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Jo'Burg Days: Two Weeks In Croatia

"The over-riding impression of the Croatian and Adriatic coast is of bare, sparsely forested mountains, towering over clear blue seas; arid, windswept, empty island archipelagos where even the tiniest patch of cultivatable ground is utilised; old stone houses and friendly people...'' Barbara Durlacher, roaming far from her South African homeland, paints a portrait of Croatia that will make you long to go and see the country.

The brochure read “Country Roads of Dalmatia” and the spirits and sense of adventure of 42 coach passengers were high as we set off from Vienna on a clear summer’s morning early in July 2004. Our direction lay south, and we travelled through working class and industrial districts of this beautiful city, passing the airport on our right and a large wind farm, propellers turning lazily in the medium-strength breeze, on our left.

As we passed the dense conurbation, our excellent Polish guide pointed out two interesting experiments in low-cost housing; one, a large gasometer converted into desirable loft apartments for young up-and-coming business people, the other a huge refuse incinerator. Colourful murals by Hunderdtwasser, the famous Viennese artist now camouflaged the structure. He had been given a special commission to decorate the ugly industrial outlines of this unmistakeable icon and had been specially brought back from Australia, where he had emigrated, to oversee the work. With modern technology, the heat and energy now produced from the combustion of the city’s refuse was sufficient to supply all the suburbs in the area. With the current trend towards revitalising degraded inner-city areas, many innovative ideas are being put into place in Vienna, and are helping to bring new life and energy to areas previously abandoned and vandalised.

The “Gurtle,” (Girdle) Vienna’s outer ring road has also undergone a transformation in the last few years, with old buildings spruced up, new restaurants and amusement venues opening and link roads and cheap fast suburban rail connections installed. The district is fast becoming Vienna’s best-kept secret venue for young and vibrant entertainment, and has proved that with sufficient initiative and imagination many inner city areas previously considered impossible to regenerate can regain popularity, and be turned into successful and financially viable undertakings.

Entering Hungary, we endured a one-and-a-half hours delay at Customs due to a female passenger’s over-zealous enthusiasm in declaring her purchase in Vienna of two music CD’s. For some reason, the perverse Customs official chose to interpret this innocent action as dutiable contraband, worth impounding. Later, with raised tempers and many glowering looks in the direction of this foolish woman, we set off again, stopping for a tea at the attractive small village of Tihany to visit the beautiful monastery and stretch our legs.

Entering Budapest at midday, the afternoon was spent visiting the unusual stone fortifications of the Fisherman’s Bastion on Gelert Hill, with its panoramic view of the Danube and the huge neo-Gothic Parliament. Built to challenge the domination of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire shortly after Hungarian independence, the building has a magnificence far in excess of its political importance, and now seems distinctly under-used with Hungary’s recent entrance into the European Union.

The excellent Sofitel hotel with its attractive atrium decorated with a large suspended balsawood model of a very early bi-plane, (its dragonfly appearance indicating that it could never have been airborne) provided ideal and very comfortable accommo-dation for the first night of our tour.

That evening we drove again across the Danube and into the hills around Pest, to a charming hunting-style country restaurant, where we were to enjoy a typical dinner of Goulash Soup, venison, local wines and folk dancing. Welcomed at the doors by a Gypsy violinist, and a waiter bearing a tray with schnapps-filled miniature earthenware ‘men’ as a welcome drink, we were soon put into a mood of relaxation and gaiety. The food was good, the music (although a little overpowering) typically ‘Hungarian-Gypsy’ in style and content, and the folk dancing and singing excellent.

