Sunday, May 29, 2016

#15. Austria. Zell am See.

As a young guy growing up, I was completely taken away by the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. It's incredibly filmed and written, and based on the true story of one of the most courageous groups of men this world may ever know. I can remember watching it week after week as it aired, wondering where the men of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne in World War II would end up: Normandy, Belgium, Bastogne, Berchtesgaden. Eastward they moved as they fought back the German army by hard fought attrition. After 11 long months, spent in the frozen woods of Bastogne, or storming Nazi occupied towns like Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Eindhoven, and Foy, these men finally saw their tour of duty come to a close in the southeast corner of Bavaria in the German alps. The final episode of the series was called Zell am See... After those 11 hard fought months, they found that the end of their long road was in this small Austrian town on a mountain lake in northern Austria. Swimming in a clear blue water, living life as normal people, all under the shadow of the Austrian alps in a land where there was finally peace was the way these men were to end their European tour of duty. I remember thinking.... what an incredible end to this epic story. To fight within an inch of your life for an entire year and then wind up here. This vision of Austria became ingrained in my mind: Rest. Peace. Overwhelming mountains and rolling green countrysides.

When we arrived in Austria, I can't say that this was at all my first impression. Unlike Easy Company who arrived by truck in the foothills over the Bavarian alps, we popped up in the middle of downtown Vienna at the Wien Rennweg metro station. With the wind in our face and a map ripped out of the guidebook, we made our way around the city in search of a place to stay.

"Wir haben eine Reservierung unter dem Namen Grimes" I said to the front desk lady, intent to show off all I could remember from my two week crash course in German.

"Welcome to Vienna, Herr Grimes," she said with a smile, "Not to worry, we all speak English here."

And so ended my attempts at German for the trip. Vienna was just as picturesque and romantic as one may expect: horse drawn carriages, palatial Habsburg estates, crowds gathered to watch opera on the street. Mile after mile we explored the city until our (ok... my) feet would allow no more. The next morning we grabbed our Volkswagen Polo and headed up the Danube River valley.

Each town we passed had its own story to tell. First Dürnstein, the barely noticeable riverside medieval village whose hilltop castle imprisoned Richard the Lionheart, the kidnapped King of England in 1192. Then there was Melk, a small an otherwise unimpressive little town, but home to the largest Benedictine Abbey in the entire world. Town after town we passed, stopping at some, others no. I barely noticed a sign as it flew by along the road as we headed further up river: the concentration camp of Mauthausen; the chapters all of the World War II history books I'd read started to become tangible as I saw where these stories unfolded. Linz: the birthplace of the man himself whose perverted mind first dreamt up the Final Solution in Lansberg Prison. Then Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart, idyllic in every way except for the inability to find a parking spot anywhere near your intended destination. I mean it was sixteen, going on seventeen minutes until we even had a clue, and when we did find a place where the car fit it was really far, a long long way to park.

And so further west we went up and into the Bavarian alps. Our chosen route was well out of the way and added more than a few hours to the journey towards our final destination of Munich, but there was a reason. As we finally exited the highway and saw the signs, I imagined us not in our tiny Polo, but in the back of deuce-and-a-half with the men of Easy Company. As Zell am See unfolded in front of us I imagined not the ritzy resort town which wealthy Austrians spend their summers in fancy modern condos, but a sleepy old town, newly enjoying the prospect of peace over Europe, probably apprehensive to welcome American soldiers who'd freshly declared victory over the soldiers who were their husbands, their sons, their fathers.

I could picture Dick Winters diving into the lake, Shifty Powers bagging a deer up in the surrounding woods, Doc Roe staring up at mountainside trying to forget what he'd seen in Bastonge. Our time in Zell am See was very brief, just a stop along the way to our next destination, but to me it was in a way the end of a long journey; this journey I'd pictured in my head for years. Even though they'd been gone for 70 years, I finally got to share that moment with Easy Company. I pulled back the flap and jumped into the back of the deuce-and-a-half, its diesel engine rumbling to a start as it began to make its way out of town. Before long it again became that little white Volkswagen Polo, and just like that... we were back to reality.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

#14. Montenegro. The Bay.

