Sunday, October 26, 2014

Adriatic Tour–Slovenian Honey

For you thrill seekers this stop may be three zzz’s rather three stars, but I really enjoy learning about and sampling local produce.  In this instance, it was honey.  We gave it three thumbs up. 

IMG_3067We stopped in our tour guide’s small village near Lake Bled (will describe Tina, her home and family in a future post—she is amazing) to view an ancient beehive and give some locally produced honey a taste test.  The art of beekeeping was perfected in the mid-1700’s by a Slovenian farmer and Slovenia has been known for their honey ever since.

IMG_3069The beehives look similar to a post office wall of post boxes, but made of wood painted with different colorful medieval style art on each “box”.  Each painted panel helps distinguish each hive.  Honey samples included a floral and a pine base.  Wow.  Extreme flavor in a good way.  Reproductions of the beehive panel art are sold in Lake Bled and Ljubljana, but like a fool I forgot to purchase.  Arggh! 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Adriatic Tour–Lake Bled, Slovenia

Some times the stars line up.  All summer the rains have plagued the Balkan Peninsula, but we arrive, the clouds part and the skies clear.  Yes, it is good to be us!  And we could not be happier with the weather especially for our visit to Lake Bled (pronounced blayd).  Our stop after Ljubljana. 

IMG_3057Against the blue skies the Julian Alps loom large over the crystal clear blue water of the lake.   It just is not enough for this to be a stunningly beautiful lake, but add an island with a Venetian style church (bell tower included).  The usual method to visit the church is by Pletna boats.  Made by hand with a special design passed from father to son.  The family-owned boats have been visiting the island since the 17th century.  We elected to walk 3.5 miles around the lake rather than take a boat to the island.  But one of our tour members took the boat ride and fell in love with the oarsman.  She described his silver-streaked dark, thick wavy hair, tanned craggy face and his stories of generations rowing to the island.  Of course, she said,  “he was impressively fit from all that rowing –all muscle”.  At the end of our tour, she said this was her “wow” moment of the whole trip.  Maybe I should have taken the boat…

IMG_3051Lake Bled also boasts a 1,000 year-old castle high on a cliff overlooking the lake.  The castle is thoughtfully restored both inside and the outdoor courtyard.  Although you can hike to the castle, our tour bus made the stop (thank you for small favors—what a climb!).  With only 28 people (all very fit) on the tour, we could easily climb the narrow stone stairways to enjoy the vistas.

The only downside to our visit to Lake Bled was the lack of time.  I could easily spend a few days here and we were limited to four hours.  Along our walk we saw Tito’s vacation home (open to the public) from a distance and many of the older 19th century villas—simply did not have the time to tour inside (you can send an e-mail from Tito’s personal desk—what a hoot!).  Our walk did include a friendly visit with local artist, Bobi.  His watercolors were extremely affordable and after purchasing one, he quickly painted a shadow painting of himself and me on the back!  I am torn on which side to display.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Adriatic Tour–Ljubljana, Slovenia

Slovenia is a small country (just over 2 million) south of Austria, Italy to the west, and Hungary to the east.  Unknown to most; in fact, when I called the credit card company to let them know I would be traveling to France, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Netherlands, they asked “Is Slovenia a city?”  No.  It is not. 

IMG_0195IMG_0162Our first stop on the trip was the lovely city of Ljubljana in Slovenia.  I am not a fan of cities, but this is one I would gladly return to.  Around 200,000 population, the place feels like a small and quaint village.  The inner city has blocks and blocks closed permanently to cars.  Only allowing pedestrians and bicycles.  The streets are all cobblestone.   A 2,000 year-old (restored beautifully) castle complete with prison/dungeon up on the hill looking out over the city.  The old medieval village surrounds the base of the castle hill, and across the river (multiple pedestrian bridges get you across) the “new” old town has Austrian-style homes built in the 1800’s.  The homes have since been turned into businesses or part of the university.  The alleys are clean and usually lined with potted plants!  Picture on the right is actually the alley behind our small hotel (there are many, many more just like it).

