If I could have spent a month in Dubrovnik, I would have. It was such a striking city with loads of wonderful travelers and new friends! When the evening came that I had to leave for Split I was quite sad.
I hopped on a 6P.M. bus and braced myself for the four hour journey. Most of the drive was along the coast which was lined with hilly islands and small villages. I watched the sun set over the islands for the first hour of the trip and was completely awe-struck. I made the decision then and there that I WOULD return to Croatia at some point during my life and spend a few weeks exploring the islands and small villages and driving the coast.
A quarter of the way into the trip, once I had settled into my seat and was enjoying some good old road trip music, I noticed an intensifying smell of burning wood combined with incense wafting into the bus. At first I didn't mind, it jut smelled like a wood burning stove on a crisp winter evening-kind of festive.
Eventually, the smell grew stronger and stronger, so I opened my air conditioning vents to full blast to combat the scent. Finally, I decided to turn around and do a little investigating and I noticed the whole back of the bus was covered in a white haze. Everyone had become very irritated and was restlessly adjusting their air vents and looking around for the culprit.
Let's be honest for a moment. I know I'm not an expert on Croatian culture or anything, but who would feel the need to bring incense or burning wood, whatever it was on a public long distance bus? Really? By this point the only person enjoying the bus ride was the one smoking.
Finally, the bus attendant addressed the situation and mystery person extinguished mystery burning object. Success! Well, at least for an hour or so until someone lit a cigarette...ON THE BUS. Sometimes you just can't win!
I arrived in Split and got settled in my hostel just in time for bed. The next morning, I set out to do a little exploring on my own. There is a huge hill in town and I decided to climb to the top to take in the view of the city. It was about a million degrees, but I put my mountain climbing skills to use and took a long water break at the top!
I was wandering around the hill when I stumbled upon a brother and sister from Taiwan. Vincent has been living in New York for the past couple of years and Nicole is studying in Germany, and they met up to take a Europe road trip for a few weeks. We really hit it off and decided to grab lunch together.
We stopped at a local spot that was recommended to me, and just as we sat down, a Croatian man they had met the night before showed up. We all enjoyed a nice lunch of grilled fish (whole fish, skin, tail, head and all) and luckily Peter, the Croatian, was there to show us how to properly cut the fish in order to remove all the bones at once.
The whole day turned out to be a big coincidence, but that's the thing I love about traveling! At home, I would never go up to random people and start talking to them then have lunch together. When you're on the road, there are no barriers and travelers are like a big community always excited to meet one another!
My new friends! Nicole, Peter, me and Vincent.
The Split harbor
The bell tower in Split...trying to be artsy!
In the late 80s a striking hotel was built, jetting 17 stories above the water and situated only a few kilos outside of Dubrovnik. Hotel Belvedere was a five star oasis, boasting gorgeous views of the Aegean and Dubrovnik for the wealthy who could afford it.
Just two years after opening,, Hotel Belvedair was bombed in the civil war. The structure is still standing,, all of its luxury trapped in time with blown out windows and rooms filled with remnants of an extravagant past.
Being one of the most talked about and mysterious landmarks in Dubrovnik, Ruud and I decided to take a look for ourselves.
Approaching the hotel, we were filled with excitement and anticipation of what we might find. It's not everyday that you get to explore a bombed building left untouched.
Entering the hotel was like taking a step back into that fateful day in 1991. It was as if time merely stopped when the rest of the world kept moving. There were cassette tapes scattered on the floor, trays with wine glasses still standing upright, restaurant menus, the "HB" branded clothes the waiters wore and even a guest list of rooms rented out on the final day of Belvedair's existence.
It was exhilarating to be peering around this historical timepiece, but also very eerie. To think that all of the artifacts we saw had been laying in the same place for 20 years was strange. It really made the hotel come alive, seeing the rooms, restaurant, nightclub and pool. It was as if all these fragments of a broken past creating a story for us to experience.
The view from Belvedere
Blown out windows
This nightclub has seen better nights...
I must admit, I am absolutely smitten with Croatia. The more time I spend here, the more attached I become. In America, Western Europe seems to be all the rage. For some reason, we are obsessed with it and tend to forget about the rest of the world when thinking about travel destinations.
Any country that's not "first world" or over three hundred years old seems to immediately get crossed off the list. I'm not bashing Western Europe by any means, I believe it's a great place and has a lot of history, I'm just encouraging us to think with an open mind.
It has always been a struggle for me to "fight" for Mexico and try to dispel the myths about it when the press is constantly ragging on it. I will continue to advocate Mexico and now Turkey and Croatia, two of my favorite "under dogs."
If you like pristine nature, untouched coast lines and deep blue water, Croatia is the place for you. This little country was just established in 1991 when Yugoslavia broke apart into Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Croatia. The civil war from 1991-1995 was devastating and evidence of it still remains in the abandoned buildings around Dubrovnik, however, Croatia has not skipped a beat as a developing country. Dubrovnik is by far the cleanest city I have ever visited and feels extremely safe.
My first morning at the hostel I met Nick and Ben, two British guys on holiday for the week. One of the first questions they asked me was, "does fat camp really exist in the U.S.?" and I instantly knew we would be friends.
We were pondering the fat camp idea (come to think about it, I'm really not sure about the answer, anyone have any insight?) and they invited me to explore Locrum, an island just off the cost of Dubrovnik for the day. Locrum, is uninhabited and covered in green foliage with abrupt cliffs and striking views. We were attracted for the cliff jumping. One side of the island had a sort of "beach" consisting of flat volcanic rock that dropped off into the water. We enjoyed a day jumping off the cliff beaches and wandering the island.
