Tag Archives: solo travel

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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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!”

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.

Climbing the Stairway to Heaven (It’s In Kotor!)

20 Jul

Success!

My new friends and I climbed 1350 stairs to get to the Fortress of Kotor. The ascent in the 85 degree heat was brutal, but the spectacular views of the bay and mountains made it worthwhile.

We started here…

Interesting choice of stair-climbing clothing

Finally at the fortress!

Unfortunately this is just a poor substitute for how breathtaking the view actually was!

Mostar, Herzegovina

18 Jul

7.12.2011

The Old Bridge by night

Mostar was stunning, like a smaller and more serene version of Sarajevo. I arrived in the evening and was picked up by the owner of the guest house I stayed at, Hostel Nina. Similar to my hostel in Sarajevo, the house belonged to a family who had built dorm rooms and allowed guests to use their facilities. It might sound uncomfortable, but it certainly was not. My host was probably around 55 years-old and very smiley. To my surprise, she started telling me very openly about her family’s experience in the war as we drove towards the hostel.

“It’s important for Mostar to have tourists. There are no jobs now-only tourism,” a sad, and familiar refrain.

Well considering its beauty and proximity to tourist hot-spot, Dubrovnik, it didn’t seem that Mostar was going to have a problem expanding the post-war tourism industry. The town had been completely destroyed in the mid-90’s; similar to the amount of damage done to Dresden during WW2, 1993 left nearly 75% of Mostar in ruins. Nina pointed out some buildings on the front line as we drove by; one had been rebuilt, but the rest showed their 15 years of neglect with crumbling rock and vines that twisted around bullet-riddled facades. Nina had fled with her children to Norway during the war, her husband was Muslim and therefore, the whole family was in danger.

“It was not safe for me, even though I’m catholic” she told me.

Bombed-out building

The family returned to Mostar in 1997, only to find that “the city was destroyed and very dangerous after the war. People were doing whatever they want to survive,” Nina continued. 

In 2007, Mostar’s famous landmark, the Old Bridge, was rebuilt, and from that time on, tourists started to return. As it began to get dark I took a walk around the town, which was breathtakingly set to the backdrop of arid mountains. The rocky river was such a vibrant shade of turquoise blue that I had to do everything in my power to resist from taking a dip fully clothed.

 

Koskin-Mehmed Pashka’s mosque

From deadly weapon to decorative household item

OMG it’s Weltbekannt! I have to check out the Turkish House!

Visiting the ‘Turkish House’. I got a postcard!

Take off your shoes in the Turkish house.

80’s restroom!


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.”

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

Belgrade Part Two: Understanding Yugoslavia Through Performance Art

15 Jul

 Yugo Yoga:

 The next day I had “work” to do. I had been in contact with the London-dwelling, Croatian-born performance artist and sculptress, Lara Ritosa-Roberts, who I had emailed after realizing I would be in Belgrade during her 10-day residency at the Yugoslav Museum of History. Her project, entitled ‘Yugo Yoga: a path towards socialist self-realization,‘ sounded interesting, and I had asked her if I could observe in order to write a piece about it. She agreed enthusiastically.

The Museum of Yugoslav History, aka the Tito Museum

So there I was in Belgrade, observing a rehearsal of choreographed dance routines with red flags-and assisting in the collaborative production of this performance by helping them download Windows Media Player. I mean really, yoga and communism seemed like strange bedfellows, so I was quite interested to get a better understanding of what this was all about. As I worked on the download, Lara taught two unenthusiastic teenage boys a routine with cardboard signs. Her collaborator, Mary, told me that the boys had been giving Lara a hard time ever since they found out that the performance might be televised. “They are asking if they have to hold the signs in front of their faces. They want to be seen on t.v. now,” said Mary, rolling her eyes.

Rehearsing!

Earlier that day I had walked around the museum- there was a special exhibition “Fashions of Yugoslavia’s first couple” which detailed through film, print, and actual clothing just how snazzily dictator Tito and his wife dressed- think dapper derby hats and alligator shoes. His mausoleum was also located in another museum building. Next to it was an exhibition honoring the famous baton relay tradition. Each year on Tito’s birthday, thousands of children would participate in a baton relay, which would begin locally and eventually feed into the main relay, ending at Tito’s footsteps in the Belgrade stadium. Ivica remembered this event from his youth- there were batons of all shapes and sizes hanging on the wall- representing various youth organizations. Apparently by 1950, the baton relay involved 1 million baton-holders from around Yugoslavia, and Tito’s birthday was declared ‘National Youth Day’.