One of our number, a fat and not very attractive single lady, was serenaded by the violinist who insisted on playing her the most heartfelt melodies, meanwhile whispering in her ear “My dulling, you are so b-e-e-e-g … there is so much of you to l-u-u-r-v-e …”

Breakfast the next morning in the atrium was a novel experience, being the first of the new-style buffets provided by the four-star hotels. It comprised an excellent selection of traditional and health foods, cold meats and cheeses and included delicious yoghurts, berry and stone-fruits, and many varieties of breads, rolls and sweet pastries. Well-fuelled, those interested then paid a visit to the baroque Parliament Buildings, listening to the guide give us a brief outline of recent Hungarian history, including the heroic stand of Imrie Nagy who, as the head of his political party, tried to resist the takeover of the Hungarian Communists in the 1960’s.

A visit to Vajdahunyad Castle, the most interesting building amongst many others in the City Park, then followed. In the chapel of the castle we listened to a lovely organ recital and tenor singing by the organist, before walking through the grounds of the park to Gundles, the world-famous restaurant for the speciality of the house - delicious pancakes and cream with chocolate sauce. Next stop was the Danube lunch cruise, with again, sumptuous food and drinks … too much already!

Speaking of Gundles world famous restaurant, I was fascinated to learn that Ronald Lauder, son of the famous ESTEE LAUDER, who created and established the famous range of cosmetics with her name, is the owner. Naturally, it is run by others but he visits several times a year from New York.

Others visited Szentendre (St Andrews) the pretty artist’s village 25 kms outside Budapest, where one could buy souvenirs and popular Hungarian embroidery. Souvenirs of a different kind are the hand-made marzipan sweets. Special varieties of these are for sale after a visit to the small ‘marizipan museum’ at the back of one of the shops in the main street.

An early start the next day saw us setting off on the long ride along the shores of Lake Balaton, en route to Croatia. Skirting the lakeshore, our guide told us that what we were seeing were the remnants of a prehistoric inland sea, which originally stretched all the way from the Black and Aral Seas to the northern reaches of Germany. Now rapidly dwindling through evaporation and silting, the lake is still a popular holiday venue for land-locked Hungarians, many of whom have small ‘dachas’ or summer holiday shacks along the shores, where they enjoy a stress-free vacation, fishing, swimming and sailing. Cycling is also very popular and some time ago our guide spent a vacation making a complete circuit of the lake with friends, using the cycle paths and quiet country lanes.

Our first stop in the lovely countryside of Croatia was in an area of undulating hills, beautiful and fertile, mainly devoted to viticulture. On a superb sunny summer’s day we halted for a photo-opportunity to take pictures of the impressive Veliki Tabor castle. Our guide told us the story of the beautiful village maiden with “long golden tresses” and her lover the handsome prince, and how, defying their parents, the lovers fled away until they were recaptured, where as a punishment the lovely lady was walled alive in the castle. A sad tale, perhaps based in fact; but times were different then, and punishments very harsh.

After a short, but exciting reverse trip up the driveway, when disembarked, we ladies less able to negotiate steep roads were conducted, with the others, through a dark deserted restaurant to a sunny al fresco vine arbor with a beautiful view over the verdant valley. Here we were served an excellent lunch of local specialities. In these pleasant surroundings, with farmyard noises, the songs of wild birds, and the soft soughing of the breeze as a background, it made one very envious for the relaxed and peaceful way of life of the country people of this area of Croatia, and the good food and plentiful local wines gave an excellent impression their comfortable lifestyle.

Back in the coach, we continued to Zagreb, reaching our hotel in the late afternoon as a heavy thunderstorm was brewing. A quick luggage drop-off and then back into the coach for a short orientation drive through the city, and a walking tour of the Old Town. Due to the cobbled streets and steep gradients, I was not able to participate in this interesting walk, but one of the ladies told me that old-time gas street lamps are still in use, creating a wonderfully nostalgic feeling when darkness fell. While waiting for the group to return I took the opportunity to have a light supper at a small local restaurant, and enjoyed an excellent plate of ‘SpagBol’; very calming after a tiring day. Then, before the group arrived, the heavens opened and the rains descended!

