June 30, 2017

a trip to Hungary, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia

David and I recently returned from a three-week trip to Europe, much of the trip in Croatia, but starting in Hungary and with stops in Montenegro and Bosnia.  Friends asked us, "What did you like?  What did you learn?", questions that have been more helpful to me for thinking about the trip than "How was the trip?"  Here are some thoughts and photos.

Why this trip?  After our 2015 trip rafting in the Grand Canyon, I was eager to do another rafting trip, and sent David links to other OARS trips in the U.S. and Canada.  He was up for another rafting trip, but noticed that OARS also had a trip in Croatia, and he was very interested in a trip to the Balkans.  So, our compromise was made:  outdoor/adventure segment at my instigation and cultural/historical exploration in Eastern Europe and the Balkans at David's.  The OARS multi-sport trip was 9 days in Croatia and Montenegro. As long as we were incurring the travel expense of plane fare to Europe, we added in some time at the beginning and end as well: six days in Hungary at the beginning (mostly Budapest, with a day trip to three small towns in the Danube Bend area) and six days in Bosnia and Croatia at the end. 

I'll go chronologically through the trip.  The photo below is of Budapest, straddling the Danube river.  (Double-click on any photo to see a larger view.)

It was fun to be in a large European city, streets lined with 19th-century buildings, lots of cafés, gelato stands, and other urban amenities; it reminded me of being in Paris.  The four of us (we travelled with my cousin Adele and her husband Mark) hired a guide for a few hours on two mornings, to get an orientation to the city and its history.  I'd never done this before, and it was very helpful.  Because it was just the four of us, the tour of the city was shaped to our interests, we could freely ask questions, and then we could explore further on our own the additional things we were interested in. Our guide did an excellent job of helping us understand the city in historical context, and in giving us confidence in getting around on our own after the tour.  But there were also troubling aspects.  Her narrative was a confidently nationalistic one, with great pride in the original seven Magyar tribes that conquered this territory in the late 9th century and with hatred for everything connected with the communist regime that lasted from 1945 to 1989. Hungary had always loved its Jews, and the murder of 600,000 of them in the last months of WWII was fully attributed to the alien Nazis. David and I got a different perspective when we met up for dinner with János Bak, a college professor of David's who returned to Hungary some years back to teach at the Central European University. János, himself Jewish, talked about Hungary's record of anti-semitic legislation going back to the 1920s, and of his own schooling experience, segregated in a class for Jews only. He spoke of the ongoing stream of anti-semitism in Hungary, and the possibility that this has been part of the opposition to the Central European University, which was founded by George Soros, himself Jewish. When I mentioned the next morning to our guide János' experience of segregated schooling before the war, she was dubious, replying that of course people could attend separate schools if they wanted to. . .  I don't think the guide was deliberately trying to mislead us, but rather that she was simply repeating the dominant narrative she herself was taught. But there are certainly countercurrents as well.  Walking around on our own, we came across this monument, only a block or two from other places the guide had taken us.  It is a combination of an official monument (bronze and stone) with a counter-monument (personal items deposited on the ground and photos posted on a line strung up in front of the monument).  The official monument commemorates the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944, implying Hungary as a helpless victim. The protest to the monument details Hungary's complicity in the persecution of its Jewish population, and collects memorabilia of some of those murdered. Also pinned to a line are explanations of the protest, in several languages. I've copied the content of the English one at the very bottom of this post. This newspaper article gives a good summary of the monument and the protest, with photos.  

photo by David Amor 
After several days in the city, we took a drive to three cities in the "Danube Bend" area, so that we could get a sense of the countryside, and to see more of the Danube.  There were beautiful vistas from a number of high points.

We then left Hungary for a long drive through Croatia to Dubrovnik, where we would be meeting up with the OARS group.  Along the way, we stopped in Split, where we spent an afternoon and evening.  Split is remarkable for Diocletian's Palace, built in about 300 A.D. as the retirement palace for the Roman emperor Diocletian. Although abandoned for a while, it was never built over, and it has been lived in and utilized continuously since the 7th century. Here are a couple of photos to give you a feel for it.

