Sunday, October 24, 2004

Prague Summer 2004

Published: July 2004
We’re back from a short and wonderful week in Prague where we – Marlyn and I and Camilla, Craig and Aliza - met my sister and her family from Johannesburg and also a cousin from Cape Town – now living in Cambridge – whom I hadn’t seen for about 20 years.

Prague is a wonderful, beautiful, magnificent city – and any of you who have not had the pleasure of visiting there, I recommend it as something you absolutely HAVE to do.

The entire city looks like a movie set for a film about Renaissance Europe – except that all the buildings are genuine, all the cobble stoned streets are authentic…all the bridges actually span a real flowing river: which just two years ago overflowed its banks and flooded a large portion of the city and its historic buildings.
But everything has been lovingly restored and the city if thriving again.

The city is clean, which is somewhat amazing considering the incredible number of tourists thronging its streets. The municipal authorities obviously take great pride in keeping the city pristine – even the horses pulling the tourist carriages have “facilities” strapped to their hindquarters.

Prague is a very user-friendly city: everything is within easy walking distance; cars are kept out of the city center (except for those with special permits which are kept in short supply and have to be applied for a year in advance.) To get to areas beyond the city center, the public transport – the metro, trams and busses – are efficient, clean cheap, and generally safe. We had been warned about pickpockets and muggers, but quite honestly didn’t even suspect anyone of looking too hard at our bags and cameras slung around our collective necks. There is a very discreet police presence and one suspects that they’ve had enough of their city’s reputation being tarnished. This is not to say that one should be foolhardy. We heard that round mid-night one can purchase most anything you would desire on the streets…and some back alleys looked decidedly dodgy. But then other back alleys revealed the most amazing shops and restaurants. The best shopping can be found down these passageways and corridors which lead off the main streets.

The shopping in Prague is incredible: every designer label you could wish for, the most wonderful glassware, clothes, shoes, ornaments and off course souvenirs. But it’s no longer as cheap as it used to be…prices are creeping up, but you can still get a pretty good meal at a good restaurant for much less than it would cost in Tel Aviv or London! The food is reasonably good “continental” style – mainly Italian, with Czech fare being mainly goulash and dumplings…but the beer is fabulous; and there is fast food in abundance – even falafel, shwarma and pita.

Music abounds; this is after all the city of Mozart, and every church presents concerts at all times of the day: some are free, some are quite expensive…but the variety is the spice here – organ recitals, soprano solos, children’s choirs from different parts of the world; and of course jazz, all night, every night.
The Jewish Museum – really a collection of synagogues, museums and the ancient cemetery with gravestones dating back hundreds of years – is both fascinating and moving: especially so the Pinkas Synagogue, in which the names of all the Holocaust victims from Prague and surrounding areas are handwritten on the walls.
Of course, to get a real sense of the Holocaust in this part of the world, one must visit Terezin – Theresienstadt – the Nazi’s showcase ghetto…some showcase. In what was a once small, rather attractive garrison town of some 7,000 residents, the Nazis crammed 10 times that number of Jews at any one time. More than 160,000 went through Terezin…some stayed for only one day, some for years – most ended up in Auschwitz.

We experienced Terezin as a Jewish family: 10 of us – the youngest just 11-years-old, the same age as many of the children sent to Terezin - taking the short train ride from Prague to Bohusovice Station and walking the kilometer or so from the small town to the ghetto, following the same route taken by thousands of Jews just a generation ago. Terezin was not a “death camp” in the same sense as Auschwitz, but the entire experience was moving beyond words. But perhaps the most moving and poignant moment came when we visited the museum in what was once the Boys Home and saw the exhibition of art work and the clandestine newspaper published by the pre-teenaged boys in the ghetto. In one showcase, was a picture drawn by the magazine’s founder, 14-year-old Peter Ginz, titled “A View of Earth from the Moon.” It was a copy of this picture which Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon took with him on the ill-fated Columbia shuttle mission…

Away from the misery of Terezin and into the Czech countryside, we spent a magical day at a cottage in the village of Struhey (I think I got that right), some 50 kilometers north east of Prague, where my nephew’s Czech wife’s family live.

Another wonderful day was spent in the Spa town of Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) where people go to “take the waters”…then we spent a day in the beautiful small town of Melnik, at the confluence of the Labe and Vltava (pronounced Voltava – or Moldau) Rivers. It was here that we visited a small Charnel House – a repository of bones gathered over centuries and stacked in neatly arranged piles around the walls. Quite eerie and somewhat ghoulish.
There is much more to write about – Prague’s Charles Bridge, thronging with tourists, where you can buy anything from a caricature portrait to trinkets, listen to a jazz band, hear an organ grinder; watch performing dogs…the walk up what felt like the longest hill in the word to the Hrdcany Castle, with a magnificent view of the city…
And then back on the Metro for the 15-minute ride to the northern suburb of Kobylysy and our small but very comfortable and very reasonably priced pension.

