I´ve been remiss in updating, but the last three days have been a roller coaster of experiences. So much to share, so little time!
I am currently in Croatia, but I really did not want to leave Slovenia. I am in love after three days there. My last day I spent in a small lake town called Bled, in the Slovenian Alps. Gorgeous. Jaw-dropping. And the weather was perfect. In Bled, there isn´t much to the town, but the real star is the lake. It is surrounded by lush hills and mountains, towered over by a medieval castle up on a precarious ledge, and in the middle of the lake is a tiny little church on an island, like a fairytale. I strolled around the lake for about an hour, watching children feed the ducks, traditional boats called plenta carry tourists out to the island where they rang the church bell ten times for good luck, soaking up the sun, and hiking up to the castle. I also took a peek at an infamous villa. Today it is called Villa Bled, but when Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia, the Communist dictator Tito owned this villa as his own personal retreat. Today it is a hotel and restaurant, and I relished marching up the steps of a famous Communist I studied as a college history major. I also tried a traditional dessert, called kremina rezina, made in Bled. It is essentially a cream sandwich – thick cream between two thin layers of pastry. Absolute heaven with a cup of coffee.
While in Bled, I stumbled across a small crafts market and met a local beekeeper. There is a long tradition of beekeeping in Slovenia, and the beekeepers used to paint folk designs on the panels of the beehives to help guide the bees to their homes. Today they still paint these panels and sell them at craft markets along with their honey.
I left Ljubljana on a cold, misty morning at 6 am. Truly, I was and still am sad to have to leave Slovenia. I think I found my European home.
I arrived in Croatia yesterday, and it was a shaky transition. I am very proud of myself for remaining calm. Upon arrival in Zagreb, I tried to withdraw the local currency, kuna, from the ATM. No luck. I tried another ATM. No luck. I could not withdraw a single lipa of Croatian money. When I tried to call my ATM card company, I discovered it is not a 24 hour number, and with the time difference, it was in the middle of the night back home. Immediately called Mark to let him know the situation. And then told myself not to panic. As a precaution, I carry an emergency reserve of US dollars, so I exchanged just enough for 24 hours (exchange rate fees are high at exchange bureaus and banks, which is why ATMs are generally better with lower fees). Long story short, my husband figured out (after numerous phone calls) that I could get a cash advance from one of my credit cards at a local bank. There are steep fees for that, but better than waiting for wired money or using up the last of my emergency cash reserves! The reason I could not use my ATM card? Croatia is still listed by the US State Department on the travel warning list, because of the violence of 1991, so my ATM MC company does not allow ATM withdrawals there. They never mentioned this when I called twice to double-check that my ATM card would work in all the places I am traveling to. Frustrating. Always carry a cash reserve in US money.
I took a shuttle bus from downtown Zagreb to the airport, and hopped on a short 35 minute flight to Dubrovnik. Saved a lot of time over a 12 hour bus journey! I reserved my ticket back in March, so I was able to get it for only US$33.
Dubrovnik is beautiful. Magical. Surreal. It is a medieval walled city made of stone clinging to the hills and mountains along the Adriatic Sea. The sun is shining so the sea is sparkling bright blue. Think the Greek Isles or Italy. The countryside is rocky and arid. I explored Dubrovnik all day today, and it is a maze of tiny lanes, zig-zagging staircases, and secret gardens. The main streets are crowded with tourists, but slipping down a side street quickly gets you into a private world. Signs of the war with Serbia for independence in 1991 are still visible, but barely. The city has been beautifully rebuilt. There are still pockmarks from shrapnel in the stone roads and buildings, and new whiter stone next to gray stone reveals repair work.
This afternoon, my host Zeljka drove three of her guests, including me, up to the hill above the city to a small museum commemorating the 1991 war. It is inside the battered fort built by Napoleon in the 1800s, and used by the Croatian army to defend Dubrovnik from the Serbs. It is a moving museum. Video footage of the attacks. The museum is obviously slanted towards the Croatian viewpoint, but I was deeply moved. Zeljka was 16 when Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. The attack by Serbia on Dubrovnik was a complete surprise, and even today locals do not know why they attacked Dubrovnik, since it did not seem to serve a strategic purpose. She showed us the hill from which the Serbs bombarded the Old City for weeks, reducing it to bombed out and burned buildings and rubble. She had to evacuate to a nearby hotel basement with her family and neighbors. Zeljka explained how they did not have a real army to stand up to the Serbs, since the capital of Yugoslavia was Belgrade, a city in Serbia. Boys as young as 15 went up into the hills to defend their city. Zeljka says it was a miracle Dubrovnik was not taken by the Serbian forces, since they had a modern army with tanks, fighter jets, and a navy. There may still be land mines in the surrounding hills. I am very glad Zeljka shared all this with me – very moving, and makes all the turmoil of the Balkans real to me.
I also swam in the Adriatic today. Heaven! Now I am off to find a cup of coffee and a moonlight cafe perch…