ConsumerMojo.com http://www.consumermojo.com We Make Complicated Stuff Clear Fri, 18 Aug 2017 03:14:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.1 43786300 A Trip To Dubrovnik And The Island of Brac http://www.consumermojo.com/a-trip-to-dubrovnik-and-the-island-of-brac/ http://www.consumermojo.com/a-trip-to-dubrovnik-and-the-island-of-brac/#respond Thu, 17 Aug 2017 23:07:05 +0000 http://www.consumermojo.com/?p=42121 Continue reading A Trip To Dubrovnik And The Island of Brac]]>  A Trip To The Balkans Part Five

by Nick Taylor and Barbara Nevins Taylor

Normally we prefer the older parts of a city  when we pick a place to stay. But we chose the modern Hotel Adria on the road above Dubrovnik rather than deal with narrow streets and parking our rental car. 

 

And it turned out really well. Our room and its small terrace looked over the port of Dubrovnik, with the old walled city behind us to the south. 

The port was a long way down, as we learned when we asked the desk for walking directions. The clerk sent us to a stone stairway a block from the hotel and we began a steep downward climb that must have taken us a quarter of a mile. 

We got to the bottom and renewed our supply of Croatian kuna at a cash machine, and found a taxi to take us to the old city. 

We have visited walled cities in Europe and expected to find ourselves in the  middle of a tourist scrum. But Dubrovnik has an extra special lure that makes it even more popular than other destinations, especially for the selfie crowd. That’s the “Game of Thrones” factor.

Trip Advisor has a special page for tours.

So you can imagine.

Crowds on foot poured in and out of the main gate, the western entrance to the long Stradun, the main drag of the old city. Tour groups followed bright signal flags held high on sticks. Straight ahead, three football fields away, stood the 15th century bell tower marking the street’s eastern end. 

We headed in that direction and toward a restaurant at the edge of the old port.

Photo by Dennis Jarvis

 

We wanted a late lunch and something cold to drink. The many Asian tourists we saw — it seemed to be their summer for visiting the Balkans — fanned themselves in the heat. It had gotten so hot that we and other sightseers hugged the edges of the buildings hoping to find some shade.

Photo by Dennis Jarvis

At the old port small boats bobbed at their moorings, ferries shuttled in and out, and tour boats boarded passengers who wanted to look at Dubrovnik from the water.

We sat down at one of Lokanda Peskarija’s umbrellaed tables and when a waiter came Nick practically begged him for a cold beer.

It was just what the doctor ordered to complement Nick’s octopus salad. Barbara drank water and lots of it since her order of small fried whitebait came in a supersize portion. While we ate, we watched another Asian tour group line up to board a boat. One woman upped the ante in her quest to beat the heat, training a battery-powered fan on her perspiring face. She probably could have sold the breeze by the minute to any passer-by.

A Romanian family sat at the table beside us and ordered a platter of fish. They seemed surprised when we told them we had seen quite a bit of their country. We explained that one of Barbara’s grandfathers came from Romania and we had traveled it from Oradea in the west to Iasi in the east. The grandfather as a boy had sung at the “Great Synagogue” in Iasi, a two-day cart ride from his family’s remote village, which we also visited.

“Did you like our country?” the man asked. And smiled with delight when we said we really did.

Then we joined the other tourists and began to wander around the old city. And yes, some of those “Game of Thrones” locales made our list. The Rector’s Palace — now Dubrovnik’s Cultural History Museum — was a palace in Qarth. That was right near the old port.

 

We did try to take the streets less traveled and climbed the narrowest ones where people actually lived.

 

Since we live in Greenwich Village in New York City, we understand what it feels like to live in a place that has tourists wandering around. 

We walked through a square to the steps where in “Game of Thrones” the evil Cersei Lannister was forced to make her naked walk of shame.

And then we kept climbing. But we stopped short of the top of the battlements.  We told ourselves that we had climbed enough, but the truth is we realized the access points were too far away.

We wandered out to the entrance to the Old City and found a taxi back to the hotel, kicked back on the little terrace outside our room and had the pleasure of watching the sun set over Dubrovnik.

 

For dinner we chose the J K Orsan — the Yacht Club Orsan — at our end of Dubrovnik across from the cruise ship docks.

A big part of its appeal lay in its open seating next to the water.

This time we decided to keep the bubbly flowing and ordered a bottle of prosecco to wash down the local oysters we started with.

They were small and sweet, giving the lie to the old myth that it’s only safe to order oysters in months with the letter “r” — that is, the generally colder months. But we’ve learned from sites like the University of Georgia’s Safe Oysters that’s a myth. Researchers do warn that people with existing medical conditions should avoid eating raw oysters. But at the moment, that’s not us.

The waiter brought a bonus appetizer of tuna pate adorned with a small shrimp and an anchovy, and then the grilled sea bass filets we’d both ordered. And a dessert of orange chocolate cake was too tempting to resist. If we get back to Dubrovnik to walk the old city’s walls, we’ll revisit this restaurant, too.

In the morning, the Adria’s spacious breakfast room gave us our final view of Dubrovnik’s harbor and its peninsula jutting into the sea.

 

It also gave us a birds’-eye view of buildings damaged when the Eastern Orthodox Serbs and Montenegrins attacked Dubrovnik during the 1990s Balkans war because Croatia had declared its independence.

Each of the taxi drivers we rode with talked with bitterness about the siege of Dubrovnik like it was yesterday. “It lasted six months. Six months of hell,” said the driver who took us to restaurant. “Can you imagine? They bombed the old city.” 

High rise buildings, here as in Sarajevo and Mostar still show the scars of the bombardment.

After breakfast, we piled into our little red car again and headed along the coast to Split and a ferry to take us to the island of Brac.

This part of the vacation was all about sun, sea and sand.

Our plans for Split had changed inadvertently and, as it turned out, happily. Barbara was locking up her bike one day when two men came down the street and started chatting her up. One was Bob Bozic, who said he lived in Serbia,

and the other,

filmmaker Dusan Sekulovic, said he too was Serbian but lived in New York and was making a documentary about Bozic.

“Oh. We plan to go to the Balkans soon,” Barbara said, and the conversation warmed up.

Bozic, a natural raconteur, explained that he lived in the U.S. for a long time and had worked as a bartender at Fanelli’s Cafe on Prince Street in Soho, but went back to Serbia to reclaim his father’s home in Belgrade. His father, an engineer, had invented the air brake and his 22-room mansion was confiscated by the communists in 1946. The family fled to Canada, where Bob was born. Bob’s story goes on and on in a fascinating way. For example, he was a professional boxer and fought Larry Holmes in 1977. A couple of days after the conversation on the street, her in-box pinged and she found photos Bob sent of him and Larry Holmes and of him and Holmes with Dusan. 

 

 

We learned more details later, but on the street Bob asked for a rundown of where we planned to go on our trip. When Barbara mentioned Split on the Croatian coast, he said, “Go to the island of Brac. Stay at Dusan’s mother’s cottage on the sea.”

“Really?” Barbara asked.

Dusan, who had been shooting video during the conversation, said enthusiastically, “Yes. my mother rents out a cottage on Brac in Sutivan. It’s beautiful. You’ll love it.” 

Then Dusan explained that his father, a Serbian, renounced his Serbian citizenship in the 1990s in order to keep his property on the Croatian island. 

So Barbara exchanged emails with them and as we continued to mull over the idea, Dusan wrote, “Split is hot and sticky. Why not stay on Brac?”

His mother’s place was booked, but he said she’d ask around. Pretty soon, we had information about another place on Brac. While it wasn’t on the Adriatic it came with a terrace overlooking the sea. 

So from Dubrovnik we headed to Split to drop off our little red rental car at Hertz and board a ferry to Brac.

The coast road north gave us a view of  Adriatic islands in the brilliant sun. Suddenly traffic slowed and then stopped and we came upon yet another border crossing.

We hadn’t realized that a tiny patch of Bosnia and Herzegovina divides mainland Croatia at the coast between Dubrovnik and Split. So we crawled through the Croatian exit point and into Bosnia, sped 20 kilometers (12 miles) past the cluster of beachside hotels at Neum,

Courtesy Wikimedia

 

then slowed again to exit Bosnia and re-enter Croatia.  

Soon a smooth four-lane opened up before us, and the speed limits rose to 120 and 130 kph.

At that rate we entered Split in about an hour. We thought we could find the Hertz office and Google Maps indicated it was down at the harbor. It wasn’t, at least near the ferry docks where we were. 

But buses, taxis, vans and cars zipped around there dropping off and picking up and it felt like traffic madness. Nick pulled over, while Barbara went to the tourist office.

Courtesy Wikimedia

The representative told Barbara it was on the other side of the harbor, but we couldn’t drive directly there because of a pedestrian walkway. You had to go around and through a tunnel, “You’ll never find it,” he said and that was all Barbara had to hear.

She stood in the street and directed traffic while Nick turned around. It took a couple of wrong turns in the hills around Split, but we found the tunnel and the Hertz office and said goodbye to little red.

If you plan to rent a car in the Balkans, by the way, it’s worth knowing that if you rent in one country and return in another, the drop-off fee might be exorbitant. Renting in Zagreb and returning in Split, both Croatian cities, meant a 100 euro drop-off charge, but if we’d rented in Slovenia and returned in Croatia, Hertz would have added 500 euros to our bill.

Two round-trip tickets on a Jadroliniya ferry to Supetar on Brac cost 122 kuna, the equivalent of less than twenty dollars.

We walked on board and rode an escalator to the lounge deck, where we found seats along with couples and families with small children. 

Ferries sailed from Split to several of the offshore islands and even across the Adriatic to Ancona on Italy’s east coast.

Supetar was one of the closer destinations. This NASA photo gives you a good idea of the coast of Split and its relationship to Brac that piece of land jutting into the frame.

We watched through a salt-stained window as the big ferry closed the distance. It bumped into the dock, the car ramp dropped, and we threaded our way through the cars onto the shore.

Several taxi drivers waited, and we caught Leo Zuvic’s eye. As we rode the eight kilometers from Supetar, the  main town, to Sutivan, Leo told us that he drove as a sideline. “I’m lucky. I do something I love,” he said. “I grow olives on my property and sell them.” He proudly explained that most of the olives in Croatia came from Brac. And that we would see olive trees everywhere we went.

We were in Sutivan in less than fifteen minutes, and Leo found our destination on a narrow street leading down toward the town harbor.

 

We opened the wooden door in the high wall and found Enza Montalbano waiting just inside. She told us almost right away that she had married a Serb. But during the 1990s war the Croatian government, as it had Dusan’s family, made them renounce their Serbian citizenship in order to hold on to their 150-year-old house on Sutivan.

