Serbia, Croatia – and a Homeland War…

Serbia, Croatia – and the Homeland War …


It’s the same language – different alphabet; it’s the same religion – different opinions on the origin of the Holy Ghost; it’s the same ethnicity – they are all Slavs, even the Muslims.

So why? And is it over? Has everyone suffered enough?

Of course, we are tourists. We aren’t going to see a deep truth; the surface is barely visible to us, as we go from site to site, not quite herded in groups, dutifully following our knowledgeable and charming tour leader. Listening to her, we could believe that everything is behind them now, that everyone is looking to the future, that there was never a problem between people, only between governments. And perhaps there is more than a kernel of truth, of reality, in her pronouncements. I don’t know. I can only tell you what I saw, my interpretation of the atmosphere.

We came first to Serbia, to Belgrade, home of one of Tito’s largest monuments. On my last two trips to this area, we heard much of Tito, how he “stood up” to Moscow, fostering his own brand of Western-focused Communism. On this visit, we found that the “older” generation continue to venerate him, wishing for those old days, when everyone had a job, everyone had a decent place to live, everyone knew that their basic needs would be taken care of. The standard of living, for most, was the highest of the Eastern Bloc countries. That this was propped up by US aid, in our own country’s fear and hatred of Communism, was not discussed.

We visited his memorial, I would dub it a monument, and heard from two generations. For younger people, Tito is ancient history. They talk about him in terms of “gramma’s time.” They only know the “freedom” of an economy where one has the “opportunity” to make it on his/her own. That they have national health insurance and other guarantees of coverage of basic needs is a given for them; they see themselves as operating in a free-market environment.

The older generations – those “grammas” – are not so happy. As with most of us, they see the past through a sepia lens, and are wistful for Tito and all the benefits his regime brought. Again, they seem unaware of the underpinnings of US dollars “fighting Communism.”

As for the city itself, it seems to bustle – lots of traffic, delightful commuter-filled streetcars, parks and open space. Definitely not the dark, somber world we imagined. Milosevic and his ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) seem like ancient history to those we came in contact with. The issue of Kosovo, however, is not. The Serbs we talked to (few) admitted that atrocities occurred but maintain that tiny Kosovo should remain part of Serbia from an historical standpoint.  Well, this area has been a thorny one for centuries. I don’t think from my few hours in Belgrade that I’ll be able to solve that one.

A few hours north on the Danube brought us to Novi Sad, the capital of the autonomous region of Vojvodina. Again, more discussion of the war, as the Serbs call it, the Homeland War. Closer now to the Croatian border, it is interesting to see the blending, softening of attitudes. Perhaps it really is true that the closer you get to a people, the more you understand that we are all connected, all the same.


Novi Sad exuded a different kind of atmosphere, lighter, with its parks, its town square. A Catholic church sits on one side; we were told that the Croats/Catholics destroyed this church during the fighting. The citizens of Novi Sad, mainly Orthodox Serbs, joined together in its rebuilding. This Saturday morning we sat in the square, watching young families and their elders enjoying a spring day.


As we arrived in Croatia, it became obvious that the miasma of its history is never far away. Our first stop was Vukovar, a border town badly damaged during the Serbo-Croatian War (that is what they call it here). While much is rebuilt, thanks to funds from the European Union, there is still considerable evidence of the destruction of buildings, homes, and any optimistic view of the future. We had the opportunity to lunch with a family in Bilje, a small farming village that had once been occupied by both Serbs and Croatians. The family’s home, and the majority of homes had been destroyed in the fighting. During the war, they said that their Serbian neighbors, all of them, had left, most to return to Serbia. None had yet come back.

The family told us that when their house was destroyed, they moved into a house vacated by a Serb neighbor. They lived there until their house was rebuilt. Now the village is in stages of reconstruction, although perhaps every 10th house remains empty and in ruins.

The family said that relations with their Serb neighbors had been good, that is was governments, not people, who caused the problem. While their hospitality was lovely, I’m not sure that I buy what appears to be the party line for visitors. While I wish it were so, I don’t have such a high regard for human nature.