Under the benevolent (most would say) dictatorship of Josip Tito, the former Soviet Republic of Yugoslavia remained intact and in domination of most of the landmass in the Balkan peninsula in the years following World War II; the victors of the war had drawn an arbitrary political boundary around this huge area, and in so doing joined several races, religions, and ethnicites under the umbrella of one homeland. This was not the first time in history this happened, nor would it be the last, but the result was an area of the world doomed to conflict in the years to come. One by one, after the dissolution of this large state in 1992, the various ethnic peoples of the Balkans exercised their right to national self-determination, and borders began to be redrawn: Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina all broke away from Yugoslavia, which today remains as the Republic of Serbia. In the mid 2000's the last to separate were Montenegro and Kosovo, the former being the destination of our next bus trip around the Balkans.

Montenegro, or "Black Mountain" (I'll what for a sec while you have your, "oh, yeah... duh" moment), is the beautiful tiny country lying just to the south and east of Croatia on the Adriatic Sea. How lucky we are these days to have Google image search: after about two seconds of looking at photographs of this place, we decided we'd be out of our minds to miss this. Although all of the countries are tightly packed together in the former Yugoslavia, traveling to a few of them revealed just how different their people were; differences at times so intense which led to conflict, but to a casual traveler provided an opportunity to glimpse people who are worlds apart but neighbors in the course of only a few days. Croatia had offered serene islands rich in wineries and proud in their local culture; incredible port cities teeming in tourists and fully embracing the new century. Bosnia a little further behind, still showing scars from war, and having a tension which was palatable. Montenegro? Maybe the younger brother of its two western neighbors, not in the limelight, but also free of the turmoil which you can still be felt in some places. The residents of Korcula boasted of their wines, claiming them to be among the first grapes planted in Europe, a proud history not to be forgotten and to be respected by the world. Montenegrins? The waiter at a tiny restaurant on our first night brought out a bottle of their national wine along with sparkling water.

"What do we do with that?" we asked.

"Mix it with the wine," he said with a smile, "you do not want to drink this wine by itself."

Immediately I appreciated the honesty of these people. Their laid back and accommodating way of life. While I will remember the Adriatic for its calm and endless expanse to the horizon, I will remember Montenegro for the embrace of its mountains and its seclusion. As you enter the bay of Kotor by a narrow inlet, it opens up into a body of water 20 miles across, surrounded by mountains on all sides. You expect to pass under the legs of some giant bronze colossus of the ancient past guarding the bay as you enter. No wonder the Balkan coast was chosen as the filming location for the fictional land of Westeros in HBO's Game of Thrones. The town of Kotor itself was not large, and everything about it seemed ancient. No pavement to be seen, just cobblestone. Even the ice cream shops and liquor stores occupied buildings that made you feel as if you were traveling in time to the middle ages, there to buy honey meade or have horseshoes made.

This small town marked the end of our Balkan adventure. Our brief trip here was a reminder of an incredibly troubled and not so distant past, of the tenuous peace which has been made only in the last decade or so. This land has been known for centuries as the 'power keg' of Europe, the spark which ignited the first World War; you can certainly ignore this darker side, get off your cruise ship in Dubrovnik, go on your Game of Thrones tour, and be on to Santorini... but it's a past which deserves remembering. Not only to remember the stories of those that have lived through the wars, the bombs, the genocides, but because as the saying goes, those that forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

#13: Bosnia. The Bridge

The following is a repost from May 20, 2012, shortly after this trip took place. 

Ivanka was pleasant enough. She smiled a lot and made sure to explain the aging relics of the Ottoman Empire as the van rolled northwards into Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ride was long, and I could not help as the van sat peacefully at the border crossing to think of the 600,000 Bosnians who for fear of their lives and in search of a new home had crossed in the opposite direction only 15 years before. What Ivanka did not explain were the burned out buildings which dotted the countryside, still standing as a reminder of the recent war. Our destination of Mostar derived it name from the phrase "keepers of the bridge", referring to the Stari Most, or "old bridge", which spans the Nerveta River in the city's center. The bridge was built in the 16th century, and survived long enough to support Panzers during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia - only to be destroyed in 1993 by Bosnian Croat artillery fire.