Wet and dishevelled, having enjoyed their walking tour, the rest of the party were glad to spend the evening catching an early night after a comforting hot bath and a good dinner.

The overall impression of Zagreb is that it is a gracious “mittle European” city, with a distinct Austro-Hungarian flavour, with a slight hint of Vienna and Paris, and much interesting history, fascinating buildings and monuments. Small and compact, but elegant and sophisticated, it certainly deserves a longer stay and more detailed exploration.

Bright and early the next morning we set off on our way to the famed “Plitvice Lakes” (Plitvicka jezera) in the middle of the country. En route we stopped briefly at the small town of Karlovac only 25 kms from Zagreb, which still showed the harsh scars of the recent Bosnian war. An open-air museum with shelled and abandoned buildings surrounded by several damaged tanks brought memories of that ten-year-old conflict vividly to mind. However, the residents have worked hard to repair the damage and resume their lives, and apart from a few scattered lines of bullet holes in the walls of houses lining the main access roads, few major signs of damage remain.

Arriving at the lakes in the early evening we had an hour or two before dinner to take in the hotel and surroundings. Dinner that night was a crowded affair as the huge dining room was packed to capacity with approximately 500 people, all intent on getting their meal as quickly as possible.

Ill-mannered groups of serious looking people dragging enormous dufflebags had rudely pushed past us in reception as we were being allocated our rooms, and it appeared that the hotel and National Park was the site of the 17th Annual International Field Archery competition, with contestants from all over the world participating.

However, the military precision of the service, where wheeled trolleys of plated food appeared from the kitchen in rapid succession soon ensured that every long table was quickly served, and within a surprisingly short time stomachs were filled and the tables cleared.

The Plitvice area was declared a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage area some years ago and with these provisions, the authorities are able to regulate the number of visitors and impose strict standards of behaviour and cleanliness, which is all to the good and serves to protect the interests of everyone.

An early start the next morning saw the group being introduced to the famed lakes where the procedure of ‘walking the boardwalks’ was explained. A fleet of electric “trains” (articulated buses) serves the park, with designated stopping points, all of them in areas where the numerous paths up the hillside come out to the road. As the road is at a higher elevation to the lakes, it is necessary to walk down graduated series of wooden steps cut into the hillside to descend to water level and it is only there that viewers can board the ‘electric boats’ that cruise the lowest lake, giving visitors a view of the final stretch.

Many visitors opt for the lake steamer as their first choice, working up the series of lakes until they reach the top. But after several careful surveys, I decided to start at one of the higher lakes and left the bus at Station Four. Walking carefully through the flatter entrance area to the lakes I was entranced by the pellucid waters of the reed fringed shallow lake, jade and emerald dragonflies depending from the leaf stalks, to catch the fireflash of kingfishers outlined against the deep green of the surrounding forest. This promised a secure hiding place for those fearsome brown bears we had been warned about. The scenery is truly beautiful, lush, verdant and green, the very best of European forests and lakes and the detailed and devoted care with which the park is kept ensures that the pristine beauty is unspoilt for the enjoyment of all.

During the recent Bosnian war, Serbs mined the beautiful forests, threw hand-grenades into the lakes and seriously compromised the beauty and ecology of the area. It took time, effort and a lot of money to restore the national park to its former state, and visitors are still warned not to wander off the designated paths because of undiscovered mines as well as the more conventional danger of the local fauna.

That lovely summer’s morning, walking through the forests of beech, fir and spruce one constantly came across small groups of archers shooting at targets set up between the trees, and passers-by could only hope that their aim would be of a high enough standard so walkers would not become as ill-fated as William Tell.

The boardwalks are graded and very easy walking, being wide enough for two to pass with care, but the flights of steps cut into the hillsides can be daunting to those with ‘unreliable’ knees, aching joints and too much poundage. However, perseverance paid off, and although I may not have been physically able to walk the entire distance around the lakes, I saw as much as I felt I was capable of, and the only real discomforts were the elephantine mosquitoes. My goodness, but could they BITE!

