Archive | April, 2016

Beds and laundry

26 Apr


My friend Marbie asked me how we have been handling, as 67-year-olds, the two issues that can be a dilemma for travellers: doing laundry and adjusting to new beds. I had actually been composing something along these lines for the end of the trip, but since Marbie brought it up now, I’m challenged to discuss our adventures with beds and laundry.

First of all, I must admit that sleeping arrangements are the one area where George and I are rather high-maintenance (there may be other high-maintenance things about us, but I can’t identify them as such). After 45 years of living together, we simply cannot sleep in the same bed anymore; our sleeping patterns are just too different, and we are both rather set in our ways (0ne could say neurotic) about sleeping. We can sleep in the same room, but not the same bed. So one of the dilemmas on this trip was finding solutions to one-bed arrangements, or better yet, making sure we had two beds. We were so committed to this necessity that George brought along a genuine bed roll that he can blow up and use on the floor (which is where he’d rather sleep anyway). Add to that the fact that I’m a ”pillow princess”–that’s what the boys call me when they scoff because I always bring along my own pillow–so we had to take these items into account when packing our bags.

The great thing about travel now is that we have AirBnB, HomeAway, VrBo, and the like, making it possible to stay in real houses and apartments instead of hotels. This makes all the difference for long-term travel, and does ease to some extent the worry about bad beds or frequent shifts to new quarters. In our now eight months of travelling so far, we have stayed in 16 different rooms, some of them for long periods, only four of them hotels. George has had to use his bed roll three times. None of the beds have been truly bad, and only once have I felt strongly that the room was just WRONG–the first time I have really FELT the concept of feng shui! The bed was against a wall in a funny room that was like a closet, and I couldn’t get comfortable.

Just as I was getting up from that last place after a night of very light sleep, George was reading this article in The Atlantic:

We can attest to the fact that the first night is always difficult, and this article somehow reassured me that we weren’t fussbudgets, but just experiencing a normal neurological reaction.  And while it hasn’t made me sleep any better, at least I know I’m somewhat normal. Along with having my own ”special” pillow, which I use like a huggy blanket, I also always use ear plugs, which drown out any unfamiliar noises.

Our only real complaint has been that ALL European beds seem to use feather-bed comforters/duvets, which are exceedingly HOT. This was fine in cold rooms in the winter, but not in heated rooms or on warm nights. We have at times taken off the quilt covers and used them as our only covers. I am curious to see what people use in the summer.

As for laundry:  again, things are SO different from the days when we stayed in hotels or in student times when our accommodations were usually primitive! Now that we are staying in apartments, we have almost always had a washing machine in the place. We only had to go to a laundromat once, in London, which was kind of a fun experience. But then there is the perplexing problem of DRYING clothes. For some reason that seems to be universal across the EU, Europeans have not cottoned to dryers at all. Our current tenant in our Pasadena house, who is French, says that the French are convinced that dryers ruin clothes; when she insisted on buying one in Brittany, people came over to see how ruinous it would be! This lack causes the biggest problem for us travelling–especially since George has a phobia against travelling with dirty clothes in the bags. Even when we have been fairly settled into a place, we have had to dry things on clothes racks (see above), or out the window like the locals, or strewn all over heaters and the back of chairs.  Very unaesthetic! I have taken sweaters and other woollens into dry cleaners, where they have often treated my modest, nearly embarrassingly shabby items as if they were gowns by Dior.

I have been getting better about wearing clothes a little longer between washings than I would at home, but at this stage, I am so sick of all my clothes that I’m planning a big bonfire when we get back to the States and burning them all! G. thinks I should give them to charity, but I doubt even the Goodwill would want them.

So Marbie, that’s our experience up to this point!


Comments on Croatia

26 Apr


Now that we have moved a little bit away from the Balkans–well, being in Trieste is still on the Adriatic and at the edge of Slavicness!–I wanted to jot down some observations gleaned from our time in Croatia:

**The war of the 1990s still leaves its mark, at least around Dubrovnik, where Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro are so close and where some real fighting took place. Young people, perhaps, are not as affected by these horrid scars, but the ethnic brooding and resentments continue to define interactions and determine who communicates with whom and how. We had great experiences with every group, all of whom were proud of their culture’s history, but again, as in Greece, these age-old hostilities between ethnic tribes still cast a pall.

