European Alps in Slovenia
Old town harbour Dubrovnik
With Mile in Neum
Breakfast in Split
Lake Bled Castle
Ski jump summer practice facility Slovenia
Old Town Ljubljana
Sarejevo war scarring
Back in Padova for one night before leaving for Slovenia, we spent the evening with Denys, Giorgia and Amelie and it was sad to say goodbye. The good news is that we will most likely spend a week with them in Spain after Christmas. One more night in our Padova hotel in the same room (we forgot to return the key ) – Neville’s version is that that the Concierge forgot to ask for it. We had filled in their regulation form that asked for recommendations etc. Our room was at least three hundred and fifty metres from reception – you legged it down a lane – we made the suggestion that a courtesy car would be good. The Concierge was convinced this was some form of Aussie humour – but Neville was dead serious! He laughed so much he forgot to ask us for the key. Our story anyway. Into the taxi and to the train station and tthe city of Mestre to catch our bus to Ljubljana where we had no hitches and we were soon on our way through Trieste and into Slovenia.
Well may you be asking – where’s the first blog? Well, you may – but that hasn’t got it on the web any faster. These fine septuagenarians have had to overcome some serious technicàl hitches as well as travel the European countryside. We confess to receiving some heavy international support and that by the time you read this Blog No. 1 is well and truly published.
Ljubljana is such a pearl in the Balkans. Winner of 2016 Green European Capital and the central city area completely free of motor vehicles, it sets a standard very difficult to beat. There are so many unique features about Slovenia and its Capital. All we can say is that you should put it on your list of places to visit. With a population about half that of Melbourne they are heavyweights in the Winter Olympics – particularly in ski jumping. Eddie the Eagle doesn’t stand a chance here – we saw them practising – air-borne and landing on astro-turf – not a sport for the faint hearted.
We spent two days touring the countryside with Drago, a relative of our friends Anita and Vedran from Melbourne. Drago was waiting for us at the bus station when we arrived and we had a great time with him. Drinking coffee, chatting and relaxing in the beautiful summer climate is a national pastime and Drago had little difficulty training us to fit in. He also introduced us to the Lake Bled cake – looks like a vanilla slice only better! Drago also took us to meet a young couple who he helped get a backpacker type hostel off the ground in a small town called Kransky Gora which coincidentally was having a little music festival to extract a few more Euros out of the visiting bikies. Harley-Davidson riders from all over Europe had descended on Slovenia for the week. The band played the best cover version of The Eagles ‘Hotel California’ we have ever heard.
Slovenia is bordered by Italy, Croatia, Austria and Hungary and has forty-six kilometres of Adriatic coastline. It has a 440 year old grapevine, is home to the oldest wooden wheel ever discovered – 5,200 years old, hot water is circulated in Ljubljana for central heating, 30% of its energy is nuclear and you can ride a Vespa motor scooter on the bike path without a helmet or licence as long as you stay under 25 kms! The European Alps cover 42% of its surface area.
After bidding Drago goodbye we set off on an overnight bus for Sarajevo in Bosnia. Not a trip for the faint of heart – but it didn’t get off to a good start when the bus was two and a half hours late. There had been an accident down the line somewhere and it was in a twenty-seven kilometre long traffic jam. This wasn’t the bus trip from hell, but it deserves a mention. We had to cross borders of Slovenia/Bosnia, Bosnia/Croatia and Croatia/Bosnia to get there. Passport control is a bit touchy and we spent quite a long time passing through the check points. The last checkpoint was particularly interesting as we and two other fellow travellers were relieved of our passports and the official left the bus. Another passenger assured us that things were ‘no problem’ and we can only speculate that it was because we were the only international travellers on the bus. These officials are not chatty and when he returned he actually called us out by our Christian names – a nice friendly Socialist touch! We were convinced that our two bus drivers were playing good driver/bad driver. One of them said nothing for the whole twelve hours other than the gruffest ‘SARAJEVO’ when we arrived. No-one was particularly friendly – it was a sobering introduction to eastern Europe. Some-one was sitting in our reserved seats and wouldn’t shift. The bus was full and Neville wasn’t keen for Libby to sit next to a stranger for the journey. He wouldn’t budge, the bus drivers’ couldn’t give a ‘rats’ and we were looked on by our neighbours as complaining no-good westerners. The tension eased when two seats together suddenly materialised a couple of rows back.
