Zbogom, Split …

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)


Friday, September 8th.

Europe, Croatia 233I meet the remaining members – Livia, Karen (briefly), Paul, Natalie, Marian, Rob and Richard) for breakfast, then we say our goodbyes.

Marian and I are the only ones not leaving right away, so we wander in and out of shops in the old town. I pick up a couple of souvenirs and – while trying to find cheap knock-off sunglasses – end up buying an expensive pair of Ray-Bans (which I will now have to guard with my life in order not to lose them).

Then – as is always the way – about 15 minutes later, we find the place with the cheapie shade stand, where I buy another pair for 10 dollars.

After wandering up and down a bit more, we decide to take a bit of a breather near the hotel. We see our soon-to-be-former trip leader Livia, and have (non-alcoholic) drinks before she, Richard and Rob take off for the airport, and Vienna.

Marian and I resume our meandering through the streets, even making a stop at the Ethnographic Museum about 20 minutes before closing. The upside? We get a bit of a discount to wander around – just enough time to take a look at the traditional costumes of the country’s various ethnic groups, and getting up on the roof for one last look over the town.

We stop for lunch, then linger in the lobby. And then, off I get to catch my bus to the airport for my next destination: Berlin.

I’m not sure what the next several days will hold. But after spending a week with a bunch of lovely strangers, it will be a bit of an adjustment being on my own.

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Skipping Around Split

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Europe, Croatia 170Friday, September 7th.

We depart at around 7:30 a.m. – a much more respectable start than our departure from Korčula a couple of days earlier.

But unlike the ferry to Hvar, the boat bound for Split seems much more packed, plus the boat’s upper deck is blocked off. So for this trip, a number of us are separated.

And the monstrous Adriatic cold that has been waging battle with my immune system is slowly tightening its grip, making me cough and blocking my nostrils.

When we arrive, there’s another major difference.

Until now, we’ve been staying in vacation apartments. In Split, we’re not only in the centre of the action – within the walls of the old city (Diocletian’s Palace) – but we’re in a hotel. It’s supposedly considered “budget” accommodations, but man, it’s pretty nice.

For this last night, sleeping arrangements change, as a bunch of folks are leaving on jet planes first thing in the morning. Jennifer opts for her own room – no issue – while I bunk with Josie, who’s departing for the Greek islands.

Europe, Croatia 184We get a 90-minute tour of the old town and the remains of Diocletian’s Palace, courtesy of Daniela, a local tour guide. She’s very sweet and quite informative as we navigate our way down side streets, through the souvenir market, and into the sun, past some old walls eroded by time.

We briefly stop to listen to a group of klapa singers, whose beautiful voices fill the square and seem to float upwards through the dome of one of the gate walls.

Near the end of the tour, we stop at the north (or Golden) gate of the old city wall, and we see the enormous statue of Gregorius of Nin, a medieval Croatian bishop.

It’s said that rubbing his big toe brings good luck, so the group stops just long enough for me to run over and claim my own bit of good luck.

Following the tour, we’re cut loose. Jennifer and I team up for the afternoon, taking a really long walk out of the town centre, to the Ivan Meštrović gallery (also known as the Ivan Meštrović Palace).

Europe, Croatia 201This building certainly lives up to the “palace” moniker – it’s ENORMOUS.

As we find out when we arrive onto the expansive gallery grounds, Meštrović was a 20th-century Croatian and Yugoslav sculptor, whose works can be found in other parts of Europe, and the U.S., where he moved in 1946 (including in Chicago – see The Bowman and the Spearman).

Probably just as impressive – if not more so – as his sculptures, is the building itself. It’s not only a gallery, but was a villa Meštrović built for himself and his family. It’s beautiful inside and out.

Europe, Croatia 206Sculptures massive and small hang from walls, sit atop pedestals, and dot the grounds around the gallery. The gallery venue faces the water, so the view – with the sun glinting off the water – is just stunning.

After covering the gallery from bottom to top, we go down the road a bit further to Kaštelet-Crikvine – a chapel that Meštrović had restored, complete with courtyard, and a small room that houses wood panels depicting the life of Christ. Those panels took Meštrović some 35 years to complete.

