UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Church of St. John, dedicated to John of Patmos, sits on a cliff overlooking Lake Ohrid and the town below

Ohrid rhymes with “horrid,” but don’t let that fool you; this little gem on the shores of Lake Ohrid is one of the most beautiful places we’ve been in these four-plus years of travel. Ohrid is one of a small number of sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage list that is referenced for both its natural and cultural heritage; most sites are one or the other, but Ohrid is both stunningly beautiful and culturally important. It is a remarkable place where we could easily have spent more than the two full days allotted. Alas, we wanted to stay longer but the day we were scheduled to leave was Macedonia’s national independence holiday and they were fully booked. That’s right, we were all but kicked out of town.

What’s the natural beauty? Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest lakes in Europe, dating back at least two million years and perhaps as much as three million years. Due to its age, depth, and isolation, the lake supports some 200 species of plant and animal life that are unique to the lake itself. Walk around the hills that surround the lake and you feel that you must be on the Mediterranean, or at least Lake Como or something like that in Italy.

The Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon is another church with some great views

And on top of that, for centuries Ohrid was a major ecclesiastical city. You know you’re in a religious place when the airport is called “St. Paul the Apostle Airport.” It has been a major church place at least since St. Clement of Ohrid walked the streets here. He lived back in the 9th century (when Ohrid was part of the Bulgarian Empire) and is considered the first Bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. He is one of the leading saints of modern Bulgaria and the patron saint of today’s Macedonia. By the end of the 10th century, Ohrid was the capital and main city of the Bulgarian Empire. Hundreds of churches were built during these centuries before the Ottoman invasions of the 15th century; in fact, it is said that there were once 365 Orthodox churches in Ohrid, one for every day of the year.

Certainly not all of those churches remain, but several of them do and they add immeasurably to the natural beauty of the place. On our first day there I stumbled onto St. Sophia, an 11th century church that displays some remarkably well-preserved frescoes. And as you just walk around and explore you see more of these wonderful old churches filled with icons and relics. It’s enough to make you want to join the Orthodox church. Well, almost.

Frescoes in the Church of St. Sophia date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. When the Ottomans took control they plastered over these evil paintings so when they were uncovered centuries later they were in great condition for their age.

Ultimately, then, Ohrid was about sitting by the lake reading, swimming in the lake, hiking up into the hills, and all that. The food was great, including one night at a place called Belvedere where live music was not just nice entertainment but even led to lively dancing around our table. One night after dinner we caught the end of a live concert with some Macedonian pop group. All in all a great way to spend a couple days. It would have been a great way to spend even more days, but they wouldn’t let us. Sad.

A view of the lake from our hotel. There wasn’t a lot of swimming there but I can speak with authority that the water was clean, reasonably warm, and relaxing.

This was my favorite tiny stretch of beach, well out of town and very quiet. I spent several hours there finishing the biography of George H.W. Bush I had started.

Part of the lovely path out to my beach. From here it went up into the hills and then back down, so you had to really want to get there. I did.

Mark in front of the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon. Both the interior and exterior have been massively renovated in recent years but, to our surprise, the interior was pretty uninspiring. From the outside you expect it’s going to be huge and impressive but it really was neither.

Speaking of not so huge, there were lots of Yugos and other similar cheap, old little cars around

Lots of flowers and beautiful buildings and so on in Ohrid

The reconstructed walls of Bulgarian Tsar Samuel’s castle dating from the late 10th century make for great views over Ohrid

There was a walking path way around the lake. Ultimately I don’t know how far it went, but it was a long way around where you would find what looked like pretty hip beach clubs and bars and so on.

Speaking of food, we loved the simple things. In this case fried cheese, grilled eggplant, and cabbage.

And then there was the night of dancing in our restaurant

Our table was often surrounded and we didn’t mind a bit

Here we are on the Stari Most, the Old Bridge that gives Mostar its name

This was our first stop ever in Bosnia and indeed, the first new country we’ve been to all year. Technically we were in Bosnia once before, four years ago when a bus we were taking to Dubrovnik stopped ever-so-briefly for coffee in a tiny stretch of Bosnia that runs to the coast and separates a piece of Croatia (including Dubrovnik) from the rest of the country, but we don’t count a tiny experience like that as having been to a country. Four nights though – one in Mostar and three in Sarajevo – definitely counts. Oh, and technically we were in Bosnia and Herzegovina but I am just too lazy to use the whole name. So Bosnia it is.