As a widow, she rented out three apartments in the house to friends of the family and connected tourists like us. She was a good friend of Dusan’s mom. 

Enza led us up to an apartment that took up the whole top floor, with a kitchen and bathroom at one end and a bedroom and sitting area at the other. An air conditioner hummed on a wall in the middle. Outside on a small awning-shaded terrace, you could see over the rooftops to the water and beyond to Split on the far shore. 

We settled in quickly and went out to take a look around. The pre-Greek Illyrians lived on Brac before Christians settled in Sutivan in the 6th century and built a church.

Like many place in the Adriatic, it became coveted territory for the Romans, the Venetians, Napoleon

Courtesy Wikimedia

and the Austrians who all fought over it, conquered it and passed it along.

Italians occupied the island in 1941 and locals formed a resistance. After Italy surrendered, Germans invaded. And then in 1945, as part of Croatia, it folded into Yugoslavia.  The 1990s Balkan war barely touched the island but tourism declined.

That’s turning around now. In Sutivan, with fewer than 800 permanent residents, we saw evidence of that with old houses renting rooms

and new homes and rental units going up. 

 

 

By seven in the evening prosecco topped our to-do list. We walked down the hill, two minutes away, to where the cars stopped in front a small farmer’s market

and walked across a tree-lined pedestrian zone that led to town center and the water.

 

We came out on one side of Sutivan’s small harbor, a U with small boats rocking at their moorings and, on our side, tables and chairs at the water’s edge. We drank our prosecco and watched children across the harbor do cartwheels and back flips in a trampoline cage.

As darkness fell, a sailing yacht motored in and tied up side-to just inside the harbor mouth.

For dinner, Enza had recommended Restoran Dora right around the corner from her house. So we went back up the hill and entered the restaurant’s outdoor garden.

The menu offered meat and fish but we stuck with seafood. We started with fried calamari and then grilled mackerel for Nick and risotto with mussels for Barbara, accompanied by beautiful ripe tomato slices and the local white wine brought by our waitress Maya.

 

In the morning we returned to the harbor and passed dockside tables of the five-star Hotel LemonGarden.

We decided to skip their breakfast for 35 euros. Instead, we followed the locals. We bought pastry and rolls at the tiny bakery and brought them almost next door to the Marina Club where they served coffee and didn’t mind if you brought your own breakfast.

Enza’s daughter Ivana had done the emailing with Barbara before our visit and she recommended we see Ivan, who had boats to rent in the harbor.

He also had a larger boat that he or colleagues captained to take you around the island and to smaller spots for lunch and swimming. The 500 euro price made sense for a larger group, but not for just the two of us.

We wanted to rent one of the smaller boats to go out by ourselves. But it was too windy on the two days we tried.

So we put on bathing suits, loaded up a bag with towels and gummy swim shoes, and headed for the beach. 

Sutivan has quite a few beaches we could walk to. We went north on a paved road along the water and found a spot with a tree-shaded low wall between the road and the beach where we could spread out. We put on our jelly shoes and teetered over the beach of smooth rocks to the water and slid in. It was clear, cool, and refreshing.

Barbara began chatting two women in the water. Alexa explained, using her fourteen-year-old daughter Nicole as an interpreter, that she was originally from Kyrgyzstan. She left, she said, “because they don’t like Muslims there.” She lived in Germany where Alexa was born. When they came out of the water, it turned out there space on the wall was next to ours. 

They said they came to Sutivan every year because a friend had rented an apartment there. They recommended we try a restaurant for lunch that was farther up the road just outside of a forest.

We took their advice and followed the road to an outdoor bar-restaurant with a great view.

We enjoyed a simple lunch of grilled chicken and fries for Barbara and a beer and octopus salad for Nick. 

 

and then walked back.

In the evening, we dipped down to the harbor again to watch the sun fade away.

 

We looked at other restaurants and the food all seemed the same as Restauran Dora without the pleasant garden. So we went back. We chatted up Maya and learned that most of  the customers at the restaurant, a lot in big family groups, were from Northern Europe. “Many come from Scandinavia and the UK too,” she said. “They come back every year.”

The next morning, we followed the locals to the bakery again and sat down at the Marina Club.

Then we rented bikes and rode up past the beach where we went swimming yesterday, past our lunch stop and up the hill on a dirt road into the trees. It was tough pedaling because the ruts were deep.

We passed openings in the forest and rocky seashores with beaches in between. We came to what looked like the last one, locked our bikes to a gate, and went looking for a shady spot close to the water.  

The first thing we saw was a fat man reading a book, altogether nude, sprawled on his back on a beach towel. It perturbed him not at all when we walked by.

Two girls — they had clothes on — high up at the back of the beach huddled in the only shade in sight as they wove a hammock. That sent us in another direction, and soon we were picking our way through scattered pine trees above a rocky shore with a few places where you could climb into the water. We found trees a few feet apart and got comfortable.

Then we noticed, in the trees not 100 feet away, a couple lying on beach towels.  They were nude, too. We’d blundered into a clothing optional zone.

 

 

We walked down along the rocks down to the water and slipped into the cool, refreshing and utterly clear water.  After our swim, we scaled the rocky shore and wandered back into the shade of the trees.

 

The next thing I knew, Barbara had hung both pieces of her bathing suit on a limb and was absorbed in an e-book on her iPad. So I thought, what the hell?

Before long the other nude couple went back in the water and swam out in the direction of a passing kayaker.

 

We enjoyed the light filtering through the trees, the tranquility of the little haven we found, and lolled until we got hungry for lunch.

 

 

On the way back, we stopped at the bar-restaurant again and watched a sailboat idle in water off the rocky beach.

After we returned our bikes, we felt hot and sweaty and thought, Why not take a final swim? We went to the town’s main beach. And although the small pebbled beach and the cement wall weren’t all that pleasant, a swim in the Adriatic blocked it out almost completely.

By now, we felt as if we had visited Sutivan for years. So we followed our pattern and went back down to the harbor for prosecco.

It was Saturday night and Restoran Dora was packed. Even though we didn’t have a reservation, they promised they would hold a table for us in 30 minutes. 

That gave us time to move the bags we packed down the stairs at Enza’s so we would have an easy getaway the next morning.

Half-an-hour later we went back to Restoran Dora where we had a prime table and the great service of Maya. We ordered grilled fish, the house wine and when we left, Maya said, “I’ll see you next year.”

Read about the trip to the beautiful Bay of Kotor and Kravice Waterfalls 

 Read about the trip to Sarajevo and Mostar

 

       Read about the trip to Zagreb

 

 Read about the trip to Slovenia, Ljubjlana and Bled

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scam: Pay With Social Security Number Or Through A Federal Reserve Routing Number http://www.consumermojo.com/scam-pay-with-social-security-number-or-through-a-federal-reserve-routing-number/ http://www.consumermojo.com/scam-pay-with-social-security-number-or-through-a-federal-reserve-routing-number/#respond Wed, 16 Aug 2017 19:00:11 +0000 http://www.consumermojo.com/?p=42164 Continue reading Scam: Pay With Social Security Number Or Through A Federal Reserve Routing Number]]> by Barbara Nevins Taylor 

Consider it a scam and a bad idea to try to pay a bill with your Social Security number or through a Federal Reserve routing number. It could end up costing you money. The Atlanta Federal Reserve issued an alert to warn consumers to stay away from this scam.

YouTube videos, plenty of them, along with online forums and texts, encourage people to use Social Security account numbers and route payments through a branch of the Federal Reserve Bank.

A number of the videos reference “Harvey Dent,” a character who has his own video that tells you that “using your secret Social Security trust account,” you can tap into secret money to pay your bills. The videos go heavy on phony conspiracy theories about big banks and why they don’t want you to know what they do. 

Then they show you how to find a Federal Reserve routing number in your area. But the Federal Reserve says, “Consumers do not have bank accounts with the Federal Reserve holding their unpaid Social Security funds, and those funds can not be accessed by consumers.”

The Federal Reserve uses routing numbers to transfer money between banks, not customers.  In the alert, the Fed explains what happens if you fall for the scam: “. . . bill payments being attempted using the Fed’s routing numbers are being rejected and returned unpaid. Consumers who have attempted to use the Fed’s routing numbers to pay their bills may be subject to penalty fees from the company they were attempting to pay.”

In fact, people have had to pay late fees and other penalties to companies they thought they had paid. 

It’s not clear who if anyone benefits from this. And the National Consumer Law Center warns, “Consumers should be aware of this “too good to be true” scheme and recognize any video, text, email, phone call, flyer, or website describing how to pay bills using information other than their own bank or credit card account number is a scam.”

Law enforcement officials working with Federal Reserve Bank apparently started an investigation. And when we know more, we’ll post it here on ConsumerMojo.com.

 

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A Trip to the Balkans, Part 4 http://www.consumermojo.com/a-trip-to-the-balkans-part-4/ http://www.consumermojo.com/a-trip-to-the-balkans-part-4/#respond Mon, 14 Aug 2017 16:14:55 +0000 http://www.consumermojo.com/?p=41883 Continue reading A Trip to the Balkans, Part 4]]> Kravice Falls, Montenegro, Perast and the Beautiful Bay of Kotor 

 

by Nick Taylor and Barbara Nevins Taylor

We drove southwest out of Mostar though our final destination was southeast. We planned the detour to see the waterfalls at Kravica, which locals described as spectacular. Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe guide calls them a “splendid . . . mini-Niagara.”

The road took us up and across a stark plateau, then descended through a series of small towns until we saw the signs to Kravica with a falling water logo. Soon we entered a sprawling, dusty parking lot with a smattering of trees. One was free and we parked beneath its shade. The heat wave was still blistering the Balkans, with high 90s F.

At the window to pay the parking fee we searched our pockets and realized we used up our supply of Bosnian money. Others had the same problem, and a man in front of us paid five euros.

We didn’t have any euros, but I thumbed through my wallet and pulled out a five dollar bill and handed it to the attendant, shrugging to say I didn’t have what he wanted. He took it, held it up, looked at it front and back, and nodded with an expression that said, “I don’t know why I’m doing this.”

We joined a steady stream of visitors, many families carrying towels and beach chairs, on the path to the waterfalls. Here and there stone steps broke the path, which switched back on itself because the grade was steep. The sound of water falling on water rose from below.

At a final set of steps the falls came into view. As many as ten cascades sixty to eighty feet high plunged down green cliffsides into a swimming hole. Swimmers batted a beach ball around out in its center, while bathers sprawled in the sun around its sandy edges. It was a lovely setting, but to call these falls a “mini-Niagara” was pure exaggeration. 

