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Published: July 18th 2017
Yesterday morning, still in Opatija in western Croatia, I awoke before 5AM, dressed quickly, finished packing, and walked down the hill to the sea to take one last walk on the Lungomare, enjoying gazing out at the peaceful Adriatic Sea. It was perfect. The downpours of the afternoon before had cleansed the air; it felt cool so early in the morning, but I knew it would warm up quickly. This time I walked in the opposite direction on the pathway, towards a little fishing village just over a mile away. It was another lovely morning's walk, but I was sweating by the time I returned.
On our bus ride from Opatija to Ljubljana we stopped at Postojna Cave, an astonishing twelve mile long labyrinth winding through other-worldly underground beauty. We had been warned it would be chilly in the caves, so everyone bundled into jackets, fleeces, and/or windbreakers, and climbed into the little long trains that carried us into the chilly body of the Cave. Some openings were very small, and a few were enormous; one, we were told, was as big as the Roman Colosseum! This chamber is used for concerts, which must be magnificent as the acoustics would be incredible. In the middle of the earth after exiting the train, we walked along paved passageways, listening to our audio devices, marvelling at the still growing stalagmites and stalactites. Heads of countries visit Postojna Cave; it is that famous. This cave is one of the finest limestone formations in the world! We walked past 17 or 18 audio stations, on uphill and steepish downhill ramps, gazing at the structures, grey, red, brown, and white. Near the end, after being warned earlier on, the lights went out. There was a collective gasp from the crowds as we were plunged into complete darkness, experiencing the total blackness of being in a deep cave under the surface of the earth, until one by one people started turning on their cell phone lights, and the blackness was ruined. Humans so fear darkness that it seems we can bear it for only a few seconds. Soon after that experience we spied a gift shop, with the world's only underground post office! No time to mail any letters or postcards, we had to hustle to board the little train cars again, were whisked out of the Cave and walked happily into welcoming sunshine and warmth. The Postojna Cave is exquisite, exceptionally lovely albeit chilly. Remember to take a jacket when you go.
Relatively nearby, Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, a university town also with many bridges crossing another pretty river, the Ljubljanica. On our orientation walk, Old Town seemed overwhelmingly confusing at first, but very soon everyone seemed to feel comfortable finding their way around. Our hotel was only a five minute walk from the city center, so it was very easy to come and go. There are multitudes of cafes and restaurants; I am happy to report that many even prepared very delicious vegan meals; I did not go hungry in Ljubljana. The city center reminded me a bit of walking through Harvard Square decades ago, although Ljubljana is not nearly as much of a circus as Cambridge used to be; even in summer both cities are bustling, joyful, colorful places, full of young people, street musicians and dancers performing on street corners, hats or instrument cases open on the ground before them, everyone hoping to earn some money by providing entertainment for the crowds. Frequently performers can also be professional artists; here we even saw bag-pipers and people playing the accordion, although that instrument is much more common here in the Balkans than it is back in the States. Not as much dancing in the streets as there was in the 70s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I didn't even catch a whiff of pot here. But there are many types of beer, and very good wines to enjoy along with wonderful meals. It is really a delightful city.
Now we leave Ljubljana and go backwards to one city our group visited earlier on this trip that I have not yet mentioned: Zagreb, frequently the capital of Croatia. On our first night there we learned that a music festival was happening that weekend; after dinner a small group of us walked down two or three blocks towards the train station to a large park, to hear a surprising, absolutely professional classical symphony open air concert. This was amazing! Young children, families, elders, dogs, all were in attendance; it was larger, but similar to the Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco, where every Sunday afternoon during the summer months professional artists perform for free, for the delight of all who attend. Apparently it is very good advertising for the groups and their series of annual subscriptions. As a former ballet dancer and lifetime dance aficionado, one summer I convinced my family to travel to San Francisco specifically to see the SF Ballet perform at Stern Grove; we took the Muni to Golden Gate Park, brought a blanket and a picnic lunch, and sat in the golden sunshine on a grassy hillside, watching those glorious dancers; I felt heaven could not be much better. Meanwhile, our children were poking their lunch leftovers down into a small animal's hole which happened to be right beside us, and watching the little critters grab their food. The whole afternoon was a delight. Such simple, happy memories! And Zagreb's symphony orchestra ranks right up there with the best I have heard; it was a magnificent evening.
Zagreb really deserves an entry of its own, but I will include some of what we did in this entry. Like all of the cities we visited on this trip, public transportation was abundant, inexpensive, and easy to navigate. One hot afternoon I explored the beautiful Botanical Gardens on my own, and on another day a few of us took a streetcar to the Christian/Jewish Cemetery; riding Zagreb streetcars reminded me of streetcars in two other cities: those I knew growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, and also riding the green line in Boston, MA. But there is another public transportation feature in Zagreb, an oddity that connects its Lower Town with the Upper Town; this is Europe's shortest funicular! One can choose to walk a steep path between the two towns, or to hop on the funicular and ride up or down in a matter of seconds, looking out over the city. It is very steep; at first when I saw it, I thought I wouldn't get on as it looked so vertical. Ever since young childhood, and riding the inclines that climbed Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh, I have been wary of these modes of public transit. I did learn that you do not free-fall down as in a roller coaster, but not being aware of that at age 5, when my father held me out the open window of one of the inclines (yes, the windows opened back then), I screamed and tried to fight my way out of his arms to safety; I guess that feeling of impending doom never quite disappears--even when you are an adult and know better. But here in Zagreb, I followed my intellect rather than my infantile feelings, and rode the funicular both up and down, stopping to explore the Castle Museums for several hours in-between. It was really another wonderful day.
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