A Travellerspoint blog

Episode 19: Zagreb to Prague

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Episode 19: Zagreb to Prague
16 - 20 October 2012

Family history, nostalgia and grand castles

Train 172, wagon 256, seat 51 second class saw me taking a very comfortable 6 -ish hour train trip from Vienna to Prague. My sister and cousin met me at the train station and I confess it was nice having someone meet me and guide me rather than my trying to figure out where I was supposed to go and by what means while juggling backpack, day pack and my hand drawn directions.

My first visit to Prague was in 1966 and at that time my mother, brother and I stayed in an apartment where some friends of my grandmother lived. It was on the top floor of a building located on the upper part of Wenceslas Square and despite battling jetlag, I remember being most impressed by the man carrying two huge jugs of beer across the square at 7 o’clock in the morning. Given that I grew up in the land of the prohibition, this was unheard of and unseen in Seattle let alone to a 16 year old. I was also very impressed with all the red roofs of the buildings surrounding the apartment block as all the roofs in Seattle are a dull grey. Unfortunately, the original house was torn down and a rather atrocious ugly green building with a round window was constructed (and is still there). And further, that end of Wenceslas Square has been changed from a pedestrian plaza to a two-way road. In 1966, Prague was a depressing city where there were few cars and smiling people, no feeling of cheer and no stores: everything was handed to you over a counter by a dour saleslady.

Fast forward to 2012. My sister, cousin and I stayed just outside of Prague the first night. We wandered into the Old Town (Stareměstské namesti) in the evening and met up with Lubos, a friend of mine from Mongolia. We were invited to a secret squirrel place where you had to go up the alley way, knock on a door, go down the stairs and you found yourself in a renovated, crowded and noisy cellar. Wine, sausage and cheese were on order and the owner showed us his wine cellar which, for a total wine novice, looked very impressive. The streets of the Old Town were crowed with predominately Japanese tourists that seemed to thrive on the crystal shops that all sold the same style of crystal and I heart Prague magnets.

Autumn colours

Autumn colours

The next day we went to the cottage my grandmother lived in during her latter years. The cottage sits on the outskirts of Senohraby, a village about 30 km to the southeast of Prague which has been around since the 15th century, and very near the railway line and Sázava River. Although located in an open, grassed area, the cottage is surrounded by forest and the log cabin my father hand built in the mid-1930s when he was about 15 years old still stands on the small hill next to the cottage. The Sázava River is within walking distance of the cottage and was a very popular swimming park (Senohrabske Plovarne) when my parents were growing up. It is still very popular and if you look at early pictures not a lot has changed over the last 60 years.

My father's log cabin and storage cellar

My father's log cabin and storage cellar


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What has changed is Hrad (castle) Zlenice, commonly called the “Watchtower” after the name of the original village attached to the castle, which is undergoing a rather nice restoration. The castle is about a 5 minute walk into the forest from the swimming park. Built in about 1351 by Jan of Zlenice, it sits on a small promontory overlooking the river. Jan seems to have been part of a gentry family and really didn’t seem to fare too well: in the same year he named the castle after himself, he had to forfeit the castle as part of a loan to his brothers. Later on, the castle was used as a popular background for several Czech artists, Josef Lada being the one most familiar to me.

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I remember walking by the ruins with my sister back in 1966 and there was a small gang of young boys hanging around who just stood there and stared as we walked by. I confess, in retrospect, that I may have been a wee bit of a sight to stare at given that I was wearing my plaid yellow Bermuda shorts which came to my knees. They were the ‘in’ garment at that time in Seattle. Unfortunately, they were only ‘in’ in Seattle. They were a point of conversation wherever I went in Czechoslovakia and I’m sure that the Bermuda style never made the fashion pages in Czechoslovakia. The girls were into wearing what we called “hot pants” at that time which was considered a bit riské in Seattle. This was also my first introduction to speedos on the male body and at 16 I had no idea where I was supposed to look as American boys generally wore very austere cut-offs which came to their knees. I was never sure, but I suspect that the boys were squatters but my sister and I just glared back at the boys as we walked by, no words were exchnaged and all passed by peacefully.

Forest around Hrad Zlenice

Forest around Hrad Zlenice

We didn’t spend a lot of time in Prague or Senohraby as we wanted to spend a few days castle hopping and in a nutshell, the weather was fine, the autumn colours stunning and the palaces we visited were all grand despite the fact that the only way we could see the insides was to go on organised tours.

