Central & Eastern Europe / Croatia / History / Travel

Balkan Trails

How independent travellers discovered the former Yugoslavia

The mobility of the young was one of the defining characteristics of postwar Europe, and played a crucial role in its increasing social and cultural integration.

“We wanted to see the country and its people, not lie on a beach for two weeks” says Dutch engineer Huib van Marle, who at the age of 23 travelled own the Adriatic coast in a Volkswagen minibus together with his fiancée and five other companions in the summer of 1966. “In those days it was an adventure to travel in that country. I had grown up in a post-war world without television, daily news, constant entertainment. It was a eye-opener to be in another system and culture”.

Huib and his companions were the embodiment of a new era of unprecedented mobility in Europe, brought about by growing prosperity and the accessibility of travel as a key leisure-time aspiration. Tourism in the Mediterranean region in particular was undergoing a boom, driven not just by package tourists coming south by car, coach and plane to take up residence in pre-booked hotels, but also by independent tourists that wanted something radically different to the package crowd. These independent tourists did not just include the backpacking young, but also young professionals, couples, and families with children. The VW minibus in which Huib and friends travelled was in itself a symbol of the new mobility, a vehicle that provided the freedom to go where you wanted and sleep wherever you pleased.

It was American historian Richard Ivan Jobs who argued in his 2017 book Backpack Ambassadors that the mobility of the young was one of the defining characteristics of postwar Europe, and played a crucial role in its increasing social and cultural integration. This opening-up of Europe was not just about students, hitch-hikers and (from 1972 onwards) Inter-Railers, however. It was also driven by a post-war middle class taking advantage of a new sense of consumer confidence. Thanks to widening car ownership, better European roads and a booming economy, more and more people were embarking on touring holidays across an increasingly shrinking continent.

It did however take a while for Yugoslavia's Adriatic coast to become a popular target for independent tourists. For many, Yugoslavia was a country of transit on the way to the vastly more popular Greece, and travellers rushed southwards without ever seeing the Adriatic coast. With time however it became increasingly clear to travellers that the former Yugoslavia offered everything that they wanted: it was exotic in a way that Western Europe was not, it was full of scenic variety, it was historically fascinating, and above all it was cheap.

Martin Dunford, who together with Jack Holland and John McGhie researched the first Rough Guide to Yugoslavia in 1983 (Lonely Planet never had a dedicated book on Yugoslavia, leaving it to rivals Rough Guides to play the role of pioneer), Yugoslavia was the next Greece. “Independent travel throughout Europe was exploding at the beginning of the 1980s” Dunford says now, “and absolutely everyone was going to Greece. It was the kind of country where you could laze about doing nothing and live relatively cheaply but it had lots of culture as well. Which is what our guidebooks were all about in the early days. Yugoslavia seemed very similar to Greece, and had the added appeal of being relatively unknown to people like us at that time.”

Shrinking continent

To be fair, Yugoslavia was not quite as unknown to independent travellers as Martin Dunford might have claimed. When Zagreb magazine Globus had sent a reporter to the Italian-Slovene border as early as summer 1962, they had discovered that there was far more to Yugoslav tourism than the archetypal German family of four travelling to their beachside hotel reservations. Globus found four young English people entering Yugoslavia in a vintage car, three Australians who had met up in London and hit the road, and a group of French students going to India in a bus “that looked like a cross between a tram and a sleeping-car” and also included a cooking stove and a fridge.

The importance of the Adriatic in travellers’ itineraries was initially held back by the lack of good transport connections. For tourists reliant on the rail network, limited links between the Yugoslav interior and the port cities of Rijeka and Split (but no lines along the length of the coast itself) meant that the Adriatic represented a dead-end which necessitated retracing your steps inland before proceeding on to the next country of your European tour. The introduction of the Inter-Rail scheme in 1972 may have led to a boom in the number of European travellers crossing Yugoslavia en route to Greece, but was less effective in luring people to the Adriatic coast itself.

For travellers with their own transport, the Adriatic coast lacked decent roads, with a fully asphalted main coastal highway (known as the Magistrala) not reaching final completion until 1968. Writing about the trip south in 1964, German newspaper Die Zeit’s Jürgen Zimmer reported that beyond the mid-Dalmatian town of Šibenik the road was just dust and potholes. “And if a bus passes you in the opposite direction, you’ll bump along for the next fifteen minutes in the plume of dust it throws up behind it.” Zimmer recommended taking the coastal ferry from Rijeka, at that time an absolutely vital transport link used by locals and tourists alike. “People are playing cards, singing and canoodling up until midnight, everyone has managed to find their own space: on coiled ropes, on the anchor casing, on cargo crates on benches and on iron-studded deck planks”.

