28 May 2013
The road across the sleepy Herzegovinian landscape climbed through the dusty hills until the Croatian border checkpoint appeared ahead of me. I passed through with a quick flash of my passport and drove over the crest of one last ridge, where I was met with a stunningly beautiful view of the Dalmatian coast and Adriatic Sea below me at the bottom of the mountain cliffs that I would be descending through a series, of precipitous switchbacks.
As I raced around the twisty seaside highway towards the sinking afternoon sun, the medieval, seaside walled city of Dubrovnik appeared in the distance, with red-tiled roofs glowing in the golden-hour light and white specks of sailboats hiked over in the breezy seas.
I parked my car along the narrow, cobbled streets outside the old city fortress that were clearly not meant for modern vehicles, and I walked in through the main city gate onto a broad boulevard of glistening marble streets and pristine stone facades that had been renovated to a degree of near perfection in the aftermath of the war with Serbia, where the old city had endured significant damage, to the shock and outrage of locals and the international community. Dubrovnik is undoubtedly one of the most deserving “world heritage sights” of its kind.
The architecture and ambiance were similar to Venice, but everything was much more compact and logically organized. After a pleasant stroll through the quiet back alleys and seaside cafes, I had a dinner of squid-ink risotto and got back in my car to continue on to the Montenegro border before sunset.
The drive to the border along the island-dotted Adriatic coast through the lush, floral Mediterranean landscape was so intriguing that I made a promise to return one day for an extended Dalmatian sailing trip, similar to the one I took with my parents through the Greek Ionian islands in 2006.
As I entered Montenegro the landscape changed from seaside cliffs to a vast mountain-ringed fjord called the Bay of Kotor. A narrow road follows the shoreline of the anvil-shaped bay, interrupted occasionally by picturesque villages with cobbled streets, old churches, and stunning views over the steep mountains that encircle the fjord. I pulled into the steep driveway of my host’s apartment building that overlooked the old city of Herceg Novi, a utilitarian fishing village/port with a charming downtown that serves as a tourist hub during the summer.
My host, Emma, had forgotten which day I was arriving, so she also had a Malaysian woman staying in her small, clean apartment. We spent the evening chatting about life in the Balkans and her perspective on Montenegro.
She had been living in Herceg Novi since the winter, working for a tourism company that manages in-season rentals for seaside villas along the gorgeous and quickly-developing Montenegrin coast. She wasn’t particularly fond of the locals, as I came to learn. As a single, young woman from the north of England, no one could understand why she wasn’t married, they resented her for being a foreigner who was “taking their jobs,” and she was frequently accused of being a spy. She had been the object of frequent sexual harassment by the local men whom she described as incredibly misogynistic, lazy, arrogant, and entitled. She said that after dying her hair red, they finally stopped questioning whether she was Montenegrin of Serb—just foreign.
One day while walking down the street, an older man who had decided that she was in his way pushed her into a mother who was carrying her baby. The mother, rather than react to the man putting her baby in danger, seemed to completely agree that Emma shouldn’t have been in his way.
After a few months, however, she had started to make a few local acquaintances, but she found most people suspicious, small minded, and difficult to connect with. Aside from that, she found the landscape beautiful and the experience thrilling.
The next morning I continued driving along the shore of the bay, passing countless fishing villages set in sharp relief against towering granite cliffs that rose thousands of feet from water’s edge to snow-capped summit towards the ancient town of Kotor, where I was spending the next night with my hosts Arslan and Nenad. They greeted me at their house and immediately went to work preparing breakfast on their grape-vine canopied terrace. We sat outside in the sun eating omelets so orange that there was no doubting how fresh and organic they were (only in America do we think pale yellow egg yolks are normal), filled with a local, spicy sausage, served with white bread, red pepper spread, ketchup, mayonnaise, and a local specialty—sour cream cheese. They chain smoked throughout breakfast, which I’ve begun to notice is par for the course all throughout the Balkans.
Arslan was from northern Montenegro and Nenad was from Serbia, and they both agreed that the locals were stereotypically lazy and dangerously underemployed, but friendly nonetheless. They seemed to further explain Emma’s observation that the locals were difficult to get to know by pointing out that in a region impacted by so much war and uncertainty, it just took more time for people to trust newcomers, but once their trust was gained, they were a warm people.
The sun came out after breakfast, and I decided to take advantage of the good weather with a mini-road trip to explore the region’s mountains, beaches, and vineyards. I drove past the fortress walls of the UNESCO protected old city and turned up a shockingly steep, one-lane country road that twisted up the walls of the fjord, driving in 1st gear past tiny farm houses and gnarled olive trees. A I climbed higher, the red roofs of Kotor appeared below me like a glistening ruby on the edge of the gold-ring shores of the bay.
