Mali Stari Grad
It is always a treat to not be harassed by TSA. And we are not, but this
time we get asked an odd question:
"Ma'm, how do you pronounce your last name?"
Jet Fuel Our connection to Ljubljana is thru Paris, and our flight from SFO lands a few minutes early, which is great. But then our plane circles CDG for 45 minutes… meandering thru the tarmac side streets, off to other terminals, all the way to the end of the airport, back to another terminal, then off to the woods… a nice scenic tour of the airport and surrounding villages. At least the front-facing camera is on so we can all enjoy the pilots' view! We make our connection with a whole 10 minutes to spare! Our one hour flight to Ljubljana seems 10 hours because of the super BO fat priest dude who sits across the isle from us. Ick. Thank god for the sweet perfume of jet fuel!
H For a Vowel
One note about the region: no wonder Yugoslavia broke up into
so many countries! These folks, what are now separate
countries, have so little in common with each other. Their
manners and attitude, their way of life, their towns, their
architecture… even their looks! At least that is our observation
in the three countries we visit: Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro.
One thing they do have in common is great seafood. We eat fish every night during the trip, and no matter which country we are in, it is fantastic! Another thing they seem to have in common is the lack of vowels in the language... that, and that they really hate each other, especially the Croatian and Montenegrins.
Slovenia is Alpine… it looks and feels like Switzerland, even the people look Germanic. The countryside is clean and green, the houses have meticulously well kept window boxes with geraniums, well-taken-care-of yards, and a lot of them appear to have a vegetable patch. Everyone speaks perfect English, and public transit is punctual. Well, except for the train to Zagreb which is late and on the wrong platform.
We cross into Croatia and life is slower. Centuries of being ruled by the Venetians has affected their architecture and food, especially in the coastal region. Generally speaking, Croatians appear very Italianish!
In contrast, you enter Montenegro and the communist era is right in your face. Montenegro's scenery is spectacular, but the people, not so much. They haven't quite figured out this whole hospitality thing! And unfortunately, unlike Slovenia and Croatia who are embracing tourism, the Montenegrins are embracing selling their country off to the Russians. It is quite sad to see all the for-sale URLs with the .ru domain! They really are missing out on this once in a life time opportunity to become a destination country.
Gjorjgjeoujs Ljubljana is lovely! Clean and quaint, with a "if it is flat, there should be an outdoor café!" mentality. We stay on the edge of the pedestrian zone of the old town, within walking distance of everything we need. We take the bus to Bled, about an hour north-west of Ljubljana. Like everything else in Slovenia, it is clean, efficient, and leaves right on time. And it gives us a glimpse of the countryside.
Cjute Ojverljoad Bled is quite dreamy. The day we go it is warm and sunny, a perfect day to climb up to Bled Castle, walk around the lake, and row to the teeny super-adorable Bled Island, albeit we have to cajole the gondola guy to take us over, and then wait for another dude to take us back since the original guy leaves us on the island. Dan does not carry Assana up the 99 steps, as legend dictates. Vatever! (Now we know why things won't work out for us). One of Assana's cameras falls into the lake while propped on a bench for a timer photo! Whoops! It doesn't stop us from being Clicky McShuttersons: 400 photos later and we are back on the bus to Ljubljana.
Cjave & Cjastle Bled would have been our only excursion in Slovenia had it not been for our friend Bertrand who recommended we visit Predjama Castle, and while we are at it, Postonja Caves. These caves are so massive that they put Carlsbad Caverns to shame. The system they use is interesting: a train shuttles the tourists 4 kilometers into the caves, then you have an hour of on-foot exploring loop back to the train. Very interesing, though we've seen Carlsbad, and you've seen one cave, you've seen them all! :)
The castle is amazing. It was built against a massive cave in 1275! Unfortunately the weather is not as cooperative. By the time we get dropped off in Postojna the rain is just pouring, and let me tell you, it is NOT a warm rain! (Incidentally, the rain turns into snow by the time we are back to Ljubljana.) Thank god for the Illy coffeeshop right on the main square! The Postojna caves are one kilometer away and the castle is 10 kilometers from the caves. Fortunately our taxi driver takes us to both the caves and the castle and waits for us at both, and finally drops us off at his favorite restaurant for lunch!
We are so pleasantly surprised by Slovenia.
Hertz Croatian mentality shows as we enter the country. Where the Slovenians meticulously check our passport upon exiting Slovenia, the Croatians barely look at them before stamping them for entry. Just like the Slovenians, the Croatians are obsessed with putting outdoor cafés in every flat surface they find. Zagreb is lovely, but the one day we have is plenty to walk around the city and tour the sites. We are here to pick up our car rental.
Like many other trips we braille our way out of town. Croatian highways are fantastic! At one point Dan notices that not only they have no potholes or cracks, they don't even have a seam! We are not sure if our expectations of foreign roads is just really low, or that we are used to crappy American highways.
Daring We spend a day at Plitvice Lakes National Park. The park is our only schedule spontaneous hotel arragement: we have no hotel reservations. The first thing we do as we get to the park is look for a place to stay. We are trying to be spontaneous, but not that spontaneous! Fortunately there are a couple of Soviet-era hotels right in the park and one has a big room that will do.
Lakes Lakes Lakes We spend the day meandering among the lakes and the waterfalls. The park is really fabulous. The limestone cliffs make for very interesting lakes and colors, and there are waterfalls all over the place -- though we hear that they are even more spectacular in the spring time. The park's trails are well marked, clean and well maintained. It is a cold day with the temperature hovering around 4 degrees. We don't care; we are bundled up and ready for hiking. And fortunately we have good timing: as soon as we are back to our room it starts to hail. We are ready for the coast and some sunshine!
