Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Off-the-Beaten Path in the Adriatic North Mission

Going Beyond Rick Steves'

When we got our call to serve in the Adriatic North Mission, Dionne and I were quite unfamiliar with Bosnia Hercegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Montenegro. We quickly did some on-line searches, immediately discovered the beauty of Dubrovnik, and purchased Rick Steves' guidebooks. 

We love Rick Steves' Europe series and have found him very helpful in the past. But after living here for 8 months, we have discovered some lesser known wonders in each of these 5 countries which are not on Rick Steves' radar. So I want to share 5 gems from the Adriatic North Mission countries which are off-the-beaten path. So...going from North to South...here we go.

Slovenia - Križna Jama

Slovenia is a land of wonderful caves. So how can a cave in Slovenia be considered off-the-beaten path? When only 1,000 people are allowed to take this cave tour, it is off-the-beaten path!

Dionne enjoying the Spring weather at Miškar, the B&B we stayed at.

We traveled to central Slovenia intending to tour one of the two famous caves, Postojna or Škocjan. We stayed the night at a little B&B called Miškar. In the morning our host, Igor, asked what our plans were for the day. When we said we were planning on doing a cave, he said the best cave was Križna Jama and that he happened to be a guide. My skeptical radar turned on but I heard him out. As he described the cave, we became more interested. Soon he was canceling his day's activities to take us into Križna Jama...the only visitors into the cave that day.

Our outfits included wet suits, boots, helmets, lights, and an extra pair of socks. This is getting serious!
What is so special about Križna Jama? Underwater lakes, 22 of them to be exact. As the map below shows, Križna Jama used to have a single river flowing through it. Over time the sediment deposits created barriers within the river...thus 22 lakes.

This is a map of the cave. There is a one-hour tour that goes to the first lake...short boat ride and you're out. Unfortunately there is nothing interesting in that first hour. So that tour is a waste of time. For ecological reasons, only 1,000 people a year take the 4-hour tour (4 per day). This goes about half way through the lakes (just beyond the large fork in the river). There is a 7-hour tour which only 100 people a year are allowed to take. This goes all the way to the end. 

And how do you travel through a cave with 22 lakes? By boat of course.

This is not a "lighted" cave...so the pictures do not do justice to the beauty of this cave and the water. The only light was on our three heads.

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Twenty thousand years ago cave bears used to hibernate in this cave. These bears were larger than polar bears and herbivores. This is one of their skulls which was found in the cave.

The skull on-top is a regular brown bear; the one below is a cave bear. These were massive mammals.
The longest lake snakes for approximately 1/2 km and takes 20 minutes to row. Everything is remarkably calm and quiet within this cave. Since we were not doing the rowing, it also was very relaxing.

Welcome to the belly of the beast!
Unlike the more famous counterparts, this cave system is being aggressively preserved ecologically. This is why only 1,000 tourists are allowed to enter each year. And they have systems for monitor the impact that these tourists have on the cave. If too much damage occurs, then they lower the number of tourists who enter. Rainfall also affects access. There are seasons when they have to close the cave to tourists.

The formations were impressive.
At one point on the river Igor pulled up to a formation and, by tapping, he was able to play some music. So cool.

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This is a pretty spooky formation...in the middle of it there appears to be a set of gnarly teeth. Reminded me of Alien.
I asked Igor who knows about this cave. He said that most of their tourists are from Israel. Apparently word is out about Križna Jama in Israel. Very few Americans tour this cave. So maybe this blog can help sway a few Americans to take this amazing journey!

Križna Jama expedition team ready to explore!!!

Bosnia - Jajce Water Mills

I have already blogged about the drive between Jajce and Banja Luka. And the town of Jajce is certainly on the beaten path for Bosnian travelers. There is a wonderful waterfall at the center of town and an old Bosnian kingdom castle in the middle of town. Jajce is a great place to visit in central Bosnia.

Our friends George and Marcia Bennett in front of the Jajce waterfall.
Much lesser known, however, are the water mills at Jajce. These are 20+ little flour mills built along the river. Years ago, each family was assigned to share a mill and they would mill their grains here. We are not sure if these are still functioning...we highly doubt it.

Each of the mills have a number and are locked. So technically they could still function I guess.
When Dionne and I first visited, it was in January. The combination of the icy river and the flour mills was overwhelming. One of the most gorgeous scenes I have ever discovered.

The frozen water wheels.
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Can you tell that it is cold out here?
We will return to the water mills of Jajce again. I am sure that it is pretty during the different seasons as well (especially Spring). While doing an emergency relief delivery in nearby Banja Luka, one of our aid recipients showed us his pride and joy...a functioning water flour mill which he had on his property. I took this video from his mill.

It just will not be a same in the summer time.
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Serbia - Sargan Eight Railway


A little piece of my heart travels on the train between Durango and Silverton Colorado each day. My grandmother was the curator of a museum in Silverton. Every time we would visit the highlight of the day was when the train pulled into town. So I have a soft spot for old historic trains.

Elder Taylor and Geertsen boarding the train.
The Sargan Eight is a narrow gauge railway which uses original trains. Originally conceived to connect Beograd and Sarajevo in the 1880s, construction did not finish until the 1930s. Then the train operated until the mid-70s when it was shut down. A few years ago a portion of the railway was reopened for tourists. Only 500 seats are available on the daily 2-hour trip...so book ahead. These are almost always sold out!

