a unique perspective on this crazy world

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.

 

 

temptation everywhere ;)

We’ve covered the proper tourist attractions that I visited in Panama and they are definitely worth visiting but I spent several days in Casco Viejo and most of the fun I had in Panama was just hanging out pretending to be a local.

If you like chain hotels, casinos and cosmopolitan glitz, you will be happy in Panama City proper.  If you want culture, charm and a sense of discovery, you will be beguiled by Casco Viejo.  I saw Panama City on the Hop on Hop Off bus and nothing enticed me to cross the causeway.

I’ve already mentioned some of my favourite places to sleep, eat and enjoy the evening.  There are plenty of great options and everything is an easy walk.  There are a few other pleasures in which to indulge.

As previously noted, Casco Viejo is undergoing a renaissance so for lovers of history and/or architecture, you can wander the streets and old colonial squares and admire the restorations amid the decay.  You need to pay attention to the hotel’s instructions but there are plenty of streets that are perfectly safe and full of worthy sites.

It took some time to find Plaza de Francia.  You should likely ask for directions 🙂  You definitely want to find it as you will have great views to the rest of Panama City and you will find all sorts of enticing stands showcasing local crafts.  It’s an homage to the French role in the building of the Panama Canal and to the 22,000 workers who died building it.

shopping overdrive

If colour and local crafts are one of your passions (guilty as charged), Panama will prove deadly to your wallet 😉  There are several indigenous tribes still creating intricate and colourful crafts based on centuries of tradition as well as some young artisans using the past as inspiration for 21st century creations.  A lot of the traditional crafts yield accessories that look surprisingly contemporary.

I became a little obsessed with bib necklaces and earrings rendered in sophisticated beading.  The earrings generally cost about the same as a chai latte at Starbucks – and will certainly last longer.  My other addiction was molas.  Molas are produced by the Kuna women from the San Blas Islands.  It’s a form of quilting.  Traditionally it is an intricately patterned cloth panel used to adorn their traditional blouses.  Brightly contrasting fabrics are combined using intricate stitching and embroidery to form panels that depict traditional life.

Traditional molas have now become collectors’ items.  The concept has also been translated to lots of everyday items.  You can help save the planet by purchasing a high quality brightly decorated bag to carry your purchases 😉

You can also find baskets, nut carvings and masks.

You definitely want to spend some time at Plaza Bolivar.  It’s a tribute to

great spot to take a break

Simon Bolivar, possibly the biggest hero in Latin America.  It’s surrounded by lovely colonial buildings and there are plenty of places to enjoy food or a drink under an umbrella people-watching.  The other gorgeous plaza is Plaza Herrera where you will find the American Trade Hotel and Casa Casco, already noted as great places to spend time.

If fun in the sun is more your thing than indigenous crafts or colonial architecture, you can also hang out in a beach resort in thoroughly modern Panama.  It doesn’t matter your purpose.  It’s the 21st century and Panama is part of the zeitgeist.  Go while it still has character and locals are excited to welcome new visitors!

 

 

 

monkey business…

finally, a chance to post something new!

I knew about Panama’s biodiversity before I set foot in the country – or at least left the airport for the first time.  I had been through the airport a few times already and they do a great job of promoting the Panamanian jungle.  Sticking up some photos on a wall is a little easier than building infrastructure though so I discovered getting into the jungle was going to be more difficult than I had expected.

The key problem is that tourism is still pretty underdeveloped and mostly aimed at people hanging out at beach resorts or spending a day before they start their cruise through the Panama Canal.  If you come with a decent sized group, it is not too hard as there are some tour operators for hire but established group tours you can join as a single traveller are not really part of the landscape.

I did a lot of research and settled on Jerin at Panama Day Trips as he was responsive and willing to include me with a couple of other guests so the cost for the day would be $105 USD.  Not a cheap day out but very fair compared to the other options.  I did the Wild Side of Panama Canal Tour and would highly recommend it.

hangin with the big boats

You start early at 7am but get picked up at your hotel.  The tour follows the Panama Canal north to the town of Gamboa, where the Chagres River meets the canal.  There we changed our mode of transport to a boat and rode the waters of the Panama Canal along with the gigantic ships transiting the canal.  This was certainly part of the experience but we were heading for Gatun Lake.

Gatun Lake is a gigantic artificial body of water created as part of the

noisy monkeys

construction of the Panama Canal.  As part of this process, the Monkey Islands were created.  Several species of monkey roamed wild in Panama in the habitat that would now be part of the canal.  In order to protect the monkeys from the encroachment upon their habitat, they were relocated to Monkey Island, a land mass that was high enough to survive the flooding.