In all, we spent seven magical days in this magical city and its surroundings; our kids met up with their cousins from South Africa who they had not seen in nine years and the bonding was immediate and amazing.
Then it was back to Tel Aviv – just over three hours away and 15 degrees difference in temperature. Leaving the plane at Ben Gurion airport was like walking into a sauna.

Back to work, back to study, back to putting together our memories of a really memorable time…
You can share some of our experiences with us by viewing our photo album at:

Sunny South Africa – 15 years down the line…

June 2003
My family and I left South Africa on Aliyah at the end of 1987. I have not been back since…until this month, when a last-minute family simcha (it’s a long story) brought Marlyn and me back to SA for a short, hectic, wonderful visit, some 15 years after we left.

It was with mild trepidation that I embarked on the El Al flight for Johannesburg. What would I find on the other end? How would I feel about visiting my old stamping grounds, seeing old friends and family, left so long ago…and how would I feel about the “new” South Africa with all its promise and problems.

In a sense this trip was about closing circles. In Durban, visiting my parents graves in the Redhill Cemetery… walking across the trimmed lawns to pay homage to friends who had passed away long before their time…visiting my niece’s tombstone at Stellawood (she was just under a year old when she died of typhoid in 1986).
It was also about renewing acquaintances with old friends, finding that despite the intervening 15 years nothing had really changed between us and meeting new family members…children born after we left; new wives and husbands brought into the family by younger cousins, and the crowning event of our Durban leg – visiting our former maid, now totally blind, at the Natal Blind Society where she earns her living making cane chairs.
We started our 13-day whirlwind trip in Johannesburg – almost unrecognizable since I lived and worked there 30 years ago! The international airport is magnificent; the customs and passport officials, all black, are friendly, courteous, helpful…

The place is buzzing. There are thousands of international visitors – business people and tourists — arriving every day. Flights from all over the world pull up to the terminal every hour…foreign languages abound, foreign currency flows: but the Rand is still languishing around the R8.00 to the dollar mark, close to R13.00 to the Pound – what a win for anybody traveling with these currencies! For although prices in South African terms are high, when local prices are converted to dollars, you can hardly believe your luck – a succulent steak for R75.00 (read around $9.00!); a luxurious villa with all the trimmings, garden, swimming pool, electrified fence etc. for only R1 million or so (about $120 000 – that sort of money might buy you a two-roomed apartment in Holon).

But when you’re earning in Rands everyday things are pricey; I was told that until recently a reasonably “good” salary on which a family could afford some of the good things in life — including live-in servants — netted out at about R14 000 a month. Today, a family needs two salaries to live at the same standard. But — and this is a HUGE “but” for former South Africans in Israel — you can buy a house (even if it is in the million Rand bracket) with just 10 percent deposit…and everybody drives leased cars – Mercs. BMWs, a wide range of SUVs…and there are generally two vehicles in the driveway (providing they haven’t been stolen in the past 24 hours). If you’re in that bracket life is fine. However, in the new South Africa, while there is still a reasonably affluent middle-class white population, and a rapidly rising black middle-class, the majority of the country’s citizens are very far from this standard of living. More about that later.

Johannesburg is still the big, raucous, brash fast-moving city it always was. Except that now that city stretches from Vereeniging in the south with Mid-Rand joining Johannesburg with Pretoria in the north. The east and west Rand are contiguous to Johannesburg and there is hardly any space between any of these areas whatsoever. It is a gigantic megalopolis. The highways are plentiful, broad and fast moving — except in rush hour when they grind to a halt as in any major world city.

I used to live in Sandton in my bachelor days. Back then, it was sleepy dormitory town, untarred roads were used more by horses than cars (it was also known as the Mink and Manure belt); there were few streetlights and my trendy bachelor pad faced onto Bob Grayston’s stables. The only reminder of those stables is that dear old Bob’s name has been perpetuated in a pub in the Holiday Inn which now stands on the stable acreage.

Sandton City is literally that – a huge shopping city, with the relatively new Sandton Mall designed as a market square in an old European city – surrounded by restaurants, coffee shops and galleries. And so it was with the rest of Johannesburg. I knew we were in Oxford Road, but only because somebody told me. Jan Smuts Avenue was vaguely familiar because we passed Zoo Lake and Barry Herzog Avenue was somewhat the same because it started near Wits University. But that was about it. The entire environment around these main arteries has changed. Not so much in the housing, but in the shopping malls, business parks, apartment blocks...and in the teams of beggars, hawkers and other unfortunates who crowd around your car – windows up, doors locked, air conditioning on – at every stop.

