Chapter 10 Italy, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Slovenia
10 March – 8 April
Is Not Bin Laden
The ferry berths in Bari at eleven in the morning Italian time after an eighteen hour journey. Expecting to arrive at eight, we’re a bit taken aback, and console ourselves with a fried breakfast in the ferry cafe. By the time we get down to the hold the truckies are revving their motors, and we have to squeeze through a labyrinth of lorries with clouds of diesel fumes, as we try to find the van. It’s so tight that I have to take off my small backpack to pass between them, and it feels like one of those scary car park scenes in a movie. It’s the only time on the whole trip when I feel afraid.
Once we’re on Italian soil it’s warm and easy and we have time to catch up on some sleep as our ferry to Dubrovnik doesn’t leave till ten the next night.
We explore Bari’s tiny medieval streets and buy big red garlic, bok choi, little broccoli, and tomatoes in an old arcaded market.
After a quiet night parked on the wharf we spend the next day reading in the van. I’ve just started “Oliver Twist”. We learn a few words of Croatian which reminds us of Czech. Several ferries are lined up for Montenegro, Albania and Greece.
When it’s time to drive on board we’re at the head of the queue and lead the way along the wharf to our little ferry. The Croatian guy checking us in doesn’t want to see our passports when he hears we’re from New Zealand and says, “Is not terrorist. Is not bin Laden. Welcome!” We drive to the stern and notice that there’s room for just one line of vehicles.
There’s a glorious full moon. We settle down with a can of beer, a blanket and pillow each on adjacent couches. The few cockroaches on the floor don’t upset us too much although I’m careful to keep the blanket tucked in. To introduce a family of cockroaches into the van would be too much. Only eight passengers are with us in the lounge with the rest sleeping in cabins, so it’s pretty easy. It’s a very old fashioned little ship with a large dining room full of tables covered with starched white tablecloths.
After a peaceful crossing we go up on deck at six thirty and discover that we’re heading along the Croatian coast between islands and the land. It’s steep and rocky, with the loveliest blue water. When we land at seven the female official who inspects the back of the van looks inside with undisguised contempt. We’re getting used to this! We drive into Dubrovnik and find a spot in a car park just outside the city walls. We spend the next couple of days exploring the old town on foot, while trying to conceal the fact that we’re living in the van. Who knows what the car park attendants think.
Dubrovnik is a perfect walled medieval town, meticulously restored since the war in the early 1990s but with a few bullet holes still visible. It’s right on the sea. We walk around the two miles of walls, a fantastic experience on a perfect sunny day. The views are marvellous – across terracotta tile roofs down into the old town, up to the steep hills at the back (still harbouring landmines according to the guidebook), and out across the smooth sea, which looks like slightly wrinkled blue foil. People have tiny vegetable and flower gardens on patches of flat land inside the walls. At a little market where people sell their own produce we buy some tiny purple broccoli. Later the cooking water turns the instant mash an interesting shade of mauve.
We visit the Dubrovnik Defenders’ Memorial which has photographs of soldiers who died defending the town in the recent war. It has a visitors’ book where John is amazed to read comments like “Thanks for defending this beautiful city so I can come and visit it.” Only one person mentions that they were fighting for their freedom.
On the way out of Dubrovnik we stop at Port Guza and visit both the supermarket and outdoor market and buy dried figs and wild asparagus. There are very cheap oysters in the shell, and black squid ink drips onto the floor. The range of greens is fantastic, lots of variations on broccoli and kale, plus home grown Kiwifruit.
We drive around a large inlet with with steep limestone hills, and a marina with massive launches and yachts. To the west are islands and sea of the deepest blue. Beside the road are steep terraced hillsides with olives, and a bird of prey is right there by the sea, manoeuvring like a kite.
We decide to stop at the Trsteno Arboretum, five hundred years old, and planted with seeds from exotic trees brought back over the centuries from all over the world by seafarers. It has a five hundred year old plane tree at the entrance. It’s wonderful to be in the familiar and peaceful atmosphere of an old garden again. We wander along all the paths and down to the beach, and strike up a conversation with a friendly couple from Canada. He was born in Croatia and they spend long periods here. They’re visiting the arboretum to check on the progress of a little banyan tree which they brought over from Florida a year ago. We talk with them for a long time and he tells John some of the history and politics of Croatia. Apparently mass graves of people executed under Tito’s rule are now being uncovered. They also tell us that it’s nearly impossible to find people to work as shepherds here. It’s a nice outdoor job, all living expenses paid, good money, and European sheep seem much better behaved than New Zealand ones.
Next we head out on the Peljesac peninsula, past mussel and oyster farms. People are out planting vegetables, pruning olives and grapevines, and tending bonfires. Large areas of hillside have been newly terraced with grey limestone walls. The grapevines are short, squat, gnarled and twisted, severely cut back, and with no supports. There’s virtually no topsoil. The wild almond is in blossom, and at Ponicve, weeping willow has fine new green leaves.
We park beside the water at Drace. Apart from a couple of men doing things with nets and a little dinghy, it’s utterly still and silent. We have frittata made with onion, bacon, red pepper and wild asparagus, and watch the men set out in the dinghy with a big gas bottle and a large light. Perhaps they’re fishing for squid. They putter off in the dark and we can hear their little two stroke motor disappearing into the distance. A chef comes down to the edge of the wharf and hauls up a kind of craypot on a rope. He takes out several small bags and returns to the tiny restaurant over the road. Two cars pull up and people go in to dine. We’re in bed by seven.
In the morning we see the two men in the dinghy returning. John reckons they set nets and have been out to pick them up. A woman and another man are on the wharf cleaning squid and small fish. After hauling up a crab pot in the bay, the men in the dinghy pull up at the wharf and one of them spears two fish with a long four pronged spear.
It’s sunny and the water is rippling silver. Other dinghies are out. I open the side door and have breakfast in the sun. John just has to go and watch the fishermen. He talks to the father of one of them who tells him they’ve caught bream. They’re back home for a weekend of fishing. When John tells him we’re from New Zealand, he’s surprised. He tells us Croatians have gone to New Zealand, South Africa, California and Australia to make wine. He indicates why would you want to go to South Africa? John says, “Why would you leave here?”
Further along a man arrives back in a little dinghy and he proudly displays a small swordfish he’s caught, about three feet long. I walk around the little concrete manmade harbour and look down into the clear deep water. There are black sea slugs about ten inches long, and in the shallows, clams six inches across. Cats are hanging around the wharf.
At Janjna there are more short ancient gnarled vines, red soil, and rigid terracing on the hillside. New vineyards have been carved out of the steep hills with new white stone terracing. We pass through Trstenik a beautiful little village on a bay. Everything is green and there’s wild heather and rosemary in flower. We head inland through steep pine forest and stop at a WW2 memorial at the highest point on the peninsula. It’s a curved bronze relief sculpture six feet high and twenty five feet long telling the story of the Croatians fighting the Nazis, overcoming them, then Communism making everyone happy. It’s a beautiful work of art but it’s got bullet holes in it. On the back are the names of four hundred and fifty soldiers from villages on the Peljesac peninsula who died in WW2. A Croatian guy pulls up in a car and comes over. He tells me he visits this beautiful spot, looking down over the land and out to sea and the islands, every day. I ask him about the bullet holes. He says that in the 1990s war, soldiers returning from the front twenty five miles away vented their anger about Communism on this sculpture.
