SAGA Holiday to Makarska, Croatia in November 1996
(All photos are my own property)
We had all been aware of news reports about the wars and troubles between Croatia and its neighbouring countries and their problems which had been going on for many years. I have therefore given you a brief outline with this blog.
Some of the devastation we saw as we travelled along the coast.
These houses had been pounded from the tops of the hills above by mortar fire. People were out in the street sweeping up the mess when we arrived. You can see the pile of rubble behind the flagpole.
What I would say, is that friends who had ventured on holidays to the area had told us just how beautiful it was and well worth a visit and my partner Michael and I, determined to visit once our government decreed that it was again safe to do so.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~
We had previously travelled with SAGA Holidays, an English company specialising in all-in holidays for the over 50’s and had received their latest holiday brochure. It was October, already into winter in England and we felt we needed to get away. We saw a break advertised in Croatia and decided to take the earliest booking we could get. Thus in November 1996, immediately after the war had ended officially, we found ourselves being collected at our door by a chauffeur driven car to be dropped off at London (Heathrow) Airport. What luxury to a pair of aging, grey-haired, hardworking anglophiles.
Arriving at Heathrow was also like a dream, we had collected a trolley at the drop-off point and headed for the departure lounge.
Unexpectedly, as we entered the lounge, we were immediately greeted by a uniformed SAGA representative, one of our age-group, and escorted to our check-in desk. Having seen our luggage disappear along the conveyor, proudly bearing the bright blue SAGA labels, we were walked up to passport and ticket control and then, once through, wandered over to have coffee until our flight was due.
We could see other SAGA travellers as they were easily distinguishable by the bright blue SAGA labels on their hand luggage and handbags, and it was quite comforting to know that there were a few of us also watching the screens for our gateway and boarding details of our Croatia Airlines flight.
When the call came for us to proceed to boarding, there was none of the pushing and shoving we had experienced with Al Italia (Al Pasta as I call it) flights we had taken on our last break and it was quite civilised. It was a much smaller aircraft than we had travelled on previously as well, but this was really quite cosy and more user-friendly. The Croatian crew were very helpful and efficient.
It wasn’t until we were approaching Split where we were due to touch down to change onto a flight to Dubrovnik that we were told there was snow and ice at Split. We all had visions of the skis coming out and a ‘soft’ snow landing. Of course, that was not to be, the runways were clear and plane made a perfect landing. It was very cold though when we had to walk down the steps and across to the terminal. Nothing was open and the entrances to the Gents’ and Ladies’ toilets were through the same door. One chap came barging in as I was leaving, absolutely bursting. He obviously couldn’t make it the extra few steps further to the gents’ side so I stood guard outside the empty cubicle in the ladies’ so he could use it. A lady came in and shook her head as she saw him exit the cubicle but I quietly explained the situation and we laughed about it, she may have been in the same situation herself, I know I have been. Late one night in a west London street, I couldn’t find a ladies but I did find a policeman. He took me to a Gents’ loo, checked there was nobody inside and then stood guard until I had done what I had to do. What a London bobby will do for a lady in distress ! Mind you, that was back in the days when ……. I digress !
Ah now, back to Split, it wasn’t long before our aircraft arrived and we were shepherded onto the flight by a SAGA rep who had appeared out of nowhere. The short flight to Dubrovnik was fine as was the transfer to our coach to take us to Makarska. Again, there was a SAGA rep waiting for us and she told us that our luggage was already loaded on to another coach and would be waiting for us in our hotel rooms. And it was ! Superb service! I haven’t travelled SAGA since, and I know the company has changed hands and expanded, I only hope they have kept up those standards.
Our hotel was in the heart of scenic Makarska town in a romantic setting with the peaks of the Biokovo Mountain on one side and the beautiful Adriatic Coast on the other. The walkway on the coastal side of the hotel was edged with mature trees right round the bay. Our room was on the mountain side of the hotel, each morning I took delight in looking up to see how much snow was on the peak before I went and dived into the super-warm heated indoor pool. Without fail, I had my swim before breakfast, it set me up for the day.
SAGA travellers had a lounge set aside for their use only, where there were free local drinks virtually all day, with tea, coffee and biscuits served in the afternoon. Daily newspapers, albeit a day old, magazines, paperback books, board games, cards and evening entertainment were laid on alternate evenings.
When we arrived, I couldn’t wait to get into the full sized, heated indoor pool of the hotel which I had been told was commissioned and built by Marshall Tito for the athletes to train for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was wonderful, the water was so warm there was steam rising as I swam my lengths.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner were included and were all set out on a self-service basis. The food was wonderful, as much as you could eat, but everyone knows that after the first two days it’s a case of ‘avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre’ and the over eating abates.
After an orientation walk on the first day, Mike and I decided to go back to some of the places we had walked past, for another look. A couple we had been talking to the evening before in the lounge tagged along and we were out all day. We had not been able to get any local currency before we left England, it was still unavailable so we had to exchange some £s at the hotel desk. Knowing that we would not need much local currency, as the holiday was all inclusive, we only took a little with us.
Great fun was had by all, we did not understand how the local buses worked. Well they were really like mini-cabs, they took you where you wanted to go, so long as it was in the general direction of any other passengers. We got stuck in a small coastal inlet with two shops and a café and apparently nobody who spoke English, so I wrote the name of our hotel on a serviette and the café proprietor hailed us a bus/cab so we could get home. A lovely day though wandering around completely lost ! We got to know that couple very well and exchanged Christmas cards for a number of years.
