Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wining and Whining in Sarajevo and Zagreb

It's amazing how an act of kindness can totally change your day. I woke up this morning to more grey skies in Zagreb (ten days straight of rain in Croatia, so they tell me) and just felt discouraged (yes I know I'm in beautiful Croatia, cry me a river. It's what I said to myself this morning). But it's really hard to see the sights when there is constant rain interspersed with torrential downpours, and it's so cold and damp outside. Indoor activities seemed like a good way to start the day, so I headed out to a yoga class at a studio near my hostel. I had a hard time finding the studio and had to wait outside in the cold for 15 minutes before the studio opened, but once I entered the building everything changed. I was so warmly welcomed by the teacher and the studio was on the third floor of a historic building and absolutely beautiful. The teacher asked all the participants if she could teach the class in English for their visitor (I was prepared to muddle through the Croatian and just copy everyone around me) and everyone agreed. I felt so at home and had a wonderful 75 minute restorative flow class (very yin with sun salutations and flow thrown in).

After the class, a few people stayed to visit with me, and a girl named Nicolina offered to tour me around the city square and show me the highlights. It turned out that she was a yoga teacher in training who had studied nutrition in Denmark and we had a great visit. She left me at Johann Franck, which she said was the nicest cafĂ©-bistro in the city for a latte. Everyone's kindness at the yoga studio really changed my day and underscored my belief that yogis around the world are a pretty amazing group of people.
Sights from Zagreb's central square

So let's rewind this story to yesterday....I arrived in Zagreb last night after spending a day in Sarajevo. I had an okay day in Sarajevo but nothing great. Sarajevo was nearly destroyed in the Yugoslavian War of the 1990s and although a great deal of rebuilding has taken place, there are still many bombed out, crumbling buildings. I arrived at 1 pm and you guessed it, it was freezing cold and pouring rain. I successfully caught a taxi this time and checked into my hotel. I stayed at Hotel Old Town, which was nice, but cost more and was nowhere on the level of Hotel Pellegrino in Mostar. The best part of my hotel was its fantastic location on the edge of the historic Old Town.
However, exploring the Old Town had to wait as I decided that warmer clothes were imperative. I took a taxi to Sarajevo City Centre for a quick shopping trip. This mall was fantastic--it totally reminded me of a smaller version of Fashion Show Mall in Vegas. When I arrived, there was this huge dance party going on and they were dropping balloons from the ceiling. Jeans were a must, but there were no recognizable brands from home other than Levis, so I headed to the Levis store. I bought a great pair of skinnies, then visited Bershka and Stradivarius for a toque and sweater. After cabbing back to my hotel (taxis are dirt cheap in Sarajevo), I changed to explore the Old Town.
Doing what I can on a backpacker's budget... and wearing Levis
Lots of little cobbled streets, hundreds of little shops selling pashminas, evil eye pendants, Turkish tea and coffee sets, and anything else you could imagine, made for a fascinating few hours. I stopped for Turkish tea at one point, and the hot strong tea was perfect on such a cold chilly day. I even visited the famous mosque that was right behind my hotel... the call to prayer could be heard through my window.
Famous fountain in the Old Town
Mmmmm Turkish tea!
My time in the Old Town went pretty well, except for two things. I was buying fruit at a fruit stand, and decided to ask the man who was working for directions to the other shopping area (he seemed normal).  He said he wasn't from Sarajevo and ran off to ask someone else. He returned with a creepy looking man who took my hand and said to follow him. I immediately put my brakes on and said no thank you, I just needed directions as I was meeting a friend soon. Then I was afraid to go there anyway in case he was lying in wait for me. I can never decide in cases like this if I'm paranoid or smart. The other thing that scared me a bit happened when I was buying a scarf in a store. The shopkeeper was very nice, and as I was leaving she asked if she could tell me something. I said of course, and she informed me that there was a very experienced pickpocket working the street the shop was located on. She said the woman was very well-groomed and looked classy, and that she was very accomplished at opening bags and stealing money and credit cards. She told me to keep my handbag in front of me at all times and not to let down my guard. At this point it was getting dark, so I decided that it was time for wine in the room and headed back to my hotel!

The next morning, I visited the Latin Bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, kicking off World War I. Truthfully I expected a much more exciting bridge.

After visiting the bridge, I had a 7 hour bus ride yesterday, and I was really surprised when I had to get off the bus at the Bosnian-Croatian border and unlock my backpack for them to search (I've crossed a lot of borders via bus lately and this has never happened). The customs officer saw all the stuff in my backpack and just looked overwhelmed. I offered to unpack it all and he just said, "Just close it up please." Ha ha the benefits of overpacking!
Above: my sweet ride for 7 hours, smiling in the face of adversity as pigeons attack me at the bus stop in Sarajevo, and an amazing wine selection at a service station stop. I just can't get over these gas stations with bars that sell liquor!

