Ljubljana, Slovenia

Slovenia is a very small country, with a total population of around 2 million.  Ljubljana is the capital.  Of the Balkan countries, Slovenia was the most industrious and supported the others during communist times.  Although all the countries we have visited are in the EU, Slovenia is the only one using the Euro.  Food is fairly cheap here, but we talked to an immigrant from England and he said joining the EU raised all of their costs.  A family of 4 could easily live on one income, but now both parents need to work.  

We felt extremely safe here.  The capital is so incredibly clean.  They have achieved zero-waste designation.  A few years ago, they stopped allowing cars into the city centre, so it is strictly for pedestrians and bicyclists.  However, there are many people who live in the city centre, so how do they bring back their groceries or other items without their cars?  There is a free service called “kavalier”, which is like a big golf cart that shuttles people with their shopping to their homes.  How easy is that?  Probably easier than finding street parking for a car.

We had planned to stay an additional day in Ljubljana at the end our out tour, but our plans changed.  I highly recommend this city.  It is a fairytale-book city.

   
  

Lovers’ locks on a bridge:  

   

There are many sculptures around the city.  These two were pretty cute on the lovers’ locks bridge:

             

This is special Slovenian decoration.  They were hoping it would take hold, but I think only 2 buildings in the country were completed.      

Woodway seems to be a Slovenian chain selling locally produced wooden items. This country is very forested.  

Here is a Steampunk lamp for dad.  It was in the restaurant we had lunch:

   
 

You can get fresh unpasteurized milk from kiosks on the street.  It’s cheap and delicious!

  

Rovinj, Croatia

Croatia, and later you’ll see Slovenia, are major destinations for RVers.  We passed so many on the highways heading to the coast.  These RVers come from all over Europe.  While we were in Slovenia, we saw a Bigfoot slide-in camper on a RAM 3500 — no doubt, they were Canadians.  We couldn’t see the license plate.

On the way to Rovinj, we stopped in at a small town on the Adriatic called Senj for a break.  That was our first glimpse of the sea.

   

Between Senj and the coast, there were many seaside RV parks:

   

The next time we come to Croatia (and we will come again), we will travel in an RV.

We stayed on Katarina island in Rovinj.  We took a water taxi over to the island.  It ran once per hour, so it was easy to come and go to the mainland.  Our resort was lovely!  Every room had a sea view and a balcony.  Our room also overlooked the bird pool — yes, it was a pool for the seagulls!  There were also pools for humans, but we chose to swim in the Adriatic instead.

   
  

Looking down from a balcony toward the seagull pool. 

The town of Rovinj on the mainland was like Venice, without the crowds and odours.  We loved it!  The cobblestones were very smooth and polished from years of use, so walking was tricky downhill.

 Rovinj (mainland, old town)  
            

My favourite picture:       

WWII “pill box” bunker:

  

Flat areas cut into the rock and flagstone added for sunbathing:    

           

It’s amazing that a civil war broke out in this country in my lifetime.  There is such a air of peace and tranquility, yet some old animosities still flare up.  As we drove through small towns between Plitvice and the coast, many buildings were pock-marked from bullets.  Some buildings were so badly damaged that they’ve been left to rot.  Also, the homeowners refused to return to them out of fear.  

Back in 1919, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia joined to form Yugoslavia, but this early union didn’t work because Serbia was the majority.  In the 1930s the Serbian king was killed by a Croat.

After WWII, Tito gave them peace and prosperity.  He is still greatly regarded in this part of the world.  The Yugoslavians had a greater standard of living compared to their neighbours.  They could also travel abroad.  Tito gave them a new identity, so that the old divisions weren’t ruling them.  He got rid of religion and nationalism, so they stopped fighting.  They became Yugoslavs, and not Croatians, Serbians, or Slovenes.  He also gave autonomy to certain groups within the country, so there was a good balance of power.  

When Tito died in 1980, it all started to fall apart.  In 1991, Croatia and Slovenia announced independence.  However, Serbia wouldn’t let them go.  Slovenia left easily without much bloodshed.  It wasn’t so easy in Croatia because 1/8 of the population was Serbian, so the army helped the Serbs fight the Croats.  What an ugly war.

Today, Croatia is one of the poorer nations in Europe.  Of all the ones we visited, it is poorest.  The people are very friendly despite their history.

  

Plitvice National Park, Croatia

Visiting Plitvice NP was a bucket list item for me.  It was established in 1949 and later became a UNESCO world heritage site.  We took a trolley to the top of park and then walked down very unnerving boardwalks.  The high up section was delightful, but as we got lower, the crowds became thicker. 

