Traveling to Towns Outside of Rome

I took the ferry back to Rome on August3rd. It felt good to be back at the Olive Tree Hill B&B outside Rome. The hopping around Croatia had left me longing for some stability. I continued work on the website and SEO efforts, but this week I got to visit some great places outside of Rome as well.

During my stay I got to meet and travel with some great guests. One couple was from South Africa and another couple from Germany. It was really cool hearing about South Africa from the couple who had lived there their whole lives. I asked about apartheid and race issues. It was interesting to hear about it all from their perspective.

On Sunday morning at Olive Tree Hill B&B, we decided to start our day going to the Sunday market in Zagarolo to buy fresh, local ingredients for our dinner that night. It would be a special dinner since it was the South African woman’s birthday.

The market was great, with fantastic cheeses, fresh fruits and veggies. They also had fruit I had never seen that was a cross between a pear and an apple! Say what!? I was also fascinated by a water dispenser (bare with me) at which people could pay 60 cents per liter to fill up their old water bottles with very fresh, completely purified water from a little water station. So cool! I just don’t understand how a country can have awesome stuff like this but no free WIFI.

Cooking with Ivano

Once we got back to the B&B, we began to prepare the 1000 layer cake, which consisted of puff pastry, dark chocolate bits, and a home made custard (I separated the egg yokes and whipped them with the sugar. Wee!). In reality, the cake is maybe five layers, making it quite the exaggerated cake, although it did taste 1000 layers of excellent.

We also cooked the green beans and boiled the potatoes for the cold salad for later. Italians eat salads after the main meal. Sometimes dinner feels like a competitive reality survival show in which I need to see how much food I can stuff into my face in one meal before I get voted off of the dinner table. It can be quite a challenge.

Traveling Around the Lazio Region

In the afternoon we took a quick tour of Castle Gondofo, where the Pope has his summer residence. He was in residence when we visited, which was why there were Swiss guards out front, who yelled at me for getting too close to them when I tried to take a picture. And to think, you were going to go into my scrap book!

Castle Gondofo overlooks a beautiful lake that was once a volcano crater. Very beautiful views and a cute town, but not much to see. Our 30 min visit was the perfect amount of time to stay.

Supernatural Roadway

Next Ivano took us to this very unusual road. We were driving up a slope in the road, but when Ivano stopped the car, the car started rolling forwards…up the road! (I made sure he really was in neutral of course.)

When we went back the other way, it was apparent that we were going downhill, but when Ivano stopped the car, got out, and put an empty water bottle down, the water bottle rolled uphill! Apparently it’s an optical illusion, but I think it really is a black-magic-evil-bermuda-triangle road of doom. So strange!

After our encounter with the supernatural, we visited some really cool different areas and towns that exist in giant craters that were once volcanoes. You’d never know there were once volcanoes, until you look around and notice the mountains around on every side. That, and the tufo of course. We can’t forget that tufo! (In case you missed it, tufo are blocks of hardened sand and pieces of lava that exist all around the Lazio region, used to build many structures.)

Visiting Ariccia

Next we stopped by Ariccia and strolled around the town. Pretty much any town in Italy is fun to visit and boasts its own hidden gems. We had a gelato and learned about the “frescetas” that once frequented the area.

Frescetas are restaurants where the restaurant would charge for glasses of wine, but everyone brought their own food. Everyone would bring something to contribute and purchase wine, like a spontaneous potluck. There are only a few real frescetas that continue the tradition. It sounds like a really great concept, although I doubt anyone would want to trade my Annie’s Mac and Cheese for home made gnocchi and what not.

Ariccia is also home to the famous “porchetta”, which is a dish of pig stuffed with all kinds of yummy bits, including garlic, rosemary, and other herbs.  We bought one for dinner later.

Nemi: Land of Strawberries and Goddess Diana

Next we visited Nemi, which is a charming town that overlooks sparkling lake and claims Diana as the town’s patron goddess according to legend. Nemi is known for their strawberries and delicious strawberry tarts, which of course I tried. These are the wild, natural, and flavorful strawberries too- not the giant bio-engineered ones trucked over from who-knows-where.

Nemi hosts a Strawberry festival in June that is suppose to be a ball. I wasn’t there at the right time to catch it though.

Nemi’s Ships and Crazy Caligula

Nemi was once (and I guess still is) known for their giant ship remains from a long-expired ruler, Caligula. Caligula was a big partier and, in fact, quite a pervert. Apparently he was really into bestiality.

Knowing he would be shunned, he took his goat-cuddling parties to the sea, building two huge pleasure ships that he lived on and hosted parties on (basically the original yacht party). Perhaps it was the punishment of God, or just poor construction, but the ships eventually sank.

Many years later, excavation teams wanted to drag the ships out. They couldn’t manage to get them out of the lake, so they drained the entire lake and pulled them ashore (I didn’t realize what a big deal this was until I saw the lake. It’s no bathtub!) There are some really cool old photographs of when they drained the lake and pulled the ships up in a local cafe that Ivano brought us to.

The ships were put in a museum in Nemi, but it got bombed during WWII, and now only a tiny part of the ship remains, with a much smaller museum.

Nemi also had this lion head fountain that poured out fresh water that was naturally slightly sparkling. Pretty cool stuff!

It was a great day visiting several sites outside of Rome that go unnoticed by many. If you are going to Rome, consider checking out these lesser known gems!

