We'd heard of the beauty of the Croatian coast as well as the trauma of the war. Not sure what to expect, we cross the border. Opatija is our first stop. Set, as are so many coastal towns, on a curved bay with houses nestled along streets winding down the hillside, it is extraordinary for its ornate mansions and hotels left over from the glory days of Austria/Hungary in WWII. It was apparently the playground for the wealthy in that era, a strange concept when you consider who the wealthy of the era were. At this point it is a festive and inviting environment. The promenade is bustling with young people eating ice creams and sipping coffees by the seaside. We cruise through town, impressed by the architecture and the striking setting.
As evening approaches we are ready to find a place to stay. We aren't sure about camping in Croatia but have heard that signs proclaiming "sobe" are rooms available to tourists for a cheap price (make that an "inexpensive" price--we learn that the word "cheap" must have some inappropriate connotations when asking a potential landlady for a cheap room. Friendly to that point, she sourly snaps, "I know NOTHING about CHEAP people. Leave and go elsewhere for CHEAP.") As camping itself has been anything but cheap OR inexpensive, we decide to stop at a little agency in the town of Senj to see what is available.
We state that we are able to spend 15 euros, not really expecting to find anything available at that price. But the agency assistant makes a few calls, and within minutes a woman in her 30s comes to meet us and escorts us to her home up a zigzagging road just outside the center of town. We are flabbergasted to be shown an entire apartment, with kitchen, living area, and bedroom, and an astonishing view over the balcony of the deep blue sea. The camping gear twitches plaintively in its waterproof bags, sensing imminent neglect.
We've heard about a national park that allegedly boasts a multitude of clear flat lakes cascading into a multitude of waterfalls, from one pool into the next. The route to Plitvicka Jezera Park takes us through what initially appears to be quiet small towns and peaceful farmland. Sitting at a bench near an overgrown town square, we notice that the faded yellow building looking something like a community hall is riddled with bullet holes.
Back on the bike, we begin to notice that a number of homes show the same facade. Old stone buildings seem to our initial cursory glance to be quaintly crumbled by the toll of time. But soon we notice that far too many have boarded doors and windows, and the caved in roofs are not victim to age but more intentional damage.
A stillness pervades the countryside that is more malevolent than bucolic. There is no sign of human habitation save an occasional structure showing bright red brick, sign of some brave and lonely soul who has returned to rebuild amidst the graveyard-like reminders of neighbors' homes fled under siege. We are riding through the Krajina region, which we learn later was the site of intense fighting between Serbs and Croats during the war.
Amidst this haunted countryside we arrive at Plitvicka. Incongruously we hop on a tourist trolley which takes us, along with a swarm of others seeking respite from whatever ghosts may haunt them or maybe merely enjoying a sunny Sunday, into the idyllic water-world cascading through the park.
We stroll over boardwalks which take us through kilometers of tree-lined terraced lakes, culminating in an extraordinary spray from the highest fall.
We return hours later to the bike to find a note tucked into the map compartment of the motorcycle tank bag from Dani, a biker who has recognized the "Horizons Unlimited" sticker on the sidecases. We meet Dani shortly after and enjoy learning about his travels. Dani has been travelling long-term and has many contacts in Eastern Europe, both through his adventures and his family who is based in Romania. We appreciate all the information he passes along to us and look forward to the possibility of meeting up with his friends and family.
It is cloudy and cold the next day. We continue to ride through the ravaged region. Many more destroyed houses line the road. We want to learn what happened but don't know about the appropriateness of broaching conversation about politics with the people we meet. We sense it is not going to be an easy topic and try to read as much as we can along the way. It seems likely that the abandoned homes belong to Serbs who had attempted to seize the region for their own and who were eventually banished. The complexities of the war defy easy categorization of who has wronged and who has been wronged. Later conversations we will have en route will continue to present us with opinions as diverse as those who have experienced the tragedies.
As tourists it is easy to escape the scarred reminders of war. Our host Dale from Ljubljana has highly recommended the island of Hvar, and with motorcycle in tow we board a ferry the next day. Ferries leave from the town of Split, which invites clever puns about its personality as one side reveals itself as a huge ridge of ugly communist-era apartment blocks (Dave's favorite) while the older part of town redeems itself graciously with a large and well-preserved old town on the harbor. There isn't much time to explore but we have a good view of the huge cloud-covered mountains backing the town as we drift away on the boat to Hvar.
