Slovenia: End of the Balkans



Geographically, Slovenia marks the northern edge of the Balkans.  However, having made my through the region, Slovenia feels much less Balkan and much more Central European.  Slovenia looks to north rather than south for its architectural and cultural cues.  The country’s membership in the EU and use of the euro provide further evidence of its alignment.


Modern Slovenia came into being in 1991 when it broke away from Yugoslavia, which it had been a member of since the post-World War I period.  Independence was achieved after a 10 day war.  Though 66 people died in the fighting, the country was spared the drawn out bloodshed that occurred in nearby Croatia and Bosnia.  Slovenia had been under Austrian rule for over 500 years before World War I.

My stay in Slovenia was brief and limited to the capital city of Ljubljana and Lake Bled.  I was not able to take in much in that short time.


By the standards of the capital cities I’ve been to in Europe, Ljubljana is sleepy.  This feeling was further enhanced during my time there because the two days I spent in the city happened to be a national holiday (Assumption Day) and a Sunday.  This meant most of the city’s sights, shops, and restaurants were shut down.  However, Ljubljana is a beautiful and clean city.  Walking around empty streets provides a certain joy in this environment that left me perfectly content.  

Main post office in Ljubljana

The Ljubljanica River winds its way through the center of town.  Several bridges, each distinct, cross the narrow river.

Dragon Bridge

Seemingly the only attraction to be open was Ljubljana Castle.  This fortress is probably the biggest attraction in the city.  Sited on a peak in the middle of town, the castle’s watc tower offers great views of the area.    A slight damper on my experience here came in the form of rain, wind, and lightning that added the wrong type of excitement.

Coats of arms painted on a castle ceiling

The watch tower of Ljubljana Castle

The castle complex has a number of exhibits on subjects ranging from the castle’s history to medieval torture and dungeons to puppets.

Masks from the castle's exhibition on the barbarism of torture

The walk of death

Lake Bled

Lake Bled

About an hour away from Ljubljana is scenic Lake Bled.  A lone island with a church sits in the lake. Surrounding the lake are the Julian Alps.  Ferrying people from the shore to the island  are gondolas rowed manually.  A castle sits on a rocky outcrop at the lake’s edge.  It feels like a kind of invented place from a fairy tale.

Church of the Assumption on Bled Island

Bled Castle has existed in some form for over one thousand years, making it the oldest castle in the country.  Several shops and historical exhibitions are contained within it.  Since the castle sits several hundred feet above lake level accessing it requires a short, enjoyable hike.

Bled Castle

The gondolas to Bled Island, called pletnas, hold about a dozen people and take about 15 minutes each way.  As I observed, these small boats are very sensitive to shifts in weight and the rower would regularly ask passengers to adjust their seating arrangements to avoid capsizing.  Even with the rocking and threat of being dumped in the lake, the ride is pleasant and worth the €12 cost.

Lake Bled as viewed from a Pletna

Pletna on the lake

Bled Island is small and tree covered.  The most notable feature is the Church of the Assumption, which has stood there in its current form since the 17th century.

Altar at the church

Church fresco displaying the coat of arms of a benefactor

Gjirokastër: The Stone City


Panoramic from the valley floor

The Drino Valley is a beautiful place.  Near Gjirokastër the valley floor flat and wide open.  The Drino River isn’t much to look at at this time.  Although, that’s not a problem.  The valley that has been carved through the Gjerë mountains is still stunning.  Green, tranquil, and idyllic.  It’s a perfect spot for the town of Gjirokastër.

If one word were to be applied to Gjirokastër it would probably be charming.  I don’t know what it takes to make a town “charming”, but Gjirokastër has it.  The old town is built on the hillside and its distinguishing feature are the hundred of old stone houses.  These stone buildings have led the entire old town be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  These buildings were constructed during the period of Ottoman rule over Albania, mostly between the 17th and 18th centuries.

A typical street

It is possible to tour several of these old houses.  I only toured one of these, the Skenduli House.  This three story mansion was built in 1700 for one of the wealthiest merchants in the area.  It is still owned by the Skenduli family today.  Even though it is clear that a significant amount of restoration work has already been done on it, it still needs more.  The interior offers great perspective on the living conditions of the upper class during the Ottoman period.

The Skenduli House [apologies for the low quality]

A model of the Skenduli House

A room inside the Skenduli House

Across the street from the Skenduli House is another stone house containing the Museum of Ethnography.  The house itself is good condition and, while less extravagant than the neighboring Skenduli House, it is still quite large and its inhabitants would be have been well to do. The museum contains examples of traditional dress, crafts, and household items.  Unfortunately, there are no signs anywhere, but there are guides that can assist.

Traditional dress on display in the Museum of Ethnography

Carvings in the Museum of Ethnography

The dominant feature of Gjirokastër is Gjirokastër Castle which sits on an isolated outcrop above the bazaar area.  The passageway next to the entrance is lined with captured Italian and German artillery and other heavy weapons from World War II.  There is even a small Italian tank among the objects on display.

