Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Korĉula and Hvar – 100th Post!

My internet search that showed a ferry leaving the next day to Hvar turned out to be false, so we hunted a bit and found a speed boat that carried folks between Mljet and Korĉula. We got up early and backpacked the 4 km over to Pomena. We met the boat and had a fun, fast, bouncy 45 minute ride to Korĉula Town.

Once again, we found a room near the harbor and rented bikes to explore this end of the island. Korĉula has a lot of vineyards. We biked to a couple different beaches and then took a trail along the coast where Darrell managed to get a flat tire! Our first flat in 12 days of cycling so that isn’t too bad. We found another bike rental place and traded out the bike so we could keep going.

Biking through the vineyards 
Korĉula is a smaller version of Dubrovnik – with a central church and then narrow stone alleys leading up inside the walls to the church on the hill in the middle. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as Dubrovnik, phew, so we could wind our way through the alleys without having to weave between the masses.

Korcula 
We had a 6 am ferry the next morning to Hvar. When we arrived we waited outside “Secret Hvar”, the company that Lonely Planet recommended for a tour of the island. Another couple our age, with two daughters near Lindsey’s age, were also waiting. Nick and Maggie are from Wellington, New Zealand so we had plenty of things we could talk about. Many tourists are either in the 20-something age group or the well-retired age group – so it was great to meet a couple around our age!

Hvar Harbor (Fort on Hill behind town)
We booked a tour together and shared a 4wd adventure that took us to the highest point on the island as well as to some abandoned villages. Our first stop was to the fort overlooking town where we got a great view of the Pakleni Islands (which we can also see from our apartment) and our guide gave us some historical background.

Hvar and the Pakleni Islands
One of the dominant features on the landscape are piles and piles, and rows and rows, of stones. Over hundreds, maybe thousands, of years, stones have been gathered into piles so the soil in between could be used to grow crops, lavender, olives, or grapes. In recent years devastating fires have exposed even more of the stones. Our guide called this area Machu picchu for the extent of the stones.
Stone rows and piles are all over the island
There used to be 10% of the world's lavender grown on this island -  but it is way down now because of all the recent fires. And the 5,700 hectares of grape vines are now down to only 300 hectares.

Lavender, stone piles, and a stone hut in the background

The stone hut you see in the background is one of many on the island. We went inside one that was 300 years old and still in great condition.

300 year old stone hut
Our last stop was to a quaint village, Vrboska, which is also called “Little Venice” because of its canal.

Vrboska (Little Venice)
We will spend a second night on Hvar, and then we are back to the mainland for our last day in Croatia.

Island Hopping

We have been island-hopping in the Dalmatian Islands of Croatia for the past three days. The first three photos show the views from the studio apartments we rented for around $50/night.

View from Polaĉe, Mljet Island
View from Korĉula Town, Korĉula Island
View from Hvar, Hvar Island
But back to the first island! Mljet Island is the closest large island to Dubrovnik so we caught the ferry over and found a room just 100 meters from the ferry terminal with a balcony overlooking the harbor. We packed a lunch, rented two bikes and headed up over a hill to Mljet National Park. It was great to be back on a bike after four days of only walking.

Biking at Mljet National Park
The Park surrounds two sea-filled “lakes” that are fed by a narrow inlet. In fact, they were freshwater lakes at one time. The lakes are protected and host a lot of invertebrates and fish. The lushly forested island is so seductive that Greek myths state that Odysseus came and stayed for seven years. After Odysseus, came a few others including the Benedictines, who established a monastery on an island in the larger lake in the 12th century.

12th Century Benedictine Monastery 

When we rented our bikes the guy told us we didn’t need locks. We were on an island and the bikes weren’t going to go anywhere. When we rented our apartment our hostess told us we could just pay her before we left. It was great to be in such a relaxed and trusting place! We were tempted to spend a second night, but other islands await us…

Dubrovnik

While I do not mind self-identifying as a tourist, since I am one, I also like to learn a bit about where we visit to have a slightly deeper understanding of it. Nothing beats spending time in one place to gain that, but barring more time, it is great to talk with willing locals – mostly tourist industry people who don’t mind answering questions. We’ve also had some great guides in both Slovenia and Croatia that have helped us gain insights into the people and the places we have visited.

