Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sliding Across Borders: Croatia and Slovenia

Day 1
Right after school on Friday, which included a Halloween party with the 2nd class, I hopped on the train to Villach. On the way, I ran into Steffi, a young English and Geography teacher, and we chatted as our train zoomed along Wörthersee, the sunlight glistening off the peaceful waves and among the golden leaves of the surrounding trees. We arrived in Villach and I met Elisabeth on the platform, bidding farewell to Steffi. We began our journey south to Croatia with our picnic lunch and the sun smiling overhead. The further south we came, the more cloudy the sky grew, until the sun winked out of existence completely. At the Croatian border, we halted for a good 40 minutes, while passports and tickets were rechecked. Once we were chugging through the countryside again, yet another guard came through and officially stamped our passports. An hour later, and we were in Zagreb, where we met bubbly and energetic Pam and Laurie, another couchsurfing guest from Brazil. The four of us caught a taxi to her home in New Zagreb, a suburb of the city. Driving through the darkened streets, we chatted with the driver in German and bid him farewell as we arrived at Pam's house.

We were greeted by her parents, grandfather and brother, before we headed upstairs to drop our things. Pam whipped up a homemade pizza with a delicious homemade crust, while her mother decked the table with a cherry cake for dessert. After a long night of chatting and laughter, we headed off to sleep.

Day 2

We awoke to Elisabeth hungrily reading the history of Croatia and former Yugoslavia, as explained in a nutshell by Rick Steves. After a trip to a grocery store with Pam and her parents, where we picked up some of the famous local Croatian goat cheese and local chocolate, we gathered around the table. We ate an amazing breakfast, which included meats from the animals Pam's family owned, honey from her father's bees, the rest of the cherry cake, and a variety of cheese, breads, and a homemade red-pepper spread (which is one of the foods for which Croatia is famous). Then, we headed out to town, where we met with a girl doing a Fulbright on Croatian films and her visitor from France. Our group headed out—following Pam, as she gave us her official guided tour. We began in front of the Croatian National Theater,

walked through the more modern part of town,

stuffed with blue trams buzzing by,

and headed for Ban Jelacic Square, the main town center. The main square features a statue of the great man, Ban Jelacic, himself leading a charge against, well what was once the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now...let's just say he faces in the direction of Serbia.

Not too far way is Mandusevac Fountain, built on a natural spring, it was once the main source of drinking water for Zagreb and is now the cool hang-out place for teens. Legend goes the fountain is named after an old Croatian war leader, who was thirsty and asked a young girl, Manda to get him some water, which she did. The Croatian word “Zagrabiti” means “to scoop up water”--thus Zagreb got its name and the fountain was named after the young girl.

Next, we wound our way through the colorful markets

to the cathedral in the area of town known as Kaptol—once the site of one of the original villages. Inside we marveled at the elaborate interior, which included a wall carved in the original, Croatian script, and the impressive model/crypt of the bishop. Outside, we headed off down a cobble-stoned street, discovering Mercury on the way.
(Pam and Mercury)

We crossed over the Bloody Bridge, which is simply a street connecting 2 others, today, but was once the bridge that connected the squabbling Gradec and Kaptol villages. Only this bridge crossed the creek and so, it was on the bridge where bloody fights would occasionally erupt.

This formerly controversial area leads straight to what is now Radiceva, a shopping street winding upwards to the Upper Town. Naturally, a tie shop sits along this street, as the Croatians claim to have invented the tie.

Near the end of the street sits St. George atop his horse, towering over a now harmless dragon. The sculpture was created by Austrian artists and gifted to a local family.

Turning the corner past the dragon and knight, we reached the stone gate, which officially marks the entrance to the Upper Town. It was the only gate to survive a giant fire in 1731 because it is believed to have held a painting of the Virgin Mary. Today it functions as a small chapel to Mary and you can stop to admire the fire-repelling painting and light a candle in prayer or admire the chains for the ship, HMS Victory, which fought as Admiral Nelson's flagship in the battle of Trafalger.

Continuing onwards and upwards, passing a sign in German and Croatian which harkens back to when Zagreb belonged to the Hapsburg Empire.

Rounding a corner, we were soon hit by the sudden appearance of St. Mark's Church, which is covered in colorful tiles, creating the crests of Croatia and Zagreb.

Turning left and heading further down the street, we came to St. Catharine's-- the famous Baroque Church.

Continuing down the slanted street, we reached a view of Kaptol, the Cathedral, and the Dolac market and, of course, the Lotrscak Tower, which fires a cannon shot at noon each day in memory of King Bela IV, who gifted the townsfolk with the cannon after they protected him from pillaging Tatars.

We strolled along the Strossmayer Promenade,

visiting poet and local hero, Antun Gustav Matos, before returning to the Lower Town.

After stopping for some ice cream, we wandered the town, stopping to rest in Zrinjevac Park, near The First Fountain, which was built in 1878 after the opening of the first water works.

There, we bid farewell to 2 of our group and the three of us headed towards the Oktagon, a famous in-door shopping street, which is home to the famous and expensive tie shop.

