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 to my 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.