While in Split, we wanted to visit the synagogue there, the second oldest still-in-operation synagogue in Europe (with the oldest in Dubrovnik), but it wasn't open to visitors on Sundays, the day we were there. We decided to go by in any case, just to pay our respects, and as we were standing it in front of the entryway, a man came up and asked if we would like to go in. So, we got our own private tour, and the chance to speak at length with the man who let us in, a recently retired journalist. The Jewish community in Split is very small--a dozen families or so. They meet for dinner on Friday evenings at the synagogue, but don't hold services. "After what happened in the war, it is difficult to believe." The whole of Croatia is served by one rabbi, who is based in Zagreb, in the north of the country. Our host mentioned to us that the community also maintains the old Jewish cemetery "on the hill," though Jews have not been buried there since the war.  Here's a link to a webpage on the synagogue that includes an excellent video about Split in general (good explanation of the Palace and its place in the city's history) as well as about the synagogue and the cemetery, with good photos.  Later in the day, we were walking around the city, and saw steps leading up to a park, which sounded like an appealing respite from the city streets. After more tiers of steps than we had anticipated, we took a break and considered abandoning the path, but we asked a passerby whether the park was worth the hike.  He said it was, and that there was also a cemetery there.  "A Jewish cemetery?"  "Yes."  So on we went.  It was well worth the hike to see this quiet, peaceful place, gravestones mostly laid flat on the ground (better photos on the video mentioned above).  Split was definitely a highlight of the trip, both to see the palace and for the unexpected window onto Jewish life here.

The next day, we drove on to Dubrovnik, where we met up with the 12 people on our OARS trip and our two guides.  We took a ferry over to the close-by island of Lopud, which was our base for three days of kayaking.  Here's a photo of the bay at Lopud, with our kayaks ready to go.

Photo by Beth Case
And another photo of the bay, looking in the other direction, over to the Franciscan monastery on the island.
Photo by David Amor
On our previous trips with OARS, camping out was a central part of the experience, with meals all cooked by the OARS guides.  This trip was different--we stayed in air-conditioned lodgings while on Lopud, and had all meals in restaurants.  Fresh fish was a highlight of these meals, available everywhere in Croatia.  (Photo below is of sea bream and grouper, grilled to perfection--this from our last meal in Dubrovnik, at the Orhan restaurant.)

At the top of the island, a fortress--and great views of the Adriatic.


A view of a group of kayakers--not us, as I took the photo, but we would have looked much the same:

Our terrific guides:  Borna and Mario. Despite all their encouragement, I have to admit that I didn't like the kayaking very much.  Very different from rafting, where you can relax while the river takes you along!  Two hours at a time of steady stroking pushed me to my limit.  It helped that the Adriatic and its islands provided glorious scenery, but I don't think I'll be doing more kayaking after this.

Mario was our main guide for the whole OARS trip; Borna was with us just for the kayaking portion. Mario was a superb leader for the group, on top of every detail, helpful in any way we needed, and flexible. He also is very knowledgable about the history/culture of Croatia and the wider region (with a Master's degree in sociology), so along with the "outdoor adventure" of the trip, we also learned a great deal about the region, in particular the war of 1991-95 and its aftermath. Being in the country now, it is difficult to imagine the steady air and ground attacks of this period, across the former Yugoslavia. But then there are the warnings in the guide book about not going out in fields on your own, because of the danger of unexploded mines. . .

After three days of kayaking, we got into a couple of vans and drove to Montenegro.  We stopped mid-day at the Bay of Kotor, where 9 of the group (not including me) hiked up 1,350 steps to the fortress at the top of the hill. Hiking up stone steps in the heat of mid-day, just for the sake of a (fantastic) view, is not up my alley.  Then we drove on to Kamp Grab, on the Tara River, near Durmitor National Park in the north of Montenegro. The Tara River canyon is second in depth only to the Grand Canyon, and the scenery on the drive to and from Kamp Grab was truly spectacular, perhaps especially the drive through Durmitor National Park. These several days were my favorite part of the trip.  Again, the accommodations were more plush than a camping trip. Even though we were deep in wilderness, the Kamp buildings were very comfortable, with meals provided, and wi-fi as well! The first photo is from the part of the camp near the dining area.  The Tara River is right there, a beautiful turquoise blue.

Here's the dining area, the kitchen and serving area on the left, outdoor tables (and a fireplace pit) in the background, and an enclosed dining area on the right.

Here's David and me outside our room, bundled up on a chilly morning, but quite happy, as I think you can see. And yes, that's David with his iPhone and me with a Kindle.  Not like the Grand Canyon with no place to plug in for 16 days!