   
                                  As we got close to the largest waterfall, the crowds were like being at the Sistine Chapel — a place I hope never to visit again.  You see most people take a bus to the lower entrance and just walk a short distance to the biggest waterfall.  Then they clog the area while doing bizarre poses or selfies.  I’m starting to prefer selfies to these fake poses!  Today, people think they are supermodels or they are trying to get the perfect (ie fake) Instagram photo.  Are you really sleeping on a rock by a waterfall?  Does anyone believe this?  OK, rant over.  

   
   Because of the crowds, the government is considering reducing the number of people entering the park.  That would be a great idea.

This is a must-see sight.  Brave the crowds and go.  You can also photobomb the girl pretending to be asleep on a rock!  We did.

Budapest

Although this is a very old city, most of the buildings are only from the late 1800s — completed around 1896, because that was the city’s big 1000-year celebration (The first king was King Steven who started his reign in 896 AD).  The city is well laid-out and easy to navigate.  The subway system is excellent.  The first line was made for the 1896 celebration, and it still operates with the original cars.  Why mess with something that works? Since then, new lines have been added.

One of the stations on the original line:

  
Budapest is divide by the Danube.  We stayed on the Pest side.  It is where most people live, and it’s also where all the action is.  The Buda side is hilly, where the big castle is, and where richer people live.  I could be wrong about them being richer, but these people seemed to live in row houses rather than apartments, and there was car parking.  Most of my picture are of the Pest side. 

 Recreational complex:  
Smaller castle on the Pest side:

         

Check out the way gelato is served at this stand:

   
 

Of course, like all European cities, Budapest is dog-friendly.  Amazingly, you don’t see any poop anywhere.  They use paper bags to pick it up, and there are bags and trash cans everywhere to make it easy.  I’m not sure how clean your hands would be after using the little paper bags. 

   
In our hotel, we found this sign to hang for the cleaners.  So, instead of the usual: DO NOT DISTURB, or PLEASE MAKE UP ROOM, you also get a sign like this:

 

People set up areas so that we never forget the horrors of WWII:  

 

Many of these 1896 buildings are original and need some attention.  Here is a picture of two identical buildings.  The one on the right has been refurbished, but the one on the left is in disrepair.  Sometimes foreigners buy these buildings and then just let them sit, so they are getting worse.  At least repair the windows!  The architecture is ornate.

  

Main market (too crowded for me):

   
Opera house:

 Evening Danube cruise

  
    

National Parliament:   

Buda Castle:

Funicular to the castle complex:   
      

View of Pest from Buda castle:  

This is a fountain in the castle complex.  It is a scene about hunting, but I was so in love with the faithful dogs in each vignette in the fountain:    

This dog was my favourite. Look at how faithful she looks!  Many people rubbed her paw.   

I loved seeing Viszlas and Komondors on the streets of Budapest!  As I said earlier, they love their dogs here.

 This church is located on the Buda side.  The tile roof is unique to this area.  Look at the Raven at the top.  
    

View of the parliament from the Buda side:   

As I said, Buda is the hilly side.  Do you see the statue at the top of this hill?  Well, we climbed all the way up to it!  Exhausting in 90+ degree heat!

   
  

Waterfall at the base of the big hill: 

I really enjoyed my stay in Budapest.  The coffee houses and restaurants were top-notch.  The streets were easy to navigate, the Danube was beautiful, and the people are pretty laid-back. It’s no wonder that the Danube was full of river cruise ships.  

Eger, Hungary

The drive from southern Poland, through Slovakia, to Hungary was scenic.  It was quite hilly.  We got to see gypsy children running through fields and camps near the roadways.  The houses definitely changed as we got into Hungary.  Most houses had little yards with fences around them.  Interestingly, we had be talking among ourselves about how we hadn’t seen any fences . . . And then we hit Hungary.  The houses were often single-storey and surprisingly looked similar to my maternal grandparents’ house (they were Hungarian).  The gardens had lots of flowers and vegetables behind the fences.  Unfortunately, this was difficult to photograph from a bus.

  
Our first meal in Hungary was spectacular!  It was like being at my grandma’s!  We had veal paprikas and galouska, with a side of cabbage rolls and hot pickled peppers!  Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love galouska.  I ate it every day while I was in Hungary.  It is similar to German spätzle but much more satisfying.  For dessert, we had palancinta, which are like crepes (I also added another side of hot peppers).  All my favourites!  

   
 

See the hot peppers on both my dinner and dessert plates?

The next day we went to the local market.  We are visiting at the perfect time of year for markets.  Peppers upon peppers in Hungary.

   
  

In Canada, these tomatoes would be called “heirloom” tomatoes, but they have so many original varieties here that they are all heirloom.