When Huib van Marle set off for the Adriatic in 1966 he was not exactly new to southeastern Europe, having made an exchange visit to the Serbian town of Smederevo in 1964 while an engineering student at the University of Delft. However he wanted to see more, and persuaded his friends to come with him. “The route was Villach, Ljubljana, Rijeka, Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik, over the new coastal road which was almost finished. We went via Mostar, Sarajevo, Jajce, Zagreb and Ljubljana on the way back.”

“Local people, even in coastal places, were friendly and curious” van Marle continues. “We were probably among the first western visitors as the coastal road neared completion. Once we took a detour to a small un-named village where a farmer was threshing wheat by hand on a concrete floor. We had never seen that before and we were allowed to try ourselves, with the whole farmer’s family happily looking on.”

Inland odysseys

When Huib van Marle married the girlfriend that had been among his travelling companions, they went back to Yugoslavia for a road-trip honeymoon in 1969, this time travelling in a VW beetle. “We took the same approach as before. Seeing the country and people, not the beaches. And we wanted to visit the ancient orthodox churches in Serbia and Kosovo [then an autonomous province of the Serbian republic]. Also we wanted to experience Muslim life and mosques and minarets. The nearest you could see oriental life, as we saw it, was in the old Ottoman parts of Europe. Which meant the interior of Yugoslavia.”

They travelled as far as the historic town of Prizren in Kosovo before heading home via Sarajevo, Banja Luka and Zagreb. “The worst road of our journey was through the Tara gorge on the border of Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was near dark and my wife was scared looking outside the car window to the right, where in places the gravel road had partly collapsed into the ravine. It was quite an adventure.”

British traveller Beverley Palmer (and a future author of the Rough Guide to Cambodia) toured the Adriatic in a Ford Cortina with her then husband and another couple in August 1975. They followed the coast as far south as Split. “We didn't meet many other tourists, and those we did see were mainly German, especially in the north around Pula”. They made side-trips to Brač and Hvar, which she remembers as “lovely islands with just local tourists”. They returned via the inland route, which proved much more of an adventure. “We were travelling on dirt roads and it was HOT. We couldn’t open the car windows due to the dust.”

Locked in the bathroom

For Californian student Marc Dubin (future writer of guidebooks to Greece and a host of other Mediterranean destinations), Yugoslavia was just one part of an epic backpacking trip around the whole of the Mediterranean undertaken in 1978.  He spent four weeks in Spain before crossing North Africa, Sicily and Southern Italy to get to Greece, where he spent another five weeks, before crossing into Yugoslavia. Getting to the Adriatic coast (where he slept on the beach at Petrovac) meant traversing Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. He caught a bus to Dubrovnik, where “I was met at the bus terminal by proprietors of an extremely basic, not terribly friendly private room. I had to share the room with another backpacker.” In general he found Croatia’s private-room owners “never wildly friendly. Attitudes varied from correct to crotchety to downright hostile.” Greece had seemed much more hospitable.

A member of the team engaged to research a second edition of the Rough Guide to Yugoslavia in the late 1980s, British writer Phil Lee found private rooms “generally welcoming and comfortable. Although I do remember getting locked into a bathroom when the handle dropped off the door. It was two hours before I was saved.”

There was indeed a general feeling that communist Yugoslavia was a bit more of a challenge than the more familiar destinations of the capitalist Mediterranean. According to Beverley Palmer, "eating was problematic in general as there wasn't much food available to anyone, and we were always hungry. Breakfasts (at the various accommodations) were bread, sometimes jam, always home made plum brandy, plus chicory-type coffee and weak black tea, occasionally we'd get fruit. There wasn't much electricity and refrigeration was haphazard everywhere, so I guess cheese, meats weren't available or kept well. The locals were welcoming but everything seemed "washed out"- there was no colour and clothing was very grey."

Yugoslavia's unique position as a communist country that was not a member of the Soviet Bloc and had developed a social model of its own was a source of fascination to many independent tourists, although it was irrelevant to the plans of many others. Phil Lee jumped at the chance of visiting Yugoslavia when offered the Rough Guide updating job. "It seemed remote and fascinating at that time, plus I was very interested by Josip Broz Tito (leader of Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980) and his attempt to develop his own form of Communism. This was one of the main reasons I wanted to go. I spent a fair amount of time talking to local Communists, who were enthusiastic 'Yugoslavs' and fans of Tito. They were a little dubious as to the inventive plans that Tito had developed - and as one they despaired at the system's widespread corruption."

