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Iceland is about the size of Virginia, with a population of 350,000. The country is dominated by several huge glaciers that cover 11% of its area, as well as mountains, large geothermal fields, volcanoes and waterfalls. Most of the people live near the capital Reykjavik in the southwest, or in a couple of other cities near the coast.

The interior is largely uninhabited. Outside the coastal areas there is sparse vegetation due to the short growing season (~ 2 months per year.) It’s an arctic desert. That’s where we’ll go. The journey will take us east from Reykjavik, then up into the Highlands spending several days in the Fjallabak Nature Preserve, then further north through the center of the country, up to the fjords near the Arctic Ocean, then south and west again to Rejkyavik. There is a rough itinerary, but the weather is variable so each day is plotted based on that.

This is a very different trip for us. No temples or mosques. No ancient cultures or exotic dress. Not many people. It’s not even about the Iceland of pictures and guidebooks, so no Ring Road and no Blue Lagoon. It’s mostly about the geology.

Monday August 19

            The van leaves Reykjavik at 8:30 AM. This is a Jeremy Woodhouse trip, so the group is outfitted with cameras and lenses, tripods and laptops. No slouches here (well, maybe me!) Rosemary from Phillie, freshly retired from her medical career, has been traveling the world since her undergraduate days, and shooting for 20 years. Donna is back to Iceland for her third photo trip, and Dave, another doc, from western Canada, for his sixth. John from Texas passes around his iphone sharing incredible night shots he’s taken at national parks in the US (I didn’t even know you could do this!) And Andree, intrepid Aussie, is in the midst of a five-week jaunt of shooting and courses on shooting. Even our local guide and driver, Daniel Bergman, has authored four books on photography. It’s an intimidating bunch.

            Jim and I have been in Reykjavik for a couple of days to acclimatize, but it’s only a four-hour time difference, so we’ve mostly been walking and eating. Jim is a bit hampered on this tour. He’s got to get a new hip, but the chance to come to Iceland was so enticing that he’s delayed that bit until after we are home. He is armed with walking sticks!

            After a few miles we turn off the highway onto an F-road. Daniel jumps out and lets air out of the tires.

            A bit about F-roads. The Highlands of Iceland sit 400-500 m above sea level and are mostly uninhabited. They are inaccessible due to weather over most of the year but may be open in July and August. Special gravel roads are marked for driving, with 4×4 vehicles only. There are not many bridges; rivers must be forded. The softer tires grip gravel and keep the van from slipping in the water. Tire pressure, normally 30 lbs., is reduced to 14 ½ lbs. There is an air compressor to raise the pressure when needed.

            The first shoot is the Kvernufoss waterfall, a 1 ½ mile walk upriver with some tricky rock clambering. It’s pretty popular: we see a few people walking out, including a man in a long ministerial robe. Sure enough, when we get to the waterfall there are a bride and groom, freshly married. She’s got the long white lacey dress, couple with black tights and hiking boots. Their companion, an American soldier, follows them as they climb up behind the falls. The groom lifts her up, they are drenched and photographed, then walk out. Presumably they will stop at a laundromat before the reception.

            Two more hours of driving bring us to Þorsmork, a nature preserve set between the glaciers Tindfjallajokull and Eyjafjallajokull. (Note that Eyjafjallajuloll sits above the volcano caldera that erupted in 2010.) The ridge and glaciers look down over a huge bowl which is protected and among the warmest in Iceland (although it’s pretty damn cold and windy today – I have on a shirt, a wool vest, a thin down coat, a water proof jacket over that, a wool hat, a scarf, and heavy hiking boots, and am still uncomfortable.)

            And now, after a day of staring at the rocky, inhospitable, moon-like terrain, the beauty of the Highlands reveals itself. Light shifts constantly as scutting clouds blow across the sun. The glaciers gleam and strong patterns form in eroded basalt. And the colors – ochres, pale green, browns and beiges – stand out against the rock. Quite lovely.

            There’s a joke in Iceland: if you get lost in a forest, just stand up. It’s worse than that. The vegetation here is under an inch, so to really see it, I crouch and hold my iphone just above the ground. There are mosses, ferns, and lichens. A large rock-boulder will have different species on the north vs. the south side, and there are colonies in some areas that don’t appear 20 ft. away. It’s all pretty fascinating!

Tuesday August 20

            Tuesday we drive into the Fjallabak Nature Reserve.  Fjallabak (which means “Beyond the Mountains,”) is one of the most beautiful areas in the country, virtually empty, just a few sheep and horses scattered about.  We take F-208 to see the Myrdalsjokull glacier which sits above the Katla volcano. Katla erupts every 40-80 years. The last eruption was in 1918; scientists are expecting a big boom sometime soon.

