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A Trip to the Land Once Known as Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro

A Trip to the Land Once Known as Yugoslavia
Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro

I like to tell why I picked a particular trip. I had been planning for two years to go to Peru. Loving archaeology, I couldn’t wait to see Machu Piccu and the Nazca plain.

Bohinj Region of Slovenia
Bohinj Region of Slovenia
However, during this time period, I received a promotional letter about a trip to Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. It absolutely grabbed me by the throat and threw me to the mat! I had to go on this trip.

There were three walks described that called to me. A 3-mile walk around Lake Bled in Slovenia that was designed by a Swiss physician. A seaside promenade on the Mediterranean in Opatjia. A stroll around the top of the wall of the Old City of Dubrovnik.

When I picked this particular trip, many friends at work were concerned about my safety. Actually, although it seems but a short time ago, the Bosnian War ended in 1994. Tourists have been going back to this now-safe area since 2000.

I had dinner with a family in a small village above Dubrovnik. They seemed to be doing well now, being agriculturally independent, yet close enough for jobs in Dubrovnik. However, there were only 15 inhabitants left, members of 3 families, of a village that had 150 before the war. Everyone fled, but a few are coming back.

We saw bombed out farmhouses on the way to Medjugorje, Bosnia. But unless you see out these signs of the carnage, you would not have known there had been a war in the last decade.

Trials and Travails of Traveling
My domestic flight connected to Philadelphia, my international gateway city. Once we landed, no one at the airport came to connect the ‘tunnel’ to let us off the plane. We waited. And waited. The pilot came on the intercom and explained that the airport manager had not seen fit to send anyone as yet. He gave us the manager’s office number and suggested we call it; that perhaps he’d listen to customers more than pilots. I dialed the number and left a message that a nice little old lady from WV wished a camel would spit in his shoe. If he didn’t hurry up with that tunnel, I’d wish the camel did worse than spit.

The international flight went uneventfully, which is always what you hope. The first time I flew across the Atlantic at night, I was afraid my uneasiness about water would make me nervous. However, when I heard we were flying at 30,000 feet, I said, “the heck with it; I’d be dead before I hit the water.”

Actually, instead of picturing that tiny plane flying high above a dark and deep ocean, I prefer to convince myself that this is all a TV or movie set. If you opened one of those doors, the plane would still be on the ground. You might try it. If this doesn’t work, your doctor can give you a nice pill that will make you not care in the least.

Our first stop in Europe was Frankfurt, Germany, where I can attest they have the cheapest, roughest toilet paper in the airport bathrooms that can be found anywhere on earth.

After a short flight, we emerged from the plane to the first snowfall of the season in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. We transferred to Lake Bled by bus, tucking into our comfortable rooms at the Park Hotel that night. The next day, we traveled to the Bohinj region, pretty deserted in the off-season, but a picture postcard perfect scene, especially in the snow.

My friend Bev and I had ventured to the shopping center across from the hotel to buy bottled water. Although the water is drinkable throughout the areas we traveled, we felt better being on the safe side. I even drink bottled water at home. We also bought some postcards and stamps and tried figuring out the transformation of tolars (Slovenian currency) into dollars. I figured you knock off about 4 zeros and then divide by 2. They use commas rather than decimal points in Eastern europe, so l,395,00 tolars was approximately $7.00. So far, so good.

The next day, when we returned to Ljubljana to sightsee, a number of our group needed umbrellas, so we first visited a large department store. Inside the door were two mannequins wearing beautiful fake fur coats, one in black, the other white. They had some kind of sparkly stuff, maybe cz’s on the front zipper and little zippers with the same bling on the sleeves. I thought they were really pretty and Irma, probably our best shopped on the trip, agreed with me. I looked at the price tage, dashed off 4 zeros, divided by two, and said, “Irma! These coats are only $43 to $50 each!”