Lots o’ batons

Lara’s project is audience-interactive, partly ironic, and partly serious. Her performance group is called ‘Fiskultura’ which means ‘physical culture’. She has incorporated the daily exercises that were promoted during the socialist regime and brought them to life in a series of choreographed exercises.  Lara explained that it’s supposed to remind people to have fun while not being ashamed of their heritage. A deeper meaning can be found through the thought-provoking parallel between the spirituality that many people find in yoga and far-eastern religions, and the faith that people put into a beloved dictator, such as Tito.  She’s performed at the Tate modern in London and toured with the project in Croatia last summer. Anyways, as a foreigner, this was entirely a learning experience for me. Until this trip, I shallowly thought of communism as a completely stifling and subordinating institution- However, after speaking to people about communism in Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, I’ve realized how complex this issue actually is.


So yes- I spent most of the evening observing the rehearsal, and even participating in the yoga portion! We did poses that Lara took from neo-classical and communist sculptures with names like ‘Comrade general is thinking’.  Lara was great, she really made me feel welcome and suggested that I interview the performers- a volunteer group which ranged in age from 16 to 70. Some of the older women actually remembered performing the exercises in their youth. I’m in the process of writing the piece (when I find the time between these travels!) and it will go up soon on http://www.balkantraveller.com. In the meantime- check out Lara’s info:

http://lararitosaroberts.wordpress.com/

http://www.grafeo.com/fiskultura/PKFiskulturnik/project_fiskultura.html

The rest of the night was great. I met up with Maja, another Couchsurfer that I’d been in touch with. She took me to a bar called the Black Turtle which served dangerously delicious flavored beer. We then went to her favorite bar, which was on a street commonly referred to as Silicon Valley thanks to the plastic-bosomed girls who accompany their beefy mates in this area. She had a lot of interesting stories about her job as an English translator, as well as her solo travels. She’d just returned from a trip through Jordan and Syria. How amazing is that?! Such inspiration.

I enjoyed my visit to Belgrade and will definitely have to return- preferably when the temperature is below 90 degrees. Maybe then I’ll have time to check out Belgrade’s beach!

Border Patrol- Traveling Between Sofia and Belgrade

14 Jul

7.8.2011

The journey from Sofia was pretty painful, it was about 8 hours and hot as hell. We transferred from a mini-bus to a full-size monster in Nis, a town across the Serbian border. Crossing the border was an interesting process. On the the Bulgarian side they simply collected our passports and stamped them. However, at the Serbian border we actually had to exit the vehicle and answer some questions about our destination and purpose of journey. They were keen to make sure I wasn’t smuggling anything, but it wasn’t as bad as watching the Korean guy before me. He spoke zero English, and everyone in the line was getting annoyed as the border guard tried repeating “destination?” several times. When we transferred in Nis we had about 15 minutes to kill. A big Serbian guy with a curly ponytail, Adidas shirt, and sport-style sunglasses appointed himself ‘caretaker of the foreigners,’ ushering me and the Korean dude to the front of the line to make sure we got the correct bus tickets. “We have 10 minutes here” he told me, unprompted. “The bus leaves from right here, platform 8.”

At the Nis bus station: Watch your step when withdrawing currency!

It was very nice of him, and having this guy around made me feel safe. I think my Korean friend needed it more than I did, he seemed to be constantly heading the wrong direction. I nipped off to the ATM to take out some Serbian dinars, and to say the area was under construction would be an understatement: two big-bellied construction workers seemed unconcerned as they sat on a large pile of rubble, while checking out a blonde girl with a stuffed animal backpack. It was refreshing to know that someone, somewhere in the world (over the age of 5) was attempting to keep those furry backpacks in fashion. When I returned from buying a bottle of water, Mr. Ponytail said he had been concerned that I had been misplaced. The bus was sketch, very jerky. Although I know admittedly little about mechanics, I know it’s a bad sign when the bus driver calls for a pause and then opens the engine with a puzzled look. When I returned to the bus, ponytail who was sitting nearby, turned his head comically, gesturing to me and looking very concerned that our Korean friend hadn’t returned. I imagined him sitting in the cafe eating apple pie (yes they sold it at the cafe), totally unaware that the bus had been waiting for him.