While thinking about these 20-year old conflicts, I made the mistake of trying to read Janine di Giovanni’s Madness Visible: A Memoir of War. Far too grim for me, and we never had anything remotely like the bellicose confrontations she faced in the 1990s. But I did find this assessment of Croatia to have some truth in it:  ”There was still, decades after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a lingering sense of the exploitative Habsburgs. I had always found Zagreb passionless, and the nationalism in Croatia–the songs, symbols, beer-drinking slogans, grotesque nostalgia for their fascist Ustashe past–was far harder to endure than the Serbian version. At least the Serbs were honest about it. The Croats tried to pass themselves off as democratic….In part, they got to hide behind the cloak of Catholicism, as though the fact that they were Christians excused them from the savagery they had committed….Their biggest grievance was belonging to a Balkan group they didn’t want to be part of…If war was next door, it meant Croatia risked being thrown back into the Balkans, a place from which it had tried so hard to distance itself…”

We did sense immediately that the best option was never to bring up anything in conversation about religion, ethnicity, or even language, for fear of offending or saying the wrong thing to the wrong party. And would someone please tell me what it means that so many young and middle-aged men in Croatia have shaved heads? Is this just fashion or does it mean something dire? In America, it’s often a sign of skinhead or racist affiliations, and I couldn’t help but see this mode in that light.


**Young Croatian fathers seem to be far less patriarchal than in previous generations, and just like all young fathers today, are often seen taking care of their kids, carrying them in slings and back packs, and strolling with toddlers along the beach. Some of this heartening transformation is also the result of economic realities: the mothers have jobs, while the fathers often do not, and while extended families are still quite prevalent, now even the grandmothers are working.


**The roads in Croatia are, for the most part, excellent. The highways are better than most freeways, but BE SURE not to miss your exit, as the turn offs are very, very far apart. Even in the smallest villages, we found very few potholes, everything paved, and despite sometimes hair-raising curves and the narrowest of passages, the surfaces are very well engineered. We did, however, find the only coastal road, the Magistrale, to be under continuous ”improvement”, leading to long traffic delays and maddening stops. Sometimes roads that we would consider alleyways allow cars going both ways!


**English was at least understood and often spoken everywhere, if only in rudimentary fashion. But have a go at learning a few phrases or words in Croat–people are so pleased when you try to say anything in their language!


**Mlini, the Dubrovnik Riviera village where we were staying (and in off season), had only a few bars open, no restaurants. And even those places named ”CAFE BAR” had no food, not even small sandwiches, only drinks and coffee. Restaurants in these tiny places will open for the season, and food is–as expected–mostly fish or some form of pork, either as sausages or cutlets. Just as in Greece, fish is relatively expensive, but octopus, squid, and mussels are plentiful and served in a fantastic seafood soup.


**Croatia now has all the mod cons, as in dishwashers, washing machines, and shopping malls. The big supermarkets are for the most part German, e.g., Konzum and Lidl, occasionally Spar. Because of this, you can get most German products. One can find here all alternative milks, that is, goat and sheep milk and yogurts, soy, almond and rice, although they are sometimes a bit hard to find. Breads are rather disappointingly soft, with little  distinction between white and brown breads. There is one bread covered in sesame seeds and sunflower seeds that was pretty thick and crusty. We also found excellent spinach, pears, carrots (!), and arugula.


Croatian internet connections are horrible! One national company controls the network, so there is little competition to make it work. We finally gave up after so many down times, even though the house we were staying in supposedly had a good hookup, and went out and bought a T-Mobile SIM card for our portable WiFi device so we could have reliable connections.  That worked well, even if we ate up 4GB pretty quickly. When this trip is finished, I will try to recount the myriad ways in which we had to buy SIM cards in each country and figure out how to upload them, etc. But our advice to anyone going to Croatia is to have your portable WiFi device ready, and do not rely on house internet connections.


**Dubrovnik is deservedly considered one of the beauty spots of the entire Adriatic. The view of the Old Town from the Magistrale looking down on to it is absolutely stunning, breathtaking, and all those adjectives. It is, alas, because of this beauty at the center of Mass Tourism, a fate that no beautiful little town should have to deal with. If one can possibly get away from the crowded tour busses that engorge selfie stick-carrying hordes onto the Stradun every day, one can still sometimes find a bit of peace in the back streets, to savor the old buildings and views to the sea. We were in the very nice Ethnographic Museum a few blocks away from the main walks, and NO ONE was there! And surprisingly, Dubrovnik has very few cultural institutions to visit. What passes as an archaelogical collection is very scant, and the art museum was having a rather lackluster Picasso show (yawn).  Personally, I would give Dubrovnik a quick visit, then head for the more interesting, less touristized Zadar or Split.


Finally, the sea: the Dalmatian coast, where we were most of the time, is defined by water. The Adriatic Sea is responsible for Croatia’s claims as a scenically blessed land. The waters along the coastline are clear and beautiful, simply gorgeous in changing colors depending on the atmosphere. We were so luck y to have been able to experience the sea in many different weathers–alas, none of them warm or calm enough to swim in.


All that being said, we, as Californians who have lived a long time in Australia, are completely underwhelmed by the BEACHES–see above. Most of the beaches are very


A playground made of wood at the park next to the beach in Mlini


pebbly, in some cases requiring shoes to get to the water. In many locales, such as the quite popular beach in the picture, the beach consists largely of concrete ramps!  Granted, the park areas and grassy stretches that cover the shoreline in many places, providing shade and playgrounds, are impressive. But what passes as beaches here are, to our minds, just excuses to get into the water.



