Friday, November 30, 2007

Croatian Coast
Trogir from the church tower
Holidays are one of the many nice things about working in the schools in Slovenija. There is a week holiday for each season, and this gives us the opportunity to travel and discover more distant places. This fall holiday, at the end of October and beginning of November, we decided to drive down the coast of Croatia as far as Dubrovnik enjoying the coastal road along the sea and stopping at the ancient villages along the way. The Dalmatian coast is dotted with islands, some inhabited, some naked of trees and life, so the view along the coastal road is interesting and varied.

There were Indo-European settlements along the Adriatic as long ago as 1200 BC and the people were known as Illyrians. The Celts followed much later in the 4th century BC but were defeated along with the Illyrians by the Romans in the 2nd century BC in an attempt to protect their ships from attacks from the Dalmatian coast. The Romans built great roads, thriving walled port cities with community buildings, amphitheatres, grand palaces and aqueducts to transport water. The Roman Empire in this area was destroyed by relentless attacks by the Huns, Vandals, Visigoths and Longobards. In the 6th century the Avars conquered the land and the Slavs, Byzantines, Croats [a Slavic people possibly from Iran], Franks and Hungarians followed. Croatia was not united until 1058, but the land was still fair game for the Hungarians [again], Tartars, Turks [many times], Venetians, and in the 1500’s the Hapsburgs from Austria, then Napoleon, then Austrians again until the dissolution of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire as the result if WWI. In 1918 the Croats joined the Slovenes and Serbs in forming the State of Slovenes Croats and Serbs, but many of the cities along the coast were annexed to Italy and the country remained divided. During WWII the country was invaded by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and resistance to these forces resulted in the creation of the Partisan movement and eventually the Communist Party under the leadership of Tito [of Croatian, Slovene mix] and the formation of the country of Yugoslavia. In1991 Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia [a day before the Slovenes] and a devastating war between neighbors broke out between the Serbian factions and the Croatian nationalists. 1995 peace was declared, but UN forces monitored the land until 1998. Now Croatia is in negotiations for acceptance into the European Union, but there are nationalist who are afraid that joining will not be the best for Croatia, so the conversation continues. But with this history it is no wonder that Croatian people want to be autonomous without the dictates from elsewhere.
When we travel all day in our 1995 Twingo along a road originally built by the Romans, past medieval villages, we are flabbergasted by the amount of traveling done by foot, on horse back, and bumping along in wagons. Modern humans think that we are so mobile with the easy access to airplanes, trains and cars, but in ancient times they traveled unbelievable distances in conditions we would think were less than desirable. Men must have been away from home for years fighting in far distant exotic places while women were home tending the homestead and family. My romantic image of the homey peasant farm, multiple generations snuggled around a blazing hearth after a day of hard work is distorted by the realizations that they had great fear of invasions, the loss of the man of the house for years and what strength the old people and women needed to survive.

Bob visited Dalmatia in 1972 with his parents. His memory is desolate hillsides divided into plots by stone fences and small isolated villages clustered in bays where a port for trade and fishing was possible. 35 years of progressive modernism has drastically altered the landscape. Now the hills that rise directly from the depth of the sea are scared by tourist apartments and hotels. The Croatian tourist board advertises Croatia as “The Adriatic the way it used to be”, but there is little of the pristine beauty Bob remembered to be found along the road. The 2 lane road hugs the hills side and I can’t even imagine how awful it would be to travel the twist and turns in the height of tourist season. All these apartments must be filled with people from somewhere and the only way to get there is by car. The road must be impossibly impassable. The high hills still are divided by stone walls, but no longer do sheep graze or vegetables grow. Certainly the standard of living is much higher and people earn their living during the summer giving them the winter months to recoup and rebuild. No longer do they need to fish the sea daily or trudge the high slopes to raise food to survive, but I wonder what else within their lives and culture is lost. I know that I am the worst kind of tourist. I want to visit the “old country” and see people living the simple life; instead what we see is entrepreneurship at its best. People add multiple stories with private rooms to their homes; they advertise with a soba/camera/zimmer/ room sign and rent them out to people passing by. We made no reservations, but waited until after dark and found a sign lit up and knocked on the door. In each case we were warmly welcomed, given a clean room with a private bath and comfort for the night.