So back to Zagreb....following yoga today I bought more warm clothes as I was still freezing. Woollen tights and a huge leopard print cape to wear over my denim jacket.
Note the ever-present umbrella and toque
I visited Zagreb's famous cathedral and had lunch at a highly-rated pizza place in Zagreb's upper town (kaptol) area called Chateau des Jardins Pizza House.
The cathedral was stunningly beautiful!
Delicious thin crust bacon and mushroom pizza at Chateau des Jardins
 After my yummy pizza, I wandered around the kaptol area in search of a famous wine bar...Vinoteka Bornstein. It was only a few steps from the pizza place and it was truly amazing. It was this beautiful underground cellar with many, many kinds of Croatian wines as well as wines from all over the world. I had a fantastic flight of Croatian reds, and the owner and my waiter were both really informative and helpful. The funniest thing that happened? Some random man came over to my table:
Man: American, right?
Me: No, I'm Canadian.
Man: Oh really? Well did you know that Canada is actually larger than the United States?
Me: Yes, I knew that.
Man: Did you know that Texas is the largest state?
Me: Yes I thought that Texas was pretty big.
Man: Did you know that thousands of Californians are moving to Texas because of rising property taxes?
Me: No, you got me on that one. I didn't know that.
He was then able to leave satisfied, I think.
The biggest hazard of solo travel? Your selfie arm gets worn out.

 So I'm finishing off my time in Zagreb at another wine bar (Basement Wine Bar, doesn't compare to Vinoteka Bornstein, but it's 50 feet from my hostel). And yes, I'm back in the land of hostels again. I'm at Chill Out Hostel which is pretty good as far as hostels go and has a perfect location. I picked it for its great ratings and fun social activities, but there is absolutely no social scene--I tried to sign up for the pub crawl and they said I was the only one interested so they weren't running it. They offered to give me a map so I could do my own pub crawl but I declined... drinking my way around Zagreb solo doesn't sound like a super idea to me. It's a total myth that hostels are this wild party scene!
And tomorrow it's goodbye Croatia... when it wasn't raining, you've been absolutely beautiful! Thanks for an amazing two weeks!
It's autumn here and there are maple leaves everywhere. O Canada!



Sunday, October 11, 2015

Being Brave: Zip Lining in Croatia and Solo Travel in Bosnia

This trip has been all about me challenging myself and moving outside my comfort zone to grow as a person and learn more about myself. As a result, I’m trying hard to say yes to new and different experiences. So when Aussie G decided to organize a zip lining trip in Omis, I thought why not? He and English M had already gone the week before, and said it was amazing. I wasn’t too worried about it as I’ve gone zip lining a few times in Manitoba and loved it.

So a couple of important differences between Manitoba and Croatia zip lining: Manitoba has big hills and stringent safety regulations. Croatia has mountains and a “survival of the fittest” attitude in place of safety regulations. We drove up into the mountains and the views were breathtaking. We got our gear on and had a steep uphill hike to our practice zip line. Another important difference? Croatian people don’t sugar coat anything. They’re very to the point and quite abrupt. So when I had some confusion over when to brake on the practice line, I was told in no uncertain terms, “Brake or don’t brake. What part of that don’t you understand?” A further hike into the mountains followed, ending with climbing a ladder over a cliff to reveal our first zip line. It was a bit scary but the views were absolutely breathtaking, and I did great on my first 8 zip lines.
 Climbing the ladder to get to the first zip line
Aussie L and I looking cute in our helmets