Irma went back later and bought the white coat. I went back and asked where they were and was sent on a wild goose chase by the salespeople. “They’re on the 3rd floor.” “No, they’re on the 2nd floor.” Finally, I gave up, thinking it was not meant to be and I had just saved myself $50. That evening, Irma told me she and her friend had looked at the sales receipt more closely later in their room and the coat was $500, NOT $50! So, be careful with your deleting of zeros in Slovenia. You could die of shock when you get your credit card bill later..

Lake Bled, Slovenia
I went to a lecture at the hotel by a fellow named Sasho, to get an overview of Slovenia. The national flower is the gorinska (carnation), a light red which survives the winter there. The national animal is the ‘human fish,’ which we saw later at the Postojna aves. Odd-looking little creatures, like bleached-out lizards, who can’t stand light. The linden tree is the national tree.

Sasho complained about their politics in Slovenia. He said the Lower House of parliament has 90 members, elected elected every 4 years. The Upper House has 45, elected every 5 years. 135 people who piddle around, he said. He told us there is a 47% salary tax, but free medical care and free schools. It’s one of the 10 safest countries in the world. Guns are not sold. Yet, Slovenia has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. Scientists studying this phenomenon feel it’s genetic. The traffic accident rate is also very high. There are 3 good universities in Slovenia and the best school of management in the world is in Bled, according to Sasho. Elan ski equipment comes from there. Hemingway’s ‘Farewell to Arms’ took place in the Solgier Valley of Slovenia.

Bled, Slovenia, has a lovely lake with an island in the middle. There’s a Franciscan church and monastery there. Maria-Thersa of Hapsburg, in the 18th century, gave 18 families the right to have boats and ferry people to the island, which had religious significance from the 6th century. However, for the young and athletic, it is an easy swim. We sampled blueberry, honey and plum liquors at the monastery. We were very happy tourists. Then, we each rang the church bell three times, which the story has it, if you do that and make a wish, it will come true. I know we heard a lot of ringing coming from the island. It was 2400 SIT (Slovenia tolars) for the plum liquor ($12) and the same amount for the roundtrip boat ride.

We also learned about Teran (red) wine, which is considered medicinal. It’s supposed to be very good for the bladder and blood pressure. It’s bought in fish-shaped bottles.

One of Marshall Tito’s many homes is on the shores of Lake Bled. It’s used as a hotel now and kept up quite well. Its interior design, the height of fashion in the 40s, looks rather stark and Spartan now, however.

On to Opatjia and Warmer Weather
When we left Lake Bled, we traveled by bus to Opatjia in Croatia. On the way, we stopped at the Postojna Caves, the largest karksia caves in the world. (Karskia refers to the type of sandstone from which the caves are made.) These were stunning. Fantastical. They looked like the setting for an Indiana Jones movie. I could see Madonnna and Child, stacks of cupcakes, thatched roofed native huts, mushrooms. All these shapes were visible in the natural formations within the gigantic cave. Neanderthal remains have been found near the entrance to the caves. Remains of cave bears and other prehistoric animals have been found further back in the caves.

As we progressed into Croatia, we met up with Bora winds for about three days. These are very strong, cold winds that occur during the winter, although my trip was in November and they were early. We checked into the Grand Hotel 4 Flowers and lost electricity for awhile our first night, although emergency lights were on in the hall.

The next day, when we went to see the Church of Trsat and the National Theatre in Rijeka, we marveled at all the damage done by the Bora the night before. Mature trees were ripped from the ground and destroyed. We learned that winds were 60 mph that night, with gusts up to 132 mph. As well as trees being uprooted, bridges were damaged, buses and trucks were flipped. The bus that left before us from Opatjia for Split had to turn back, after 4 hours of wandering in terrible weather.

The beautiful seaside town of Opatjia has a 3-mile promenade that goes past the mansion of Isadora Dunca, the famous dancer from the late 19th and early 20th century. There is a modern statue of a dancer out front, which I did not think particularly good. There is another statue nearby, which represents a young woman mourning her love, lost at sea. I found that one much more arresting and evocative.

Celebrities have found that they can come to Croatia and its 1180 islands and not be recognized. Jack Nicholson is a regular yearly visitor.

