For us, Austria has always meant Vienna and, of course, Salzburg for its famous music festival, but what about Villach on the Drava River in the far south of the country near the Slovenian and Italian borders?
Kay and I knew nothing of this small city except that it was near where we had just spent two weeks among the Slovenes. We were prompted to go there for the opportunity of a rare rendezvous with our Australian friends Tim and Jan, with whom we had formed a great rapport when they occupied a flat for a couple years in our building in Istanbul. This summer they had been touring Southern France and Austria’s alps for several weeks on electric bikes and would be staying in Villach at the end of July when we would be nearby.
On a map Slovenia looks small, positioned as it is, below Austria to the north, Croatia to the southeast, and Italy to the west. At a glance, it might be a landlocked country, but looking closer, it has a tiny coastline and the port city of Koper on the Adriatic.
A recurring memory from a recent trip that Kay and I took to the Republic of Georgia is of a large pig running freely alongside our bus as it slowly edged around the large, linked potholes that make up many of Georgia’s secondary roads. A free-range pig, unpenned and unsupervised, is not something I believe I’ve ever seen before, yet it wasn’t the most unusual sight we experienced during our four days in this seldom-visited country. Continue reading Georgia On My Mind
I didn’t quite know what to expect upon landing on Zanzibar Island, even though I had read its entries in our Lonely Planet guide. I had long dreamed of visiting this romantic-sounding place with its exotic name. And Stone Town, the historic part of the island, sounded appealing, too. I was to learn that that name was not historic at all, having been suggested by the World Bank in 2006 to appeal to tourists. Continue reading Dreams of Zanzibar Fulfilled
“Safari” is a loan word borrowed from Swahili that means “journey coupled with the sense of adventure.” I didn’t know this until recently, yet the word has been in my consciousness most of my life. I must have learned it when I was very young and vaguely understood it to mean hunting big game animals in Africa with guns. Thankfully, except for illegal poaching, the guns have been replaced by binoculars and cameras. Continue reading Believe Safari
Many years ago, when I was in boarding school, a new student appeared who said he was a Croat. The word had no meaning for me. The boy might have added that his family came from Croatia, but at that moment independent Croatia didn’t exist. It, along with other ethnic Balkan countries, was part of Yugoslavia. Of course, as an imperfectly informed teenager in 1960, I knew nothing of these things. In 1991, Croatia declared its independence, then had to fight for four years to achieve it. Finally, the country was free to chart its own destiny, and a few years later, life gave me the freedom to experience it.
I remember how exciting was that first visit that included the historic coastal city of Dubrovnik. All during my young life, Croatia, like all the other Balkan and East European countries, had lived behind an “iron curtain” and were shut off to westerners. Now, most were open to tourists, and in the early years of the 21st century, Kay and I, living in Turkey, took full advantage.
Singer-songwriter Paul Simon called these the “times of miracle and wonder.” I think we’re still waiting for the miracle, but wonder is all around us if we have the curiosity to look for it.
Since that first visit to Dubrovnik in 2007, I’ve returned to Croatia several times, always with Kay until this last time. Croatia has been a part of our lives mostly because the annual conference of the International Society of Contemporary Literature and Theatre (ISCLT) has met there three times since we became members. In addition to their intellectual activities per se, each conference includes full-day and half-day group excursions to destinations both well-known and obscure, but always interesting.
I’ll never forget our first year as new members when the conference was held at the small town of Lovran on the coast of the Istrian Peninsula. From our comfortable hotel we could walk along the Croatian Rivera past the former summer homes of the grandees of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some of these are now elegant hotels.
Walking the Lungomare toward the city of Opatija we would pass holiday makers sunning themselves on flat seaside rocks before arriving at what we recognized as a stone beach.
Other conferences, including this year’s, were held at the lovely Hotel President in the village of Solin, a suburb of Split, whose principal claim to fame is the palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian containing his large mausoleum that was converted to a church in a later century. One of the very few Roman emperors to actually retire, Diocletian spared no expense in either materials or manpower to build his enormous palace enclosed by a high wall, most of which is still standing. As the story goes, he chose the location because it was near the town of Solana where he had been born and whose ruins have been excavated and can be visited. Kay and I toured the palace and especially the mausoleum on a couple of occasions and found them to be extraordinary and among the greatest ruins of Roman civilization extant anywhere.
