Picturesque Lake Bled

In the northwest corner of Slovenia, the city of Bled has one of the most picturesque, postcard-worthy lakes in Europe, complete with its own tiny island (the only island in the entire country)! Like many cities founded in the Middle Ages, Bled has a castle dating to the 11th century that towers above the city on an imposing cliff. According to some, this is the oldest castle in Slovenia, and one of the most popular tourist attractions. Doubly fortified walls surround two courtyards (an upper and lower) providing beautiful views of the lake, the city, and the countryside.

Scenic view of Lake Bled and the island from the lower courtyard of the castle.
City of Bled from the Castle wall. The Austrian border is about 60 miles to the north.
Additional outer fortifications were added to the castle in the 16th century after an earthquake damaged much of the buildings.
View of the lower courtyard and the Romanesque-style tower that was part of the original castle design.
View of the upper courtyard with its small chapel (left) and museum rooms with exhibits of castle history and various armaments.

After walking around the castle for a while, we boarded a small boat (gondola) to row out to the island. Motors are not allowed on Lake Bled, because apparently it is easily polluted. Lack of good water turnover from the few streams flowing in and out coupled with the lack of wind that could cycle water from the bottom to the top surface could make the lake water stagnant. Like some other glacial lakes formed in mountainous areas, Lake Bled is protected from wind by the surrounding mountain ranges.

At a distance, we could appreciate how difficult it must have been to build the castle on that sheer cliff. With its surroundings of high mountains (the Julian alps) and beautiful blue-green lake water, the Bled castle looks like a setting for a fantasy movie.
The flat-bottomed Pletna boat design dates back to the 12th century; each hand-crafted boat is powered by the muscles of the oarsman as he rows with his two,16-foot oars from a standing position in the rear of the boat.
The tiny wooded island has several buildings on it, including a church and a free-standing 170 foot bell tower, which sadly has NO view from its top because of the wire mesh over the windows.

Only 99 steps up to the central courtyard where the church and bell tower are located. If a couple wishes to get married in the church, the groom must carry the bride up the step and into the church in order to ensure a long and happy life together.
In addition to the beautiful and ornate interior, the church has a wishing bell. But wishes are only granted to those who can ring the bell three times with a single pull, and who truly believe in God. (Photo from Fine Stay Slovenia)

Sights of Sarajevo

Our Balkan adventure continued with a journey from Dubrovnik, Croatia north over rugged mountains and overgrazed valleys in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Sarajevo, the cultural, financial, and political capital of this country. The contrast between the two countries is quite stark.

Towns in Bosnia-Herzegovina that sustained damage in the Balkan War in the early 1990s had new construction next to buildings destroyed in the war that were never rebuilt, either because the owners had died or simply walked away to restart their lives elsewhere.

Throughout its history, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been a melting pot of religions and ethnicities — catholic Croats, orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosnians — mostly living together in cooperative tolerance of each other, with many inter-faith marriages and mixed families. In our walk through the old part of the city we found a Catholic cathedral, an Orthodox Church, a mosque, and a Jewish temple within just a few blocks of each other.

The enormous Serbian orthodox cathedral was completed in 1868, and is one of the largest orthodox churches in the Balkans.
The Sacred Heart catholic cathedral was completed in 1887 and was damaged but not destroyed in the Balkan war.
Down the street from the cathedrals is one of the 100 mosques that can be found in Sarajevo.
There are many old and stately buildings along the river that runs through Sarajevo, almost all of which suffered substantial damage from shelling in the Balkan war. Most have been reconstructed but pock marks from shrapnel dot their exterior walls in some cases.
The main shopping street is pedestrian only, lined with apartments above and small shops on the ground floor.
Further east on this street, the high rises give way to specialty areas like the leather street, the coppersmith street, and many small restaurants serving “fast” and “slow” food. Leisurely strolling while looking is the favorite past time here.

Sarajevo was the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics, when the independent Balkan countries of today were united as Yugoslavia. Life was good, productivity was high, and people felt they had good lives following 40 years of rule by their benevolent dictator Josep Tito.

And then things fell apart as the influence of communism waned, Balkan countries began to assert their independence, and Serbia made an attempt to pull it all back together. Their troops surrounded the jeweled capital of Bosnia in early 1992, and began to pound away with shells and mortars fired from tanks that lined the hills above the city for more than 1400 days, the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. The Serbs were successful in cutting off water, gas, power, and food, and more than 14,000 people were killed in the city, one third of them children before the siege ended in early 1996. In addition to the shelling from the tanks, snipers picked off civilians as they attempted to forage for food, wood, water, etc.