While we’re at Kaštelet-Crikvine, Jennifer goes to snap a picture, and (seemingly) out of nowhere, this guy – a local, and a handsome one at that! – appears out of nowhere, below us. He’s been swimming, and just strikes up a brief conversation with her while he towels off a bit. He even suggests we should take advantage of taking a dip in the area, during our stay.

Following the long, hot walk back to town, we search for lunch and shade. The shade was great. My lunch (a salad) is terrible. But I’m a bit too tired to care.

We then stop in at another art gallery – this time showcasing the works of painter and graphic artist Emanuel Vidović. While the gallery is okay, I’m not wowed by it. (Sorry!)

I take my leave for an ice cream and a brief nap before dinner.

Europe, Croatia 212Our group’s last meal together is situated at an establishment a little bit outside Split’s old town walls. The staff is funny and super-nice. And, as it turns out, one of the servers shares the exact same birthday – which happens to be tonight! – with Aussie traveller Jackie. So a bit of momentary bonding.

There is lots of food to be had. The antipasti is fantastic. The dinner – sea bass – well … not so much. I’m expecting more … flavour. But honestly, it’s the company that makes the meal, more than anything else.

Before calling it a night, we go in search of one last drink before our group breaks up for good; Jennifer is our first casualty – bowing out due to exhaustion and that she doesn’t do so well with groups. Bon voyage, Jennifer.

The rest of us are indecisive, waffling and dawdling. There are 10 of us to start, until people drop off to pack or sleep.

The five hold-outs eventually end up at a place literally around the corner from the hotel. It’s rammed with people, which sparks more indecision whether to ride it out. In the end, just three of us – Marian, Sanj and myself – keep going and walk out to the main strip – the riva – for one last drink.

And it’s here our trip ends – not with a bang, but with a bit of a half-whimper, half-stifled-yawn.

One sleep and some six hours to kill before this leg of my journey ends, and a completely different one begins.

Baked Goods, Boating and Classy Dining

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Thursday, September 6th.

First thing in the morning, I peek out from behind the shutters.

Everything’s wet.

A group of us are supposed to rent a couple of boats and tour the waters around Hvar Island today. The gray skies above seem to suggest that we should consider other options.

I’m also not feeling like my normal self; this slowly developing cold is sapping my strength and my motivation to get out of bed. I go back to bed and curl up for another 45 minutes.

I eventually meet most of the others on the main strip, who are also doubting whether we can take to the water today. Our trip leader Livia says that – according to someone at the tour information office – the weather is due to clear up by noon.

While we wait out the weather, we opt to drop by a local patisserie that Natalie and Josie discovered the day before. My order of tea and a cookie is just what the vacation doctor ordered;  the former warms my belly, while the latter satisfies my craving for something a bit decadent.

Josie and I hang back at the patisserie while the others wander away – just doing simply nothing. It’s probably one of the first times during our trip so far where we’ve had a chance to do that.

At noon, we meet the others and – as forecast by the tourism folks – the skies are clear.

We split two small rental motorboats between the nine of us, and decide who will be operating the boats. I’m sharing a boat with Natalie, Paul, Mariam and Sanj.

Europe, Croatia 154After a bit of discussion, we elect Paul to be our operator and awkwardly lumber into the boat and wait for the guy from whom we’re renting – a scruffy-looking guy, whose name I can’t remember – to give Paul a brief lesson in operating the boat.

I don one of the lifejackets stuffed in the front of the boat – mostly for my own safety, as I’m not a strong swimmer … but also partially because before Paul gets his “lesson”, Natalie recalls a story in which Paul had previously operated a boat, which he managed to flip over.

So, nope – not really taking any chances.

Luckily for us, Paul aces the mini-lesson and before long, we are on our way.

The scenery from the boat is just lovely, and it’s nice and cool on the water, passing by boats of various shapes and sizes.

Europe, Croatia 159We zip along to a couple inlets. The first is a quiet and calm mini-paradise, with a little resto beside it. The shallow bit is rocky/pebbly, but it’s nice to just sit in.

But about 15 feet from the edge, there’s an immediate drop, which is great for the stronger swimmers like Natalie, Rob and Richard to go take a dip.

