No Return Address: Unearthing Yugoslavia from Old Postcards [Pt. 1]

Updated: Jul 9

A postcard operates a bit like a rosy-tinted portal. Carefully selected by the sender, the idealized image is sent from its place of origin to be received in some far-off destination. Upon arrival, the mind of the recipient is then whimsically transported to that wondrous spot. However, after that initial moment of intended utility elapses, the postcard is set aside, slowly transforming from a portal into a time-machine, allowing us a view through a window that gradually transforms from an idealized present to an idealized past. Old postcards which act as temporal gateways into the past become all the more dramatic and amplified when the locations depicted undergo substantial change over time, leading to the scene being re-framed in ways that could not have been imagined or predicted. Whether that change is social, political, cultural or in some other form, the windows which these old postcards provide us can not only defy our understandings of the past, but also that of the present, and maybe even the future.

The former country of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is a landscape whose idealized past is etched in untold thousands of postcards. Examining these photographic relics of Yugoslav-life reveal a vibrant, colorful and modern world, beset with fashionable people, themselves surrounded by an architecturally ambitious and progressively built environment. However, the idealized world these postcards reveal is not the world that most people in the international community recall when asked to invoke images of the former-Yugoslavia in their mind. The images that will instead surface in these people’s minds are grainy visions of dreary tattered landscapes ravaged by war, desperate refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing and the destruction inflicted upon much of the country as a result of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Such horrific mental imagery is so powerful that it permeates the very core of many people’s understanding about this region, even to the point of subverting the reality of what Yugoslavia once was before the wars began and even what it is today. As a consequence, when most people in the international community think back upon Yugoslavia, often all they can remember is the violence and war.


To address this historical amnesia found in many people around the world as far as what Yugoslavia was before the 1990s wars, the images in this article "No Return Address” will operate as a temporal window through which will be examined the imagery of the “idealized” Yugoslavia etched in the country’s historical legacy of postcard production. In this article, I will present a choice selection from my personal vintage postcards collection, all categorized in such a way as to highlight the varying facets of Yugoslav daily life, architecture, society and culture. Many people around the world today have never seen a portrayal of Yugoslavia as an energetic dynamic nation, much less any images showing it populated by a modern fashionable people settled within a vibrant and innovatively built environment. As such, this article, which is "Part One" of a multi-article exploration, will work to reveal that world missed by some, forgotten by others and unknown to many.

 



Ferizaj/Uroševac, Kosovo*

A vintage postcard showing Ferizaj/Uroševac, Kosovo* Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

This postcard depicts 1960s-era scene from the central square of the small Kosovo* town known as Ferizaj (in Albanian), also known as Uroševac (in Serbian). The focus of this street scene is Hotel Lybeten, a modern hotel facility built during the early 1960s in the International Style. The most striking feature of the hotel is a large modernist geometric mural portraying a waiter, painted in 1967 by artist Anton Gjoni. Sources describe this vibrant work as a symbol of the region’s working class and service heritage, as the town has long been a center of commerce, transportation and trade, existing along the historical pathway between the urban centers of Prishtina and Podgorica. The mural continues to exist in good condition up to the present day and remains an important symbol for the town up until present day. Meanwhile, in front of the hotel can be seen a small group of curious well-dressed townspeople posing for the photographer next to a 1950s-era Soviet GAZ Pobeda M72 4x4 sedan. The Pobeda, which means ‘victory’ in Russian, was a popular export to Yugoslavia during that era.


Postojna, Slovenia

A vintage postcard showing Postojna, Slovenia. Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

The Carniola town of Postojna, Slovenia, famous for its amazing system of karst caves and caverns, is an ancient settlement with a history going back more than a thousand years. In this postcard we see a view of its residents strolling and carrying their shopping bags through the town’s central plaza of Tito Square. At the center of the scene is Hotel “Kras”, which means “Karst” in English. Built in 1963, it was the first hotel built in Postojna since WWII and among the first buildings in the community constructed in the modernist style of architecture. During the Yugoslav era, its cafe was a popular gathering spot for locals, especially as it hosted the town’s first pizza shop. However, in the post-Yugoslav era, it fell into neglect and disrepair. As a result, it was torn down in 2008. The following year a new hotel in streamlined contemporary styling was opened at its former location. The square was also then closed to cars. Interestingly, the “Kompas” tourist info center on the right is still open, looking very much the same as it does here.