Hmmm! This is my first real volcano. Turns out that Iceland is one of only three “supervolcano” regions in the northern hemisphere, Daniel tells us proudly, along with Yellowstone in the U.S. and Kamchatka in Russia. A supervolcano is one that can hold down eruptions until the pressure blows so high that it hits 8 on the VEI (volcano emission index!) I’d never heard of any of this, but I plan to listen for rumbles the rest of the trip and be ready to run.

Wednesday August 21

            Today we see Hekla, another big volcano, historically the most active in the country.

It seems pretty demure right now, that’s apparently because it has blown so many times that it is mostly empty, but, get this, 10% of Iceland’s total landmass was spewed by Hekla over the centuries. Original Viking settlers built farms here because of the rich volcanic soil. Not smart. In 1104 an eruption wiped out everything in a radius of 50 km. There have been 15 major eruptions since then. Even though consensus is that the punch has gone out of Hekla, I’m wary.

            And later, we drove to Haifoss Waterfall, a 122 m drop in a gorgeous canyon of the Fossa River.

Thursday August 22

            Today we go into the area of the Landmannalaugar area within the Fjallbak Reserve. The Laugavegurinn hike is here, so we see some backpackers. The area continues to be breathtaking, multicolored mountains, clear lakes and rivers.

            Our first site was the Stutur Volcano – a cute “baby” volcano inside a larger volcano, located next to the Frostastada Lake. Jeremy and Daniel pull out their drones for better perspectives.

            And the rest of the photographers are in awe. At least Jim is. These guys can now shoot from directly above a volcano, can capture the dead front of a waterfall. And the drones are cute as they can be, with their little whirring noises and blinking red lights.  By the time the day is done, Jim fills his basket at B&H, ready to push the button so HIS drone is on our doorstep as we return!

            Lunch is a “picnic” brought by Daniel. He brings us to a small shelter known only to locals, and spreads out:

  •             Cold meats
  •             4 kinds of Skyr
  •             2 kinds of bread
  •             Spicy chicken salad
  •             Hummus
  •             Sliced cheese
  •             Camembert wheel
  •             Preserves
  •             Coffee and cream
  •             Juices
  •             Candy and cookies.

            Out front he takes a group photo with his drone. Such fun: we line up in front of the cabin, the drone climbs in front of us, nods, blinks its light, and we’re immortalized. Like a character from one of the science fiction movies I used to watch with Brody!

            In the afternoon we visit the Braided River, a waterway that spreads itself over black volcanic sand in an intricate pattern, then Ljotipollur Crater, an explosion crater in the South Highlands (name means ugly crater, but it’s actually quite gorgeous.) But the best today was a collection of many waterfalls that line up along both sides of the Sigoldugljufur canyon, called The Valley of Tears. We got there at 6:15, back to dinner at 8:30, drop into bed.

Friday August 23

            Burfell Mountain is 480 m high and table topped, typical of mountains in Iceland, which were formed by volcanoes that have blown off their tops. Nearby is Þjofafoss, the Waterfall of Thieves (legend being that the locals used to execute thieves by throwing them in.) Trollkonuhlaup is close – a sort of waterfall only a few meters high, but 30 meters wide. It didn’t seem that impressive until I learned that the huge canyon in which it sits was created by lava flow. Those eruptions must be pretty impressive.

Really clear here is one of the most interesting geologic formations. I’ve been entranced by the fact that the walls of these canyons are made up of hundreds symmetric columns of identical size. They appear to be hexagonal. With a little internet research at night I figure out that as the lava cooled, the basalt cracked into this pattern. It’s called columnar jointing.

            At this point I begin to be a bit waterfalled-out. (Daniel explained later that the phenomenon is called JAFW syndrome, for, just another fucking waterfall.) Combine that with the fact that we began the day at 10 deg. C and sun, and by the time we got to the first waterfall, it was 4 deg, and rain. I climbed with the shooters; they had tripods set up just as the rain began. We walked back to the bottom, lunch was the picnic, but this time spread on the back of the van, no cute shelter. We stood and ate. At 3 PM the shooters set off back up the hill. I got in the van and read Jennifer Egan’s latest “Manhattan Beach.” It was the right choice. At 4:30 they returned, except for Jeremy who showed up at 5:15. The guy is dedicated! We sat and talked, then at 6:30 they climbed again.