Hrad Karlstejn, a late Gothic castle located about 20 kilometres southwest of Prague in the village of Karlŝtejn was the first castle we visited. It was built by the Czech king and Roman Emperor Charles IV in the mid-1300s as a place for safekeeping his little stash of royal treasures and jewels. There is lots of history and fables and myths associated with the castle, but the most entertaining to me is the story about Katerina Bechynova, a wife of a burgrave who lived in the castle. Katerina had a bad bustle day and murdered fourteen maidservants and topped the cake by obviously having a thing about cats as she hid them alive in various places around the castle. Betcha they would have smelled like prawns in a hubcap after a few days.

Hrad Karlstejn

Hrad Karlstejn


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Hrad Krivoklat founded in the 12th century was the second castle we visited. The castle is about 40 km west of Prague and sits on a promontory of rolling hills overlooking a mainly deciduous forest which was flush with autumn colours. It was said to be the favourite castle of King Wenceslas IV as he quite enjoyed the hunting and sporting he could do in the surrounding woods. Some movie company was shooting a period film on the day we were there. Most of the action was inside the castle, but it was good fun looking at the actors in their costumes, many standing around smoking very modern cigarettes. The most outstanding and impressive feature of this castle to me was the huge library with over 52,000 volumes of books. The dungeons and torture chamber were not visited as listening to the monotone drone of the unsmiling tour guide was torture enough.

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Hrad Loket, located about 140km to the west of Prague, was the third castle we visited and was my favourite, mainly because it was the smallest we visited and seemed the most unpretentious. We stopped in Karlovy Vary on the way to the castle which is a spa city located about 130 km to the west of Prague. The city has had a rough history having been incorporated by Czechoslovakia and Germany at various times and then was under Communist rule until the fall of the Soviet Union. Karlovy Vary is famous for its hot springs and is supposedly very popular with jet setters and celebrities. A part of the 2006 film Casino Royale with Daniel Craig was filmed there and if the cars that parked in front of the Grandhotel Pupp were any indication, there were certainly lots of people with lots of money there. It was also evident by all the signage that there was a significant number of Russians in the city.

Karlovy Vary

Karlovy Vary


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People have attributed lots of healing powers to the mineral spring waters of Karlovy Vary. These waters purportedly can treat diabetes, liver disease, neurological disorders, obesity and gout. The practice of balneology (sitting and drinking spa waters) is still very much in effect. People fill their made in china traditional sipping cups, “made in a shape especially designed to preserve the temperature and CO2 content”, with the warm mineral water and sip the water while strolling around the streets and colonnades.

Karlovy Vary is also the home of Becherovka, a 76% proof liqueur made from a secret squirrel recipe of herbs and spices. My parents always swore that Becherovka, taken in the evening, was of great medicinal value for ones stomach. I just remember it causing a group of us to happily, animatedly and un-abashedly sing YMCA.

Hrad Loket is one of the oldest stone castles in the Czech Republic and is surrounded on three sides by the Ohre River. It’s been called the “Impregnable Castle of Bohemia” due to its thick walls. It burned down in 1725 but was rebuilt by 1822. The village of Loket surrounds the castle unlike the other castles we visited where the village was at the bottom of the hill and we had to walk up the hill to the castle. I was quite entertained by the brochure that advertised wedding ceremonies you could have in the castle: the standard ceremony of 20 minutes will put you about $4,700 out of pocket while the Ceremony with Program III, lasting one hour with a performance of fencers and musicians, will cost you about $15,000.

Hrad Loket

Hrad Loket

When I started planning my trip, I was pretty determined that I was not going to leave terra firma or terra marine at any time. I investigated taking a freighter across the Atlantic and after spending an inordinate time on the computer, I decided I needed to be pragmatic. There is an entire community out there that are freighter travellers so there was no shortage of information or advice. However, the two obstacles I faced were scheduling and cost. Most of the freighter trips starting from Europe or the UK took at least two weeks to cross the Atlantic, and many times there would be a suggestion of a departure date and arrival date, but no guarantee. A ship could be stuck in port for any period of time and without warning if there were any sort of hiccups. I did investigate the Queen Mary as I thought that as we had immigrated to the United Stated on the Queen Elizabeth in the 1950s, it would be rather good fun to travel again on her sister ship. However, I needed to get to New York on a certain date as I was meeting my mother and the Queen Mary schedule just didn’t work out. Also, although freighter travel may have been the paupers’ way to travel at one time, the costs associated with the freighters these days are more for the king and would have covered another three trips around the world for me.