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Korcula

The island of Korcula stands as a perfect example of why so many people love Croatia’s beaches, sunshine, and those charming, ever-present Old Towns.

Korcula Town, where I stayed, is a mix of café bars, kitchy souvenirs, and an endearing Old Town. The town prides itself on being the birth place of Marco Polo, who lived in Korcula until he was 17, going on to become the most famous pool game of all-time.

Marco Polo…You Know…That Guy

There was actually an embarrassing moment when, as I returned to the hostel and told people about visiting the Marco Polo house, someone asked who Marco Polo was. I laughed and rolled my eyes a bit at my company’s ignorance. Duh, I thought. With a slight smile and a voice brimming with aged wisdom, I explained, “Marco Polo is the explorer who discovered America.”

There was a short pause before someone said “Um, wasn’t that Christopher Columbus?” Oh yeah, I have NO idea who Marco Polo is. And even American kindergarteners know that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. This is probably why people think American are idiots. Sorry Team USA.

Korcula’s History and Design

Korcula’s old town boasts the whimsical winding, narrow streets you’ll find in Old Towns throughout Croatia, with reminders of the town’s Venetian history. The venetian mark is a lion with wings (or Lannisters on Red Bull. Little GOT joke for ya there), and if you look carefully you’ll see plenty of them.

One guide once advised me to always look up at the walls in Eastern Europe – besides finding street names, the walls are where you can find all sorts of symbols hinting at key information about a town’s history.

Korcula Town’s map readout looks like a fishbone, and Korcula residents boast of the ingenuis layout which allows cool winds from one side of the sea in, while keeping the bad voo-doo winds from the opposite side out. This is why when you walk thorugh Old Town from the main stairs, you’ll see ocean on your left, but the right side streets go at an angle.

Korcula has a stone wall surrounding Old Town which was once twice as high, but half was taken down and quarried many years ago to make more homes. They were recycling way before it was the hip “green” thing to do.

Things To Do Visiting Korcula

There’s plenty to do in Korcula besides stroll around the Old Town—go in the right season and you’ll get chance to see Moreska sword dancing, in which an ancient story of love and war is reflected in the choreographed clashing of swords. I saw the Moreska Sword Dancing and it was pretty cool. People yelling and chanting and clashing swords together is always exciting.

I spent most of my time in Korcula relaxing on the beach with my Kindle and eating gelato. Korcula has beautiful, crystal clear waters, but suffers from having mostly rocky beaches, a common issue throughout Croatia.

Dragan’s Den Hostel

The hostel owner Dragan of Dragan’s Den is a real character. And of course, everyone knows that being “a real character” is code for being mildly insane. First clue is that the man’s name is Dragan. Second is that within 60 seconds of walking in the door, he will undoubtedly ask you if you have connections in Hollywood, since he’s currently trying to get his screenplay read and book published.

Despite being most certainly a few french fries short of a happy meal, Dragan was a pretty alright guy most of the time. Having dinner my first night, he confided to me that he believes he has multiple personality disorder. NOT what you should tell your guest the first day they arrive at your hostel. But I suppose Croatians are confiding like that…

Dragan was happy to show his guests a fun time. Especially if you are a girl. Ok, but truly I had such a good time in Korcula that I extended my stay by two nights, and got to enjoy the great company of my fellow backpackers primarily consisting of English, Australians, and Irish babies (as in closer to 18 than 25).

One fun surprise was when I arrived and saw the Aussie guy I had dinner with in Dubrovnik! It was incredibly embarrassing though because I didn’t recognize him at first and it took me a while to remember his name. It’s too bad because he was super cute, but I felt so awkward and embarrassed about not recognizing him (when he clearly knew who I was) that I avoided him most of the visit.

Cliff Jumping and Snorkling

Stuffing 13 of us into a minivan, clown-car style, Dragan took us out one day to some beaches in Lumbarda, just outside of Korcula town, where we practiced cliff jumping (I only managed the small jump, which was quite non-threatening).

Snorkeling through the blue-green waters was brilliant, although there wasn’t much exciting sea life outside of small fish and sea urchins (one of which we cracked open and ate later on! Dragan tried to give me a lesson in free diving, but I failed pretty miserably.

Boogey Jungle and Inevitable Late Night Drama

That night Dragan took us out on a bar crawl, where his connections with local bar owners got us free shots and entrance to the Boogey Jungle nightclub, which we stayed at and danced until 4am.

The night ended, as all good nights do, with a bit of drama. The early morning light found me on the stairs of the night club, sitting next to one hostel girl who was throwing up noodles on the club steps while simultaneously falling asleep, and another girl to my other side with a foot oozing blood after she stepped on a piece of glass.

Dragan’s sterner alter-ego arose once we got home and the girls demanded that their friend be taken to the hospital (the one with the bleeding foot, not the sleeping-throw-up-girl). Dragan insisted we all go to sleep before he leave, which resulted in the bloody girl’s friends and Dragan chastising every person who tried to leave the 20 bed dorm room (aka the Disco Room) to brush their teeth. At one point, a guy who had been making out with a girl at the club was coming down the stairs, and Dragan turned to him and said, “Listen, I know you want that girl up there, just leave, go to the beach with her, and stop running around the place.”

The guy looked horrified and a bit insulted, saying “I just had to go to the bathroom!” I probably didn’t help the situation as I kept whispering “I think we’ve awoken the dragon.” Anyhow, it ended up being a fun night to remember.

At the time I thought bloody toe girl and company were being dramatic, but she ended up getting six stitches, so I guess it really was a bad cut! (BTW, apparently everyone gets travel insurance when they travel. Everyone except for me. Knock on wood. Even 18 year olds know to do this.)

For Island Wonders, Choose Korcula!

It was hard leaving Korcula. If you’re considering an island to stay on in the Dalmatian coast, I’d certainly recommend Korcula. While it gets a bit touristy in the summers, it’s quite tame and cheap compared to other, more popular and pricey islands like Hvar. Plenty of nature, sun, and fun!
Fun fact: Dalmatian dogs are from Dalmatia! I asked a few locals if Dalmatian dogs are from Dalmatia, but they had no clue.  That’s why we have Wikipedia folks! Wikipedia is truth. While they aren’t really present in Dalmatia especially, Dalmatian dogs are believed to have once been guard dogs and companions to the nomads of Dalmatia. Cool!

Canyoning in Split

While in Spit, Croatia, I went canyoning! What is canyoning you ask? It involves a mix of hiking, cliff jumping, swimming, and sliding through rapids on your back. Kind of like a water park you might send your children to if you don’t love them very much.

After trying out this extreme-esk sport, I can see why I haven’t heard of it in the US- between tripping around on slippery stones and leaping off of high rocks into murky waters below, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Don’t Jump Into Water, You Could Drown

I was a bit nervous about canyoning since I have a tremendous fear of getting my foot stuck between rocks. A few stories about kids drowning this way show up every summer, and in classic American anxiety-ridden fashion, adults would often recite the news stories with words of caution whenever my friends and I went within 50 yards of any body of water that wasn’t a pool (not my mom though-she’d send me to one of those dangerous water parks).

As I went canyoning, I could hear my parents’ friends saying, “did you hear about that poor boy in Lowell…you should never jump if you can’t see the bottom.” One of the guests I was with made the mistake of asking our guide if anyone had ever died before on one of these trips. A 16 year old girl apparently got her leg stuck between rocks and drowned three years ago. This did wonders for my nerves of course.

Cessna Canyon

Cessna canyon is beautiful, with waterfalls (we didn’t jump of any, thank goodness!) which kept reminding me of Homeword Bound. You know, the scene when Sassy falls off of the waterfall and surives? I wonder what is says about my psychological state thatwhen I see beautiful wonders of nature, my immediate association is a Disney movie, and not even one from the golden collection!

Most of the rapids we ended up wading through since the water wasn’t high, but other times we were able to let the current push us along and ride down the rapids on our backs, sea otter style. I’ve decided this could be a great new ab workout as well.

I took it upon myself to live dangerously and jump off of anything we were offered (you could pass and go a different way if you wanted). No one had asked us to sign waivers at the beginning, so I figured if I died, at least someone might me able to get some settlement money out of it (suuuch an American).

Old Couples vs. Young Couples

While canyoning itself was a ball, I had the misfortune of being in a group with three couples, plus old single me. Sometimes being with couples isn’t so bad. Old couples have been together long enough that they are mildly sick of each other and are often more than happy to engage you in conversations. These are the Grampas who happily chortle at their own jokes and love to tell past adventures they’ve been on with the Mrs, who pipes in with a solid quip to keep Grampa in line.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t with amiable, jolly elderly couples. I was with three young-ish couples, who all seemed quite content to stay in the company and conversation of their significant other. I’ll cut two couples some slack since they spoke different languages (although seemed to manage English just fine when the tour guide spoke). But the English-speaking couple was the youngest, and they were all over each other, kissing between splashes and jumps, walking to each station hand in hand. Yeesh, save it for the gondala ride!

At least our instructor was friendly, and definitely easy on the eyes, as adrenaline junkies commonly are the good looking sort. I theorize that this is why the lookers condemn themselves to death-defying activities–their handsome looks have made life far too easy for them, so they must seek challenges elsewhere.

Eyeball Issues

About halfway through our journey, I started to realize something was not right with me. My eyes couldn’t focus well, and I was blinking and squinting constantly.

I think half of the problem was sleep deprivation, since I hadn’t gotten a good night sleep in my hostel since I arrived.

Backtrack. So first night in this hostel in Split, I went to bed fine around 11. Heard some guys arrive late at 12. They unpacked, then they went out. I woke up at three and realized my laptop, which I had left on top of the bureau next to my upper bunk bed, was missing.

I knew the new arriving English guys must have taken it, since they were the only ones awake in the room. I spent the night stewing–Why did they take it? Was it an accident? Why are there thieves and bad people in the world? Are they selling my laptop for crack?

I also was imaging what I’d have to say when they arrived. Finally, at 5 when they returned, I bolted out of bed and said, in one rush of breath “Hey, did-you-guys-take-my-latop-that-was-here?”

They realized they had mistaken it for their friend’s laptop and had put it in their locker (really dumb because they had just arrived and had barely unpacked–why would his laptop be up on the really high bureau next to my bed?) Anyway, all was well, but I had gotten no sleep. The next night I suffered from the common “I-need-to-sleep-because-I-have-to-wake-up-early-tomorrow-oh-my-god-why-am-i-still-awake” syndrome. That, and the partiers coming back late, and me thinking about how they would wake me up (which they might have if I wasn’t already still awake).