Bijelo Polje, Montenegro

A vintage postcard from Bijelo Polje, Montenegro. Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

Here we see a four-panel card of vibrant street scenes, with a message in the center that announces “Greetings from Bijelo Polje”. This town, whose name translates to “White Fields” in English, is located high in the northern mountains of Montenegro within the Lim River valley. The lower two panels show various street vistas of residents engaged in their daily activities. Meanwhile, the top right panel depicts a group of young people hanging around the base of the Freedom Monument, which is a 1952 figurative bronze work by the sculptors Stevan Bodnarov & Branko Bon which honors the local fighters who battled against facsist forces with the Yugoslav Partisan movement during WWII. Finally, the upper right scene shows the modernist hotel name “Bijela Rada”. This concrete angular tower became one of the central landmarks and symbols for the town when it was built in the 1970s and continues to hold that status to this day, retaining much of its original Yugoslav-era charm.


Kavadarci, North Macedonia

A vintage postcard view of Gradski Trg in Kavadarci, Macedonia. Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

In this 1950s era postcard, we see a street scene from Gradski Trg (City Square), located at the center Kavadarci in what is today North Macedonia. With a pair of local children in the foreground, behind them we see the Monument to the Revolution. Built by Croatian sculptor Petar Palavičini (one of the last works he created before passing away), this memorial sculpture was inaugurated on September 7th, 1958 (Kavadarci Liberation Day) and honors the city's resistance fighters who rose up against occupation during WWII, as well as commemorating the roughly 500 city residents that died during the conflict. On the front of the monument's pedestal is an inscription which translates from Macedonian to English as: "For the freedom of our people". The sculpture consists of three figures, the central being a woman holding one arm high into the air while she pull wounded child with her other hand. On the right of the scene is “Hotel Balkan”, which was opened in 1968 and was among the first contemporary modernist facilities to be built in the town. It offered a wide range of services to the community, such as a department store, a cinema, cafes and much more. The monument continues to be a central symbol of Kavadarci, however, the Hotel Balkan is no longer in operation and is currently for sale.

 



Bovec, Slovenia

A vintage postcard view of the ski resort at Bovec, Slovenia. Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

On the slopes of Kanin Mountains, high in the Julian Alps, above the alpine village of Bovec is the Kanin Ski Resort. Kanin took off as a ski resort destination in 1974, when the ski complex seen in the postcard was built, which included a cable car lift from the valley below, a restaurant, visitors center, observation deck and other amenities. This complex, which sits at 2220m, is impressive not only because of its bold bright architecture, but also because it is the highest operating ski resort in Slovenia (the Adriatic can be seen 70km away on a clear day), making its construction, all the more, a significant engineering achievement. Furthermore, a 2008 project connected this resort to the Sella Nevea Ski Resort on the opposite north slopes of the Kanin Mountains, making it one of the only international ski resorts in the region. Kanin continues to operate as among of the most popular ski resorts in Slovenia, with its ski center looking just as good as it does in this vintage postcard.