Photos from a museum illustrate how people gathered the supplies they needed, often walking long distances to get just a small bag of grain. Food was exorbitantly expensive and so people often traded their jewelry or other valued possessions for what they needed.
The bold red line indicates the position of the Serbian army that surrounded Sarajevo from 1992-1996. The brown smudge at the narrowest constriction of the Serbian line was the airport which was guarded by UN peacekeeping forces.

Bosnian army soldiers began constructing a tunnel from houses in the Olympic village area (asterisk below arrow) under the airport runway to a village on the other side of the airport outside Serbian forces in spring 1993 in order to bring food and supplies into the city and as an escape route for some to leave the city.

The 900 meter “tunnel of hope” was completed in 3 months in 1993. It was lined with wood, had electrical and gas lines as well as a ventilation shaft and rails for sliding carts along its entire length. But it was only about 5 feet high, which made carrying heavy sacks in a stooped posture over the almost 1 kilometer distance even harder.

A view of the farm fields and airport today, where the tunnel was dug 30 years ago.

When the war ended, the solution to representative governance of this mixed population in Bosnia-Herzegovina was the election of not one but three concurrent presidents (one Croat, one Serb, and one Muslim) who would rotate in the position every 8 months for four years, along with 14 parliaments and 136 ministries. A confusing solution to the problem of equal representation of all religious/ethnic affiliations to say the least!

Some very old walls

On a day trip to Montenegro from Dubrovnik, we drove and boated to the farthest reaches of the deepest inlet of the Adriatic Sea to the ancient town of Kotor, first officially recognized as a town in the Roman Empire during second century A.D.

Storm clouds hanging over the high mountains on either side of the long inlet of the Adriatic Sea made the “black mountains” especially dark.
More than 80% of the population of Montenegro live by the shore of the long Adriatic inlet, fishing and farming oysters and clams. There is precious little flat land for any agriculture in this part of Montenegro.
We made a brief stop in Perast, one of the many small towns along the inlet to briefly gawk at produce for sale (amazing varieties of olives), and to catch a boat ride to the terminus of the inlet where the city of Kotor has existed for almost two millennia.
Olives, galore!
One of the scenic attractions of Perast is the church of Our Lady of the Rocks, built on an artificial island constructed of rocks added over time to a bed of sunken ships. The tradition of throwing rocks into the bay began in the late 1400s and continues today as festival goers add their rocks to the current shoreline on which the church sits.
The small, walled city of Kotor was a jewel of the Venetian empire, and then subsumed into each of the kingdoms and empires that transformed the boundaries of southeastern Europe from 500-2000 A.D.
The Roman emperor Justinian added fortifications above the walled city to protect it from invading Goths in 6th century A.D. Adventurous hikers today can climb the 2000 ancient stone steps to the top-most fortress.
Inside the compact walled city, now a protected UNESCO site, all the facades of the buildings must be left untouched, to maintain their ancient appearance. The largest and most ornate of them is St. Tryphon’s cathedral, first consecrated in 1166. Several earthquakes in the area (including a severe 8.0 quake in Dubrovnik in 1667) damaged the structure several times, but it has been rebuilt and added to, with a new and taller bell tower added in 2016.
Even here, in the tiny walled city of Kotor, cats walk or lie about everywhere. This kitty was particularly unusual, with its part orange, part gray tabby coloration.

Crossroads of the Adriatic

We are currently visiting Dubrovnik, southern-most major city of Croatia, across the gulf of the Adriatic Sea from the boot heel of Italy. This small once-principal republic in its own right is surrounded by Bosnia-Herzegovina to the north and Montenegro to the south, and only connects to the rest of Croatia by a newly opened bridge.

Croatians wanting to drive north from Dubrovnik used to have to cross into and out of a small piece of Bosnia-Herzegovina to go north into the rest of their own country. Now they can drive on the new bridge and avoid the long lines of customs and immigration at the Bosnian border.

Dubrovnik is an ancient walled city, dating from the 7th century. During its history , it has always been a pre-eminent center of trade and diplomacy in southeastern Europe. Because of its importance in maritime trade, and despite its defensive construction of walls around the city, it was continually over run by invaders and incorporated into their empires: first Venetians, and later Napoleon, then Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, then as part of the kingdom of Yugoslavia, and finally at the conclusion of the Balkan war in 1995, into the independent republic of Croatia.

