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The Balkans
The Balkans:
Lovely States of Mind and Meanderings...

Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photos by Victor Block

his is not going to be your typical travel story. Oh sure, it started out that way. A story about a tour sponsored by Overseas Adventure Travel they called "The Crossroads of the Adriatic." It was going to be all about the medieval town of Dubrovnik in Croatia, a series of dozens of waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes, streaming down cliffs, cascading over rocks, weaving through brush over an expanse of 114-square miles, exploring Sarajevo in Bosnia, a city that suffered through the longest, most devastating siege by Serbia's hands in the history of modern warfare and a visit to Ljubljana, Slovenia, my newest favorite European city with broad promenades, wide pedestrian-only walkways and multiple town squares. And that's just the tip of the itinerary that brought a new adventure to our group of 16 day after day. But that's where the story veered into trouble….

one of the several waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

I found myself being equally surprised and delighted by all the little extra things we were seeing and doing – and yes, often eating – that were NOT on the itinerary that I decided makes an interesting story in and of itself. Because, in all my travels with other tour companies, this has not always been the case.

This is not meant as a love letter to OAT but rather my impressions of a travel philosophy of "Learning and Discovery" which OAT takes very seriously and which elevated an already enticing itinerary into a far more expansive travel opportunity.

During our first day, we explored the Old Town of Dubrovnik, still resembling its 15th century heritage, scaling its huge fortress walls to enjoy exhilarating views of the Adriatic coast. At night, ostensibly nothing is planned – until our ever-creative and ingenious guide, Ivana, notices a small sign on an old church announcing a string quartet concert. So with mostly make-shift chairs set up in the tiny church, we join the locals in witnessing a surprisingly professional performance.

overhead view of the Old Town of Dubrovnik with the Adriatic Sea in the background

Enroute home from Montenegro, a small country boasting ancient villages, a bay designated by UNESCO as one of the 25 most beautiful, aristocratic mansions and a baroque shrine – in other words a full day of historical exploration included in our itinerary – we stop to visit a local (and yes, you will soon tire of that word…) embroidery artisan in traditional dress who regales us with the intricate process of embroidery, with an initial introduction to the silkworm who makes it all possible – literally. The little buggers are there in all its iterations from birth to thread. Admittedly for me, it was a little late in the evening to be all that interested in the lifecycle of a silkworm taking place before my eyes, but others in the group seemed more enamored.

the Church of the Assumption on the Island in Bled, Slovenia

At a small farmhouse where we spent the night near Slavonia, Croatia's breadbasket, several women admired the pottery in the kitchen. Next day? Another unscheduled stop – this time at the potter's shop – not only to buy, of course, but also to learn about the process of how the different cups and bowls were made. Ivana just set it up – she certainly didn't have to. And she even convinced the potter to open up to accommodate us even though it was the end of the season. Very persuasive, our Ivana. And because this was a stop mainly for the women she promised to find something comparable for the men. Of course, she didn't have to look any further than a local brew pub in the next town.

farmhouse pottery near Slavonia, Croatia

Onto Bosnia-Herzegovina. And I need to pause here for a little history. The four countries we visited, along with Serbia and Macedonia, used to comprise Yugoslavia, where Marshall Tito reigned from 1945-1980 as a much-beloved, both then and surprisingly still, benevolent dictator – although admittedly not to those who disagreed with him. When he died, the economy crumbled, unemployment skyrocketed, and the unity and harmony among the many populations – Roman Catholics Croats, Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and assorted Jews, who lived, worked and intermarried together – deteriorated into nationalistic jingoism and animosity. The Bosnian War of 1991-1996 was the result.

In Bosnia, the main L&D surprises revolved around food. First, an unscheduled stop at a roadside stand where Ivana bought enough tangerines, the agricultural specialty of a very verdant river valley enroute to our next town, to last for the rest of the trip. Crossing over from Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina meant transitioning from Roman Catholic churches to Islamic mosques. Pocitelj, the first town we stopped in, is a typical old Muslim village frozen in time from the late 15th Century. Streets of rocky cobblestones transporting us back to the Middle Ages were marred only by an avalanche of tourist stands with local souvenirs. I always feel so guilty for ignoring the plaintive entreaties to buy, stand after stand after stand. I was happy to get back to our tangerines.

And then there's the Tunnel of Life, the very low, narrow, dimly lit secret dirt passageway that led from under an airfield in Sarajevo to the Adriatic Sea. It was the only access to food, water, small arms and medical supplies that brought the only relief to the city of 400,000 who were victims of daily aerial bombardment for almost four years, as Serbia cut off all food, water, electricity, and medicines to the Muslim population it was trying to destroy. As we watched a video of the city disappearing building by building, street by street, explosion by explosion, Ivana tried to soften the emotional blow by plying us with burek, sweet Bosnian pastries. They helped, but just a little.

And did I mention the visit to a local mountain village priest – he just happened to be a personal friend of Ivana's – ostensibly, of course, to learn a little more about the village lifestyle but I think the blueberry strudel that he himself cooked and the wine from nearby vineyards were more than sufficient incentive for the extra drive. The beautiful 18th Century church was just a bonus.

And while sampling truffles in one of the Istrian hill towns outside of Lovran, Ivana was asked how truffles are found. A quick phone call later and another detour of the bus (we had a very accommodating bus driver who sometimes seemed in cahoots with Ivana as to what surprise to spring next), we were meeting with a truffle hunter and his dog, Riki – who demonstrated the well-protected art of finding the evasive white and black gourmet gold.

truffle hunter with his dog demonstrating the art of truffle-hunting at an Istrian hill town

In case our three squares a day weren't sufficient, even the local guides got into the act by providing us with even more to eat in the way of local snacks: "You can't possibly leave (fill in the town) without sampling (fill in the delicacy…)" was their mantra. Among the many savory offerings were the best of regional chocolates, the yummiest roasted chestnuts, the finest Bosnian coffee, the sweetest rahat lokum (Turkish delight), the grandest Istrian truffles, the best of cream cakes, the most delicious Bosnian burek, the mouth watering strudel from Father Robbie's oven, and my personal favorite, an almost endless amount of regional brandies at every stop. Blame the superlatives on Ivana.

During out tour of Zagreb, the sprawling European Croatian capital, the recent culinary L&D expanded into the arts. Though ample free time is always factored into the tours – what should be time off for Ivana – she instead saw it as an opportunity to provide more options for her ever-greedy charges. In this case, tickets to either a jazz contest or the ballet, simply because they were in town when we were.

taking a picture at the the medieval Gornji Grad or Upper Town of Zagreb, Croatia

And when our Learning and Discovery adventures kept us on the bus traveling from town to town, country to country, they didn't stop. As impressive as all our unscheduled stops were, even more so were Ivana's constant tales of history, culture, Tito, controversies, architecture, Tito, education, economics, Tito – yes, they want him back – plus personal experiences and other tantalizing tidbits day after day. The fact that it was still as fascinating by the end of week two is even more of a phenomenal accomplishment.

So yes, my usual travel articles deal with the destination; this one with the journey. And what made that journey so unusual were the many moments of learning and discovery that jumped off the itinerary page and into my heart. Thank you, Ivana. For more information, visit Crossroads of the Adriatic.

Related Articles:
Smart & Stylish Slovenia; A Moment in Montenegro; An Assumption in Bled; Postcards From Prague; A Brief Break in Brno; Senigallia – On Italy's Adriatic Coast

(Posted 3-13-2015)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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