We had a few hours to kill in the city of Dubrovnik, before hopping over the Adriatic to Italy, and visiting the old city was a fitting way of saying goodbye to Croatia. A brief historical update confirmed that it existed for more than 1000 years, certainly bearing witness to the ebb and flow of culture and religion alike.

The sheer volume of tourists, mostly from huge passenger liners that stopover in the port, makes Dubrovnik one of the bigger cogs in Croatia’s formidable tourist industry.

narrow alleys packed with traders

narrow alleys packed with traders

Besides the crowded nature of the excursion, the architecture and historic charm is something to behold. A grid-like layout with narrow alleys branching of on both sides of the wide “Stradun” shelters a multitude of small shops and restaurants, each with a peddler outside trying his utmost to turn every passing tourist into a customer. In contrast the multitude of churches, representing both the Catholic and Orthodox denominations, is a reminder of times gone by; when religion held sway over the heartbeat of the old city.

one of the many churches in the old city

one of the many churches in the old city

We decided to traverse the top of the historic wall, promising a breathtaking view of the old and the modern city at the same time. The multitude of views and angles from the top of the wall was truly bewildering, leaving me snapping away whilst Cath waited patiently to move forward with the never ending queue of tourists.

an old symbol surrounded by the new

an old symbol surrounded by the new

It is only when I sifted through the photos later that my eye caught something that was in plain sight but hidden by its pedestrian ubiquity. A multitude of satellite dishes focused on a single point in the sky. Like symbols of new religion, acting as a direct link to the new gods; commerce, media and materialism.

DUBROVNIK, CROATIA: 10-06-2013

From on high came the command, sorry I mean request, to put together a video message for Cath’s daughter for her upcoming 21st birthday. It sounded like a fun project; setting the creative cogs spinning.

When I pitched the idea it was met with enthusiasm, tempered with some reservations about the practical aspects thereof. Next day came the anticipated feedback from the top; execution of the proposed plan required a lack of personal shyness and top management felt she could not contribute.

The early part of the next day was spent reconnoitering the nearby village of Sumartin; very quaint and cute indeed. Some video footage was recorded featuring top management, showing total lack of any camera shyness, even to the untrained eye. Feeling bolstered and upbeat about having some material to cobble together the video message, the original plan was far from her mind as we headed back to Bol.

It is only when I drove passed the turnoff to our lodgings, and announced that I was heading for the promenade, with its guaranteed supply of strolling tourists, that the penny dropped. I don’t know why it came as a surprise that middle management would roll up his proverbial sleeves and get the job done!

You see, the plan was actually quite simple. Ask some tourists to deliver a “Happy birthday” message, in their mother tongue, and stitch them together in a video collage. So brushing aside the small obstacle of public shyness, how hard can it be? Surprisingly in some cases not trivial at all.

BirthdayAllApproaching any tourist with a camera in hand, the unsolicited response is a smile and a nod eager to assist in taking a snapshot of us; a truly international gesture with no language skills required. So we were set the task of ridding the unsuspecting tourist of this notion and explained that we wanted them to deliver a message in their language.

Off course the English speaking victims obliged straight away with happy abandon and some even burst into song. The others understood that they had to deliver a message, but convincing them to deliver it in their own language was a challenge.

The funniest incident was with an elderly German couple who obliged our request very happily and after much encouragement and prompting, from behind the camera; the woman uttered the following phrase: “Happy birthday in German”.

BOL, CROATIA: 07-06-2013

Bol Blog

Croatia is a land of few vowels; Krk, Crkva, Hvar, Trpanj. You really want to insert a little vowel to help you along. None-the-less Croatia is very geared up for tourism and most of the Croatians we came across could speak English. Just when we were determined to go “off the beaten track”, we found ourselves in one of the top 20 tourist destinations of the world and compounding the error we inadvertently managed to navigate to three of their top tourist traps.

A trivial yet interesting fact is that this area is known as the Dalmatian Coast – the origin of the Dalmatian dog. But as yet I have seen no Dalmatian dogs only many a scrawny, weather-beaten cat, who seem to inhabit all the towns in countless numbers.

We timed our arrival to Croatia to escape the approaching cold-wet Cape winter and were expecting a warm Mediterranean summer, but it was just our luck to find them experiencing an uncharacteristically cold summer. It seemed, even to the surprise of the locals, that summer had been delayed until further notice.

