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Source: WestWorld, By: Craille Maguire Gillies
The ultimate Eastern Europe Tour: Hungary, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia on a Tour bus.
We are supposed to catch a ferry. It is mid-morning and our bus is rolling through the highways and side roads of Hungary, on our way to Croatia. The landscape is green and hilly and there is a brilliant sun overhead – the kind that makes you sleepy. Our plan is to hop the six-minute boat ride across the narrow part of Balaton Lake, the largest lake in Central Europe and a popular summer resort spot, and then make our way to Zagreb, the Croatian capital.
Beautiful old city of Dubrovnik (Croatia)
“We are in Hungary,” our guide, Beata, says, “which means there is a ferry. Or there might be a ferry.” She pauses. “There will probably be a ferry.” No one else is terribly concerned. We have a lot of ground to cover, but a lot of time to cover it. Over 16 days, our group of 33 is making its way by bus through Austria, Hungary and Croatia, where we will spend the bulk of our time among vineyards, farmland and villages hugging the Adriatic Coast. We’ll briefly traverse Bosnia to reach Dubrovnik, in southern Croatia, and then, after a side trip to Montenegro, head north to Slovenia.
The trip, organized by Insight Vacations, has attracted a diverse group: several retired baby boomers from Australia, a family with three college-aged sons from North Carolina (who miraculously all get along), a teacher from Los Angeles, a few South Africans and the odd Canadian to boot.
On this early-summer day, just outside Budapest, we pass blooming white acacia trees. Brahman cows graze in fields not given over to vineyards or vacation homes. Bulrushes stand sentinel along the water’s edge. We arrive at the tiny, prosaic ferry terminal with just enough time to board. We might be on vacation, but with five countries to cover, there’s a schedule to abide.
Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable to drive a bus through this region. The Bosnian War and the Croatian War of Independence following the breakup of Yugoslavia brought violence to the area. And scars from that time – physical and emotional – remain.
View from the Mount Srđ down on old city of Dubrovnik
But many here hope to put the past far behind them. Croatia, for one, is set to join the European Union next July. “The first decade of the new millennium let people settle down with their past and look forward,” Beata tells us. She has travelled these roads for more than two decades and seen the region’s transformation first-hand.
That transformation has brought visitors. The New Yorker called 2011 Croatia’s “best year for tourism,” and the number of foreign visitors is up six per cent in 2012. In recent years, the coastal city of Dubrovnik, where we’re headed in a few days, and its environs have become known as a sort of Dalmatian Riviera (Dalmatia being the historical name for the region of Croatia that runs along the Adriatic Coast).
Capital city of Croatia – Zagreb
Despite these changes, you can’t miss the past in Zagreb, which we approach under a light rain that lifts to sunshine. With a population of around 800,000, Zagreb is the largest city in Croatia and was an economic centre in the former Yugoslavia. The humourless facades of Communist-era buildings sit alongside the pale yellow of restored structures from the Hapsburg era.
Modern architecture in the City of Zagreb
Hotel Regent Esplanade in Zagreb
This juxtaposition of Communist severity and classical grandeur repeats itself through the city. On our way to dinner, we pass the Regent Esplanade, a palatial art nouveau hotel built in 1925 for guests of the Orient Express. Walking back to our hotel (a Sheraton in central Zagreb that is basic but comfortable – like most of the accommodations included in this tour package), I wander under plane trees through King Tomislav Square and catch a glimpse of the city’s neoclassical railway station, lit up at night. A few blocks along, I take photos of art graffiti.
Stone Gate in Zagreb
In the morning, we walk 15 minutes to the Upper Town to see the Stone Gate, in the medieval heart of the city. In the 13th century, King Bela IV granted special rights to the community of Gradec to build fortifications as protection against the Mongols. This included four gates connecting the upper and lower towns. The Stone Gate is the only one that remains.
Stone Gate in Zagreb
The gate holds special meaning for the city’s faithful (close to 90 per cent of Croatians are Catholic) because, as legend has it, a 1731 fire destroyed the wooden parts of the gate, but not, miraculously, a painting of the Virgin and Child. Today it’s a shrine where locals come to pray. Someone tells me today is the Day of the Virgin Mary of Stone Gate. As I walk through the gate, singing rises from the crowd that has gathered to light candles.
