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White House Stone and the Zlatni Rat: Bol, Croatia

8 Sep

The road to Bol

BOL, on the Island of BRAC, CROATIA

7.22-7.24

I decided to spend the last weekend of my trip on the mountainous island of Brac (pronounced ‘Bratch’) in the picturesque little town of Bol. Car ferries depart regularly from Split, heading to the island’s largest city, Supetar.  Once there, I found it Supetar simple (ha!) to catch a  bus to Bol, where I remained amazed at the way these bus drivers whip around curvy mountain roads.

I stayed at a hostel called The White House, which wasn’t really a hostel at all, just a private home with an owner who had converted rooms into dorms. I walked through an open door and after not seeing any sort of reception, wandered around the house for a good 10 minutes. Eventually, I was greeted by a miniature old women carrying a broom. After saying something in Croatian which included my first name,  she handed me a note from the hostel owner, which read “I’m sorry Sarah but I couldn’t be here for your arrival. My mother does not speak English!  You are just welcome to take the key and go to your room.”  I glanced at this little old lady, who was smiling at me as I read. They had upgraded me to a single room for the same price, which was fine with me! I liked this place already.

Bol's famous white stone

Bol is famous for its white limestone. Apparently, both the White House (U-S-A) as well as Diocletian’s Palace in Split were built from this very stone.

Stone statues on the way to the beach

Fun and sun on the Golden Horn.

The Zlatni Rat peninsula!

Zlatni Rat beach is even more famous than Bol’s signature limestone. It overwhelms Croatian tourist brochures, but is as not as nice as it’s cracked up to be, in my opinion. The beach wasn’t all that crowded when I was there, which was nice. I took the opportunity to fall asleep while listening to Orchestra Baobab.

There wasn’t very much to do in Bol, which I suppose is the attractive thing about a beach vacation town. At least, it’s all fine until it begins to rain, as it did during my second day in town. I had dinner with some Swedish girls at my hostel at an Italian place called Topolino, where the pizza was decent.

Babes in bikinis

Awaiting the storm

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Slaps in Your Face: Plitvice National Park

24 Jul

Plitvicka Jezera- Plitvice National Park, Croatia


7.21.2011

‘Slap’ is the Croatian word for waterfall, and perhaps one of my favorite translations yet.

This trip up North was starting to seem a bit superfluous. It was costing more than I’d anticipated in transportation, and involved quite a bit of bus time. However, when I had asked people if visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park (A UNESCO world heritage site) was really worth it, the answer was overwhelmingly “YES.” So, after getting my beauty sleep in Zadar, I awoke with the birdies at 7:30 feeling refreshed and ready to go. After just a two-hour bus ride, I arrived at the National Park. It was pretty crowded, and I felt a bit of pressure in choosing one of the several different routes, as their estimated times ranged from the minimum 2-3 hours to max: 6-8. I settled for a 4-6 hour path, figuring I could walk fast and make it back in time for the 5pm bus to Zadar. I then found my way onto a trolly full of mostly German speakers, although the fact that so many Germans had found their way to a Croatian mational park did not surprise me in the least. If hiking is the name of the game, Germans are all over it. Wandern wir?

Lot’s of Slap (waterfall)

The park is home to acres and acres of wooded forest, which make way for 16 crystal blue lakes accented by cascades and waterfalls galore. The sedimentation of calcium bicarbonate found in the water creates porous rock, which forms these ever-changing waterfalls and cascades, most of which are covered with spongy green vegetation. The unique relationship between plant life, rock formation, and water-dwelling organisms in Plitvice Jezera has existed in this way since the last Ice Age.

One of nature’s little miracles…… or just a lot of toilet bowl cleaner?

Don’t even think about it.

Lots of signs remind you of what you can’t do, which is pretty much anything other than walk on the wooden pathways and take photos. Stepping in the water will upset the delicate balance of minerals and organisms that make this water so blue and beautiful. However, it was clear that the water’s many fish were expecting tourists. You could see them schooled up next to the wooden pathways, eager and waiting for a snack.

The Big Slap!

Plitivice triangle

Organs and Air Shows: A Day in Zadar

23 Jul

ZADAR

7.20.2011

No, Zadar is neither the name of a villain you might find on some Cartoon Network program, or a far off planet mentioned in some sci-fi novel, it’s a northern Croatian harbor town that Lonely Planet describes as “an underrated tourist destination.” Clearly a lot has changed since the guidebook was published in 1999, I crossed the footbridge into the old town and was unprepared for the mass of tourists that seemed to be blocking every street and doorway. I noticed many German parents with little blonde kids who always managed to wander in front of me and stop suddenly. Unfortunately, all of the hostels in the old town were full and I didn’t want to risk finding a room from someone at the bus station, since I had read that a lot of private accommodations are located in coastal towns a few kilometers away. Since I only had one day in town, that would not have been the way to go. Nope. So I headed to the tourist office, knowing that such offices often help unprepared tourists with finding a room. “I know a very nice lady” said the young girl behind the counter “she has a room right in center just two minutes from here for 200 kuna”

It was a bit more than I had wanted to spend, but all things considered, $40 was pretty great for a room smack in the main square, especially since hostels in town were running close to $30 per dorm bed. I still didn’t believe that it was really my only choice- but whatever, a lot of these tourist offices seemed to have affiliations with cafes, restaurants, and tour guides, so why should private accommodation be any different?