Perhaps this next generation of Serbs, of Croats, of Slavs, of Catholics, of Orthodox, can touch upon this ground that their forefathers have bloodied and make sense of it. Perhaps they can see that we are all connected, that we are all the same. Would that…

Next week — Budapest…







On Travel and Getting One’s House in Order…

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On Travel and Getting One’s House in Order…

I’m heading to Eastern Europe this week. Somehow, though it doesn’t appear in my DNA, I am drawn to these countries. Their history, their sadness, their literature, their movies, resonate with me. It will be my fourth trip to this part of the world, although now I will see countries I haven’t been to before – Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, then to my favorites, Croatia and Hungary.

I must admit that traveling is getting harder for me. A long flight looms, and I’m hoping that I’ll not be too snockered by jetlag and currencies in countries that don’t use the Euro. I came upon a few Kuna in an envelope and was sure they would get me through my few days in Croatia. When I checked the conversion rates, I found that I had about $2.50. So, I will master Lecs, Leus, Dinars, and Forints. and hold my currency converter close, keep my phone programmed for calls home to make sure that family is surviving without me, and soak in any atmosphere of old Europe that I can find.

It’s a short trip, a lot of countries, I’ll get an overview at best. But at least it’s something, and I suspect that the area will once again touch my heart.

In the meantime, at home, I’m pruning bookcases, closets, whatever seems or feels out of place. When you’re in the mood, it is liberating. Books that I don’t love, books I know that I won’t get around to reading – out they go, with a wish that they will be found by a loving reader. It’s stewardship, really. At least that’s how I’m seeing it. Those cartons in my office, all filled with very important papers and remembrances, well, they’ll go upstairs to storage. Not exactly a minimalist stance, but at least my office will look efficient and well-ordered. A presence to come home to. And maybe one day, just maybe, I’ll tackle that storage area.

In the meantime, Eastern Europe, here I come!

In Love with Slovenia

Here is more than you want to know, and more than you want to see about our trip to Slovenia and Croatia:


Vacation, May 2012





We arrived at our Zagreb hotel on May 16th, a drizzly Wednesday morning after yet another white-knuckle cab ride. European cab drivers seem to be able to whiz their cabs through the eye of a needle.  Rich men and camels take note.  Our room at The Palace was ready for us, so we wound our way up steps/down steps/up steps to our accommodation.  We headed out to see the square, where the market stalls were set up, and the scent of strawberries came to us two blocks before we got there. Stolid farm women sat behind mounds of red, ripe berries. Those who weren’t selling strawberries were selling honey.

But the rains came and, after searching for a restaurant and finding only bars, we happened upon the restaurant where Michele and I had eaten the year before.  After lunch, we headed back to our room and gave in to our jet lag for an early bedtime. It stays light well past 9 p.m., and dawn comes well before 5 a.m. but light didn’t keep us from an exhausted snooze


The following morning, bright and early, after an ample Croatian breakfast, we headed to the bus station for our ride to Lake Plitvice.  It was a LONG walk to the station, and we resolved to figure out how to use the trams for our journey home.  We got our tickets for the 3 ½ hour ride to Plitvice, through beautiful scenery – small villages and piedmont.  Interestingly, the local bus stopped fairly frequently, often in areas where there was nothing – no town, no road.  We tried, unsuccessfully to figure out where passengers came from and where they were going.

Plitvice was lovely – and we spent the day exploring and taking photos.  Many Japanese tourists were there, and we met them several times throughout our stay.  The “famous” restaurant had burned down two weeks prior, so we lunched at a local hotel before we took the bus back.  They told us that the bus would only stop if we stood in the road and flagged it down, so we wanted to be at the right place at the right time.  Fortunately, there was a group of young people there too – tattooed hostellers wending their way across Europe.  After hearing their tales of hostels, it made our hotel sound better and better.  We figured out how to take the tram, and even paid for our tickets at a local newsstand, the only place that you can buy them, and, feeling quite the native, took the #6 tram right to our hotel door.  After an early dinner, we called it a night.