I’m sure I’ll come up with some more opinions very soon, but for now, I wanted to get these thoughts down, now that we have entered the fascinating multicultural soup that is Trieste!





23 Apr


When we left Plitvice, we realized that our next planned stop was Dubrovnik, some 6 hours’ drive away. We didn’t want to drive that far so late in the day, so we decided to follow the advice of the nice car people in Zagreb, who told us that the town of Zadar had been voted the Best Destination of 2016 by some tourist organization.  Only an hour and a half from the Falling Lakes and on the coast driving in the right direction, Zadar seemed like a good option.

The car guys were right. Zadar is a fantastic seaside spot, its harbor filled with some of the biggest, glitziest yachts I’ve ever seen. Far more laid back, however, and to our minds far more liveable than Dubrovnik, with a population today of about 75,000, the town has a well-preserved walled Old Town (substantially rebuilt after both German bombings in 1943 and attacks during the Balkan crises in the 1990s) and the nicest, specifically focused museums we have seen in Croatia.

A moment to explain the name, which, of course, we couldn’t help but snicker at, as sounding to us like a character in a bad sci-fi film. The region has been populated since prehistoric times, with people who spoke a pre-Indo-European language, from which the name Iader–meaning something to do with water–appears to derive. Given its strategic location in the Adriatic, constant waves of conquering people have landed here since ancient times, from Liburnians to Greeks and Romans, from Phoenicians to Venetians (especially those pesky Venetians) and then the Slavs. Each group changed the pronunciation of Iader to their own linguistic preferences, so that by the 16th century, the place was called either in Italian Zara, or in Slavic Zadar. In its centuries as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was called Zara-Zadar.

We stayed here at a guesthouse, Villa Valentina, which I found to have good reviews on one of the online booking sites. We were very pleased with its location in a residential neighborhood, which allowed us to see how comfortably the people around us lived. And very quickly we were able to get down to the ”Centar,” the center of the historical city.  We managed to find our way to the old Roman Forum, with its stunning 9th-century Church of St. Donatus, now preserved largely as a venue for special events and for visits by tourists. Painted white, the interior spaces are both tranquil and breathtaking in their simplicity and sense of illumination.

St. Donatus is a perfect example of how medieval people re-used the bits and pieces of Roman sculpture and building materials they found lying around to construct new buildings: one finds little stones with Latin inscriptions embedded in the walls, or a stretch of P1100101Roman ornamentation appearing next to a Romanesque pillar. I just loved the feeling in this building.  


We only had one day to explore the riches of this town before we headed out for Dubrovnik. But we liked it so much, we decided to stop again on our way back up the coast. This time, we hit all the cultural sites, of which there were many.


P1120050We walked through one of the City gates and along the charming narrow streets to the Franciscan monastery, where we saw a nun weeding the steps of the Church. In Italian, she told us we couldn’t get into the Church for some reason, but we could visit the Cloister. There we found several breathless young people frantically arriving to be handed a sheet of paper by a woman who was standing in the colonnade. They were part of an orienteering group on a place and history treasure hunt through the city! The most impressive thing about the complex is that it was built only two decades after the founding of the Franciscan order, in 1221. Here in the sacristy, the Treaty of Zadar was signed in 1368, by which the Venetians had to give up their holdings in Dalmatia (they would come back again many times!)

Our next stop was the town’s Archaeological Museum, right on the Forum Square. We were the only people there. The exhibition designs were quite impressive, with informative labels, and good chronological organization–a real sense of some scholarly effort. One of my favorite discoveries here were the Bronze Age pins made of metal and big hunks of amber, used to hold clothes together. The museum shop actually made some reproductions of these designs, but without the amber.

After a great lunch of seafood in the garden of a small restaurant on a side street (the waiter brought us a book of postcards of old Zadar to look at), we took the waiter’s advice and went to the newly-opened Museum of Ancient Glass. Housed in the 19th-century Cosmacendi Palace, the collection and the displays are spectacular. Money and scholarship have been invested in the place, and the efforts are more than rewarding.

The Museum has active glassmakers working there, giving demonstrations of glass-blowing and other glassmaking techniques. We couldn’t believe the amazing number of glass objects displayed, all of them from the Zadar region. Hundreds and hundreds of little vials found in gravesites, shipwrecks, and at other archaeological digs. The information, most of which was presented in both Croatian and English, gave the clearest explanations about how how glass was made and how glass was used in ancient times. I, for one, had no idea that the Romans cremated bodies and then placed the remains in glass jars. Hundreds of these have been found at digs around Zadar; the Museum includes great videos showing the uncovering of many of these finds.

So ended our culturally enriching day in Zadar. Then we went for a walk along the beach, and through a gorgeously wooded caravan park of the old Yugoslav days.  The entire setting of this historically ancient town is so charming, so tranquil, and so at one with the sea that has been its lifeblood since the dawn of time, that we felt more at home here than in the more rugged and edgy parts of the coastline. We recommend Zadar and thank the Zagreb car guys for telling us about it!

