Time to Kill

Life's a beach on the former Yugoslav coast, if only you can afford it.

Time to Kill

Life's a beach on the former Yugoslav coast, if only you can afford it.

Tuesday, 21 August, 2001

It's midsummer and tourists are pouring into the former Yugoslavia and down the Adriatic coast. For those still with some time to kill, here is IWPR's very own "print and go" summer resort guide, tailored for our readers and their special interests.

Take the Karavanken tunnel south from Austria and emerge blinking into the former Yugoslavia! This is where the IWPR trail begins, at the very spot where, in June 1991, the old country died when Yugoslav troops moved up to secure the borders of the seceding Slovenia.

There is no need to linger at the tunnel mouth though. Speed on to Bled, the tourist-crammed lakeside town where boatmen take you to the dainty island in the middle of the lake. On the way they point out the former summer residence of the Karadjordjevic dynasty, now a luxury hotel.

Amuse yourself by noting that the descendants of Serbia and Yugoslavia's royal family have just had their property restored in Serbia and asking your boatman if they have demanded the return of this Slovene residence "yet".

If the boatman looks confused, console yourself by contributing to increased commercial links between the former Yugoslav republics. By the church on Bled's island you can buy Serbian Smoki Flip potato crisps. These are the only visible Serbian products back on the Slovene market, but, here, they are also the most expensive crisps in Europe. However, since restaurants on the lakeside charge London or Manhattan prices, these may be all you can afford. Speed south.

It is only once you have crossed the Croatian border and stopped in Karlovac that you realise why prosperous looking Slovenia is on the fast-track to EU membership, and Croatia is not. The scene of bitter fighting between Serbs and Croats in 1991-92, Karlovac is still pockmarked by shell holes and clearly depressed. There is little to detain the discerning IWPR visitor here.

Pick up the Adriatic highway at Turanj, the former crossing point into the ill-fated Republic of Serbian Krajina.

Anyone who travelled through the RSK until its fall in the summer of 1995 will be amazed. The main road, which then only ever saw the odd car every few hours, is virtually solid with tourists flowing south, just as they were before the war.

But tourism has changed in the last decade. There are still Germans and Austrians here, but now a huge proportion of the cars inching their way south are Hungarian, Czech, Slovak and Polish.

Be careful. The East Europeans are not big spenders. There are rooms to rent along the road but, to save money, the Slovaks may be driving non-stop from Bratislava to Brac - and if they fall asleep at the wheel in front of you, chances of survival are slim.

Six years after the fall of Krajina note the still empty and destroyed houses along the route belonging to Serbs who have not returned. The desolation and depopulation is even starker off the main road. Note also the vast areas of former farmland, which have returned to nature.

Some tourists will stop to admire the beauty of the Plitvice lakes. IWPR believes its readers would be more interested in a detour to Bosnia. First take in Bihac, chief town of the former Bosniak "pocket" besieged by Serbs throughout the war and the region where Bosniak's fought their own civil war within the war.

Bihac is bustling and full of life, but numerous beggars attest to its post-war poverty. Bosnia's foreign-imposed post war flag is much in evidence here. Divert yourself by pondering its incredible similarity to the Varta battery logo.

Head south for Bosanski Petrovac, once a solidly Bosnian Serb town, now home to Croats driven out from other parts of Bosnia. This is perhaps one of the most desolate towns in Europe today. Avoid the NDH Café, named in honour of the World War II Croatian fascist state. If you are really hungry there is a man who grills a pig a short walk from the NDH, close to the posters supporting Croatia's indicted war criminals. Note too, there is no accommodation here as the Hotel Sarajevo is still a burned out shell.

Attention: On the outskirts of town a policeman with a radar fines anyone driving above the prescribed snail's pace of 40 kilometres an hour. The fine is 30 DM, but the friendly policeman gives a refund of 10 DM if you have children.

Head back for Croatia, over the mountains via Knin, the former Krajina capital, now full of Bosnian Croats. Head south for Kistanje, the former Serb town now home to Kosovo Croats from Janjevo. Visit the beautiful medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery at Krka. Closed to ordinary visitors for many years, it is now open and working again and artists are even painting new frescoes.

Head now for Split. Accommodation is hard to find and parts of the city have recently been covered in a blanket of smoke from forest fires raging in the hinterland. Oddly, there are few restaurants as opposed to cafés in the old city. This is probably because they are so expensive that most of them priced themselves out of business and average holiday-making westerners, let alone Croats and East Europeans, are balking at paying two or three times more for a plain grilled fish than they would in a top restaurant in Paris.

Back to Bosnia, to take in suspiciously prosperous looking Croatian inhabited western Hercegovina, and then on to Mostar. Marvel at the workmen rebuilding the old Turkish bridge. The atmosphere remains bad in this town divided between Bosniaks and Croats and, unless your car is fully insured against theft in Bosnia, we don't advise staying overnight.

Move on to Dubrovnik. As beautiful as ever, but, IWPR's top tip is to avoid the old town during the morning. The cruise ships are back and this season some 400 are expected to visit. Their passengers visit the town in the morning, so it becomes very congested.

Several hotels in Dubrovnik and along its riviera remain closed, victims of the war. This means there is a shortage of rooms. But local tourism officials are keen to make sure that there is no return to the mass tourism of pre-war days. They want to encourage upmarket visitors, but, for the moment, facilities remain scant and overpriced. An apartment in the resort village of Cavtat comes with none of the usual amenities such as washing machines or even proper cooking equipment that the western visitor expects. But it still costs the same as a bigger, better located and fully equipped villa in a similar seaside town in France.

Head south for Montenegro. At the border expect to pay 30 DM for insurance, 20 DM for road tax and 6 DM to drive your car through a disinfectant wash, which the sanitary inspector will helpfully inform you is to protect the republic against foot-and-mouth disease. He will be especially enthusiastic if your car is from Britain.

Montenegro's coast is crammed solid. With no need to get a Croatian visa (and no desire to visit Croatia either), all Serbia is packed like sardines along the seashore, moaning about rip-off prices. Foreign tourists will be interested to see the odd poster warning them against "touching" Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, but having your photo taken next to one may be deemed provocative.

For peace and quiet, head for the really chic and discreet spots like Perast up on the Bay of Kotor. Enjoying the lack of crowds and fantastic scenery, this is where Yugoslavia's in-crowd is, fiddling with their laptops in cafés and basking on the terraces of their fabulous eighteenth-century houses. They know Europe's newest holiday secret, now to be revealed by IWPR: the Bay of Kotor is the new Tuscany.

Tim Judah is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and Destruction of Yugoslavia.

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