Archive for May, 2008

Montenegro

Karie on May 30th 2008 07:12 pm

After I got our Croatia itinerary mostly ironed out, it occurred to me that a day trip to Montenegro was within reach.  I asked Scott what he thought about the idea and he said, “I’ve aaalways wanted to go to Montenegro!!!”  What???  When I asked him why he’s never mentioned this lifelong dream, he jumped up and dug out a magazine that he purchased in the airport as we were leaving the U.S. in September (I think “always” meant “for the last 8 months”).

The magazine was called “Budget Travel”, and on the front was a picture of Montenegro.  That settles it. We’re going.  We decided to rent a car versus taking the bus, so we could seek out the location of the photograph on the cover of the magazine. (Also, with 4 of us, renting a car was about the same price as bus tickets.)

I had read a comment in an online forum that said going into Montenegro makes Croatia feel like the west.  I suppose by “the west” the writer was referring to development of the land, economy, tourism, etc.  By that definition, I thought that Croatia felt very “western” even before our visit to Montenegro, but I still get the writer’s point.

It’s only about a 30-minute drive from Dubrovnik to the border of Montenegro, so it was interesting to see how things changed as soon as you crossed the line.  The landscape is obviously similar, but Montenegro feels about 10 years behind Croatia.  The country is undergoing a lot of changes, having just split from Serbia in 2006, and now it feels like the entire country is under construction.

We made it to Kotor in less than 2 hours, thanks to the car ferry across the bay that cut out a long, winding road (by the way, we heard it’s a beautiful drive, but we had a lot to fit in so we opted for the fastest route).  When we got off the car ferry, Giuseppe (that’s what we call our GPS device – he is our faithful traveling companion so he deserved a name) sent us in the opposite direction as the road signs.  We were hesitant to not follow the signs, but Giuseppe has never let us down, so we followed his advice.  It kinda felt like we were driving on a sidewalk around the bay, but it got us there in record time.  So, if you drive to Kotor with a GPS device, go ahead & follow its instructions even if they contradict logic, but only if you’re in a small car.

The base of Kotor is right at sea level, but the city walls climb up into the steep mountains.  It was a wonderful little village with really friendly people.  As soon as the man who worked at the Cathedral realized we were Americans, he said, “Oh, basketball!”  He was all smiles when he learned that I grew up near his favorite team – the Sacramento Kings.

After spending a little time in Kotor, we got back in the car and headed for the construction zone of Budva.  I can only imagine what this place is going to be like in 5 years.  I have a feeling it won’t be in the “Budget Travel” magazine anymore!  In fact, our photo destination, Sveti Stefan, (not too far beyond Budva) is in the process of being developed as a 5-Diamond Resort.  I guess the only reason it’s considered “budget” now is because it’s not yet open… but it sure is pretty to look at as you sit on the beach for free.

This was our last full day along the Adriatic coast, then we headed back to Dubrovnik to catch our flight the next afternoon.  None of us were ready to leave.  I’m not really much of a sit-and-do-nothing kind of person (Scott is trying to teach me that relaxing is not wasting time), but I could sit there and stare at that water for days (or weeks).  God is an amazing artist.

Huge thanks to John & Mary/mom for coming with us and making it one of our most fun and memorable trips so far.  We love you!

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Dubrovnik, Croatia

Karie on May 29th 2008 06:54 pm

If you see a sign that says “Cold Drinks” with an arrow that appears to point nowhere, follow it.  We ordered some cold drinks and a can of Pringles just so we could sit there and enjoy the view.  The old town of Dubrovnik is a walled city set right on the sea.  You can actually walk all the way around the city atop the walls, which we had intended to do in the evening when the city was all lit up… but this was before we realized that you can only do that in the summer, and “summer” would begin 2 days after we left.

Since we had already spent a little time in Dubrovnik before heading up the coast, we decided to venture out to some nearby islands on a small day cruise.  After Mary’s failed attempts to rent one of these, we finally settled on this one.  We really wanted to take this trip, despite the Sales Prevention Force at the ticket counter, who delivered the following marketing schpeal with a smile:

“First you’ll stop at this island, but only for 45 minutes, because there’s nothing to do there. Most people just get coffee then get back on the boat.  Next you’ll go here for an hour.  This island used to be a summer vacation spot for the wealthy. There is a really beautiful home there that is now a museum, but it’s closed so you can’t see it.  It’s too bad it’s closed because it’s really nice.  Next, you’ll be going to this island for 2 ½ hours. You’ll spend the most amount of time here because it has a sandy beach with real sand.  Then you come back.”

We signed up anyway, with low expectations, but were glad to learn that the sales girl just needed some help with dialogs, as it was much more enjoyable than she led us to believe.

