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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

When the Travel Bug Bites ...

I love to travel. I love to explore new places, try new food, photograph the people and history of places I never visited before.

This year, after three years of retirement, I finally got to start traveling. I spent nearly two weeks hiking in Turkey and exploring the ancient cities of Ephesus and Istanbul. I visited the beautiful state of Vermont, hiking and photographing the fall colors. My final trip of 2013 was to the southern European nations of Croatia and Slovenia, with a day trip to Montenegro, the most recent of the former areas of Yugoslavia to become a country (2006).

Although we did a lot of travel by bus, there was time to explore the culture, history and architecture of this ancient region. In the Croatian city of Pula, we stood inside a Roman coliseum that once seated some 23,000 spectators.

Today, the arena serves as a concert venue that seats 5,000 people. We visited part of the vast underground spaces that once housed animals and were the 'green rooms' for gladiators awaiting their turn in the vast arena. It is the only remaining Roman amphitheatre to have four preserved side towers. Constructed from 27 BC to 68 AD, it is among the six largest surviving Roman arenas in the world. It also is the best preserved ancient monument in Croatia.

We visited two other towns on the Istrian peninsula that day, Rovinj and Pobec. Along the way, we had magnificent views of the countryside. We spent hours driving within a few feet of the blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. We visited outdoor markets selling flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables and local products such as lavender, honey, olive oil and white truffle oil. I had a light lunch of a burek, a phyllo dough pastry filled with cheese, fresh from a bakery. Eating on the go gave me more time to walk around, explore and take photographs.

We explored other ancient Roman ruins, including the retirement palace of the Emperor Diocletian in Split. Later, as I sat on a bench in Split, admiring the views of the sea, a local woman sat down nearby. She asked whether I was a tourist, and we started to chat. She spoke very softly, and her English was sometimes difficult to understand, but we talked for several minutes. When she learned that I speak Russian, she recited a poem in Russian that she had been forced to learn many years ago in school. She still remembered it all these years later. Chatting with local residents always has been a high point of international travel for me.

We traveled south along the Adriatic coast to Dubrovnik, visiting the ancient walled city of narrow cobblestone streets, then climbed the steep steps and walked on top of the thick stone walls, which afforded wonderful views of the city below.

We crossed a tiny finger of Bosnia wedged between two areas of Croatia on our way to Montenegro. This small country bears more traces of its Soviet past than do Croatia and Slovenia. Montenegro's houses looked older and shabbier, its roads much rougher than its neighbors. But the city of Kotor has centuries of history reflected in its ancient churches and palaces. In Budva, I walked the narrow cobblestone streets in search of a place to eat. I found it in a tiny bakery, where I enjoyed a wonderful walnut-filled baklava.

I really enjoyed visiting the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, a vibrant, modern city. Our last stop was the town of Bled, nestled at the foot of the Julian Alps. Our hotel was near the beautiful Lake Bled, with a lovely walking path on the lake's edge. Despite the heavy rain and fog, Bled Castle was visible on its perch high above the lake.

We heard about the history of the region, from the ancient Illyrians to the Romans, World War II and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Former Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito still looms large in this area, despite having died in 1980. Born in Slovenia to a Croat family, he was buried in Serbia.

Croats, I learned, have little love for the neighboring Serbians, who attacked their country in the 1990s. Nearby Italy has considerable influence in both the names of towns and the regional cuisine. Many regions were conquered by the Republic of Venice, by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and by the Ottoman Empire. The area is home to a variety of nationalities, including Croats, Slovenes, Serbs and Montenegrins, and a variety of languages and religions (Roman Catholicism, Serbian Orthodoxy and Islam). The architecture of the regions illustrates the styles of Venice, Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans and the Communists. There are examples of Baroque, Renaissance and a variety of architectural styles, sometimes in a single building. Ancient Roman temples stand near 11th-century churches.

As an American living in a fairly homogeneous country where ethnicity isn't a major factor, it was interesting to visit an area that has been part of a variety of empires, where ethnic identity was of great importance for many centuries, and where ethnic discord ran rampant, along with a battle for territory, during the Bosnian War of 1992 to 1995. Serb forces carried out a program of ethnic cleansing in largely Bosniak (Muslim) regions of the country. Cities were destroyed and countless Muslim residents were slaughtered or put into concentration camps. Of course, I heard about the history of the region and the wars from my Slovenian guide. I'm sure a Serb or Bosniak guide would have offered a much different perspective. Still, the history and politics of this region is extremely complex and difficult for me as an American to understand.

I am looking forward to expanding my exploration of the world in 2014, with trips planned to central Europe, the Baltic states and Africa. I wish I had been able to travel when I was younger, but I feel so blessed that I have this opportunity now. If only there were a way to avoid the 9-hour flights to and from Europe!