The Fracture Zone: My Return to the Balkans - By Simon Winchester Page 0,1

in the Punjab would be tricky with postmonsoon mud; I planned to be at the Khyber Pass in three weeks’ time. Albert grunted. This was not, he muttered, going to be the pleasure trip he had imagined.

It was much the same the next day in Germany, as we sped past the twin spires of Cologne Cathedral, and then again as a succession of ever prettier Bavarian villages vanished in the rearview mirror. Albert was sulking in the backseat, his mood becoming ever blacker. But I didn’t care: I now had the bit between my teeth, and though the car was going well, the roads were said to be treacherous all through Afghanistan and there might well be delays. In my view there was simply no time for standing and staring, not in this early part of the trip.

But the next day, under the emollient persuasions of my wife, I backed down. I apologized for behaving like a tyrant and, once I had looked at the maps, offered a compromise: Instead of barreling down the main trunk highway from Vienna to Belgrade and then on to Sofia—along a series of roads of insufferable tedium, jammed with long-distance trucks and littered with speed traps—I would go to Istanbul along the scenic route.

We would, if all agreed, drive through the Tauern Mountains of western Austria, go through Kitzbühel and Spittal to Villach, and thence to the Carinthian capital of Klagenfurt, reputed home to more ex-Nazis than anywhere else in the Teutonic world.

Here, I would gather later—but not back then—a careful and observant visitor could discern some vague and shrouded outlines of the coming Balkan miseries: The Austrians of Klagenfurt are said to display on occasion a deep distaste for their neighbor Slavs—for the Slovenes to their south are ethnically so—and demanded only a few years ago (in vain, as it happens) that their school system be segregated, since not a few Slav children had been osmotically seeded among them.

But in those days the subtleties of the Balkans were quite beyond me, and all I planned was that we press on and cross the Iron Curtain—for it still existed in 1977, complete with watchtowers and barbed wire, armed guards, and attack dogs, deep in the dark forests of the eastern Tyrol—and spend our first night in the northern Yugoslavian town that was the spiritual capital of the Slovenes, Ljubljana.

After that we would follow the line of the Dinaric Alps, join the Adriatic Highway at Rijeka* and then travel at a leisurely pace down to Diocletian’s old retirement city of Split; on to the great fortress of Dubrovnik; turn inland around the spectacularly enchanting Gulf of Kotor up to Montenegro’s old hill capital, Cetinje, and its present one, Titograd; before arriving in Skopje and eventually journeying, by way of the Vardar River valley, to a small Slavic border town called Gevgelija; after which, emerging from under the sentries’ baleful stares, we would pass into the sun-baked playground (and popularly elected democracy) of Greece. We would thus make the entire one thousand miles from the Austrian frontier to the northern border of Greece within the once great country of Yugoslavia, with neither a frontier to cross nor a dinar to exchange: And what’s more, I told Albert, the Dalmatian Coast Highway, as the Yugoslavs then called it and as I preferred to think of it, was one of the most remarkably engineered and spectacular roads in the world.

That was the clincher: He agreed in a snap. So I promptly turned the car southeast for Kitzbühel, and after a fortifying break at a café in which mountains of Schlag (whipped cream) seemed to have been piled onto almost everything in sight, I set off with as contented a group of passengers as I can ever remember ferrying anywhere.

It took two pleasing Dalmatian days for us to reach Montenegro, after which we passed down from the wild and barren hillsides—the locals like to say that God had shaken out his last bag of rocks at the conclusion of his seven days of world-creating genesis, and where they fell, lo! there stood Montenegro—and onto a low and level plain. It was then that matters suddenly became, as I can still vividly remember from those decades past, rather more sinister, rather more strange.

It was only an aside, really. We had crossed out of Montenegro on a side road, a winding mountain switchback on which there were few other vehicles, and dozens of unanticipated donkey carts loaded with piles of late-summer