Before we left, and even during our trip, people asked us why we decided to go to the Balkans. It’s such a new vacation destination, and so few Americans go there. Our daughter, Cailin, had filled us in on just how wonderful the area was. How right she was!
So off we went, to take in countries that were united as Yugoslavia after World War II, but now are independent from one another. Here’s our itinerary (we took the blue route starting in Dubrovnik and ending in Ljubljana, Slovenia):
Please note this is not a travelogue, it’s our trip, full of stories, things that happened and our reflections. Climb aboard!
Our guide, Vlatka Milevoj , was amazing. She made sure we were all happy and safe, while feeling loved. I can’t think of any way she could have been a better leader. She knew her history, mostly telling us about what we were seeing and experiencing through stories (and a wonderful quick wit, I might add). There was lots of laughter during the entire 16 days.
I admired and appreciated her so much, that I fashioned a card with a child-like drawing of a bottle of “Absolute Vlatka”. The inscription inside read: “Absolutely fun, Absolutely kind, Absolutely smart, Absolutely positively beautiful”. Here she’s holding the card and a walking stick that I picked up in Dubrovnik, used throughout the trip, and ultimately gifted to her.
Our travel group of 15, a downright pleasant bunch of people, was made up of some mighty intrepid travelers.
Here we are looking every bit like small game hunters with our prey…but that’s only Freda tuckered out from all the attention.
PLEASE FORGIVE ME
Spellings in this post will make native speakers cringe. Some words are simply written phonetically. It was ME taking notes. Here’s the basic reason why the language, though not as difficult as Chinese, is a challenge for English speakers:
The Croatian alphabet has the following additional letters: č, ć, dž, đ, lj, nj, š and ž
And, doesn’t have the letters: q, w, x and y. So, I give up right now.
Case in point:
Our first stop was Dubrovnik, Croatia, situated on a rocky spur at the country’s southernmost tip. We stayed outside the ancient walled city in the beautiful Grand Park Hotel in La Pad Cove, right on the Adriatic.
Here is the view from our room, and looking back at the hotel, the breakfast restaurant, and wonderful pool we discovered too late.
First day to the Old City. Here are the soldier guards atop the wall. And the patron of Dubrovnik, Saint Blaise, with a religious text in his left hand (almost always), and more soldier guards over his head.
Our wonderful local guide, Danielle Erak.
There were crowds. This is “Game of Thrones” territory, since much of the series was filmed here.
I took many notes but don’t want to bore you with history. You can Google that, if you’re interested. But, this photo says much. It is a preserved missile strike from twenty-six years ago and some spent rocket shells. This incident occurred during the “conflict” in the early 90’s. The city has regained its former splendor with the help of UNESCO.
In ancient times, the city was protected from marauders by a massive wall. Here is a super narrow side alley. They really packed them into this fortified city.
We met Mina Micic, a local actress who recounted her experiences during the war. She actually gave birth (to either this fellow, who is a stand-up comedian or his brother) during the siege. Of course everyone is intrigued by ancient (Game of Thrones) history, but it was meeting people who had lived through the war of the 90’s that brought recent history alive.
Lunch was at LARK, with amazing paintings completed by the owners’ 16 year old son. The food was delicious. One our many sea bass meals.
Off to the water. We took an hour-long boat ride around the island just outside the walled city with fellow travelers, Dick and Susie.
There were numerous kayakers. That was the only way to get to this luscious beach in a cave. The water was nice for swimming, so we saw many people at the water’s edge.
Tsu Tsu Mi, an uncharacteristically extroverted Japanese fellow, was on the excursion as well. He was a guide taking a busman’s holiday.
On the far side of the island was their “naturalist” beach. These poor folks had no recourse against my taking snaps.
Upon return from the boat ride, we headed for a walk along the crowded, mile-long one-way trip on top of the narrow wall around the city. Below are some views from the wall.
The reconstruction of Dubrovnik has been extensive. Note some of the roofs pre and post-shelling, and some bombed out areas not yet repaired.
Life in the city goes on, and drawers get stinky.
Here are some of the hundreds of cats that call the walled city home…sorta like at the Coliseum in Rome. (I show you this photo to illustrate a story-yet-to-come.)
Back to the hotel just in time to see the sun set over the Adriatic.
We skipped dinner and opted for some lousy wine at The Cave Bar, but what a wonderful view we had of La Pad Cove.
That first night, we headed back to the Old Town to see a Folkloric Concert with dancing. When in Rome.
But, along the way we ran into the only single guy on our trip out on the town. He had met these lovely gals at the beach earlier in the day. Way to go, Joey!
The concert was very nice.
A lone kitty made her way through the open door to the concert, strolling to the front of the auditorium. During one song, as the dancers took a break back stage, and the musicians carried on, the kitty mewed loudly between measures. At the next silent measure she repeated her chorus. This cat utterly delighted audience members.