It was only a week later that we finally glimpsed the sun and decided to hit the popular beach at Bol, on the island of Brac, to soak up a few rays and swim in the clear, warm Adriatic Sea. A beach in Croatia is a rocky affair, don’t think you can just lay out your towel and settle into the soft sand, uh-uh, here you need to rent a lounger and at a price.

“What happens if it rains?” Stefan asked the chair vendor while handing over the equivalent of R100.

“Guarantee no rain today.” came his snappy reply.

It was a mere 20 minutes later that dark clouds gathered and the rain came pouring down. The vendor was no-where in sight as we hurried back to the car.

LESSON LEARNT

Don’t believe the weather predictions of a chair vendor.

CROATIA: BOL: 05-06-2013

I have always thought that I would support and encourage creativity in other people, particularly my partner. He seems to have landed up with the camera on a few occasions, and I have to admit he takes a good photo. But when the photo-taking becomes fixated on one particular subject, it can become quite tiring.

Plitvice Lakes

Plitvice Lakes

The Plitvice Lakes, set in a lush beech and fir forest, are certainly eye-catching and well-worth the trip. The lakes are glacial blue, crisp and clean and the waterfalls and cascades are powerful and prolific. The number of locals and tourists visiting this site are a testimony to the pulling power the Plitvicka Jezera National Park, the largest national park in Croatia. There are even a number of caves carved into the porous river banks, that you can climb up to and explore. Like me you may be thinking what wonderful photo opportunities all of this presents; lakes, waterfalls, forests and caves.
We had decided on a brisk walk along the edge of the lake back to the park entrance. The water is completely clean and translucent; you can clearly see the stones at the bottom and the little fish swimming around, as well as the many branches of fallen trees.
You might even remark on it, “Wow, look how clear the water is, look at that wood under the water.” Perhaps you might stop to take a picture or two. Although we were on the same path, I kept leaving Stefan behind, and every time I turned back to find him, there he was on tiptoes, or on knees, leaning at peculiar angles taking photo’s; ALL of them photo’s of wood underwater.

wood underwater

wood underwater

LESSON LEARNT
We do not all see things in the same way.
PLITVICE LAKES, CROATIA: 02-05-2013

Our strategy has very much been “off the beaten track” when it came to planning our travels.  We promised ourselves not to rush around, trying to see as much as possible; but being told that the Plitvice Lakes were worth seeing, we thought it wise to squeeze in a visit.

Last night Cath took the initiative and did a bit of research on Croatia’s recent history. Even a casual reading leaves a chilling reminder of how bad things can get when ethnicity, religion, culture and intolerance are brought to the boil in a pressure cooker of political suppression.

Having survived for a full day without a GPS to guide the way, and then purchasing one on Cath’s insistence to get us to Croatia, we were now already enslaved to her (the Tom-tom) voice guiding the way. So we punched in the coordinates and headed inland.

“Tom-tom”, in her infinite digital wisdom, decided to take us to Plitvice along a route following the back roads. We headed down winding country roads, barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Between the small towns there were a few scattered houses, some abandoned for reasons unclear to the casually passing observer.   As we rounded another steep bend there were a few houses set right beside the road, two in a very bad state of repair, surrounded by others that were still inhabited.  I pulled over to give Cath chance to stretch her legs, as she was suffering from motion sickness, and reached for the camera to take some photos. To my left was essentially a ruin with only the front facade left standing. On closer inspection I saw elongated gouges on the wall, and came to the chilling realisation that these were marks left by bullets. About 30 meters away, the other derelict house’s facing wall showed the unmistakeable pock-marks of automatic gun-fire finding its target. Suddenly the scenario was not mere cold facts gleaned from Wikipedia, but had a sense of reality, albeit more than 2 decades ago.

Tale of two walls

Tale of two walls

With the time-frame of events so closely synchronised to our own “political revolution” (in South Africa), yet with such a dramatically different outcome, it made me feel humble and proud at the same time. I had to travel half way around the world to realise how fortunate we were to have experienced the miracle of reconciliation that swept through our country at the same time that civil war ravaged Croatia.

P.S. Further investigation showed that a skirmish at the Plitvice Lakes (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plitvice_Lakes_incident) is considered as the start of the civil war that lasted about 5 years and left scores of people murdered and displaced.