We lift the mattress, bedding and all the carpets out of the van and put them in the sun to air. It’s exciting to see all the carpets again as we haven’t had a chance to put things out in the sun like this for months. We spend a couple of hours sorting everything out. A big glossy black raven flies overhead croaking loudly. Another one croaks from a rocky bluff. We wonder if she’s on a nest.
The next place is Pijavicino where there are native golden pines. It’s a flat plain with red soil, long lines of compost, and solid with grapes. Then we could be in a traditional Chinese garden of little pines and other stunted trees growing out of grey rock. Fine mare’s tails are in the sky. The coast appears again and we travel through spectacular hairpins, then stop at a lookout to gaze down over about twenty islands, with the town of Orebic in the distance.
On the edge of Orebic we drive in to a petrol station to get water. I leap down from the van with the big plastic water container and start filling it from an outside tap. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten to ask the proprietor, who I actually thought was a customer as he didn’t come over and greet me. He gives me a good telling off. I apologise but give him some arguments back and we drive off with our container only half full. A few choice comments spring to mind as we get down the road.
In Orebic, tamarisk trees line the sea front, the magnolias have pink flowers, and we see cacti, daffodils, tulips, and broad beans in flower. We set off up steep hairpins inland, looking down on the sea, with Korcula and other islands in the distance. To the north east are the snowy mountains of Hercegovina.
Closer at hand the landscape has been cultivated for centuries, with stone walls, olives, and the odd big fig tree. At Loviste, minute seaside gardens have stocks, tiny olive trees, and huge white irises. Cyclamens are flowering outside. We drive along the sea front looking in vain for somewhere to park. We decide that our favourite Croatian surname is Bonkovich.
Heading back the way we’ve come we stop at a lookout and watch a kestrel hovering above the cliff. We drive down into Viganj which is famous for its steady wind every afternoon along a fifteen hundred foot stretch of beach, making it the perfect venue for the world windsurfing championships. At the moment the place is deserted with all the holiday accommodation empty. We find a quiet spot to park by the water’s edge and look across to Korcula Island which was settled by the Greeks in the 6th century BC. We go for a walk past a mix of old and new houses, little jetties, boats, pine trees, lemon trees in blossom, and daffodils. An older man is filling a wheelbarrow with driftwood from the beach and he stops to talk. He says that the place becomes too crowded in July and August. He tells us that the wind is the mistral, and now is a good time to catch squid since it’s cooler. We tell him about the swordfish at Drace. He says there’s not much money around and people make a bit off tourism, olives, grapes and fishing. Some villages near here closed down in the 1960s when all the inhabitants moved to places like New Zealand. Over on Korcula there are parts where Croatians who emigrated to Australia and New Zealand have come back with lots of money to build big houses. He also tells us that in the steep rocky mountains behind us (three thousand feet) there are wild sheep called moufflons which come to within six hundred feet of his mother’s house. There’s also a small animal like a fox.
We have a peaceful night but in the morning we wake up at six to find people coming and going all around us because we’ve parked at the bus stop. A ferry arrives at the wharf beside us and takes the high school students to Korcula. We wait till everyone leaves, then creep into the front seat and drive to a quiet spot for breakfast.
In the past, grapes from the Dignac terroir (a narrow four mile strip of extremely steep land) were carried from the vineyard to the winery by donkeys. It’s an area that looks impossible to cultivate, but the conditions are perfect for grape growing – a southwest facing slope where the calcified soil holds the heat, with the added benefit of sunlight reflected off the sea. Access is difficult and we have to drive it in two chunks. It’s a patchwork of little plots and terraces of different coloured soils, most with short old vines very close together. Somehow they manage to rotary hoe between them. We head towards Podobuce on the low road and see people digging holes with crowbars to plant vines. A few olives are growing here as well. We drive down a twelve hundred foot long unlit tunnel which was hand dug by the locals in the 1960s. Before that everything was taken over the top. Vines grow on the cliff above the sea and it’s so steep that sometimes the lowest terrace is concreted at the base. There’s a range of plants clinging on here: heather, viburnum, rosemary, thyme, macrocarpa, holm oak, pine, tsuga, juniper, and sage. If another vehicle comes we have to back up to let them pass. A high fence runs down from the top of the hill to the tunnel and we wonder what it’s for.
Safely back at the other end of the tunnel we decide to pay a visit to Matusko Wines where a lovely young woman gives us a tour. We taste a couple of the red wines and she tells us about the winery. First of all, the fence on the hill is to keep out the moufflons as they like to come down and eat the vines and grapes. The wine is kept in barrels of Croatian oak for six months and they also use oak barrels from Portugal and France.
There are two wine growing areas here, the continental (inland, where this winery is) and coastal which is the Dignac terroir. The wine from the continental part is ordinary, and from the Dignac it’s very intense and concentrated. In the coastal part the vines are planted about three feet apart and they produce a couple of pounds of high sugar grapes per vine. The grapes are the small Mali variety and the coastal ones fetch forty kuna for over two pounds. The continental ones are planted further apart and produce double the quantity of grapes which sell for a quarter of the price. The reason why the vines are kept short is to allow the leaves to protect the grapes from the sun.
The Dignac red won the prize for the best Croatian red wine in 2008. The guide shows us an old donkey pack saddle like we’ve seen being used in Turkey. The grapes are picked by the families of the people who own the small plots of vines. The harvest lasts for twenty days. The reason why there is so much planting of new grapevines at the moment is that if Croatia joins the EU, there will be restrictions on what they can plant, so people are getting in early. Like many Croatians our guide doesn’t think joining the EU would be a good thing for Croatia as they aren’t keen to be told what to do by anyone. Only a small amount of wine is exported from this area, to their near neighbours. We buy some of the delicious Dignac red.
Feeling confident after a few days in Croatia, and realising how close Sarajevo is to the coast, we make the big decision to visit Bosnia – Hercegovina. For our generation Sarajevo will always be defined by the notorious siege by the Bosnian Serbs from 1992 to 1995, so we want to visit some of the places we saw on the television news, and begin to understand the people and their history.
Retracing our path back down the peninsula, past Drace and through bluebells and grape hyacinths, we’re in a haze of woodsmoke from the pruning fires. We head north where the road goes though Bosnia for nine kilometres, a concession to the Ottomans who wanted sea access. The border guard has one hand on his gun as he asks for our passports. We go through a stretch of beaches, holiday apartments and hotels, then we’re back in Croatia again. We see the snowy Hercegovina mountains in the distance before reaching the delta of the Neretva River. It looks like it’s been drained for productive land, with many ponds and waterways breaking up the citrus orchards, tunnel houses and crops.