Cavtat and Bukovac

19 Apr

Just across the Bay from Mlini, our little Croatian village on the Dubrovnik Riviera, one can faintly see Cavtat. Founded by the Greeks in the 6th centuiry B.C. as Epidarus (which became Epidarum under the Romans), inhabited before that by Illyrians, the town was destroyed by Slav invaders in the 7th century and re-established in the Middle Ages. This information has nothing to do with the gorgeous, perfectly situated little Mediterranean town that Cavtat is today, but it is fascinating to realize that such a place has been inhabited since ancient times.

We had rented a car because we had to go over to Bosnia again, to pick up our computer, which we had left there for (hopeful) repair (they couldn’t fix it). We were going to continue further in to the mountains between Bosnia and Montenegro, but we find this country so rugged and so downtrodden that we decided instead to go back to the coast and visit what we had heard was such a pretty seaside town. The air was luscious, and the sun was brilliant. We ate at what had been touted as the best restaurant in town, Kolona, and were the only people there. We found out that this was because they had only opened for the season the day before–in summertime the place is packed. The food was excellent (sea bream and black risotto), and with pleasantly full stomachs, we headed out to walk around town.

Nestled around a lovely harbor–now filled with the yachts of the super-rich, since a place this beautiful would have to be appropriated by glitterati–the town has several alleyways of narrow steps leading up from the waterfront to the houses placed along the pathways. St. Nicholas Church’s steeple dominates the skyline. There are a few historic signs placed on significant buildings, but the tourist office offers no maps and not much historical information. But I had already read about the town’s one well-known artist, and sought out his house, which is now a gallery for his works.

Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922), born Biagio Faggioni in Cavtat, had a wildly peripatetic life, with extended periods in America, Peru, Prague, Paris, and Zagreb, among other places. After a traumatic early childhood, in which he was sent to rich relatives in the U.S., only to end up in an orphanage, he returned to his family’s home in his birthplace at 15. Perhaps because of guilt over his abandonment, his parents allowed him to paint the walls of the house with imaginative images of animals and colorful ornamentation. He became a better artist as he developed, but I found these primitive drawings charming.

I love these kind of finds:  a regional artist of the period from 1870 to 1920 who tries his hand at a variety of styles, and gains inspiration not only from his wide travels, but from reproductions in magazines. And the house was simply heavenly: situated up one of the steep alleyways, it had a garden with scent-laden trees and a view to the harbor.12983800_2625312962298_4898442348118560100_o

Bukovac married and had four children, and the best of his paintings feature his family–including one rather creepy painting of the heads of himself, his wife, and his children hanging from strings. Apparently, this had something to do with the death of his mother, but it is an example of his reading of Symbolist works, too.

After walking through all the rooms of the house, we walked back down to the harbor and around to the red villa we could see on the other side of the harbor. Now a municipal building, this villa was one of the most elegant and voluptuous structures we have seen, largely because of its stupendous view out across the bay, with Dubrovnik itself faintly visible in the distance.

As we strolled around the villa’s overgrown gardens, we could see right next to the 12983876_2625297961923_7766314772942449943_oproperty the hulking mass of an unfinished hotel–a common sight here in Croatia, where projects were begun, tons of concrete poured, and then the money ran out. Such eyesores appear in Greece as well, evidence of the overwhelming effects of the global financial crisis.  Perhaps once the vegetation begins to creep up its sides, it will look like an ancient ruin–of which there are many on this peninsula, which was also the site of some of the earliest bombardments of the 1990s conflicts, where whole villages were wiped out.

But strolling around this bay in the glorious sun and scrumptious atmosphere, it is hard to imagine such past tragedies. It’s no wonder that now celebrities from Europe and America have found Cavtat.  And again, I am so happy we found this place in the off season!




Around Dubrovnik

17 Apr


At the outset, let me just say: with a stunning view like this from our apartment, how could we possibly complain, right?  We are staying in Mlini, about 5 miles up the road from  Dubrovnik itself. The water of the Adriatic is gorgeously clear, the air is indescribably luscious,  and we have three different countries to explore within an hour of the house. Dubrovnik, ”Pearl of the Adriatic,” is a fifteen-minute bus ride away. The apartment is the bottom half of our  friends’ architect-designed house–99 steps up from the water, 82 steps down from the Magistrale, Dalmatia’s main road. We cannot believe our good fortune in being able to stay in such a beautiful place because of the generosity of friends. We are so grateful! I preface my remarks with this praise of the place, because as my Facebook friend and inveterate traveller Luis says, ”there’s always a catch”!

