Touching the Old World in the Balkans

Written by Harold McNeill on February 6th, 2023. Posted in Travelogue, Adventure


It was hard to bid farewell to Venice as it is such an amazing city. The water, the art, the culture of old and new. Plus, just by chance we happened to meet a couple we had shared time with in the Swiss Alps on our way to the Top of Europe.  Saying good-bye is difficult so we stopped saying that and now just part with “cheers, see you at some future stop.”  We wave and board the high speed ferry.

1. Across the Gulf of Venezia to the Adriatic.

 

The feelings of melancholy on leaving Venice do not last long. We have luxurious seating on the upper deck of our high-speed catamaran. We were no more than 25 minutes into our four-hour trip when we chanced to meet a young couple from Queens (New York). He, a deeply tanned, ebullient young man (perhaps Sean at a more mature age), who grew up in the Dominican Republic. She, from a small town just a few minutes from where our friends from Victoria are staying with their families near Labina in Istria.

They travel back to Croatia each year to spend time with her family and then return to the bustle of New York, where their lives are centred. We exchanged travel tips (places to go and things to see) and shared stories of our varied families, homes and views of the world. Ah, she also mentioned she is a skydiver, and they loved the pictures of our experience paragliding high over the Alps when in Interlaken visiting friends. It would be great to meet this young couple again. 

Croatia appears in the north as we travel past Pula, near the southern tip of Istria and glide into Rabac harbour. The hillsides are covered with colourful homes and great bursts of flowering shrubs. The harbour below is filled with boats, and the sidewalks with people. We are greeted at the terminal by our friends Adriano, Rosana and their daughter Vanessa. They never expected we would one day meet them in the country where they grew up.

2:  Meeting  the Families of Friends from Victoria

Our trip to meet Adriano’s mom and dad (we met them ten years earlier when they visited Victoria – his dad and I are only four months apart in age) is very quick as Adriano is free to drive in his preferred style (fast and furious with traffic control signs acting only as a very loose guideline that can be observed or not as impulse might dictate.

After a short visit, we are off to meet Rosana’s parents, who are also just visiting from Victoria (also our neighbour’s Royal Oak)) who maintain a home where Rosana grew up (5 minutes from Adriano’s childhood home). Present is her grandfather, two uncles, an aunt and several other relatives and friends.

Her parents are leaving the next day (after six weeks) and heading back to Victoria. They kindly offered us the use of their home for a couple of days while we got oriented. They have been in the process of renovating over the past few years, and it is a lovely place in a farm setting alongside other relatives.

Even though we have a language barrier, we feel most welcome. To give you a sense of this small farm area (as compared to our homes in Alberta, these homes and large tracts of land have been in these families for 400 500 years or more – no one knows how far the families stretch back. It is clear that all things being equal, these homes will stay in the families for hundreds of years into the future as they pass from family to family, and even those that live in other countries maintain a share.

The homes themselves are built to last hundreds of years as the walls are nearly a foot thick, and the tile on each roof looks to last a hundred years after an installation and periodic repair. They also have smoke and curing rooms that are not used as much now but still serve the families well. There is also the “vina room”, where each family prepares ample quantities each year from grapes grown on their vineyards with meticulous care.

The wine flows freely, and the food is sumptuous. Lynn has even taken to having a glass of wine at the most unusual of times (did I catch her having a little vino at breakfast?). In the early afternoon of our second day, Adriano and Rosana leave to drive her parents back to Zagreb for their flight back to Canada. The parting is touching as tears are evident in the eyes of the whole family – they all maintain close family connections even though they spend most of their lives living thousands of miles apart.

Lynn and I will long treasure meeting with these families and count the visit to Istria as among the highlights of our travels over the past several months.

3 Relaxing in Rabac

Three hundred and forty stair steps down from our residence to the central harbour, but it seems like 680 when climbing back up with a 5 kg backpack after a day of swimming, sunning and touring (and a few wine). Again we have wonderful hosts who greet us in the morning with hot water for our coffee and a jigger of snaps that we certainly cannot refuse.
Even Lynn, the trooper she is, accepts the offer.

We would like to speak to them in other than broken Croatian and sign language. For example, she took our laundry today and even ironed my “no need for iron” shirt even though she is housebound as she cannot negotiate the long flight of steps to the street to their home. As for Lynn and Harold, we continue to walk whenever possible, and yesterday came back from the old city of Labin along a five km trail that was rough but scenic as we descended about 1000 feet from the original Roman city to Rabac (Istria and the Dalmation Coast were for many centuries part of the Roman empire, and in the early 20th century part of Italy (until severed after WW2 when given to Yugoslavia).