So, after our short castle hopping trip, I bade my sister and cousin farewell and I jumped on a plane to get to New York.

Next stop: New York

Posted by IvaS 19.05.2014 04:30 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Episode 18: Makarska to Zagreb

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Episode 18: Makarska to Zagreb

Another gem; stopped clocks; pancakes and singers on the street

Zagreb was never on my radar. I didn’t even know it existed. However, as the non-beach, rainy and grey weather caught up with me while I was in Makarska, and as I had a few days up my sleeve before I had to arrive in Prague, I decided to do a pit stop in Zagreb.

I had no preconceived ideas, images or, in fact, any knowledge about this city. My mind was a blank page. And as it turned out, despite the rather dodgy weather, particularly on the first day, Zagreb turned out to be another unexpected gem. I totally enjoyed exploring the city, eating yummy pancakes, listening to street buskers, and learning its history.

I took Bus 1 (seat 9) from Makarska to Zagreb departing at 0930 with a pit stop in Split for about 30 minutes. It’s 459 km from Makarska to Zagreb, 419 km being a non-descript four lane motorway which we plowed through in pouring rain and no visibility. From Split, I sat next to a young Croatian lass who lived in New York but had been visiting her family in Băska Voda and was on her way to visit a friend in Zagreb. We had an interesting conversation about Croatians and what she saw was the stubbornness and intransigence of her family, and her opinion that Croatians have no sense of entrepreneurship, risk or imagination. She maintained that they liked to play it safe and as a result, there are 100s of pizza shops lined up next to each other as no one is willing to break the mold and do something different. She was not far wrong. The lack of diversity was something I did notice in Makarska – there was little variety in the types of restaurants and shops: pizza dives and jewellery shops were definitely the go along with a multitude of seafood restaurants all with basically the same menu. How so many of the same type of shop manage to stay afloat (although for how long) had me beat.

I stayed in the Palmers Lodge Zagreb which, although almost directly across from the railroad station, took some effort to walk to as you had to walk about 500m in one direction to cross the tracks and then backtrack to your starting point. The lodge was functional but dark given that my room was in the basement and all I saw through the small window near the ceiling were feet walking through puddles. The room had two bunk beds and a bathroom ensuite, which, admittedly, was convenient. However, the rather amorous couple from Slovenia were more than happy to share one of the single bunks until I decided that I was most uncomfortable being forced to be a voyeur. A question asking if their parents knew where they were saw them leave for the nightclubs in a rather sprightly manner – and, as I discovered, this is what young Slovenians do. The nightlife in Ljubljana seems to cater more to the geriatric set (i.e. anyone over 25), so the youngies come to Zagreb over a weekend for a bit of excitement and a tickle as the trip one way takes under two hours by train.

Zagreb is very hilly and is divided into 17 districts with the most interesting being the Upper Town and the Lower Town, although I am not really sure where the demarcation line lies (on the flats and up on the hill, perhaps). The Lower Town has the grand neo-renaissance buildings, the museums, national library, stock market, the main railway station, the botanical gardens and theatres. Zrinjevac Park, with its Meteorological Post constructed in 1884 where you can check the temperature and pressure, and co-ordinate your watch to a 24 hour clock, is located in this area as well as King Tomislav Square with its monument dedicated to Tomislav, Croatia’s first king. Ilica Street, once the longest street in Zagreb, is lined by shops, theatres, government buildings and markets and there are some ripper pastry and coffee shops along the street. The Zagreb orange or tangerine fair was being held in Ban Jelačič, the main square, so the square was crowded and there were people in costume dancing and singing and free bags of tangerines were being given out (there were so many in the bag, they lasted me until Prague).

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I liked the Upper Town (Gornji grad) better with its small lanes taking you into cobblestone streets and the past and this is where I spent most of my time. The easiest way to get to the Upper Town is taking the little funicular, but as it wasn’t working I walked up the hill via a cobblestoned street that passed through Kamenita vrata which is the only surviving gate to the Upper Town. The story is that in 1647, Zagreb was gripped by the plague and all the gates were closed except this one and it was guarded by the most respectable of citizens, who, I assume, could tell if someone was afflicted with the plague.

