Balkan beauty

‘The Jerusalem Post’ joins a group of journalists to discover highlights and hidden gems on a road trip through Croatia and Slovenia.

croatia 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
croatia 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
It was only a week. One week bouncing around Croatia and Slovenia visiting the highlights of the two countries’ tourism industries. Yet it could have easily been two weeks or even three, and it still wouldn’t have been enough time to fully appreciate all that these places had to offer. During the short tour of the two Balkan states, we did not even get a chance to visit the south of Croatia, its major tourism hub. Yet the trip was more than enough to convince me of the beauties of a place – like Israel – largely known on the international stage more for strife than for tourism gems.
Zagreb was the first stop in our sojourns.
The capital city of Croatia, it feels like a strange amalgamation of Old World German buildings and Spanish Neo-Classical architecture, a result of recent efforts to rebuild the city following the conflict in the 1990s. In point of fact, years after the end of the war, Zagreb is still trying to pick itself up from a tourism perspective; there are more museums in the city than there are hotels.
The city was newly remodeled, with a ring of parks and a new public transport system that, unfortunately for us Jerusalemites, puts our light rail to shame.
Zagreb itself, however, does not compare to ancient Jerusalem, but still has centuries of history behind it, with an old town and the modern city center. Both have their benefits for the casual tourist. The old town features quaint gas lamps and a cathedral – which curiously has a statement in Old Croatian script emblazoned on the back wall – while the city center offers restaurants and a charming bar scene.
But to my mind, the most amazing thing in Zagreb, what really sets it apart from other European cities, is the Museum of Broken Relationships, which is truly an institution driven by and for the common man (or woman). In essence, people send in items from their lives that symbolize to them a failed or broken relationship along with a short note explaining the story behind the relationship.
Examples include olive pits that an exboyfriend would lick clean, a key-shaped key hook given to a woman by her deceased husband, wedding dresses, stuffed animals and assorted other bric-a-brac accrued over people’s collective journey down the road of the human condition. Like many, my favorite is the fractured, glued-together, rabid lawn gnome that magically leapt from a woman’s hand through the windshield of her husband’s convertible.
For a person in love with the narrative, the stories that fill the room and their humanity – as well as the celebration of the heart and the group therapy of the heartache – make it a one-of-a-kind place and a must-see.
Following Zagreb, we saddled up and headed to the Plitvice National Park, which boasts a number of gorgeous lakes and waterfalls. The porous rocks that surround the lakes filter the water and lend it a deep, penetrating blue that is truly breathtaking (more so on a clear summer day than a foggy autumn afternoon). The vista also provides a beautiful location for weddings, which are a fairly common occurrence there.
The park allows for hiking around the lakes and a short boat ride across the largest one. Also, the park provides tour guides to walk groups through it both literally and figuratively, and in a testament to the average Israeli’s ability to reach yet another small corner of the world, it also has brochures in Hebrew.
From there, our merry band of journalists headed to the Adriatic coast, where we spent a few days visiting Opatija and Pula in Croatia and Piran in Slovenia.
Both Croatian cities feel like throwbacks to another era. Opatija is a small resort town well known in the earlier half of the past century as a place to heal, to take in the salty sea air. Beyond that, it’s a quiet place, somewhere one can go to work or write during the day in solitude and then enjoy a drink and a little gambling at one of the many small establishments around town.
(As a side note, gambling is certainly common in this part of the world.) Pula, on the other hand, harks back to the Romans, with its town centerpiece being the world’s sixth-largest coliseum, where it hosts a number of events during the summer.
There are other little pieces of ancient history dotting the town map, such as a bust of Hercules here and the remnants of a graveyard there, but Pula is still a modern, albeit small, city center.
Piran, like Pula, presents its heritage in its streets. The small seaport is perhaps the most important of its kind along Slovenia’s 47- kilometer coastline. Due to its geography and history, Piran is blessed with dual influences:Italian and Austrian. Narrow streets, grand facades, a port filled with small sailboats and plazas begging visitors to sit down for an espresso all have their place in Piran. While the winter weather can whip up the water and slam it against the seaside homes, the summer sees sunbathers, swimmers and strolls along the boardwalk.
But before we ventured out of Croatia and made our way to Piran, we visited Kamenjak National Park. The park, which lies on a peninsula in the northwest corner of the country, is 3,400 meters long and 500-1,600 meters wide. It offers hiking, cycling, horseback riding, scuba diving, seal watching and a few bars (one of which offers outdoor table-tennis tables, swings, slides and other areas for both kids and adults to play).
On top of that, Kamenjak is one of only a handful of places in Europe where you can see fossilized dinosaur tracks. As the day ended, we sat next to the tracks at one of the park’s many bays and watched dolphins jumping out of the water as the sun set. It was, in two words, profoundly memorable.