The various species did not play nicely with each other, however, so

don’t mess with geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys

you will visit various small islands showcasing different types of monkeys. – mantled howler, white-faced capuchin and Geoffroy’s tamarin.  The guide will try to tempt the monkeys with food so they will come on the boat for great photos.  Since their habitat was messed up by the Panama Canal, it’s OK to feed the monkeys.  They could not survive in the wild.

Several tour companies visit the Monkey Islands so the monkeys were full and we didn’t have any jump on board but still got a close view of the action and some great photos.

After the cruising on the canal, we headed to the Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park.  It is a premier birding spot and definitely worth checking out but – as a safari veteran – I knew mid-day was likely to be disappointing.  We did see a sloth and a few birds but it was underwhelming after all the biodiversity I was expecting from the Biomuseo.

I DO believe all those species exist in Panama.  If seeing wildlife and

one of those amazing birds

especially birds is your main objective, the better option is to stay at an eco-resort near the park so that you can come early or late in the day to see nature when it is not sleeping or hiding in the shade 🙂  It’s still a pleasant walk and you get to have a nice lunch on a terrace.  While I didn’t see the 385 species apparently seen by the Audubon Society in a 24 hour period, it was still good value.

The guide, John, was a business school graduate from Venezuela who decided he preferred being outside.  He was smart, funny and very knowledgeable about both Panama and the wildlife.  He also had a not surprisingly sardonic view of life in Latin America where things are definitely improving but infrastructure, regulation and corruption could still use a lot of work.

The social dynamics were very interesting as we had a Venezuelan immigrant, a socially liberal Canadian, a loud American guy from the southwest who started sentences “I’m not racist but…” and his meek charming wife who tried to make sure his comments didn’t cause too much trouble.  I was quite sure all of his opinions about everything in life had been set in stone long ago so there was no point in presenting logical arguments 😉

It was great to actually BE on the canal and to get out of the city, see some wildlife and breath in the fresh air from the rainforest so make sure to sign up for Panama Day Trips!  They have other tour options if this doesn’t sound perfect to you.

 

under construction…

I have now travelled so much in the developing world, it’s normal for me.  Tourists to Panama tend to be spoiled westerners, often spending a day or two in Panama City before joining a cruise ship.  As previously noted, the economy in Panama is expanding rapidly and they are working on infrastructure so there will no doubt be improvements in the future.  At present, it’s easy to walk around Casco Viejo but, if you want to see tourist attractions further afield, you will generally need a taxi or private driver.  Neither is cheap and I just wanted to see a few attractions so decided to take a chance on the Hop on Hop Off bus I saw advertised on the internet.

The hotel approved of my choice and even gave me a discount coupon.  You can get a 24 or 48 hour ticket.  Since I wanted to see both the Panama Canal and the biomuseo, I opted for the two day ticket.  It worked and the price was reasonable so I wouldn’t discourage you from following the same strategy.  You just need to remember it’s a developing country.  The hours of operation are a bit limited so it’s not great if you want to see a ship go through the canal, which generally occurs early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  If you like to rush through attractions, you could see both on the 24 hour ticket.  The second day the bus didn’t show up for the first departure.  It wasn’t clear why but we did eventually get on the bus and I got to chat with strangers.  It’s really a choice of budget vs convenience.

frank gehry magic

Whatever way you get to the Biomuseo, you should go.  There is a cool Canadian connection.  The building was designed by Frank Gehry so is an impressive and unique architectural structure.  The museum design is by Bruce Mau who has collaborated with Frank Gehry before and is a fascinating and optimistic man. You feel that in the museum, which is so brand spanking new it wasn’t even fully completed when I visited in March 2017 so will continue to get better.  There are lots of eager young Panamanian staff to show you around.

More importantly, you will likely learn some new facts about geology and biology.  Until I visited, I hadn’t appreciated that long ago there was a North and South America.  It was Panama that turned it into a contiguous land mass creating the question… how many continents are there really?

The Biomuseo’s permanent exhibition is titled Panama: Bridge of Life. Eight galleries and eight “devices of wonder” explore the origin of the Panamanian isthmus and its gigantic impact on the planet’s biodiversity.

Until about 3 million years ago, there was a gap between the American land

colourful interior

masses and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans co-mingled.  Tectonic plates shifted and initially marine volcanoes created land masses on the ocean floor high enough to become islands in the gap between North and South America.  Sediment kept building until a land bridge was created between the two continents in the area known today as the isthmus of Panama.  This major geological event also separated the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and created the Gulf Stream and other disruptions to ocean currents and marine life.

