Adventures in Yugoland
As part of our 25th wedding anniversary celebrations this summer, we decided to take the whole family for a visit to my wife’s homeland, Yugoslavia, (or as we discovered it is called on the State Department’s travel advisory Web page: Serbia and Montenegro). Given the troubles in Kosovo, it was with some trepidation that we left Bloomington on July 6 for the long journey to Belgrade. Mia had found a tremendous deal on tickets, but one that had some potentially bothersome aspects. The first was that the journey to Amsterdam was via Northwest Airlines. I always wondered why my father, a Minneapolis resident, referred to the airline as “Northworst.” That became clearer as we sat in the Detroit airport for 5 hours beyond the scheduled departure time waiting for the repair of the navigational computer. Having missed the connection to the Yugoslav (JAT) flight in Amsterdam, we found the Northwest transfer desk to be extremely helpful. Although I was somewhat skeptical, the attendant assured me that there was another flight leaving for Belgrade in less than an hour, so she promptly routed our bags to that flight. Hurrying to the gate, we found no JAT flight, but were surprised to learn that both we and our bags were on our way to Bergen, Norway. The first night in Europe was spent in a hotel near the Amsterdam airport at Northwest’s expense, and we also got four $100 vouchers from Northwest for the delay in Detroit. We can’t wait to use them.
Belgrade under Tito was a beautiful capital city, but today it is in much need of repair. Even the churches are marred with graffiti, and rubbish is all too visible. Certain things had changed dramatically since our last visit as a family in 1986. You could no longer buy Time magazine on the street corners of Belgrade, and the prices of most things had risen beyond the reach of the average Yugoslav. Pensioners held a protest march in July because they still had not received their April pension checks. City bus drivers went on strike the day we came back from a trip to the Adriatic coast, and the enterprising taxi drivers offered their services at four times the normal rates.
There are two avenues of public transportation in Belgrade, city buses and a fleet of private buses. The major difference between the two is the requirement to pay to ride the latter. When Mia tried to buy the 30-cent tickets from a city bus driver, his reply astounded us: “I don’t have any tickets today. You’ll just have to ride free.” There were no free tickets to the exhibition basketball game that the Yugoslav National Team played the week before the World Cup matches. My nephew (a physical chemistry student), my two sons (Alan and Tom), and I went to the game. My nephew and I were walking in front as we entered the arena. When I turned around, I was shocked to see the two boys being frisked by the local constabulary. It must have been Alan’s long hair!
Our three-week trip to Yugoslavia included some side trips outside Belgrade. To the north a short bus ride is the city of Novi Sad, where many residents of Hungarian ancestry can be found. In contrast to Belgrade, Novi Sad is a very clean city, with architecture that reflects the influence of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The old fortress on the Danube is a favorite tourist spot and was quite different in style from the famous Turkish fortress, Kalemegdan, in Belgrade. Another side trip was to the tourist spot of Oplanac, east of Belgrade, where one of the last Serbian kings had built a very impressive Orthodox church. My brother-in-law decided to drive his 18-year-old Fiat on that trip. Yugoslavia on average has the oldest cars in all of Europe, the exceptions being the BMWs, Mercedes, and other more modern autos that made their way from places unknown through Montenegro to the hands of the new “owners”. Montenegran license plates are frequently seen throughout Yugoslavia, but I am told that they never venture outside the country. Gasoline was not hard to find in Belgrade. Practically every street corner in my brother-in-law’s neighborhood had an “attendant” who was selling gasoline from plastic containers.
Our side trip to Montenegro was by bus, a 10-hour nighttime marathon ride with two 20-minute rest stops. It is unfortunate that we didn’t see much of the countryside in Montenegro during those trips. It is a beautiful, rugged country that the Montnegrans are proud to tell you was never defeated in 500 years of fighting the Turks. We traveled by car to Ostrog, a monastery carved into the side of a mountain that is not too far from Mia’s hometown of Niksic. It impressed us by the determination it must have taken to build and maintain it. Niksic is the home of two chemically-related Yugoslav industries: bauxite mines and beer. I never got close to the mining operations, but the beer was sampled on numerous occasions, once starting at 8:30 in the morning. There is an old Montenegran joke about a businessman from Niksic who had just consummated a business deal at 9:00 a.m. in Podgorica (the capital city of Montenegro, formerly known as Titograd). The Niksic man promptly suggested they go for a drink to celebrate. His shocked compatriot stated that it was far too early for that, but the visitor exclaimed, “What! Why, they are already throwing up in the streets in Niksic!” Rumors are that the workers in the Niksic beer factory are unhappy with the new Belgian owners. It seems they have forbidden the workers to drink the beer while at work and no longer allow them to take home all the beer they can carry!
From Niksic, we went to the Montenegran Adriatic coast, to the old city of Budva, a destination that is probably not as well known to outsiders as its more famous neighbor to the north, Dubrovnik. Budva also has an old walled city that juts into the bay and has mostly been converted to shops and restaurants. The Archeological Museum and the Historical Museum had apparently been closed for several years, but the air-conditioned Versace shop (the only one to have AC) was quite crowded. It was a pleasant visit, and one that made the bus trip back to Belgrade quite bearable.
Yugoslavia is not on most tourists’ lists of places to visit now, but all in all, the Wiggins family had a very good time there. The many relatives and friends were quite hospitable, and, despite being in a country where even a VISA card can’t be used at present, the trip was well worth it.