Split, Croatia

A vintage postcard view of Gripe Arena in Split, Croatia. Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

In the Adriatic city of Split, Croatia, roughly 500m east of the main waterfront is situated the “Gripe” Sports Arena. Created by famous Sarajevo architect Živorad Janković in 1979, this bright white plastered complex was built for Split’s hosting of the 1979 Mediterranean Games. The form of this sleek modernist stadium is dominated by sloping lines and sharp angles floating above walls of glass curtains, almost futuristic in its appearance. In addition, as the complex was largely meant to attract Yugoslav youth, concerts were also held here. Interestingly, British rock group Dire Straits kicked off their 1985 “Brothers in Arms” world tour here at Gripe. After Gripe’s completion, Split architect Slaven Rožić began work on the “Koteks” shopping center, seen in the foreground. Completed in 1981, its design mirrors the architectural aesthetics of Janković’s arena and is considered by some to be the first true “shopping mall” in communist Europe. It has fallen into poor condition since its 1996 privatization, but some architectural groups are advocating for its preservation. Since about 2020, the architectural heritage group “Motel Trogir” has been working to have the complex designated as a cultural monument of Croatia, while also organizing historical tours of the facility.


Belgrade, Serbia

A vintage photo of the Pionir Center in Belgrade. Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

Located in the Belgrade neighborhood of Bogoslovija is the sports complex originally known as “Pionir” Hall. The project was commissioned by the city in July of 1972 to act as a venue for the forthcoming European Boxing Championship (just 11 months away). The design team who won the bid, husband/wife architect duo Ljiljana & Dragoljub Bakić, were on under such intense deadline pressure to meet the deadline that it required them to design the project as it was being built. Miraculously, the construction project’s deadline, spearheaded by Energoprojekt, was met and Pionir Hall was unveiled to much fanfare on May 24th, 1973, the day before President Tito’s birthday. Considered a landmark of architecture in Belgrade, its form defied modernist ideals of “form following function”, and instead created a building as loud and dynamic as the sports undertaken within it, all typified by its bright blue roof crossed with bold yellow oversized beams and its array of playful raw concrete terraces. Originally built with a capacity of over 5,800 seats, the Pionir Sports Hall, along with a matching hockey arena the two architects subsequently built next door, won the Bakić team many architectural awards. Renamed “Aleksandar Nikolić” Hall in 2016, it continues to be a popular destination for Belgrade youth. In recognition of her work on this building, among others, Ljiljana Bakić was recognized as one of the 100 best female European architects between the years 1918-2018.


Tetovo, N. Macedonia

A vintage postcard showing the Popova Šapka ski resort at Tetovo, North Macedonia. Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

Next to a message reading: “Greetings from Popova Šapka, Tetovo”, we see an image showing the central lodge, “Hotel INEX”, of the Popova Šapka ski resort located in what is today just outside of Tetovo, North Macedonia. Located high in the Šar Mountains, Popova Šapka is a very high elevation ski resort, with lifts reaching as high as 2,252m (the highest in the country). When the Belgrade firm “INEX” took over management of the resort in 1968, the first modern ski lift was constructed, as was the central ski lodge/hotel complex seen in this postcard. Designed by Belgrade architect Slavko Brezovski, the complex is characterized by its “rustic alpine” modernism, as well as its iconic stained glass pyramid. As the site can be hard to reach, originally, a cable-car would take people up to the Popova Šapka from Tetovo, a large town 7km to the east at the base of the mountain, however, this system was destroyed during the 2001 Battle of Tetovo. Popova Šapka continues to be a popular ski resort to this day, especially being only 1 hour from the capital of Skopje.

 



Jablanica, BiH

A vintage postcard of the Battle for the Wounded Museum in Jablanica, BiH. Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

Located in the town of Jablanica, BiH is the Museum of the Battle for the Wounded on the Neretva River, which was a dramatic WWII episode in March of 1943 where Marshal Tito cleverly used the intentional destruction of a bridge over the Neretva as a distractionary tactic to allow him and his army (along with wounded soldiers) to escape the clutches of descending Nazi forces. The museum, unveiled in 1978 and designed by a team of Sarajevo architects including Branko Tadić, Zdravko Dundjerović and Mustafa Ramić, is a large white modernist complex with huge windows overlooking the river overlooking the remains of the destroyed bridge. Interestingly, these bridge ruins are not the same upon which Tito crossed, but, actually, a reproduction bridge that was built on the same location and then destroyed for the 1968 Yugoslav film “Battle on the Neretva” depicting these WWII events. However, while visitors were originally able to follow Tito’s steps and walk along side the bridge along a narrow wooden catwalk spanning the river, the raging waters of the Neretva washed downstream the section laying within the river (along with the catwalk) in 1991. It was not until 30 years later in 2021 that this historic crossing was finally reestablished. The museum is still in good condition and continues to operate up to the present day.


