road. We wound up in wooded hilly country that lay beneath a deep blanket of snow that had recently fallen in a fierce blizzard. Trucks and cars were still stuck in snow along the road.
We were in Plitvice National Park, which contains one of the oldest forests in Europe. This park is also famous for its descending necklace of 16 lakes, which have a deep-spring source—plitvice—high in the hills. Dame Rebecca wrote it was "the most laughing and light-minded of natural prodigies."
In summer the park draws some 8,000 tourists a day, and in winter you have it to yourself. I put on my cross-country skis and climbed along the forest path. There was no one else in sight. I skied down alone in a mauve forest twilight. Surprisingly, at dinner the vast festive dining room at the hotel held a couple of hundred people. A very dapper, very old man was playing a piano in an old-fashioned lounge style. Among the tunes he played in an utterly bizarre juxtaposition of time, place and culture were South of the Border and In the Mood.
In the morning Cooke and I hiked down a zigzag path to the foot of the largest waterfall in the Plitvice chain, the Kozjak Falls, which plunges 250 feet. With us were a local ski instructor named Ivo and a young woman named Dana, an assistant in the tourist bureau. Dana had returned two years earlier after having spent her childhood in Hamilton, Ontario. Her English was vintage North American teen-ager. She was most helpful, and as we stood looking up at the great frozen falls, she told us, "Couples come here, like, in spring and summer and get married right under the falls. You can have your wedding picture taken, you know, like, through the water. I don't have anyone to get married to yet, but, if I did—if I do—a wedding right here might be kind of, like, nice, you know?"
By noon we were on the road again. We crossed a mountain pass and came onto snowless ground covered with sharp rocks. Here and there men in black suits followed small flocks of sheep over the stony wasteland. We saw no sign of a human domicile for miles. Then we came over the brow of a hill and there was the Adriatic again, its shore dense with houses and trees.
It looked so welcoming after the cold stony landscape that we were jolted severely when we got out of our car at the harborside in the ancient town of Zadar and found that the bora had not let up. The streets of Zadar twist through old walls and past ancient churches, including the 9th-century church of St. Donat and the exquisite cathedral of St. Anastasia. Cooke and I had been told to dine at a small restaurant called Primo≈°ten, which was concealed in a labyrinth of tunnellike passages below the walls of St. Anastasia. At Primo≈°ten all the fish was broiled on an open charcoal fire outside the restaurant. We were quite late and the chef, a scowling young man, was angry that he had to go into the freezing night to cook our dinner. He pulled a thick knitted cap over his head, shrugged into an overcoat and threw us a fierce look of reproach as he braved the bora that assaulted his "kitchen." Despite his attitude the fish was perfect—sweet and moist inside, browned and crisp outside. We drank a white wine made by the owner. All of the restaurant help, including the sulky chef, then sat down, and together we watched on television the 1969 movie The Sergeant, starring Rod Steiger, with dialogue in English and subtitles in Serbo-Croatian.
The next day, the bora having fled overnight, we drove down the coast to the ancient port of Split. West had written: "Split, alone of all cities in Dalmatia...recalls Naples, because it also is a tragic and architecturally magnificent sausage-machine where a harried people of mixed race have been forced by history to run for centuries through the walls and cellars and sewers of ruined palaces...." The Diocletian Palace in Split is a strange, sausage-machine structure that covers nine acres of streets, passageways, ancient gates, shops and residences. The Roman Emperor Diocletian completed it in 305 A.D. Originally the palace was a spacious, gracious example of Roman architecture. But, alas, Salona, a neighboring town, fell before barbarian attack in the 7th century, and after the invaders finally left, thousands of displaced persons took up residence in every nook and cranny of the palace. Today, at the ripe age of 1,678, the place is positively exuberant. With its permanent population of 10,000 people, the palace is perhaps the world's liveliest and best-utilized ruin.
Dubrovnik, the most famous of all Yugoslavian tourist destinations, is two hours down the coast. It's a walled and turreted sea settlement, so perfectly composed on its rocky peninsula that West said it was like "a city on a coin." In summer Dubrovnik teems with tourists, about 55,000 a day. In winter it's splendidly underpopulated, with a scant 3,000 visitors a day, the only crowds occurring at the hour of the corso, the daily twilight promenade that West called "the heart of social life in every Yugoslavian town." In Dubrovnik the corso occurs on a plaza of polished cobblestones. One moment the plaza is empty, and the next, without any noticeable commotion, it's filled almost shoulder to shoulder with a throng of peaceful people walking nowhere in particular at a nicely measured pace. After about an hour the reel runs backward—with no signal at all, the throng evaporates and the plaza is left again to the cold wind.
Cooke and I stayed at the Hotel Excelsior, each in a huge, sun-brightened corner suite looking out on the sea and the town. Each suite cost about $80 a day; in summer, the tab would have been $150. All along the Adriatic, the seafood had been magnificent. Everyone everywhere seemed to have perfected the delicate ability to cook fish over charcoal without turning it dry. And, as for the calamari, which is often cooked to the texture of a man's garters elsewhere, in Yugoslavia it's invariably tender and succulent.