   

One special visit we made was to a local school.  Perhaps that seems like a strange place to visit, but we all can relate to being a student, so this was a very unique  visit.  We met a teacher who is retiring in November.  She taught some summer classes over the years, so that is why she won’t be teaching the full school year.  She talked about teaching under the communist system and now.  She also talked about Hungarian kids today and the challenges teachers face.  Our problems in Canada are similar.  They wish they could get the gypsy children to attend pre-kindergarten to help them get a better basis, but they cannot convince the parents.  They struggle a lot with trying to get the gypsies to succeed.

We met her in the school’s language lab, which was of particular interest to me.  They no longer use the antiquated lab.  Instead they have a computer and Smart Board for lessons.

   
 

She explained that in Hungary, all children are served lunch.  The kids want food like pizza and burgers, but they refuse to serve that.  Instead they feed them traditional meals.  Then, we went to the cafeteria to eat a typical meal.  It was wonderful!

Homemade chicken soup, just like my mom’s!   
Round noodles, paprikas, and pickles.

 

Later, we drove through wine country, where the famous Bull’s Blood wine is made.  We stopped at a winery for a tasting, but it was unlike any wine-tasting I’ve been too.  We started with a shot of grappa, and then we all went to the patio for snacks to eat in between the wines.  The exciting part is that we had a live violinist play for us during the tastings!  He played traditional songs and other songs too.  It reminded me of being at a Hungarian wedding!  We have recordings of my grandfather playing these songs.

   
     

This little boy must have been a relative.  He was hiding in the bushes playing the “violin” on his arm.  Adorable!

 
We also went into the cellars.

   

  

Back toward the main road, we saw what our yard would look like, Hungarian style:

  
2 caravans in the yard!

  

Auschwitz – Birkenau

Where do I begin?  What can I say?  Visiting these two places in one day was highly emotional.  I doubt anyone can see these sites without bile rising in the throat or tears filling the eyes.  These are memorials of human atrocities.  

Birkenau

I had no idea of the size of Birkenau.  It is approximately 10 times larger than Auschwitz.  Most of it was destroyed before liberation, so there are only a few buildings standing, foundations, and ruins of the crematorium.  There is a reconstructed railcar there so that you can see the actual size and then imagine how many people were crammed in it — standing room only. In each car, there were two buckets:  one with water and one for sewage.  When you see pictures of people lifting up children to those cars, you can’t help but wonder why people boarded them willingly, and also handed their children up to the arms of people in the cars.  Well, the people were told that they were just being relocated, and they were instructed to bring no more than 50 pounds of possessions with them.  They had no reason to assume they were being sent to their deaths or to work until they died.

   
   

   
   When the trains arrived, people were separated into 2 lines: those selected for work and those that went directly to the gas chambers.  The elderly, young, and sick were killed immediately.

The voltage on the fences was significantly higher than was at Auschwitz.  I’m sure that some of those who survived the selection process grabbed on to the fence to bring on death.  What horror!

Auschwitz

When you tour this site, you will have a guide.  I think that the quality of your experience depends on the guide. However, I wouldn’t doubt that they all mostly rattle off a memorized speech, which was too bad.  The script wasn’t very heartfelt.  Nevertheless, I was so moved by the mounds of possessions and photographs on display. We moved from building block to building block.  Each block showed a different aspect of the work/death/extermination camp.  (Auschwitz-Birkenau was all three.).  

   
Brick “blocks” in Auschwitz  

Zyklon B gas cans 

I was curious about the sanitation display or sleeping display, but I was sickened when we saw the mounds of possessions and personal items.  We saw heaps of shoes — some fancy shoes, some working shoes, some baby shoes.  We saw items like hairbrushes and shaving brushes, and shoe polish — just everyday items that people thought they’d need in their relocation.  Remember, they brought 50 pounds of goods with them.  When I saw these items, it just became too real.  I was overwhelmed with sadness.  Then, we came to a room that was piled high with human hair.  No, those hairbrushes would not have been needed because their heads were shaved and the hair was being transported to Germany to be used as stuffing and handcrafts.  Pictures of that display were forbidden to show respect.  As we left that building, I had to fight back the bile rising in my throat.  I thought I was going to vomit.  I was getting light-headed and tears were welling up.  It was an experience everyone needs to have.  

Suitcases   
Cookware       

People who were chosen for work were sent to different assignments.  The most prestigious assignment was working in the “Canada” blocks.  The prisoners chose the name Canada because it symbolized a wealthy and free land.  Those that worked in Canada were the sorters.  They went through the items in the suitcases of the new arrivals.  Sometimes, they pocketed medicines or other useful items and took them back to the barracks to help others or use for bartering.  Of course, this was very risky.

