Monday, June 17, 2013

3 Dalmatians... Split & Dubrovnik, Croatia...

It’s been almost two years… since I last posted on my travels, and almost three years of travel not mentioned at all. Sorry to say… but I haven’t really missed taking notes in hotel rooms and looking up the names of landmarks along my paths. But I was reminded not too long ago by my dad that I really needed to go back and talk about my trips again. I stopped mainly because I was too busy, as I had decided to work on a Master’s degree online in my spare time. How would I have time to spend hours writing when I was taking nine hours a semester and studying from 4-9pm at my desk plus weekend mornings? Some things had to go by the wayside, and my blog was a usual suspect. 

But a month ago, my dad passed away suddenly.  I regret that I didn’t get all my posts up for him to enjoy.  He loved reading about my travels, and made me promise that his illness wouldn’t deter me from doing the things I loved most; including spending my time and energy traveling around, finding fun wherever I could.  

So here we are.  It’s Father’s Day, 2013 as I write this, and while I’m making a conscientious decision to stay offline today, trying to steer clear of the tributes to fathers everywhere; there’s really no possible way I can ignore the fact that I really miss my dad.  And so, the daunting task of summarizing my most beloved and amazing trip I ever took is just around the corner… the tale of a fourteen-city, nine-country, whirlwind cruise of the Mediterranean with just me and my parents. That one is going to take a while…

In the meantime, imagine yourself in December, 2010…

In case you don’t know... Christmas in Doha sucks.  It truly does suck giant reindeer balls. There is absolutely no sense of holiday spirit anywhere in town (minus Eagle-Eyes apartment). What makes it worse isn’t that we are lacking the trappings of the holidays here, but that they do exist. Our French Wal-Mart, Carrefour, stocks an aisle full of grotesque plastic trees with silver garland and plastic bulbs. Paper cutouts of Santa and reindeer are widely displayed for the expats to swoop down and tacky-tape them to their barren hallways.  But I just can’t stand it.  It doesn’t work.  I’m not someone who demands that Christmas only be about the nativity or midnight mass, but without those things, those things that my parents worked so hard to maintain, they always made Christmas special in our house… it just doesn’t feel right.  

And that’s why we always get the hell out of Doha for the holidays… except last year.  I took five big trips in the previous year, and was planning my biggest one yet for the spring, so I decided to stay behind in Doha for the holidays.  So around the first week of December, everyone I knew left in droves, fleeing to the states, Europe, and the far-east… anywhere but Doha.  I tried my best, but two solid weeks of absolutely no one, minus Van Gogh (he stayed behind too), in town… I had to get away.  I knew it was time when I went all Christmas day bumming around the house, and didn’t even realize it was Christmas day… just plain sad.

So some phone calls later, plans had been put in place.  Back when [NAME REMOVED] and I used to date, I convinced her not to plan a trip to the Dalmatian Coast because it was too expensive, and we ended up on a budget tour of China instead. I guess now it was time I repay the debt. With her expertise, she, Van Gogh and I would join up in Frankfurt on December 28th and meet up for a flight to Croatia.

Why Croatia?  Not a damn clue.  Seriously… I know nothing about Eastern Europe.  I think we went there because it would be cold and none of us had ever visited the area.

We all arrived in the coastal town of Dubrovnik… well, mostly.  [NAME REMOVED]’s bags were nowhere to be found.  She had flown in to Frankfurt from the U.S., and her luggage didn’t make the flight in time.  Some pushy French assholes cut in line and, not knowing who they were messing with, got into a fierce argument with [NAME REMOVED].  The customs lady almost had to call the cops and I almost had to punch an old frog in the face… 
Van Gogh's two favorite things...

Now that’s how you start a trip!!

 Even though we landed in Dubrovnik, we had booked rooms up north in the city of Split.  Supposed to be a charming coastal town, we needed to catch the bus up the coastal road.  A taxi into town (sans some luggage), and we found the bus terminal.  

Walking around felt wonderful!  The air was crisp and clean with a touch of salt in the bitter chill.  The mountains on one side of the road climbed up into the clouds as the land faded into the crystal blue Mediterranean waters just across the road.  Green islands sprouted up from the sea while a multitude of tiny fishing boats scampered amongst them.  

