Sunday, August 15, 2010

Paris! (three hours in the airport is better than nothing)

My flight home was pleasant.  I had had the foresight to give myself a 3.5 hour layover in Paris, so I didn't have the panicked dash through the terminals that I had last time.  In fact, I ended up thoroughly enjoying the layover in the Parisian airport.  I walked around the fancy boutiques (Hermes, Louis Vuitton, you name it) and had a froufrou lunch consisting of a shrimp-and-grapefruit sandwich, with a croissant and a hot chocolate.  After that, to use up my Euros, I had about a million pains au chocolat (SO delicious!  SO not healthy!).  Then I climbed back on the plane and had a nice flight home. 

Just before landing in Washington a flight attendant came up to me and asked if I worked for Air France (that's what I was flying).  Puzzled, I said "No."  The guy then said I must have a twin because there was another Air France flight attendant who looked exactly like me, and every time he looked at me on the flight he thought I was that guy.  I explained that I wasn't that guy, and that I lived and worked in Washington.  Impressed, the flight attendant asked how long I had been in DC and whether it was hard to live in a foreign country.  When I clarified that I was, in fact, American, he expressed amazement and said really good things about my French.  Boy, do I love hearing that -- especially after two weeks of speaking French and realizing just how far I am from what I used to be.  (P.S., AirFrance, complimenting my French is probably one of the most effective ways to get me back on the plane in the future...) 

That brings us to the end of the travel-log.  There are more details I could give, but I'll spare you the tedium.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Croatia - Zagreb

We didn't actually do that much in Zagreb. We got into town relatively late in the evening, and so pretty much everything was closed. Plus, it was rainy and cold, and we knew that we would have to get up around 4:30am to get me to the airport in time for my flight back to the United States. We had dinner at a pizzeria across from the main church in town, and then we walked around the downtown and saw the main square. That was it. The next morning, well before the crack of dawn, QN and Niko dropped me off at the airport before driving back to Germany and Brussels.

Zagreb 0344 church

Zagreb 0346 main place

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Croatia - Dubrovnik

I am sitting in a dimly (but bright greenly) lit internet cafe in Dubrovnik, on the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia.  I have about thirty minutes to write before I have to pay again, which would be fine except that the keyboard is pretty unusual and it is taking me longer to write than normal.  For example, I have yet to find the apostrophe...hence no contractions.

Having communistically overcome Split, we finally (after some the previously mentioned 7-hour traffic jam) got to Dubrovnik.  Phew!  Here we had rented an apartment with separate rooms and bathrooms for everyone for a whole week, so we could unpack and relax a bit.

Living room in our Dubrovnik apartment

Dubrovnik 0220 Apartment
View from my bedroom

Dubrovnik 0212 Apartment
View from the living room
Coming to Dubrovnik was the whole point of this trip, and I have not been disappointed!  It is everything I had wished the Greek islands would be:  incredibly beautiful, with bright warm sun and cool air, good beaches, an interesting history and old city center, and lots of good food.  The countryside is very mountainous, and the mountains come right up to the waters edge, plunging sharply into the Adriatic, which is super clear and deep blue.  The city is perched on a rock  and on surrounding cliffs; needless to say, the roads are steep and narrow, and kind of crazy. The beaches, as in the rest of the Mediterranean, are not sandy, but pebbly (at best) or rocky.  You just have to find a place to clamber down the cliff face to find a stretch of pebbles where you can put out your towel.  Thats what we did this morning.  The water is colder than the Caribbean but generally warmer than the Mediterranean proper; and the waves are MUCH smaller than in Greece, which makes swimming much more pleasant.  Apparently there are nudist beaches around here, but so far I havent seen any...

Dubrovnik 0286 beach

Dubrovnik 0283 beach QN NB

Dubrovnik 0284 beach JJD

Dubrovnik is an old city on the Adriatic coast that had its heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries as a major rival to Venice in the shipping trade of the region.  In the 16th century the city was badly damaged by an earthquake, and although the city rebuilt itself, it never recovered its power.  Nowadays, it's one of the best examples of a walled city:  the massive, ancient city walls that protect the old town are perfectly intact and give a good sense of what life must have been like back in the day.  From the top of the walls, you have a commanding view of the city, the mountains coming down to the water, and the Adriatic as far as the eye can see.  Inside the city, it's packed and crowded with narrow streets and houses crammed cheek to jowl to enjoy the protection of the walls.  There are obviously no cars in the old city; everything is done on foot.  The modern town spreads on the narrow lip of land that extends on either side of the city, between the mountains and the water.  Scattered here and there are some nice pebbly beaches, and not too far away are some very nice islands. 

