Saturday, June 24, 2017

Exploring the Dalmatian coast to the Julian Alps

Local writer travels from Croatia to Slovenia

     Upon arriving in Dubrovnik, Croatia, my husband’s search for ancestry on his father’s side begins. He hopes for insights. After years collecting slips of paper, death records and immigration documents, he cannot connect the dots.
     I jokingly exclaim that I am along for the ride, and in the meantime, I will explore red-roofed hillside landscapes familiar in popular movies, especially The Game of Thrones.
    October is a perfect time for traveling to countries along the Adriatic Sea – Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia once part of the Yugoslavian Republic ruled by Josip Broz Tito.  
     There are only occasional disturbances from bura, the Croatian word for wind, pronounced like the word, Buddha. It is a northerly wind blowing from the mountains to the sea.  

     If you ask me, bura is just wind. However, to Dalmatians it is so much more, and one of the most talked about topics of Croatian life. We miss a night cruise on the Adriatic due to rough seas from several days of bura wind, and we make the best of the situation by turning it into one of those opportunities for changing plans like flexible travelers. Instead, we find a nearby restaurant and talk with another couple about what they are discovering in Dubrovnik that we might check out the next day. It’s fascinating to get other people’s perspectives.      
      Our tour guide, Antonija, tells us that rain is another thing that gets the locals down, and bad moods prevail along with grouchy looks when the sky opens up. I never encounter rudeness, although on the 2 rainy days in Dubrovnik, I am too busy watching for puddles rather than faces. 

     Our trip is14 days by land; however, cruises are a popular option, too. The region welcomes tourists and is easy on the budget in contrast to Europe in general. For example, a three-course meal with drinks for 2 in Spilt, Croatia costs 214 kunas, or about 30 American dollars.

Wandering around Dubrovnik

      Dubrovnik is one of the jewels of Croatia. It is an international city, and quite easy to navigate, especially since English is spoken everywhere. Its past as an independent city- state rivaled that of Venice, and its harbor brought ships in and out for trade with all of Europe and the Middle East.
    The Stari Grad, the extraordinarily well-preserved Old City, is a place that we linger and return frequently using public bus transportation from our hilltop hotel. We walk the high wall surrounding the city and marvel at the beauty in every direction.
     Looking to the left and to the right off the main pedestrian walking area, we notice steep-stepped alleys where there are shaded restaurants and handmade craft shops tucked away ideal for hours of exploration.
     One afternoon we accidentally come upon a tiny covered spot outside and enjoy an octopus salad and bowl of mussels –Croatian specialties - with local beer and wine while people watching and soaking up the sun. There’s a term in Croatia, pomalo, or take it easy, and that’s what the day is meant for.

Meeting a Croatian family

     Croatian cuisine is a flavorful blend of Mediterranean and Slavic influences, and my husband and I have the distinct pleasure of visiting a local family for an evening dinner prepared with foods from our host’s small farm.
    While we sit on the patio of a modern brick home, Anna, a university student, speaks in fluent English about the courses of the meal. We start with homemade grappa made from their grapes, prosciutto, cheese, peppers and bread for dipping in olive oil. The second course is a variety of smoked meats – Ana shows us the family’s smoke house - and we end with flan for dessert.

     But it is the family’s story that remains with me today. During the civil war in ’91 the men protect the land, and the women all flee into Dubrovnik each with a plastic bag of belongings.
      In the meantime, the army takes over the family’s home and when the family returns, it has been looted and emptied of furniture. It is a pointless war started by very nationalistic leaders we are told, and over 8000 men are killed as a result.
     At the time, Anna is only three years old, but she has grown up with the stories about how proud the Croatian people are for their country, now part of the European Union. As she is speaking of the experience, her eyes become teary, her voice raises an octave and you sense the deep love for her familial roots.
     In fact, throughout Croatia family is regarded highly and of the 4.3 million people, most do not live far from their roots. Anna’s relatives reside up and down the road and gather once a day for the main meal. Our tour guide, Antonija, has her own apartment as a single woman, and visits with her parents and siblings as often as possible.
     Anna tells us her education through the university level is provided by the government if she maintains excellent grades. All citizens receive health care and pensions. Everyone is taxed at almost half his salary.
      The more my husband listens, the more things begin to click together in his mind from his growing up in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, which incidentally, has the largest population of Croatians in the United States. He recalls the family customs around the table and specific sayings that are similar to what he is noticing here.

