Category Archives: Croatia

Photo: Dubrovnik City Walls, Then and Now

dubrovnik-lookout

August 2, 2013
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April 28, 2009

You know you’ve led a good life when, while looking up your blog post from the last time you were in Dubrovnik you happen to notice one of the photos looks awfully familiar.  And realize some things may change, but the photogenic spots that you want to stand in front of while someone snaps a picture of you apparently do not! (And, in my case, apparently my hairstyle doesn’t change much either.)

Dubrovnik is actually pretty much the same now as it was then except for two things: there are a lot more people (of course), and the cable car which was still bombed in 2009 is now up and running.  The latter is great because it used to be a hassle to go up- you needed to find someone to drive you or walk the steep path still littered with debris from the Siege of Dubrovnik in the early 90s- but now it’s pretty painless to go up and enjoy the view-

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(Seriously, the second thing that’s noticeably changed in four years is photo quality- first picture is an iPhone shot, second is a point-and-shoot, third is also a point-and-shoot just a much newer one.)

One difference we didn’t see by the way is there are no Game of Thrones references anywhere yet in town- Dubrovnik is the town of King’s Landing in the series, and considering the series’ popularity one would expect there to be GoT tours and paraphernalia in the gift shops etc (not like we’d have gone on such a tour, just I’ve seen what happened to New Zealand after Lord of the Rings for example).  Seriously, not even a single copy of GoT in the tourist book shop!  But something tells me this new channel for tourist revenue won’t be unexploited much longer…

 

Lovely Little Korcula


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Korcula is one of those magical places in the world you never hear of because it keeps getting usurped by its big brother right next door, Dubrovnik.  Both are walled cities built in Venitian style on a point beside the sea, but Korcula is just so much smaller and harder to get to since it’s on an island that far fewer people visit it.
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Korcula is certainly worth a day though.  An outpost of the Venitian Republic, there are Venitian lions all over town and even a (much smaller) St. Mark’s church.  The locals even claim Marco Polo- the most famous Venitian traveler of them all- was born in the city walls, and will happily take your money should you wish to visit his alleged house.  No real proof of this, of course, but why let that get in the way of having a famous hometown hero?

Best part of Korcula though?  There is actually a cocktail bar in the turret you see in the above picture if you look closely- you need to climb up a ladder to reach the top and the drinks you order arrive via pulley system.  Perhaps the best place on the Adriatic for a sunset drink…

korcula-sunsetProbably best to not lean too far back though.  You see this is a real turret built to protect the town from siege years ago, and this being Croatia there is nothing to save you from falling into the sea through the old murder holes-

IMG_0997Yeah, this will end well, I can tell!

Anyway, I rather liked Korcula and it is definite proof to me that if sailing in Croatia one should definitely head southward from Split instead of northward from Dubrovnik.  Because it really is a nice little town, but I think I would’ve been underwhelmed had I visited its big brother first!

 

 

Hvar, Croatia, Then and Now

IMG_0950I first visited Hvar four years ago (that is, the town named Hvar on the island of Hvar), and it was one of those places where I was nervous to return to because I was afraid it wouldn’t be as great as I remembered.  You see, four years ago I came in April when one quickly realized it was out of season because it was raining buckets and I snagged a studio apartment for US$27 a night from a little old lady holding one of several dozen “soba rooms zimmer” signs at the bus station.  Despite this I absolutely loved the town- one of the few places I wished I wasn’t solo on that trip as I wanted to share it with someone- and knew I wanted to come back in its height to see what it was like.

