After leaving Zagreb, we were off to the Istrian peninsula, with a stop planned at the most beautiful national park in Croatia: Plitvice Lakes. It has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
It is a 114 square mile area that has 16 turquoise lakes linked by a series of waterfalls and cascades. It was our only day of rain the entire trip, making some of the wooden footbridges quite treacherous, but none of us fell into the water, like a gal on one of Vlatka’s previous trips.
It was wet. On the bus to get inside the park, we met a Japanese couple. When he saw the dated point-and-shoot I was using, he said “Thank you for buying our camera.” (He works for Canon.)
Don’t slip on the two-foot long worms.
The obligatory photo.
The landscape was breathtaking, and the walkway slippery. It was here I witnessed where the expression “like water off a duck’s back” came from.
And, look who I found sitting in a chair at our lunch spot post park visit. Kitty fix!
After the visit to Plitvice Lakes, we headed toward Opatija, a lovely little seaside resort close to where Vlatka grew up. It is located in the heart-shaped peninsula on the Kvarner Gulf that separates Dalmatia just south of Trieste, Italy.
We drove through incredible northeastern winds known as Bura. The southern winds are called Yugo. These winds reach speeds as high 240 kilometers and can blow for a week. You can see the sea spray created by the wind.
And it really got Bernie’s attention when we learned that, along this route, we were going through the Učka Tunnel, one of Croatia’s longest at three miles in length.
To get to Opatija, we passed through Reijka (means “river”), a European-named “City of Culture”, and one of her beautiful tree-lined streets. But the trees they planted in this city were hackberry trees, otherwise known as stinging nettles. Oops! One of Reijka’s claims to fame is that they developed the first self-propelled torpedo. Reijka is the third largest city in Croatia with a large maritime industry.
Off the coast is the vowel-less island of Krk. This is where the airport is situated. They have little need for vowels in this region. Prst means finger, and smrt means death.
In Opatja we ate at the Yacht Club. Our waiter, Zoran, was my brother Pete’s doppelganger.
On the bus Vlatka asked how we slept, and someone responded, “lying down”. That about sums up how silly we were most of the time.
This morning we headed out for a beautiful scenic drive along the valley of the river Mirna, through lush forest and then into the wine country that surrounded our first destination.
The first stop on Day 10 was to the city of Motovun, a picturesque place still encircled by original medieval walls. It has only 300 residents. (When the annual film festival comes to town, the population swells to 20,000. Not sure where they all stay.)
The streets are cobbly and steep, I’m not sure why anyone would want to try them on a bike…but they do.
We headed out with guide, Tina Nahmijas. (She is flanking a relief map of the heart-shaped Istrian peninsula.)
No, not road apples…truffles! Motovun is the center of truffle country, so of course we learned all about them (well almost all). The pricey white ones are 4,000 euros a kilo.
In ancient times, when marauders decided to invade, these folks had it all figured out. They had pots for people to pee in, and when invaders came to town, they would drop boiled urine containing sharp rocks onto them from these windows. It would get into their armor, cut their skin and cause deadly infections. More than you wanted to know?
Here’s the view from Motovun, an injured moth I found, Miss Persimmon, and Atelier who made some lovely earrings I bought.
I said we learned almost all about the truffles in Motovun, but we hadn’t yet witnessed how they are found. Valdi showed us. He is an official truffle hunter, with a license and all the necessary gear (and is part-time tour guide). His license costs 250 euros annually. He can find black truffles year round, but white ones show up only September through December. They are found at a depth of 3-7 centimeters on the roots of trees.
Valdi has a very special dog which he trained. Nera is now four years old and worth thousands.
When Nera finds a truffle, Valdi has to hold her snout away so she doesn’t eat it.
Sometimes a dog finds one, doesn’t reveal the location to the hunter, throws them off by indicating a false spot where the hunter starts digging, and then returns to sneak-eat the original truffle. Remember, truffles smell like old socks.
Vlatka told us about the time she was at a restaurant with someone unfamiliar with truffles. When a truffle-flavored dish was served to the table next to them, her tablemate asked, “Do you smell a gas leak?” Either you love them or you hate them.
There are said to be some 12,000 dogs wandering the Istrian forests sniffing around for this expensive delicacy.
Off to another agroturizm joint, Steponich Village. Again we were plied with brandy before lunch and then enjoyed one of the tastiest meals of the trip. Thank you, Karmen and Ivan!
The awful stink bugs that have invaded the East Coast of the US are also in Croatia. Here’s one on the outside of the window enjoying the sunny day.
After lunch we learned lots about olives, but I’m only going to show you the tree, some fellows who know how to harvest, and the bounty. They lay out tarps, and then use a machine to shake the branches so the olives fall off the tree. The olives in Istria were found to produce better quality olive oil than Tuscany, two years running. Think they’re proud?