Neville has a theory about day to day living in this part of the world. Perhaps there is an extra academic subject included in their syllabus. We could call it the Doctorate of Waiting. They’re good at it and they’re given plenty of practise. Two and a half hours waiting for a bus ‘is nothing’ – one cigarette waits at bus breaks ‘is good’ – two cigarette waits ‘IS BETTER’. Even the houses seem to be waiting – as we pass in the bus plenty of buildings have steel reinforcing rods reaching skywards waiting for the next floor to be added. Dario, describing Sarajevo inhabitants said – they wait, the pressure builds, they decide to react – and like Vesuvious they boil over, burn something down and that gets rid of the tension. Next day they’re fine – but the wait has started again.
We were met in Sarajevo by Ivana and Dario, sister and brother-in-law of Anita, and we stayed with her mum and dad who treated us to true Bosnian hospitality and we will need to do some serious dieting since leaving. Katerina – Ivana and Anita’s mum – is seriously into filling stomachs. Ivana , Dario and their son Mateo showed us the city sights and it is no exagerration that Ivana must have had all her friends hiding around corners as almost everyone who walked past us knew her. I swear if the Pope had been walking by he would have walked over and said hi. And that would have been OK too as he has actually shaken Mateo’s hand. Mateo insisted I try the Egyptian Vanilla Gellato and who am I to spoil a perfectly good friendship. In true Eastern style the story goes that the guy who had the recipe for the Egyptian Vanilla Gellato was offered his weight in gold for it (and he was no hundred pound weakling) but he refused! More power to his waist-line.
The saddest thing about Sarajevo is that everywhere you go you see evidence of the Balkans war that actually finished over twenty years ago. Cemeteries everywhere – we were told that over eleven thousand civilians were killed in Sarajevo alone. Almost all the high rise apartments have evidence of grenade and bullet strikes. Some apartments are still to be made habitable. Katerina and Michan’s apartment was close to the front line and during the fighting Michan shared the double bed with the wood for their fire while Katerina slept in the passage or the basement if things got too bad. It is so sad to walk through a cemetery and see so many names – born in 1969 and died in 1992. Very sobering as we also have a sons born in 1969.
Sarajevo has taken a small leaf out of Ljubljana’s book and has decided to close a section of road each evening so that people can take a walk by the river. We had a great leisurely walk along this avenue with Ivana, Dario and Mateo with some nice wine and Pizza.
On the Saturday evening, after being introduced to half of Sarajevo by Ivana, we attended the first birthday party of the daughter of her cousin which was an ideal opportunity to meet the other half of Sarajevo’s residents. On Sunday we went for a walk in a park – all have to pay to walk in the park – and Dario treated us to a pony ride while he went back to get the car as it looked like rain. And rain it did – in Eastern European bucket-loads. It got to the hilarious stage when the driver started swearing at his horse for looking around at him when it was supposed to be digging in with more than a trot. Ivana was translating and it was definitely shearing shed grammar. Neville suggested that he ought to treat his carriage to some new rubber tyres (solid rubber and pretty bumpy) for Christmas but Ivana decided that his demeanour was beyond humouring. In the evening we went to see Michan’s ‘ranch’ and had a lovely meal not far from there which Katerina also attended. This is all in the area designated Republika Croatia even though it is a part of Sarajevo which, of course, is in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Even though I am trying to simplify a problem that seemed too great for the UN to tackle, it is bordering on the ridiculous to see the situation that everyone is subjected to. Back to the ranch – most families if they are able, have a little place in the country. Michan and his family have the ranch – its house was destroyed in the war and it is Michan’s intention to rebuild. There is a lot of talk about it! The grass keeps getting mown and Michan keeps presenting a different plan for the house. As we said – there is a lot of talk about it, but that is good. There is great enjoyment in talking about building a house.
Michan has very little English and does not enjoy good health and Grandson Mateo is his right hand man both physically and as a translator. Mateo’s command of the English language for a young fellow of twelve is exemplary and he could quite easily hold down a job as a translator even now.
Clearly we have devoted a lot of this blog to Sarajevo and our hosts – another 1,000 words would not be sufficient to describe our feelings for them and their city.
