a unique perspective on this crazy world

southern charm

Even if you are not interested in music, there is still plenty of reason to visit Savannah.  It first got on my radar when I saw the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  It’s always fun to read about a place while you are visiting so I bought a copy of the book in Savannah.  I would highly recommend it. The book is far superior to the film and the author (John Berendt) provides a lot of insight into Savannah.

I had always envisioned Savannah as a grande dame of the mythical South, one of the few parts of the United States I had not yet seen.  This is definitely Confederate country but Savannah is closer to Austin and Portland than to the old Deep South, at least the parts that I checked out.

I am very interested in history, architecture and all manner of artistic expression so the Historic District seemed the perfect place to hang out.  It’s also where all the Savannah Stopover events occur.  It’s a perfect place to play tourist.

What is astonishing and commendable is that this area actually exists in the grand form you will find it in 2018.  Like most of North America, the 1950s saw young families rush for the suburbs using new highways and the historic centre was abandoned and the historic homes became rundown and the neighborhood’s crime rate rose.  Many buildings were demolished.

Then, everything changed.  Seven local women formed the Historic Savannah Foundation to purchase and preserve the Davenport House, saving it just 24 hours before the scheduled demolition.  They mobilized others and saved and restored many historic homes.  Most of them are now inns or tourist attractions.  A few even sport ghosts.  If you aren’t staying in a “ghost” inn, you can take a ghost tour.

While I wouldn’t recommend staying in historic inns while doing the Savannah Stopover as you miss some of the benefits, I would definitely recommend them when you have an easy schedule and can take advantage of all the extra amenities, which generally include breakfast, pre-dinner wine and appetizers and post-dinner port and dessert.

eliza thompson house

I stayed in two different inns and both were excellent but the offerings were a little different.  At one, I had my own separate entrance.  At both I had a large room filled with antiques and history.

gastonian

The staff were amazing.

I think southern hospitality is a real thing.  There was an extra level of charm to many of my encounters and the accent is seductive.  The inns I stayed in were Eliza Thompson House and the Gastonian.  Eliza Thompson House is closer to the action of the Historic District while the Gastonian is closer to Forsyth Park.  The attractions of the Historic District are walkable from either inn.

There are some tourist attractions you can check out but it’s a small city so the prices for the small

famous fountain

museums seemed a bit steep and I was worried I would be disappointed so I spent my time wandering the streets from square to square.  Savannah has a European feel and there are small squares every few blocks.  They are filled with statues, flowers and benches and many are surrounded by stately mansions.

The most spectacular statue and flower place is Forsyth Park.  If you read the book, you will also want to look for the Mercer-Williams House.

You can take a riverboat cruise but some other tourists at the inn said it was boring and I took a steamship up the Mississippi in New Orleans so I stayed on shore.

It’s not healthy to live in the past too much but Savannah allows you to indulge in a little nostalgia and spend some time pretending you lived in a different century (but with 21st century plumbing and food! 😉

music lover nirvana

That is the fun of a much smaller festival.  I didn’t generally run into people more than once but it was easy to make connections and the venues are all close together and it is easy to hop between venues generally without having to wait in long lines.

Later that night I got braver and found W. Congress Street and was lured into The Jinx by the music, discovering Sun Parade.  I wanted to get my full breakfast at the inn so didn’t stay out too late the first night.  The charming gentleman at check-in had given me a good map with various highlights, including the route back to the inn from W. Congress along Bull Street.

My ability to navigate both the streets of Savannah, the locations of the various clubs and the band schedules improved considerably on day two and I think I hit every venue before the festival was over.  One of my favourites was the Congress Street Social Club.  Not only did it have an outdoor patio, it also had Shiner Bock, my favourite beer from my visit to Austin.

