Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Croatia Chronicles

One of the few plans I had for my European adventure was to meet my friends in Croatia to go camping. I carried my sleeping bag in my backpack all summer specifically with this in mind. Until recently, I only thought of Croatia in terms of the war and genoicide of the early 90's. Lately it has been marketed months as a hot spot with beautiful beaches and great food. I had to go.

Logistics had not been worked out yet but those are minor details. Getting to Croatia can't be any more difficult than any other country. Afterall I had taken planes, trains, and automobiles (even boats) all over Europe. Piece of cake!

I left a few days earlier than we planned to meet because I wanted some r'nr beach time. I wasn't sure where exactly to head but I would read my Lonely Planet guide on the train from Ljubljana toward a port near the border for guidance.

The port of Koper which is close to borders of Croatia and Italy, but still in Slovenia, left me at a bus stop. Literally, a bus stop. No hotels, no stores, no one who spoke English. Nada. Lonely Planet had also failed me with directions so I did what seemed most logical. I chose a bus that was going to the only place I could pronounce - Trieste. The thought of Italian food was also appealing plus it was only 12 km away. Turned that, due to border crossing it took several hours to arrive.

Trieste used to be a main port and I was sure I could find a nice boat trip that could take me to a paradise I had envisioned. In reality there is not much going on beside a few beautiful buildings and rich tourists. Almost everything closes down in Italy on the weekends so it took me time to discover that I would have to actually go to Croatia for a Croatian beach holiday. I did manage to find a local pub and met some crazy Italians for a night of fun so all was not a waste.

The next day's bus took me back to Slovenia and then Croatia in a matter of two hours, ending up in Rijeka (even though its only 20 kms). I quickly found an agent who told me a Catamaran could get me to one of 1100 islands in a matter of hours so I found a destination that I could pronounce... Rab.

Lovely Rab on the Adriatic Sea, containing remnants of 1st and 2nd Century settlements, reminded me a bit of Greece but greener. I first spotted its hill top medieval city and then a tourist agency which was actually open. I could feel my luck changing for the better. The lady there insisted there was only one place to stay (even though other agents in Rijeka told me accomodations would be plentiful since its the end of the summer). At 8pm you can't be too fussy when you don't know where you're going to sleep so I went ahead and waited for owner of the private residence to come and pick me up.

I was delighted to see the place run by Alen and his father. They had 9 guestrooms and a
a restaurant with nice family atmosphere, and only a 10 minute drive from town to pretty much the middle of nowhere. It only dawned on me a couple of hours later that it might be difficult to find my beach without transportation.

This sunset view is a short walk from where I stayed.

The next day it poured rain so I hung out in the middle of nowhere and read the Croatian newspapers. In the evening I ventured out to the quaint little town and hung out later in Alen's disco which he owns with his girlfriend, who, coincidentally, works in the tourist office!

The following day was overcast but no rain. Halleluiah!! After an early start, a well-planned bus ride, and several kilometres of walking (mostly through bush), I finally found my own private cove. I spent what was left of the day on the beach and swimming in the fresh, clear waters. It was great! I knew that getting back would be another adventure of its own but for the time being I had this little piece of paradise all to myself.

My almost unobstructed view, aside from these naked Europeans in the zodiac. Don't get me wrong. I am not a prude and enjoy going topless on the beach when appropriate but for pete's sake, do I need to see this? Aside from polluting my view, they should really consider the hygienic complexities of bare butts in a rental boat.

Back at the farm that evening I came across Geoff and Joanne who were just discovering (sooner than I) that they had been bamboozled into the middle of nowhere too. They had had a couple of crazy days and were spent so I talked them into staying the night with me and we had a great dinner of prosciutto & risotto stuffed Calamari. It was delicious, as was the company and the Croatian wine.

Some days just don't end. Later that night - no, the next morning - uh, not sure but it was still dark... I found myself on a boat with Alen and the cook. We went to his friends' party. I'll spare you the details but Twilight Zone comes to mind. Unfortunatly, I missed the 6 am ferry departure off the island. Fortunately, I escaped the fishing trip that Alen and his friends wanted me to partake.