Right, so, sleep deprivation was playing a major factor at this point. The other half of the problem might have been the sunscreen. Oh sunscreen, sunscreen, what to do with you? You protect my skin from the angry sun’s rays of hate, but then you scald my eyeballs when I forget about you and rub my eyes.

I was a pretty big mess, and certainly wasn’t in the best condition to be stumbling along slippery river rocks and leaping off of boulders as I squished up one eye and squinted from another like a pirate. I soon took on the “they’ll never take me alive” attitude, convincing myself that while I probably will die, I must do everything in my power not to, just to prove “them” wrong. Cue inspirational Rocky-esk music.

There was one hilarious moment where I sat down to enter the water, and when an unexpectedly strong current flung me through a narrow space between two rocks, my butt got completely stuck! The rest of my body went through-both arms and legs and torso were fine, but just my big ol’ butt sat there, smooshed between two rocks.

I had to wiggle my crazy money-maker sideways to get free. This is why I know every word to “I Like Big Butts,” something many of my friends love to remind me of whenever we’ve had a few too many.
I survived canyoning, and while I really enjoyed the first half, by the end I was so relieved to have actually gotten through the trip unharmed that I think I couldn’t have been having a tremendous bundle of fun. That being said, it was super cool, and if I had been able to keep my eyes open for longer that 10 seconds, I would have probably loved every minute.

Split: A Final Farewell

My time in Split was divided into two chunks – two days at the beginning and three days at the end leg of my trip, since Split was my port of arrival and departure. My second stay in Split was in the Split Hostel, which I chose since it was close to the ferry station. It was super clean and nice, but lacked personality. There were several feral cats that would come watch me make breakfast though, so that’s gotta give them a couple points in the personality department.

At this hostel  I met a very cool woman from Norway. We went out to dinner a couple nights and she showed me beautiful pictures of Norway (she was a big hiker and outdoory person). Let me say, DAMN Norway is fiiine! I’ve been some beautiful place, but her photos of snow-capped mountains and beautiful skies took the cake. Norway is now near the top on my list of places to go.

Finding the Free Split Walking Tour

On my very last day in Split, I managed to catch the free Split walking tour from Diocletian’s Hostel that leaves everyday at 11am. Sounds easy enough to catch, right? Not too early, not too late. But it took me four attempts before I finally caught the free Split walking tour. I probably should have just given up and either not done the tour or paid for one. But I am cheap and like my historical facts spoon fed to me by someone far more knowledgeable.

The first time, I just plumb got lost. I had no idea where I was going and was too confident in my natural sense of direction skills, which apparently are not so fantastic after all. The second time, I just overslept because I had gotten little sleep the night before. The third time, I was all up and ready to go. The only problem was, I had forgotten sunscreen.

I went out to the only supermarket I knew of near me to buy some, but they had none! I knew that as a girl with Irish heritage and skin pale as a vampire, I couldn’t possible do a walking tour without sunscreen in harsh 11am I-want-to-burn-you-alive-sun. So I had to trek across town to the other supermarket I knew of to buy sunscreen. By the time I got to where the tour was suppose to leave from, I was 10 minutes too late. So it was the last day that I finally got it. Too bad, because it was a great tour too. Learned some great things about Split hours before leaving.

It was weird leaving Split on the ferry. I’ve spent enough time there that it felt a bit like leaving a good friend. By then I knew were all my favorite alleyways were, where the best gelato places were, what areas had the least-crowded cafes, my favorite park benches for reading and snoozing, etc.

Before I left, I made sure to find the giant  statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin. Rub his big toe, and it’s said you’ll have good luck, and will return to Split again. It’s also said that at one end of Split he holds a thick book with the names of all the virgins entering the city. There is another statue of him near the opposite side of the city with a much thinner book, with the names of virgins leaving Split. Hmmm OK Split, you crazy city you.

Magical virgin encyclopedias aside, I hope at least the magic toe is true because I really enjoyed ol’ Splato (Split in Italian) and would love to come back someday.

P.S. On the ferry ride back, I bought a space in a four bed room, but it ended up being just me in a two bed room! Good thing because there was no ladder and I have no clue how someone would get up to that bunk. I tried and nearly fell off. The ferry going to Italy was quite a bit more dingy and dirty than the one going to Split. It’s probably a reality check for folks returning from a vacation of summer fun.

I felt very fancy in my single, private room, like Queen Elizabeth herself. The only downside was the speakers outside my room playing really weird, what I imagine to be 50s music, which they didn’t shut off until 11. Then at 7am they reset the CD so that I got to hear a sad, strange song about Christmas Trees twice. Proud Mary was pretty sweet though.

Dubrovnik aka King’s Landing

Next I headed off to do a whirlwind tour of Dubrovnik.

Don’t Keep All Your Eggs in One Money Pouch

After a long, sweaty, four hour ride to the Dubrovnik bus station, I maneuvered my way through the always-confusing and exasperating local bus system to arrive at my hostel…upon which I realized I had lost my money pouch. Lesson boys and girls – don’t leave all your money in one pouch!