It also ended up providing the most fun story of the trip. By Friday night, I was pretty comfortable with Savannah and so checked out the after-hours lounge that was just for VIPs, volunteers and bands.  As a bonus, drinks were free 🙂  On Friday night, it wasn’t too busy but there was one lively young woman who decided we should all be dancing.  I’m not sure why but being lured onto dance floors to boogie with strangers is a very common activity in my travel life 😉  At least there were no fancy twirls and dips this time.

birthday club

I didn’t think much about it until the next day at the Congress Street Social Club when I was waiting in line to get a Shiner Bock and the guy behind me commented on my dance moves.  What was extra fun was that it turned out he was the lead singer for the band I had come to see, Birthday Club (from Houston).  While I was waiting for them to get set up, I also met Zack and John David who were incredibly entertaining (almost as good as the band).  That added some pressure for the band to be good so that they would be impressed by my musical taste.  Luckily, the band was great and I bought them a CD and a poster since they had bought me a beer and introduced them to the band as new fans. Everyone was thrilled.  I had even more fun at the after-hours club on Saturday night since I knew some band members by then and it was a lot livelier.

Unfortunately Zack and John David didn’t find me later in the night as we agreed then but it was

plastic picnic

easy to meet people and there was a really relaxed atmosphere everywhere I went.  The next band was also very good (Plastic Picnic from Brooklyn). Unfortunately they didn’t have any CDs.  I tried my best to buy CDs and support the artists since I know it’s a tough industry these days for emerging artists.

spectacular entrance

The most impressive venue is the stage at the Ships of the Sea Museum where the opening and closing acts are showcased.  The closing act was Of Montreal, a friend of the event and definitely a band to check out live.  They are a bit more established so likely a bit easier to find beyond the Savannah Stopover.

Another impressive venue was the Trinity United Methodist Church.  That’s where I discovered Colter Wall.  I went because he is from Swift Current

colter wall

in Canada not that far from where I spent my childhood.  To see someone from my own environs in faraway Savannah, Georgia was a no brainer.  He is a country guy so I didn’t know of him before Savannah.  While his performance was a little stiff, his voice is a revelation.

It’s the kind of event where you can talk to the performer so I told him I had been to Swift Current, that he sounded like a young Johnny Cash and asked which album I should buy. He acted like a nice Canadian kid and seemed pleased with all of it – and I loved the album so have been talking him up ever since.

vegabonds

I do have a soft spot for country so checking out bands from Nashville not out of character but also loved the Vegabonds who are Nashville but more southern rock than country.  I have listened to their album, What We’re Made of, a LOT.  Highly recommended.  And again, band was very friendly.

You get the idea… I would definitely recommend to come and check out Savannah Stopover for yourself and find your own musical discoveries.  You can also just come for the local talent, especially if you live nearby.  My final musical encounter of sorts was meeting Danielle Hicks at the after party.  Her show had been on the same time as another on my list so I just stayed at the same venue and missed her but she kindly gave me a CD at the party and converted me into a fan.

It was so much fun and I am sure I will return but it was agreed I had probably travelled further than anyone else at the festival so likely not every year – but for those living on the east coast, you don’t have that excuse 😉

p.s. also check out these bands.  They are all emerging and could use your support.

p.p.s. since I started writing this, had a fun random encounter.  Since the government mostly controls liquor distribution in Canada and sin taxes are insane, it is really rare to find a decent bottle of wine for under $10.  I’d taken a chance on a Chilean rose at my local store and apparently I was not the only person who thought it was a great deal so had to take the train to a bigger store that had some in stock to buy more.  It’s a specialty store that has products I can’t get at most stores so bought enough to make the visit worthwhile and looked like a pack mule when I got on the train.  A young woman named Jessica kindly offered me her seat but I told her I was fine.  While Canadians aren’t unfriendly, there is definitely some British reserve to the culture so assumed that would be the end of the conversation but I could see she wanted to chat so I found out she didn’t normally drink alcohol but did like rose so I showed her the label and provided some background on the Australian wine industry (where it all began for me).  More was discussed and I felt a little sad that I didn’t have very many stops on the route.  It made me realize how delightful human interaction can be and that we could all use more of it.  I do it a lot when I travel.  One of the reasons travel makes me so happy.  Some cultures are especially easy to interact with when you are a stranger so a little shout-out to Americans.  The rest of the world is wondering a little about some of their choices these days but they are one of the friendliest cultures on the planet and that made my trip to Savannah so much more enjoyable.