We didn’t go into the center of Johannesburg. We had been warned enough times about that, but we did manage to get a glimpse of the CBD from the M1 highway which skirts the eastern side of the city. It looked pretty much the same, except for a huge building or two and the new Nelson Mandela Bridge which replaced the old Queen Elizabeth Bridge linking the city to Braamfontein.

In fact, this seemed to be our recurring impression of the new South Africa. Everywhere we went —and I think in Durban most of all — seemed so familiar...and yet so strange. It was the nearest thing I have ever come to being in a sort of time warp. As if I went to sleep one night and like Ryp van Winkel, give or take a few years, woke up 15 years later. Everything was the same – yet NOTHING was the same.

On the social level, the new South Africa is fantastic. The interaction between black and white, amongst the people of the rainbow nation, is quite remarkable. From what we could see in the malls, the restaurants, coffee shops, department stores (Woolworths still rules!), people are relaxed, totally at ease with one another. Shop assistants, black and white, are courteous, helpful, smiling, and all apparently without any rancor, bitterness or grudges about South Africa’s inglorious political past.

But this is at a superficial level; seeing it as a foreigner, albeit one who lived there in the dark days of apartheid.
The country still has a long way to go. There are enormous challenges and issues to face. There is unemployment — mainly among whites, who face the competition of “affirmative action” in the workplace. As one young cousin, a highly qualified stockbroker who had worked on the JSE for seven years and now cannot find a position in his profession, quipped: “If you’re white, male and qualified...forget it; there are no jobs available.” He and his young wife are seriously considering leaving the country for England.

There is still black poverty — a lot of it. We saw shantytowns on the outskirts of Johannesburg and Cape Town every bit as run down as they were in the “old days”. But Alexandra and Soweto have running water and are electrified — and that’s why, in the cynically tongue-in-cheek words of a white South African, “...we have to keep buying new TV sets...”

Corruption is said to be rife and AIDS is decimating the black population. One of the major problems is that of AIDS orphans...left to their own devices, without a roof over their heads; with no money and no job prospects, roaming the streets of downtown Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, at the core of a huge social problem which the government is reacting to extremely slowly. A huge government-sponsored AIDS awareness advertising campaign has been slammed by local critics as being aimed at completely the wrong target, with completely the wrong message.

My brother-in-law, a director of an light industrial company, related that at every Christmas party, the staff stand for a silent minute remembering those colleagues who had died during the year, mainly of AIDS and related illness – fully 10 percent of his black workforce...every year!

Crime is widespread: there is hardly a single person that we know who hasn’t been a victim. My sister in Johannesburg had her car stolen, was mugged and lost all her jewelry and had her house broken into (despite an arsenal of burglar alarms and a huge German Shepherd) all within about 3 months.

Every single house, gorgeous and luxurious as it may be, is surrounded by a massive wall, topped by electronic trip wires, alarms. Security company shields adorn every gate. When entering a driveway, you stop and check to see if anybody is approaching from any distance before opening the gate. A good friend of ours in Durban had a gun thrust into his neck as he was getting out of his car in his garage. Now he has full length mirrors on the garage wall...and doesn’t leave his car until the garage door is closed.

Durban is still Durban: nothing much has changed and yet, as I said, everything has changed. We didn’t go to the city (warned off on that one again...), we didn’t go to the beachfront (another warning); we drove down Old Fort Road past the old Indian Market (“don’t get out here....”) and yet we strolled around the Musgrave Center and Gateway shopping malls without a care in the world. No armed guards at the body searches, no searching bags and jackets. The only place where we did undergo any sort of search on entering a building was at Johannesburg’s lavish Monte Casino shopping and casino complex. Yes, there are casinos everywhere. Durban has one right next to Natal Command, the local SA Defense Force headquarters on the beachfront.

But Durban was more about catching up with old friends, closing circles and remembering passed family and friends. We stopped in front of our old house in Carrington Heights and saw how the new owners had converted it into two separate units...we took pictures to show the kids where they grew up. Visiting our dear Thelma Njoli – our maid for 10 years who literally brought up those kids – and we told her what fine job she had done. She was visually challenged even then, and today is totally blind.

Our friends are just as we remember them...slightly grayer, balder, a little more paunchy here and there...their kids are all grown up, independent and gorgeous. Some are married, many are living abroad; some (like ours) are still living at home.