Barbara and I took a few pictures and climbed back to the parking lot. But first we made a detour. And again, the cleanliness of public restrooms surprised and delighted us. Cleanliness seems like a byword for the Balkans. Every hotel small or large was clean. Every public restroom along the way was extremely clean.  Barbara had a fussy mom, and passed the cleanliness bug along to her, especially about public restrooms. So this became very important. 

 

On the road again, we set our sights for Montenegro and the Bay of Kotor.

This meant we had to make a choice. We’d learned that crossing borders in the Balkans can consumer a lot of time.

So should we head for the busier crossing near Trebinje and the coast, or the more remote one in the mountains near Bileca? We chose Bileca.

Once more the road led through spectacular stark mountains and towns that showed up only as dots on our Hertz map of the western Balkans.

At Bileca we thought about lunch and remembered we were Bosnian cash poor. We got fifty convertible marks at a cash machine, bought a couple of sandwiches and spent the rest filling up with gas. Then we headed for the border.

Bileca lies at the north end of Bileca Lake, created when the Tresbisnjica River was dammed for hydroelectricity in 1968, and some of the lake overlaps into Montenegro.

The road to the border took us along its north shore. Soon we rose to the mountain pass and crossing at Vracenovici.

The smattering of trucks and cars told us we had made the right choice.

 

The Republika Srpska border guard gave us a perfunctory wave through. On the Montenegro side, Barbara took our passports and car papers into the checkpoint office, chatted with border guards Dragon and Vladon, watched them scan the passports and returned in five minutes giving a smile and a thumbs-up. 

Signs to Kotor didn’t exist and we made a wrong turn that took us onto a narrow dirt road where we met a local family in a dusty Mercedes. I asked the driver if it was the road to Kotor. He shook his head, clamped his left hand on his right arm and pointed back the way we’d come. I gathered that meant a right turn somewhere, and one more stop to ask directions confirmed it.

We followed a narrow road with crumbling edges but trucks going the same way indicated it was a road to somewhere. Then it improved and opened up vistas, yet again, of the impossibly rugged mountains we’d seen throughout our trip.

We emerged from the mountains above the Bay of Kotor. My sailing friend Spencer Smith, who keeps his boat on the Croatian coast, said it was beautiful and boy was he was right.

The green mountains plunged steeply and held the sprawling bay, shaped like a rough anchor, in a sheltering embrace. Beyond its far side, though more mountains blocked the view, you sensed the empty horizon over the Adriatic Sea.

The road descended and switched back to follow the shoreline. We passed Strp and Risan.

Hotels clustered on the high side of the road. Traffic slowed near Perast, our destination, with buses and day trippers’ cars directed toward a parking area. I said we were going to the Hotel Conte, and got waved through to a narrow road along the water.

We’d found the Conte Hotel on Booking.com and it proved a good and interesting choice. The hotel reception office faces the bay and many of the rooms lay tucked away in the warren of centuries-old stone houses on the hillside.

 

 

 

“We have rooms all over the place,” said the receptionist when we checked in. A valet disappeared to stash our car somewhere and we paused to take in the view.

We sat at one of the hotel’s waterside tables

and enjoyed glasses of complimentary prosecco. We felt a rush of overwhelming pleasure at the peace and the calm of this beautiful place. 

Although we really didn’t want to leave the water’s edge, we knew we should find our room.

Two big young men, hotel employees, pulled our bags and led us past a church, a  basketball court and ice cream shop.

We should say that we consistently met very tall, broad men in the Balkans and the data collected by people who chart this stuff indicates Montenegrins, Croatians, Serbians and Bosnians, too, people who live in the Dinaric Alps region, run among the tallest in the world. They average over six feet one.

Montenegro also ranks as one of those countries others have fought over for centuries. It only became a nation on its own in 2006.

It was part of the Byzantine Empire in the 10th century and then became aligned with Serbia in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Courtesy Wikimedia

By the 15th century Venice and Hungary vied for power here with Venice gaining the upper hand until the French had a brief reign in the early 19th century. Then Austria captured the area and ruled until 1918, when Perast and Montenegro became part of Yugoslavia. During World War II, Mussolini annexed it and put the area under the Governorship of Dalmatia until it was returned to Yugoslavia in 1945.

More recently,  Montenegro, a little smaller than Connecticut, was very much involved in the brutality of the 1990s Balkan war. As Croatia moved to pull out of Yugoslavia in 1991, Montenegro aligned with Serbia and its army attacked and bombed Dubrovnik.

Courtesy Wikimedia

The Serb-Montenegro alliance was partly based on religion; the Montenegrins, like the Serbs, practice Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Twelve percent of the people in Croatia were Serbian at the start of the war and they didn’t want to give up their land to the Catholic Croatians, just as they didn’t want to give up Bosnia-Herzegovina to Muslims.

Courtesy Wikimedia

Back in the present, Barbara asked Nick, the hotel staffer who pulled her bag, whether he was Catholic or Christian Orthodox. She felt him bristle and grow an inch beside her. “Christian Orthodox. We are Christian Orthodox here in Montenegro,” he said. Actually,  74 percent of the country is Orthodox, 3.5 percent Catholic and 18 percent Muslim, according to the U.S. State Department.

We turned beside a building where the walk led to a long set of stone steps.

Nick and his colleague hoisted our (heavy) bags and started climbing. This Nick was glad to have the chore taken off my hands.

We reached a small landing near the top, and Nick’s partner put down the bag he carried and disappeared.

Nick opened the door to our room and revealed much more than a room, much more than what we anticipated when we booked.

 

It was a lavish studio suite that extended past a sofa and a king-sized bed to a bathroom that featured, in addition to the usual fixtures,

a jetted spa that looked as if four people (or two large Balkan men) could fit in.

 

We rolled our eyes. Who, with eye candy like the Bay of Kotor right outside, would spend time lolling in a hot tub? Well, maybe in winter. As for views of the bay, a terrace with chairs and an umbrellaed table right across from our room was ours to use. 

At some point we realized the small windows of our room’s one windowed wall opened on the terrace of a local family, and we could see as well as hear them mere feet away. Closing the frosted windows solved that problem.

We went down to dinner about nine. The evening softened around us as we sat inches from the water at the hotel’s outdoor restaurant and watched lights blink on around the bay.

After the lamb and meat of Bosnia, we craved fish. The menu had what we were after. Barbara ordered fish soup and I had gazpacho to start. She let the waiter talk her into poached sea bass and wished she’d had it grilled, while my plate with black risotto (with cuttlefish), skewered shrimp and grilled octopus and squid gave me the tastes I craved.

The wine list featured selections from around the Balkans as well as Italy, Spain and France, but when in Rome . . .  A couple at the next table, Amy and Brian encouraged us to drink Montenegrin.

The Montenegrin sauvignon blanc was delicious, and a bargain. Our dinner mates both worked for the government on Guernsey, an island in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy, that with two other islands form the Bailiwick of Guernsey. Guernsey has what they term “a crown dependency.

That means it governs itself but depends on the UK to defend it, provide the diplomatic links to the outside world, and assist with trade. Brian travels back and forth as a liaison between the government and the British parliament. Amy works with Guernsey’s legislators to help put their ideas into practice. She clearly understands how to plan.

She was interested in Montenegro and organized their drive along the coast from south to north. Perast was their last stop. They talked about the beauty of the drive, and the places they stopped.

The conversation turned to the complications Brexit will cause for Guernsey and then they wanted to know, guess what?  “How could Americans elect Donald Trump?” Amy asked. Brian shook his head. We launched into our explanation about angry working class Americans anxious about the future of jobs and opportunities for them, and Trump’s brilliant manipulation of fear, the Russian election tampering, James Comey, and Hilary Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate.

Like others we met, they listened with great interest. But they still could not believe people from the country that they have admired from afar could pick a man like Donald Trump.

We lingered after they left and enjoyed the scent of the sea and soft breeze of the night and did not talk about politics.

The next morning, we again took a table under the awnings at the water’s edge.  

As we watched teeny fish swim after crumbs a child dropped in the water,

we  wondered if we should stay another day. The beauty and calm of Perast enchanted us.

The buzzing of a drone coming over the water attracted our attention. It hovered and darted around, its camera apparently interested in what was on our breakfast plates. It flew away as soon as we tried to take a picture of it. A minute later, a smaller drone replaced it. 

 

That got us talking to an extended family at the table behind us. A couple from Atlanta, where we had lived in the 1970s and early ’80s, was there with their two sons and their families. 

These Georgians were vacationing in Montenegro because one of the sons, Drew Giblin, is the Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo and his wife also works for the State Department there. We explained that we’d just come from Sarajevo and Barbara asked, “How do you deal with what seems like an overwhelming challenge?” Drew smiled and said diplomatically, “We appreciate every small victory.”

We resisted the temptation to stay another day, but did take in the beautiful Church of St. Nicholas with a bell tower that you could climb.

 

 

 

Now we faced another route decision. Google Maps told us we’d get to Dubrovnik faster by the coastal road, but not by much. We could also return to the border crossing near Bilaca, tempting because of the light traffic. But that would mean two crossings, into Bosnia and then into Croatia. We chose the coastal route.

The road took us along the bay for thirty kilometers or so.

Near Herceg Novi it turned inland toward the Croatian border. Not long afterward the traffic slowed and stopped and we joined a long line of cars fitfully moving toward the checkpoints up ahead.

 

Twenty minutes later, though, we were through and driving toward Dubrovnik, its old city sheltered by stone defensive walls dating to before the Middle Ages. “Games of Thrones” location scouts saw Kings Landing in Dubrovnik and set other scenes from the popular HBO saga throughout the ancient city. We were eager to see it for ourselves. 

 

Read the previous post here.

 

Take a look at Kravice Waterfalls

 

 

 

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Why Sign Up For Medicare Part B? http://www.consumermojo.com/why-sign-up-for-medicare-part-b/ http://www.consumermojo.com/why-sign-up-for-medicare-part-b/#respond Thu, 10 Aug 2017 15:34:13 +0000 http://www.consumermojo.com/?p=40671 Continue reading Why Sign Up For Medicare Part B?]]> by Barbara Nevins Taylor

Recently a friend turned 65 and told me that she signed up for Medicare Part A but not part B. “Why should I sign up for Medicare Part B?” she asked. “I don’t need it. I’m covered by my husband’s company.” Yes, but not so fast. Her husband’s insurance can reject her claims because Medicare is her primary insurance and she should have Part B.

Medicare Part B covers among other things doctors’ visits, lab tests, surgeries, ambulances, and medical appliances like walkers. So the costs can add up.

Even though her husband’s company takes care of his insurance and theoretically covers her, she’s not working. So the system requires her to sign up for Part B around the time of her 65th birthday or face serious penalties.

