Back to the Balkans

After six weeks gallivanting around England, Scotland, and Ireland, we still had lots of time to kill before we would be allowed back into the Eurozone—or more precisely, the Schengen Area. Close readers and savvy travelers may recall that Ireland is not part of that zone. Neither are most of the Balkans, including Croatia & Montenegro. (At least in 2022. As of 2023, Croatia, already an EU member since 2013, finally became part of the Schengen Area too.) That was convenient for us, because I’ve been sorta obsessed with Croatia & Montenegro for years and had all but insisted we include them in our adventures. So in late-August, we left behind the blustery North Atlantic, fished out our swimsuits and flip-flops, and headed to the balmy Adriatic.

But I think I lost you back on the word Balkans. Isn’t that some war-torn backwater of Europe that us Americans tried not to get involved with back in the nineties? Where Bosnia and Kosovo are? Used to be called Yugoslavia? Well, yes to most of that. Except that the Balkans are fortunately no longer war-torn. In fact, they’re very nice places to visit. As implied by the title of this post, we had already visited one on this trip, Slovenia, and it we loved it. We wanted more.

As usual, a little history for context. The Balkans are a complicated place with a violent history. You might know that WWI started here, when the region chafed at Austrian rule and some militants assasinated the future emperor. During WWII, it’s where Hitler & Mussolini encountered the strongest armed resistance in Europe. But when the people here haven’t been fighting an occupier, they have often been fighting each other. Yugoslavia, essentially formed after WWI, had always been a tenuous alliance, mostly held together by the sheer will of its dictators, including King Alexander and President Josip Tito. Its first name, the unwieldy Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, hints at the ethnic and cultural divisions that would later pull it apart, as does this ethnic map. There’s also religion, of course: Slovenia & Croatia are traditionally Catholic; Serbia, Montenegro & North Macedonia are Eastern Orthodox; while Kosovo and more than half of Bosnia & Herzegovina are Muslim. It was a bit of a powder keg. When the USSR and its Iron Curtain disintegrated around 1990, so did Yugoslavia—which was also Communist but had managed to maintain its independence from Moscow. Slovenia and Croatia tried to break away in 1991. But Serbia, which had always dominated Yugoslavia both in population and influence, wasn’t about to go along with it. Slovenia managed to expel the federal army fairly quickly and without much bloodshed, likely because Slovenia was almost entirely inhabited by Slovenians. But in Croatia, where there was a large Serb minority, things got nasty. Among other things, the Serbian-led army bombed the s*** out of the legendary Croatian city of Dubrovnik, apparently not for any strategic reason but just to punish the Croats (something I’ll get into later), which immendiately earned the Serbs international condemnation. When Bosnia declared its own independence just a few months later, this triggered a brutal 3½ year war with that really got the world’s attention. All the while, the Serbian region of Kosovo, dominated by ethnic Albanians, was agitating for its own independence, which erupted into a separate war in 1998.

Like I said, it’s a complicated place. (Though no one person or group gets all the blame, one common demonimator for all these conflicts in the nineties was the Serbs, led by Slobodan Milošević, who was later tried for war crimes.) The tangled political situation, infighting, and fragmentation that occurred here spawned a political term, “balkanization”, and even the name “Balkan” itself is now considered derogatory by many folks. (Though not necessarily within the Balkans, where I saw things like “The latest Balkan hits!” advertised). What’s strange is that the people here probably have a lot more similarities than they do differences. First of all, they’re pretty much all Slavs. (Who are the Slavs? See my post on Slovenia.) Yugoslavia literally means “south Slavic lands” and was an attempt to unify them. They all speak essentially one language, and I was surprised that the few words and phrases I learned worked in all three countries we visited. But siblings can sometimes become the bitterest enemies.

Fortunately, with the possible exception of Kosovo, things seem to have settled down here, and people are getting along. When Montenegro split off from Serbia in 2006, it did so peacefully. There, as well as in Slovenia & Croatia, things are not only quiet now but downright chill, and we saw little to suggest the hostilities of a few decades ago. Even shattered Dubrovnik has put itself back together, and is now one of the hottest vacation spots in Europe—and most legendary movie backdrops. Apparently Bosnia is also wonderful, according to a couple from California we met that had been vacationing there for several months. (We thought seriously about dropping in, but it got complicated with the rental car.)