Our time at the restaurant starts out light and playful, with lots of laughs. But it’s a bit dampened by the end of our visit, as the guy who runs the resto turns out to be a bit of a dick, charging way too much for a couple of the dishes we order.

No matter. On to the next.

The second inlet looks a lot nicer, but not many of us venture into the water this time around. We return to Hvar by early evening.

My boating posse, along with Jennifer and Josie (who have stayed on dry land for the day), start our evening at this posh-looking outdoor lounge for pre-dinner drinks.

We’re the only ones there – it’s still early – so we spread out and comfortably chill out for a while with our cocktails (why hello there, tasty Kir Royale!).

Europe, Croatia 167Dinner’s at a Croatian/Mediterranean fusion restaurant at the end of the main drag, called Divino.  And “divino” it was. Everything, from the amuse-bouche, to our appetizers and entrees, are absolutely delicious.

Except for Miriam, we all take a pass on dessert – because we’re heading back to our new, favourite patisserie from earlier.

After stuffing ourselves with more sweet baked goods, some of us walk (or, in my case, waddle) around a bit longer, drifting past the bars and party-goers, ogling an ornate yacht or two, before shuffling off to our rooms.

One more day, and one more destination awaits – the town of Split.

Hvar and Away …

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)


Wednesday, September 5th.

It’s about 5:30 a.m., still dark and wet from the overnight rain shower.

We’re waiting down near the water for the early morning ferry to the island of Hvar – known to some as “the party island”.

The boat arrives at around 5:45, and we depart around 6 a.m. It’s a huge vessel, and actually kind of comfortable. We even get to see the sun rise as the ferry makes an interim stop to drop off and pick up more passengers.

We’re in town and on dry land with our bags by about 8 a.m., where we were greeted with our room assignments.

And more stairs. Which we should be used to by now.

But it seems the stairs here are steeper than in Dubrovik and Korčula combined. It’s certainly enough to make Josie – who’s lugging an enormous suitcase – cuss in exasperation.

The rooms at the apartment complex we’re staying at seem even smaller than in Korčula, but they have that cute, family-run feel to them.

Europe, Croatia 125The day is young, so we assemble after dropping off our baggage to grab breakfast near the square, then we break off into group to take a look around.

I go with the larger group, who take a stroll through the small market behind the church, and then from shop to shop lining the tiny side streets. I buy some turquoise-coloured stud earrings that catch my eye.

As the day progresses, our group gets smaller and smaller; Sanj and I partner up, taking a peek into a local gallery (which was average, but not overly impressive for our artistic tastes), walk along a path that takes us along the town’s outskirts, and then back into town for lunch.

It starts raining sometime past noon, while we’re seated under a patio umbrella at one of the restaurants in the square. We wait to see if it subsides, but it just gets heavier. We spot Livia trying to stay dry, and motion her over to our table, before the rain turns torrential.

As we make the best of the situation by chatting, my lids grow heavy and I feel my head begin to bob. This is rain’s hypnotic effect on me, no matter what part of the world I’m in. It’s definitely nap time.

Following my solid two-and-a-half-hour siesta back at the apartment complex, I rouse with a slightly dry, scratchy throat – the price I must pay for dunking my head in the Adriatic.

Europe, Croatia 143I go to meet ten of my tour-mates – we’re paying a visit to the fortress overlooking the town. We make a brief grocery run for wine and snacks, then walk/hike the winding path to the top.

The view of Hvar is spectactular, especially as the sun starts to set and the lights below come on and start twinkling in the twilight. The wine, snacks and company of my tour group members are a perfect combination.

We descend into town for dinner. Natalie has made reservations for three different places, but in the end we decide to try a slow-food restaurant we hear is highly recommended.

It’s probably the best meal we’ve had on the trip so far, if not in a deadlocked tie, with the meal we had in  Pupnat.

Our waiter – a young guy who says we can call him “Fluffy” (absolutely adorable!) – is a great, accommodating server. He patiently answers all our questions and explains how things worked. He’s also very engaging and extremely helpful – at the end of the meal, he’s even kind enough to find me some coarse salt for my throat, which has become even scratchier as the hours pass.

Europe, Croatia 146A group of us break away and search side corridors in search of a place to grab cocktails.

We head down the main strip, ogling a couple of flashy, multi-million-dollar yachts docked in the marina along the way.

We pass a lot of the obvious “boom-boom” bars, eventually finding a more lounge-y establishment. A little pricey, but the cocktails are decent. (I kind of recall ordering a science-experiment of a cocktail called a Zombie – anything to fool myself into thinking I’ll kill the germs!)

It’s just the beginning, though. Tomorrow, we’ll cruise the nearby vicinity by boat!

Sand, Sun, and a Smorgasboard

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)


Tuesday, September 4th.

Sleeping on Monday night/Tuesday morning is a challenge.

Not only because of the heat and humidity. But because of those nearby church bells at St. Mark’s.

They ring. EVERY. FIFTEEN. MINUTES.

UGH.

Europe, Croatia 085Later in the morning, a bunch of us (Rob, Richard, Livia, Sanj and myself) decide to rent some bicycles and hit a beach – Vela Przina beach in the village of Lumbarda, to be precise.

I literally haven’t been on a bike in years. Even at the bike rental shop, when I initially attempt to sit on a bike, I nearly lose my balance and narrowly miss taking out a postcard carousel.

Slightly embarrassed, I work on getting my “bike legs” back, as quickly as I can.

It’s a slightly hilly seven-kilometre bike ride to Lumbarda, so I find some of the inclines challenging. The gears are also a bit wonky. But the views are nice, as is having the freedom to ride without a helmet – much like I did when I was a kid.

And then finally – the beach!

Rob and Richard take off for the water. Sanj, Livia and I spend the first part of our beach day taking some welcome shade at the nearby bar/restaurant, drinking and chatting.

Europe, Croatia 084Livia and I finally get the courage to wade into the water, while Sanj keeps out of the sun. It’s cool at first, but warms up after a few moments, and I take a moment to fully submerge my head.

While in the water, we run into four of the Aussies – Natalie and Paul (the siblings), Marian and Josie. They opted to rent a car and drove the seven kilometres.

I actually haven’t had the chance to really speak to them up until this point, so it’s good to finally see them for more than about 10 minutes and chat about how they’re finding the trip so far.

I opt to leave a bit earlier than expected, with Sanj, as we want to stop a few times on the way back to snap some pictures.

I haven’t yet been to Italy. But what we see before us is what I would imagine part of the Tuscan countryside to look like – rows of grapevines, red clay roofs and hilly backdrops.

There is much more traffic to navigate on our way back. Between the blazing sun and exerting more energy to make room for cars, scooters and trucks, my body has become quite the sweat factory.

I’m finally glad when – t-shirts clinging to our backs – we return to Korčula town in one piece!

Europe, Croatia 100After we drop off our bikes, Sanj and I continue poking around town, checking out side streets here and there, then head up to St. Mark’s Cathedral to check out the bell tower. Looks like Richard and Rob have the same idea, as that’s where we run into them.

The views of Korčula town – and the nearby water – from here are absolutely lovely. A couple of the bells ring while we’re up there.

With the evening comes another change of scenery: the group hops onto a bus headed to the village of Pupnat, for dinner at a local restaurant (called Konoba Mate) – where the ingredients for all the dishes served are locally grown or sourced.

As the air thickens with humidity and the skies grow dark with a possible threat of rain, we’re seated in the corner of the outdoor dining room, underneath a romantic overhang of vines.

Europe, Croatia 116We’re served an array of items – meats, fish, cheeses, strong, sharp-tasting liquor that tastes like walnuts and berries, pasta, and so on. The meal itself has around 4 or 5 courses, but luckily all the portions are meant for sharing. Each course is even more delicious than the last and doesn’t leave me stuffed.

Even more than the savoury meal, it’s nice to finally have the group together – laughing, trading stories and finding out more about each other.

Upon our return to Korčula, a bunch of us take a short stroll about, but then return to our quarters for the evening.

Tomorrow, we head for the island of Hvar.

Dobar Dan, Korčula!

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Monday, September 3rd.

Back home in Canada, it’s Labour Day.

I meet Sanj and Karen at around 10 a.m. for our final wandering expedition around Dubrovnik’s old town.

Europe, Croatia 062First stop: the old Franciscan monastery.

It’s got a lovely, lush cloister/courtyard that provides a bit of cover from the bright sun and the heat.

It also has the third-oldest functioning pharmacy in Europe.  No, seriously. Karen takes advantage of this handy fact to pick up some allergy medication.

Nearby, a small gallery of artefacts from the pharmacy’s earlier incarnation is on display – jugs, mortars and pestles, and other books, tools and such – in addition to other relics and religious iconography that adorn the monastery.

The last thing I remember seeing before leaving is the wall damage left by a missile, which hit the monastery on December 6, 1991. The casing is sitting on the floor, directly beneath the crater and the information plaque. Another haunting reminder of a more volatile time.

Karen, Sanj and I trek through the side streets to find Café Bar Buža, down by the rocks near the water, for some cold mid-morning drinks.

Europe, Croatia 068In addition to taking in the view, we watch a small gang of teenage boys – and one brave older man – throwing caution to the wind and launching themselves off a nearby rock face,  into the blue waters below.

Just watching some of them as they work up the courage to do something so care-free (and, to some, a bit foolhardy, since there’s a sign which clearly reads, “ACCESS DENIED – DANGER TO LIFE”) is entertaining. The sounds of splashing as bodies make contact with the water below adds to the laid-back seaside soundtrack.

Following a brief lunch, we make the climb back up to the apartments to meet the others for departure.

We’re taken by minivan to the port town of Orebić, over an hour’s drive outside of Dubrovnik. Livia peppers our extremely knowledgeable driver with questions about the countryside and local agriculture, relaying the facts to us through a microphone.

Europe, Croatia 070At Orebić, we grab a ferry across to our destination, the island (and town) of Korčula. During the ride, we become more acquainted with my fellow Torontonian, Richard. According to his story, he and Rob ended up on this tour as part of a grand prize they won at a fundraising triathalon.

Funnier still, Richard says he kept telling friends they would win the trip. Behold the power of positive thinking!

Upon reaching dry land, we’re assigned our rooms (but not without some last minute confusion and re-assignments).

My trip roommate, Jennifer, wants to get settled relatively soon so she can walk around and get a feel for the town. I completely understand this – she told me earlier in the trip that she’s directionally-challenged. But for some reason, as we mount the stairs towards our accommodation, this new setting has given her some cause for consternation.

Jennifer’s slight anxiety leaves me puzzled. Compared to Dubrovnik – where I really felt unsure which end was up – Korčula looks (and feels) dead easy to navigate. And this is coming from someone who herself is a bit directionally-challenged.

korcFor starters, Korčula town is a fraction of the size of Dubrovnik. As well – and most interestingly – urban planners of years past smartly designed the old town (which runs north to south) in the shape of a fishbone. In fact, it’s said that the “ribs” were arranged to reduce the effects of wind and the sun, providing some comfort for residents.

Most of us are staying at the “top” of the town, above the pizzeria in St. Mark’s Square – across from the cathedral. The highlight? The bells ringing with precision approximately every 15 minutes or so – not including the chimes at the top of the hour.

Another small dilemma arises when we reach our room: Jennifer and I have been given one key to share … which would be all right, except that while Jennifer plans to spend the evening indoors, I’m going with most of the group to go see the traditional Moreška at the nearby cultural centre. We ask Livia to investigate this on our behalf.

Livia gives the group an orientation of the town, followed by dinner. Tonight’s restaurant – a fish-and-seafood establishment – sits along one of the streets (which actually feels more like a large corridor with seemingly infinite steps) just off the “spine” of Korčula town. We sit, four to a table – except for Aussies Jackie and Julia, who initially join us, then leave to find somewhere else to eat.

I share a “booth” with Rob, Richard and Karen for dinner, which consists of delicious grilled vegetables and three types of fish. It also is great to finally hang out with different members of the tour and be immersed in such good conversation.

We then head over to the local theatre for the Moreška performance. There are all sorts of people there, from different tours all over the place. Our hostess/MC for this evening’s show is either a super-talented polyglot or simply well-rehearsed, as she makes her introductory remarks in five languages.

The evening starts off with a folk singing group (in the Moreška style, native to Korčula), followed by the dance itself. I can only imagine how physically taxing it is for the dancers – a lot of them young guys – especially during one segment of dance, where the dancers are clanging swords so hard, the friction creates sparks!

(My only quibble about that performance is the number of people who refuse to STOP  TALKING. It seriously grinds my gears.)

After the show, Rob and Richard disappear into the night – as is their trademark – while the rest of us look around for a bar to grab drinks. It’s all in vain, though. We meet up with Jennifer and end up at the pizzeria below our hotel rooms.

The end of the night is a bit sedate. But some of us intend to make up for it tomorrow – with a trip to the beach!

(*Image of map, courtesy of http://www.behance.net.*)

Dubrovnik, Day One

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current one.)

Sunday, September 2nd.

Our day starts with a fantastic breakfast – cereal, dates, fresh fruit, cheese, ham, eggs, bread … It’s all there, and much more than I’m expecting.

Europe, Croatia 005The sun has already started to blaze by the time we reach Dubrovnik’s Old Town (on foot), to walk along the town wall.

Our trip leader, Livia, gives us an overview of the Old Town, its architecture, and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. It’s actually somewhat hard to fathom that it’s been about 20 years since this very town was shelled in that conflict – and that isn’t all that long ago.

Walking along the wall, we’re treated to a spectacular view of the water and the town skyline. But I’m already sweating profusely – I’m convinced I will absolutely melt into a puddle of skin, and concerned my sunscreen won’t do its job.

After the walk, we take a  much-needed shade-and-drinks break. Sitting with Jennifer, Sanj and Livia, we get to chatting and learn a bit more about Livia – her travels, aspirations and projects in the works (including hopes of one day running her own specialized tours in Budapest).

Our group splits off into smaller groups, heading in separate directions for the afternoon. Jennifer, Karen (the lone Kiwi on the trip, and a hell of a traveller), Sanj, Rob and Richard (the Torontonians) and I opt to take the cable car up Srd Hill – location of probably the best views of Dubrovnik’s Old City.

Despite the stuffy, cramped car ride on the way up, the perspective is nice as advertised.

Europe, Croatia 028At the top of Srd Hill, the views are even more breathtaking – the city wall, the red clay rooftops, the nearby islands, and the glistening water – all of it alluring.

We wander around the gigantic cross and flagpole at the top of the hill. The scenery behind the visitors’ centre is rugged, rocky, and dry. It reminds me very much of some of the landscape I saw in Morocco three years prior.

Karen opts to walk down the hill, while the rest of us take the cable car (this time, much less crowded) to the bottom. Rob and Richard take off soon afterwards; Sanj, Jennifer and I opt to wander around a bit, then grab lunch.

Later, we head to the war photo gallery. It’s a visual eyeopener into the conflicts which gripped the Balkans during the 1990s. The images of people with looks of despair on their faces, of men readying themselves for armed skirmish, even the photos of Dubrovnik’s deserted main streets, and night shots of the town aflame amidst the shelling, are simply arresting. Just looking at them feels surreal. As I’ve said before, it’s almost impossible for me – as a stranger from another country – to fully understand what took place in this region –  even with visual proof as vivid as this.

Europe, Croatia 050Afternoon morphs into evening, and on this one, part of the group re-assembles for dinner down by the water, near part of the city wall.

Determined to embrace the seafood culture of the Dalmatian coast (and not to eat meat too early on), I order  scampi – another dish I’ve never had! – along with some mussels. The scampi, while decent, is too much work for my novice fingers; the “salad” (which includes pâté that simply melts on my tongue!) and the mussels are much better.

On our post-dinner stroll, the group again breaks up and go separate ways. Karen, Sanj, Jackie and Julia – an Australian couple – and I walk around in search of somewhere to grab a drink or two. Jackie and Julia aren’t with us very long – they go back to the apartments after our first bar stop.

The rest of us stay where we are, trapped in a square on a patio between one venue playing live music and another blasting Euro-beats. We eventually leave, grabbing gelato on the way back.

Tomorrow is another day – one with a change of scenery.