Croatia and Slovenia beautiful and welcoming destinations
Looking for an odyssey far from home, my husband and I chose Croatia and Slovenia. It didn’t take long to fall in love with this remarkable region of the Balkans. Along the Dalmatian coastline, rugged limestone mountains touch the azure Adriatic Sea. Myriads of islands lie off the coast, and natural inlets provide secure harbors. Inland, clear streams and rivers run through green valleys with farms and vineyards. It’s amazingly beautiful.
Through the centuries just about every tribe, including Greeks, Celts and Mongols, tramped through the Balkans. Hoards of tourists are the latest invasion. Local residents and shopkeepers are especially tolerant. Perhaps it’s because they’ve had centuries to practice how to be hospitable to newcomers.
During our two-week trip, chief guide Tamara Stojanovic encouraged exploring on our own. She gave us expert advice, “Go ahead and get lost. That’s the way you see a place and get to know it.”
In Dubrovnik, most visitors head for Old Town. Ancient city walls — a series of forts, casements and towers — are completely intact and still functional. Varying in thickness, they have never been breached, including during the Serbian-Croatian war. From October 1991 to May 1992, the city was under siege, and heavy shelling destroyed hundreds of red-clay roofs. New orange tiles have replaced darker older ties. Most damaged structures have been restored, but a few pock-marked walls attest to the conflict’s ferocity. People can walk along the top of the walls for great views of both town and sea.
We entered through the Pile Gate, and stopped at Onofrio’s Fountain where people fill their water bottles. During the Roman period, water from the mountains was carried here by an aqueduct system. The clear water is still drinkable and delicious. From here, we strolled along Dubrovnik’s main promenade named the Placa but known to everyone as the Stradun. Paved with marble slabs and lined with shops offering everything from leather bags to ice cream, the Stradun far outshines modern malls.
Leave the busy street for the Franciscan Monastery Museum’s tranquility. Constructed in 1337, it was destroyed in the 1667 Great Earthquake and rebuilt in a Romanesque-Gothic style. Visitors gaze at the cloister’s columns and lovely courtyard with palms, orange trees and roses. People still shop at the pharmacy that opened here in the 1300s. Antique jars, bowls, pots and pharmacists’ tools on display are reminders of the limited medicine available to the sick in the Middle Ages. Additional displays include ancient manuscripts, crosses and paintings.
More sights surround Luza Square. Orlando’s column, erected in 1417 and centering the square, features a carved-stone medieval warrior with sword and shield. A line on the column’s top step is the same length as the statue’s forearm. The mark is Dubrovnik’s standard measurement. Nearby the Sponza Palace (ca. 1522) combines Renaissance and Venetian architecture. Inside the palace museum, we viewed the Memorial Room of Dubovnik, with a photo exhibit of local defenders who were killed fighting Serbs in 1991. The display is a salute to the high cost of “Libertas” (liberty), Dubrovnik’s motto.
Numerous eateries are tucked around Luza Square. Menus posted outside list regional seafood and Italian dishes. Pizza is a big item in this part of the world. A few steps up a narrow side street, we discovered Dundo Maroje, a delightful tiny café. A simple “ham and cheese” sandwich turned into a feast. Thin slices of prosciutto ham and fresh parmigiano cheese on freshly baked whole wheat bread along with a glass of house red wine were all that was needed for a quick lunch. For something sweet, we nibbled on a local treat, fresh figs dusted with powdered sugar.
During the Middle Ages Dubrovnik was a republic ruled by a rector. The Rector’s Palace, a blend of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, has been rebuilt several times over the centuries. The loggia and intricately carved stone stairway are especially impressive. In the second floor museum, images of St. Blaise emphasize the importance of the city’s patron saint. Also on the square, the Church of St. Blaise is dedicated to the saint who is said to have saved the city from a sacking by Venetians. Originally built in the 14th century, the current Baroque structure dates from 1706-14. Its broad steps are a major gathering spot. The square and church terrace also serve as a space for major festivals.
Equally fascinating is Dubrovnik Cathedral. According to legend it was founded in the 12th century by England’s Richard the Lionhearted. Returning from the Third Crusade, he was shipwrecked and promised God he would build a church on nearby Lokrum Island. Instead, he agreed to build the church inside the city. Among its impressive sights is a painting, “Assumption of the Virgin Mary,” from the school of Titian. The cathedral’s Treasury includes several of St. Blaise’s body parts encased in gold, swaddling clothes of baby Jesus in a silver casket and a piece of the true cross in a crucifix.