As we follow the river inland we see whitebait stands, and then, oh joy, a Romanian haystack, a cow, and huge stacks of firewood beside rough dwellings on the riverbank. We stop at the town of Metkovic, just inside Croatia, on the border with Bosnia and Hercegovina. After driving around and finding a spot where we can get on line and talk on skype, we park on the wharf by the river for the night. Bats are flying over the water catching insects. We have smoked sausages, onions, instant mash and silver beet for dinner and go to bed with a mix of anticipation and nervousness. Tomorrow we’ll be in Sarajevo.
Breakfast in Bosnia
Next morning a crow is fossicking on the ground in front of the van and willow catkins are floating on the fast flowing river. At the border crossing, the guard is bored with us and quickly returns to his crossword. The Neretva River is beautiful, wide, deep and turquoise, reminiscent of the Clutha in New Zealand. The river flats are covered with gardens, orchards and tunnel houses. We see mosques and Mercedes vans, a relief on both counts. The hillsides are stony and crisscrossed with rock walls, and there are little groups of stone houses with walls but no roofs. We wonder if they’ve been bombed. There are also Moslem cemeteries with their slim pointed headstones.
The road takes us through numerous tunnels under rocky bluffs. People are moving rotary hoes around on trailers, magnolias are in flower, and the cherry and plum blossom is out. We pass abandoned feedlots from the Communist era. Geese fly overhead, beating their wings as they switch places. We’re overtaken by the Bosnian army and notice that the road signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet. Lucky for us they give an English version as well.
At the edge of Mostar we see bombed out buildings and shell damage on the ones that are still standing. In fact everything is riddled with bullet holes, and even some rusted old cement hoppers have big shell holes. We see some nuns, and cemeteries with graves from the recent war. Crows are building nests, and big bags of potatoes and chrysanthemums are for sale at the roadside.
The railway line is on the other side of the river from the road and it looks like it would be an exciting train trip from the coast to Sarajevo. The escarpments are spectacular and the map shows mountains over six thousand feet high. We come to a long hydro lake and go through a dramatic series of tunnels. They raise salmon in fish farms on the lake with pontoons to access them, and there are houseboats as well. The cliffs are covered with bare trees and the place has quite a sad and desolate feel, but the road has new seal making driving easier. A train goes past and it’s a mishmash of different rolling stock, then we see a hydro dam with the EU logo on it.
At Jablanica there’s a subtle change in the houses as they become more alpine. There’s strip farming in the valley and Romanian haystacks, then beautiful green velvety strips of grass running up the hillside. We see women in Moslem dress. It’s like the rural countryside in Romania with beehives, piles of firewood, and structures built for the new season’s hay, a pole up the middle with a rough wooden platform on the ground. In the village of Bradina snow lies beside the road and we see more bullet holes and blown up houses. The sky is cloudy and snow is predicted in two days time. We drive though Tunnel Ivan, two thousand feet long, then we’re at the top of the pass where there’s pussy willow and a patchwork of grass and trees. Further down, the rivers are full of rubbish. There are crocuses, piles of mucked out straw, sheep and hens by a barn. Wooden houses and carvings remind us of Zakopane in Poland.
We turn off at Ilidza, where soldiers stand beside the road, and the police stop us and check our passports and John’s licence. We find the Hotel Bosna beside the Bosna River. A guy in Dubrovnik gave John some advice on Sarajevo, where to stay, what to eat, and he suggested staying at Ilidza on the outskirts, and catching the tram into town. We check in and the price is reduced because the internet connection isn’t working. It’s a flash hotel by our standards with hot water and heating. We go to the shops and get Konvertible Marks from the ATM. The local currency is tagged to half the value of the Euro. Then we go to the post office where they are very nice and patient with us.
We look at a stall selling books on Islam, prayer beads and DVDs. There’s a documentary on Guantanamo Bay in English, and this leads us into chatting with the guy on the stall, in his forties with a traditional Moslem beard. He was born in Dubrovnik, fought in the recent war for the Croatian army, got a serious injury, still owns a house in Dubrovnik, but feels uncomfortable being a Moslem there. So he moved his family to Sarajevo and started off the stall by selling his own books. He tells us he makes a good living now. People weren’t allowed to discuss religion in the Communist era and now there’s a hunger for these books. He says legally he has the same rights as anyone else in Croatia but he experienced discrimination there.
We catch the tram to town and it follows the infamous “Snipers’ Alley” where snipers on the surrounding hills shot at anyone travelling the route during the siege. There’s a multitude of Communist era apartment buildings, large and ugly, most with damage from the war. On the surrounding hills we can see the tree line which formed the front line. For three desperate winters people crept up from the town and took all the trees below this line for firewood.
The tram goes around the National Library, a large beautiful ornate stone building in terracotta and beige stripes. It was built in the late 19th century when the country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Serbs deliberately bombed it in 1992 on its centenary, destroying a large chunk of the country’s archives and cultural history. The guidebook tells us how the residents risked their lives to rescue its treasures, but most of the collection was lost. The exterior has been restored but it’s boarded up.
We go to the Turkish area for a nostalgic look at kilims, carpets and scarves. One small shop sells only old and antique kilims made in Bosnia. The guy is very keen to tell us about them and he shows us one from the 19th century which is very fine and beautiful. He shows us photos of a carpet factory set up by a wealthy Viennese man in the early 1900s where women were employed to weave beautiful kilims. His grandmother worked there for forty years. He explains a couple of the images woven into the kilims to us: the spider protects the house, and turtles mean long life.
Then we have a look round a large shop in an old han full of beautiful cheap Persian carpets and kilims. They also have a large woven bag which nomadic people would use to carry their clothes and linen when they moved around. We have a cay and walk around enjoying the old Turkish buildings including a mosque from the 1500s. The people are tall and friendly, ninety per cent Moslem, and not many of the women wear head scarves. We have a delicious lunch of stew with the fluffiest flat bread. We see only two other tourists. I buy some crocheted teddy bears which look very like Mr Bean’s teddy, made by refugee women.
Back at the hotel we turn on Aljazeera and catch up on the news. As it gets dark all the crows roost in one tree outside our window. John takes a picture of them and when the flash goes off they scatter, startled. Sarajevo crows, so it’s not surprising. They’re back the next night.
When we get up next morning it’s snowing. We have breakfast of the tastiest bacon, fried eggs, bread rolls, cranberry jam, nutella, honey, juice, and Bosnian coffee which comes in a tiny copper long handled jug. You pour it into a little bowl with sugar cubes. It’s very thick and gritty, with a delicious flavour. You can imagine it warming people in some very tough times. It comes with a small piece of Turkish delight. When we look out the window it’s stopped snowing and the conifers on the hills are now covered.
Stari Stari Most
We catch the tram in to Sarajevo again and notice that the primroses are out. The city runs along a valley with the Miljacka River in the centre, and the small hills on each side are covered with the most beautiful houses. They all have terracotta tile roofs and come in many colours: turquoise, brown, yellow, white, pink, beige, green, and lime green. They look like storybook houses, three or four stories high, with lots of windows and balconies. Of course the vast majority of people live in the gargantuan scarred apartment blocks. As we ride on the tram we think of New Zealand camera woman Margaret Moth who was shot and seriously injured on Snipers’ Alley during the war.
