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