Driv­ing through the Balkans, ghosts along a rocky road


Mak­ing a 12-day road trip from Aix-en-Provence, France, to Ti­rana, Al­ba­nia, in a four-door Citroën wasn’t so much a strate­gic de­ci­sion as a prac­ti­cal ne­ces­sity: My friend Olivier and I thrive on spon­tane­ity and didn’t nail down our itin­er­ary un­til the last minute, pre­clud­ing other trans­porta­tion op­tions. Plus, Olivier, a French­man, gen­uinely en­joys driv­ing, and tomy Amer­i­can mind, the five Balkan coun­tries all seemed so close. ¶ The pur­pose of our trip was to visit friends in Sara­jevo, Bos­nia and Ti­rana. To get there we would zip through the glitzy French Riviera, strug­gle through traf­fic jams near Venice and head south in more leisurely fash­ion, driv­ing down the Balkan penin­sula from Slove­nia, and travers­ing Croa­tia and Mon­tene­gro along the way. We some­times took side roads through coun­try­side and small towns, and the whole round trip cov­ered more than 2,300 miles. ¶ When, at the end of our first long day’s drive, we turned in­land from sparkling coastal Italy and en­tered Slove­nia, we were im­me­di­ately taken with this new-to-us coun­try. In the in­de­scrib­able way that places have per­son­al­i­ties, we sensed we had just en­tered a very dif­fer­ent part of Europe. Each in its own way, the coun­tries that used to be part of Yu­goslavia are still re­cov­er­ing from the dev­as­ta­tion of the wars that fol­lowed their breakup in 1991 and 1992. De­spite scenic views, charm­ing din­ners and wel­com­ing hosts, we found traces of tragedy in burned-out houses, eth­nic seg­re­ga­tion and a per­va­sive sense of melan­choly. The five coun­tries we passed through were like beloved grand­par­ents with war sto­ries to tell.

Top left: Our walk­ing tour of Sara­jevo in­cluded a stop at the city’s main mar­ket, which was in­fa­mously shelled dur­ing the siege of the city in 1994 and again in 1995. The sec­ond time, our guide said, the mar­ket re­opened within a day — the res­i­dents wanted to show their re­silience.

Top right: We had thought of Ljubl­jana, Slove­nia’s cap­i­tal, as just an overnight stop on the way to Sara­jevo, and we didn’t even get there un­til af­ter 9 p.m. But we were so charmed by the city — in­clud­ing this pretty town square — that we de­layed our de­par­ture the next day as long as pos­si­ble.

Above: Near the end of our trip, we paused on the coastal road near Senj, Croa­tia, to ad­mire the sunset. We felt the sense of some­how com­fort­able wist­ful­ness that per­vaded the land­scape all along our route.

Left: Not far south of Ti­rana, the cap­i­tal of Al­ba­nia, we vis­ited the ru­ins of Pe­trela Castle, which gave panoramic views of the Erzen Val­ley.

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