View of Dubrovnik from the Fort above town (We walked up!)
Dubrovnik, the most complete medieval walled city we have visited, has an ancient history of conflict that we feel well removed from.  However, the modern history of the seven-month siege of Dubrovnik in 1991 by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), isn’t as easy to gloss over. Both Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991. Slovenia got an immediate “response” from the JNA, but it ended fairly quickly and is now known as the Ten-day War. While Croatia and Slovenia were both part of the peace accord that ended this war with Yugoslavia at that time, Croatia’s search for peaceful independence did not happen. And even though Dubrovnik has held UNESCO World Heritage status since 1979, that did not save it from 650 artillery rounds that damaged over 60% of the buildings within the walls.

Harbor with walled city partially around it
I remember watching news about the siege of Sarajevo that began slightly after and lasted much longer, and how unreal that conflict seemed. Just like the conflicts going on today that we view from the safety of our televisions. But here we were able to witness the shrapnel on the sides of buildings within the walled city, and saw photos and videos of the bombings when we visited the vivid “Homeland War” Museum at the fort overlooking (and then protecting) Dubrovnik. It made war seem a lot closer and a lot more personal, though I recognize we are still far removed in our own experience.

Artillery damage from 1991 in wall of church
This trip we have also seen the headwaters of the Sava River, which originates in Slovenia, and where it flows through Ljubljana and then through Zagreb, Croatia to Bosnia-Herzogovina before entering the Danube in Serbia. Most of you have seen footage of the terrible flooding from the Sava River that occurred this May in these countries, primarily Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. We haven’t seen evidence of flooding in the regions we’ve been to but have been very aware of how close we are.

Okay – enough about cultural and environmental disasters – not! The number of tourists that go to Dubrovnik is insane. You can blame the cruise ship industry as there can be 10,000 to 13,000 tourists a day that go through and on the walls of Dubrovnik. It is crazy. And they eat a lot of fish. But lets not get into the state of the Adriatic Seas fisheries. I didn’t research that as I didn’t want to get depressed!

View from the North Tower 
There are some great things about Dubrovnik and the surrounding area. 1. It is beautiful. 2. They abolished slave trading in 1418, and the many merchants that sailed from here flew under a white flag that had Libertas (freedom) prominently displayed. 3. The people are friendly and obviously resilient. They have over 99% of their buildings repaired since the war, and they are somehow surviving an onslaught of tourists speaking all the different languages from the Tower of Babel.

Visitors walking on the wall (right) are more ubiquitous than laundry (left) 
We spent three days in Dubrovnik and were lucky to have a quiet oasis very close to town. We happened to be there the same time as Angelina Jolie, Kate Hudson and Leonardo DiCaprio – but didn’t get to mix elbows with them. They were attending the insanely expensive wedding of Randolph William Hearst’s granddaughter. After the wedding, I managed to snag a peony (imported from Belgium to the dismay of the Croats) when they tossed all the floral arrangements into the street afterwards!

Garden oasis complete with Belgian Peony

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Zagreb

June 3rd - Our last morning in Piran, Slovenia – we found the local bus to Koper, and then took a bus back to Ljubljana to catch a train to Zagreb, Croatia. All our connections worked smoothly – yeah! We booked an airbnb in Zagreb that was within easy walking distance of both the train station and the bus station. It was a great apartment with coffee and tea and shampoo and conditioner – little perks we have missed while traveling here.


After settling in and perking up with a cup of coffee, we headed toward the old part of Zagreb which is divided into Upper Town (originally the religious area surrounding the Cathedral) and Lower Town (originally the more secular area). 

Zagreb is both the capitol and largest city in Croatia with 800,000 people. While it is 90% Croatian, and super Catholic, there are more and more immigrants settling here as well according to Wikipedia. We are beginning to get a better feel for the break up of Yugoslavia as we travel, but still have a very incomplete understanding of it and the impact on the people. Reading the history of any place in Europe often seems like a constant changing of the guards - who is control at any point in time - and is overwhelming. When that change is as recent as the early 1990's, it is surreal.

Zagreb appears thriving to be thriving in the historic part of town, but other parts show signs of neglect. It is overall in worse economic shape than Slovenia.

Mindy and the Egg
We started in Upper Town and caught the sun setting on the cathedra. Note that one of the towers is being renovated.
Cathedral - note the clever drape over the renovation area
We found a place for dinner and had goulash. It was good but not as spicy as we imagined it would be, or as spicy as we would have made it. Maybe we need to cross the border into Hungary and pick up some paprika! But, after dinner as we walked to our airbnb, we came across a dessert festival. We chose a dessert to share and it was some magical combination of a German chocolate cake and a pecan pie!

Entrance to Dessert Paradise!
I went out the next morning looking for some sights we had missed. Including one that was just hiding behind the tent above at the dessert festival - a meteorological post that has been here since 1889, showing temperature, air pressure and time.