But perhaps the most bizarre aspect for us to come to terms with was just how far we seem to have come in the past 15 years...and how for those we left behind, nothing seemed to have changed. At dinner one night in Durban, there was some polite small talk about Israel and “the situation...” and then back to everyday South African affairs — the men still talked business, the women still talked family and servants and shopping....and it was as if I had left the room in the middle of a conversation 15 years ago, and just re-entered it...deja vu all over again. The topics were the same; the complaints were the same; the issues were the same...the setting was the same. This is not a value judgment, only an observation – an observation made that much more brittle by our personal and collective experiences in Israel since 1987.

As an Israeli, there is a darker side to South Africa, which is more than is downright frightening. It manifested itself in the World Anti-Racism Conferences last year and it manifests itself in the outright anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes of a large proportion of the population. It is fanned by incitement of the Mullahs and leaders of the huge Muslim communities, especially in the Cape. It is abetted by the fawning self-hatred of thankfully a small number of the South African Jewish community themselves – Minister Ronnie Kasreels for instance, and a certain Johannesburg Rabbi who refused to say a prayer for the Israeli victims of terrorist attacks because it wasn’t “even-handed” to single out Jews and not say a prayer for Palestinian victims of “Israel’s aggression”.

There were questions about the wall being built between Israel and the Palestinian areas...”...why? it’s not fair, what do we hope to achieve?...the poor Palestinians...” and this from people who live in designer prisons...behind high walls, with electronic anti-intrusion devices, even barbed-wire, vicious guard dogs and rapid response systems, all aimed at keeping out those who only want to share their wealth. The irony was lost on them.
And then there were other attitudes...more militant and more right wing than any West Bank settler: “I don’t understand your prime minister – why doesn’t he just go in and finish the job....”

Any attempts at explaining the complexities of our situation; how Israel tries its utmost to avoid harming innocent civilians at enormous cost to its own soldiers; how Israel has tried to avoid indiscriminate attacks, how we have maintained the most painful restraint in the face of wholesale murder and provocation...was lost on them too.

The final leg of our rush through SA was Cape Town...and we had forgotten just what a gorgeous city it is. We were told that the BBC had named it one of the five world cities you have to see before you die, and we fully support that viewpoint (agreeing with the BBC for a change...?!). We thought Sydney was beautiful, and it is, but Cape Town is as beautiful in a very unique way.

However, it wasn’t the drive down to Cape Point, or out to the Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, or even the magnificent Waterfront shopping and entertainment complex that topped our Cape Town trip. It was that short voyage across 11 kilometers of Table Bay to Robben Island that will be a lasting memory.

We had a choice (we were only in Cape Town for two and a half days...) up Table Mountain or out to Robben Island. As a returning South African, for whom Robben Island was the most sinister symbol of apartheid South Africa, there was no choice. I had to close this final gap.

Arriving at Robben Island dockside, one is greeted with huge enlarged photographs of early prisoners arriving on the same dockside. And then you walk towards the prison enclosure itself. The gateway, bearing its decade’s old engraved message: “Welcome to Robben Island – Welkom in Robbeneiland” and the boastful prison service motto: “We serve with Pride – Ons Dien met Trots...” is alarmingly resonant to any Jew.

And although there can be no physical comparison between Robben Island and the atrocities of Eastern Europe, in one respect they are the same. People were incarcerated here because they dared to think be be racially different from the rulers who believed they were the pinnacle of humankind.
The tour guides on Robben Island are former black prisoners and former white guards. And this, more than anything, highlights just how far the new South Africa has come from its dismal past. They live and work side by side now. Neither one being better or worse than the other...neither one controlling or being submissive to the other.

It was strange to hear the tour guide telling a group made up largely of foreigners, the stories of the prisoners on Robben Island; Mandela, Sobukwe; Sisulu...names which I, as a young journalist on a Johannesburg Sunday newspaper those long years ago, knew so well. And it was surreal to hear the tour guide talking about those Whites who fought the good fight for justice in the old South Africa...Helen Suzman. Benjamin Pogrund...people I had met, interviewed, written about and frankly hero-worshipped in my days in the newsroom, covering social and political events. And frankly, I felt a swelling of pride that I had been involved – albeit in the minutest of ways, albeit vicariously as any journalist must be – in the struggle which has brought about the brave new South Africa.
Our trip to the Cape ended all too quickly. It was back to Johannesburg for one night...out to the airport early on Monday morning, aboard the El Al 767...and within 9 hours back to our own brave new world beyond the gates of Ben Gurion Airport.