Joe Baker of the Medicare Rights Center says, “If you don’t enroll in Medicare when you turn 65, the month of your 65th birthday or three months after your 65th birthday, you have two penalties.

 Waiting Period

You may find yourself uncovered by insurance. The insurance that you do have is secondary and the insurer is likely to turn down claims because Medicare should be the primary insurance.

But you can’t just jump on the Medicare bandwagon. You get stuck in limbo for awhile. A waiting period penalty prevents you from joining Medicare Part B when you want to do it.

If you don’t enroll when you are first eligible you have to wait for January or March of that calendar year and your coverage won’t begin until July 1st.  

 Financial Penalty

You also face a 10 percent monetary penalty for every year that you could have, or should have, signed up for Part B. So  you will pay 10 percent more every year for Medicare than everyone else.

No Getting Around It 

The rigid penalties were put into place to try to balance the finances of Medicare.  At 65, you fall at the younger, healthier end of the spectrum and your premiums offset the costs for older sicker people.

Medicare Rights President Baker cautions, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for anyone to delay Part B enrollment. The only people who should be delaying Part B are people who are actively at work and have coverage.” 

This video tells the story.

  

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What Americans Want To Do About North Korea http://www.consumermojo.com/what-americans-want-to-do-about-north-korea/ http://www.consumermojo.com/what-americans-want-to-do-about-north-korea/#respond Wed, 09 Aug 2017 16:45:11 +0000 http://www.consumermojo.com/?p=42032 Continue reading What Americans Want To Do About North Korea]]> Saber-rattling statements and tweets by Donald Trump put many of us on edge about how he might escalate tensions with North Korea. Referring to threats from North Korea, he told reporters at his Bedminister, New Jersey, golf club, “Best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury the world has never seen.”

Hours later, the North Korean People’s Army released a statement threatening to fire missiles at Guam and American military bases on the island. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, apparently trying to cool things down, said there was no “imminent threat” from North Korea and that the “American people should sleep well at night.”

A poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, conducted just before the last comments, found that three-quarters of Americans now think North Korea’s nuclear program threatens the United States.

Statista put together a revealing info-graphic that shows 76 percent of Americans back economic sanctions against North Korea and far fewer support using military force. 

Infographic: What Americans Want To Do About North Korea  | Statista You will find more statistics at Statista

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Discovering the Sarajevo Luge Trail http://www.consumermojo.com/discovering-the-sarajevo-luge-trail/ http://www.consumermojo.com/discovering-the-sarajevo-luge-trail/#respond Tue, 08 Aug 2017 21:14:24 +0000 http://www.consumermojo.com/?p=42026 Continue reading Discovering the Sarajevo Luge Trail]]> Athletes once used a track in the Sarajevo hills to compete in the Olympic luge and bobsled competitions. Then snipers found it, and then it became a curvy canvas for graffiti artists. 

 

 

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Balkans Videos http://www.consumermojo.com/balkans-videos/ http://www.consumermojo.com/balkans-videos/#respond Tue, 08 Aug 2017 00:28:49 +0000 http://www.consumermojo.com/?p=42018 Continue reading Balkans Videos]]>  

The Balkans offers travelers history, breathtaking scenery, great food and adventure. We found it all on our trip from Slovenia through Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and then back to Croatia on the Adriatic Coast. These videos will give you a taste of what we experienced.

 

 

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A Trip to the Balkans, Part 3 http://www.consumermojo.com/a-trip-to-the-balkans-part-3/ http://www.consumermojo.com/a-trip-to-the-balkans-part-3/#respond Tue, 08 Aug 2017 00:01:57 +0000 http://www.consumermojo.com/?p=41764 Continue reading A Trip to the Balkans, Part 3]]> Sarajevo and Mostar

 

by Nick Taylor and Barbara Nevins Taylor

The road into Sarajevo follows the Miljacka River. We turned off at the Latin Bridge, where in 1914 Gavrilo Princip, a nineteen-year-old Serb nationalist, squeezed off the shots that killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and started World War I.

The city’s old quarter was just a block away and to our delight we saw signs reserving parking spots for the Old Town Hotel, which we found via Booking.com. We checked in to a small but spotless room that faced the back of the Gazi Husrev-bey mosque

and went out to take a look around. True to its name, the Old Town Hotel hugged the edge of the old quarter’s pedestrian zone, crowded on a summer Saturday evening.  

For centuries Muslims, Catholics, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox Christians made Sarajevo a thriving cultural and trading center.

Some may remember the beauty of images of this city, tucked in a valley surrounded by mountains, from the 1984 Olympics. 

Courtesy Wikimedia

But gold and silver in the hills of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bosnia) put the area on the Romans’ trading map. By the 12th century Bosnia had become an important stop on the trade route between Constantinople and the City-State of Ragusa, the town now known as Dubrovnic.

When the Ottoman conquerers took hold in the 15th century, they built up Sarajevo and Mostar with roads and bridges and the prosperity that followed led many of the South Slavic Christians to convert to Islam.

Jews had long moved through the city as traders. But, in 1541, they came to settle from Salonika, where their families fled from Spain during the Inquisition. In the 17th century, Ashkenazi Jews fleeing persecution in other parts of Europe, also made their homes in Sarajevo.

The history of its rich religious and cultural mix attracted us to Sarajevo. All its elements seemed represented in the crush of people in the Old Town’s central square, which felt more like Istanbul than Istanbul.

Tourists from the Middle East, men in dark slacks and colored shirts with fat flashy watches on their wrists, women in black hijabs hiding everything but their eyes, mingled with visitors from Asia, Europe and elsewhere, many dressed in tiny skirts, ripped jeans, halter tops, or rompers.

Restaurants, cafes, and shops selling everything from antiques to underwear lined the narrow streets leading to the square.

 

You could buy pens and flashlights made from rifle shells if you wanted a souvenir of the 1990s war. 

Barbara found a contemporary jewelry shop, with work by the Bosnian sculpture Ibrahim Handzic, and bought a pair of pretty earrings. 

Croatia’s kuna was behind us now and we needed Bosnian money, convertible marks worth about sixty cents each. In the mix of people and stuff, we found a cash machine.

To catch our breath and get away from the intensity of the tourist zone we took refuge just outside the Old Town, at the Hotel Europe’s spacious garden café overlooking the ruins of the Taslihan, a stone inn built in the 16th century.

The Hotel Europe has plenty of stories of its own.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that murdered Hapsburg heir,

Courtesy Wikimedia

was headed to the Hotel Europe with his wife Sophie when Princip shot him. 

 

Courtesy Wikimedia

But on this evening, the crowd laughing and talking over coffee, tea or cocktails didn’t seem interested in Sarajevo’s bloody history. We, too, had other things on our minds: food and a taste of Bosnian wine. 

The concierge at our hotel had recommended three restaurants, and we looked them up on a blog Barbara found called CultureTrip that offered good restaurant tips.

We chose Dzenita on a side street that goes up the hill in Old Town. We sat side by side at a picnic-style table in front of the small restaurant and ordered delicious stuffed cabbage

and smoked meats appetizers and veal skewers and grilled sweetbreads mains.

We barely began to eat when we struck up a conversation with an Australian couple. They had been in Sarajevo for two weeks, a blip in their two-year road trip around the world.  

“We rented out our house to lovely people and now we rent wherever we go. We have a nice apartment just outside of Old Town,” Alice said.

We asked what they had done for a living. “I’m a nurse,” John, the husband, said. “And I worked in finance for a bank,” Alice explained as she looked over their check.

They had just come from the Adriatic coast of Croatia and the island of Brac, where we planned to go. “We loved it. We found beautiful little coves just outside of the town of Sutivan where we stayed,” John said.

“Sutivan!” Barbara nearly jumped from her seat. “That’s where we’re headed eventually.” 

We swapped stories and went back to our plates when they left.

A young Japanese woman sat down by herself and ordered a salad. She caught our eyes, and said, “I’m so tired of meat. I have to have something else.”

She had come to Sarajevo after a stay in Ireland where she studied English. She asked if she could join us at our table.

 Her name was Asahi – “like the beer,” she said – Takashi, twenty-one, beautiful and bubbly.

“Why did you come to Sarajevo?”Barbara asked. “I am studying human rights,” she said.

And we understood. Our interest in human rights — and what can happen when they’re thrown out the window — also brought us to Sarajevo. Like us, Asahi also had romance in mind and she laughed as she explained that she planned to go from here to Barcelona to visit a boy she met.”

“Barcelona. A sexy city,” Barbara said. Both women laughed knowingly. 

Asahi described a tour she had taken that day to some of the hard to-get-to spots and recommended we take one. We exchanged Facebook information and said goodnight.

When we got back to the Old Town Hotel we chatted with the night manager, who told us he was a musician. “The music fills my soul. I must do this hotel job for a just little while longer, I hope.” Barbara punched up YouTube and the Epichorus, 

a group affiliated with the New Shul in New York City that plays ancient Arabic and Jewish music. He watched, listened and swayed as he closed his eyes. “It’s my rabbi’s group,” Barbara told him. He smiled and said, “It gives me the chills.” 

No one who wasn’t there can fully understand how multi-ethnic Sarajevo suffered during the 1990s war. Muslims made up 45 percent of the population of Bosnia, Eastern Orthodox Serbs 36 percent, Catholics 15 percent, Jews 3 percent and Protestants 1 percent. And before the war 30 percent of the marriages in Sarajevo were mixed. 

But the war set Serbian militias with Croatian Catholics against the entire population of Sarajevo, turning what had been called the Jerusalem of  the Balkans into a living hell.

Courtesy Wikimedia

The siege by the Bosnian Serbs under the banner of Republika Srpska lasted almost four years. 

In the photo below, a Serbian commander, as a joke, holds a toy pistol to the head of his son. Sarajevo officials suggest snipers killed 600 of the city’s children.

Courtesy Wikimedia

The Serbs rained mortar and tank shells on the city and, with the snipers, killed almost 14,000 people including more than 5,000 civilians.

Steven Galloway’s wonderful, painful novel, “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” based on a real character, suggests what it was like.

But we wanted, as best we could, to gain a closer view.

We decided to heed Asahi’s advice about the tour and the day man on the hotel desk suggested Spirit Tours.  We signed up for a trip to the surrounding hills.

A group of us, people from Italy, Australia, England, Spain, and a couple from Sweden and Istanbul who now lived in Dubai, met in a small office and headed to the tour van with our guide Enes Popara. We jumped at the chance to ride in a separate car with Enes and a driver.

Enes communicated with the van through his cell phone, which they heard on speaker.