I was sure I was doomed – my night would be spent calling credit card companies and inventing ways to come up with cash. I immediately knew where I had left it – I put down my money purse on the gum rack outside the bus station to buy a ticket from the local tobacco/candy stand at the corner. Thought I felt it was a lost cause, I asked the hostel owner to call the bus station, who then sent a lady across the street to talk with the stand owner.
I was so lucky the woman at the newspaper stand had a good heart – she had handed it into the port police.

I had to take a sweaty bus ride back to the port, and then walk to station down the street, and found a nearby port authority police man. There was an awkward moment when I had to walk with the port police-authority guy to the newspaper stand, where he talked with the worker who had handed in my purse. They talked for far too long, which led me to believe they must be talking about me. Listening people talk about you in a foreign language is very strange and exasperating.

Eventually I ended up back at the hostel with my money intact (thank you Saint Cro-Cro (Christopher) and/or Anthy (Anthony) for your assumed help).

Dinner in Dubrovnik

As I checked into my room, I was immediately invited to dinner with two of the girls in my room (Australians of course- from my beloved Melbourne!). We met up with another Aussie guy Andy, and together we visited Dubrovnik old town by night and had a nice dinner of sea bass.

The next morning I woke up early to do my ultra-fast tour of Dubrovnik. I grabbed a walking tour at 10am (after a morning gelato of course) to hear about the main sites of Dubrovnik. The tour was quite mediocre – our tour guide was quite high-handed and fairly rude, complaining about our asking too many questions (there were only 3 of us) and complaining of tourists in his beloved hometown. I couldn’t understand everything because of his thick accent either. Take that sir!

Dubrovnik has basically served as a Norway of Eastern Europe, with a motto of “be kind to everyone but sincere to no one”, making Dubrovnik sound like a manipulative teenage girl trying to pole vault up the social ladder. The giant wall encompassing the city was never used for military battle, until the 1990s-ish when that confusing and fairly recent war happened in Croatia, which I still don’t totally get. Sorry, just being honest here. I’ve tried to read about it, but still don’t understand, and when people explain it to me I accidentally glaze over and don’t hear anything they say. Really need to stop that bad habit.

Signs and flags throughout the city read “Libertas” proclaiming Dubrovnik’s long standing values of freedom/as-long-as-we’re-cool-screw-everyone-else. I’m just teasing Dubrovnik. You’re cool. We good.

Dubrovnik aka King’s Landing

After the tour I scaled the city walls and walked about, getting gorgeous views of the city and the Adriatic sea lapping against Dubrovnik’s port.

Dubrovnik is a real beauty from atop the city walls, letting you look down on the sea of red-roofed houses, churches, and glistening white-stone streets. Being waist-deep in the 4th Game of Thrones book, I was thrilled to hear that Dubrovnik is where they filmed scenes for The Red Keep in the 2nd season of Game of Thrones television show. It’s no surprise Dubrovnik was chosen – it seems the perfect location to dream of valiant knights, turn-cloak lords, and kings of old. Sometimes gazing down from the walls, I found myself calling the scene below “Kings Landing” and “The Red Keep” rather than the city’s true name.
I could only stay at Dubrovnik one night, since I had to catch a bus down King’s Road to The Trident (aka Korcula), but my time there was pleasant, and I can only hope the legendary city stays out of those filthy Lannister paws. One can dream.

Mostar and Bosnia-Herzegovina

I paused mid-chew as I realized in horror what I had just done. Moments ago I had picked up a dirty Bosnia-Herzegovina mark coin from the ground with the very fingers that now tore apart my deleiciously  greasey chevapi and plucked the food into my mouth.

For a moment I longed for my western-world hand sanitizer, and with it the free wifi, credit card acceptance, and the plastic silverware I have grown so accustomed to. I shrugged and continued eating. After all – this is real backpacking. Sitting in a dirty bus station, eating greasy cevapi with a fresh refill of tap water in my worn non-BPA free plastic water bottle, waiting for a bus to Croatia in 90 degree heat that was already 30 minutes late. And I’d be lucky if we got AC.

Mostar and Star Most Bridge

I had just finished my two day visit in Mostar, whose  old town and Stari Most bridge was said to make one feel as if they were in a living fairytale. Mostar did not dissapoint, with vistas and scenery that were shockingly beautiful. Ancient mosques appeared as common in Bosnia-Herzegovina as churches are in New England, their long, round towers thrusting into the Mostar sky as declerations of Muslim influence.

Most main cities and towns in Eastern Europe seem to have an old town, with coffee shops and restaurants scattered along crumbling towers and alleyway ruins of a different time. All Old Towns are charming initially, but once you’ve seen a few, you’ve basically seen them all. We get it, Europe has lots of old stuff. In America, something that has stood for 100 years is ancient. In Europe, that’s not even, worth a low quality picture on your 50GB SD card.

While in Mostar I stayed at a lovely little Pansion run by a woman named Tanya. Tanya was an eager host, more than happy to help her guests. Tanya (and others in Bosnia-Herzegovina it seems) had a manner of speaking in which she would call girls “lady”. As in, “lady, lady, you can come sit over here,” or “lady, it’s OK, do not worry about it lady.” Super hilarious. I would have enjoyed it more had she called me “Lady Megan” Downton Abbey style, but that’d be spoiling me a bit too much.

When I first arrived at my hostel, I asked Tanya if I could arrange to go rafting that morning. I had purposley taken a very early bus to make it in time for rafting, but Tanya shot down those dreams, informing me it was too late.

