Wednesday, April 21, 2021

A TOUR OF YUGOSLAVIA 1985. My travel diary.

 Friday 10th May 


Greek trains are dreadful. From experience I can tell you that the Hellas Express was not a patch on the Vienna Express from Belgium to Vienna. Both offered identical facilities, but the Hellas Express is old, dirty, and the bedding needs repair. Still, Lyn and I had a couchette to ourselves that usually slept six. In Athens, we had been provided with two sheets, a pillow, pillow case and blanket, and I, at least, slept like a log. The Swedish couple and daughter who were with us managed to move to the next compartment, and have it all to themselves.

At midnight, we crossed the Yugoslav border and were affirmed of the fact by an enormous guard waking us up to demand our passports in a very gruff voice. His sheer size was alarming. During the night we had passed through Macedonia, and early the next morning pulled into its capitol, Skopje, near the border with Kosovo. The countryside in Yugoslavia is very pretty. More lush, I think, than Greece. The houses are not square with flat rooves, but made of brick and plaster with red tiled sloping rooves.

About 8.30am our carriage filled up with people travelling to work, and I had this amazing conversation with a girl next to me, half in Serbo-Croat and half in German, because she knew no English. It was my first attempt at Serbo-Croat – I had chickened out with another couple an hour before – and was achieved with my head in the textbook most of the time and the girl writing down what I couldn’t understand. We got a little way with much laughter and gesticulation and I, at least, felt more confident.

The scenery is very much like Austria. Green and lush, lots of trees, houses which look pretty from a distance, market gardens, cows, sheep, pigs, and horse-drawn ploughs instead of tractors! I think it is a very poor land, judging by the farms and villages. The people wear drab, shapeless clothes, and headscarves. The old ladies, as in Greece, are often dressed in black.

Saturday 11th May

We dropped off some carriages along the way and picked up others, so the train was eventually very long indeed, and too high off the ground to get our luggage down easily. The third class sections filled up with many young men dressed in green khaki uniforms all leaning out the windows, so that by the time we pulled into Belgrade, the Hellas Express looked like a train from ‘Bridge over the River Kwai.’ The station itself was covered, and long enough to match the train. There were a number of very tall men waiting around, not thin, as tall blokes often are in Australia, but well-proportioned without being overweight. Several taxi drivers standing on the platform asked Lyn if she wanted a lift – notice, no one asked me; maybe they thought I was a local – so we finally chose one, and were whisked off to the palatial Hotel Jugoslavia where we were waited on hand and foot.    

Although Belgrade looks a bit grotty near the station it is, later on, a nicely laid-out city with wide streets, a big river crossed by many fine bridges, and green lawns, shrubs and trees everywhere. This morning, we went for a walk into town – about three kilometres – along the Sava River and over one of its many bridges. Apart from the gardens along the bank, there was also a large space of grass and woodland down from the hotel, and on this was staged a military display to mark Yugoslavia's 40th Independence Day. It was a huge turnout. I haven’t seen crowds like it since Queen Elizabeth came to Australia in 1970 and we went to see the fireworks. To make matters worse, many of the locals are very tall and well-built, so for once in my life, I couldn’t see over the crowds. There were jet displays with stunt flying, and red, white and blur tail flares, missile exhibits. On the river zoomed speed boat tactics, tanks on barges and pontoons. The land contents was a series of deafening explosions, soldiers climbing up trees, radio controlled planes, tents and other equipment. All this was accompanied by brass and military band music and a male chorus that sounded for all the world like the Red Army Choir. There was dancing in National Dress, too, so I took some photos.


The city is cleaner than Athens and the buildings are nicer to look at, but to us it was still fairly drab. The older buildings have an interesting architecture and would look attractive with a bit of care.

Our planned tour of Yugoslavia began at the hotel at 6pm in fine style: red carpets, room service, chandeliers, beautiful blue and white damask table cloths and serviettes. Drinks were followed by a speech from Saša, our guide, and a four course dinner.

       Menu:

        Cheese and cured meat with bread.

         Tomato Soup.

         Skewered pork, beef and sausage, carrots, beans and French Fries.

        Chocolate layer cake with an uncooked meringue topping.


