Travel: Memories of a land I found disappointingly homogenous and unexotic, apart from this one mountain place called Kosovo

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The Independent Travel
Years ago, before nationality had become a reason to be killed there, I travelled through Yugoslavia as a naive backpacker.

For most of the time, one was only vaguely aware of the fact of multi- ethnicity. There were those who called themselves Serbs and those who called themselves Croats, but everybody knew that such vestigial differences were preserved mainly as quaint relics of the Ottoman empire - partly to amuse tourists and partly to perpetuate the Communist myth that the Yugoslavs were a voluntary union of disparate ethnic groups.

Disparate ethnic groups? If only! Yugoslavs, as far as I could see, had turned into modern Europeans whose national language was Serbo-Croat. If anything, in fact, they looked drearily homogenous. Under the mighty walls of Diocletian's Palace in Split I found housewives buying fish wrapped in newspapers. In the cobbled backstreets of old Belgrade I saw office workers in raincoats. There was nothing "ethnic" in sight.

The irony was that, as a tourist, I could have done with a few sharp differences between the ethnic groups. Why ever would I want all those endless old Communists in trilbies when I could have had - say - a warring hotchpotch of swarthy Montenegrins, moustachioed Serbs and feuding Albanians instead?

On only one tantalising occasion did the Yugoslavia I had been hoping for show its face. In the middle of a long bus journey over the mountains between Dubrovnik and Skopje (now in the independent state of Macedonia), we stopped for a break at the local equivalent to a motorway service station.

It was the dead of night and bitterly cold. Walking into the bar, I expected to find, at best, a fat Eastern European truck driver or two on a vodka break. Instead I seemed to step through a time warp. At dozens of small tables were sitting crowds of furtive men in black hats playing cards and drinking Turkish coffee. Oriental music wailed through the cigarette smoke. Where on earth was I? The last thing I knew I had been boarding a bus in European Dubrovnik. Suddenly I had landed in an orientalist's fantasy world.

Here at last was plain evidence of Yugoslavia's multi-ethnic identity: exotic, diverse, colourful. Just what I always wanted. It was only a few days later that I discovered we had been driving through a place called Kosovo.