 

A man led me to a family home two minutes away from Narodni square, where I was greeted by friendly looking woman in her 30’s. She complimented my striped hat and immediately asked for my 200 Kuna. The room had clean sheets, access to a relatively clean bathroom, and a door that locked, all fine by me. I had to laugh at the key chain—a battered Chicago Bulls player with his limbs snapped off. It made me wonder how people acquire such things: Can you even buy Bulls paraphernalia in Croatia? Was there a Bulls fan in the family who had traveled to the US? Who knows.

In the Forum

I wandered around Zadar for the remainder of the day, pausing with my laptop to use the free internet connection on the steps of a building in the square. Despite the crowds, I really liked Zadar. It had a certain artistic buzz, everywhere I turned people were selling beautiful glass jewelery and ceramics. I chatted with some local artists in a couple of tucked-away galleries that I came across and thought about how great it will be when I can actually buy nice art someday. “I’ll come back to Zadar when I’m not a student!” I promised them with a wave. I’m not a student, but that seemed like the easiest explanation. What I really meant was “I hope to come back to Zadar when I have more disposable income!”

I noticed that many of the souvenir shops promoted certain local artists by selling their works, as many of the same handmade prints, sketches, and trinkets could be found all around town. This was apparently Zadar’s thing as an artsy town. I was thinking about this as I began to be aware of the a great deal of noise. It was not just the teenagers yelling to one another, or kids screaming things at their parents in German and Croatian, some sort of sound was coming from above. Planes or helicopters, perhaps?  In any case, some sort of flying machine was making a lot of racket.


At the tourist office I grabbed a brochure of local events. Listed for Wednesday July 20th were two things: Evergreen music in Narodni square at 9pm, and the “Adria Air Race” starting at 12:00 p.m. I had no idea what that was, but after about a half hour of wandering around Zadar, the noise overhead was really starting to get to me and I wondered if there might be a connection. Zadar has a massive Roman Forum, and when I arrived at it, I noticed everyone holding their cameras and phones into the air. A plane was circling the sky, making wide arcs and loops dare-devilishly. Mystery solved, this was an air race, an air show, whatever you want to call it. Maybe that explained all of the tourists? It was, after all,  a Wednesday afternoon, yet entire families were roaming around. Didn’t anyone have work to do? Was it a national holiday?

The forum area was great. Cafes had set up tables and chairs next to broken columns, their faded orange seats contrasting nicely with the off-white surface of the rounded church of Saint Donat—it’s one of the oldest in Croatia and quite impressive. In the forum, kids hopped from one broken artifact to another. I was tempted to join them in a game of hot lava, it would have been the perfect playground! That being said, from a historical preservation perspective, it was strange to see kids dripping ice cream all over this ancient stone, shouldn’t someone be worried about the impact of tourists on all of this old rock? Maybe that’s the American in me speaking, like, if it’s old, put it behind glass and charge $5.00 per visit. I guess if the rock has been laying around for this long, there’s no reason to be concerned about the pitter patter of little kids’ feet.

I took a walk to the seaside, where there were an awful lot of yellow-jacketed security personnel around. I finally asked one guy exactly what was going on around here. He seemed pretty excited as he explained the airshow, which was making its debut on the Croatian coast. Music was being Dj’d from little tents near the water, and a fence had been set up for VIP access—this was quite an event, indeed. You had to have a ticket to get to the seaside and I was not about to pay for one, especially since there were hardly any people in there, and it seemed lame.

The sea organ lies beyond these flower beds

I walked to the southern tip of the park, the location of two famous creations by the Croatian architect Nikola Basic, the first of which is the sea organ (the only one in the world!). Apparently Zadar’s coastline had been naught more than an unappetizing slab of concrete since WW2, but in 2005, the city paid for its makeover. Now, the promenade is swimmer-friendly; steel handrails and ladders make the ocean easily accessible, as do white marble steps leading directly into the water. Within these steps are a series of pipes and whistles which have been designed to utilize the wave motion and create sound. It was annoying that the area was roped off for the air show, but you could still hear the organ. Some German tourists and I stood at the fence and listened for a while. The organ’s tones are simultaneously melancholic and whimsical—think foghorn, a far-off train whistle, or the sound of multiple cellos warming up in a distant concert hall.