Vlatka’s family has a “hobby” olive orchard. She reports that between our trip and the next one, she went home to help her parents. They ended up harvesting 4 tons of olives. There sure must’a been a whole lotta shakin’ going on.
Such a sunshiny couple!
Bernie and Veda might not have been the most in-love couple on the trip, but they were the best hand-holders. Even while they slept on the bus.
We were welcomed by Daniela when we stopped at the only family-owned rakija (brandy) distillery on the Istrian peninsula in the town of Buzet. In addition to making jams, this operation produces 9,000-11,000 gallons of brandy (I didn’t ask over what period of time…a day?) It takes 400 kilos of fruit to produce 40 liters of brandy.
We watched the whole process, from the fermentation of the fruit, distillation in the copper boil, and fruit maceration. Dick volunteered to start the siphon to draw the brandy out of the still. What a guy!
The view from our room in Opatija. Not bad, huh? And below is Opatija from afar.
That evening we walked up the 7.5 mile-long waterfront and met a fisherman who declined to have his picture taken. He bemoaned the fact that fish have become sparse. Two years ago, he caught one THIS big, and pulled out his phone to show us. Rick Steves.
We also saw this statue dedicated to ballet dancer, Isadora Duncan, who before she met a terrible fate due to her long scarf and a convertible wheel, loved Opatija.
The moon over the Kvarner Gulf.
Goran Ivanisevic’s star on the walk of fame.
After only two nights in Opatija, we were off for Ljubljana, Slovenia. We had to endure a long border crossing between these two countries; 1 ½ hours at least. But, luckily, we had a good story teller with us on the bus.
Along the way we heard that Slovenians don’t appreciate that Melania Trump changed her last name from Knavs to Knauss, to sound more Germanic. And when the Pope asked her if she fed her husband too much potica (a sugary, rich dessert) in reference to his paunch, journalists mistook that for pizza and were off and running. Fake news, or at least confused news.
But wait, there’s more! This trip just went on and on.
We stopped along the way to Ljubljana, at the jaw-dropping Postojna Cave system, a series of caverns, halls, and passages some 15 miles long and two million years old. It was formed by the Pivka River, which enters a subterranean tunnel near the cave’s entrance.
It was nearly two miles in by train to reach the mile-long walking trail. There were magnificent stalactites and stalagmites all the way through.
This cave is the only place the cave-dwelling olm, a sightless amphibian, can be found. You know I’d have a picture, if only they had let us take one of the little creature we saw in a terrarium. Interested? Google it.
We ended our cave stroll in the Concert Hall, which is the largest cavern in the cave system accommodating up to 10,000 people for musical performances. At a count of 1-2-3 we all yelled “O-A-T” together at the top of our lungs resulting in abounding echoes. It was great fun. Wish I could have recorded that one.
We had the least appetizing lunch of the whole trip. I guess no one told them that monochromatic meals are so yesterday. Even parsley would help.
Our room in Ljubljana was beautiful at the wonderfully located Urban Hotel.
We met up with guide Robert Dumendzic. He was a character (aren’t they all?) and filled us in on the best places to eat and interesting things to see. We learned Slovenians are intensely outdoor people, climbing mountains at the drop of a hat.
The country, slightly smaller than New Jersey, is at the end of Europe’s largest mountain range, and near Triglav, or “Three Peaks” Mountain. They also have a sense of humor. First time climbers get spanked as a rite of passage. Sounds sort of like a fraternity hazing.
We were around the corner from “The Sky Scraper” a towering 12 story building. That’s how small Ljubljana is—only 300,000 inhabitants. But it did afford us an amazing sunset the first evening we were there.
We went to the tourist-iest restaurant in all of Ljubljana where they wear Slovenian outfits. Watery soups were the fare. We’d been eating a ton, so it didn’t really matter.
Our new bus driver (Marin had gone home to Split) Tomaslav, drove us to Lake Bled. Another of Cailin’s favorite haunts in Europe.
We visited the 800 year old Blejski Grad (castle) clinging to a rocky cliff.
The views from on high were amazing. From a distance you can see the Church of St. Mary of the Assumption, which dates back as far as the 9th century. It is perched on an islet in the middle of the lake.
At the castle we saw an authentic printing press, which Kevin demonstrated for the crowd.
A very happy moment.
We took a gondola-like boat called a pletna. These are licensed to only 23 families, and made from the Larch Tree.
Our tippy cruise took us to the church in the middle of the lake.
They said there were 999 steps to get to the sanctuary, but I counted 998.
Here we are ringing the wishing bell in a church with the most ornate alter I’ve ever seen.