We climbed aboard our bus and headed north.  Trains still haven’t, and will probably never grow in popularity in the former eastern bloc countries… buses are the main form of long distance transport.  We were scheduled for a five hour ride, which didn’t seem too long at the time.  The bus chugged up into the mountains with the sea always on our left glistening the sun’s rays.  At times it seemed that we were driving along the beach, sometimes it was a deep blue jewel thousands of feet below.  The whole time it was a non-stop twisting and turning along the steep cliffs and bends.  The occasional citrus and olive orchard popped up full of young fruit.  Traffic accidents and road works forced the bus to keep to a crawl as we trudged along.  Our break stops were filled with [NAME REMOVED] trying to find a clothing store in walking distance so she could pick up some panties and a shirt, since God only knew when she would ever get her luggage.

Split, Croatia
At the half-way point we had to cross a checkpoint and show our passports.  We were entering into a narrow outcrop of land that stretched to the sea.  We were no longer in Croatia; we were driving thru Bosnia & Herzegovina.  This narrow strip, only about 20 kilometers wide, was a major battlefront just years ago back in the 90’s.  I know a civil war was happening, I know that it was a religious war between Christians and Muslims, but I have to admit my naiveté about the entire matter.  All I knew was that this area was not considered friendly territory.  We used the pissers, had a smoke, bought some chips, and got back on the bus.

Van Gogh seemed to be enjoying himself, but he’s a hard read sometimes. This was my first trip with him, and I found it strange that he was always chatting up the people sitting next to him; both on the planes and the bus.  Strange that in everyday life, he makes it a point not to socialize with people… 

As night fell, the twisting of the pitch black road became slightly harder to bear.  But finally on the horizon was a cascade of light, we had reached Split. Large cruise boats were docked just outside the bus terminal right on the water.  A taxi took us around the main square of town and deposited us on the northern edge of the old town.  Instead of getting a hotel for us, I tried a new thing and booked us an apartment.  Just up a narrow alley was a tiny door that opened up into a four seat restaurant that smelled of roasting fish and tomatoes.  The owner and proprietor, a charming young woman, took up upstairs and showed us to our room.  

Renting an apartment was a risky move… but we were all trying to do this trip on the super cheap.  Thankfully, the room was excellent.  It was super tiny! One bedroom, a fold-out couch, and a hot plate were the amenities… but it was so charming that we totally overlooked anything else.  But it was really cold; the stone walls were sucking the warmth out of the room.  Downstairs we dined on local fish and squid with a bottle of local red wine.  Instead of checking out the town, we all needed a rest after a long day on the bus, so we bedded down for the night.  

The next morning, our landlady brought us breakfast of cheese sandwiches, yogurt, and juice (didn’t even realize we got the continental service!)  The sun was out beaming down upon us, but it was still only a few degrees above freezing… and man did it feel great.  We walked all of two minutes and we were on the seafront promenade; similar to Galveston but not full of drunken rednecks.  Instead, gorgeous stylish people were sipping on café’s and orange juices with hot croissants and buns on their bistro tables.  At the far end of the street was a mass of people milling around. It turned out that it was the morning farmer’s market… table after table of the most beautiful produce you have ever seen! Piles of freshly picked wild mushrooms, truffles, and carrots lulled me in.  But best of all were the racks of whole smoked bacon slabs and aged handmade sausages… the smell almost drove me to tears.  I bought a half-kilo of some cut of smoked pork just to snack on during the day.

From here we entered the old town Split.  Old town is actually a Roman walled city.  The wall still exists and you enter thru massive roman arches.  The main roads of smoothed marble with chariot ruts worn are still used. But in the midst of the ruins, an entire other city decided to be built! Every open area was consumed over the centuries by narrow homes and businesses.  Inside the city walls is a massive maze of narrow alleys, crisscrossing pathways, stunning archways, and Juliet balconies.  We spent hour after hour just meandering thru the dark back alleys and walking into t-shirt and leather shops.  [NAME REMOVED] was on a quest to find some underwear and socks.  

Gregory of Nin
At the eastern wall we came across a patron saint of the city, Gregory of Nin.  The statue looks like someone carved a massive Dungeons & Dragons wizard chess piece out of stone.  At the town square, the Christmas decorations were still hung up, and the tree was still standing.  Everyone in the city was beautiful, with all the women wearing pea coats and knee high boots with fur muffs. Hour after hour was just walking around and taking in the odd realization that people were living completely modern lives in what would easily be mistaken for a movie mockup of a medieval castle. Every hour or so we had to stop and grab a fresh coffee or cocoa and stare out into the mass of people walking past our table.  Lunch was plates of local fish and pork cooked by our waitress right after she took our order and some local beer to wash it down.