Due to the nature of the terrain, one comes suddenly upon a ‘disappearing river’ where a body of water will, quite unexpectedly, disappear amongst the tree roots, or near the side of a bank, and reappear later, spouting cleanly out of a mossy bank, forming a small crystal waterfall.

The care with which this national park is managed, the constant attention to giving all visitors ample opportunities to enjoy the beauty without more than the obvious safety restrictions, the frequent environmentally friendly electric buses and boat trips, avoiding the damaging effects of thousands of cars and their emissions are an example of how to give the public access to these unique natural areas without causing irremediable damage. Maybe the ticket cost is high, but groups get a preferential rate and the entrance fee covers unlimited trips on the buses and boats, so apart from refreshments, no further costs are incurred.

That evening others in our group reported that amongst the trees near the hotel, they had seen myriads of glow-worms spiralling in the twilight, absolutely magical, and a memory they would carry for ever of this lovely and very different area in the centre of Croatia.

For those interested in learning what has created these sixteen interlocking lakes, perhaps a brief explanation is necessary. The hills and mountains in the area are composed of ‘karst limestone’, or travertine: very soft and permeable. Natural weathering and the slow dissolution of natural salts has caused millions of tiny holes to appear between the harder particles of stone, and these formations act as a giant strainer, allowing rainfall to percolate slowly down, until it reaches its natural level. The shallow barriers impeding the water forming ‘shelves’ and waterfalls are what is left of the harder strata and less permeable rock bands, and these have the effect of damming the water into lakes and slowing the effects of erosion. As the water moves relatively slowly through the valleys very little material is held in suspension and the water is clear and clean, and erosion and the destruction of the banks is at a minimum.

Leaving this beautiful area, we moved down the coast to Split, the town where 1700 years ago the Roman Emperor Diocletian built his palace. Today these buildings, facing directly onto the seafront, form the heart of the historic old town, and have been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO and are visited by thousands of tourists each year.

Resembling the Great Souk or Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the interior is crammed with tiny tourists shops selling everything from handmade jewellery and trinkets to handbags, scarves and pictures. These cavernous ‘rooms’ once formed part of the foundations of the palace, and were built nearly 50ft high to accommodate the rise and fall of the tide, and sudden surges of water during the infrequent winter storms. They were also used as storage areas for the emperor’s goods, unloaded a few feet away from the small sailing barques which ply the coast.

Later, when the breakwater was built, and peace came after the pirates were subdued, the paved promenade was established, palm trees planted and colourful gardens appeared. So today, the former open foundations of the palace resemble Ali Baba’s cave, with the glitter of bright Eastern colours, the wink of coloured lights, the glow of soft leather, and the movement and chatter of thousands of visitors.

Moving through and up some steps to the rear of the building, we came to an open courtyard where our guide explained that the basalt sphinx on our right had come originally from Egypt as a prize of war, and the granite columns were erected by the Romans. For travellers from the “New World” this concrete confirmation of thousands of years of civilization was difficult to absorb. Our history has been of such short duration and it is not the fashion in countries with short histories to preserve and utilise famous buildings, and therefore much of our country’s heritage is lost forever.

From Split we visited the ancient Roman port of Salona. Distantly, across the busy major highway leading to the deepwater port, one could glimpse the apartment buildings of Split, none more than fourteen stories in height, as the Bora Bora, the vicious prevailing winter wind made it too dangerous to erect anything higher. But here, in the tranquil surroundings of the 2nd century amphitheatre, we saw the wonderfully preserved and excavated Roman Baths, Arena and vast Necropolis, and realised that this had been a rich, busy trade centre all those centuries ago.