Now I am pleased to report that Hvar is still utterly, wonderfully amazing and I talked Patrick’s ear off about how I have plans to return someday and rent an apartment for a month or two as a base while I write. (This is a rather elite list of places ranging from London to Bariloche, Argentina.) I think I would aim more for late May/ early June than late July like we did because it turns out a lot of other people love Hvar as much as I do, and more and more people discover it every year.  As a comparison, check out how many boats there were in the harbor in April 2009…hvarVersus how it looked in July 2013…

hvar-viewAs an aside, the 2009 picture was taken early afternoon, the below one was taken around 6pm.  Lighting does make a difference…

Needless to say, Hvar is still awesome if you visit it in peak season, but a place is certainly different when you have people crawling around it everywhere.  I imagine this will inevitably change more and more however as people increasingly visit Croatia…

 

 

 

The Stari Grad Harbor at Night

harbor-at-nightThere is something magical about slipping off a boat at night and into the harbor of a little island town in the Mediterranean.  After a hot day under the oppressive sun the air is cool- people are out and about who spent the day on the beach or in their houses, and life spills out onto the streets.  Cafes are filled with people eating and drinking, children are selling lemonade and seashells to passerby at an hour where in most countries they’d be in bed, boats are bobbing softly on starlit water.

Perhaps it’s the astronomer in me speaking (or a woman who knows her Shakespeare), but there is really something special about a town that is in love with night and pays no worship to the garish sun.

Photo: Split, Croatia Old Town

split_old_townSplit is the sort of place that’s fascinating to visit as there are few places on the planet where the unintended consequences of your actions are so heavily on display.  It was first built as the retirement palace for the Roman emperor Diocletian in the 4th century A.D.- the emperor who split things up into an eastern and western empire, another action that has reverberated through the centuries- but in the centuries since the locals have converted the remains of the palace into a city.  The result is a unique rabbit’s warren of narrow alleys and jumbles of houses and shops, which you wander aimlessly and keep running into random things like an artist’s gallery or a dentist.  It is magnificent.

If one photo isn’t enough by the way, here is the post from when I first visited Split four years ago.  As you can imagine, it’s the sort of place you’re very happy to explore all over again!

 

Cruising Croatia

stari_grad_hvarThere are some places in the world that are so very awesome that years after the fact you have no choice but return to them.  For me, the Dalmatian coast of Croatia is one of these places: I first came here four years ago as part of my six month jaunt around the world, but it was in April and being the off season it rained a lot, very few of the ferry services were running so it was hard to get around to the islands, and there were so few other travelers in the Balkans that it got a little lonely.  So I left with the understanding that I would someday return in order to do one of the Split to Dubrovnik boat trips popular with the younger crowd in the country, both to revisit the places I loved and to see some new ones along the way.  And since my brother Patrick is moving back to the USA this fall after two years of steadily meeting up often to work on our “things to do in Europe” checklists, checking off the last big one of cruising Croatia together seemed like the way to go!IMG_1060

Everyone always asks how Patrick and I travel so well once they learn we’re twins. Our response is always we shared a womb for nine months, so shouldn’t it be easy after that?

Now to get this straight, I am not normally a cruise-type person: I went on one once with my parents and was forever frustrated by all the group organization and the fact that you’d be in an amazing place for only a few hours you’d normally spend a week exploring.  But it turns out the main reasons I didn’t like that earlier cruise don’t really apply in Croatia: the distances are so short that one is likely not doing more than a few hours of boating a day (complete with a lovely swim stop- Patrick and I bought a cheap snorkel mask, which was the best investment ever!), and each location is small enough that after an afternoon and evening of looking around we felt that we’d seen most of what it had to offer since they were primarily small places.  Add in the unreal blue of the Adriatic and the fresh seafood and stunning coastline and, well, it was a truly lovely week!

(By the way, it should be noted that unlike the last time I was in Croatia when most visitors to the area were of nearby eastern European countries, these days the majority seemed to be Australian.  This tells me Croatia is on the cusp of becoming a major holiday destination for the rest of the Western world, as Aussies always seem to pave the way on mass tourism to “exotic” destinations.)

So now that I’m back home, be prepared for a flurry of short Croatia posts as I’ve realized those are much more likely to get done than a mammoth “My Week In Croatia” one.  Plus hey, it turns out I’m a sucker for taking pictures of cool boats and the coastline, and what else am I going to do with them?