For Martin Dunford Yugoslavia was an appealing alternative to the rightwards drift of Thatcher's Britain. "As a middle way between full-blooded capitalism and state socialism Yugoslavia seemed to us to be quite appealing. And we did talk to people when we got here who would tell us about the regime’s failings but we never got the impression that we were travelling in a dictatorship."

For all of the travellers I spoke to the Adriatic coast represented just one part of a more extensive Yugoslav journey, which invariably involved exploring the inland parts of the country as well as the shore. It was, after all, the mixture of cultures and influences that made Yugoslavia, the archetypal “land of contrasts”, such an interesting destination for independent travellers.

The idea that the Adriatic was an over-travelled destination where mass tourists went, and the main adventure was to be found inland, had a long tradition in English-language travel-writing about the Yugoslav space. American publisher Fodor’s Guide to Yugoslavia, published in many editions from 1950 onwards, devoted pages and pages to an Adriatic coast that most of its readers would be heading for, while at the same time stating that the “real” Yugoslavia lay inland. As if the coastal strip was a tourist showcase devoid of authenticity.

Bypassing the beach

One of the most influential British voices was J.A Cuddon, whose Companion Guide to Yugoslavia, published in 1968, was intended for independent travellers touring by car. “A journey down the coast, memorable though it is”, Cuddon wrote, “gives one a very incomplete idea of the sort of country you are in… The real Yugoslavia lies inland: a wild and primitive terrain of great beauty.”

Disdain for the beach was another symptom of the independent traveller’s (and the independent travel writer’s) distrust of mass tourism and the places where mass tourists went. Re-reading the Rough Guide to Yugoslavia today, its coverage of the Adriatic often seems more like a warning than an invitation. Split’s Bačvice beach is described as “small, crowded, and a little too close to Split’s polluted harbour for comfort. If you have to go at all, go early and on weekdays to avoid the crowds.” Banje beach in Dubrovnik was “grubby, noisy, and crowded thick with radios and flirting adolescents.”

“It was the one thing that early Rough Guides got completely wrong” reflects Martin Dunford. “There was a real snobbery towards other kinds of tourists and the idea that they shouldn’t be there having fun”.

Indeed very few of the people I spoke to in connection with this article

had any distinct recollections of beaches - apart from Beverley Palmer, who has fond memories of her “skimpy emerald green bikini. Which created rather a stir in a country that felt very ‘grey’ and conservative”.

One of the most interesting aspects of all the journeys undertaken by the travellers who spoke to me was that almost all of them were keen to visit Kosovo, the autonomous province of Yugoslavia's Serbian Republic which was famous both for its medieval Orthodox monasteries and spectacular Ottoman architecture. As a province which had a majority Albanian population but which also had strong elements of Serbian heritage, Kosovo and its ambiguous constitutional status had been the subject of much political debate since World War II, and was the scene of protests (led by ethnic Albanian students) demanding more autonomy in spring 1981. Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority was to be subjected to Serbian state repression throughout the period when Slobodan Milošević was in power in Belgrade (he took control of the Serbian communist party in 1987), producing a determined and dignified local resistance movement. Kosovo was ultimately to become an independent state following the NATO intervention of 1999.  It is fascinating to reflect how independent travellers treated Kosovo as a natural component of the Balkan travel circuit during the Yugoslav period - a status which it has largely lost in the ensuing decades, even though its attractions remain just as compelling now as they were 40-50 years ago.

As we have already heard from Huib van Marle, Kosovo was a region that held special appeal for the more intrepid tourists. It was definitely off the beaten path, and also – with its fractured history and ambiguous status in Yugoslav’s complicated federal framework - symbolized that country’s contradictions.

“Kosovo seemed particularly undiscovered” says Martin Dunford, who arrived in Kosovo shortly after the unrest of 1981 and was eager to ask young Kosovars what they thought.  “I went out drinking with some local students and I remember them telling me that my hotel will definitely be bugged. I thought it was tremendously exciting to be staying somewhere where I, a mere travel writer, would be spied upon by the secret police.” Sometimes, travel in Yugoslavia could be like a Cold-War spy adventure, but without the hassle of visa restrictions.  “I also remember being in a bar and mentioning Enver Hoxha [communist dictator of neighbouring Albania] in too loud a voice and being shushed by everyone around me. “

Surprisingly, given the political sensitivities surrounding Kosovo following the events of 1981, Phil Lee was offered a free guided tour of Kosovo by the Yugoslav tourist office in London in order to assist him in his research. Did he think they had a political agenda and were trying to impose a view of Kosovan history on him that would suit the regime in Belgrade? "That’s an interesting question. I think they were genuinely keen for me to see the remoter parts of Yugoslavia - and they were equally helpful when it came to Macedonia. My guess is that they didn’t see the coming break-up of Yugoslavia anymore than we did."