Along the path from Labin, we met a family from the Netherlands who, as we have come to expect in these chance meetings, have common bonds. They lived in Victoria for one year while he was on a contract at the Graving Dock in Victoria overseeing the refitting of a Dutch Ship. As well, one of their married sons now lives and works in Victoria (his office right on the Inner Harbour), and his wife is from Victoria). They are doing a bike tour of Croatia (sounds like a lot of work on these hot afternoons).

Adriano and Rosana’s son (Michael) and two buddies (Kyle and Alex – both friends with Sean from soccer) arrived for a two-week stay. They will likely find Rabac to their liking as the beaches are swarming with young women from all over Europe, and the girls seem to outnumber the boys by 2-1. I don’t suppose it hinders their interest in that most of these beaches are topless (as they were, strangely enough, in Holland).

From the time we arrived, the language barrier has been more significant than we have experienced thus far. This may be because the area we visit attracts many folks from other parts of the Balkans and from more eastern European countries (we have met several from Poland). While those in the tourism industry speak English, there are many Canadians in the tourist mix – the eight of us from Victoria probably make up 80%+ of the Canadians.

In any event, we will continue to enjoy the sights (Lynn keeps jabbing me in the ribs on that count) and the sounds of a country filled with warm and welcoming people who are only now recovering from the recent challenges in the economy and the political unrest that has characterized the Balkans for so many years over the past half-century. That is partly why so many of their young people have chosen to look for greener (if not warmer) pastures abroad.

4 Cultural Differences

After a few days in Rabac we are struck by the fact that we’ve never seen a policeman and only heard one siren (that of an ambulance). If there are liquor laws, they are very lax (or perhaps unnecessary) as you can drink at leisure with your lunch on the beach or in the park, and all stores, including convenience stores, have an ample supply. Likewise, the “optional top” draws little attention on any beach.

In the evening, the 4-5 kilometers of waterfront walkways are filled with people, and there are several clubs for food, dancing and general entertainment. By midnight everything is still packed as these folks tend to eat their evening meal very late as many businesses close for the afternoon (1:00 – 5:00), and there are few people on the street.

In many respects, this city is much like any water-based tourist centre in BC or Alberta. We have yet to see a drunk or disturbance on the beach, sidewalks, or club. Everyone, young and old, behaves civilly and young and old alike mix freely at every location. We have been to Penticton and Alberta Beach during the peak summer holiday season and witnessed disorderly conduct and near-riot conditions. Countries that have grown with few laws regarding substance use (particularly alcohol) tend to have fewer problems.

Now all is not goodness and light as it seems “soccer hooliganism” is a way of life for some folks in more than one European country. At a game recently played in Zagreb, the stands were devoid of fans as the Croatian team squared off in a playdown match. As a penalty for recent fan behaviour by the Croatian supporters, FIFA would not allow any fans for the home matches. While spending several years with FIFA and CSA organizing and attending International games, Lynn and I have witnessed our fair share of soccer hooliganism even in our own country (e.g. Toronto in 2007 with riot, a bus destroyed and teargas to disperse the crown). It was strange to see a game (broadcast on TV) playing to empty stands in a large stadium.

5. My Soul Mate in Life

Lynn and I have not been home in Victoria for our past ten Anniversaries, so why would we expect Number Eleven (or 25 as is the case) be any different? Many of our absences have been while on holidays – 2008 Mom’s Birthday Party in Cold Lake, 2007 with friends in Montreal, 2006, heaven knows, but it was not in Victoria, 2005 Kamloops (Kari and Ed’s Wedding) and so on. Over the years, more often than not, it has been Cold Lake while visiting family. That is good as that is where we married 25 years ago on Mom and Dad’s farm in Cold Lake.

Living through 25 years does take a bit of work, but the exciting part was to have spent those 25 years with Lynn. She is my soul mate and my life companion during the ups and downs that life throws at you. Now we are hobo travelling buddies as we backpack around Europe and other parts of the world. We now get to share so many beautiful parts of the world. We can survive as we have done well so far. The dramatic change in lifestyle since Lynn retired from full-time work and me from organizing soccer games and events means we now pay our way but do not have the work involved with the other. In that case, we shall be able to tackle anything the next 25 can throw at us.

