Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Wednesday, May 31st, Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina


Hot!  We're really happy to be on the coast today, and spending most of the day on the water.  It hit 36 degrees Celsius, and tomorrow starts the official summer season here.

Boats are essential here.  Just as the Venetians' use of them led to their power from the 15th to the 19th century, everyone around us is moving throughout their territory on boats.  Dave, one of our travelers, is much more of an expert than the rest of us, and is helping us gain our sailing knowledge.  And we have some gorgeous yachts to view everywhere we go.

We even ran into a reality show filming at our hotel, and the contestants had to use paddleboards and ride a banana boat.  But somebody's going to get kicked off our island tonight.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Wednesday, May 31st, Mostar, Bosnia.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Tuesday, May 30th, Hvar, Croatia


Hvar deserves at least two days, and it was time anyway for laundry.  Which means a bathtub and a balcony in the sun.  That's not ours to the left,  because our hotel window doesn't such a good view.

If you come here, make it early in the season (April-May) or later in September or October.  Summer is crazy crowded, as all of Europe is headed here to party.

Our guide, Nicole, grew up here on Hvar, and explained that easy way to remember how to pronounce the island's name.  She said the island has four main resources: wine, olive oil, almonds, and tourists.  It has four schools, four thousand resident, is the fourth largest island in Croatia, and the way the locals pronounce the name of the island - it sounds like "four".

She took us to a monastery where the last remaining monk had used his artistic talents to paint a beautiful "Last Supper" painting and several bronze statues.    And took us into the church garden to see a Cypress tree which had grown in a miraculous manner.

Architecturally, Rome and Venice did it all. And this part of the Eastern Mediterranean didn't have much destroyed in WWII.  Now if the City can just avoid sacrificing their walls and building facades to the latest restaurant and bank needs....

To see the rest of the phtos taken today, click on Tuesday, May 30th, Hvar, Croatia

Monday, May 29, 2017

Monday, May 29th, Hvar, Croatia


We keep waiting for the trip to stop presenting us with exciting, fascinating places.  Today, we started the day with a walking tour of ancient Split.  We visited Roman Emperor Diocletian's palace, built from 295-305 AD, and used as his retirement home.  Now constituting about half the town of Split, the Palace is a large rectangular fortress, with four towers, three floors, and a vaulted basement.  Recently, most of the structure, and its surrounding area, has been filled wth shops and houses.
As our guide, Vessa, directed us though the narrow streets of Split, we stopped in on churches, temples, open squares, and small shops.  Like many other sites we've visited, the architecture reflects the many powers which ruled these cities.  In general, however, the Roman and Venetian influences dominate, and this part of the world seems to have retained the best of the Italian contributions to art, architecture, commerce, and quality of life.

In the early afternoon, we boarded a ferry (with our tour bus on board) and traveled to the Island of Hvar.  Re-boarding our bus upon landing, we drove across the island to the city of the same name.  What a great sailing resort town.  We had dinner at a restaurant just down the promenade, and will be guided through the town tomorrow morning.  In the afternoon, the sea below our rooms, and the pools, cabanas, and massages tables await.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Monday, May 29th, Hvar, Croatia.   

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sunday, May 28th, Split, Croatia


Back on the way to the Croatian coast, we are finding plenty of Venetian and Roman ruins.  So close to the heart of these two great centers of land and sea power for more than two thousand years, it shouldn't be surprising to find a long trail of cities, fortresses, churches, amphitheaters and forums.  Enough to entertain this avid group of travelers for many hours a day, with great guides to lead the way.  

We walked through Zadar, the ancient capital of Byzantine Dalmatia.  It is a city 60% destroyed by allied bombings when occupied by the Germans in WWII.  We had lunch near the Roman Forum, the climbed the tower at the Church of St Donatus, and peeked inside the Cathedral of Anastasius.  Our guide, Lara, also helped us include the Archeological Museum - a prize for any visitor.

An unusual addition to the tour is the installation of wave-generated pipes under the seawall which provided us with a wonderful natural concert thanks to an very innovative artist in 2005.  Just down from it, a regional jet-ski competition was being held to choose yet another batch of crazy Adriatic Sea denizens.

Later that day, we drove to Trogir, and wandered through this island city, listening to musicians and dancers, and admiring the stone streets, walls, and stores. 

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Sunday, May 28th, Split, Croatia.

Saturday, May 27th, Plitvicka Park, Croatia


Independence wasn't won easily here.  You'll remember that, for five years, the towns we are driving through were fighting each other.  While most of us recall Sarajevo, and the awful scenes of snipers shooting fleeing civilians, the civil war was actually much more complex and deadly.

