Friday, September 28, 2012

Post-travel superlatives

I know I still owe you an account of my last two travel-days, but I think I can cut it short with a-sentence-per-destination:
Rijeka: cute medieval castle, but other than that a bustling transit hub you won't want to stay in longer than a day or two.
Trieste: imperial, neo-classical city that reminded me more of Paris than any other Italian town and also has the meanest money exchange (at the train station. I should have known better, but I didn't find any others in town) that ripped me off so much when I exchanged my remaining kuna that it took me half an hour to enjoy the city, but eventually the stunning views won me over even as I lamented corrupt traveler-exploitation (run-on sentence much?)

Venice: always a pleasure, but particularly at 6.30am before any other tourist has entered town - well worth getting up at 5.45 am my last morning.

To end my travelogue for this time, some superlatives:

Best gelato: Sicialian cannoli flavor, at Gelatauro in Bologna (closely followed by Pino Pinguino flavor, a local couchsurfing favorite in Campobasso and Ancona, which includes thick strands of Nutella woven throughout. Oh, and ricotta and fig gelato in Ravenna. Ok, gelato superlatives are too hard. Moving on.)

Best high-end meal: tortelli di zucca, squash-filled pasta in sage butter, at Bella Venezia in Ravenna. For good reason a local specialty of Emilia-Romagna.

Best low-end meal: Burek sa sirom, a deep-fried filo-dough-pastry filled with zingy cheese, served piping hot in a bakery in Brac and enjoyed on a ferry ride back to Split. I also didn't have dinner that night because it was so filling (and probably contained my daily recommended calories all in one serving.)

Best cafe (read: espresso): at Cremcaffe in Trieste. Trieste is actually really well known for its coffee roasteries (torrefazioni) and Cremcaffe is the town's oldest. Figures they'd do it right.

Best sunset: viewed sitting on a medieval castle wall in Sibenik (though the best caught-on-iPod is probably the one over the Elafiti islands pictured below).


Best sunrise: viewed swimming in the Adriatic in Dubrovnik (though seeing magenta clouds over the Canale Grande in Venice - below - is a close second.)

Most ridiculous adventure: climbing a mountain pass road on a rental bike in Korcula, in the process nearly breaking its handlebar and acting out charades with a Croatian couple to get it repaired (runner-up: the whole getting-caught-in-a-downpour-on-a-motorbike-TWICE deal).

Most interesting hostel-dwellers: Elisabeth the numerologist (though her name would be more fortunate if spelled with a z) and Dragan-alias-Drag the future best-selling author, especially with that pen name, in Korcula.

Most demanding linguistic challenge: figuring out whether I was supposed to use the 'signore' or 'signori' door when using the bathroom in Bari.

Most demanding instruction-reading challenge: finding my hostel in Venice-Mestre (which was located close to the highway between Venice and the airport), a treasure hunt that included directions such as 'take bus #5 or 19, press the stop request button when you pass under the blue and white bridge witht he ropes attached, cross the pedestrian bridge and walk 200 metres until you see a tan building'... Did  I mention that I did this after dark? I may or may not have whooped when I found it.

Freshest fish: at 6.40am at the market in Venice where it was (LITERALLY) flopping off the market stand. Kind of disconcerting, actually. Plus I stood there watching the fishermen set up for so long that one of them called out to his friend 'hey, I think somebody is in love with you!' I booked it out of there after that, though I swear I wasn't watching JUST that guy. He was cute, though.

I could go on for hours, but I think that the fish story is a nice closing line. While weird and slightly embarassing, these sorts of encounters are what my trip was all about: going off the beaten path, joking around with the locals and, yes, occasionally (rather often) making a fool of myself - all in the name of experiencing the real deal. Which would have been impossible without all my generous, kind-hearted and oh-so-inspirational couchsurfing hosts to whom I am indebted so much in real-deal experiences and the best times I had. Encountering them was really the superlative of the trip, so Salah, Maria Grazia, Arianna, Maria, Antonio, Yixin, and Mladen - you are truly the best!! For me, meeting you really embodied this quote by Tin Ujevic who I learned about in Split: 

"Do not fear! You are not alone! There are others but you
who unknown to you live your life too.
And everything you were and heard and dreamed
with the same fire, beauty, cleanness burns in them."