Our captain looked a bit like Bluto from Popeye, but he was very nice, and elegantly poured refreshments for the passengers about once an hour.  He offered us some of his home-made grappa, which we all declined except for Mary, who thought she’d give it a whirl… and ended up “accidentally” whirling the cup until its contents were spilled into the sea.  Oops!

Back in Dubrovnik, we decided to check out a restaurant recommended by our first hotel, which is home to the best mussels in the world.  My only previous experience in eating mussels was in paella, so I wasn’t too sure I was ready for an entire meal of them, so we split a pot for our table of four.  They were delicious!  If only they weren’t called mussels.  For some reason I have a problem with that name.  If they just called them “tiny bites inside shells cooked in garlic and white wine”, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.  Our waiter wasn’t a fan of it either.  Or of any food in that restaurant, or any food that comes out of water, or the perfect weather.  Maybe we should’ve introduced him to the enthusiast who sold us the boat trip – the two most charmingly terrible salespeopele in the world – I think they’d get along well.

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Korcula, Croatia – Marco??? ………(say it!)

Karie on May 27th 2008 10:37 pm

Korcula is the birthplace of the world’s first known travel writer, Marco Polo.  Although there is a chance he was actually born in Venice but set sail on his famous journey from here.  Or, that his true birthplace remains “unknown”, but we for sure know that he lived in this house right here for at least a while.  Ok, well the original house is long gone, but it was definitely on this island, around this area, and probably looked something like this.

Either way, this house was one of the main attractions in the town of Korcula.  We didn’t have a lot of time on this island, as we were having so much fun in Hvar we sacrificed some time on this island to stay there longer.  It worked out well, as the town of Korcula is actually very small, and you could easily see the whole thing in a day.  Of course there are plenty of things to see and do on the rest of the island, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.

Our time in Korcula was spent finding good food, walking around three sides of the city to take pictures of the Adriatic from every angle, and of course, touring the infamous house museum (which takes 10 minutes, if you read all the signs and climb stairs slowly).

After the grand tour of Marco Polo’s home, we wandered into the Marco Polo shop across the street.  It happened to be the hottest day on our trip. However, it was still May, and all Croatians know that tourist season does not begin until June 1st.  It doesn’t matter how many people are there or what the weather is like, summer does not begin until June 1st.  No exceptions.  No fancy lights to decorate the city on warm summer nights (they have already been strung, but cannot yet be turned on), no extended summer hours, and thankfully, the hotels still charge off-peak pricing.  Basically, if it has anything to do with summertime, forget it, you’re too early.

This had a huge impact on the poor Aussie who wandered into the Marco Polo shop while we were browsing the magnet stand, asking to order some “Marco Polo Ice Cream.”

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have any.”
“You don’t have any?  But it’s advertised right there on the door.”
“No, it’s not hot enough for ice cream yet.”
“It’s not hot enough for ice cream???” replied the Aussie in distress, as sweat literally dripped down his forehead.

It doesn’t matter if it’s 90 degrees and humid.  It’s not June 1st, so it’s not hot.

Apparently we were the only ones on our ferry back to Dubrovnik that got that message.  We boarded like good little passengers, fully clothed and prepared to stow our luggage and take a seat in an orderly fashion, just like on our previous (much smaller) ferries.  Everyone else came aboard in their bikinis, with a deck of cards, or cash in hand for food and drinks.  The boat was ginormous, yet there was not a row of seats to be found.  It felt like Reno, minus the slot machines.  Lounges, restaurants, sundecks, and ugly carpet.

It was actually a great experience, as there was something for everyone. Free-Spirited-Scott sat down for about 2 seconds before getting up to explore.  (In case you didn’t know, Scott can spend hours looking out the window, so getting to walk around outside when he feels like he’s supposed to be sitting is an extra treat.)

I, on the other hand, have two phobias: small spaces, and… large boats.  I could barely even look at the USS Midway when we’d walk by the harbor in San Diego, even though I’ve always wanted to tour it.  So, this was a growing experience for me, and it was actually (mostly) fine, as long as I didn’t look straight down over the side of the boat, or up at all the lifeboats.  Maybe visiting Marco’s house has given me the confidence to overcome my phobia.  They should add that to their marketing material.

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Hvar, Croatia Part II: Dumb & Dumber Style

Karie on May 26th 2008 10:25 pm

I have a newfound appreciation for windshields.  I’m not sure which is worse: getting a bug bite, or getting hit in the face by a bug at 40 mph.  The former usually goes unnoticed at the time of the event, but then you’re left with the itchy bite; whereas the second stings at the time but doesn’t leave any damage… that is, except the memory.

