formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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July 10, 2018 Dubrovnik

The Liberty Gazette
July 10, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Last year we received a full refund from everyone we had paid for our Croatia vacation when Hurricane Harvey came to maul South Texas. Air France, Airbnb, even the ferry services and the Dubrovnik Symphony were sympathetic and helpful. Whenever you’re ready, we look forward to welcoming you, they all said.

I’d been so excited about the Dubrovnik Symphony that I vowed our future trip would be planned around it. And so it was.

When we decided to take the trip in May, the first place we consulted was the Dubrovnik Symphony calendar. Often, they perform in the atrium of Rector’s Palace, an intimate setting with, we’re told, amazing sound. But on Friday, May 11, the musicians would gather at the Museum of Modern Art and offer their beautiful sound in the open air patio. This would be youth night, where four outstanding high school students would perform solo pieces, with the symphony backing them up. We had second-row seats.

With a gentle, fatherly kind of smile, Maestro Noam Zur, an Israeli, stretched out his arms to welcome each of the teens in turn up to the front to play their piece. I thought of our Fine Arts Society of Liberty Texas and the scholarships we would soon be sending out. These Croatian kids, like the ones here in our area, are incredibly talented and I fell in love with the city and their symphony as I knew I would.

My sister, too, fell in love with Dubrovnik when she visited 30-some years ago, when the country was part of Yugoslavia. She told us about the old wall and the sheer beauty of the city. She was right.

Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic, is a medieval city with a medieval infrastructure and street network. Fortresses, canons, and 13-foot-wide limestone walls have protected citizens inside since the 12th century. The walls have never been breached by an enemy and were about all that was left standing after the 1667 earthquake. We climbed the steps 80 feet to the top to join others from around the world on a leisurely 1.2 mile walk above the city

What a beautiful view! Red roofs on ancient stone architecture in varied shades of white, all built at different times after the earthquake, reflect the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. Massive monasteries and elaborate cathedrals attract. Shops and restaurants flank the wide main street of polished stone and are tucked into romantic, narrow alleyways. The gardens here would make any master gardener jealous. And the steps—oh, the steps! Dubrovnik is built on steps in an intricate and complex system of forts, bastions, casemates, and towers. We’re not TV-watchers, but they say a show called Game of Thrones is or was filmed here.

Lovrijenac Fortress, just outside the city walls, rises from a 121-foot-high cliff. Adriatic waves rippled in the harbor. Kayaks and sailboats dotted the seascape for a postcard view at any angle. Croatia has captured my heart.

July 3, 2018 Zadar's Sea Organ

The Liberty Gazette
July 3, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: One of the Croatian cities high on my list for a visit was Zadar, and for only one reason: a musical, engineering, architectural wonder.

After the Cold War and Yugoslavia’s meltdown and break-up into seven countries, city leaders in Zadar worked to rebuild. They wanted to make their city a place that would draw travelers; something for the tourists, but not your typical tourist trap.

Nikola Bašić hit the jackpot when he proposed his idea: a sea organ. His project won the European Prize for Urban Public Space as the best among hundreds of candidate projects from across Europe.

On the western end of Zadar’s peninsula for about 230 feet of shoreline, broad marble steps rise from the Adriatic Sea. Under the surface of the lower steps are 35 pipes of varying length, diameter, and tilt. Water and air flow in and funnel into resonant chambers. From the pressure, air is pushed out through channels on the upper steps. The labiums (whistles) on the pipes play seven chords of five tones, creating organ-like sounds, random, yet harmonic. Along the vertical part of the steps are perforations, square holes about the size of your hand. The sea’s pressure pushes the air through these holes, releasing sound. From the ever-changing sea notes, the song is never the duplicated.

Nikola had help from a sea hydraulics consultant and a few other experts. The pipes were made by Goran Ježina from a famous organ art workshop called Murter. Heferer is a Croatian company which has been making organs since the mid-17th century. They made the 35 whistles for every pipe. The unique instrument was tuned by Professor Ivica Stamać. This small ensemble built a marvelous attraction that protects the shore while luring millions of locals and globetrotters alike for a peaceful experience.
From a coastline devastated by war to architectural sound art, this extraordinary instrument croons visitors; each note of the on-going symphony born of chance by wind and waves.

Sunset is the most popular time to sit on a step and listen to the music of the sea, the pink and orange sky bowing before us from across the water. Sunrise is less dramatic only because it’s not right across the water, its way back behind the city. But the organ shore is hardly populated at that hour, which is a plus.

Mike: The sun sank low, and lapping waves tickled the steps in splashes to accompany the organ. Wake from passing boats kissed the shore in crescendo.

Memories from a recent trip to another place recovering from war washed through my mind. The song of the Sea Organ fits well with video I took when we gently drifted down the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, rocked by swells and enchanted by a similar sunset.