Croatia has many islands along its long Dalmatian Coast. This year, we ferried from Split to one of the largest. Brać had several attractions, including in the town of Pucišca where we were allowed into a school for stone carvers.
The island is known for a pure white limestone of a kind less porous than others. It was that stone that Diocletian commanded be used to build his palace and it may also have been used as the material of America’s White House. What we saw at the school were works in various stages of completion. Several were copies of decaying statues that needed replacement. Others, like carved window frames installed in the building itself were complete and very well done.
We were told that our next stop would be an abandoned village where were to have lunch. Intrigued, on arrival we found two long tables set for a meal and with a space between where our hostess placed a large, shallow roasting pan filled with pieces of lamb, sausages, potatoes, onions, and carrots. All had been cooked together and with their juices mingled they tasted wonderful. Pitchers of red and white wine and helpings of home-made corn bread accompanied the above. It was an excellent meal in a quiet, distinctive setting and a highlight of our conference week.
Our conference, the 47th, is held annually during the last two weeks of July usually in Europe. Due to the pandemic, the conferences of 2020 and 2021 were conducted on Zoom and did not meet in person. Thus, this coming together again after the long hiatus was a big deal. Unfortunately, a few days before Kay and I were to fly to Croatia on our first European trip since 2019, we were both diagnosed with Covid-19. I tested negative in time for me to attend the second week of the conference while Kay did not.
Our approach has been to extend our stay in the country either before the conference or after and do some sightseeing on our own. This was how one year we uncovered the pleasures of Zagreb, Croatia’s capital and largest city.
Another year, it was how we were able to spend a day in the wonderful Plitvice Lakes National Park. This year, we had intended to go together to Varaždin, a city in the far north of the country near the borders of Slovenia and Hungary. As it turned out, I went alone for four days at the end of the conference.
Varaždin is very old and was Croatia’s capital for twenty years until an 18th-century conflagration destroyed most of it. Its historic section has wide streets and an abundance of Baroque-era architecture. What it doesn’t have is an abundance of tourists; I saw almost none, a remarkable thing at a time of year when overtourism can make for hellish sightseeing.
There is much more to say about travel in Croatia, and I hope this will encourage discriminating travelers to discover it for themselves.
In 1983, near the end of the year, Kathy and I embarked on our first trip to Greece. Unlike travel for work, whose timing is dictated by job requirements, travel for pleasure usually enjoys a wider latitude. Over the years, we’ve learned that matching a vacation with the right social season and weather conditions is important. I might have learned that lesson in early 1979 when I took my mom to Hawaii during its rainy season. Apparently I needed a second lesson, though, and got it in Greece during the end-of year holidays, a family time when many hotels and restaurants close for the season and travel is restricted. Those facts, combined with our chronic fatigue made for the kind of moments we smile about only after having survived them.
As I review my journal accounts from our recent three-month road trip in the U.S. and Canada, I’m reminded of just how rewarding it was. For the most part, Kay and I structured our travel around visits to you, our friends and family. Staying in touch with you long distance via email and social media is one thing, but when we’re with you in person, face to face, and in your homes, we feel reconnected and our friendship renewed.
Chicago is known as a city of neighborhoods, of which Beverly, on the city’s far southwest side, is one. It is special to me because it is where I lived full-time from the age of five with my family until I left for boarding school at fourteen and thereafter where I lived part-time during school holidays until I left more-or-less permanently to take my first full-time job in Michigan. My family remained in Beverly, and my sister Janis married and raised her children there. She still lives only a few short blocks from where she and I were raised. For these familial reasons, Beverly has always been part of my life. Over the decades, I’ve returned countless times for visits.
Most of you who are our friends and family know that each year Kay and I spend the last two weeks of July attending the annual conference of a literary society. Each year it is held in a different European venue. This year’s was Vico Forte, a small village with a large church in beautiful Piemonte (“foot of the mountain”) of northwestern Italy that borders France and Switzerland. This is a rich, bountiful region, and although our conference activities kept us intensely busy morning, noon, and evening, our program did include group visits to sights we might not have discovered on our own. Continue reading Piemonte