Cobblestone streets of old Zagreb
Up the cobblestone road, I hear another soulful voice – this one coming from the Museum of Broken Relationships, a small art space in what the clerk describes as a former palace, but is more akin to a maisonette or row house. “I’m ready for you, I hope you’re ready for me,” Muddy Watters sings as I enter. Two former lovers created the museum four years ago, displaying relics of their relationship. Soon friends and strangers began donating objects. One display case holds a national identity card from France, donated by a woman from Ljubljana, Slovenia (a city we will soon visit). “The only thing of great love,” she wrote, “was citizenship.”
Farther along the road, an old man plays Dalmatian folk songs on an acoustic guitar. We make our way to the centre of town, weaving through a farmer’s market full of woven baskets, flowers and strawberries. We have two days in Zagreb – ample time to explore by foot before we hop back on the bus and leave the north for the coast.
Modern new highways throughout Croatia
Traveling overland hundreds of kilometers, a place reveals itself gradually. We pass the long stretches on the bus listening to historical primers from our guide, Beata, napping or chatting with our fellow travelers. At the outset, I worried that I’d get cabin fever holed up on a bus for hours at a time, but I find I appreciate the balance between activity and reflection. The long hours traveling give me the chance to learn more about the region.
The other passengers chat about children and grandchildren back home, or places they’ve traveled. Several are bus-tour veterans. Some form new friendships and break into small groups to explore during free time (which we have plenty of, even though there are organized activities most days).
On the drive to Split, a seaside city about 400 kilometers from Zagreb, the landscape becomes hillier. Tiny farms occupy the valley and terraced vineyards dot the coast. In small lakes and bays I notice the bobbing floats of oyster and mussel farms.
City of Split
We arrive in Split in the afternoon. Our stay will be short, so we start our sightseeing with a quick tour of Diocletian’s Palace, a fortress-like structure built in the late third century as a retirement home for the Roman emperor. Today it is part museum and part housing, and it anchors the old part of the city. After a jaunt up the boardwalk, we freshen up at the Atrium, our sleek, modern hotel, which wouldn’t be out of place in New York or Calgary.
Hidden beach along Adriatic coast
Small village in Croatia
We’re soon thrust back into the country, with a short drive to a konoba (tavern) on a small bay, where a trio of musicians in striped T-shirts serenades us between courses of fish, soup and potatoes (roughly half of our suppers are included in the tour package). There is another busload of Insight travelers at dinner, mostly Australian, and they quickly get into the spirit. As the pitch rises – lubricated by shots of herb brandy, a local specialty – someone starts a conga line. The musicians play to the mood and shout, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie,” and everyone else shouts back, on cue, “Oi! Oi! Oi!”
Music Festival in Split: Dalmatinska klapa performs
By now we are on day seven and have eased into the rhythm of bus travel. Having made our way along the coast, we’re headed for one night to tiny Korcula, an island that claims – but can’t substantiate – Marco Polo as a native son, before we tour a winery in the Peljesac Peninsula. Then it’s on to Dubrovnik, where we’ll spend two days.
Beautiful romantic place: Island of Korcula
There are lots of private and secluded beaches in Croatia
One of the top 10 beaches in the world: Bol (island of Brac)
The landscape becomes subtly more Mediterranean the farther southeast we go, and after several hours we arrive in Dubrovnik, Pearl of the Adriatic. We emerge from the bus at 3 p.m., blinking in the brilliant sun. In the Middle Ages, this city matched Venice as an eastern European seaport. One afternoon, when the heat of the day has lifted, I make the two-kilometer trek along the thick medieval wall that separates the old city from the new. The fortifications, flush with the Adriatic, were a hedge against invaders such as the Venetians, who ruled these parts in the 13th and 14th centuries.
One morning, we walk from our sprawling luxury hotel, Rixos Libertas, which is built into the side of a hill not far from the old city, to meet our walking-tour guide, Duska.
“If you put your finger in the seawater,” she tells us, “you are connected with the whole world. Not long ago, however – in October 1991 – Dubrovnik was cut off from the world by a siege during the Croatian War of Independence. The Yugoslav People’s Army surrounded the city and some 30,000 residents, including Duska, had to flee to escape a three-month bombardment. Much of the city was destroyed. Duska escorts us to the Memorial Room of Defenders of Dubrovnik, a museum in the old city, where we see photos of the bombing. Local fighters who died appear in portraits along the wall.
Touring Croatian islands with the wooden boat
For dinner, we board a wooden boat and ride out to a quiet bay. The city is aglow with lights, reflecting off the limestone walls of houses and the karstic hillside. As we dine on our meal of red snapper, rocket salad and apple strudel, we sip Croatian white wine and brandy and gaze up at the bright white orb of the full moon, which hangs as if strung on a wire between the peaks of two hills.