Got Limestone? And the coast… ahhhh… so amazingly beautiful. The Adriatic is dark blue with a limestoney floor, making it ultra clear. Looking down into it feels like looking into a swimming pool! The coastline's fingers jut in the sea, and it appears that each finger has its own ancient walled city perched on it. The white color of the towns is not stucco, but limestone: the building exteriors, the streets, the walls, everything is made out of limestone! They sure took advantage of what they had most of! It is amazing to walk among these old old cities and walls. Centuries of foot traffic has polished the floor stones to a high shine...as though they are wet. These cities, they have so much in common, yet each is different with its own personality.
1700 We really enjoy our time in Split. There's something magical to stay within the walls of a 1700 year old palace, Diocletian's Palace built in 305. Our hotel was built inside the palace walls, against its vestibule. Imagine our delight when we realize one of our room's walls is the original vestibule wall. How cool is that?! But what is fascinating about Split is that life goes on inside the palace in a very matter-of-fact way. It appears that no one notices or cares that the polished limestone they are walking on has been there for seventeen centuries.
Bura We leave Split and drive down the coast which is dotted by adorable seaside villages, all gorgeous and sleepy. What do people do? Who cares when you live in such a beautiful country. We catch two ferries to get to Korčula. Both leave painfully on time. So much so that we miss the second ferry by seconds: it leaves the dock as we drive up. Nooooooo! Wait for us! Korčula appears to be closing down for the winter, which means very few tourists! We learn all about the Bura, the super gusty northern wind that whips thru the Adriatic in the winter. It is so cold and icky that everyone goes inland for the winter.
Dry-farmed? On the way back to mainland we skip the second ferry and drive along the Pelješac Peninsula, one of the many wine countries in Croatia. When on vacation, we always try to taste the local wines, and Croatia is no different. We have been tasting a lot of local wines, and have really enjoyed their intensity. So it is fun to see the grape-covered hillsides. The vineyards are so very different than what we are used to in California. They are clearly not trellised, and to our unprofessional eye, they appear to be dry-farmed; it explains the full body of the wines. And needless to say, the adorable seaside villages continue down the coast.
And then there is Dubrovnik. OMG.
Diamond While trying to find our hotel we take the wrong fork in the road and end up on the highway out of town. (We actually looped around 4 times, but only once ended up out of town!) Whoops. But that's where we get our first glimpse of this beautiful walled town… the same view that is on the cover of all the tour books. We love it already. Dubrovnik is magnificent. It does deserve to be called the Jewel of the Adriatic. Amazing to think that the stupid Bosnians and Montenegrins tried to destroy it! Thank you UNESCO for saving this gem.
Too Many Tourists One problem with Dubrovnik is the mass of tourists that is dumped into town by the cruise ships. During our stay there are 2-3 cruises every day, and the poor town gets inundated by the mass of visitors! And this is the slow season! We hear that during the high season there are as many as 9! Can't even imagine! The good news is that they pretty much leave by late afternoon, so the town is back to normal for the evenings. Also, the cruise tourists are lazy; they don't really walk around except on the main street. We circumnavigate the city on top of its wall with relatively few tourists. They also don't get out of the city walls. So during the cruise hours we walk along the shore for distant views of the town.
Zappp! The first time we are outside the walls we notice clouds gathering over the town. The first few drops of rains encourages us to head back. Well, within twenty minutes the skies open up! All of the town's limestone streets become rivers! At one point there is 8" of fast flowing water on the street, which, of course, just runs off of the limestone.
We huddle with a bunch of French cruise tourists under an awning next to a church. Next thing we know a lightning hits the church! Doh! It is the first time we hear the thunder and see the lightning almost together! The loudest thunder we have ever heard, complete with electric crackling sound. Scares the bjesus out of us! Half an hour later, the storm is gone and the sunset is spectacular.
For Sale Our hotel in Kotor is supposed to send a car to get us from the Croatia/Montenegro border-crossing since both sides appear to be reluctant to cross the border into the other country. The guy shows up ten minutes early, which is great. Our original perception of Montenegro is that, similar to Slovenia or Croatia, it is a well adjusted country. But as soon as we are on the road the difference is apparent. The road, itself, is not the best, and the drivers are crazy. There are billboards, most of which are "For Sale" ads in Russian. Quite disappointing that they are selling off their coastline to people who don't care about their country. Dear Montenegro, Stop selling your coastline to the Russians!
1900 The scenery, however, is spectacular. Bay of Kotor is Europe's southern most fjord. The darkness and steepness of the mountain against the greenish color of the bay Is simple gorgeous. The city of Kotor is another walled city, except that the wall goes up the mountain to a castle. We hike up the 1900 steps to the top, and man, the view is amazing. The wall and the castle are beautifully lit at night.
The seaside villages also have a vibe distinctly different than Croatia's. Unlike villages jutting into the bay, except for Sveti Stefan, they appear to be skinny ribbons hugging the shore. In Perast it seems that everyone has a view of the bay!
Moooose And Squirrrrel Again, Montenegrins appears to be a bit shady: the car rental company wants cash for the rental (which, incidentally, is ok with us since we prefer not to give the russian our credit card!). And they are definitely not tourist friendly: our hotel, in response to our concern about not being able to turn the shower knob, tells us to try harder!! And we are talking the best hotel in Kotor, and we are staying in their luxury apartment! Hm… how about you fix the shower instead? Or that the best restaurant in town, famous for its view, attempts to seat us by the door. Really? Why do you think we are here? They don't quite get it. We hope they do soon, before they give away their country. There is so much potential.
What an amazing trip! Great food, fabulous scenery, great culture... good bye Dalmatia. We loved you, and maybe someday we will be back. Off to Rome to meet Chris...