Strolling up and down the maze of streets was a joy and I was particularly taken by the Lotrŝčak Tower which gives a fantastic view over the Lower Town. For whatever reason, the tower and streets were empty but there was a busker playing a guitar on the street below which was really very bohemian and soothing to listen to while enjoying the view. I also got particularly fond of the jam pancakes they make for you from little stalls on the street.

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There is no shortage of churches in the Upper Town: the very gothic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Mary with its defensive walls, St Stephan’s Chapel, the Franciscan Church and, the highlight, the 13th century Church of St Marks with roof decorated in tiles showing coat of arms from the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia which dominates St Mark’s Square.

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As a point of trivia and general interest, there are 217 gas street lamps in Gornji grad which are lit every night by two gas lighters. And every morning just before sunrise, two lamplighters douse the lamps. Supposedly it takes two hours to light the lamps and another two hours to douse them. Also, there was a major earthquake of magnitude 6.3 in Zagreb in 1880 which not only caused severe damage to the Cathedral and about 500 other buildings but also stopped many of the clocks in the city from working. The Cathedral clock stopped at 7 hours, 3 minutes and 3 seconds which is the time it still shows. I find this rather interesting as, supposedly, the earthquake hit at 7:33.

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Vienna:

To me, Vienna is the grand dame, the fat lady who sings the last song of the opera, the sound of music. It is majestic, statued, cultured and shrouded in geraniums. I have visited Vienna a number of times and have always enjoyed touring the city and surrounding countryside. This time, my trip was just an overnight stop and it was the pits because it was cold, blustery and rainy and I was once again happy the next morning when I was back on the train.

Train K220 departing Zagreb at 0725 saw me arrive in Vienna about 7 hours later. The countryside, between cloudbursts, was stunning and green as one expects of Austria. I stayed at the Pension Vienna Happymit on Liebenfrostgasse and although the pension was not far from the bus station, it took me ages to find the building as signposts seemed to be a rare commodity in this part of the city. I scored a room that would have fitted into a shoebox and I had to step over my backpack to the bed due to lack of space. But it was only overnight and it was within walking distance to the Innere Stadt (central district) where I bought a Mozart music motif scarf (as one does) and visited Julius Meinl am Graben, the yummy and excessively expensive deli to stock up on a favourite comfort food, Mozart marzipan chocolates.

Next stop: Prague

Posted by IvaS 03.05.2014 04:51 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Episode 17: Dubrovnik to Makarska

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Episode 17: Dubrovnik to Makarska

A wee remininscence, azure waters, nibbly fish

I first visited Makarska (Croatia) in 1966 when I was 16 years old (yes…go ahead and do the calculations). The reason for the visit was because in that era, this was one of the few places by the sea where citizens from the then Czechoslovakia could get permission to visit outside the country. As my parents were originally from Czechoslovakia, I still had family there whom my mother, brother and I were visiting. The red curtain divided us in that my sister, aunt and two cousins could only drive to Makarska via Hungary while my mother, brother and I took the bus through Austria and down the coast of Yugoslavia. We all eventually met up again in the camping ground on the west side of Makarska, pitched up a couple of pup tents and then proceeded to spend most of our time in the clear, refreshing waters of the Adriatic Sea. The images that stand out most in my mind from that time were the Biokovo mountains rising over 1,700m behind the township that each day we said we would walk up (and didn’t), the palm fringed promenade in front of the town with the smell of freshly caught sardines, the young boys walking around selling one litre bottles of olive oil for a mere pittance (which we slathered on ourselves to get that bronzed tan and éau de salád dressing aroma), the petrified donkey being transported by a tiny skiff, and my little brother blasting off his taste buds on his first (and last) red chilli pepper. Revenge on little brothers can be sweet.

Move time forward and as Makarska was along my way to the Czech Republic, I decided to do a two day stopover to see if I still recognised anything. I departed Dubrovnik early on the morning on the local bus, arriving in Makarska 7 hours later. A non-eventful bus trip that drove along a winding road that hugs the coastline the entire way so there are the cliffs dropping into the Adriatic on the south and the Dinanic alps looming up the northern side of the road. I was still lucky with the weather despite it being October, so it was a joy to see the blue of the Adriatic Sea and the clear blue sky along the entire route.

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The coast on either side of Makarska is referred to as the Dalmacija coast. This entire coastline is a highly popular tourist destination and in peak time, the beaches consist of masses of oiled bodies of every shape and form soaking up the sun. Luckily, I was out of peak tourist time so I had a lot of the beach and town to myself.