A small village built from ancient stone blocks purloined from the ruins has grown up around the remains, and here everyday life continues as it must have done for centuries. The artisan fixes the gate, the wife calls the chickens to be fed, the gardener prunes and waters his fruit trees, and the daughter comes with basket to pick lettuce, ripe tomatoes and courgettes. A bucolic existence, within a mile or two of a busy sea and road junction, handling thousands of tons of freight each year, and recently recovered from violent Serbian attempts to capture this important deep-water port.

Before we leave this region, I must digress to give you a description of the home village of the late Yugoslavian dictator, the ‘benevolent’ Joseph ‘Broz’ Tito at Krumrovec, not far from Plitvice. He was an avowed Communist from his early youth, and having seen his home village of Broz, which has been extended into an ethnic museum representing houses of different styles from the surrounding areas, one can detect, beneath the up-dated veneer of countrified charm, what the village, like hundreds of others at that time, may have been like in the 1920’s and ‘30’s.

Tiny thatched roofed cottages, built straight on the earth without foundations, where the cold would have been overpowering in the winter months, formed these small settlements. There were no conveniences of any kind (there are still none, apart from a village shop-cum-pub), no transport, or public services and total self-sufficiency ruled.

The houses were comprised of small low rooms, dank and dark with tiny windows, primitive sanitary and culinary conditions, no electricity or piped gas; hence the use of candles, a gushing stream close by, and all pervading mud! Mud everywhere; in the streets and lanes, in the fields, entering into the houses set so close to the ground, and even, God forbid! becoming part of the food you ate, inadequately washed off the root vegetables which would have formed a large part of your diet.

Life must have been uncomfortable, if not downright horrible, in those remote settlements without creature comforts of any kind. The only heating would have been provided by a brick oven or an open hearth with a log fire smouldering sulkily during the day, and every drop of water would have had to be drawn from the well and carried in buckets, as well as the wood having to be collected, chopped and stacked against the long winters.

Living a marginal existence of unremitting toil, Communism must have seemed like a Holy Grail. Those middle European and Russian peasants forced to live life like this must have felt that it was long past the time that the tables were turned. The brave and clever ones (and Joseph Tito was one) realised that the only way out of these impossible conditions was to form an alliance with the anti-capitalists, and get to the top, where he would be able to enjoy the fruits of what he came to consider were his rightly earned labours.

Today the village is bursting with charm and the quacking of small jade green frogs in the clear watercress-fringed steam is a melodious background to the interested enquiries of the gaping tourists. Carefully arranged ‘room-scapes’ of a smocked cobbler at his last repairing boots, a flower garlanded bride anxiously awaiting her swain, a tidy barn curtained in golden sheaves of drying corn cobs, and a suitably ‘cleaned-up’ statue of Tito in the garden give a very different picture to what life must have been like in those days nearly eighty years ago. Then life was brutal and short, and it was only by getting on the side of the opposition party that one could see any chance of a change in circumstances, and perhaps a fortuitous war (in the case of Tito a war of very nearly annihilating proportions) could favour your cause.

The visit to Tito’s birthplace was very interesting, including a brief glimpse of an abandoned factory, originally intended to produce aluminium, but bi-passed by the wheels of progress when the difficulty of providing the raw materials to such a remote area made it impossible to continue. This was one of several abandoned factories we saw on our journey; idealistic projects which were impossible to bring to fruition and any sort of effective production and evidence of uninformed bureaucratic planning and the usual profligate waste of money and resources.

A day later we approached Dubrovnik, the ‘Jewel of the Dalmatian Coast’; and for many on the tour the highpoint of their visit. Converging on the city, our first sight, and a most impressive one, was the Tubman Bridge, spanning an inlet, almost a fiord, jutting at right angles from the deep-water port of Dubrovnik. Crossing this, we had a wonderful aerial view of the walled city, the bastions and the watchtowers, where some of the serried ranks of rosy tiled roofs were a lighter colour than others. These repaired areas, and patches of lighter coloured sandstone in the walls of the city, were the only remaining evidence of the considerable damage suffered in the heavy bombardment of the city during the recent conflict.