Dubrovnik 0238 main gate

Dubrovnik 0263 wall view

Dubrovnik 0272 wall view


Dubrovnik 0277 wall view

There was plenty to do here to keep us busy for a week.  Visiting (and eating out) in the old town, as well as hitting the beaches were the most obvious activities.  We also went sea kayaking around the city and one of the nearby islands, and later took a day trip by boat to some of the other islands. 

Sea kayaking

QN and Niko in the foreground; I'm in the background
At this point our friend Grit Hoffman and her boyfriend Andre (both German, living in Berlin; she's a TV reporter and he's a student) joined us.  All of us, except for Andre, had been friends together at school in France, so it was great fun to see everyone again and to get to know Andre.  One of the funniest things was seeing just how German Grit and Andre are.  Unlike Niko, who despite being German is rather slight of build with dark hair, Grit and Andre are both big and blond, with blue eyes and an unending thirst for beer!  Literally the first thing Andre did upon arriving at the apartment was to go to the nearby grocery store to get a pack of beer.  For the rest of the trip I never saw him drink anything else.  He was never drunk or inappropriate; he just like his beer.

Dubrovnik 0325 Cavtas
Andre, Grit, moi
Toward the end of the week, I found that I was coming up on my limit of relaxed vacationing:  I needed to accomplish something.   So I ran up the tallest nearby mountain.  Rising above Dubrovnik is an extremely steep slope, cresting at about 1,500 feet, with a fortress on top.  Normal people get to the top of this summit by taking a cable car from the city center.  I had noticed earlier in the week that there was a switch-back trail leading up to the top as well, so that morning I left the others at breakfast, with an agreement to meet everyone back at the apartment at 2pm for lunch, and went running to find the trail head and to run to the fortress on top of the hill.  It only took me about 30 minutes to get to the top, and it was properly grueling to get there.  But, boy, was it worth it!  The views were incredible!  (Alas, I didn't run with my camera, so no pics.)  And, boy, did I feel good!  I was hot and sweaty and kind of exhausted, but I felt great having done something challenging and fun, and which turned out to have great views, to boot. 

Dubrovnik 0342 fort hill
See the fortress on top?
After downing a bottle of water (purchased at the swank hilltop restaurant, from a waiter properly astonished by my sweaty, shirtless running condition), I ran back down the mountain (10 mins flat) and directly to the nearest beach, where I jumped in the water and had the most refreshing swim of the entire vacation.  I climbed out after a minute and discovered Grit and Andre crouching in the shade, reading.  I sat near them (in the sun) for a bit to dry off, before the three of us walked back to the apartment.  When we got there, Nikolas and QN were sitting there in the half-lit room writing post cards.  I was now in a great mood, and asked them if their morning had been productive.  They said yes, very: they had written a bunch of postcards.  

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful, but we did have a lot of fun.  We took a side trip to a neighboring village and climbed on some Roman ruins, saw Jesus, and took some faux American-style engagement pictures (the pictures being faux, not the engagement -- Niko was mortified).

Dubrovnik 0332 Cavtas shadows
Standing on top of Roman ruins


How romantic!
We also learned how to thumb-wrestle. Apparently Americans have an inherent cultural advantage in the sport (probably because we made it up...).

One, two, three, four, I declare thumb war!
And we ate vast quantities of seafood -- some of which looked and tasted delicious, some of which only tasted delicious, and some of which was horrible on all counts.  At every meal Niko tried in vain to convince QN and me to have a heart and spare the poor squids we were eating.  The irony, of course, is that by the end of the week, I'd eaten so much squid that I was ready to eat anything but squids (and I haven't eaten squid since!).

Dubrovnik 0233 Nausikaa appetizer

Dubrovnik 0236 Nausikaa entree

Dubrovnik 0237 Nausikaa dessert

Dubrovnik 0340 calamari

Dubrovnik 0339 little fishes

Dubrovnik 0310 day trip food

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Croatia - Driving Adventures

It's been great traveling by car during this trip -- QN's little BMW is a nice little car, and I've really enjoyed the independence that it's given us.  At first, I admit, I was a little worried that having a car would mean missing out on good travel adventure stories.  (Nothing like a van-ful of Israelies and Cheetohs to make a trip memorable...)  Turns out, however, I had nothing to worry about:  Driving has proved plenty adventurous.


