Hungary has officially closed its borders and they really do mean it. One wonders how much manpower and money are required to refuse refugees. After several hours of playing match-the-face with the Hungarian Border Patrol checking our passports, the ship got underway to Croatia. Viking offers a one-time special French cuisine dinner on the Aquavit Terrace, (upper deck), under moonlight. Taking advantage of that opportunity, we supped deliciously and slept well, awaking docked in Vukovar on April 24, courtesy of Houdini, our Hungarian ship captain.
Croatia has a long and interesting history. Once a Roman Province of Pannonia, where many Roman generals went to retire, Croatia was settled by the Croats, duh - it ain't Romania - who drove out the Romans in the 7th Century. They beat the Byzantines in 925 and established their own independent kingdom. In 1867 they joined the Austria-Hungarian Kingdom and became part of Hungary. After WWI they joined in union with Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia which in 1929 became Yugoslavia (Land of the Southern Slavs). In 1941 Germany invaded Yugoslavia and created a Croatian puppet state. The Croatian fascists, called the Ustaše, slaughtered countless Serbs and Jews during the war. Bad blood be back.
After Germany was defeated, Croatia joined as a republic of Yugoslavia; however, Croatian nationalism smoldered, simmered and stewed, refusing to fully embrace the new Yugo. After the strongman Tito died in 1980, Croatia continued to press its demands for independence, which eventually resulted in free elections in 1990. Franjo Tudjman was elected but soon set about becoming a dictator. In 1991 the Croatian Parliament declared independence. A brutal, intensive civil war (dubbed the Croatian War for Independence) between the Croatians and ethnic Serbians living in Croatia which led to genocide, mass murder, NATO bombing Belgrade, widespread destruction and other atrocities. On a lighter note, in case you are wondering, neckties were invented in Croatia.
From the ship dock we took the included morning shore excursion, which was a short bus ride to Osijek, to see its two highlights, a church and I forgot the other. Along the way we had an in-home visit to a Croatian family. We were a bit uneasy and apprehensive about the appearance of exploitation with a group of obviously wealthy Americans shoving cameras and questions into the faces of these proud, but economically challenged, people in their homes. A young Croatian mother of two welcomed us into her modest rent house, which she operated as a bed and breakfast. She greeted us with dignity and aplomb. She served us traditional Croatian beverages and pastries as she matter-of-factly related the harsh realities of her hardscrabble life, ending with "What else can I do?" She and her husband are hoping to immigrate to Germany. The unemployment rates for adults under 25-years of age in Croatia is 23.3%. Many of us were silently thanking our great fortune to have been born in the USA.
We skipped the afternoon optional tour to a vineyard and took "free time" to explore Vukovar by foot. A number of the optional tours Viking offers are centered around food and alcohol. We are walkers not drinkers. We spent several hours roaming the streets looking at the architecture and people. Much of the city is still very "shot up" with small arms fire damage. A rather small village, Vukovar, was the site of one of the worst atrocities of the war. We found the hospital where the Serbian Militia executed over 300 Croatian patients. A difficult to find memorial with no description marked the event. Locals we asked didn’t seem to know where it was. Of course, it is possible they were ashamed or just didn’t want to publicize the event.
Nearly every building had reminders of the recent war in the form of shrapnel and small arms fire. Take a look at the photograph of the train station. It pretty much sums up the current state of affairs and as our Croatian hostess told us, "there is a lot of damage and not much money to repair it."