a unique perspective on this crazy world

Archive for April, 2018

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.

 

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