At the top of the clock tower (another 999 or so steps) we saw the clock mechanism in action. I never really understood how the swinging of the pendulum worked to keep time. This made it very clear.
Us and the walking stick with our long shadows.
From Lake Bled we went to Radovlijica where we witnessed women decorating the iconic Slovenian heart-shaped gingerbread cookies.
We had lunch near the cookie making factory to celebrate Dick’s 84th birthday!
Are these green tomatoes? And don’t you like my necklace made by potter Daniel in Karanac?
Here is the view from this little village.
The second to the last night, we all met up on the oh-so-tall sky scraper. How lucky we were that a full moon rose over the city to say goodbye.
Our last day, was a day to explore Ljubljana. We strolled through Tivoli Park, passing by the National Museum of Slovenia.
I wonder if this is the same bug infesting and killing trees in North Carolina?
Mid-day we took a cruise along the Ljubljanica River through the middle of town with bubbly to celebrate what had been a grand trip.
We explored the garden district with Eileen and Jeff, and found the home of Joze Plecnik an architect (pictured here) who put his mark on everything in Ljubljana. Christie took the trip primarily to see his work, which apparently is remarkable for the way it incorporates Roman, Medieval, Baroque, and Hapsburg elements. We never made it to any of the museums in his honor.
We tried to find a restaurant that had been recommended by Rick Steves. Alas, it was closed, but the one we found to replace it was wonderful.
Off to the castle we went. It looks like it’s in the clouds from town, but it was really an easy hike to get to the top, and worth it for the views.
Of course there were kitties in Ljubljana…gated kitties, so well-behaved.
Here are obligatory photos in front of the Ljubljana dragons.
We found the famous library, one of Joze Plecnik’s, with windows designed to look like open books.
We stopped for a beer to people watch from an open air pub along the river walk. I spotted a darling kid, who also spotted me. His parents, used to his flirting, followed him as he came my way. After speaking a few moments, we invited them to join us. Again, that carbonation factor. They were 3 year old Xavi, his mother Huong, and father Hal. They live in Viet Nam and were such fun and interesting folks.
We dashed back to make our last dinner with the group. It was a meal with entertainment by folk dancers from across the region.
They played a sort of game with hats, which was great fun. I have a video of Kevin winning second place if you ever want to see it. But here I am, also second place in the game. (Wearing my new sweater-coat acquired in Sarajevo.)
The next morning, I think at 5 a.m. or so, we had to say goodbye. I never got my final hug from Vlatka, I had to wave bye bye from the corner of the van. But, I always say you need to save something for the next visit!
Zivjeli! (A Croatian toast) or Nazdravlje! (in Slovenian)
I always had my notebook in hand and little Canon in my pocket. Thanks to those two handy implements for all these recorded memories.
“Volim te” means “I Love You” in Croatian. Volim te Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and sLOVEnia!
What a wonderful group we had. Here are a couple photos Vlatka sent us post-trip, for the record.
Our last night, Vlatka recited the following ABC list. She is a creative soul. I hope she writes a book for people across the globe to enjoy.
A – adventure, Augustinčić, authentic, Archduke assassination, Adriatic
B – Bosnia, burek, borders, bus, Bled, beans, baklava, bridge, Bernie
C – controversy, Christie, cinema, cutting the cheese, churches, cevapi, crossroads, coffee
D – Dubrovnik, Denis the Menace, Dick, discovery, David, driving
E – eating, Eileen, endurance, Europe
F – flights, feelings, food, funnicular
G – Goca, goulash, Gail
H – hills, home-hosted, Herzegovina, hotels, Hagaddah
I – Irene, ice-cream, interesting
J – Jeff, joke, journey, Joey
K – Karanac, Kotor, Kevin, knees,
L – local, Ljubljana, learning, lost luggage
M – Montenegro, market, Mary, mountains, Mostar, Marin
N – Nazdravlje!!
O – OAT, olives, Opatija
P – people, prosciutto, Plitvice, Postojna, pletna, paprika, pioneer
Q – questions
R – river, road, recycling, rain
S – seabass, Slovenia, Susan, sljivovica, singing, Srebrenica, steps, Sharon
T – team, truffles, turkey, tunnel, Tito
U – unique, UNESCO
V – Veda, Valdi, Vlatka, vino
W – Wende, wonderful, wakey-wakey
X – excellence
Z – Zivjeli!!
We took the trip through an outfit called Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT). We have always had good luck with this company…through Tanzania, Zanzibar, The Amazon, Machu Piccu, and the Galapagos.
(Here’s the link in case your appetite is whet and you decide to take the trip yourself: https://www.oattravel.com/trips/land-adventures/europe/crossroads-of-the-adriatic-croatia-montenegro-bosnia-and-herzegovina-and-slovenia/2019/itineraries?icid=global:ouradventures:europe:foy2019