SEARCHING IN THE BALKANS
We first learned of Kekec in a restaurant in Ljubljana.
It was a rainy September night, but, like us, everyone was sitting outside under large awnings enjoying drinks and meals while the rain gushed off the walls and roofs.
Like most Slovenians we met, our server spoke excellent English. I asked her what the WiFi password, Srecno Kekec meant.
"Oh, Kekec," she said, with a face that was transformed into what can only be described as wistfully nostalgic, "Kekec...every child, every adult, every one grew up with a love of Kekec. He is the hero from a book written in 1918. Then it was made into a film in the 1950s...everyone knows and admires Kekec...and the other word, Srenco? It means, good luck.
Later, I looked up Kekec on YouTube. I discovered a young earnest lad who does good while hiking and singing in the Julian Alps. Kekec seems to be a kind of boy-version of Heidi crossed with the magical effervescence of Alice in Wonderland.
From then on, I searched for Kekec; walking up the trail to Slap Savica, a waterfall that bursts out of the middle of a steep limestone cliff or as we twisted and hair-pinned down the skinny roads of the Julian Alps. I thought too, that I saw him disappear behind the endless stacks of firewood beside the Austrian-like wooden houses that dotted the extreme hillsides. Then again, maybe he was hidden among the blonde cows with huge brass bells around their necks.
Although I looked around every corner of the almost-two kilometre boardwalk in Vintgar Gorge, all that dazzled me was the river's water. Water that wasn't so much clear as simply liquid light that spilled through a crazy chasm.
After one week of Slovenian foods like gibanica, delicious bowls of jota soup and the plates of Kransjka klobasa sausages, we pointed our little rental car southwest and headed into Croatia and then Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In Croatia we joined the masses to walk the meandering boardwalks through Plitvice Lakes National Park, as incredulous as everyone around us at the limestone and turquoise miracles of water-falling lakes. We wandered the seaside city maze of Rovinj, surveyed our kingdom from the hilltop of Motovun, ogled the castle walls in Split and Dubrovnik and ate more perfectly grilled squid than I thought possible.
But it was in Bosnia-Herzegovina that we lost our hearts. Sarajevo is a city where the ‘roses' are the blast marks left from grenades. Some are painted red as a reminder of all that was lost. Others lend an eerie beauty to the sides of apartment blocks.
The bombed-out buildings are disappearing as the city drags itself back up from the four year siege of 1992-1996 but still, bullet holes remain as testimony. It is hard to believe that a city that looks like an exotic blend of Istanbul and Vienna could have endured such hardship.
Before we made this trip I had never been able to keep it all straight. Who fought who and why? But standing on those streets where it all happened, reading the books, talking to the guides and locals, suddenly, I understood. The history came alive. Although I can never say that the horror of war could ever make sense, I felt like I finally had a grasp of what transpired.
For centuries, prior to the siege, the people of Sarajevo had worked, traded, loved and lived in peaceful co-existence. They are, once again, living together and cooperating. They know better than anyone what the alternative is, what happens when fear and distrust of the ‘other' becomes the norm.
Each day we heard the muezzins' mournful call to prayer. In between, the Catholic church bells rang out. I liked to imagine them all as calls to love. And isn't love the truth that every religion seeks?
Our Balkan trip through some of the former Yugoslavia was not just about the discovery of the innocence of Kekec. Or learning of the mind-numbing deaths of 1600 children during the four years of the Sarajevo war. It also included the diverse art, rich culture, history, stirring music, divine food and beautiful people.
But most importantly, traveling through these countries afforded us the opportunity to imagine other's lives. Maybe not enough to walk a mile in their shoes, but at the least, for just a little while, the chance to walk beside them.
IF YOU GO:
PHOTOS by Colleen Friesen
1. Lake Bled
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