Saturday, January 30, 2010
7,000 Years And Counting
By Pat Browning
On Sunday night PBS will air a Nature program called “Wild Balkans” and here’s the summary:
“Thick forests, vast wetlands, deep chasms - this is a wild, inaccessible place that belongs more to myth than reality. The landscape looks as if it was taken straight form Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." But here there are neither orcs nor elves; rather, bears and wolves. This is not Middle Earth; rather it is middle Europe -the Balkans. Through the centuries this land has burned its way into the soul and spirit of its people. The jagged contours have thrown long dark shadows over the history of the peninsula, always in the middle, between forces of the East and the West. It's as if the bloody history of the Balkans conspired to conceal its natural wonders. The landscape is still untouched and in it are wild animals that have all but vanished from the rest of Europe.”
That’s not just hype. I’ve been there – once with a tour group in the wilds of Slovenia on a side trip to the Hotel Grad Otecec. The hotel is a 13th century feudal castle sitting on an island in the Krka River. It’s midway between Ljubljana and Zagreb, less than 50 miles from either, but so secluded it could be on the moon. The hotel makes all arrangements for hunting boar, pheasant, rabbit and other seasonal game, and for fishing.
Close by are two spas specializing in stress-related disorders and splendid isolation. Tucked in there is the small town of Novo Mesto, chartered in 1365. Beam me down, Scotty.
Soul satisfying as all that is, any trip through the Balkans should start in Belgrade. Some day history will be taught in the only way that makes sense -- by transporting students to where it happened on some mass-transit version of the Starship Enterprise.
I first wandered into the old Yugoslavia by accident. I picked a tour that included Austria, Hungary and Italy. Yugoslavia -- Land of the South Slavs -- happened to be in the neighborhood. It's quite a neighborhood.
You want history? Belgrade has sprawled there at the confluence of the Sava and
Danube Rivers for 7,000 years, give or take a century.
The Romans colonized it (lst Century A.D.).
The Huns destroyed it (441).
The Goths captured it (504).
The Avars sacked it (twice).
The Slavs conquered it (630).
The Bulgarians took it (827).
The Hungarians ransacked it (again and again and again).
The Byzantine Empire took it and lost it and took it and lost it …
The Crusaders passed through (1096-1189).
Turkey ruled it off and on for 300 years.
The Germans and Austrians captured it (1915).
The Serbs liberated it (1918) and Belgrade (Beograd) became the capital of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
The Germans bombed and occupied it (1941).
The Americans bombed it (1944) and the communists moved in.
NATO forces bombed it (1999).
The old Yugoslavia is now Serbia and Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia …
You do remember Macedonia, land of Alexander the Great? As recently as 2001, U.S. troops were there evacuating ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.
When I was in Greek Macedonia in the mid-1980s a tour guide took us to the border, where we stared across to that part of Macedonia claimed by Yugoslavia. Greece had been staring across that border for years, in what the guide called "the silent war."
And that is another story.
**The photo of Skadarlija Street is by Branko Jovansovic, found on the Belgrade website at http://www.beograd.org.yu/ (Click on the English tab at the top.)**