I’m trying to eat half of everything so I don’t waddle off the bus when the tour ends. There are many Americans touring with us who can be, in some cases, overbearing. They think money can buy the world and the earth is America’s oyster. Joan and Don Taylor are a nice couple from Bendigo whom we have teamed up with. As with us, he works in a hospital.


Sunday 12th May

Today is Sunday and I haven’t been to church for three weeks, which I regret. At eight we sat down to breakfast preparatory to two and a half hour tour of Belgrade showing the old and new parts of the city. Belgrade was extensively bombed during the war, and a lot of older buildings were destroyed. “Belgrade” means “white city”, a name given to it because of the white stone it was made of. Yugoslavia has had a long and checkered history. It was settled by the Celts in the third century BC and then taken over by the Romans in the second or third century AD. From then there have been Slavs, Turks, Austrians, Germans, Hungarians and the modern people fighting for domination. The history is long and complicated and needs a detailed study to understand it correctly.

There are six states: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Belgrade is the capital and there are three religions: Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim. Near the hotel two rivers converge, the Danube and the Sava, and a walk along the Sava towards this confluence immediately identifies the strategic importance of Belgrade for its conquerors throughout history. Here is built the fort, which dates from Roman times.

Belgrade is dominated in the new section by large areas of parkland, un-kept, usually, dotted with huge housing complexes and sky scraping offices rising out of the greenery. The parkland was once swamp which has been filled in by sand and built on since 1948. In the older city are many large public buildings and beautiful churches creating some interest in the otherwise grey, straight streets.

The next stop was an interesting, if exhausting, hike to the tomb of President Tito. This is a very sacred place for the Yugoslavs and they come in large numbers to pay homage, often bowing before the simple white marble rectangular tomb. There is a guard of four soldiers there 24 hours a day, and the whole tomb, as we walked around it, was surrounded by beautifully coloured, cultivated flowers. The effect is very nice and certainly reverent. Tito obviously meant a lot to them. The hike, by the way, is because the tomb is at the top of a hill in a densely wooded park. Since the weather is so humid and the older members of our party so slow, I was pretty wacked going up and down.

This evening we went to a lively and traditional area of the city where crowds of people go to eat both traditional food and dishes borrowed from other countries, inside or al fresco. Our restaurant was a lovely oak-panelled room with frosted and patterned glass doors and soft romantic lights. Very like something from the Orient Express. The band moved around the room, playing as they went to various sections of our party, some of whom decided to dance. As the band played, they often sung in rich voices and beautiful harmonies. There was an excellent violinist, a guitarist, a dark ukulele, a double bass and a piano accordion. All men. All the bands, inside and out along the cobbled streets, were unamplified. Needless to say, the atmosphere inside our restaurant, with the band and superb male singing was as near to heaven as I could imagine. They sung fast, they sung slowly, loud and soft, mournful and exciting. I was so wound up in thoughts and the spirit of the night that, when the party rose to leave, I got such a surprize that I almost didn’t follow them.

Menu:

Cheese, cured meats and polenta.

Salad, bread and sauerkraut.

Veal stew and red and yellow capsicum, with rice.

Apples stuffed with nuts, with meringue and cream.


Monday 13th May

We left the hotel at 9am and headed south west from Belgrade to Sarajevo where the 1984 Winter Olympics were held. Initially the fields were flat, cultivated by hand and horse-drawn ploughs, or occasionally primitive tractors. I don’t remember very much of the trip because I kept nodding off. Not because I was tired but because I was sitting in the sun and the bus was very comfortable.

During the last half of the journey, we passed through hilly country, and the road and the railway through the mountains near Sarajevo pass through tunnels cut into the rocks. When you consider that I’m used to seeing hills covered in dark Australian gum trees, the vivid green of these local trees was a striking contrast. The land is, apart from anything, very green, so different to home. Everything looks fertile. Among the hills nestle little towns with one, two or three storey houses and sloping rooves, very much like Austria. The difference is, again, that the people are poor and their houses are not terribly well kept. However, it is so green and relaxing, that I prefer it to the high rise dwellings in Belgrade. Notice how hay is stacked in tall, peaked domes, maybe six or seven feet high. Also note the many farm animals inside the rickety hand-made yards: cows, pigs, big black boars, chickens, dogs, ducks. Without the highways, these little towns and farms with their hand made buildings and fences, and especially the hand drawn ploughs, could be taken straight out of the seventeenth century.