As we walked though Mostar, I felt that there was some tension which pervaded the city that was very real, yet carefully hidden. Ivanka, herself a Bonsian Croat refugee, mentioned that she would not be surprised if there was war again here in the next decade - yet walking though the city, with its touristy shops and pleasant exterior, one would never guess. Looking closer, there was something different about this city than any other I had been to: the dust on a life and death struggle between two groups of people who still live there today has barely settled. Yes, every tourist shop had copper Turkish coffee pots of all sizes as our tour guide was sure to explain, but I couldn't help but notice that every shop also sold little trinkets - airplanes, belts, cars, jewelry - all made out of AK-47 shells. As if embracing the sad reality that war is what now makes Bosnia famous, locals who still bear the scars of bombshells and shrapnel try to sell what once made them afraid to go into the streets as knick-knacks for tourists to take home with them - the same tourists from countries whose governments did not have the courage to lift a finger as the Serbian army began to give meaning to the term ethnic-cleansing.

We crossed the Stari Most, the beautifully rebuilt replica of the bridge which now stands over the rubble of its older brother at the bottom of the Nerveta River, and came to a vantage point so that the group could take photos. Looming above the city was a ridge which served as the high ground from which the Croats  bombarded the bridge and the Muslim side of town. Our Croat tour guide paused and pointed in the direction of the ridge.

"Finally..." I thought, "He is going address the sad reality of what happened here."

I wondered how he was going to explain the shelling of the bridge, given that it was his people that were responsible for its destruction - for some reason I felt that would require a fair bit of tact.

Instead, he told a joke about the ridge and we moved on for lunch. You have to pay a little extra to get the whole story, I guess. 

It's not surprising that, especially in front of tourists, those that lived here portray a sense of optimism, and a desire to move beyond the past. People do not take vacations to be reminded that humans, from time to time, pick up arms and do their best to kill their each other. I didn't expect to get a full history lesson on a war which only recently ended from a tour guide whose people were the aggressors, but it was chilling to hear Ivanka say, "yesterday, we were fighting in the streets.... today, we are fighting in the parliament.... tomorrow, who knows."

As I write, the trial of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb General who was tasked with ridding his country of Muslims and became infamous for directing the Srebrenica massacre, has just gotten underway. It's hard not to think that it's possible to be sub-human, or something of the sort, when one watches this man chuckle and beam with pride as he watches videos of himself congratulating his men after they have just murdered thousands of men and boys for the crime of being born the wrong race.

Walking out of  the city, we passed some graffiti which would have seemed normal if not for one thing: the language in which it was written. On the Bosniak side of the river, inconspicuously tucked behind a table of souvenirs, was a rock that read, "Don't Forget" in English. Written in the language not of the locals who assuredly do not need this reminder, but of the passersby and tourists, who see the blown out buildings and after their quick tour which pretended they weren't there wonder... "What happened here?" The graveyard at the corner of town in which nearly all the tombstones are marked with a burial date of 1995, and nearly none with a birth date before 1975, stands as a reminder of what they don't want us to forget.

My wife and I arrived back to our apartment in Dubrovnik before sundown - plenty of time to freshen up from the long day and find a nice seafood restaurant overlooking the Adriatic in time for dinner. The town which felt so foreign just a few days ago strangely felt like home after having been to Mostar. At dinner, we watched as the lights in the harbor began to come on and fishermen tied down their boats for the night.  I thought of the bullet holes, AK-47 shells, and cemetery of teenagers. But inevitably I found my mind wondering to wineries and the beaches on Korcula Island, tomorrow's destination. One cannot dwell on such horrors when they are on vacation.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

#12: Croatia. Lejos.