Just outside of the old town were the new, modern shopping centers, clothing stores, and an ice rink set up in the middle of the main square.  We spent the last few hours of daylight at the water’s edge enjoying beer, wine, and olives as the sun set into the sea’s horizon.  What a great day.

That night we re-walked the old town just to see what it was like at night… and it was so incredibly charming and beautiful.  But as the sun set, the temperature dropped like a rock.  One last hot chocolate to keep us warm for the road, and we had them so thick that our spoons literally stood straight up in the glass.

Around the bend from our room we searched out a local restaurant that had great reviews.  The tiny place, maybe eight tables, squeezed us in and we ordered a buffet of delights.  First off, we had to teach Van Gogh that sharing food is polite; but the farmboy in him tried to stop his brothers from taking off with his grub.  Plate after plate of local cuisine kept arriving: mussels in garlic, plates of charred roasted squid, gnocchi in cream and spinach linguini, and night black squid ink risotto so dark that it stained the plates… god only knows what it did to our stomach linings.  What great food… all local, all fresh, all delicious…

The day was nearly perfect except for when we got back to our room.  The heater had been turned off all day, and none of us realized it.  Our room was not cold… it was frozen.  I undressed and climbed into bed and nearly died from hypothermia just from the sheets.  I cried it was so cold.  I had to put all my clothes back on just to sleep.  [NAME REMOVED] kept trying to shove her hands under my shirt so her fingers wouldn’t freeze.  I had to kick her in the thigh to get her off.  We all bundled up in our sweatshirts and extra socks, and made a night of it.

The next morning we broke the ice crystals off of our beards, and stirred awake.  It was then that we discovered that none of us had realized that the space heater had to be turned on.  A semantic argument broke out over whom was responsible: the psychologist, the chemist, or the IT professional.  After long and heated discussions that included morality, science, and the meaning of God, we decided it was Van Gogh’s fault that we froze our nuts off.  We used to heat lamp in the bathroom to defrost our socks, and headed out.

We loaded our bags and hiked across the promenade one more time to the bus station, and caught the early bus out of Split back to Dubrovnik.  [NAME REMOVED] was feeling peckish on the ride back, and decided to snack on my bacon log. But without a knife or fork between us, she was relegated to stabbing her beak into the soft flesh like a carrion bird on a carcass; ripping away strips of the tender flesh between her teeth.  
Between Split & Dubrovnik

The stunning landscape that we had missed in the night drive now flashed before our eyes.  This was amazing country… as serene and as beautiful as I have ever witnessed.

Around midday we arrived back to the Dubrovnik bus station.  From there it was a fifteen minute cab ride to our apartments just outside of the scenic old town.  The cab dropped us off right where the busses carrying tourists from the cruise ships drop off their passengers.  Staring at my map trying to find our apartment just made things worse.  I had to ask a tourist official to help us find it, and she pointed down a flight of steps.  We walked down, turned right, and found ourselves in a hidden alcove of the sea.  A miniature bay was right before us strewn with small fishing boats floating on the blue-green rocks.  On either side was the fortification of Dubrovnik: the old city on the left and St. Lawrence’s fortress overhead on the right.  And our apartment building… right on the edge.  We kept knocking when an old gentleman ran down the steps apologizing profusely.  The apartments were his son’s, but he was sick… so instead we had the old man for a landlord.  He grabbed our bags and carried them up the spiral stairs to our third floor abodes.  

We got two apartments here, and it was worth it!  They were fantastic!  The spaces were fairly small, but decked out in all brand new appliances, modern furniture with lots of chrome.  It was if someone had actually bought an entire IKEA room.  Best of all was that we overlooked our tiny bay below, and were exactly one minute from the Pile Gate to the city. Viktor (the old man) got us settled in and made arrangements for [NAME REMOVED]’s bags to arrive later that night.  He suggested we grab some lunch at the seaside café nearby, and we did just that.  A nice outdoor lunch of more squid, fish, and pasta… so good… and we headed into the Old City.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old City is truly magnificent; an absolute wonder to behold.  Built in the 11th century, it’s a completely walled-in medieval city.  You enter thru the Pile Gate, drawbridge and all, and enter into an apse built to keep out foreign invaders.  From there you enter into a gorgeous avenue of shops and stores, boutiques and restaurants called the Stradun.  Everywhere you looked were souvenir shops in alcoves built over a thousand years ago!  After a few hours of wandering thru the maze of streets followed by some more local wine, ice cream, and coffee, we headed back to the apartment where [NAME REMOVED]’s bags finally made an appearance.  She finally got a change of clothes, and I got my Christmas presents… boxes of Star Crunches and Oatmeal Crème Pies.  And yet, she constantly nags me about my weight!

