The town where V’s brother V2 lives, Kragujevac, is Serbia’s fourth-largest city with just under 175,000 inhabitants. Situated about an hour and a half south of Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, the region is proud of the more affordable living and rural beauty it offers while still boasting plenty of nearby shopping and amenities commensurate with the big city. V2 and his wife D – whose family hails at least three generations back from Kragujevac – made it a point to show us around, welcoming us to town with a dinner out that included a large group of their extended friends and family.
Our second day in town, we went to a nearby village called Stragari about 20 miles outside Kragujevac where D’s parents have a countryside weekend home, which I believe originally belonged to her mother’s parents. It was the kind of afternoon that in many ways reminded me of my Peace Corps service in Macedonia – relaxing away an afternoon outdoors with a beer, far too much salad, bread, and grilled meat, and the company of a jumble of languages and laughter, accompanied by the shouts of children and more than a few tall tales.
While we were out in the countryside, D’s brother took us to a couple of the local monasteries early in the day. The whole area is so rich in history and given he had lived there his entire life, he was able to share quite a bit of it with us. Luckily I’d kept a lid on the beer-drinking so I could motor us around a bit before we returned to the yard for some more serious eating.
First we visited Manastir Voljavča, a monastery reconstructed at the beginning of the 15th century on the ruins of an 11th century church where the first meeting of the Serbian Minister Council – the first executive governing organization in the post-Ottoman modern state’s history – took place in 1805. D’s brother regaled us with stories about Serbian revolutionary Đorđe Petrović and first prime minister Mateja Nenadović as we wandered about the bucolic grounds.
Afterwards we visited a second monastery, Manastir Blagoveštenje, dating back to the 12th century and named after the Annunciation. I felt such a sense of peace there, and it was sad and fascinating to see a large shrine to the significant number of local World War I casualties.
On the next day of our visit, V and his brother V2 took some time to catch up alone and discuss family matters, while D set A and I up with an English-speaking friend of hers who worked in the tourism industry to show us around downtown Kragujevac. We would have been just as happy to shop and sightsee on our own, but we played along, not wanting to offend our hosts and thinking we might just see some things on the tour we wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.
We did enjoy the tour, but put a cap of two hours or so on it. We’ve both spent enough time in the Balkans to know how hospitable people are, and that if you don’t draw a boundary, something can unexpectedly end up taking your whole day. In the end, the tour was the perfect length, and our guide was so worried about impressing us that she made us both nervous! Once we got her to relax the unnecessary formality, the tour was a lot more fun for all of us! She knew a tremendous amount about her hometown and it was obvious she was very proud of it.
If you are like most people, you may have never heard of the Kragujevac Massacre, yet another in a long line of WWII-era tragedies in Eastern Europe. On October 21, 1941, German soldiers murdered nearly 2,800 residents of Kragujevac – then Axis-held territory – in retribution for insurgent attacks that had killed or wounded approximately three dozen Nazis.
Unfortunately for V’s family, who were directly affected, they have not had the luxury of not knowing about it. V’s mother, as it happens, was also originally from Kragujevac, and was orphaned there at the age of four during WWII. First her mother died of tuberculosis in 1939, and then her father was one of the locals murdered in the massacre in 1941 after being caught out on a bread run for his hungry child. To this day, 80 years later, V’s mother feels guilt for him being on the street rather than at home, and although she knows intellectually it wasn’t her fault, the pain persists. The horrendous ripple effects of hurt that human beings cause one another with their brutality I will never understand. And as long as I have studied WWII, it seems there is always something more to know about it.
V had brought A to this museum on a visit six years prior, but I had never been, so we ventured to the outskirts of town for me to see it. Until visiting, the historical event there had been something of an abstraction in my mind, an asterisk. Seeing V’s grandfather’s photo there on the wall with his name and the family resemblance was a reality check and a shock. Looking about the exhibits of the victims’ recorded/known last words and the circumstances that occurred, two months shy of the 80th anniversary, was hard to reconcile with the sunny day and peaceful setting. But reconcile and witness it we must. In a land filled with so many horrors during just my lifetime, I had to make additional room for horrors from the past to come forward into my awareness.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
After a homemade dinner at V2 and D’s apartment that evening, and a little more time to visit with them and their sons, we had a quiet evening in our AirBnB nearby and packed up to hit the road to the Croatian coast the next day. We had rented a beach house in Dubrovnik for a few days, and were excited about A’s first time seeing the old town and a chance to jump in the Adriatic Sea.
Looking at the high cost and limited availability of booking so last-minute during peak season, we had toyed with the idea of staying farther away from Dubrovnik to save money. But ultimately I decided the beach house, less than five miles away in Lozica, would be my treat to be both near the old town while also having the ocean literally in our backyard. This trip already featured a significant amount of driving and it didn’t make sense to stay an hour or two away from old town Dubrovnik when that was a major draw. So as it often does in the time vs. money calculation, time needed to win. We were all excited with the choice.
We would need to pass through Bosnia & Herzegovina to make it to Croatia, and would make a lunch stop around the halfway point in Višegrad, an old Bosnian city. When we returned from the coast on our way back to Serbia, we planned a more northeasterly route back through the cities of Mostar and Sarajevo to see something different. I had visited Sarajevo in 2015, but V had not been since the 1990s when he worked as local staff at our embassy in Skopje and went to support a Clinton administration visit. A had never been at all, but wanted to go, and both V and I each had close friends who just happened to be living there temporarily for work, so that was settled.
Although it was only 113 miles between Kragujevac and Višegrad, the GPS said it would take three hours, and zooming in on the map revealed why: this was going to be a very windy mountain road. I was glad I was driving!
We crossed into Bosnia without incident, and it was kind of awesome to just be driving along and see the odd castle up in the mountains!
We got to Višegrad, found a parking spot, and enjoyed a delicious outdoor lunch at the Hotel Višegrad, along with scenery of the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge over the River Drina. The bridge, completed in 1577 during the Ottoman Empire, became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. I had never been to the town before and it was gorgeous to behold.
What we enjoyed less was the appalling behavior of a group of children dining with their family at a table nearby; wouldn’t you know, literally the only other people sitting outside. The entire party was dressed nicely, opening what appeared to be birthday gifts, and ordering extravagantly, while we sat in our T-shirts, shorts, and sandals, backpacks and totes hung over our chairs. We joked amongst ourselves about money and nice clothes not equaling class, as their kids ran shrieking through the patio and played too roughly with some stray kittens begging at our table.
V counseled the children to pet the kittens nicely, in the way any adult can get away with telling other people’s children what to do in the Balkans, but they just gaped at him blankly as if they had never heard an adult speak to them before. Their mothers, smoking and looking like advertisements for bad cosmetic surgery carried on ignoring them from 20 feet away. In the photo above we are smiling, but between our dining companions and encountering shockingly rude people in the long bathroom lines downstairs, A and I were literally ready to slap half the people in this place. Thank goodness the food and prices were worth it! We had a ways to go yet to make it to Dubrovnik.