The bus rumbled on northwest up the Dalmatian coast. Although completely sleep deprived, I struggled to keep my eyes open to glimpse the coastline of the Adriatic Sea. First we passed Trsteno, a small fisherman's village not very notable other than it being home to two huge old trees which the bus slowed down for as we passed. I watched as we rode through the town which ended almost as soon as it began, passing the trees which provided shade to the crowd which had gathered to escape the midday sun.

And then there was Ston. This town's name was not a coincidence. I had begun to nod off by now, and as we passed Ston I thought I was still in a dream: a wall. A massive stone wall. So large you could not see where it ended; up into the mountains it went; in an earlier time it must have prevented the incursion into this seemingly small and unimportant town from the mightiest of invaders. As the bus swept by I felt as if we were speeding by the the Taj Mahal or Great Pyramids without the thought of even slowing down. I looked around as if to ask "is any one else seeing this?!" only to find disinterested and sleepy locals and tourists already planning their visit to Korčula. As we passed Ston I grabbed for the guidebook. Surely there was something to these walls. Consequently, there was. These were known as the Great Wall of Europe. Dubrovnik, the indescribably beautiful medieval port city from which we had just departed, derived much of its wealth from this small city of Ston centuries ago. While the Great Wall of China and Hadrian's wall in Britain were meant to protect great empires from barbarian hordes to the north, the walls of Ston had quite a difference purpose: keep your hands off my salt. The Pelješac peninsula was home to a lucrative operation of salt cultivation which raked in the dough that made the independent Republic of Dubrovnik so wealthy. We passed the wall and before this history geek had time to catch his breath, the salt fields still in operation to this day began to fly by the window. Nothing is new under the sun, as they say.

But as most bus rides go, there was a destination in mind, and this was not Ston. We made our way up the east coast of the peninsula whose interior was made up of seemingly impassable mountains; but finally the bus tuned west. Winding higher and higher, I could see a pass we seemed to be making for. Sure enough we finally reached the center of the peninsula, broke through the pass, and all at once the Adriatic opened up in front of us. I again had one of those "are you seeing this??" moments, but looking around saw that most around me were asleep. I guess my "you can sleep when you're dead mentality" is not so popular among the general public. The bus finally pulled into the town of Orebić and we waited to board a ferry to take us to our final destination: the island of Korčula.

We finally stumbled off the bus into the village of Korčula, where we were immediately greeted by some lady whose sister at the Dubrovnik bus station had guaranteed a great deal on a room in her apartment once we arrived in Korčula. I'd half expected this to be a made up story, but sure enough, there she was, and she led us to the room. We didn't get the "I feel like I'm soon to be killed vibe" so we just went with it. After setting into the room, we set out to explore the town before sunset. Korčula's claim to fame was being the birthplace of Marco Polo, the merchant traveler of antiquity (and of course, more famously, the progenitor of the popular pool game) and the town was sure you would not overlook this: first, the Marco Polo souvenir shop, then there was the Marco Polo church, and afterwards was Marco's spaghetti restaurant (all the while of course, walking down the Avenue of Marco Polo). From end to end, you could walk through Korčula in 10 minutes. Having arrived in the evening, we walked by as shopkeepers were beginning to close down for the night and the town started to become sleepy. We worked our way to the water's edge and found a restaurant which served fish and pizza: The perfect combination for my Jenn and I. A bottle of Croatian white wine, hot pizza, fresh seafood and a view on the Adriatic Sea... the stuff dreams are made of. Luckily, we had a few days before we had to wake up.

Bikes took us around the island the next day. Here a beach, there a winery - how we ever ended up leaving, I'm not sure. Korčula was the best of what I imagined it could be. Serene, silent, sitting just far enough off the mainland to be unspoiled by the pace of the 21st century. The only hint of disruption of the relaxed atmosphere of the island was maybe the sailboats which moored in the harbor each evening. They flew flags of the Barbados, the Virgin Islands, UK and the USA.... we could not have been so lucky to be the only tourists there on those nights, but surely our visit remained one unspoiled by distraction or even time. Korčula still lives in my dreams as only a place so far away can.