Slovenia and northern portion of Croatia, cruising the Adriatic Sea (part 1 of 2 parts)!

Lake Bled in Slovenia is set in the Julian Alps and offers simply stunning photo ops.

Slovenia, Croatia and an Adriatic Sea cruise (part 1 of 2 parts):

Over the past 2 1/2 years, my spouse, Susan, and I have traveled extensively in the US and Canada. Our outside-the-country travels, however, have been limited to a trip to Paris 15 years ago and a European river cruise from Vienna, Austria, through Germany to Amsterdam one year ago, on Grand Circle Cruises.

The spectacular light show in Ljubljana, Slovenia varies by the block!

We took such delight in that 19 day tour that recently, on short notice, we booked a “last-minute deal” for a Grand Circle cruise along the Adriatic Sea coast. The price was attractive (about 1/3 off), and we felt that the four countries and dozen cities we would visit would be decked out in their Christmas finest. The countries we would visit included Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.

The Ljubljana Castle towers over the city, and is lit by colored lights after dark.

We paid a bit more for an additional four-day extension in Ljubljana, Slovenia, capital city and a beautiful town replete with history dating back to pre-Roman times, set in a green valley in the mountains.

Slovenia is a nation state in south central Europe, located at the crossroads of ancient European trade routes and culture. It’s bordered by Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Hungary to the northeast, Croatia to the south and the Adriatic Sea to the southwest.

The country is mostly mountains, with some of the most water-rich resources in Europe with many rivers running down from the spine of the Alps, Europe’s longest mountain range.

Historically, it was once part of the Roman Empire, followed by the Habsburg Monarchy. In 1918, the Slovenes cofounded the internationally recognized state Of Yugoslavia.

In World War II, Slovenia was occupied and annexed by Germany, Italy and Hungary. The Nazis exercised a plan of ethnic cleansing, and resettled or expelled the local Sloveve population, drafting up to 30,000 into the German army. The Italians deported another 25,000 people to concentration camps, equaling almost 8% of the population in their zone.

After the war the country was a founding member of the Federal Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia, part of the socialist/communist sphere of influence. The Slovenian spring, foretelling democracy and Independence, began in 1987 when a group of intellectuals demanded Slovenian independence. In 1989, numerous constitutional amendments were passed, on the road to parliamentary democracy for the country. In December, 1991, Slovenia became an independent country.

We arrived Ljubljana on December 2 and began to explore. Just blocks from our hotel were the Church of St. Nicholas, circa 1701-07, is the third church on this site, Baroque style, with original church dating to 1100s.

A few blocks away is the Franciscan Church; built in the 16th century, this swirly Baroque church dominates Presernov Trg (a public square). The square is anchored by the France Preseren monument, built to honor the Slovenian national poet, who died in 1849, located at the foot of the Tromostovje Bridge (Triple Bridge).

High above the city, overlooking the placid Ljubljanica River, is Ljubljana Castle: The current collection of buildings dates to the early 16th century reconstruction work after the earthquake of 1511.

Just a few blocks down the river is the Zmajski Most (Dragon Bridge); since it opened over the Ljubljanica River in 1901, it’s probably the most photographed place in the city, with its four huge Dragons at each corners.

During the holidays, the city comes alive at night with Moonolith; this innovative art installation is the latest addition to Ljubljana’s creative Christmas display which has been traditionally themed to the universe (the city garners the top award for greenest city in Europe)!

With almost 50,000+ university students making up about 1/5 the city’s residents, it seems the majority of those students seem to hang out on the vibrant Ljubljanica Riverwalk area, a half-mile stretch of outdoor restaurants and eateries along the river.

One morning, having coffee in the Hotel Slon restaurant, we were interviewed by five Ljubljana University MBA students: four from Slovenia, including a Lieutenant in the Slovenian Armed Forces (who had spent four years at West Point), and others from the pharmaceutical, banking and sales businesses, and one a Croatian.

These bright young 20- and 30-something students asked about our impressions of the hotel, their city and country, as we queried them about their country and educational institutions. They took delight in sharing the country preserves over 36% of its territory in National Parks and preserves.

On our third day, we toured 40 miles into the Alps to Lake Bled; set in a glacier-carved lake in the Julian Alps. Bled is a summer and fall mecca for the country; in the center is a picturesque Island, anchored by the Church of the Assumption.

Commanding a towering promontory over the lake is the Bled Castle, with remnants almost two thousand yearsold, now a museum and restaurant with a stunning view.

Back in Ljubljana, we attended the St. Nicholas Festival; thousands of parents, with smaller kids perched on their shoulders, stood for an hour to catch a glimpse of Saint Nicholas.

Our ship, the Athena, on the Croatian coast – our home for 11 days.

On our final day in Slovenia, we met our tour guide for the coming two weeks, Darko Baricic, a Croat wounded in the war in 1992 at age 11, his father a professional soldier.

We bid Ljubljana a fond farewell and headed by motorcoach to Zagreb, Croatia, about 95 miles distant.

The ancient Venetian gate into Zadar on the Croatian coast.

Crossing into Croatia, we are into foggy lowlands approaching the country’s capital city. We passed mile upon mall mile of socialist-built, dreary looking apartments, four, six and 10 stories tall – a gritty, industrial feel. We visited several museums and the stately Opera House and Ban Jelačić Square, named for a noted general and political leader who abolished serfdom.

Over coastal mountains blanketed with snow, we Trekker to the 3000 year-old coastal city of Zadar. After settling into our 50 passenger ship Athena, we embarked upon a walking tour of this peninsula city on the Adriatic Sea.

Ruins of Roman Forum in the foreground, with 500-year-old Zadar Church in the background.

In the city is the Roman Forum, with ruins dating to the sixth century, ringed by more modern churches dating back 400 to 600 years. On the east side of town is the Kopnena Vrata, an ancient Venetian gate flanked by the city’s old inner harbor, Fosa. Tomorrow, we set sail down the Dalmatian Coast to our next port, Sibenik.

Croatia has a war-time history along the same lines as Slovenia. It’s drive for independence came in 1991 with the disintegration of communist rule. The Croatian War began in January, 1992 when the state gained diplomatic recognition by Europe and the United Nations, culminating in 1995 with a decisive victory by Croatia.

Follow along in next week’s Record; see more photos and detail by reading my blog.

For more information: Grand Circle Cruises, GCT.com; for best deals, go to “Ways to Save”, then scan “Last-minute Deals” (we saved about 1/3 from regular rates).

Contact Tim Viall at tviall@msn.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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