The one lane farm road met with a well-maintained, paved road that continued to the top of the massive, Black Mountain that gives Montenegro it’s name. Since it was the middle of a work day, and tourist season wouldn’t really start for another few weeks, I had the road completely to myself. Now, if you’ve read my past blogs, you’ll have noticed that I have a mild obsession with narrow, mountain switchbacks, and this was one of the most incredible roads I’ve ever been on. It snaked its way up the sheer mountain face like the perfect folds of candy ribbon, with each bend offering an even more stunning view of the entire bay.
Since I had the road to myself and the visibility was perfect, I decided to test the limits of my sporty rental car. I spent the next thirty minutes racing up the narrow switchbacks, popping into second gear at the last second to skid around the hairpin turns, drifting my way to the top of the mountain. The weather was wonderful, the smell of the fresh air intoxicating, and the adrenaline exhilarating. I might have to write in to the show Top Gear to let the guys know about this gem of a road.
As I crossed over the top of the mountain into a high, hilly valley of granite outcroppings and quaint farming villages, I blasted American country music with the windows down and raced past fields of happy cows and butchers hanging slabs of fresh prosciutto to cure on their balconies. Descending the switchbacks that continued on the other side of the villages, I rode past old men reading newspapers, staring curiously at the exotic Ljubljana plates and sipping coffee in the midday sun.
Thousands of feet below, in a sea of mountain valleys and simple living, I turned onto another small country road that led me through a lush ravine towards a large lake that borders Albania. I drove across Ottoman stone bridges that spanned small, lillypad-filled tributaries that fed the lake where old men fished and young men sleepily sunned themselves in wooden rowboats. An even smaller, one lane road led me away from the lake through tall grass that caressed the sides of my car and brushed against my suntanned arm that rested outside my open window as I whizzed by.
The low afternoon sun cast a golden glow across the tall wheatgrass fields and smug, lonesome vineyards where old couples cleared weeds from their fields with scythes like painters casting long, intentional strokes across a landscape canvas. I pulled down a gravel driveway that had a sign announcing wine for sale and parked my car in front of a closed wrought iron gate between a field of grape vines and an ancient stone shed. A tranquil, gray-haired woman appeared from the tiny farmhouse shooing her dog and drying her hands, greeting me with a calm doberdan that communicated at once her aged wisdom and the simplicity of her pastoral lifestyle.
Though she didn’t speak English, I easily understood the meaning behind her slow Montenegrin suggestions to sit, relax, and sample the various bottles of wine she brought for me. She watched with pride as I sampled every bottle and settled on my favorite—a local red. I bought two bottles for €5 and continued on towards the Adriatic coast.
When I reached the sandy seafront cliffs, the scene of the light against the stonework of the island fortress of Sveti Stefan reminded me of a movie where a dapper James Bond races up to a Mediterranean villa in a speedboat with a beautiful woman and a bottle of expensive champagne. The Montenegrin coast oozes with refinement and wealth. Russian wealth. Jasmine flower sunsets wafted in through my windows as I drove west, back to Kotor’s old city to meet my host Arslan.
I arrived as the city lights were turning on to illuminate the old fortress walls and ancient stone churches. Arslan took me on a tour of his favorite parts of the city, describing myths of the pre-Christian fairy spirits and sirens who controlled the fate of the old seaside citadel’s residents. On our way home, we picked up ingredients for a fantastic dinner of traditional Montenegrin stuffed cabbage and Nana’s cole slaw, washed down with one of my new bottles of local wine.
The next morning was rainy, so instead of having a beach day, I decided to drive north to Durmitor National Park, near the Serbian border. I picked up a few hitchhikers along the way—local ship engineering students who were heading home for the summer to the interior of Montenegro. They didn’t speak much English, but they were both very impressed by how cheap my rental car was.
From what I could see while crossing the entire country of Montenegro, it’s basically just an endless stretch of mountains and valleys with no sizable fertile plains. For this reason, it has a separate identity from Serbia, from which it gained it’s independence. The language they speak is basically the same as Serbo-Croatian and Bosnian, but it has a slightly distinct accent. Again, the main differentiator is topography. Life is different here in the mountains than in the flat plains to the north.
It was still rainy when I got to Durmitor, but I could tell that the soaring mountain peaks around me would have been impressive in the sunshine. Rather that hiking in the rain, I continued driving eastward through a canyon that only falls 100 meters shy of the Grand Canyon in terms of depth. In early evening, after a LONG day of driving all around the country, I decided to see if I could camp in Biogradska Gora National Park—one of the only primeval, old-growth forests left in Europe. I drove along a densely vegetated road that led me to a stunningly beautiful high-altitude lake in the middle of the woods. A picturesque dock with a few rowboats made a perfect place for an early dinner of bread and water beneath the shimmering reflection of the snow capped mountains and lush forests that surrounded the pristine lake.
I locked my car, put on my running shoes, and took a sunset run along a 5-mile trail that encircled the lake through the thick forest, where the smell of budding plants, decaying wood, and rich soil was so ripe and fresh that it was almost overwhelming. This is a forest that is truly alive. Rarely have I ever encountered such a harmoniously self-sustaining ecosystem that broadcasts its vitality through smells and the buzzing of human-agnostic life.