We asked about the real life cellist of Sarajevo, “He played in there,” he waved his hand pointing to an area near a pedestrian mall. 

And then almost immediately, we drove out into the new portion of the city and he said, “This is sniper alley.”

Photo by Jennifer Boyer Creative Commons License

He pointed to the hills on the other side of the river, and the modernish high-rise buildings still pockmarked and scarred by constant bombardment.

 

 

“This is the Holiday Inn where all the journalists stayed and it was regularly shelled too. They targeted everything here,” he said. 

Our route led west out of the city. One building, about six stories high, stood gutted and empty as a haunting reminder.

Enes told us his family lived in a street above the Catholic Cathedral. “We have a government now that represents three sides,” he said. “But it’s crazy, we are one people. Just look around, everyone looks the same. We are all originally South Slavs. You can’t tell who anyone is unless you ask their last name.”

And we realized that he was right. With the exception of the observant women from the Middle East draped in black, the locals, even the women with headscarfs, all looked similar.

Turning south and crossing the Miljacka River, we climbed past Sarajevo’s airport, turned left and stopped outside a rustic building marked Tunel Spasa.

The Tunnel of Hope was Sarajevo’s supply line from the outside world during the Serbian siege. With water, food and other necessities cut off, Bosnian army workers dug around the clock for four months to build the tunnel during the spring of 1993. 

The tunnel stretched under the airport for more than half a mile, angled midway to keep Serb gunners from guessing its path.

It was tiny, barely three feet wide and less than five feet high. But 20 million tons of food traveled through it into the city, as well as water, fuel and weapons, and a million people traveled in and out.

Enes described all this with passion and some anger. He was a child during the siege.

“We had no food. We ate potato scraps, garbage, anything we could find,” he said. “We got packages with food, marked Vietnam. They were left over from the Vietnam War and that’s what we ate,” he said. “We had no water and had to get water where we could.”

Courtesy Wikimedia

“It gets cold in Sarajevo and we had no heat. We scavenged for anything to burn and many burned car tires in their homes.

 

His father suffered frostbite fighting in the hills, but the real problems didn’t kick in until years later. Enes said that since 2012 his father has struggled with serious post-traumatic stress disorder.

He led us into the basement of the house where, stooping and covering our heads, we shuffled through a few feet of the claustrophobic tunnel and saw firsthand just how precarious Sarajevo’s lifeline was.

From the tunnel museum we piled back into the vehicles for a trip to the hills on the other side of the city.

But on the way, as the driver tried to take a shortcut to the road north, a group of people walking to a funeral refused to budge from the road.

We realized we had crossed into a section of the Republika Srpska that hugs Sarajevo, and the Serbs on this road were claiming their territory against all comers. We took another road. And when the van failed to show up in our wake it turned out that a Republika Srpska cop had stopped it for no good reason. Enes, and later the van driver, said that the cop wanted money.  

When we reached the city’s northern hills we took pictures from an overlook. The beautiful view led us to pose for photos, but you also realized just how vulnerable Sarajevo was to shelling from those hills.

 Then we climbed some more, to the abandoned concrete luge-bobsled run from the 1984 winter Olympics held in Sarajevo. 

The half-tube swept dramatically downhill, pitching left and right, its high-sided curves tableaus for 

colorful graffiti. We followed it on foot.

 

Near the bottom Enes pointed out another reminder of the 1990s war. Where the sled run branched off and leveled to a slowing point, a hole punched in its concrete side marked the nest where a sniper had fired at Bosnian soldiers advancing through the surrounding forest.

And then he showed another sniper shooting hole in a pipe toward the end of the run.

The personal background that Enes brought to the tour made him a brilliant and compelling guide. And you didn’t have to go far in Sarajevo to find others whom the war had touched, and changed.

After the contrasts of the luge track, we piled back into the car and van and headed to the Jewish cemetery on lower hill overlooking the city.

“This is one of the oldest and largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe,” he said. But he really brought us here to show us where snipers hid as they fired into the city. “You can see on the tombstones, some knocked down, some with chips from bullets, the evidence of war,” he said.

 

 

Back in the city, we said goodbye to Enes, who hopes to run for office or work in the Ministry of Tourism to help Sarajevo and bring people together. 

The outdoor cafe at the Hotel Europe called to us again. The tables were almost empty on a Sunday afternoon, and the waiter had time to talk as he delivered our prosecco. 

After we told him we had taken the tour, he said, “My father was killed in the hills. I was one and my brother was five. My mother had two boys to raise and I don’t think she was ever the same.” He had studied to be a physical therapist and was getting his final certifications. He’d been offered a job in Berlin “but I don’t know,” he said. “I worry that I shouldn’t leave my mother.”

We needed comfort that night, and we found it at 4 Some Gospode Safije, the Four Rooms of Mrs. Sofia, a ten-minute taxi ride from our hotel.

The restaurant wrapped us in warm wood and stone with chandeliers hanging from the beamed ceiling overhead. The traditional Bosnian menu emphasized beef and slow-cooked lamb with modern touches and a range of fish as well. Bosnia, like the rest of the Balkans, produces excellent wines and we tipped out hats to the house white.

While we waited for the taxi that would take us back to the old quarter, our waiter showed us Mrs. Sofia’s other three rooms — a wine and tapas bar, a lounge, and outdoor seating in a garden.

In the morning we wanted to see the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. The 14th century illuminated manuscript for the Jewish Passover service was saved from the Nazis by the Muslim chief librarian of the Sarajevo National Museum. He brought it to a Muslim cleric in Zenica, north of Sarajevo, who legend has it hid it either beneath the floorboards of a mosque or in a Muslim home.

During the 1990’s war it was locked away in an underground bank vault. After the war, the Haggadah was restored and put back on display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We missed it though because the museum is closed on Mondays.

 So we went to Sarajevo’s Jewish Museum instead.

We took a short walk from our hotel, and found it practically next door to the Gazi Husrev-bey mosque. The 16th century synagogue that now houses the museum speaks to the centuries-old diversity that the Serbian siege attempted to destroy.

The thick stone walls  and the beautiful restoration created a cool serenity, a far cry from the blistering heat outside. The exhibits chronicled the arrival of the first Jewish settlers in Sarajevo and the city’s prominent Jewish families. Many of them fought as anti-fascist partisans during World War II.  The exhibits also told the story of the atrocities against the Jews, and it highlighted the the work of local Jewish artists.

The Book of the Dead hung from the ceiling, fastened at a corner so that it hung at an eye-catching angle. The dead, in this case, were the 12,000 Bosnian Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  We found it a sad irony that the 1990s war diminished Sarajevo’s Jewish population even more. Fourteen thousand Jews lived there before the war and the siege. There are said to be just 1,000 now.

Sarajevo’s synagogue, the only one still functioning, lies across the Miljacka River from the old town. We stopped in and Barbara talked with Dr. Eli Tauber.  Married to a Muslim woman, Tauber is a journalist, historian and board member of Humanity in Action, a local NGO. During the 1990’s, like many other Jewish Sarajevans, he fled to Israel. Barbara wondered how his family survived the holocaust.

“Many of the Jews from Sarajevo went to Mostar. They were protected there by the Italians and then in 1943 (when the Italians surrendered) they became partisans,” he said.

German troops had captured Sarajevo in 1941 and immediately destroyed the synagogue. The Croatian Ustase, acting as rulers for the Nazis, rounded up Jews and deported them to Auschwitz or concentration camps in Croatia. They killed 85 percent of the Jews from Sarajevo.

An estimated 1500 Jews escaped to Mostar, controlled by Mussolini and Italian facists. Athough Mussolini was no friend of Jews, the Italians protected them from the Ustase and moved some from Mostar to camps on islands on the Croatian coast. 

Like Tauber’s parents, many about 4500 Jews became partisans fighting with Tito. We found a photo of Tito and Mosa Pijade, who became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia.

 

Walking back across the river, Barbara and a Muslim woman shouted a warning to a pedestrian who stepped into the street as a car was bearing down. In Barbara’s world that starts a conversation.

The woman, twirling a tail of her beige headscarf around a finger, asked in halting English where she was from. Barbara told her and the woman asked, “Do you like Sarajevo?” “Very much,” said Barbara. “But it breaks my heart.”

“Go to Srebrenica,” said the woman, named Danele. “Your heart will break even more.” In 1995 Serbs killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys and hid and buried many in mass graves.

As we loaded up the car and hit the road for Mostar, Barbara said, “I think every Jew in the world has a responsibility to help the Muslims of Bosnia. We should understand this kind of persecution.”

Later we learned that Eli Tauber, the man she met in the synagogue, was also the author of When the Neighbors Were Real Human Beings. His LinkedIn profile describes it as stories about “righteous people from Bosnia-Herzegovina.” He also leads the Institute for Researching Crimes Against Humanity at the University of Sarajevo.

 

We had a lot to think and talk about and wondered what Mostar would bring. The beautiful drive took us west and south through the Dinaric Alps and then followed the south shore of Lake Jablanica, an artificial lake formed by damming the Neretva River.

The waters reflected the clear sky overhead; there hadn’t been a hint of rain since we reached the Balkans. At Ostrozak, a bridge crossed the lake’s blue expanse and we stopped to take a picture.

The dirt pullout where we stopped was attached to a house just off the road. As we aimed our phones, a man appeared at its door and gave a beckoning wave. “He’s inviting us in,” I told Barbara.

We walked down and the man indicated that we should leave our shoes next to his outside the door. We did and he led us inside, past the bed where he slept to a narrow terrace that overlooked the lake. Here he pulled out strips of cardboard  for us to stand on. 

I patted my chest and said, “My name is Nick. And this is Barbara.” He told us that his name was Jacobo. After handshakes all around, we took our pictures, retreated through the tiny house, and left in the glow of Jacobo’s unexpected hospitality. 

The lake narrowed and the road now followed the Neretva River.

Signs at the town of Jablanica announced the Restoran Zdrava Voda — it means “healthy waters” — somewhere up ahead and when we reached it we pulled into the crowded parking lot.

Enes, our tour guide in Sarajevo, told us to stop at one of the roadside restaurants and order “sheep.” This restaurant had a terrific view of the river and we waited to sit an outdoor table. Looking around, we saw that almost everyone had done as Enes suggested; forget the heat wave, this was a place people came to for its roasted lamb.

It came succulent and falling off the bone with tasty lightly browned potatoes.

 

We saw the secret as we left: three large water-driven wooden wheels slowly turned spits of lamb above wood fires, the long cooking process a foodie’s dream. 

If the meal had made us sleepy, the road to Mostar woke us up.

