a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘croatia’

the stormy seas of independence…

By pure random chance, I happened to be in Croatia a few days before the Scots voted on independence.  You cannot, of course, time your vacation to Croatia to coincide with such an interesting time to be in a Balkan state.  There is no question the Balkans are a fascinating place – historically, culturally and geographically.  A visit is really rewarding.

It’s rare for me to see a random post on facebook that I really feel is worth sharing but I am going to link to this one as it is a witty representation of much I have observed of world politics.  Not all countries are represented and there is no Croatia imagery.  But the Canadian quote sums us up rather succinctly.  I am a huge fan of history and know far more about the facts and dynamics of my own country than most politicians, less alone most voters.

http://www.tickld.com/x/capitalism-explained-this-is-so-accurate-it-hurts

I understand the seduction of independence, flag waving and nation states.  But we would all be better served in the 21st century to be getting together and trying not to let the planet turn into Mad Max…

elaphite islands

elaphite islands

Anyway, to the travel experience!  One of the most unique aspects of Croatia is the abundance of islands to explore.  Many are tiny.  Some are not even inhabited.  It is a playground of fantasy for sailors.  I like boats but my sailing qualifications more or less end at a pretty good ability to tie knots thanks to my early years as a Brownie 😉

So, I thought I would sign up with Amico for a cruise of the Elaphite Islands.  It started pretty slow as apparently the ship is filled by numerous travel agencies so you start to wonder if you are going to leave the harbour…

http://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/croatia/dubrovnik-around/elaphite-islands/

They do ply you with homemade brandy before lunch… perhaps so you won’t realize nothing is happening? 😉  But eventually the trip gets underway and you bounce over the waves and reflect on the clear blue skies.

And – hopefully for you – that will continue for the remainder of the day.  Our cruise was a little different… at first the rain was benign and easy to ignore but it wasn’t long before the skies opened up and people had water running down their faces.  Being from a city where rain is a daily possibility, I was prepared.  I just put on my fleece and positioned myself under my travel umbrella.  Girl scouts are prepared 🙂

I was impressed by some young guy trying to frantically unfurl the canvas coverings that were meant to protect the ship in bad weather.  I think that should have been the job of the crew but customer service is still being developed in eastern Europe 😉

Apparently the gods did not totally hate us and we had a brief interval of sunshine when we reached our first island, Lopud.  The beach was deserted, the outdoor bar opposite the dock was closed and the monastery was under renovation so it’s obvious that, like most people from lovely climates, the Croatians are kind of wimps 🙂

I decided I would be adventurous and follow the signs to the mysterious art installation up the hill.  It was a great choice.  I saw a lot of the island, especially the flora, and the art installation offered a disrupting perspective that is what art is supposed to do!

It was called “Black Horizon”.  The customer service was eastern European style so had no idea what I was doing… but it looked like you went behind the curtain… it was totally black.  It was a former communist country so wasn’t sure about safety standards so crawled around the edge of the room so that I didn’t break my ankle or plunge into an unseen pit.  After a few minutes, the room did not seem absolutely pitch black and I could see a tiny strip of white light where there was a tiny break in the wall – the horizon!

experiencing art

experiencing art

I’m not sure the artist’s intentions but it was a really interesting visual and emotional experience, especially for someone living in a very safe western country where being thrust unexpectedly into a blackened room is unlikely to be an everyday event.

By the time I got back to the boat for lunch, the rain clouds were threatening again.  But it ended up being serendipity.  No one wanted to chance eating lunch on the roof of the boat so we took turns squeezing into the tables on the main deck, which resulted in random and unexpected pairings.  Most of my lunch time was spent with the guy who had battened down the hatches in the boat and his best friend.

It was pretty obvious as soon as they spoke that they were from Scotland.  Ryan’s dad was a fisherman so that was why he knew what to do on a boat when rain came calling (he is Scottish :)).  His friend Peter was more the suave ladies’ man.  Ryan was especially patriotic and very keen on the independence vote.  He had also worked in Norway so we became friends with a Norwegian guy since I had been to Norway only a couple of months ago.

My new friends convinced me I should just hang out at a pub with them for the next two islands.  On a sunnier day, I would likely recommend a different strategy.  But there is also something amazing about travel when you find a couple of people who can create the catalyst to turn an everyday event into a memory for the nursing home.

rocking the waves!

rocking the waves!

Making friends with Ryan and Peter totally changed the day.  It had been pleasant enough but a little boring as a solo traveller.  But we spent the trip back to Dubrovnik on the upper deck on really choppy seas.  The rain had stopped but the weather was angry.  What most people didn’t realize is that it’s better to be on the upper deck when the waves are high.

Ryan kept running the free (questionable and homemade) wine to the upper deck.  Peter had portable speakers so kept the tunes running.  A few people tried to dance but the waves made that more act of comedy than act of seduction.  But I ended up being part of an international impromptu party on a rocking (literally!) boat on the Adriatic Sea.

