Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Croatia 1: Dubrovnik

Photo warning before I start: None of the photos in this Dubrovnik post are mine. My camera was stolen, but I'll get to that later. And length warning...this post turned out way too long. Skip the words if you just want the stolen photos.

It's been over a week since I've gotten home, and I'm just now getting around to posting anything about Croatia. The jet lag has been really rough on me this time around, and I'm getting over a multi-day migraine. Basically I've been sitting around being completely useless and wondering if this is what dying feels like. (I tend to be overly-dramatic). So it's taken a while, but here it is.


I decided that I had to go to Croatia after coming across a friend's photo of the Plitvice Lakes National Park a few months before leaving for France. Google it, you'll understand (or just look at my Zadar photos). Fast forward to February: a friend and I were sitting in front of two computers desperately trying plan a last-minute trip to Croatia, as our first vacation was two weeks after we started teaching. Problem: we could get in, we could travel throughout, but unless we were willing to rent an apartment and wait it out until May, there was no way to leave the country without going broke. So the plan dissolved and turned into the crazy Italy/Budapest/Vienna trip I posted about in February or March.

A few months later I was looking at two open tabs: a mid-May EasyJet flight from Geneva to Dubrovnik, and a Ryanair flight from Zadar to Marseille, spaced 10 days apart. It would be perfect, but I would be alone, and it would mean extending my stay an extra month. I let the idea roll around in my head for a few days, and then one day, during my lunch break, I just did it. I bought them. And that was that. On May 16th I packed my backpack and I was off.  

As excited as I had been to go, my mood deteriorated right before I left, and the trip started off on a sour note. I felt like I was dragging myself there against my will, like those parents you see at the store holding their screaming kids up by one arm because they've gone limp and refuse to move.

Let me explain: I had a horrible migraine the day before my flight, probably brought on by my inability to sleep during the previous months. I was stressed about what I was going to do with my life once I got back home three days after the trip (not helped by every other person asking me "so what are you going to do with your life once you get back home?" Ugh, lay off!). And good old fashion homesickness was starting to set in. Beyond that, I had mentally moved on: I had booked my trip home, packed most of my stuff, hadn't been working for several weeks, and had already said my goodbyes with the other assistants.

And I was just tired. I had enough flights, enough security checks, enough packing and repacking, enough new-bed-every-three-nights, enough junk food. Physically, emotionally, mentally, I was tired, and I just wanted to get it over with. So... probably not the best way to leave for a trip, but there really was no turning back at that point.

Day One:

My first stop was Dubrovnik, a small city on the southern tip of Croatia, right on the coast. I spent the first day wandering around the old walled city (full of a remarkable number of stray cats), which important people deemed cool enough to be a UNESCO site. I can sum up day one in Dubrovnik like this: me looking at a beautiful, very touristy, city, surrounded by the cleanest, bluest water I've ever seen, unable to enjoy it because I was weighed down by homesickness, loneliness, and exhaustion. I dragged my feet indifferently though the narrow little streets, trying to appreciate it all while thinking "what the hell am I doing here?"

Emotions aside, Dubrovnik really was a nice city to visit. It's one of the biggest tourist destinations in Croatia, not surprising with a name like "Pearl of the Adriatic." Even in May, from the moment I was within viewing distance of the old city walls, people speaking perfect English were handing me flyers for day trips, ferries to this or that island, kayak trips, etc.

One thing that struck me about Dubrovnik and the rest of Croatia was a sort of...lack of open recognition of recent history. It was heavily bombarded during the war in the former Yugoslavia, but it's been so well restored that there are hardly any signs of what happened. Honestly, if I hadn't had already learned about the war myself I could have passed through the whole country without hearing about it once. I didn't see any memorials or museums dedicated to it, and the only time I heard anyone talking about it was when the lady at my Airbnb told me about her experience. I don't remember all of it, but I remember her saying she was in third grade, and at one point it got so bad that all they had to eat was bread for a week. She still hates the sound of fireworks because they reminded her of the bombs, and from one day to the next, neighbors had gone from sharing coffee to robbing each other. I'm not sure if the wounds are still too fresh or if they don't want to scare off their tourists, but there was little focus on history and more on just having a good time.

Day Two:

I still couldn't seem to get out of my funk the next day. I walked the walls, which is the number one must-do in Dubrovnik. It's exactly what it sounds like: you walk all the way around the old city on the walls which surround it, which gives you a gorgeous view of the rooftops and the Adriatic. Then I tried to drown my feelings with ice cream (which didn't work), and went into two really awful museums.

I still had half a day left so I decided to take a ferry to Lokrum, one of the closest islands, only 15 minutes away. However in my mindless, blasé state I ended up buying a ferry ticket to the wrong island, which I didn't realize until the boat floated past Lokrum. Instead, I ended up in Cavtat. I have to say, as far as mistakes go, that was actually a pretty good one, I had been planning on going there anyways. It was a beautiful island: clean water and mountains on one side, a forested area on the other, dense with bent-over trees. Like every other place in Croatia, it was small and I walked the whole thing in less than an hour, so I wandered off a bit further and found a trail that led to some really stunning views. I really wish I had those photos.