 

 

I am going to skip the chronology for a while and bop between continents so…

A lot of my travels are booked really far in advance so it was purely accidental when I realized I was hitting both Georgias within a couple of months of each other.  Both trips were great but about the only thing they have in common is the name.

stunning gardens

Getting to the state of Georgia was pure coincidence.  A couple of years ago I went to a Christmas party for a client and some consultants from Portland were able to attend the party.  I had been to South by Southwest not long before and got into an animated discussion of indie music with Brian, which made him recommend the Savannah Stopover.

It’s a fairly new music festival focused on young bands that are generally undiscovered except by a few fervent fans.  His sister had moved to Savannah from NYC and discovered a lot of fledgling bands drove through Savannah on their way to Austin and were keen to have more chances to showcase their music so she found some likeminded people and started Savannah Stopover where bands can play the weekend before South by Southwest.

If you are like me and knew about SXSW before the internet back when indie music was very indie and new band recommendations generally came from college radio stations or word of mouth, you will love the Savannah Stopover because it is like South by Southwest was in the early days before the corporations and Ashton Kutcher discovered it.

It’s actually fun to do both but Savannah will be a lot cheaper and easier to navigate than Austin.

Since it was going to take me close to a day to get there and get home, I went for the full VIP package, which is very reasonably priced and comes with some extra perks like hanging out with the bands late at night and an after party where I actually got to meet Brian’s sister, which was very cool and closed the loop on the whole lucky chapter.

she started it all

I got a little overly ambitious and tried to do historic inns at the same time so it was late and dark by the time I got to headquarters to pick up my festival pass so decided to not be too ambitious about finding all the venues that night.  Wanted to first enjoy the early evening complimentary wine and

they said kayne gives them the best bands 😉

snacks perk at the inn.  Was good enough to count as a light dinner.

I’d walked by the El-Rocko Lounge on my way to pick up my pass so decided I could give it a try.  The place was fairly deserted as the first band was just warming up so I got a seat at the bar with a great view of the stage and met one of the volunteers who was sitting beside me eating his dinner.  It would end up being extra meaningful.  Once things got started, a friendly young girl from Florida with some links to Canada sat down beside me and we chatted a bit.  In a completely bizarre twist of fate, I would learn her name was Danielle since we ended up completely unplanned in the exact same seats at El-Rocko for the final show of the festival.

There was lots of happy coincidence and serious fun, which we will explore more in the next post…

My journey to Zagreb was definitely mixed.  Both food and entertainment on KLM were sub-par and then there were issues with the plane in Amsterdam so we arrived later than expected and my luggage didn’t make the journey for a couple of days.  The hotel transfer I’d booked didn’t work so I had to find my own taxi but then I arrived at the hotel and everything changed!

The hotel wasn’t perfect.  Most staff were amazing but there were some that still adhered to surly and uncooperative Soviet era customer service standards.  The arrival staff were part of the great ones so that really cheered me up as I had only the clothes I was wearing and had worn new shoes, which seemed really comfortable at first, but were proving to not be comfortable at all worn for over 24 hours straight!  I stayed at the Arcohotel Allegra, which sadly recently closed.  I have stayed in some of their other properties and it’s a good value choice with a little more style than value usually gets you.

Much like Zagreb was a random choice, my luggage woes forced me into the city center to try and find some wardrobe options until my luggage arrived.  The big shopping street in Zagreb is Ilica.  It’s well worth your time to discover.  It’s a little extra challenging to shop in foreign cities and is definitely more pleasant when you don’t NEED anything but I discovered eastern Europe has gotten pretty stylish but at much more wallet friendly prices than in the west so it’s definitely worth putting on your itinerary.