We left Dubrovnik on the morning of Feb. 23, and here we could have taken two routes. One led back to Sarajevo, about three hours away, through spectacular mountains and via the city of Mostar with its famous arched bridge. This route would be the one a 1984 Olympics spectator might take. But Cooke and I were heading for Greece, you'll remember, and we'd been to Sarajevo before. So we took the other route, and entered territory unknown. To our great surprise we were treated to as stunning a variety of landscapes as I've ever seen in a single day.
From Dubrovnik we climbed over the rocky ridge that borders the sea and found ourselves in a rock-strewn wasteland. After 25 miles or so, patches of snow began to appear on this moonscape. The car was buffeted by icy winds. Soon solid white fields stretched as far as the eye could see. The terrain was as bereft of domiciles as Antarctica. Suddenly, through a mist of snow, we saw looming over us a huge peak, as menacing and startling as if the Matterhorn had popped up in Yugoslavia. We didn't know what to expect. Blizzards? Blocked roads? It was so wildly different from where we had been an hour earlier—civilized Dubrovnik—that we felt utterly disoriented.
As we drove on, the snow cover disappeared. The road became narrower and rockier and Cooke nodded knowingly. "These are the Yugoslav roads I knew and loved," he said. Now we zigzagged down into a wooded valley with a river rushing through. On both sides rose peaks of such, grandeur that the only comparison is the Tetons of Wyoming. This was the Sutjeska National Park. The next two hours we spent on a two-lane road that wound along sheer stone cliffs high above the churning, changing Drina River, which miraculously switched its color from deep green to turquoise to cobalt to black. As the road curved along a ledge cut in the cliff, we occasionally passed through great rock hoops carved out of the stone.
At last—alas—it was over. We came onto flats along the Drina and saw the minarets of mosques, the first on this trip. We passed a huge sawmill with its noise and smells and came into the city of Titovo U≈æice. Now we were in a far different Yugoslavia. The stamp of Turkish culture was clear. Though we had traveled but six hours from Dubrovnik, we'd passed through a Balkan looking glass. We saw a sign that said Restaurant Paris on a disreputable-looking building, and we decided to see what version of Paris we might find in grimy Titovo U≈æice. Restaurant Paris was large and smoky and smelled of cabbage and coffee. It was filled with men in fezzes and berets and caps. The place thundered with their laughter and conversation. A waiter appeared at our table. He wore a smeared white apron, a crumpled white shirt and a black bow tie, and he looked a little like Max Baer in middle age. He brushed the crumbs off the tablecloth with his hand, nodded crisply and gave us a much-thumbed mimeographed menu that, surprisingly enough, included a section in English. Cooke and I ordered cabbage salad, pork knuckle, coarse white bread and beer, and we finished the meal with Turkish coffee and Turkish delight. We had no more enjoyable meal in all of Yugoslavia, and when we tipped Max the waiter 75¢ over the cost of both meals ($3.20), he looked surprised, then salaamed once and said, "Allah, friend, Allah."
We proceeded through late afternoon to the town of Kraljevo and found yet another kind of Yugoslavia. The entire center of town had been made over into a sleek, auto-free shopping mall full of people strolling past bright windows displaying TV sets, blenders, phonographs—in short, all the fixings for a capitalistic spree of conspicuous consumption. Cooke and I went into a gleaming supermarket below street level and found ourselves amid lovely cheeses and sausages and salami, a great variety of Yugoslav wines and, believe it or not, lined up like a row of trophies, bottle after bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch.
Our hotel was less impressive. The elevator would not stop at the third floor, where our rooms were, and for the only time on this trip the desk clerks spoke no English—or German or French or Italian or Russian or Spanish, which are Cooke's other languages. The rooms were small, the beds saggy, the bathtub down the hall. However, we had a view of the square from the third floor, and the rate set a trip record for Balkan bargains: $6 per person. "That's what you pay for the fax on a room in the States," said Cooke.
Our next stop was the top of Mount Kopaonik, where we visited an ambitious ski area soon to become the biggest in the country, putting old Kranjska Gora in the shade. There are now 800 beds in area hotels, but the plan is to quintuple that number by 1985 and to add a golf course for summer trade. Unfortunately, old Mount Kopaonik has a bald, round-topped summit at 6,419 feet, and the runs there are frigid and wind-blasted—and flat. The skiing is, for now, pretty to look at but not very challenging.
We drove down Kopaonik after lunch, switchbacking through great snowdrifts that we assumed would be our last major contact with the white stuff for the rest of the trip. Somewhere in the recesses of our minds, we had the idea that, with each southward mile, we would move closer to some kind of early Balkan spring full of sweet breezes and balmy sunshine.
We were driving through Kosovo now, one of two independent provinces within the republic of Serbia. This territory had been held by the Turks for 500 years. Indeed, we weren't far from the historic Plain of Kosovo where the Turks first crushed the Serbs in 1389. So complete was the defeat and the Serbs' subsequent demoralization that it was not until 1912—on almost the same bloody battleground—that the final heroic campaigns to rid the region of the invaders took place. This land had seen hard, tragic times, and West had written a peculiarly despondent passage after traveling through it: "The earth is not our mother's bosom. It shows us no special kindness. We cannot trust it to take sides with us...we are alone and terrified. Kossovo [sic], more than any other site I know, arouses that desolation.... For it is crowded with the dead, who died in more than their flesh, whose civilization was cast with them into their graves."