Like a mother rocking her babe, singing softly, the waves and the Sea Organ symbolize hope for tomorrow in a land that has known so much pain.

June 26, 2018 To Unlock Zagreb

The Liberty Gazette
June 26, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: The ten-hour flight from Houston to Munich in a United Airlines Boeing 767 was relatively comfortable. However, I really prefer the front seat to anything in the back. Stuck as passengers, we passed the time through changes in daylight by reading, napping, and wandering about the cabin. Long flights offer opportunities to chat with flight attendants in the aft galley when we get up to stretch. But I’d still rather be at the controls of this aluminum tube.

After an hour in Munich, we boarded a Q-400, a twin-engine turbo-prop made by the DeHavilland aircraft company of Canada. They used to call this airplane a “Dash-8,” dash being how one would pronounce the three-letter identifier of the company, “DHC.” They numbered their aircraft models, this one being an 8. Years later, DeHavilland redesigned the airplane. They replaced the propellers with ones that have more blades, turn slower, and make less noise. Emphasizing the quietness, the airplane was re-named Q-400 (Q for quiet, 400 being the series number).

Aboard Croatian Airlines’ hushed Q-400, we flew from Munich to the capital of Croatia, Zagreb. This is one of very few cities in the world I would return to (there’s still so much I haven’t seen). Zagreb is fascinating, as is all of Croatia and the other countries that came out of the former Yugoslavia.

In lovely Zagreb we took advantage of two walking tours, one of general history and one of military history. We had our first escape room experience too. It was an outdoor version more like a treasure hunt, learning local folklore and culture.

In the game, “Unlock Zagreb,” we wandered the streets of the old town, solving riddles and puzzles to discover tales of the city. Our mission: Save Duchess Ruzica. We promised not to divulge secrets of their super fun game, so we’ll just share what’s on their website: Bloody Bridge was named after the fierce battles fought between two neighboring settlements of centuries past, the diocesan Kaptol, and the free royal settlement of Gradec. The bridge (which is no longer there) is also linked to the legend of Duchess Ruzica Gising and the Knight Pavo Slavinic.

Daring as it was, we were appointed to undergo six tests of chivalry to show whether we “have what it takes to be a knight.” Good thing I had Mike with me.

The evil Duke Grdun wanted beautiful Ruzica for himself, and the game master warned, Grdun was on his way, so we must be quick! (The game was only one hour long.)

Turns out, we’re not that good at games with clues, so the very gracious game master left her office in the historic building that was once a brothel to help us figure it out. What a great time we had exploring Zagreb! I wish I could tell you the whole story, but you’ll have to board that 767 and the Q-400 and meet up with Sonya at Enigmarium in Zagreb to find out who won Ruzic's hand in marriage.

I’d love to go back there some day.

June 19, 2018 Who's Boss?

The Liberty Gazette
June 19, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: Carlos was hurrying through his sandwich so he could make his reserved time slot to fly a glider at the Soaring Club of Houston. He asked about our latest trip to Eastern Europe—which countries we visited, how we liked it, etc. I had noticed his t-shirt when he first walked in the clubhouse. I wondered if he knew much about the person whose name he sported: clothing designer, Hugo Boss. So I responded, “Interesting that you’re wearing that shirt. It’s relevant to our trip.”

Having taken the private military history tour on the island of Vis, off the Adriatic coast of Croatia, I knew who Hugo Boss was. So I told Carlos about how we crept inside the dark tunnels used by the Yugoslav People’s Army. Amid the billions of mosquito-looking bugs that didn’t bite but were thick as grease in the air, and the bats chasing them for a feast; amid the dank underground maze were remnants of the Cold War. A pair of shoes, left just as they were when Yugoslavia collapsed and everyone abandoned the nuclear hide-out. Also left, still resting on a hanger in an officer’s quarters, is a molding army uniform jacket.

Nano, our guide, pointed his flashlight toward the uniform and quizzed us. “What do you think that is? Doesn’t it look like a Nazi uniform?”

It did.

“But it’s not. It’s the uniform of the Yugoslavian army. Made by Hugo Boss. He made the Nazi uniforms too, so they look really similar.”

Carlos was immediately skeptical of my information and retrieved his phone from his pocket for quick research. “Yep. You’re right. Hugo Boss, designer of the Nazi military uniforms.” While he didn’t tell me his thoughts at that moment, his expression seemed to convey a bit of discomfort at the realization of the history represented on his shirt.

Mike: Hugo joined the Nazi party in 1931. After WWII he was stripped of his voting rights and could not own or operate a business in Germany. Years later, that decision was commuted when officials believed he was just a follower rather than an activist and beneficiary. But that probably meant little to Hugo, who had died in 1948. The Boss company ownership was passed to Hugo’s son-in-law and later taken over by grandsons who commissioned a study into the company’s past.