Mlini is not what I expected. I had envisioned that the apartment was situated on a bucolic, quiet little cove of a bay in a sleepy little fishing village (that is Cavtat, across the bay, which I will try to talk about in another blog). Instead we find ourselves in the center of the ”Dubrovnik Riviera,” with all the edgy hustle and bustle and opportunistic construction that such a location generates when it is discovered by rich people. And just our luck:  right next door to Wolfgang and Nora’s house–and I mean RIGHT next door!–is an enormous construction site that begins with pile-driver banging as early as 7 a.m. The people who have been living upstairs for the last six months have really taken the brunt of it–I don’t know how they have endured it–but the workers are still letting off dynamite and pouring concrete and breaking up rocks all day long.  This could, of course, have happened anywhere, and Wolfgang says that months ago they promised this would only take a week or so. In any case, the idyllic mood is broken, except on Sundays, when they don’t work.  The rest of the time, one needs to go away for the entire day, which is what visitors should be doing anyway. So a fly in the paradisaical ointment, in what passes as progress and modernization!

The one road along the coastline which runs the entire length of the country is here also in the midst of construction work, limiting the traffic to one lane. Now that the tourists are beginning to arrive, this means some long waits at lights before one can get anywhere. And shopping takes place at two enormous malls, with German-owned supermarkets Lidl and Konzum, along with all the regular franchises such as H & M and Müller. For local

produce and folkloric color, we have gone over to spooky Bosnia-Herzegovina, only 45 minutes by car, where the little town of Trebinje has an old-fashioned market in the square, and one finds roadside honey stands and cows wandering onto the only road into town.

So far we have only been into Dubrovnik once. I am so happy we are here in the off season–shops and restaurants and other venues are just beginning to open up for the summer crowds–but even now the cruise ships and busses with Chinese tourists are making their obligatory stops in town. It is, as everyone says, a beautiful, elegant, charmingly attractive walled city, consisting largely of Baroque-era buildings that were constructed after an earthquake destroyed the city in 1677.  Many of these treasures were damaged during the hideous siege of Dubrovnik by Serbian and Montenegrin forces in 1991, but have now been completely restored. If we had visited at the beginning of our trip, we would have been as blown away by its elegance as everyone else is, but we have now, after so many months of travelling, seen so many walled cities and so many beautiful buildings that we are a bit inured to them, and find any tourist crunch at all to detract substantially from the location’s attractiveness. I know, I know,


On the Dubrovnik harbor.

we, too, are tourists, but we try to blend in as best we can…



On the Mlini porch with Prinzessin Kiki and Vinzi.








Then there is the ever-present trauma of the 1990s Balkan conflicts, still hanging like a cloud over the entire region. Small memorials appear everywhere, and in Dubrovnik there is a poignant room dedicated to those who died in the siege in what must be the stupidest of wars, if any war can be considered stupider than another.


One of the most haunting remnants of this terrible time still stands on the point about a half mile from our Mlini house: the very creepy shells of three enormous luxury hotels that were bombed by Montenegrins and Serbs in October 1991. They are still standing, next to an exquisite beachfront, with all the bullet holes and crumbling roofs there to behold. The older, more elegant, building, from a resort of the Austro-Hungarian years, will be renovated soon into an even more exclusive hotel than it had been. But the enormous hulks of the Hotels Kupari and Gorica, built in the 1970s for the Yugoslav apparatchiks, will soon be torn down.


The photos with cat brings us back to the delights of our place in Mlini. Not only have we had the pleasure of a society of cats, nurtured by all the neighbors, but one serendipitous incident demonstrates the positive solidarity that such communities can engender. One evening as the sun was beginning to set, I was standing on the porch and chatting to Michael; he and his wife Irene are our upstairs neighbors and Austrian friends of Wolfgang and Nora. All of a sudden, a little blue parakeet–a beautiful budgie–flew right up to the ledge and sat next to Michael. He was obviously tame (and very hungry), and followed Michael whenever he moved. Since Michael and Irene

have been in Mlini long enough to know the locals, an immediate campaign was launched to find the budgie’s owner. Neighbors called neighbors, Michael went to the local cafe and everyone began texting everyone. In the end, the owner has yet to be found, but Blue Budgie did find a new home, as one of the neighbors, who has other birds, took it in. It was such a sweet example of the best of village life. And on that note, I will end this report from paradise: not only cats, but birds, can charm me in this beautiful place, despite the cranes and the hammers.


Plitvice and war

15 Apr

We drove through the bucolic happiness of a Slovenian spring to the only place I have ever wanted to go in Croatia: Plitvice’s Falling Lakes. Some 15 years ago or more, Max and I watched a documentary when we were still in Australia about the natural wonders of Plitvice and I have wanted to go there ever since.  All I knew of it was what I had seen on the documentary–that it had amazing animal life (wild cats!), and that the lakes were formed through some unique combination of water, algae, chemical reactions, and minerals, and that cascades were in abundance. I had not read Rick Steves’ comments about it, I hadn’t any real idea of where it was in relation to the rest of the country or any of its history. I had booked a room in a guesthouse online, and then mapped our route on the road map.

