Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina - Summer 2011

This year's summer escape was personal: Amy's grand-family is from Slovenia. Part of our mission, in addition to some much needed R&R, was to dig up genealogical and historical information. Our journey started and ended in Hungary, as flights were cheapest to Budapest. We spent most of our two days in the decaying, but charming Hungarian capital wandering the streets absorbing what we could. We took a side trip to a railway museum, which was partially closed to accommodate a classic car show. This was actually pretty interesting because most of the cars were Eastern European or Soviet makes I had never seen before. From Budapest, we motored northeast by rental car to Aggtalek, where there are some impressive caves. We spent the night in cute Eger, where we also enjoyed the largest and most elaborate crepes I've ever seen the following morning. By nightfall, we had made it to Zagreb. On route we visited a spa complex built into a series of caves and ate a picnic dinner while the sun set over Lake Balaton. Finding a hotel in Zagreb proved tricker then we expected, and it was well after dark before we settled in for the night. The following day, we walked all over the Croatian capital, which was very pleasant. After getting our fill of impressive buildings, churches, vistas, markets and museums, we went for a fancy transitional dinner. Before heading out of town the next day, we stopped by the storied Esplanade Hotel and ate a quick breakfast in the city botanical gardens.

Next stop: Metlika, Slovenia, the capital of the province Amy's folks hail from. After some assistance from the local tourist office, we were on our way to Radovica, a picturesque town of maybe two hundred people. Although we didn't find anything concrete (vague memories of people leaving to America around 1900 due to a grape vine plague), it was clear there was a link - a good fraction of the town had the correct last name. We did dig up a family tree that connected with Amy's, adding several generations of missing information. That night, we stayed at a "tourist farm" - a terrible name for what is really "a farm where tourists can stay." This was actually way nicer than we expected, with comfortable accommodation and delicious home-cooked meals (and more wine than two people should consume). The next day, we headed an hour north to Nova Mesto, where we connected with known family that had visited the United States three decades earlier. After sharing some stories and seeing old photos, we hit the road again, pushing far north to Velenje, stopping by Otočec castle on route.

Velenje is not on the tourist track, but Amy had read about a coal mine museum there, which intrigued us. Arriving too late to go on the tour that day, we decided to layover in Velenje for one night. After people watching and dinner, we stumbled onto a community concert featuring old Yugoslav Partisan songs (mostly from World War II). The museum had told us to come back at 8am. When we arrived, we were met by a retired miner / tour guide and treated to what amounted to a private tour. I knew the museum was going to be pretty cool when it started with a 100 meter elevator ride into a working mine. Understanding how coal was actually mined was pretty mind blowing. A highlight was traveling back up to the surface with a bunch of miners done with their shift (who obliged us with a photo, though not many smiles).

That afternoon, we backtracked to Ljubljana, the picturesque capital of Slovenia. There was plenty to see on foot, which we supplemented with a riverboat tour. For some reason, Ljubljana is big on theme bars. We could easily have stayed a few more days absorbing the friendly vibe, but with the trip half over, we decided to push on. We caught a puppet show production before skipping town.

Our travels then took us on a northwest loop of Slovenia, hitting Škofja Loka and Kranj - two pretty old towns. Our home for the night was Bled, famous for its fairytale mountain lake with a church situated on an island and a castle perched on a cliff. It's a neat as it sounds. From Bled, we continued the loop, stopping at the Vintgar Gorge for a lovely hike and driving over the Vršič pass, with snow capped mountains everywhere. The rivers flanking our drive were a marvelous turquoise blue, owing to dissolved minerals in the water (which flow through hundreds of miles of caves). By mid afternoon, we had made it to Škocjan Caves. We were pretty impressed by Aggtalek caves, but these caves were out of this world. Absolutely huge! Like fly a jumbo jet through them huge! It felt like something out of a movie and was a definite highlight of the whole trip. We weren't caved out yet, so the next day we met up with two guides (and another tourist) to raft through the Krizna cave system.

By the end of the day, we were back in Croatian territory, hugging the coast. We stayed in Rovinj, a friendly and post-card-perfect costal town. It wasn't overly touristy and was one of my favorite stops of the trip. By knocking on a few doors, we managed to stay in an older lady's spare apartment right in the heart of the city for next to nothing. She also loved to talk (in incredibly fast italian) and bought us a few rounds of cappuccinos. From Rovinj, we started a long push south along the Adriatic coast, stopping at Šibenik for a seafood snack and quick look around. We spent the next two nights in Split, before continuing south to the jewel of the Adriatic: Dubrovnik. The city has a lot of hype, but it's mostly deserved. It too felt like something out of a movie - if only there weren't throngs of cruise ship tourists... There wasn't any one thing that blew me away, but the city taken as a whole is very unique and impressive.

In two days, we had to be back in Budapest for our flight home. From Dubrovnik, we plunged inland, into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Immediately upon crossing the border, there was a totally different vibe. Mostar felt a world apart from Dubrovnik; less tourists and a pronounced Muslim influence, most visible with mosques now dotting the landscape. We went to the local museum to learn about how the war affected the city and its iconic bridge (recently rebuilt by the UN). As we explored the city, the wounds of war were everywhere. Definitely sobering. Before continuing north, we detoured up the Drežnica Valley, a dramatic landscape. We stopped at a super tiny town where the road ended to grab a drink and take in a slice of rural life.

By nightfall, we were in Sarajevo. For the most part, the city was a hodgepodge of dilapidated communist-era buildings, many with scars from the war, punctuated with the occasional glitzy modern building. At first glance, there wasn't a whole lot to get excited about. However, during our short time there, Amy and I really fell in love with the city. I think it was the people, who had showed an unexpected spirit of perseverance and hospitality. For example, the restaurant we visited our first night was full when we arrived, but the owner ended up squeezing us onto a table with an older gentleman. Foremost, the dinner was the best of the trip. Second, the older man, primarily through gesture and demonstration, showed us all the various things one must do to properly eat Bosnian food (add this to that, dip this like so). Lastly, he insisted on shared his carafe of local hooch with us. Another person who sticks in my mind is a lady from our hotel who showed us around the city. She was a teenager during the war, and lost many of her friends and family. It seemed like almost every street we drove past had a different story, involved different people, and had different struggles. She also took us to a tunnel that was secretly constructed during the war, under the airport, to a UN-protected zone. Food, fuel, medicine, and pretty much everything necessary to keep the city going was carried on peoples' backs through a tunnel maybe four foot high. Even in the center of town, which is recovering quickly, you'd often come across a mark left in the sidewalk or road from a mortar round. It was all very surreal.

On our last day, we did some quick shopping before leaving Sarajevo. The item that most caught our attention were spent artillery casings metalsmiths were decorating with elaborate designs. It was a interesting artistic appropriation of something that had caused so much anguish and terror, and in many ways, underscored what I liked most about Sarajevo - a city dusting itself off and reinventing itself. On route to Budapest, we stopped by the (now debunked) Bosnian pyramids and were also stopped by the Croatian police for going 7 mph over the speed limit. In Croatia, police can fine you on the spot (nope, it wasn't a shakedown). Upon learning we had no cash, they escorted us to a ATM - pretty crazy. Beyond that, the journey back, while long, was uneventful.

© Chris Harrison