It weaved from one side of the river to the other against stark cliffs, through tunnels and cuts blasted through the rock, every turn upping the ante to show us a more dramatic landscape than the one behind. 

The ethnic and religious divide differs from that of Sarajevo. Serbians have found themselves victimized here. During World War II, Mostar was run by the Croatia’s Nazi puppets, the Ustase. They arrested Serbs en masse in 1941, slaughtering everyone they could.

And in 1992, it was Croats who attacked and shelled Mostar from the surrounding hills.

 

On our drive into the city we discovered that Mostar clusters on both sides of the Neretva River, like Sarajevo on the Miljacka. 

Nick stopped to ask a woman if she could point us toward our hotel and she said, “It’s best if you follow me. I live in the same neighborhood.”  We followed her for several blocks until she pointed at a street to turn on, and a few doors on was the Sinan Han Motel.

 

A smiling young woman named Yasmina greeted us and offered cold drinks of water with mint, or lemon.  The place was was small but charming, with no elevator and a tiny room that we almost overflowed. Outside our room were steps to a rooftop terrace with a view of the Stari Most, the Old Bridge that is Mostar’s most famous monument, about 100 yards away. 

We met Marijana, the attractive owner, on our way out to take a closer look at the bridge. She told us the Sinan Han was still being built atop the foundations of an old home when the Balkans war stopped construction. Refugees made homeless by the war lived in its cellar and Bosnian troops occupied the rooms upstairs.

On our walkabout,

we reached the bridge through a warren of narrow stone alleys lined with shops, the stones underfoot polished by centuries of footsteps.

The Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent

ordered the bridge built and workers finished it in 1566. At the time its arch of about ninety feet was the widest in the world. It survived for 427 years until Croatian shelling collapsed it in November 1993.

After the war’s end, restorers used original techniques and materials and some of the original stones salvaged from the river below to rebuild it. It reopened in 2004 and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Tourists teemed on the bridge’s peak. We climbed its sharp rise to the top, where divers had plunged into the river to earn tips. Now diving is restricted to a competition every year. The stones underfoot, which seemed to be salvaged from the originals, were slippery with wear.

That evening we researched restaurants through CultureTrip, and longing for simple grilled fish came up with Restoran Harmonija a little way upriver from the bridge. The restaurant’s website points out that it faces the mosque and the Serbian orthodox Christian church, highlighting how people lived together peacefully until they didn’t.

 

We sat in the moonlight at the edge of a terrace, with a view of the river giving us the most romantic setting of our trip so far.

 

Although it is a Muslim-owned restaurant we checked beforehand and they did serve alcohol. The charming waiter greeted us with two small shot glasses. Nick got a firey man’s drink and Barbara a sweet, potent glass of fruit brandy.

We ate local trout, a relief from the meat-rich meals we’d had so far, washing it down with the house-made white wine.

After breakfast at the Sinan Han, we crossed a bridge downriver and saw that the city still bears the physical scars of the war.

 

We spent some time at the Mostar Museum, then returned to the Stari Most and its surrounding shops where Barbara had her eye on a blouse and some table runners.

Barbara bought the runners, made in Kosovo, from Amira, a beautiful young woman wearing a modest head scarf. They began to talk and Amira said, “This is a very sad day for us. You can hear the stores are not playing any music. It is the anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica.” Tears filled her large brown eyes. “You know about the massacre?” she asked, and Barbara nodded. “I never know how people can be so cruel. We are all people,” Amira said.

Barbara asked her if she remembered. “I was very little and they sent me to the hills,” she said. “But I remember how scary it was. We had nothing here. We had no army. They took all the guns and uniforms from the capital in Belgrade and we . . .” she paused and ran her hands down her clothes “. . . had nothing.”

Mostar’s political scars still run deep. The city hasn’t had elections since 2008   because of divisions between Croats, Muslims and Serbs.

As we walked back to the Sinan Han, we wondered anew how in the 1990s, what happened in the Balkans could have seemed so far away and left us, relatively speaking, so unmoved. We are after all, as Amira said, all people.

Perhaps the region’s troubled history gave the people we met here a sixth sense. They were very interested in politics in the United States and confused and appalled by Donald Trump’s first months as President.

As we checked out, Marijana’s teenage son Arnel and the receptionist Yasmina asked us about him. “How can Americans make him president?” they wondered. We talked about the rural bias in our election system and the fear about the changing economy. Many Americans, we explained, lost jobs as factories closed and technology changed their workplaces. Because they can’t seem to find work in the new economy, they worry about the future for themselves and their families. 

“But he says crazy things,” Arnel said. “How can anyone respect him? He doesn’t seem like a man you can respect.”

These young Bosnians had never seen “The Apprentice” and didn’t know about the beguiling power of a reality TV star to tell people what they wanted to hear and convert their anger at diversity and their declining prospects into votes.  

Sighing, we said goodbye and loaded up the car again, this time headed to the coast and the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro.

Read A Trip to the Balkans Part 4

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&video_id=scv9PzcyVm4 

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A Trip To The Balkans Part 2 http://www.consumermojo.com/a-trip-to-the-balkans-part-2/ http://www.consumermojo.com/a-trip-to-the-balkans-part-2/#respond Wed, 02 Aug 2017 21:20:25 +0000 http://www.consumermojo.com/?p=41773 Continue reading A Trip To The Balkans Part 2]]>  Zagreb, Croatia and the Road to Sarajevo

by Nick Taylor

Zagreb was a stop on the famed Orient Express traveling between Paris and Istanbul. Our train was a far cry from the Orient Express, but we had booked into the hotel where its elegant passengers had stopped to spend a night. The Hotel Esplanade, we read, was a stone’s throw from the station and allowed those swanky types to take a breather from the rails.  

But I expect porters ferried their bags to the hotel. We, on the other hand, wheeled ours the distance on the sidewalk and then searched for the not-so-obvious entrance.

Courtesy Wikimedia

Once we found it, we entered its Belle Epoque lobby of ivory and black marble and dark wood with the kind of sitting areas that you find in elegant living rooms. Clocks over the doors told the time in seven major cities.

And the hotel guests chatting and milling about seemed to represent them all.

The diversity added to the appeal that since 1925 had drawn travelers and members of the Zagreb social scene. The vibe must have been much different under the Nazis and the Croatian Ustashi who took it over during World War II.  But, at the moment, it seemed benign and firmly apolitical.

Our first evening in Zagreb began in the hotel’s 1925 Bar and Cocktail Lounge.

A chandelier of dripping lights the size of a wagon wheel hung over the bar. We thought of spies and glamour and sunk into the deep chairs. A woman in a black dress at the next table smoked a cigarette and nursed a drink in a tall glass. You wanted to order a martini at a place like this but we opted for prosecco. 

After drinks we walked to a traditional restaurant called Stari Fijaker, or Old Coach. It was near the upper end of Lower Town, the flat part of Zagreb below the higher, hilly part, called Upper Town. Graffiti marked the darkened masonry of most buildings we passed along the way and we talked about how tired and worn out Zagreb felt and looked.  And then the gloom lifted.

We began to pass sidewalk cafes that we would see day and night throughout the city. People laughed and chatted over coffee and wine and browsed through smartphones like they would in any cosmopolitan place.

At the restaurant, our balding waiter made recommendations that came from long experience. His playful near-smile said, “This is what’s best. If you order something else, it’s not my fault.”

I took his advice and ordered the goulash, or what the menu called shepherd’s stew containing beef, pork, veal and venison.

Barbara, independent as always, resisted. She would have wiener schnitzel with polenta, thank you, and not the suggested sausage.

We had bean and cucumber salads on the side and some local wine. The waiter gave Barbara a refrigerator magnet with the restaurant’s logo as a departing gift.

We took breakfast in the Esplanade’s lavish Zinfandel restaurant dining room the next morning while we mapped out our day. One order of business was visiting a cash machine. The Balkans’ currencies are balkanized; Slovenia used the euro but Croatia proudly uses its kuna.

A kuna is worth about sixteen cents, and Croatian patriots and poets adorn the banknotes.

My must-see for the day was the Museum of Broken Relationships, opened in 2006 by a couple who, after breaking up, thought why not display the items each of them had left behind and tell their stories. Barbara wanted to see the Zagreb market on the way to the Upper Town.

We walked along a street bordered by a series of parks and the shade was a relief. A heat wave enveloped the Balkans and the temperature was climbing to near 90 F.  The people in the parks didn’t seem to mind the heat. Technicians were stringing cable and setting up for a concert in one park that we passed. 

In another, creative souls had produced a beach-like setting complete with lounge chairs and book store.

Broad steps leading to the Upper Town took us to the Dolac market. 

Sellers offered local produce and every kind of nut and spice, as well as fruits and vegetables that may have started life elsewhere.

 

Local flower sellers in one section peddled fresh and dried bouquets.

In another area we found cheese and fishmongers.

 

For a minute we fantasized about the fun we could have shopping and cooking here. But for only a minute. We drifted from the market up some steps and across a street to the Zagreb cathedral.

Courtesy Wikimedia

Beautiful, yes. But it also reminded us of the part religion plays in the Balkans. Although the people of this region come from the same South Slavic stock, their ancestors migrated from the Caucuses in the 9th century. Catholics of Croatia and the Eastern Orthodox Christians of Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria have for centuries fought each other and the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania.

The Croatian Catholic Church played an ugly role during World War II when its Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac aligned with the Nazis and the ruling Ustashi. The ultra-nationalist Ustashi came to power in 1929 and killed and terrorized until 1945. During their reign, they murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Muslims and Roma in their drive to create a racially pure Catholic Croatia.

After World War II Marshal Josip Tito, who united Yugoslavia as a communist state, and pictured here with Winston Churchill, had Stepinac arrested. He was sentenced to sixteen years in prison. But in 2016 a Zagreb court overturned the conviction, ruling that he did not get a fair trial under Tito.

Courtesy Wikimedia

Now, the twin spires of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary tower over the capital square and make it the tallest building in Croatia. And Croatians honor Stepinac with a museum next to the church. Croatian Catholics have lobbied for Stepinac to become a saint. But Pope Francis stopped the canonization process and called for a review.

A group of young men wearing traditional costumes took pictures of one another outside of the church and we silently wondered what nationalism meant to them.

We headed into the cool interior, partially to escape the heat. We noticed that the stained glass windows along the sides of the cathedral didn’t tell the usual Bible stories featuring portraits of the saints. They showed instead the kinds of geometric floral patterns more often seen in mosques. But the altar and surroundings were rich with Christian iconography.

We eagerly put religion behind us and began walking toward the Museum of Broken Relationships.  

At an open-air cafe in a pedestrian plaza below the market, we stopped to buy water. A burly man, larger even than the normally large Croatian men, heard us speaking English and asked, “Where are you from?”

