To Hvar Island

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Split to Hvar

Split to Hvar

WHO KNEW? This hard-for-an-English-speaker-to-pronounce island is a hidden gem! Travel and Lesiure Magazine voted Hvar one of the “Top Ten Islands in the World.” And, of course, they’re right.

Harbor Panorama

Harbor Panorama

(click any photo to enlarge)

Fortress Island View

Fortress Island View

HVAR HAS IT ALL—beauty (rugged, natural, and cultivated), sunshine, hospitality, history, the turquoise Adriatic, rugged mountains, lavender, remoteness, great food and accommodations—and it’s not on most American tourists’ maps yet. What’s not to love?

Fortress Panorama 2

Fortress Panorama 2

Seaside Monastery

Seaside Monastery

Hvar Island was an independent commune in the Venetian Empire from the 13th through 18th centuries, and an important naval port with a harbor protected by a string of nearby barrier islands. By the mid-19th century, with the Venetian fleet gone, Hvar had re-oriented itself towards the tourist trade, with an early tourist board, “The Hygienic Association of Hvar,” dedicated to taking good care of visitors to this suburb of paradise.

Our Hotel

Our Hotel

OUR HOTEL is right on the harbor, and the paved, undulating “boardwalk” runs from here past an extended array of parks; resorts large and small; rugged, rocky swimming spots (pack your surf shoes; there are lots of spiny sea urchins to step around); and compact, sandy resort beaches. In the other direction is Hvar town, which rises from the harbor to ascend the mountain topped by the Spanish fort (the architects were Spanish), “Spanjola,” which rewards a walker with a panoramic, bird’s-eye view of the town, the harbor, the nearby islands, and the sea beyond. For a few days, this is our paradise.

Hvar Hills Panorama

Hvar Hills Panorama

Hvar is not the only Croatian location whose name begins with that rough “Ch” sound: the country, to its natives, is called Hravatska, or “Chruh-VAT-skuh.” The initial sound is rather like clearing your throat, and evokes the following musical reaction:

HRAVATSKA!
(To the tune of “Maria,” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story)

(please do click and enlarge the photo on the right!)

Dalmatian Coastline

Dalmatian Coastline

Hra-VAT-ska! I’ve come to a place called Chruh-VAT-skuh!
And suddenly, I’ve found how mis-pro-nounced a sound can be!
Hra-vat-ska! Say it soft, it’s a purring kitten;
Say it LOUD, it’s as if you’ll be spittin’;
I’ll betcha can’t say it: “Hra-VAT-ska!”

That’s not meant to be distrespectful; Croatia is a strikingly beautiful country with wonderfully hospitable people and a lovely language. It’s just hard for us Yanks to pronounce, that’s all.

Coastal Route

Coastal Route

TO GET HERE from Dubrovnik, we motor up into the mountains above and to the North of the city. From that height, we follow the Dalmatian coastal highway Northward, between high, rugged mountains and the sheltered, coastal waterway created between the mainland and Croatia’s many barrier islands. It is stunning! The mountains rise straight out of the sea and vault high enough to isolate the inland climate from the coastal climate. Villages, towns, and cities cling to what little coastal plain there is, and to the foothills or mountains themselves.

Croatia's Breadbasket

Croatia’s Breadbasket

A well-watered, fertile plain stretches before us, once we’ve ventured inland. This is Croatia’s breadbasket. and looks as if it could feed an entire country or two. Motoring through this ample proof that the rugged, coastal mountains hide highly arable land, we head back towards the coast.

Neum, Bosnia

Neum, Bosnia

WE NOW PASS through a coastal stretch of Bosnia and Herzegovina around Neum, and then back into Croatia. This stretch of inland waterway holds acres and acres of pilings and buoys marking oyster beds. It’s reminiscent of the lobster buoys that dot the rocky Maine coast back home.

Split Ferry Port

Split Ferry Port

Before long, we reach Split, Croatia’s second-largest city, and the site of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s ancient retirement palace. We will save a tour of this UNESCO World Heritage site for another day; Split is also the seaport where we will board the ferry for Hvar Island, our next destination.

Inside Diocletian's Palace

Inside Diocletian’s Palace

Looking for an ATM, I stroll into the palace (does this sound like a Danny Kaye movie?), the skeleton of which has evolved over the centuries into a village or, perhaps, a borough of Split. I can see that we’re in for a substantial treat when we return from Hvar to tour the digs of the only Roman emperor ever to have RETIRED.

Split Panorama

Split Panorama

The two-hour ferry ride around Brac Island—known for its high-quality marble quarries—to Hvar affords us a panoramic view of Split and the surrounding Dalmatian coast, with its rugged, imposing mountains.

Coach on Ferry

Coach on Ferry

Starry Grad

Starry Grad

OUR SHELTERED HARBOR at the other end of the ferry run is Stari Grad, a short drive from Hvar Town, the island’s center of tourist attention. The drive there is spectacular, along more, narrower, coastal roads, switching back and forth along the rugged mountainsides. One has never seen so many stones—but that’s a story for later. Some of the hillsides and valleys wear a violet tint; that’s lavender—a sprig of it sprouted long ago on the island, sprung from some wind-blown seed, and, when identified, sprouted a new island industry.

Hotel Room

Hotel Room

Our hotel, the Adriana, sits on the edge of the town’s central marina. Our room is a marvel of space-efficiency worthy of one of those IKEA displays that demonstrates just how much can be done with 250 square feet. Within no more than that much space, our room tastefully packs all of the needed amenities, provides a door to a small balcony looking across a courtyard to the harbor, and leaves enough space for an ample kitchenette, if the hotel ever should be converted into condo-ettes.

A Top Ten Island

A Top Ten Island

A Winning Combination

A Winning Combination

Hvar Town

Hvar Town

A few floors above is an entrance to the hotel’s spa and a restaurant and cocktail lounge overlooking the marina, Hvar Town, and the surrounding hills. An sign across the marina reinforces what we already instinctively know—that Hvar, a name we’ve not yet heard from American lips, has to be one of the most fetching, charming islands in the world. Where else will you find ads that feature “Apartments & Diving” in the same breath? There’s even a Slow Food restaurant—a fitting and welcome thought.