Just for the record, I had e-mailed the hostel the day before asking if I could do rafting, what the price would be, a description of the tour, what time I would have to arrive, and some transit questions. The response e-mail only read (verbatim), “RAFTING IS @ 9:00 a.m. so only tour you can take. From where you arrive , I can wait you at the bus station” so I had a feeling these plans would fall through.

Tanya informed me that I could sign up for a tour of the Herzegovina region instead. It would be lead by Tanya’s husband,who would take me and three other girls around in his car. Tanya’s husband, whose name I never learned, was a man of few words. Then again, maybe he was a man of many words- the problem was he didn’t speak any English whatsoever. So we were being given a tour by a man who was basically mute for all intensive purposes.

Our mute-man took us to a number of areas around Mostar. We visited:

  • Blagaj: A small town known for its Dervish monastery. What is a dervish you ask? I was wondering the same thing. Apparently a dervish is a sufi muslim devoted to a life of simple living. I keep reading that and thinking “surfing muslim,” but I’m pretty sure those only exist in California. Or nowhere. We got to walk through the surfing muslim monastery, which was situated right on the beautiful Buna river.
  • Pocitelj: A cool old city with fortified medival walls that was an important strategic spot. I’ve been reading the Song of Fire and Ice series throughout this trip, so I keep running around old castle ruins and think “The Lannisters are attacking, man the turrets!” or “release the wildfire- we’ll burn those stinking lions to the ground,” making old castle stuff ridiculously fun and entertaining.
  • Medugorje: Hilarious because I had just left Medugorje that very day, and somehow I ended up back there. I did get to see the Jesus statue that apparently has miraculous oozy oil coming out of it’s knee (it wasn’t oozing when I was there), which I had missed the first time around.
  • Kravice Waterfalls: Really amazing, beautiful waterfalls that poured into a little pond you could swim in. I’m very proud of myself because I saw not one but TWO water snakes and still went in the water. If that isn’t brave, I don’t know what is.

The places we went were great, but I thought it ended up being quite the rip off: 30 euro just to have some mute dude drive us around. But I became fast friends with the hilarious Netherland girls who were doing the tour as well. The four of us went out to dinner, where I had Dolma Japrak, a dish of minced meat wrapped in soft peppers – delicioous. Of course anywhere in Europe, no meal is complete without gelato!

I spent the next morning trying to buy souvenirs by awkwardly haggling. I always like to imagine myself as some sassy, smart-talking street-wise gal from the hood who talks down street vendors with ease, but I’m actually terrible at haggling. Usually my bartering efforts go something like this:

Me: How much is this?
Old Bosnian Lady: 5 euro
Me: Ohhh…would you do 3 euro?
Old Bosnian Lady: No.
Me: Um. OK. Here you are *hands lady 5 euro*

Even worse was in Thailand, where whenever I tried to haggle, the ladies would say “Please, I have to feed my family!” and then I would feel so guilt-ridden as a terrible-evil-demon-thrifter that I’d pay them more than they wanted. Haha, no. I just ran away.

Mostar- you are like an historic theme park of magic and wonder, but without green slime or giant mouse costumes, and I will miss you sorely. I don’t hear much talk about Mostar, but it truley is the most beautiful place I’ve been so far in my trip. If you are in the area, it’s a must see!

P.S. I never quite got the hang of saying “Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Usually I just would say “Bosnia-Herz…a..gov..”*mumble* Usually this sufficed.

Medjugorje

It’s tacky and touristy, and you might feel cynical at first, but it could very well be that there is something special at Medjugorje .

The main street of the town is overrun with stalls selling religious goods – there’s the expected roasaries, medals, crucifixes, braclets, keychains, prayer cards, etc. But stranger fare too, like lighters and USB sticks with the Holy Mother’s face emblazoned across the front.

The St. James Church looks quite unremarkable from the outside, and is equally unimpressive from the inside. I’m not trying to be overly critical, but it’s hard to be in awe of St. James (or any church, for that matter) after seeing the ancient and grand cathedrals of Rome and greater Italy.

The St. James Church doesn’t always feel so welcoming either- arriving late for mass one morning, I was barred from entry into the church along with others, as a watchguard of sorts slid a wooden baracade between the handles of the church doors to keep out as late-arrivers. A wooden barricade, really? What is this, medival Europe with whispers of a serf rebellion around town?

With mass going on, it seemed like a smart enough tactic to keep things quiet and orderly, as pilgrims continued to teem in and out of the church entryway. Yet going to church and being treated like an ill-behaved farm animal wasn’t exactly spiritually uplifting.

Medjugorje: Hiking Up Apparition Hill

The trek to Appariton Hill from the church was as long as the hike up the mountain itself. I walked a fair way through vine vinyards and fields, with a strong sun beaming down, until I reached the beginning of the hike up the hill. The climb looks more treacherous than it is in reality. The hill is composed entirely of jagged rocks, large and small, chutting from the earth like breaking waves.

What I enjoyed most about Aparition Hill were the stones. Most of the stones were fairly large, the size of a backpack more or less. They had soft holes and rounded chunks removed from them, giving them a soft, organic feeing. The orange dust that covered them was often worn off completely by the trecking of travelers feet, shinning just as the bronze statues and plaques glistened gold where pilgrims had kissed and touched the form of Jesus.

