July 5, 2008
Kosovo, Ho!By Clarice Feldman
The travel section of the paper featured a story on Kosovo the other day with a recommendation that readers visit this latest "must see" spot on the globe. It made me laugh. Almost forty years ago--1971 to be exact -- I traveled in what was then called Yugoslavia and is now called Kosovo. The memories of that trip remain so vivid and so utterly at odds with this report.
Our friend, Edward Luttwak, by then the author of the successful book Coup D'etat: A Practical Handbook, had just married and he and his wife, Dahlia, were to meet us in Athens. In a rented car the four of us planned to travel through Greece and Yugoslavia. None of us had children, pets, parents in need of assistance or any other obligations requiring any specific attention and so we were free to be spontaneous travelers following our own whims for a couple of weeks.
Edward's belief, often expressed, was that "travel narrows." And that's true enough with conventional adult excursions where the necessary attention to schedules, reservations and keeping in touch makes travel so like everyday life that is ceases to be an enriching experience. This trip was not like that.
(A caveat. In those days I rather expected to die young with people bemoaning how much "promise" I'd had that I kept no detailed records of the trip. I have only my old lady's memory of them , and if you are the sort of person who needs to know the names of the hotels, the route number of the road, etc, stop reading now. You'll be disappointed. And if Edward should write in a "correction" from his cattle ranch in Bolivia, remind him it's his memory versus mine. None of us took notes.)
The trip up north through Greece was picturesque. We stayed at spotlessly clean homes which let out rooms to visitors, rooms displaying the needlework and housekeeping skills of the landladies. The rural areas of Northern Greece reflected the simple agrarian lives of the inhabitants and, with minor exceptions like the frequent religious processions on the roads, that part of the trip was pleasant enough but totally unremarkable. It was like traveling in any rural area in Europe at the time.
When we reached the border with Macedonia, however, things were considerably different. The border guards were clearly illiterate. Brutish looking in uniforms so ill-tailored and of such cheap material they appeared to be characters in some under funded high school comic opera production. They had a great deal of difficulty with Dahlia's Israeli passport, apparently having never seen one before. We feared the trip was over, but after taking turns handling the document -- sometimes upside down -- and stepping into and out of the sentry box to confer with each other, they waved us on.
In Macedonia we left modern Europe and entered someplace stuck in the Middle Ages. The roads were dreadful though mercifully there was little traffic on them -- mostly animals and animal drawn carts. The houses were straw and wattle and I recall most distinctly one of them with a woman holding a draft animal alongside silhouetted against a red streaked sunset sky.
I don't recall on those rural roads seeing any sign of electricity nor any machinery at all. Nor have I any recollection of eating or lodging there though I suppose something must have been available roadside. With little to guide us on our way -- some simple cheaply printed maps from Intourist and an old Baedeker we'd picked up somewhere-- we headed westward through what is now Kosovo. The roads -- especially in the mountains -- were often hardly more than donkey tracks. Bad enough but made worse by the fact that on one side of the road was mountainside and on the other a sharp drop down to rocks, river, and swirling rapids.
The flat parts of the route weren't so wonderful either. Bandits and gypsies reportedly regularly attacked stranded motorists especially at night in the more remote areas; there was little light to guide the way and the predominant animal caravan transport (rather than truck or van or car) meant that at dusk and dawn when the light was weak , the best the driver could hope to guide him on the unfamiliar route was a slow moving ox or donkey cart's swaying kerosene lantern, illuminating briefly first one, than the other, side of the road.
I most remember the area from Prizren to Pec. There were many ancient stone ruins visible from the road. I remember in particular a huge stone fortification at a pass in the gorge beneath the road. We slowed down and I rifled through the Baedeker to see what it was, but there was nothing about this remarkable construction, although anywhere else in the world it would be considered a significant site. The Baedeker did, however, observe that we were but a few kilometers from a place where in 1958 incredible Byzantine frescoes had been found under whitewash on the chapel's walls. The text continued, "Unfortunately, shortly thereafter they were destroyed by local fanatics." Minarets and mosques appeared in the towns and villages which followed. (I did know even then that the Turks had made it to the walls of Vienna. I just hadn't realized how many of them remained in Europe or how large the Moslem population was in this part of the world.)
On the road we saw more and more women all wrapped up walking wearily alongside donkeys which carried men. It was getting late and there was no room for us in the hotels in Prizren. We had no choice but to move on as quickly as we could to Pec or risk sleeping in the car with cutthroats nearby. It was late when we got to the hotel which fortunately had rooms for us. The hotel, simple, two story affair, had some sort of gallery at the top allowing guests to view the not very busy street in front. As we were removing our luggage from the trunk of the car an old war veteran -- rently a Serb as were the hotel workers -- approached us and with signs indicated there was a parking fee to be paid.