            During the day, we see two men on horses herding ~ 40 sheep, which is unusual. All the other sheep we have seen have been in unattended, isolated and widely scattered groups of two or three – a mother and a lamb or two.

            There are 800,000 sheep in Iceland. They are set loose in early June, just after lambing, then allowed to wander and eat until September 1. Lambs are ~ 15 lbs. when they leave, and ~ 80 lbs. when they are gathered in the fall, a weight gain of almost a lb. per day. Most farmers have a good idea of where their sheep will go – the ewes tend to lead their lambs back to where they were raised. Bringing them in is a large national effort called the Rettir. As the weather gets colder in late August the sheep begin to work their way down to lower altitudes, and horsemen go up to drive the stragglers down.  The round-up begins on September first. The animals are herded into the center of huge pens that look like wagon wheels. Each ewe has a horn marked for the province, a plastic ear tag for her district, and an earmark for her farmer. As they come into the pen, they are sorted into spokes as identified.

Saturday August 24

            Today we leave the Fjallabak area to drive north.

A bit about our van. It’s a huge Mercedes. The shell, containing only the driver’s seat, was built in Germany. It then went to Poland where the interior was finished with five rows of three seats each, bolted to the floor. In Iceland its suspension was modified to withstand the Iceland F roads, and huge tires were added. It is a beast. Whenever we stop at a tourist location, or enter a town for lunch, people line up to take pictures. According to Daniel it was $220,000 before tax.

It’s mostly a driving day with one a stop at the Hofsjukoll glacier, a round ice cap in the center of the country, lunch at the edge of the National Forest, then in the afternoon a visit to the Aldeyjarfoss waterfall, largest in Iceland.

This is a photo trip, so a “stop” means at least 2 hours. There’s 10 minutes to pull on a warm coat covered by a rain jacket and rain pants, and a wool hat or a rain hat depending on weather, then strap on gear – a photo bag with lenses, filters etc., a camera, and a tripod. Since Jim is dealing with The Hip he also needs walking sticks, so I carry the tripod. We walk, or climb up or down, to the site, then the shooters set up their tripods and spend forever – peering through the camera, changing lenses, turning this, adjusting that, screwing up their mouths as they consider, then pressing the shutter, ten times since this is now all digital. Then they move the tripod two inches and start again, maybe change lenses for good luck. There are always several views, so the process is repeated over a km or so.  Back on the bus, they strip, and compare shots. Thank goodness I have several books with me.

For the next three nights we stay at the Fljotsbakki Farm Hotel. A young family has built a twelve-room hotel and serve breakfast and dinner in their house. Most of the food is home grown – the best is smoked lamb which they smoke themselves in a small shed out back. Two cats and a dog roam the farm; there are no other structures or people for miles.

Sunday August 25

            Today is geothermal activity day! We made it up to Reykjahlio; a few km. beyond, near Myvatn Lake, is a huge field with dozens of mudpots and fumaroles. These range from large, mostly aqueous pools that bubbled as if they were boiling, to large mud pools that spat yellow glop a few feet into the air, to teacup sized pots of mud spitting cutely tiny plops. Colors include bright yellow sulfur, white salts and brown dirt. The stench of hydrogen sulfide was overpowering. It was a fun place to photograph, especially short videos of the plops! Again, no one else around!

After lunch in Husavik on the Arctic Sea, we go to Dettifoss Falls, the second most powerful waterfall in Europe after the Rhine Falls. Although the name means “dirty falls,” it was quite magnificent, and one of our few sites that was loaded with tourists.

            A public toilet on the site had a picture of proper toilet etiquette: a picture of a person sitting on a toilet with a green check over it, and a person squatting over a toilet, standing on the toilet seat, with a red X. Daniel told us the origin of this prohibition.  Lots of Southeast Asians travel to Iceland now, and a big draw for the young ones is a Chinese superstition that a baby conceived under the northern lights will have great luck. So there is a bit of an issue in Iceland with broken toilet seats and X-rated nocturnal activities. The price of the tourism industry!

            Monday August 26

            The last waterfall, Godafoss, shoots through the Baroardalur lava fields. Quite lovely, and also a popular destination, so lots of other tourists.

            Godafoss means waterfall of the gods. When Christianity came to Iceland, most of the people worshiped the pagan gods they had brought with them from Norway. The tribes went to Thorakell, the leader, and asked him to pick a religion; he decided that Iceland would be Christian, but that paganism could be practiced in the home. To cement this decision, he took all of the pagan icons and tossed them in, making this the falls of the gods.

