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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Geographically, The Balkan Cape Is Considered As Southeastern Europe - The Landmass South Of Austria And Hungary And East Of Italy, It's Known For Craggy And Remote Mountains, Spectacular Shore And Fiercely Partisan Populations. 

Mystified? It's actually a little bit of a trick question . Geographically, the Balkan Spur is thought of as Southeastern Europe - the landmass south of Austria and Hungary and east of Italy. It's known for rugged and remote mountains, impressive shore and fiercely partisan populations. The Adriatic is to the west, the Black Sea to the east, Greece at the southernmost tip.

But politically, the answer depends on the year. Five centuries of war, oppression and ethnic conflict have melted and made nations on the Balkan Cape multiple times over. If you answered Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania or Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) - A-plus! All of them have coastline on the Adriatic Sea. If you thought Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, or Kosovo - C-plus. Balkans, although not Western Balkans. Yugoslavia? No go. It slumped over a decade ago.

The good news for travelers? An increasingly stable choice of independent nations based rather on ethnic populations, but also on the commercial imperatives of new-found independence : capitalism, development and tourism!

Dubrovnik, Croatia, is now a top destination on Eastern Mediterranean cruises, like the one Bud and I did in 2003. Our Dubrovnik guide lived thru the 1991-92 Serbian siege, and bullet holes were still everywhere. But Maria's optimism was transmissive. "Come back," she entreated. "After the roads are fixed and borders opened, you'll adore it."

Seven years after we landed in Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia, on the first leg of a four-country Western Balkan trip. Customs and immigration were smooth and efficient and our rental car, a Czech Skoda Fabia, waited just steps from the terminal.

We'd drive northeast thru Slovenia's Julian Alps, south along coastal Croatia and down to Montenegro's beaches. We'd finish over Montenegro's legendary mountains and into BiH to end in Sarajevo. Maybe best, we were flying solo - no package tours, no booking agent. Just us!


We brought a GPS with a pre loaded Eastern EU chip. First stop : classic Lake Bled. Our GPS let us select : back roads or road. We took the smallest roads and were immediately smitten. Each home sported lush window boxes. In the foothills of the Julian Alps, each town reached higher, with taller ancient pines, and roads narrowing to single lanes, often weaving through steep pastures. Around one corner a spotless church sat atop a brilliantly green hill.

Lake Bled's Grand Hotel Toplice was impressive and historic. It housed Fascist Officials during WW2, and was so renowned the officers had to pay for rooms, even though they were the occupying forces. The Toplice was full of talkative Brits and sporty Germans, and life revolved round the lake - shaded walkways along the shoreline, swans paddling about, boats with brightly colored canopies to ferry visitors around. Beautiful!

Our next stop took us even higher, to a sporthotel in Kranjska Gora. Sporthotels are distinctly Western european : spare decoration, few luxuries, but huge rooms to hold skis and bikes. At the Toplice we were told that US citizens visit on occasion. In Kranjska Gora, Northern Americans are not common. We were treated like stars and urged to visit the ski jump at nearby Planica where the world record for ski-flying was set in 2005 : 717 feet "airborne" coming off the end of the jump.

We were warned about the drive over Slovenia's 9,300-foot top, Mount Triglav, at the eastern end of the Alps. It was wet and foggy. The route was very steep and narrow with fifty or even more switchbacks. "Follow a bus," they said. "It will lead you."

Great advice! We appeared at our next stop, Lipica, in fine shape and prepared to go to the famed Lipizzaner Stud Farm in its 430th year of breeding and coaching the enchanting white stallions. We caught the dramatic "Airs Above the Ground" equestrian show and marveled at the sublime facility with dressage faculties, lodging, restaurants and marriage chapel as reported tagza.com.

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