In 2010 the company issued a statement of regret and apologized for participating in the production of military uniforms for the Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s army of killers. But they also argued that their grandfather was not the designer. Rather, his company was one of fifteen thousand small manufacturers supplying the German army, possibly by force or threat.

Regardless who designed it, the tattered glob of fabric hanging in the dingy bunker on the island of Vis, a hundred and eighty feet below ground, does look similar to a Nazi uniform coat.

It is not for us to say what was in Hugo Boss’s heart and mind, but it’s a reminder to consider how we spend our money.

June 12, 2018 Vis, an Important Island

The Liberty Gazette
June 12, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: “Whoever controls the island of Vis controls the Adriatic,” explained Nano, our private military tour guide.

My eyes were still adjusting to the bright sun as we emerged from a tunnel into a rubble-strewn area that overlooked the gently rolling sea. I was careful not to trip on the corroded circular metal pad bolted to the cement floor and its rusting metal sleeve that protruded upward, the remains of a mount for heavy artillery. I’d seen similar bunkers at Pointe du Hoc near Omaha Beach in Normandy. But those didn’t require navigation through hundreds of yards of dank-smelling tunnels.

“This island never was occupied by Germany like the rest of Yugoslavia,” Nano pointed out. “Italy held it, but gave it up.”

Linda: The remains of over thirty separate military installations are still on the island. Nano, a native of Vis, drove his Land Rover along rugged roads to show us bunkers, barracks, and a sunset from the second highest point on the island. The highest point is still military-occupied. Some centuries-old ruins are crumbling. Others, built during WWII and the Cold War, we explored by flashlight. We dodged bats and bugs through the dungeon-like maze.

Italy abandoned the island when they surrendered in September, 1943. This allowed the Yugoslav Partisan resistance to move their headquarters here, where they added a hospital and an airstrip.

 Mike: In 1944, the RAF stationed two squadrons of Spitfire and Hurricane fighters at the newly-built air base. The United States Army Air Force also placed a group of mechanics on the island to repair war-damaged bombers. The hospital was busy treating wounded crew members.

“The air base here was one of the most important in the Adriatic. When bombers, damaged while attacking German targets in the Balkans, couldn’t make it back home to Italy, they came here.” Nano slowed his vehicle to show us a marker. The inscription reads: "In Proud Memory of the Men of the Royal Air Force who lost their lives while operating over Yugoslavia 1944 through 1945," except someone has scratched out “Yugoslavia” and replaced it with “Croatia,” a sign of continued internal struggle.

One day in 1944, thirty-seven B-24 Liberators either landed at or crashed on the short runway. To clear the overtaxed field for more landings, crashed airplanes were chopped up with axes. Several aircraft crews bailed out nearby or had to ditch in the blue waters surrounding the island.

As Germany retreated farther north in 1945, the mechanics and squadrons of fighters were moved to an airfield in Zadar on the Yugoslav coast. At the end of the war, the island air base was closed and the land returned to use as vineyards. But buildings still have signs that say “Aerodrome,” and old pilots have returned to remember friends both saved and lost.

At war’s end, 218 aircraft were saved and over 1,000 airmen owe their lives to the little airfield and its hospital in the middle of the Adriatic.

June 5, 2018 Mostar's Tower of Hope

The Liberty Gazette
June 5, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Toys came from weapons for children of the basements. After each round of bloodshed, exploded artillery created pieces in interesting shapes. Rubble from bombed or shot-up buildings added variety to the newly-fallen toy box.

Rockets and grenades came from the top of the hill, blowing up neighborhoods.

Formerly a very nice hotel.

“We’d wait fifteen seconds and then we’d all run outside and grab as much as we could. We used our imagination, playing with shrapnel and debris. Our games were collecting as many different pieces as we could, then comparing, and trading for more cool-looking pieces. But we all grew up together doing that—we were Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox. Although we were of different religions, we got along just fine. Together, living in our basements, we faced attacks by Serbs and Croats.”

Those are the words of Admir, who served as our guide through Mostar, Bosnia. The closest he came to identifying himself with any particular religion was when he said, “My mother gave me a Muslim name.”

I knew the integrated city of Mostar, the most heavily bombed in the Bosnian war, would be an interesting study in humanity. What I came to see was a building that the government “discourages” people from visiting. It’s fenced off pretty well, stories of people falling and dying are spread probably to create fear, but access is only a slight challenge if you know where to get in.