The whole landscape is terribly pretty and scenic. Villages are set into the greenery of deep gullies and the caps of the distant mountains are snow-covered. In fact, there was still snow by the side of the road, although it had turned to ice.

Our hotel, the Holiday Inn Hotel, is even grander than the Hotel Jugoslavija in Belgrade. It is very modern with grand entry lobbies and stairs, even a series of small shops. The rooms have bigger beds than ours at home, with huge pillows, bionic showers that blast you with water – a bit violent maybe – and everything that opens and shuts. Even a fully equipped mini bar in each room.

Menu:

Ham dumpling soup with bread.

Deep fried pancakes with tartare sauce.

Stuffed onions, capsicum, spinach leaves, plus two meatballs in stock, with salad.

Baklava.

In one area of Sarajevo there has been, and still is, a heavy Turkish influence. Firstly you notice the mosques, but secondly, the dress of the women. They wear long skirts or billowy pantaloons down to their ankles and often little coloured slippers on their feet. While driving in, I saw a woman dressed like this drawing a wooden plow through a field – by hand!

Where was her husband?

Tuesday 14th May

This morning we had a short tour of Sarajevo including the Turkish mosque, a Serbian orthodox church, and the old markets. The mosque was painted inside and out with frescoes and contained beautifully shaped candle holders, now replaced by electricity. However, the most memorable things were the lovely Turkish carpets in intricate patterns and bright colours. One was so complicated that we were told it had to be done by children’s nimble fingers. The clock tower outside was built in the seventeenth century and inscribed with Turkish numbers. It is designed to read twelve o’clock at sunset, so does not read in the same way as ours. Note the two mausoleums as big as a lounge room, for one man each. Turkish women get little graves with a single headstone. So much for equality of the sexes!

The Serbian Orthodox church was founded originally in about the sixth century AD. It has been destroyed by fire several times since. Today’s edifice dates from 1730. Again note the beautiful interior with marble candle holders and many icons, like the Greek Orthodox. There are also small lit candles to offer prayer for the living and the dead. The atmosphere in the church, which was reverent and holy, was shattered by crowds of tourists, of which I, unfortunately, was one. The open markets were very interesting, and contained a lot of leather work and other traditional arts like macramé, copper work and wood work.

Back in the bus we journey south, stopping for lunch at Mostar. This is a unique and charming town featuring a sixteenth century white marble bridge. Although it has raised ridges to walk on – so the cattle wouldn’t slide back the way they came – the marble, polished by centuries of wear, was incredibly slippery. Lyn had to take her shoes off to get over. There are young men who will jump off this bridge at a price gathered from the tourists. I took a photo of one, but he wouldn’t jump. Drats!

There are two drawly Americans behind me in the bus who express wonder and amazement at EVERYTHING and laugh at all the jokes from Saša, our guide, whether good or bad. I shall make a second determined attempt not to let them disturb me. 

Saša is a very talented man where languages are concerned. His English is excellent and he makes jokes in it, which I always feel shows that you have the hang of a language. Mind, the jokes are usually about Communists, Russians, exiles in Siberia and, of course, the national airline.

Joke 1: A JAT passenger jet was on its way across the Adriatic when engines one and two failed. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said the Captain. ‘All those passengers who can swim, please move to the right side of the plane. All those who can’t, please move to the left.’ Shortly after, engines three and four failed. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,' said the Captain. ‘Those on the right hand side, good luck! Those on the left, thank you for flying Jugoslav Airlines.’

 

Joke 2: An Irishman, an American and a Yugoslav were drinking and discussing the best thing that could ever happen to them. ‘Gorgeous girls and an endless supply of whiskey,’ said the Irishman. ‘Enough money so that I would never have to work again,’ said the American. The Yugoslav said, ‘A big black car drives up outside and shortly there is a knock on my door. I open it to find two large threatening men from the KGB standing there. “Are you Ivan Ivanovich?” they demand. “Not me,” I say. “He lives next door.”


This unfortunate Ivan Ivanovich came in for a lot of teasing on the trip.

Late this afternoon we arrived in the Adriatic town of Dubrovnik, and are planning to hear a performance of the Four Seasons by Vivaldi after dinner.

                                                TO BE CONTINUED






 

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