Optimistic that I was going to be able to handle it!
Stunning views!
I got the hang of the whole braking thing and loved both the long and steep lines. Things were rolling along nicely until night began to fall and everything got a whole lot more scary. On the second last line, we had to clip our harnesses to a rope and pick our way down the side of a cliff. I felt like a very terrified mountain goat as I tried to navigate my way down the cliff—other than the skinny rope I was attached to, there was nothing keeping me from falling off the mountain hundreds of feet to my death. I finally made it to the zip line which passed over a highway.
The zip line I almost wasn't able to do
At this point I was completely rattled and basically done with the whole experience! The final zip line was also on the side of a cliff and I could barely make myself walk along it. One of our Croatian guides decided the Canadian girl needed some babying (wow, couldn’t believe it) and took the rope attached to my harness and led me along like a dog. It was kind of demeaning but it got me to the tenth and final line.
We returned to the boat just in time for supper and our pirate party. Several large glasses of red took the edge off my frayed nerves and we donned our pirate costumes. I looked more like a sailor, but we had a great time playing King’s Cup (Sociables) and visiting the other boats docked beside us who were also having pirate parties. Things shut down pretty early, so English A, Aussie C, and I decided to head into town to see if anything was happening. We found a few other pirates at a nearby bar and proceeded to order our drinks. We were certain the bartender was one of our zip lining guides, and when he said our drinks were free we thought it was because we had zip lined earlier. Either we were super confused or the guy was messing with us, because the night ended with him chasing us down the street demanding we pay for our drinks. Oops.
 More cruise ship than Pirates of the Caribbean.... 
Some of the ladies of Ika getting their pirate on
We had to wear this pirate mask if we drew a certain card during King's Cup. In addition to spreading lots of germs, it made it impossible to drink without a straw!
Aussie C, English A, and I before we did the runner on our bar tab

For our final day on the boat, we sailed into Split. After an orientation walk with Naomi, we had free time. Since I’ve already been in Split, I decided to do some shopping and browsed through the markets, Guess, Zara, and Bershka, buying nothing but having a nice afternoon with a latte in hand (the best one I’ve had since I left Starbucks in Greece).
Naomi had recommended a wine bar called Zinfandel, so I hung out there and sampled Croatian wines and cheeses. Wow—absolutely fantastic. After supper, the Busabout crowd headed to Charlie’s Backpacker Bar which I had already visited last week. Aussie H (who is a news reporter from Sydney, how cool is that), Aussie L, and I decided to visit some cocktail and wine bars instead. I drank a delicious Lavender Kiss cocktail (gin with soda and lavender syrup, lavender is produced in Croatia and you see it everywhere) at our first stop, then we decided to visit my afternoon wine bar, Zinfandel. There was live music and we shared a fantastic bottle of wine and a huge Dalmatian cheese platter. We all agreed it was our favourite night of the trip!
Aussie L, Canada (I barely remember my real name after two weeks on Busabout), and Aussie H

Goodbyes were sad the next morning as I had met so many great people—this girl, Aussie J, definitely broadened my vocabulary of Aussie slang (which I’d better not repeat in polite company at home) and the constant banter between her and Aussie M (Madison Carter Official to her fans) kept me laughing the entire trip!
Aussie J operates the camera for selfies... because she has a good side in pictures, and besides, no one does it better than a safety manager!
Going to miss these days on the top level of the boat!
And now it was time to really strike out on my own. The pictures of Stari Most (the famous old bridge) in Mostar, Bosnia, beckoned me to travel there by bus, so for $20 Canadian I set out on the 4.5 hour bus ride into Bosnia. It rained almost the entire way, and still hasn’t stopped. The bus trip was uneventful and I slept a lot of the way. A midway bathroom stop ended in me NOT going to the bathroom as the toilet was literally a hole in the floor. Thank goodness that as a kindergarten teacher I’m used to not peeing for hours at a time! Solo travel was going reasonably well until I got off my bus in Mostar. The bus station was dingy (I think they all are) and it was pouring rain. I was directed to a taxi line to catch a taxi to my hotel and I stood there forever as no taxis appeared. Then this creepy man missing many crucial teeth approached me saying “Taxi? You come with me.” I ignored him as even this small town girl knows that you never get in a car with anyone who approaches you, but he continued to persist. Then throw in several begging gypsy children who would not leave me alone and I really started to become unnerved. Fortunately a nice Bosnian girl approached me and informed me that all the taxis were busy in this torrential rain, but she had one coming and I was welcome to share it with her. When a legitimate taxi arrived in a few minutes and the creepy man and gypsy children were still there, I decided that was my best option. It was all good, and I ended up at my hotel within a few minutes and things really improved from this point on.