Monday, September 24, 2012

Zen Zadar

In honor of today being one of my longest travel days (2 hour bus + 4 hour sightseeing + 5 more hours of bus), I thought I would share some travel tips I acquired over the (limited, but not insignificant) years of traveling I have done.
1. Be prepared. At least for me, nothing is more annoying than spending valuable travel time with trip organization nitty-gritty, you can do that while you are still at home! Having an approximative itinerary and at least a couple of pre-booked nights in a hostel gives us type-A-planners peace of mind and more time for the fun stuff.
2. Be prepared... to overhaul your plans if necessary (and make sure to review them around 1 or 2 days in advance for that purpose). Some of my best Croatia memories are from my couchsurfing experience in Split, where I had originally booked a hostel but then cancelled it after I got invited by Mladen. Similarly, I still don't understand why past-Janina thought it would be wise to travel through Rijeka by night and spend 2 hours from 4 to 6am at the bus station... Thankfully I caught that and booked a hostel here a day in advance from Sibenik. Believe me, I am glad to have a bed to sleep in tonight. Also, at least in Croatia online schedules are accurate in 70% of cases, with the remaining 30% merely indicating the existence of a mode of transport from point A to B with no relationship in terms of timing whatsoever. It is thus prudent to check again.
3. On that note, when traveling through non-metropolis, smaller cities such as Trogir or Zadar today, 3 to 4 hours is really all you need to appreciate the old town, the atmosphere and the main sights. It's way better to have short but sweet visits combined with covering medium-length distances than having 8 hour days of sightseeing followed by all-day-travel-days, in my opinion. This is obviously exactly the opposite of the typical interrail-Europe-travel schedule, but that is why I prefer these types of itinerary.
4. Take breaks! A 1.20€ coffee won't break the travel bank and breaks make sightseeing, especially with a backpack, so much more enjoyable. I used to be too cheap for frequent coffee breaks and still remember fun, but really intense sightseeing days that left me exhausted instead of relaxed. Now I prefer to save money on pricey restaurants and going out at night (not that I did that much before, though) as well as being pickier about the entrance fees to the tourist attractions I really want to see in order to enjoy more leisurely reading and relaxing hours such as today in this little hillside cafe in Zadar, where I read some more Plato and pondered the meaning of life (or something like that). Oh, and spend money on memories rather than tacky souvenirs!!
5. When traveling in bus or train for more than 2 hours, I always prepare as if traveling with a grumpy 5-year-old (that grumpy 5-year-old being unprepared-travel-me). I pack water, snacks, a cardigan in case it gets cold, light literature, serious literature, download my latest podcasts, charge all my electronic devices... It sounds ridiculous, but as an only child you get good at entertaining yourself on long trips as well and this prep work means that I am always a happy camper and travel days become favorite days instead of abysses of boredom.
6. Always. Be. Early. I prefer leaving the city centre half an hour earlier. The people watching is just as good in the train or bus station, and the half hour gives you the leeway to realize that a) you are standing at the wrong terminal, b) you need to cross the entire station to stamp your ticket since all the machines in your vicinity are broken, c) you reallllly need to pee before embarking on a 4 hour trip, etc. All of these things have happened to me on this trip, and I have still managed to board my transport devise of choice early enough to get strategic seating (see next point).
7. Okay, this might be a little extreme, but whenever possible, figure out which side of the bus/train/boat will be facing the most panoramic view and try to snag a window seat on that side. All the while that I have been traveling north I have determinately thrown myself in a left-handed window seat of the bus, and boy am I glad I did - it's just not the same if you see gorgeous Adriatic views behind the heads of three other uninterested passengers while your window is facing the mountainside. Just saying'.

Well, those are my two cents of German-efficient travel wisdom. Just a couple of words on Zadar - I guess what I enjoyed most was the cool mix between old and new buildings (Zadar was bombed a lot during World War II) and the connected hip and laid-back vibe. Coolest must-see attraction in my opinion is the Sea Organ (no pun intended), a staircase leading down towards the water that uses the waves to push air through underground valves and makes the most astonishing sounds - as I would imagine Arielle and her mermaid friends would listen to (yes, a Disney reference. I am so mature). Here is a clip of how it sounds:

Otherwise, Zadar is cute, but not extraordinary - but a great stop on my way back up the coast on my last full day in Croatia - I'll be in Italy again tomorrow!

