Zagreb, Croatia’s capitol

We drove into Zagreb’s attractive downtown, finding a parking spot reasonably close to our apartment. Our self-check in flat turned out to be quite lovely, a two bedroom affair with a large living room with a modern and attractive kitchen on one end. Strung out along the hall from the only entrance, off an ancient and rough looking courtyard, there is a full bath, then a bathroom and finally a second shower. Somewhere in there’s a washing machine. It was plenty comfortable for the three of us, and amazingly quiet given its ground floor setting on a busy street.

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Our street in Zagreb

We were within blocks of a large park, which we passed on our way to the oldest areas of town, then across the main plaza and uphill, passing a goodly number of the city’s 750,000 inhabitants, not to mention tourists and other visitors to the nation’s capital, plus commuters among the 1 million plus living in the area. Slovenia is not far away, making for a rivalry such as we witnessed in a grocery store between the checker and an inebriated customer who traded friendly insults.

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With the Free Tour guide at the model of the city
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On the way to the upper town on foot you pass through this large square
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The Cathedral
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The Cathedral. Repairs from the most recent quake ongoing.
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St. Mark’s Square

There are bars and eateries galore, generally much less expensive than on the heavily touristed coastal areas. The cuisine is more Croatian, featuring grilled meats and stews, although Italian offerings are readily available.

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Sculpture symbolizing the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia
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Zagreb at night
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The funicular takes you to the high town

The city was heavily influenced by the Jesuits, who in circa 1669 built the first grammar school and St Catherine’s Church. They found an academy which developed into today’s University of Zagreb. Croatia remains a strongly religious country.

Zagreb was alive in Roman times, although the name dates from the 11th century. At that point there were two city centers. Kaptol was the smaller of the two, where you find the cathedral. It was mostly populated by clergy. The Gradec area was larger, where craftsmen and merchants lived. The two areas remain today, still divided by a stream. We learned this and more from our walking tour led by an eccentric local who loved to point out his country’s governmental flaws.

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Starčević square

Zagreb underwent a make over in the late 1800’s, lasting until the outbreak of WWI. It retains the layout then established. In 1891 the first horse-drawn tram went into service, while in 1907 came its first power plant, which began replacing the many gas lamps then in use, some of which still adorn the walls. The central area has that great turn of the century architecture, lots of monuments, parks and many museums as well as many live theaters. The Gric cannon is fired daily, a tradition started in 1877. In WW2 Zagreb was the capital of the Independent State of Croatia, backed by Hitler and Mussolini. There was state violence and resistance.During the 1991–1995 war of Independence. The city was not heavily damaged. Zagreb has a long history of earth quakes. Our guide remarked that these occur soon after a major building has been restored, damaging it yet again. The latest was in 2020, 5.5. on the Richter scale, the strongest since 1880.

There are museums galore. Modern Gallery holds more than 10,000 works of 19th- and 20th-century Croatian artists. It is located in the historic Vranyczany Palace. Croatian Natural History museum has an important collection of Neanderthal skeletons. Our co-traveler went to the Museum of Broken Relationships. The rest of us fought over whether to go or not.

The city bustles with young people hanging out with friends at the numerous bars, cafes and restaurants. We enjoyed the hearty cuisine, featuring stews and grilled meats. I really liked the fish stew,  in Croatian brodet. They were served by male waiters, all named Igor, all of whom who spoke good English, sometimes with a strong accent serviceable for any Dracula movie. The waiters worked on us for tips, and always earned their keep in the very traditional white cloth yet reasonably priced restaurants. Most people speak English quite well, especially in the larger cities and the highly visited towns.

Zagreb

There are plenty of very good craft beers and Croatian wines, the latter at least drinkable if a bit eccentric. I often found myself saying of the latter, “I’ve never tasted anything quite like this.” Maybe with some getting used to I’d become a fan, but it would take more than the two weeks I had.

