An Education In The Balkans

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Words and Photography by Kristin Luna

We have recently been welcoming guest bloggers to our site (because of this). Kristin is one of my favourite travel writers and penned this beautiful post on a region of the world that I also love. Enjoy! ~ Dalene

I was never good at history.I am one of those odd people that’s both right- and left-brained. In college, I majored in mathematics and journalism — and yet history was one subject I just couldn’t master. Facts seemed to fly in one ear and right out the other. Some might mistake this as indifference, but it’s quite the opposite: I really want to learn more about the world, to soak up the origins of the hodgepodge of cultures that populate it, and yet I remember so little of what I read during years of U.S. and global history while in school.

Which is why travel has become such a vital part of my continuing education: It offers immersive experiences that stick with me in ways that textbook curriculum never did.

This year marks two decades since I’ve been traveling internationally. I’ve explored more than 100 countries on six different continents thanks to my work as a journalist. Sometimes I travel alone, sometimes with my husband, sometimes accompanied by friends, but there’s rarely an occasion when I don’t come home having learned something new.

This desire for knowledge, to experience things I only ever read (yet rarely retained) from books, is what took me to the Balkan region for a few weeks last summer. Every other year, my family — comprising my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, and my husband — takes one big international trip together. Being the only non-accountant and the one who works in the travel industry means that the planning process usually falls on my shoulders. (And being extremely Type A and needing to control all situations, this is a burden I am fine bearing.)

I seem to surround myself with well-traveled, open-minded people, the types who housesit in Albania for months at a time or think nothing of embarking on the Camino de Santiago solo, so I tend to forget that not everyone shares this adventurous spirit, something I was reminded of when I broadcast to people in my small Southern community where we’d be going on our 2016 vacation.

“What part of the world is that in again?” they’d ask absentmindedly, not really listening. Or “why would you want to do that?” And “but, but … isn’t it dangerous there?” was a question I received often when I told people we were going to Serbia and the surrounding region. Fair enough, I often forget that I flit about in a bubble of fellow travelers for whom this is a normal occurrence. The majority of Americans may only know of such places from news broadcasts, often when the country of note is seeing some political turmoil. After all, that’s how I first learned about Serbia, too.


I recall quite vividly when Ana Petrovic arrived in my classroom in second grade. It was early on in the Bosnian war between the Serbs and Croats, and she and her family were political refugees who had fled Sarajevo. Of course, being seven, I didn’t know what any of this meant — I just knew there was an exotic new girl in my class with a cool accent and a funny name and I wanted to be her friend.When I did my post-grad degree in Holland back in 2005, we visited the International Criminal Court in The Hague as part of our class on European history and were set to sit in on Slobodan Milošević trial. He wound up getting sick and dying just a few months later, so instead we heard testimonies from an American general who detailed the atrocities he had seen committed a decade prior. It was the first time that I, an American who had been a tween during that time, fully realized just what occurred during that bloody time in southeastern Europe’s very recent history.

The initial part of our trip through the Balkans was cruising with AmaWaterways down the Lower Danube, but we didn’t want your traditional “Christmas market cruise” if you will; we wanted something meatier. For all of us, this was a first brush with river cruising, and I booked with Ama simply because they offered an itinerary that was more attractive than their competitors, one that would have us experiencing the Balkans up close and personal.

And up close and personal we got. On our second stop in Vukovar, Croatia, we met Dom. He was our tour guide for the day and at just 27 years old, his memories of the recent war burned all too brightly. Born just three years before the war began, he told us of his childhood growing up near the Croatia-Serbia border in a time while his country battled for its independence. I’ll never forget him recalling the jingle bombs that were scattered throughout the city — “Don’t touch or pick anything up on your walk to and from school,” his mom would tell him, knowing all too well it might be an explosive — or how one day, she picked him up from kindergarten early and 20 minutes later, a bomb went off in the exact spot her car was parked, leaving his former school a grave. He and his mom moved to safety on the Croatian coast for a year where they lived with his grandmother.