We spent a total of six dreamy weeks in Croatia and its next-door neighbor Montenegro, and it was easily one of the highlights of our trip. We started our sojourn near Dubrovnik, partly because we found a cheap flight direct from Dublin—one of our few intra-European flights. It was a bit bizarre departing from the Irish capital’s huge, bustling, modern airport and touching down a few hours later at the small, simple Dubrovnik one, scarcely bigger than Santa Barbara’s. As we disembarked onto the tarmac, the gust of dry afternoon heat was also a dramatic change from our cool, often gray days in Galway. It was like we had taken a flight straight from spring into summer. Customs and baggage claim were surprisingly quick and casual, probably how airports at home felt a couple generations ago. Across the small parking lot, some bored kids at the rental counter quickly outfitted us with a nice, new Kia SUV. I reminded them that we would be taking it across the border to Montenegro, and they warned me that the shady cops there liked to stop people for lunch money. (We saw no such thing…in fact, I don’t think we ever saw a cop.) Later, I wondered what other misconceptions those kids had about their neighbors—just 17 km to the south.

Off we went, as I mentally adjusted to driving on the right side of the road again. But we weren’t heading to Dubrovnik—that was later, on our return loop. Our destination was much closer, right outside the airport in fact, a small resort town called Cavtat (pronounced sahv-taht), known as the original Dubrovnik. Straddling a small peninsula between two stunning natural harbors, this sunkissed village was founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BC as Epidaurus. When the Slavs pushed into this region in the 7th century AD, they sacked the city, and the refugees fled to a nearby island which evolved into the city of Ragusa, later called Dubrovnik. But the two towns remember their ties; in fact, the name Cavtat derives from the Latin for “old city”, and the Italian name for the town is Ragusa Vecchia, or “Old Ragusa”‘.


The first thing you notice about this part of Croatia is how vertical it is. Arid mountains rise steeply out of the turqouise Adriatic, leaving few flat spots to build anything. Cavtat and the airport are perched on a rare, narrow coastal shelf, but for miles north, almost everything, including the highways, cling precariously to the hillsides. But people here don’t have much choice, because just over those hills, you’re in Bosnia. For some weird historical reason, southern Croatia is but a ribbon of land along the coast, only about a kilometer wide next to Cavtat, leaving Bosnia almost completely landlocked. I’m still not quite sure why.

We were staying just outside the old town, in a simple but completely adequate third-floor apartment with views over the Adriatic which was delightfully affordable after Ireland. Our host was a formidable woman. She clearly used all the excercise equipment we found inside. The other thing you immediately notice about Croatians is how Russian they sound, at least to us, conjuring up memories of old spy movies (or Black Widow for younger readers). That’s because the Croatians and Russians are both Slavs, and their languages are closely related. It’s a harsh sound to our ears, like people are perpetually angry with you, but you get used to it. And of course, in this most touristy area of Croatia, virtually everybody speaks English, and is happy to do it (unlike, say, the French).

And that’s the thing about Croatia: while it’s much more exotic than anywhere we had yet been in Europe, it’s also a strangely familiar place. It’s got a distinctly Mediterreanean and even Italian feel. Perhaps that’s because Croatia (like Slovenia) was once part of the Roman Empire, and “although these regions were ruled for centuries by various foreign powers, they remained firmly Western-oriented in culture, acquiring a legacy of Roman law, the Latin alphabet, and western European political and economic traditions and institutions.” (Encyclopedia Brittania) You know, like the Catholic Church. The other reason is that this particular area, known in Roman times as Dalmatia, has for centuries been under the sway of Dubrovnik, once a mighty maritime power and cosmopolitan city-state that rivaled Venice. More recently, Dubrovnik has become the superstar tourist attraction of the entire Balkan region, and so the locals in these parts are well-versed in welcoming strangers. (Even if they sound angry with you.)

As we left the apartment and walked down the road towards town, only small portions of which had sidewalks, we suddenly beheld the harbor below us, and our jaws dropped. A sparking blue crescent lined with stone houses topped with red tile roofs, it seemed like one of those photos that somebody has overzealously retouched, hypersaturating the colors. A half dozen superyachts bobbed on the water, signalizing that this was one of those elusive paradises that the wealthy know about but almost everybody else does not. Well…their secret is safe with us! 😉