I stayed at Hotel Pellegrino, which I booked on Expedia for $45 Canadian a night, and it was highly recommended in my Lonely Planet guidebook. As soon as I arrived, I was escorted into a beautiful lobby and presented with a tray and told to help myself. There was a bottle of homemade plum brandy (in a Canadian Crown Royal bottle of all things) and Bosnian sweets. After several restorative swigs of plum brandy I felt much better and more like myself again.
My room was absolutely gorgeous and huge—two queen beds, a little kitchen and dining area, and a nice bathroom.
I spent the afternoon exploring the old part of Mostar, umbrella in hand as it was still raining. Sadly, most of Mostar (a Unesco-protected heritage site) was destroyed during the Yugoslavian Wars 20 years ago. However, the bridge and old town were painstakingly restored using stone from the original quarry and centuries-old building techniques. There are still many bombed out and crumbling buildings, and many of the gift shops sell all kinds of art made from bullets and shell casings. I had a wonderful afternoon exploring all the little shops in the bazaar, wandering along the cobbled streets, walking over the bridge, and hearing my first-ever live Muslim call to prayer. I ate an early supper in a Bosnian restaurant recommended by my hotel, and for $15 Canadian I had a local beer, delicious tomato soup and bread, and chicken schnitzel with creamy mushroom wine sauce. It was delicious.
The iconic bridge, Stari Most, in the background
View from Stari Most
The shops and streets in the old town were beautiful at night
Delicious meal!
My courage was exhausted by this point, and I decided the most prudent idea was to return to my room before it was dark. I had a relaxing night in my room enjoying Bosnian wine from the mini-bar ($9 Canadian, what a high roller) and planning the next few days of my trip. A hot shower in a proper bathroom and a great sleep in a luxurious bed were fantastic after two weeks of hostels and boat cabins! The only bad moment was loud yelling from the streets and what sounded like gun shots. I did some googling and discovered there was a soccer game that night, so I told myself that no doubt it was rowdy soccer fans and fireworks. Or a car back firing….a lot! Breakfast the next morning was huge and included in the cost of my room. I couldn’t believe it when I was offered shots of cherry brandy at breakfast! By the way...I declined!
As I write this post, I’m riding a bus to Sarajevo where I’ll spend the day and night. There’s a group of Aussies behind me so I feel very much at home! Now time to enjoy the scenery as this is meant to be one of the most beautiful routes in Europe!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Whatever Floats Your Boat....Sailing the Adriatic with Busabout

I really enjoyed my first experience with Busabout, which was a four-day bus trip through the Balkans. This left me in Split, perfectly timed to board my Busabout Croatia Island Hopper experience. This was probably the part of my solo travel that I was most excited about, and here's what has been happening.

We sailed from Split, Croatia, about 1 pm on Saturday. There are 16 people on my boat, plus our guide Naomi (AKA Nomes), our captain (often found at the table with a glass of wine in hand... hmmm), our bartender and waiter Tony, a sailor named Luka, and our chef, Frenki. There are four couples from Australia, a girl from England, a guy from England, a guy from Australia, four girls from Australia, and me. I was really fortunate to get my own room as they are super tiny! I am using the top bunk for all my stuff, the bottom bunk is a single bed, the floor space isn't even big enough for a yoga mat, and the entire tiny bathroom is also a shower. But it's adequate and I feel pretty fortunate to have my own space above deck.
 Home sweet cabin on the Ika
It's a toilet, it's a shower, all in one. WOW! Not...

The food is also reasonably good, with a continental breakfast (I've only made it there once as it's from 8-9 am) and three-course lunches. All alcohol is extra, but the drinks are pretty reasonably priced and you run a tab for the week. Our boat has a lower level, the main deck level where we eat and socialize, an upper deck where there are more cabins and a seating area, then a very top level with a little guard rail. This is where I do yoga and we jump off the boat into the Adriatic Sea.
The view from my mat is pretty spectacular... when it's not raining!
English A and Aussie G swimming in the Adriatic
Aussie C faces her fear and jumps off the top deck!
How beautiful is this water?

So far we've docked in the following ports:
Hvar: had a great meal in an Italian restaurant where we were joined by a couple of other boats on the same route as us. Then we partied at a bar called Kiva. Everywhere we go, we're treated to free welcome shots and sometimes free drinks. The highlight of my time in Hvar? I met another Canadian couple from Thunder Bay, and they were newlyweds on their honeymoon. I started chatting with them, and the guy is big into snowmobile racing. He mentioned that he races in Beausejour, Manitoba, every year, so I asked him if he knew my cousin's husband from Beausejour who is also very involved in snowmobile racing. Yes he did! Everyone was amazed, but this is actual a pretty typical occurrence when you're from Canada. You can always find a common connection it seems.
 Free shots for the Busabout crew
People party in the bar, they party in the street outside the bar. Liquor laws? What are those?

So I really enjoyed hanging out with these Canadians and they joined our Busabout group for the night. Things went well until they got extremely drunk. The girl broke the heel off her shoe, so her husband decided the best plan was to take the other shoe and smash the heel off against the stone wall of the bar. It caused quite a scene. Then the girl spilled her entire mojito down her top, and then scooped handfuls of ice and mint out of her bra and threw them on the Busabout group. At this point I distanced myself and denied they were Canadian!