For travellers like Martin Dunford, the appeal of the Adriatic region lay precisely in the jarring differences between the cosmopolitan, much-written-about coastal strip and the relative mysteries of the interior.  “Yugoslavia was a county of two halves, with package tourists on the coast but very few visitors inland. The experiences of travelling were quite different depending on where you were, and people inland weren’t used to tourist at all. “

Carnivals and swallowtails

Another of the researchers who worked on the second edition of the Rough Guide to Yugoslavia was Dave Robson. For Robson, the thrill of discovery was awakened not by the Balkan interior but by the Adriatic island of Lastovo, an island that had been off-limits to foreigners from1976 onwards due to its importance as a military base, and had not been unsympathetically modernized in the style of the Adriatic’s more touristed destinations. The ban on foreigners was rescinded in 1988, and Robson felt privileged to be among the first to visit.

“The five-hour crossing from Split created a real impression of heading into the unknown and this was reinforced by the slowly looming shape of the island as we approached, and by the journey up to Lastovo Town from the port of Ubli in an ancient rickety grey bus, straining and wheezing round each bend. (A vehicle that was still in service in 2016!) I also recall the profusion of Swallowtail butterflies which congregated around the flowers and shrubs. It was the island’s stark natural beauty and tranquility as well as the unassuming welcome provided by the people I met which made me fall in love with Lastovo”

“After my Rough Guide trip, when I had heard about Lastovo's unique carnival ritual known as the Poklad, I went back the following February to see it for myself. I think it was the first time in many years that outsiders had had an opportunity to witness this annual cultural event which has lain at the heart of the island’s sense of identity since the sixteenth century. Nevertheless I recall that there seemed to be very few foreigners present, maybe half a dozen at most. Just about everyone on the island participated in the two days of festivities, and I felt privileged to be included in it. My landlady even made sure that I was wearing some sort of simple costume while I was having my supper on the day before the Poklad. The reason for this became clear when a group of revellers, similarly dressed, burst into the house singing heartily. After she had provided wine and biscuits, baked for the occasion, they demanded I accompany them as they visited other households where more biscuits and wine were consumed. In between visits, we encountered other groups of singers, with whom there was clearly a friendly but determined rivalry, as to who could sing the loudest. I spoke no Croatian and they spoke little English, but the language barrier was hardly a problem, as we staggered in an increasing state of breathless intoxication, around the poorly-lit terraces and alleys of the town.”

“The food on Lastovo was special because it was overwhelmingly sourced from the island itself. This was a matter of considerable pride for the people, and the vegetables, salads, meat and fish, not to mention wine and olive oil were all excellent, and generally served in impossibly generous quantities. In particular I recall the meal I was served as part of a full-board arrangement on the night before the Poklad, which featured a huge and delicious lobster, surrounded by vegetables, picked mushrooms and potato salad.”

There is a long tradition among independent tourists (and the guidebooks they read) of playing down destinations where mass tourists go, and emphasizing instead the less-well travelled, the undiscovered, the “authentic”. The world of the independent tourist was in many ways shaped by these expectations, consistent with the idea that travel was a journey of discovery, a confrontation with a world that was not your home. Nowadays most of us flatter ourselves that we are independent travellers, even though we enter the commercial tourist industry every time we click on a website to make choices about flights, accommodation and things to see and do - however "off-the-beaten-track" we think they might be. We also expect to experience everything more intensely than our independent-traveller forebears, with beach life, cultural heritage and gastronomy packed into a mosaic of experience that we design for ourselves. Information about the "undiscovered" and the "authentic" (and details on how to pay for them) are never more than a few clicks away, although we still like to think that the less-well-travelled road is the one worth following.

And despite the declining possibilities of genuine discovery, faraway islands like Lastovo can still seduce. “I was last on Lastovo in 2016” Dave Robson continues, “and the changes to the island since my first visit have not dulled its beauty or charm. Airbnb has made accommodation straightforward to access, but also more expensive. There is a well-stocked supermarket rather than a small and idiosyncratic grocery store in Lastovo Town, and there is a bar with good wi-fi. Above all the solitude and calm of the interior remain, and the Swallowtails still abound.”

© Jonathan Bousfield