For our Anniversary celebration, we will board a make-believe pirate ship and sail off to some Island in the Adriatic (Isle of Cres I think). If things hold true to form, we will no doubt make some new friends and will have new experiences we can share each other and with you. As we sail along, we have ample time to contemplate the many people who have helped us reach so many milestones in our lives.

I love you Lynn, it has been a wonderful 25 years.

6 On Places to Stay and People We Meet

We have become adept at finding economical and friendly places to stay, as you may have gathered from many of our earlier stories. B&Bs, hotels (Ibis, Mercury, etc. – usually located near bus/train stations for late-night arrivals), University hostels and, periodically, private homes of friends. Only once since we left Victoria some months ago have we booked in advance (San Malo) even though we were sometimes tired and perhaps a little testy from a long day of travel.

In Rabac, following our two-day stay with friends, we found a private home that rents rooms. It was owned by an elderly couple (I use the word endearingly as you might say I am an older man travelling with a younger woman) – don’t you think Lynn is looking lovely with her emerging dark tan?). (Harold has asked me to read and edit his notes but really ‘what can one say to that!!)

We have a room with a beautiful view of the Adriatic all at the cost of about $40 Canadian per night (consider that four and five star hotels start at $350 Canadian per night). The owners do not speak a word of English, but we have learned much about their family – they have two children and three grandchildren; one child is a Doctor in a small community in Istria, and the other an auto mechanic in Rijeka). She has three sisters and six brothers, and her husband has ten siblings. They have been married for 50 years. It would be so interesting to hear more about their lives.

The woman reminds us so much of our moms – welcoming, proud, nurturing – both she and her husband have taken to greeting us in the morning with an ounce and a half of schnapps, coffee and special dishes (flat pancakes of the Norwegian type, fried bread, meats and an assortment of other goodies (note: this is not a bed and breakfast). This is particularly noteworthy as this sweet lady is mostly housebound as she has injuries to both knees, her back is in a brace, and there are at least 50 steps down from their home to the nearest road. I pack the weekly garbage down to the road below as her husband is away somewhere and she is left to wash the sheets and clean the rooms. We shall miss this wonderful couple and will take away fond memories of our stay in their home.

7. Off top Slovania

Slovenia, immediately north of Croatia, takes us on a 2½ hour bus trip by several seaside communities and through the city of Rijeka (a main port at the north end of the Adriatic). The road winds high into the mountains on a coastal route reminiscent of British Columbia. Notably, there is only sparse settlement, and the mountainsides covered with heavy second-growth trees with a small smattering of conifers (I think I have the general name right).

This area once had many more conifers, but they may have been clear cut at one time (a la BC), and the growth we see now has returned as a deciduous second growth. Nevertheless, the coastline is picturesque and has numerous secluded swimming spots that appear to be well used by the locals and, perhaps, return tourists. Both the coastal highway and later the four lane divided freeway is pristine (clearly marked and with many viewpoints along the route). Everything looks brand new.

Slovania is a member of the EU and appears to be somewhat more commercially advanced. Both countries have a small populations, probably in the range of 2-3 million and, I suppose, well over three quarters live in the larger centres as in most countries. Slovenia is more influenced by the cultures to the north (Austria, Germany), whereas Croatia is more to the south (Mediterranean) as the architecture changes quickly between the two countries.

We visited the Postojnska Jama (Caves), apparently the largest in Europe, and were not disappointed. On a small train, we travelled several kilometres into the mountain and entered absolutely cavernous areas filled with stalactites and stalagmites. We proceeded for a further 1500 meters on foot, and at one point, the lights went out (briefly). It was pitch black with children screaming for their mothers, men and women crying, dogs howling, and cats screaming. CNN was probably reporting live …. thank heavens, this was not Transylvania, or we would have all been bled out ….ha, ha).

8. Well Uncle Buck, It’s Plains and Trains and Automobiles

To paraphrase my mother: well Uncle Buck, we have done castles and caves, churches … we now add a Collesium .. Roman that is. Pula wss under the direction of the Julius Claudius dynasty starting about 100 BCE; this is one of the six largest coliseums of ancient Rome. They did it all in this amphitheatre: theatre, gladiator fights, and fights between gladiators and animals (lions I suppose). Sitting in the stands, it is not hard to imagine being here 2000 years ago. The Roman influence throughout this entire region is extensive.

