Monthly Archives: May 2009

Galway

As fate would have it, I got to go to Galway twice- once for two nights as I intended, and once again for two nights after my camera broke and I was advised my best course of action to replace it would be to return to Galway. I was actually ok with this (except for the spending a few hundred dollars for a new camera part of course) because Galway is a pretty neat place.

The shopping street of Galway, lined with pubs and stores trying to sell you tourist crap and a few bookstores where I’m certain they knew me by the time I left because I kept spending hours at a time in them (I was still in the “oh my, English!!!” phase). Note the blue sky- I don’t know what gods I pleased but one morning I woke up to blue skies and it stayed like that for five days. Probably so I could be the only person to talk about how nice the weather was while she was in Ireland.

Another interesting thing about walking around Galway is the sudden realization of how multicultural it is- thanks to the E.U. there are lots of Eastern Europeans who have moved to the city to the point where Galway is the city I overheard the most Hungarian outside Hungary itself (this didn’t stop the Hungarians from saying all sorts of things they would never say in public otherwise, as we all do that when outside Hungary). My Irish friends tell me that Ireland today is completely different to the country they knew even while growing up, and I completely believe it.

Me chatting with two writers, Oscar Wilde and Eduard Wilde, the latter being an Estonian writer who coincidentally has the same name as Oscar (the statue was a gift from the Estonians when they joined the E.U., as Ireland had the presidency then). The inscription reads the O. Wilde quote “we are all in the gutter… but some of us are looking at the stars.” Needless to say, we had a good conversation…

The cathedral in Galway, where I first realized how seriously Irish people take religion- it was a random day of the week, but there was still a sizable crowd of people there praying. If this sounds odd you have to realize I’ve gone into countless churches the past two months I’ve been in Europe, and frankly the tourists always overwhelm the people actually using the church for what it was originally intended.

Now I realized the Irish are pretty religious but after a bit of inspection into the matter I’m going to say they probably are more religious than us in some aspects- condoms were illegal until 1978, and divorce was only legalized in, get this, 1999. Considering the fact that this is in Europe, where non-religious people make up the majority of the population in Ireland’s neighbors, I find this to be rather interesting.

One of the set of taps in an Irish pub I visited, because apparently if you don’t have 14 taps you’re doing it wrong. If it seems odd to transition from religion to pub that’s because you don’t know Ireland- for a few hundred years during British rule Catholicism was illegal, so the Irish got around this by holding Mass in secret backrooms in pubs (because who would suspect an Irish family going to a pub Sunday morning had an ulterior motive? what nonsense!). And this is probably why the Irish like their pubs so much today- they became the center of the community rather quickly under this arrangement. The cruddy weather probably didn’t hurt either.

The Guinness at another pub settling after being poured- I admit this is a process I hadn’t watched much before because I don’t really like Guinness (too dark for my taste), but my physicist self spent a ridiculous amount of time happily watching while listening to the plethora of talented musicians around every corner and striking up conversations with everyone.

A word on the last bit- after much experimentation, I have concluded it is impossible to go into an Irish pub and not make a friend before you finish the first pint. During my time in Galway I ended up talking hours to a brother/sister pair, a musician who played harmonica on the streets, and a guy from the other side of the country who had driven to Galway to escape the fact that his fiance had cheated on him. And while this might seem odd in most other countries in Ireland it’s totally ok and happens all the time.

My Sunday lamb roast in the pub, because I have enough experience to know you need to eat a Sunday roast in countries with British influence as it will be delicious. And I realize the pint above reads Guinness on it but I was actually drinking a black and tan, as that’s the closest I can get to drinking the real thing when it comes to taste.

As a random aside, Irish people, I am sorry but I don’t know if I can get behind Bulmers as my choice in hard cider. Too acidic in taste. Though before someone starts accusing me of not liking Irish alcohol I am in happy agreement with Smithwick’s, Bailey’s, and your whiskey.

A sign in the front of one of the bookstores in Galway I really took a fancy to. See one nice thing about Irish people is they have a good sense of humor about their hordes of tourists. I suspect it’s because of all the practical jokes they play on their visitors to keep them giggling- “Hey, kiss this awkwardly-positioned stone in a castle that thousands of people kissed already today and the local boys pissed on last night! Oh, and jump in the freezing cold water to swim with a dolphin who might be around! Sure we all do it ourselves, that’s why we aren’t now…”

I confess I have begun to suspect I have some Irish genes in me somewhere that I was never informed about- the Irish people seemed to agree about this as I am apparently more outgoing than the average tourist and we share a similar sense of humor and sarcasm. But then they were on the whole relieved I wasn’t one of those countless people who come here “searching for their Irish roots,” so perhaps I’ll let this one go. Cheers!

In Dublin’s Fair City, Where Girls Are So Pretty…

Ok I agree- Ireland? Where did that come from?!

Answer: after Croatia, I was geographically a bit stuck because I had already seen Italy and had no serious interests in heading towards Montenegro/Albania (I’m sure they’re nice, but it’s not season yet and meeting people is quite important as a solo traveler). So while checking out the budget airlines of Europe there was a cheap flight to Dublin, and I thought about how much I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland. So there we go.

Dublin itself I had no serious interest in just because everyone says to get out of it as soon as possible because it’s not the “real” Ireland (I agree with it not being the real Ireland, but as a city I liked it). But I arrived Sunday night, it was a bank holiday Monday, and I needed to get more passport pages at the American embassy on Tuesday, so I had time to poke around.

The Temple Bar area of Dublin, where it is important to note that the bar itself is named after the area and not the other way around. Except only the tourists go out to the pubs in this area, meaning I never did.

As a total aside though, you know what my favorite thing about Dublin was? They speak English here! I have not been to a country where English was the main language since I have been traveling, and there is still something illicit to me about going into a random shop and expecting the people there to know what I’m saying. Perhaps because of this reason Dublin struck me as the most American place I’ve been since I left home- the plentiful chain stores I haven’t seen since January probably didn’t hurt in this observation.

The Ha’Penny bridge over the river Liffey, so called because it cost a half penny to cross over the bridge when it was initially constructed. I thought it was a lovely thing myself.

View of Dublin Castle on the free city tour I took of Dublin, where I got into a tiff with the tour guide, Conor, about it not looking particularly castle-like (apparently it burned down 200 years ago and this is how it got rebuilt). This is where the British ruled Ireland from for hundreds of years, and needless to say the British are not winning any popularity contests in this part of the world.

Because this is Ireland, after the tour a few of us went with the tour guide, where Conor and I settled our differences when it turned out he just finished university in mathematics so we got into conversations about number theory and operating platforms.  Turns out the guy doesn’t get many physics girls in his tours, who would have guessed?

The pub was known as The White Stag and had this stag’s head on the wall which looked, well, a bit frightening.  I mean I guess I would be pissed too if my head was stuck on a wall in a Dublin pub with my antlers balancing a rugby ball, but still.

Ahoy- a Viking ship! It turns out this is here because a few years ago the Dublin city council was excavating an area where they wanted to build their new administrative center, and came across what was the best-preserved Viking settlement in the world. (Most people don’t know this, but the Vikings founded Dublin once they took a break from pillaging and realized this island they were ravaging actually looked quite nice.) Experts from all over the world flooded to Dublin to get a look at it and call for its preservation, but the Dublin city council just remarked “well, that’s nice!”… and poured concrete over it. In the subsequent outcry they decided maybe that wasn’t the brightest of moves, but it was too little too late really.Me at Trinity College showing just how cold and windy Dublin can get even in May. I have to say though, the oddest thing about the place for me compared to universities back home is how you’re not allowed to walk on the grass- the Frisbee players in the rest of the Western world would never stand for it. Though if you are an honors student you are allowed to graze your sheep on the grass, and I’m told some enterprising lad will hold the university to its word every year.

So that is my brief foray into Dublin- I did spend a boring morning at the American Embassy as well, but they wouldn’t have been keen on picture-taking there and it wasn’t so exciting anyway. So with that, on to the more exciting locales in Ireland!

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.

Split

Way back when when my mother was about my age and lived  in Hungary, some of her first trips without parents were to Croatia because your options were a bit limited in Eastern Europe at the time.  And my mom loved it so much that she speaks nothing but the fondest things about Croatia- the coastline, the mountains, the Mediterranean feel to the place that was unlike anything else she’d seen before.  With such an endorsement it seemed a shame to not check out the place after being so close, and I am happy to inform my mother that Croatia is still as magical a place as she remembers it.

My first stop in the country was Split on the Dalmatian coast, which as you could guess from the name is filled with postcards and t-shirts of our favorite spotted canine friends.  And because you still need to take a break sometimes even while traveling, my first day was devoted to the beach-

The Adriatic at this time of year is still a bit too cold for swimming, but it didn’t stop some enterprising Croatian guys from hanging out in the water.  It was even warm enough for a swimsuit a few hours of the day!  I basically spent most of my time happily reading and eating some stuffed olives I bought at the supermarket, when not admiring the scenery in the distance-

Here’s the funny thing about the Dalmatian Coast- most of it doesn’t feel like true ocean at all because there are so many islands off in the distance.  In fact it almost felt more like being on a lake, New Hampshire coming to my mind.

Oh yeah, and there are palm trees in Croatia! Yay! Though I found it entertaining that snapdragons were doing growing at the top of this one.

When you’ve had enough of the beach, wandering around Split itself is pretty cool as it is the best example I can think of of actions having consequences far beyond what  you initially think.  This is because Split is built around  the Diocletian Palace built by a Roman emperor of that name in the 4th century A.D., and 200 years later a bunch of refugees took residence in the then-abandoned palace.  They then turned the place into a town, which is how an old emperor’s retirement place became the second largest city in Croatia today.  The whole thing is remarkably well-preserved still, except you keep noticing that there are now apartments around the old entry vestibule and things like that.

Typical street view in the old part of Split.  It’s one of those places that is pretty easy to navigate (keep going until you hit a wall and such) but is hopeless when it comes to finding a specific location again because of all the alleyways and tunnels you continually traverse.  I spent many happy hours going around in various states of being lost.

One of the most touristy places in town is this statue, of the tenth century bishop Gregory of Nin.  If you look carefully at the bottom of this photo you will notice his toe is shiny, as rubbing it is supposed to bring good luck.  Why?  Because there was a milkmaid awhile back who discovered she sold all her milk at the market when she rubbed the toe, so this is obviously true.  I mean why would it possibly not be true?

And last but not least because we’d known each other for about two weeks by this point and everyone knows two weeks is forever in traveler-time, meet Andrea from Brazil.  We first met at the hostel in Pecs and have been traveling along a similar route ever since- sometimes one of us would reach a place earlier, sometimes the other person,  but somehow we always ran into each other even if we hadn’t compared details beforehand.  And when that someone happens to be an electrical engineer from Brazil who you know you can carry a never-ending conversation with, life on the traveler trail is good.

That is a cheese and olive plate in front of Andrea by the way to go with our wine, the cheese andwine costing us about 100 Croatian kuna (5.5 kuna to 1 USD at this point).  Croatia is definitely more expensive than Bosnia was but still not close to Western Europe expensive- if anything, you keep discovering that prices are similar to what you’d expect to pay in the United States.  I am sure this will change in a few more years to take a larger toll on the wallet, but for now it is a great place to go to.