After three days and some emotional farewells we were off to Mostar with Michan and Mile – Vedran’s dad. So we sat in the back and the two fathers sat in the front. Neither the front seat nor the back seat could correspond with each other, so it was a strange trip. We all knew there would be coffee and cigarette breaks (for Michan) but apart from that and the extremely animated descriptions of what we were passing, both seats kept to themselves.
Mostar is famous for the old bridge that got blown up in the war and was then rebuilt; but then Hamish and Andy (two Melbourne media personalities) went there and jumped off it, so we are told. A guy who sold us a fridge magnet on the bridge said if we were real Australians we would jump off it too. We quickly assured him that although the water was obviously cool and refreshing (temperature about 35 degrees Celsius) and not because of the fifteen metres that separated us on the bridge, it was because we neglected to bring our togs. And so we left the bridge feeling as though we had let our proud nation down – but secretly cursing H and A for being so thick that they could think Croatians would let the rest of us off the hook. It has been said that many have accepted the challenge, but not us.
Mostar is very eastern – where Sarajevo is east meets west. The narrow street leading to the bridge is very colourful and whilst Sarajevo has its Turkish Bazaar, Mostar and its downtown area (what an Americanism) is straight out of the Middle East. The surrounding areas are rich in vines and fruit trees. Really rocky limestone type country that drains well.
We bid Michan goodbye and were left in Mile’s more than capable hands and were transported to Neum, where Mile has a seaside apartment. Geographically, it is a strange set up. The section of Bosnian coastline appears to be bordered on both sides by Croatian territory – perhaps another product of finger pointing, tanks and guns. Mile had a taxi waiting and we were treated to a scenic drive to Neum. While staying with this wonderful man we travelled by bus to Dubrovnik which has a startling ‘Old Town.’
But back to Neum. There are fifty-four steps up to Mile’s apartment and he insisted on carrying not one but both our cases. The fact that he is about fifteen years older than Neville didn’t enter his head. After a bit of argey-bargey (polite insistence) Neville was allowed to carry one case. While we were dragging ourselves up by the handrail, Mile was marching ahead undaunted.
Mile was such a wonderful host and it was so disappointing that we were unable to have great conversations with him. He had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to make us feel at home and the communication problem made even simple things hard for him to get across to us. We spent a day in Dubrovnik and he arranged for his neighbour to take us to the bus stop in his car. They were waiting for us when we returned and we’re still not sure how long they waited. He also drove us to the bus stop the next day when we left for Split. The neighbour waited with us for nearly an hour until the bus came as he said ‘Mile my good friend and I must stay with you”. He was a very animated man when it came to relaying his opinions about all things Bosnian, Croatian, lazy police, crooked politicians and just about anything else that came to mind. He had the solution for any problem but they all seemed to come straight out of the Old Testament! And there are laws against most of his suggestions.
So we left Mile reluctantly, we had met he and his wife, Emina when they visited Vedran and Anita, and it is no exagerration to say that this delightful gentleman will remain in our hearts forever. Sadly Emina died some years ago.
So to Split – but not before Neville needs to relate to you something that can only be described as toilet humour. So if you’re not into toilet humour – as they say ‘look away now’.
In the early morning Neville needed to visit that place that older men need to visit increasingly during interrupted sleep. Not wanting to disturb the masses, he took his mobile phone along to use as a torch and promptly dropped it into the toilet bowl. Now if you laughed, he is very disappointed. It seems that like Newton’s Law of positive and negative reactions, one’s misfortune is another’s hilarity. So you are forgiven. If you can imagine him on his knees over the bowl, delicately extracting an iPhone by the fingernails – the torch in the phone still shining happily away – well then you’ve got the picture. And talking about pictures, it appears that’s about all he’s got. A tech guy in Dubrovnik got the card out and said it will probably be OK but that he would need a couple of days to see if the phone is OK or not. While we are in Switzerland we will look for someone who can help. After all, what aren’t the Swiss good at.
The bus journey to Split showed us some extremely fertile land. One area of river flats at a place called Blace – like that? – was probably the most fertile stretch of land we have ever seen. It was completely planted down to vines, stone fruit and citrus and the plantings were supported by canals that criss-crossed the flats. All this within sight of the sea with endless fruit stalls lining the main road. I don’t know how they coped with the salinity problem. The other thing that will remain with us is the wild pomegranit and fig trees that grew randomly everywhere. This, plus the olive trees growing in half-hearted plantation fashion didn’t leave much room for weeds.