After that experience, we all decided that we would stick to the organised trips on the luxury coach, four trips were included but others were extra. We travelled to Medjugorje a beautiful little town located in the lush green mountains of Bosnia & Herzegovina, famous for the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1981. Medjugorje has now become one of the most visited sites in Boznia & Herzegovina, with devout Catholics aiming to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.
Whilst the trip in the coach was beautiful along the mountain roads with a sheer drop hundreds of feet on one side, it was quite unpleasant at that time crossing the border, the soldiers looked quite intimidating, but we understood that as the war was still so fresh in people’s minds everybody was mindful of safety.
Again, the matter of toilets comes to mind. Well, I disappeared in the general direction of a waved arm and found, behind a wall and with openings at either end, a line of foot-holes in front of a wall with a gully running along the wall. I had to assume that one had to lean back against the wall… well I don’t really know because I never really found out. I was so desperate, I just did what I had to do and escaped as quickly as I could before someone else came in. As for washing of hands… forget it !
We wandered around for an hour looking at the same trinkets and religious items in every shop but could see that others in the party had seen enough as well and were making their way back to the coach, so we did too, longing for a nice hot, steaming cup of tea or coffee back in our hotel.
Wonderful countryside and views, couldn’t fault it, just a bit scary on the narrow mountain roads in such a large coach, especially when there was a similar coach coming the other way, or a flat-back lorry over-laden, similar to the ones seen at the bottom of the slopes. Yes… the thought did go through my mind at the time, especially when we came to a bend round the mountain.
To get the coach round the bend it was necessary to start from the wrong side of the road so that the front of the coach overhung the drop, with the tyres on the wheels crunching the loose gravel as the driver turned the steering wheel, edging the coach on so as not to scrape the other side on the mountain itself. The guide had left the coach, a good idea I thought at the time, I wanted to go as well but the driver assured us that we would all be safe. The guide disappeared round the bend to hold up the traffic so we could get round unimpeded.
Heart pills to the ready, I sat there with eyes tight closed, holding Michael’s hand so tight it must have hurt him a lot. He later told me his eyes were closed as well, but I’m not sure I believe him. He was an HGV driver so was suitably impressed at the skills of the coach driver and told him so later when we all alighted.
The loudest sigh of relief came from the driver himself when he straightened up round the bend and picked up the guide before driving off again.
We had missed the afternoon tea and coffee so went straight for the free local drinks. Now, I don’t drink, but that late afternoon I was seen to down at least three of whatever was on offer. Not sure what it was, it was a bit ‘rough’ not at all a smooth drink, but it did its job very well.
That evening, after dinner, we found that there was to be dancing in our SAGA lounge to a local band. They were very entertaining and the music was very danceable, the only thing is not many people were up dancing. There is always one couple though, wherever you go, one couple who have medals for dancing, have the right dresses, suits and shoes, to go with the thick makeup and hairstyles. Lovely people, who had generally kept themselves to themselves.
Unfortunately, Michael was a bit of a prankster. Come dancing sprang to his mind and whilst there was a break in the music he disappeared and came back with something behind his back. I didn’t see what he had but knew he was visiting each table round the room and leaving some paper on the table. The music resumed, the dancing resumed. A tango….. yes a tango … I noticed the dancing couple were up and tangoing around the room, I noticed one of the couples sat down, I noticed another of the couples sat down, then everyone else sat down leaving just those who could dance the tango on the floor on their own.
The music ended.
Everyone in the room started to clap, each table held up the papers on which were written various numbers 7 … 8 … 9 … and one 10 every table, including ours, because Michael was also on his feet holding up his score. The couple were mortified ……. It took a lot of clapping and the band standing up and clapping as well to get a smile to their faces. At last we had got them talking to us.
Nobody ever told that it was Michael who had sorted out the scoring system. Thank goodness. Had I known then what he intended to do, I would have stopped it.
It was a late evening with the dancing, but we were booked to go into Dubrovnik the following day to walk round. Over breakfast we had a visitor to our table, it was a retired vicar, travelling on his own. He had a problem. One of the single ladies of the party had latched onto him, her advances were making him embarrassed and he was unsure how to dissuade her. He asked if he could tag along with us. Well, how can you say no to a retired vicar.
We had a great time with him, diving down narrow side alleyways, into buildings, round corners, behind wide columns, and finally into a little coffee shop for a wonderful cup of coffee and a chat with him. He was very amusing but had been unable to find a film for his camera, so I said I would send him some of my general photos once they were developed.
We came out of the coffee shop and found that we had wandered into a rather salubrious area of the town. The advertising photos on the wall showed what was going on inside and behind the door.
Some rascal had pasted a large leaf over Eve’s, naughty bit down below, well I had to take a photo of that and I’m afraid I included it in with the ones I sent on to him. The thank you message had been written with a smile and a wink. Like I said, he had a great sense of humour. We even had him sitting between us on the return journey to save him from sitting with the ‘Merry Widow’
I was very sorry when our 10 very busy and enjoyable days drew to a close, we had met some wonderful people, some of whom we kept in touch with, seen some fantastic scenery, seen some of the dreadful damage caused when weapons were aimed at small hamlets on the seafront and the bullet holes and burning on the ancient buildings in Dubrovnik.
I am so pleased whilst writing this, to read reports on the internet that tourists are again visiting, taking in business and that lives are beginning to settle down, although I understand that there is still underlying bitterness between the various peoples because of all the deaths. This is understandable, but I hope that with each new generation the hurt and conflict becomes less and people can live side by side in this wonderful part of the world.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~
(2709 words un-edited)