Photo by Laurent Bouchon

We had two full days at the Kamp.  On the first, we did a half-day rafting trip on the Tara River, which was great. Yes, I really do love rafting!  The trip included a hike up a mountain stream to a waterfall, just the kind of thing we did on the Grand Canyon trip.  A great day.

The next day David rested in the morning (nursing a sore throat) while I went on a hike in the mountains.  This was also a great excursion, going through vast fields of wild flowers; difficult to capture in a photo:

Some of the flowers were familiar, others not.

Far away from any roads, there were still occasional buildings, here an older one with a newer one close by.  Our guide said the owners come for a little while in the summer, but otherwise they're uninhabited.

And a view from the top:
In the afternoon, David went on a "PhotoSafari" that took him into similar scenery.

Some photos from the drive leaving Kamp Grab, through the Durmitor National Park and beyond, as we returned to Dubrovnik.

Many rocks everywhere.

And back to Dubrovnik, where we spent a couple of nights. The old city of Dubrovnik has maintained the entire circle of its old walls, visible here from the cable car ride you can take up to another fortress that guarded the town as recently as the wars in the 1990s.

We did a private tour of the walls of the city with Tea Batinic, who was a superb guide to the city and its history. From the wall we could look down on the city. Tea explained that the many red roofs we saw were all replacements after the sustained shelling of the city during the siege of Dubrovnik in 1991 (video footage here). The original roofs were ochre tile, seen in the bottom right of the photo below. The old-style tiles are difficult to get, so most repairs have been done with the red tiles. The predominance of red in the aerial views gives you a sense of the widespread destruction in the city, and also of the huge amount of reconstruction that has been undertaken since the war.

At this point, Adele and Mark split off to go to Switzerland to visit their son in Zurich.  David and I rented a car and did further exploring.  Our first stop was Mostar, over the border into Bosnia. We were interested to see another part of the region, and to experience a city that has a predominantly Muslim population; you can see a couple of the city's minarets in the photo below.

We stayed in lodgings at the Muslibegovic House, a 17th-century house now run as a hotel.  The courtyard is paved in local stones, as are most of the streets.

Here's the sitting room that was part of our accommodations, with beautiful wood panelling--the most luxurious place we stayed on the trip.

The recent war is much more evident here, with many bombed out buildings still awaiting reconstruction.

After a night in Mostar, we drove back into Croatia, staying first in Nin, on the coast, where there was a lovely beach where we could relax from all the driving.  Then on to Motovun, in the center of Istria, in the northwest of Croatia.  This is a walled medieval town on a hill.  From the top, you can see down to the fields that would be cultivated to sustain the townspeople.  Yes, many walled towns or fortresses on hills throughout this area, and of course in western Europe also.  It made me think about walls, and why they used to be needed for protection. For any of you who have watched Game of Thrones (much of which was filmed in Croatia), you have a vivid picture of the usefulness of walls.  But why, then, did they come down, and what other kinds of protection were substituted?  I hadn't thought about this before.  And of course, with shouts of "Build the wall!" from the last election, the issue is newly relevant once more.

Having the town be on the top of the hill means there's a lot of walking up to the top, and then, for our lodging, down again to the other side of town, down this street.  Only residents can bring in cars, so we had to hike it. We left our suitcases in the car, and just brought in what we needed in backpacks.

As we left Motovun, on our way to Rovinj on the coast, we passed a sign that said "Lavanda Field and Shop."  This one spontaneous stop made the long drive worthwhile for me!  Gorgeous fields of lavender, striking against the orange-red soil.  And the owners had also put up hammocks and adult-sized swings in a shady grove next to the fields, where we spent a pleasant stretch of time.

We stopped for lunch in the coastal town of Porec, where there is an amazing 6th-century basilica with mosaics still in place in the nave.  Ever since taking a course in Byzantine art in grad school, I've wanted to go to Istanbul to see Byzantine mosaics, so it was a nice surprise to be able to see them here in Croatia. 

OK, our journey is coming to an end, with a final stop in Rovinj.  After another afternoon of swimming and relaxing at a beach, we watched the sunset at one of the bars "on the rocks" where cushions are provided.