A window with a view

Hitchin’ a Ride (For the First Time)

10 Jul

Adventurous Europeans often choose to travel in the Balkan countries due of the normalcy of hitchhiking and camping, two logistical practices that keep costs at a minimum. Bring your tent, your thumb, eat cheap food, and voila! Gute Reise. After hearing several impressive hitchhiking stories, I was curious to give it a whirl myself, but felt wary as a solo female traveler. However, after meeting a fellow Michigander at my Plovdiv hostel who had just hitchhiked from Shanghai, I became inspired to undertake the previously unthinkable. Gathering a small group of Sofia-bound hostelers, a unanimous decision was made: it was time to chance a lift.

Our rag-tag group of three mid-western girls and one Californian boy set out in the heat of the early afternoon, heavy packs burdening our shoulders, and the warm sun overhead .

“I have some knives and pepper spray” assured Molly, the motliest of our crew.

Sure, the bus from Plovdiv to Sofia was only seven euro, but this seemed like a good time for a test hitch, since we could easily make our way back to the bus station, heads hung low in shame, if the plan failed. As I led us down a busy road, I realized that somehow I had become the leader. Perhaps it was my status as the wizened 25-year-old to 23-year-old youngsters? I couldn’t be sure.

Anyway, there we were, standing by a gas station and holding out our thumbs like some teenage runaways in a cheesy Hollywood movie. After thirty minutes of frying under the Bulgarian sun, our digits were cramped and the only acknowledgement of our tacky ‘Sofia!’ sign was a flirtatious wave. What were we doing wrong?

Eventually, a taxi driver pulled up, and informed us in broken English this this was not the way to Sofia, this was, in fact, merely a small road in central Plovdiv leading to a small village. We needed to get to the Motostrada, the expressway, and he would take us there for ten leva, the equivalent of five euro.

“We’d better get picked up after this” said Elan, as we reluctantly piled our packs into the taxi, already sensing an epic failure. As if it wasn’t laughable enough to take a taxi in order to hitch, the comic value was at its peak when we were actually let out on the side of the road in what appeared to be a corn field, just as we had asked. With a friendly chuckle and a mocking hitchhiker’s thumbs-up, our driver zoomed back to Plovdiv, his muffler dragging loudly behind his yellow vehicle.

We were alone on the side of some godforsaken intercity road, a waving green field in front and the Rodopi mountains magnanimously behind, and there was no going back. On that wimpy slice of cement, we assumed our positions, thumbs in the air, sign raised high. It couldn’t have been more than three minutes before a faded red sports car rolled up.

“This is going to be a tight squeeze” said Erich looking grim-faced at the zebra-printed backseat. Two bleach-blonde 20-something females, hopped out of the car, its speakers crackling with the heavy bass of Bulgarian Chalga music.

Merci! Merci!” We chorused, knowing that these girls would understand this universal word of gratitude. One of the girls told us with a friendly smile “You’re welcome!” and proceeded to help us fit our bags in the trunk.

Our driver, a plump young lady decked-out in designer glasses and faux-diamond earrings that matched the gems on her painted fingernails, kept her eyes on the road while her Barbie-esque companion asked us where we were from. The girls were both Turkish, and the English-speaking one was currently studying industrial engineering in Plovdiv. Her friend had driven to Istanbul to pick her up for a wild weekend of clubbing in Sofia. The seating arrangement was not ideal, Eric’s arm was wedged uncomfortably into my rib, while the petite Elan was forced to balance on two of our thighs. But hey, it was a mere two-hour journey and more importantly, we had found what we set out to find: an adventure.

We were definitely weighing down the car, and it seemed to struggle and groan as it drove down the country highway leading to the main expressway. The girls didn’t seem to mind, chatting and laughing in Turkish, pausing to ask a polite question and offer cigarettes.

At the end of the journey, as we pulled up in front of the impressive Alexander Nevsky cathedral the English-speaking engineering student said one thing:

“Facebook?”

She handed us a faded card with her name typed neatly on the bottom. “In English it means pretty sun” she said. “Next time you in Plovdiv, you call me. My house is open.”

Having gained two new friends and one great story, we all agreed that our first experience hitchhiking had been a success.

For more info on hitchhiking: http://hitchwiki.org/

Oh, HEY Sofia!