Spring Travels: Part II, Athens to Zagreb – Greece, Croatia, Europe

We met as a group of forty on May 20 for an overview of the tour, then walked to the Plaka for a taverna dinner. The next morning we explored the Acropolis with onsite lectures of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the Odeon. As we were standing in front of the Parthenon, a twenty-something American passing by said to her friend, “So where is this Acropolis thing?” She had apparently missed the fact that this entire “high hill” was it, and she had been walking on the “sacred rock” for probably the last hour.

Judy, my roommate, and I continued on our own past the Agora to the Tower of Winds and the wonderful little Museum of Musical Instruments. In the evening we saw another changing of the-guard, this time in full-dress whites, as it was Sunday. Into the cathedral we went for the rich chanting and to see the Acropolis lit at night.

Delphi is an impressive site, with its museum of the Naxian Sphinx, and goddess figurines from when the site had been Gaia’s. The next day, admiring the landscape of Meteora, we drove up the mountain to visit the monastery of Valaam with its Byzantine paintings and museum of treasures. All of the monasteries in the area are built on promontories. In earlier times, monks traveled from their rocky perch in a basket maneuvered with pulleys. The name Meteora, meaning suspended in air, came to encompass the entire rock community of 24 monasteries, of which only six survive.

Continuing on through the state of Thessaly, I was missing the island landscape of Greece. In this northern part of the country, the geography changes to continental, with a cursory glance we could have been in Germany. We had a long delay at the border as our guide and bus driver negotiated our entry into Macedonia, or rather the FYROM.

We left our hotel by Lake Ochrid for a tour of the town of Ochrid with visits to St. Sofia, the fortress, old streets and harbor. Later we crossed the border into Albania: gorgeous mountain scenery interspersed with towns of rubble and poverty. In Tirana its fancifully painted building brighten the leftover Communist gray. We noticed hefty new SUVs in contrast to the small cars almost everywhere else on the trip. Some thought it was a necessity for the potholed streets, but the feeling in the central part of the city was of a hustle toward capitalism, dealmaking around tables of different nationalities vying for a piece of the action.

A tour of Tirana the next day focused on the National History Museum with depictions of the suffering of the country, from earlier more glorious times to the grim Communist barbed wire and portraits of the persecuted and the executed.

The next day we went through broken Shkodra, took a walk in Budva in newly independent Montenegro. It was a day of much driving, long border delays, a lunch stop and our first glimpse of the Adriatic. We arrived late into Dubrovnik.

Our morning tour of the Old City with its statues, fountains and walls included hearing part of a Mass/sermon in Spanish. I was sitting on a side street looking at brochures to decide which island ship to take the following day, when an ancient lady came out and invited me in for coffee. We went through our list of languages. We had only sparse Italian in common. She showed me photo albums of her familly, but the most poignant moment came when she opened a drawer and brought out a ragged bundle of cloth which revealed shrapnel from the bombing of Dubrovnik in December 1991. With pantomime and our few understandable words, she acted out her fear when her house was bombarded.

Throughout the entire trip, I had and took opportunities to talk with people of various age groups and experiences; my cumulative impression was hope and renewal mixed with centuries-old hostilities hovering at the edges.

For our free day in Dubrovnik, I chose to go on a three-island trip to Kolocep, Simon and Lopud. There were only seven of us on the launch, so we could move around and sample a well-watered herbal brandy called travarica. In Lopud we walked up to a café on a hill overlooking the church tower for a grilled fish lunch. I hiked to the other side of the island for a swim in the sea and then a 30-minute hike through aromatic pines.

We were now along the Adriatic Coast, stopping for lunch at the seaside town of Makarska, our first experience of the strong south wind known as Yugo. In Split we had a tour of the impressive Diocletian Palace with its Romanesque architecture preserved by being used as a garbage dump by those who built houses over it. There was a 3,000 year-old Sphinx, a church, Venetian balconies – juxtaposed inside the walls of the Palace.

The next day we stopped in Trogir, then Zadar with its singing steps, Roman forum and marble streets. There was heavy rain by the time we reached the Plitvice Lakes.

Last night we were worried our day in Plitvice National Park would be a soggy one, but the day brought sun for our walk by the cascades, a boat trip on the lake, a bus up to the top, and a walk down past rivuleting cascades with sun glinting through canopies of trees – glorious.

We stopped in Opatija with its elegant hotels and waterfront where we experienced the north winds. At the Postojna Caves in Slovenia, we took a little train into the underground caverns and chambers with formations of stalactites and stalagmites, a wonderland carved by nature over three million years ago.

I took the optional tour to the island in the center of Lake Bled with its church and bell to make wishes come true. There was a gift shop with bilberry liqueur and beautiful scenery all around. By bus through an Alpine village to Lake Bohinj, seeing Slovenia’s highest mountain, Triglav, in the distance. We toured Bled Castle before continuing on to Ljubljana and its nighttime illumination. Then Ljubljana and the many architectural contributions of Josef Plecnik.

We went back into Croatia to visit the capital, Zagreb. There we had a boisterous farewell dinner complete with folk musicians and singing.

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