We visit the History Museum and learn that Bosnia went from being an independent state, to part of the Ottoman Empire for four hundred years, to part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then part of Yugoslavia, briefly an independent state, then mayhem, and finally now independent again. There’s a huge exhibition on the siege of Sarajevo by the Serbs. It includes photos, words, ingenious home made devices to make light and cook food, home made weapons, and the possessions of people who were killed. It’s extremely depressing but we learn so much.
People lived with erratic electricity and little water or fuel. They grew vegetables on their balconies, and patches of land near apartment blocks were turned into vegetable gardens. Nettles became an important food. Schools, factories, museums, and hospitals were targeted by the Serbs. Twelve thousand people died, eighteen hundred of them children; fifteen thousand children were injured, and one hundred and fifty thousand people fled the city. This was from a population of about four hundred thousand people. Many new cemeteries were made to cope with the dead. Adults lost an average of nearly twenty pounds each in body weight.
It’s all still so fresh, and the items on display are a fascinating illustration of the realities of daily life for people. One of the ways in which their spirit came through was in the many cultural performances which took place during the siege, including a concert by the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra in the burnt Town Hall.
On the way out we talk with the man in the ticket office. He tells us he’s very unhappy with the government, and Bosnians are unhappy with the Dayton Accord (the peace plan at the end of the war). He asks why it took so long for the outside world to intervene, believes that the EU is against Bosnia, and that Bosnia has no allies. Serbs who live in Bosnia cheer for the Serbian football team, and likewise the Croatians who live in Bosnia cheer for the Croatian football team. He becomes quite upset when talking about the hell of the siege, and the older woman with him is visibly distressed, weeping and nodding.
It’s an exhausting visit and afterwards we feel gutted. We take a taxi up to a high point to get a view over the city, then walk back down to Imat Kuca, a little restaurant that just serves Bosnian food and plays Bosnian soul music. We have burek which is mince and very thin pastry in a gigantic spiral. It’s great ribsticking food, and we need it because it starts snowing. The restaurant is right on the river in a little three storied Ottoman house called the Spite House, which has been shifted twice. The first time was when the Austrians wanted to put up a government building on the site where it stood, and the owner insisted that it be moved. Then again when the new site was required, it was moved again. It’s a very charming old building with exposed wooden beams, and little windows and staircases, looking across the river towards the National Library.
Later, at an internet cafe, we meet Joe, a young Kiwi travelling on his own from Scandanavia to Israel, couch surfing and catching trains, and particularly fascinated with the Balkans. We have a cay with him and swap stories. He tells us that the Croatians are said to be the least friendly of the Balkans people, and the Serbs the friendliest.
We go looking for the Land Mine Action Centre and can’t find it but end up at a large building site which turns out to be the site of the new American Embassy. We ask a charming American for directions and he asks his Bosnian workmates, but no joy. Near where we’re staying at Ilidja we’ve seen the Lady Di cafe. She visited Bosnia and Hercegovina with the Landmine Survivors’ Network in 1997.
It snows overnight and the trees are covered. We have to clear the van’s windscreen before we drive into town along Snipers’ Alley just for the hell of it (past the Holiday Inn where journalists were holed up during the siege) and take some more pictures. Sarajevo is beautiful in the snow, with the houses on the hills covered and the countryside beyond blanketed, a patchwork of white fields, bare deciduous trees, white conifers and hills, all different textures.
As we head back towards Mostar we see snow covered mountains, warmer grassy slopes, and a few sheep. It’s picturesque on such a sunny day. It’s all downhill retracing our steps back towards the coast catching sight of the railway line as we go. Joe told us that the train trip from Mostar to Sarajevo was spectacular, following the river, through tunnels and hairpin bends, under rocky bluffs, and across viaducts, with the most stunning scenery.
We’re pleased to reach Mostar, a medieval settlement which came under Ottoman rule in the middle of the 15th century, then Austrian occupation from the late 19th century. The tiny ancient section of the city clusters around the banks of the Neretva River, with the famous Stari Most (Old Bridge), at the heart. The bridge was built by the Turks, designed by a famous architect from Istanbul, completed in 1566, and destroyed by the Croatians in 1993. Its rebuilding was completed in 2004. It has a magnetic attraction, with its beautiful and gravity defying arch over the icy river eighty feet below. The name Mostar means bridge guardians, and clearly a bridge on this spot has been extremely important for centuries. In the summer, young men dive off it (a tradition that is hundreds of years old), and there’s an annual diving contest. It’s surprisingly steep to walk across, with thick raised bands of stone every fourteen inches to stop your feet slipping. Quaint Ottoman era buildings cluster at each end of the bridge. Of course the whole place has been rebuilt, with one reference referring to the look of the place after the war as similar to Dresden.
Mostar, like Sarajevo, had been a model of peace and harmony between people of different ethnic groups and religions. Then, some months after fighting alongside Moslems when the city was besieged by the Serb and Montegrin soldiers, the Croats attacked the Moslems, moving them to detention camps on the eastern side of the river. Huge destruction, including the destruction of the famous bridge, tragedy, and bitterness were the result. After the war, the city was divided, with Croatians (Christians) on one side, and Moslems on the other. There were two separate systems of government. They are now becoming integrated, and it’s unclear to us how far that process has gone, but the guy in the bookshop is very sad about it all.
We find a safe car park on the western side beside the rebuilt Church of St Peter and Paul with adjoining Franciscan monastery. Later a man emerges from the direction of the church and indicates that it will cost us five Euros a night to park here. Then he takes me over to the immaculate toilet block, unlocks it, and turns on the water at an outside tap for us. We have a very peaceful night after an exhausting few days of challenging driving on steep roads, snow, and being confronted with such sad history.
It’s reassuring to hear the call to prayer from the mosques, as well as the bells from our church. Sometimes they go off within a couple of minutes of each other. The streets in the old area are lined with shops selling souvenirs with a Turkish design. Turkish style is like a dominant gene, its visible everywhere.
Next day we walk down to the river’s edge and around the old town. We find a great supermarket and a bakery. I can now say “Hello, two mince pies please, thank you, goodbye”, in Croatian. For two nights running we have burek (mince pie in a spiral), instant mash, and frozen vegetables for dinner. John’s in heaven.
Only a few tourists are around, older earnest ones like us, and a few small busloads from Italy who park near us. We return to the van for a cup of Earl Grey and watch the robins bobbing around the car park.
There are cemeteries full of young men killed in 1993 – 1995. We’ve also seen a couple of men with only one leg getting around on crutches – land mine casualties.
Next day we walk up the hill on the Moslem side where there’s an old Christian cemetery. We realise that the split of the town must have separated people from their dead. We get a great view over the area but don’t go right to the top because there’s a group of men up there sitting around a fire.
We visit the museum where the traditional costumes are very similar to Romanian ones. The best part is a silent movie from the 1960s which shows the beautiful old bridge with children jumping and men diving off it, then the same scenes in the 1980s. The shocking footage of its destruction follows, then the retrieval of stone building blocks from the river, and its reconstruction. The final part shows the reopening of the Stari Most with fireworks and fantastic night diving. Unsurprisingly, at the ceremony, when various politicians are walking across the bridge, Franjo Tudman, the president of Croatia, is booed and people call out “Murderer!”