Near the front lines—a four-lane boulevard—the National Bank of Yugoslavia had been hit by mortars and rockets shot by the invaders who surrounded the city from the mountain tops all around. The 1990’s war in Bosnia was complicated. In Mostar, the Neretva River divides the city; Muslims on the east side, Croats west. The ten-story bank, only its concrete structure remaining, became the ideal location for Croat and Serb snipers to shoot citizens. They picked off ordinary residents walking along the sidewalk below or perhaps stepping out on their patio to hang the laundry to dry. The building became known as Sniper Tower.
Neretva River, Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovenia

Former National Bank of Yugoslavia, a/k/a "Sniper Tower".

Art on the walls of Sniper Tower

Messages in Sniper Tower

Wall on the way to Sniper Tower

Wall on the way to Sniper Tower

It wasn’t the evil of men’s hearts that drew me here. It was the display of art—how people survive and try to heal from atrocities—that made me need to be in this ruin.
Half-way up Sniper Tower
From our research we had learned of the paintings that now cover most of the concrete on every floor. Painted over bullet-ridden walls are portraits of loved ones, messages of peace, statements of pain and searching for hope. A blue painting with white stars declares we all live under the same sky. A painting of several pairs of sunglasses says point-blank that we choose how to see the world, “Pick your glasses.”


Elevator shaft

We explored every floor of the bank-turned-weapon on the way to the roof, considering the art that expresses the depths of human searching. Alongside us, Admir added context with his childhood memories, his family among the targets.

I am not convinced that Admir’s dream of peace will come true in this life as we know it, but the yearning for it captures my heart.
The Old Bridge, Stari Most

Stari Most


At the Crooked Bridge

Powerful Reminder; Notice shrapnel on top of the rock

This boulevard was the front lines of the war.

At the front lines here you can see two monuments. The one on the right is for "Yugoslavians."
Someone has tried to destroy it.

Side by side: a lovely dignitary's house and the former city library, still bombed out rubble. Read on...
The former city library is a mess. They do not wish to rebuild it, according to Admir, our guide, because this is where the intellectuals meet - and it is they who cause all the trouble.
Inside the former city library.

Beautiful old stone buildings at the base of the Old Bridge, Stari Most.

Lovely flowers on someone's balcony in town.

The beautiful riverfront restaurant, Divan.

The view from Divan, where we had dinner one evening.

Yas's wonderful coffee shop.

Yas's wonderful coffee shop.

Yas preparing coffee for us.

May 29, 2018 Soaring the Alps

The Liberty Gazette
May 29, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Last September’s Hurricane Harvey interfered with our anniversary vacation plans and “Vacation Croatia” turned into “Vacation Rodeway Inn, Humble, Texas.” Fortunately, all involved refunded our paid expenses and we put off the trip to former Yugoslavian states along the Adriatic Sea for another time.

That time finally came for the long flight aboard a United Airlines 767 from Houston to Munich, then Croatia Airlines into their capital, Zagreb. We’d start there—and it’s a lovely city with fascinating, complex history—but I think we both were most looking forward to the chance to log recreational flights in a foreign country. Not just any: we’d fly over the southern tip of the Alps, over Slovenia.

From the capital, Ljubljana, we drove northwest about an hour to Bled, where I’d rent a Cessna 172 and take Mike for a photo flight. Before that, however, he hopped in a glider and went soaring for over an hour above some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

Mike: Hunting the air’s thermal activity that will lift this glider higher, we’ve found a pocket of cooperation. We’re now live entertainment for the family outside on their deck as we drift by. I’m wondering how they built that a house on such a steep mountainside. Moments earlier, our pass was much lower and I was looking up at them. Now, we are at eyeball level and close. We reach the edge of the mountain ridge where turbulence and downward sink suggest we turn our glider around and pass by the chalet again.

Clouds billow above and around us masking the higher peaks in pillows from multiple shades of grey to blazing white, reflecting the sun’s rays. Jagged streaks of crystalline snow appear from the cloak to cover the upper elevation. We were not supposed to be able to do any soaring today; the forecast for Bled, Slovenia was rain. Still, Linda and I had ventured to this picturesque little town with a church on an island, in the middle of a lake, and a castle standing guard from the top of a hill overlooking it all. The weather broke just enough so that now, I am able to go soaring in the Julian Alps.

German glider pilots hang out here at the Lesce Aerodrome at Lake Bled because the soaring season starts earlier in Slovenia than in their country or nearby Austria or Switzerland. They didn’t think there was much hope of staying aloft today. But Milan, the local pilot I am flying with, has been soaring here forty-two years and knows all the best places to find updrafts.

Effortlessly, we sweep past the A-frame again. This time the people on the deck are below us. This moment, silently soaring above snow-capped Alps, I am on top of the world. The chalet couple snuggles close and eagerly waves to us, their entertainers in a quiet, graceful sky dancer who smile from the romance in the air.