April – May 2015
Visiting Yugoslavia was in always in my bucket list. In spring of 2015, I decided to visit the former Yugoslavian countries to get a first hand experience of their history, culture and religion. What connected them together also separated them from each other.
A little history lesson…
The history of Yugoslavia is an interesting one for the reason it is the most ethnically and religiously diverse and complex to understand for an average person. When the Roman Empire collapsed in the early 4th century, the eastern half of the empire broke along two major groups – Catholic to the west and Orthodox religion to the east. A few centuries later Ottoman invaded and dominated the region for five centuries leaving their Islamic culture and influence in the region that once again split the region into Christian (north) and Muslim (South). Over the next few centuries many distinct ethnic identities emerged. The Yugoslavia meaning “land of the south slavs” began to take root with major ethnicities – Croat, Slovene, Serb and Bosniak. These slavs essentially descended from the same ancestors and spoke somewhat related languages. The only major difference was their religious beliefs.
Yugoslavia block of countries, 1991 (Source: ICTY.org)
When Tito came to power after the Second World War he envisioned the unification of the south Slavic countries into one major block that can dominate the central Europe. He hoped to achieve balance of power among the seven different republics – Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia. His vision was pretty solid in that it gave equitable power among all ethnic groups and never allowed one group to dominate the other. Tito was a communist but he refused to ally with Russia. He would play off east and the west against each other. He knew that no good come from aligning with one side over the other. The arms industry in Yugoslavia flourished under Tito. In fact it was the number one arms export market. Several companies manufactured combat aircrafts and tanks. I happened to visit the hidden aircraft-manufacturing center in Mostar.
To understand the region through different stages in the breakup you can refer to the image below.
Signs of sectarian and religious tensions go all the way back to 1970s. Thanks to ironclad rule of Tito those tensions never materialized into any big revolution or breakdown. Most of these issues were swept under the rug at a local level but only to explode on a much larger scale after Tito’s death. The impression I received from speaking to people from various backgrounds in the former Yugoslavian countries is somewhat of a mixed bag. Some are nostalgic of the old times and some felt this was a union that was never meant to be.
Even after the messy breakup followed by the ethnic cleansing and the unnecessary human loses, there are still some tensions between ethnic backgrounds albeit in a less intense way.
But today these diverse ethnic and religious groups co-exist with each other. You can witness that in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Within a ten-minute walk in the main square of the city you will find an Orthodox church, Mosque, Catholic Church and a Jewish synagogue. When you meet people from these different ethnic and religious backgrounds in these countries it is important to not to take anyone’s side but rather listen to get their perspective without judging them or their ancestral background.
Economically speaking …
GDP of former Yugoslavia post communist era..
Slovenia is the most prosperous among the former Yugoslavian republics having a higher per capita that even some of the original members of EU. But interestingly Kosovo has the highest GDP growth. Serbia has the worst economy in the list. Some Serbians still blame U.S for the war in the 90s for the reason for their economic doldrums. As you can see in the table below, the unemployment rate is extremely high in all the countries in the block with most sporting a double digit figure.
|Country||GDP growth (Q1 2015)||Unemployment Rate||Major Industries||Tourists* and % of GDP(as of 2014)|
|Slovenia||2.9%||12.30%||IT, Auto and Pharma||2.3 Million(3.5% of GDP)|
|Croatia||0.5%||17.10%||Tourism, Shipbuilding, Construction and Petro Chemicals||10 Million(15% of GDP)|
|Serbia||-1.8%||19.20%||Chemicals, Electrical and Electronics, Machinery, Mining and Automobile||1 Million(2.1% of GDP)|
|Bosnia||2.1%||43.31%||Steel, Coal, Oil Refining and Agriculture||260,000(2.5% of GDP)|
|Montenegro||3.2%||27.32%||Steelmaking, Agriculture and Tourism||735, 000(20% of GDP)|
|Kosovo||3.3%||35.30%||Coal, Metal, Petroleum, Textiles and Tourism||83, 000(N.A)|
|Macedonia||3.2%||27.32%||Agriculture, Metallurgy and Food processing||922,000(1.4% of GDP)|
Source: TradingEconomics.com, Atlapedia.com, Seenews.com, *Excludes domestic tourists
What countries is part of the former Yugoslavia?
Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo.
How I planned my trip in Yugoslavia?
My travel path took a loop around the Yugoslavia block (as noted in the picture below). I skipped Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo due to volatile security situation at the time when I was in Montenegro. I started off in the north in Slovenia then made my way south to Croatia and Montenegro traveled along the beautiful Adriatic coast making stops in coastal Baltic cities along the way. After Montenegro I headed up north to Bosnia and west to Serbia.