So much has been written about this famous tourist destination, that it is difficult to find a new and vivid description. But suffice to say that everything you have heard and read is true, and the old town is beautiful and thankfully no longer shows the scars of the recent conflict, as much time, care and money has been spent to repair the desecration caused by the Serbian bombardment.

The day we arrived was hot and sunny, and the first quick visit to the walled city was interspersed by numerous ‘pit-stops’ to refuel with cold drinks, ice creams and coffee. That evening on the telly, I happened to catch a glimpse of a formal opening ceremony, something where everybody was standing to attention and singing the national anthem.

The next morning, after an excellent breakfast, we visited the city again intent on ‘walking the walls’ (for those physically up to it) and really getting a taste of the true Dubrovnik for others who merely wanted to see the city. Rapidly the realisation dawned, the ceremony the previous night had been the start of the “Summer Festival” and with that, came the infamous 10% festival tax, so prices of the previously affordable meals, ice-creams, coffee and cold drinks were hiked to ridiculous levels.

With the heat striking like a hammer-blow off the white walls and narrow streets, it soon became evident that some fresh sea breezes would be necessary to cool things down. Making our way to the seafront, we listened with pleasure to the lecture given by the guide, pointing out the points of interest in the harbour. There was the circular stone bastion of the medieval keep, manned at all times to keep watch for the pirates so active in these seas, and over there to the far side of the harbour was the lazaretto, the isolation wards for travellers arriving off the ships who might be suspected of carrying infection.

The elementary health precautions in those days meant that the series of six adjoining buildings were filled in rotation with sufferers, who were kept there for forty days, the period to establish if they were bringing infection with them. As those infected reached the end of each isolation period they moved successively into the next building, until at the end of the forty-days the survivors were released and could reasonably be expected to be clean and healthy, and not bring cholera, typhoid, measles, or plague into the walled city. Brute measures, but necessary, for to introduce a raging infection into the close confines of the walled city would be tantamount to signing the death sentences of many, so these isolation periods were strictly enforced, and it was a situation of “survival of the fittest”.

That evening we had a charming interlude of an al fresco dinner in the grounds of the restored and converted Benedictine Abbey on the island of Lokrum, the only ‘non-smoking’ island I have ever encountered, followed by a sunset cruise and view of the floodlit walls of the old city.

As a slight digression to the description of the town and countryside, I must pause here to mention that there are a number of famous names associated with Croatia that may be of interest. To start, the famous black and white “Dalmatian” dogs originated in this country; the name is registered and copyrighted, and is occasionally used as a logo for certain goods. Then, the name “Cravat” (a gentleman’s necktie) derives from the country’s name ‘Hrvatska’; the necktie as we know it was invented here, and a gift of an elegant handmade tie for a favourite man in your life makes a marvellous take-home present.

Marco Polo, the famous explorer who first brought word of the wonders of China to the West was born on the island of Korcula, which lies mid-way between Split and Dubrovnik, and Croatia can also boast of having produced three inventors who, whilst their names may never have become world-famous, have nevertheless gone down in history.

There was Ivan Lupis, a naval officer who invented the torpedo; Ivan Meštrovic, the famous Croatian sculptor, whose best known work is “Indians” on show in Chicago; and Slavoljub Penkala, inventor of the mechanical pencil and fountain pen, as well as the first Croatian two-seater plane; and finally, David Schwartz who created an air ship with a metal frame. In the mid-1800’s Ferdinand Zeppelin bought out his works, and based on them, built the aircraft which bears his name. These are only a few of the important citizens of Croatia who have been known for inventions great and small; space does not allow me to list them in any greater detail.