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Summary of Croatia

I’m glad I got to Croatia now as frankly I can’t imagine what the prices will be like in the future.  That having been said,

Highlights:

- I loved living in the ancient Roman ruins at Split.  The Split Hostel is a neat place too (motto: “Snooze and Booze”) with probably one of the best locations and nicest staff I’ve come across.

- That having been said, I don’t think you should go to Split without devoting some time to the islands in the area.  Notably Hvar.  Hvar is one of those places I was actively scheming to return to while still there, and I loved my apartment.

- Last but not least, Dubrovnik. What  a lovely, picturesque place…

- Oh, and I gotta mention that I finished the 1,000+ page Pillars of the Earth the week I was in Croatia, not to be compared to how I finished its 1,200 page sequel in four days not long after.  And this is why I don’t buy many books on this trip, get me close to one and it will be consumed incredibly quickly.

Lowlights:
– Rain, rain go away… it rained at some point every day while I as in Croatia.  Often not long and in a brief afternoon thunderstorm, but it would always be just when you were planning some activity or another.

- And this might sound like an odd complaint but… I never got used to the Croatian currency, the kuna.  It’s about 6 kuna to the dollar and you often find yourself getting one or two kuna as change, which you forget about and suddenly realize you have several dollars worth of change to get rid of.  I didn’t have issues like this in other countries so I don’t know what it was, but I felt like I was always trying to shed currency- not the best mentality to have!

Dubrovnik Surrounds

The old town in Dubrovnik is incredible, but it’s pretty small and only ~7,000 inhabitants live within it. So if you spend time in Dubrovnik you will eventually take a look at some of the other sights as well.

Another reason to stay at Dubrovnik Backpackers Club- they do a really cute little tour of the surrounding region for a cheap price, run by one of the sons of the hostel owners (who will tell you stories about how he played hookey during the siege of Dubrovnik to help the defending soldiers during the war- at age 13). First stop is the hillside above Dubrovnik where there’s an old fort-

See those mountains reaching up behind me? That’s Montenegro, which I never properly visited on this trip but got to leave some of the rest of the world for the future I guess. To the left of me but not visible in this picture are a range of mountains in Bosnia- Dubrovnik occupies a bit of Croatia not connected to the rest of the country because Bosnia gets a few miles of coast so it can have a port thanks to a centuries-old agreement with the Ottomans. You’d never tell coming over except for a brief border stop where they don’t even stamp your passport.

There are two forts in Dubrovnik- one the Croatians held throughout the war and is now being restored to be a museum, and the one where the Serbs were. Which is now a no-kill shelter for stray dogs, on the grounds that the locals would rather have dogs in the fort than Serbs (clearly the tensions between sides in this part of the world won’t be smoothed over for years to come). So when you visit the fort-turned-pound you are greeted by a deafening racket of barking and the realization that these dogs have a gorgeous view most people would die for.

Another interesting sight up the coast from Dubrovnik is the old botanical garden, a lot of which has been allowed to grow wild but is still lovely.  This house is actually an ancient Ionian trader’s home (read: ancient Greek) and is the oldest set of ruins in this region.  Nowadays it’s often frequented by teenagers smoking pot, but we didn’t run into any of them.

Turns out those Ionians sure knew how to find a great view!  Interestingly just to the left of here is a nice old abandoned castle that is for sale- catch is it’s so expensive that John Malkovich wanted to buy it, but couldn’t due to the price.  Thus the ruins stay ruined except for the locals looking for a bit of quiet coastline to stretch out on.

During the day, one of the popular things to do to get away from the crowds is head to  Lopud Island, just outside the old town-

Dubrovnik from the ferry out to Lopud, which was packed to the brim with tourists and Croatian daytrippers.  There was a sign mentioning the maximum capacity was 200 people, a number definitely surpassed as there was barely standing room by the time we left port.