Turns out Josef – “call me Jossi” – a Croatian Jew, had lived on Roosevelt Island in New York City while he did some work for the Croatian delegation to the U.N. He hinted that his work involved mystery, or spycraft. 

He pulled out his phone and showed us pictures of his grandchildren at a beautiful home he owned on the Adriatic coast.

When he learned that we planned to drive to Bosnia, he discouraged us. “Go to the Croatian coast first,” he said, and began mapping out a route we had no intention of taking. But his good humor and enthusiasm made us laugh.

We left Jossi and walked uphill, around a corner, through a stone gate

Courtesey Wikimedia

and uphill some more to a square that opened up around a church with a bright tile roof. This was St. Mark’s Church.

 

The original dates to the twelfth century and stands as a Serbian Orthodox outlier in Catholic Croatia. Zagreb’s coat of arms, a white castle on red background, took up half the roof. The other half displayed a coat of arms dating to the 19th century, when three Croatian kingdoms under one king were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

We found the Museum of Broken relationships a few blocks away. This little place told stories of broken hearts and missed moments. It felt more human than any museum we have visited. You didn’t find ancient glories, grand sculpture, Greek or Roman columns, or mummies adorned for their voyage through eternity. But you did see small mementoes and read the poignant recollections that accompanied them.

 

The display featured a modem from an old computer,

a dog-eared copy of an old Bob Dylan book,

sock puppets, dolls, a plastic flower, all things couples had shared and meant something when they were together.

Donors told stories mostly about love affairs that cooled, but some wrote of departed parents, or of children who died. Some wrote with anger, some with bitterness, some with resignation, but every story brought a pang of recognition. We left the museum with sad smiles at seeing the kind of touchstones that make us all human and realizing that we had been there, too.

We moved from the museum’s soulful stories to the pleasure of a ride on a funicular. 

Upper Town stands higher than Lower Town by about 100 fairly abrupt feet, and the funicular, built in 1893, provides a way to quickly get from one to the other. It calls itself the world’s oldest, shortest, steepest and safest funicular. And maybe, at four kunas for a ticket, it’s the cheapest. We entered and fanned our faces with our hats until the car descended its 217-foot track to the bottom.

We dipped into modern Zagreb and a young, hip place called Duck for lunch.

We sat at the counter and ate mussels and a chicken Caesar salad and of course drank Croatian white wine.

At Barbara’s insistence, I discovered the pleasure of shopping at Zara, the Spanish retail chain that offers knock-offs of designer clothes at a fraction of the price. The extreme heat forced me to get a few new shirts.

Barbara found a hair salon across from the hotel that featured her favorite Aveda products and enjoyed talking to the excellent hairdresser, Luciana Sakic.

When the young woman learned that we planned to head to Bosnia, she shook her head. “My father was there during the war in the ’90s. But when I ask him to talk about it he says, ‘Please Luciana, you don’t want to know. Don’t make me talk.'”

That evening, we ate at the Esplanade’s less formal Bistro restaurant. The dated sound track played an incongruous loop of Frank Sinatra classics. Our young waiter said, “I’m going to get some new music. They said that I could update it. Are you coming back this way? You’ll hear it.”

Barbara ordered the house special risotto and I had asparagus. We ordered a bottle of Croatian pinot noir to accompany my veal cheek main course

and Barbara’s smoked pork dish. 

The next morning, we had breakfast in the dining room and watched as a family of six Chinese women in their twenties fawned over their elderly patriarch. They patted crumbs off his shirt and belly and passed him the watches and other goodies that they pulled from their shopping bags. This family, we later learned, had traveled with a larger group from China making a European tour. 

Time to leave, and we headed to Hertz’s downtown office through forests of graffiti-painted apartment buildings. “Look at it!” the driver cried, waving a hand. “Six meters, nine meters high, everywhere! This government doesn’t care. They don’t know how to do anything right.” He said he longed for the days of Marshal Tito, when order ruled.

Courtesy Wikimedia

When he learned we were driving into Bosnia and Herzegovina,  he told us to obey the speed limits. “If it’s fifteen, don’t go sixteen, go fourteen,” he said. “And take a few euros in case the police pull you over. They do it old style there. Not like here in Croatia.”

Soon we drove southeast in a brand-new red Suzuki Swift with a five-speed stick and a gasoline engine, a change from the diesel cars you usually get in European rentals.

 

We discussed the route as we drove. Barbara wanted to go through Banja Luka, the de facto capital of Serbian Bosnia. I wanted to avoid it.

The Dayton Accords that ended the fighting in the Balkans war designated 49 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina as Serbian areas, or Republika Srpska.

Courtesy Wikimedia

The Serbs under Slobodan Milosevic had wanted the whole thing, laying siege to Sarajevo and shooting civilians in the street from sniper outposts in the hills, and slaughtering Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. I felt convinced the Serbs still wanted more.

My reading of Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, Roger Cohen’s Hearts Grown Brutal, Steven Galloway’s novel The Cellist of Sarajevo and Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina  had prepared me for the trip.

Fortunately I had an ally in Google Maps, which told us that my route was faster. 

 

We sped by the exit to Banja Luka and left the highway at Slavonski to cross into Bosnia at Brod.

 

We joined a long line of cars passing through the Croatian exit point. Pedestrians and bicyclists seem to move easily between the two countries. 

At the Bosnian checkpoint border patrol officers flipped through our passports and looked at the car papers and waved us along in the Serbian part of Bosnia.

Republika Srpska, a jagged horseshoe, curves from Bosnia’s northern border with Croatia to its eastern borders with Serbia and Montenegro, except for a dollop at the curve of the horseshoe that is the self-governing district of Brčko.

 

So we had avoided Banja Luka, but the broad vertical stripes of the red, white and blue Republika Srpska flag still greeted us as we crossed the border.

We followed a two-lane road south through gentle farmlands.

The tightly coiled hay bales we’d seen in the farm fields of Croatia now gave way to looser haystacks piled upright, protruding on the top like upturned breasts.

The road led south through Doboj, where the signs pointing west to Banja Luka finally disappeared and we left mini-Serbia for a while.

We drove into the mineral-rich part of Bosnia-Herzegovina and through Zenica, a factory town that produces aluminum and steel.

Its huge, mud-drab warehouses and factories turned their ugly faces to the highway, but they soon gave way to beautiful small mountain towns dotted with minarets and a few church steeples.

After a six-hour drive, we entered Sarajevo. 

 Read A Trip to the Balkans Part One 

 

      Read A Trip to the Balkans Part Three

 

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A Trip To The Balkans http://www.consumermojo.com/a-trip-to-the-balkans/ http://www.consumermojo.com/a-trip-to-the-balkans/#respond Fri, 28 Jul 2017 21:22:28 +0000 http://www.consumermojo.com/?p=41649 Continue reading A Trip To The Balkans]]>  Slovenia, Ljubljana and Bled

by Nick Taylor

The Balkans? What? Why?  I thought it seemed odd when Barbara first suggested taking a trip there. But our last few vacations have been, at least in part, about exploring history.

 

And the Balkans, the countries between Greece, Eastern Europe and the Adriatic Sea, are so known for fighting one another that “balkanize” means breaking something up into “smaller and often hostile units.” As a result, I would add, of religious hatreds leading to power and land grabs.

Courtesy Wikimedia

A nationalist assassin’s bullet fired in the Balkans started World War I and ended an empire. Fighting raged in Attila the Hun’s time, in Julius Caesar’s, during the reign of the Ottoman Turks, in World War II, in practically every period of history.

The old rivalries, released anew after the fall of Yugoslavia, exploded into the 1990’s Balkans war. Scars of the war still mar the landscape and the memories of the people who lived through it. Yet the ethnic and religious rivalries behind this tortured history exist in stunning beauty – footholds of green climbing mountains of stark rock, farmlands lush with olive groves and vineyards, and clear coastal waters where the mountains meet the sea. We decided we had to explore these contradictions for ourselves.

We mapped a route that would take us through Slovenia,

Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and then back to coastal Croatia. That would give us time to learn a little about the countries and then a chance for pure recreation, swimming and biking on an island in the Adriatic.

The best deal on business class flights put us on Swiss International Airlines into Zurich with a change to Venice. We ended up in first class, but that’s another story and you can read that here.

So we started on the ground at Marco Polo Airport in Venice where Karlo Soper, with GoOpti, picked us up in his van for the two-and-half hour ride to Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana

Our fellow travelers were hostel-bound young Brits. They all piled into the back and we shared the front seat with Karlo.  He spoke English and we started talking.

He told us his parents were teachers. He wasn’t interested in teaching so he studied business and then started a plastic fabrication shop that turned sheets of plastic into small storage containers. When he sold his business, he began driving and we, luckily, found he had a world of information and opinions to share.

Melania Trump came up first since we were headed toward her native Slovenia. “I’m not interested in Melania. She is living in a golden cage,” Karlo said dismissively.

He wanted to talk about geography and history. The highway east from Venice cut through farm and vineyard country, with the 

 Dolomites and Julian Alps on the northern horizon and the Adriatic Sea to the south.

The land has stories to tell, most of them bloody. Tribes of Greek Illyrians had the area to themselves until the Celts invaded in the 5th century BC. They gave way to the Romans under Julius Caesar in the 2nd century BC. By the 11th century AD the Roman Catholic Church held the region and became the ruling power. The mighty dukes of Venice displaced the church in 1420 and then ended up sharing power with the Hapsburgs. Napoleon ruled briefly in the early 19th century; he brought wine grapes to the region. By 1866, it folded in to the newly unified Italy.

A few miles into the area called Friuli-Venezia Guilia, Karlo began to talk about Italians in the same tone as he talked about Melania Trump.

He told us about fierce fighting during the first World War and the battle of Caporetto to the north – now Kobarid in Slovenia — that sealed Italy’s defeat.

We’d later learn that many captured Italian soldiers were brought to Ljubljana’s castle prison. Karlo didn’t mention that.

But as we drove through Udine province, he waved his hand and said, “The Italians set up a camp here during World War II. Everyone forgets about that now.” Men who fought in the war talked about the Gonars camp, he said and the hardship suffered by Slovenes and Croats until Italy surrendered in 1943 and the camp was destroyed.

Despite our jet lag, the conversation drew us in. Unlike some of the other Balkan states, Slovenia remains pretty homogeneous. Like the rest of the former Yugoslavia, it was settled by South Slavs from the Caucauses who migrated into Europe in the 6th century. And then, despite the invaders and alignments and realignments, the Roman Catholic church got a firm hold on Slovenia in the 8th century and has remained a spiritual and political center.