It was only when we got nearer to the Park itself that we started to notice a distinct change in the landscape and the structures around us. The land was scrubbly, not as fertile, and the houses and farms seemed quite poor and rundown. It was only when we started seeing the buildings with bullet holes that we realized:  this was where fighting during the Balkan conflict took place. Evidence of such recent fighting was all around us, and it looked like people, at least in this part of the country, had not yet recovered. So we went into the park a bit subdued.

We arrived at our guesthouse/farmhouse in Pojanak, on the northern edge of the Park, in the late afternoon. Very quiet, lots of sheep in the farmyard, and smoke from the P1100003farmers burning off field rubble. After eating what we had brought along with us, we took a little walk up the road. And there it was!  The first of the cascades that we would see in Plitvice! And that green, green water! While I have now read about and listened to several accounts explaining the unique set of chemical reactions that cause this phenomenon, I am still amazed and blithely vague about how it happens.

In the morning we headed out first to the Big Falls–the one that we could see from the road near our guesthouse. Rather than take the sweet little ferry that went across the lake to the other Entrance, we just walked down to the edge of the first cascade. Since one pathway was flooded, we got as close as we could:

We were stoked!

We then drove around to Entrance Two, finding some beautiful vistas along the way, where no one but the owner of a guesthouse nearby was walking.  When we got to the parking lot for the Entrance, we found a few cars and some very bored staff–a very different picture than the place would be in August! The walk down to the ferry dock that takes one over to the walkways of the small islands is quite a hike down–but oh, what a thrill!

It is impossible to describe the sheer number of layers of cascades falling into still ponds and pristine lakes, trickling and then gushing through algae and moss and tree roots to descend to another level of waterways. While we have seen falls like this in the Cascades, nothing can compare to the quantity of overwhelming vistas and the volume of water on so many trails and over such an enormous expanse (the Park is about 300 square kilometers with 16 terraced lakes!). We were tremendously impressed at the way in which the Park was laid out, with wooden-planked paths leading visitors as close to the water as possible without getting too wet or falling in.  Here’s as good a video as I could get of the sheer power and gorgeousness of the scene:

We were especially thankful that we were here at low season–these walkways would be impossibly crowded if there were tour-bus crowds to contend with. And sure enough, the young man at the ticket booth when we were leaving told us that August is a nightmare, with cranky, swelteringly hot people taking out their crankiness on him. In April, we had the added bonus of fields of wildflowers on our walks to and from the many, many falls.

It was only after we had gone on the little ferry over to the small islands and come back to eat in the Park’s relatively nice restaurant that we read Rick Steves’ comments about Plitvice and learned two things: first, that we were not the only ones to notice the P1100043incredibly tame trout in the water, and that despite all the reports about the fantastic wildlife in the Park, one rarely sees any of the animals if one stays only in the areas where the tourists come. And finally, and most poignantly, Steves reports that the Park is where the first shots of the Balkan conflict occurred, as Serbs and Croats fought over who was in charge of this national treasure. At one point, troops threatened to blow up the Park–a catastrophe even more terrifying than ISIS having destroyed Palmyra’s treasures. That such a place of pristine natural beauty should have been in the crosshairs of ancient ethnic disputes is nearly unfathomable. Thank goodness at some point a bit of reason prevailed, and this incredible wonder endures. Let us hope that with what seems to  be impeccable management, these Lakes can survive the onslaught of global tourism, too.

Music and noise

14 Apr

This is going to be a bit of a rant, and without photos, because it’s about sound–specifically, the ubiquitous and irritatingly predictable popular music sound-track of European cities these days, at least some of the ones we have been in.  We started to notice it Greece, and are now, in Croatia, just inundated with this blare. Why do all of these taxi, busses, hairdressers, shops, restaurants and cafes–even the t0nier ones in Dubrovnik–think we want to hear bad, or at least overdone, rock music in every venue, and at all times of the day and in the most incongruous places?  My favorite juxtaposition so far was after we had returned from the stunning, overwhelmingly beautiful walk through Plitvice National Park and went to the Park’s rather nice restaurant. When we sat down at a window table, admiring the view, what did we hear coming out of the loudspeaker in the dining room? Kurt Cobain!  ”Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the heart of Croatia!

Sometimes the music is at least momentarily amusing, because it is a localized version of either Beyonce/Brittany Spears light–sung in Greek or Croatian–or the most popular local singer just back from the Eurovision contest. But all of this gets old very quickly when it is played constantly while one is trying to sample local cuisine or getting your hair cut. The other day in Bosnia, we went to a fantastic rustic kind of restaurant with great food and nice service. In that kind of setting, it is at least understandable that they would be broadcasting across the tables a kind of local pop-folk figure’s traditional music–very oompah polka-like. All the songs sounded the same to us, and the singer wasn’t that inspiring, but the innkeeper was singing along with him, and on the tape, the audience clapped and cheered wildly at the end of the performance. The background instruments were also fun to hear. But why does anyone want to hear Kurt Cobain in Plitvice?

