Car-hire companies have a clear worldview on the limits of the civilized world. Buried in the small print is a list of eligible nations—Serbia and Montenegro aren’t on it, and neither is Bosnia-Herzegovina.

So it was with minor trepidation that I offered my passport at the Bosnian border, hoping no one was going to fuss about small matters such as rental agreements—I’d neglected to share my final destination with the car-hire people.

I had come at it the long way—an eight-hour drive down the Adriatic coast that took me from Italy to Slovenia, then on to Croatia, and after a brief Bosnian interlude, back into Croatia—Dubrovnik is an enclave.

One of my best friends, recently deceased, had been here in 1982, and spoke of a beautiful city and a magic phrase—nema problema. Surprisingly, the Croatian word for ‘no problem’ isn’t steeped in consonants—from Slovenia onward the whole place felt like a remake of King Ottokar’s Sceptre, complete with Dalmatian costumes.

Dubrovnik has fallen prey to the Game of Thrones, and the old city is a mishmash of King’s Landing walking tours, mysterious GPS coordinates, and the Walk of Shame—although the naked actress who performed the walk was photoshopped due to pregnancy.

But the real Dubrovnik is much more than the site of another irrelevant quasi-medieval-scifi nonsense epic—it’s a beautiful, sunny, truffle-rich peninsula, with excellent victuals and very drinkable wine—the Malvasija grape for dry whites, and a number of local varietals such as Plavac for reds.

Dubrovnik is also deep in the Austro-Hungarian empire—Sarajevo, where the assassination of Franz Ferdinand triggered the First World War, is just up the road. Back in Tito’s time, all this was Yugoslavia, and Serbo-Croat was the lingua franca—before WWI, Croatia and Hungary were a single country, but where I found the Hungarians to be unspeakably dour, Croatians were friendly, communicative, and fun.

A simple hvala earned a ready smile, and vrlo dobro triggered a beaming volley of consonants.

Signs for Belgrade, Split, and Ljubljana compete for your attention as you drive south, and UN KFOR convoys still linger after the Bosnian war, like olive scars on this troubled area.

Head east for Bosnia, deep in the heart of the Balkan troubles.

In the Balkans, evidence of the struggle of centuries between Christians and Turks is never far away, and there is no better example of the insanity of the warring parties than the story of Vlad III.

This is associated with Transylvania, to the east, and it’s a wonderfully gory tale—a medieval primer for the barbary that took place in Croatia in the 1990s, and the subsequent Bosnian war. But in all fairness, Vlad wreaked havoc in Hungary and Bosnia as well.

Vlad Dracul, to give him his full name, inspired the movie hero played by Bela Lugosi, but the XVth century prince of Vallachia was far more frightening—a hint is provided by his sobriquet—Vlad the Impaler.

Impalement is a curious technique, consisting in the insertion of a circular stake through the human rectum or vagina, and subsequent careful manoeuvering of the long pole to avoid destruction of internal organs. When properly performed, this operation results in the exit of the stake through the esophagus and buccal cavity—the impaled victim is fully able to breathe, and is thus displayed upright and vertically skewered.

It appears the deranged Balkan ruler learned the technique from the Turks, when he was imprisoned as a youth—certainly, Vlad Dracul performed his magic on both humans and animals—after he had impaled two monks, he proceeded to impale their donkey for braying.

Vlad experimented with a range of tortures, including boiling humans alive in large copper cauldrons—these had wooden lids with holes through which the victims’ heads protruded, so screams and tears could be witnessed by their tormentors.

In 1459, he performed yet another astonishing act—three Turkish diplomats arrived at his court to pay their respects. They refused to remove their turbans before him, following their custom—after commending them on their faith, Dracul ordered their turbans to be nailed to their heads with three spikes, to ensure the diplomats’ hats would be forever secure.

In his many wars with the Ottoman empire, he became a legendary barrier to the spread of Islam into Europe. In 1462, he wrote a darkly humorous letter to the sultan.

I have killed peasants, men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea … We killed 23,884 Turks, without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers …Thus, your highness, you must know that I have broken the peace

Sultan Mehmed II was swift to respond—he sent an army of one hundred fifty thousand men to invade Vallachia and replace its ruler. Vlad was severely outnumbered, and after a failed attempt to murder the sultan in a nocturnal raid, he retreated to the town of Târgoviște. By the time Mehmed’s forces arrived, the town was deserted.

The Turks were greeted by a ‘forest of the impaled’. Twenty thousand people, including women and babies, had been impaled on stakes, and the Ottoman army was dumbfounded—the Sultan decided prudence was the better option, and withdrew his forces.

Vlad Dracul was killed in battle at the end of 1476—the Turks cut his corpse into pieces and sent his head to the sultan, in the best medieval tradition, but the violence lives on. War in Croatia raged from 1991 to 1995, over five hundred years after Dracul’s death, and recently exploded again in Bosnia—massacres didn’t extend to Vlad’s exalted heights, but they showed that the boundary between human civilization and savage cruelty is a very fine line indeed.

When you see the happy, smiling folks of Dubrovnik, hear the music and the laughter, it’s hard to imagine how much suffering this nation endured.

Small-minded, sadistic wars for nation-statehood were the daily fare of the Balkans since human history exists—maybe we can be smart enough to write the next chapter in a different way.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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