At dusk, Old Town turns magical with evening lights and soft shadows seeping across the marbled streets and white stones. An excursion boat ride from the old harbor took us out on the sea just beyond the city walls where swimmers were jumping off the rocks for a plunge into the Adriatic. At sunset streaks of gold flecked across waves, and private yachts turned on winking night lights.
The highway from Dubrovnik to Split runs along mountains offering dramatic views of rocky beaches and islands. Main roads in Croatia are excellent. At Ston, a village popular for its fresh oysters and salt production, people enjoy outdoor café s and wine from local vineyards. Seen here is an amazing stone wall, built in the 1300s, that climbs across the mountainside and connects with another village. Short tours in the Old Towns of Trogir and Zadar provided more views of Roman ruins and age-old churches. Lunch at a roadside café gave us a chance to stop along the sea at Neum, Bosnia-Herzegovnia, situated on the country’s only 15-mile stretch along the Dalmatian coast.
Split (Spoleto in Italian) bustles with energy. The modern city surrounds Old Town which has spectacular Roman ruins as well as an artistic link to Louisiana.
A native of Croatia, Roman Emperor Diocletian (245-313) abdicated his imperial office to retire in his elaborate palace at Split. In the seventh century, locals fleeing Slavic invaders moved into the area and a medieval town developed amid the palace ruins. People still live within Old Town where boutique shops and café s line narrow passageways.
Diocletian’s palace was built on various levels sloping down to the sea creating a sea-level basement and several floors above. Visitors enter “the basement” that was literally a sewage dump for centuries. Rediscovered in the last century, the cellars allowed archaeologists to learn about the floor plan of long gone chambers above. A self-guided tour takes you into the cellars. Meander through rooms that include a headless black granite sphinx, one of 13 brought by Diocletian from Egypt. In other rooms you see a stone olive press and a bust of the emperor, who was either very handsome or was depicted by a very talented sculptor.
Centering the palace is the Peristyle , the main square of Diocletian’s Palace. Look around at the remains of once glorious columns and arches. Around noon, young actors dressed in Roman attire welcome visitors to this regal city. Facing the square is St. Dominus Cathedral built above the site of Diocletian’s mausoleum. With an ironic Croatian comment, our guide said, “We say Diocletian must be credited with creating hundreds of saints because he persecuted so many Christians. Now, he’s nowhere to be found.”
Contrasts between old and new vied for our attention in Split. The palm-lined Riva on the harbor is a great place for people watching. The Ethnographic Museum, with traditional embroidery, woodcarving and pottery, focuses on regional culture. The Croatian Maritime Museum delves into hundreds of years of nautical history.
Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split tells the sculptor’s story. Mestrovic (1883-1962) started as a stonecutter’s apprentice and became famed as one of the world’s greatest sculptors of religious subjects. A number of his works are exhibited in Baton Rouge at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, and several others are at St. Joseph Cathedral. Viewing his art in the Split villa that he designed and lived in during the 1930s is inspiring.
The gallery focuses on Mestrovic’s works from 1905 to 1956. In his drawings and sculptures, you see the influences of Rodin and Croatian traditions. The art heavily reflects the artist’s political and religious convictions. His works evoke a variety of emotions. The dining room is left much as the Mestrovic family enjoyed it. Two portraits of Mestrovic, one as a youth and the second painted not long before his death are also displayed. The view from the windows overlooks an expansive lawn and the Adriatic just beyond.
Throughout the villa, you are drawn to the artistry of Mestrovic’s sculptures. From the tranquil “Distant Chords,” a woman playing a lute, to the compassionate “Roman Pieta,” (work in plaster), Mestrovic compels you to understand his vision. Exhibited in a room to itself is the powerful “Job,” a howling, bent, twisted nude of the Biblical figure. The sculpture was a direct result of Mestrovic’s own experience of war and suffering.
A fairy tale park
Escaping cities for a day, we visited Plitvice Lake National Park, one of the most delightful national parks in Europe. Tucked into mountains, the park was founded in 1949, and it’s popular with serious hikers as well as families enjoying one-day outings. Plitvice’s 16 terraced lakes are separated by natural travertine dams. Waterfalls cascade over the limestone mountains into the lakes. Calcium carbonate in the water causes the build up of the dams and adds to the deep blue color of the pools. The broader area around the lakes is a green fairy tale forest and meadows provide a habitat for wildlife including deer, wildcats, otter and brown bears. A beautiful four-to-five mile hiking trail winds through the park. Portions of the walk are uneven and hard to traverse. It’s not handicapped accessible. However, the park tram carries visitors to four lovely stations with picnic tables, snack stands and plenty of photo opportunities.