I am also astounded at how widespread is the influence of American street culture. We saw Greek kids performing hip hop/bad rap, complete with amps and pants down off their butts, right next to the Roman Forum in Athens. We haven’t heard many thumping bass lines emanating from cars driving by as we do at home, but the constant stream of sound coming from every building is enough. Even the CHURCHES–including Sagrada Familia–often use prerecorded piped in music, at least appropriate to the religion and the space, but still….

And then there’s noise of an other kind.  We have been in a few places where the nights have been still and tranquil, but more likely, we have had street noise and clamor right outside our bedroom windows. And now, apparently, is the season for all tourist venues to start getting ready for the season. I can’t tell you how often we have sat down for lunch in a cozy place, only to have a drill hammer or other internal combustion engine start up. We have left or avoided several restaurants because of the machines.

And now, here in Mlini, this seemingly idyllic bay along the Dalmatian coast, in an architect-designed house, we have just been listening to the construction site next door setting off dynamite to make an even bigger hole in the ground! Then the large pile-driver will start banging away so heavily and loudly that the entire house will sway. The single road up the hill is a tangle of grading equipment, earth-moving machines, and tar-making implements. As another friend of ours says, this is a sign of popularity and prestige, just like New York or Berlin or other cities becoming the in places to be! So much for the tranquility of once-undiscovered places. At least the construction workers aren’t playing bad music–but of course, they wouldn’t, since the only way they could hear it over their machines would be through earphones, which they, too, are wearing, to listen to the latest Eurovision song contestants, I assume.

Cats of Kotor

13 Apr



Between Google shenanigans and Croatian connectivity issues, I am being driven crazy trying to download the many photos I want to include in my blogs, but there is so much I want to write and am afraid I’ll forget if I keep postponing it, that I’m just going to put up text and what photos I can. I’ll just have to add the images later when I get somewhere with decent internet connections, and when we can get back a computer that isn’t a stupid Chromebook which will only let me do things ”the Google way.” This in itself is worth a blog entry, but right now I want to write about more interesting topics.

Yesterday we drove from Wolfgang and Nora’s house in Mlini, outside of Dubrovnik, over to Montenegro, the border of which is only about 40 minutes away. (Be sure to carry your auto documents with you, though; we forgot our rental papers, and the P1100192border control made us turn around and go back for them!) We had a lovely lunch and found a great bookshop in the first Montenegran town we came to, Herceg Novi. The bookshop owner was a frustrated poet, extremely well-versed in English, French, and Slavic literature; we bought his book of poems, as well as a book on the character of the Serbs that he recommended. The shop even had a copy of Charles Bukowski poetry in Montenegran (or Croat, I’m not quite sure)! 


We then continued on to Kotor around the stupendous bay with forbiddingly gargantuan mountains on each side. The drive offers stunning views, but is at times a bit daunting to negotiate. The road is sometimes so narrow that one car has trouble getting by, but the traffic comes both ways, and George felt like he was going to drive into the water. 

Kotor is an ancient walled town nestled into the rocks and on a nearly-hidden bay surrounded by the craggy hills of the region. Its picturesque maze of alleyways and charming churches has now made it a favorite stop on the Adriatic cruise-ship circuit, and the super-rich (mostly Russians) have docked their yachts here.  Consequently some accommodation has been made for the bling-tourist set in the form of chic shops and Eurotrashy cafes, although the setting makes it nearly impossible to destroy its charms entirely. We parked in the one parking lot that charges 10 Euros (!), and meandered the streets looking at some beautiful structures, finding evidence of the centuries-long Venetian rule of the place in the form of St. Mark’s lions on many buildings and the city walls.

Looking for a cafe, we turned into one of the small plazas and saw the most amusing site: on the side of one of the old buildings, a sign said Cats Museum. We had to investigate. The exhibitions were essentially collections of books and postcards with images of cats through the ages, but the purpose of the Museum is to support the efforts of an international group based in Venice, Italy, to feed and care for street cats

all over Europe. For reasons that are a bit unclear, the organization chose Kotor, because, as its website explains in its charming English translation, ”As a seat for our Museum we chose Cattaro (Kotor) in Montenegro, a city on the extreme part of Dalmatia for various reasons: its quietness, charming position and its situation of ” ideal city for cats” as the population  is fond of felines”. And so the town has adopted the idea of P1100242being a feline-friendly place: feeding stations have been placed all over town, and most of the souvenir shops have cat-related items. (And yes, I DID purchase one:  a kitchen mitten with Kotor cats on it…)

After walking through the narrow streets of the walled city and wandering across the picturesque bridge where the Skurda River flows rapidly into the Bay of Kotor, we paid the outrageous parking fee of €10 and headed

around the other side of the Bay to take the car ferry back across the inlet to drive back to Croatia (this is the scary side to drive on, since the car is on the water side when other cars come barrelling around the corners). A beautiful day, filled with cats, gorgeous scenery, and old buildings. What could be better? Oh, and finally, a Montenegran cat lounging at the border control.