Today was spent driving to, and then hiking through, a popular national park.  And we are so glad that it isn't the high season for visitors.  The trails and boardwalks which allow hikers to see the many waterfalls which flow out of the lakes here were crowded, and they were made more difficult to stay on by everyone taking photos (guilty).

But for outdoor pleasure with only a mild amount of hills and steps, Plitvicka Park is a welcome place.  The hotel we're staying in is always full, and tranquility always available in the cascading pools and waterfalls.  Every country needs a place like this to rest and enjoy a good walk.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Saturday, May 27th, Plitvicka, Croatia.  

Friday, May 26, 2017

Friday, May 26th, Zagreb, Croatia


Croatia looks like a big bow tie from space, with part of it along the coast (where we've been), and the other part parallel to it inland.  The capital of it (Zagreb) is inland, and that's where we went today.  But not before we checked out Opatija's coastal walkway before breakfast this morning.  It winds 12 miles along the waterfront, past hotels and restaurants, and has been the playground of Yugoslavia's beachside community.

Sania, our guide for Zagreb, was delightful.  Knowledgeable as usual, but her sense of humor and ease of english delivery made it fun to listen to her.  At each stop, she used our small group number to spend extra time revealing all she knew.  Did you now that ties originated in Croatia as safety scarves wives tied tightly around their husband soldiers as they went off to war during Napoleon's occupation, and then were picked up by the French army?  Or that Dalmatians seem to smile when they are happy?

Zagreb is actually three cities: the vast communist-built, industrial-looking housing high-rises surround it; the lower central city; and the older upper city.  We walked to the base of the upper city, and took the world's shortest funicular (60 meters - 55 seconds) to the top.   There we saw one of the remaining gates and tower, a lego-like church roof with smiling dalmatians, and lots more.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Friday, May 26th, Zagreb, Croatia.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Thursday, May 25th, Opatija, Croatia


We crossed the border from the seaport town of Piran in Slovenia into Croatia this morning, adding another stamped seal to our passports.  The peninsula out here on the coast is called Istria (shortened long ago from "Histria"), and traded one beautiful coast for another.  For three and a half thousand years, it has been the home of the Ilyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans, and Slavs.

Dean, our local guide extraordinaire, showed us the Baroque, Roman, and Byzantine architectural styles in surviving buildings in Porec and Pula.  We loved the Roman Temple of Augustus and the Euphrasian Basilica, especially the mosaics on display there.

We were clearly unprepared for the Amphitheater in Pula, and for its nearly complete outer walls. Built at the time of the Roman Colosseum (72-80 AD), it seated 23,000 on four levels.  Afterwards, we walked around the old city walls, and saw three remaining gates and towers.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Thursday, May 25th, Opatija, Croatia.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Wednesday, May 24th, Piran, Slovenia


Two bridges, a castle in a cave, and the second longest cave in Slovenia.  Bridges in Slovenia are important because there are so many river gorges.  With steep craggy bent and twisted limestone mountains standing side by side, travel for the past thousand years hasn't been possible without bridges.  The largest stone bridge in the world is in Slovenia.  Bridge diving is a local sport, for enough tourist money.

With limestone mountains you get caves with stalactites and stalacmites.  Almost 11,000 such caves in the country.  The second largest, and number one tourist attraction, is Postojna Cave Park.  Together with the Predjama Castle Cave, the experience was unique.  Predjama is a 12th century blend of cave and castle which was home to a notorious robber baron, Ezarem, who held out for a year in it while under attack from local authorities.  Defying their attempts to starve him out by using a secret cave exit to gather food from atop the cave, he was finally betrayed by a servant who lit a candle in a window when the baron used the adjacent toilet building near the entrance.

The Postojna Cave is simply amazing.  Nearly a million visitors a year enter the cave to board a train for a twenty-minute ride deep into its depths.  Led by language-specific guides, and an anti-slip floor, they then walk three kilometers through some of the tallest stalactites and stalacmites in the world.

We end the day out on the Slovenian coast at Piran, a beautiful resort area with warm water and fresh fish dinners.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Wednesday, May 24th, Piran, Slovenia.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tuesday, May 23rd, Kobarid, Slovenia


Forty-five million years ago, the African plate collided with the European plate, and sent Italy pushing seabeds up into the sky just south of Lichtenstein, Switzerland, and Austria.  Seven hundred fifty miles long and one hundred twenty-five miles wide, the Alps are a serious obstacle to travel.  The eastern end of it forms a border between Italy and Slovenia, and that's where we drove through today.

On the way, we visited the tallest sky jump in the world, and watched someone try out one of the smaller jumps. We drove through a mountain pass, and inspected an important WWI battle site which gave a twenty-five year old commander named Rommel his first major victory.  We visited a museum dedicated to WWI, and the unique and crucial role that this area played in the war.  They had the most creative and effective overhead video on a giant relief map I've ever seen, which they use to describe a three-day offensive between Austria and Italy.