Exterior as well as interior walls have been reconstructed to their approximate heights and locations prior to 20th century devastation.
More than 100 churches still remain in the Old City, but none are as large as the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This building rests on the remains of several earlier churches dating back to the 7th century. Funds for one of the cathedral builds supposedly came from King Richard, the Lion-hearted who may have passed through this area during his Crusade.
Limestone blocks were used throughout the walled city, as paving stones as well as wall construction. In the doorway at the end of the path here —one of the many cats that roam freely throughout the city.
We took a walk along the walls to look down on the Old City and get a better view of its perch on the cliff side above the sea.
It’s hard to imagine how such an inaccessible site could be captured by invaders.
Castle fortifications were placed at strategic locations along the walls. And yes, the Adriatic really is this blue!
Cats freely roam the old city and are found everywhere on the walled portion as well.
In a walled city built of stone, there isn’t much greenery, and there isn’t much wildlife. But there are always pigeons, and here they are making good use of the new roof tiles added to many buildings since the end of the Balkan war.

The first bombs fell on the communication tower above the old city on October 1, 1991, cutting off water and electricity to all inhabitants. More than 5000 shells fell on Dubrovnik during just one night in early 1992, and intermittent shelling continued until 1995, with partial or complete destruction of almost every building. Reconstruction cost more than $500 million and has been completed in almost all areas of the walled old city.

Some ruins of former buildings and houses have not been reconstructed— and may never be finished, to show the extent of damage from 20th century warfare.

Sights of Trujillo, Spain

We have been sightseeing for the past week in the autonomous province of Extremadura, Spain and staying in what was once a convent in the old Medieval fortress located on the highest hilltop in Trujillo.

The ancient fortress, most of which dates from the Moorish occupation in the 8th-12th centuries is quite well preserved. A number of the houses and buildings are still in use today. Romans began the construction of the hilltop fortress before the Visigoths took over the region. The Moors added walls and buildings and inhabited the hillside off and on for several hundred years until they were driven out by Christians from neighboring provinces in 1232 AD, and Trujillo was recognized by the Pope as an official city.
One of many gates to the upper parts of the fortress from the hilltop streets of Trujillo. All of the roads are cobblestone and the walls are made of native stone slabs and boulders.
A church and orchards in the upper level of the fortress.
Ramparts of the highest level of the fortress with four towers that provide spectacular 360 degree view of the town and surrounding countryside.
The square building in the center is the former convent where we stayed. We walked a little uphill and to the right of this photo to reach the town square, where restaurants and bars were located.
The Plaza was being prepped for the annual Cheese festival that takes place on the first of May. Music is from a local musician playing while I was taking the video.

Each morning we were greeted by a chorus of song from some of the local ”castle birds”…

Jackdaws were the first to greet us from the Juniper right outside our 3rd story window.
A Spotless Starling liked that tree as well, for early morning activity.
A Black Redstart (unrelated to our North American Redstart) could usually be found on the rock walls and light fixtures hunting insects.

Colorful Antigua

For those of you readers anxiously awaiting some outdoor color other than the gray, white, and brown of winter, this post should whet your appetite for the vibrant hues of Spring.

Our ship docked at Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala, and we then got on buses for a two hour ride inland to the small city of Antigua, an ancient capital of Guatemala. The first thing you see on the outskirts of the city are the three massive volcanoes, one of which Volcan de Fuego, is almost constantly active, with ash and gas eruptions about every 15-20 minutes. Another volcano sits just to its right and has four or five peaks, but hasn’t been active since the early 1900s.

A smoking volcano greeted us upon our arrival in Antigua. I was lucky to get this shot though the windows of the bus as we zoomed past — I was on the wrong side for viewing it.

Antigua is a small city of just 35,000 or so people, and its narrow cobblestone streets allow only cars and small buses to traverse them. The city has many language schools and so it is a destination for people interested in a Spanish immersion experience.

Our visit on a Saturday meant that the streets were rather deserted, and people were congregating in the local central park instead.

The central square in the middle of the city was crowded with tourists, onlookers, and many ladies dressed in colorful garb selling a myriad of goods.
Some of the ladies were dressed traditionally and loaded down with things to sell; others looked like they were buying rather than selling.
This lady looks like a walking market stall, with the number of things she is wearing and holding. Anything you need, she probably has on her shoulders, head, or in her pockets.
I took this photo because of the contrast between all the ladies dressed for business and the men relaxing on the bench watching them.

