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A Tale of Two (Walled) Cities: Final Notes

Fish Restaurant Proto is a Michelin recommended restaurant, and so we set our expectations accordingly. Our reservation was indeed excellent; the perimeter of the roof terrace offered banquette seating and we had a corner table, ideal for intimate conversation as well as restaurant-goer watching.

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A Tale of Two (Walled) Cities: Lokrum Island

Dubrovnik promotes a, “Three Island Day Trip” that piqued our interest, until we realized that we would return with about one hour to present for our dinner reservation at Proto, the city’s famed, two-star Michelin restaurant. After a 30º day out on the water…let’s just say I would need more than an hour to achieve presentable.

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A Tale of Two (Walled) Cities: Kotor

Spoiler. Dubrovnik was dreamy, and Kotor was captivating. We’ll never take sides.

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A Tale of Two (Walled) Cities: Dubrovnik

With Anna under self-imposed house arrest preparing for final exams and Jack perfectly willing to do nothing for four days, we left CTF in charge and Bombadier-propped to Dubrovnik and Montenegro for the recent long holiday weekend.

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Idyllic Adriatic, Finale. Slovenia’s Seashore

The Republic of Slovenia was the first to close their borders and declare independence from Yugoslavia. After 10 days of fighting, Slovenia became its own country in 1991. Now you know.  Nearly the size of the U.S. state New Jersey, Slovenia’s riviera is the smallest of the former Yugoslav states at just 46,6 km. Now you know that, as well.

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Idyllic Adriatic, Act II. Italy and Umag

Waking each morning to the sunrise was luxurious.

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Idyllic Adriatic, Act I. From Snow to Sunshine

Mother Nature messed with Vienna terribly last week. The calendar may have read, “AIS Spring Break,” but she was having none of that malarky.

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The Balkan-Central European Holiday: Zagreb to Sarajevo

In a word: wretched.

The rail infrastructure in the former Yugoslavia is not exactly at the level of DeutscheBahn or ÖBB or Thalys. Or even the 20thcentury.  I had read that in early 2012 Bosnia was supposed to replace their old train cars with modern ones, but I can assure you that has not happened.

As you will discover, these photos were taken before our departure.

Hahahahahahahaha.

Nor do I think Bosnia should replace these trains.  The majority of the passengers on the train with us from Zagreb to Sarajevo do not deserve decent rail transportation.  The smokers (who disregard the “no smoking” signs) feel perfectly within their right to light up wherever and whenever, even going so far as to stub out their cigarettes on the metal window sills before tossing the butts out of the window.  Trash, including whole bags of rubbish, was tossed out the window to litter the countryside.  Raucous children come aboard at various intervals begging for money, as well.

Some of the rail personnel do not deserve their jobs, either.  The cars lack AC, naturally, but with all the windows open a pleasant cross breeze helped keep spirits up.  Nearly all of the windows needed to be propped open; and a nice fellow passenger showed us how to use a partially full water bottle (a precious commodity on the train, as there is no restaurant car, trolley cart, or potable water) to prop open the window outside our compartment.   With about 3 hours remaining on our long 9 hour ride, though, the assclown ticket checker (who chided us for having our shoeless feet propped up on the seats but said nothing to the smokers) came through the car, tossing all water bottle window props out and slamming the windows shut. I gave him my best “WTH?,” to which he retorted something in his best (or worst) Bosnian, but what was done was done. A precious water bottle wasted, and windows closed on another 36°C day.  Tears formed in Anna Grace’s eyes, but my fearless co-traveler hung in there.

 

 

Some stations were so rural that passengers not only were deposited on the tracks, but had to climb over other trains to reach their destination.
Waiting for the document inspection to finish at the Bosnian border. It was a little unnerving to hand over our passports and resident cards to the immigration officer, but he was very polite to us when he returned them.

Not all stations had Roman translations, so we didn’t always know where we were.

One of many makeshift post-war cemeteries along our route. There seemed to be one for every village we passed, with more and more of them appearing the closer we transited toward Sarajevo.

Watching the once-daily train roll past rural stations seemed to be a popular pastime.

All of the Bosnian haystacks were shaped like this. They looked like little hairy gnomes to us.

Relaxing in rural Bosnia.

Despite the novelty of the scenery, we were dirty, tired, and hungry, and could not get off the train fast enough in Sarajevo. The owner of the guest house where we were staying advised us to tell the taxi driver to turn on the meter, so he would know that he could not overcharge us.  (I had that sentence printed (in Bosnian) with the guest house address and showed it to the driver.) We had to stop at a Bankomat along the way (no cash stations at the train station); when we reached our lodging the taxi driver claimed he did not have change for the 50Km note I handed him, so Valida, the proprietor, sent him off to get change, telling us, “He will come back. I know his sister.”

The grit and grime of our cattle-class journey disappeared instantly at Guest House Halvat. A small house with only five rooms, but bursting with hospitality, cheerfulness, and everything else that makes a holiday memorable.