My travel path around the former Yugoslavian countries (black lines indicate the path)
Some basic Facts about these countries
|Country||Capital city||Currency||1USD =?)||Languagespoken||Religious mix|
|Croatia||Zagreb||Kuna||7||Croatian||Catholic 87%Orthodox 4.5%
|Montenegro||Podgorica||Euro||0.92||Montenegrin (based on Serbo-Croatian)||Orthodox – 75%Islam – 18%
Catholic – 3.5%
|Bosnia||Sarajevo||Mark||1.8||Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian||Islam 40%Serbian Orthodox 31%
|Serbia||Belgrade||Dinar||110||Serbian||Orthodox 75%Catholic 18%
|Kosovo||Pristina||Euro||0.92||Albanian, Serbian and Bosnian||Muslims (95%), Catholic, Orthodox remaining %|
Best time to visit –April to June, Sep to Oct. Avoid the touristy summer season.
Visa situation – U.S citizens can get visa on arrival and stay upto 60 days in most countries.
Travel highlights in each country
|Country||City||What to see?||How to get there?|
|Slovenia||Ljubljana||Capital city – history, culture, arts and shopping. I wrote a separate blog post on my visit to Slovenia. Check it out.||Most low cost airlines fly to Ljubljana. Frequent trains operate between Zagreb and Ljubljana. Also can connect to Vienna and Munich.|
|Lake Bled||Nature, Hiking, biking and outdoor activities.A must do activity is to hike the Triglau mountains but it is open in the summer.Also a boat ride across Lake Bohinj is||Train or Bus from Ljubljana. About 2-3 hours by car.|
|Croatia||Zagreb(capital)||Capital city – history, museums (Museum of broken relationship is a must see), food||Trains from Ljubjana to Zagreb. Buy the tickets at the train station.|
|Plitvice National park||Water falls||Take the early morning bus from Zagreb to Plitvice and spend the day seeing the water falls. A day is enough at this place.http://www.buscroatia.com/|
|Zadar||Historic Roman cityCheck out the Roman ruins – The Forum, Sea Organ, The Greeting to the Sun and the beautiful sandy beachesTry the Black cuttlefish risotto in any restaurant in the old town.||Bus from Plitvice to Zadar takes about 2 hourshttp://www.buscroatia.com/Tip: I strongly recommend to take all the bus trips during the day so you can enjoy the beautiful coastline and Mediterranean towns along the coast|
|Split||Historic walled Roman city, Roman ruins, clock tower, beaches||Bus from Plitvice to Zadar takes about 3 hourshttp://www.buscroatia.com/|
|Hvar||Fortress, cathedral, beaches, sea food. Recommend to stay overnight here as the night life is pretty good.||Ferry from Split to Hvar takes about 2 hours.http://www.hvarinfo.com/hvar-ferries/#1Tip: Take the ferry in the early morning to avoid the crowd.|
|Dubrovnik||Historic old town with massive stone walls, Cable car to the top of the fortress, Café Buza where you can drink and jump in the open water||Bus from Split to Dubrovnik takes 4 hours.http://www.buscroatia.com/split-dubrovnik/|
|Montenegro||Kotor||Beautiful coastal town in the secluded part of Montenegro. Known for its scenic views.||Bus from Dubrovnik to Kotor takes 2 hours. The coastal drive is one of the most beautiful drives you will ever take.http://www.buscroatia.com/dubrovnik-kotor/|
|Budvar||Less than half hour from Kotor, Budvar is famous for its beaches, shopping and seafood.||Frequent local buses from Kotor to Budvar.|
|Perast||Another old town on the bay of Kotor in Montenegro. Best known for Our Lady of the Rocks – an islet off the coast of Perast.||Frequent local buses from Kotor to Perast.|
|Bosnia||Mostar||Cultural capital of Bosnia. Must see is the Historical Old bridge and remnants of the Bosnian war.Neretva river that flows across Mostar is one of the cleanest rivers in the world.||There is a bus from Kotor to Mostar but it goes through Dubrovnik which adds more time to your travel. If you want to go direct without going back to Croatia, you can consider hiring a private car or a shared van service.|
|Sarajevo||Capital city of Bosnia, known for its diversity in culture and religions. The city where you can find Islam, Orthodoxy, Judaism and Catholicism co-exist for centuries. It was the here World War 1 started.||Scenic train ride from Mostar to Sarajevo takes almost 3 hours.|
|Serbia||Belgrade||Capital city of Serbia with a lot of history and culture. Hike up to Kalemegdan fortress, spend the nightlife at the world famous splavs – floating clubs, Ethnographic museum. Also can see some of the bombings from the NATO attack on Serbia in the late 90’s.||Recommend taking a bus over train. If you stay in a hostel you can find a shared van service organized by the hostel.|
|Novi Sad||Historic town. Petrovardin fortress is a must see for its beautiful views and creative workshops.||Regular daily train service from Belgrade to Novi sad.|