A popular past time for the kids on a Saturday afternoon is chasing or feeding pigeons. Small bags of seed were for sale from someone, and several of the young kids in the park were trying to see who could gather the biggest flock around them as they dropped seed on the ground.

This little girl actually tried eating the bird seed, but it must have tasted pretty bad, so she dumped it out for the pigeons instead.
Cobblestone streets are hard to walk on, but probably last a long time here.
There are a variety of shops along the road, but few are open on Saturday afternoon — except those that would be visited by tourists, like the souvenir shop in the photo.
Jacaranda and Bougainvillea flowers were abundant, along with some vine with yellow flowers, adding to the local color.
Clean streets, colorful walls, lots of flowers — that’s my image of Antigua.

Scenes from Puerto Vallarta (part 2)

Since we couldn’t get into the estuary for a boat tour, we got on the hop-on-hop-off bus to see the sights of Puerto Vallarta. This is a city designed for tourists, with lots of high-rise condos and hotels overlooking premium beachfront. The Malecon (beach boardwalk) is just one of many sites in this city displaying beautiful artwork. This is the “welcome to Puerto Vallarta” sign along the Malecon beachfront.

Block letters spelling out Puerto Vallarta are decorated with cartoons of children (see below).
A typical scene in Puerto Vallarta — narrow streets, lots of traffic, moving very slowly.
There is beautiful artwork on many of the buildings of Puerto Vallarta. This is the Michael Tolleson Robles gallery. Senor Tolleson Robles is an autistic savant, self-taught artist, who started painting less than a decade ago and has already completed 1500 gallery-worthy artworks, many of which he has painted in less than two hours.
Another typical feature often found in Central American cities is the nexus of electrical wiring that feeds the neighborhoods. How they ever find where the power outage is in any part of this network is amazing.

It takes a while to get out of the city proper on a big bus, but eventually we made it out to the coast road, where there were still more condos and hilltop resorts overlooking beautiful beaches. This particular one featured a flock of Brown Pelicans doing a lot of diving for fish in the shallows. Actually “pelican plopping” would be a more accurate description of their “dives” for the fish.

I don’t know its name, so I called this one “Pelican fishing beach”
Lift off after a successful dive.
Another resort beach at the end of our long coastal bus ride. This one features a fancy restaurant and is a popular stop-over for the hop-on-hop-off bus tourists to visit. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for that.
Back on the ship, we left the port in early afternoon and got a good view of the harbor and its many tourists hotels and condos.
Someone spotted a few Humpback whales paralleling the course of our ship. One of the whales breached just enough for me to grab a photo — and this is all we saw of the pod.
Just before dinner I grabbed this photo of sunset at sea on the way to our next port in Huatulco, Mexico.

Impressionistic city scene

Our second attempt at cruising the Panama Canal during the past two weeks was successful, but it was impossible to find the time or adequate internet to draft any posts to the blog. So, the next series of posts will be a summary of where we have been and what we have seen over the past two weeks.

Two years ago, our cruise was halted at Puerto Vallarta when Covid first broke out in the U.S., and we had to fly home almost immediately after arrival before we saw much of this port. On this visit I made sure to get plenty of photos of this popular tourist stop, including one rather odd photo mishap that turned out interesting. My attempts to capture the city lights of Puerto Vallarta as the ship entered the harbor were pretty uninspiring because we were so far away, and I didn’t have a tripod or a stable surface handy for long exposures.

A slight camera wobble during my multi-second exposure caused the light streaks to somehow stay in focus for this scene of the Puerto Vallarta city lights as seen from my ship balcony. Click on the image to enlarge it for the best viewing.

San Diego port

Leaving by ship out of San Diego port after the sunset looks like this:

Just as the ship has backed away from Pier B (green building) — an impressive view of downtown SD.
A fly-by of gulls from the top deck of the ship.
Passing the outer most lighthouse in the San Diego harbor. Great sunset color in SD tonight!

Down by the bay

A quick trip to the marshy shoreline of Alameda Island in San Francisco Bay yesterday evening gave us an impressive view of hundreds of busy shorebirds feasting on mud-dwelling critters.

And the skyline of San Francisco across the bay from the island…
And a lovely sunset with little shorebirds still foraging for last crumbs from the mud.