Our trainload of young backpackers, (and us), is delayed by track work and we all detrain at Dombovar and drag our bags to waiting coaches before being driven to Kaposvar where we board a new train. There’s the same scramble for seats, (not us kiddies, we have reservations), and the train pulls out with young people standing in the aisles. The Man in Seat 61, our omnipresent train guru, has promised a dining car serving inexpensive waiter-service meals, beer & wine but this has failed to materialise and we’re more than a little hungry and slightly cranky, when, soon after 9.30pm we pull into Zagreb, capital of Croatia. We tow our suitcases to the hotel – carefully selected to be just 7 minutes walk from the station, then head out and find a pretty decent restaurant where the kitchen closes at 10.30pm. Around midnight, with full tummies, we watch Portugal defeat France on the big screen in the City Square surrounded by hundreds of cheering Croats!
We’re staying at the elegant Palace Hotel, a hotel so sophisticated that the breakfast buffet has several wines on offer – some which other brave tourists sample. But the Palace has standards up with which we must keep, and a sign warns that if guests leave laundry hanging in the shower, it will be removed, relaundered and delivered back, with a charge (designed to mitigate such behaviour), of course.
The population of Croatia is no bigger than New Zealand, and Zagreb, with a population of just 200,000 is a very manageable city. It’s small enough to be able to walk everywhere, and so we do. We take the free walking tour (of course, there’s actually no such thing as a “free” tour”), but with guide Luka (and 50 other free-loaders), we take in the highlights. In the very beautiful Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary we admire the ornate chandeliers, than an enterprising Croatian businessman purchased from the Golden Sands casino in Vegas. At the Museum of Broken Relationships we muse what items we might add to their collection, and early in the evening we buy a beer at a quiet spot in the city where jazz is suposedly featured each evening, and instead are treated to a children’s puppet show. Which despite the language barrier we enjoy, surrounded by a gaggle of raucous children.
Next morning, at 7.00am, we roam the Central Market picking fruit and nuts for our journey ahead. The tomatoes are the brightest red imaginable and the watermelons a shade of pink we never see. What we do see though, is Luka, our guide from yesterday, sitting chatting to friends with a beer in one hand and a smoke in the other. We’re not sure whether he’s coming home or going out.
Two hours down the motorway and we’ve crossed another border, have added another passport stamp and our driver is dropping us in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, and home, of course, to two recent Mrs Trumps. Our guide Ivaneka meets us and for two hours gives us an in-depth tour of this small city. It’s a city of bookshops, several in one street although the two major ones are still government owned. It has a well-preserved castle, which we access by a short, steep funicular, and the Cathedral of St Nicholas, built in the baroque style, is probably the most ornate we have ever visited.
Another of the city’s many delights is a small area, about 10 metres in diameter in the main square, which creates its own weather. We marvelled how, on a stinking hot, perfectly clear summer’s day, cooling rain fell in this specific spot. Until we noticed high, high above us, several small sprinklers suspended in the air.
Late afternoon we were deposited in the small touristy town of Bled, on the shores of the lake with the same name, and with the sun setting, we walked the 6kms round the lake, people-watching the swimmers and sunbakers.
This morning, the first morning in two weeks when storms are threatening, we were collected by today’s guide, George. We made our first stop at the 11th century Castle Bled, which has nothing to do with Dracula. It’d be an easy place to defend, perched high above the town and we were impressed to see it has a working copy of the Gutenberg press and a decent wine cellar where we made a couple of purchases.
The press, (printing, not wine), featured a great range of local souvenirs and bookmarks, one of which I offer to my Aunty Madeleine. It reads, We travel not to escape life, but so that life does not escape us. Then we were rowed out to the Church of the Mother of God on the Lake. This gorgeous little church was the reason we had come, (at Mary’s suggestion and insistence), to Bled. The church on the island is a very special place and not for the first time, we lit candles for family members no longer with us.
We stopped at Villa Bled, built as the holiday home for Tito, and now an elegant small hotel, and we marvelled at the murals in what had been Tito’s private theatre, showing Slovenia’s passage to freedom.
We spent the afternoon at Lake Bohinj, Slovenia’s largest glacial lake, which is the home of the New Zealand women rowers as they prepare for the Olympics. Again, it’s extremely picturesque with the forests of birch and silver beech reaching down to the lake’s edge.
There was a cable car ride up the 1,600 metres high vertical face of Mt Vogel. Someone, (who shall remained nameless) decided this was a trip too far but, 30 minutes later, as I (Ooops!) waited for the cable car to descend, only two of the three people who’d gone up got out. Mary had been left behind at the top of Mt Vogel. (To lose one friend is careless etc..) After a trip to Savica waterfall we head back into Bled for a cocktail and dinner overlooking the lake with a bottle of rough red from Moldavia.
Full marks to Vicky, our diminutive travel agent who has arranged this part of the trip together with her local company. Everything has been seamless. We have drivers collect us and deposit us at places we can’t even pronounce where a guide will be waiting to deliver the important highlights. Then we move on and another guide will be waiting.
We realise how little we know about the history in this part of the world, except that while Slovenia has been independent for just 20 years, the preceding 500 had been filled with war, mayhem and occupation. There’s a view that’s been put to us two or three times, and not once disputed, that life was far better under Tito, than as part of the EU.
And with that, you’re right up to date. So I’m going to pull the top off that bottle of Slovenian Cab Sav I bought at the castle. I suggest you do the same and we’ll meet back here in a few days.
Back across the border into Croatia tomorrow.