Our bus is a little big for the switchback curves made necessary to get through these mountains.  Vito, our driver, is extremely talented (especially at backing up), and these traveling days have been much easier because of him.  We saw some of the most beautiful craggy peaks which didn't photograph very well through the windows of our bus as it wound its way up and down narrow winding roads.  We followed thin sky blue rivers as they made they way down from the glaciers and remaining snowfalls of last winter.

To see all of the photos taken (not many) today, click on Tuesday, May 23rd, Kobarid, Slovenia.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Monday, May 22nd, Bled, Slovenia


An old castle above the lake, another in the lake, and up in the mountains - a funicular ride to a modern day hangout.  This morning, we tested out our legs on two sets of castle steps.  And we're all growing more appreciative of those with railings.  We learned about Gutenberg and his press, and met a young iron shop worker with an Irish accent.  We visited a Castle Beehive shop, and were reminded of the innovations and importance of Slovenian beekkeeping.

Walking back down the steps, we drove over to a dock and boarded a small Slovenian boat (Pletna) to travel to Bled Island.  On the way, we raced two women on paddleboards (they won), and learned the Pletna business is one of the most profitable if you can obtain boats that don't sink.

Climbing even more steps, we entered a 16th century Baroque church, standing on the remains of earlier structures, built by pagans, slavs, and Christians, dating back to the 11th century BC.  

Archaeologists have discovered the foundations of a chapel from 1142 AD, the only example of a cult building from those times on Slovenian territory,

A tale is told that a young widow (Poliksena) who once lived in the castle had a bell casted for the chapel on the island in memory of her husband.  During the transport of the bell, a terrible storm hit the lake and the boat sank, together with the crew.

After the widow died, the Pope consecrated a new bell, and had it installed.  It is said that whomever rings the bell and gives honour to the Virgin Mary will have whatever wishes they make come true.

To top it off (literally), we took our bus to the end of the valley to take a funicular to the top of Mt Vogel (2200 meters) for a spectacular view of southern side of the Julian Alps.  A ski resort in winter, it also serves as a dramatic para-gliding takeoff point, and allows a full panorama of area around Lake Bohinj and Triglavski National Forest.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Monday, May 22nd, Bled, Slovenia.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sunday, May 21st, Bled, Slovenia


The sun came out today, and we even saw it on the ceiling of a church in the town of Skofja Loka.  We have a full 50-passenger bus for the twelve of us, and a talented driver (Vito) who can negotiate these mountainous roads better than anyone.
Through three hours of driving, with four stops, we visited a castle first begun in 973 AD (and the town below it),  a museum of arts and crafts, and an open air exhibit with a re-located 16th century house.  The inside of the house was too dark for photos, but we experienced what it was for a family of 12-14 to live in a two-room structure (kitchen and all-purpose room), with storage above.  Talk about using every square foot, and piece of furniture in multiple ways.

The highlight of our day was probably our visit to Kropa, and the lecture by the staff of the town museum.  I can't remember a more engaging presentation, where a resident delivered a more riveting story and expected our complete attention.  An iron ore and charcoal-rich area, with plenty of wind and water to supply natural power, the town has supplied iron products for generations of oppressors without much improvement in the quality of life for its residents.  If ever there was a town which gave far more than they received, it's Kropa.

Nails for European and the Middle Eastern shoes, and spikes for railroads over the same area, owe much to the families whose labor and health were stretched to the limits.

More recently, they have tried to engage their talents and machinery to supply high quality iron objects (candlesticks, sculptures, and customized window and door hinges).  But it's clear that their future employment picture hangs on how the world views the value of quality handmade iron products.

We ended our day at Bled, a lakeview resort town at which we'll spend the next two days.  Another castle on a hill town, with a gorgeous lake with an island in the middle, we had lunch and took a walk around part of the lake.  We got to watch an unique ceremony in which a couple danced on a barge near the shore, while their 40-year old wedding gesture of sinking a couple of cases of wine was re-raised to the delight of hundreds of watchers on the shore.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Sunday, May 21st, Bled, Slovenia.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Saturday, May 20th, Ljubljana, Slovenia


My knowledge of Slovenia has been sort of like a grey cloud, not much detail and a hint of bad news.  So it wasn't a big surprise when the first full day here started out with lots of clouds and is ending with heavy rain.  Everywhere from Amsterdam to Athens is getting soaked, and the Monsoons are hitting Bangaladesh.

But before it started coming down hard, we got a morning's walk through the city with our tour guide, Branko Campos.  An extremely knowledgeable local, he wove humor and social commentary into history, culture, mythology, and religion.  

Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia, is an 11th century castle across a river from a central city area.  With two million people in the country, there are only 280,000 in the urban area.  Flying in yesterday afternoon, we saw lots of villages on small mountain roads where the rest of the residents live.

We're resting and drying out in the hotel room before dinner, but our impressions are that the city is safe and smart and uncomplicated.  Long ago, the city banned cars in the city center, and there are strict physical barriers and stiff fines for violations.  Bicycles are made available and are almost free.

Every day, the markets are filled with fresh food, and there is plenty of drinkable water, beer, and wine.  Our taxi driver, Alex, moaned about the same things we all do; high living costs, inept government, and young people who take everything for granted.  But he wouldn't leave for any amount of money because he loves the quality of life here.

We're doing the laundry, and tomorrow, we leave for five days in the mountains. These two-day stops in one place are very helpful, especially at the start of a new adventure.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Saturday, May 20th, Ljubljana, Slovenia.        

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Thursday, May 18th, Athens


I've not always liked food.  When very young, it was just something that happened, and nothing very complex.  Since no one in my household had either any skills at it, or any ethnicity that cared about it, I remained unconvinced of its importance.

Mobility of it mattered.  If I could put it in a paper sack, and not get it messy, great.  It was headed to the beach mostly, and would end up under a towel in the cool sand a few handfuls down from the surface.  Or on a tray in bowls in front of the television.  As an only child with no one insisting you eat anything, food became a narrowing experience.

That all changed when I joined the military.  A little more variety, and lots more insistence that I eat it.  And it really changed when I fell in love with an Italian girl.

But though I love olive oil, I've held out eating a whole olive until today.  With nothing scheduled on our last full day in Greece, we joined a walking food tour, led by Artemis Olympidou.  At one of the first stops, she held out a bowl of olives from the island of Crete, and invited me to taste one.  Remarking that I was just like her husband when I still didn't like it, she forgave me.  Like Pat, I suspect she doesn't mind eating my share.  

Since my pallate has grown considerably since meeting Pat forty-two years ago, we did enjoy the tour.  Artemis straightened us out on the origins of many Greek delights, and then guided us to her favorite places to sample lots of local products.  Our traveling friends who recommended it were absolutely right.  Don't eat breakfast first, and be prepared to be full at the end.

Tomorrow, we fly to Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia.  We begin twenty-eight days on another Adventures Abroad tour of the countries between there and Greece.

No photos today, and probably very few tomorrow.  Because of the transportation strike, we'll leave early, and spend most of the day at the airport or traveling.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Wednesday, May 17th, Athens, Greece


We said goodbye last night to all of our remaining travelers, and they left this morning early before the general strike crippled the transportation system in the country.

The Metro resumed after the morning commute, and we took it to the area of Hadrian's Library, Arch, and the Temple of Zeus.

We walked back around and through the Acropolis neighborhood (Plaka) to our hotel, and later took a three-hour guided bus tour to Cape Sounion at the tip of the mainland peninsula to see the Temple of Poseidon.

Getting back, we had dinner at the El Greco, near our hotel.  The lesson we're learning about eating in Greece is that servings tend to be larger than we're used to.  Sometimes, an appetizer, salad, and beer is enough.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Wednesday, May 17th, Athens, Greece.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Tuesday, May 16th, Athens, Greece


The strike is growing, and tomorrow the demonstrations in Constitutional Square begin. Meanwhile, we are the hapless victims. Inconvenienced tourists who must find other means of transportation are using taxis and private tour company busses and boats.  The locals just drive their cars and motorcycles, and the streets are chaotic.  To make matters worse, Parliament is meeting, the President's in town, and lots of street are blocked off.

We spent the day walking, taking a taxi to the base of a strategic hill (and a funicular up to the top of it) overlooking the City, and a taxi to the National Archeology Museum.

Along the way, we watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (see guardsmen above), and checked out the lobby and bathrooms of the Grand Hotel Bretagne.

I know some of you think we spend too much time in museums.  Greece, like many other countries, tells its visitors a very narrow story about its history.  Most know black vases with golden images of naked athletes, fifty-six tall columns in a rectangle atop a central plateau, and a guy running twenty-six miles to let the City know it had won a battle.   All three had important moments in 480 BC.  But Greece has had a civilization for seven thousand years, and that story is told in the artifacts displayed in its museums.

So if you want to see what can be done with clay and bronze and marble and gold and silver if you have that long to practice, and you haven't lost too much of it, come to the museums of Greece.  
It will put our current world into perspective, help you evaluate how advanced you think we are, and broaden your appreciation of artisans and architects of the past.

It may even improve your optimism about the future.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Tuesday, May 16th, Athens, Greece.