The main cities we visited were Šibenik, Trogir, Salona Dubrovnik and Cavtat. All have been beautifully restored. The pedestrian areas and buildings are made from quarried Dalmatian stone, arches cover the sidewalks connecting the buildings, stairs polished from generations of feet lead to gardens and city walls. Small shops serving residents and tourists peak out from under layers of ancient stone, some clearly stolen from Roman structures. Benches are placed under palm trees and churches appear around every corner. The colbalt sea is ever present by sight, smell or the taste of salt in the air.

I really liked Salona, a Roman community near Split, named after the salt that was harvested there. The foundations of an ampitheatre, temples, baths, homes, walls, gates and roads remain. One man, Frane Bulić, spent much of his life as and archeologist uncovering this city that once was the richest and most populatedRoman city in the mid-Adriatic area. It is easy to see the shapesof the city and in the late afternoon and feel the ghosts of residents who wore grooves in the stone road under the main gate into town. The sophistication of the Roman infrastructure is fascinating. An aquaduct brought water up from the river to the city and covered trenches to displace gray water are still visible . I thrill in walking the path of the ancients. Most of the paving stones have been used for other purposes in other places, so grass carpets the roads and sidewalks giving the place the sense of peacefulness. Yet along the river are oil storage tanks and the modern buildings of Split loom in the distance, but for a moment I can imagine what it must have been like when it was a thriving community.

Dubrovnik was our main destination. To get there we needed to travel inland past the Neretva river delta. This swampy area has ancient raised walled beds for growing that can only be reached by boat. The sweetest tangerines I have ever tasted hang heavy on the trees and stands sell them along the road by the kilo. We ate them like candy with juice dripping everywhere. The approach to Dubrovnik is a dramatic breathtaking view from the hillside. Goats peered down at us when we stopped to look at the city jutting out into the sea. The shape of the walled city makes it clear why this was a safe fortress for centuries. It became the independent Republic of Ragusa in 1382 and the wealth of the inhabitants and the power of the sailing fleet made it a force to rival Venice. A devistating earthquake destroyed the center and the buildings we visited are those rebuilt in 1667. The exterior walls were massive protection from Turkish invasions, but they did not protect the city from the bombing of the Yugoslav army from autumn 1991 to May 1992. From the hillside over 2,000 bombs and guided missiles rained down on the city disturbing half of the houses and all the monuments. UNESCO, the European Union and private sources funded the rapid reconstruction of the city beginning in 1995. As we walked along the streets looking up at the rich design of the buildings it is difficult to imagine the poison that would cause people to destroy such an ancient treasure, but then the expertise, the hard work, the creativity that restored the city shows the goodness in humans that I hope will balance the hatred. We were very happy to be in the city off season to wander around in a slow stroll absorbing the ambiance of the empty streets. We stayed in a B&B just outside the walls and when the second day was pouring rain we had a lovely place to snuggle up and watch the storm come in waves from the sea.

We took an over night ferry from Dubrovnik to Rijeka on the way home. The weather was gray and the wet windy road would have been a tough drive. It was much nicer to sit in the lounge next to the window and watch the coast line pass us by. We met an American couple from Texas and it was really nice to just sit and talk over drinks and dinner. People here speak beautiful English, but it is very relaxing to speak English with people that share a common culture. We can use phrases, make references that are understood by all and it was a delight.
When I visited Bari, Italy with the teachers the first year we were walking through the middle of the old city and there in front of us were Roman ruins. I was slowly dragging at the back of the group looking at every little detail while the rest of my friends rushed by. I stopped at the Roman columns and said “Wait are these Roman?” One teacher stopped and said, “Yes I think so”. “But you just rush by!” I said incredulously. “It’s just more old things”, she said “we see old things all the time.” I will never tire of visiting the ancient sites of this area, but it is amazing how one medieval village begins to look like another after a while. I can’t even believe I am saying that!!

Neretva river basin
Solona Roman ruins
Split seen from Solona


Ferry ride

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Go to youtube to see a beautiful ad for Slovenija.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Autumn in Slovenija

Autumn is beautiful this year in Primorska. The leaves seem to have more color than in the past couple of years and the florescent gold against the sea blue sky draws us deeper and deeper into the mountains. Higher in the hills there are fewer maroon/brown oak trees and more beech forests; yellow laced in brown. The iceberg white boulders rise up from the moss covered forest floor lit by this tent of yellow. Mushrooms of all colors, healthy and poisonous, abound along the path while the prickly shells of the chestnuts and the crunchy beech nuts prevent us from walking silently along the path. The elves know we are there, and it is the perfect hiding place for them to peak at us as we hike past.

