by Nick Dantona
I was hijacked. OK, maybe not by any sort of fiend, but by the fertile imagination of my old friend Brian, with whom I share a fascination for Alan Furst historical spy novels. So when I mentioned that I was intending to take a nice drive down the Adriatic coast of Croatia he shanghaied that vacation into a journey through several former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe. What emerged was a staggered narrative depicting four countries with a scruffy beauty still intact and hidden in plain sight. This story is told through a series of twenty-nine photographs, eight written dispatches, and a map. I call them The Balkan Dispatches.
The collection chronicles an excursion through the post-Yugoslav War countries of Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania. Highlights include the reclaiming of Sarajevo; Dubrovnik with its Game of Thrones locations, the Accursed Mountains of Albania, and environmental portraits that expose a proud local identity. These words and pictures paint a region finally free of conflicted nationalism that looks westward for inspiration and guidance.
On to Croatia. There is little evidence left that Serbian leader Slobodan Miloševic‘ started his campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing here at the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Impossibly steep, narrow streets lead to the fortress walls that were no match for modern artillery. This seaside jewel has rebuilt itself into both a living museum of a walled medieval city and a world-class resort for people of all ethnicities and class. In fact, the city is so perfectly restored that the producers of Game of Thrones do little else than costume their actors to turn these streets into King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros. But to most locals it’s just a great place to take a swim.
“The Sarajevans tell story after story of how each ethnic group helped the other through the conflict, sheltering, feeding, and clothing each other. They were neighbors before the war. They would be neighbors after the war.”
Montenegro was on the Serbian side of the equation, so I don’t get much recent history out of the locals. Instead, my attention is guided towards breathtaking mountains that nose-dive into a craggy coastline and the Adriatic Sea. We step further back in time and enter the city of Perast, once the home of many a successful seafaring captain. Several empires throughout the centuries have battled for control of its port and shipyards. Along with the walled city of Kotor, they represented one the few viable competitive threats to Venice. So the Venetians conquered and held sway here for almost four centuries. Back in the present, Brian and I experience some car trouble and are escorted to the Border Control. We have to walk across to the Albanian side where a cab is supposed to be waiting. Brian and I cross like refugees, without a full understanding of what lies ahead, dragging our worldly goods behind. Two middle-aged guys with beard stubble who do not speak English await in what can only be described as a funerary vehicle. Without salutation or ceremony they take us to our guest-house in the Albanian city of Shkodër.
Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but mine is a captive of Albania. It is here that Brian and I make the arduous trek through the Accursed Mountains with our “Viking” guide, Ermal, and navigate the unique beauty of Lake Komani. We skim across Albania’s coastline. This part of Albania can provide a seaside vacation on a human scale. Think small, family-run hotels and restaurants, not high-rise chain resorts and themed eateries. Families (mostly Albanians, I think) are having a ball. So are young couples. It reminds me of the rural Southern Italy I was brought to as a youngster. The beauty of Albania’s mountains, countryside, and seaboard is staggering.
Before returning home, we stop for a few days in Madrid, Spain to acclimate to the familiar fit and entitlements of Western culture and custom. I can’t seem to shake a deep-seated uneasiness. From the perspective of these Balkan countries, the troubles that retarded their growth, that threatened their lives, began with a welling of nationalism. Or at least nationalism as a mask for political, economic, and I dare say, cultural agendas. If I were to have a wish for The Balkan Dispatches it would be that they prompt my fellow Americans to pause and reflect on our place in the world community; how our principles of inclusion, our vigilance of basic human rights and civil liberties are still the envy of the world and our greatest shield against hatred. Every portrait in the collection is looking straight into the lens, looking at us. They are presenting their best selves. Are they challenging us to do the same? I believe they are.
For more information, visit www.ndantona.com.