We stopped by the Cemetery for the Casualties of the Homeland War, the largest mass grave in Europe after World War II. We also took a bus ride a half an hour out of town to a place reminiscent of Holocaust memorials I’ve visited, a site where prisoners — doctors, journalists and other professionals of their ilk — were rounded up in a farmhouse on a forgotten road and murdered because of an ideal. Their remains, and fragments of their lives, are etched into the memorial and spiral down into this single candle in the middle of the room. The UN Court later rejected all claims of genocide.

Our next stop was Serbia, where one of my former Semester at Sea students, Natasa was from. (I worked on the communications team for the global study abroad program from 2011 to 2014.) She collected us in the town center of Novi Sad and walked us over the river and up to the fort, as the cityscape changed dramatically. There, from our aerial perch, she pointed out where NATO bombed the city during the Civil War as means to stop the ethnic cleansing, completely demolishing the trio of bridges that link the two sides of the city in the process. She also told us of the terror of living in such a place that was lit up nightly by bombs — and how her younger brother wasn’t so lucky as she is; he didn’t survive the war. She presented the facts matter-of-factly with no trace of contempt for those who had destroyed her city, the physical scars still plainly visible some 20 years later.

That’s something I learned from both Dom and Natasa: In an era that seems to breed hate — during a period of time when my own country is divided by politics, by ideals — the Croats and Serbs don’t harbor ill will toward one another. They co-exist peacefully, leaving the past in the past, loving each other because — not in spite—of differences.

So yes, history may never have been my best subject. But who would have thought, all those years ago in grammar school, that travel would become the universal classroom that gave me an ongoing education, filling in any of those important gaps I may have missed along the way?

author bio

Kristin Luna is a Nashville-based journalist who has written for more than 50 magazines, including Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Parade and Glamour. She shares the behind-the-scenes of her travels, as well as her bourbon-fueled misadventures, via her decade-old blog Camels & Chocolate.

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  1. What beautiful photography! Your intro made me laugh – I sometimes feel like I live in two worlds – the travel blogging world, where I’m not well traveled at all, and my real-life world, where most friends and family are in awe that I take two vacations a year!

  2. Wonderful article, Kristin. Emotion is a powerful tool when it comes to memory. Your description of the tours with Dom and Natasa remind me of an excursion I took in Nuremberg as part of a Danube River Cruise with Viking. We visited the parade grounds where Hitler held his propaganda rallies, and, I kid you not, the hair on my arms stood on end like porcupine quills. I had a similar experience when I visited Culloden Field near Inverness. I could almost hear the bagpipes and battle cries. Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. I lived in Holland for my post-grad program in 2005 and remember visiting so many of those sites in Germany, too, Laura. It definitely makes it a far more powerful experience when you’re reading/studying about a certain era in history and then are able to travel to the actual site and put it into context. We also spent a week in Bavaria this past trip to Europe following the Balkans, so visited a few of Hitler’s former haunts, and they never stop being eerie (particularly in light of recent political developments on this side of the pond…).

  3. What a great post. I can really relate to your sentiments having spent some time in Germany recently and realising that still, more than 20 years since the fall of the wall the scars are still so evident. I was also touched by how little resentment there is between the people of previously warring nations and wondered how this would look in our own society in Australia. Thanks for a great read!

    1. So true, Kate. America, too, could also learn a little from the Balkan mentality!

      Have you seen “Man in the High Castle” yet? You mentioned Germany, and we were back in Bavaria for a week in the fall and were interested to hear from our friends in Munich that Germans won’t recognize the wildly popular show, which I see as a warning to society of what could become, at all as they don’t want to revisit that period in their past.

  4. What an amazing photograph. Very eye pleasing! I like your writing, and it’s fantastic. There are lots of info in this post. Thank you Kristin:)

  5. ‘Love the post Kristin, and since I’m an acute follower, I would expect nothing less lol!

    It’s amazing how the Balkan States have re-adjusted to the terrors that occurred just 20 odd years ago, with many ex-Yugoslavian refugees having to flee to Germany and other places, for safety. And living in Berlin, that feeling of how war affects everyone, is all too common.

    Great photography girlfriend! 🙂

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