Spending time in war-torn areas

     We take a day trip to the country of Montenegro, a republic that goes back to the eleventh century and which declared its independence in 2006.
     It has the distinction of never been conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Driving around Kotor Bay, Europe’s southernmost fjord, it is surrounded by exquisite terrain of rugged black mountains and long unbroken stretches of beach.
     Traveling north we stop another day in Bosnia-Herzegovina and honestly, it is a poor war-torn country that hasn’t recovered. I have never seen anything like it in my travels.
     The bullet holes and dings in houses and buildings still without roofs or partial walls is evident in the city of Mostar, home of Turkish architecture and a forty-five percent Muslim population. The Old Town bridge built in the 16th century is a symbol of reconciliation and co-existence of diverse cultural, religious and ethnic communities.
     At the borders of each of these countries it is necessary to go through Passport Control, and because of the Syrian refugee crisis, security has escalated. Only 2 families have asked for asylum in Croatia as most Syrians are trying to get to Germany and beyond.

Encountering a tense solo American traveler

      We meet a young businesswoman from Chicago at a rest stop on the highway – she comes right over recognizing us as
Americans - and she says that on her public bus the police take off several Syrians without proper papers.  
     She talks at a fast pace and nervously sips from a Coke. We suppose she is realizing after the fact that as an innocent bystander, she witnessed an international situation and wants a brief encounter with Americans to help her comfort level. She says we gave her what she needs and thanks us. After we finish our conversation, we wish her safe travels.

Visiting historic sights

     One of the highlights in Croatia is the Palace of Diocletian, one of the greatest Roman rulers in Central Europe. It is a virtual open-air museum with the palace as its centerpiece. It is here in the bowels of the palace that I see where film crews cleared the vendors’ stalls and shot scenes of the dragons’ lair in The Game of Thrones.
      We tour a coastal town, Rovinj, only twenty miles across the water from Trieste, Italy, and it takes on a different flavor from its early settlement by Italians.
     We always look for local farmers’ markets for interacting with vendors who will introduce us to new products. In Rovinj we taste black and white truffles for the first time, and we remark at the earthy taste.   
     Nearby in Pula we visit the 23,000 person amphitheater, the sixth of its kind preserved in the world, and nowhere as crowded as the Roman Coliseum.
     Postojna Caves is an extensive underground cavern and the largest in Europe. After a refreshing 3 plus mile walk down and back, I remember similar hikes in Carlsbad and Mammoth Cave in the US, and include this one as a new favorite.
    Once again, Antonija, our tour guide with a strong history background, gives my husband corrections about his family name that he has not yet found through His spelling is incorrect considering the location and varies on records. Unfortunately, like in most immigrant families, such information is not discussed while he is growing up. He tries to read between the lines and recall vague incidences while on the trip.

Touring Slovenia

     Heading north into Slovenia we don fleece jackets – the temperatures slip into the forties and low fifties- stay at Bled Lake, a European resort. Bled is blessed with natural hot springs regarded as having healing powers and has been a popular fresh air retreat since the mid 19th century.
     I take advantage of walking the perimeter of the lake, breathing in deeply and viewing the snow covered Julian Alps. "Winter is coming" is the motto of House Stark, one of the Great Houses of Westeros in The Game of Thrones. The meaning behind these words is one of warning and constant vigilance. That’s decent advice for any traveler, too.
     Perhaps, a surprise to me is a visit to Ljubljana, a city that has incorporated Roman and medieval styles with modern architecture. There is a lot of picture taking opportunities in the largest city in Slovenia, and to think I almost stayed behind.
     Before entering the Old City, I see the utilitarian worker apartment buildings from the Communist era. Today, Slovenia is modern and economically better off than countries to the south.
     Two weeks later and a pound or two heavier, we leave for home saturated in the history around us that we never paid enough attention to 20 years ago. Thanks to former President Bill Clinton, who helped bring about a peaceful ending to the Bosnian War, the borders stay the same.
     My husband is hard at work piecing together more clues in the puzzle, and thinking that he will be ready for a visit to the actual location of his ancestors on a future trip.  As for me, I am waiting for the sixth season of my favorite TV show and hoping that Khaleesi and her dragons will win the final battle.