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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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Cooke and I stayed at the Hotel Excelsior, each in a huge, sun-brightened corner suite looking out on the sea and the town. Each suite cost about $80 a day; in summer, the tab would have been $150. All along the Adriatic, the seafood had been magnificent. Everyone everywhere seemed to have perfected the delicate ability to cook fish over charcoal without turning it dry. And, as for the calamari, which is often cooked to the texture of a man's garters elsewhere, in Yugoslavia it's invariably tender and succulent.

We left Dubrovnik on the morning of Feb. 23, and here we could have taken two routes. One led back to Sarajevo, about three hours away, through spectacular mountains and via the city of Mostar with its famous arched bridge. This route would be the one a 1984 Olympics spectator might take. But Cooke and I were heading for Greece, you'll remember, and we'd been to Sarajevo before. So we took the other route, and entered territory unknown. To our great surprise we were treated to as stunning a variety of landscapes as I've ever seen in a single day.

From Dubrovnik we climbed over the rocky ridge that borders the sea and found ourselves in a rock-strewn wasteland. After 25 miles or so, patches of snow began to appear on this moonscape. The car was buffeted by icy winds. Soon solid white fields stretched as far as the eye could see. The terrain was as bereft of domiciles as Antarctica. Suddenly, through a mist of snow, we saw looming over us a huge peak, as menacing and startling as if the Matterhorn had popped up in Yugoslavia. We didn't know what to expect. Blizzards? Blocked roads? It was so wildly different from where we had been an hour earlier—civilized Dubrovnik—that we felt utterly disoriented.

As we drove on, the snow cover disappeared. The road became narrower and rockier and Cooke nodded knowingly. "These are the Yugoslav roads I knew and loved," he said. Now we zigzagged down into a wooded valley with a river rushing through. On both sides rose peaks of such, grandeur that the only comparison is the Tetons of Wyoming. This was the Sutjeska National Park. The next two hours we spent on a two-lane road that wound along sheer stone cliffs high above the churning, changing Drina River, which miraculously switched its color from deep green to turquoise to cobalt to black. As the road curved along a ledge cut in the cliff, we occasionally passed through great rock hoops carved out of the stone.

At last—alas—it was over. We came onto flats along the Drina and saw the minarets of mosques, the first on this trip. We passed a huge sawmill with its noise and smells and came into the city of Titovo Užice. Now we were in a far different Yugoslavia. The stamp of Turkish culture was clear. Though we had traveled but six hours from Dubrovnik, we'd passed through a Balkan looking glass. We saw a sign that said Restaurant Paris on a disreputable-looking building, and we decided to see what version of Paris we might find in grimy Titovo Užice. Restaurant Paris was large and smoky and smelled of cabbage and coffee. It was filled with men in fezzes and berets and caps. The place thundered with their laughter and conversation. A waiter appeared at our table. He wore a smeared white apron, a crumpled white shirt and a black bow tie, and he looked a little like Max Baer in middle age. He brushed the crumbs off the tablecloth with his hand, nodded crisply and gave us a much-thumbed mimeographed menu that, surprisingly enough, included a section in English. Cooke and I ordered cabbage salad, pork knuckle, coarse white bread and beer, and we finished the meal with Turkish coffee and Turkish delight. We had no more enjoyable meal in all of Yugoslavia, and when we tipped Max the waiter 75¢ over the cost of both meals ($3.20), he looked surprised, then salaamed once and said, "Allah, friend, Allah."

We proceeded through late afternoon to the town of Kraljevo and found yet another kind of Yugoslavia. The entire center of town had been made over into a sleek, auto-free shopping mall full of people strolling past bright windows displaying TV sets, blenders, phonographs—in short, all the fixings for a capitalistic spree of conspicuous consumption. Cooke and I went into a gleaming supermarket below street level and found ourselves amid lovely cheeses and sausages and salami, a great variety of Yugoslav wines and, believe it or not, lined up like a row of trophies, bottle after bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch.

Our hotel was less impressive. The elevator would not stop at the third floor, where our rooms were, and for the only time on this trip the desk clerks spoke no English—or German or French or Italian or Russian or Spanish, which are Cooke's other languages. The rooms were small, the beds saggy, the bathtub down the hall. However, we had a view of the square from the third floor, and the rate set a trip record for Balkan bargains: $6 per person. "That's what you pay for the fax on a room in the States," said Cooke.

Our next stop was the top of Mount Kopaonik, where we visited an ambitious ski area soon to become the biggest in the country, putting old Kranjska Gora in the shade. There are now 800 beds in area hotels, but the plan is to quintuple that number by 1985 and to add a golf course for summer trade. Unfortunately, old Mount Kopaonik has a bald, round-topped summit at 6,419 feet, and the runs there are frigid and wind-blasted—and flat. The skiing is, for now, pretty to look at but not very challenging.

We drove down Kopaonik after lunch, switchbacking through great snowdrifts that we assumed would be our last major contact with the white stuff for the rest of the trip. Somewhere in the recesses of our minds, we had the idea that, with each southward mile, we would move closer to some kind of early Balkan spring full of sweet breezes and balmy sunshine.

We were driving through Kosovo now, one of two independent provinces within the republic of Serbia. This territory had been held by the Turks for 500 years. Indeed, we weren't far from the historic Plain of Kosovo where the Turks first crushed the Serbs in 1389. So complete was the defeat and the Serbs' subsequent demoralization that it was not until 1912—on almost the same bloody battleground—that the final heroic campaigns to rid the region of the invaders took place. This land had seen hard, tragic times, and West had written a peculiarly despondent passage after traveling through it: "The earth is not our mother's bosom. It shows us no special kindness. We cannot trust it to take sides with us...we are alone and terrified. Kossovo [sic], more than any other site I know, arouses that desolation.... For it is crowded with the dead, who died in more than their flesh, whose civilization was cast with them into their graves."

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