Another wonder of the natural world awaited us in Slovenia – the Postojna Caverns.
This network of caves brings new meaning to the word “massive.” In order to get to the start of the tour, one needs to take a 15-minute train ride through the caverns.
Some of the chambers could easily fit a basketball court and bleachers, and apparently dragons (a running theme in Slovenia, I would soon find) were “known” to be dwelling in some of the deeper ones.
The tour itself falls easily into the category of “handicapped friendly,” with a paved path enabling those with wheelchairs or crutches to take part, although at an hour and a half, the tour may get a little stale for those who aren’t diehard spelunking enthusiasts.
Near Postojna lies Predjama Castle, a medieval structure dating back to the 13th century built into the side of a cliff. The castle is steeped in history, with tales of warring armies and chivalric heroes. Local resident celebrate this legacy during annual festivals featuring, among other things, knights mock-dueling on the field of battle. The Renaissance Fair is fun for families, but the castle itself is still worth a visit, even if one misses the festival or is traveling alone.
The Slovenian capital Ljubljana is a charming city, complete with several outstanding hotels and restaurants, a number of bridges over a river, a downtown that combines the buzz of the modern world and a stone-laden antique ambiance, and an honest-to-god castle on a hill. Like the country itself, the capital offers all the benefits of central Europe on a smaller budget.
Ljubljana could easily satisfy the laid-back but curious traveler for days, but sadly we had to move on, so we made our way to Bled, a well-known tourist attraction that Tommy Lapid reportedly once called the most beautiful place on Earth.
The town lives up to its reputation. Nestled in the Julian Alps, it is a sought-after winter destination with skiing and tobogganing.
The mountains ring a small lake with an island in the middle. On the island sits a famous church with a past, one of lost love and a wish-granting bell. A castle on a mountain has a similar history. Taken together, the whole scene from the hilltop creates an breathtaking vista. Also, beware of the local cream cake. Delicious but deadly (to the waistline).
Another tourist stop is Terme Olimia, a spa center renowned for its thermal spring water, which has the reputation of working strictly non-divine miracles for those with health problems. But a far lesser-known gem is Jelenov Greben, which is blessed by a park where visitors can feed semi-tame deer (For future reference, they are all named Pika, the Slovenian word for “spot”).
The park store also sells some excellent, locally made liquors, so it may be worth visiting just for that, if you’re drawn to unique alcoholic beverages. A boutique chocolate shop and a premier microbrewery are also only a couple of kilometers away from Jelenov Greben, so epicures can take the day to indulge in some of the local delicacies.
Maribor was the last stop in our sojourns.
Slovenia’s second city, it bears a number of similarities to the capital, first and foremost the fact that both have rivers running through them. The central difference in this regard is that Maribor’s river is larger, allowing for tourism boats to gently float up and down it. A 45-minute ride on an open-top boat, sitting in the sunshine and watching the city pass you by while drinking a latte, is well worth the time and money.
Another commonality between the two cities is the rich history, for those inclined to look backwards in time when vacationing.
One noteworthy location is the world’s oldest living grapevine, from which denizens of the town have been producing wine for over 400 years. In fact, the town annually holds a ceremony to pick the grapes, with one lucky lady crowded “Queen of the Vine.”
Wine, it should be noted, is an important feature in both the Croatia and Slovenia historical and cultural landscapes, as it was one of the primary products of the region, along with olive oil and salt. As a result, there are dozens of small wineries dotting the countryside, and enophiles on vacation could easily meander around the region on a tour of the various vineyards.
More in line with Jewish history, a popular point for some Israelis, Maribor is home to the third-oldest synagogue in Europe. At over 500 years old, it unfortunately stands as an empty reminder, since the local Jewish community verges on extinct. However, the synagogue holds events about Judaism and Israel on occasion, and the city tries hard to maintain a connection to its Jewish history.
Although the city did not present quite the same Old-World European feel of Ljubljana, it was not without its own likable style.
Maribor turns toward the new, and in fact has a newly created motto espousing that concept. It was awarded the title of 2012’s European Capital of Culture, and has been cultivating its image in this vein. Primarily, and to benefit of both locals and visitors, the city has been developing a number of exhibitions, events and shows ranging from the hard sciences to history to the dramatic arts, with everything in between. This focus has reshaped the look of the place itself, with newly created plazas and large sculptures dotting the city. Art exhibits and performances abound. Unfortunately, the pace of this cultural life is likely to slow as the year ends, but without a doubt the momentum will carry over into 2013 in a number of ways.
For those looking for an travel destination with a wealth of options for those looking for a relaxing time or an itinerary jam packed with events and activities, Croatia and Slovenia have plenty to offer, and are well worth exploring.
The writer was a guest of the Croatian and Slovenian tourism ministries.