We had been away exactly 13 days, met up with 86 family members and friends... spent two days viewing game in the Pilansberg, traveled literally around South Africa, hopping from Johannesburg to Durban to Cape Town and back to Jo’burg; and now we were back in the sweltering mid-summer Tel Aviv heat. We had settled a lot of unfinished business...we had seen the new South Africa and we had loved every minute of it – but now, we were home.


Sleepless in Dubrovnik

(July 2000)

Trust a bus load of Israelis to cause a traffic jam in a foreign city…well, it wasn’t really our fault; you see this truck pulled out in front of us and the bus driver just couldn’t resist trying to impress us by ignoring it. Sound familiar? So without doing anything, our group of 40 high-tech personnel and their spouses, significant others, lovers and friends, caused the biggest traffic jam ever seen in Dubrovnik. At least five cars were backed-up behind us and the locals came out to gawk.

But this wasn’t the only sensation we had caused that morning.

Our Israir jet’s arrival was the most significant event of the day at Dubrovnik airport an hour earlier. The only other aircraft parked on the airport apron were two aging prop jobs – looking suspiciously like surplus WWII Stuka dive bombers camoflagued in bright orange to resemble crop sprayers. Was this the Croatian airforce…?

And then one of our party had the audacity to loose her passport. In her frantic search for that valuable document, she tore apart her entire travel kit – it looked like three suitcases, two back packs, four carry bags, a handbag and her make-up bag: well, that’s what it looked like, strewn all around the arrivals hall. So all things considered, our arrival for three days of company “bonding” was off to an auspicious start. Thanks to an alert Israeli security guard, Barbara ‘s passport was found on the plane and the customs hall was returned to its stark splendour.

Back to the accident: with the crunch of a tourist bus hitting the back of a delivery van came the our inveitable expectation of a street fight between the drivrs – but… our driver, Drago, just sat in his seat, not moving, not blinking, hardly breathing, or so it seemed. The driver of the delivery van stood next his vehicle – no shouting, no threats or cursing each others’ grandmothers for seven generations. All we could hear was him muttering in broken English: “This bad – this very bad….” as he waited for the police to arrive.

One of our group decided that he was a frustrated traffic cop and got out to direct the traffic. He needn’t have bothered. A municipal bus, wishing to maintain its schedule squeezed around the corner between our tourist bus and the pavement, demonstrating that Croatian busses bend in the middle (we were to learn more about this amazing feat later in our tour). Not the articulated “autobusim arochim” which you can see snaking around Tel Aviv streets, with concertina-style middle bits. No, this was just a regular 30-year-old 40-seater with a very determined driver. He succeeded in his quest and went on his way.

Eventually the police arrived, presumably from Zagreb (some 2000 kms to the north), judging by the length of time it took and we were allowed to proceed to our hotel in a substitute bus. We never learnt what happened to Drago. Of course, the days of communism are over, so persumably he is not serving time in the Gulag…perhaps he was demoted to baggage carrier.

Our hotel was the grandest in Dubrovnik. A four star beauty by Croatian standards. Very clean, very flash…marble floor, glass entrance doors – a big banner welcoming us (it didn’t really matter that they had the name of our division wrong, it’s the thought that counts), a welcoming drink of canned orange juice. No, let’s not be cynical. They were very pleased to see us. And very polite, and very helpful. In fact the hotel was rather nice all round, except…well, there was something just slightly out-of-kilter about the whole place. Sort of: “What’s wrong with this picture?” The rooms were spacious and nicely appointed – except there was no mirror above the dressing table. Rather, the mirror stretched from the corner to the beginning of the dressing table – and just above head height. The bathroom was large and well appointed – everything you could desire – with mirrors everywhere. You could view yourself from seven different angles; but it was almosty impossible to get in and out of the bath without a ladder or stretchng your difference to climb into the tub. No expense spared in the fittings – gold and oppulant – but the screw-type bath stopper didn’t work. The cupboard had only two doors, when it needed four – and no shelves…ah well.

The hotel boasted CNN – but you had to struggle through a snow storm to see it: so we spent the weekend in blissful ignorance of what was going on at Camp David and watched the European athletic championships on Eurosport instead. Perhaps this was a blessing – we were supposed to be on a break, and any respite from news about Israel is a holiday. OK, hotel management,.score 10 for that. In deference to their Israeli guests, breakfast was an attempt at recreating the type of breakfasts for which Israeli hotels have become famous. Salads, peppers, tomatoes, boiled eggs, cheese – a brave attempt which has a long way to go – but, no complaints. In fact, there were no real complaints about the hotel at all. It just seemed that they were trying so hard to impress us and like an eager child were just falling short of the high standards they tried to attain. Yet there was something quite refreshing in all of this- something unspoiled and na├»ve and, yes, charming. I hope it never changes, but I have my doubts…