The Sargan Eight train. There were 5 cars with no facilities!!!
The path that they have reopened is quite scenic (although not Silverton scenic...I am forever spoiled). A cool feature is that the train goes through 22 tunnels during the trip. And stops at 4-5 little towns.

The best place to ride the train is in between the cars in the open air. 

Some of the tunnels were very long..2-3 minutes of darkness. 
The stops are quaint and interesting. But nothing to really write home about. The coolest pictures I have are of missionaries posing and a walkway made of railroad ties.

Don't these two make a wonderful couple?

As it turns out, this was a really neat walk way. Much easier to walk on than cobblestones.
I looked for the bathroom facilities at one of our stops...and this is what I found. Don't see outhouses that often...especially the kind with only a triangle in the floor. Needless to say I held it til our next stop.

Usually an outhouse is placed upon a hole dug into the ground. The smell is awful but the sights are not too bad. Unpictured is that this outhouse is just built on a slope...no hole.

My aim is not good enough for this.

Croatia - WWII Artillery at Mljet National Park

Rick Steves' brought us to Mljet island. I liked the sound of it. Secluded, kayaking and biking, wonderful inlet, and a national park. What we did not realize is that the island shuts down during the off-season and March is off-season. We had found a place to stay and so assumed that things would be open. By "things" I mean restaurants, rental shops, etc. I was wrong. Nothing was open except our little B&B. And we were the only ones who had stayed there all week. No restaurants; just a grocery store and a pekara.

Spring is beautiful on Mljet. But nobody comes to enjoy it.
Which was great! We had the entire island to ourselves. Just us and the locals. Our host had 4 bikes that we could borrow. So we explored the primary sites (thanks Rick Steves') on bike for a few hours.

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We were on Mljet with my sister Downi and her husband Boyce. Ever since joining us, Boyce had been talking about two things...football (aka soccer) and guns. While my interest in football is growing, I remain constitutionally uninterested in guns. But Boyce was having a great time with all of the military history in the Balkans.

Boyce at the shop in Sarajevo. 


After a day of exploring, we started to chat about the island with our host. He mentioned that there was an old WWII compound at the tip of the island that few people know about. This immediately piqued Boyce's interest. He also said something about a "cave" which got me interested. So despite having ridden our bikes all day, three of us decided to go off on more bike ride. The goal: to find this mysterious gun that was still intact at this site.

The old WWII compound is at the most Western tip of the island. We thought it would be a 10-minute bike ride. Double that at least.
We were not expecting this to be as cool as it was. We arrived completely unprepared. The entrance is really a "cave." It is an old Nazi underground bunker that is at least 400 meters. Completely in the dark. I did not bring my phone so I had no light. Fortunately Downi and Boyce brought theirs. So we proceeded to explore looking for this big gun.

At the compound entrance
Although our host had told us about this place, I was a little nervous that we were trespassing illegally on a government site. There were open gates just before we got to the compound...gates that probably have been shut before. And the site was very pristine. As we explored the underground cave, we found many WWII era things. A spool of old barb wire, earphones with Nazi insignias, barrels, chairs, etc. It was like going back in time 70 years.

Old rusty chairs and tables found in one room.
We found tracks that led to four gunnery stations. So we climbed up each of the stations looking for our big gun. The guns at the first three stations had been removed...but the tracks were still there. By the time we got the fourth and final station, we had kind of given up hope. But then we found this...

Although the pin has been removed, we were able to turn the cranks and aim it. Cannot believe that this has just been sitting out in the open for 70 years.

Boyce found his big gun. This was one of the absolute highlights of two-weeks of new European experiences for him.

Montenegro - Pršut in the Mountains

With only one day so far in Montenegro, we have not gotten too far off-the-beaten path. Perast and Kotor are not off-the-beaten path and most of our time was spent there. And the road to Cetinje is also quite well known. But what we found at the top was very cool and worth noting.

The village of Perast. I am planning on doing a later blog post about the Mary legend we learned about there.
The road above Kotor has to be ridden on to understand how cool it really is. It is essentially a single-lane highway that winds up a steep, steep mountain. But instead of being one-way, it is two-way. There are a few pull outs where a driver can pull over to allow another who is going the other way, to proceed. But you have to reverse to get back to these pullouts. And during the summer, the road is full of buses going both ways. What a mess! Buses reversing down these treacherous roads to find a pull out!

Picture time.

View of Kotor from the top of the road.
The road was constructed hundreds of years ago. The architect was in love with the Queen whose name was Mary. Because he could not express his love directly, he chose to do so through the design of his road.

I just assumed this stood for "Montenegro."
At the top of the mountain we stopped at a wonderful little farm that makes its own pršut (prosciutto). We were able to do a tour and see all of the prosciutto aging in the rafters. Because Sarajevo is 80% Muslim, pork is not specialty of the culture. Montenegro, on the other hand, has a long history of making pršut.

There are 4 more levels of pršut above this layer. The use all of this pršut in their restaurant...they do not do wholesale sales.
For me, Italy is the home of prosciutto. That is where my daughter, Briel, became hooked on prosciutto. And where I have eaten the best prosciutto. So I was curious how good Montenegro's pršut could be. I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. It was better than the prosciutto I had recently eaten in Italy (Verona).

Montenegro pršut gets a big thumbs up from our little group...and it was about 1/3rd the price of Italy!!!
So there you go. Five adventures off-the-beaten path in the Adriatic North Mission. Do the Rick Steves' stuff when you visit. But also make sure you stop, like we did at Ston, when you see something really cool and change your plans as needed. Sretan put.

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