As always we are shocked by the rugged terrain and the insanity of fighting war amongst these natural obstacles. Both world wars damaged the heart and soul of this land. The Partisans practiced their guerilla warfare against the Nazis and the Italian fascists only 30 years after WWI devastated everything in its path. They retaliated from deep in the mountains of Primorska and reclaimed much of the territory populated by Slovenes that had been captured by the Italians. The stories are horrific on both sides.

The Italians were cruel masters in this conquered land after WW I. People were only allowed to speak Italian, Slovene was not taught in the schools, some sir names were changed to Italian, people were sent far from their families to work or as a punishment and the towns were called by the new Italian name rather than the name of history. Impoverished southern Italians were brought to Gorizia to populate the area laying claim to the land for Italy.

Partisan popularity was great in this area and support for the Slavic home guard who would free them from their oppression. During WWII the Nazis also claimed the territory and their retaliation for the killing of German soldiers included butchering the men, burning the towns and sending the women and children away. The village of Lokve [45 minutes from our home] was burned twice by the Germans leaving the people in the depth of winter without shelter or food.

It must have been heartbreakingly difficult for the Slovenes to choose their loyalties. The Fascists were foreigners who had taken their country by force ruling with great cruelty. The Nazis were forcing themselves on all the countries around with reports of greater atrocities. The Partisans were locals fighting underground to reclaim the land for the original inhabitants, but they were aligned with the communists and people had fears for the future of their country and their religion. The church did not condone the opposition to the Germans and the Italians, yet these were the enemy by all definitions. Because the communists were aligned with the allies there were few resources for fighting communism, so the domobranci resisted the Partisans and were armed and fed by the Germans. All the political choices had negative consequences and depending on the outcome of the war and the mind set of the victor, ones choice could provide either freedom or death.

Unfortunately after the war was over the killings did not stop. In 1945 tens of thousands who had resisted the Partisans and aligned themselves with the Germans fled the country. Many went to Argentina, Australia and the United States, but others attempted to flee to Austria. At the border after traversing the Julian Alps on foot, in horse drawn carts or piled into trucks the British army turned them back. They were told that the Allies were going to take them to safety to Italy, but instead they returned them to the victorious Partisans under the leadership of Tito. These Slovenes [men, women and children], along with Croatian Ustaše, Serbian Četniks, Croatian civilians and soldiers from the Italian and German armies were seen as traitors to the homeland and hundreds of thousands were brutally beaten, murdered and dumped into mass graves. Some of them were war criminals, but others were civilians who were assassinated without a trial. The locations of the graves and the stories that accompany them have been hidden for generations and are just now being discovered. In 1999 while building a road along the Austrian border near Maribor a mass grave was discovered in the Tezno forest. The remains of over 1,000 people were found in an anti-tank ditch that had been hidden for 60 years.
Near the village of Lokve there is a sink hole that was the sight of mass graves of Slovenes and Italians following the war. The area is identified as a cemetery, although there are no graves marked, and a massive chime with a deeply resonating tone is the monument to those who were massacred.

Primorska is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Partisan movement this fall with events, speeches, parades, singing and remembering. The town of Nova Gorica, built as a new town in the new country of Jugoslavija by the new leaders from the Partisan movement, had a giant celebration. The organization TIGR [Trieste, Istria, Gorizia and Rijeka], wishing to reclaim all these Slovene areas to their rightful inhabitants, remains a presence. The old men stood at attention with their flags, their caps, their memories. After the festivities with good jota in their bellies and a glass of wine in their hand they gathered in groups all over town to reminisce through stories and songs.

I watch all the events. I see their faces, the glow of pride, the memories of what it was like to be involved in changing the face of Europe forever and I wonder how many stories have gone untold and are best to remain hidden.

Partisan 60th anniversary celebration

Lokve [village burned by the Germans]

Area of sink hole mass grave near Lokve

Faces of the Partisans