We returned to Zagreb after spending a week in Slovenia early on the following Sunday morning, May 27th.  We checked back into The Palace, and had a room that faced The Horseshoe, one of the original palace rooms. (The Horseshoe is the green park across from our hotel.)  We jumped back on the tram to ride to the bus station for an afternoon jaunt to Samobar, a small village about 1 ½ hours from Zagreb.  We bought a watercolor of the town’s main church at one of the market stalls there, and had had a delightful lunch in an out-of-the-way stube frequented by native Croats.  No tourists there (except us, of course.)

When we got back to Zagreb there was still time to explore the city – we started with the Cathedral, where they were having some kind of service that we stayed for, and then headed to Golec and the Gorni Grad, the Upper Town.  We meandered up and down the sinewy streets and found St. Mark’s Church, with the tile roof of the Croatian flag.  The funicular wasn’t operating, so we took many, many steps down to the square.  There were still some market stalls operating, and we took pictures of the square with the statue of Ban Jelecic, facing Serbia, their current “enemy.” We meandered back toward our hotel, and sat in the square people watching until nightfall.

We spent our last morning in Croatia sitting in The Horseshoe people watching before heading to the airport for our flight to Frankfurt.  We tried to spend our kunas before we left.  I visited the Duty-Free Shop and was excited about the bargains – until I found out that the prices were in Euros (1E/$1.30) not kunas (1K/$.17), so no bargains there.

Croatia seems less prosperous than Slovenia; the people seem more serious, sadder, a harder life, not as well-dressed.  Yet the square and the park were full of people, young, old, families, dogs (lots of dogs) – people enjoying the free aspects of city life.



We had been in touch with Petra, the Slovenian guide on last year’s trip to Croatia, and she provided many ideas about what to see. We followed her suggestions and they were superb.


On Friday morning, May 18th, we took the train from Zagreb to Ljubljana, a 2 ½ hour journey. We shared our compartment with a visitor from Australia who had come to Zagreb to visit her daughter who was with the Croatian Ballet.  Rene was outgoing, talkative and delightful, and our paths crossed many times that day – at the Castle, at the Market, and walking along the river.

We quickly realized that our hotel, The Ahotel, was NOT within walking distance of the downtown.  We took a cab into the city and started our exploration at the top of the hill where Ljubljana Castle sits. The area where the castle sits has been inhabited since 1200 BC, but we stuck to the Outlook Tower, where we climbed to see the city’s panorama. Our descent was long, hot, and painful on the knees!  But we soldiered on and explored the city, the market area, and the churches and department store on the square. We searched out The Skyscraper, which Dick had read was at one time, at 35 storeys, the tallest building in Europe.  No amount of neck-craning could help us discover it.  We finally found it, though.  Nebtotcnik (“Skyscraper”) is a thirteen-storeys and is primarily Art Deco with its red-and-white brick design. (So much for Rick Steves’ expertise!)

We crossed lots of bridges, which are important in this city where the Ljubljanica River meanders through the central city.  The Triple Bridge, the Dragon Bridge, which many consider the most beautiful, as well as the symbol of the city, and the Butchers’ Bridge, a footbridge near the market, so brand new one that it wasn’t even on our maps! Our cab delivered us back to our hotel where we had a calm and restful pizza and prepared for our time with our rental car.

Fortunately, we had a chance to return to Ljubljana the following Saturday.  The sun was shining; our hotel, the Pri Mraku, was a few blocks from the main square, and we saw Ljubljana in a much happier light. The market was bustling, the sun was shining.  We walked and walked and then had an early lunch at an outdoor café and people watched.  Well-dressed, seemingly happier, more prosperous than their Croatian neighbors, Ljubljanans spend their Saturdays shopping, for flowers, for fresh fruits and vegetables, and then a stop at a café for a coffee or wine – and, of course, always with their dogs.


