A Look at the History of Croatia, Montenegro and Albania
ROW Adventures / Adventure Unbound has a long history in the Balkans, and it remains a favorite region to this day. Founder Peter Grubb first traveled to the region in 1974 while living in France during a high school summer. In 1988 and ’89, Peter led our first yachting tours (which we still run today!) along the coast of what was then Yugoslavia. Our yachting tours in Croatia continue, and we've added other tours including our border-crossing kayak tour taking guests on a comprehensive, exploratory adventure through Croatia, Montenegro and Albania.
Our Three-Country Kayak Tour immerses you in the culture and history of a fascinating region, one where each country is quite different. As you prepare for your trip to the Balkans, know that you are going to a region with some of the most complicated history in the world and a rich cultural heritage. We prepared some introductory historical information on the three Balkan countries we visit, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania, so that you can get excited for your upcoming adventure or simply learn more about this fascinating region.
Betsy Bowen and Peter Grubb, ROW / Adventure Unbound Founders, in Turkey on a Lycian tomb circa 1985.
Betsy Bowen and Peter Grubb, ROW / Adventure Unbound Founders, on-board the Romanca with the crew.
Read Before You Go
Reading some background material before setting off on your adventure is a great way to get a deeper understanding of the region you’re about to visit. We suggest you read Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts to better appreciate the history and world forces that have shaped this important region. If you want to dig even deeper, another great choice is Black Lamb Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, who traveled in 1937 to all the republics that would become Yugoslavia. From her travels, West was able to predict that this region would be the catalyst for World War ll, which proved to be true. To delve further back into history, you can read Ivo Andric’s The Bridge Over the Drina, which looks at the region under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s. These books are fascinating reads sure to give you insight into the Balkans.
First Stop: Croatia
Your trip starts in Croatia, a country with a long and convoluted history. Croatia enjoyed a very brief period of independence as a kingdom from 925-1102 A.D before coming under the rule of Austrians while the coastal areas were sold to Venice in the 1400s. The food of Croatia, especially of the coastal region of Dalmatia, has been influenced by the long occupation of Venice, so has a lot of similarities to Italian food while maintaining its distinctly Dalmatian flavor profile. Dalmatia has a history of Catholicism as well, so you'll find churches in the red-tile-roofed towns we visit, filled with art influenced by many Italian schools of art.
As the Ottoman Empire spread north towards Europe, Croatia became a border region and Ottoman rule was firmly established by the 1500s. The Ottoman Empire fell in the late 1700s and the Hapsburg Austrians moved into the void. In 1914, in an event widely acknowledged to have sparked the outbreak of World War l, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Franz Josef and heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot to death along with his wife by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
As WW1 came to an end, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established. This lasted until WWII when the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia, starting in 1941, allowed the Croatian radical right Ustase to come into power and form the "Independent State of Croatia." Ultimately, a rival group, the anti-facist, communist-led Partisan movement led by Croatian-born Josip Broz Tito, became the dominant force in the region with support from Allied powers.
Tito went on after WWII to form the six-party state of the Republic of Yugoslavia comprised of Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzogovena, Montenegro and Macedonia. Although socialist and communist in nature, Tito kept his distance from the Soviet Union. Unlike any of the Eastern Bloc countries, the citizens of Yugoslavia were allowed to travel to almost any country because of their neutral politics starting in 1963. Many took advantage of this to work abroad and later return with substantial savings. You may meet older Croatians on your trip who consider the period from the 1960s to the 1980s as the best time in Croatia due to a good economy, free health care and education and freedom to travel.
When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, it was only days before Slovenia and Croatia stated their Independence from Yugoslavia. Slovenia had a brief "war" against the Serbs that lasted 10 days. Croatia was not so lucky and their war with Serbia lasted almost ten years. As the war ended, we returned for tours in 1998 to a new political reality: the Republic of Croatia!
Second Stop: Montenegro
After your time in Croatia, you venture to Montenegro—a stunning and mountainous country that borders on the Adriatic sea. Another one of the states of former Yugoslavia, with some parts of its history similar to that of Croatia, it managed to gain its independence gradually and peacefully. From 1993-2006 Montenegro was part of a loose union called "Serbia and Montenegro." Then, through EU rules, the people of Montenegro passed a referendum for independence in 2006 and became the new Republic of Montenegro. The economy is largely service-based with tourism playing a major role, as well as direct investment from Europe. It's a popular destination for Russian tourists and other eastern European nations.
Third Stop: Albania
Next up is Albania, a country whose history is very different and thus will look and feel quite different from the previous two countries you visit. Albania was also part of the Ottoman Empire, but this rule lasted until 1912—around 150+ years longer than that of interior Croatia!
The Ottoman Empire made the mistake of siding with the Axis powers in WWI, and at the end of the war, the empire eventually evolved to become the modern country of Turkey. Because of the long Ottoman rule in Albania, the cultural and architectural impacts of that period remain much more evident than in any of the former Yugoslav states to this day. The food in particular still retains much of the influence of the Ottoman period, so is similar to the cuisine of Turkey. You’ll enjoy dishes made with spiced meats, roasted vegetables, eggplant, and yogurt salads.
The Italians also left their cultural and culinary mark on Albania due to their brief occupation of the country just prior to WWII. You can expect to see delicious cured meats and pasta dishes brought over from this time period. With the collapse of the Axis powers at the end of the war, Albania became a communist state led by the iron-handed Enver Hoxta, who ruled until 1985 when he died. While he was a communist, he aligned himself more with China than the Soviet Union and remained largely isolationist in his views. Hoxta had no architectural taste and in the 1960s built thousands of ugly concrete apartment buildings. Paranoid of the world in general, he also built thousands of concrete bunkers to defend the country and these dot the countryside to this day.
Visits and tourism to Albania was forbidden until the early to mid-1990s. Even today, few people have Albania on their travel bucket list. It's a pity because it's a fascinating place with a rich and complex history where people are welcoming, not to mention the spectacular mountain ranges as well as a beautiful coastline. As the 25th most-visited country in Europe know that your visit will be much appreciated. You will find a less-developed tourism infrastructure here compared to many places, but also a kind of excitement as a yet mostly undiscovered Albania emerges onto more lists of popular travel destinations.
Visiting three Balkan countries on one adventure will provide you with a great introduction to this fascinating and beautiful part of the world! Cross borders, explore more and discover what makes each country unique within their interconnected histories on our Three-Country Kayak Tour.