Scott was probably the most affected, after getting a bug in the mouth while driving the motor scooter.  I was sitting behind him and heard “Pppffftttthhh!!!! YUCK!!!”  I couldn’t stop laughing, but knew that I better keep my mouth shut for fear of karma.  It seems the Croatian bugs had a thing for me anyway, so I didn’t want to take any chances.

Other things I learned while riding a scooter:
1. Tunnels are really really cold
2. 40mph feels like 100mph (especially in tunnels)
(click here to see a brief example of #1 and #2)
3. Bikes with motors are better than bikes with pedals (people you pass on bicycles also know this)
4. Helmet head is worse than regular hat head

There are obviously millions of people around the world who ride scooters every day, but this was all new to me.  I kinda felt like a kid riding a roller coaster for the first time.  Ok, so I am easily amused.

John & Mary were on a separate scooter, so we followed each other through the hills and along the coastline, in search of great views and lavender fields – both of which are in abundance on Hvar.  It was beautiful.  In fact, if it weren’t for dirt, bugs, allergies, and lack of fashionable footwear, I’d totally be a nature girl.  The bugs were big enough to saddle, or at least as I recall.  Scott didn’t seem to notice them (except the one that flew into his mouth), John swatted them, Mary named them, and this city girl did her best to keep the squealing to a minimum.

Despite the bugs (and dirt, etc.), I still loved motoring around the island.  It was a great way to get off the beaten path and see what life on the island really looks like.  It’s also how we came across one of our best and most authentic Croatian meals… and I’m always willing to sacrifice a few comforts for a good meal and a cool photograph.

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Hvar, Croatia Part I: “Just Sit Right Back and You’ll Hear a Tale…”

Karie on May 25th 2008 08:54 pm

“Four passengers set sail that day for a three hour tour
(a three hour tour)”

If you’re not familiar with Gilligan’s Island, I recommend you have a listen to the theme song before proceeding. It was stuck in my head the entire time we were in Hvar, so I feel it’s important that you understand my inspiration in order to grasp the full experience here. If you’re lucky, it will stay with you for the rest of the day (or week).

Hvar is the self-proclaimed “Queen of the Croatian Dalmatian Islands.”  Ironically, the Dalmatian coastline resembles the Dalmatian dog… but then again it’s believed that the breed of dog is native to Croatia, so maybe not so ironic after all.  Anyhow, think tons of islands dotting the coastline, some big, some small, some inhabited, some not.  Hvar is one of the largest islands, and the Pakleni Islands are scattered about nearby.

I had originally wanted to kayak to the islands, after reading about how fun that was.  However, after seeing how far it was, Scott & John (who, let’s face it, would be doing most of the kayaking anyway), convinced me to take another approach.  We were able to get a good price on our own small boat (about $75 for a full day, including gas).  We couldn’t have rented anything larger even if we wanted to, as a boating license is required for anything over 6 horsepower.  Perhaps we were better off putting anyway.

We quickly settled into position on the S.S. Minnow (the boat needed a name so we took liberty), with the Skipper (Scott) at the helm, Gilligan (John) helping to navigate, while The Professor (Mary) and the Movie Star (me – hey, this is my story I get to pick my own character) enjoyed the ride from the bow.

The guy we rented the boat from told us that another group had recently ignored his advice and… you guessed it… “the weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed…”  They ended up stranded in the middle of the Adriatic sea after the waves bashed their boat and literally ripped off the motor.   Needless to say we all listened very carefully and heeded his advice about where to go or not go.

First we headed around the far side of one of the islands.  Being on the opposite side leaves you exposed to the open sea, without the protection of the other islands.  We followed our boat owner’s instructions and went to a lovely cove, but made sure we were out of there by 1:00pm, as the winds were expected to pick up in the afternoon, and then the Minnow would be lost.  The Minnow would be lost.

A couple of stops later, we decided to break for lunch, so we followed some signs down a path lined with vineyards.  The restaurant was basically in a covered patio, with the owner’s home off to the side.  The main dining area (consisting of about 4 tables) was full, so we were seated on another terrace that only had one table.  It was all arranged through gestures, so we weren’t really spoken to, nor given menus.  A few minutes later, the owner returned and said, “hello,” to which we responded, and then there was silence.  He just stood there and looked at us, while we all sat there smiling.

John (breaking awkward silence): “Uh, do you have a menu?”
Waiter: “No, there is no menu.  I have not turned the generators on yet this year, as there are not many people, so we only have a little food.”
Mary: “Ok, do you have anything we can order?”
Waiter: “We have an octopus salad”
Mary: “Mmm. Ok, I’ll have that.”
Scott: “Do you have anything else?”
Waiter: “Um, we have an aubergine pie”
Karie & Scott: “I’ll have that.”
John: “Nothing for me, thanks.”

