Thursday, September 22, 2011

new friends, old walls, and always the freaking bells

our favorite section of the bookstore

took a bus from split, croatia to dubrovnik a couple of days ago. it was hard to leave the island of brac but the desire to see some more of the world overrode the desire to see another beach. hard to admit that.

we spent a night in split, a 50 minute ferry ride from brac, on our way to dubrovnik. we typically wouldn't even have mentioned this overnight but for the apartment we rented in the old city center. we've used a couple of times now and it's paid off in spades. we found a listing in split titled "next to the old palace." we thought "no way." split is centered on the remains of the roman emperor diocletian's palace. apparently, after persecuting thousands of christians, he was tired of the high life and retired to his ancestral home of dalmatia. over the course of, oh i don't know, seventeen centuries a town grew up within and around its decaying structures. we met our host who guided us right to the middle of the old palace and took a left into a doorway. "wait, is this it?" "yes, i said center." turned out it was kind of IN the old palace. srdan walked across the living room, drew back the curtain, pointed at a wall across the way and said "that's jupiter's temple," a 4th century structure inches from where we were staying. "we'll take it!"

the stradun, dubrovnik's main street. 
off to dubrovnik: our first bus experience in two and a half months, we dragged our roller bags and day packs down to the bus terminal, bought a couple of $45 dollar tickets for the four hour ride from split to dubrovnik, bought a ćevapčići sandwich (with ajvar, of course, duh), a bottle of water and off we went. bus pulled out of town in the rain and we were treated to the gray, drab streets of the outskirts of split. as we neared the freeway through some concrete, no name suburb, michelle poked at the window and uttered something like "hey, is that, wha... i, um, LOOK!" there, running through some people's backyards was a several hundred yard stretch of a beautiful roman aqueduct severed from its source and destination and sentenced to live its life looking at concrete and drying laundry. better than yard cars, i guess.

sure, it rained. and sure, our driver couldn't care less about road conditions, but we made it. (side note: border crossing from croatia to bosnia and back to croatia consisted mostly of a dude coming on the bus, tiring of checking passports after the first ten or so passengers, seeing us all in the back holding up our documents and just waving his hand and turning around. could. not. be. bothered. classic.) next thing we knew we were squeezing ourselves through the old pile gate and onto the stradun, old town dubrovnik's main street. check out the live "stradun cam."yowza, has this place changed since the time of a buddy of ours described it (from a trip twenty five years ago) as "refreshing to be in a place with no tourists or frat guys in flip-flops." still this place reeks of history and if you can block out all the people around you for a minute, you would have no idea in which century you stood.

emily, michelle and pascale.
easily, one of the most gratifying and ever renewing experiences we've had so far is meeting new friends and wonderful people along the way. emily and pascale were no exception in helping to further our appreciation. we headed out to walk the city walls our first morning and if there's one thing one should do in dubrovnik it's walk the city walls. we've read about this for years and all the superlatives held up. about a quarter of the way along i strolled up to the edge, turned to my right and said "hey there." there were our new friends from the bus the previous day, emily and pascale, a couple of final year university students from london, studying in bristol. michelle's mom has a saying when she likes someone: "they're good people." these are good people. we shared some good stories and some great laughs on the bus ride the day before and our conversation helped distract us from the windy roads. an hour amble over the walls turned into a near three hour tour followed by a cathedral and dinner for four in the old town. we had a right knees up. hope you guys made it to mostar ok! i'd say england's in good hands.

dubrovnik's city walls, facing the adriatic.

about that cathedral, "the cathedral of the assumption of the virgin." THEY ALSO HAVE A HOLY RIGHT! that's right, a right hand. readers of this blog may remember our fascination in budapest over "saint stephen's holy right," the thousand year old, mummified right hand of saint stephen that's paraded through the streets of budapest once a year on, wait for it..., "saint stephen's day." we were lucky enough to arrive there for that spectacle. in dubrovnik, "saint blaise's right" is sadly locked away and out of sight (well, you can pay to see it, but what fun is that?) but, my god, two "miracle rights" in one trip? what are the odds? dubrovnik ups the ante, however, and has not one, but several of saint blaise's body parts including his throat. and here's why. not only that, they hold a part of jesus' cross AND his baby swaddling clothes. it says it right there in the brochure, surely it must be true. sure, they lost track of him for 30 years but the swaddling clothes they kept. why would they lock this stuff away and charge for the privilege instead of allowing worshipers to share in the wonders? ah, travel, such a learning experience.