When we arrived at the hostel that evening, everyone was gathered around the dinner table discussing Croatian history and politics. I instantly knew I had picked the perfect place to stay! Everyone seemed to be traveling alone and we had a great time getting to know each other, playing cards, and eventually ended the night bar hopping together. What an experience!
The next day, I made plans to visit a local arboretum with my Dubrovnik BFF aka new Dutch friend Ruud. The trip involved taking two different local busses about 20 minutes out of the city. If you looking for adventure, I would recommend taking a multi-bus trip in a foreign country. It never fails to disappoint.
The first bus was a breeze. After inquiring with several locals and switching between several different bus stops, we finally tracked down the second bus.
The arboretum was nice, but we really just breezed through it because the blue water and crashing waves below were too enticing.
The journey down the cliff to the water turned out to be an enlightening lesson in Croatian history and culture. The path was a winding staircase lined with pomegranate trees and grape vines (making for yummy snacks) and little Croatian homes-all of which were abandoned! I was shocked that so many homes in such prime real-estate were vacant and left to crumble into the sea. We never found out the true story, but I'm thinking it has something to do with the war and bombing of Dubrovnik in the '90s.
Regardless, we found ourselves in a quaint little harbor surrounded by gorgeous scenery. A German man event lent us his snorkel gear! We were surrounded by hundreds of fish and could see for meters.
After a few hours of swimming, we decided to try our luck at hitchhiking. It unfortunately proved quite unsuccessful. We stood with our sigh for about 30 minutes until the bus to take us back finally arrived.
When Ruud and I returned to the city we finished the evening walking the top of the wall that surrounds the whole city. The views were striking and sunset was wonderful.
On the wall with the city in the background
A view of the abandoned buildings at our favorite swimming hole
I must admit, one thing Greece has going for it is the ferry system. Apart from the ridiculous and inconvenient schedule, they are always punctual and spend a mere ten minutes at port unloading and reloading semi trucks, cars and passengers before they are on their way again. The Greeks don't mess around and their ferrys mean business, unlike those of Croatia.
On Sunday morning mom and I went to the port in Bari to check the ferry schedule and purchase my ticket to Croatia. The terminal was dead. Note to self: never try to get anything done in Italy on a Sunday because everything is closed.
In addition, every travel agency was closed, so I decided to buy my ticket online but the ferry line forbade me from purchasing my day-of ticket on the Internet. Panic. This was another awesome ferry schedule that only came a few times a week and if I didn't get the Sunday boat, I would have to wait until Wednesday night.
Luckily, when we arrived at the port that night, the ticket window was open and I got my fare. Mom befriended an Italian man waiting in line behind us and arranged for me to ride onto the boat with him in his car so I could avoid the security line. After he agreed, she immediately started regretting the decision to send me alone with an Italian we had just met onto a ferry boat...sounds super safe, right? It turns out he was a policeman (or so he said) and everything went smoothly.
The ferry was pretty ghetto. It consisted of five snackbar/restaurants with bright red carpet and a giant mural of an ice cream cone painted on the wall. Less than luxurious. Luckily, I bumped into a Canadian couple we had met earlier that day in Bari and we scoped out a few padded benches in one of the snack bars to stretch out on.
I was abruptly awaken from my slumber at four A.M. when a slew of italians invaded the snack bar for early morning espresso. Even though I had earplugs in, I still felt like I was trying to sleep in a Denny's on a Sunday morning, and the Italian's insistence to ignore the "indoor voice rule" and consistently speak at absurd decibel levels didn't help.
The ferry finally docked at seven A.M. and I was greeted by a hillside covered in white houses with clay roofs and a drizzly Croatian morning.
I left the boat, hit the ATM and was waiting for the bus when a car drove by yelling, "hey lady!" It was the Canadians! They had found a man at the port who would rent them a room in his house and were enroute to the city. The man asked where I was staying and I told him it was a hostel called Fresh Sheets. "Ooh rash sheeets I know where that is, 100 meter from my house, I give you ride!" he replied.
I was a little weary about about the way he said "rash sheeets" and repeated the name while skeptically thinking, "I hope were talking about the same Fresh Sheets." Oh well, it was bound to be an adventure.
He insisted on driving us around town and giving us a proper "orientation" before dropping us off. Finally, we arrived at my "hostel" which turned out to be a hotel called "Rashit." I was worried this would happen. I wasn't sure what to do the man was so helpful and I was appreciative of the free ride, but I was also now lost on my first day in a city I had never been to. I assured the man I could take the bus and find my way to the hostel no problem. Luckily, the hostel directions were good enough that I was able to find it without much trouble.
I was a little worried about being on my own for the first time, but everyone at the hostel was very welcoming and most of the guests were traveling alone also, so it has been easy to find friends to do day trips with. The city of Dubrovnik is part of the Dalmatian Coast and part of the city itsself (where I'm staying) is within castle walls.
Croatia is a gorgeous country, which I am becoming more and more obsessed with each day. My first thought was that it reminded me of the Oregon Coast. The country is clean, well organized, and everyone is calm (a nice change from Italy) and speaks English. It is hard to believe all of this comes from a country that was in a civil war just over a decade ago.
Night view inside of the walled city
Houses in the walled city