Our apartment was right on the water...
In the morning we headed back into the old city and walked along its most prominent feature, the wall. For a small fee you can climb a narrow flight of stairs and walk on top of the wall around the entire city. We spent a few hours just staring out at the clear blue sky and sea; drinking in the chilled air and warm morning sun.  Most amazing was that this ancient city is still lived in by common, normal people.  I always imagine only the richest and posh old European families could live in such accommodations; with battlements and the sea meters away.  But along the wall you spy clotheslines, tricycles, and broken washing machines shoved into dark corners of small backyards with single citrus tree and herb pots. You have to keep reminding yourself… real people live here.  In one corner, surrounded by the red clay tile roofs was the local school, with a misshaped basketball court wedged onto the roof of a former convent.

nice court...
After a small lunch, we all napped then got dressed up for New Year’s Eve. We didn’t know what, or if anything was planned, but we headed out into the night. The old town was dark and quiet with a stage being constructed at the far end of the Stradun under a church bell tower.  We found our way to the back wall that was keeping out the sea and into a bar that was located on balconies of rock perched over the water.  The stairs and railings were wobbly and terrifying to climb down.  When we reached the bar, the waiter told us that the bar was, presumably, closed. We were defeated and started to climb back thru the wall when the bartender told us to sit… we could finish off some opened wine. It was here where we watched the sun set over the water, with the small islands off in the distance to keep us company.  The night air became brisk, the lights of the bar were never turned on, and we sat in darkness enjoying the silence.

View of Dubrovnik from a watchtower...
Thoroughly drunk, we left the bar after sunset and went in search of good food.  One restaurant we came across was one that I had unashamedly bashed in a map advertisement… the Taj Mahal Restaurant, “serving the best Dalmatian cuisine.”  Now… why would you name your restaurant the Taj Mahal if you’re not serving Indian food?? No one ever compares food to the timeless classical and symmetric beauty of the Taj Mahal! No one has ever said “this gnocchi is amazing! It’s the Taj Mahal of southern Italian!”  That has never happened! But here we were, outside of a tiny, four-table hole in the wall decorated in wine glasses and red lights; without a single sari or chutney plate around. We quickly secured the lone empty table and ordered up plates of squid, fish, pork, and goblets of wine…

I owe the Taj Mahal an apology.  The food was, without a doubt, the best I had the entire trip. Shame on me for doubting their nomenclature.

The sunset bar...
Afterwards we spent hours barhopping drinking the local beer and wine, listening to bands of clarinets and accordions, and watching the streets fill with revelers.  We made our way back to the main stage and were shocked to find thousands of people bundled up buying beer and vodka from the makeshift bars set up along the church steps. Performers had taken to the stage and were belting out tunes that only the locals knew and were proud to sing along. A highlight was when a beautiful woman wearing a silver costume that bared her thighs and mid-drift (in this cold?) took the stage with her modern/techno looking cello and played a full hour of incredibly beautiful and inspiring music that took the chill from the crowd. Even though everyone we could see had drinks in their hands, no one seemed overly drunk or rambunctious, and all seemed to have a smile on their faces. 

The bell tower counted down the seconds as Croatian celebrities and politicians took to the stage. At the end, the entire crowd yelled out the Croatian “Happy New Year” and started to sing their national anthem. Kisses, hugs, and sprays of champagne were thoroughly spread amongst the crowd. A cascade of fireworks and sparks exploded from the bell tower that lit up the square.  Normally, I’m not one for New Year’s… always felt too forced and the after-party was always a letdown. But this… this was magical.

Van Gogh and I...
The next morning we packed up our goodies, nursed our hangovers, said goodbye to Viktor, and flagged down a ride to the airport. A quick stop in Zagreb for some pork sausages in the airport and Van Gogh and I said our goodbyes to [NAME REMOVED]. Every time we travel she always thinks it will be the last time… and every time she’s been wrong.  

Croatia was beautiful, filled with nice people and amazing food. The winter trip was stunning, but I wonder what it would be like during the summer when the boarded up resorts clean off their sheets and the beaches become packed with Europeans flocking to the warm beaches.  Maybe next year I’ll find out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

First of all, we never agreed that the heater was my fault. I'll give the psychiatrist a pass on this one. You, being a "scientist", should have realized the damn thing was not producing heat.

Secondly, you guys were more than welcome to share your food with each other, but keep your dirty paws off my grub.

- VG