These are an energetic people, with a long history of war and political conflict. My impression is that on the whole they are on a good path, with reasonably strong democratic and other public institutions, with an appreciation for art and the other aspects of culture, and yet humble enough to realize their shortcomings. I am not sure what more you could ask for.

Split, an architectural treasure trove and hodgepodge

The Roman Emperor Diocletian was born in Split, now in EU member state Croatia. One of few Roman emperors to survive his time as head of state, he retired to this coastal town in 305 CE, occupying the palace whose structure remains with us in significant part. Too bad it is obscured by layers of later additions or otherwise unattractively modified. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, occupying a delightful spot on the country’s dramatic Adriatic coastline.

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Source: https://architectureofcities.com/split

By the time Diocletian moved in, Split was already an old city, founded by Greeks in the 3rd century BCE. Later part of the Byzantine Empire (Roman Empire East), it was eventually controlled by Venice. Then Napoleon added Croatia to his holdings before it became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire under the Hapsburgs. You can readily see these various influences on the architecture, making for an interesting tour, but the way it was done creates an unattractive hodgepodge. Below you seen an example. The arches are from Diocletian’s palace, backed by Renaissance buildings from the Venetians.

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Photo by Francesco Bandarin 

The town, including its street plan, is dominated by the palace. Inside the remnants of Diocletian’s joint you walk through narrow passages lined with shop after shop selling trinkets. On the bottom level you find the cistern, where unfortunately you also find commercial activities as well. Not a centimeter has not been testelessly commercialized.

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The Peristil, main square. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

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Another view of the Peristil
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One of the alleys in the palace
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The wall of Diocletian’s palace, once covered in marble.

There is more to Split than the architecture. For example, the Red Museum recounts the Communist period in Croatia, when it was part of Yugoslavia under the Tito. It features displays of items used in daily life and an excellent narrative. We attended an excellent folk dance presentation, with complex dances and costumes by the dozens. St. Dominus is certainly worth a visit.

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The high altar, St Dominus– the Croats are quite religious, predominantly Roman Catholic. There is freedom of religion.

Next: we continue our journey along the coast and then into the interior.

Croatia’s Serpentine Coastline: Part 1- Dubrovnik

Coming into the coastal town Dubrovnik city by car or bus you are treated to views of the vertical-cliff coastline with panoramic views of everything including the walled city you are about to enter. Over-touristed Dubrovnik, originally called Ragusa as in the Italian town of the same name, is best visited outside peak season. Once in and enough bodies out of your way, you are treated to a trip back in time in a town with fine movie set qualities; there was filming ongoing while we were there. Dubrovnik is a World Heritage site. It dates as far back as the 7th century.

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Dubrovnik

The town was under the control of the Byzantine empire in its earliest days, then the Venetians from across the Adriactic Sea. It was a free state between the 14th and 19th century, when it came under Napoleon’s thumb. After Napoleon Dubrovnik became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From 1918-1943 it was in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, then came de facto rule by the Nazis. It was part of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. The city was shelled during the successful Croatian War of Independence in 1991. What we see today in Dubrovnik is largely the result of extensive restoration projects following that war. Unlike Split, another highly visited coastal town to the north, it is architecturally unified.

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The main drag appears after descending the steep steps and ramp through the city’s main gate. It is lined with sparkling clean, cream colored buildings several stories high. While the ground level is dedicated to commerce, your initial view is undisturbed by signs or advertisements. Lured by the attractive window displays, you take a look inside to see ice cream, baked goods such as meat or cheese filo dough stuffed breads, as well as alluringly displayed sweets, cafes that feature fine Italian espresso that it seems only the Italians can do, and real cappuccino, absent the whipped cream and chocolate shavings, never included in Italy nor in Spain, for that matter. Elsewhere they usually muddy the waters with calorie rich toppings and other coffee flavor disguises. You see plenty of trinkets and a range of apparel from cheap to price.