When we finally exited on our groggy sea legs, Ryan announced it had been one of the best days of his life.  I would have to concur 🙂

 

port city economics…

I am still alive… no capture by Somali pirates (Captain Phillips is on in the background) or more mundane calamities… just clients wanting me to work – how dare them 😉  But still stories to tell so will try and post them all before I get on another plane…

Port cities tend to be gorgeous.  Port cities also tend to be popular.  And prone to the lure of the potential dollars cruise ships might offer.  It is likely obvious by now I have never been on a cruise ship – and I really doubt I ever will be.  But I live in a city where floating hotels sit in the harbour pretty much every day.

But here I am not a tourist… and think the city is big enough to absorb the hordes without every street being filled with fanny packs and iphones.  Dubrovnik is not so large… so a little of the magic faded away as I descended on the Old Town post-breakfast just in time to cavort with the cruise ship hordes.

Mostly it was a shock from the explorer splendour of my first post-rain moonlight dappled view.

The advantage of cruise ships is that the passengers only get a few hours off the ship.  I was a little obsessed with the idea of going to Montenegro and managed to stumble across a placard organizing tours so signed up immediately.

not your average walled city

not your average walled city

The agent also provided great advice for navigating the town.  Wait until circa 3pm to hit the city walls.  The cruise ship passengers will have run back to the ship and you will have the city almost to yourself.
It ended up I was not as alone as I hoped… but I walked some parts of the city walls alone – and mostly it was a tiny handful of fellow travellers.  I wandered for so long that apparently I was on my second round before I got kicked off the circuit.  The starting point is not very clear… but the route is spectacular.

Castles, city walls, moats, containers for tossing boiling oil on would-be medieval terrorists… you can never be bored by this stuff – but I have seen a lot. So the city walls of Dubrovnik are spectacular!  They should definitely be on your list.

I would recommend going super early or late in the afternoon to avoid the cruise ship hordes.  While they are in full

sculpture with a view...

sculpture with a view…

descent, hit a museum or a beach.  I went to the Museum of Modern Art.  The art didn’t really blow me away but the setting was spectacular – and there was some cool sculpture that looked particularly enrapturing in the light.

It was unclear the exact price for that museum but the museum pass advertised seemed like a decent deal so I just went with the flow.  If you will be in Dubrovnik for a few days, I think the museum pass is a good deal.

You can also wander the cobblestone streets of the Old Town.  When you get off the main drag, there are far less tourists and – in good weather – lots of stalls selling local crafts and foodstuffs.  I would especially recommend looking for olive oil.  I learned a long time ago to try the local olive oil in southern Europe.  It is also about terroir and is as nuanced as a fine Bordeaux.

You should also wander the side alleys.  I wasn’t sure if it was safe the first night.  I think it probably is.  But it is definitely safe – and romantic – to wander in the daylight.

DO NOT be lured into dining by random touts.  I was tired and it was OK but every other meal I had in Dubrovnik was so much better I would really recommend a bit of research in advance.

getting lost on the city walls

getting lost on the city walls

Even when you have to share it with a lot of strangers, Dubrovnik is without doubt a place of fantasy and magic… I’ve just come back from DisneyWorld so I know a thing or two about that kind of stuff…

Hey, I have lived many lives so we will be talking Mickey in the future… and Mickey’s world is pretty spectacular… but very artificial… if you want a real world place that feels like a 15th century Walt was throwing pixie dust around, Dubrovnik will not disappoint 😉

welcome to the hotel california, er, excelsior…

I am pretty sure the Hotel California does not exist.  But, perhaps, the Eagles took a vacation in Dubrovnik and stayed at the Hotel Excelsior…

It’s a fantastic hotel and I am a super fan so highly encourage you to stay there.  It’s not cheap but you will get used to that in Dubrovnik.  It’s not Scandinavia – but it’s western Europe pricing in eastern Europe so you will hear people complaining.

There are lots of cheaper places you can go in the world so go there until you have the budget for Dubrovnik because staying at the Hotel Excelsior is really worth the price tag.

http://www.adriaticluxuryhotels.com/en/hotel-excelsior-dubrovnik/hotel-history/

There is a beach along with a gorgeous indoor pool.  A spa.  Four different restaurants.  A bar with a view – and live music on certain nights. A sumptuous breakfast, including great Croatian sparkling wine.  The spectacular view while you are eating breakfast all part of your room rate.  There are world class views from every level and the walk to the old town is under 10 minutes, maybe 15 in heels 🙂

You will need to pay attention though!  Part of what makes the hotel so spectacular is that it is built into the side of a cliff.  But that is also what makes it hard to leave… the exit varies depending on where you are trying to go and the signage is a bit confusing.  Of course, if you use the elevators I am sure it is a lot more straightforward but there are old-fashioned grand staircases so I always use them to get extra exercise.

I got even more extra exercise as I kept going up and down staircases trying to figure out how to get to reception and out of the hotel!  After a few false starts, I finally had success and spilled out into the warmth of a Mediterranean evening.