The Sun Salutation

Next to the Sea Organ is a large circular solar panel designed by same architect, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t get a closer look. Apparently, it harvests the sun’s energy during the day, and at nightfall emits a multicolored light show which supposedly stimulates the solar system. Scientifically speaking, I have no idea how plausible that may be, but it sounds interesting, in any case.

I spent the rest of the day walking around and getting a feel for the city. For 10 Kuna I entered a Croatian journalistic photography exhibition at the Narodnij museum. The museum was actually an old venetian building that was in the process of being restored after the 1993 bombing. The display’s chicken wire interior was supposed to remind visitors of the palace’s ongoing reconstruction, as I was told. The exhibition was great, there were photos from the last year documenting everything from the first ‘high heels marathon’ (which looked sooo painful) to hand wrestling championships, and a Hungarian village overtaken by a toxic sewage leak.


Later that night, ‘”Evergreen music” was performed in Narodni trig right next to the cafe I was frequenting. A band set up in front of the city sentinel—a pink tower—and an orange-faced middle-aged man wearing white linen took hold of the mic. I enjoyed his renditions of well-known tunes, and his willingness to tackle a wide range of genres, from Motown, to Italian love ballads. He had a bunch of little kids jumping around and dancing, while most the adults stood at a safe distance, some swaying their hips conservatively.

Hang on Sloopy, these kids can dance!

Yet another impressive church

So You Want To Be A Hvar Superstar?

23 Jul

HVAR ISLAND, CROATIA


On the promenade

With its year-round sunshine and growing fame as a new European party capitol, Hvar island is a popular vacation destination. Although technically Hvar town has a center, the most prominent architectural feature is the palm-lined marble promenade that wraps itself cozily around the harbor. Small streets filled with trendy and expensive restaurants that slink off of a main square, home to the rather bland Dominican church of St.Marko.

I found the tourist population to be younger, better dressed, and a bit less chilled out than the vacationers in Korcula. This is no doubt due to Hvar’s reputation as the new Ibiza….so the kids say. To be honest, I really didn’t feel like partying during my stay, so Hvar wasn’t exactly the place for me, not on this trip. However, a group of five French guys at my hostel from a town near Nante, partied hard the entire time and gave the town rave reviews. Others I had met in Korcula said they couldn’t understand the comparison between sleepy Hvar and Europe’s party capitol. So, I guess you’ll just have to go and decide for yourself. The first night, people from my hostel went to Nautica, a cheap Top 40’s bar, which I felt way too old for. I actually ordered an orange-flavored Bacardi Breezer, the kind of malt-beverage that I haven’t touched since high-school. That’s when I knew it was time to call it quits. The main club on the island is Carpe Diem, an upscale establishment that’s starting to get some big-name djs. Its sister establishment, the creatively named Carpe Diem 2, is located on a nearby island, and reportedly ferry shuttles covered in the 20 euro entrance fee float people over at night. From what I heard, if you’re looking for lots of trance music and the opportunity to make love on an uncomfortable jagged-rock beach, this is the place for you.

Also noteworthy: Hula-Hula, a day club that you’ll find by walking 15 minutes west along the coast. Entrance is free, there’s a dj and the option to sit on chair or on the beach. When I went, they were playing some decent house music.

My hostel, Villa Skansi, was easily the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. In fact, Hostelworld.com members voted it as such in 2010. Just a short walk from a pebble-beach next to a beautiful monastery, this was less of a hostel than a full-out villa. The family added dorm rooms and private accommodations to their gorgeous tri-level residence, and as a weary backpacker, I was impressed by the great deal of work that went into making the facilities more than just a cheap place to crash for young party-goers. It came equipped with indoor and outdoor kitchens, brand new-bathrooms, and air-conditioned dorm rooms, all of which were stylishly decorated. A beautiful wicker-chaired terrace overlooked the blue sea, and the owner, Matteo, a tanned-friendly guy, made an effort to introduce himself to everyone while tending bar at night. In the evening, everyone gathers on the terrace, chats, and consumes reasonably priced mojitos, draft beer, and Matteo’s homemade wine. At 10:30, the terrace closes and the fun-loving girls working at the hostel usually lead the group to a bar or club in the harbor.

Franciscan Monastery

Vive la France!

On my second day, the French guys invited me to rent a boat with them. It was a bit expensive, seeing as they had purchased it for 10 hours and gone all out by renting a ‘banana’ (towable floaty thing). They had wanted to reserve a doughnut (inner tube in American) but they were booked out for the day. Renting a boat seemed like pretty much the only thing to do in Hvar, so I agreed, looking forward to anchoring at one of the many islands nearby. Soon the french friends, a young British girl from our hostel, and myself, boarded a comfortable rubber boat with a 150 horsepower engine, ready for the day’s adventure. We had a relaxing morning, afternoon, and evening, and anchored at several beautiful inlets in the nearby Pakleni islands.