To most of us, of course, the name Bosnia evokes the terrible and complex Bosnian War that raged from 1992 to 1995. Yugoslavia was breaking up, with Croatia and Slovenia having declared independence, and Bosnia followed. It was more complicated there, though, because Bosnia was more ethnically diverse than other Yugoslav republics; at the time of independence the population was slightly less than half Bosniak Muslims, a third Roman Catholic Croats, and a little under a fifth Orthodox Serbs. The three groups had hated each other for centuries and this was the time to fight it out.

Dubrovnik was such a cosmopolitan and touristy city that we didn’t really get to experience Balkan cuisine. Once we got to Mostar, though, we started to get a taste of it and we loved it.

The Serbs in particular rejected the notion of independence and, allied with Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, they went to war. Initially the Bosnian Croats aligned with the Bosniaks but by late 1992 they split off and started what was essentially a war-within-a-war. And an ugly war it was.

From the comfort of our Stateside homes we watched war crimes like ethnic cleansing, as Serbians attempted to eradicate Bosniak Moslems from land they held, and mass rape; it is estimated that anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 Bosniaks were raped by Serbian soldiers. The Siege of Sarajevo lasted nearly four years, nearly a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad in World War II. In Srebrenica Serbians captured the town, which was supposed to be under the protection of Dutch UN troops. The troops stood aside as the Serbians rounded up all the men and boys they could find and executed them, some 8,000 in all.

When we first arrived in Mostar I thought of this as just a nice fixer-upper. Only on reflection did I recognize it as one of several buildings that had undoubtedly been destroyed during the war.

That’s what I vaguely recalled from 20-plus years ago. Today the signs of war are all around – mass gravestones, shelled buildings – but it’s obvious that Bosnia is recovering. Many of the Serbian leaders, both those in Serbia proper and Bosnian Serbs, were convicted of war crimes, though sadly Slobodan Milosevic died of natural causes before he could be convicted and punished. Both Serbia and Croatia have formally apologized to Bosnia and, from our tiny experience, it seems as though today Bosnia is a peaceful and increasingly prosperous place.

Traveling for a few days with our friends Marc & David, we journeyed by bus northwest from Dubrovnik along the coast quite a ways before turning north for Mostar. We found a beautiful town of about 100,000 people, the most important town in Herzegovina, the southern region that makes up about a fifth of the Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was built by the Ottomans in the 15th century and named for the “Stari Most”, the Old Bridge, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site that spans the Neretva River and is the iconic symbol of the town. The bridge stood for over 400 years until Croat forces intentionally destroyed it, hitting it with perhaps 60 shells before it collapsed into the river. After the war, though, an international effort the rebuild the bridge was successful, using not just the same materials but even the same technology that would have been available 400 years earlier.

Stari Most, Mostar’s iconic symbol, rebuilt in the early 21st century after the Croats intentionally destroyed it in the Croat-Bosnian war-within-a-war

We had just a brief, one-night stop in Mostar, but we enjoyed the town and had a nice introduction to Balkan cuisine. The signs of war were unmistakable in the remaining bombed out buildings, but the signs of recovery were just as obvious. The next day it was back on a bus, this time through some stunning mountains en route to Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital. Though subjected to the longest siege in modern warfare, the city is again today thriving. Apparently Moslems from Emirates and Saudi Arabia love Sarajevo: they can enjoy Europe here without all the restrictions of their home countries without experiencing any of the anti-Moslem prejudices that they are likely to encounter in Christian-majority countries. So the city is full of restaurants and nightlife and apparently prostitutes catering to those Moslem tourists. It is not at all unusual to see women walking down the street in full burka and in at least one Lebanese restaurant we went to we were unable to get wine (horrors!).

I was reminded once we got to Sarajevo that, besides the Bosnian War, Sarajevo once played a big role in world history: it was here that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, the fuse that started World War I. To my surprise – I have this naive sense that political assassinations are bad – Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb assassin seems to be treated as something of a hero in Sarajevo. The Archduke did, after all, represent the imperial ruling power from whom Bosnia wanted independence.