Hvar "Boardwalk"

Hvar “Boardwalk”

WHILE OTHERS NAP, I take to the undulating stone walkway that follows the coast and stroll to the west-northwest, past a nearby park and then past numerous resorts, small and large, with their short stretches of sandy beach superimposed on the rocky coastline. The tourist season is on, and plenty of vacationers have come, but nowhere does it seem crowded or thronged. It’s peaceful and quiet; and the sun and salt air are very, very pleasant.

Hvar Town Marina

Hvar Town Marina

Returning to a rocky outcropping not far from our hotel and just off the marina, I stride out across the rugged rocks to a place where I can drop into the waters of the Adriatic, stepping around the spiny sea urchins that have anchored themselves to the submerged rocks in no small numbers. The Adriatic, which will stay warm into October, is still cool in early June, and wonderfully refreshing. The hot sun and welcome breeze dry me off before long once I have climbed out.

Hvar Common Theater

Hvar Common Theater

ONE OF OUR ORGANIZED EXCURSIONS takes us around Hvar Town, past the theater built in 1612—one of Europe’s oldest, and its first public theater, a democratic institution well before its time, which brought all social classes together through common access to the theater and its events.

Last Supper

Last Supper

Monastery Prohibitions

Monastery Prohibitions

Monastery Lamp

Monastery Lamp

The Franciscan Monastery, with its garden overlooking the harbor, houses a painting of the Last Supper created out of gratitude by a talented sailor who was left by a ship’s crew at Hvar to die of an illness. While other townspeople shut their doors in his face, the Franciscans welcomed him and nurtured him back to health. The grateful painter portrayed himself as a poor man lying on the floor in the lower right of his painting.

Stari Grad Streets

Stari Grad Streets

Historic Stari Grad

Historic Stari Grad

ANOTHER EXCURSION takes us through Hvar’s mountainous terrain back to Stari Grad, for a historical tour. Our guide is a young mother who not long ago decided, with her husband, to return to Hvar after earning Master’s degrees and working in professional jobs on the mainland. The pull of this gorgeous terrain was overwhelming, trumping the economic advantages of their professional careers. In addition to his job and her guiding, they both work a plot of family land, which they cleared of the ubiquitous, small stones that cover every square foot of the island, with their own hands.

Hand-cleared Fields

Hand-cleared Fields

Hives & dry walls

Hives & dry walls

As we pass through the countryside, we see the endless lines of drywalls created out of these stones, subdividing the mountain fields into a massive scrabble board of olive orchards, vineyards, and garden plots. Lavender colors portions of hillsides and valleys like violet fuzz rippling in the wind. In part, this couple returned out of respect for the early settlers of the island—including their own families—who eked out a living from this soil by painstakingly clearing the stones from any plot that would, by their sweat, become arable and productive.

Stari Grad Archeology

Stari Grad Archeology

STARI GRAD means, simply, “Old Town,” and this is Croatia’s oldest town — dating back to 384 BC, when it was called Pharos by its Greek founders. Alexander the Great’s famous tutor Aristotle is said to have been born that same year. The Romans called it Pharia. When the Slavs colonized it during the Middle Ages, they re-tongued it as Far, or Huarr. The current Hvar is just another half-phoneme to the right…

Wall Remnant

Wall Remnant

Uphill to Fortress

Uphill to Fortress

WHILE SOME OF OUR PARTY NAP or kick back at the hotel on a bright afternoon, I climb the hill above Hvar Town to Spanjola, the stone fort that overlooks the town and port. A series of resotrations have brought the fortress to its current sound appearance. A lightning bolt touched off a massive explosion in its powder room (that’s gunpowder, not nose powder) in 1579, apparently damaging other buildings below to the extent that many of the local municipal structures date from the years of reconstruction after the big bang.

Harbor from Fortress

Harbor from Fortress

The view from the fortress is stunning—particularly on such a sunny, cloudless, summer day.

Portal in Fortress

Portal in Fortress

DO STEAL AWAY for at least a few days here before the rest of the world discovers Hvar, and it comes to the terminal state Yogi Berra once described: “Nobody goes there any more; it’s too crowded!”

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(click on any image below to begin a slide show)

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Dubrovnik

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Old Walled Dubrovnik

Old Walled Dubrovnik

(click any photo to enlarge; see gallery, below)

Sea Wall Panorama

Sea Wall Panorama

WHERE HAVE I BEEN? you ask. Why haven’t I heard more about Dubrovnik? Do they call it by another name? (Yes, actually; it used to go by Ragusa—its Italian name). Maybe Croatians have just been keeping it to themselves? But the place has been catching on as a destination; CNNGo calls Dubrovnik one of the Ten Best Medieval Walled Cities in the World.

Floating City outside Dubrovnik

Floating City outside Dubrovnik

A few days in Dubrovnik show that Europeans and Asians know Dubrovnik’s charms, and they are here. Not a few cruise ships call at the new port in New Dubrovnik, and we even see one between the mainland and the Island of Lokrum, which shields the Old City’s harbor from nearby—parked in a space that seems too narrow for the megaship even to turn around.

Old Dubrovnik Map

Old Dubrovnik Map

But American tourists are in relatively short supply here, and it’s surely a result of the 1990s Balkan War, which Americans never have understood well. Dubrovnik was heavily shelled from the mountain above it—a position Napoleon’s army once held—by the Serbs and Montenegrins of the Yugoslav Army after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. The city, which had been de-militarized since 1970 for the protection of its UNESCO World Heritage-designated treasures, suffered heavy damage. Our historic hotel was set afire, and most buildings, including those of the historic Old City, suffered damage. As the city held no military significance, the attack on it was meant solely to demoralize its inhabitants—and all Croatia into capitulation—an option they refused to entertain. It took over fifteen years of hard work and UNESCO support after hostilities ceased to repair the damage and welcome tourists back.

