An Adriatic Loop

I grab the last of the cheap Spring fares to Europe. Too bad there aren't any to Croatia; the closest is to Rome, and not for direct flights. Routing on NWA is through Amsterdam and KLM. There has been an explosion of low fare airlines in Europe, but none serve Croatia yet. Got ten days to see everything.

Northwest is finally replacing its aging fleet. The new A330s are moderately comfortable and offer on-demand entertainment. Too bad a design flaw makes the seatback screens unviewable by anyone taller than 5'8".

Arrival in Amsterdam is in the early AM and in Rome around 9 AM. To get to Croatia we are taking the overnight ferry from Bari. There are cheap flights to Bari, but the train is a bit cheaper and more convenient. Trains are supposed to be more comfortable, but this Eurostar special (at added cost) is cramped enough to induce economy class syndrome. A 5 hour ride takes us past Naples and Mt. Vesuvius and then across to Bari, situated at the ankle of the "boot." It is a gritty city that serves as a major port for ferries across the Adriatic and to Greece. A large number of Italian army vehicles bearing NATO and KFOR markings are forming up to ship out to Kosovo.

The ferry boards at 8 PM and departs at 10. That leaves about an hour to see the city sight (singular): Santa Claus' tomb. Way back when, sailors from Bari stole the bones of St. Nicholas from Turkey and placed them in the crypt of the basilica, where they have been jealously guarded every since. It looks like a regular Romanesque basilica and crypt. There are no candy canes or strings of colored lights. Not even any guides dressed as elves.

The ferry is no bargain. A mediocre cabin costs 180 euros for two people, which what far nicer boat charged from Germany to Sweden last year.) The backpackers stretch out for the night in the restaurant. The trip over takes 8 hours, arriving in Dubrovnik at 6 AM. During the summer there is a fast ferry that does the trip in the daytime in 2 1/2 hours, but the schedule does not resume for another month.

During the trip across Italy the weather was beautiful. As soon as we arrive in Dubrovnik a driving rain starts. We take a room in a private house near the port, where the slightly batty proprietress informs us that in the past two weeks it has rained every day but two. She talks about life during the siege (Dubrovnik was shelled by the Serbians for 6 months in 1991-92) and how great life was under Tito. In her youth the sun was always shining and the flowers always blooming; nowadays, everything is terrible. Her relatives have all emigrated, some to Chicago. Even though the rain has not stopped, the thought of listening to her prattle on drives us out.

Dubrovnik was the center of the independent Ragusa republic, which lasted from Byzantine times until Napoleon. The walled old city is a world heritage site and a major tourist attraction. It is a month before the season begins but there are plenty of tour groups trooping about. Lots of old churches and buildings, but a bit too Disneyfied for my taste. Gray stone and gray skies make for poor photography. Good thing many of the sights are indoors. A long lunch helps us wait out the weather. In the afternoon, the skies begin to clear and we able to get a couple of nice views. The war damage has all been repaired. A museum is dedicated to the heroic defense of the city against the Serbian aggressors (but not a word about the Nazi puppet government for whose depradations the Serbs were getting even.)

One day is enough for me. Early in the morning (Friday) we split. Destination: Split, a 4 1/2 hour bus ride up the coast. The scenery is excellent: mountains plunging down to the sea. The road runs through Bosnia for a few miles, occasioning a cursory customs and passport check. We arrive around noon.

Split is the second city of Croatia and the hub of the Dalmatian coast. (There are plenty of dogs around, but not a single Dalmatian.) It got its start when the Roman emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace here around 200 AD. In the 8th century people started to move into the abandoned and ruined palace, using its stone as construction material. Diocletian's mausoleum was made into a cathedral, and the temple to Jupiter the baptisry. The palace walls became the city walls. The ground floor and basement survived intact because they filled with debris and only recently excavated. The former palace comprises half the old city, and the adjacent medieval town the other half. The weather is sunny, clear, and warm. All in all, a very nice afternoon exploring.

I want to visit the island of Hvar, which is supposed to be very nice, but the non-summer ferry schedule does not permit a same-day trip. Near Split is Trogir, another walled city popular with tourists, so that is where we go Saturday morning. I am underwhelmed. Nice, but only good for about an hour. The best sight, the cathedral, is under restoration and obscured by scaffolding and tarps.

Continuing up the coast to Zadar, which turns out to be gem. First a Roman city, then Byzantine, then Venetian, then a port of the Austrian navy, it is off the main tourist track yet has plenty to offer. Grand gates lead to a walled city, which, like Dubrovnik, Split, and Trogir, is pedestrianized. Roman ruins, churches from the 9th century onwards, museums, photo ops. A very pleasant place.

Although that vast majority of tourists to Croatia are German, French, and Italian, they mostly travel in tour groups. A high percentage of the individual visitors (at least out of season) seem to be English-speaking. English is the second language -- everyone knows at least some. People are friendly and cheerful. Maybe they are just happy to be working again and are looking forward to the season.