Our chariot

Somewhere off of a Pakleni Island

Why are Speedos still so funny to me?

We saw more than a few ridiculous yachts. Everyone had their flags waving, and it was interesting to see just how far some of these yachts had traveled. The boys were good company and very funny, constantly dancing in their little Speedos and pushing each other into the water. Although a couple of the boys spoke very good English (one had been at Oklahoma university for 6 months) everyone got some good English practice that day, and the British girl and I did a lot of laughing.

Dance break!

“Bonjour!”

Wine and Beach: Korcula Island, Croatia

21 Jul

KORCULA ISLAND, CROATIA

Korcula town, so photogenic

7.16- 7.17

Korcula is everything a I’d imagined an island off of the Dalmatian coast to be: relaxing and beautiful. I was happy that I’d skipped a second night in Dubrovnik for this.

Fun facts: Korcula is actually the 6th biggest island on the Adriatic, with a population of 17,000 inhabitants.

Yes, it’s very big!” said the guide of the Wine and Island Tour that I had taken. Considering the entire population of Croatia is under 5 million, I guess 17,000 seems like a lot of people.


I had taken a 2.5 hour catamaran ride from Dubrovnik and I stayed for 2 peaceful nights in this charming haven. It looks something like this photo (above), only ten times better in real life. Imagine my relief at feeling the cool sea breeze after a week of relentless, sweltering heat.

I stayed at the Onelove hostel in a 6-bed dorm room with a view of the East harbor. The owner, a South African guy who was constantly wearing surf shorts and some sort of tank top, fit the hostel-owner bill perfectly. The place was decorated like some sort of modern harem; colorful tapestries were tacked all over those chunky stone walls. At night he ran a cheap and rowdy bar for the guests.

I noticed that the island was significantly less touristy than Dubrovnik, and I liked that. It definitely had a laid-back feel and was affordable, which was a nice surprise. Feeling motivated upon my arrival, I signed up for the aforementioned wine tour offered by the tourist office. I felt a bit guilty about the amount of time I was likely to spend on the beach, so I figured this was a good way to do something a bit more culturally oriented. So, later that day I embarked on a tour with 3 couples and one tour guide. The driver took us in an air-conditioned van (a luxury), to a hilltop catholic church on top of more steps (feeling the burn!), and through two of Korcula’s reputable vineyards.

With a view like that, what do they have to wine about? ha.

Wine production is pretty small-scale on the island. We first went to a family-run winery near the town of Lumbarda on the South side, and our guide explained that the wine from this particular area is grown in sand the color of red clay. A grizzled old man ushered us into his terrace to sample, which afforded a nice view of the vineyard and the ocean beyond. A couple of kittens were prancing around, which adding nicely to the authentic aesthetic. We tasted a variety of wines, and were told to pay particular attention to dry white called Grk, which translates to Greek in Croation—a toast to the island’s ancient Greek settlers. After some meager samples, he instructed only the MEN of the group to try a traditional mint-flavored Croatian grappa. Talk about old-fashioned! The middle-aged Australian guy in our group piped up and asked “don’t the ladies drink grappa too?” our tour guide laughed, avoiding the question “oh sure, some do.”  I was very annoyed, although I don’t even like grappa and probably would have declined the sample.It’s like the moonshine that people from the southern part of your country make.” the Australian man commented. I imagine I would have spoken up if I felt that I was really missing out on something, but after the moonshine comment…

In Smokvica

We then visited another family owned vineyard 30 minutes away in Smokvica village, where the grapes are grown in a valley that remains sun-drenched throughout the day. The tasting area itself was interesting, traditional wine producing tools were displayed as if we had entered into a mini-wine production museum. This particular vineyard is well-known for producing a more widely distributed wine called Rukatac. “It’s very expensive at a restaurant!” assured our guide while calling out attention to the bottle for sale on the tasting table. I’m certainly no wine connoisseur, but I enjoyed it. A Swedish girl and I were extremely hungry and we helped ourselves shamelessly to unattended sheep cheese samples. I definitely can’t get enough of the impressive cheese I’ve encountered on this trip—it has been varied and delicious.

 

The second day on the isle was your typical relaxing beach day, especially since there wasn’t much else to do in this kind of heat, and it was a difficult adjustment after such an active three weeks of sight-seeing in the other Balkan countries. I spent the afternoon with two Mid-westerners, Nelly and Paulina. They were the kind of sisters who finish eachother’s sentences in a non-obnoxious way—like some sibling comedy duo. Originally, we wanted to take a 20 minute bus to Lumbarda to find Korcula’s only sandy beach, but the Sunday bus schedule made it impossible. We settled for a pebble beach right near our hostel and were pleased to find that the crystal blue water was bath temperature.

I wandered around the small city later that night and enjoyed the promenade surrounding the town.