it's 9:17am as i write this and the bells of dubrovnik are going freaking nuts. all across europe, centuries old bells seem to go off at pretty much any time they damn well please. at first, we thought "oh, it must be the top of the hour." then we started checking and realized, "no, wait, it's 10:52 am," or something. we swear, it's just someone overly bored thinking "oh, i know! it's time for bells." if you're a light sleeper, and you're in europe? pack the earplugs, my friend, because a lot of times those bells are right across the street from where you're staying. here's one of the offenders...

bell tower, dubrovnik, probably ringing itself to death right now

Monday, September 12, 2011

your coffee is a girl

using our handy "free basic phrases in 25 languages" guide i confidently held up my coffee cup to the waiter and said "još jedan, molim," thinking i asked for one more. the waiter scrunched up his face in confusion, then lightened and said "your coffee is a girl." heh? "your coffee is a girl, so it is još jedna." OH!

the whole feminine, masculine, neuter language thing bites us in the butt again.

ah well, that little incident does nothing to dampen our appreciation of our current location, brac island, croatia ,just off the dalmatian coast. we arrived here a week ago and decided to extend our stay several more days and continue to lounge about like melons. there literally is nothing to do and that nothing seems to get better and better.

"class one fish," the waiter said. later, when we wowed about it, he said "i told you."
a week ago, after crossing the strait between split and brac and arriving in the middle of a 90 degree scorcher we found our way to the office that would be renting us our apartment. now, we're pretty handy with a map. we've found great joy in many places armed with just a metro pass and a map, so when she handed us a "map" to our apartment we marched on, in spite of the heat and filled with confidence. it turns out this so-called "map" was just a series of photographs laid out in a sequence supposedly to guide you through the tiny, and i mean tiny, winding streets that spill upward from the port. about 20 minutes into our hike i did the unthinkable. there was a crowd of men gathered in a park and i asked for directions. i NEVER want to ask directions. ever. i knew we were on the right path but the heat, the day, the stupid photos on the "map" were enough to drive me to this desperate measure.

the men confer with saint peter
then we met saint peter. i strategically picked out the two old men sitting on the periphery of the crowd playing cards (don't these people have jobs?), gingerly said "oprostite" (excuse me), laid my "map" in their lap and pointed. with a hopeful smile i conveyed our need for help and then a dude from across the park came strolling across as he saw our situation unfold. i was thinking of paul theroux, the acerbic travel writer who wisely noted "the loudest, most demonstrative and first to speak in the local crowd is rarely the leader. he's usually just a blowhard."

he took the map and conferred with the old men and our little conference was swelling to five, then ten men while i tried to follow along. they were speaking croatian, of course, but i'm a man, i understand maps and directions. next thing i know, saint peter, "the leader," calls the management company, has a conversation, snaps his phone closed and waves his arm, "follow me." we go hiking along another ten minutes, he points up the hill at a building and says "that is your apartment. my name is peter." thanks all around and we blissfully hiked the steps to one of the most fantastic views we've ever been privileged to enjoy. anywhere. in this particular case, mr. theroux was wrong.

harbor, supetar, brac island, croatia

brac, croatia. go if you can.

in a few days, we're contemplating dubrovnik. then maybe mostar, sarajevo and back to zagreb. we've learned not to state those things definitively but that's the current plan. we'll report back.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

crazy train to croatia

supetar, brac, croatia
it's because of a couple of friends of ours who both spent time on this island more than 20 years ago that we're now sitting here, in supetar, in the adriatic sea on the island of brac, croatia. thanks guys!

we took the "tilting train" from zagreb to split a couple of days ago, a proud new addition to the croatian railway system with tilting tracks and tilting cars to achieve maximum speeds of, wait for it... about 65 mph, to achieve a travel time from zagreb to split (on the coast) of six hours. can't imagine what it took before. i was standing behind the driver for a while and we lurched between 20 mph and 65 mph for no apparent reason. we could only surmise that after reading an article about this single track line, and their two fatal accidents, that they've identified danger zones and now, NOW, are sure to slow down in those areas.

we made it alive and we're here to report that this place is as stunningly beautiful as those friends of ours swore it would be.