City Walls at Night

City Walls at Night

Dubrovnik resembles Venice in its historical position and development. Like Venice, it drew its wealth from world trade, and like Venice, it prospered as an independent republic among rival empires. Like Venice, its geographic position and fortifications had much to do with its wealth and independence. For Venice, the sea itself was its walls; at Dubrovnik, its stone walls—as thick as 23 feet—were teamed with the sea for the city’s defense.

Entrance, from Drained Moat

Entrance, from Drained Moat

The moat that once supplemented Dubrovnik’s landward walls was long since drained, and now holds a fountain, gardens, and a kayak-rental concession, while sporting a permanent entrance bridge where a drawbridge once spanned it. Dubrovnik never equaled the Venetian palaces and churches for sheer opulence, but it resisted Venetian domination and rivaled as a maritime power it from its perch on the Eastern Adriatic coast.

Dubrovnik Museum & Clock Tower

Dubrovnik Museum & Clock Tower

Two rival theories posit Dubrovnik’s origins as an ancient Greek colony and maritime way station on the one hand, or as a settlement of survivors from the Roman town of Epidaurum (nearby modern Cavtat), after its destruction by 7th Century Slav and Avar invaders. Ragusa, as it was then called, grew into a power on the Dalmatian coast and prospered through Mediterranean trade. When the forces of the Fourth Crusade invaded Dalmatia, Venice took Ragusa under its shadow in 1205 and transferred some of its aristocratic republican DNA to its junior partner. By 1358, Ragusa had grown strong enough to shake off Venetian control and ally itself with Hungary as a largely independent vassal, continuing its expansion into the 15th Century.

1667 Earthquake Rubble

1667 Earthquake Rubble

The devastating earthquake of 1667 shook all but two of the city’s buildings to the ground and, along with a drop in trade, triggered its decline. The city was reconstructed, in Baroque style, but never regained its dominance or its splendor.

Uphill towards French Fort

Uphill towards French Fort

Napoleon and his army entered Ragusa in 1806 on a ruse as “white knight” saviors from a Russian and Montenegrin siege, and then turned to blockade and force the surrender of the city, whose government the French then dissolved, while folding Ragusa into the Kingdom of Italy. This arrangement would be short-lived, as in 1814, Ragusa was, in turn, taken by the British and Austrians, to be incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian empire by the Congress of Vienna, where it remained until after World War I.

He's GOOD, too!

He’s GOOD, too!

After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Ragusa became part of a new Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and its name was officially changed to Dubrovnik—a name that had, in fact, been used since the Middle Ages. During the Second World War, Dubrovnik was swept into a Nazi-puppet Independent State of Croatia and occupied by the Germans’ Italian proxies, until 1943, when the Germans themselves invaded Dalmatia. Following the War, the city became part of the Socialist Republic of Croatia, within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—the creation of the WWII Partisan leader Josip Broz “Tito,” who amalgamated a state out of six republics, at least five major ethnicities, sheer personal appeal, will and wiliness.

Den Mother and Friend

Den Mother and Friend

Any attempted characterization here of the complexities of Yugoslavia, the Balkan peoples, and their common history of conflict and collaboration is likely to prove a disservice, rather than a benefit. On the other hand, a visit of a couple of weeks with a knowledgeable tour director, local city guides, candid conversation and some access to people’s homes and working environments, has brought at least one people’s experience in the region to life, and into the realm of sympathetic comprehensibility. We are grateful, and will bear these people in our prayers, if we are not too forgetful, for years to come.

Panorama, Old Harbor

Panorama, Old Harbor

Our tour director has hired a boat and driver for a foray into the harbor and along the near coast of nearby Lokrum Island. Our boat lurches along on the waves, and as I rise to my feet to snap some photos and balance myself (not hard for an NYC subway rider), I feel that I’ve pulled a lower back muscle, which will make sleeping difficult for a couple of nights and bother me for weeks.

Towards Lokrum Island

Towards Lokrum Island

One of our fellow travelers notes that there is said to be a Naturist (the designation currently preferred by nudists) beach on the other side of the island. We don’t venture there, of course, but a person from the region tells us that she used to go to such resorts with her family in her childhood, and that she and her friends would often laugh at the “newbie” tourists who visited there, who were instantly recognizable. They would always get quite sunburned on their faces and on their bottoms, she tells us, and would look “just like baboons.” She also remarked that the impulse that proliferated some degree of nudist culture was sparked by the notorious Wallis Simpson, the late Duchess of Windsor, who enticed Edward VI to abdicate the throne of the United Kingdom to become her third husband.

Stairway to St. Ignatius Church

Stairway to St. Ignatius Church

Everywhere we travel, we tend to see the same, gray, “budget model” Pigeon we’ve long known in New York City (where it is, by the way, illegal to feed the winged vermin). We see them here in Dubrovnik too, but there’s one difference: they fly differently. It’s evident that these pigeons have learned a different way of flying from the lively, ubiquitous, Mediterranean swallows that we find such a delight here. Rather than just flapping, sailing along, and swooping for a bread crumb, these local pigeons dart, bank suddenly, and change direction the way the swallows do. Now if only swallows could come to NYC and teach pigeons to eat insects, as they do! For their part, the coloring of the swallows in some locations (particularly in Greek Macedonia) makes them look a bit like small, flying perch or mackerel.

"Jewish Street" in Dubrovnik

“Jewish Street” in Dubrovnik

We come across a street sign (they are always embedded in the ground-floor walls of corner buildings in this part of the world—never on freestanding signposts) that declares a narrow passage to be ULICA ZUDIOSKA, “Jewish Street.”

Synagogue Museum

Synagogue Museum

A few doors from the corner is the old synagogue, the oldest Sephardic synagogue in use today, and the second-oldest in Europe. Joined to it is the city’s Jewish Museum. “No Jews live on Jew Street today,” says the manager who sells us tickets. “Many” Jews are said to have made their way to Dubrovnik from after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1492. Many of them became merchants and craftsmen; one became one of the best-known cannon and bell founders of the time. Their lot rode on the degree of Dubrovnik’s independence: when Venice dominated, they were harassed and persecuted around Dubrovnik; when Dubrovnik’s position fell in the mid-1700s, Jews were confined to the ghetto they were allotted in 1546. Napoleon first gave them full equality in 1808; the Austrians again withdrew their rights, and Croatia finally recognized Jewish legal equality in the mid-19th Century.