Saturday night is the worldwide premiere of the movie "Troy," and in Zadar the price is right, $3. It's in English, but the subtitles provide good a opportunity to practice my Croatian. This is a language with serious vowel shortage: a (town) square is a TRG; Trieste is TRST; Greece is GRCKA. Capsule movie review: kind of silly, but fun.

A change of plans. I was gonna go to Pula next, and then on to Trieste but decided that Pula would be more of the same, so we go to Zagreb instead. (Better transport options are much better, too.) The road starts out as a six lane highway, but then degenerates into a two lane country road that then snakes through the mountains. The140 mile trip takes five hours. Now that Croatia is in the EU, perhaps the German taxpayers will pony up to extend the highway the full distance.

Zagreb is better than expected. It's a second tier central European capital, but has a number of impressive Hapsburg edifices. Very clean and orderly. The necktie and ballpoint pens were invented here; one cannot go wrong, the hotel magazine advises, buying some of each as a gift or a souvenir. We have Sunday afternoon to explore, but nothing is open. Sticking around another day wouldn't help because museums etc. are closed Monday as well. So Monday will be a travel day.

Enough of this bus stuff. Back to the train. Its about 2 hours to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, where we have a four hour stopover. That is just about right. Rural Slovenia, as viewed from the train window, looks about as it did when I was last here in 1973 (my first Communist country, then part of Yugoslavia, as were all these places). The city is small, clean, and prosperous. Not a lot to see, but I get some nice photos.

Two more hours to Trieste, the pawn of empire. A modest city on the Adriatic, it was in the shadow of Venice to the south, Post-Napoleon it was awarded to Austria and became the grand port of the Hapsburgs. After WWI Trieste was given back to Italy, which had plenty of other ports so it began to decay into obscurity. For being on the losing side in WWII, Italy lost Trieste again but regained it in 1954. We arrive at the end of the giant blowout weekend celebrating the 50th anniversary of its return.

Despite considerable tourist promotion efforts, Trieste is still a decaying pile. Many huge monuments and buildings, but the doorways stink of urine. A couple of hours strolling in the evening is fine. There are a couple more things I would like to see, but not enough to stick around. Only two days left on this trip and I have plenty of places still to go.

Time to get Byzy. We catch the morning train south. Destination: Ravenna, capital of the Kingdom of Italy after Rome fell and home base for the Byzantine reconquest. It's off the main Rome-Florence-Venice route and mainly draws tourists who on comprehensive Italy programs, so is a semi-hidden gem.

Rome was built of marble and is mostly ruins. Ravenna was built of brick and stands intact. It is awash with 5th -12th century churches with interiors covered with mosaics: saints, scenes of nature, giant portraits of Justinian and Theodora. They are glorious, with brilliant colors that looks like they were applied yesterday. Skipping the medieval fort and the like, we spend an afternoon and a morning reveling in the mosaics. The weather cooperates too. Travel suggestion to those Italy bound: even though it's not on the way to anywhere, make an effort to get to Ravenna.

I planned to go to Rimini to visit San Marino and then scoot on back to Rome where our flight leaves tomorrow morning, but my travel plans are thrown akilter: I foolishly believe that the posted train schedule lists only that actually operate, but only about a third really do. We need to wait a couple of hours for a train south (there are no buses), and arrive at Rimini mid-afternoon. From there it's a bus ride to San Marino.

San Marino is one of those European statelets that survive at the good nature and sufferance of their neighbors..San Marino is exactly one mountain in size and is entirely surrounded by Italy. One third the size of Washington DC (but bigger than Vatican City), San Marino claims to be the world's oldest republic, dating back to the year 301. On the mountaintop is a Disneyesque town complete with castles and cathedral. The road up is lined with shopping centers offering low tax liquor and luxury goods. Population, 28,000; annual visitors, 3,000,000, most there to shop, yielding clean streets and prosperity. A picturesque and pleasant place. The general price level seems lower than in Italy; no sense of gouging the tourists.

Unfortunately we have less than 2 hours before having to catch the bus back to Rimini just in time for the train to Ancona, the next large city south. We arrive in Ancona just minutes after the last express train to Rome. The next good train is not until the morning and arrives too late for our flight. The only other choice is the 3:30 AM local. We are not tired and see no point in getting a hotel, so we pass the evening at dinner, an internet place, and the station waiting room.

I try to beat the system by buying a single ticket through to the airport, but without success. The four hour journey across the width of Italy costs only 13 euros, but the 30 minute ride from Rome to the airport is a separate 10 euros, the regular price. We arrive at Rome Termini just in time to catch the airport express and the flight to Amsterdam, and thence home.

Four countries (counting San Marino but not Bosnia, though the latter would be a tick on the "cheater list"), ten days. The first two and last two days were spent traveling, as well as much of the time in between. My suggestions: faster roads, faster trains, more frequent transport, and moving the cities closer together.

Trip date: May 2004