The wind has been blowing for days now. John buys “The Fall of Yugoslavia” by Misha Glenny and we learn some of the background to the conflict. We notice that the houses and other old stone buildings including mosques, which have been restored after bomb damage, have been given new stone roofs.
One day we’re surprised and delighted to discover some old Bosnian kilims in a tiny shop. The ones we buy are long and narrow, with large geometric patterns in red, pink, yellow, orange, lime green and blue.
As usual, living in the car park we see lots of comings and goings. Gypsy beggars come into our car park and accost the tour groups, and two disabled men wait patiently outside the church when there’s a service. Nuns and monks arrive and depart in cars, and there are large congregations at certain times.
On Sunday we go for a walk into the more modern Christian area. Young people are out everywhere having coffee in cafes. We try to find the Partisans’ Memorial Cemetery (honouring resistance fighters who died in WW2) but it’s up an unkempt hillside and there are a few groups of young men around so we decide to leave it. Perhaps it’s not such an important site to people these days. We stop at a tiny fast food place and have cevapi the local takeaway, little meat balls in spongy flat bread (somun) served with a red pepper paste and chopped raw onion. Later we get some groceries in a little dairy and the lovely Moslem woman tells me that things are very bad in Mostar.
Back in the van I’m reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “Roumeli” about northern Greece plus reminiscences and observations on Greece in general, and John plunges into Misha Glenny’s “The Fall of Yugoslavia”. At quarter to six the car park suddenly starts to fill up with young people going to church. The men are nondescript as they are the world over, but the women uniformly have long straight hair, skin tight jeans or tights, and high heeled shoes or boots. One is in lime green tights. The huge church is packed. At six when the service is starting, the call to prayer goes out from a mosque.
Snakes and Land Mines
We realise that we’ve been in Bosnia and Hercegovina for a week. We’ve had some very warm encounters with people here and it’s hard to tear ourselves away from beautiful, tragic Mostar. I discover that I’ve developed thick callouses on my knees from all the kneeling in the back of the van. Likewise John’s body is suffering from long hours driving.
We set off on the main road towards Stolac, past a large aluminium plant from the Communist era which is still operating. It’s a glorious day and people are out planting their gardens in the six foot deep river soil. The properties have small vineyards, small gardens with grapevines around the edge, and fruit trees with their trunks painted. When we turn off the main road we see our first land mine warning sign, a white skull and crossbones on a red background, with the word “mine” in four languages. We look down a valley which is a rough patchwork of trees, cultivated soil, terracotta tile roofed houses and cypresses, with Mostar in the distance, and snowy mountains behind.
The hills are rock and there’s rubbish everywhere. Perhaps it’s too dangerous to collect the rubbish. Later we come to a little valley with winter sweet, plum blossom and brown oak leaves. There’s the odd old stone wall, and at Hodovo, new basic concrete block houses. We pass through a flat area with blackened trees, beautifully cultivated soil under small fruit trees, and sheep and lambs liberated from their barn. Then we’re at Radimlja Necropolis, a flat area beside the road with about fifty big rectangular tombstones, graves of followers of the Bosnian church, from the 15th and 16th centuries. Some of the tombstones have very distinctive carvings: a huge hand, medieval figures, and moving horses.
Stolac is in a gorge, and we see our first tethered cow since Romania, strips of cultivated land, a loquat tree, and a flock of goats on a steep hill. The town was badly damaged in the war but there are beautiful new mosques, a lovely old restored Turkish house and three famous Ottoman bridges, some of which had mills incorporated into them. The town is surrounded by steep rocky fire blackened hills.
We return to the country and drive past land mine signs for miles, through a rugged landscape of grey stones, scrub, the odd patch of red soil with grass, and crested larks. We pass a group of abandoned stone houses riddled with bullet holes. We’re taking the back road to Hutovo Blato National Park and it seemed like a good idea but the road’s getting narrower and there’s virtually no traffic. The constant land mine signs make us a bit uneasy, though it’s only a problem if you walk across country. We wonder how they can graze sheep here, and how they could clear the mines, since the ground is almost completely covered in rocks. The only trees are stunted oaks and conifers, but there are lovely euphorbias. The winding road is very narrow but the seal is excellent.
We’re relieved to find ourselves looking down on a lake and wetland at last, and descend steeply to a pretty valley with tunnel houses, orchards, vineyards, hives, vegetable gardens, houses, and pale brown reeds. On our way to the main road and the national park we come across the Klepci Bridge, built in 1517 over the wide and fast flowing Bregava River. It’s very similar to the Stari Most, damaged in the war but still functional. The EU has thoughtfully provided a seat and rubbish bin.
The Huoto Blavo National Park was created in 1995. It’s very low key and at the headquarters the director tells us in halting English that he and his staff are just back from a visit to a national park in Spain. There’s not much money for wages as it’s not a priority for the government, so they tend to lose their good staff overseas. He loves his job and lives nearby with his family and parents, having returned after studying in Zagreb. He tells us to look out for snakes as he’s had one in his office. We go for a walk along the flood bank and cross a military type bridge. We see three big egrets, and a black grass snake about eighteen inches long with a big frog in its mouth. John pursues it with the camera and it turns around and faces him. Driving out of the park later and looking down on the lake below, we see two marsh harriers.
Back on the main road we head to Poticelj which we missed on our first day in Hercegovina when we were so focussed on getting to Sarajevo in one piece. It’s a very cute little village clinging to a cliff, all grey stone, ancient mosques, Turkish bath houses, towers and fortifications. It’s been restored after being badly damaged in the war, and the people have now returned. A few of the last deep pink pomegranates are clinging to the trees, and we see a blue tit.
After crossing back into Croatia we drive straight back to our old riverside park in Metkovic. Some men are lowering a boat into the water off the back of a lorry with a crane, and the bats are at it again over the water. We subsequently learn from John’s book that the Serbs wanted to occupy everything on the east side of the Neretva River.
Next morning we drive across the river to Vidd where there’s another smaller river, the Norin. Between the two rivers there’s an area of reeds broken up with canals, rectangles of water, cultivated soil, grapevines and orchards. The reeds have been burnt off in a few places. Nidd is a cute little village which we discover has a new archaeological museum displaying artefacts from the ancient Greek and Roman city that was here. We walk up the external staircase onto the roof from where there’s a fantastic view of the surrounding area, and down to a Roman mosaic below. A trade route used to pass by here, following the Neretva River from the Adriatic, and up into the inner Balkans. We see two serious looking men and two women with books and papers set off in one of the flat bottomed tourist boats in the direction of the ancient site and we think they must be archaeologists.
We head back to the delta and Plotce on the coast. The river is a beautiful wide turquoise strip bringing fertility and irrigation, as it must have done for thousands of years. We see citrus orchards and little villages on the water’s edge, and boats tied up to the concrete strips which line the bank. The hillside is solid rock with cypress and pine. The horticulture is extensive and ingeniously managed, with orchards on strips of land between long rectangular tongues of water and canals.