Dubrovnik Synagogue

Dubrovnik Synagogue

Many of Dubrovnik’s 250 Jews were transferred to an Italian concentration camp during WWII, while others were transferred to “liberated” parts of Croatia when Tito’s partisans entered Dubrovnik in late 1944. After the War, many of Dubrovnik’s survivors settled in Israel. Only seventeen Jews were counted here in the 2001 census.

Orlando, Dubrovnik's Yardstick

Orlando, Dubrovnik’s Yardstick

Feeling underemployed? Here’s a niche profession that may just be available in your town: you could be your local Sir Orlando (Some may know him as Roland from old epic tales; Orlando seems it could well be a translation into Pig Latin). This Medieval knight and reputed nephew of Charlemagne (or his statue, actually) stands, with drawn sword, in front of St. Blaise’s church. His function (again, that of his statue, really) was to serve as the Dubrovnik yardstick. Under Orlando’s feet, one can see a faint, straight line scribed into the stone. Its length is the length of the statue’s forearm, 51.2 cm. and served as the standard Ragusan cubit for measuring dry goods in the city. From the flagstaff to which Orlando is attached, on certain holidays the city still flies the old Ragusan banner that proclaimed LIBERTAS (liberty) in the city and on its sailing ships.

Yup, it's an Artichoke!

Yup, it’s an Artichoke!

A TRENDY TRAVEL TOPIC these days is “Agro-Tourism.” It takes many forms, from working, farm vacations (Ugh! Sounds like Mom & Dad – mostly Dad – attempting to instill “work ethic” in the kids; good luck with that!), and visits to wineries, with wine-tastings and local cuisine. The award-winning tour company we use, Odysseys Unlimited, likes to provide very welcome opportunities to spend evenings with local families engaged in agriculture.

Pre-Dinner Grappa Tasting

Pre-Dinner Grappa Tasting

Near Dubrovnik, we visit a local vintner and olive grower, who takes us to his cool, stone olive press cellar for a tasting of his Croatian grappa-equivalent, which, like Italian grappa, is distilled from the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems left over from wine making, and is generally flavored with berries, fruit, or herbs. Our host’s sage flavor version was the best of a three excellent varieties he served. 

Olive Oil the Old Way

Olive Oil the Old Way

Old Olive Press

Old Olive Press

After this starter, our olive grower trotted out his sweet little white horse, the surprise “star of the show” our tour director had told us to expect, and demonstrated the use of a traditional, beast-powered olive crusher. After the olives are crushed into a suitable mash, the product is transferred into a kind of basket made from a rope that leaves no contaminating flavor in the oil, and placed in a traditional, manual press, which the olive grower successively ratchets to high pressure, against the mechanism’s anchors in the ceiling and walls, until extra virgin olive oil flows out of the mash and press. Hot water boils on a stove in the corner of the room, for use in successive, and less desirable, pressings of the mash. We finish with a discussion of old and new processes, market economics, amino acid content, and Q&A.

Delicious, Fresh Antipasto

Delicious, Fresh Antipasto

A tour of our host’s garden, porch, and environs leads to a home-cooked dinner served in an adjacent stone dining room. Fresh antipasti, including home-made prosciutto, cheese, basil, the proprietor’s wines, and other treats lead to the main course and a succulent dessert of creme caramel, like a huge flan. Tonight, life is good.

From Host's Back Porch

From Host’s Back Porch

GALLERY

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Strazisce

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Knowing well that Commerce secretary Ron Brown’s military airliner went down in 1996 in former Yugoslavia with our dear and still keenly-missed friend Nathaniel Cushing Nash on board, I was not thinking of that sad event as we drove with our group from the Dubrovnik airport, newly arrived from Zagreb, to the coastal resort town of Cavtat, on our way to the old walled city of Dubrovnik.

As we rounded a curve on the gently-winding mountain highway, our tour director, Irina, clicked her microphone on to draw our attention to the right side of our coach. In that direction, she said, we could see a peak where, on April 3, 1996, Brown’s plane crashed in bad weather, killing him and 34 other passengers and crew, including Nathaniel, the New York Times Economics correspondent and Frankfurt bureau Chief–the only other passenger she identified by name.

(details of the event are found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1996_Croatia_USAF_CT-43_crash)

 “He was my roommate!” I blurted out. I had shared a rented house with Nathaniel and five other friends, when he was starting out at the Times and I was early in what became 24 years at CBS. Our tour director nearly wept when I told her more about it later. She hadn’t had to mention Nathaniel by name, but she did, and I’m grateful. I hadn’t placed the tragedy at Dubrovnik, and I’d hate to have been so near the spot but oblivious that so notable an event in our lives had taken place there.

I wondered later if we might be able to visit the spot itself, but found that it is reachable only by a hiking trail. Our situation and schedule, once in Dubrovnik, and indeed, our available energy, made a trek there impractical. Our comfort remains our confidence that our brother rests in the joy of God’s presence.  It’s good, too, to know that a monument–a ten-foot stainless cross with the crash victims’ names inscribed in stone–stands on the site.

But why would our tour director, as well as a Croatian guide we met in a museum, speak as caringly as they do of the event? Brown and his delegation were on a mission concerned with re-development of a war-damaged region where hostilities had only recently ceased. Croatians appreciated it then, and they appreciate it to this day.

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Turanj

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TURANJ is a neighborhood in the suburbs of the city of Karlovak where our group stopped for a brief tour of a Homeland War memorial—a display of weapons used and buildings damaged during the 1991-1996 Balkan wars. Karlovak, whose major industry before the war had been the Karlovačko brewery, lay near the front lines between forces of the Republic of Croatia and those of the rebel Croatian Serbs. Turanj and other Southern parts of Karlovak were devastated by shelling from the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army. Sixteen years later, most of the damage has been repaired, but bullet and shrapnel holes remain visible in some buildings. Artillery, landing craft, tanks, a Croatian jet fighter and a shot-down Serbian counterpart, along with a “portable” concrete bunker and shelled buildings are here on display as a reminder of that conflict.