Lake Bled

We ventured to the town of Lake Bled on May 19th, our first Saturday away.  We picked our car up at the airport – VW Polo.  At first I was disappointed that it was a standard shift, but I soon become very grateful for this feature.  Over many mountain roads, trails and switchbacks, our little red car proved indefatifigible, to say nothing of the driver!

Lake Bled is a glacial lake in the Julian Alps, and is situated in a picturesque environment, surrounded by mountains and forests. A medieval castle stands above the lake on the north shore. The lake surrounds Bled Island, the only natural island in Slovenia. The island has several buildings, the main one being the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary, built in the 15th century, where weddings are held regularly. During our time in the town we saw several.  The tradition is that the groom carries the bride up the 99 steps leading to the church to prove his devotion.

We stayed at a pension in Selo Pri Bledu, about a kilometer outside the town of Lake Bled, Pri Matjon.  It turned out to be a lovely place, with a balcony that overlooked the mountains and the farms across the road.  We intended to stay three nights and then move on, but we wound up spending a full week there, doing our exploring during the day, but coming home to roost.

Our first day in Bled we walked around the lake, a trek that we didn’t anticipate would take 3 ½ hours, but we treated ourselves to some Lake Bled Cake, a specialty of the region, while sitting on the lakefront. That evening we discovered Pri Stephanu, a restaurant in Ribno, about a kilometer from our pension, that we would frequent.  The food, and Diana, our waitress, were both outstanding, and a wonderful memento of our trip.

Julian Alps

Our second day in Bled was a Sunday and we started by attending mass at the local church.  We then headed for the Julian Alps and followed the Kobarid Historical Trail – up many mountains, 50 “official” switchbacks, but this driver navigated many more, all the while avoiding bikers and motorcyclists. The ride provided many chilling moments. This area was home to a major WWI battle – the Soca Front and it was sobering to imagine life for both sides there.  We stopped at the Kobarid Museum which focuses on the 1917 battle.  A long day, we went back to Stephanu’s for a late dinner before we fell into bed.

The next day, some rain provided us with some rest and relaxation.  We lunched at the lakefront restaurant, Panorama, and had dinner at Petra’s suggestion at Union Gostlina.  Great meal, and great music provided by the owners’ father.


To Radovlijica the next morning to see the bee museum and sample honey brandy.  A walk around the town was lovely, even in a drizzle. That afternoon we drove to Lake Bohinj, lovely though misty, and back to town for an early dinner at what I thought was an Austrian restaurant.  Not so, though.  What I took to be Slovene for Austria was really “inn.”  But the food was good and it was close to home.

We found parking, not such an easy task, at a shopping center off the main road.  Natives call it “Ghaddafi,” since it was originally designed for Libya.  Somehow that didn’t work out, so the Slovenes decided to build it in Bled. It held a bank, a grocery store, and a map store, all of which were well used by us.

Logarska Dolina

Wednesday morning, May 23rd, we headed east to Logarska Dolina, another area of hairpin turns and beautiful vistas.  The weather was overcast, sometimes rainy, but we were undeterred.  We stopped for lunch at a pension – not many tourists there – and found that they were serving as the local kindergarten.  We ate on the porch to the sounds of four and five-year old Slovenian kiddies.  They soon left and we had the restaurant to ourselves, a quiet respite in a long driving day.  Back to Union Gostlina for dinner and to bed.

Villach, Austria

            On Thursday, the 24th, we celebrated our anniversary by visiting Villach, using the Karawacken tunnel that connects Slovenia with Austria.  Another white-knuckle journey on this two-lane, high speed, eight kilometer tube through the mountains.  We spent some time in the train station, since it is a railway gateway to most parts of Austria.

Villach is quite an old city with roots back in Roman times (when the city was called Santicum).The city was heavily bombed in World War II, but it still maintains an old world feeling.  I was moved by the plaques on the church which memorialized those who fought and died in WWI.  The day was overcast, so we passed on  trying to get to the Glosglockner road, and settled for a hairpin turn-filled drive up the Alpenstrasse, where you can see three countries—Austria, Italy and Slovenia.