Lovćen, Montenegro

A vintage postcard view of the Njegos Mausoleum museum at Lovćen, Montenegro. Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

Towering above Montenegro’s famous Kotor Bay is Lovćen Mountain. This 1,750m tall peak is notable not only for its scenic views and vistas of the entire region, but it is also a site of cultural importance, because it is here that resides the mausoleum and museum dedicated to the poet philosopher prince Petar Petrović Njegoš, who passed way in 1851. Being one of the most famous figures in Serbian cultural and literary history, it was this location on the top of Lovćen Mountain that Njegoš himself chose as his burial site before his death. This memorial and museum complex was built between 1971-1974 was designed by famous Croatian artist Ivan Meštrović, who also created several sculptural works within the mausoleum. This mausoleum replaced a former chapel that held Njegoš’s remains that he himself had built in 1845. It is important to note that Meštrović designed this facility and sculpted the worked for it during the late 1950s and subsequently passed away in 1962, so, the project was finally undertaken and completed after his death. Furthermore, during the construction of the complex, the restaurant facility and observation area called “Vidikovac” underneath of the mausoleum was created by Slovene architect Marko Mušič. The complex continues to be expertly maintained and exists as an extremely population tourist destination up to the present day.


Kragujevac, Serbia

A vintage postcard view of the Oct 21st Museum in Kragujevac, Serbia. Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

At the center of the town of Kragujevac, Serbia is Šumarice Memorial Park, the heart of which is the Museum October 21st. It was in this park on that date in 1941 during WWII that Nazi soldiers massacred thousands of innocent local civilians in vast reprisal killings. After the war, the area was set up as a memorial park, with many monuments being constructed, starting in the 1950s. Then, in 1976, on the 35th anniversary of the massacre, this museum complex was opened to the public. Created by the architect team of Ivan Antić & Ivanka Raspopović, the modernist complex is characterized by 33 red-brick towers (ranging in height from 4m to 21m) which each have skylights at their tops. These 33 towers symbolize the 33 mass graves found in the area after the war. Upon its unveiling, it was the most state-of-the-art museum in Yugoslavia, with numerous interactive and audio/visual exhibits. It continues to be one of the most important museums in Serbia.

 



Mostar, BiH

A vintage postcard view of the HIT center in Mostar, BiH. Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

Originally located on Mostar’s Spanish Square at the site of the old train station was the imposing Department Store “HIT” (Herzegovina Integrated Trade), just a block west of the Neretva River. Built by Bosnian architect Safet Galešić, this massive 5,300 sq m retail outlet became one of the central commercial hubs (and even a tourist attraction) for Mostar as soon as it was unveiled in 1973. With a facade dominated by a decorative white metal screen, this loud modernist structure stood in sharp contrast to Mostar’s ancient architecture. HIT became such a cultural symbol for Mostar that when 36 local workers died in a bus crash in 1985, a large memorial ceremony attended by 30,000 people was held in front of the store. However, during the Bosnian War of the 1990s, the area of Spanish Square became a frontline of fighting, resulting in the structure being completely destroyed by artillery. It was subsequently demolished. Since 1994, the new Croatian National Theatre has been under construction at HIT’s former location. More info on the HIT shopping center in Mostar, as well as other department stores across Yugoslavia, can be found in my article on the subject HERE.


Bor, Serbia

A vintage postcard view of the "Beograd" center in Bor, Serbia. Source: Spomenik Database postcard archive

At the north end of Freedom Square in the town of Bor, Serbia is the Department Store “Beograd”, which was a chain of stores founded in Belgrade in 1965 and was among the largest chains in Europe dur