First, we stopped to take a cuddle with the sun in the solar system, after having already seen Mercury that day. Ivan Kozaric created the sun, but it inspired Davor Pries to create the entire Zagreb solar system and now planets are scattered throughout the town—all in the correct size and distance to match the model of the solar system.

Feeling sleepy after a day of walking, we headed back to Pam's, where I baked a Pumpkin Pie using one of her family's home-grown pumpkins. Her mom made a kind of homemade cheese noodles, while Laurie made a traditional Brazilian potato salad.

Day 3 Zagreb to Ljubljana

The next morning, Pam's father gave us a tour of the grounds, including the pumpkin patch and his bees before driving us to the train station. After a hearty round of Hvala (thank you) we were on our way.

Hopping on our train, Elisabeth and I watched Zagreb slid away. Soon, we reached the border the guards, who marched through with the dogs. They ignored Elisabeth's German passport, but read numbers into a walkie-talkie when they came to mine. While we waited for 5 guards to clear a young Brazilian man's passport, we ate the exploding chocolate Pam had given us.

Once in Slovenia's capital, we made our way to our new host's home, dropped our things and went for a walk. Brianna, our new host, was an American working as an English teacher in Slovenia. Naturally, we stopped to whisper to the Dragons perched on Dragon Bridge about the Lindwurm in Klagenfurt. This bridge was designed by the architect Joze Plecnik.

The entire town felt like Klagenfurt's twin or a twilight zone double of Klagenfurt, where everyone speaks another language, there are more bridges and a castle on a hill.
Ljubljana itself was strangely empty as most everyone had left to celebrate the upcoming holidays with family in the countryside. After eating pizza out on a square near the town hall, we headed back and played cards into the night, eating chocolate in honor of Halloween.

Day 4
We began the day with a walk through town, followed by a trip up to the castle.

Fist we slid through Metelkova...former prison and now series of bars, a hostel, and a museum. The government smashed holes in the buildings within the complex to make sure no one would live in them. Little did they know that creative Slovenians would patch the holes with artwork, stained glass, or in other creative ways and transform the entire place into a festive gathering local each night.

We walked along the river, crossing the triple bridge (another Joze Plecnik) to Preseren square with the bright red franciscan church in the background.

Next stop, the main town square: Preseren Square...designed by, you guessed it, Joze Plecnik.
Me in France Preseren Square. Mr. Preseren is a local hero and famous national poet. The love of his life, Julija can be seen in statue form down the street, peeking out of a window.

Then, we wound our way up to the castle.
up on the ramparts

view from the castle

going in to the church at the bottom of the castle hill

Feeling a bit chilly afterwards, we headed to “the skyscraper” which is the sole tall building to grace the skyline. At the top, you can eat cake and coffee with a view of the castle and town below.
view from Neboticnik aka. The Skycraper, literally that's what the name means in Slovene. It was the first skyscraper in Slovenia and is built in a 1933 art deco style.

It was getting colder and darker, so after a stop at the unusual town library with unicorn door handles, we headed back.

Day 5
The next morning, we were up early, caught a bus in front of the train station and headed to Lake Bled. We arrived to a fog-filled town and freezing weather. We proceeded to walk around the lake, unable to see even our own hands in front of our faces.

Peeking out of the foggy lake, the famous plenta boats that one can hire to take you to Otok, the island in the middle of the lake

what we should be seeing, but instead, all we can see is fog

We could hear the muffled squawks of birds and the lapping of nearby water on an unidentified shore, but the lake itself, we could see nothing. As we walked around the lake, trying to keep warm, the fog suddenly parted like the magical mists of Avalon and we could see the island sitting in the middle of the lake.

lake Bled in the fog, we can finally see a bit

the fog begins to lift

We marched all the way around, also spying the castle coming out of the fog atop the cliffs above.

the castle emerging from the fog

the trail

church and castle in background

First, we stopped for cake—Elisabeth eating the obligatory Creme-Schnitten for which Bled is famous, and just to warm up. Then, we climbed the castle, enjoying the view.

view from the top of the castle walls

Me at the top with the old stone wall

On the way down, we ran into Catherine and a group of her British friends who were just climbing up the hill. We stopped and chatted before heading off in our separate directions.

Elisabeth and I walked around the Bled town for a bit, waiting for our bus to come. The houses looked so similar to Austria. I could understand now why Uska continually told me that Austria (or at least Kärnten) was an extension of Slovenia.

Catching the bus, we were deposited quickly in front of the empty, unmanned train station. Feeling chilly and not wanting to just stand or hop around the platform, we headed off to explore Bled-Lesce. We soon discovered an old church and this graveyard opposite the train station, all aglow for All Souls Day. Throughout the day locals had visited their departed loved ones and left candles, or flowers, or both. That evening, masses of locals would return with candles, merging into a massive parade of softly glowing lights and begin the evening celebration of All Souls Day.

After strolling in reverent silence among the flowers and candles and graves, we caught our train back to Austria. I stopped over in Villach for a bit to de-thaw at Elisabeth's place, and then headed back to Klagenfurt.