During sunset I ate at a no-frills national restaurant recommended by my hostel owner. It’s called Plainjack and you’ll find it when walking from the old town to the West harbor. I enjoyed a delightful summer salad for 25 kuna ($5.00) and a glass of wine for 10 K ($2.00). Next time, I would probably try one of the meat or fish dishes, they looked amazing and were pretty cheap 50 Kuna, or so.

As I mentioned, the old town is very cute, like a mini Dubrovnik without all of the tourists, i.e. lots of winding streets, and a couple of impressive stone churches. Korcula still had its fair share of overpriced clothing stores selling striped dresses and hats, insinuating that you must cover yourself in stripes while enjoying the seaside. What’s up with that, anyway? The tourist angle seemed to be name-dropping Marco Polo, as I noticed lots of clothing stands and gelato shops named after the man. Apparently he may have been born in Korcula, although no one seems to be too sure.

one of many children selling seashells

Entering the old town

Sunset!

Just a tip: if you have a computer and want free wifi with the purchase of a beverage, go to Dno Dna. It’s on your right on the way to the bus station. The people at the tourist information office won’t tell you about it, which I find incredibly annoying. They want you to pay for the wireless that they provide 10 kuna ($2) for 15 minutes! No thank you.

Taking Liberties in Dubrovnik

20 Jul

7.15.2011

 

Once I get into the swing of things while traveling alone, I find myself taking social liberties that I wouldn’t normally take. Nothing big, just asking strangers simple things like: “May I join your table so I don’t have to drink my coffee standing?” Little things like that. I find that people usually respond positively. And what’s the worst that could happen? I might get someone politely turning me down, that’s all. Last night in Dubrovnk, I was glad I had taken such a liberty. After a long day of sightseeing I was tempted to continue my 7 p.m. nap until the next morning. However, I decided that I owed it to myself to at least have a glass of wine in the old town. It was a Friday night, for goodness sake! While I was waiting for the bus, I started chatting with two Swedish guys who were on vacation. They seemed nice enough, so when they asked what my plans were, I asked if they’d like to grab a drink. They agreed, and a bit later we were sitting in a spacious square packed full of bars. Considering its small size, Dubrovnik must have one of the highest street performer per capita ratios—I saw everything from a wooden flute player to an undeniably stoned fire-eater from Macedonia. In our square, live jazz played from one corner, while Euro pop blasted from another.

Michael and Wey-Han were incredibly polite, and after some brief introductory chat, we had some very engaging America-Sweden conversations about politics, school-systems, boy-girl relations, etc. You name it, we covered it all. Michael asked me to comment on his observation that Americans often speak in extremes, like “That was the most AWESOME meal I’ve ever had!” or “it was the WORST restaurant EVER.” I had to laugh because I’m definitely guilty of that, as you can probably tell from reading this blog. He said that Swedish responses are a bit more reserved, comments like “yeah it was fine” are more of a mainstay. In any case, it was great to be able to cut bullshit of get-to-know-you chat and talk about things that mattered with two people I had just met. They invited me to check out a club, but I had a catamaran to catch the next morning, so I politely declined.

Dubrovnik is beautiful if you can manage to fight your way through crowds of middle-aged Americans, Brits, Germans, and various other Europeans. Everything was overpriced and you needed to keep an eye on the change you got back. It reminded me of being a tourist in crowded Venice or Florence again. Perhaps the Croatians inherited the tourism gene from their Venetian roots?

Ye ol’ drinking fountain

Aside from that, the streets are shiny and white, and the city is clean and full of posh restaurants. The main road through the old town leads to a delightful clock tower, surrounded by swooping black swallows. The narrow streets seem to all lead to big beautiful Baroque churches. Another attraction: the 3rd oldest pharmacy in Europe. This only made me think of the summer of 2008, when Natacha and I rented an apartment right next to the oldest pharmacy in Florence.

Taking a stroll along the ramparts

I had spent the day sightseeing, starting first with a walk on the city ramparts. Someone told me that it was the 2nd longest walkable continuous wall in the world, but I should do some fact-checking there. Anyway, it took quite a while to get around, but afforded great views.

This cruise ship overtook Dubrovnik right before my very eyes.

I finished around 1:30 and was soaking with sweat! I overheard someone on the phone saying the humidity level was at 80%. I believed it. My plan was to walk around the old town to do some sightseeing, but it became clear that I was going to pass out if didn’t find some shade. My sight-seeing turned into scouring the old town for wireless internet, which eventually I found. I had to take a 2-hour break and drink a cold beer before I could feel properly refreshed. I then went to the beach for a bit—the water was so warm, like taking a nice salt bath. Fortunately, the closest sand-rock beach is a five-minute walk outside of the walled center. 