Meteorological Post
I also found St. Marks - a Romanesque church dating from the 13th century, but sporting a new roof from the 19th century. Most churches have features from different time periods as they get renovated over and over again.

St. Marks sporting a new roof
I toured the Museum of Broken Relationships, which began in Croatia, but now has mementoes from all over the world recording the demise of relationships. People have sent a symbol from their relationship along with some notes about it. They can't display all of them but have a huge variety from losing someone to war, another person, changing times. They also document parent-child relationships that ended and some of those were the most painful to read. Overall, though, the museum was more cathartic than depressing. The gift shop had pillow case sets that zipped together. So you could have the two pillows apart or together - whatever worked for you at the time!

Happier Museum than you might guess!
Our stay in Zagreb was short, so I can't give a solid impression of the city. We are off to Dubrovnik in the far south of Croatia next...

Monday, June 2, 2014

From Ankaran to Piran

June 2nd – Today is our last day of biking. I have mixed emotions as it has been such a great experience, but I am also ready to try some new adventures. We began biking from Vila Andor, through Ankaran, and near a tidal marsh. There was a birding trail and a couple of good bird blinds. We saw coot, mute swans, egrets, and an unidentified sparrow that had the wildest song.

Bird blind at the tidal marsh 
We cruised happily along a bike path near the coast, then up and over a hill via an old narrow gauge train track that had been turned into a nice cycling path, and then back along the coast. It was easy to cruise a relaxing 20-25 km/hour and enjoy the ocean breezes.

We took a short detour south of Piran (almost to Croatia!) to see some famous salt beds. We biked along the canals and salt flats and went to an exhibit that explained this ancient method of producing salt. Without the money from tourism, it would not be economic to maintain these salt ponds and continue to harvest the salt. It was very interesting.

Salt ponds near Piran

We headed back to Piran and entered the old city. Our hotel, The Giuseppe Tartino, is named after a musician and there is music-related art all over the hotel. The hotel is right off the main square of the old town and this is the view from our patio.

Harbor in old Piran, view from our balcony 
We walked around old Piran, including up to the old city walls, and were able to look back and get a photo of the point where the town is situated.

The church doubles as the lighthouse at the end of the point
Of course, my favorite place is always the harbor and the boats! This is taken looking down from a rooftop patio of our hotel.

Colorful boats in the old harbor
And this next photo is taken from the same place, looking at our balcony on left, and the narrow street to the side of it.

Scenic balcony for our last night in Slovenia
 We had a great dinner near the shore to cap off our final night in Slovenia! It has been a delightful experience bicycling from the Alps to the coast - and along most of the length of the 45 km (31 mile) coast between Italy and Croatia.

Sea bass for Darrell!

From Kodreti to Divača to Ankaran

May 31st – Today was an uphill and downhill day with winds coming at us no matter which way we turned! We began by biking to Stanjel where there is another castle on a hill.

Stanjel with the requisite castle on the hill!

Biking along we pass a lot of World War I and especially WWII Memorials. This one had a single pine tree topped by the Slovenian and European Union flags. We're still waiting for someone to explain the symbolism and history of these trees to us!

Darrell at WWII Memorial with Tree
We found ourselves in the red soil country that creates a special wine called Teran that our hostess last night had told us about. You can see the soil really is red!

Red soil of karst region with grapes for Teran wine
Near the end of our day, we came to the Lipica Horse Stud Farm. This is where the world famous
Lipizzaner horses have been bred since 1580. We didn’t take the tour of the farm but biked along the white split rail fences and saw some of the renowned white horses in the pasture.


Lipinzzaner Horses at Lipica Farms
As we approached Divača we saw a large sinkhole but didn’t take the time to walk around it. The pattern we’ve been having lately is nice mornings and then the clouds build up in the afternoon and it rains. We have been lucky in making it to our rooms before the sky lets loose!

June 1st – Today was our fastest day of biking yet because we were leaving the hill country and heading to the coast. We had some beautiful long hills to cruise down. We crossed the border into Italy and were only a few km away from Trieste, before we turned south and reentered Slovenia!

Entering Slovenia after a short trip through Italy
I haven't been biking in a skirt (photo above) but this is a skirt - so I flip the skirt part inside the shorts while I'm biking and then I can pull it out when we go to a restaurant, hotel or museum!

We had a picnic lunch beside the Adriatic and then got to our quaint hotel at Vila Andor. Only one day left in our trip!

Darrell with our bike bags at the charming Vila Andor