Thursday, April 19, 2007

Spring Break Trip through Former Yugoslavia

For spring break 2007 I traveled with Sean (a colleague of mine) and Roger (his friend from Singapore) to three countries of former Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro. To reach our destinations, we traveled by land, sea, and air.

On Thursday night we took the night train to Ljubljana in a typical old Serbian couchette. Traveling through Zagreb meant that we had several border crossings to deal with. Around 9:30 we arrived in the capital city. After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we headed over to the Old Town. Arriving at the Dragon Gate (named after the four dragon sculptures guarding both ends of the gate), we peered into the Ljubljanica River. Old, multi-level buildings, all with terracotta ceramic tile roofs, lined the river. Reflections of the buildings and blossoming trees were vivid in the still water. Weeping willows dangled their still-budding tentacles over the water.

A city of around 265,000, Ljubljana felt very different from Belgrade. Slovenia was once under the control of the Habsburg dynasty, giving the country a much appearance and traditions than Turkish-controlled Serbia. This was especially true in the Old Town region. Bicycles were the preferred mode of transportation for locals, easily navigating through narrow (and pedestrian) streets and across the flat topography. Many of the bikes were of the old-fashioned type, complete with bells and a rear basket. A number of streets in the old section were reserved for pedestrians, with special protruding columns that went down for the occasional car with special permissions. Locals and visitors alike enjoyed the pleasant spring weather, sitting at outdoor cafés and listening to the occasional street musicians.

Outdoor Market
Ljubljana’s green market, located behind a cathedral, had a much less hectic pace than those I’ve frequented in Belgrade. In the pleasant morning sun, shoppers leisurely stopped at the new wooden stalls, inspecting the colorful produce, fresh flowers, decorative bread, and colored Easter eggs. Nearby were stands where one could purchase crafty items and even spotted skins of animals.

Baroque Churches – Good Friday
After a simple lunch, we headed towards the path that would take us up to the city’s castle. Partially intrigued by the unique relief door of St. Nicholas Cathedral (1701), we went inside. Adorning the arched ceiling and dome were beautiful frescoes. Wooden organ pipes framed in black and detailed with gold were found on each side. Light streamed in the numerous, but high windows. We also stopped at the St. Francis Church. The interior, without a dome, was darker than St. Nicholas church, but the ornamentation and arched ceiling was just as beautiful – and perhaps a bit more austere. We listened to the Good Friday service for a few minutes and then quietly left.

Ljubljana Castle
Back in the sunlight, we walked up the path to the castle overlooking the city. Birds sang and spring wildflowers dotted the grassy, forested terrain. Nearing the castle, it was immediately apparent that the 19th century castle had received extensive renovations. Inside, the changes were so drastic that it looked more like a souvenir and restaurant structure than a castle. Nothing was crumbling and everything old seemed to be removed. A glass elevator took visitors up a few levels. One could reach the castle via funicular or even drive up the hill. Quickly walking past the people sunning themselves on the benches in the central court, we paid an entrance fee to walk up the stairs (also new) to the Pentagonal Tower. From here, we had great views of the city – both old and its less attractive Communist-style structures in newer sections. The pink Franciscan church (1660) and its lively circular “square” was especially notable. Overhead a helicopter hovered and swooped. Watching the unusual moves, we realized that there was a person on the outside of the helicopter, presumably doing filming.

Back down in the Old Town, we went to the info center to inquire about possible trips to Bled. A local agency offered organized trips for 50€ which sounded very steep to me. Walking to the local bus station, we instead purchased bus tickets for 6€ and treated ourselves to ice cream. On our first day, the bright sun already gave me a nice burn on my nose and hands. It was a good thing I was wearing long sleeves!

Evening in Ljubljana
At the hotel, we checked in, freshened up, and got ready for the evening. I stayed in the hostel section for 20€ a night and shared the room with 2 other women. Refreshed, we walked back to the Old Town, enjoying more of the architecture, admiring the many contributions of local architect Jože Plečnik. Several times in our strolls through Ljubljana did we cross the Triple Bridge, with the third section added by Plečnik in 1931. The outer two bridges were for pedestrians and the middle one was for vehicles. On the southern side of the bridge was Mestni Trg, with a beautiful baroque Robba Fountain (patterned in 1751 after a fountain in Rome) in front of the Town Hall. The monument in the center of Prešernov Trg was a lively hangout place for young people sporting iPods, musicians, and a rather diverse crowd. Past the Franciscan church were some beautiful Art Nouveau buildings. Further on were some terribly ugly Communist-style buildings.