Today, Karlovak’s largest employer is a fast-growing arms manufacturer.

(click on any photo to open the gallery)

Plitvice Lakes National Park

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Plitvice Lakes National Park, http://www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/en/ a comfortable drive from Zagreb, is a happily under-discovered wonder of the world. We found it thronged at its entrance, but progressively thinned out as we explored.

The Park is a network of paths, stairways and rustic boardwalks built around a string of terraced lakes that spill over, one into another, through a cascade of waterfalls and smaller natural spillways. The calcium-laden flows have laid down unique travertine deposits over the millennia. Ghostly, calcified tree branches spread out beneath the surface of the turquoise and azure lakes and ponds, whose water color changes with their contents and composition. But these are not like the  crystal-clear but lifeless acid-rain-fed lakes some of us have known in the American Northeast; they are teeming, surely stocked, with small trout.

We begin our circuit with the “lower” lakes, and continue after a short ferry trip and lunch at the open-air pavilions with the upper lakes, walking mostly on boardwalks placed near to, or often just inches over, the rushing water.

There are vantage points that induce the sensation that the ground beside you, above you, below you, and around you all has sprung serious, simultaneous leaks. Water spills through shrubs and tufts of grass along a narrow field between lakes, but the water’s source is hidden until you climb a bit further to see the surface of the next pond or lake. If this were your back yard, you’d call a plumber–if not the national guard!

Though we are still in the North of Croatia, the lush and varied vegetation here feels and looks tropical–or rather, it runs the gamut from tropical to humid sub-tropical. The constant mist created by the rushing and falling water keeps everything moist.

Photos carry the rest of the story…

(click on any photo to open the gallery)

Zagreb

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Our Zagreb Hotel - built for Orient Express passengers.

Our Zagreb Hotel – built for Orient Express passengers.

ZAGREB is the capital and largest city of Croatia, which declared its independence in 1991, disaggregating itself from what had been Yugoslavia (which means “South Slavia”) as Eastern European communism dissolved. The new Zagreb we see along the half-hour drive from the airport to our hotel (“The best in town!” says our cabbie) surprises us for its greenness.

(click on photos to enlarge them; more in gallery below)

Zagreb Rail Station

Zagreb Rail Station

We’re told that a fifth of the city’s area is set aside for parks. A string of them begins just a block from our hotel, built in 1925 to accommodate passengers on the Orient Express, and the nearby rail station, where the legendary train stopped.

Monument to King Tomislav

Monument to King Tomislav

In the closest park square stands a monument to King Tomislav, who united the Dalmatian Croats and Panonian Slavs into a kingdom spanning modern Croatia and Bosnia in 925. The Croatian kings ruled until the beginning of the 12th Century when, threatened by Hungary, Venice, and Byzantium, Croatia allied with Hungary, beginning 400 years of Hungarian rule. Venice had seized most of the Dalmatian coast, except for the independent city-state of Dubrovnik (aka Ragusa) by the early 15th Century, while the Ottomans pressed in from the East. Following major Ottoman victories, Croatia turned to Austria for help and bowed to a Habsburg king.

Zagreb Spires

Zagreb Spires

As you might have guessed, Zagreb owns the world capital closest to the end of the alphabet (the English one, anyway)—edging out Yerevan, Armenia by a full letter. As well as standing guard over this orthographic border, under the Austrians, Zagreb anchored the territorial border between Christian Europe and the Ottoman empire—a military frontier cultivated by the Habsburgs, who offered tax incentives to encourage Orthodox Serbs and Bosnians to relocate to the region and provide military service to buttress the empire against Westward Turkish expansion. Meanwhile, many Croats migrated towards Austria. These migrations not only provided security at the time, but also helped set up the tensions that would trouble the Balkans throughout the 20th Century and spill out into wars, culminating, most recently, in the “Homeland War” of 1991-1996.

Ban Josip Jelačić

Ban Josip Jelačić

As for Zagreb, in 1851, Josip Jelačić, the Ban (or Viceroy), joined the upper “Bishop’s town,” home of Zagreb Cathedral and a Roman Catholic Diocese since 1094, with the larger “King’s town” (a free, royal city since 1242) creating a united Zagreb. Jelačić’s equestrian statue stands in the city’s main square, which is named after him.

Art Pavilion in Tomislav Square

Art Pavilion in Tomislav Square

A walk to the Old Town bring Zagreb’s origins, conquests, and alliances into relief. Much of the City’s architecture comes from its period of Austro-Hungarian domination—as in much of the rest of this part of the world. Many of these buildings are 130 to 150 years old, and never have gotten the maintenance they deserve and require. The World Wars, communist-era neglect, damage from the 1990s “Homeland War,” and the current world recession all have taken their toll. Much has been rebuilt and renovated over the past 15 years, but much more remains to be done.

Nice starter block - needs TLC

Nice starter block – needs TLC

What has been restored is beautiful. Some of the grander, restored buildings bear the same yellow color found throughout the cities of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Empress Maria Theresa’s favorite color was yellow, and her decorating preferences made that color the cheapest one on the market, and the most popular.

Croatian National Theater (through a window)

Croatian National Theater (through a window)

The idea of “South Slavia” bears a bit of reflection. The people who live in this region of former Yugoslavia are Mediterranean Slavs—a combination of concepts that an American might find disorienting. But here they are, Slavic peoples far away from the snow and ice of the North, enjoying the warm, Mediterranean climate and hot, Mediterranean sun, building and sailing yachts, grilling calamari, and serving fine, local wines to throngs of European and Asian tourists along the Dalmatian Coast.

Zagreb rooftops and stuck funicular

Zagreb rooftops and stuck funicular

Americans have been slow to discover this Riviera—a fact we don’t mind as we soak it in over the next couple of weeks. Our fellow Yanks are likely still uncertain about the region following the 1991-1996 “Homeland War,” as Croatians and Slovenians call the latest Balkan conflict, whose principals are still being tried for Genocide at the Hague. It has taken fifteen years to repair much of the damage (we are shown bullet and shrapnel holes that remain here and there), and the result is classic, Adriatic beauty. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; we’re still in inland Zagreb.