Lake Bohinj

We woke Friday to a beautiful, crisp, clear day, and made the 30-minute drive back to Lake Bohinj.  We took the cable car to Mt. Vogel where we had breathtaking views of Triglav.  Dick savored the best strudel while looking at the mountains.  That afternoon we finished our day with a ride on a pletjna – like a gondola—on Lake Bled.  Our fellow passengers were British, and we had a fine conversation about British TV, and our favorite program, “Foyle’s War.”  On our way home, we ventured to Kozarca, the little village that is home to the church that we could barely make out from our balcony. A narrow, steep, winding, twisting journey, but worth it.


We left Slovenia in love – with the scenery, with the people, with the country. It seems relatively untouched by the troubles that the rest of Yugoslavia experienced.  It is a combination of Austrian charm and order, Italian joie d’vivre, and its own decidedly Slavic blend of happiness.


Frankfurt, Germany


We’d been to the Frankfurt airport before, but this was our first opportunity to see the city.  When our plane landed in the late afternoon, we headed by train to the main station. Buying our ticket from the machines proved to be a challenge, and we were helped by a middle-aged woman who spoke English and who turned out to be homeless.  A sad introduction, and we were to see many more homeless people in this city.

We found that there are several train stations in Frankfurt, and, after receiving much help from passengers, we got on the right train and got off at the main station. The Hauptbahnhof opened on August 18, 1888, with additions in 1924. The building was partially damaged during World War II, primarily the windows in the halls covering the platforms. However, the building has kept the feeling of its 1890 roots. The station is divided into perron (track hall) and vestibule (reception hall). Dominant in those parts built in 1888 are neorenaissance. The eastern façade of the vestibule features a large clock with two symbolic statues for day and night. Above the clock, the word Hauptbahnhof and the Deutsche Bahn logo are situated.

The roof of the front hall carries a monumental statue of Atlas supporting the World on his shoulder, in this case assisted by two allegorical figures representing Iron and Steam. Lots of information about a train station, I know, but it was quite fascinating!

We checked into our hotel, The Continental, which sits across from the station.  While its outside gave us some second thoughts, once we entered the building, it proved to be a lovely, inexpensive hotel.  The room was incredibly clean, though small, and the linen was of better quality than anywhere else we’d stayed.
The day (and night) was warm, and we found that our 5th floor room was directly level with the outside streetlights.  We were so tired that it didn’t matter.  We slept well and started our last vacation day early the next morning with a bus tour of the city. We spent some time in Romer Square, where the Dom (Saint Bartholomeus’ Cathedral) sits.  Built in Gothic style in the 14th century, from 1562 to 1792, emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were crowned there.  Paulskirche (St. Paul’s Church) is also on the square. This was the seat of the first democratically elected parliament in Germany in 1848. Like most historic buildings in the city centre, it was destroyed during World War II, but was also among the first buildings to be rebuilt after 1945.  We also saw the Sachsenhausen neighborhood, famous for its old cider bars.

The city is a blend of the old and new.  It is now the home of the European Central Bank and the German Stock Exchange. There are many skyscrapers – they call Frankfurt am Main “Mainhattan.”  We spent some time in the old square and drove around some neighborhoods.  After the tour we took off on our own for a walk across the river.  We found “Schaubstrasse,” and took the streetcar back to our hotel.

Frankfurt has the highest percentage of immigrants in Germany: about 25% (660,000) of Frankfurt’s people have no German passport and another 10% are naturalized German citizens. With about 35% immigrants, Frankfurt is the most diverse of German cities, and that was certainly evident in our visit there.  Our waiters, our hotel staff were Egyptian, and we saw many Muslim women with headscarves.

Then to the train to the airport, and our flight home.


It was a wonderful trip.  The scenery, the people we met, the food, and being together on this magical experience.