As usual, I was fighting jet lag so had a short nap upon arrival so that I wouldn’t fall asleep in my dinner.  It proved to be a great plan as it meant I was still awake enough post-dinner to venture into the Old Town.

It is easy to be seduced to never leave the hotel but I did come to see Dubrovnik.  If your travel plans mirror mine, I would highly recommend my itinerary, born of pure chance.

As usual, I had been working crazy hours so that I could escape from my regular mundane life so my research was pretty sketchy.  But that can also work in one’s favour.  You just have to be lucky enough to be heading for a destination that feels cinematic.

seductive or what?

seductive or what?

I was almost falling asleep on my feet but as long as I didn’t sit down I figured it should be safe to do a little exploring.  I am so glad I did.  It was my most magical night in Dubrovnik.  I’m not sure if it was Monday night… or the end of the rain.

It’s worth it any night but that Monday was especially magical.  There are two gates to the Old Town.  From Hotel Excelsior you will walk through the Pile Gate.  The other gate might be equally spectacular.

how often can you cross a drawbridge?

how often can you cross a drawbridge?

My journey involved crossing the drawbridge and then meandering through the old city walls like a denizen from Game of Thrones, finally emerging in the town square.  You will feel like you have been transposed onto a film set.

What I hadn’t anticipated due to my lack of research is that the Old Town is lit up at night.  The streets glow, the stones beneath your feet having been polished by over 500 years of scuffed leather.

The stained glass windows of the church will captivate you.  The interplay of light and shadow on the ancient walls will toy with your senses.  It’s not often you get to feel truly medieval – even if your modern footwear gives away your true genesis.

spectacular stained glass

spectacular stained glass

I didn’t want to fall and hit my head on the polished cobblestones because I was too tired to stand up so I had to reluctantly head back to the hotel.  But I walked slowly, lapping up the atmosphere of this unique place.

I hadn’t yet learned its history but I knew it was the kind of place people would fight over.  Luckily for me, I didn’t have to worry about the strife, just imagine it as the stones told their stories and I crossed the drawbridge back to the hotel.  This time I paid close attention so that I would spend the night in my comfy bed, not curled up in a corner of the stairwell, unable to stay awake for another flight of stairs…

 

living the life of dreams…

Perhaps for some having an iphone tethered to them is living the life of dreams…

My phone is off.  I went back to the room to collect my fancy digital SLR camera when I discovered the incredible view from the beach level of the hotel.  When the hotel elevator has a “beach level” button you know you are not in Kansas.

hard to believe but this is real...

hard to believe but this is real…

I am at the Hotel Excelsior in Dubrovnik, Croatia, having eaten a delicious octopus amuse-bûche, waiting for the rest of my seafood, including a Dubrovnik specialty called Buzarañe.  Had Dorothy ended up here instead of Oz, no doubt she would be dancing at night in her red shoes after spending the day barefoot on the beach and carefully making sure she didn’t click her heels because this place is so much better than Kansas 🙂

Like many of my travel adventures, my arrival in Dubrovnik was inspired by random chance and I have been dreaming of this city for over a decade.

The walled city is a UNESCO world heritage site and I have known about Dubrovnik for a long time, possibly even before Maria.  But it was Maria’s enthusiasm that added it to my travel list.

This was back in 1988.  No doubt an ideal time for a visit but I didn’t have vacation time, let alone funds, back then.  Maria’s family was from Yugoslavia so she described in rapturous detail this jewel of the Adriatic.

Of course, soon after Dubrovnik became a place associated with land mines rather than tourists.  Maria’s

maria wasn't lying...

maria wasn’t lying…

inspiration held though.  It made me more aware of the war – and also the post-war renaissance.

Getting to Dubrovnik is not super slick though.  It’s not difficult – but not a quick train ride or direct flight from most of Europe.  Partly it’s the geography.  Mountains, water and forest make for spectacular scenery – but obstacles to transportation routes.

But you should persevere and get to this part of the world.  You can take a ship from Italy if you are blessed with free time but if you need to get in faster, you will arrive by air like most of the tourists who make their way to this remote corner of Europe.

There are lots of places to eat – and fresh seafood is plentiful.  I think it would be hard to beat Prora though.  You should likely bring someone along 🙂

I had fun talking to my server about Croatia (I was writing this at the table so he thought I was a writer…) and drinking in the view.  And savouring the delicious seafood.  It’s an experience so sublime it speaks to your soul and all your senses are enveloped in the atmosphere of the place because it is so unique.

There is a beach with gently lapping waves, a forest covered island just offshore, an illuminated ancient fortified town, a pirate ship shining on the deep blue water.  On top of first class service, memorable food and outstanding local wine.

http://www.adriaticluxuryhotels.com/en/hotel-excelsior-dubrovnik/restaurants/

It was an hour plus of pure magic rivaling the night I had a French chef personally serve me his tasting menu at an over-the-top Shanghai restaurant or the night I dined under the stars in the Serengeti listening to lions roar in the background engaged in one of the most seductive experiences of my life.

And, hey, Croatia is probably closer to you – and you don’t need a visa 😉

 

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