On our way from Budapest to Plitvice, we took turns driving and discovered both that the locals drive like crazy on the tiny forested mountain roads, and that the police is pretty strict.  I was driving at the time, and had about five cars sitting on my trunk just waiting to pass me and drive faster, when we come around a bend to find a cop with a radar gun waving me over.  Naturally all the others continue merrily on their speedy way, but I got stern lecture about going 79 km/h in a 50 km/hr zone.  I naturally was very surprised, given that the last speed limit sign I had seen was 80 km/hr, but apparently when you enter a village the limit automatically drops to 50, and youre just supposed to know that (because its not marked).  The cops wanted us to pay the 300 Kuna fine on the spot, but we only had a handful of Kuna and a few Euros; also, he didnt seem to know quite what to make of my Virginia drivers license (or the fact that I was driving a Belgian car with a German guy and a French girl who looks Vietnamese.  At the end, he finally just handed everything we had given him (passports, drivers license, money) back to us and told us to go on our way.  Which we did.  Very slowly.


Unfortunately for another set of travelers, the road rules lesson of obeying the (unposted) speed limit was learned an even harder way.  Our trip from Split to Dubrovnik, two days later, was supposed to take 2.5 hours, but ended up taking 7 hours because there was a massive accident that effectively closed the entire windy, two-lane highway in both directions.  It involved a big truck and a tiny car, which was totally demolished -- most gruesome.  Interestingly, just after the accident was one of those "priceless" Mastercard billboards that had a picture of Dubrovnik and "Arriving: Priceless."  After 7 hours of sitting in the hot sun, we certainly felt the value of arriving at our vacation spot, but also, after seeing the bad wreck, we had the added appreciation of the value of arriving safely.

At least the view during those 7 hours was lovely.




Croatia - Split

After our grueling hike around the lakes, we headed into Split, a coastal town famous for being the site of Diocletian's palace -- the retirement home of one of the later Roman emperors.  He built a giant palace on the shore and, over the centuries, the city grew up around -- and in -- the old palace.  It's pretty cool to wander through the maze of the old medieval streets and to see how everything really huddles within and incorporates the old palace walls, columns, arches and temples. 

Navigating said maze, however, is no mean feat.  I was the one driving when we arrived in Split, and we had the GPS turned on to tell us how to get to the place we were staying.  I quickly realized that GPS didn't differentiate between a 4-foot-wide medieval street and a street on which cars could actually drive.  I was driving, and I made it as far as I could (often with only a couple of inches on either side of the car!), but eventually we had to stop and walk the rest of the way.  It was a maddening labyrinth of dead-ends and extremely narrow "streets" (one of which was only a little wider than my shoulders) and we were easily disoriented.  We ultimately found our way to our lodging and, strangely, once we had finally established two spots (the car and the apartment) with some certainty, the whole place felt much more navigable.  In part I think it was due to having some good points of reference; in part it was also due to having walked, by accident, through pretty much every street in that sector of town...

Split 0183
This is where we abandoned the car and started wandering on foot.





At last!  How could we have missed this?
After the travails in the maze, we finally made our way to a restaurant that was recommended in my guide.  It was completely packed, but we managed to get a table inside where we could sit.  And wait.  For a very long time.  We were on the verge of death by starvation, and it was clear that the kitchen was running out of food (they came back to tell Niko that they couldn't make the thing he'd ordered; and when my plate came they explained it was only a half-portion because they'd run out of noodles).  What made it bearable was the gruffly cheerful old waiter who spent his time running about the place flirting with the women and testing out morsels of the foreign languages of his guests (we could hear broken French, Spanish and English being tossed about).  At one point he came up to us and apologized for the delay and said, "But as the communists used to say: Comrades, we shall overcome!"

Even the scale model was hard to figure out...




Morning Run

Split 0190
I ran to the top of this hill.  There was a zoo on top.

Diocletian's Palace

Split 0180
What it looked like back in the day.

Split 0188
What it looks like now.

Split 0187


Dried fruit!

Split 0185
Breakfast in the bag (and snacks for the drive ahead)

Breakfast on the Waterfront

Split 0192

Split 0191 QN



Passed this mountain on the way into town