Plotce is a large port with little bays and villages. Steep grey stone covered slopes run down to the sea, like natural rock gardens sheltering a multitude of shrubs and grasses.
Old Clothes and Cold Porridge
It’s beginning to feel like we’ve been wearing the same old clothes for years. John doesn’t find it a problem but for me it’s just like wearing the same maternity garments for months and longing to quit them. We’re not eating cold porridge yet, our dinner is a vegetable stew with white beans, macaroni and a tiny bit of bacon.
As we continue up the Dalmatian coast we pass the beautiful town of Gradac alongside a turquoise sea, with blossom and new leaf everywhere. An animal similar to a possum lies dead beside the road. We look out to the island of Hvar and the light makes silvery patches on the water. Everywhere they are pruning the olives, taking out the tops. We pass Drasnice, a town of empty houses, then deserted villages high up on the cliffs. Low down on the water’s edge there’s new tourist friendly housing. We see a new vineyard just like in New Zealand with neat rows of posts, then beautiful little towns of apartments, beaches and marinas.
After Brela the hills become even more dramatic with a diagonal seam of grey rock, and cliffs dropping to the road. Elaborate stone terraces line the steep hillsides, and wire mesh structures on the cliffs keep falling rocks off the road. We’re taking the old road that hugs the coast rather than the motorway which runs inland. We drive down an avenue of loquats, then later one of plane trees, and amazingly, we see tamarisk trees growing out of the sand on the beach. Boats of all sizes are tied up all along the coast, plus windsurfers, and classic wooden sailing ships for tourists.
At last we reach Split which has a population of two hundred thousand people, and a port where ferries depart for the islands and Italy. We find the car park near the yacht club which Daniela recommended to us, go exploring on foot, and discover a laundrette with internet where we can take the laptop. After heavy rain overnight the next day is beautiful and sunny. We do three loads of washing at the laundrette, talk on skype, and meet the owners who are an Australian couple with Croatian connections. They’ve come here from New York to run their own businesses, and they are less than complimentary about the local attitudes. They’ve found the bureaucracy a nightmare and there’s not much understanding of customer service or how to encourage tourism. Later I go to the supermarket and I find every woman there grim and unsmiling; or perhaps I just see them that way after hearing from the laundrette owners that the locals can be harsh, suspicious and aggressive.
We spend the afternoon in the van reading. I start “Crime and Punishment” and John is engrossed in “The Fall of Yugoslavia” which describes a tangled web of psychopathic leaders, dishonesty, treachery, easily led hotheads, heavily armed citizens, and a general lack of discipline. He discovers that Hotel Bosna, where we stayed in Sarajevo, was the scene of an abortive meeting of political leaders very early on in the conflict.
Next day we walk around the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s vast retirement Palace, built in 300 AD. A lot of it is still standing and over the centuries houses and little alleyways have been built inside. It’s all very Italian with cafes, beautiful oddly shaped squares, old stone shops, arches, pillars, and houses of several stories looking down on it all. There are excellent bookshops with lots of books in English. The fish market has shrimps, shellfish, sprats, flatfish, and a monster multicoloured eel.
The streets of downtown Split are pristine with a large waterfront area set up for tourists. At the market we buy a cooked chicken and some real potatoes to have for dinner. Such luxury. I’ve become a bit disgruntled about all the E numbers in the instant mash we’ve been buying.
Leaving Split the next day we discover a huge LIDL supermarket and buy six jars of our favourite cooked little potatoes. The crab apple is in blossom, as is the elm, and there are gorgeous public beds of ranunculus, plus white hyacinths with blue pansies, and blue hyacinths with polyanthus. We drive to Trogir, a little town on an island, connected by bridges to the mainland and peninsula. The Dalmatian coast has plenty of these little semi island towns. It’s very Italian, like being on the set of “Romeo and Juliet”. We have a look at the lovely cathedral which has 13th century sculptures at the entrance – Adam and Eve in fig leaves.
Next day we push north again past olives, dark red soil, big broad beans in flower, terraced hillsides and gnarled grapevines. We see marinas full of expensive yachts, little turquoise bays with tiny boats, beautiful small pines, little islands, and whole hillsides ravaged by fires. Lots of the stone walls are very wide and have almost a ramp of stone on each side. We spend a very windy night parked beside the sea at Sibenik where the boats are trying to break free from their moorings. We walk around the picturesque medieval walled town then admire St James Cathedral from the outside.
John has just finished “Into the Blue” by Tony Horwitz about his journey with another chap retracing Captain Cook’s explorations. We see parallels with our own voyage. We stop to take on water and food, do repairs to our craft, hope the natives are friendly, and remark on the similarities between people everywhere. But we know we haven’t given anyone a disease as we haven’t been sick once.
We leave the coast and head inland to visit the Krka National Park, to see Skradinski Buk, a seventeen step series of cascades, which is viewed from a boardwalk. The water is running high after all the rain and it’s a spectacular mix of rushing water, moss, trees, pools and little waterfalls, all seen at close range. A power station was built here in 1895 and the whole place is strictly protected because the travertines (creamy coloured calcium carbonate deposits) are very easily damaged. Some of them are a hundred and twenty five thousand years old! There are rare plants as well as wolves, badgers, turtles, frogs, snakes, fish and birds. We see swallows and martins and meet a charming couple from Seattle and have a long talk with them. He makes an analogy between the Balkans and the USA and says that even now the south is not totally reconciled with the north. They tell us that the clocks have gone forward an hour. It’s a shock to realise that it’s six months since the clocks went back in Krakow.
Back on the coast we pass camping grounds and holiday apartments. We stop at Sukosan on the outskirts of Zadar and park by the sea near the marina. John fits a new blade to the windscreen wiper.
Next day we go into Zadar and discover what a lovely city it is. The old part has water on three sides, a tongue of land where cruise ships, ferries to the many nearby islands, and a myriad of little boats are tied up. It’s walled, with medieval churches, including the circular St Donat’s which was built in the 9th century. In the middle of the town are the ruins of the Roman forum. The best thing is a wide promenade along the sea front, where every fifty feet or so there’s a ladder down into deep water. It must be an amazing place to swim. Where the promenade forms a right angle there are two spectacular works of art, the Sea Organ and the Monument to the Sun. The Sea Organ is underneath wide steps leading seductively from the promenade to the sea, and its haunting sounds emerge from holes resembling whale blowholes on the promenade. The energy of the swell and waves creates the sound through underwater pipes. The Monument to the Sun is a circle of light seventy feet in diameter embedded in the promenade, with ten thousand tiny light bulbs which operate from solar power. At night it lights up in wonderful patterns.
The sea is flat and glassy out to the islands in the distance. We find an excellent bookshop and John buys “The Death of Yugoslavia” by Laura Silber and Allan Little. We go to the movies and see “Slumdog Millionaire”, exciting, but somehow unsatisfying. I’m reading “Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K Jerome, light relief from the sense of unease we feel in Croatia.
