Most Americans appear to have spent their second September 11 anniversary paying tribute to the American ideals of open borders and acceptance of all forms of diversity—religious, ethnic, sexual, moral, and intellectual.  I spent it in Novi Sad, attending a conference on Islam and the West.  The one-day conference, part of the Rockford Institute convivium in the Balkans, was held at Matica Srpska, the oldest Serbian cultural organization, which cosponsored the event.  

The Americans—Fr. Hugh Barbour, Srdja Trifkovic, and I—made the case for Orthodox and Catholic Christians (and ex-Christians) to call a halt to their squabbling and face the common threat.  The Serbian contingent was equally strong.  The gracious welcoming address by our host, Professor Kovacek, touched on the need for Eastern and Western Christians to rediscover just how much they have in common as they face the threat from the East.  Aleksandar Rakovic reported on the rise of Islamic separatism and prototerrorism in the Sanjak region—the next Kosovo, if the Muslims have their way; Prof. Milorad Ekmecic, the foremost Serbian historian, spoke on the ugly reality of Turkish rule and the perfidy of the West; and Dr. Darko Tanaskovic, Serbia-Montenegro’s ambassador to the Holy See, gave a diplomatic but firm paper, debunking both extremes—the naive belief in the possibility of friendly encounters with Islam and the apocalyptic vision of inevitable conflict.  What is possible, he argued, is a pragmatic confrontation between the Christian and Muslim worlds in which each side is able to retain its own perspective.  This has not happened so far, primarily because Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge the possible legitimacy of the Western perspective.

In writing my book Montenegro: The Divided Land (if you haven’t read it yet, shame on you), I became fully aware of the historic conflict between Christendom and Islam.  The center of the conflict was not Vienna or even Budapest but in Serb lands, both the tiny principality of Montenegro—whose mountaineers met Turkish artillery with rocks and boulders, when they had no better weapons—and the fortresses of Belgrade, Petrovaradin, and Smederevo (where the Serbs made their last stand in the 15th century).  We visited Smederevo, where Dragan Acovic, a prominent Belgrade architect, gave us an historical tour.  Mr. Acovic is the supervising architect of the long-delayed new cathedral, St. Sava in Belgrade, around which he took us in company with the Serbian minister of religion, Mr. Vojislav Milovanovic.

The conference in Novi Sad was the one day in ten during our convivium given over exclusively to business, though we did manage to have lunch in the historic fort of Petrovaradin, drinks and discussion with His Grace Irinej (the Orthodox bishop of Novi Sad and a noted theologian), and dinner at the famous Bata Pezo restaurant, which I celebrated in an earlier column.  To be honest, we have put on many conferences and convivia, all of them fine, but this was the best.  

Take the first evening, having drinks at the terrace restaurant on Kalamegdan, the fortress of Belgrade assaulted by the Turks in 1456, when John Hunyadi, St. John Capistrano, and Vlad Drakula fought off the attack of Mehmed II (the conqueror of Constantinople) and killed 50,000 Turks.  As the moon rose, Srdja asked if we heard anything.  Only silence, then a crescendoing chorus of howls from about two-dozen wolves.  I had forgotten that the restaurant, which overlooked the Danube on one side, was also right above the zoological garden.  “Children of the night,” we said almost simultaneously, remembering that Dracula would have stood on this spot, “what music they make.”  (I think Alan Stock was the first to get it out.)

How to pick the best out of ten brilliant days?  Was it the day we met with both the Serbian patriarch and former (and future) President Vojislav Kostunica?  Was it the hours we spent in the two Serbian royal palaces, where HRH Aleksandar gave us a private tour with historical reminiscences of his family?  Or was it the Sunday that began with an Orthodox liturgy on a wild hilltop overlooking the Adriatic, followed by the lunch with Metropolitan Amfilohije, at which Father Barbour presented a relic of St. Gregory the Great?  “From America,” remarked the metropolitan, “we usually expect only money, but this relic is more precious to us than half the wealth in America.”  We spent the afternoon cruising Kotor Bay and visiting historic Catholic churches and made it back to our hotel in time for a late afternoon swim.  Or was it the day when we even ventured abroad to Dubrovnik, the jewel of the Adriatic, its magnificent walls and splendid baroque churches strangely intact in view of the devastation they allegedly suffered in 1991, when (according even to recent news stories) many parts of the old city received substantial damage?

Or was it just the time we spent in Milocer at the former royal vacation palace on the sea?  It is a lovely and dignified hotel, with quiet service, two private beaches, and a sheltered veranda overlooking the sea, where we sipped many a glass of loza (Montenegrin grape firewater).  On our last night in Montenegro, we dined on the veranda, as the sun set into the Adriatic, and, as we ate our roast lamb in the moonlight, we listened to the waves lapping the shingle and the wind lulling the pine trees of the park that surrounds the hotel.

Meals were among the best parts of the trip.  What was our best dinner?  It is hard to say.  Bata Pezo, in his restaurant on the Danube, recognized Srdja and went all out for a memorable dinner of fish from the river.  But the fish restaurants in Montenegro were also wonderful—Vido’s in Budva, where President Djukanovic is a regular; the Langust and More in Przno, where we feasted on fresh grouper and rockfish; and Kraljicina Stolica (the Queen’s Chair) in Milocer, overlooking the coast on a hilltop that once was Queen Marie’s favorite spot for rest and contemplation.  We walked (you cannot get there by car) from our hotel in the dark along the sea and up the brick and cobblestone pathway.  

I think our guests may have enjoyed their evenings in Belgrade even more, at Dva Jelena and Ima Dana, where Serbian bands played the gentle music of the old city.  Our worst meal was good by American standards, and the better of them, like the dinner at Vuk in Belgrade (seafood starters, a mousaka made from bell pepper, a veal goulash, delicious pastries) surpassed anything I have eaten in North America.

If you wanted to go but found some excuse—no money, a football game, the “dangers” and inconvenience of travel to exotic places, or just the sheer unfamiliarity of the Balkans—then you have a lifetime to spend kicking yourself for what you might have learned but did not, for what you could have experienced but would not.