But other than the yachts, the town (at least the old town) didn’t smack of wealth and privilege. We didn’t see any palatial estates surrounded by walls and electric fences. No Michelin-starred restaurants with expensive sports cars parked at the curb. We did discover one surprisingly large, upscale resort, but it was tucked into the trees on the other side of the peninsula, discreetly out of sight of the town. More visible was a bayside hotel that that had been half-built and then abandoned years ago. But the rest of the old town was decidedly quaint and rustic, a real town where real people lived. A waterfront seawater pool was being used not by tourists but a local youth water polo team. Other kids played at a shabby, well-used waterfront playground or kicked balls in the road. Not a single one asked us for money. Tourists and locals swan together in the harbor, from a small, concrete pool deck with a ladder. A half dozen small restaurants lined the quay with outdoor tables, none of them were particularly fancy, all serving roughly the same menu of seafood, steak, pasta, pizza, and cocktails, with enthusiastic waiters waving you in. We got a table at one of them that was mostly empty and enjoyed an excellent and surprisingly inexpensive meal, while listening to the waves and the coach’s whistle.

After dinner, with sunset still a ways off, we followed the waterfront past all the yachts and buildings until it turned into a wide, shaded path that circumnavigates the town’s narrow peninsula along the rocky shore. One of the few bummers about this stretch of coast is how few sandy beaches it has; but that’s also how the water remains so stunningly clear. I was impressed how most of this forested spit of land had been spared from development. Rather than covering it with homes or condos, almost everything past the old town was left in its natural state, except for an old, picturesque cemetary at the highest point. But at the very end of the peninsula, the rocks formed a sort of natural swimming pool, a spot popular with the locals, while a small, off-the-grid bar (Beach Bar Little Star) served cheap cocktails on a deck overlooking the water. If ever there was a more chill spot to take a dip and sip a mojito, I don’t think I’ve seen it. Amy and Griffin vowed to come back to this “secret spot” tomorrow.

We spent three nights in Cavtat, and though we had a car, we left it parked and explored the town on foot. We swam and played in the warm aquamarine water, wandered the town’s narrow pedestrian lanes and staircases, and hiked out and around the opposite peninsula, even more rugged and forested than the first one. Strangely, the mountains looming above the town seemed to catch clouds out of thin air, and for couple of days, a thunderstorm seemed stuck churning on the hill above us, but above Cavtat itself we only had blue skies…and gorgeous sunsets.

On our last day, we packed up the SUV and headed south on the two-lane highway towards the Montenegran border. En route, we stopped off and followed some winding roads up into the hills to the only two tourist attractions in this region. The first was a traditional water-powered mill, Izletište Mlin, the last remaining in the country, where they still grind grain—and use a rudimentary mill-powered wooden hammer to beat woven woolen fabric to make it softer and finer. The place was so rustic and deserted that we weren’t sure we were even in the right place. But we eventually found a man who demonstrated how it worked while a woman in traditional Croatian dress sold handicrafts. Since it seemed to be free, we tipped them, and they insisted we take a bag of fresh walnuts and some of the most delicious figs. After meandering along some of the burbling mill creeks through the forest, we hopped back in the car and wound further up the road to an old castle built precariously atop a rock outcropping, appropriately named Sokol Grad, or Falcon Castle. It too was nearly empty, except for the bored staff member in the little ticket kiosk. While not as moody and mysterious as the castles in Scotland, it provided an impressive vantage point over the dry and rocky landscape, which it guarded for centuries…and a bit exhilarating with how few guardrails and safety precautions they had!

Croatia is simple and rustic, probably in the way that people romanticize an old Tuscan village to be. Time moves slowly there, and people aren’t in a hurry. (Except when they drive, as my friend Rob had warned me!) Nonetheless, they do seem to value promptness and efficiency, fitting for former provinces of the Austrian Empire. Luxuries we’d become accustomed to in Europe, like flakey croissants and creative vegan food, and even a decent selection of vegetables, are hard to find . But what we did get was fresh, locally grown, and/or made right there. Infrastructure in Croatia is still developing, but all the main roads are excellent. Building codes are a long way behind ours, and we saw lots of half-finished buildings. But the streets are neat and tidy, and the places we stayed, while not fancy, were just as nicely appointed as anywhere else we’d been in Europe. We didn’t witness a lot of overt poverty and certainly far less inequality than at home in the U.S. People seem kind, and we felt entirely safe; crime and violence are not something you really need to worry about. We saw lots of children, at least where we were, suggesting that Croatians are hopeful about their future. I’m sure there’s a lot that could be improved. But as one of the EU’s newest members, and thus held to a European standard, Croatia is quickly becoming modern in all the ways it needs to be. And as for the rest? Croatians don’t seem to worry too much about it. Whatever they’re doing, they seem to be doing it right.

Next stop: Montenegro!