Restaurants, laden with somewhat odd versions of Italian cuisine, and grilled meats (very much a Croatian thing) are mainly off to the side on alleys and side streets, some just barely enough to hold a table with room left over for pedestrians. I would dine out only by necessity rather than for the cuisine, although the festive atmosphere does add to the pleasure, if not being its greatest measure. It’s not that the food is bad, it’s just unremarkable. I’d say the same about the wine except that it’s eccentricity makes it interesting at least. I did not fall in love with the wine with one exception, but since they are not exported it would not matter much if I did.

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Step further in past the first few streets parallel to the main drag and soon you come to steps. Lots of them. Eventually they take you to the ramparts. On ocean’s side you stare down sheer walls, waves crashing below, especially on stormy days like the one we met when we decided to take the spin halfway around the town. We missed the side overlooking the harbor, where the moored boats sloshed about in the waves. It’s not a good harbor if you have to spend time aboard, it’s that turbulent.

Museums, as it turns out, are not a reason to visit this picturesque coast. In Dubrovnik we went into the mildly interesting nautical museum. You’d think with this kind of sea access and a long history would manage at least a bit more of interest. Likewise for the archaeological museum. Not that they are terrible museums, just unremarkable, not surprising given the size of the town just disappointing given the extensive history.

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We stayed in a third floor apartment in the town center. With very tall ceilings, there are three very long and steep staircases. It was charmingly renovated if a bit cluttered. A leak from the bathtub kept us mopping a few times a day. The landlord igorned our message about the issue.

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It’s a treasure of a town. Don’t miss it.

Liege to Maastricht

Liege is a large city in Wallonia, the French speaking region of Belgium, close to both Germany and Netherlands. We had family there although most of the people we knew are now gone. We loved its fruit filled waffles, not at all like so-called Belgian waffles, and its tart au riz (rice pie), and it’s fine cuisine more broadly. They make fabulous sauces that area world apart. making pork, beef, chicken and rabbit, as well as moules frites (mussels with fries) special delights.

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The municipal marina in Liege. Photo by Neal Pointer.

A brief rundown:

Dating from Roman times, Liege is mentioned first in 558 as Vicus Leudicus. During the middle ages the bishop of Liege (Luik in Dutch and German) wielded considerable influence. As elsewhere in Europe, guilds were powerful influences on government. The Nazis took the city in three days, but much to the credit of the residents of Liege, the local Jews were saved from mass murder. Well before then the region was wealthy from coal and steel production, which began to collapse in the 1980’s, leading to significant social unrest. Wallonia plunged into steep decline from which it is just now recovering. Liege’s government is still dominated by the left wing.

Today the city has an aircraft and space industry, IT and biotech as well as chocolate production. There is a significant weapons industry as well. We visited the Maison de la métallurgie et de l’industrie de Liège. It has the oldest forge in the region as well as exhibits recounting the long history of metallurgy in the city.

After an overnight in Liege we traveled north on the Meuse, spending a beautiful night on a lake about half way to Maastricht. Friends who joined us in Dinant made this an extra special evening. Along the way the river became the Maas, now a water wonderland of river, lakes and streams, a delight for water sport enthusiasts.

 Maastricht came next. It is the oldest city in the Netherlands. In Roman times it was a settlement called Trajectum ad Mosam Maastricht. The Euro was born here. There is a large international student population. It has a sizable historic downtown, narrow cobbled streets lined with brick buildings from its early times, of which 667 are registered historic structures. It is well worth a longer visit, either by boat from the conveniently located if rather plain harbor or in a longer term apartment.

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View from the Maas

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Medieval city wall
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St John’s
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The streets are alive at night with mostly local crowds.

The city has an extensive night life. The restaurants and bars are lively and attractively lit. The streets are pedestrian and bikes/scotters/etc only in the evenings, leaving ample room for roaming about. The atmosphere is friendly and you feel entirely safe. The crowd is on the young side due to the large number of university students.