Pahrt being made in Switzerland

Pahrt being made in Switzerland

If Croatia’s shape suggests the head of an alligator swallowing Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zagreb is its eye, situated in the nation’s Northwest, along the Sava River, and on the slopes of the Medvednica Mountains. Its metropolitan area, the largest in Croatia, cradles 1.1 million souls.

St. George and fish-faced Dragon

St. George and fish-faced Dragon

And what’s the second largest Croatian city? Not Split, nor Dubrovnik—but Pittsburgh! Without supporting evidence, I’d guess New York City ranks third. 4.2 to 4.5 million Croatians are counted in Croatia, another million in the rest of former Yugoslavia, and 2.3 million more around the world.

Epicenter of Neckwear

Epicenter of Neckwear

What’s Croatia famous for? It’s the birthplace of the necktie, for one thing. International necktie day is celebrated there and elsewhere on October 18. 17th-Century Croatian soldiers’ wives and girlfriends tied scarves in a distinctive style around their men’s necks to show that they were spoken for. French soldiers, with whom the Croats served in the Thirty Years War, picked it up as a fashion statement and enshrined it forever—at least until “business casual” came along. Every former schoolboy forced to wear a jacket and necktie to class may now pick up a rock to throw in the direction of Croatia…

Yup, there's a Museum for that! Don't burn that note from the schmuck who dumped you; send it here!

Yup, there’s a Museum for that!

…Except that Croatia has quite enough rocks already, thank you. The place is famous for rocks, in fact. We’ve never seen so many! The country easily could double its size by dumping endless truckloads of rocks from its fields and hills offshore into the Adriatic. That would ruin the Adriatic and put hundreds of beautiful seaside towns far inland, but you get the point. They could probably reach Italy with a good month’s work. In some sections of the country, literally every square meter of arable land has been made that way by clearing the endless small stones out of every field.

Can't park this close to NYC hydrants!

Can’t park this close to NYC hydrants!

They are used to make New England-style dry walls (the stones are smaller and rounder here), which divide the countryside into vineyards, olive groves, and farm plots. From the larger stones, they make tool sheds, field huts, and other buildings. But don’t pity Croatia; it has lots of lush, flat farmland in one of its river deltas.

Gothic South portal at St. Mark's

Gothic South portal at St. Mark’s

The torpedo was invented here, too. What good would submarines be without it? You may not have one of those in your garage, but you probably have more specimens of another Croatian invention in your desk than you will ever use: the pen. The name of that jotter probably came from an Anglo-Saxon grunt meaning stylus or writing instrument, right? Wrong. It was named after its inventor, Slavoljub Eduard Penkala—not a name that rolls easily off the tongue. In one European language, the last part of his surname means “fish,” and no one would be caught dead writing with a fish—hence, the shortened name for his 1907 invention: the Pen. Penkala held a PhD in Organic Chemistry, no less, and, among his many inventions, he also held a patent for a rheumatism drug (a Painkilla?). Read all about him, if you’re inclined: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavoljub_Eduard_Penkala.

Baroque Interior, St. Catherine's

Baroque Interior, St. Catherine’s

One (admittedly inconsequential) implication of the fact of Mr. P’s invention is the consequent need to discredit the term “quill pen.” No one who ever wrote with a feather, when that was the way to scrawl, could have called it a “quill pen.” Penkala had not yet appeared on the scene to jab his “pen” into the lexicon.

Plaque commemorating Nikola Tesla, groundbreaking electrical engineer and inventor of AC.

Nikola Tesla

One could go on and on, no doubt, reeling off Croatian achievements, but Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) simply cannot be passed over. This giant of electrical engineering is responsible for much of the development of electrical power distribution in the USA and around the world. Among his many innovations was alternating current—AC—the “flavor” of the electric juice we get out of our wall sockets.

A memorial at Miragoj Cemetery

A memorial at Miragoj Cemetery

Because this kind of electricity cycles between positive and negative 60 times per second, in contrast to direct current—DC—which is a steady flow in one direction, thousands of us every year don’t freeze up and fry, cartoon style, when we put our fingers in light sockets or spit in the back of a malfunctioning TV. AC and DC were neck-and-neck as the first burned-out light bulbs were being changed, but Tesla won the tussle and I, for one, escaped being buried prematurely with my hair standing on end.

Does Zagreb have a zoo? Yes! Does it have a zebra? Yes, it does! And also a crosswalk on the way to the zoo that looks as if a wet, painted zebra rolled around on the pavement (http://zgzoo.com/en/news-and-events/news/step-closer-to-the-zebra/).

But is the Zagreb Zoo’s Zebra named Zoë, is she zealous, and does she come from Zanzibar or Zimbabwe? Stay tuned (but don’t hold your breath); we’ll send someone over to find out! If all that’s not the case, someone is failing to take advantage of all the promotional possibilities.

Prague

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Prague, Mother of Cities

Prague, Mother of Cities

“PRAGUE, MOTHER OF CITIES,” reads the city’s coat of arms. One is disinclined to object. Intricately gorgeous; uniquely patinated; etched, dented, colored and jumbled by the varied tides, thunderclaps, and grindings of history, this city just goes on and on—physically, I mean. It’s huge!

Prague was the seat of two Holy Roman emperors and a principal city of the Habsburg Monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it was capital of Czechoslovakia and, now, the Czech Republic. Rumblings of Reformation found their epicenter here, sending their aftershocks throughout Europe. The city’s castle occupies the top spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Prague Old Town, from the Vltava River

Prague Old Town, from the Vltava River (click any photo to enlarge)

Once again, our tour operators have planted us in a comfy hotel just beside the Old City, where the great sights are just a stroll from our door. We arrive early enough today for a late-afternoon foray into the Old Town square and across the 14th-15th-century Charles Bridge across the Vlatava River—descending to its banks just short of the Castle District, which we will visit tomorrow.

Monument to Jan Hus

Monument to Jan Hus

Old Prague’s great square is dominated by an imposing monument to Jan Hus, its great Protestant reformer and martyr. As a reformer and instigator against Roman Catholic dominance, he was the first—before Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. Prague everywhere bears witness to the struggles he sparked—and their centuries of spreading consequences.