When I got back to the car it was nearly pitch black outside. I went to the dock, put on a sweater, lay on my back, and meditated for a good hour beneath the star filled sky, listening to the sound of the wind blowing white, spring pollen balls across the glassy surface of the lake and feeding my soul with some of the freshest air I can remember. To me, Montenegro is a place where the pace of life doesn’t measure itself against the bustle of far away cities and foreign priorities. It’s a country that embraces simplicity, tradition, and damn good wine. But most importantly, it’s a forgotten corner of the earth where the pungent smell of ancient woods and the chill of empty mountains still have the power to excite the most animalistic instincts of the primitive human soul.
19 May 2013
Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH) was an unexpectedly incredible place. With such a complex cultural, historical, and political situation, I was only able to scratch the surface in the few days that I was there, but I was impressed nonetheless. In this blog post, rather than just explaining the sequence of events that took place, I’ll also be describing insights I gained through a number of conversations I had with locals and expats during my visit.
As soon as I crossed the BiH border, things were noticeably different. I drove through craggy, damp farmland until I reached the first town, Bihać. Farmers in the fields outside the city were using scythes to clear fields and, more simply, mow their front lawns. In all my travels, I’ve never seen a scythe being used. Moreover, the occasional billboards on the side of the road weren’t advertising fancy cars or medical services, rather they showed shiny, new weed-wackers. Interesting.
I drove through a series of small, twisty roads (no highways here) past the minarets of village mosques and women wearing head scarves. This was a glimpse into one of the major components of Bosnia’s complexity—the three major religions, Islam, Orthodox Christianity, and Catholicism, have been the root of much of the region’s conflict and violence. This is also tied to the divisions within the country. If you’re wondering why it’s called Bosnia AND Hercegovina, you’re just like I was when I arrived. It’s not simple, and any explanation I give will only reveal my complete ignorance to those who have lived through it.
From what I have been able to gather, the region’s inhabitants were all historically (pre-Ottoman times) part of the same ethnicity, and they were all Christian. Because of Bosnia’s rich resources (abundant water, fertile land, convenient overland trade routes, gold, silver, salt, etc…), it has been a target for acquisition by many larger powers. During these numerous conquerings the local Bosniaks were introduced to both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. When the Ottoman Empire controlled the region many people converted to Islam. As time passed, and as the Serbs to the northeast began dreaming of “greater Serbia” (basically establishing one nationality within Yugoslavia and converting everyone to Eastern Orthodox), pressure developed to categorize the local population by ethnicity. All Bosnians were made to check a box: Croat (Catholic), Serb (Orthodox), or Bosniak (Muslim). With these new, artificial categorizations, it was much easier to stir the pot of nationalism and foster hatred towards the other groups. With the dissolution of Tito’s Yugoslavia, the stage was set for conflict, violence, and chaos.
Back to political boundaries, the country has three presidents, each representing a division: Republika Srpska (Serbs) and the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina (Bosniaks and Croats). The overall presidency rotates every 8 months between these three figures for international diplomacy purposes, but all three have weekly meetings where consensus is formed. In addition to these breakdowns, there are about 15 regional canton governments that are fairly autonomous. Confused yet? Good. Apparently 75% of the annual BiH budget goes to paying government employees. Many people in the intelligentsia want a major political overhaul to simplify the system. I tend to agree. The Srpska Republic straddles the country like panniers on a bicycle. In the middle and southeast you have Bosnia and Hercegovina proper. The only way I can think to tell them apart is by topography. Bosnia is mountainous, lush, and full of Muslims. Hercegovina is arid, Mediterranean, great for wine, and inhabited mostly by Catholic Croats. However, all residents of all regions are considered Bosnians. All clear now, I hope ;)
License plates in most surrounding countries have a two-letter indicator of what city you’re from (e.g., LJ for Ljubljana, BG for Belgrade). However, BiH has opted out of this system to allow people to drive from one part of the country to another without vengeful locals taking out their hatred on cars from unfavorable regions.
Almost every village I passed along the drive had a castle watching over it. The combination of farmers with scythes, towering stone castles, donkey carts blocking the roadways, and the smell of burning scrap vegetation and garbage made me feel like I had been transplanted back to feudal Europe.
The drive into Sarajevo reminded me of Zagreb, but more lush and hillier. I was worried I would be equally underwhelmed, but I definitely wasn’t. The city lies along the banks of a river that runs east to west, with the old city right in the center and modest homes climbing the hillsides. I met my CS host outside her bullet hole riddled apartment on one of the old residential streets. She was a German girl who had been living in Sarajevo for three years teaching German at a local school. Her Bosnian was perfect.
After dropping off my things and taking a quick shower, Dorothee showed me around her neighborhood and took me to visit the local “LGBTIQ” center, where I met her Bosnian girlfriend and another young girl from Sarajevo. Bosnia (and the Balkans in general) is a very conservative place when it comes to sexuality, and Sarajevo is far from gay-friendly. The community center was housed in an unmarked apartment on the fourth floor of a decrepit, unassuming building. The US and a few European embassies provide the funding to keep it operational as a safe zone for local, queer young people to congregate (Don’t tell the Tea Party that their tax money is being used to protect “sinners” in a Muslim country….).