At suppertime, I was rather surprised to see how quiet the area was. Many stores had already closed. One small mini-market was open, so we picked up some water and snacks for our excursion the following day. As it got dark, we expected to see more monuments and streets lit up; it was not meant to be. Even the EU-style castle remained rather dark. So instead of taking night shots, we wandered through the town, peeking into cafés with curved brick ceilings and “admiring” the graffiti, some of which was humorous or clever.

The next night we ate at a Persian restaurant that we had previously spotted on our walks. The delicately spiced stir-fry was delicious, with tender meat soaked in sauces for over a day. The Iranian hostess was very gracious. The meal was complemented by some spiced tea in tiny glasses. Sean and his friend Roger then took turns with a water pipe, also known as a hookah or chechia.

After breakfast at the hotel, we took the 10am bus to Bled. After one hour through the rural landscape, we arrived at the popular destination.

Bled Castle
Our first destination was the castle, the oldest one in Slovenia. The pleasant hike up was complemented by bird sounds, wildflowers, and views of the dominating lake. Located on top of a steep stone cliff 100m above the lake, the castle (once the seat of the Bishops of Brixen for 800 years) offered great views on the crystal clear day. This castle had a much more authentic feel to it. Vines snaked their way across the stone walls of the inner courtyard, framing the narrow arched windows. In the courtyard some men practiced sword-fighting “duels”. The ones dressed in costumed seemed to be teaching the young men some moves, likely in preparation for the main tourist season performances. The upper courtyard is comprised of a residence and Gothic castle chapel and the lower courtyard with the castle outbuildings are protected by a high Romanesque wall with a battlemented parapet and Gothic defense tower. Inside the castle was a museum, housing period furniture, armor, clothing, and a collection of ancient coins and other artifacts found in the region. After taking some photos of the panorama including the Julian Alps and the tiny island church, we headed down the path to the lake.

For lunch, we stopped at a restaurant overlooking the lake. Everyone around us was ordering a light-colored cake. We had to taste this light and flaky cream cake – worth every calorie for the specialty of the region.

Lake Bled
The area around Lake Bled was park-like. Flowers were carefully arranged in between large swaths of lush grass. Young and old alike strolled along the paved walkways. Playing the tourist role, we took a gondola out to the tiny island chapel. The half hour we were given was enough time to explore the church and its few small buildings. The church exterior was under restoration, so I didn’t take photos of that view. Inside the small church was a long rope connected to a church bell. Those who rang the bell supposedly get their wish; needless to say, it rang almost continually.

Postojna Cave
On Sunday we took another local bus to the small town of Postojna, home of the famous Postojna Cave. The bus station was silent. Following the directions of a resident, we walked a couple kilometers to the tourist site. Looking across the street I saw a large parking lot full of tour buses and cars. Obviously most people came by this mode. Leading up to the ticket office was a succession of souvenir stores and fast-food restaurants. In line for the first tour of the day, it was immediately apparent that the dominant hair color was grey. Prepared for the constant cool temperatures of the cave (9.5°C or 49°F), we had several layers of clothing. The tour started with a 5.7 km electric train ride, after which time we got off and went into the English tour line. We then walked the remaining 1700m of the tour, pausing to admire the spectacular formations and listen to explanations of what we were seeing. Near the end of the walking tour we saw a tank with a few Proteus anguinus, an indigenous salamander-like creature that is pigment-free and blind. The electric train then took us back to the entrance.

After lunch of a traditional venison meal (in the restaurant full of a grey-haired tour group), we walked back to the bus station. After a few busses heading to Ljubljana didn’t show up (according to the timetable) and not a soul in sight, Roger (Sean’s friend) and I went to a café and inquired about the situation. One young man explained that the busses don’t run as often on holidays, and we might be better off taking a train. Leaving the café, we saw Sean (a colleague of mine) waving in the distance saying that the bus was there and was leaving in minutes. Thankfully, we would arrive in Ljubljana with ample time to gather our luggage and head off to the train station for our night train ride to Split.


Tom said...

Thank you Melissa for such a wonderful narrative. I had toured the Ljubljana, Split, Dubrovnik, Kotor, (+ Albania) region last Fall. You brought the experience back to life. Nice photos.

Tom Betz
Milwaukee, WI USA

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