Liz Patton, John Nixon, Donna Rowell, Dan Bergmann (guide/driver), Andrée Lawrey, Rosemary Cook, Jim Patton, and Dave Easton

Ajijic and Guadalajara

Turns out, all that mosquito repellant didn’t help at all.

20160319_Mexico_2247We started off in Ajijic, Mexico with Tom and Irma Henson, friends from our Madison days. The plan was to eat, drink, and play bridge – what could be more relaxing? But on Saturday night Jim was suddenly wracked with pain. Too many spices? Montezuma’s revenge? Food poisoning?

Ajijic has a little clinic that is open all night. At one AM Tom drove us there and the resident Doctora quickly diagnosed parasites, gave him a shot to control the pain, three scrips for meds and sent us home. By Sunday morning the pain was worse, so we went back.

Now the Doctora decided to “admit” him and put him on an IV (of something) for 24 hours to “observe” him. This was a scary prospect for all kinds of reasons, the first being that there is no elevator in the clinic. To get Jim to the second floor, they strapped him tight to a gurney then two men took a running start and pushed him up a ramp. Luckily he was too out-of-it to realize any of this journey. A quick call to our wonderful doc in Rochester, Jeff Vuillequez, confirmed what I was beginning to figure, that this was not parasites at all. Jeff’s advice – get him to a hospital in a big city ASAP.

We were an hour from Guadalajara. But how would I even start deciding what hospital to go to? How could I get him there? I was panicked, and then, along came Zorro! Dr. Enriques Flores, dashingly handsome with wavy salt and pepper hair, a gray goatee and sexy brown eyes showed up and said we should go to his hospital in Guadalajara. He seemed legit, listened to Jim’s bowels and heard no sounds, said a there might be a blockage. These were the same words as Jeff V had used, so off we went in an ambulance at 10:40 AM.

Jim was somewhat secure in the back with an EMT who kept a hand on him to make sure he didn’t fall off the gurney, and luckily unaware of the trip. The driver screamed away from the clinic, sirens blazing, as we went through little Ajijic, sirens still on for the hour-long drive on limited access roads to Guadalajara. Then we hit the city. Guadalajara is big – if it were in the US it would be the third largest city. As we crossed the city limits, our driver turned off the siren, let down his window and began asking pedestrians for directions. It was a long process that included several turn-arounds and a trip going the wrong way down a one-way street and it was another half hour to arrive at Angeles del Carmen Hospital.

The Recovery

It was a long haul for Jim. His intestines had stopped working. If this condition is due to a blockage then surgery is n20160326_Mexico_2262ecessary, very quickly, so the bowel doesn’t begin to die. But in many cases, there is no blockage. A rapid diagnosis is called for, and the docs at this hospital were fabulous. By 12:30 PM he had an NG tube in place in the Emergency Room to begin to pump out his intestines, and by 1 PM he was off to have X-Ray and CT scans. Further tests over the next day found no tumor, no blockage, no perforation; nothing, really to cause his problems. They slowly began to resolve as his intestines emptied.

Sunday night Jim was transferred from Emergency to something called “Intermediate Care,” next to the Intensive Care area. There was a private bathroom with a shower, and a day bed for me so I never had to leave him.

20160326_Mexico_2274Every day was a bit of recovery and a bit of setback. The pain was pretty much gone by Tuesday, but he had side effects galore – high blood sugar, two cardiac arrhythmia episodes, low blood oxygen, bilious vomiting and constant exhaustion. The intestinal sounds began to come back on the third day, and as his bowels became operational again near the end of his stay they went into a bit of overdrive. Through it all, the staff – doctors, nurses, cleaners, all of them – were just wonderful.

20160327_Mexico_2280Especially the dashing Dr. Flores. In the early days, in my panic, I only wanted to get Jim home. Flores would pat my hand and tell me to relax. I don’t like just being told to relax, but as I spoke with Dr. V from home and realized that all the right things were being done, I was able to trust Flores more and more. And in fact, he and the other docs – the avuncular surgeon Dr. Fresenius who kept joking that he had a scalpel in his holster, and the whacky anesthesiologist – fixed Jim.

All of them could quote Donald Trump, saying “We’re Mexicans. W20160323_Mexico_2253e’re all killers and rapists!!” And even though they smiled when they said it, it clearly galled them, and I was truly embarrassed that a prominent US spokesman could so easily put down a nation of people.

On Monday March 28th, after nine days, Tom and Irma picked us up and took us to a hotel near the Guadalajara airport.

 

Liz’s Mexican Vacation

I filled my days at Angeles del Carmen several ways.