Dorothee’s girlfriend and friend work as activists, desperately fighting for more openness and acceptance in BiH. They bring in international speakers to meet with local youth, and they have been trying to host Bosnia’s first gay pride, but it always fails due to government opposition. I told them about what LGBT life was like in the US, and they listened in awe as if I were telling them a fairytale that was entirely beyond the realm of possibility. Dorothee and her girlfriend then told me that the week before they had been walking down the street with a group of four lesbians and three gay guys, not acting openly affectionate or anything, just walking, when a group of fifteen young Bosnian guys approached them aggressively, asking if they were “fags or something.” They tried to ignore the hooligans, as they called them, and just continue on their way, but the guys wouldn’t leave them alone. One of the Bosnians threw a punch and then the whole group broke out in violence. Dorothee hid behind a building. Her girlfriend and a few friends were kicked repeatedly in the head and stomach. The guys were bloodied pretty severely. The police couldn’t have cared less. Disgusting. As a religious Muslim country with a strong machismo culture, this type of hatred is completely acceptable. As much progress as America still has to make in this realm, at least we’ve come a long way compared to the Balkans.
Dorothee and I walked down to the old city, which completely took me by surprise. At first all the architecture was Austrian, as it had been in most of the cities I had visited so far. Most of the people on the street were just locals enjoying an afternoon stroll. There weren’t many tourists. A we kept walking, Dorothee explained that the original old city was Ottoman, but that the newer part had been an addition during the Austro-Hungarian occupation. Sure enough, the architecture completely changed within a block, and we entered the Ottoman quarter. Short, stucco buildings with brown tiled roofs lined the narrow, cobbled streets. Traditional shops sold handmade shoes, Turkish tea sets, Ottoman furniture, and sweets. The smell of ćevapčići (Turkish-style sausages) wafted through the streets.
She took me to a pita restaurant, where we ordered burek pita, which is similar to the circular pastry burek I tried in Zagreb, except the Bosnian version is the size of a pizza, and you order it by slice, served with drinkable yogurt. We enjoyed our $2 dinner at an outdoor table, where we people-watched and discussed the complexities of Bosnian culture from the perspective of an expat. We continued our conversation after dinner at an incredibly hip bar inside an old Ottoman shop, where she and the locals chain-smoked, and I tried the local beer and some rakija, a delicious homemade pear brandy that’s ubiquitous in this region.
I asked her all about the local economy, her thoughts on future business prospects, the mentality of the locals, the effects of the war, and how it was to be an expat. Her insights were fascinating. From what I could gather, decades of war and violence have completely decimated any sense of future opportunity. Milosovic was brutal, and I can’t even begin to imagine living through ethnic cleansing and mass attacks on the civilian population. A entire generation is fucked up, and the ramifications are profound. However, to their credit, the locals have somehow managed to continue enjoying life. But their current outlook is very shortsighted. They don’t see value in a future that they have come to believe is uncertain. They live completely in the moment. They smoke, heavily, they drink, they party, they enjoy the company of close friends and family more than having a job that pays them well. Money is a necessity, not a goal. They happily pay for each other at bars and restaurants when their friends don’t have enough cash, and they don’t expect anything in return. She said that she doesn’t even know what most of her local friends do for a living. Conversation isn’t about employment or kids like it is in the US. They talk about music, art, politics, and casual gossip. They joke, and they’re very cynical. They can be incredibly fatalistic, but with an edge of compassion, genuineness, and irrational trust.
I roamed the city on my own the next day, taking note of all the bullet holes in all the buildings and the “Sarajevo roses” on the streets, which are mortar holes in the pavement that have been capped with red filler. Simultaneously pretty and poignant. I was listening to the birds signing, when I realized that some of them sounded like machine gun fire. I can’t help but think that the war was so intense that some of the local birds adopted the sound of gunfire into their vocabulary. Milosovic was said to have had a policy of firing shots at regular intervals, non-stop, like Chinese water torture, with the sole purpose of driving the Bosniaks mad.
I climbed the hill behind the main Ottoman square with an Islamic-designed fountain and beautiful architecture, towards a maze of traditional homes that opened onto a field of white marble monuments to the victims of war. Thousands upon thousands of gravestones climbed the slopes, and when I looked into the distance, I realized that there were patches of hillside cemeteries in every direction, a far as I could see. A I walked through the graveyard I couldn’t help but notice that each life had ended at the same time. 1974-1993. 1987-1992. 1945-1992. 1939-1993. All of these thousands of lives came to an end simultaneously. The trauma inflicted upon a people who had to conduct mass burials of this magnitude is absolutely staggering.
