History & Itinerary For Exploring the Former Yugoslavia
Authored by Chan Komagan
Yugoslavia always fascinated me as a child. I remember watching the contestants from this communist block play competitively in the Olympic games, and usually come out in the top 5. It was home to many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds (and still is). The very definition of a melting pot. Though they shared the same south Slavic language.
In the early 90’s I witnessed the breakaway of this huge communist block after Tito’s fall. For those not familiar with Tito, he was the first post world war communist leader of Yugoslavia. Some saw him as a tyrant, though others found the phrase “benevolent dictator” to be more fitting.
Visiting Yugoslavia was always on my bucket list, and that was something which not even a collapse of the country would change. 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 apart.
A Little History
The history of Yugoslavia is fascinating. It is the most ethnically and religiously diverse region the world has known to date, making for a complex political landscape which is often difficult to wrap your head around when trying to understand. History of Yugoslavia. What happened to Yugoslavia?
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 the 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. This once again split the region into Christian (north) and Muslim (South). Why did Yugoslavia break up?
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.
When Tito came to power after the Second World War he envisioned the unification of the south Slavic countries into one major block that could dominate Central Europe. He hoped to achieve balance of power among the seven different republics – Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia. What happened in Yugoslavia?
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 though he refused to ally with Russia. He saw that the East and the West were playing against each other and knew that no good would come from aligning with one side over the other. Why did the Yugoslavian war start?
The arms industry in Yugoslavia flourished under Tito. In fact they were the number one arms export market. Several companies manufactured combat aircrafts and tanks. I happened to visit the hidden aircraft-manufacturing center in Mostar. Why did the Yugoslavian war start?
To understand the region through different stages in the breakup you can refer to the image below. What happened in the Yugoslavian war?
Signs of sectarian and religious tensions began to emerge in the 1970s, though thanks to the ironclad rule of Tito those tensions never materialized into a revolution or breakdown. Most of these issues were swept under the rug at a local level but only to explode after Tito’s death. Who was Tito?
The impression I received from speaking with those from various backgrounds in the former Yugoslavian states 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. It was an incredibly messy breakup which made the world news for ethnic cleansing and unnecessary human loses. What did Tito do?
But today albeit some tensions which do still exist, these diverse ethnic and religious groups co-exist with each other. This is evidenced perhaps the most in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Within a ten-minute walk from main square of the city you will find an Orthodox church, Mosque, Catholic Church and a Jewish synagogue.
Meeting the locals and survivors of the breakdown and listening to their stories is an intense experience. Though when you do meet people from these different ethnic and religious backgrounds in these countries it is important to not to take anyone’s side, but rather to listen and take in their perspective without judging them or their ancestral background.
Planning a Visit to the Former Yugoslavia
The countries which make up the former Yugoslavia are Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo.
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 during the time 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. Can you travel through Yugoslavia?
The best time to visit this region is from April to June and September to October. Countries here are absolutely packed come summer, so avoid the tourists by traveling during shoulder season.
As far as visas are concerned, U.S citizens can get visa on arrival and stay up to 60 days in most countries. The following are travel highlights in each country and recommendations for how to get around.
Ljubljana is Slovenia’s capital city – travel here for history, culture, arts and shopping. Click for more information on my visit to Slovenia. Most low cost airlines fly to Ljubljana. Frequent trains operate between Zagreb and Ljubljana. You can also connect from Vienna and Munich.
Lake Bled is one of the most stunning natural wonders of the world. Travel here for nature, hiking, biking and outdoor activities. A must do activity is to hike the Triglau mountains, open in the summer months. Also consider a boat ride across Lake Bohinj. The train or bus from Ljubljana is a great way to get to Lake Bled. Otherwise the journey is 2-3 hours by car.
Visit Zagreb (Croatia’s capital city) for history, fabulous food and museums (Museum of broken relationship is a must see). Trains from Ljubjana to Zagreb are the easiest way to get there. Buy the tickets at the train station.
Plitvice National Park is home to easily the most stunning waterfalls in the world. Take the early morning bus from Zagreb to Plitvice and spend the day. A day is all you need. Things to do in Croatia.
Zadar is a historic Roman city which offers spectacular Roman ruins and beautiful sandy beaches. Don’t miss The Forum, Sea Organ and The Greeting to the Sun. Try the Black cuttlefish risotto in any restaurant in the old town. The bus from Plitvice to Zadar takes about 2 hours. Things to do in Zadar.
Pro 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 is a historic walled Roman city. Be sure to take in the Roman ruins, clock tower and beaches. Itinerary for Croatia. Things to do in Split.
Hvar boasts a fortress, cathedral, beaches, and great seafood. Recommend to stay overnight here as the night life is pretty good. The ferry from Split to Hvar takes about 2 hours. I recommend taking the ferry in the early morning to avoid the crowd. Public transport in Croatia. Things to do in Hvar.
Dubrovnik is a fascinating fortified city – a historic old town with massive stone walls. Take the cable car to the top of the fortress, and head over to Café Buza where you can drink and jump from the edge of the fortress into the sparkling water of the Adriatic sea. The bus from Split to Dubrovnik takes 4 hours.
Kotor is a 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.
Budvar is less than half hour from Kotor, famous for its beaches, shopping and seafood. Frequent local buses from Kotor to Budvar.
Perast is 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. Things to do in Montenegro.
Mostar is the cultural capital of Bosnia. Must see is the Historical Old bridge and remnants of the Bosnian war. The Neretva river that flows across Mostar is one of the cleanest rivers in the world. Things to do in Bosnia.
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 is the capital city of Bosnia, known for its diversity in culture and religions. The city where you will find evidence of Islam, Orthodoxy, Judaism and Catholicism co-existing for centuries. It was the here World War 1 began. The scenic train ride from Mostar to Sarajevo takes almost 3 hours.
Belgrade is the capital city of Serbia with a lot of history and culture on display. Hike up to Kalemegdan fortress, spend the nightlife at the world famous splavs – floating clubs, Ethnographic museum. Evidence also remains from the bombings of NATO’s 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 is a beautiful historic town. Petrovardin fortress is a must see for it’s beautiful views and creative workshops. Regular daily train services leave from Belgrade to Novi Sad. Things to do in Serbia and Novi Sad.