Lunch in a Croatian home softens the ravages of war in this region

“The Serbs began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, systematically removing Croats from their territory — often by murdering them. The bloodiest siege was at the town of Vukovar, which the Yugoslav army surrounded and shelled relentlessly for three months…”

VUKOVAR and OSIJEK, Croatia – We are now in Croatia and tomorrow we visit Serbia. These are two of the major players in the breakup of Yugoslavia. It is hard to believe that these wars were so recent.

The tank memorial in Vukovar

I have already provided you with a history lesson about Yugoslavia written by someone far wiser than I. Now we are seeing where some of that history occurred. I have visited Croatia before. Some years ago we took a cruise down the Adriatic coast visiting several of the country’s resort towns. These were largely untouched by bombing but were where many people came as refugees to live in the hotels. We visited Dubrovnik, a World Heritage city which has rebuilt beautifully after being bombed in late 1991. We traveled by bus to Kotor in Montenegro, the newest country formed out of the former Yugoslavia.

On Thursday, July 5, we docked at Vukovar, a small city that has suffered mightily. When Croatia tried to declare its independence, the Yugoslav National Army first attacked the country here. Vukovar was shelled for 87 days between August and November, 1991, and then occupied. Thousands were killed or disappeared.

Today it is a quiet town again. Buildings on the main street have been reconstructed, however, many on the side streets are still rubble. The economy here is not strong – unemployment remains high – so the farmer’s market bustles, with many local people selling whatever they can from their gardens.

An enthusiastic Nino Majhen

The bimbed-out water tower on the Danube has been left as a reminder of the war. There are other memorials as well. As we pass through the city we see a tank by the road with a plaque on it. The story is that this commemorates a day when the Croat resistance decimated a column of tanks on the road by hiding behind the local homes and shooting at the tanks through the houses…right out the front windows.

We then traveled to the small city of Ocijek. Located on the Dravo River, it was also heavily shelled during the war but little is visible due to a continuing reconstruction program. We walked around the fort area, but again the temperatures were stifling. It was hard to appreciate the church organ concert that was presented in lieu of a school visit (as school was out).

From there we headed into the nearby countryside to the town of Kopacevo where we visited the “lavender farm” of Nino Majhen. Open to tourists just three months, Mr. Majhen welcomed us with a shot of slivovitz (plum brandy) then gave a lively and entertaining program about the region. He then served us local wine, elderflower water, sausage and snacks and a cake. His enthusiasm and humor were charming. The OPG Majhen is a bed and breakfast and also offers canoeing, hiking and other outdoor adventures. (opgmajhen@gmail.com). (Another plus: His lodge was air-conditioned!)

Snjezana — our lunch hostess in Croatia

From there we drove to the adjoining village of Bilje where our group was divided into smaller groups and dropped off at local homes for lunch. Ten of us were warmly welcomed by Snjezana Bagaric who served us at two tables set under a grape arbor. The shade made the setting very pleasant. She also greeted us with the traditional slivovitz and then served up a very nice vegetable soup. That was followed by baked chicken, potatoes, a crunchy slaw, creamed cucumbers and cake. The meal was accompanied by wine, bread and juice.

She explained that all of the food was home-made and fresh, all bought from her farming neighbor. While we munched away, Snjezana told us her life story…typical of so many in the region.

She was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina. She, a Serbian Orthodox, married a Catholic…which in this part of the world is considered a mixed marriage. When the Bosnian War broke out, their parents both left the country, each going to live near people of their particular religion. She and her husband went to Germany, where he could get a job working for a cousin.

They expected to stay for a few months, but it ended up being eight years. Their two children were born there. But when the Bosnian conflict was resolved, their refugee visas were revoked and they were given three months to leave.

They first went to Bosnia, but the economy was in shambles and there were no jobs. So they ended up settling in Croatia where they were able to buy a house in this village and her husband was able to work as a stonemason in nearby Osijek. They have now been here 14 years. Ten years ago she began operating a bed and breakfast inn. Her husband’s skills are evident in the lovely terrace and the added rooms. She seems content that there is peace in her life and in her village.

A few years ago, Nino Majhen (he seems to be the tourism entrepreneur for the region) visited her and asked her to host lunches for visiting tourists and she has been doing it since. Several times a month, visitors from local river ships arrive and she enjoys meeting them and hearing about other parts of the world.

July 6, 2012

Photos by Chet Janssens

About Cynthia Boal Janssens

Cynthia Boal Janssens is the editor and chief blogger for AllThingsCruise.com. She is a former national president of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). She has sailed on over 40 cruises all over the world.

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