I found my way to a cafe on the other side of the bridge where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, kicking off World War I. I met a local guy named Senad who gave me even more insight into the complex nature of Bosnia’s people and history. He, like many people our age who lived through the war, have recollections of growing up in the basement of the family home, waiting eagerly for parents to return from risky excursions into the chaos outside to search for food and supplies. He said they all grew up very quickly, but there’s more to life than dwelling on the past.
After some coffee, Dorothee met me for movie night in the theater behind the cafe where I had been relaxing. It was European movie week in hip, underground Sarajevo, and the film being shown for free was a Czech comedy from the 60s about dating, love, and heartbreak. The voices were Czech, the subtitles were in both English and Bosnian, the audience was international, but the laughter and comradely shared by everyone in the room needed no translation.
That night we went to a bar with a group of her friends in a funky old cinema where the young Sarajevo avant garde smoked, drank, and listened to live folk music on stage. The whole room recognized the songs being played, and occasional outburst of sing-alongs would interrupt the small conversations at the tables spread around the theater. The atmosphere was rich, warm, and completely authentic. I spent the rest of the night touring the city, and as I awoke the next morning to the call of the muezzin and sunrise over the red-roofed hillside homes, mosques, synagogues, and churches, I packed my bags with a tinge of sadness at having to continue on after my far-too-brief immersion in the moving showcase of completely genuine human tragedy and resilience that is Sarajevo.
I drove south, over the pass of a snow-capped mountain that led down into a deep river gorge of green-blue snowmelt streams and lush, sunbaked greenery. The landscape quickly became more arid and Mediterranean as I entered Hercegovina. As the land flattened out and I entered a wide valley, roadside fruit vendors enticed me with their overflowing baskets of fresh cherries, and I stopped to pick up a 45 cent basket of juicy, sour fruit that lasted me the entire car ride.
I made a stop in the city of Mostar—an ancient crossroads of traders and travelers who congregated at this spot to cross the raging river at the famous Mostar stone bridge, which had been destroyed by the Serbians to the outrage of the international community, but quickly rebuilt and restored to its original grandeur. I ate lunch at a cliffside restaurant while I watched brave divers hurl themselves off the bridge into the frigid water 100 feet below.
Satisfied, impressed, and incredibly humbled by my glimpse of this beautiful and poignant society, I continued my journey through the harsh Hercegovinian landscape, past tiny castle towns and quaint riverside villages, towards the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.
16 May 2013
The flat farmland of northwestern Croatia quickly gave way to the urban sprawl of Zagreb, the capital. Generic commercial buildings lined the sides of the highway, looking like the outskirts of any middle American city. Traffic got increasingly congested, and young men in tiny European cars zipped aggressively between lanes, giving some insight into Croatian machismo. As I approached the city center the gray sky made everything seem a bit depressing and bland.
I parked in the basement of a shopping mall and went upstairs to find an ATM. Just like in Venice, none of the machines would accept my international card. What’s with you Europe?? I’ve had easier access to cash in the Amazon and rural China! I exchanged some extra contingency euros and set out to explore Zagreb.
The center of the city follows the typical Austro-Hungarian model—a series of gigantic parks and public squares with museums, fountains, and statues running north and south, lined by colorful stucco and stone buildings with ornate carvings and trim. The city straddles a river at the base of a valley, and the hills rising behind the Austrian buildings contributed to its aesthetic grandeur. I walked north along the charming park under a canopy of trees that were releasing a constant furry of tiny, fluffy pollen balls that found their way into almost everyone’s eyes. I spent the whole walk trying to shield myself and pick pollen out of my eyes, and it seemed that everyone else on the sidewalk was doing the same. Then it started pouring.
I took shelter under a restaurant’s awning at the edge of a huge urban square where vendors were dismantling what looked like a vegetable market. I waited for about thirty minutes, watching a combination of well-dressed people and young men in track suits/sweatpants (the standard uniform of the Balkans apparently) race after blue trolley cars that rode along tracks in the cobblestone street, stopping in the center of the square to pick up soaking passengers. Young women ran by in high heels, and old men strolled past casually without any indication that they had noticed it was raining.
I left the square and walked up a set of smooth stone steps, which were glistening from the rainfall, towards a series of smaller, more quaint pedestrian squares that made up the heart of the old city. A plaza dominated by a Catholic church gave way to a series of narrow, winding alleyways that were full of outdoor cafes. I continued up the hill along a lively street with centuries-old buildings that were now occupied by restaurants and bars full of young people out enjoying themselves.
I climbed a very steep staircase to an even older part of town with embassies, private villas, and a large plaza where a wedding party was celebrating outside a church topped with nationalistic roofing tiles colored blue, white, and red, like the Croatian flag. On my way back to the car I stopped at a pastry shop to grab a burek, which is a spiral-shaped pastry made of rings of philo dough wrapped around cheese, meat, or spinach. It was incredibly tasty, and I now need to find somewhere that sells them in New York, because they’re a perfect lunch snack.
