Monday, August 17, 2015

Cool Spots in Dalmatia

Fresh on the heels of a hard post about lessons we're learning in Denmark and how being here has forced us to grow as people, it's back to our more-normal style of "here's some cool stuff we did". Although it's not always easy being in Denmark, one period when it is easy is a three-week holiday that the majority of Denmark enjoys throughout July. Having already taken two weeks to travel to the US in early June, we used our remaining week to explore Croatia.

I opted to go high-technology for this post and created a google map of our adventure, as I probably couldn't have told you where Croatia was before I moved to Europe.

Sometimes your train hitches a ride on a ferry. We did not know this was possible.
Hamburg is a pretty cool place.
After a day in transit with a short stop in Hamburg (the 2nd largest city in Germany - who knew?), we arrived in Zadar, home of the ominous (but cool) sea organ and a happening old town. All three of the major Croatian cities we visited have a cultural center defined by the walls that once protected it from pirates and the like. On our second day in Croatia, we woke up to realize that it gets incredibly hot in Croatia. We soon discovered the antidote: staying by the water and copious amounts of ice cream. After missing the bus to the nearest national park, we decided to salvage the day by ferrying to the nearest island for a beach day. It was probably our most relaxing day - no traveling, just the sun, water, words on a page, and the aforementioned ice cream.

Who needs air conditioning?
Places like this exist on Earth. No kidding.
The next day it was off to Split, the former retirement home/palace of Diocletian, Roman Emperor from 284-305, and generally not too nice to Christians. However, they got the last laugh by turning his tomb into a church (that'll teach him!). The whole palace area is now the Split old town, filled with shops and narrow European walkways. It's a great place to hide from the sun for a few hours and contemplate how old everything in Europe is (we do that a lot).

After a few hours in Split, we headed to the most remote segment of our trip: Vis island. The first thing you notice as the ferry pulls up to the island is the boats all along the harbor. The main thoroughfare is about a kilometer long and has shops on one side and boats on the other. As you walk along, you can't help but notice these *very* nice sailboats / yachts, each with the regular contingent of smiling rich people toasting themselves. Then, at the end of the row is a super-huge mega-yacht that is clearly much more expensive than the rest. I couldn't help but wonder how all the other boat owners felt in the shadow of that monstrosity: were they satisfied with their own (very) well-off lives, or were they eyeing the next rung of the diamond-encrusted ladder? Friends, appreciate what you have, even if it's just a backpack and your walking shoes. There's always a bigger boat - don't buy the lie that you need it to be happy.

The next day, we set off to explore the island via rented scooter. Alana was our driver as I forgot my driver's license in Denmark - whoops. It was terrifying. This was probably a combination of a) being our first time on any motorcycle-type thing, b) me weighing considerably more than Alana, and c) not being in control. Fortunately, both our bodies and our marriage survived the 10 km trip intact.

Head out on the highway / Looking for adventure /
We were traveling to catch a taxi boat to Modra Å¡pilja, a cave that seems to glow blue due to sunlight bouncing off the sandy white floor of the cave through an underwater opening. It was surreal and beautiful, as the not-quite-believable photos show.

On the return trip to our part of the island, we parked our not-so-trusty scooter (We had a short pit stop while some locals helped us replace a faulty spark plug. They were incredibly nice.) at an overlook and hiked down to Stiniva Bay. There is an easier way that avoids the hike, but unfortunately we left our 50 ft. yacht at home. I'm going to say we enjoyed the water more after hiking in the heat to get to it. I choose not to describe the bay because then I'll just get sad that I'm not there anymore.

Midway through the descent to the bay. %€#& yachts.
Remember the reading rainbow theme? "I can go anywhere..."
I risked the ticket and took the reins of the hog on the way back - I gunned it and took a few sick jumps on the way back (j/k I stayed below 45 km/hr and got passed by a dozen cars). But my fearless passenger did manage to snap a few photos during the return journey.

I now see the appeal of fast things with two wheels.

The next day we traveled via ferry / bus to Dubrovnik, our base for the remainder of the trip. The Dubrovnik old town is pretty magical: a single main street with tendrils of great restaurants and shops peppered with ancient architecture and surrounded by a 700 year old wall. As Alana described it: "it's what every planned pedestrian area is trying to be".

The Pearl of the Adriatic
On our first full day we strode the walls, eating ice cream and watching for pirates (they chose not to attack on our watch - smart). Afterwards, we escaped from the heat in the war photo museum, which had incredible images of both the current Ukraine conflict and the bombing of Dubrovnik during the Croatian war of independence. Everyone in Croatia our age and older had lived through a war that my American education had barely covered; it was a sobering reminder of the human cost of war.
And now, a picture of us smiling
Ever vigilant (and stylish)
The pirates would probably have a hard time here
The next day began with a 4 hour bus ride to the Tara River Canyon, the "European Grand Canyon" that serves as a natural border between Bosnia and Montenegro. It was worth the wait: we got our mountain fix while rafting above crystal clear, drinkable water. As one of the few English-speaking groups, our raft consisted of Swedes, Belgians, and Americans living in Denmark. The day was more relaxing than exciting, as the tough part of rafting season was already two months gone. During our 3pm lunch, we chatted with a Ukrainian woman from Odessa who liked Montenegro because no visa was needed as "they still like us here". When she asked where we came from we played it safe: "We live in Denmark."

By the time we got back to Dubrovnik, it was time for our standard 10pm dinner. Right after we found a good spot and ordered our Dalmatian ham pizza, the lights went out. Local wildfires had cut power to the entirety of old town. We nursed our wine, made shadow puppets with the candles, and snickered at the customers sitting inside, roasting without their precious air conditioning. After about 30 minutes, the power came back, accompanied by cheering across the town. After pizza, we celebrated civilization's victory over the elements with more ice cream.

Longing for pizza in the dark
Our last full day in Croatia was spent sea kayaking between islands northeast of Dubrovnik. We kayaked under arches, snorkeled in the ever-abundant crystal water, and jumped off cliffs to the water below. Our guide was a Dubrovnik local, hopeful Ph.D. student (you can do it Mario!), and beer snob (why do those last two go together so often?). After one last night in old town, it was time to leave.
Coasting through life
So long, and thanks for all the ice cream
During this trip, David was reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (thanks again Marius!) and Alana was reading Cutting for Stone.

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