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Coasting on Road to Riches of Yugoslavia

<i> Irwin is a copy editor on The Times' Metro desk</i> .

Mountains flanked our right side as we left the Zagreb-Karlovac motorway in our rental car and took the narrow winding road that climbs into Bosnia’s forested Petrovagora range.

Signs for zimmer frei (vacant sleeping rooms) and roadside restaurants with lamb turning on a spit became more frequent as we neared the Plitvice Lakes. Yugoslavs justly call this one of the loveliest lake regions in the world.

My wife and I checked into the Hotel Plitvice ($40 U.S. a night, including a fantastic breakfast) and were soon exploring the lakes. Of the 16 lakes, the upper ones flow in countless cascades to the lower ones, culminating in Slap Plitvice, a waterfall that plunges 250 feet into a deep pool.

Wooden walkways are built out over the waterfalls and paths wind around the lakes. Visitors stroll through the area on long walks. A silent electric boat takes passengers on 20-minute cruises, providing an almost mystical interlude. In a snack area at one end of the boat ride, women sell pita sandwiches packed with slabs of homemade cheese and apple and cherry tarts.

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That night we dined sumptuously at the Licka Kuca National restaurant (also in the park). The restaurant was cozy, with a dark wood interior, and the meat was barbecued at the fireplace. For $8 each we were served regional dishes of homemade sausage, pork cutlet and djuvec (a delicious hashed meat dumpling with tomatoes and rice), while four musicians serenaded us with folk songs.

A Sheer Drop

We left the lake area almost reluctantly. The decision was eased by knowing that just 100 miles away lay the Dalmatian Coast. But the coast was on the other side of a range of mountains 5,000 feet high. At one point it looked as if the entire 5,000 feet lay before us in a sheer, breathtaking drop to the valley floor.

Once on the coast we found Trogir, an island town near Split that’s connected to the mainland by a small stone bridge. One of the best-preserved medieval towns on the Adriatic and just 18 miles from Split, Trogir is a living museum (no cars allowed), with shops and restaurants lining its narrow passageways.

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Trogir is the site of the international airport and a good place to stay. That must have been what the ancient Greeks thought when they founded it and later the Venetians whose fortifications still stand. For 50 cents you can climb to the belfry of the Cathedral of St. Lovro for a panoramic view of Trogir and the island of Ciovo, linked to Trogir by a mobile bridge. Sails on boats out of their marinas flash white against the brilliant blue sea.

We saw many zimmer frei . We stopped at the first one that appealed to us, at 1 Pantar, and stayed three days. Our third floor room was worth the climb, with a view across a finger of the Adriatic to red-tile roofs on the next island. The $30 a night for a double included breakfasts with smoked ham, cheese and homemade blackberry jam.

Stone Ruins

Scuffing along amid the 2,000-year-old stone ruins of Salona, once a major port for the Romans, you can look through the pines at the modern apartment blocks of Split five miles away.

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Split’s major tourist attraction is its old town, built in and around Diocletian’s Palace. The palace, a 500-by-600-foot structure, was built so well (it was completed in AD 305) that people are still living in it and it bustles with restaurants and shops, even in its subterranean passages. Brilliant flowers trail from passageway arches and vendors hawk leather goods and hand-woven fabrics in the market.

If the Roman Emperor Diocletian could look out from his resting place about 100 yards away in an octagonal mausoleum he would feel right at home. A climb up the adjoining belfry provides a sweeping view of the original design of the palace. You can pause for a drink or dinner by the water and enjoy the evening promenade. No cars are allowed.

A Monumental Work

By the Golden Gate along the palace’s north wall is Jan Mestrovic’s monumental statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin. The sculptor’s former home and gardens are about two miles away. His works there range from a small bronze of a boy with a bird to towering plaster studies of the figures he designed for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Belgrade.

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Split is also popular as a ferry point for visits to six nearby islands as well as Italy. We took the car ferry to Hvar, a two-hour crossing. Hvar’s harbor is framed by low walls. From the marble-paved square, narrow stone stairways decked with flowers and lined with restaurants beckoned us. We had fresh-caught calamari for lunch ($5 each).

Back on the mainland the Biokovo Mountains towered nearly 6,000 feet on our left as we headed south from Split along the Makarska Riviera, rich in hotels and resorts and tiny fishing villages. Along the way were groves of olive trees and expanses of vineyards.

Where the Neretva River enters the Adriatic we turned left and followed it inland to Bosnia-Hercegovina. At Mostar we took a walk across its masterpiece of a bridge. The marble surface has been worn smooth by all the feet that have trod the hump-backed bridge since it was built by the Seljuk Turks in 1566.

As we looked out from the bridge, the umbrellas at outdoor tables of one restaurant reminded us that it was lunchtime. We passed many clothing and craft shops until we found the restaurant. As we dined on a mixed grill of sausage and cutlets ($14.50 for two) we watched two boys hustling dinars by leaping from the bridge into the river.

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Mostar takes its name from the bridge ( most means bridge and stari is old). Countless minarets attest to the Muslim population of the region and close by is the attractive Karadzozbegova Mosque in 16th-Century Turkish architecture. After viewing its rich interior and carpets you can ascend the dome.

The Orthodox Church up the hill has a grille to screen the women from the men in a rare Christian concession to Islam.

A Place Apart

Founded in the 7th Century, the medieval city of Dubrovnik is a place apart. Its immense town walls are intact, keeping out vehicles (parking is available nearby) and restricting pedestrian entry to two gates.

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You can circle the town on top of the battlements for a marvelous view of the red-tile roofs, the white-marble buildings, the narrow passageways flanked by shops and dwellings and the deep blue water of marinas on two sides. The walkway around the top of the walls closes at 7 p.m.

The Placa runs the length of the city. At one end is the Onofrio Fountain that brought in fresh water in the 15th Century, a convent from 1290 and the Renaissance-style Church of Sveti Spas. A Franciscan Monastery houses the third-oldest pharmacy in the world and a cloister.

At the other end is the Rector’s Palace where the council and senate met, the cathedral whose altar is backed by a Titian painting, an open-air market, a maritime museum, an aquarium and the seaside approach to town.

Our hotel was the Plakir ($60 a night, including a sumptuous breakfast). It has two saltwater pools, one at sea temperature, the other enclosed and heated, and a view over the Adriatic. Dinner at the hotel cost about $6 each and included a flaming dessert and a serenade by strolling folk musicians.

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Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, is on the Vardar River and its one-way streets kept us confused but people were friendly. At a tourist office the clerk shook her head when I asked for a map, but motioned for me to follow her. She led me to a Yugoslav Auto Club office.

There a young man provided a map and directions to our hotel and to the Hertz agency. Even with the map (street signs were in Cyrillic), I needed directions. A man not only gave us directions but motioned for us to follow him the mile or so to the Hertz office. There we explained to the agent that we wanted to arrange for a ride to the train station when it was time to return the car several days later, on Sunday.

“But we’re closed on Sunday,” he said. As we stood there with our mouths open, he asked: “Can you be here exactly at 4 p.m.?” It was his day off, but he agreed to meet us. He took us to the station, too.

Skopje, rebuilt after a 1963 earthquake, has its old Stone Bridge, the market with mosques and camel caravaners’ inn, now a gallery, and the Church of Sveti Spas with its beautiful hand-carved iconostasis completed in 1824. But whenever I think of Skopje and the wrong turns I made, I remember all those people and their good turns.

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