When you get to the island, the first thing you hear is this odd mewing sound that sounds like a bunch of cats.  The culprit?  Peacocks, who have lived on the island awhile now thanks to it being the former summer home of Archduke Ferdinand.

Lots of the peacocks were trying hard to attract the peahens- they slowly walk around in a circle showing how awesome their feathers are, then when the female approaches further they do a little dance and bring the feathers forward in an attempt to trap the female.  Didn’t work in any of the cases I saw but I take it as further proof that humans are not as far off from animals as we like to think.

Oh, and because I was curious about this later I looked it up and it turns out the proper name for the birds is “peafowl” as peacock is actually just the male, and they’re originally from India.  The more you know…

A brackish lake on the island that was quite lovely- lots of bathers in summertime but this time of year it was still chilly.  But it turns out the water isn’t particularly brackish- a simple taste test revealed it seemed just like seawater, so my bet is it just seeps in from the nearby ocean somehow.

And here is a view from Lopud Island towards the mainland while I was waiting for the return ferry- thought it was an interesting superposition of old versus new sailboats, and for any interested parties the dog pound fort is on the top of the mountain on the left.  Really, you’d miss a lot in Dubrovnik if you didn’t look beyond the old town!

Dubrovnik

Here is a rule right now about Dubrovnik- if you ever come here you have to stay at Dubrovnik Backpackers Club whether you particularly want to or not.  The reason for this is while most hostels in the Bulkans are family run the family at DBC puts these to shame- the dad offered me a welcome shot of homemade honey liquor the second I was in the door, the mom kept offering me cake and nagging me to find my shoes, and the four-year-old daughter decided she was fascinated with me and asking me to watch her play with a hula-hoop.  Trust me, this is the place to stay!

When you can finally pry yourself away from this kind Croatian family, a ten minute bus ride takes you straight to Dubrovnik-

For hundreds of years this was the heart of the Republic of Dubrovnik, which is one of the nicest Renaissance towns you can find outside Florence.  It is also reminiscent of Florence in the fact that it ties for the “most crowded tourist attraction” award due to all the daytripping cruise boats, probably because the old city is so compact.

This is the most popular tourist thing to do in Dubrovnik- climb the city walls!  Back in the day when the city was one of the most popular trading ports along the Adriatic the tax to enter the city was one stone and ten eggs, the stone for obvious reasons and the eggs to help hold the stones together.  The resulting walls are the most complete and thickest ones you will find in Europe, wrapping 2km around the Old Town and so sturdy the Serbs shelled them for eight months in the Yugoslav Wars and hardly damaged the walls.  Frankly one of the lessons you learn while visiting this town is you don’t mess with Dubrovnik!

View of the heavily-touristed street from the top of the city walls.  Yes, I was not making the hordes of tourists thing up…

The city walls make up a 2km circuit.  The problem with walking this is every single view you see is so beautiful and so perfect that you will take ten million pictures.

By the way, when you look at Dubrovnik all the buildings with bright orange tiles are ones that were destroyed by the Serbian forces in the war; the faded orange tiles are the original.  Bright orange definitely dominates, and what is even more disturbing is realizing how the old town was relatively untouched compared to the razed surroundings.

The fluttering Croatian flag, which I include here for one interesting reason- I’ve seen a lot of flags on this trip but most are done in the same exact proportions, but the Croatian flag is the first exception I’ve seen to this rule of thumb.  The flag is longer than the height would otherwise imply, which makes it flutter extra-pleasantly in the breeze.

When the city wall walk was done, time for lunch!  This pan is filled with- drum roll- fried and salted sardines, which are to be eaten with the bread and olive oil.  Turns out fried sardines are really delicious, even if you don’t want to think hard about what bits are included when you pop a whole sardine in your mouth.

Entertainingly, the fish restaurant is the first one I’ve been to patrolled by several cats.  They enterprisingly know you’re not going to finish all your fish, and wouldn’t it be a great to cut a deal with someone so the fish doesn’t go to waste?

Hilariously there was a sign saying “do not feed the pigeons” but regarding cats there was no mention, so this fella got a nice number of sardines to feast on.

Last, Dubrovnik by night which is completely different compared to daytime because all the cruise boats are gone.  My favorite place was hidden- you need to walk on the road between the wall and the ocean to a literal hole in the wall with a sign that says “cold drinks,” walk through it and you’ll find a terrace overlooking the ocean filled with locals a bit miffed that you found their secret. (No, I can’t give you a better description just because the old town is a warren of roads with no names, and the best things are discovered by chance.) Sitting on a terrace with the walls of Dubrovnik behind you, moonlit ocean before you… I promise, there is no better way to end the day.

Hvar

For those keeping track, I’ve had a fair bit of luck when it comes to weather on this trip.  Sure it got ridiculously hot in Asia and snowed in Italy, but by and large the seasons have cooperated to the point where I lost my umbrella a few weeks back and had no reason to replace it.  This was only going to last so long, obviously, and my luck ran out whilst heading to Hvar, an island two hours by ferry from Split.  It’s supposed to be the sunniest place in Croatia, but what was light drizzle on the mainland turned into buckets falling from the sky by the time I arrived and took the bus to the village of Hvar proper.

At the bus station, the Croatian ladies accosted me.  They do this at every bus station in Croatia, brandishing signs that say “soba rooms zimmer” because a lot of the locals make money on the side by renting places to tourists (there are older men who do this too, but none are stupid enough to proposition a young woman traveling alone).  There was one woman at the station in Hvar who was particularly keen on getting me to go look at her spare apartment, so I asked her how much out of curiousity.

“150 kuna,” she said, about US$27, on the grounds that she wasn’t keen to stand in the rain all day not getting her money.  So I happily spent the next two nights cooking for myself for the first time in months and playing Pandemic 2 while watching CNN International tell me we are all going to die of swine flu.  What a great place!

The view from my apartment on Hvar-

I know, I hate me too.  This picture was obviously taken once the weather had cleared up, so I went out exploring!  Time to set sights on the fortress on the top of the picture-

Back in the day the fortress was used to protect the island’s population against the invading Ottomans and the like, but now its primary purpose is to give the tourists a great view of the city-

A better view without a tourist in the way-

Yeah, at some point I should mention that everyone on Hvar is happy to tell you that it is ranked as one of the top 10 most beautiful islands in the world.  I have no idea where this statistic is from (though I am jealous of whoever got that job) though I must say I arrived in a torrent of rain and still found myself believing it.

What has got to be the prettiest church in the world when location is factored in, in the main village.

Lots of beautiful wildflowers this time of year too!

One of the things I idly keep track of while traveling is what I will purchase when I get home and have money again to buy stuff.  I have never been good about buying things because I’ve spent most of my college years saving for some trip or another (I’m such a terrible American I put my stimulus check in the bank and am spending it abroad!), but once I have dollars to spare the list goes something like this-

1) a guitar

2) a piece of amber with a bug in it

3) a Vespa

And thanks to recalling my affinity on Hvar, we now have

4) a sailboat

Really now, I remember reading once about how Mike Brown, the planetary scientist at Caltech who discovered the tenth planet, spent his grad student years living on a sailboat and being intensely jealous of this.  Granted his going to school in Berkeley was a bit better as far as climate went but dammit, I want a sailboat!

Back to the location at hand however, I found myself intensely liking Hvar- the island is gorgeous, the village is adorable, and the Croatian lady has really nice apartments (oh, and a website her daughter runs for said nice apartments).  Somewhere along the way it struck me as the perfect sort of honeymoon place should anyone want a suggestion- alas I won’t take it, as the only “what I’d want for my wedding” point is I’d want to go on honeymoon somewhere neither of us has been before, which conveniently ties into my opinions on elopement. (If you ever want some fun at the dinner table by the way tell your parents you plan to elope- entertainingly my dad is the one who was more horrified about the prospect.)  I suppose I’m not making things easy for any potential suitor though.