The lazy sunbathers

I walked back to my rental room, which was terribly far away. They had lied to me because this “15 minute walk to center” was at least 30 minutes, which in this heat, translated to something like 1 hour in hell. Although I had bargained her down from 25 to 20 euro since I had been promised internet, it still annoyed me to feel taken advantage of. I had a room to myself but no fan, and the 20 euro price made it the most expensive and least satisfying accommodation of my entire journey.

Next time I will do it differently. Final impression: best to be there during a cooler month when I’m not on a backpacker budget.

Making Friends in Montenegro

20 Jul

7.14.2011

 

On the Road. The bay of Kotor

 

The sun was setting, affording a gold-tinged view of the the many coastal towns we passed on the bus ride from Dubrovnik to Kotor. The bus was only half-full, most passengers seemed to be backpackers and other youngish commuters. I was excited to have an open seat next to me, since I’d now have ample room to type and edit my photos. However, at the very last moment, a deeply tanned messy-haired boy asked if he could sit down. I didn’t know how to say no and still be polite, so I said “Sure thing.” He and his friend spoke Spanish while they took long swigs from a plastic beer bottle filled with some clear liquid. After spending the day in Mostar more-or-less alone, I was still in intrinsic mode and not ready to engage in random conversation. Eventually, as we reached the border and pulled out our passports, my seatmate and I got to talking. Surprisingly, Victorio from Buenos Aires and I, had a lot of common interests—he was an engineer and an actor who took singing lessons and was an active couchsurfing.org member. He and his motor-mouthed friend Nico, were starting their trip around Croatia and ending wherever the wind would take them. They had a ‘camp where you can’ motto. “Last night we slept in the grass in front of a radio station.” Vittorio told me. We ended up chatting for the remainder of the trip and I made plans to grab a drink with them after they found a ‘campsite’ that evening.

On the way to the Old Town in the Bay of Kotor

That night, as we arrived at the bus station, a challenge awaited me: I was going to try to rent a room from a local. This was quite a common thing to do in places where hostels are scarce. In fact, friends and other travelers had told me it was more or less the way to go, since you have your own room and typically pay less than overpriced hostels. As we got off of the bus, several people were trying to do the same thing, and a friendly young girl volunteered to translate for a French guy and myself. As she haggled with an older woman, the conversation seemed to be turning into more of an argument. The woman didn’t want me to stay in her old town apartment because I would only be there one night. Who cared, it was already 11pm! She was trying to convince me to go with her to another house outside of the center for 15 euro, which I did not want to do. The French guy and I were stuck in the middle of the argument, trying to interject. Soon he signaled to his friend and told me, “My friend is talking to a lady there, she has 3 rooms for 10 euro. You are welcome to come with us.” Done. This process had been more stressful than I had anticipated. Soon we were following this middle-aged woman to her house in an apartment complex nearby.

We had no way to communicate with our host, save a variety of hand gestures and loudly repeated English words, spoken mainly with thick French accents. She showed us to our room: three beds squashed in a spare bedroom. The guys seemed a bit embarrassed.

I thought she said separate bedroom’ one told me. “Should we make a…em…a division here?” he indicated, using his hands to fictionally separate the space between my bed and theirs. Until this point, I had been staying in 8 and 10 bed hostel dorms, so sharing a room with only 2 other people was a luxury. I did feel a bit bad for unexpectedly intruding on their 10-day best buddy holiday, but whatever. C’est la vie. As we got to know each other, I learned that they are both sports journalists, working in their respective French towns. Remi spoke an accent-free English, and Gregory struggled a bit, but was definitely better than he thought. We went out to dinner in the old town at local restaurant called Kantun in the Bokeljske Mornarice square.

The town was a walled-beauty and surprisingly empty for a Wednesday evening. The bar across the square was blasting techno music to an empty house, which I found annoying. Who did they think they were fooling? The food I ordered was amazing: traditional home-made sausages with onions, french fries and vegetables. I tasted Remi’s Montenegran smoked ham dish, which was similar to a thicker and smokier prosciutto, and also delicious. My meal had cost only 6 euro and was so massive that I couldn’t manage to finish.

I couldn’t resist documenting this.

Our host offered us coffee the next morning, Turkish style again. It was very kind of her. She sat with us and showed us a book that seemed to be about religious relics. As we passed it around, Remy speculated that she was trying to tell us about the place where she was born. Not being able to communicate with verbal language was a bit challenging, and when the boys indicated they wanted to stay another night, it was pretty hilarious. As Gregory repeated in English ‘We stay here tonight….leave tomorrow’, she just kept saying “moje, moje” with a blank look and that “I have no idea what you’re saying” smile. I think moji (not sure of the spelling) means something like ‘ok’ or ‘alright’ in Serbo-Croatian it still wasn’t clear that she totally understood. Gregory was cracking up, and finally he told me it sounded like she was repeating the word moche (ugly) in French.

 

The next day, we headed into the town, which was picturesquely situated between high mountains on the bay of Kotor.

