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Cooke and I and Rebecca West departed Vienna in our rented car on the morning of Feb. 9 and drove toward the Austrian-Yugoslav border three hours away. It was a snowy, pewter-colored day, and we did not feel particularly festive. We were, after all, leaving the enormously civilized environs of Vienna—birthplace of the Sacher torte, the waltz and much of the best of Mozart—to spend the next three weeks in Yugoslavia, a socialist land in the Balkans, which is in serious economic trouble now and which has been both the scene and the source of grand disruptions that have caused great changes in Western civilization.
None of us was new to Yugoslavia. Jerry Cooke, whose 41 years in photography have taken him to more than 90 countries, first journeyed to Yugoslavia in 1954. Over the past two years he has spent several weeks in Sarajevo, that teeming city of old mosques and new smog that from Feb. 7 through Feb. 19 will host the 1984 Winter Olympics. I'd been to Sarajevo in the winter of 1982 but knew little of the rest of Yugoslavia. Dame Rebecca, of course, had made her famous journey to the Land of South Slavs in 1937. From that she had produced her monumental work, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia, a marvelously uncategorizable book of 1,150 pages that touches on politics, travel, journalism, sociology, history, art, biography, autobiography, etc. All of those subjects are tied together by West's luminous opinions, which range from the purely poetic to the blatantly bitchy, from profound social criticism to the juiciest of historical gossip.
Alas, West wasn't actually in the car with Cooke and me as we sped along the autobahn toward the border. On Feb. 9, she lay very ill back in London. She would be dead very soon at the age of 90. But Cooke and I each had brought a much-thumbed copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and we talked of West so much and with such admiration that she came to be with us in something more than merely spirit.
As we approached the border, the snow lightened and we could clearly see armed soldiers. We could also clearly recall the opinion West held about Yugoslavia and its neighbors before her visit. "Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans, all I knew of the South Slavs," she wrote. She explained that the savagery of Turkish conquerors over the centuries was responsible for staining the reputation of the region so dark that the French habitually made the word Balkan synonymous with barbarian. She remembered that she had once been startled out of sleep in a Paris hotel by noises in the next room—"the sound of three slashing slaps and a woman's voice crying through sobs, 'Balkan! Balkan!' "
The soldiers at the border were rosy-cheeked boys. We passed into the Land of the South Slavs and noticed no semblance of anything barbarian. As we drove into Yugoslavia, we saw the unmistakable black stick patterns of dormant vineyards rising up snowy slopes on all sides. Even in winter the sight of hills cultivated to produce wine lent a tranquillity to the countryside that was the antithesis of violence. But West had been referring to the deep past, to savage battles with Turks who occupied most of what is now Yugoslavia for nearly 500 years and weren't entirely driven out until 1913; to conquests of the region by the Romans, by Napoleon, by the powerful navies of Venice and by the arrogant armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Perhaps most of all, her pervasive impression of violence was based on—what else?—the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in June 1914, which ignited World War I.
But seeking out the roots of such violence was hardly part of the journey that Cooke and I arranged last winter. The point of it all was pure pleasure. We would start in Vienna and end up in Thessaloniki, Greece, with a huge sampling in between of Yugoslavia. And in the process we would produce an itinerary that might be followed—backward or forward—by any curious traveler who attended the '84 Winter Games. Sarajevo is close to being at the dead center of Yugoslavia, so there are a number of routes one can choose to reach there and to leave there. Our choice was made with the gracious help of the Yugoslav National Tourist Office, in New York City. Dejan Živojinovič, a beefy fellow, alternately boisterous and businesslike, with a typically Slav jawbreaker of a name, is director of the office, and our itinerary of stunning mountains, glorious seacoast and not many cities at all was his creation. Živojinovič told us, "If I had never been to Yugoslavia, this is how I would wish to see it first."
We rolled past those cold vineyards into the small city of Maribor, a bustling place full of fair Teutonic types who typify the citizenry of the republic of Slovenia, which was never occupied by the Turks. Cooke and I checked in at the Hotel Slavija and found our rooms to be in the proletarian-Spartan style found from Sofia to Shanghai—clean but shabby and furnished in a mode endemic to Wichita, Kans. circa 1935. We ate in the dining room. The food was an excellent Serbian soup of sweet peppers and chick-peas plus pleskavica, a beef and pork mixed grill. Grilled meat is the national dish of Yugoslavia, as unavoidable as raw fish in Japan but a lot less interesting after a few dozen meals of it. Čevapčići, grilled chunks of lamb and/or pork, is utterly inescapable, and Cooke referred to it as the "Yugoslav hot dog."
The meal in the Slavija—not a banquet, but a solid repast—cost 200 dinars each. At 65 dinars to a dollar, that was less than $3.10. And this, I am delighted to report, was the economic situation throughout the trip: Prices for everything were spectacularly low. And every day, the value of the dinar against the dollar kept dropping—from 65 to a dollar when we started to 72 to the dollar when we left. (The rate of exchange at the end of last week was 110 dinars to the dollar.)
Maribor is resolutely up-to-date. There are ski areas in the nearby hills, and for many years there has been a World Cup race for women at Maribor. The day before we arrived, such a race had been held, and I stopped at the hotel of the American team. Tamara McKinney, who would make history later in the winter by becoming the first American woman to win the overall World Cup, had fallen in this race, but diplomatically commented, "The skiing was terrible, but the people are very sweet."
True on both counts. A dense sky lay over the mountains while we were there. Our guides insisted that on a clear day you can see a huge distance into the Austrian Alps, but we skied in flat dim light on flat dim runs at Pohorje, Maribor's major area. More interesting than the skiing were the low prices: At the Areh Hotel one could hire a well-windowed though tiny room looking out on Austria, eat three good meals and use all ski lifts and the cable car for $11 a day.