The Empty Niche, Tyn Church

The Empty Niche, Tyn Church

On the face of the Tyn Church, between the twin spires of this towering structure set curiously behind a row of buildings on one end of the square, a high niche sits prominently empty, below a second niche, which displays a shining golden statue of the Virgin. When the Hussites held the church, situated as it was to conform to a Catholic-inspired law that forbade Protestant churches any entrance on the square or a street, a large golden chalice filled the now-empty lower niche—a symbol of Hussite Protestant insistence that lay people, and not only the clergy, must be served the wine of the Communion as well as the bread. The Hus monument itself is only a recent (1915) addition to the Square.

Celebrated Astronomical Clock

Celebrated Astronomical Clock

At the far end of the Old Town Square stands the Old Town Hall, where crowds gather hourly to witness the elaborate changing of the hour. An astronomical clock, mounted on the South wall of the Hall, marks the positions of the sun, moon, and other features of the sky on one dial, and the calendar on another dial below it. Above this, a clockwork parade of figures of apostles and other characters—including a prominent skeleton representing Death—passes before the crowd of observers as the hour sounds. As in Krakow, a trumpeter here sounds this city’s fanfare four times in four directions from windows in the belfry above, to the applause of the dispersing crowd.

Segway through the Square

Segway through the Square

Across from the astronomical display sits what? A Starbucks—which our tour guide forbids us to patronize—and a large glass merchants’ cooperative holding showrooms for famous Bohemian crystal makers and artists.

Substantial (and controversial) reconstruction of the Charles Bridge, which has seen many repairs and reconstructions over its centuries, was completed only last year.

The Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge and Prague Castle (click to enlarge)

This is no mere passage across a river; it’s a bridge to live on, to stroll on, to hawk wares on, to gawk on—at musicians, artists, mimes, and prostrated mendicants—not to mention the architecture and the statues mounted on every pillar.

Bridge Sculpture

...and Another

Another Bridge Sculpture

a Sculpture...

Swordsman on the Charles Bridge

Swordsman

None of the sculptures are original anymore; some fell into the river or met various other violent or accidental ends.

 

Locks and Locks of Lovers

Locks and Locks of Lovers

We are led off the bridge down a side stairway near its far end to take in a couple of local curiosities. The first is the “Lock Bridge,” where lovers have clasped hundreds of padlocks —as tokens of their never-ending devotion—to the wrought-iron staves of the bridge, and thrown the keys into the river. Their variety is impressive: from an old, rusting, cast-iron model that calls for a skeleton key, to a multitude of bare brass or colored-enamel-coated rectangular specimens, to a single combination lock (presumably, they threw the combination into the river—how romantic!). Space on the wrought iron rails ran out some time ago, but newcomers have clasped their locks to the hasps of other locks, and someone has added a plastic-covered bicycle chain spanning two iron uprights; there’s still room for several more on that contrivance. The bronze sculpture of a fierce-faced Samurai warrior (was he cast from melted keys?) guards this display of immutable affection from his perch atop a piling that rises from the canal below.

Next, we hear we’re going to a famous wall commemorating, ugh, Lenin. No? Turns out that’s Lennon—John Lennon—not Vladimir Ilyich. Lennon Wall, located in Mala Strana and owned by the Knights of the Maltese Cross, has been covered with several layers of graffiti and graffiti-like objects sparked by the memory of John Lennon since the 1980s. Anti-communist-regime students used to write complaints on the wall; this once led to a conflict on the Charles Bridge, between them and the security police, who denounced the students publicly as “Lennonists!”

A Prague Castle Gate

A Prague Castle Gate

Prague Castle, past the other end of the Charles Bridge from the Old Town, is called the biggest castle in the world, and has housed the Bohemian Kings, two Holy Roman Emperors, and the offices of the presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. This mother of all castles has seen many ups and downs since its late-9th century beginnings. Basilicas and a convent were founded in the 10th century. In the 14th, a 12th-century royal palace was rebuilt in the Gothic style, and six centuries of work on the cavernous and surpassingly opulent St. Vitus’ Cathedral began. During the early 15th-century Hussite wars, the castle was abandoned, to await rebuilding, expansion, and defensive reinforcement in the late 15th century—only to see much of its contents burned in the great fire of 1541. The Habsburgs were next to take up residence and re-development, until the Second Defenestration of Prague kicked off the Bohemian Revolt.

What's a Castle without a Crossbow?

What's a Castle without a Crossbow?

Bohemian radicals repeatedly indulged their curious propensity for ousting officials they believed oppressive and corrupt by throwing them out of the windows of government buildings! There have been at least four de-fenestrations, but only two made enduring headlines. The first, in 1419, saw the town council, the mayor, and the judge pitched out of the town hall windows into the street, where they met their end in collisions with either the cobblestones or the mob outside. The Hussite Wars ignited by the event—five consecutive papal crusades against Jan Hus’ posthumous followers—lasted until 1436.

Use Window Guards!

Use Window Guards!

The gang of three flung seventy feet out of a third-floor window of Prague Castle in 1618’s Second Defenestration landed on a softer surface—a large, well-placed pile of horse manure, actually—and managed to survive. To recompense him for this indignity, one of the projectiles was made a noble by the emperor and given the title “Baron of Highfall.” This second tossing helped light the fuse for the infamous, depressingly-destructive Thirty Years War.

The ubiquitous Habsburg Queen Maria Theresa undertook the last major rebuilding and renovation of the castle in the late 18th century.

The Carp

The Carp

When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in World War II, Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s “hangman,” the SS General, Gestapo head and host of the meeting where the infamous “Final Solution” was presented, seized Prague Castle as his headquarters in his new role as Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. It is said that he put the crown of Bohemia on his head, unwittingly thumbing his nose at old legends declaring that any usurper who presumes to wear that crown was condemned to die before a year had passed. Heydrich was attacked by a team of soldiers sent by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile and killed in Prague, less than a year after taking power. 