With the afternoon light fading and our rumbling tummies growing louder, Anna Grace and I splashed water on our faces and made haste to the old city market and the first restaurant with an outdoor table.  There was, thankfully, an English menu, and the kind diners at the adjacent table helped us out (though Sarajevo is known for its hospitality, it was probably my pointing at the woman’s dish that prompted her to help). Soon our table was filled with cevapi, pita, kebab, fresh salad, and icy cold mineral water and Fanta. No wine to be found, as I suspected.

Our table was in a prime people-watching location, and between bites of savory kebab and soft pita, we watched women wearing headscarves in all colors of the pantone set breeze by, most looking cool and comfortable in spite of the head-to-toe coverings (how do they stay so cool? we wondered.); while other young women tottered across the cobblestones in mini skirts and maxi heels.  Young children chased pigeons by the fountains, tourists who looked like we (albeit a little less wilted) strolled past and snapped photos this way and that, and before long we heard the first of many calls to prayer. Our few glimpses of this vibrant city were as restorative as the food, and we were excited to call Sarajevo home for a few days.

The Balkan-Central European Holiday: Old Zagreb and Suburban America

At breakfast there were no ice cubes, only the customary European start to the day of meats, cheeses, breads, yogurt and museli.  No complaints from us.

I inquired again about the AC, and this time the clerk sent a service person to our room. What do you know? The AC actually needed maintenance! By the time we left to start our day, the room was cooling nicely.

The plan was to tour Old Zagreb and New Zagreb on a bicycle, and with a guide. Logically, I would have toured Old Zagreb first, but our guide seemed most proud of New Zagreb so we toured in reverse chronological order.

A sidenote on the title. Our bicycle guide informed us that Croatia is “Central Europe,” and definitely not part of the Balkans. Old dislikes for neighboring countries die hard, I guess. Corrections to our perceptions of geography, local foods, and pretty much everything else will be a recurring theme on this trip…

To get to New Zagreb we passed through an unusual area, one that was developed piecemeal, in and around the small villages and other failed and abandoned efforts. Our guide said the area epitomizes Zagreb—no one has any plans.

New Zagreb resembles suburban America: wide boulevards, square, glass modern buildings, shopping malls, and even an artificial lake. The city sprawls across the Sava, although little more than a dirt path invites people to walk along the river.   After September 11, 2001, the US moved its embassy out from Old Zagreb to just beyond New Zagreb, and a whole service sector has grown around it. Our guide seemed pleased that people were now driving in both directions, from Old to New and vice versa, for work, even thought this new development meant traffic and pollution.

 

 

 

Cycling back across the Sava into Old Zagreb, we found Old Zagreb a challenge to cycle in (lack of bicycle lanes and no lack of crazy drivers) and asked to cancel the tour.  Our guide was most gracious and agreed, citing the lack of bicycle lanes as another data point for her thesis that Zagreb has no plans.

By this time the 36°C temperature and equally high humidity had wilted us, so we had a quick bite at Good Food for Good People.  The small but very new restaurant had a large crowd on the day we visited, with most ordering the “Good Food Burger.”  We followed suit and agreed that the food was good.  It’s always fun to see how other countries interpret American food, too; Anna Grace ordered the barbecue burger, and it came with cheese, bacon and mushrooms.

In the late afternoon we braved the steamy air to walk through the Old City and most enjoyed ourselves. We were actually more impressed with Old Zagreb, a smaller scale version of Vienna than Suburban America New Zagreb. Our bicycle guide had complained about this, as well; that Zagreb, once part of the former Habsburg monarchy, spends too much time trying to be like Vienna. (I did not have the heart to tell our guide that her beloved shopping mall (and all shopping malls) was actually the brainchild of an Austrian.)

Trg bana Josipa Jelacica (Main Square). Under Tito’s Yugoslavia this was renamed Trg Republika (Republic Square) because, of course, Josipa Jelacica was deemed to be too much of a Croatian nationalist.

 

Under the heat of the canopies, the market in the square smelled like a gigantic smokehouse!

Trash collection via bicycle. Not very Vienna-like, where trash trucks can block the narrow streets for quite some time.

Nikola Tesla. Born in Croatia, but considered a Serbian-American. A touchy subject with our bicycle guide.

Art Nouveau a la Vienna.

Trg Marsala Tito (Marhall Tito Square) and the National Theater.
How funny is this?  On our full day in Zagreb, Austria was welcoming Croatia to the EU with an afternoon of “all things Austrian,” including a strings performance outside of Cafe Austria.

 

Nuns were everywhere in Zagreb.
This nun at the old city gate had just finished scolding the panhandler. Not for panhandling, but for smoking while panhandling!

A small artist alley at the top of Zagreb. Unable to answer the question, “however will we get this painting home?” we did not purchase the next great masterpiece.

 

Definitely a museum we have never seen before, its holdings a collection of castoffs by former lovers. We were a little suspicious of the premise.

St. Mark’s Church.
Zagreb’s Basilica. It took us almost the entire day to find a major structure in this European city under restoration. We were starting to worry.

Old-school street lights.

Postcards from Zagreb.

 

 

Not certain how widely available wine would be as we move into Muslim countries further along on our trip, I made the effort to savor a crisp Croatian white every day.  Zbogom, Zagreb!

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