After checking in, leaving our luggage in a side room while our rooms were being prepared, we went on our famililiarization tour of Dubrovnik. And this is where the magic started.
For Dubrovnik is quite enchanting. Not much more than a square mile of ancient buildings, many of which were badly damaged during the eight-month siege by Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrans in the recent war, it is designated as a world heritage site by the United Nations. This status was conferred on it after a devastating earthquake in 1979, but totally ignored by Croatia’s enemies, who continued shelling the city even while UN flags flew from its parapets. Just inside the city walls is a plaque with a map of city, marking every building and every piece of masonry hit by artillery – a mass of tiny red triangles bearing testimony to the bitterness which raged between neighboring states.

But – Croatia wreaked its own share of havoc as well: the Bosnian town of Mostar was bombed unmercifully and the ornate medieaval bridge crossing the river was totally destroyed by the Croats. If there is one thing we learned about this most recent, acrimonious war in the Balkans, it was that nobody was innocent – except those civilians on all sides caught in the crossfire. And more pointless was the fact that nobody really gained anything.
But that was at least five years ago and this part of the world seems to be mending old wounds and trying to find some sort of modus vivendi. This was of great comfort to us, as the Bosnian border is just on top of that hill over there, about five kilometres away, affording any trigger-happy gunner a perfect vista of potential targets along the southern Croatian coast. Mind you, as Israelis, we are used to living on a narrow strip of beach …

Back to the cobbled streets of old Dubrovnik. This walled city which is home to some 3000 lucky inhabitants, demonstrates its Venetian heritage in the style of the buildings and in its life-style. It is lively, bouncy, vibrant, boisterous even, especially in the way restraunteurs tout for business. They literally grab you as you pass by, some even speaking a smattering of Hebrew - they spotted us from a mile off – shoving poorly translated English menues into your hand, beckoning you to sit and have a meal in their “very cleanest, best ever restaurant in Dubrovnik!” The claim wasn’t idle either – because all the restaurants seemed to offer good, wholesome fare (if you consider smoked ham and cheese in oil wholesome!).

There was a wide range of other dishes as well, notably fish, lamb skewers, loads of pasta (the best outside Italy) and thick farm-style bread. And all of it very, very reasonably priced. But again, there was that slightly “out of focus” feeling to the whole enterprise: like not being able to get a Capucino in a jazz bar after 11.00 pm because the machine was shut down…

Best of all however, was the willingness of one restaurant to cater to the needs of a some of the more observant members of our group, who requested that their fish be grilled in aluminum foil. The restaurant complied without any fuss, served what appeared to be a delicious meal, and won the hearts – and future custom – of a section of the community who often find it impossible to enjoy local fare because of their convictions.
Part of our Dubrovnik familiarization took in the small, ornate, 17th century synagogue, tucked away in an alley known as Jews Street. There are Hebrew inscriptions on the outside walls of the houses and a distinct Jewish flavor to the names of the shops in the streets: like the one called Ima and Aba. The synagogue itself is small, cozy almost, with hard upright wooden benches and a beautifully carved “bimah” and ark. Set into the wall are old “donation boxes” bearing name plates of towns and villages in Israel – Hebron, Tiberias, Safed. Members of the once prosperous community could deposit money into the box of whichever settlement they wished to support. Today, the Dubrovnik community numbers some 45 mainly elderly people. It is ironic that communities in Israel are now helping to support them.

Our next stop was a ferry ride to the island of Lokrum – no more than a few hundred meters out of the harbour. This island is famous for three things: its botanical gardens, founded by Benedictine monks; it’s curse – also courtesy of the Benedictine monks, and its nudist beach (no monks involved here). Quite a few members of our group - no names, no pack-drill - came back with all-over tans. The curse is another story altogether. Apparently, sometime in the 15th or 16th century, the City of Dubrovnik decided to sell the island to raise much needed capital. The monks, whose livlihood was ensured by tending the island, placed a curse on it - and the first person to buy it was drowned on his way across the narrow stretch water from the harbour. Another famous owner, Emperor Maximillian of Mexico, whose house lies in ruins just next to the quay, was assasinated, and the last owner of the island was none other than…Archduke Ferdinand, assasinated in Sarajevo…in fact every single person who ever owned the island since it was first put up for sale, has died….

Our second day dawned with strange sounds in the air. Was it gunfire? An artillery attack - no – it was thunder…and then, wonder of wonder for Israelis escaping from the especially oppresive Tel Aviv heat, rain. It poured for nearly three glorious hours – buckets of wet stuff coming out of the sky, cooling everything down. In fact the weather was glorious from the moment we arrived. Clean and fresh, totally unpolluted.