I think it would be too hot to fight off the lions today as the temp in the stadium is about 38C. Considering these ruins have been here for over 2000 years, they remain fairly intact, and more is being restored all the time. Even the plastic chairs they excavated in 2008 (photo 4) are in remarkable shape. I guess the plastic was shielded from the effects of ultra violet rays by being covered in dirt!!!! Names still appear on some of the chairs (Julius, Claudius, Flavious, Cassia, Calpurnia, Aelia, etc.)

We have finished the “a’s” (art, artisans, airports, airplanes) and think we will now need to leave the “c” words alone as you can only do so many castles, caves, churches and colliseums. We will also ease up on the “b’s” (beaches, boats, buses). Ah, perhaps we need to move on …… ha, ha (methinks perhaps Harold has had a bit too much of the heat by this posting!!)

9   Domestic Bliss

We have recently been travelling in a part of the world where the marriage roles seem more traditional than Lynn, and I have practiced over the past 25 years. As we are embarking on our next 25 it makes sense (to me at least) to try becoming a bit more traditional in our roles by taking on new challenges.

As you may note in the attached pictures, I have become more immersed in work and the local culture rather than just tourist, tourist, tourist. I find relief by taking a bit of time to work with others. That helps me gets me closer to the “culture”. Lynn’s not all that impressed by the young woman I’m helping to tend the bar on the waterfront. Also, a couple of days a week crewing on a ship is just the thing to release those travel pressures that build up. I am also interested in indulging a bit more on my photo interests as the scenery here, as I have mentioned, is lovely. And finally, it is nice when I get home to do a little writing before dinner is served.

This is not entirely selfish as it will give Lynn time to pursue some of the more traditional marriage roles for which she lost touch due to her full time work at the Pension Corp. Now that she is retired, she can pursue these things without feeling so tired at the end of the day. We are also very much attuned to preserving the environment in every way possible (just as my mom did). Don’t you love this dedication to a cause?

Well, I am sad to say, Lynn has read this post on Facebook, looked at the pictures and, I don’t know why, does not share my enthusiasm for exploring new roles. As a matter of fact she became quite verbal in expressing her thoughts on this subject, and consequently, as you will note in the final photo, she has some ideas of her own. Oh well, as a good husband, I will take time to let her indulge her fantasies.

10 Travel Plans, Changing as We Go: Pula Airport
Pula: Amazing. I could only find one electrical outlet in that whole terminal. And, what happened
to all the people? I was trying to catch up on my photos as we waited for a mid-morning flight.
We think we have wound down on this phase of our travels. The weather is getting much warmer,  35 – 38 C (too warm for these Victorians) during the afternoon and sleeping is a restless affair as it does not start to cool until about 3:00 am. We have observed the number of tourists increasing very rapidly and have been told that toward the end of July when school ends, all of Europe starts to move. We have also scanned the weather for Greece and Crete and it is even warmer.

We have considered moving south but it appears that the travel ‘anomalies’ become increasingly more evident as we move south to Albania, Bosnia, etc. We have also found the language barrier to be more challenging since we entered the Balkans and aren’t certain if we are ‘sufficiently seasoned’ (or up to date in our charades) to tackle this.

We have decided to take the “Hobo Traveler” advice – if your travel plans are not working to your advantage, just rethink your plans. Well to this end, Lynn got on the web and promptly found Ryan Air seats to London, one way from Pula, for about $100 Can each (all included). I now firmly believe that Lynn will soon have the airlines paying us to travel with them.

We decided, instead, to spend more time with Aunt Jessie in Oxford. Lynn has also found a good rate on an early return flight to Canada which we are seriously considering. Our change in planning is partly aimed at taking advantage of an invitation to visit Australia (Lynn’s uncle) and New Zealand (friends we met along the way and Vicki’s family) in late September-early October.

This would also allow us to spend some time in Canada with family, travel back to Cold Lake for part of August in order to complete some work at that end, and home to Victoria for the month of September while Sean and Brendan are away in Toronto on business. We would be able to spend time with Jay and relax a bit at home.

While the plan is tentative at this point – we are beginning to turn our thoughts to home and are excited about seeing all of you, hearing how your summer has been and sharing some of our experiences/photos with you. With Lynn’s finesse in picking reasonable costs for our flights we should be in good shape whatever our direction we travel.

Bye, Bye Croatia, Hello Again London.