The Cypresses of Opatija
We head inland from Zadar, and cross from the peninsula back to the mainland. We’re close to the Paklenica National Park but decide not to visit it. We read about special stones (“mirila” meaning measures) you can see there, which are memorials for deceased people. From the 17th to the 20th centuries, people carrying a corpse to the cemetery (through steep rocky mountains) were allowed to stop only once for a rest to put the body down. Stones were placed at the head and the feet, giving the measure of the person, with paving later filling the space. The stones were a more important memorial than the grave.
It’s flat by the coast with stunted oaks, hawthorn in flower, and olives. Beautiful pear trees are covered in blossom, and there are hens everywhere. Black clad old ladies with head scarves are out with wheelbarrows, and the wild asparagus harvest is on. To the west behind the azure sea the peninsula is bare and low, and of a grey so pale that it looks like sand dunes. At Lisarica we stop to get a closer look at a rough circle a hundred and twenty feet across, just offshore. The water appears to be boiling, and as we watch, it changes, and smaller circles appear. It seems to be a feeding frenzy of small fish. The water’s crystal clear at the edge and we see shoals of little fish, a big piper and lots of sea urchins. Then we hear a very distinctive bird singing from a macrocarpa treetop. It’s like a blackbird with a white breast but behaving very unlike one. I think it’s a ring ouzel. We also see two red admiral butterflies and a big butterfly whose wings make a noise as they touch.
Tiny coves a couple of hundred feet wide with one or two houses and little boats tied up are a feature of this stretch of coast. The hillside is solid rock with no vegetation except the odd stunted tree. The prevailing wind here is called the Bura, flowing down the valleys from snowy mountains inland and reaching extremely high speeds at times. The islands of Pag and Novalia are a white moonscape to the west. We see a blue rock thrush, now one of my favourite birds, with their iridescent blue feathers and long beak.
We stop for lunch on the side of the road where we’re on top of the world with half the horizon taken up with sea and the pale grey of the islands, and the other half stony hills. The people here must have been compulsive wall builders because for miles there have been high stone walls, a maze of them marking off tiny areas with no crop or stock. Perhaps the people who farmed here have left. We’ve started seeing a few campers from Austria, Italy and Germany, travelling south. Many of the camping grounds open today, the 1st of April. At Bakarac the sea is deep and there are fantastic cantilevered diving boards a hundred feet high.
At large and industrial Rijeka we take the motorway bypass and all is going well until we come to a tunnel which is closed and we have to go on a tricky and unsignposted detour through the city, always stressful. We arrive at Opatija exhausted and park on the wharf near the yacht club and some cafes. It’s a very formal place and we feel conspicuous and uncomfortable but we’re too tired to find anywhere else to spend the night. Opatija is a beautiful town of 19th century Austrian buildings and huge old trees especially cypress and other conifers. The magnolias are flowering and there’s new leaf on the deciduous trees. A walkway follows the water’s edge for miles with steep steps up to the town streets every so often. Ladders for swimmers lead down to the sea, and flat rocks and concrete platforms beside deep water look great for diving. The tall and heavily ornamented holiday villas of wealthy 19th century Austrians are now hotels and holiday apartments. It has a totally different feel from anywhere else in Croatia, and Austrians are still the main tourists. I start “David Copperfield”. This trip has been the best opportunity for reading that we’ve had for years.
We’re now at the start of the Istrian peninsula which has an Austrian, Italian and Yugoslavian history, but is now part of Croatia. As we head south the beautiful houses and trees continue for a few miles. It’s raining and the soil is a rich red with creamy rock coming through. From high up we look down on the sea and islands, and back towards Rijeka. At Plomin we pass a massive coal fired power station, a legacy of the Communist era, with a tiny medieval village on the hillside above it. The tall red and white chimney in the valley seems to follow us for miles.
As we approach Pula the countryside is almost English with hedgerows, fields, patches of oak (some of it coppiced), and hawthorn in blossom. We navigate our way through the town and park on the water’s edge, with a road and railway line behind us, and behind that, beautiful crumbling 19th century houses several stories high, all with a round tower in the front. Various little boats are tied up in front of us and men come and go looking at them. In the evening, young people glide across the glassy water in rowing sculls. On two sides of the sea there are low wooded hills, and directly in front of us half a mile away is a massive shipyard which seems to operate twenty four hours a day. Once a day, a train loaded with steel passes us on its way to the shipyard. Close by is the old town of Pula dominated by the huge Roman amphitheatre which was used for gladiator spectacles from the 1st to the 5th centuries AD, holding twenty thousand spectators. The Venetians subsequently used it as a stone quarry to build other structures. The outer walls are almost completely preserved and it dominates the skyline. It’s now used for opera, theatre, rock concerts and a film festival. Parts of the movie “Titus” were filmed inside it.
We walk up the hill in the centre of town to the Venetian castle and get a great view in all directions, then visit the old Roman forum where there’s a tiny intact Temple of Augustus. Various Roman triumphal arches adorn the place as well. Pula was the base for the Austro-Hungarian empire with an arsenal built here in 1856. The Italians had possession of it in 1918, it was heavily bombed by the Allies in WW2, and after the Allies handed it to Yugoslavia in 1947, it was industrialised by Tito. The Roman presence is still very strong in spite of all this. The streets have two signs, one in Croatian and one in Italian. James Joyce taught English here in the winter of 1904-1905 and apparently described Pula as “Siberia by the sea”. There’s a lovely statue of him.
Our synthetic blankets, bought in Poland in the chill of autumn, are now overdue for a wash. They can’t go in a drier so we need to wash them at a camping ground and hang them on a line. We drive to Camping Stoja on the peninsula near Pula. It’s a grand place with a security guard on the gate. Today is the first day they’re open for the new season, but they tell us that they don’t open the laundry for another month! We can’t believe it. We drive past a cemetery densely packed with huge cypresses and stop for coffee beside a beach. Then we head up the west coast, knowing that one of the many camping grounds will surely have a washing machine. It’s all stone walls and pasture, and some of the walls have grass growing on the top like in Wales. The jays are busy. We stop at another camping ground at Rovinj, part of a chain, large and fancy, with two laundries. We buy tokens for the laundry then find a nice place to park. The first task is to get the blankets into the machine. In the first laundry we can’t get the washing machine to work, and when John gets the battery charger to check the power, there is none. So we go to the other laundry. Same story. Back to the office where they tell us the electrician will be in at six tonight to fix the problem. We can’t see the point in paying nineteen Euros a night and not be able to do the washing so we get our money back and check out. They’re quite nice about it.
Down the road we come across Camp Oaza run by a lovely Croatian woman Stenka, and Gerhard her Austrian partner (“I’m the lover boy, she’s the boss”). She will wash the blankets for us as there’s no camp washing machine, and they have free wireless. We’re thrilled, and they are very friendly as well. They aren’t connected to the power system but turn on a diesel generator for the washing machine, use solar panels, and have gas hot water. It’s very relaxing apart from the model car Grand Prix in the next door field. Again it rains heavily in the night leaving everything bright and wet in the morning. A little white cat comes to visit us for chicken, bread and cornflakes. We hear pheasants.We have to visit Rovinj, the most perfect of the coastal Istrian towns. The old part is on a tiny peninsula, and seen from across the water, the centrepiece is St Euphemia’s Cathedral with its stunning tower. We climb the Cathedral tower on a series of glorified old timber ladders and get a spectacular view. We notice that the locals are all carrying bunches of olive sprigs as it’s the Sunday before Easter. The newer part of town is full of beds of pansies and there are also lovely beds of blue and pink forget-me-nots.