There is virtually no industry in this part of Croatia. They live on agriculture, the sea and tourism. The air is clean, the sea is cleaner – you can see right down to the bottom and one hopes that it remains like this forever.
Those of us who had opted for a Saturday tour boarded the bus and set off for a trip around three villages close to Dubrovnik and the promise of a very special lunch at a much vaunted restaurant in the beautiful Konavle valley, some 25 kilometres south of the city.

Our first stop was at a farm house on the way to the town of Cavtat, a beautiful seaside resort, which prides itself on being the home of both the Croatian champion water polo team, and the best ice cream on this stretch of Adriatic coast. The farm house, owned by the Gujic family is typical of those in the area: a large central stone house, owned by the patriach, with the smaller houses of his sons and daughters and their families clustered around, forming a family compound, the center of the family’s enterprises. In this case, the distilled liquor of grape husks and skins, known as grappa, good as a digestive after meals, also useful as paint remover or tractor fuel; and a rough red wine, which can only be designated as “plonk”; not really suitable for drinking but which might add quite a kick – as in “mule” – to a winter stew.

After visiting the villages, we made our way through the Konavle valley to a quaint restaurant set deep in the woods, in lush vegitation, beside a swiftly running stream, with water wheels and little wooden bridges. The sort of place from which you expect to see Hansel an Gretl emerge with their mouths stuffed with goodies. Our own mouths were soon stuffed with goodies – and at prices to make you drool. A full, delicious meal, glasses of white wine, dessert and coffee cost about NIS100.00 for two – less than a third what you would pay in a “reasonable” restaurant in Tel Aviv. But hey, why am I telling you this – it just means the area will be flooded by Israelis and the prices will go up, and they’ll start selling Magen Davids in their jewellery shops…

Sunday’s wake-up call came early, for this was the day we were to head south, across the border, into the mountaineous country of Montenegro. The border has only been open for a short time, as Montenegro and Croatia were enemies in the war and Montenegro, now one of only two states in the “New” Yugoslvia which they share with Serbia, occupied the entire southern coastal region of Croatia. But in Montenegro’s quest to be considered a western democracy, they have apologized to Croatia, signalled that they wish to reconcile the differences which tore them apart, and have indicated that they will probably seek independence from Serbia. This carries its own dangers, as it was the desire of the disparate Balkan states for independence from Yugoslavia, which brought war and devastation on the region. Part of Montenegro – Kosovo – is still in a state of turmoil, but this was a long way from our tour route on this cool Sunday morning.

Montenegro is well named – the name means “Black Mountains” in Italian - and mountains are the dominant feature of this rugged land. Not just rather large hills, which we in Israel are used to calling mountains, but great, big, enormous, bulging extremely high geological formations. The difference between Croatia and Montenegro is evident from the moment one crosses the border. The border post is on a narrow winding mountain road, about 45 minutes south of Dubrovnik. There is a stark and sudden contrast between Croatia and Montenegro and I don’t mean just in the landscape.

Montenegro is decidedly less well off than its northern neighbour. Not that Croatia is that affluent, but this makes the contrast even more marked. The buildings in the town of Herceg-Novi, shortly after the border, are duller, darker, older, in much worse repair than those in Croatia – and they didn’t even suffer war damage.
The cars are older, there are still ancient Soviet-style diesel trucks parked on some of the small farms and many of the buildings still carry Cyrillic script with a red star emblazoned on the plinth, testimony to an inglorious communist past.

Did I say the cars were older? There is at least one place in Montenegro where the cars are as new and shiny as anything you would find in Savyon or Herzlia Pituach – the seaside city of Budva. And its not because this city has a magic formula for wealth: it’s just that it’s known as the car theft capital of Europe! Now I can’t swear to it, but it seems somewhat incongrous that a young Montenegran who maybe earns $200.00 a month, can afford a $70 000 BMW, Jaguar or Mercedes – or how about a spanking new Porsche? They’re all there, parked along the quay of the Budva Marina. Are they really stolen property? Only the police know for sure but they don’t seem to be doing much about it...

There is a story doing the rounds about a German couple who were planning a motoring holiday in Montenegro. When their friends asked why they chose this destination, they replied: “…because our car’s already there….”
Budva itself is the most developed and cosmopolitan place we visited in Montenegro. It’s old walled city, completely destroyed in the 1979 earthquake and a ghost town for nearly 10 years, has been revived, rebuilt, and re-inhabited. It is lively, full of coffee houses, restaurants, novelty shops and bars. The Marina is packed with luxury yachts, launches and pleasure craft, many from far-away ports.

