By Rick Steves and Cameron Hewitt
To get a feel for Croatia and Slovenia past and present, consider these books and films:
Lonnie Johnson's Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends is the best historical overview of Croatia, Slovenia, and their neighboring countries. The most readable history of Croatia itself is Benjamin Curtis' A Traveller's History of Croatia. Rebecca West's classic, bricklike Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is the definitive travelogue of the Yugoslav lands (written during a journey between the two World Wars). For a more recent take, Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić has written a quartet of insightful essay collections from a woman's perspective: Café Europa: Life After Communism; The Balkan Express; How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed; and A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism. Drakulić's They Would Never Hurt a Fly profiles Yugoslav war criminals. For a thorough explanation of how and why Yugoslavia broke apart, read Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (by Laura Silber and Allan Little). Joe Sacco's powerful graphic novel, Safe Area Goražde, describes the author's real-life experience living in a mostly Muslim town in Bosnia-Herzegovina while it was surrounded by Serb forces during the wars of the 1990s. Sacco's follow-up, The Fixer and Other Stories, focuses on real-life characters he met in siege-time Sarajevo.
To grasp the wars that shook this region in the early 1990s, there's no better film than the Slovene-produced No Man's Land, which won the 2002 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The BBC produced a remarkable six-hour documentary series called The Death of Yugoslavia, featuring actual interviews with all of the key players (it's difficult to find on home video, but try searching for "Death of Yugoslavia" on YouTube; the book Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, noted above, was a companion piece to this film). BBC also produced a harrowing documentary about the infamous Bosnian massacre, Srebrenica: A Cry From the Grave (also available on YouTube). Angelina Jolie wrote and directed (but did not appear in) 2011's wrenching, difficult-to-watch In the Land of Blood and Honey, a love story set against the grotesque backdrop of the war in Bosnia.
On a lighter note, a classic from Tito-era Yugoslavia, The Battle of Neretva (1969), imported Hollywood talent in the form of Yul Brenner and Orson Welles to tell the story of a pivotal and inspiring battle in the fight against the Nazis. More recent Croatian films worth watching include Border Post (Karaula, 2006), about various Yugoslav soldiers working together just before the war broke out, and When Father Was Away on Business (1985), about a prisoner on the Tito-era gulag island of Goli Otok, near Rab. Other local movies include Armin (2007), How the War Started on My Island (1996), Underground (1995), and Tito and Me (1992).
Fans of HBO's Game of Thrones may recognize locations in Dubrovnik and other Croatian coastal towns, where much of the series is filmed.
Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of the Rick Steves' Croatia & Slovenia guidebook.