PLITVICE LAKES, CROATIA: 01-06-2013

So we decided to stay another day in the charming little town of Rovinj. This morning wanting to make the most of the sunshine after last nights’ cold spell and get some exercise, we geared up in our walking attire, and headed towards the new part of town.

Bustling Old Town

Bustling Old Town

Our apartment was situated in the Old Town and we had to walk past the old harbour and its many restaurants already busy serving the multitude of tourists who had flocked to the waterfront to enjoy the hot weather.  The atmosphere was jovial and lively as adults sipped at their cocktails, cappuccinos and drank beer, while the kids indulged in colourful ice-cream sunday’s and milkshakes.

Reaching the end of the bay, that formed the old harbour, we rounded a corner and continued past the modern marina where many expensive-looking yachts tugged at their moorings. In front of us loomed a modern promenade set on two levels. Higher up on the embankment towered sleek modern hotels.

To our left were chic restaurants ready and waiting to serve food and drink to a crowd of tourists that were glaringly absent. It was hard to believe that we had had to wriggle our way through the hoards a mere 500meters or so behind us.

New, shiny and deserted

New, shiny and deserted

But clearly the human mind can sometimes be a fickle thing, preferring the old and crooked (sometimes a bit run down as well) to the modern sheer lines of glass, teak and concrete. In my mind’s eye I can see the corporate salesman, dressed in an expensive suit, pitching the line “If we build it, they will come”; or something to that effect.

 ROVINJI, CROATIA: 31-06-2013

IMG_2316

At my insistence we headed straight for the supermarket this morning before heading for Croatia. Here we purchased my new best friend Tom-Tom the GPS. She is small, has an English accent and most importantly knows her way around.

It was a long drive and we were looking forward to our hotel in Rovinji. We reached the town without incidence; Tom-Tom had done a superb job. Nearing the hotel, the streets became narrower with many one-ways and blocked off routes. No matter which direction we approached, we could just not reach our destination.  I felt so disappointed with Tom-Tom and in sheer frustration decided to ask for directions.  We discovered that we had booked into a hotel in the “Old Town” and no cars were allowed, not even the locals.   Were we supposed to drag our over-sized suitcases through the cobbled streets? On further enquiry we were told we could get a special ticket to pass through the boom that blocked off all traffic to the Old Town.  This allowed us 45 minutes to locate the hotel and off-load.  We painstakingly inched our way through the narrow pedestrian-filled streets, and after three further enquiries finally found our hotel.

IMG_2340Our room was situated down a narrow cobbled alley, through a green door, up a steep staircase. We off-loaded as quickly as we could and were told that we would have to pay per hour for the nearest parking. If we wanted free parking we would have to park on the other side of town and walk back to the hotel. Our journey was not yet over.

The tiredness and frustration of the day dissipated with each step, as we made our way back to the hotel. The charming arched alleyways, green-shuttered windows and cobbled stones had an irresistible romantic allure.  Traditional music filled the town square and the small harbour was tightly packed with bobbing fishing boats.  The sidewalk cafes were open for trade and doing brisk business. In the distance heavy storm clouds were brewing, darkening the sky, creating a dramatic backdrop to this historic town.

By the time we reached our room, we were enchanted and had already decided we needed another day to soak up the ambience of this special place.

 

LESSON LEARNT

A destination can be worth an arduous journey.

ROVINJI, CROATIA: 30-05-2013

In my opinion, there are only three important matters to consider when travelling abroad; language, plugs and cars.

I have never thought myself a linguist, my French consists of a smattering of words remembered from Standard 6 French lessons, so I was surprised to find my few words greatly surpassed Stefan’s French vocabulary. I realised my assistance was needed when Stefan was asked in French if he would like onions on his sandwich and answered, “No, we’re from South Africa.”

The language issue is simply an inconvenience; Stefan was simply given extra onions. The plug issue can lead to frustration and disappointed blog-readers. The driving issue, however, can have life-threatening consequences.

You may think that we left our stressed lives behind us in South Africa, but no, since we picked up our French Renault Clio from the airport, my life has been filled with adrenalin and white-knuckles.  Stefan drives and I navigate, but he has also put in charge of reminding him to keep RIGHT.  It may sound simple but the problem is remembering. So far we have driven on the wrong side of the road five times, turned into on-coming traffic twice and taken an off-ramp that was actually an on-ramp. Oh yes, we nearly took out a French pedestrian too, but that had nothing to do with keeping right.  It is stressful. Today, however, I do feel there has been a general improvement, as Stefan is no longer trying to change the gears by reaching for the door handle.