It’s a delightful city, and the prices are reasonable. Talking of prices, although Montenegro is a part of Yugoslavia which uses the dinar as its currency, Montenegro, in its striving for western acceptance, refuses to use this coinage. Instead, the “official” currency of Montenegro is the deutschmark, which makes it much less confusing for foreign tourists.

But before you get the impression that Montenegro is all depression and “third world”, let me hasten to assure you that this day-trip was one of the highlights of our tour. The scenery is absolutely magnificent. The mountains are stark and majestic and the Kotor fjord which creeps inland for many kilometres is one of the most beautiful in Europe.

The ancient city of Kotor lies at the very end of this shimmering body of water, set amidst imposing mountains. The city itself, again walled and dating back many centuries has – like the rest of Montenegro – withstood seige and invasion and has a proud tradition of independence. Kotor is the gateway to the hinterland, for from this city, one begins the climb up to the central plateau, some 1600 meters (nearly 5000 ft) above sea level.
And this is were we confirmed our suspiscion that Croatian busses (our bus was from Dubrovnik) were able to bend in the middle. The very narrow road from Kotor to the little village of Nagoci twists up the mountain in a series of 26 hairpin bends and turns that defy description – with a sheer drop of increasing altitude on one side and the face of the mountian on the other. It didn’t seem possible that the bus could negotiate each bend in the road without a three-point turn, and yet our driver Nico – remember Drago was probably incarcerated in some Dubrovnik dungeon – was as skillful as any Le Mans racing driver.

He folded the bus around those bends as if it was made of rubber. Fortunately there was no traffic coming down the mountain. To put us at our ease, we were assured that no trucks or busses ever come down that road. But our spirits were high and getting higher with every meter we climbed: the truth was, there was so much mist and cloud cover that we actually couldn’t see just how high we were. Until we reached about bend number 22 – and Nico stopped by the side of the road for us to experience the view. We clambered out, scarcely able to see each other in the cloud, wondering what we were supposed to look at. Just then, as if on command, the mist cleared and spread out before us was an absolutely breathtaking view of the fjord, the mountains, the coastal plane away to our left and the Adriatic Sea beyond that.

When we got our breath back, and finished oohing and aahing at the panorama, we climbed back into our bus and trundled on to Nagoci where we were assured we would stop for a snack. Although Nagoci didn’t actually experience any hostilities, it is typical of the sort of village we’ve all seen in television coverage of the Balkan war. It is bucolic, seemingly tranquil, a few houses on each side of a meandering road; small, neat fields with a cow and a goat or two…some chickens running around the yard. We stopped at the Nagoci Inn – or whatever it is called in the local dialect. A small pub, pretending to be a restaurant, pretending to be a hotel. Rather pleasant with wooden floors, ceilings and beams; wooden tables and benches. At one end of the room, was a table bearing our “snacks” – some very smelly hard cheese on some harder bread accompanied by a glass of the locally-brewed honey wine – medovino. This had a taste and texture closer to beer than wine and left the drinkers with a warm, fuzzy feeling – not exactly intoxicated, just pleasantly buzzing. It apparently had quite an effect on Doron, who decided to give the Nagocians a display of Israeli folk dancing in the middle of the village high street.

Pretty soon there was a whole group of us on the road, dancing in a circle and singing “Maim Maim…” in the Montenegran mountain air. A couple of locals, who had obviously been involved with a bottle or two of medovino for some time before we got there, joined in bellowing out their own version of Hava Nagila at the top of their out of tune voices and waving happily to us as we boarded the bus.

And so we went on our merry way through Montenegro, making our way back to the coastal plane, visiting Budva, crossing the border and returning to Dubrovnik early that evening after a memorable tour to a place which had only ever conjured up images of mountain bandit princes and which we never ever dreamed we would actually visit.
Monday morning dawned with another early wake-up call, summoning us to the airport and the relatively short flight home to the crowds, bustle and heat of Tel Aviv.

Our three-day stay in Croatia was so filled with experiences and new sites, sounds and tastes that it felt like we’d been away for a week. The clock seemed to stop and indeed it was almost like entering a time warp – floating back to an era of less commercialism, less pressure, less sophistiction, an altogether slower pace with more time to enjoy the good things life has to offer: clean air, crystal clear seas, enticing islands, concealed beaches. Like I said, when it comes to the provision of glitzier, faster, trendier, more efficient services and facilities for tourists, the Croatians may still have a lot to learn – but I for one hope they never do...