The last two weeks of April saw us driving the coast roads, with a dip into the interior, of the old Yugoslavia. People still use that term, but seem glad of their new countries. The terrible 1991-5 war amongst them that created those countries is still very much with them. This part of the world reminds us of Sicily—a land in the middle of vicious contests between neighboring empires for thousands of years. The Slavic region was the battleground between the Venetians and the Ottomans ever since the collapse of the Roman empire. And of course the Romans wreaked their own havoc during their heyday here.
We started in Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage walled town on the coast of southern Croatia. Sunny, shiny cream-colored limestone everywhere, this is a walled city with no industry at all other than tourism. The Adriatic sparkles and is clear for fathoms, the air is blue and soft. As we were there early in the season, it was not too crowded, but it apparently gets like Disneyland in the summer. Its ancient stone streets, walls and squares were the site of many Game of Thrones scenes, and there are the trinket stores to prove it. (Game of Thrones also turned up in the labyrinthine basements of Diocletian’s palace in Split, just up the coast, where we stayed later. Meaningless to us, as we never watched the shows.) This photo is from our walk up the hills to the east of the city. You can see much of the wall around it–which obviously provided no protection from the incoming shelling in 1991.
We were told not to do too much overland walking though, as there are still unexploded landmines about. Several churches and other buildings in Dubrovnik (and the other towns we visited) still had pock marks from artillery fire. Dubrovnik was shelled from the hills to its east, causing much damage and lots of fires. Most of the red tile roofs in the city are new.
From Dubrovnik we headed north (on wonderful roads—both countries seem to be investing a lot in infrastructure), crossing the border into Slovenia, and driving up to Ljubljana (stopping in Portoroz and taking a little walk to the neighboring town of Piran). Slovenians are very proud of their EU membership—they are on the euro, as opposed to Croatia, which remains on its kuna.
Ljubljana, the only town we stayed in that was not on the Adriatic, is a bustling, charming student-filled, café-based town along a winding river. Full of the usual grandiose churches, busy open squares, pastry shops, farmers’ markets and lovely green spaces, we found it a bit like a smaller Lyon. Huge banners fluttered on buildings proclaiming that Ljubljana had been voted Europe’s Greenest City for 2016.
There’s the required castle-on-a-hill too, which we found in every tiny town we saw here. These castles, fortresses and churches often doubled for each other’s functions at different times over the centuries. Basically, the middle ages was a very paranoid time.
Then back to the coast and south. We met our friends from Berlin in Split and traveled with them along the Adriatic coast through Trogir, Sibenik, Zadar, Pag, and Senj, and then onto the Istrian peninsula to Kamenjak national park at the tip and an overnight in Rovinj. From there we took the ferry to Venice, which is where we are for this last month of the trip.
Our days in Split were spent in a tiny hotel chiseled into the walls of Diocletian’s Palace. Amazing to see how people use and re-use the materials of the past. Diocletian ruled the Roman empire for a while in the 300 AD period. He was born in Croatia, and came back here to retire in this palace. He is famous for torturing Christians and for creating the tetrarchy—government by four people, not just one, because Rome had gotten so far-flung, etc.
It was fun visiting these tiny towns, each with its own high point to boast about, each with its ancient church (9th century in Zadar, made with bits of the Roman buildings the finally-free Christians had gleefully taken down), busy town square, tiny streets, wonderful ringing church bells and lovely harbor. Zadar is famous for a wind organ that creates music from the waves and wind under the sea wall. .
Senj is famous for an incredibly high wind called “bora” that sweeps down from the Velebit Mountains behind it into a slot that intensifies it right at the town. We can testify to its ferocity. We also took a little walk into those mountains and encountered SNOW!
As for food, needless to say most of it is fresh seafood. Both countries are proud of their growing wine industry as well. We found the reds better than the whites—neither are grown in enough volume to be exported much. Chatting in one wine store, we learned that Grgich Hills, the superb Napa winery, is owned and run by the Croatian Mr. Grgich, who has also returned to Croatia to start a winery there. Croatia is also very proud of native son Nicola Tesla—every town seemed to have a street named after him.
A few more pics: