Hallo, Berlin …

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

Europe, Croatia 239The journey from Split to Berlin is long and a bit tedious.

Split’s airport is packed; there’s not a seat to be had, so I spend my wait for the plane standing in one place – trying not to smack people.

When the flight’s finally up in the air, I spend it in some (rare) silence, as everyone around me’s speaking German.

By the time the flight lands, and I grab my luggage, make my way through a customs check and board transit to the hostel at which I’m staying, it’s 10:30 p.m. and I’m absolutely wiped.

Even after check-in, I feel a bit out of sorts. Trying to call home via Skype – normally a breeze – is an exercise in frustration. By the time I get relatively settled, my stomach is growling and whining at me in anger.

I step out for some fresh air and late-night food – in this case, the doner stand across the street. I wolf down that doner like it’s my last meal, and I don’t even feel stuffed.

I retire for the night shortly after that, in hopes this cold shrinks, and I can escape the cloudiness enveloping my tired brain.

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.

Touchdown in Dubrovnik

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

Saturday, September 1st.

dubrovnik old townThe long voyage is finally over. I’ve made it to Dubrovnik!

Stepping off the plane, I’ve been bracing myself for some searing Croatian heat. But there’s a bit of a breeze, which makes it more bearable than expected. I glance at the rocky, hilly landscape as I cross the tarmac towards the main terminal.

The driver who picks me up in the departures lounge turns out to be the guy who runs the budget apartment complex I (and the tour group I’m meeting) happen to be staying at for the next couple of nights.

I have read in previous online reviews that he can be gruff; from our initial meeting, he seems pretty civil to me.

What isn’t cool is the fact the airline – in transit – has destroyed one of the arms of my backpack, making it impossible to evenly bare my load as we walk towards the hotel owner’s car.

Sitting in the back seat of the four-door sedan, I simply try to take in the scenery as we zip down the road – the cypress trees, the rugged hillside, and the red, clay roofs of homes and other buildings. The most breathtaking view, though, is of the Adriatic Sea below.

The hotel owner mentions it’s a bit misty today, which apparently isn’t common for Dubrovnik at this time of year. I don’t mind in the least.

When we arrive, I’m met by the owner’s daughter, Magdelena – a skinny, leggy girl, probably no more than 18 or 19, if that. She walks me to my accommodation, points out the tour group’s meeting spot with a languid, I-don’t-really-care gesture, lets me into the apartment, hands me the keys, points out the beds, and leaves.

While taking a pre-dinner shower, I hear my roommate-to-be’s voice greeting me through the bathroom door. When I do meet her face-to-face, I find out she’s Jennifer from Austin, Texas. I also meet some other fellow travellers, before finding out they’re with another tour group that’s headed for Albania.

Dang. False start. Take two.

I meet 12 more people who are actually part of my tour group. There’s a contingent from Australia (a brother-sister duo, a couple named Jackie and Julia, and two women probably a bit younger than me, travelling solo), a lone New Zealander who’s been travelling on her own for a number of weeks,  and a couple – Rob and Richard – from Toronto! (Proof the world is, in some ways, smaller than we think.)

The last member of our group to arrive is a fellow from Bristol named Sanj, who’s just spent the better part of the day in transit. Travelling hell aside, he seems pretty easygoing and good to speak with. Finally, we meet our trip leader, Livia, who’s from Hungary.

After our introductory group meeting, we head down to dinner – except for my fellow Torontonians, who have gone  ahead of us to find their own restaurant.

We pick a place in the Old City, where I have a seafood risotto, and prošek, a sweet dessert wine (very sweet, indeed). The dish itself is very tasty, but the portion’s huge; the prawns arrive at our dining table served in their entirety (feelers, eyes, legs and all). I don’t usually have prawns, period, never mind whole prawns. It doesn’t disturb me. It’s just … different.

After the meal – and some good introductory conversation – most folks turn in for the night. Livia, Jennifer, Sanj and I walk about for a look around, trying to find Jennifer something to eat (turns out she doesn’t eat seafood), and enjoying the remainder of our evening.

It’s a pretty laid-back start to our trip (which is just as well). Let’s see what the next day brings.

(Photo courtesy of Bed and Breakfast World.com.)