David and I both agree that we spent too much driving on the trip, and made too many stops, but we would also be hard put to know what to cut out.  So, what did I like the most?  The rafting, the beauty of the countryside (with Montenegro a high point), and getting to know Croatia, about which I was entirely ignorant but surprised myself in enjoying very much--the culture, the people, the scenery.  And what am I glad to have learned?  The complexities of nationalist narratives, the experience of Jews in eastern and southern Europe, the sources and consequences of the war amongst the peoples of the former Yugoslavia.

Next trip I look forward to?  An OARS rafting trip in Idaho is on the wish list.  (Three of the people in our group are former guides for OARS, so we were able to get advice from them about trips we might especially like.)

* * * * * * * * * * *

[explanation of monument protest, posted in several languages] 
Civilians Protest Against Monument Falsifying History

This monument was ordered by the government of Hungary (or, to be more exact, by Premier Viktor Orbán of almost unlimited power) and erected stealthily, following numerous delays, under the cover of the night dawning on July 20th 2014.

At the edge of the sidewalk across from the monument you can see memorial pebbles, personal items, photographs, books and documents.  They have been brought here uninvited in recent months by citizens outraged by the falsification of history manifested in the monument erected peremptorily, without having consulted either cityscape professionals or the community.

In the official wording, the sculptural ensemble commemorates Hungary's German occupation on March 19, 1944. As a result of the scandal following the publication of the design, the text has been changed to "the victims of the occupation". The central figure of the composition is Archangel Gabriel impersonating the innocent Hungary, dropping (actually, it looks like offering) the country's orb, while the German imperial eagle is preparing to strike. Thus does the work subserviently reflect the populist and authoritarian ruling political party's new constitution, forced upon the population again without any consultation, suggesting that the state of Hungary bears no responsibility for the genocide following the German occupation, including the deportation of nearly half a million Hungarian citizens (mostly Jews but also gypsies, gays and dissidents) to Nazi extermination camps.

This monument is a lie serving a political intention.

Hungary was a faithful ally of Hitler's Germany during WW2, being the first in 1940 to join the Axis powers.  On March 19, 1944, the arriving German troops were received with bouquets rather than bullets. That occupation left the state administration untouched and the administration, in turn, enthusiastically and very effectively organized and executed the mass deportations, surpassing even German expectations.

Hungary was the first in Europe, back in 1920, to pass an anti-Semitic law followed by a row of similar, increasingly heavy-handed laws stripping Hungary's Jewry of more and more rights: the state that sent to their deaths twenty thousand people unable to certify their Hungarian citizenship; the state whose gendarmes and soldiers murdered several thousand civilians at Novi Sad in the winter of 1942-43; the state that sacrificed two hundred thousand soldiers in a senseless war, while some of its occupying units abroad committed a series of war crimes against the civilian population.

Historians of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences have unanimously condemned the message suggested by this monument, labeling it as an attempt to rewrite history.

The protesters point out that, by erecting this monument, the government is making a concession to Hungary's far right: the advocates of the nationalist, racist, xenophobic Jobbik party, while endeavoring to whitewash the memory of their admitted mentor, Admiral Miklós Horthy who governed the country on a clerical-authoritarian platform between the world wars, then led it to destruction.

The civil groups organizing the protest action, representing the sober and responsible citizens of Hungary and Europe, demand the false monument to be removed from this location. They call on the government not to monopolize social memory, nor to rewrite history; but to initiate a dialogue with society for carefully exploring the past, in order to facilitate the honest reckoning with old crimes and processing the lessons learned.

As a matter of fact, the monument is really a genuine symbol. It is the monument of the government's arrogance and the criminal steps it took. Its removal will also be symbolic, signaling that liberty has returned. The protesters have stated they will continue their protest actions and presence as long as this mendacious monument stands here.


  1. Well done! Very interesting about how you found out about the different versions of Hungary's history with the Jews during WWII. And some gorgeous scenery.

  2. Penny, if you and David are seriously thinking of river rafting in Idaho next summer, please let me know. I know my family has been considering a trip to do the same for a while now, and doing it with you and David would make it all the better.

    I have rafted the Middle Fork of the Salmon twice, once for 3 days with my father and step mother, and once for a 6 day trip with a bunch of friends. Both were truly amazing trips.

  3. Wow! Thanks for sharing your trip and pictures. I am so glad I talked to you and found your blog.