The light around 4:30 is magical as we set out to explore the island. There are vines! There are pines! There are beautiful old villages! Neatly planted fields of grapes glow lime green in contrast with the rich red earth. A ridge of mountains looms to the right, with picture-perfect church steeples dotting the hills.
We head off the road to see the little harbor town of Jelsa then get back on the road to check out the quiet side of the island, where Dale has recommended we stay instead of the main tourist town of Hvar.
Up up up winds the one-lane road. Something dark and cave-like looms in the mountain up ahead, with a sign proclaiming something like "1.5 kilometers". No problem, we can do that. Seconds later we are in a SCARY SCARY TUNNEL. It is pitch black. The circumference seems barely big enough to hold one car. The motorcycle starts to skid on slick ground that is wet and not smooth and highly invisible. It seems endless. Erika's heart is pounding and the tunnel must be pretty scary indeed as even Dave admits later that his own heart was kinda pumping a little harder than usual as well. About 1/4 mile in Dave turns around, preferring not to face the possibility of being turned to something two dimensional by a vehicle coming from the opposite direction. So much for the other side of Hvar.
Back in the fresh air, the one-lane road winding over the highest ridge of Hvar seems like a vast and modern superhighway.
There is a complex grid of stone walls running down the mountainsides which, we speculate, might have been formed over many years by farmers of the rocky region trying to create some space to plant things.
We descend into Hvar town but don't really like it as we are given an extremely aggressive sell on a room by a woman who doesn't seem too savory, and it seems too developed anyway. Back to Jelsa we find another fabulous apartment for 15 Euros run by a lovely 50-something woman named Vesna who seems to find Dave quite charming even though he is getting her to do his laundry. She has a son somewhere around our age and mothers us nicely during our stay. We have a relaxing time the next day strolling around the beautiful coves nearby and eating delicious seafood at an excellent restaurant we'd like to take with us on the rest of our trip. We are not able to arrange this.
We're soon back on the mainland, checking out Dubrovnik. The view of the large old town is spectacular. We are afraid that prices to stay in Dubrovnik will also be spectacular. Dani has handed over a contact of the owner at the Biker's Cafe, a friendly guy who can only however offer us a room we aren't too impressed with at price twice what we'd like. The angel of good lodgings continues to look over us when a young woman at the cafe takes us up (and up and up and up) the 316 steep stairs leading to a huge apartment below the one where she lives with her parents. The view is outstanding and the exercise invaluable.
We descend into the old town as the sun is setting and are charmed by the pink glow on the polished marble streets of town and the whirl of swallows taking their nightly flight.
From our apartment, you can't see just how many tourists are swarming through old Dubrovnik in the daytime. For that you have to descend into old Dubrovnik in the daytime. A walk on the walled ramparts exposes us to views of bright new shingled roofs which were replaced after Dubrovnik was bombed by Yugoslavia.
We are told that 160 people, mostly young, died in this bombing.
We are also exposed to the sunburned shoulders and varicose-veined legs of boatloads of package tourists. It's a really pretty town but we are glad that most of our travels so far have been before the summer onslaught of visitors or else too far off the beaten track to run into many similar crowds.
We escape for a few hours into a small gallery which has an exhibit of war photos and videos. Some are graphic and some more subtle in their portrayal of the anguish created by war. Most captions relay stories of Albanian refugees, Bosnian Muslims or Croatians mourning shattered lives. We watch a video of reactions by the Serbian community to the opening of the original exhibit in Novi Sad, Serbia. Many Serbians express outrage that the photos are biased, inaccurate, and unfair. The original show allowed viewers to write their opinions on paper posted next to the photos, and a book in the Dubrovnik gallery has translations of what was written. It is kind of appalling to read the comments against the show, some of which are reminiscent of Nazi sentiments against Jews and yet also speak of crimes against the Serbs which are not alluded to in the show. There is a lot to think about as we pack up and prepare to continue on to Montenegro.
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