Zadar seaside

I hear other people give their backpacks names... I just call it backpack. 

Some Zadar church... 

The philosophical cafe =)
Views from the (right side!) of the bus

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sensational Sibenik

Sibenik was one of those stops that I planned out of necessity, since I was really excited about seeing some Croatian countryside - the Krka national park - and required a place to do that day trip from. However, I totally fell in love with the place in honest - it is one if the most laid-back, unpretentious places I have been so far and simultaneously immensely historical with an old town that feels as if it stopped all development in the Medieval period. Hitching my maxi-skirt up around my ankles today as I made my way up the narrow alleyways and tiny stairs all the way to the castle that watches over the town, I truly felt like a medieval dame hurrying to a pig roast, or whatever medieval people did for entertainment purposes.
As for my entertainment, I was on my way to watch the sunset from the uppermost tower of the castle ruin, and read some Plato in the red evening rays after a long lazy day at the Krka national park.
Let me tell you -Krka is awesome. True, the part accessible by foot (and not by boat that makes you pay extra) is quite small, but so cute - it's a maze of wooden pathways and bridges along wild forests and over small rivers and little springs, all gathering to cascade down in some mighty waterfalls. On the bottom of one fall, you can even swim, and experience the surprisingly strong current for yourself. And a impressive amount of people did just that today (including me and my Québécois hostel-friends) despite the refreshing temperatures. I took a gazillion pictures, but not on my iPod, so please excuse me for the Internet-generated pics -pinky promise it looked just like this!! (sources:;;;
Also, I know I talked about Dalmatian a capella yesterday, but I felt the need to stress how good it is with an example - click on the link and enjoy. You are welcome.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tantalizing Trogir

(excuse the title, my brain is really tired).
I have come to appreciate the travel days that I snuck in between my sightseeing days more and more. I could say something cheesy about the journey being more important than the destination, but I think I just really like watching landscapes change and seeing glimpses of many different things - probably another reason why I am such an active, ants-in-my-pants traveller. Today I made my way out of Split (after missing the right bus stop for the main bus station and finding it again on foot, making for my first feeling of success of the day), heading north to Trogir and then onwards to Sibenik. Travelling by bus in a country whose language you don't speak (although most people here speak a surprising amount of English) is .. let's call it exciting. Am I gonna catch the right bus? Heading in the right direction? Get off at the right stop? What if the schedule changed during low season? But then the advantages of bus travelling come into play - you travel along the coastline with magnificent views every 5 meters, it is dirt cheap (I paid around 9 euros today for a 2.5 hour journey north) and you get to see the country! Stopping in the middle, like I did in Trogir, just sweetens the deal. Trogir is an awesome town built on this little pseudo-island (with canals all around) with beautiful artwork, dizzying little alleyways and streets and some of the best Dalmatian a Capella singers - I completely fell in love with traditional Croatian music here, the male a Capella groups are simply divine. Trogir also has a great market that sells fruits, vegetables and all kinds of mysterious homemade pickles, relishes, chutneys and the like. I ate myself silly on fresh figs from the market, became an a Capella groupie for an afternoon (they were also hottttt), climbed the cathedrals bell tower (I am slowly be owning a pro at doing that with my backpack), surprised a Swiss German group of tourists up on the tower by responding to their warning about the steepness in their mother tongue, and generally had a great time. At 5, I took my next bus along great stretches of coast, hills, islands in the distance illuminated by the afternoon sun, until I reached Sibenik. I don't feel I have down this town justice yet, so maybe I should go up bed now in order to get up bright and early tomorrow to see the sights before going on the day trip to the National park I planned. Sigh. Life is hard.