We arrived in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, long after dark. Though there was no snow, the city was as chilly as any town we'd been in so far. We entered the Grand Hotel to find the desk clerk wearing a thick scarf around his neck. Rubbing his hands, he informed us that the hotel furnace was broken—no heat, no hot water tonight. We went to the cocktail lounge in the lobby where a waiter wearing an overcoat served us slivovitz poured by a bartender wearing a wool cap pulled over his ears. In the dining room the waiter wore a white waistcoat and black tie as if the temperature were normal, but the place was in fact as cold as the lobby, and Cooke and I dined wearing our overcoats. We had a fine veal soup, ƒçevapƒçiƒái, for the 1,000th time and what our hot-blooded waiter called a "black wine," a hearty deep Macedonian red called krato≈°ija.
We departed Skopje in the morning and headed for our last destination in Yugoslavia, Lake Ohrid, set deep in the southwest corner of the country, flush up against one of the oddest, saddest nations on earth these days, Albania. When we arrived, our dream of driving into an early Balkan spring shattered like a dropped icicle. Though the sun was dazzling in Ohrid, the frigid wind was whistling directly down the 18-mile length of the lake. Ohrid is a large, unusually clear body of fresh water that is mainly spring-fed. It has a maximum depth of more than 900 feet, and it never freezes. It abounds with a lovely white trout and contains a bizarre population of eels called jegulja, a thick, prehistoric thing that weighs 10 or 12 pounds. Though ugly as sin, the jegulja tastes a bit like chicken.
South along the lakeshore lies the famous monastery of Sveti Naum. It has a number of ancient buildings, the most interesting one being a 10th-century church perched on a point above the lake. It's a small, odd structure with two red-and-white brick cupolas and a red tile roof. "In shape it is like a locomotive," West had proclaimed. The only sound was the rushing of the spring-fed river. A couple of peacocks strutted desultorily about. It was a perfect scene of peace—except for one thing: Sveti Naum is located less than a mile from the border between Yugoslavia and Albania.
A man in Ohrid had referred to that padlocked land as "the largest prison in the world." Perhaps it is—people haven't been allowed freely in or out of Albania in 38 years. Stories that seep out of there portray the place as being set in a dark and different century—the population of 2.75 million is, for example, almost totally without automobiles; only high government officials have them. There is a deep hatred in Yugoslavia of anything Albanian, including other Yugoslavs of Albanian descent. From upper Slovenia to lower Macedonia we heard nothing but whispered scorn and muttered suspicion about these people. In Ohrid one of our Slav guides had told us that the men in white fezzes were of Albanian extraction, and he added, "I tell you that-so you can avoid them." It was one of the more unpleasant aspects of the Land of South Slavs.
We slept our last night in Yugoslavia at Ohrid and just as it was turning light the next morning we drove to a tiny village on the lake and stood shivering on the shore to watch the fishermen bring in their catch. It was a meager one, as it turned out—too cold, said the fishermen. Then we drove to the town of Struga, on the north shore of the lake, where a cacophonous marketplace was in full operation. Peasants had arrived before dawn, bringing cheese and butchered sheep, honeycombs and homemade shoes. The women were dressed in brilliant Macedonian costumes. Someone told us that the women traditionally wore every bit of clothing they own on market days—10 or 20 skirts—so even the thinnest ones look fat. Cooke and I wandered about and were jostled and crowded by jabbering bargain-hunters in a scene that could have been Marrakesh or Istanbul. But certainly not Ljubljana. Or Plitvice. Or Split.
We set out for Greece. It was a swift and easy drive of about five hours to Thessaloniki, and we arrived after dark. We awoke to soft breezes and sunshine warm enough to bask in at an outdoor café. We watched Greeks promenading along the wide plaza bordering the harbor. We added up our mileage and found that from Vienna we'd driven 2,360 miles. We'd covered several civilizations in those miles, driven past territory seized at one time or another by Caesar and Napoleon, by the Turks and by the Nazis. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Dame Rebecca was grappling with large questions about the many and varied mad acts of assassination and war that had for so long made this southeastern corner of Europe the wellspring of political upheaval. As she wrote before her Yugoslav odyssey in 1937, "It was only two or three days distant, yet I had never troubled to go that short journey which might explain to me how I shall die, and why."
Cooke and I had no such grand motive; we were dealing in Games and fun, not in life and death. Nevertheless, it was in great part because of West that we'd had such a magnificent journey through the Land of South Slavs. And so, there in the warmth of the onrushing Greek spring we ordered a pair of double Beefeater martinis, straight up, very dry and very cold, and then we toasted the grand old dame. And then we toasted her grand old tome. Then we toasted the Olympics because we were in Greece, and then we toasted the 1984 Winter Olympics, because we had just come from Yugoslavia. And then we toasted ourselves, and then Dame Rebecca again, and then we ordered another round.
Plitvice National Park
Sutjeska National Park