We visited an emerging archaeological site on the Island of Krk that may be of note in the future. Maria and her husband bought a 12th to 14th century 2-story structure with cellar. They wanted to expand it to add a pizzaria to their bar. As they dug into the cellar, they found amazing Roman and pre-Roman artifacts. They removed 270 trucks of dirt, exposing the remains of Roman barracks and a temple to Venus.

Pieces of sculpture from the Istrian period (native tribes prior to the Roman invasion) were found. Outside, a 400-year-old tree still lives over a medieval wall, closely followed by a Renaissance wall, both for protection. Government sources in Zagreb, the capitol of Croatia in the northern part, wanted to take the artifacts, but the family refused on the premise that they were found on their property and it was the family’s fortune spent to excavate them.


Tourists Partaking
Tourists Partaking
Ravinj has been called ‘the Pearl of the Istrian’ or a small Venice. It was the only part of the Istrian Pennisula unoccupied by the Romans.

Ravinj has its own saint, Euphemia. She lived in Constantinople in 304 A.D. She died for her faith, along with 49 others. They were thrown to the lions. Her left arm was chewed off, but she did not die of this injury. She was put on ‘the wheel’ and died of that. Now, Rovinjian legend is that St. Euphemia’s sarcophagus floated ashore from Constantinople in 800 A.D. A young boy found it on the shore (they can show you the exact place) and used a yoke of young oxen to pull it up to the church. I asked why St. Euphemia wanted her body to come to Ravinj? Had she ever been there in life? No, but apparently, the Ravinjians really wanted her there.

When plague invaded most of the rest of the area, Ravinj had none.

A Colosseum in Pula
When we think of the Colosseum, we think of the famous one in Rome. However, there are many other large and well-preserved colosseums wherever in the world the Roman Army conquered and decided to stay awhile.

The 6th biggest and most well-preserved in its original stone is in the town of Pula on the Istrian Pennisula. Nada was our guide. She and I bonded over a mutual attraction for Russell Crowe, whom she mentioned in her talk about the Pula Colosseum.

The Emperr Versperance began building this colosseum in 71 A.D. It took 30 years to complete out of Istrian limestone. Nada had us notice the fact that the steps up to the stands were very high and narrow. She asked if we knew why. It’s because it would slow down the crowd, as they thronged up to their seats.

A Roman Palace in Split, Croatia
We took a scenic drive from Opatjia to Split, hugging the Adriatic seacoast all the way. However, our very alert bus driver, Dennis, noticed that something was amis with our big bus, a computer glitch of some kind. He called the company and they sent first mechanics, who crawled under, looked around, and shook their heads. Next, the company sent a new bus and a new driver.

When our 1-l/2 hour unexpected layover began, our perspicacious guide Petra broke out her grandmother’s schnapps and little disposable cups. Everyone gathered around and partook. Soon, we were singing. And buying jewelry in the little shop across from the coffee shop while we waited. That man must have said a prayer the night before, “Dear Lord, please drop a passel of tourists in my lap tomorrow.”

Petra was in constant communication with her home office by phone. At one point, the office asked, “Are they mad?” (meaning the tourists). “No,” Petra replied, “They are singing!” and lifting the phone so the office could hear what she said was true.

We stopped in Split overnight in order to see the vast palace of the Roman Emperor, Deoclecius. He ruled in 300 A.D., but was retired when he came to Slit. He was known as a torturer of Christians, but it’s rumored that his wife and daughter may have been secret Christians. He died at the age of 74. His sacophagus is in the Christan Cathedral in Split, dedicated to St. Duane. He doubtless is doing flipflops in his casket over his final location.

Deocletius’ palace is gigantic, about the size of a city block, and in very good condition for a structure 1700 years old.

In the town of Split, as later in Koto and Dubrovnik, we saw beggars. Petra assured us they were ‘professionals’ and not to encourage them. I guess she was right because I saw one bent old lady later at the seaside park, walking straight and smoking a cigarette.

Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic
We completed our trip in the famous city of Dubrovnik, founded in the 7th century, built on much older cities’ ruins.