The open areas of the castle afford arresting views of the valley, the craggy mountains, and the countless stone buildings.  It makes the journey up the hill worth it.

The castle yard

Looking down from the castle

A clock tower sits at the edge of the fort.  This was built when the area was controlled by Ali Pasha (he’s the one that Lord Byron met) to assist in keeping track of the Muslim call for prayer.  These days it doesn’t function, but provides some aesthetic appeal.

The castle clock tower

The fortress is home to two museums.  The Museum of Gjirokastër is small, but well assembled.  All the signs are in English and provide a significant amount of background on the area and its long history from the Bronze Age through the modern era.

Displays in the Museum of Gjirokastër

The other museum, which is adjoining, is the Museum of Armaments.  There isn’t much English signage in this area.  A large portion of it is dedicated to the World War II period during which Albania was occupied by Italy and then Germany.  A number of small arms used by the occupying forces are on display, as well as those of anti-occupation partisans.  Statues, paintings, and photos provide a small amount of context.

Statue of a partisan fighting a German soldier

Armaments on display

The Museum of Armaments is located in the part of the castle that used to be a prison.  It was first used in this capacity during the rule of King Zog in the pre-World War II period.  Every successive regime used the prison until it was closed in 1968 during the communist period.

Hallway of the castle prison

While old town Gjirokastër is the main draw, a modern town exists down on the valley floor.  Though not large, it is a hive of activity compared to the sleepy hillside.  There is not much in the area to draw travelers other than the bus station, but it is still a pleasant area to walk around and remind yourself that modern civilization still exists.

View from the new town

My accommodations were basic, but for about $8 a night to have a private room I cannot complain.  As well, food was cheap and satisfying.

I think we can all agree that this qualifies as "basic"

Gjirokastër was a great place to spend a few days.  Just walking around the old town is a treat in itself, though there are enough attractions to hold your attention for a couple of days.  If you are in the region I highly recommend it.  It is easily accessible from Greece or elsewhere in Albania.  

Stone buildings in various conditions

Bodrum: Crusaders, A Castle, and Shipwrecks


The final stop in my travels through Turkey was Bodrum.  This seaside town is a popular holiday destination and has a reputation for catering to the wealthy.  The yachts at the waterfront attest to this.


The architecture of the city and surrounding area is noticeably uniform.  Boxy white buildings facing seaward befit this warm coastal area.

Like seemingly everywhere I’ve been in Turkey, Bodrum has historical significance.  Previously known as Halicarnassus, the city housed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Mausolus was a ruler in fourth century western Anatolia.  After his death, his wife (who was also his sister) commissioned a great tomb for him in Halicarnassus.  Mausolus would probably be largely forgotten if not for this monument.  Standing nearly 150 feet high and made of marble, the finest craftsman of the day were hired to work on the tomb.  The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus no longer stands as a result of earthquakes and Crusaders.  A small portion remains and can be visited.  Several statues from the site now reside in the British Museum.

Herodotus, the so-called “Father of History” was born in Halicarnassus.  He is known to have completed one work, The Histories, which in all likelihood you haven’t read.  I just remember him being brought up in Mr. Curry's class junior year.

Statue of Herodotus in Bodrum

One of the main attractions in the city is Bodrum Castle.  The Knights Hospitaller were a military and religious order that was organized during the First Crusade in 1099.  After Muslim forces took back the Holy Land the Knights moved their base of operations to Rhodes.  They constructed a network of castles in the Dodecanese Islands and Anatolia.  The castle in Bodrum, called the Castle of St Peter by the Knights, is considered one of the largest and most impressive of these.  Construction started in 1402 and continued for over a century.  The Knights even took marble from the nearby Mausoleum to add to their castle.

A view inside the castle

While based in Rhodes the Knights came to anger the nearby Ottomans.  Suleiman the Magnificent led a siege against the Knights at Rhodes and in 1422 the Knights capitulated.  As part of the surrender they turned over their fortresses, including the Castle of St Peter, to the Ottomans.  The Knights eventually settled in Malta several years after this.  Today, operating from Rome, their successor is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Crests relating to the Knights

As you might expect, the knights included a chapel in their castle.  Once the Ottomans took control of the castle it was predictably converted into a mosque and a minaret was added.  During World War I this minaret was toppled by French naval shelling.  It was rebuilt in 1999.  

The castle chapel

You can also visit the dungeon where the Knights held their prisoners. A not very convincing dummy prisoner is housed down their now.

This guy is not having a good time

The castle currently houses the Museum of Underwater Archaeology.  Exhibits include shipwrecks, amphoras, and coins.  Much of the artifacts are related to commerce and trade over the ocean.

A display from the Underwater Archaeology Museum

I stayed on the western end of the peninsula on an orange farm about 45 minutes away from the main city.  This was a quiet place to relax, enjoy the outdoors, and do some hiking.  The trek to the top of a nearby hill offered great views of the peninsula and the Aegean.  Without having to squint you can even see Greek islands.

Hilltop view