The shutters on the houses in Istria are intriguing, the perfect invention to keep out the sun while letting in the breeze, and romantic into the bargain. They consist of thin wooden louvers which can be tilted in various ways depending on the direction of the wind and sun, all flung open now, but essential in the summer heat.
After two nights we leave the camp with our clean blankets and go to the Rovinj laundry to get the rest of the washing done. We park beside the sea and read in the sun until it’s time to collect it, then head north on the motorway towards Lipica in Slovenia and the Lipizzaner horses.
Maestoso and Favory
It’s twenty five degrees as we leave Rovinj and cross the four thousand foot long Mirna bridge, over a lush farmed valley with a canal running through it. Winter storage for caravans and boats is big business here with hundreds parked on fields. On the road we see a camper from Finland. We stop at Buje to send postcards, spend our last kuna at the supermarket, and get our passports and van documents ready for the border crossing which turns out to be very cruisy as they just stamp our passports. We’re now back in the EU. We look up the Slovenian words for hello, please, thank you and goodbye and discover that they’re the same as in Croatian. There’s a steady stream of campers from Italy and Germany coming towards us. We get out our Greek Euros and head north on the motorway through tunnels and across viaducts, finally stopping for the night at a truck stop before the turn off to Divaca. We’re not impressed to discover that we have to pay thirty five Euros to use the Slovenian motorway system for six months, and it’s not possible to buy a vignette for a shorter time. It stays light till after seven.
It’s a relief to be out of Croatia with its recent and oppressive bloody history. John’s bought a third book about the troubles, “They Would Never Hurt a Fly” by Slavenka Drakulic, covering the war crimes. Slovenia managed to extricate itself from Yugoslavia in 1991 with a ten day war and only sixty people dead, quickly became a democracy, then joined the UN in 1992 and the EU in 2004.
Next morning we drive to Lipica (diminuitive of lipa which is Slovenian for lime tree) to the original Lipizzaner horse stud which was established in 1580 by the Austrian Habsburgs. We drive in through beautiful rolling fields and trees, and come to a huge car park, hotel, casino, spa, pool and golf course. They’ve diversified with activities to entertain non horsey people. We hear woodpeckers tapping and discover that we’re just in time to watch the two hour training session which is held in a large indoor arena with tiered seating.
To a soundtrack of instrumental Elton John and Strauss waltzes, five men and one woman on white horses work out in front of a small audience for forty five minutes. The horses are all stallions, four have double bridles and two have snaffles with dropped nosebands. They prance and float, mainly at a sitting trot, the riders’ backsides never moving from the saddle. The concentration is intense as they glide past each other without a break in their stride, passaging across and doing tiny circles. Sugar lumps and pats are dished out liberally. It’s a wonderful sight. The horses are very keen to get to the exit when the lesson is over, and we head outside to watch twenty or so mares and foals which have been let out of the barn. The foals are all black and quite plain, and the mares are full bodied, white and curvaceous. A very obstreperous mare is on the lunging rein, going in tight circles. We chat with a young couple from Sydney who are here for a week’s riding holiday with a lesson morning and afternoon. They tell us that it’s very challenging and humbling because with the horses being so superbly trained, they can never be blamed when things go wrong. When the rider does the right thing in the correct way, the horse will instantly do what is required. So any failure is the rider’s. Such a lesson in taking responsibility sounds cheaper and more fun than therapy!
We return to the arena and watch another forty five minutes of training, this time with less experienced riders plus some experts. One canters sideways then turns on a sixpence. One rider dismounts, then using the reins held beside the saddle, and the whip, gets the horse to dance on its hind legs.
Later we go on a tour with a guide who has excellent English and a formidable grasp of the history and deeper concepts of the Lipizzaner training. He tells us that there are Lipizzaner stud farms in several other countries including the Czech Republic, Austria and Romania. During various wars over the centuries, the horses have been evacuated to safe locations. There were six original stallions: Pluto, Conversano, Neapolitano, Maestoso, Favory and Siglavy, whose bloodlines are still going, and sixteen families of mares. The stud receives twenty five percent of its funding from the government and generates the rest of its money from revenue; hence the casino which has been controversial. The soil is limestone and poor, and consequently the foals grow quite slowly in spite of the fourteen litres of milk each mare produces per day. They are handled from birth, weaned at six months, and the colts and fillies are separated at one year. They aren’t broken in until they are three and a half or four. The foals are born black or brown, and gradually lose their pigment to become white. Some of the stallions show a natural propensity to perform certain movements, and there are culls at four, five and six years, when the ones not good enough to do advanced training are gelded.
We visit some of the stallions in their barn, and close up they are gorgeously rounded, with black skin under their white coats. The guide tells us they have excellent hearing and can recognise the step of their trainer at six hundred feet. He also tells us that the farrier gives the horses a pedicure and I’m impressed at his ability to make a centuries old practice sound modern.
We watch the performance back in the arena. First of all four horses come in to the “Cancan”, at a trot and extended trot, weaving in and out, their riders dressed in top hats and long green coats looking straight out of Dickens. Next they do a collected canter to a Strauss waltz. Then two very fine horses come in for a Pas de Deux at a very collected canter, changing the lead on every second stride then every stride. Next is a carriage with two beautifully matched horses at a trot making lovely patterns with the carriage wheels in the freshly raked sand. They are wonderfully controlled and elegant. Finally there are three stallions, two led by two men, and one by a woman. They perform several different movements, like lifting their front legs high and stretching them out, high kicks with their hind legs, rearing, and bouncing on their hind legs. It’s fantastic.
I buy a beautiful book written and photographed by the children of the local primary school to commemorate the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in October 2008. She was presented with a stallion, Favory Canissa XXII, and she left him there for them to train and look after. The book is full of photographs of the horses, the children’s impressions of the Queen’s visit, some lovely horse drawings, and romantic poetry about the Lipizzaners. Clearly they are idealised and adored as a national treasure for Slovenia.
We head back to the motorway through karst country, cultivated valleys and wooded hills, before turning off to the west towards Italy. The new leaf in the distance is screaming lime green, contrasting with the whitest blossom. The grass is deep and the countryside is unfenced, with lots of little cultivated terraces.
We park for the night at a motorway rest area at Vogrska alongside what seems like a mini EU of lorries. They come and go all night including one full of baaing sheep. The drivers are very diligent and attend to maintenance when they arrive, then always run their engines for ten minutes before they leave. We’re joined by pied wagtails in the car park. Next morning we drive across the wide turquoise river Isonzo and enter Italy with no formalities at all.
More Extracts from White Van Acting Suspiciously
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