Sarajevo’s Latin Bridge, the site where Gavrilo Princip mortally wounded Archduke Franz Ferdinand, setting the stage for World War I.

And again, reminders of the more recent war were omnipresent, particularly in the cascading cemeteries everywhere. I walked through one large cemetery with probably thousands of graves, every single one of which were dated between 1992 and 1995. It was a horrifying experience. And after that, while walking back to the hotel, I passed the city’s Jewish museum, housed today in an old synagogue that was abandoned after the holocaust. There were some 12,000 Sephardic Jews living in Sarajevo at the start of World War, very few of whom survived. And thus in very short order we have the history of the 20th century: a World War that eliminated the Ottoman, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires; Germans practicing genocide against Jews, and Orthodox Serbs practicing ethnic cleansing and genocide against Moslems. Nice century there.

David, Mark, and Marc as we entered Bosnia. They traveled with us up into Sarajevo before moving on to Budapest to see other friends.

Another bombed out building in Mostar quite near our hotel

Mostar’s bridge at night

Sarajevo’s city hall was so beautiful and bright and new we thought it must have been new construction. In fact, it was built in the late 19th century, so what we saw – there was a nice art exhibit inside – was presumably the result of a substantial restoration project.

There was a small but haunting museum in Sarajevo memorializing the massacre of Srebrenica. This is a collage put together by a mother who cut-and-pasted pictures of her five sons – all of whom were executed there – into a photo surrounding her. And from Sarajevo we’re moving on to Serbia which felt just wrong as we toured the museum.

One of several large cemeteries in Sarajevo that date from the war. Every single tombstone here dates from the four-year war.

And, as if that wasn’t grim enough, here is a book hanging in the Jewish museum listing the 12,000 Sarajevo Jews killed in the Holocaust.

A small museum right near the spot where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated holds the weapons that were used

Fortunately, not all was grim in Sarajevo. There was this lovely, relaxed cat, for instance, the very picture of our own late Booboo.

And this fun pedestrian bridge, designed by students in the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, seen there on the left

We toured a museum of Bosnian history and were reminded that it was once a part of the Roman Empire

One afternoon I walked way up above the city to some old unidentified castle where I sat for an hour or two reading with this view

Mark in front of the remains of a 16th century caravansary, an Ottoman inn

And here I am sampling some of the Balkans’ fine plum brandy, available everywhere for almost nothing

Mark on the glistening streets of Dubrovnik’s old town

After our time around the Mediterranean and up in Sweden, we’re off to Eastern Europe. First stop, Dubrovnik, the capital of Croatia and a city we last visited in 2013 near the start of this adventure. Back then we stayed a bit away from the center of the city so we could stay at a resort on the beach; we would spend the day at the beach then walk into the city for dinner and some night life. This time was completely different. We stayed right in the center of the city, right in the old town … and spent the day at the beach, coming in for lunch and dinner.

First, though, we had to leave Stockholm. Two things stood out for me. First, it was a rare event when we had to exchange our currency. Usually we use the last of any currency (except euros, since we’re always coming back to Europe) either on the hotel bill or at a Duty Free shop in the airport. Our hotel was pre-paid, but we didn’t think that was a problem: if we’re leaving a country and need to get rid of the local currency we can always buy a bottle of booze at the airport. Not so this time, though. Because Sweden and Croatia are both in the European Union we couldn’t buy duty-free stuff. So we had to pay those outrageous fees – about 20 percent in this case – to get rid of our Swedish Krona. It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened but you’d be surprised how rarely we have to do that.

There it is, the very low-tech approach to indicating a ticket has been used

And then there’s the strange case of the train from downtown Sweden to the airport. It’s surprisingly expensive, even in a country where everything is surprisingly expensive; the round-trip ticket runs about $67, so $134 for the two of us. At the same time it’s wonderfully fast and comfortable; it runs on dedicated tracks so there are no delays. What’s weird though is that for all the cost that went into building the system, the process of validating tickets is amusing: the ticket person comes by, looks at your ticket, and marks a big X on it in ink. If it’s a round-trip ticket, he or she just X’s it out a second time. Just strange. It all worked fine and quickly we were on a Norwegian Airlines flight (great airline!) to Dubrovnik.