Dancers back on stage, as I was lamenting the cell phones held high to capture the show on video blocking my view, I felt a nudge on my right elbow. It was not enough that her singing had won my heart, the performing kitty nestled on the fleece I’d stashed on the empty chair next to me. This kitty encounter would be hard to top.
We headed out early for a day trip to Montenegro, a country with 653,000 inhabitants and only 260 miles of coastline. It is very mountainous. If you flattened it out, it would be 5 times the size.
The world over, neighbors poke fun of each other. Here’s what goes on in this region: Slovenians “have a snake in their pocket, and are good students and nerds”, Croatians are “snobby and arrogant”, Serbians are “dominant and assertive”, and the Montenegrins are “laid back”…code for lazy.
We found this post card in Kotor. Montenegrins poking fun at themselves.
First stop was to The Lady of the Rocks. According to legend, the island was formed by fishermen who, after seeing the Virgin Mary on the reef, began dropping stones on the spot each time they sailed by. This little island, which houses a small Catholic church, is adjacent to Island St. George which is a cemetery.
Our guide, Jelana, filled us in on the history of the islands and then prepared us for our visit to Kotor, a 45 minute boat ride away. This is also a walled city, which hasn’t yet been reconstructed. Walking this wall was taking your life in your hands.
Want to buy property in Kotor? Here’s the phone number.
Vlatka introduced us to Ratka, the proprietor of an outdoor market stand featuring goods from her farm.
After such a grueling visit, we needed to take a break, and drink some beer.
On the way back to Dubrovnik, we stopped for a gluttonous dinner served by Anton. When I asked him what kind of wine it was they served, he said, “Very good wine”. He was right. After every meal, we were served dessert. We were on vacation, after all!
Before and after:
On the way out of the restaurant, we caught a bit of Croatia’s version of “America’s Got Talent”. This judge just happened to be a performer at a wonderful concert we went to in Zagreb later in the trip.
We took one last walk around La Pad Cove. We have wonderful memories of Dubrovnik.
We took off heading for Sarajevo, and endured three (maybe it was four) border crossings. These can be quite timely as each country keeps close tabs of traffic. But, we enjoyed Vlatka’s very illuminating lectures* on the history of the region, especially the conflict between Bosnian Serbs vs. Croatians.
*Lecture makes it sound so drab…Vlatka was anything but drab. She peppered the information with interesting stories. After being riveted, we needed to catch up…here are Kevin and Dick doing just that.
Along the beautiful coast, we traveled through “California” where the oranges grow. (Vlatka bought a bag for us to share.)
We went to Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina for lunch and to celebrate Gail’s birthday, where we were introduced to Bosnian coffee (it’s quite a ritual).
The bridge at Mostar is legendary. To find out more, go here https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/946. Croatia attacked the bridge in 1993 shelling it with artillery from the hills. It was restored in 2004 and is now a huge tourist attraction, plus a place young men jump from as a rite of passage. The above are before and after photos of photos.
View from the bridge, and our visit, with a dyed-to-match dog not minding tourists one bit.
Here is my Mostar kitty.
We stopped at the bridge by River Neretvi, which is so famous there’s a movie about what happened there. We met an 85 year old woman who had been wounded during the the bombing that destroyed the bridge. She had been a widow for 40 years and outlived her friends.
We continued on through many tunnels. Remember this is mountainous country. Poor Bernie had claustrophobia, so these events were hard on him. (And, we ran into these two running with the Socialist Democratic Party.)
We checked into Hotel Europe, a beautiful old hotel (1882) in central Sarajevo. It was burned to the ground during the conflict, but rebuilt in 2009. It is located right next to ruins of the oldest inn, Taslihan, and has beautiful, spacious rooms.
Right outside was a bar where the visiting Northern Ireland fans amassed because of an upcoming match with Bosnia. They stayed up singing and yelling until 5 a.m. Praise be for earplugs! At dinner we encountered a group of these Irish fans who were celebrating a birthday in their group, so Gail found Allen, a birthday buddy.
Our guide was Neria Husejnovic, whose father was Muslim, and mother a Jew.
Sarajevo, which means The Palace of the Valley, was founded by the Ottomans in 1463. It was the site of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that started WWI, the home of the winter Olympics in 1984, and under siege for four years in the early 90’s.
During the siege the city was shelled relentlessly (average 330 daily) and the citizens were under sniper fire. 11,541 civilians, including 1,600 children, were killed during their 1,425 days under siege. They virtually moved their lives underground. A gal Vlatka knew from Sarajevo lived in a neighborhood with a sniper. No one knew who the sniper was. Later, they learned it was her daughter’s math teacher. Enemies around and enemies inside…and this was just yesterday.
Here is a photo of a photo of citizens lined up to get water from a local brewery.
The main drag in Sarajevo was dubbed Sniper Alley. The only large trees in Sarajevo today are along sniper alley, since citizens didn’t venture there to cut them down for fuel. Today, Sarajevans paint the impressions of mortar blasts on sidewalks in red, and call them mortar roses (this one killed eight).