Inside the city walls

The guys invited me to join them on a guided tour ala their French guidebook. Gregory decided to practice his English by translating the tour for me, which was a real treat. He stopped to point out buildings, telling me slightly lost-in-translation things like “this is the old town hall. She was before filled with sugar and cookies.” Our tour took us to St. Tryphon, a cathedral with two bell-towers, one of which remains unfinished and is significantly shorter than its counterpart.

St. Tryphon’s Cathedral

Sarah, over here” called my guide, squinting at his guidebook and pointing at the church. “I would like to show you this important building. It is best if you stand back and take a recul so you can see it is not even”

A recul?

A view from far away!” chimed in Remy, chuckling.

Watch out Pisa! There’s a leaning clock tower in Kotor

Gregory was really getting into his role as tour guide, saying things like “Right theese way I would like to point out the special window,” or “Sarah, pay attention! She is very important.”

Whilst we were mid-guidebook, I spotted my Argentinian friends slumped next to the side of the church. They were as scraggly as ever with tired, red eyes and breakfast of grocery store snacks splayed about. It looked like they had had a rough night. Victorio offered me an orange-chocolate cookie as I greeted them.

We slept on a road not too far from the station.” he explained.

Can we join you?” asked Nico. I looked at Gregory, not wanting to invite these ragamuffins without his consent. He shrugged with a French je ne sais quoi.

I’m kind of on a tour right now…but sure, come along.” 

This building was deemed ‘tres jolie’ by the french

The five of us hung out for the rest of the day. It was a funny group: the self-proclaimed hyperactive Nico, his best buddy Victorio and the significantly more reserved and put-together duo of Remy and Gregory. Lots of Spanish and French speaking going on.

Thank God for public drinking fountains on HOT days

Nico liked to call attention to the scantily-clad (and very beautiful) Montenegrin girls. He wasn’t shy:

I have to see this clothing store, wait one second!” he announced. I looked at his cut-off t-shirt, which was probably going on day five without a wash and didn’t believe for a second that he was about to go on a shopping spree. Not surprisingly, as I peeked in the store, I noticed a beautiful high-heeled girl in a low-cut top folding shirts.

Si, bueno, perfect. Yes, those are very nice clothes in there….very nice” said Nico.

It looks better than it smells.

The gang was dripping sweat, so we made our way to the bay for a swim. This was not my idea, as I had read in several places that the water is polluted pretty badly. However, locals insisted it was fine, and we saw many families and children enjoying the water. “It’s disgusting!” said Nico smiling as he paddled around. Everyone who jumped in after wards agreed. “I will not go. It stinks” said Remy, agreeing with me.

Si, the water is like a lotion!” said Victorio once he got out. I cringed as he rubbed his skin, massaging the toxins into his thighs. I’m pretty sure I noticed a third eye growing from his back later that day.

One of the entrances to the fortress

Eventually we ended the day with a grueling hike up to the fortress, see: Climbing the Stairway to Heaven (It’s in Kotor!)

Sarajevo: Culinary Impressions

17 Jul

Excellent presentation

Bosnian Coffee (a.k.a. Turkish coffee) is totally amazing. There is a courtyard cafe in the Bascarsija next to the museum of Sevdalinka music. It was there that I had the most amazing coffee of my life. It’s served in the traditional copper Turkish coffee set and costs only 1 euro. “The people here have no job but somehow they find the 1 euro a day to sit around drinking Bosnian coffee and chatting,” my tour guide Verena told me.

Egyptian ice cream served at Egypat, (a cafe on the main street) is amazingly thick, creamy and delicious. I would even say it’s life-changing. Only 1 Bosnian mark (.50 euro) for a scoop!

I was staying in a hostel located in a family home. It was really nice and just a 3 minute walk from the old town. I went wandering with some Australian girls on my second night. We had a hard time finding places in the Bascasija that sold beer, so we moved from cafe to cafe for a while, misled by umbrellas advertising non-alcoholic brews. At dinner, I had the most delicious dish: polenta with cubes of smoked pork, cheese and egg- good stuff! I also had Cevapi a couple of time. This is a traditional Balkan dish- it’s something like fast-food but a bit better: mini grilled sausages served with a floury bread and raw onion. It might sound strange, but it was not at all bad, and usually costs something like 1.5 euro.

It seems to be a bit problematic to be a vegetarian in the Balkans. Verena told me the mindset is something like “If there’s no meat, then it’s not a meal.”

Sarajevo for Beginners

17 Jul

SARAJEVO, Bosnia & Herzegovina

7.11.2011

Sarajevo is stunning. It was the first place on my three week trip through the Balkan countries that I felt that I was truly in a land far, far, away. In Bosnian, Sarajevo translates to “castle valley,” as there was once a lone castle in the once undeveloped hollow. Now, an impressive mosque stands in its place.