Split bustles on Croatia’s coast with an incredible array of sail and motor craft. There were two of the largest pleasure boats we have ever seen tied up there. Both domiciled Barbados they were so big they must be owned by the richest oil Sheik in Arabia – or perhaps two medium sized African countries. It is Dalmatia without the dalmations. No black spotted four legged D’s in sight. Split has a long history – Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruled from 284 AD for 21 years, was born and also died in Split – then known as Spolato. Splitians (for want of a better word) recently celebrated their city’s 1700th anniversary.
Split was busy – many more tourists than we expected and we had trouble finding accommodation. We walked to a very respectable hotel not far from the bus station, only to be told they were booked out. Their alternatives were also full up and we finished up at the Hotel ? Where the receptionist rang around and eventually found what turned out to be a delightful room on the other side of town. While we were deliberating about how we were going to get there, she said that Marin would pick us up in his taxi and take us there for fifty Kuna (about A$7). Marin turned up in what could only be described as an elongated Vespa on steroids. It was electric, it went up onto footpaths, around motor vehicle barriers – in fact just about anywhere a pedistrian could walk it would go. The Motor Registration Branch in Melbourne would have at least about twenty reasons why this little beauty would not be allowed on our roads. Marin said he and his partner had seven of them tearing round town. Asked if he had a girlfriend he said he was too busy to have one – he would be back in the morning at nine-thirty to take us and our luggage back to the bus station where we would leave it while we spent the day being touristy. We waited until ten o’clock and still no Marin. The cleaner rang the Hotel ? For us as M didn’t have a card with him when we asked the day before. She called out that he had forgotten and would be there in five minutes. Neville said to throw down a towel from the room – asked why, he said to clean up the blood after he punched Marin in the nose. Much laughter but Neville was being deadly serious – again. So up sneaks Marin, you can’t here him and his electrics coming, all apologetic. Glad he hasn’t any girlfriends as he wouldn’t remember to pick them up.
We liked the lifestyle in Split – more coffee drinking and the laid back style that we have seen everywhere along the Dalmatian coastline. There is also a daily ferry service to Ancona, Italy during the summer as well as the ever arriving and leaving ferries to the coastal islands. During the summer months it is not unusual for four or five of these large ferries to be in port at once, and while we were there a huge cruise ship disgorged an armada of tourists.
An overnight bus back to Ljubljana to collect ‘big red’ our humungous suit case (full of winter clothes and presents), some more time and lunch with Drago and we were ready for what we thought would be a relaxing sleeper berth in the train to Zurich. What a joke.
We had time during the day for some more sight-seeing in lovely Ljubljana and met Drago an hour before we left in the train for coffee.
We knew that we would be sharing our compartment with two more travellers as all private sleeper accommodation was taken. One guy was Swiss and had been kayaking in Slovenia with a group. The other was a Harley-Davidson bikey – there had been Harley’s hairing around Slovenia the whole time we were there – interesting to look at but they all have the same noise (patented we believe). Anyway bikey-man was Austrian and he was supposed to wake up when the conductor brought him a coffee so that he could depart the train somewhere in the middle of the night. But of course he slept on and it was only because the Swiss guy knew he had to get off that he galvanised into action. Bouncing into his trousers as he hopped down the passage, they actually delayed the departure at his station so he could get off. Maybe they had to wake up his Harley too.
As we were last booked, you can guess where we had to sleep. Yep – top bunks – and we are now seriously over top bunks. Neville has watched our dog, Sass, randomly scratch her blanket into a more comfortable position and he reckons that when we get home he is going to pay closer attention to how she does it as he needs educating in cramped-position-blanket-spreading. How we both didn’t fall as we climbed up and down we don’t know. And Neville’s chlostrophobic attack is now manageable, but only just.
Anyway we’re now in Rorschach with Fabian, Ramon, David, Elias and their parents, enjoying their company and reminiscing about old times.
A.A. (Apple-eaters Anonymous) It is twenty-seven days since I ate a magnificent Pink Lady apple. Given that my withdrawal symptoms have only on occasion resulted in uncontrollable tremors I am not doing too bad. In a moment of weakness I had a Jabuka in Ljubljana which I thought was a type of apple but it turned out that the supermarket calls all apples in Slovenia jabuka because that’s the word for apple. It wasn’t half bad but not a Pink Lady’s breaches.