Splendid Split

After braving the elements in Korcula, our katamaran made its way into smoother waters along the coastline, and eventually we were cruising under a blue sky! The weather forecast however had prepared me for a rainy day in Split, so it was no surprise when we found the remnants of big bad rain clouds looming over the mainland. However, one cappuccino (and energy kick after getting up at 4.30) later, all the clouds had disappeared and I was left with a truly splendid two days in and around the city. Split is best-known to be founded upon the remains of Roman emperor Diocletian's palace. I knew that the palace was the mains attraction. What I didn't know, however, was that it encompasses basically the entire old town, it's huge! Quite the retirement home for an old and wary emperor. Subsequently, refugees fleeing from a Slav invasion found the unused palace and used it for what my guidebook describes as the most infamous squat in history. Now, some actual sights remain such as a temple and the original basement (only excavated in 1956!), but the majority of the palace is actual living space now with restaurants, shops, cages and apartments sharing parts of the old walls. Fascinating. My favorite part of sightseeing was to climb the bell tower (with my backpack in tow, I felt like a mountaineer) and see the pristine harbor and coastline as well as the city. Oh, and swimming around the cliffs north of the city centre is recommendable too. I also got my dose of culture and great conversations thanks to my couchsurfing host Mladen, who took me to the Split independent film festival and around town and with whom I talked about everything from spirituality to the war. Truly an enriching experience beyond just the sights. (Also, in case one is looking for a half-day trip from Split, yesterday I went to Brac in the morning for one last ferry-and-island adventure and had the best time discovering the sleepy town and unspoiled bays. Mladen however says that Brac is incomparable to Hvar, and that I only liked Brac because I didn't have the comparison case. I think his exact words were "if you have never seen the ocean even a puddle looks great." then again, he is from Hvar and so majorly biased. :) Use your own judgment.)

Crazy Korcula

I don't use the word "crazy" lightly, but Korcula allowed me to witness a series of events that, I believe, merit that label. Amongst others:
- after a 15 minute drive, being dropped off at a hostel seemingly in the middle of nowhere with an owner whose first words were "you are my last guest of the season. God I'm glad it's over!"
- then being given a map and hearing "it's much closer to the center of town if you walk!" This didn't mention that walking involved sketchy poorly-lit paths through forests complete with random war memorials.
- also, the hostel owner is working on 3 novels and 3 screenplays. At the same time. He really wants to become famous.
- on Wednesday, I rented a bike for the afternoon and first made my way along the coast, before turning up a road that seemed to lead into the middle of he island. It did. I expected to climb some hills. What I didn't expect was to encounter mountain roads of Swiss proportions, winding their way up to what felt like the highest point on the whole friggin island.
- my bike clearly wasn't prepared for that either, and so at the very top I realized that the strain had loosened the handlebars so much I could turn them back and forth effortlessly. Not the best situation if one wants to descend a mountain. Thank goodness I encountered a nice Croatian couple that was way better prepared than me and without a language in common really (I just spoke English, wiggled the handlebar and made a helpless face) the husband took out his toolkit and fixed my bike.
- on the very top, I found a village seemingly untouched by tourism, or progress, really. It was at the same time cute and kind of depressing.
- the descent along fragrant pine forests, with frequent glimpses of the ocean and the mountains of the neighboring peninsula, was really cool.
- at my next break point, I went swimming. I know I am going on and on about the clear water, but this was the first time I was swimming that I could look straight down, see my entire body, my feet, all the way down to the bottom of the sea, and see fishes swimming around me ad if the water wasn't even there! It was like snorkeling without snorkels. So cool.
- once I got back in town and rested, I wandered around for a bit, and met a group of 5 Slovenian guys who were on a sailing trip and wanted me to take their picture. I did that, chatted a bit and went my way, only to run into them again 3 hours later as I accidentally photo bombed their self portrait at dinner. I took another picture, they invited me to join them for a drink and proceeded to invite me to sail with them the next day. Too bad I'd just gotten my ticket for the katamaran the next morning!
- once I got back to my hostel, I met the only other guest staying there, this Austrian woman who was a numerologist and was helping the owner to find a lucky pen name, since he seemed doomed to misfortune if he became famous and kept his real name. They then asked me whether "Drag" had any associations in English. Ummm... Yes.
- and finally, this morning when I got up at 4.30 to catch the ferry at 6, I witnessed the craziest thunderstorm of my life! As in, lightning flashes right outside my window, ridiculous rain, wind that was bending the trees... What better weather for a katamaran trip, no?

(p.s. Korcula is also immensely beautiful in both nature and culture with the cutest old town you've ever seen. Definitely worth a visit.)