By far my most time-filling occupation was dealing with a company from which we had bought travel insurance. We have always gotten this, not to recover the cost of a trip, but for the possibility that we might have a problem in some remote location and need to get home. The company is Travelex, and they contract with an “On Call International” to handle travel assistance. We got this insurance to make our lives easier, to have a life-line in a remote location, but it sure didn’t work out that way. I wasn’t asking for much, no emergency evacuation, just plane tickets home when Jim was discharged, first class if possible, and arrangements for a wheelchair at the airports. I called them early and sent what they asked for. They needed to translate some of the documents, a delay of 24-36 hours. They never contacted me to tell me the status, so I called them every day and talked with a different person (I dealt with 10 different Assistance Coordinators over the week.) Each time there was something not quite right so I would send more. I finally gave up and called our travel agent, who arranged everything quite quickly.

20160327_Mexico_2283The hospital was fairly small and quite modern; in the lobby there was a cafeteria that opened for a few hours each day and a Krispy Kreme donut shop, a surprise in a health-care facility! I couldn’t read the menu in the cafeteria, so I ordered something different for breakfast each day, and got a variety of meals from tasty to not-at-all-edible. I succumbed to four donuts during our stay, those were really good.

I had brought nothing with me to the hospital but Jim’s iPhone; everything was back in Ajijic. The first day I discovered a small mall with a WalMart just across the street. I bought at least one thing there daily: underwear, a couple of shirts, toothbrushes, a charger for the phone. And beer! Each night I bought a single can of beer and sneaked it back in with me. I got busted one night – Flores told me that the staff had noticed and turned me in – he advised me to keep my nightly can better hidden!

There was also a small bookstore with a limited selection of English books. I plowed my way through four popular novels by authors I hadn’t read for years. An interesting selection:

“Gray Mountain” by John Grisham. Girl from a high-powered NYC law firm gets laid off, comes to Appalachia and fights the evil coal barons and the even-more-evil insurance companies who support them. Black and White Hats quite clear.

“Flesh and Blood” by Patricia Cornwall. Kay Scarpetta tackles yet another congenitally evil foe who wants to kill her, her FBI husband and her niece. I’ve read this one several times before under different titles.

“The Murderer’s Daughter” by Jonathan Kellerman. A brilliant, autistic therapist is targeted by evil cult members from her past, yet manages to dispatch them all with ease, not get caught, and go back to her happy life.

“The English Spy” by Daniel Silva. A densely packed spy novel involving Brits, Israelis, IRA thugs, Russians, Germans and Iranians built around the assassination of a British princess recently divorced from her husband, the Prince of Wales. Difficult to follow, but simple when you realize that the good guys are the Brits, the Israelis and the Northern Irish and the bad guys are the Russians, the Iranians and the IRA. Lots of people killed in grisly manners, but it’s a bad thing when the good guys are killed and just fine when the bad guys are killed.

Life in these books is rife with excitement, but really uncomplicated morally!

We made it home Tuesday March 29th. First class, in fact, and it was great – I may not be able to go back to our normal steerage! Jim was tired, but is getting remarkably better each day.

And finally, I was really hampered by my lack of Spanish. We were lucky that there were always a few staff around who could help translate, and that Dr. Flores was quite fluent in English, but I was embarrassed by the fact that I could say absolutely nothing. I have several friends who study a language, really study it, before they travel, and I will do this from now on.

 

 

We’re off to Guatemala: open air markets, lake vistas, and Holy Week in Antigua with its famous Passion Plays and reenactments.

Packing is a bigger deal this 20160315_Guatemala_00054time. Aedes mosquitoes, loaded with Zika virus, got there before us and are out for blood, so we’ve got an arsenal of chemicals laid out for defense. I’ve sprayed Permethrin on all of our clothes, then into the suitcases to keep seeping into them. We’ve readied several strengths of DEET to cover any open skin. That will layer with the avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene and oxybenzone in our Banana Boat Sunblock and we should be ready. If the open-air benzene in my chemistry labs in college didn’t kill me, maybe these won’t either!

But wait, there are even more additions as our ages creepup. Along with the normal cold medications, anti-diarrheal meds, anti-constipation meds, anti-allergy tabs, and pain-killers of various hues, I’ve thrown in a couple of knee supports. Jim’s got a bad left one these days, and my right is killing me. Perhaps we can strap these two together and become a three-legged tourist, instead just a couple of limpers.

Our vacation begins in earnest on March 22. Please check back after that!

Luka and family-smallThe guide on our trip is Luka Esenko, an engaging young Slovenian with an impressive knowledge of photography and a passion for his country. Luka was born just as Tito died. He was in grade school in Ljubljana when Slovenia declared independence; his family fled to his grandfather’s home in the countryside as troops began shelling the city. Two tanks, manned by young JNA soldiers, drove into the village where they stayed, up a hill on a narrow path, then one of them rolled off the path. The young soldiers were stuck, got out of the tanks and just stood around. Locals came and dismantled the tank as best they could – one man managed to get the machine gun and hid it in his basement. Luka and his brother got an antenna and ran it back to their own house. The “war” for Slovenia ended ten days later.

Luka’s able to keep everyone cheerful during hikes on cold and wet days, to find our enthusiasm. There’s been some grousing about endless cheese and lard lunches, but the only real rebellion so far was one afternoon when he went off to a waterfall shoot, and the rest of us either napped or walked to town to buy wine.

waterfall 2Mostly, we’re docile. We’re at the far northwest corner of Slovenia, in the Julian Alps. After several days on the Soca River (which runs near the border with Italy) and one spent walking around the spectacular Triglav National Park, a wildflower filled meadow surrounded at every side by impressive peaks, we are taken in by a landscape that is as pristine as it is beautiful. The waters of lakes and rivers are completely clear, reflecting a range of colors that come from the simple silt and biomes and vary with the seasons. Don’t see much of this at home!

Our last major jaunt along the Soca took us up a mossy canyon via a slippery limestone path and a few teetery foot bridges into a rocky opening where the Kozjak Brook joins the Soca River in a spectacular 300m waterfall. It was a wonderful find, and it’s just there – no park, no entrance fee, almost no signage.

As we made the climb we passed a few caves built by partisans during WWII, but the big wartime involvement of this region was in WWI. Italy entered that war on the side of the Allies in April 1915 with an assurance from France and England that they could take the territory of Slovenia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) for themselves. They grabbed the town of Kobarid at the border in a surprise attack, then over the next 29 months they launched 10 more offences against the Slovenians, across the Soca River and straight up into the mountains, losing every one. The terrain here is steep and inaccessible – it’s hard to imagine how the Italians thought they would succeed. By the fall of 1917, trenches were dug into mountain rock on both sides and hundreds of thousands of soldiers had died from fighting and from freezing – 60,000 were killed by avalanche alone.

Finally Germany joined Austro-Hungary with a large offensive in October of 1917 designed to push the Italians out of A-H territory. They caught the Italians off guard and forced them to retreat within three days. On the German/ Austro-Hungarian side, this battle is called the “Miracle of Kobarid;” on the Italian side it is referred to as the Battle of Caporetto (the Italian name for the town) and the Italians now consider “Caporetto” to be their Alamo.

On the Italian side, Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver during these fights and used his experiences as a basis for “A Farewell to Arms.” The Germans experimented with battlefield innovations, including the surprise “Blitzkreig” warfare, and empowerment of field commanders to react without direction from high command, both of which they perfected in WWII. A young officer named Erwin Rommel, later the “Desert Fox,” fought here.

Austro-Hungary held the territory until the Germans lost the war a year later.

 

 

 

 

 

Slovenia

signSlovenia is a flattened Switzerland, a kindergarten Austria, packaged in an area the size of New Jersey with about 1/5 its population. Slovenia sits at the northwest corner of the former Yugoslavia, surrounded by Italy, Austria and Hungary as well as Croatia. The people are almost all Catholic. They’re almost all friendly. The homes that dot the countryside are neatly-tended wooden chalets. Their signature food is a white cream cake, and their most unique totem is a roofed woodpile.
The land is beautiful, and we’re here to fogphotograph nature. We spend the first days at two glacial lakes, Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj. These are set in the mountains, decorated by ancient churches and castles, all ideal and picturesque but the weather isn’t with us. At Lake Bohinj we have ducks, we have fish, and we have clouds – low hanging gray clouds that ruin the magic. The clickers are desperate. They spend the morning betting on which duck will make it to shore first. As the sun breaks through the conversation changes to Lightroom, the colors become lovely and the day is saved.

Slovenia was the economic powerhouse of the former Yugoslavia, an industrious people with a GDP 2.5 times that country’s average. It also had an outspoken youth and intellectual class which poked at the ruling communist party, along a crafty president, Milan Kucan who was able to walk a tight line between that party and his own people. In 1989 Kucan led a drive to adopt constitutional amendments and then held free elections in April, 1990, the first Yugoslav republic to do so. In December of that year Slovenia voted to become independent from Yugoslavia. The Slovenes secretly stockpiled weapons, and on June 25, 1991, they closed the borders with Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav National Army marched in but after ten days and only a few hundred deaths, the Slovenes prevailed, and the Serbs relented and left. It was the first, and by far the easiest, winning of independence from Tito’s former communist country.

DSC00172Meals here are fun. Best has been lunch at a local farm that caters to
tourists – homemade bread with homemade sausage, prosciutto, cheese, cottage cheese with walnuts, and lard. Lard! Its not bad – some meat still in it so it looks a bit like pate, but they do need to change the name to something more benign. And then a huge walnut streusel. Everything made right at this farm or a neighboring one.

Eating here is very different from the US. Meals are sit-down. There is no way to get anything ‘fast’ – not a sandwich, not a slice of pizza, not a coffee can be had outside of a formal meal. You must go in to a restaurant, sit down and order and wait. It’s an effort, and time consuming, but maybe that’s why everyone here is so thin!!

Today’s driver, Mladin, is also a Croatian, but not nearly so Croatian in spirit as Pepo. He worked at a hotel in the old town of Dubrovnik during the war, taking care of refugees, but he did not fight. His summary was much more circumspect, “In WWII, good guys and bad guys are clear. Not so in ’91 war.”

He’s taking us to Mostar, an old town in B-H famous for its Stari Most – old bridge – built across the Neretva River by the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in 1566. It was an engineering marvel in its time, the longest single span stone arch on the planet, predating even the Rialto bridge in Venice, and strong enough to withstand the weight of Nazi tanks in WWII.

B-H is the most ethnically mixed republic of the former Yugoslavia – 40% Muslim, 37% Serb, and 20% Croat. Mostar itself is right at the meeting of the DSC00122Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires; today there are three faiths, three languages and two alphabets working here, overwhelming to tourists as every sign has to be written in both alphabets. It’s an amazing old town with winding, narrow streets and Turkish-style homes. A 17th century mosque hangs on cliffs overlooking the town and bridge, protecting its sanctity from the visitors with a direct sign.

Tourism is the dominant industry in this part of town today, layering museums, restaurants and ice cream vendors onto the historical buildings. The bridge is packed; young men, topless in swim trunks, will jump from its edge into the water (cold and pretty far down) if you pay them enough money. There’s a carnival atmosphere that belies the fact that this town was a part of the longest portion of the war.

In 1991, as Croatia and Slovenia were trying to gain their independence, president Alija Izetbegovic pushed for B-H to get the same. But the Serbs were now becoming dominant across the country and didn’t want to be a minority in this state, so they created their own, “The Republic of the Serb People of B-H” led by Radovan Karadzic. It was immediately recognized by Slobodan Milosevic and the JNA (Yugoslav National Army, dominated by the Serbs.)

In Spring of 1992, Karadzic began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, wiping out everyone in the towns along the Drina river, killing most of the Muslims and Croats and putting the rest into concentration camps (the Serb soldiers had of course come through and given a secret word to the Serb residents to leave before it began.) They set up “rape camps,” where soldiers impregnated Bosniak women and held them captive until they came to term forcing them to raise their half-Serbian offspring. The capital of B-H, Sarajevo, was surrounded by the Bosnian Serb army and besieged for 3 ½ years. Eventually the west stepped in: the US began training Croatian forces and Nato bombed Serbian positions in the summer of 1995. The Serbs were pushed back, enough that they could be dragged to peace talks. On September 14, Richard Holbrooke got the presidents of the Bosniaks, Alija Izetbegovic, the Serbs, Slobodan Milosevic, and the Croats, Franco Tudman, to meet in Dayton Ohio along with representatives from US, UK, France, German, Italy and Russian. B-H was divided into three countries.

Mostar itself suffered primarily from retribution from the Croats for the destruction of Dubrovnik. As the town got pulled into the fighting, local residents hung tires to protect the bridge. But in November 1993 CrDSC00104oats began shelling it directly from their location on the adjoining mountains, and on November 9 it fell in pieces into the river. It was rebuilt after the war, reopening in 2004.

Mostar itself suffered primarily from retribution from the Croats for the destruction of Dubrovnik. As the town got pulled into the fighting, local residents hung tires to protect the bridge. But in November 1993 Croats began shelling it directly from their location on the adjoining mountains, and on November 9 it fell in pieces into the river. It was rebuilt after the war, reopening in 2004.

The very first story we hear from our Croatian driver Pepo was the saga of the defense of Dubrovnik from the Serb attack of 1991.

On October 1, the JNA (once the ‘Yugoslav People’s Army,’ but at this point, simply a Serbian army commanded by Slobodan Milosevic) attacked Dubrovnik. The onslaught was unexpected – virtually no Serbs lived in Dubrovnik, and there were not JNA military facilities to “protect” – and it was complete. The few young men available to defend the town fled in the face of overwhelming numbers and went up the mountain above the city to an old French fort bringing only the few weapons they owned, while the Serbs completed their capture and marched through the local countryside, looting first, and then burning, every house. They captured everything up to the walls of the old town, which were heavily fortified.

Pepo and the others who had climbed the hill on October 1 numbered 163 and called themselves the163 Brigade. They shot at the troops as best they could, but the Serbs prevailed, stationing themselves around the walled Old Town and proceeding to shell and bomb the buildings and churches inside until it was destroyed. As a last measure, in November, they destroyed every private boat in the harbor.

The Serbs also fired at the defenders on the hill, but were pushed back and never took over the fort. Eventually, as the destruction of the city that Byron had called the “Pearl of the Adriatic” became notorious around the world, funds came to them from the US, Israel and other countries and they were able to buy more munitions to shell the intruders more aggressively. Croatian soldiers left the JNA and joined the Brigade. The siege of Dubrovnik ended after 9 months. Official accounts say that the destruction of the city was enough for the Serbs and that the war effort had shifted to Bosnia-Herzogovina. But, according to Pepo, 163 Brigade pushed them into the Bosnian hills.

It was a satisfying story, told on a rainy ride around the countryside and finished in a rural restaurant drinking Croatian wine. But this area, once Yugoslavia and now multiple countries, has been a complex mix of religions and ethnicities for more than a millennium, and the issues among its peoples are multilayered and intractable. Here’s a quick analysis from a chart on one of our guidebooks:

  • Serbs: Orthodox
  • Croats: Catholic
  • Bosniaks: Muslim
  • Slovenes: Catholic
  • Macedonians (like Bulgarians)
  • Montenegrins (like Serbs)

But….. not really. For example, Bosnia is 40% Muslim, 37% Serb and 20% Croat.

Additionally, rulers have changed often, even recently. Pepo, a Croat who is from a family that is Catholic and has always been Catholic, and always lived in the same area of Croatia, gave us rundown of his own family history:

Grandfather, born 1875 into the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Father, born 1920 into the Kingdom of Serbians, Croatians and Slovenians; Pepo, born 1966 into Yugoslavia; Pepo’s son Carlo, born 2004 into Croatia

How did this all happen?

A Quick History

The Balkan Peninsula – just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy – is populated by Slavs who migrated to this region during the 6th and 7th Centuries, becoming the Croats, Slovenes, Serbians and Bosniaks of today.

The region was at the interface of three major religions. The Christianity found here by the coming Slavs was in two forms – Roman Catholic in the west and Byzantine Orthodox in the east. The Muslim Ottoman Empire invaded the south Balkans, home of the Serbs, winning the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389. This forced the Serbs north into Croatia and Bosnia, angering the Croats. The Hapsburgs forced the Orthodox Serbs to stay at the border with the Ottomans, using them as a human shield to protect Catholic Austria and Croatia, angering the Serbs. When the Ottoman Empire finally died out, the Austrians took over everything. The Serbs felt pushed around and wanted their own homeland, so Serb Gavrilo Princip shot Austrian Duke Franz Ferdinand inadvertently triggering WWI.

After WWI ended, the country united into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, but still, not everyone was happy. The Kingdom was run by Alexander Karadordevic, a Serb, which angered the Croats. The Croat leader, Stepan Radic, initially opposed the union, but was forced by the world to concede. He fought the Serbs at every turn, and finally they shot him in 1928. The Croats got their revenge by shooting Karadordevic in 1934, and the country was ready to collapse by the beginning of WWII.

After Hitler’s Luftwaffe brought the area to submission, Croatia (and Bosnia-Herzogovina) was run by a puppet government, the Ustase, Serbia was occupied by the Nazis, Slovenia had its own puppet government, and Montenegro was occupied by Italy. It was a mess. The Ustase in Croatia set up their own concentration camps, and slaughtered Jews, Romas and hundreds of thousands of Serbs. (The Serbs used this as excuse for their treatment of the Croats and Dubrovnik in the 1990’s.)

After WWII, Tito rose to power and held the country together until his death in 1980. He was a heavy-handed dictator as he came to power, brutally eliminating opposition, then put on a warm and fuzzy face as he worked to unite the disparate parts of the country and walk a line between Russian Communism and the Western Powers. But, things unraveled quickly after his death.