The stone surface had been worn down to a shiny white, so smooth that it was almost slippery beneath bare feet. The polished white rocks reminded me of bones, and I soon felt as if I was climbing up the skulls of great beasts and extinct dinosaurs.

Climbing turns out to be perfect for praying – it’s easy to drift into a semi-concious state, as your eyes and half of your brain churn themselves constantly looking for the next perfect spot to step, while the other part of your mind chants the methodical words of prayer. A word for each footstep, the sides of the brain working together as a team.

I visited the cross where Mary appeared to the children of Medjugorje, as well as the white Mary statue whose significance escapes me. But I think my most memorable part of the hike was when I climbed past the main trail, where apparently less people journey. Here the bronze stations of the cross still glistened from loving touches, but less so.

Where the main rocky trail ended, I discovered a smaller trail that went up to another field of rocks. Here, people had placed small monuments for love ones that had left Earth. Piles of stones with pictures and flowers wedged between. One mound of stones held up a cross that had a pair of spectacles wrapped around it. Some makeshift monuments had familiar crucifixes, others simply had two sticks forming a crude cross. It was impossible to tell how many there were or how far they continued into the rocky surroundings, twisting shrubbery, and dry wind.

I felt intrucive in this place, like I had stumbled upon something intimate. I bent down to pick up some of the thumbnail portrats wedged beneath the plaque. A few had dates of life and death on the back, while others were blank.
I liked to see their faces and wonder who they were and reflect on how loved they must have been by someone, who had climbed up here to put their picture in this special place. To reconcile my intrusion, I tried to leave the pictures more secure than I had found them – a tiny stone ontop one, another wedged slightly deeper between two rocks.

The trek back to my loding was far less enjoyable – determined to walk, I wandered for hours, going in circles and repeating paths, before I found a familiar street. Even then, throat dry and stomach growling, I had to backtrack again to find an ATM machine (considering that no one accepts credit cards, there were surpringly few ATMS. I only saw one in my hours of walking around town).

I had a nice quiet lunch and a much needed beer before getting hit on by an old man. What is with old men? Why do they think young girls might be interested in them? Are they just going all in on a bad poker hand in hopes that no one has better than a pair of 3s? I mean it’s one thing if you sail up to a dock and hit on me from your yacht, but otherwise…

I retured to my guest house, after being given some coffee and a slice of cake by one of my kind hosts, and tried to reflect on my day.

Medjugorje: A Spiritual Synopsis

It’s hard to say whether I experienced anything spiritually moving while hiking Apariton Hill in Medjugorje. I would say probably not- I think most of my spiritual sensation was connected to my awe of the landscape. That’s not meant to detract from anyone else’s experience at Medjugorje. I’ve visited many holy sites and haven’t felt moved beyond what you would expect at a pilgrimmage site, but I don’t doubt others have very different experiences.

We all hope for the unexpected, for a glimpise of the supernatural. Did a part of me hope I’d see the appariton of Mary? Yes, the same why I might enter a haunted house and hope to see a ghost, or visit Roswell, New Mexico and hope to see a UFO. I’m not saying I don’t believe people have seen apparitions – this world is a strange place, and we usually only see the shadows of its spiritual side.

In my life I’ve never had any supernatural experiences. Well, there was that time I was in a forest and was convinced I was hearing a women screaming as an escaped insaine psycopath blugoned her to death, but it turned out to just be a fisher cat.

I’m overdue for a cool supernatural life-changing experience. I’m a bit dissapointed to visit yet another holy site with nothing to show for it. OK, and to be completley honest, I’m also a bit relieved. After all, that stuff is scary!

Late Nights in Split

One night at my hostel, I met up with these aussies who were going on a big sailing trip. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, this is the thing to do in Croatia-book these week-long sailing trips which are basically glorified booze cruises. It was fun talking to them, as one especially exuberant girl from Melbourne told us captivating tales of her past adventures and misdeeds traveling, including a horrific jump off of a water trapeze, resulting in one of the worst bruises I’ve ever seen across her stomach (and I’ve seen some bad ones).

That had nothing to do with my big night out in Split. I just liked those aussies and thought they were worth mentioning. The night before my bus to Medjugorje, I decided to go out with some new people who had arrived at the hostel (not the aforementioned aussies- they were boozing it up on a sailing boat somewhere).

We played some drinking games at the hostel (including the worst version of Kings I’ve ever been forced to participate in) and then set for a night on the town. We went to a couple clubs and didn’t end up returning to the hostel until 5am, with light spreading across the dark blue sky as we collapsed into bed.

If you know me, you know clubs aren’t really my thing. I don’t understand – I just met these cool new people. I’d rather go to an old local pub and talk with them, hearing their stories and tales of glory, than go stand around in some loud, light-flashing-in-my-eyes club with overpriced drinks, not hearing anything or anyone. My displeasure at club-o-grindy-time must have been obvious, because one British guy I was with informed me that I looked miserable. He was kind of an asshole actually.

Anyhow, by far my favorite part of the night was on our way to the last club, when we encountered a street performer on the Riva. These guys were so friggin’ cool. The singer/guitar player had this old school Elvis-esk microphone that had an amazing sound. The drummer had one of those percussion boxes you sit on and play. They sounded great and were really engaging with the (mostly drunk) audience, getting people to sing along and jump up and down. When they had everyone dance crazy as they played “The Bird is the Word,” I think I found nirvana. Everybody knows that the bird is the word!