I drove to my CouchSurfing host’s house on the south side of the river in a large, planned neighborhood. We had some wine and did some bullshitting before driving back downtown to grab dinner. I had asked him what traditional Croatian food was like, so he took me to one of the hillside restaurants in the old city, where we tried octopus stew and beef with plumb sauce, accompanied by a Dalmatian wine from a local grape that I had never heard of before. It was all delicious. Somewhat Mediterranean, somewhat continental.
We strolled through the bar district, where hordes of young people were out enjoying a warm Friday evening. I noticed that most of the tables were occupied by pairs or groups of young men with no women, which I found odd. My host described it as a remnant of the older culture where women stayed home together and the men would go out in groups to socialize and escape the women. Not sure how that facilitates dating, but it was interesting to see either way, and it gave some insight into how traditional the Balkans still are.
My plan for the next day was to drive down to Plitvice National Park—a gorgeous series of waterfalls and emerald-colored lakes and rivers. However, it was raining when I woke up, so I decided to stall my departure so I could meet up with another local CouchSurfer for coffee and some lunch.
We went to a popular cafe inside of a nightclub near the university where students and young people sat at tables drinking coffee and beer, and a DJ blasted dance music. (Interesting for 11am on a Saturday.) We discussed contrasts between Croatian culture and the American lifestyle, why young people from the countryside move to Zagreb for more opportunities, how Croatian food is as mix of Italian, Hungarian, and Ottoman cuisine, and why Slovenians are wrong in the dispute over maritime territory and debts. After coffee we went to a cafeteria across the street in a very communist-looking block of student housing units. The government heavily subsidizes student meals, so using his friend’s ID card I was able to get a full meal of Hungarian meatballs in paprika sauce, green salad, yogurt, mushroom soup, and blueberry juice all for €1.00.
After lunch I hopped back in the car and set off for Plitvice. My first stop along the way was in a town called Karlovac, where I stopped to see an old star-shaped fortress, currently being used as a city center. As I was parking I heard loud music coming from the fortress, and I thought there must be some kind of parade going on. I followed the music and stumbled upon some strange sort of cheerleader festival where tall, young Croatian school girls in brightly-colored skirts and uniforms marched through the center of the square in procession twirling batons and doing acrobatics. I watched for a few minutes with my head cocked like a confused puppy, and I snapped a few pictures, which got me some nasty stares. Who’s that creepy guy taking pictures of the cheerleaders? I left.
The drive towards Plitvice took me through a beautiful, hilly region of the country where tile-roofed villages and small farms dotted the forested slopes on either side of me. Despite the dreary day, it was still quite scenic. Eventually I stumbled upon a town called Slunj, where dozens of tourists were huddled around a platform at the edge of a cliff taking pictures. I figured I’d stop and see what they were so excited about. On the other side of the river was a hill with waterfalls flowing over its edge. An old village straddled the waterfalls. Chutes of water burst forth from underneath cottages and mills. It was a truly beautiful scene. I waked across a bridge to explore the village by foot, but it was mostly closed off to pedestrians.
Finally I reached the national park. However, it was still raining, so instead of paying admission to go explore and camp, as I had planned, I drive to the top of a hill and took in the view from above. The emerald lakes and rivers that flowed through the verdant, misty canyon below reminded me of Semuc Campey in Guatemala. I’ll definitely have to come back here some time on a sunny day.
I stopped by a local market to grab some ingredients for dinner: a bread roll, spicy dried sausage from a nearby farm, smoked soft cheese, and a cucumber. Perfect dinner sandwich. I found a small roadside restaurant that had free wifi, I covered the window of my car with jackets, and I set up camp for the night in the back seat.
Around 1am, after everyone had gone home, a light shone through my window and an old man tapped on the door. I opened it, and he started speaking to me rapidly in Croatian. I asked if he spoke English, and he told me I wouldn’t be able to sleep in my car there, but there was a gas station not far down there road where I could try. I thanked him and drove about a mile, where I found a turnoff for a series of guest houses down a dirt road. I followed rural road for about 15 minutes into the woods where I found a suitably secluded spot to pull over and spend the night. I fell asleep to the sound of rain on my roof and a waterfall flowing down the hill beside me.
The next morning I got some gas for the first time (gotta love European fuel economy), and drove onward towards the border of Bosnia. Although pretty, Croatia had been a bit underwhelming. I hoped the coast would be more interesting when I got to Dubrovnik in a few days. However, my next few days in Bosnia and Hercegovina would turn out to be far more incredible, easily compensating for a rainy trip to central Croatia.
11 May 2013
After the half-liter of wine and enormous lunch in Trieste, I boarded a bus to Ljubljana, Slovenia and immediately passed out. When I woke up I looked out the window, and all the signs were Slavic. “We must be close to the border’” I thought, so I got my passport ready and checked the map on my iPad to see where we were. According to the little blue dot in Google maps, we had already crossed into Slovenia about ten miles back. I panicked. “Had I slept through customs and immigration?? Would I have to go back go the border to get a stamp before I would be able to continue on my trip?” Then I remembered something about Schengen countries and easier border crossings. Slovenia is part of the EU, so that could have been what happened. I chose to ignore my anxiety and assume that everything was alright.