Sveti Stefan in Montenegro
Over the next few days, we take a tour to Montenegro, an optional side trip that takes us south, along the coast, through the community of Kotor, the 3,500-year-old town of Budva and the resort islet of Sveti Stefan. By now we are on day 11. We make our way north to overnight in a Communist-era hotel in Plitvice Lakes National Park, in central Croatia. The accommodations are spare but clean. Encased in glass in the lobby is a taxidermied bear, upright on its back legs.
One of the ten world wonders: Plitvice
To visit all the lakes more than one day is needed
UNESCO World Heritage Site: National park Plitvice:
Tourists walk through the National Park
The park quickly becomes a highlight of the trip. Founded in 1949, it is the largest national park in Croatia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the morning we discover why. We walk the perimeter of small lakes linked by a boardwalk and fed by endless waterfalls. There are 16 interconnected lakes, all shades of emerald and aquamarine. When we get to a series of cascading falls that shroud a small chunk of rock face, our young Croatian guide, Blanka, says, “This is what we call the Croatian Niagara Falls.”
Throughout the walk, Blanka throws out snippets about the region’s natural history: the 800 varieties of mushrooms, the forests of beech, fir, maple and hornbeam that surround us, the travertine dams where fallen tree trunks calcify over many, many years into stone. Occasionally she stops to point out a rare orchid or the holes in a beech tree made by dormice. Near the end of the walk she becomes serious. “You hear about Croatia rebuilding itself quickly,” she says. “That was the will of the people.”
By lunchtime we are on our way. We alight, briefly, in Karlovac, near Zagreb, to see bullet-riddled houses, still unrepaired from the war of the 1990s, and an outdoor museum of tanks and artillery. As we continue on to Slovenia, I recall Blanka’s words.
The scenery becomes greener and less populated as we exit Croatia and drift north. Slovenia is at the northern edge of the Balkan Peninsula, “squeezed between the Alps and the Adriatic Peninsula,” Beata says as we roll toward the capital, Ljubljana.
Capital of Slovenia: Ljubljana at night
On the long drive, I practice my pronunciation: Lube-lee-yan-ah. Though the Slovenes arrived in these parts around the seventh century, Slovenia itself is a young country, established in 1991 when it broke away from Yugoslavia. As for the capital, it isn’t much older than its roughly 300,000 residents (the average age is early 30s), and we quickly see evidence of that youthful energy in the city’s cafe culture and markets.
City of Ljubljana at night
An 1895 earthquake destroyed many of Ljubljana’s buildings. These were replaced, our walking guide Spela tells us the next morning, with art nouveau and modern buildings – such as the “skyscraper” that was the tallest building in the Balkans when it was built in the 1930s. We peer up: it is no more than 12 storey high.
Spela leads us on a brisk walk around town – you can see most of it in an hour or two – and then I break away from the group to visit Ljubljana Castle, the best place in town for photos. A funicular takes me to the top of Castle Hill, where I wander the medieval grounds and climb a tower for sweeping views of the green city. Here, from the highest point in the city, I can see how far we’ve come. Just a few days ago we were more than 600 km away, sailing in the sea outside Dubrovnik and gazing at the moon. And soon we’ll hit the road for our next adventure.
The color of Adriatic Sea in Croatia is unbelievable
Linda Cramer, AMA Travel Specialist, Europe
Coach touring may not be for everyone, but it’s one of my favorite ways to travel. My first experience was in Israel and I was immediately hooked. I had a fabulous time visiting places that I had only read about and would have taken me hours to research. I’ve since traveled all around Britain and Western Europe by coach. The relaxed pace of coach touring allows travelers to cover more ground than they would by other means—train, for example. Another plus is the chance to meet and explore with a diverse group of people, young and old, from around the world. Despite the slow pace, there’s lots to do on these tours. Tour buses generally stop every few hours at attractions. Your admission is taken care of for you. No need to worry about standing in long lineups—you’ll spend your precious time learning about the local culture and history instead. The guides on these trips are virtual encyclopedias of information. But some of my most memorable moments on coach tours have happened when the bus makes an unscheduled stop. Perhaps there’s a local selling fruit by the side of the road or a sunset that’s too good to pass up. Still wavering on coach travel? Consider starting with a leisurely tour that allows for more than one night at each stop and plenty of free time. I promise, you’ll love it!
Need help planning or booking a coach tour? Contact Linda at 1-888-989-8423 or email WWTravelSpecialist@ama.ab.ca.
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