The Miljaka river

I had the opportunity to take a tour with a local tour guide, Verena, who was born and raised in Sarajevo. She told so many interesting anecdotes that I could barely jot them all down. Hopefully I got the most important bits!

The center of the Bascarsija

Sarajevo was under siege from 1992-1995. Serbian forces (Republik Srpska and the Yugoslav People’s Army)  lined the mountains and attacked the city in an effort to claim Sarajevo as part of a new Serbian state. Over 11,000 citizens lost their lives and an estimated 50,000 were injured. Most of the city has since been rebuilt, but bullet and shell marks are visible on many of the town’s facades.

Although she was still young at the time, Verena remembered unpleasant years of traveling from basement to basement, attending make-shift schools that had been set-up “temporarily.” “That was a long time to be underground,” she told me. Plaques are visible on walls where shells killed pedestrians, and pedestrians will notice many “roses,”—shell indents filled in with red paint which serve as grim reminders that someone had met their end in that very spot. Although there are numerous similar reminders around the city, as a tourist it’s hard to imagine this somewhat sleepy, and undeniably peaceful town being so recently traumatized.

One of many mosques

The arrival of the Ottoman empire in the 15th century transformed the mountain-dwelling existence of the Bosnians to more a trade-based civilization, spurring the development of Sarajevo. Silk importation was the city’s first claim to fame, and thanks to Ottoman governor Gazi Husrev-beg, many beautiful buildings, bazaars, and mosques, were built during this period in the 15th century. The Turks still believed in the importance of separating home life from trade, so the houses were built in the nearby hills. There was also a Right of View law, no house was allowed to block the view of another. Even now, many graveyards are visible in the hillside neighborhoods, and Verena explained that the Ottomans had mixed the cemeteries with residential areas to remind the living to be on their best behavior each time they passed by. 

The preserved Turkish part of the city center is called the Bascarsija which means ‘trade district’. I enjoyed this area the most- especially the street filled with coppersmiths. They can be observed chiseling away at coffee sets and vases throughout the day.

My guide and a Bosnian coffee set

Labyrinthine passages led to tiny squares where people sat on plush cushions while smoking hookah, and drinking tea. I felt as if I was walking into some sort of mini-Istanbul. Continuing West along the main road past mosques (there are 204 in the Ottoman quarter!) and low buildings, there’s a sudden change in the architectural landscape as Austro-Hungarian design takes over.

The Eternal Flame- Remembering WW2 victims

Taking a stroll through central Sarajevo is like walking between two worlds. Trendy cafes blast European pop music as you continue down the Austro-Hungarian stretch.

Selling wares in the Bascarsija

Fun Facts:

  • Sarajevo has historically been home to four main religious groups: Serbian Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, and Catholics. Sarajevo’s Jewish community was devastated after WW2

The Serbian Orthodox Church- Church of the Holy Child

Fountain in front of the Gazi Husrev-beg mosque

  • Austrian-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo- a single shot simultaneously killed both Franz and his wife and started WW1.
  • You can still buy postcards advertising the 1984 winter olympics
  • The Sebilj is a famous water fountain in the Bascarsija’s main square. The legend: if you take a drink from the fountain, you will return to Sarajevo. Verena made sure we stopped and had a sip.

The Sebilj!

  •  She showed me something called a Mangala (sp?) It’s a coal-heated device and its purpose is to keep coffee warm. Hosts would set coffee cups on the metal lip in order to keep them warm for guests.

Keeping your Kahva warm

  • We visited the Gazi-Husrev-beg Vakauf, a beautiful building built in the 1530’s named after the Ottoman governor. Now a carpet store and an attractive tea house, this used to be an inn which offered three nights of free stay to weary travelers. In Islamic culture, helping travelers is important, and wealthy families would donate money to the vakauf (foundation) in order to fund this tradition.

  • The Legend of the Church of the Holy Child: A mother once murdered her baby in the church yard. Centuries later, the coffin was found and opened, and the shocked clergy discovered the immaculately preserved body of a recently deceased child. The kid’s corpse was then displayed in the church and it was said that women who have trouble getting pregnant should visit the church and pray to this murdered child for fertility. Morbid, I know.

  • According to Verena, nearly 50% of Bosnians are unemployed. My tour guide is a lawyer and has been searching for a job for over a year and a half. She said she is ready to practice whatever kind of law she can find a job in, since specialization isn’t even an option when living in present-day Bosnia. High hopes are placed in tourism, and judging by the amount of souvenir tit-tat that’s already present, more and more tourists are finding out about this hidden gem every year.

Hills and cemetery

A Drive Through the Bosnian Mountains

15 Jul

7.10.2011

Sure I might have been squished between 7 Finnish guys in the hottest car ride of my life, but the scenery between Belgrade and Sarajevo made up for it.

Blue waters and rolling hills

What! A cow on my left…

A cow on my right? What’s going on?

Ah, now I understand