Alen drinking homemade wine and preparing himself for a night of debauchery.

Me and the cook - his food is good but should one trust a cook with no teeth?

Eventually I did find my way off that bloody island and onto another island... a route to lead me closer to home. I had given up on the camping idea by then due to all the rain and my inability to coordinate upcoming days (by this point I was incapable of making any more 'logical' decisions). Plus, I had a return ticket home from London if I so wanted the challenge of getting there. I decided to take it.

Basque, on Krk Ilsand, seemed to be mostly a stopping point on way to or from the airport but the pebbled beach in was filled with Italians in speedos and crazy kids running wild. Great people watching but not sure why they enjoy laying there like that... so crowded and no sand... their leathery skin getting further sun damaged (I wished for rain so they would take cover).

I did manage to find a heart-pumping, scenic hike to a cemetary and small church, showing glorious views of Croatia's deep, blue sea.

Ilsa recommends but next time I'll take George Clooney's yacht... oh, and George, too.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Craving nature, I took a train ride from Austria through Slovenia - everywhere is green, green, green. This little jewel, a glacial lake, is in the Julian Alps of Slovenia and its beautiful. I needed somewhere to chill out and this was just the ticket.

There is a 6 km path around the lake in Bled and a couple nice hiking trails that showed stunning views. Although there is not much else to do in this spot without going to more remote places, I never tired of looking at the little church on the tiny island in the middle of the lake.

Human traces from prehistory have been found on this island and before the 17th Century church was built, there was a temple consecrated to Ziva, the Slavic goddess of love and fertility. One can take a traditional boat called plenta to the church and ring the bell for good luck.

Cool place for a castle, dont you think?

The swan family was a great source of amusement, the protective mother would attack anyone who dared to walk past them.

I was looking for a frog on these lily pads in the hope of finding a prospective prince but the church bells brought me no luck.

The Slovenians are probably the nicest people I have come across on this journey - very welcoming and always smiling (even the bus drivers which is a first). In fact, they smile first. Ilsa recommends!!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Do Re Mi

The Hills area alive... well lively at least. The train rides through Austria show amazing views of storybook villages and green rolling hills with mountain backdrops... these are a few of my favourite things... I could almost see the Trapp children running after Maria.

Salzburg, famous for being the home town of Mozart is lovely, indeed. And, despite the heckling from the uncultured men in my family every Christmas, one of my favorite movies was filmed here. Guess what it is... thats right... The Sound of Music. Captain von Trapp and his family lived in this area, too.

The town is a little commercial (cheezy) for my taste, however, the voice of Julie Andrews never ceased to be in my head the whole time I was there.

This is Mirabelle Gardens... Doe a deer, a female deer... where they filmed Do Re Mi scene.

I managed to find the last hotel room in the town. It was in a charming, creaky inn and tucked away in a tiny attic where I had to duck my head, not only in my room but going up the stairs. The people were fabulous, as I discovered of most Austrians. Very friendly, they will offer something extra whenever you make a purchase, like candies.

This is St. Peters Abbey, the area and cemetary behind has been in use since 215 AD. Only monks and priests are buried there.

The residence old city square is the heart of the old city. In the film, Maria crossed the square singing I have confidence! while on her way to the Trapp family home for the first time.

Nicer weather might have proved better photos but it really is gorgeous.
If you are part of an old, romantic couple, Ilsa definitely recommeds as a must see. If you are like one my wise cracking brothers, well... a little Julie Andrews in your head cant harm you.


Vienna, Austria

Sophisticated and stylish is how I describe Vienna (hey, just like me). Seeing the architecture in Prague, I may have been hard to impress, but the buildings here are lovely with cleaner lines and more polished.