This was just a quick stop before we head inland to explore some of the former Yugoslav Republics along with (probably) Romania and perhaps even Moldova, a former Soviet Republic. It was going to be a two-day stop but thankfully we added a third day when our friends Marc & David decided to join us for the start of this Eastern European swing.

A couple things about Dubrovnik stand out. One, it’s expensive. I remember back in the mid-1990s maybe, after the war with Serbia, adventurous friends would go to Croatia and come back just agog at how beautiful and cheap it was. Well, it’s still beautiful but 20 or 25 years of tourist activity sure ended that cheap part.

A quick aside about the war. After the Yugoslavian strong-man Marshal Tito died in 1980, smart observers of the Balkans suspected that Yugoslavia – a federation of Slavic states – was not long for the world. And sure enough in 1991, after a decade of tension and as the Soviet Union was headed toward collapse, Croatia and Slovenia both declared independence. Serbia, the biggest player in what was then still Yugoslavia, attacked.

I won’t detail the whole war here – there’ll be plenty of time for that in Bosnia and Serbia – but one part stands out. Back in the 1970s the old town of Dubrovnik, the pride of all Croatians, was de-militarized so that it would never becoming a casualty of war. How do you think that worked? Yup, Serbia saw an undefended city and attacked it. The new Croatian government quickly sent in troops and Serbia was left with an ultimately failed – though still destructive and deadly – seven-month siege.

The moral of the story here is that unilateral disarmament didn’t, in fact, protect Dubrovnik as many of us naive peace-types in the 1970s might have hoped. Of course, Muammar Gaddafi could tell you how well his decision to give up his nuclear weapons program worked, except he was executed after he did that. Or we could ask the Ukrainians how it worked when they voluntarily gave up their nuclear weapons – nearly half of the Soviet nuclear arsenal was in Ukraine – when they became independent. They ceded the weapons to Russia with a guarantee – a guarantee mind you – that the U.K., the U.S., and Russia would defend them if anyone ever attacked. That didn’t work out so well, either, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded southern Ukraine and we (probably wisely) just stood by. Kind of explains why Kim Jong-un seems unwilling to give up his nuclear weapons in North Korea, huh?

I see people taking pictures from planes all the time and I assume that they never turn out. Mark took this shot of Dubrovnik as we were flying in from Stockholm and it definitely worked.

OK, back to Dubrovnik. Expensive, crowded, and still beautiful. The old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, may be the most amazingly preserved old city in all of Europe. The old walls and some of the stairways are so wonderfully preserved that they are favored filming sites for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Amusingly, when we checked into our hotel the woman at the registration desk was going to highlight for us the most important filming locations. Because we’ve never seen Game of Thrones we told her not to bother. But that got us thinking: everybody else does; maybe we should watch it. So Mark bought a short-term HBO plan and we’ve watched the first two episodes. We’re a few years behind everyone else, but so far we’re enjoying it. Maybe.

I keep getting side tracked. Dubrovnik. What did we do? Pretty much went to the beach, came in for meals, visited with Marc & David. The city is beautiful, but it’s crazy crowded and I just don’t like fighting my way through those crowds. On top of that it was crazy hot, up around 100 degrees by mid-day. The beach was crowded, too, but our hotel either owns or has a licensing agreement with the company that rents out chairs and umbrellas so we got those for free. And since I’m an early bird I’d get to the beach early, stake out some nice chairs, and settle in for the day. Eventually Mark & Marc & David would come down and we’d swim and read and go eat and come back and swim and read. And then get cleaned up for dinner.

The beautiful Mediterranean. The water was cooler than I’d expected but when it’s 100 degrees you don’t complain.

That was it: a short stay in a beautiful city with a close beach on the Adriatic coast. Now off to real adventure in Bosnia!

A market right outside our hotel, as though I was in Paris or something

Some of those stairs and streets that apparently look so good on Game of Thrones

The view of Dubrovnik from Marc & David’s Airbnb. Nice view, but there were a lot of steps to get up there!

Meals were always al fresco