Along the Sambre to Dinant, Namur and Liege

We are passing through forests and small towns on the Sambre as it winds its way north. We encounter some of the most difficult locks out of the thousands we have used, leaving us dead tired at the end of the day. We stop in Etreaux, Landrecies, the border town of Jeaumont, Thuin, Abbaye d’Aulne again, Floreffe, Yvoir, Dinant, Namur, and then Liege before crossing the border into the Netherlands.

There is a section of the Sambre which includes a series of 32 locks, some of which challenge our boating skills. We did 14 one day and 18 the next. The first 14 were not unusually difficult. The next 18 however were difficult to enter and difficult to manage once in. To get through the turbulent waters in front of the lock without banging into the narrow entrance you have to go in at a higher speed than normal- normally you should saunter. The swirling waters are created by the emptying of the lock. They push you from left to right unpredictably, effects which higher speed make less extreme.

Stopping a boat is always a bit of a challenge, which is why boaters normally approach docks and locks as slowly as possible. The only braking you have aside from the natural deceleration of the boat due to the resistance the water provides, which isn’t a great deal, is to put the transmission in reverse. So doing causes the bow of the boat to head to left or right and the stern just the opposite, depending on the prop’s rotation ( some boats it’s clockwise, others it’s counter-clockwise), the current and wind if any. This makes docking of any sort a challenge to one’s boating skills.

In the last 18 locks we had a fellow traveler. They came into the lock slowly and thus found themselves crosswise to the entrance. They somehow managed to inch their way in and secure themselves to the side. The first lock we did in this series we were behind them. We saw how they approached the problem and told them we would go first to allow more time for the turbulence to subside. It also meant that we would save a lot of time as we would be ready to go once they were secured, rather than us having to enter after they had struggled in. Still they slowed us down tremendously.

All these locks are operated by remote controls we were issued at the first lock in the series. Once secure you push a button on the remote control or lift a rod to activate the lock. After we activated the locks in the series of 18 the water came in violently, pushing the boat back and forwards and left to right or vice versa. Following 18 of these battles our arms were limp. Having to watch the other boat struggle in time after time added to our exhaustion.

The remote control in this series of is quite remarkable. In lieu of red and green lights at the locks, there are red and green lights on the device. As you approach the lock there is a message on the device’s screen telling you the name of the lock you were approaching and that the lock was being prepared for you. When it is ready for you the green light illuminates.

One lock was under repairs. The device so informed us, and further said that the lock would be operated manually, which indeed was the case. As we approached the last lock in the series, a VNF employee arrived to retrieve the device from us, notified by the device and its associated network of our arrival.

We spent two nights moored next to the locks we’d just passed through. The nights were extra tranquil, the sky full of diamonds, a fabulous ending to days replete with visual treasures.

We come to Etreaux, a tiny village of about 1500 people, yet is has a hault nautique, a mooring for passing craft. Many larger towns lack one. This small town was in the middle of various World War I battles.

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Controlling the boat in the lock at Etreaux
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Etreaux

Landrecies is a bit bigger than Etreaux. It’s been the location for medieval era battles between the French and the English, the Dutch, and Germans in WW1. The border town of Jeumont is unremarkable, perhaps offering an explanation for its current efforts to renovate the downtown. We walk around quite a bit looking for the outstanding restaurant we enjoyed in 2002 when we passed through with some newly found friends. We never found it. Jeumont houses several companies making heavy electrical equipment for wind turbines, nuclear reactors and naval propulsion, rather surprising given how tiny and out of the way this town is.

Now we pass into Belgium, coming first to Thuin and then to Abbaye d’ Aulne. I have already written on these two very interesting and lovely locations here https://garyjkirkpatrick.com/abbaye-daulne/ Then we headed north to Dinant and Namur. I wrote about Namur and Dinant here https://garyjkirkpatrick.com/namur-and-dinant/

North of Namur you come to Liege, the largest city in the French speaking Wallonie region of Belgium. I first wrote about Liege in 2001 https://garyjkirkpatrick.com/nederlands-to-france-by-boat-july-2001/ I will write about it again in the next post.