"Paris -- parking. London -- parking. Pec-- Sahara -- No parking," Edward joked. The attendant almost fell over laughing so hard. But we did pay parking fees in Pec.
We were told we'd arrived too late to eat dinner at the hotel and directed to a public eating hall a few blocks away. We got some slop there in unattractive surroundings. The place seemed to be largely patronized by soldiers in those cheap uniforms. No other cafes, diners, restaurants or shops were visible anywhere in the city.
Early the next day after breakfast at the hotel we walked about two blocks to the right where we were told there was a market. The market was nothing more than a dusty souk which in both appearance and wares resembled a rural open market in North Africa. The merchants seemed, as there, to survive off selling each other dried beans, cheap sandals and plastic buckets.
I don't know who recommended it but we took an excursion to a small chapel (probably Serbian Orthodox like most of the Christian buildings around there) on the city outskirts. We shared no language with the old caretaker who wanted so to tell us about this spare stone building. He pantomimed along the walls, pointing to various layers, saying "Constantine.Nyet Constantine". We listened politely, gave him some coffee money and left. The Christian places in the area seemed then often to have been destroyed and repeatedly rebuilt. I understand that many of those we saw then were destroyed yet again in 1999.
We headed toward the Dalmatian coast, taking a road that took us to a mountain top in Montenegro. We were very hungry and piled out heading toward the simple wooden hut in the hope of a bowl of soup or a sandwich. When we entered, we all lost our appetites. The rough eatery had about 3 or 4 patrons before each of whom was a platter in which was a whole boiled sheep's head. Aside from boiling (there was a large pot on the stove), skinning seems to have been the only preparation. We bought a few chocolate bars and went back to the car.
From there we continued toward Sveti Stefan and the Dalmatian coast. We stopped briefly at Lac Shkoder which divided Yugoslavia from Hoxha's Albania. Many of the residents on the Yugoslavian side were Albanian but the border was tightly guarded on both sides. The lake wasn't large and I don't recall seeing a single boat on it even though it was summertime when one would expect to see them.
Intourist regularly lied to us, and said the road to the coast was very good: "Asphalt. All asphalt." It was an even worse maintained rubble pocked track than the road from Prizren to Pec had been. I particularly remember our turning a bend in a high mountain one lane road above some rapids only to face a small bulldozer heading in our direction. At one stop we met a French woman journalist who had just been fished out of the river along with her car which had tumbled off the road on one of its many hairpin curves.
It's hard to explain in an era where everyone is always connected but then from the time we entered Macedonia to the time we got to Croatia there was virtually no way to really know what was happening in the world or to contact anyone outside our immediate area.
The Dalmatian Coast was another place altogether than what we had been traveling through. It was gorgeous though still underdeveloped. We stayed at a modern motel on the rocky shore and were treated to Communist hostelry. Each paper napkin had been carefully cut in half to make them go further, every coffee pot and beer glass was precisely marked to assure no patron got more than any other, and the halls and room stunk of the insecticide Flit.
Edward wanted to stay away from the crowds flocked in Dubrovnik -- which even then had good restaurants, great looking women, booze, well-stocked shops, anything
that makes life fun. We continued north to a small fishing village. On the coast the roads were great. The seaside was full of luxurious villas with big private roads and driveways full of Mercedes with official Belgrade license plates. (To each according to his needs I guess.) It was obvious why the roads to the coast from anywhere but Belgrade were bad: The officials living so well did not want the proles from elsewhere in the country to come to this paradise and spoil it.
Edward was born in Romania of Hungarian Jewish parents who survived the war, in part by turning down the offer to relocate to a Hungarian enclave in Romania. After the war his family emigrated to Palermo. He spoke Italian very well which was a good thing because so did everyone in the fishing village where we lodged. They were smugglers who each day got in their boats, headed out to sea, fished, and traded with the Italian sailors who met them out there. I wanted a lobster but as the Yugoslav government set the price the sailors could charge for lobsters, whichever ones they caught ended up on Italian plates. We did have a great calamari dinner.
The logical next step from Croatia was Italy but Edward was afraid he'd be arrested for having dodged the Italian draft, so we headed on to Austria after a very short trip for a cup of coffee at a seedy old Hungarian art deco café once undoubtedly the pride of its village before it had been taken over by the government. We all agreed there, Yugoslavia would not long survive Tito.