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral, begun in 1344, finally was finished in 1929! A visitor is likely to agree that it was worth the wait.

St. John Nepomuk Tomb

St. John Nepomuk Tomb

Among the many grand architectural features, the rich, stained-glass windows, statuary, and rich decorative elements, the elaborate gold-trimmed silver shrine tomb of St. John of Nepomuk uniquely seizes a visitor’s attention. In accounts that surfaced some time after John’s death, it is recounted that, as the confessor of the Queen of Bohemia, John refused to tell “good” King Wenceslas, her husband, the secrets she confessed. The king reputedly then had him drowned in the Vltava River.

Faux Crown Jewels

Faux Crown Jewels

The Czech crown jewels (sorry—they’re put on public display only every seven or eight years) lie behind a small door locked with seven locks in the St. Wenceslas Chapel, which itself is not open to the public.

 
 

A Golden Lane Crypt

A Golden Lane Crypt

THE GOLDEN LANE is a narrow street just outside the walls of Prague Castle, lined on the side opposite the castle with three stories—more or less—of small, colorful and picturesque houses, compacted together and connected by corridors leading to various flights of steep, narrow, or winding stairs. Their chambers and hallways hold a variety of historic displays and quaint shops.

 
 
 
 

Alchemist Shop

Alchemist Shop

On the lower levels, a visitor finds reconstructed alchemists’ laboratories—the likely reason for the Lane’s name (before the alchemists arrived, earlier houses held goldsmiths and, later, fusiliers). On the upper level, one discovers other historical reconstructions and an armor shop, where medieval-style helmets, chain mail, and swords are offered for sale.

Medeival Superhero?

Medieval Superhero?

Immediately outside the shop begins a long corridor lined with display cases containing old suits of armor, in great variety. One memorable specimen of heavy haberdashery has its wearer resembling a falcon—with beaked helmet and feather-edged shoulder guards. While most of the houses on the Lane were offered for rent during the 19th and 20th centuries, important Czech writers, notably Franz Kafka, lived there.

We are instructed, following our stroll through Golden Lane, to meet “at the statue of a naked young man.” Before this sculpture, we (with a protesting exception or two) pose for a photograph. The statue’s bronze has aged to a characteristic patina—save for one popular part, which gleams brightly, as if polished.

 

Maisel Synagogue

Maisel Synagogue

Our visit to the multi-part JEWISH MUSEUM OF PRAGUE focuses on the Maisel Synagogue in Josefov, the Jewish quarter. Built starting in 1590, and rebuilt following a fire in 1689, the synagogue was again rebuilt in 1893-1905. This was the intended site of Hitler’s outrageous, and never-to-be “museum of the extinct race,” for which he ordered the accumulation and extensive cataloguing of treasures stolen from Jews across Bohemia and Moravia. It is reported that once the Jewish archivists and curators assigned to catalogue the items had finished, they too were sent to their demise in the death camps.

Prague Jewish Cemetary

Prague Jewish Cemetary

Today, the synagogue, with its extensive and adjacent Jewish cemetery, belong to the museum, which includes, among others, the Spanish Synagogue. The latter house of worship never actually was used by a Spanish or Sephardic congregation, but was built in a Moorish architectural style, with gorgeous, Moorish interior decoration.

Spanish Synagogue

Spanish Synagogue

It appeared obvious to this untutored traveler that there is a direct relationship between the colorful patterns of this Moorish interior’s graphic design and design elements found in the later Art Nouveau style and displayed prominently in this most Art Nouveau of cities—but a tour guide registered no recognition of it.

OUR OFFICIAL GROUP TOUR NEARLY AT ITS END, we return tonight to the Castle, and to its Lobkovicz Palace, for our farewell dinner. We dine on a balcony of the Palace, overlooking steeples and rooftops spread along the valley down to the river and the mountains beyond the city. All seem to agree that this has been a tour group for our personal record books; our Tour Manager is quick to add her agreement, calling us the “best ever.” We begin to talk of a reunion, and find several members in the Northeast who are willing to give it a try…

Farewell Dinner...

...at Lobkovicz Palace...

...at Lobkovicz Palace...

...with the whole Group

...with the whole Group

 

The Missing Marx Brother

The Missing Marx Brother

We stay on after most of the group have left, and decide to take a stroll into Prague’s Communist era, the latest of the extended trials from which the city, the nation, and the region are still emerging and recovering.

Prague1968

Prague 1968

Wenceslas Square

Wenceslas Square

Walking through the pleasant (new city) downtown pedestrian and shopping promenades, we take lunch at a café and progress to Wenceslas Square, where an extensive exhibition commemorating the 20th anniversary of the end of Soviet army occupation of Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact has been set up in anticipation of Prague’s Week of Freedom celebration, June 20 – July 1 (sure, that’s 12 days, but who’s counting?).

The colorful display of posters chronicles the rise and fall of Communist domination in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and East Germany, nearly year-by-year. Following the Czech thread around the two sides of the long display takes us three quarters of an hour.

 

StalinThink

StalinThink

To supplement our education-by-poster, we backtrack to the second-floor Museum of Communism—a low-budget display of artifacts, everyday objects, well-translated informative placards, and a video presentation of the 1968 Prague Spring uprising crushed by Soviet Tanks, and the final 1989 liberation of the city.

Commie Yard Sale

Commie Yard Sale

 

Many of the objects and artifacts here look as if they have been assembled from a series of Communist yard sales and visits to Soviet-monument junkyards for display here. Nevertheless, it forms a coherent and poignant display making a lasting impression.

 

Korea Poster

Korea Poster

Here are busts and portraits of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, with bookshelves lined with their works. Here are countless examples of Socialist Labor art, in painted works and, especially, inflammatory political posters. Not meaning at all to connect Occupy Wall Streeters to the ideologues whose ideas find expression here, one wonders how much attention the current movement might gain if it managed to find compelling expression in popular graphic art. The Communists—and particularly in this part of the world—had a notable talent for it.

 

 

De-hyphenation of Prague

De-hyphenation of Prague

Soon, we’ll leave Prague and board a train for Ostrava—described by some as the Czech Republic’s Pittsburgh…

 

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