I’m still unclear as to whether or not these people actually live without power during the off-season, but our aubergine pie (aka, eggplant lasagna) was served nearly cold.  It was tasty, but I’m guessing they turn on the generator once a week and make a batch or something.  Apparently Croatians refuse to accept the fact that tourists actually arrive before June.  It’s not overrun, but the weather is beautiful and there are certainly enough people around to warrant having food at a restaurant.  I’m curious what everyone else in the restaurant was eating, but we couldn’t tell from our secluded table.  Luckily I think most people were there more for the scenery than the food anyway.

For the rest of the day we just hopped from cove to cove, usually stopping for a drink and/or snack while we admired the view.  The water is the most beautiful aquamarine color, and in most areas you can see at least 20 feet deep to the rocky bottom.  We had one of the smallest and least impressive boats around, but Mary and I liked to lay on the bow and look out.  From there, you felt like you might as well have been lying on top of the most beautiful yacht.  The view was so spectacular, even a dinghy would feel luxurious when floating (ok, bouncing) from island to island.  It was the kind of day that I’ll never forget.

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Dubrovnik to Split, Croatia

Karie on May 24th 2008 06:09 pm

I fell in love the minute we landed.  No, actually, it was before that – it was at my first glimpse of the turquoise waters dotted with islands that loosely follow the jagged coastline.  Ok, maybe it was even as early as the Michael Palin’s New Europe special we watched several months ago.

Croatia was one the top places on my “must see” list, and it completely lived up to my expectations.  Scott’s mom and step-father (Mary & John) are here from Los Angeles to visit and do some traveling with us, and I think it’s safe to say that they are also pleased.  To quote Mary, “I don’t know what I was expecting, but this is better.”

We toured the country in a big circle, as our flights were in/out of the same city.  We started in Dubrovnik for a couple of days, drove up to Split, then slowly worked our way back to Dubrovnik via boats, stopping at the islands of Hvar & Korcula.  There are literally hundreds of islands, as well as amazing spots on the mainland, so it was tough to figure out where we should go and for how long.  However, I now realize that it’s impossible to make a poor decision – it’s all breathtaking.

Croatia has had a pretty tough history, even as recent as 1995 when they finally succeeded in their fight for independence.  Bullet holes are evident in many of the buildings in Dubrovnik – as is the case in several cities around Europe – it’s just that these are the newest bullet holes we’ve seen!  We heard stories from a local tour guide who lived in the city of Dubrovnik while it was being seized during the war.  A taxi driver also told us how he moved his wife and daughters up the coast for two years during the worst parts of the war, while he stayed to work, sometimes living without water and electricity.  His daughters are around my age… so while I was preoccupied with trying to be cool in the early 1990’s (which is very difficult in a plaid uniform), their concerns were very different.

Croatia has always been a very advanced society, even as far back as its history records (including having the 2nd oldest pharmacy in the world).  However, with such recent turmoil, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect.  What we found were beautiful cities, perfect roads, well-educated people, and land that just seemed, well, cared for.  I felt a great sense of pride from the Croatians, which I love.  There’s nothing better than being around people who love where they are.

We opted to rent a car to drive to Split, to give us a little more freedom in exploring the beautiful scenery.  Bosnia occupies about 10 kilometers of coastline right in the middle of Croatia, so of course we stopped three times to take pictures of ourselves in Bosnia.  The group is divided on whether or not we can include Bosnia on our list of countries visited.  I say the criteria to count a country should include a meal or at least a magnet, but John says he was there and has pictures to prove it, so it counts.  What do you think?

Anyhow, we made it to Split by early evening, and left again on a ferry to Hvar the following afternoon.  To sum it up, Split is worth seeing, but don’t sacrifice too much time on the islands for it.  It worked out well with our iternary and we had a great morning touring the Diocletian Palace before we caught the boat.

The trip started out great, and got better and better… more to come.

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Miss us?

Karie on May 14th 2008 10:14 pm

Sorry we’ve been kinda quiet lately… just taking a break and staying put in Barcelona for a while! The weather has been weird - beautiful for a few weeks, then rain moving back in. Even so, it’s good to be “home” for a bit. I love traveling, but also like being able to put my clothes in a drawer, and know where the nearest market is. It’s peaceful here, despite the noisy bar down the alley.

More excitement to come though! Scott’s mom and step-father are coming to visit soon, and we’ll be doing a bit of traveling with them, so stay tuned…

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