“Look at all the churches,” Karlo said, pointing to the steeples poking above the small towns on the hillsides and in the valleys we passed.  “They say we have so many churches because they used them to send signals when the Turks came. They came, but they never stayed.” He was referring to the 16th century Ottoman invasion, and why Islam never took hold here.

 

Then he called our attention to another landmark. “There,” he pointed to a mountainside where, as visible as the HOLLYWOOD sign, white rocks spelled the name TITO. Yugoslavia’s communist postwar president, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, held the warring Balkan states together with an iron fist. Karlo said some remember fondly the stability he brought. He died in 1980 and after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 the countries began pulling apart.

Slovenia declared its independence on June 25, 1991. So did Croatia, but fighting had already started between Catholic Croatia and its Eastern Orthodox Serbian militias.  By 1992 Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic had fanned the old religious hatreds into full scale war. Most of it bypassed Slovenia. Croatia and especially Bosnia and Herzegovina, largely Muslim, were not so lucky.

“We had two young children,” Karlo said. “There was no fighting where we were, but it scared us.”

He dropped us off first in Ljubljana. The three-star Urban Hotel, which we had booked online at Booking.com, was modern, un-fussy, and spacious. We took a revival nap and then went out to look around.

The hotel put us in a perfect spot. A short walk on Slovensak cesta took us to the post office, where we turned into the old city’s pedestrian zone and followed Copova ulica past clothing and book stores, kebab shops and restaurants to Preseren Square and Tromostovje. 

Courtesy Wikimedia

Here at the old city’s center, three stone bridges span the narrow meandering Ljubljanica River and connect the medieval town with its new sections.

Architect Joze Plenik brilliantly understood that his art deco style bridges and pedestrian walkways on either side of the river would attract visitors and cause them to linger. And all around us, walkers took in the summer evening, dogs tugged at their leashes, bicyclers weaved among the crowds, and spectators gathered to watch an acrobatic troupe hoist a brave child three shoulders high above the pavement.

Ljubljana may have an old history, but most of the people in the streets seemed young, giving the place a current vibe with beards, tattoos, and blue hair in abundance.

Restaurants, cafes and stalls selling ice cream lined both sides of the river. The menus of fish and sausage and grilled lamb seemed pretty similar 

My friend Karen Kester had recommended a restaurant a block beyond the river. We strolled by to have a look, but the tables under umbrellas on the street were full. We wandered back to the river and a restaurant there.  

Courtesy Jórge Lascar via flickr

We ordered fried calamari and some prosciutto with olives, then split a main course of pan-fried trout, accompanied by Slovenian white wine.

 

The Balkan climate makes for excellent wines, and every Balkan country produces their own varieties. 

We walked back to the hotel the way we came and fell asleep before the Fourth of July fireworks started back home in the United States.

The next morning, after a good hotel breakfast,

we walked a few blocks to the bus station and bought tickets to Bled, a lake town about 35 miles northwest of the city.

Barbara and I took seats at the front so we could get full view of the countryside.  As the bus rolled along the four-lane highway, it traveled into mountains where patches of trees struggled to cling to steep rock cliffs.

Bled itself seemed like it jumped out of a picture book. Tree-covered hillsides descended to its centerpiece, Lake Bled, a clear green glacial lake.

 

A medieval castle named, not surprisingly, Bled Castle, surmounts a sheer cliff that rises from one shore.

A 17th century church dominates the lake’s sole small island. A walking and bicycling path circles the lake, and the volume of tourists didn’t distract from its tranquillity and beauty.  

Our bus tickets included entrance to the castle, so we started our visit with the climb. A steep switchback dirt path, interspersed with steps, took us up and up and up. We encountered more steps when we finally reached the top; our iPhones told us we’d climbed thirty stories. But it felt worth it because once we reached the castle walls the lake spread out below us.

 

The Bled Castle museum told the region’s history from its Stone Age settlers through a period as an iron smelting center and, in the 19th century, as a health resort.

Returning down the steep path, we fell in with a man wearing a ball cap and a navy shirt neatly tucked into navy shorts. Glyn Thomas, a chatty Welshman, told us he came to Bled to sing with his choir group. “A lot of Welsh like to sing in choruses,” he said. Turned out, he also played on Wales’ Over 70s field hockey team. At seventy-six, he was the goalie and served as the team captain. He proudly said, “We won the Over 70s bronze medal in Australia in 2016.”.

We left Glyn to rejoin his group and, back at lakeside, we ate a delicious lunch of local smoked fish

and watched people swimming and fishing.  Then we headed to a point on the shore where you could take a Pletna boat to Bled Island. What is a Pletna boat? you ask. They’re unique to Lake Bled, used originally in the 16th century to ferry pilgrims to the island church where we were headed, propelled by oarsmen wielding two oars. We boarded with a dozen others, though the awning-shaded boats can take up to twenty.

Our Pletnarstvo, as the oarsmen are called, plied his oars from the boat’s stern, leaning forward to begin each stroke. He steered us through long straight rows of buoys where rowers will compete in September in the World Rowing Masters Regatta. He docked at the island and we got off to look around.

 

A long stone set of stairs rises to the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria, built on the site of a Slavic temple to a pagan love goddess.

The church hosts a lot of weddings, and legend says the groom must carry the bride up the ninety-nine steps. A wedding reception was just ending and the pretty blonde bride posed with the groom for the last photos.  

We descended a second set of steps to the opposite side of the island, followed the shoreline back to the docking point, and climbed aboard for the ride back.

To break the uneasy elevator silence, Barbara started talking to some of our fellow passengers, a couple from Pretoria, South Africa and a couple from Newcastle, England. The South Africans had just come to Bled from Zagreb, Croatia, our next stop. But rather than talk about travel the husband, named John, had a question for us: “Why on earth would Americans vote for Donald Trump. We have Jacob Zuma. But Trump?” He shook his head. “How did it happen?” The Newcastle couple seemed interested, and also perplexed.

We tried to explain the electoral college and the anger of Americans in the center of our country without jobs or good prospects. Then we asked the Brits if they had voted for Theresa May and Brexit. “Yes, we did,” the husband Arthur answered, and his wife shook her head in agreement. “The European Union is getting too big. They want too much money, and they have too much power.”

“But here you are in an EU country and you like to travel,” I said. ” “There is that,” Arthur replied. “But I follow my MP.  She’s up on it all. And I voted with her.”

We would not solve isolationism versus globalism this afternoon, and the discussion gave Barbara and I more to think and talk about when the Pletna boat delivered us to shore.

On the bus back to Ljubljana dinner plans began to percolate.

My friend Karen had recommended another Ljubljana restaurant, Spajza, across the river at the far edge of the old town. We took a taxi and sat down in a back garden with ivy-covered walls.

The waiter brought us a complimentary amuse bouche of shredded horse cheek with shaved parmesan to go with our prosecco.

Horse – young horse, actually – joined items more commonly found on American menus. You could order young horse carpaccio with ricotta as a cold appetizer, or main course fillets of young horse with truffles or boletus mushrooms. You could also, as I did, order smoked goose breast to start

and roast wild boar cheeks as a main. Barbara had the horse fillet and we shared a bottle of Slovenian wine. 

Our fifteen-minute walk back to the hotel took us along the river and through the lively street and restaurant scene we found the night before.

At breakfast the next morning we talked about how we’d get to Zagreb. We’d enjoyed the bus ride to Bled and we thought about getting to Zagreb the same way. Tickets were cheap, ten euros or less, and buses left often. The train — our original plan — left in mid-afternoon. Both rides took a little over two hours.

But Amadea, one of the fine staffers at the Urban Hotel, advised against the bus. “Oh no,” she said. “You don’t want to do that. You’ll wait for hours in line at the border.”

This was another story about a Balkans conflict over territory. Croatia, with 1,100 miles of coastline on the Adriatic Sea, wants to bigfoot Slovenia and take its twenty-six miles of coast and the fishing rights that go with them. An international mediator ruled in favor of Slovenia. But Croatia won’t abide by the ruling. So it makes border crossings at most points between the two countries difficult. 

We bought tickets for eight euros apiece on the 2:45 train to Zagreb.

That gave us the morning to explore, via a funicular ride, Ljubljana Castle on the hill that dominates the city.

 

The castle has been around in some form since the Romans built a fortress there 1,000 years ago. Under other rulers it became an arsenal, an army barracks, a military hospital and Napoleon, in the 19th century, made it a prison.

Today, restored, the castle houses a museum, which includes photos of Italian prisoners of war captured in the region we drove through. From the upper walls it allowed great views of the city’s red-tiled roofs and the mountains beyond.

We rode the funicular back down to street level and had just enough time to stop at Sokol, the first restaurant Karen had recommended as “very old and traditionally Slovene.”

We didn’t opt for heavy Slovene fare. We did have an octopus salad at one of its tables on the street. And then we headed to the train station.

We took the facing window seats in one of the six-seat compartments and settled down for the ride. Four men with their work gear slipped into the compartment with us and one wore a T-shirt from Hampton Bays, NY.  “Have you ever been to Hampton Bays?” I asked. He laughed and said he hadn’t. But that got the conversation rolling.

Blaz and his buddies worked on the railroad repairing tracks and began and ended their day in Ljubljana. His friends got off at the first stop, and Blaz continued on. We talked about the coastal dispute with Croatia and he said, “They should get rid of all the politicians. The people have no problems. It’s the politicians that make the trouble.” Blaz said goodbye two stops later. 

On one of the last stops inside Slovenia, an attractive young backpack-toting couple joined us.

At first they took out a pair of dice to play a game. We kept reading. But after we shared few curious surreptitious glances, they introduced themselves as Stine and Jackob from Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. They had just graduated from high school and planned to spend a year working before they went on to higher education. He had job in a fulfillment center warehouse, “I don’t plan to be there forever,” he said.  She worked in eldercare. They had been in Austria, but dipped down into Slovenia so that they could say they’d been there. They planned to wrap up their trip in Zagreb.

They wanted to know how Americans could elect Donald Trump president. We tried to explain and maybe because they were young, they seemed really interested in the complexities of our electoral college system and the anger of Americans who could believe in someone as phony as Donald Trump.

The train stopped at the border crossing between Dobova, Slovenia, and Savski Marof, Croatia. First a Slovenian police officer checked our passports, and then a Croatian officer followed  her. It took less than fifteen minutes and proved that Amadea from the Urban Hotel was right when she advised us to take the train rather than a bus. We would later learn for ourselves about the tedious Balkan border crossings.

On the outskirts of Zagreb we took selfies with Jakob and Stine and then watched the city come into view as the train lumbered into the station. 

 

  Read the next part here

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