10 Apr



We left Greece just as the smog was beginning to seep into Athens. Flying with Air Serbia, we had to change planes in Belgrade for Zagreb, and got our first taste of the craziness of all these new borders in what used to be a unified country (made a bit unpleasant by the incompetent fascism of the Serbian airport security police). We splurged in Zagreb and stayed at the Hotel Esplanade, the 90-year-old grande dame of hotels built as a stop for the famed Orient Express. The whole place reminded me ever so much of The Grand Budapest Hotel, from the incredibly discreet concierge to the bellhops and lovely reception people, who liked us so much (?) that they upgraded us to a lavish suite! I had a real massage in a real massage room, with natural herbal balms made by the hotel’s pharmacist. It was heavenly. And the best breakfast buffet I’ve ever seen.

Back at the Zagreb airport, we had a wonderful interaction with the nice men running the Avis car rental agency, all of them fluent in English and accommodating and funny. We ended up with a VW Up!–yes, that’s the name of the car–and drove off on the excellent roads toward Slovenia. We had to pass through the silly customs stops that these new borders require, and buy a car pass to drive through Slovenia, but we did get stamps in our passports, and were able to use Euros instead of the funny money in Croatia, called kuna.

Spring is definitely the time of year to come to this part of the world. Flowers were blooming everywhere, and the wonderful forested hills looked positively fluffy, with white flowering fruit trees mingled in with the bright green of early spring beeches, as well as majestic pine trees.  We were coming to Slovenia because George’s old friend Thos Lesser’s father came from a small town called Ribnica, which we finally determined was the Ribnica in Slovenia (there are 4 of them in what used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire!). Since the place was on our route to Plitvice and then Dubrovnik, it seemed as good a reason as any to travel here. And through the wonders of all the online booking sites, we found a place in the near vicinity to stay.

And here is where the story gets so charming. We were about 40 km. from Ljubljana, the only big town in Slovenia, so deep into the countryside in a place outside of Stari Trg–Slovenian is very short on vowels, we went through another village named Vrh–called Markovec. We arrived at the guesthouse to be greeted by a lovely young woman named Barbara, wearing silver elephant earrings and a stylish dress. She ws joined by her father Joze Tisler, who was delighted to find that we weren’t visiting Greeks but Americans who could speak German. He had been a manager of a big plastics factory in the Tito days, and he knew everything about the region. He was able to substantiate that Ribnica had many families named ”Lesar”, Thos’s father’s original surname before it was changed at Ellis Island. It turned out that his wife ran a language school on the ground floor of the guesthouse, teaching German to school children and visitors. The picture of them at the top was taken in the classroom where he invited George to drink wine from his daughter in law’s vineyard. So here we were, in the heart of this


In Markovec, Slovenia in early spring.

small country, having a three-way conversation with this elegant old gent and his daughter who was as hip and into culture as if she lived in London.  The world has become a very small and 21st-century place, and it is such a joy to make these acquaintances.  The next morning, when we were leaving, Herr Tisler came by and brought George a great bottle of red wine from his daughter-in-law’s vineyard.

So we departed with happy memories for our very short drive to Ribnica. Along the way we stopped at the neighboring town that had a marvelous fruit stand and a supermarket that had everything–maybe not avocados or Mexican food, but just about everything else.  And then we entered Ribnica.

We were impressed! This small town, where 100 years ago people had to leave for America and other places because there was no work, now appears to be a prosperous, one could even say, thriving community. We walked across the charming river (Bistrica) to the old castle, which is now the town museum (closed until the summer), where we found memorials to the town’s war dead. There were several Lesars on the lists, so we know we found Thos’s ancestral home!

Then, in a fortuitous turn, we came upon the town’s handicraft center, a fantastically well-organized center fostering the teaching and promotion of the traditional crafts of the region.  This part of Slovenia has been known for its woodwork and basketmaking since the 15th century, when it was granted special privileges to market their wares across the Empire. We were so excited by what they had to sell and display that we bought all kinds of wonderful objects made out of wood and reeds. The center even had

a master craftsman on hand giving demonstrations of how to make basket reeds from a hazelwood branch. The center teaches classes, has an art gallery, and gives lectures on folkloric topics. Very well-designed and active, modern and attuned to the larger world. Just our kind of place, and we have Thos and Mern to thank for the opportunity of discovering Slovenia!  We ended our stay in Ribnica with a great meal at the restaurant the Center’s curator recommended. Again, we were pleased by how consciously up to date was this inn. We had locally grown and made products, including bear prosciutto and boar’s meat salami! (Slovenia has lots of brown bears, so many that Markovec, where we stayed, is known for its see-bears-in-the-wild tours.)

George wrote a note to Thos and Mern that he mailed from Ribnica, after which we travelled on to Croatia and the unbelievable experience of Plitvice. That will have to wait for another day, since it has taken me days to finish this entry, given ”connectivity issues” in this part of the world.  But we liked Slovenia so much that we are now planning to spend a few days in Ljubljana after our stay in Trieste.