Another area to check out is Vlaška.  It’s a charming street filled with well-preserved one-storey houses and traditional crafts workshops

cool croatian craft beer

Another wonderful surprise was the quality of eating and drinking, all at a wallet friendly price.  The best place for a fancy cocktail was in my hotel at Joe/s Bar.  Since it is now closed, a good alternative is the art deco bar at the Esplanade but it will hit your pocketbook harder.  If you want great value, check out Caffe Bar All In at Draškovićeva 31 – my first beer in Zagreb and a great introduction to the thriving craft beer scene.  If beer is your thing, also look for Pivnica Medvedgrad at Ilica 49.  I decided to take a chance and it was fabulous – an

beer heaven 🙂

outdoor beer garden in the back where you can sample 7 different craft beers and eat delicious and very filling rich cheesy štrukli, a Croatian speciality.  Don’t be in a hurry…

Croatian wine is also spectacular both in flavour and value as I learned in Dubrovnik.  It is next door to Italy so it’s not surprising the wine is so good but it’s still a big secret to most of the world.  My favourite glass was an outdoor patio near the fountain at the Esplanade Hotel.  I discovered you want the independent outdoor café near the Esplanade, not the Esplanade patio – the view is the same but the price differential is significant.  I also had a memorable glass of wine at the Café de

quite the decor

Paris just off Ilica (Trg Petra Preradovića 5) when I needed a break from shopping and a bathroom.  It’s worth stopping just to admire the over the top décor.

For dinner, there are plenty of options.  I ate in different parts of the city.  One memorable meal was at Vinodol, recommended by the charming guy on the front desk at the hotel.  It’s on the expensive side for Zagreb but, if you have been hanging out in western Europe, it will seem great value. Another good option is Agava on Tkalčićeva Street.  It’s also a more elegant option and there are lots of choices on the street for every budget.  The surprise option was the Hemingway Bar Bistro.

channeling paris 1930s

I worried they were just using Papa’s name and I would be disappointed but I was hungry and there was a lovely patio with a view of the square so I took a chance and even returned for a second visit as the ingredients were fresh, the portions plentiful and

spectacular view

the prices reasonable.

If it’s quirky local souvenirs you are looking for, check out Kloto on masarykova 14.

I mentioned the Hotel Esplanade in my last post.  I flew from Zagreb to Belgrade and then spent a couple of nights in Zagreb before heading home so splurged and stayed at the Esplanade.  If you appreciate grand, old world hotels, it is worth the extra dollars.  I did have a drink at the bar because it’s beautiful (and the bartenders are highly skilled) but skipped the outdoor bar and the restaurant as it was easy to eat and drink well in Zagreb for much less inflated prices.

My final recommendation for Zagreb would be to look for a good weather day and then do Zagreb 360.  It offers an outstanding view over the city as there are very few skyscrapers in the Old Town.  I went for sunset, which was sublime.

The charming young servers I encountered assured me tourists were discovering Zagreb and you need to go sooner than later.  It’s a beautiful city filled with great eating and drinking where you can still feel like a pioneer tourist.  Having seen the fate of Prague first hand, I am sure it won’t last 😉

 

 

surprising croatia!

I finally have time to write something for the blog and it is sadly poignant to be writing about Croatia the day they lost to France in the World Cup Final.  But how amazing their World Cup journey has been and France needed some luck to surpass them.  It’s a great metaphor to how you will feel as a tourist in Croatia.  It’s a tiny place but filled with all sorts of wonders from incredible Mediterranean sailing to fascinating world history to delicious cuisine – and it has only recently been part of the tourist map (and the World Cup) so what it has accomplished in such a short time is extraordinary.

So… back to the tourist trail.  If you are lazy – or short of time – there are some attractions that are mostly on level ground although they span a wider geographic area than I had anticipated.  Getting exercise in Zagreb is easy 🙂  Your route will depend on your starting point.  We’ll start at Ban Jelačić Square and branch out from there.

pretty park

A beautiful place to start is Nikola šubić Zrinski Square.  It was a meadow until the late 19th century when it was turned into an elegant public square.  A meteorological post and a bandstand were donated to the city by wealthy citizens and joined by a fountain known as “The Mushroom” shortly after the opening of the Zagreb waterworks in 1878.  There are also some museums in this part of town but I didn’t check them all out.

many treasures

My pick was the Arts and Crafts Museum, which I would recommend.  The highlight was a good collection of art deco pieces.  It’s a good insight into the development of arts and crafts in the Balkans.  The museum is next to another, more famous, statue of St. George.  It’s on Marshal Tito Square where you will also find The Croatian National Theatre, the Well of Life and Zagreb University.