today a scooter ride to another town, a soak in a quiet cove, and an amble around a 1000 year old village, skrip (oldest on the island), at the top of the road where, upon arriving in the village, we were intercepted by a woman who kept saying "vino. vino, vino..." well, we don't speak croatian but we know what vino meant and followed her arm gestures to her basement where she gave us tastes of red wine, grappa, olive oil and figs. wowza! we knew "dobro!" and she knew "thank you." we happily bought a liter of red wine and a half liter of grappa for $6. all homemade and we were more than happy to contribute to their little cottage industry. we liked her so much we went back for a $2 bag of figs picked that day. call us crazy.

along the way, we've been doing a pretty good job of always having some food with us. this has paid off in spades and today michelle combined ingredients from several locations to start off the evening. a salad made of peppers and tomatoes from split, figs from skrip tossed with pumpkin seed oil from styria all enhanced by ljubljana wine (purchased from the vintner in a plastic liter bottle that he drew from a large vat) and a skrip, brac red wine purchased today. that salad and wine combination cost a few dollars and is right up there with any restaurant meal we've had so far.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

more new friends and a post-socialism wake up

we knew we were destined to travel through slovenia but we didn't know we would love it this much. on top of that pleasant realization we met two of the nicest human beings so far. while on the train from vienna to maribor, slovenia, we shared a compartment with michael, an ex-pat american who, with his wife paula, owns some incredibly beautiful land and a 150 year old farmhouse about 30 miles outside of maribor. well, we got to talking on the train, we were full of questions, michael was full of questions and we shared some homemade strudel with him that someone made for us in vienna. it was all quite nice and congenial. you know, those conversations you imagine yourself having while gently rocking on a train through rolling hills and green landscapes.

well, on a whim, we jumped off in graz, even though we were on our way to maribor. being easily swayed by others' suggestions, when the train stopped in graz we said goodbye to michael and headed our merry way. a couple of days later when we found an internet connection we also found an email from michael and paula graciously inviting us out to their farmhouse. by this time, we were on top of pohorje mountain for a few days but happily accepted their offer. michael was even kind enough to drive back into maribor to pick us up. but first, on our way out of town, we chaperoned him to "mr pet," the most westernized shopping experience this side of tito. a pet emporium to rival any american outlet, nestled in a brand new shopping mall that could exist next to any four-lane american road. we gotta say, it was hard to accept the fact that we were in slovenia at that moment. here we are in a ford being driven by a guy from st. louis going to buy kitty litter and we're shooting the breeze in english. unreal. after stumbling through broken slovenian and german for the last few days, this was fun!

40 minutes later, up a road alongside the drava river, charming towns one after the other, and farms in every direction, we were welcomed by paula. while being wowed by the scenery, the wonderful charm of an old farmhouse, suddenly there appeared a huge plate of garden fresh vegetables and hunks of cheese and meat. we happily made huge sandwiches and started chatting. after a tour of the farm, a small lesson on apple and pear trees, we hiked up through the hills to an old hunting lodge, the spot of a WWII sniper attack on some slovenian partizans. back at the farm paula and mike treated us to roasted pork and some more fresh vegetables (earlier, paula disappeared and came back with a big pile of freshly pulled beets. "do you like beets?" "JA, prosim!") and some homemade upside down plum cake, great conversation and a few of the most characterful cats you'll ever meet. this place reeks of history. topographically, it rests on a ridge overlooking lavrenc, so their "backyard" is a 1000 foot (i think) drop down to a small village complete with requisite white church nestled against a green backdrop. one hardly needs coffee in the morning waking up to that!

the next morning we were dropped off at the tiny podvelka train station and now sit happily in ljubljana planning our next move. after being misled by a conductor at maribor, and nearly missing our connection by one minute, (seriously, we realized our mistake, jumped off the wrong train, ran to the other side and jumped on the correct train and it immediately started moving. *whew*) we settled in for some stunning scenery, particularly the canyon stretch from celje to zagorje. wowza. the train carves its way through a winding canyon alongside a lazy river. it's what you see in travel brochures. all this for 13 Euros. that same train ticket in austria, distance-wise, would have easily been 40 Euros.

a little song, a little dance... podvelka, slovenia

we've only been in ljubljana for 18 hours but, after the quiet of pohorje, maribor and podvelka, last night's first impression along the river seemed a little like a disneyland version of a european old town center. three bridges across the ljubljanica river, pedestrian promenades on either side brimming with restaurants, bars and young'uns. of course, we still have much slovenian food to eat, some sparkling wine to drink, some jože plečnik architecture to absorb and today we hike the castle hill and storm the fortifications. we'll report back.