We spent the night in Plitvice at the modern Hotel Jezero, a park-run lodge with a nifty gift shop. Rooms were simple, clean and comfortable. A large dining area with an outdoor terrace served an impressive breakfast buffet with plenty of choices for international visitors. Best dining choices were pastries filled with sour cherries.
Zagreb, capital of Croatia since 1557, is a center for industry, government and the arts. We especially enjoyed touring Museum Mimara containing one of Europe’s finest art collections. Collector Ante Topic Mimara donated his personal collection of 3,750 works of art to Zagrab shortly before he died in 1987. It’s pure pleasure to walk through galleries filled with priceless, exceptionally displayed objects. We viewed glass, textiles, Asian art, sculpture and paintings by Italian, Dutch and Spanish artists. To stand in front of a Rubens, Rembrandt or Renoir in this museum takes your breath away.
The tallest building in Croatia is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Zagreb’s Kapitol Square. Started in 1093, the church was severely damaged in an 1880 earthquake. It was restored in a neo-Gothic style with twin spires. Inside you see 13th century frescoes, Renaissance pews and a Baroque pulpit. Outside, a beautiful column topped with a gilded statue of Mary centers the square. A few blocks away, don’t miss the market with vendors selling fruits, vegetables, baskets, shoes, hats and souvenirs. Another “must see” is Mirogoj, one of Europe’s most significant cemeteries. Constructed in the late 1800s, it features a church, cupolas and elaborate monuments. It inters members of all religious faiths: Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim Protestant, Latter Day Saints as well as irreligious individuals.
Slovenia is tucked between Croatia and Austria and shares borders with Hungary and Italy. It is the true crossroads between Central Europe and the Balkans. Within minutes of entering the country, you see orderly farmsteads and tidy villages. Like other Balkan countries, Slovenia was long under the rule of others. Austro-German nobility took over in the early 14th century, and ruled the region from 1804 to the end of World War I. In 1945, Slovenia became part of the Yugoslav republic, a Communist regime. In 1991 it became an independent republic. It is now a member of the European Union.
Ljubljana, the country’s largest town, has the allure of both Vienna and Venice. More than 25,000 students attend Ljubljana University and lend a youthful air to parks and café s. Old Town along the banks of the Ljubljana River attracts all ages. Start a walking tour in Preseren Square at the statue of the poet France Preseren. At this point is the famed Triple Bridge. The bridges’ unusual design increases the flow of traffic. At night, city lamplights turn the area into a delightful meeting spot.
Follow the first street south of the river to view charming Art Nouveau structures. You’ll soon come to Congress Square and the university’s main administrative building as well as Philharmonic Hall. Built about 1701, the building is where such notables as Haydn, Brahms and Mahler once worked. Stroll back to the Cobbler’s Bridge (named after shoemakers who once worked here) and cross the river into the oldest part of town beneath the castle. Walk along Mestni trg, a street with chic boutiques and antique shops, until you reach Town Hall. Step inside to see the handsome Renaissance courtyard and map of 17th-century Ljubljana.
Not far away is St. Nicholas Cathedral. Study the main entrance door designed with a stunning contemporary bronze relief depicting the history of Christianity in Slovenia. The Italian Baroque interior with frescoes by Giulio Quaglio, carved angels on the altar and a restored fresco ceiling is truly memorable.
A funicular swiftly carries passengers up to Ljubljana Castle high above the city. Stalwart souls also can climb a trail leading from town. The first settlers arrived around 1200 B.C.; then came the Romans to build a fortress. Additions were made throughout the centuries. The castle eventually began to crumble, and at the end of the 1960s, the city started an extensive renovation. Today, people come to enjoy the views and explore. Visitors climb the tower’s 92 steps, dine in the restaurant, walk on the parapet, and attend special events in the courtyard. This is one of the city’s most popular places to get married. Don’t miss the Gothic chapel with a painting of the coat of arms of St. George, the dragon slayer and the city’s patron saint.
We couldn’t leave Ljubljana without visiting the Dragon Bridge. According to local legend, Ljubljana was founded by Greek mythological hero Jason. After stealing the golden fleece from King Aetes, Jason and his crew supposedly traveled up the Danube and the Ljubljanica River. At the Ljubljana Marshes, Jason slew a monster now known as the Ljubljana Dragon and symbol of the city’s coat of arms.
In 1888, the Dragon Bridge was commissioned to honor of the 40th anniversary of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef’s reign. The four corners of the bridge are decorated with dragons forged out of copper sheet. They were made in Vienna.
Dragons, Roman conquerors, vain emperors, great artists and emerging young entrepreneurs are all part of the myth and reality of Slovenia, Croatia and the Balkan countries. I’m ready to return on a modern winged chariot whenever the winds of fortune blow my way.