The most spectacular public space is King Tomislav Square.  There is a monument dedicated to Croatia’s first king – the warrior who united Croatian lands for the first time.  There is lots of green space for lounging.  Opposite the square is the Main Railway Station.  The railway arrived in Zagreb in 1862, connecting it to Vienna and Budapest.  Visitors exiting the railway station were treated to a spectacular view of Zagreb.

art pavilion

The square also houses the Art Pavilion.  The Art Pavilion was built for the 1896 Budapest Millennial Exhibition using the latest technology and then dismantled and reassembled in Zagreb following the exhibition.  There are several art deco buildings next to the square that reward a slow walk and a sharp eye.  The other beautiful building is the Hotel Esplanade, built in 1925, to

historic hotel

accommodate guests on the Orient Express in high style.  These days you can stay, dine or drink at the hotel and pretend you are in an Agatha Christie novel 😉

If you are ambitious and interested in historical architecture and landmarks, there are some other things you can check out a few streets away.  The Kalina House has Art-Nouveau inspired ceramic tile details, including stylized bats. Nearby is Zagreb’s first skyscraper at the corner of Masarykova and Gundulićeva.  The nine story building set records in 1933 Zagreb.  This is Nikola Tesla territory and you will find a statue of him reminiscent of Rodin’s The Thinker.  It’s also worth looking for the Oktogon off shopping street Ilica.  It is an elegant reminder of the trajectory of commerce over the centuries – a spectacular arcade full of extravagant materials rather than a Fedex cardboard box on your doorstep…

A final quirky thing to search for is The Grounded Sun.  It’s an unusual bronze sphere celebrating the sun.  It inspired Davor Preis to create the Zagreb Solar System – metal spheres representing the planets are placed in positions all over the city.  The sizes of the planets and the distances separating them are all in exact proportion to Kožarić’s original sun.  A quirky way to explore intriguing Zagreb…

over to the dark side ;)

It’s certainly worth checking out religious Zagreb but you will spend most of your time – and have the most fun – in the secular part, which is now pretty much the entire town.  Look for The Bloody Bridge.  It is an alley connecting Radićeva with Tkalčićeva.  It is definitely a highlight of a visit to Zagreb.  In the past, there was a creek separating church-controlled Kaptol from the secular settlement of Gradec.  Everything on the east side of the creek belonged to Kaptol and everything on the west side to Gradec.  The bridge over the creek was the site of many battles between the opposing sides.

adorable 🙂

The bridge was torn down in 1899 and the creek was paved over creating the lively commercial Tkalčićeva street.  No doubt the entrepreneurial ventures have changed over the decades but it is still full of small boutiques, cafes, restaurants and bars worthy of repeat visits.

Close to Tkalčićeva is the Dolac Market.  It is an open air food market and will remind you that you

strawberries to remember…

are in the Mediterranean.  Even if you don’t have any facilities to cook anything, you can buy luscious fruit that has the full flavour of the sunshine it has received.  If you’d like a souvenir you can take home, consider olive oil.

You can also wander up the hill via Radićeva.  You will pass a statue of St George after he has slayed the dragon and then you will come to the Stone Gate whereby you can enter the Upper Town.  It was built in the Middle Ages and there is a small chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary who is the patron saint of Zagreb.  Kamenita ulica (“Stone Street”) is the site of the oldest pharmacy in Zagreb, founded in 1355 and still in business.

