Balkans- Part One
I wore my Fitbit during the 16-day Balkan adventure, over seven countries. The stats are staggering: 199,693 steps, climbed 387 floors, walked 92 miles, averaged 3500 daily calories, and returned home 10 lbs lighter. Whew! I’ve always loved traveling, but only decided to get serious about it, upon my return to the USA, three years ago. As I edge towards my mid-forties, my goal is to visit sixty countries by the time I hit my fiftieth birthday. I am more than halfway there and with a lot of traveling to do, between now and then.
By far, this was the longest, most extensive and tiring trip I’ve taken. I decided to use group travel, with no idea, the company, while it does have a range of ages traveling, mostly catered to an older crowd. Other than myself, there was a 33-year-old from Nottingham, all the others were over 60 years old, with the oldest being 77, an American from Boston. It didn’t take me long to get over the massive age barrier, as I threw myself into the experience, and really enjoyed every single day! We stayed in 11 hotels, took an untold number of bus and train rides, with the longest journeys being 11.5 by train, and 9 by bus. By the last day, I couldn’t care less what happened to my suitcase-I would have been happy if someone took it off me for good.
Slovenia. Our trip started in the capital city of Ljubljana, often called Europe’s green capital. It’s a perfect eco-friendly place! Filled with culture, art, music and German architecture Our guide informed us, it’s one of the richest and most developed of the Former Yugoslavia, and by far THE cleanest place I’ve ever visited. Endless vehicle restricted areas, underground parking, etc. I did not see one piece of trash on the ground! People were incredibly helpful and friendly. A shopkeeper gave me a free magnet after I bought a handmade ring, another immediately altered a belt that was too big. Locals went above and beyond to ensure our time there was memorable. Lake Bled is one of the most beautiful and tranquil lakes, I’ve ever laid eyes on. The view overlooking the city from the Ljubljana Castle tower is magnificent. I found a calligraphist in the church’s chapel making bookmarks; my request simply stated: “Live Your Dreams” Grabbing a bite one of the city’s cozy “Grostilnas” gives you a chance to taste a wide variety of mouth-watering local dishes.
Croatia. The women in the city of Zagreb truly look after themselves- even the elderly with canes and walkers, were well kitted out. Wowsers. Zagreb has a large mix of Austra-Hungarian architecture, with wide socialist buildings. The Cathedral and 13th century St Mark’s church is a highlight. Most tourists spend their time in the more popular cities of Split and Dubrovnik, which made Zagreb a delight to explore, without rubbing shoulders with strangers at every turn. If you’re ever in Croatia, please plan a visit to the stunning tourist attraction of Plitvice National Park- a pride for Croatians! The park boasts 16 interconnecting lakes, waterfalls, and beautiful wildlife. Dubrovnik, the old city, and World Heritage site, was crawling with tourists. The popularity of Game of Thrones is a huge factor. Locals explained the municipality is thinking of a way to have fewer cruiser ships dock daily. I have this love affair with Cathedrals, and Dubrovnik has a particularly breathtaking one. The old pharmacy, thousands of years old, marketplace, and impressive sweet shops are not to be missed either. Dubrovnik took my breath away!
Bosnia & Herzegovina. Put it on your list. Especially if you like history! First stop- Sarajevo. We arrived at the train station where the time stood still. Ironically, on the day of our tour, it would be the coldest day, with nonstop rain. Other than Macedonia, it was one of my favorite countries on the trip! We visited the symbolical bridge, where the events which took place there, eventually led to WW1. There is a LOT of history here. Eye witness accounts relayed stories of the thousands of lives lost in the siege in the early nineties, the infamous tunnel, built by the Bosnians in an effort to maintain some method of control. The tunnel meant they could organize theatres, schools for their children, etc. The father of our local guide still has shrapnel in one of his legs. He saw his best friend killed before his eyes. Too many nations stood by and watched women and children die in the streets.
Despite what happened here, the resilient spirit of its people is reflected in their kind and easy smiles, eagerness to help, and generous hospitality! Apparently, it’s not unusual to be invited in for dinner/tea, even if you just met. The visit to the tunnel will always be etched into memory. There is a wall lined with photos of volunteers and servicemen, who worked for years, using manual tools. A water pump was the only available type of machinery used. A sweet older lady, whose home still stands with shrapnel in its walls, and is still alive, often waited with water, to give the weary men and soldiers, as they exited the tunnel. The original was about 800m long. Today, visitors can only walk about 25m, due to airport security. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, and Robert De Niro have visited and walked through portions of it. Please visit if you can!
The particularly scenic rail journey to Mostar was fantastic! We traveled through mountains once occupied by the Serbian army. The scenery gave nothing about the region’s dark period away. Cobblestoned streets, old stone buildings, and the famed Mostar Bridge, which spans the Neretva village, is something out of a fairy tale. Traditionally, local men go around collecting money from tourists. Once they get to about 30 Euros, a swimmer, dressed in trunks, jump into the lake below, which is some 23 meters high, to the delight of onlookers. The Genocide Museum sobers, but I was encouraged by thousands of handwritten, kind notes, lining the walls of an entire room. From strangers to visitors and locals alike. I always take time to add notes to places like this, and mine was a simple “Thank you” next to my name, along with one of my favorite quotes “If we judge people, we have no time to love them”. The ethnic cleansing in Bosnia is a huge stain on the world. Lest we forget.
One post cannot is enough, to squeeze the beautiful magic of my Balkan adventure into. Naw. I will conclude next week. Happy to answer any questions you have, if you’re considering a visit to these parts!
Until the next post,