Dreamy Dubrovnik

After I returned from Lopud and watched the sun set over the Adriatic, I was so tired that I nixed my original plans of seeing Dubrovnik at night and just fell into bed -but I made up for it in the morning! Knowing that I only had half a day in the city, I got up bright and early at 6.30, put on my swimsuit and made my way closer to the city centre. I found a beach/swimming-appropriate bay that was separated from the old town by a little piece of land with a castle on top, and slipped into the surprisingly warm water while it was just getting light. Swimming out towards the open water, I left the bay behind and passed the castle to have a free view of the walled-in old town. While I was swimming, I noticed that some of the surrounding hills were already sun kissed, and I realized the sun had to rise any minute! So I tread water for some minutes, feeling like the only person on earth, swimming in the brilliantly clear Adriatic sea, until I saw the sun peak over the mountains and illuminate Dubrovnik's old town. As the first rays of sun fell onto the water, it seemed like the liquid silver I swam in was being transformed into liquid gold. What an experience!
I returned to my hostel for breakfast and was back en route to discover the city by 9.30. The first thing I did, and most recommendable experience in my opinion, is to climb and walk the city walls from which you have the greatest view of both the city and the ocean. Fun (actually quite sad) fact: the last time the medieval walls were used was actually in 1991/1992, when the city was besieged by the Serb-led remnants of the Yugoslav army. Apparently they did their duty, since the city held up and had to deal with only minor damages, though you can still see where new roof shingles replaced the old ones when roofs were destroyed by bombings.
Once I descended into the city centre, I remembered my previous impression of Dubrovnik - beautiful, but so overcrowded and touristy that it's hard to enjoy for extended amounts of time. So I split my time between the main sights, a harbor lunch break and an exploration of the lesser-frequented side streets, already 6 years ago my favorite part of the city. From this angle, Dubrovnik is a little like Venice- too popular for its own good!
But I would soon get a hefty antidote to tourist-paranoia, since in the afternoon I boarded a bus towards Korcula, a really laid back island just 3 bus- hours north. The ride was AC-d, comfy, and sooo beautiful - the road snaked along the coastline (and I mean snaked - thank goodness I am not prone to travel sickness), then through pine-covered mountains and more flat areas with vineyards, and paused shortly in a cute village to wait for the ferry (solution to the quizz question how to get on to an island by bus). I ended the day with a short walk around the old town, but then flopped into bed again - vacations are exhausting!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Lush Lopud

Having arrived at 7 in Dubrovnik and only able to check into my hostel at noon, I decided to take advantage of the day to discover Lopud, one of the three Elafiti Islands just in front of Dubrovnik. This meant I had to lug my backpack around for the day, a choice I started to regret a little eventually (I had hoped to be able to store it either in the tourist information office or a larger hotel, but no dice) - ah well, just a reason to take the exploring a little slower!
Lopud has one main town, arranged round a beautiful crescent-shaped bay, and is apparently a favorite vacation destination for Russians gauging from the conversations I overheard. It is also pristinely untouched, with no cars on the island except for little golf carts rented out to all the wealthy Russians by the prissy luxury hotel that wouldn't store my bag :P. After a picknick lunch I gathered my strength and hiked to the ruins of the old castle on the very top of the island, from where one can enjoy an incredible view over the entire lush green island, over to the other two Elafiti - Islands Kolocep and Sipan, and all the way back to Dubrovnik. Taking an alternative path back down, I stumbled upon Lopud's sandy beach on the other side of the island from the main town, and my resolve was put to the test - I had originally decided to wait with bathing until I was all checked in back in Dubrovnik, since I had all my valuables on me, plus I wasnt even wearing my swimsuit. But here I was, hot and sweaty from an hour-long hike, and the crystal-clear Adriatic sea was beckoning. Ahhh, decisions! All of a sudden I see a more empty stretch of beach somewhat aside from the main beach traffic that seemed perfect to at least dip my feet in the sea. As I come closer, I see a sign. What are those letters? F..K..K... Oh, a nudist beach? And sure enough, as I look around the 5 other people around are indeed unclothed. Hm, but this stretch of beach is as good as inaccessible for random pickpockets because of the rockier surface, plus this would solve my bikini dilemma... And this is the story how I went nude bathing in the Adriatic. Best. Decision. Ever. And again shows how necessity is the mother of ingenuity sometimes. (P.S. and my stuff was fine, especially since I asked this nice Croatian lady to have an eye on it - lemme tell ya, it is also quite the experience to approach and start talking to a naked stranger :P)