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I decided to splurge during my stay in Makarska and so stayed in the Villa Lelas which was conveniently within walking distance not only to the bus station, but also the beach. I chose this place because it advertised that there were “ocean views” so I had visions of a balcony with table, indulging in fresh bread and salami. This turned out to be an absolute stretch of a description given you could only see a sliver of blue between an ocean of buildings. But it was comfortable, clean and there was a bakery across the street with some rather tasty raspberry pastries which I did eat on the balcony, sans table.

The old town is relatively small but still quaint and easy to stroll around. The highlights are St Mark’s Cathedral, dating from the 17th century, and the statue of the friar Andrija Kačić Moišić and the main prominade along the main harbour.

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I first saw a sign advertising fish spas when I was in Kiev, but I never ventured to try them out while there. So when I saw the “New! Fish Foot Spa. Relax and Go. 50% discount today” sign in the old town, I decided it was time. The spa consists of a large room with four tanks, each of the tanks having a bit of vinyl padded seating around the edge. Oxygen burbles away and the fish dart in and out of the bubbles. According to the flyer, the fish are Garca rufas or Dr Fish. The brochure further explains that “fishes suck fungus, dead cells and dry skin while repairing the skin. At the same time they massages (sic) give you a sense of well-being and relaxation. Fish have no teeth and do not cause wounds – so this is relaxing and fun”. So how could I not try this?

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My feet were first bathed in disinfectant and I then sat on the edge seating, slowly dipping my feet into the coolish water. In a flash of a second, I had hundreds of little fish swarming around my feet, dipping in and out of my toes, sucking fungus and dead cells from my feet. And it tickled. And as I have extremely ticklish feet, the nibbling tickled to the point of my getting the giggles. Luckily I was the only customer so I could giggle away during my 10 minute session. As I was the only customer, I got an extra 5 minutes of nibbling fish and accompanying giggling, although it was apparent that the majority of the fish were losing interest in the dead cells on my feet by this point. I’m not sure if relaxing is the correct work for this spa, but I can unequivocally state that I was never bitten.

Most of my time in Makarska was spent in the calm waters of the protected bay on the west side of Makarska, despite the water being a bit on the chilly side. For the most part, the stony beaches were very empty and quiet. One thing I do admire of European men and women, regardless of the flab, pot belly, crepey skin, droopy muscles or tummy rolls, they wear their bikinis anbd speedos with pride. I was actually one of the very few people wearing a one piece swimsuit.

In between dips in the water, I wandered hither and thither: the old cobblestone streets of the old town, Cape Osejava, the water front (the fishing boats still moor at the front harbour smelling of fresh fish), the original camp ground area. And olive oil is now sold in petite boutique bottles at killer prices. The town itself has grown and there are substantially more restaurants along the foreshore (which all seem to have similar menus - pizza being very popular), but the town really has not changed a lot.

And I looked at the Biokovo mountains each morning and told myself each morning that there was no way I was going to walk up to the top on this trip.

Next stops: Zagreb, Vienna and Prague

Posted by IvaS 11.03.2014 03:39 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Episode 16: Podgorica to Dubrovnik

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Episode 16: Podgorica to Dubrovnik

Azure sea, Ferrets and Cats

I know I am going to sound like a 13 year old nerd with braces who gets excited about the Mario Brothers video game, but the best adjective I can think of to describe Dubrovnik with its medieval churches, museums, historical buildings, fortifications, laneways and tiled roofs is Awesome. I very much liked the city as it is a city easy to like and enjoy.

As there are no trains that run along the Adriatic Sea coastline, the only viable option was to take a bus. Getting from Podgorica to Dubrovnik by bus takes minimal effort as there are a number of buses that travel between these two cities each day, although scheduling can be a bit mysterious. The bus also gave me the opportunity to split the trip so that I could have a two hour wander in the old Mediterranean port of Kotor before catching the connecting bus to Dubrovnik. And it’s cheap: the bus ticket from Podgorica to Kotor was 7.50 Euros and the bus from Kotor to Dubrovnik was 14 Euros.

Kotor is one of the pit stops for the cruise liners that ply the Adriatic Sea and unfortunately a liner was in port on the day I visited and consequently Kotor was crowded with way too many grey haired seagulls. Kotor is a very attractive town as it sits in a corner of the Gulf of Kotor which I read is the deepest fjord in the Mediterranean Sea and it was evident that it was a place worthy of a kayak or sailing trip or two. Two hours gave me enough time to meander a bit through the old town, along the main street and eat an ice cream.

