Yesterday’s rain continued, and we wondered what the next two weeks would be like. Little did we know at the time that after Zagreb, the remainder of the trip would be mostly rain-free and beautiful when it mattered the most!
On this day, we got SOAKED, at least from the knees down, where the umbrella and rain jacket made no difference during our walking tour of Ljubljana (“LEW byah na”). At least we had a terrific local guide with a great sense of humor. He was a hoot!
A little background about the city, Ljubljana has been the cultural, educational, economic, political, and administrative center of Slovenia since the country gained independence in 1991. It is a vibrant city with a mix of architectural styles dating back to the Roman period. After the 1511 earthquake leveled much of the city, it was rebuilt in the Baroque style. Another earthquake struck in 1895, so many of the buildings had to be rebuilt once again. Hopefully, that’s the last of the earthquakes, because the remaining old buildings are so much more interesting than the contemporary boxes!
After our tour, we had free time to poke around the farmer’s market and wander the streets of the city. Fortunately, the rain had stopped, so we could enjoy the sites with closed umbrellas.
Ljubljana was the last we would see of the picturesque country before traveling on to Zagreb, the capitol of Croatia. Having grown fond of Slovenia, I would have loved to have seen more of the small country that puts such a high priority on preserving their pristine beauty and is ranked 5th in the world in recycling!
Zagreb is our program director, Sinisa’s home, so he could speak plenty from personal experience about what it’s like to live in the bustling city now, and what it was like under Tito’s rule before Yugoslavia broke apart.
Sinisa, 50, had an interesting childhood growing up as the son of popular singer Drago Diklic, known as “Croatia’s Frank Sinatra.” During one of our bus rides, he played some of his father’s music and showed us pictures of his dad with Tito (Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s communist leader from 1953-1980).
In the early 1990’s, when the war broke out and Serbia attacked Croatia, Sinisa fled to London while the remainder of his family stayed behind in Zagreb away from the fighting that destroyed Vukovar and other cities in the eastern region bordering Serbia.
Sinisa returned to Zagreb after the war ended and lives in the city with his wife and son. As we entered the city, he pointed out the contrast between Slovenia and Croatia: Slovenia is extremely clean and free of graffiti, whereas Croatians aren’t nearly as conscientious about recycling and there was a lot of graffiti on old and new buildings alike. It was heartbreaking to see some of the lovely old Austrian architecture defaced; however, if there was any consolation, we learned that none of it was gang-related. There are no gangs in Zagreb, and the city is actually quite safe to walk around, even at night. The graffiti is done by destructive kids, and authorities are having a difficult time getting a handle on the epidemic.
The city is large, home to about one million of the over four million people in Croatia (or “Hrvatska” as the locals call it). There is a generation gap in the population, because many older people were killed in the war, but even more younger people are leaving the country for jobs in Germany and other countries. As a result, Croatia has the oldest population in Europe. This leaves remaining Croatians feeling worried about the future of their country.
Croatia’s past was tumultuous. Elders, including Sinisa’s grandmother were Austrian, Italian, Yugoslavian, and Croatian in their lifetimes without ever having moved from their home once! It has been occupied that many times in one lifetime. Each time, people had to learn a new language, obtain new documents, and live under a new set of laws.
If you were fortunate in the early 1990’s, you still had that home after the war. One eighth of Croatian’s homes were destroyed, and it took twelve years for the country to build 160,000 homes to replace them. So many schools were destroyed that remaining schools had to educate children in two or three shifts, including one at night.
Due to land mines that still haven’t been cleared (and won’t be until 2024, according to government estimates), much of Croatia’s food must be imported, because of the dangers associated with farming.
If Croatians could wind back the clock to any period of their past, most would choose to live under Tito’s rule once again. Although there was a documented (very) dark side of their leader and how he had dissenters killed, life was good under Tito’s brand of communism. Tito had divided Yugoslavia into six republics after World War II, and Croatia (along with its friendly neighbor, Slovenia) was the most industrialized and successful. Practicing religion was permitted, passports were granted, travel to foreign countries was allowed, and Yugoslavians had the best lifestyle and most freedoms of all of the communist countries.
During the industrial boom of the 1960’s, apartments were provided for free to all factory workers, there was job security, and every citizen had free medical care and free education. Nationalism was forbidden and there were no elections, but if you didn’t mind (or kept your opinions to yourself), you had a comfortable lifestyle in an extremely safe country.
The 1970’s brought a boom in tourism to Yugoslavia, a popular destination for Austrians, Germans, and Brits; so, the country prospered even more. But, in 1980, the “Benevolent Dictator,” as Tito was called, died. His funeral was the largest in history; over 159 nations attended. Not only was he well-loved by his own people, but he was well-respected by world leaders for having stood up to Stalin in 1948.
When Tito was alive, he wanted Yugoslavia united as one with no nationalism; however, when he died, nationalism was out and the Serbs wanted independence. Ten years after Tito’s death, his legacy was destroyed.
Sinisa looks back on Tito’s days fondly. Life was good back then! Although his family and friends didn’t have access to the variety of items other countries enjoyed, the freedom to travel made it easy to pop over to Italy for a shopping binge and pick up Italian shoes or jeans. In Austria, they would make a beeline for chocolate. (I can relate to that!).
It was interesting to hear Sinisa’s stories a well as those told by the local guides, lecturers, and hosts of our home visit for dinner later in the trip. Having been to Vukovar and Osijek, Croatia on a Danube River cruise in 2007, I had learned about Tito as well as the horrors of the 1990’s war; however, the experience wasn’t as in-depth. I was completely captivated this time around.