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Comments

  • Mike Fedorowich

    September 1, 2023 |

    I have gone through the above noted text and have found it quite informative.
    I am a former member with several law enforcement agencies from across Canada.
    I worked in the First Nations service under the authority of the RCMP with the over sight of the OPP. My law enforcement service was conducted under the authority of the Nishnawbe – Aski Police Service in North West Ontario the Louis Bull Police Sevice in Hobbema AB, the Kitasoo Xaixais Police Service in Northern in side passage on Swindle Island, the Lac Suel Police Service North West Ontario and the Vancouver Transit Authority Sky Train Police Service. I’m presently dealing with an RCMP member for falsifying a report against me for a road rage event. Court case is finished and the charge was dropped but I have an on going complaint with the member and have forwarded to the WATCH DOGS IN OTTAWA FOR the RCMP review and consideration. I believe the said officer is in violation of his oath of office and should be held accountable for falsifying his RTCC all the while dragging me through the court system here in Nanaimo. RCMP continue to stonewall the appeal but Ottawa and the crowns office are still looking into the matter. if your able and find the time or the interest in this very brief introduction, I would very much like to speak with you and would be grateful to hear any wisdom that may come across from your end. I served with First Nations Police Services for ten years in isolation and six years with Transit Police out of New West Minster. I do value and appreciate any time you could spare to chat for a bit on this particular subject matter. Respectfully with out anger but an open mind, Mike Fedorowich Nanaimo BC 250 667 0060

  • Harold McNeill

    February 28, 2022 |

    Hi Robert, I do remember some of those folks from my early years in Cold Lake (Hazel was my aunt and our family spent many fond times with Uncle Melvin, Aunt Hazel and Family. I knew Lawrence and Adrian. Having read a half dozen accounts it is clear their were many false narratives and, perhaps, a few truths along the way. I tried my best to provide an even account from what I read. Cheers, Harold. (email: Harold@mcneillifestories.com)

  • Robert Martineau

    February 25, 2022 |

    Its been a long time since any post here, but its worth a shot. My Grandfather was Hazel Wheelers brother Lawrence, and son to Maggie and Adrien. Maggie Martineau (nee Delaney) is my great grandmother. The books and articles to date are based on the white mans viewpoint and the real story as passed down by the Elders in my family is much more nefarious. Some of the white men were providing food for the Indians in exchange for sexual favors performed by the Squaws. Maggie was the product of one of those encounters. Although I am extremely proud of my family and family name, I am ashamed about this part of it.

  • Julue

    January 28, 2022 |

    Good morning Harold!
    Gosh darn it, you are such a good writer. I hope you have been writing a book about your life. It could be turned into a movie.
    Thanks for this edition to your blog.
    I pray that Canadians will keep their cool this weekend and next week in Ottawa. How do you see our PM handling it? He has to do something and quick!
    Xo Julie

  • Herb Craig

    December 14, 2021 |

    As always awesome job Harold. It seems whatever you do in life the end result is always the same professional, accurate, inclusive and entertaining. You have always been a class act and a great fellow policeman to work with. We had some awesome times together my friend. I will always hold you close as a true friend. Keep up the good work. Hope to see you this summer.
    Warm regards
    Herb Craig

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Hi Dorthy, So glad you found those stories and, yes, they hold many fond memories. Thanks to social media and the blog, I’ve been able to get in touch with many friends from back in the day. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Well, well. Pleased to see your name pop up. I’m in regular contact via FB with many ‘kids’ from back in our HS days (Guy, Dawna, Shirley and others). Also, a lot of Cold Lake friends through FB. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Oh, that is many years back and glad you found the story. I don’t have any recall of others in my class other than the Murphy sisters on whose farm my Dad and Mom worked.

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Pleased to hear from you Howie and trust all is going well. As with you, I have a couple of sad stories of times in my police career when I crossed paths with Ross Barrington Elworthy. Just haven’t had the time to write those stories.

  • Howie Siegel

    November 25, 2021 |

    My only fight at Pagliacci’s was a late Sunday night in 1980 (?) He ripped the towel machine off the bathroom wall which brought me running. He came after me, I grabbed a chair and cracked him on the head which split his skull and dropped him. I worried about the police finding him on the floor. I had just arrived from Lasqueti Island and wasn’t convinced the police were my friends. I dragged him out to Broad and Fort and left him on the sidewalk, called the cops. They picked him up and he never saw freedom again (as far as I know). I found out it was Ross Elworthy.