The bus trip, for the most part, was uneventful: as long as you didn’t mind sitting across the aisle from a couple with a pet ferret. Most of the time the ferret was in its cage, but it was taken out a few times and allowed to squirrel around the seats of the owners. There was also a passenger that decided the perpetual Zorba the Greek music being played by the bus driver was not to their liking so played their own music at top volume resulting in a rather interesting din in the bus for most of the trip.

Dubrovnik received the rotten end of the stick during the 1991 Seige of Dubrovnik, fought between the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and the Croatian forces, and there are still traces of the immense physical damage that was sustained by the city. The siege lasted nine months and the Croatian War of Independence Museum in Fort Imperial, one of the first places to be shelled, provides a lot of history and pictures about the siege. It has been estimated that over 11,400 buildings in Dubrovnik were damaged by artillery and shelling, electricity and water were cut off, massive looting and pillaging occurred and over 15,000 refugees sought protection within the walls of the old city. In spite of the strong JNA offensive, Dubrovik never fell to the Serbian and Montenegrin forces and prides itself in the restoration that was carried out after the seige. And so they should be proud.

Today it is a restored, vibrant city surrounded by the clear, turquoise blue waters of the Adriatic. One absolute joy is to walk around the wall of the city early in the morning when everyone is still sleeping and the sun is rising. It’s quiet at this time, there are no crowds to tackle and the morning colours of gold and yellow on the sandstone and red tiled buildings are stunning. And it’s great to hear a city waking up – the clattering of cutlery, voices emerging from the shadows, garbage bins being brought out, wheel barrows of stone being shifted, cats getting narky.

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I stayed at the Old Town Hostel in the old part of Dubrovnik. It was simple enough to get a bus from the main bus station to the Pile Gate and then it was just a matter of finding the correct laneway. The hostel was functional, convenient, busy and noisy.

I discovered five things to do in Dubrovnik old town that were not mentioned in the tourist guide:

* count the cats. There is somewhere between lots and heaps;

* try every flavour of gelato in existence and make sure you try a different one at each kiosk. I’m not sure what you would run out of first – gelato flavours or kiosks;

* drink a cappuccino at a different café every hour. You will never run out of cafés and the views from some which overlook the Adriatic sea are hypnotic;

* challenge your hearing and locate the position of every meowing cat;

* throw projectiles at the cat persistently meowing all night outside your hostel window.

As you can gather, Dubrovnik is a city of cats consisting of every colour, size, age, health and disposition that a cat population can sustain. Amazingly, you hear more than you actually see.

I arrived in Dubrovik in early evening and the old city was inundated by another grey hair mob from the cruise liner parked in the bay. Fortunately, the liner left during the night and the next day was bliss. All I did for two days was wander the streets, visit museums (my favorite being the maritime museum), swim and eat chilli mussels. A market was going on the old town square while I was there and the array of olive oil, dates, figs and other home grown produce and products was impressive enough to write home about.

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As much as I would have liked to stay on, I was feeling the pressure of time. I was due to catch up with my sister and cousin in Prague and later catch up with my mother in New York as we were taking the train across Canada. So it was on to Makarska and Zagreb.

Next stop: Makarska

Posted by IvaS 12.12.2013 01:48 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Episode 15: Belgrade to Podgorica

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Episode 15: Belgrade to Podgorica 3 October 2012

Hiking the karsts, celebrity vibe, Germans galore, not much else

Montenegro is not a country that I had on my bucket list so knew very little about the place before I got there. However, this was an opportunity to visit Pius, my hiking buddy from Mongolia, so off I trundled to Podgorica (pronounced Pod-gor-i-tza not my aussie Pod-gor-i-ka).

When I lived in Mongolia, a group of us used to go hiking in the hills surrounding Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, nearly every Sunday. The only restriction we put on ourselves was not to hike if the temperature fell below minus 25oC and that was simply because our lungs would have frozen inside our chests and become popsicles. We would meet outside the round Brau Haus Restaurant at 11 am, decide where to go and then hop either onto the local bus or grab a taxi to our starting point.