I spent part the first day at Schonbrun palace where the royal families used to spend their summer vacations, starting in 1569 (although many upgrades occurred afterward). A great place for kids, there is a zoo and a labyrinth and mazes to get lost in. I hid from the rain in the carriage museum. We weren't supposed to take photos, but I discretely snapped a shot. There were about 50 of them - some tiny ones for little kids and their ponies. It was cool to see them up close, some even had worn rubber tires. I could picture Empress Elisabeth 'Sissi' going for a spin.

This one was used for Hasburg court.

St. Stephans Cathedral (turns out I'm not sick of churches yet). Stephansdom is the centre of the old town and city. There are many upscale shops and high-quality buskers, like fancy mimes.

I met my brother's friend who moved from Calgary a few months ago for a couple of locally brewed beer. Tasty!

Thanks for the beers and travel advice, Sandor.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Czech Beer and Pork Knee

Here's the view outside my hotel room in Prague. I'm sure it will be beautiful once complete but was a rather bad first impression and ironic that I was in the the city known for the most beautiful architecture.

Once I got out and about, however, there were lovely buildings at every corner.

This group was fabulous. They were on the St. Charles, 16th Century Bridge, and they were always playing.

I didn't like the food in Poland. Strange-tasting borsht in a cup (did you ever drink blood?) and soggy perogies filled with unusual meat substances, topped with huge chunks of pork fat (thank goodness they had great beer).

The Czech food looked pretty similar and the first menu I looked at featured pork knee and liver dumplings. Needless to say it was pizza or McDonalds from then on. Again, the beer was fantastic, and cheap. In fact, if you ask a waiter for wine he'll recommend beer. Of course, this IS the home of Pilsner.

The one tasty treat I did discover was Trdelnik. This sticky, almond flavored, pastry could be smelled two blocks away. I waited in a long line (which was there all day and into the night) to sample. Anything that smelled that great, must taste pretty good, too. It didn't disappoint. Fresh off the grill, it comes out like a thin cake tube and then they douse it in sugar. Mmmmmm.

Ilsa recommends... but don't come if you're on a diet.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Pictures of Prague

Prague is a photographer's paradise. I got so carried the way in the morning that my camera battery ran out... just in time for the sun to break, so most of the photos are a little grey. Still, this city lives up to its name.
The old City Hall's clock tower shown here comes to life on the hour when the twelve apostles pop out of the windows. Tourists gather around to see it. Then the clock crows.
The Czechs have really embraced tourism - nice and expensive shops are everywhere, including many toy stores - particularly marionettes - Pinnochio and Harry Potter especially.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Krakow, Poland

Krakow has a lovely 'old town' with lots of musical performances, plays, and talented buskers - juggling and mime acts, violin, cello, clarinet, accordian, etc. and even break dancing (young guys who weren't even born in the 80's). Horse-drawn carriage rides are plentiful. Its impossible not to be entertained.

In these photos you can see 13th Century St Mary's Basilica which showcases a magnificent altarpiece and paintings by Matejoko, Mehoffer, and Wyspianksi (I hadn't heard of these artists either).

Many legends surround this building including the bugle call which is played by a fireman in memory of the event when Krakow ws invaded by the Tartars. The fireman, having spotted the army on the horizon, started playing his trumpet to alert the citizens of Krakow and was hit by one of the invaders in the neck, saving the city but losing his life. Someone plays it every hour, right after the church bells. The music always stops short, symbolizing an arrow to the trumpet player's throat.

Krakow is near the home of Pope John Paul II and I went to the church where he held his first mass in 1947.

You may recognize some of these buildings in Auschwitz' concentration camp from movies, ie Schindler's list. The dawing is from the children's accomodations (shed).

The facts surrounding this place are too horrible for words but I think it was important to go and everyone should see it so we all remember.
These two Irish Eejiots (that's really how they described themselves) showed me where to find great pizza and beer last. Mark told stories, always ending with beer. Ian translated. I felt the luck of the Irish having met them on Auschwitz tour.

Poland has lots to offer and I have lots here yet to see, including Wawel Castle with a history dating back 50,000 years. Ilsa recommends!