It was a sunny drive through the Slovenian countryside. Our route took us through the foothills of the Alps, where we passed meadows of vibrantly colored grass and yellow wildflowers that met with densely forested hillsides, punctuated with tiny roadside villages whose houses showcased the stereotypical Alpine style of white stucco with dark, wooden balconies and brown tiled roofs. All very modern looking. The highway was immaculate and freshly paved. The drivers all seemed very considerate. A large number of the homes had gardens in their yards, where people were outside enjoying the sunny day, planting new herbs and vegetables. As we rode into Ljubljana, the capital, modern buildings started to appear, clean, European cars filled the roads, and attractive, well-dressed people scurried in and out of public buses on their way home from work and school. So far so good, Slovenia.
While planning my trip, the cheapest car rental I could find was for pick-up and drop-off in Ljubljana. $10 per day for the whole month. Including insurance. Amazing deal. I took a city bus to the rental agency and was greeted by a jovial guy and his supermodel assistant, who walked me through the uncannily pain-free process of picking up the car. They didn’t have the small car I had reserved, so they upgraded me to a Renault Clio for free. Brand new. USB connection for my iPod. (What wold I do without music and podcasts?) There were no additional charges. I love you Slovenia.
With the key card in my pocket (electronic, no actual ignition, very modern), I set off on the Ljubljana highways to meet my CouchSurfing hosts. Admittedly, I should have done some research to make sure I was familiar with European road signs and driving laws, but I was too eager to get on the road, so the next month will certainly be an educational experience. It took me a few minutes to get comfortable driving not only a manual transmission, but a car in general. The last time I drove a car for an extend period of time was my week-long road trip through Chile in 2011. However, since I drive a motorcycle, the manual transmission part was no problem. Same concept, different hand/foot configuration. It’s the car part I’ll need to get used to again.
I pulled into my hosts’ apartment complex and parked in one of the most chaotic parking lots I’ve seen. The spaces were incredibly small, which I guess was appropriate for the small European cars, but there also weren’t enough spots for everyone, so people were very creative with how they parked. The curb was fair game, as were the medians, and the middle of the road for that matter. Whatever works.
One of my hosts, Matjaz, buzzed me in to the building, and I met him upstairs at the apartment. I put down my bags, and we sat out on the balcony that overlooked suburban Ljubljana in one direction, another tall apartment building directly ahead, and the Julian Alps to the right. Stunning view. We sat outside while he smoked a cigarette, and we chatted all about life in Slovenia, food, and Balkan politics. Matjaz’s partner Primoz was out at the community garden at the moment, and Matjaz confirmed my suspicion that gardening is a fairly common activity in Slovenia. The climate seemed perfect for herbs, fruits, and vegetables, so I wasn’t surprised.
In addition to gardening, Slovenia also has a fairly strong tradition of gathering wild herbs and berries for culinary and medicinal purposes, which dates back to the original Slavic inhabitants of this mountainous spot on the sunny side of the Alps, where useful wild plants were abundant and varied. In following with this tradition, Matjaz had a hobby of infusing locally-made plum and apple schnapps with wild herbs, roots, berries, and pine cones that he had collected from the countryside. We proceeded to sample his handiwork. Half way through our 8th or 9th sample, Primoz came home, joined us for a few more samples, and then went to the kitchen to make us an incredible dinner of spaghetti and pickled beets. Matjaz opened a bottle of Slovenian red wine from 1992, which had, needless to say, mellowed to the point that it was almost like water. Not bad though. After dinner, Primoz prepared some traditional Slovenian cheese dumplings for dessert that his grandmother had made for him. Delicious.
After sleeping in the next morning (and trying to cope with my jet lag), I took a map and all of Matjaz’s recommendations to go explore downtown Ljubljana. It was a warm, sunny day, and the city center was absolutely gorgeous. The major cultural influences on Slovenia come from the series of occupations the country has undergone: Venetian/Italian, Austro-Hungarian, Yugoslavian, etc. The architecture of Ljubljana pays homage to many of these influences, but the Hapsburg style was most prominent, with ornate, colorful facades lining long, wide, cobblestone boulevards. I explored the Tivoli garden, which provides a huge swath of green space to the downtown core, and I walked to the old city, which comprises a small strip of colorful buildings with red tiled roofs lining the banks of a central river, crossed by a series of ornate bridges, all beneath the shadow of a castle that lies on a tall cliff above the town.
Later in the afternoon I met up with another local CouchSurfer named Luka, who offered to tell me all about Slovenia and hiking in Triglav National Park. We sampled the countries two domestic beers, while sitting in a busy outdoor bar in a plaza along the river. All around us were young people spending their Thursday evening in the exact same way. They were all incredibly attractive. Seriously. The people in this country should all be models. We talked about Slovenia’s dislike for neighboring Croatia, which has complex and ancient roots, but is most recently manifested through a maritime border dispute and something about debt obligations and Croatia’s impending entry to the European Union. Sounded complicated and petty. I’m still a good number of conversations away from truly understanding the conflicts of the Balkans.