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have slept at all. I should have grabbed my luggage and caught the 6am bus to Medjugorje. Instead, I slept a maximum of three hours and caught the later bus. Sleep deprivation goes hand in hand with backpacking, but it certainly isn’t my favorite past time.

Croatia’s Split: Don’t Spit On It!

 

I was first told to go to Split when I was in Barcelona, and was at a hostel talking to a girl from Croatia.

“OK,” I said, “So I should go to Dubrovnik, Hvar, and Spit?” “Not Spit, Split,” she corrected me. I half said “spit” on purpose because I didn’t like this rude blonde (or as Tina Fey says, yellow-haired, because why should we give special treatment to them when someone would say my hair is brown?).  She probably did not catch my very very very passive aggressive insult. After visiting Split, I am ashamed I would ever try to dirty the good name of this fair city.
Visiting Croatia, I’ve spent a good chunk of time in Split, one of Croatia’s most well-known cities and central port hubs. It’s a vibrant place, full of street music, fisherman ports, beaches, and, of course, old stuff. OK, so the old stuff here is especially interesting- half of the main downtown area exists in what was once Diocletian’s palace. The ruins of the palace are scattered about Split’s Old Town, and you can get into the palace area through four gates, the Bronze Gate, Gold Gate, Silver Gate, and Iron Gate. Sounds like GOT to me! (Game of Thrones. I know, I need to shut up about it already)

Diocletian chose the shore side of Split for his home because he was getting old and his arthritis was showing his age. Split’s seawater has sulfur in it, which is good for the aches, but walking about the Riva (Split’s pedestrian street along the water, a kind of promenade)  you’ll sometimes be suddenly overwhelmed with the scent of rotting eggs or garbage, which is in fact, sulfur. The good thing about this sulfur smell is that it keeps the fish markets down the street fly-free, since flies hate sulfur apparently. If anything grosses me out more than dead fish heads, it’s flies on dead fish heads, am I right?

My first days in Split I spent in the Split Wine Garden Hostel, where host Nola was like an angel, always happy to help guests arrange trips, show you where to eat, or aid in arranging transportation. She was the best! Anyway, I spent my time wandering about town and sampling the gelato- a tough job gig but I carried the burden admirably.

Someone had left snorkeling gear at my hostel, so I took it (cleaned it, don’t worry!) and went out to one of Split’s beaches to do some sunning and snorkeling.

I forgot what fun swimming can be! Remember how when you were a kid, you could spend endless hours in the water? As an only child, I had to rely a lot on my imagination- I remember at my Dad’s lake house having this AWESOME Zebra inner tube, and I would ride around on it pretending to be a adventurer or brave knight going on journeys across the land. Me and that plastic zebra had countless adventures. I remember sobbing for days when it got a hole in it and was rendered incapable of continuing its duties as my faithful steed.

Even without my inflatable Zebra pal, I could spend forever in pools, without props, swimming around pretending to be a platypus or some other unnatural mutation of a mammal.

Anyway, as you get older, the magic of water fades. Kids lose their sense of wonder associated with nature in general-forests no longer harbor enchanted unicorns, and the sea loses its mermaids. But snorkeling brought some of that magic back, opening a whole new world beneath the sea!

Now I know why as a kid I always swam with goggles. I wouldn’t swim without them. I had a gigantic pink plastic face mask and would jump in the water, roll around in the sand, and run about like a lunatic. So snorkeling was awesome!

The sunning never goes well for me, and the beaches at Split were quite crowded, not allowing much room for sun-soaking. To many beach bums’ disappointment, most beaches in the area are pebbly and not sandy. One day I took an hour bus trip out to “Brela Beach” which was suppose to be one of the most beautiful, sandy beaches in Croatia. When I got off the bus, I had to walk down this HUGE mountainside, following criss-crossing, looping roads that went on forever. When I finally got the beach, it was pretty “eh”. Lots of little children, not much room, and big hard pebbles that burned my feet. But people were selling crepes, so I was pretty sold on that place.

While Croatia is more Mediterranean than anything, it doesn’t have an abundance of sandy beaches, but the sun and crystal clear waters make up for it.

 

Sunrises vs. Sunsets: A word on the matter

I always find people’s answers to “Do you prefer sunrises or sunsets?” very interesting and a bit telling.

I’ve always answered confidently in support of sunrises.

The two share a lot, with similar coloring and appearance. One is a start to the day, one is an end. I think most people say they prefer sunsets because generally, that’s what people see more of. I certainly have seen more sunsets than sunrises, but I don’t think a sunset can compete with a good dawn rising.

Sunrises mean opportunity, in which a new day means endless possibilities. This sentiment is especially powerful while traveling- what will today bring? What new place will I be in when the sun goes down tonight? Sunrises are full of promise and wonder. Sunsets, while lovely, have no hope in their rays. Theirs is an end, a closing, a finale. Maybe it is an end to a glorious day, bringing a long awaited rest, but it is an end none the less.

I’ve always invested a bit too much in “possibilities”. It’s what makes me so indecisive and unsure – I always want all options at my fingertips, and cringe to close any doors. That’s most likely why I love sunrises, and probably romanticize them far too much. After all, what can possibly bring more opportunities and possibilities than those pink lights of dawn? What has more hope? Options are infinite with each new day, and I revel in that freedom and promise.

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