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