After beer, I went to a traditional Slovenian restaurant that Matjaz had recommended to me, and I ordered a feast of typical food from the eastern part of the country. I started with a flavorful onion, pork, and turnip soup, continued with an outrageously good disk of pork medallions and salted prosciutto with mashed potato dumplings, covered in a sweet and salty cream sauce, and a regional dessert cake of walnuts, apples, and poppyseeds called gibanice, all washed down with a local red Cviček wine. Stuffed to the point of near-combustion, I went back to the apartment and passed out.
My plan for the next morning was to make the quick, 1 hour trip via highway to Zagreb, Croatia, explore the city all day, and then meet up with my next host in time for dinner. However, Matjaz made a much better recommendation. Knowing that I study energy, he recommended a non-highway route through the mountains that would bring my past a number of major sites that are vital for the Slovenian energy system. Coal mines, a nuclear plant, and hydroelectric dams, all within a small valley between Ljubljana and Zagreb.
I took his advice and left town on the highway, quickly exiting onto the rural route that would take me through the mountains. Starting my road trip and heading into the countryside, I felt the same wave of exhilaration that I had felt when I started my cross-county motorcycle trip in 2009. It was just me, my car, and the exciting uncertainty of what lie ahead. There’s nothing quite like a solo road trip through a completely foreign land to remind you that “if you can do this, you can do anything.” I think we could all use experiences like that to motivate us from time to time.
As I was sitting on the side of the road looking at a map that I had pre-loaded on my iPad, I started fidgeting with the panel display in the console of the car, only to discover that the GPS I had intentionally not ordered was fully functioning! And it worked for all the Balkan countries! I loaded my first destination, put on a JP Morgan investments podcast, and set off down the road, following the instructions of my lovely British GPS guide through lush farmland, towards the rolling hills of eastern Slovenia.
At one point, she instructed me to turn left off the main road onto what looked like a tiny driveway in a little village. I took her suggestion. The one-lane “driveway” quickly curved around the back of a house and then steeply ascended through a dense forest. To the right I could see down through a clearing onto the river valley below. The water had a calming, blue-green hue, and the traditional farmhouses looked incredibly picturesque set against the backdrop of the verdant mountains. Unlike my preconceived concept of the Alps as a fairly open landscape dominated by pastureland and minimal vegetation, this reminded me more of the tropical Andes. I suppose they get a lot more of the Mediterranean rain that the Austrian counterpart, but that I will explore later in the trip.
After climbing through the forest, the road wound through a series of bucolic villages. These ones were much less modern looking than the ones I had seen two days before, but they were far more charming. The narrow cobblestone road toured through these clusters of farmhouses while old men curiously watched the unknown passerby drive through, children helped their parents in small farm plots, and rowdy teenagers with urban European haircuts blasted techno music from their open car windows. Interesting blend of ancient and modern, but it all seemed tasteful.
Tight switchbacks took me up and down the mountainous terrain, passing hilltop churches and vistas of agricultural patchwork along slopes in the distance. I passed through the mining towns that Matjaz had told me about, noticing that the aging infrastructure clearly made up the majority of the towns’ economies, though Matjaz had said times were changing quickly, and coal was no longer as important in Slovenia.
I stopped at a small restaurant that my friends had recommended in a village near to where Primoz had grown up. I was served Hungarian-inspired beef goulash with polenta and orange juice—a delicious accompaniment to my view from the outdoor patio onto the tranquil sunny mountainside pastures.
The road finally descend to a wide valley where I passed a series of castle-topped outcroppings and, finally, a large hydroelectric dam. I once again joined the major highway that connects Ljubljana to Zagreb, and I pushed forward towards the border. Knowing that I was technically leaving the Schengen zone, I gathered my documents and anxiously anticipated what could potentially be a complicated situation. I didn’t know whether I would be easy for me to take the rental car across the border or if I had all the necessary documents. Also, I knew that tolls would be payable in Croatian kuna, but I hoped that my euros would suffice. I pulled up to the customs agent’s window and handed her my passport. She quickly looked at it while she continued chatting with her coworker, haphazardly threw down a stamp, handed it back, and I continued on my way. Welcome to Croatia!
Even though my visit to Slovenia was brief, I left with utmost admiration for the little slice of heaven in the eastern Alps. The people are gorgeous, well educated, warm and welcoming polyglots, and I’m fairly sure that they are just as unaware of how spectacularly unique their diverse country is as are most Americans, who probably can’t even find Slovenia in a map, let alone differentiate it from Slovakia. If you have any interest in visiting a place where you can be skiing in the alps, sipping a latte in a castle on a sunny spring day, and then swimming on the Adriatic coast, all within a two-hour drive, then I highly recommend Slovenia.