The Franciscan monastery in Old Dubrovnik is a lovely and peaceful place, with an interesting museum containing a medieval pharmacy. Poisons were kept up high, so the pharmacist could get a good look at the buyer, while taking the time to climb to get them. Everyone purchased through a window, much like modern drive-through pharmacies. The purpose of the window, though, was to avoid plague and other illnesses a purchaser might have.

There was a troubadour in Dubrovnik, taking tips for singing songs. I paused and asked him if he knew “Country Roads.” Of course, he did! Everyone in Croatia seemed to know it. When I bought stamps at the post office in Rijika, the clerk asked me where I was from in the States. When I replied, “West Virginia,” he and I burst into a spontaneous duet of that song that’s so evocative of our state.

Montenegro – Black Mountains
Our guide assured us that the handsomest men and most beautiful women were found in Montenegro. We did find that to be somewhat true, however what struck me were the starving dogs at the crossover from Croatia to Montenegro. I spent the rest of the day gathering up scraps from our meals, but not a skinny dog did I see on our return trip.

Montenegro and Serbia are still in old Yugoslavia. Salaries are no more than 80 to 90 Euros a month, yet prices are still high. Montenegro was not bombed during the war, but was isolated and no progress was made there in the last 10-15 years. Herzig-Novi is the largest town. Cattle are valued for producing income. Meat, beans and lake-caught fish provide trade and industry.

The Turkish invasion in the 14th century pushed the Montenegrians into the mountains, away from the Adriatic coast. Barbarosa was the Pasha of the invading Turks. He was so impressed by the bravery of the Bosnia troops, he let them stay in Hertzi-Novi. At least, this is what our guide told us.

The Bay of Kotor is the biggest fjord in souther Europe. Deota was the name of an Illystrian queen, who resisted the Romans. When she couldn’t overcome their invasion, she threw herself into the bay. The biggest hotel there is called ‘The Illystrian Queen.’

The city walls in Kotor cost more to build than any palace in Europe. It took 1,000 years to build them, from the 9th century to the 19th.

While we were visiting Kotor, the Bucca Navy appeared. This is a fellowship, founded in 809 A.D. for the care of families of seamen. It’s the oldest association of sailors. These fine fellows, in beautiful uniforms, marked through the city streets, then placed music and danced in the square, for tourists and locals alike to watch and snap pictures.

Celebrities also visit the Island Hotel in Montenegro, because they can be unrecognized. Jeremy Irons comes every year. He recently got permission to build a house there. Normally, only guests of the hotel can go on the island.


Troubadour in Dubrovnik
Troubadour in Dubrovnik
My last visit in the area was to a Catholic religious site in the small town of Medjugorje in Bosnia. It’s now full of shops selling religious paraphernalia. We attended an English mass in the chapel near the main church, then drove a short distance to the hill where Mary is said to have appeared to six children in 1981. There was a very primitive rock road up to the site, with stops along the way with signs for meditation on the Stations of the Cross. Midway up the mountain was a side path that led to a tall (about 10 foot) white statue of the Virgin Mary, which seemed to gaze serenely over the town at her feet. There were a few people there, quietly talking or praying. After spending awhile meditating on the meaning of the place, we started the downward trek. For Catholics, this is a pilgrimage place of great meaning.

A friend asked me what the trip meant to me. I love to go to unusual places. While my friend Bev loves the reaction to one of her trips, “OH, I’ve ALWAYS wanted to go there!” I prefer the raised eyebrow and “Oh?”

Also, wherever I go on one of my trips, that area will forever be special to me. When I read about it in the news, like that President Bush met with Prime Minister Putin at Tito’s home-turned hotel in Lake Bled, that’s meaningful for me.

As for the three walks that led me to this trip originally, alas. My keee was acting up and I had to forego all but brief parts of those walks. I will forever regret missing that 3-mile walk around Lake Bled, the 3-mile seaside promenade in Opatjia, and a stroll around the top of the wall around Old Dubrovnik.

I just must go back again!

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