Day Three:

The third day in Dubrovnik was my birthday, so I decided to treat myself with a guided tour to Montenegro. The tour guide was a smiley, middle-aged bald man who liked to laugh at his own pre-fabricated jokes. For example: What's absolute zero?, he asked. When a Bosnian thinks of an idea, a Croatian invests in it, and a Montenegrin does the physical work. (Apparently the Balkan stereotypes are as follows: northern Croatians are stingy, Montenegrins are lazy, and Bosnians are dumb, his words, not mine). I think he laughed the hardest at that one.

Our first stop was the Bay of Kotor, which is a stunning fjord right over the boarder, surrounded by what looked like black mountains (and then it hit me, Monte = mountain, Negro = black. Named by the Spanish who had sailed past it. It blew my mind all while making me feel stupid that I hadn't made that connection earlier). We drove all the way around it, which was basically just a giant 15-minute never-ending postcard. I wish the guy would have just dropped me off there for the rest of the day, it was without question my favorite part.

At one point the tour guide mentioned that it was my birthday, which kind of freaked me out until I realized he had seen it on the info sheet we had had to fill out to cross into Montenegro. The whole bus sang to me, and while it would have been nice to be with people who actually cared about my existence, it was a nice gesture. He bought me a postcard at one point. And then he got kind of creepy and wanted to buy me a coffee... it gets weirder, just wait.

The next stop was Kotor, which I thought was pretty overrated. It was a crowded, walled town, full of touristy knick knack shops and a cat museum. There was a pretty nice church that was all pink on the inside, but besides that I wasn't a huge fan. The mountains surrounding the city, however, those looked amazing, and if we had stopped there for more than an hour I would have hiked up to a church/lookout point. It was the start of a pretty consistent pattern during my trip: the cities...meh, the nature? Mind blowing.

Our last stop was Budva, which has a very, very tiny walled old city (like...walk-through-it-in-10-minutes kind of tiny), and besides that, is basically just a beach town. I spent our two hours of allotted free time walking along the coast, which was beautiful, and even in my semi-depressed mood I was able to appreciate it.

Then I made a "friend." I sat on a dock to read, and I had barely opened my book when I noticed some guy behind me taking a picture. He walked over and started saying something in Croatian (or Montenegrin, I guess. It's the same thing), and eventually I looked up and realized that he was talking to me. I told him in Polish that I didn't understand, which he understood. But he kept going, managing to plug in a word in English here and there, and every couple of sentences I heard words that sounded like Polish. He was very persistent and I manged to get bits and pieces of what he was saying. I learned he cuts hair, what hours he works, and that he can successfully count to four in English. Real hard-hitting stuff. After 15 minutes of this I told him I had to go back to the tour bus, he looked disappointed, then asked me for my number.

I don't really get hit on. Ever. So this was a strange new experience. 

After this we made the drive back to Dubrovnik, during which our guide tried to get the boarder guards to let us through without checking passports by bribing them with beer and soda (or, in his words, "charming them"). It actually worked (for all the European citizens, at least). I do remember him saying something early in the tour about corruption in the Balkans... 

And then the tour ended, and this is where it got weird. The guide dropped us all off at our respective hotels/Airbnbs, and mine was the last stop. I  was leaving the car when the guide stopped me. "So, how are you celebrating your birthday?" I shrugged, said I had an early bus to Split the next day (only a lie if you don't consider a 3:00 pm bus early), and said I'd just make myself some dinner. "You shouldn't be alone! I'd love to buy you a drink."

I looked at the man old enough to be my father, wondered if he was serious, and said no thank you. He told me he'd be there anyways, just in case, and asked where was staying so he could drop me off closer. And if I did decide to come and he, for whatever reason wasn't there, I should ask the waitresses to call him. It was weird, and needless to say I waited until he drove off before I walked back to my place.

I ended the day by walking around Gruz, a port right next to my Airbnb. I watched the last bits of sun disappear behind some cruse ships, and suddenly I snapped out of it: I finally remembered why I loved to travel and why I went on this trip. I did remain pretty tired for the rest of the week, but I was no longer moping around. I finally felt good. 

The next day my change of attitude was rewarded with an amazing drive up to Split along the Dalmatian Coast. My face was glued to the window for hours. Each time we turned a curve we were met with island after blue island popping out of the sea. Now I really wish I had those photos.


Amazing drive through the Alps to Geneva (I really wish I had my own photos of this, we were right next to the mountains. This is the best I could find, sadly).


Dubrovnik view from the top. The island near the top is Lokrum
Main gate to the Old City

The narrow streets leading up to the quiet residential areas:

Old Port
Part of the wall around the city

Walking the Walls:

I was smart enough to take a few videos on my phone, so at least this one is actually mine


Montenegro Tour

Bay of Kotor. Yes, it was this gorgeous.

Bay of Kotor
Kotor street
Right outside of Kotor. See, the mountains are beautiful, the city inside, 5 out of 10
The pink church 

It's hard to see, but there is a climb that leads you up to a church. Sadly our stop was too short to do it.


Gruz Port (again, I really wish I had my own photos of this place)

They really like John Paul II there, after living in France for so long it was strange being in a country with an active Catholic following 
Drive to Split (these photos pathetically do not do it justice)

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