Our hiking habits changed when Pius joined our group - simply because he had a car. As befitting the ambassador from Germany, he had a BMW something or another 4-wheel drive which was usually driven very fast over very ghastly roads passing very dilapidated trucks and cars at greater than even a nominal safe speed. But we survived and this allowed us to expand our hiking area and some glorious hikes were made over the next four years not only in the Khan Bogd Mountains but also in Terelj National Park where we ended up hiking every mountain and ridge available to us.

I knew that Pius would take me on a hike into the mountains somewhere in Montenegro, so I was quite happy to head south from Belgrade to visit him.

I opted not to take the train from Belgrade to Podgorica despite there being a direct train line simply because I was told by a number of people that if I wanted to be in Podgorica this century then taking the train was not the way to go. Supposedly, the trains are excruciatingly slow and unreliable and as I did need to get to Podgorica by German National Day 2012 AD, I decided to take the bus.

Bus #11 seat 7 departing 0830 from the main bus station in Belgrade, 2,960 serbian dollars, arriving in Podgorica at 1830. The morning started out well until I discovered that I should have been given a token by the person who sold me the bus ticket which would have given me entry into the bus station. I had also asked for a window seat and I failed on both accounts. I managed to plead for a token and once dropped into the token box, I was safely in the station. I’m not sure of the purpose of the token: maybe a means of counting people? A way of employing people? I also discovered that getting your baggage on the bus costs extra – it is not included in the cost of the bus ticket and the charge is per piece. It wasn’t expensive (about 10 serbian dollars a piece) but just annoying.

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It was most entertaining watching the buses depart from the station that morning. There were twelve buses parked in the various bus bays and spot on 0800, they all started up their engines and backed out. All at once. It was smooth, beautifully choreographed and executed with not one bus hitting another. It reminded me of the hippopotamus dance in the Disney movie the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

The bus trip itself was quite uneventful: the usual 10 minute pitstops in the middle of nowhere, the blue nylon curtains that would explode at the sniff of a flame and the ubiquitous, non-ending Zorba the Greek accordion music. The crossing from Serbia to Montenegro was easy peasy as no visa stamp was needed. The road finally got interesting as we passed through the mountains of Montenegro: I was quite impressed with the multitude of long tunnels, the narrow, winding roads and the gorges plunging down into the river beds. Montenegro is certainly a very scenic place and would be worth exploring and hiking as long as you overlooked the piles of rubbish strewn down most of the mountainsides from the side of the roads.

If you have the luck of finding a postcard in Podgorica, then that’s really the only reason to write home about it. Podgorica itself is a small, fairly bland city with little remaining of its communist legacy. The old town (Stara Varoš) dating back to the pre-Ottoman era is very small and not at all impressive. There is the stone and brick clock tower, and an area with rabbit warren streets, but not much else. There is a lovely spot by the river where they have a café and the 15th century Ribnica arched stone bridge, but these are marred by an eyesore of a concrete bunker style hotel directly across the river. Whoever wrote the local tourist guide describing the main drag, Hercegovacka Street, as “lively” needed to reign in their imagination and learn some new adjectives. I found it dead as a doornail. However, there was the bakery that imported frozen bread dough from Germany which was then baked in town which was quite yummy.

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Pius and I did manage a hike into the Dinaric Alps in the region of Treskavac Mountain and Bukumirsko Lake, some 45 km to the northeast of Podgorica. The mountains are a giant karst system which have been eroded over the eons so they were rugged, steep and sharp. You had to avoid grabbing a rock or using it for balance as you could easily cut your hands because the rocks had the texture of coarse, ground glass. It was during this hike that I decided that Montenegro was the land of red dots: there was no distinct, groomed trail to follow. Rather, you had to keep a look out for red dots painted on the rocks to find your way up the mountain.

L1050258.jpgRed Dot Land hiking - near Treskavac Mountain

Red Dot Land hiking - near Treskavac Mountain

As I was keen to start moving down the coast of the Adriatic Sea, I planned only a short stay in Montenegro. Pius acted as tour guide during my few days in Montenegro, so I managed to see a few of the sights: Cetinje, Lake Scutari, Kotor Bay, Sveti Stefan Island (small, but oozes celebrity), a few churches and the museum for Marko Miljanov, a Montenegrin general who fought against the Ottoman and wrote books.

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And Pius still drives the same BMW in the same maniacal manner that he did in Mongolia.

Next stop: Dubrovnik

Posted by IvaS 13.11.2013 02:07 Archived in Montenegro Comments (0)

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