Korcula: Birthplace of Marco Polo and known as mini-Dubrovnik with a charming walled city... probably my favourite stop so far. We toured the old town then had sunset cocktails on top of a medieval tower... wow! After happy hour on our boat, we visited Billy's Bar, home of the 90 Kuna cocktail bucket (that's less than $20 Canadian). The bartender free pours all kinds of alcohol into a child's sand pail and it's a tremendous value! I decided on Long Island Iced Tea which was EXTREMELY potent... more like a ginormous martini in a pail. But I impressed everyone with my bucket prowess, drinking 3/4 of the pail, interspersed with bottles of water, and still keeping it together. The night ended with a bit of boat hopping in the harbour, as all the Busabout boats park one after another, and you have to walk through a bunch of boats to get to yours. The middle boat was the liveliest, so I had a drink or two there before calling it a night.
Entrance to the walled old town of Korcula, known as mini-Dubrovnik. It's charming!
Sunset cocktails on top of this old tower! Wow!
Saw my fellow Canadian girl A from Vancouver!
Beautiful views of the church's bell tower
Another yummy meal on the street
My first bucket experience with Aussie J, English A, and Aussie M

Dubrovnik: This was my second visit to Dubrovnik (I was there last Friday with my other tour). And thank goodness I visited on Friday as it was absolutely POURING rain. Most of my group decided to walk the walls of the old city which I had already done in the beautiful sunshine, so Aussie M and I visited the Game of Thrones store (it's filmed in Dubrovnik) and M posed for pics on the throne as she is a huge fan. Next stop was gelato, then I spent the afternoon the afternoon sipping a cider in an Irish bar doing "life maintenance". Life maintenance is a great term I learned from my friend Aussie Z that describes when you have to take a break from the fun of travelling to deal with responsibilities from home.
Aussie M is a big fan of Game of Thrones
Mythical Monsters and Wine
Aussie M headed back to the boat, and I decided to treat myself to a wine tasting in one of the posh little wine bars off the main street. I chose one that was highly rated on Trip Advisor and sat at a table by myself to order a flight of wine. I wasn't alone for long, as two nice men from England heard my accent and asked me to join them...I hope you're reading this Blair and Jerry! Blair tried to tell me that there was a mythical monster in the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro (ha ha), while Jerry gave me a crash course in wine tasting (I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was pretty rock solid in this area, but I did learn some new things). An hour flew by over wine, cheese, and olives as they told me all about their work as professional sports gamblers! They each specialize in different sports, and it was fascinating to visit with them! Thanks for adopting me!
 Great little wine bar with fantastic wines
Professional sports gamblers Jerry and Blair... an entertaining duo!
Our night in Dubrovnik included a delicious meal at Ragusa II and more cocktail buckets at two different bars!

Mljet: We sleep on our boat every night, and it usually starts to sail about 5 am. We have a swim stop around noon, a later lunch, then we dock somewhere. Naomi our guide always does an orientation tour, then sets us free. Mljet is a small island that is 90% national park. Everyone did their own thing--kayaking, biking, and swimming. There are two inland salt water lakes on the island, and on the largest lake there is a little island with a medieval Benedictine monastery. I met up with some nice girls from New Zealand, and walked with them to the nearest boat dock, and took the boat over to the monastery. I had a great afternoon exploring and taking pictures. There's a beautiful little chapel there, and I was able to light two candles... one for my Papa and one for a family friend that left us too soon.
Benedictine monastery on a little island on the large salt lake

So beautiful and tranquil in Mljet
Since Mljet is not very happening, we had a barbecue on the boat and played a few wild rounds of Sociables or King's Cup. It was lots of fun, and at one point I got knocked off the bench when the person beside me fell over backwards. Thanks English A!

Makarska: Today we're docked in Makarska and it's pouring rain again. I had a failed attempt to wash my hair in my tiny bathroom/shower thing--no hot water and I just couldn't do it. So I decided enough was enough, I've been roughing it for long enough! I booked a pedicure at a nearby hotel and shampoo and blowout at the salon. As I write this post, I'm getting a beautiful shade of pink shellac on my piggies and my hair is clean, straight, and shiny! Yay! My blowout only cost $20 Canadian and included a deep conditioning and bang trim.

Makarska is known as the Croatian Mediterranean and it's a charming little city with palm trees, beaches, nice restaurants, clubs, and a market. Despite the rain I've had a great afternoon exploring here and getting back in touch with my inner princess!
Beautiful town square in Makarska

Famous statue dedicated to tourists on the waterfront. Supposedly if you rub the woman's breast, you'll get lucky in Makarska!