IMG_2207

Stefan receives driving instructions

Driving across France to Italy we discovered; tunnels, trucks, traffic circles and tolls. The tunnels are impressively long and take you straight through mountains. The trucks are numerous and unavoidable. We thought we would save money on the toll roads, by taking the alternative route, but wound up so dizzy from all the traffic circles that we soon headed straight back to the toll roads.

Leaving France, we also left behind the security of our built-in GPS. We felt fearless, after all we had a map, and the world once functioned without GPS. I was not feeling as confident, however, when we couldn’t find the correct turn-off and ended up doing an hour-long loop, arriving back at exactly the same place we had started; like a lost hiker who finds himself walking in his own tracks.

“Tomorrow I am not going anywhere without a proper map.” I declared.

“Would that be my ‘proper’ or your ‘proper’ “Stefan replied.

LESSON LEARNT

Each country incentivises its road users to use the Toll roads. In South Africa it’s potholes, in France it’s traffic circles.

FRANCE: 28-05-2013

We have raced each other on previous occasions, but it’s usually a race to a finishing line. You see I am fairly (actually extremely) organised. I had planned, sorted, shopped, packed and re-packed carefully, paying attention to every detail. What I had not planned for, however, was my fiancé. He tells me he does not PLAN to leave things to the last minute but that it is just a “personality trait”.

I could sense we were heading for disaster when five days before we were due to leave, he still had to; fix up his house, sell his house, complete an important and difficult work project, sign a trust resolution, organise a Power of Attorney, shop for needed items and pack his bag. I could visualise what was about to happen, so I decided to take action.

The first step was to organise somebody else to cater for our farewell party. This was met with dismay, “So you want to take away all my fun now?”

The second step was to plead, “Please, please whatever you do just don’t, don’t be late for the airport. That would be the worst thing you can do to me, please.” The third thing I did was plead and the fourth, “Please…”

It was when there was only an hour to go before we were due to leave for the airport, that I witnessed “Panic Packing”. For those of you lucky enough never to have experienced this, let me explain. Panic packing can only happen if you have less than an hour to go. You need to use both hands, working them in opposite directions, as you grab and pull, then grab and throw. Remember to drop and bang items periodically, then push-push-push such items into a suitcase. It is essential that all of the above is accompanied by loud and forceful language. Be sure not to sort and definitely do not fold. Items must be piled in a disorganised heap in the middle of the suitcase as they need to be squashed downwards while using extreme force to zip it all up.

We actually checked in on time, and I saw we had 10 minutes before boarding. “We will have to go straight through.” I said confidently.

“Oh no,” he answered casually; “we still have time for a cappuccino with my family.”

cappuccino with family

cappuccino with family

“But there are queues at Passport Control”

“What queues, there are no queues here; this is Cape Town not Joburg.”

“I wish I had brought a tranquilliser for you Cathy. ” Stefan’s sister said, giving me a pitying look. “Stefan ek kan nou weer sien jy gaan die kind op hol jaag. (Stefan I can see you are going to drive her crazy) Aag shame Cathy.”

“Its fine” he said calmly sipping his cappuccino, “they can’t leave without us.”

“We have to go now!” I urged gulping down mine. “And I have to go to the toilet.” I said, in a desperate attempt to get him moving.

We sailed through the security check but on rounding the corner we saw it; the dreaded QUEUE at passport control. We had just joined the queue when we heard a boarding call for our flight, we were somewhere in the middle of the queue when the FINAL call came and a few people were ahead of us when the URGENT FINAL call came. We were met by harried ground staff as we left the passport counter and told to RUN while they frantically gestured towards the boarding gate.

And so we sprinted…

“You see we got here, “he said, panting from exertion, “didn’t I tell you?”

I gave him an exasperated look. We took our seats in stony silence. “Did you SEE the queue?” I asked.

“But you see my darling, if it wasn’t for me you would have nothing to write about. It would all be so boooooring.”

LESSON LEARNT
You can technically be on time at the airport, but still be late for your flight.

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA: 26-05-2013