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A TRIP EAST WITH WEST
William Oscar Johnson
October 24, 1983
Dame Rebecca West's classic book on Yugoslavia inspired a journey to the fascinating and complex home of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games
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October 24, 1983

A Trip East With West

Dame Rebecca West's classic book on Yugoslavia inspired a journey to the fascinating and complex home of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games

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We stayed at the Metropole Hotel, and found the rooms smartly modern and spacious, with grand 10th-floor views over the sea. The tourist bureau man who met us was a professional enthusiast named Roman, who told us that Portorož was once favored by the Hapsburgs as a resort. Roman also told us with pride that in 1928 Portorož was awarded first prize as the best thermal spa in all of Europe. The major reason for this ranking, he explained, was the salty black mud obtained from the vast salt plains outside town. The thermal bath business is still thriving today, Roman said, and he took us into an aging yellow stucco building operated by a hard-eyed, hard-selling doctor who led us on a tour mainly consisting of his flinging open doors to reveal startled women, immersed to the neck in pits of smelly black mud. The doctor told us that he could treat everything from obesity to "female problems" with this mud.

There was a casino in the Metropole replete with crystal chandelier and cynical-looking croupiers in tuxedoes. Cooke and I changed Yugoslav dinars into Italian liras—only foreign currency and foreign gamblers are allowed in Yugoslav casinos—and played blackjack and roulette. We were 85,000 liras ahead, about $55, when we quit well before midnight. At the time, there were five croupiers and two gamblers—us—in the place.

The bora still blew in the morning. We headed inland, through some Vermont-like mountains, and then down again to the sea and through the port of Rijeka. We climbed again into some mountains, as steep and jagged as those around Telluride, Colo. We crossed passes where snow rose to 10-foot heights on each side of the road. We wound up in wooded hilly country that lay beneath a deep blanket of snow that had recently fallen in a fierce blizzard. Trucks and cars were still stuck in snow along the road.

We were in Plitvice National Park, which contains one of the oldest forests in Europe. This park is also famous for its descending necklace of 16 lakes, which have a deep-spring source—plitvice—high in the hills. Dame Rebecca wrote it was "the most laughing and light-minded of natural prodigies."

In summer the park draws some 8,000 tourists a day, and in winter you have it to yourself. I put on my cross-country skis and climbed along the forest path. There was no one else in sight. I skied down alone in a mauve forest twilight. Surprisingly, at dinner the vast festive dining room at the hotel held a couple of hundred people. A very dapper, very old man was playing a piano in an old-fashioned lounge style. Among the tunes he played in an utterly bizarre juxtaposition of time, place and culture were South of the Border and In the Mood.

In the morning Cooke and I hiked down a zigzag path to the foot of the largest waterfall in the Plitvice chain, the Kozjak Falls, which plunges 250 feet. With us were a local ski instructor named Ivo and a young woman named Dana, an assistant in the tourist bureau. Dana had returned two years earlier after having spent her childhood in Hamilton, Ontario. Her English was vintage North American teen-ager. She was most helpful, and as we stood looking up at the great frozen falls, she told us, "Couples come here, like, in spring and summer and get married right under the falls. You can have your wedding picture taken, you know, like, through the water. I don't have anyone to get married to yet, but, if I did—if I do—a wedding right here might be kind of, like, nice, you know?"

By noon we were on the road again. We crossed a mountain pass and came onto snowless ground covered with sharp rocks. Here and there men in black suits followed small flocks of sheep over the stony wasteland. We saw no sign of a human domicile for miles. Then we came over the brow of a hill and there was the Adriatic again, its shore dense with houses and trees.

It looked so welcoming after the cold stony landscape that we were jolted severely when we got out of our car at the harborside in the ancient town of Zadar and found that the bora had not let up. The streets of Zadar twist through old walls and past ancient churches, including the 9th-century church of St. Donat and the exquisite cathedral of St. Anastasia. Cooke and I had been told to dine at a small restaurant called Primošten, which was concealed in a labyrinth of tunnellike passages below the walls of St. Anastasia. At Primošten all the fish was broiled on an open charcoal fire outside the restaurant. We were quite late and the chef, a scowling young man, was angry that he had to go into the freezing night to cook our dinner. He pulled a thick knitted cap over his head, shrugged into an overcoat and threw us a fierce look of reproach as he braved the bora that assaulted his "kitchen." Despite his attitude the fish was perfect—sweet and moist inside, browned and crisp outside. We drank a white wine made by the owner. All of the restaurant help, including the sulky chef, then sat down, and together we watched on television the 1969 movie The Sergeant, starring Rod Steiger, with dialogue in English and subtitles in Serbo-Croatian.

The next day, the bora having fled overnight, we drove down the coast to the ancient port of Split. West had written: "Split, alone of all cities in Dalmatia...recalls Naples, because it also is a tragic and architecturally magnificent sausage-machine where a harried people of mixed race have been forced by history to run for centuries through the walls and cellars and sewers of ruined palaces...." The Diocletian Palace in Split is a strange, sausage-machine structure that covers nine acres of streets, passageways, ancient gates, shops and residences. The Roman Emperor Diocletian completed it in 305 A.D. Originally the palace was a spacious, gracious example of Roman architecture. But, alas, Salona, a neighboring town, fell before barbarian attack in the 7th century, and after the invaders finally left, thousands of displaced persons took up residence in every nook and cranny of the palace. Today, at the ripe age of 1,678, the place is positively exuberant. With its permanent population of 10,000 people, the palace is perhaps the world's liveliest and best-utilized ruin.

Dubrovnik, the most famous of all Yugoslavian tourist destinations, is two hours down the coast. It's a walled and turreted sea settlement, so perfectly composed on its rocky peninsula that West said it was like "a city on a coin." In summer Dubrovnik teems with tourists, about 55,000 a day. In winter it's splendidly underpopulated, with a scant 3,000 visitors a day, the only crowds occurring at the hour of the corso, the daily twilight promenade that West called "the heart of social life in every Yugoslavian town." In Dubrovnik the corso occurs on a plaza of polished cobblestones. One moment the plaza is empty, and the next, without any noticeable commotion, it's filled almost shoulder to shoulder with a throng of peaceful people walking nowhere in particular at a nicely measured pace. After about an hour the reel runs backward—with no signal at all, the throng evaporates and the plaza is left again to the cold wind.

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