Sarajevo is unique in how different religions get along side-by-side. There is a mosque, Greek Orthodox church Catholic church, and synagogue within blocks of each other, co-existing peacefully. Here we are in the Gazi Huzrev-Bey Mosque. That being said, the Jewish population went from 30,000 before the war, to 700 members today. I found it interesting that Imams are obligated to have families to set an example for their congregation, unlike celibate priests. Which makes more sense to you?
Half the main part of the city is from the Ottoman Empire with small pedestrian streets lined with shops, the other half was settled by the Austro-Hungarians. It is newer and shinier.
Here is the copper street, where copper coffee pots along with other goods are hand pounded, and the street where you can find gold jewelry.
In this section, we saw the shop of the last locksmith in the city. The proprietor’s first cousin is the now-in-jail Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojavich. (Illinois governors usually serve two terms: one in office and one in jail.) Trump flirted with pardoning him, but that would have been over some dead bodies in Illinois.
Here’s another sort of related, interesting fact: Tito was a locksmith with no formal education. Hmmmm…
Sarajevo is a teaming city, along a river, easy to walk through. We saw this group of gentlemen who meet daily for a community chess match.
That afternoon, we strolled up into the neighborhoods on the hills through a cemetery. Sarajevans had to bury the dead inside the city limits since they were under siege, so there are thousands of graves on the hills. Here is a shot of newer graves from the 90’s behind those from the time of the Ottomans. Eerie.
I paid attention to this kitty-on-a-dumpster and she took me up on my offer. Eeks!
Although difficult, we felt it was an obligation to visit the museum dedicated to the slaughter of 9,000 men and boys in Srebrenica, a border town in Bosnia–only 23 years ago. Who says it couldn’t happen today?
As if this history-infused day wasn’t enough, we split into smaller groups, and went to home host dinners. Azra Sakovic and her mother Naza, who live in communist block apartments located in the Ali Pashima neighborhood, were our hostesses.
(This wasn’t their building, but is typical of the bread and butter housing throughout the city.) We rode up elevators that had last been inspected in 1984, but enjoyed a wonderful family style meal while they told us about their lives enduring a 45% income tax and 17 % VAT tax. They do have a pension, health care, and education, but beyond that it’s hard to get ahead.
We headed to the Tesla Bar right next door to the hotel to watch the Bosnia-Northern Ireland football match. No contest. Bosnia walked away with the win. Incidentally, Bosnia claims Nikola Tesla in a big way, since he hailed from that country. It is said that when asked how it felt to be the smartest man on earth, Einstein replied, “You should ask Tesla that question.” Tesla is revered.
Currently their political system seems untenable. Bosnia & Herzegovina have three presidents: Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian, who serve in 8 month cycles. It’s a powder keg that can blow up at any time.
We headed out to the Ratni Tunnel (also known as the Tunnel of Hope) — now a museum. During the conflict the UN took over the airport. In 1993, the Kolar family, who lived adjacent to the airport gave up their home so a tunnel could be dug starting under it to deliver supplies and ferry people out.
This tunnel was hand-dug under the runway in 4 months and 4 days. It was a half mile long, 5 feet high and 3 feet wide–just enough to get people and supplies through.
No matter how you feel about Bill Clinton (Ole Slick Willy according to my brother) he orchestrated the Dayton Agreement on December 14th, 1995 that ended the conflict.
We stopped by the Museum of Sarajevo to see the Haggadah. This book has an amazing history. Want to know more? Go to https://bookriot.com/2018/03/26/sarajevo-haggadah/
Before dinner we met Alma Ferovic, a musical theater actress, who was 12 years old when the war started. She is Muslim and runs a bare bones theater company, but she has great hope.
She told us about a man young people were quite excited about who ran for President in the recent election, He got 23% of the vote (only 53% of the populace voted). Then the bells started clanging. Gina Howard, a friend of mine here in Charlotte told me about him. Dr. Mirsad Hadzikadic is her friend and a professor at University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Another wonderful small world moment.
Dinner at Buregdzinica Bosna for Burek! Yummy and served with buttermilk. This is their version of a fast food restaurant: eat it and beat it.
Not ready to turn in and say goodbye to Sarajevo quite yet, we headed out to find the local brewery. It was like a good ole German brewery, music and all.
A couple Northern Irish soccer fans came in and started to belly up to the bar. We invited them to commiserate their loss at our table and we had a wonderfully lively conversation. Neil Jagoe, a retired diplomat, was from Northern Ireland and John James, a radiologist from Nottingham in the UK. Rick Steves is right, it is people who carbonate the experience of travel.
Hard to believe this was just the first five days. Hang onto your hat for the rest of the trip: in Parts 2 and 3: Karanac, Croatia–Zagreb, Croatia–Opatija, Croatia–Ljubljana, Slovenia