Then, in another building, the walls were lined with photographs of the people when they arrived.  These were their identification photos.  Some people even tried to smile a little bit.  Most had blank expressions.  I could see these people chosen for work, strong and vibrant with a sparkle in their eyes and round faces.  The Nazis soon learned that the ID photos were useless to identify escapees because they looked so different after a short time in the camp.  That’s when tattooing started.  

 Twins, just 16 years old: 
I am glad that I saw both Auschwitz and Birkenau.  Three years ago, we also went to Dachau.  What I appreciated about Dachau was that at the end of the self-guided tour, there was a space dedicated to each group that was targeted and victimized.  There was a clear explanation of what each symbol worn signified.  Many of the victims wore triangles, and each triangle was in a different color, denoting the victimized group.  The Jews wore the Star of David.  At Auschwitz, our guide just said there were different colours of triangles, but he didn’t seem to know which was which and he didn’t elaborate on the other groups.  He listed a few.  Yet, in the black and white photos, there were many triangles, but there was no mention of their colours below each photo.  This is an important element that needs to be a part of this tour.

Never forget the atrocities of humans.  

Kraków 

Ahhh — flat land, sort of.  For people who have spent 20+ years on the Canadian prairies, the flatness of Kraków was welcomed.  Many people ride Dutch-style bikes and beach cruisers, and other interesting rides.

  
Although the architecture was beautiful and ornate, more brick was exposed, giving it a different vibe from Prague.  Also, the people definitely smiled more.  Kraków is a very easy city to navigate compared to Prague. I don’t know why I couldn’t get oriented in Prague.  I tried!  

   
        We arrived in the evening, so we set out to enjoy the nightlife.  The street musicians/buskers were phenomenal!  One trio played classical music on 3 accordions.  Another played a variety of music, including the Benny Hill race song using mostly traditional instruments.  We were filled with wonder!  It’s refreshing to see young people playing stand-up bass, violin, accordion etc.

Communism

On the second day, we had a local guide.  Poland has only been democratic for about 18 years, so communism is still fresh in their minds.  Some people long for the old days, as is to be expected.  Everyone was guaranteed a job, housing, and food, and they could eventually buy a car, though the waiting list was long.  They were all equally poor in equally small apartments, so it was ok.  They only had to work 7-8 hours per day, but they mostly visited with their friends on their jobs.  She said, “We pretended to work, while the communists pretended to pay us.”  I love that line!

Anyway, one throw back to communism is “milk bars”.  They are cheap luncheon eateries, sort of like cafeterias, but you order from a menu on a wall.  Cheap cheap, and what a feast!  We paid about $18 CAD for this:
   
  

 

Of course, we like to have a full cultural experience, so we also tried a vodka bar. The one we chose had great communist decor, and it was covered with newspapers from the communist era.

   
 Polish TV

You can find many American TV shows and movies.  However, instead of subtitles or voice-overs for each character, there will be one boring male voice dubbing ALL of the roles.  It’s so entertaining!  Better yet is the sign-language.  Do you remember the little old man from Benny Hill?  Well, he works in Poland doing sign language now!  Kidding!  So, during a movie, there will be lots of dialogue, and his little image will be in the corner, but he won’t be signing.  Then, he’ll sign about 5 words for 5 minutes of dialogue!  Is he summarizing?   We saw him again and again!

Harvest Festival

We were fortunate to arrive during the harvest or wheat festival.  It was like being at a Folkfest pavilion in Saskatoon, only better!  There was a stage with live singling, dancing, and music, not to mention the STREET FOOD!  We tried smoked sheep’s cheese that was wrapped in bacon and barbecued.  Just imagine that for a moment.  Are you imagining?  Remember, sheep’s cheese squeaks when you chew it.  NIRVANA!

   
    We wandered around for a bit and came across a potter.  We each bought items from her.  Of course, we can’t fit much in our Airstream, but we wanted a little memento of our time in Kraków.  I bought a raven, and Paul bought a little pot to use as a shot glass.

   
  

Dinner:  Street food again!  Spicy pork, sautéed mushrooms, and pierogies.  Is it wrong to have pierogies twice in one day?  Then, we met some people from our group who told us we had to go to a certain restaurant for apple pancakes.  We were full, but we will never miss an opportunity to taste more culture!  They were divine!

  
OK, not all of our travel is food-related.  We did visit some historical sites, such as this church with Art Nouveau stained-glass windows.  I thought they were so lovely.  Also, all the walls are painted with Art Nouveau floral motifs.

   
    

Creation of earth:  

Ceiling:

  

Even dandilions look heavenly: 

Kraków has several universities.  I believe our guide said this one was established in the 1200 or 1300s: