I have always pictured the Balkans as a violent and tragic region, ravaged by wars and senseless killings, so it was a pleasant surprise when I first set eyes on Lake Bled in Slovenia.
It was like a scene from one of the fairy tales which I love so much in my young days. There is a castle up on the hill, the perfect setting for a Prince Charming to charge up the slope on his mighty white steed to rescue his fair damsel in distress. Down below Is the bluest lake I have ever seen, stretching as far as the eye can see.
If you look up in the distance you can see a stretch of snow-capped mountain range, offering natural protection from unwanted intruders.
It is as beautiful as my all-time favourite destination, the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands in the UK.
How wonderful if I could stay here longer instead of rushing off to another destination in our 11-day Balkan tour of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina.
“Then I started nordic walking with a group of friends. Holding on to my pole, I realised I could actually have an extra pair of hands for support.
Wait a minute, I could if I can find US$8 million.
Our local guide Mansa, told us that there is a property available with a great view of the lake, going for that miserable amount.
You may think that is a lot of money but our guide told us that she asked a group of 20 mainland Chinese tourists she was leading and half of them told her: No problem! My fantasy. Their reality.
I am not the only one excited about this place.
The aunties in our SA Tour group of 16 Malaysians were fascinated by the hunks who were waiting at the dock to row us over to a little island in the middle of the lake.
The traditional Pletna boat carries a maximum of 20 passengers, so the boatmen have to be in very good shape. And there are 23 of them to choose from.
The men here have also to be strong if they want to win the girl of their dreams.
One of the challenges they face is to carry their would-be bride up a flight of 99 stone steps to reach the Church of Our Lady of the Lake on the island
That will ensure that they will remain in love forever and live happily after.
Our guide Mansa was sceptical. “I know of couples who are divorced after completing that task,” she said.
The boat ride to the island was pleasant as the water was calm. Now and then, we were told not to make any sudden turns to take photographs but other than that, it was smooth sailing.
We have to climb the 99 steps to get a good view of the lake and its surrounding areas.
I was panting before I reached the halfway point, and I wasn’t even carrying anyone.
Good luck to the suitors!
Next, we headed for the castle on the hill.
The cobbled path leading up to the castle was quite steep and I was out of breath when I reached the castle gate.
There was still a long way to go. We had first to walk up a slope to reach the lower courtyard, and after resting a while, we had to struggle up a winding flight of stairs to reach the upper courtyard. It was terribly exhausting but worth it. The panoramic view of the lake from the castle wall was to die for.
And on our right, towering over the lake and the whole valley is Mt Triglav (which means 3 heads), the symbol of Slovenia.
“You cannot consider yourself a Slovenian until you climb Mt Triglav,” said our guide Mansa. That goes for the ladies, too. Shouldn’t be much of a problem as it is only 2,864 metres high.
The guys over in the capital of Ljubljana have it so much easier. To ensure that their love lasts forever, a couple would go to Butchers Bridge which locals affectionately call Love Bridge. They would write their names on a lock, secure it on the railing and then throw the key into the river.
Our Ljubljana guide, Ursula, was also sceptical.
“They clean the river every year, so maybe it is not forever,” she said.
Up in the mountain, overlooking Ljubljana, stands a castle with a fairy tale story.
Legend has it that long, long ago, the castle was the home of a mighty green dragon which terrorized the people.
Every year, it would demand a sacrifice, usually a young girl, for it to feast on.
One day, a knight came along and decided to put an end to the dragon’s evil ways.
He fought the dragon and managed to subdue it. However, before he could slay the dragon, the earth opened up and swallowed the beast. They say the dragon still lives inside the mountain.
The grateful people of the city built a small church in the castle in his memory.
Guess the name of the hero? You are right. He’s St George. Now, didn’t he slay a dragon somewhere else?
Yes, he is the same hero who fought the dragons in England and Catalonia.
He is a very busy guy indeed.
St George is the patron saint of Ljubljana, but the surprising thing is that the green dragon became the symbol of the city.
The monument created controversy because on top was a statue of a naked lady. Why? To give him inspiration, we are told.
In fact, the green dragon can be seen standing defiant on Dragon Bridge, or what the locals refer to as the Mother-in-law Bridge. I wonder why.
Our walking tour of the city brought us to the statue of a colourful character, the country’s most beloved poet France Preseren. Sadly his love life was a total mess.
His statue faces the apartment of Julija Primic the lady who rejected him. Behind the statue is the bar where he must have spent a lot of time pining for her.
At the unveiling of the statue, the local bishop tried to climb up to cover the naked lady with his coat. It did not help that the statue was just next to the cathedral.
But the nation loves this poet because he gained international recognition for his works, written for the first time in the Slovenian language.
The monument created controversy because on top was a statue of a naked lady. Why? To give him inspiration, we are told.
In fact, the lyrics for the national anthem are taken from one of his poems he wrote in 1844. The title of their anthem: A Toast!
How cool is that?
Retired journalist Michael Aeria fell in love with the Balkan cities and them many stories of love and life from the past.
As I continued on my walking tour of the city of Ljubljana, I grew to love this city more and more. Ljubljana seems to do everything right.
“A million things will tell you to stop, take a flight home, watch netflix, indulge yourself in massage and you would ask, what you are doing this for. Why?
For a start, it won the Greenest city award for Europe in 2016.
The streets in one of the three city squares are closed to vehicles. That square is basically a tourist spot where the restaurants and shops are located. So, how do people move about? Well, there are electric taxis which go around these streets. And if I heard it correctly, they are free.
All over the city, there are also these cute fountains which provide cool, fresh drinking water and they are piped in from the surrounding hills. And they are also free.
Wait, the best is yet to come. The toilets here are free, too. This may not mean much to folks back home but throughout our tour of the Balkans, we had to pay to use the toilets.
Look for a bridge, And there are many of them as the Ljubljanica River divides the city into two. Take the stairs down and you will find your toilet.
Well, not everything is free. The day we arrived, they started charging 2 Euros for those who want to enter the Cathedral of St Nicholas.
“They just want to control the number of tourists going in,” said our guide Ursula.
Worshippers are allowed in free.
You have heard of coffee vending machines. In Ljubljana, we came across a machine which dispenses fresh milk. Ursula told us that you can find such machines in every town and village in Slovenia. All you have to do is bring your own bottle, and fill it with milk at 1 Euro for every 1 litre you take.
The Greek influence in the city is unmistakable. You can see that in the Greek columns in many of the city’s buildings and bridges. And for that, you have to blame architect Jose Plecnik who tried to model the city on ancient Athens.
Why, they even have a statue of Prometheus on one of the bridges. He is the Greek god who stole fire from his fellow gods and gave it to humans. The statue depicts how he had to endure eternal suffering for his traitorous or generous act.
Much as I love this city, let’s go back to Sarajevo, the first city we visited on our tour of the Balkans.
Of course, most people remember the atrocities committed during the three and half years of civil war after Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia on April 6, 1992.
“It was hell on earth,” said our guide Mohamad.
“Sarajevo was completely surrounded. Every day, the city was shelled and snipers were shooting at the people. There was not enough food, water, electricity and essential supplies.”
The brutal facts are: 11,541 people were killed, of which 1,600 children were murdered, and 50,000 were wounded.
“So, one out of eight people you meet in the city would have suffered some physical injury,” said our guide.
Mohamad himself was hit by three shrapnels while he was playing football in his neighbourhood field. He was 11 years old then.
The residents of Sarajevo remained strong against everything the invaders could throw at them.
Teachers came to students and taught in basements and shelters.
“They couldn’t kill the spirit of the Sarajevo,” said Mohamad.
A fragile peace has been maintained with a very unique political system. For a small country with a population of 3.6 million, it has 15 Parliaments, 14 Prime Ministers, 836 MPs and a collective Presidency which is rotated every 8 months among a Bosnian, a Serb and a Croatian.
This whole region was under Ottoman rule or influence, so I couldn’t help comparing it with Turkey which I visited last year.
The main mosque in Sarajevo, the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque built in the 16th Century, has only one minaret while the Blue Mosque in Istanbul has 6 minarets.
Why is that, I asked?
“We don’t like to show off,” said our guide Mohamad.
However Bosnians like to boast about the one good event which happened in their country, the Winter Olympics which they hosted in February 1984.
Mohamad said it is regarded as the best organized winter Olympics, and one which made money.
“You can still detect the pride in the voice of our fathers and grandfathers when they talk about that winter Olympics,” he said
Next to this mosque is the Sarajevo Clock Tower (Sarajeveska sahat-kula). If you compare the time with your watch, you will notice it tells a different time. That is because it shows lunar time.
Locals call it Little Ben probably because the clock mechanism was made by Gillett & Bland of London, the guys responsible for Big Ben.
In Bascarsija square in the centre of the city, you will find a wooden fountain, the Sebilj, which was built in 1753. Legend has it that whoever drinks from this fountain will return to Sarajevo. It’s their version of Rome’s Trevi Fountain.
“The difference is that ours is free,” said Mohamad. You don’t have to throw any coins into the fountain.
I also found it strange to see a pub about 50 metres from the main mosque in a country where more than half the population are Muslims. To this our guide responded: “What does it say about your faith if you are so easily tempted.”
Sarajevo is also remembered as the place where a tragic event sparked off the First World War.
Here at a road junction across the Latin Bridge was where Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, was assassinated on June 28, 1914.
With such a history of violence, is Sarajevo a safe city to visit?
“Of course it is,” said Mohamad. “No one is going to attack you but somebody may pick your pocket.”
The physical signs of war are not so obvious in Sarajevo after 20 over years of rebuilding but damaged buildings can still be seen in Mostar, the next Bosnian city we visited.
Our tour leader, Cadee Tan, visited Mostar a few years ago and noticed much more damaged buildings.
Probably in 5 years, most of the damaged buildings would be gone.
The most serious casualty of the war, where structures are concerned, is Stari Most or the Old Bridge which crosses the River Neretva.
The medieval bridge, built in the 16th Century and had stood for 427 years, was destroyed on Nov 9, 1993 during the civil war.
“It was an act of stupidity,” said our Mostar guide Minho. The bridge is very narrow and could not be used by vehicles. It has no strategic military value.
“The only reason they destroyed the bridge was because it was built by the Ottomans,” he said.
Through international co-operation, the bridge was rebuilt and opened again to the public on July 23, 2004.
Now that the bridge is rebuilt, romance can bloom again in Mostar.
You see, the bridge is where the guys can show how macho they are and win over their sweethearts.
All they have to do is go to the middle of the bridge and jump 23 metres into the freezing river. Simple, isn’t it?
Many of the churches and mosques which were damaged during the fighting have been restored.
For a population of 130,000, the city has 37 mosques and 9 Catholic churches.
One of the restored buildings worth visiting is Mostar Peace Bell Tower at the St Peter and Paul Church.
The original tower, which was built in 1886, was only 23 metres high but it was destroyed together with the church during the civil war.
The tower was rebuilt and now stands at 107 metres high. You can have a great view of the city from the top of tower. Now, you can walk all the way up, or take the elevator which will cost you 3 Euros.
There was one main reason why I was excited about visiting Dubrovnik and that was because scenes from the Game of Thrones were shot here. I was looking forward to seeing the steps where Cersei Lannister was forced to walk down naked after confessing to adultery. If you are lucky, you may see some brave tourists reenacting this nude scene.
Sadly we were not taken to these famous movie sites and our local guide made no mention at all of the location shooting of this popular TV series.
That disappointment aside, this ancient city can still charm you with its castle walls and towers, old churches, fountains and a pharmacy started by the Franciscan monks in 1317.
Dubrovnik had one of the best defensive walls in the Middle Ages and could proudly boast that they were never breached by any invading army. The walls, built during the 14th and 15th Centuries, encircle most of the city, and run for over 1,900 metres and reaches a height of 25 metres.
In Split, we toured the ruins of the Diocletian Palace. The palace was built in the 4th Century as the retirement home of Emperor Diocletian and many of the buildings are still standing today. The palace complex now houses shops, restaurants and apartments.
What I missed in Dubrovnik, I found in Split.
Our local guide Anna told us that Daenerys Throne Room and some scenes from the Game of Thrones were shot in the basement of this former palace.
Among the surviving structures was a former Temple of Jupiter which had been converted into a church.
In the vestibule of the palace which had great acoustics, we had a chance to listen to traditional Dalmation singing.
Trogir is basically a fortified city built by the Venetians. They ruled the city for over 400 years, from the 15th to 18th Century.
The Cathedral of St Lawrence in the main square shows how the city had changed hands over the years.
Initially it was the site of a Greek temple when the city was founded 2,400 years ago. In the 5th Century, the Romans came and destroyed the Greek temple and built their own.
The Croatians came in the 7th Century and destroyed the Roman temple. They built a small church in its place. This was subsequently replaced by the Cathedral in the 13th Century.
And for a very brief period of eight years, this region was occupied by Napolean’s Army.
“They did a lot of good,” said our local guide Natasha. The French built a lot of roads and orphanages.
Pula was formerly part of the Roman Empire, so that is why there are two different spellings for the city’s name. Pula is Croatian and Pola is Italian. Many of the signs in the city are written in Croatian and Italian
Romans established a colony and fortified city here 2,000 years ago. They built a big amphitheatre here, the 6th largest in their empire. The coliseum in Rome, which is the biggest, is twice the size of this amphitheatre.
Now this amphitheatre is used for concerts and film festivals. Elton John, Leonard Cohen and James Brown are among the stars who performed here.
Pula is very proud of its association with James Joyce, the famous Irish author of Ulysses, who taught English to naval officers for 2 months. The city had a bronze statue of him made and placed in a local cafe.
The next part of our tour is all about adventure. Both destinations require a lot of walking, and over difficult terrain.
For us, it is more like a challenge as the average age of our group is 65. It would have been higher but the average age was brought down because there was a young lady accompanying her mother in our group.
The first challenge is at Croatia’s Plitvice National Park which covers an area of 300 sq km. Its main attraction is the system of 16 connecting cascading lakes. At the end of the trail is the mother of all waterfalls.
Our tour leader Cadee Tan advised us to force ourselves to walk all the way, even if you think you cannot do it.
“The place is simply beautiful,’ she said.
We had a local guide, Kristina, to take us through the park. She was also there to ensure our safety.
Our journey involved two boat rides. The first was a 2-minute ride to get us to the other side of the lake. The second boat ride took 15 minutes and transported us to the start of our walking trail.
Yes, we had to do a lot of walking, made worse because it was raining very heavily. The exercise tracker on my watch showed we had walked a total of 7.3km. What the tracker didn’t show was the difficult terrain we had to go through and the narrow and, at times, slippery path around the lakes.
Some in our group did not go all the way to see the giant waterfall up close. I am glad I decided to force myself to proceed.
Our second adventure was at the Postojna Caves in Slovenia.
Here again, we were witness to nature’s creative genius over 24km of passages and tunnels.
We had to take a 15 minute ride in by a mini train and then proceeded to walk in dimly-lit narrow and slippery paths for nearly an hour.
At one point, all the lights went out and I think our hearts stopped for a moment. Our tour leader told us not to panic and within a short while, the lights came on again.
I felt proud of myself for making it through the caves until I realised that an older woman in our group who had a recent knee operation had also completed the journey.
Thankfully, the last day of our Balkans tour was very relaxing. We had a walking tour of Zagreb and this was done at a more casual pace.
We found out two fun facts from our guide Iris as she took us on a stroll of the city.
The first was that it has the shortest funicular public transport train in the world. At only 66 metres long, it connects the Lower Town and the Upper Town. The ride takes only 55 seconds and will cost you 4 Croatian Kuna or 0.5 Euros. Not very cheap but sure beats walking up the sleep slope to the Upper Town.
Constructed in 1888, it is possibly the oldest public cable car transport in the world.
The second fun fact is that the necktie, which we wear today, was invented by the Croatians.
The tie came into prominence in the 17th Century when Parisians saw Croatian mercenaries, working for the French King then, wearing this piece of cloth around their neck.
The French like it so much that they started wearing the tie, too.
“The French Army went everywhere in the world, and for a long time, people thought the French invented the tie,” said Iris.
So if there is a souvenir you must get from this place, it should be the tie. I did, as a birthday present for my son David.
Finally, no visit to Zagreb is complete without going to the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary. The cathedral with its twin spires measuring 108 metres each can be seen from most parts of the city.
There’s much more to see in the Balkans. It is such a fascinating place, immensely rich in history. Our guide Mohamad put it very nicely: “We do not like to say goodbye. We would rather say, See you again in Sarajevo.”
Michael Aeria is a retired journalist & seasoned traveller.