The following day we took a long drive along the coast to Montenegro. This a country of frowning, thickly forested mountains, with deeply indented fiord-like inlets with narrow openings to the sea. During the last war, their small fleet of two submarines were hidden in “underground pods” cunningly cut into the side of the mountain along the waterside, and thus saved from danger. Goodness knows what would have happened if they had entered into hostilities; probably the Montenegrins would have declared a truce, so as not to hazard their naval vessels!

After lunch at the small town of Budva, returning along the coast we were shown the exclusive resort of Sveti Stafan (St Stephen), much favoured by European and British royalty due to its situation as a tiny, self-contained island only metres off the mainland, but separated by a causeway that can be closed at any time. The charming, characterful, densely packed houses have all been renovated and restored and now form part of a luxurious and extremely expensive resort which is the playground of the rich and famous.

That evening, we were taken for a sunset cruise and dinner of Croatian specialities in a traditional restaurant in the city centre. An overpowering smell of fish greeted our arrival, but thankfully this was not in evidence inside the crowded restaurant, where we were served lamb cooked in a large earthenware pan, directly on the coals of the wood fire. The heat in the kitchen was tremendous, but the lamb, cooked in a sauce of tomatoes, garlic and wine proved to be delicious and was enjoyed by all.

Returning from Montenegro we had seen the marshy Neretva delta, where canals have been dug to utilise the reclaimed soil to build raised ‘beds’ for crop growing. This alluvial soil is very fertile and large areas of citrus fruit, vegetables, vines and olives are cultivated. Nearby is the clear water bay of Mali Ston where large stretches of tranquil water are farmed for oysters, creating a viable export industry.

Returning along the coast we briefly visited the small island of Trogir with its colourful market stalls and beautiful cathedral, and then Šibenik, another historic cathedral with its famous pictures and baroque sculptures and the lovely bronze doors riddled with bullet holes.

The over-riding impression of the Croatian and Adriatic coast is of bare, sparsely forested mountains, towering over clear blue seas; arid, windswept, empty island archipelagos where even the tiniest patch of cultivatable ground is utilised; old stone houses and friendly people with an interesting and colourful ethnic culture.

The sandy beaches are few and far between, and access to many pebble beaches is difficult and steep and roads are narrow and congested. But the tideless seas are beautiful, ranging in colour from amethyst to turquoise, azure and purple; the climate is Mediterranean, hot and dry in the summer months, with temperatures up in the high 20’s to 30 degrees C, and the vegetation is colourful and luxuriant. There is plenty of comfortable up-dated self-catering accommodation available, and although there are lots of friendly bars and restaurants, entertainment would be largely up to you.

Cinemas and nightclubs seem to be only available in the cities; don’t expect to find them in the beach resorts, but you will find friendly and helpful people, many of them speaking excellent English, and if you want an easy-going relaxed holiday, Croatia is an excellent choice.

Our last night before returning to Vienna and the end of the tour was spent in Ljubljana in Slovakia, which we reached after a brief visit to Tito’s former ‘hunting lodge’ at Lake Bled. The tranquillity and beauty of this lovely site, with the tiny island church of St Mary reached by ‘Pletna’ boat, rowed from the back by a boatman using a pair of oars rather like a Venetian gondola, showed that, like all powerful men, Tito could recognise a beautiful setting, and made use of his position to enjoy the benefits.

The group took coffee and sumptuous cream-filled pastries on the terrace of Villa Bled before enjoying a glimpse of Tito’s former ballroom and cinema, decorated with a mural of the heroic deeds of the partisans during World War II. The hotel is now a select “Relais de Chateaux” resort, patronised by the rich and famous, many of whom enjoy playing at the excellent golf course nearby.

The delicate pearl coloured walls of the old city of Ljubljana; its beautiful castle perched on top of a strategically important hill; the famous “Triple Bridges”, the abundance of Art Nouveau decoration and the charming ambience of this ‘city in miniature’ endeared it to me. Perhaps in the future I may re-visit these gracious and historic countries, but for the moment, all I can say is… “It was a fabulous tour, and I would dearly love to go back again!”

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