While your journey in this part of Zagreb is almost exclusively about history, do check out The Museum of Broken Relationships.  It is small but they have done a fantastic job with the curation.  There are all sorts of poignant stories told via objects and correspondence.  There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

Opatička is a pleasant stroll past markers of Zagreb’s history.  From there you can head to St Mark’s Square, site of the picturesque St.

amazing roof

Mark’s Church.  St Mark’s Square was the main square of the settlement of Gradec and the heart of the secular Upper Town.  St. Mark’s Church was built in the 13th century. Over the centuries additional details were added in different styles, including the distinctive roof tiles showcasing the coat of arms of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia (added in the late 19th century).

There is also a beautiful baroque church on St. Catherine’s SquareSt. Catherine’s Church was built by the Jesuits in the first half of the 17th century.  Be sure to check out the view over Zagreb from behind the church.

If you want a break from climbing hills you can wander the Strossmayer Promenade.  It is a tree-lined path with beautiful vistas of the city below.  Also look out for Lotrščak Tower.  It is the only

worth the climb

preserved mediaeval tower from the 13th century fortifications.  It is famous for its cannon, which is fired every day at noon.

From there you can head down to Ban Jelačić Square.  This is the main square of modern Zagreb and you will likely pass through it several times.  It has been the city’s commercial centre since 1641.  If you are ambitious you can walk.  It’s downhill now!  You can also take the 66 metre long funicular that connects the Upper Town and Lower Town, the shortest passenger cable railway in the world.  Of course, if you walk, you can indulge in a treat in one of the myriad cafes around the square without guilt 😉

 

a lot to explore…

I ended up in Zagreb somewhat by accident.  My original plan was to fly to Amsterdam on a great seat sale but the algorithms worked differently if you flew Europe to Canada or Canada to Europe, which made the flight several hundred dollars higher than advertised.  I’ve been to Amsterdam a lot so I just picked a location that gave me a better deal so I ended up in Zagreb!

I had considered spending time in Zagreb on my way to Dubrovnik but I didn’t have time so it was a virgin travel experience for me.  As usual, I was really busy before I got on the plane and I knew enough about Croatia to just arrive and figure it out sitting in sidewalk cafes.  The charm of arriving somewhere having done almost no research is that the trip will be filled with surprise and – if you get lucky – you will be totally charmed by the discoveries.

Zagreb absolutely fits this profile perfectly.  Croatia as a destination is amazing and still fairly under the radar.  That is changing fast though so don’t wait to plan your trip.  Dubrovnik is already swarming with tourists but you’ll still get a friendly welcome and great prices in Zagreb.  There is enough to see and do to fill several days, especially if you are a history buff.

ancient ‘hood

The tourist board publishes a Zagreb Step by Step guide, which may be available at your hotel.  It’s an excellent resource with details on the key attractions grouped by neighborhood as well as aerial photos and maps noting where everything is located.  As a tourist, you are likely to be focused on the ancient part of the city.  The west has done a lot more marketing but the east is full of complicated history and historic monuments that will make you feel like you are on discovery rather than a packaged holiday with way too many others ticking off the famous sites.

The old town is a bit hilly and covers enough territory that you will want to allow yourself a few days to cover all of it.  You can move randomly or at whim or you can follow the course of history.

I hadn’t appreciated how old Zagreb was.  To see its beginnings you will have to climb a hill.  It’s possible settlements were established as early as the 8th or 9th century.  What is known is that a religious settlement was established around 1094 on Kaptol hill.  The first bishop of Zagreb was a Czech named Duh (which actually means “spirit) appointed by King Ladislav.

famous twin towers

zagreb origin story

A cathedral was commissioned and is a must see destination.  The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary has two soaring twin towers and is a defining symbol of Zagreb.  The cathedral was added to and repaired over the centuries so it includes all sorts of different architectural styles as whatever style was popular at the time was incorporated into the expansion or restoration.  Renaissance walls were added between 1512 and 1521 to protect the city from Ottoman Empire raids.

There are other sights to check out once you have walked up the hill.  It’s a peaceful place and allows you a chance to wander in a unique atmosphere as this part of the city was a religious compound cut off from the more secular Zagreb that evolved around it as the centuries transpired.  It will inspire you to further explorations of the charming nature of this city still under the radar of mass tourism.

 

 

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