IMG_0160IMG_0140The city is absolutely spotless.  Shopkeepers sweep and scrub in front of their business every morning, locals walking about will pick up any trash they see and toss in the containers, and cheery laundry is hung out to dry.  We are told none of the Slovenes owns a dryer—preferring to save the indoor space, cost and liking the smell of fresh outdoors.   Colorful flowers in window boxes are everywhere.

No where have we encountered a city this crime-free.  Never heard a siren.  The biggest crime is a bicycle theft now and then.  Maybe a pickpocket (we never had a problem).  How relaxing it was to stroll about without fear and simply enjoy the ambiance of an old European town.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Adriatic Tour–Is it Safe?

adr14Before I begin describing my recent trip, maybe I should address the “elephant in the room” or the question everyone seems to ask about this part of Eastern Europe, “Are you sure it is safe to travel there?”  Almost immediately after I announced I would be traveling on the Rick Steve’s Adriatic Tour of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, I received a lot of messages concerned about the safety of the area.  Although the war occurring after the breakup of Yugoslavia was over 20 years ago, everyone still hears about the atrocities. 

I can tell you that the journey was safe.  In fact, the cities and surrounding areas of Slovenia and Croatia are now safer than most of the United States.   A few pickpockets may appear now and then (we did not encounter any) and fans of the local soccer team may get a little out of hand in Split, but there was/is no violent crime.  You can walk about at 3 a.m. in Ljubljana (city of approximately 200,000) without any fear.  Certainly cannot claim that about Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle—any time of day.

Although we were not in any danger, the tension of the previous war still exists in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  To say the country is struggling politically is a huge understatement.  The schools are segregated between ethnic groups (how can the people get past this if the kids are taught to hate).  Slovenia and Croatia are fairly homogeneous (majority of  Slovenes in Slovenia and Croats in Croatia), but Bosnia and Herzegovina (one country—two names) are divided between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. 

I am obviously not a historian or an expert on the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina—all I can go on are the stories told by local people.  And they often brought me to tears.  One young man who had to bury his father on a hillside at night to avoid snipers.  A woman slightly younger than me who had to survive hunger and avoid the bombing in Mostar that went on for years.  It is safe for tourists to visit the ancient city of Mostar and most of this country, but it is a sad place.  The tour only included one night in Bosnia and Herzegovina which emotionally was enough.

Overall, I say you must visit.  It is safe.  It will not stay untarnished long.  The locations are like going back in time.  Looking forward to describing each place and our experiences.  And I believe the elephant is now officially out of room.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Adriatic Tour

My friend, Wanda, and I are back from our three-week Adriatic Tour with Rick Steves Travel (headquartered in Edmonds, Washington, about 40 miles from home).  (Technically, the tour was 14 days, but we added several days before and after.)  This was my first European trip and it did not disappoint.  On the last night of our Rick Steves group gathering, we were asked to share our favorite ‘wow’ moment of the trip.  I have always dreamed of sitting in the quintessential European outdoor cafĂ© with a glass of wine surrounded by stone buildings built hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.  It happened.  The little cafes exist everywhere and the oldest of the old buildings are everywhere.  It was overwhelming and I sat in awe of the sights every day.

Adriatic_Tour_GroupWe had an energetic, fun group of 28 on the tour.  And our tour guide, Tina, was better than the best.  Several on the tour have been on over a dozen Rick Steves tours and they stated Tina was their best guide ever.  (Picture of our group on the left—Tina is the redhead in the middle.)  Tina asked why I chose this part of Europe for my first experience.  We heard over and over that this part of the world was relatively untouched by visitors, but with all the positives of Europe.  It was exactly as described.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will post experiences we had in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Tina shared with us that visitors around the world have different objectives when traveling, but she said Americans, for the most part, set out to learn and absorb knowledge.  That is exactly what I had in mind for this journey and my understanding of the Balkan Peninsula has broadened significantly.  In fact, in hindsight,  I really knew nothing at all.

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