This changed the composition of the flora and fauna in Panama.  Since animals were now able to freely roam potentially from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, Panama ended up with an incredible diversity of wildlife and birds.  Since animals also often track seeds and the climate is very hospitable, it also has a wide diversity of plants.  You can see both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean easily in a single day.

biodiversity in action

The museum is new so it uses a multi-pronged approach to tell the story of Panama.  There is a gallery of biodiversity, a three-story projection space with ten screens that immerse the visitor in an audiovisual rendering of the natural marvels that compose all of Panama’s ecosystems and a room filled with replicas of animals and plants that migrated through Panama.  There is also information on the human history of Panama, estimated to have begun 15,000 years ago.  Aquariums depict the impact of the creation of the isthmus on marine life in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  You will leave entertained and well-informed and ready to check out the incredible biodiversity of Panama.

A visit to the Biomuseo will encourage you to get into the rainforest and see the biodiversity for yourself.  That is where we are headed next…

 

 

 

it’s all about the canal!

finally, a blog post!

If you were playing word association and the first word was Panama, the next invariably would be Canal.  The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel.  Panama is probably the most famous isthmus in the world.  It was discovered in 1513 by Balboa.  That began the canal debate.  As we’ve talked about in the Chile posts, ships had to make a long, expensive and dangerous tour down the Americas, past Cape Horn and back up the other side before the Panama Canal.  Eliminating all that extra time by crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific through Central America was obviously a great commercial idea.

checking out the canal

The challenge of course is that Panama is largely rainforest.  The French started the project in 1880, encouraged by the success of the Suez Canal.  Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, started a sea-level canal.  Panama was not Egypt.  Rather than desert, it was largely rainforest and the rain caused landslides and yellow fever and malaria killed thousands of workers.  In 1888, the French gave up.

That’s when Teddy Roosevelt got involved.  Until you come to Panama, you will likely not appreciate that it is very close to Colombia and was a Colombian territory until 1903.  The US had purchased the assets in the canal zone from the French in 1902 for $40 million.  Thus began a bizarre colonial relationship and lots of American meddling in Central America.  Colombia wasn’t happy to have the USA building things in its territory so the US decided to support a Panamanian independence movement and Panama became an independent country in 1903.

This gave the US tremendous control over Panama and the Panama Canal.

miraflores locks

The initial start was not promising as the Americans had not learned from the French mistakes.  In 1905 a railroad specialist named John Stevens was appointed as chief engineer and he incorporated new technology and convinced Roosevelt that a lock canal was better suited to the terrain.  He was certainly instrumental to the success of the Panama Canal but his chief sanitary officer Dr. William Gorgas also contributed tremendously.  He thought mosquitoes were carrying the yellow fever and malaria that was plaguing the workers so he went on a mission to fumigate homes and clean up bodies of water.  He wiped out yellow fever in 1905 and greatly reduced malaria.  Stevens quit in 1906 and was replaced by Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals.  It took until 1914 to finish the canal and the American Society of Civil Engineers considers it one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

There are three locks along the canal route, which lift ships from sea level to 85 feet above where they transit through man-made Gatun Lake.  It officially opened on August 15, 1914 but the grand opening ceremony had to be downgraded due to the start of World War I.  The Panama Canal and politics have always been bedfellows.  The original deal the Americans cut was that they would control the canal forever but Jimmy Carter signed a treaty in 1977 that would transfer control of the canal to the local Panama Canal Authority by December 31, 1999.

getting close to ships

Even more interestingly, Nicaragua was the Americans’ first choice for the canal but a very effective propaganda campaign about the danger of volcanoes in Nicaragua shifted the plan to Panama.  Apparently there is now some Chinese billionaire looking to give Nicaragua its own canal.

So, you can thank Teddy for getting it built and Jimmy for allowing the new Panama to emerge.  Not only did Panama take control of the canal, they expanded it to allow today’s modern supertankers to pass through the canal.  The expanded Panama Canal was opened on June 26, 2016.

You can learn all of this – and more – when you visit.  It can be tricky to actually see a ship passing through the canal on a random visit but it is impressive no matter when you arrive.  There are great exhibits and video describing both the history and the function of the canal.

For me, it was a multifaceted experience.  I probably should have been an engineer so certainly appreciated that aspect of the canal.  Also love history and Panama’s history is fascinating.  Finally, I spent several years working for a client in the shipping industry so seeing real ships in the Panama Canal had an extra resonance for me.  The names on the shipping containers were like the names of family members.

 

 

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