Monday, May 28, 2012


The problem with our last vacation stop being Dubrovnik and my daughter having spent a semester in Geneva with clothes and acquisitions and other belongings is that you can't just get on a plane in Dubrovnik and then just end up at home later that same day.

For one, Dubrovnik airport is a little primitive, barely serviced by any airlines at all and somewhat poorly run. It's also way out in the boonies but that's irrelevant except in that it was raining, the roads were mountainous and our taxi driver seemed way too brave for my nerves, but I think that's probably a cliche.

The trip back to Geneva wasn't going to be fun anyway: out of Dubrovnik at 06:55 which is early no matter how you count it, to Dusseldorf then Zurich and then Geneva. The fine people at Dubrovnik airport would not, as is customary at every other airport I've ever been, issue us with all three boarding passes. I was worried since our Dusseldorf layover was only fifty minutes.
It was raining as the plane took off.
Still saw a pretty island from the air though.

Turns out that Dusseldorf airport is unfortunately not the stereotypic model of German efficiency that one would hope for. Despite announcements and signs to the contrary, there was in fact NO way to simply go to the appropriate gate for our connecting flight and get boarding passes there. Instead there was a hurried rush through passages and up and down staircases and doors that would stay open only for a second or two, and panicked encounters with various ground staff, heightened by the nuisance of having to pass security AGAIN after having bought liquids after passing security in Dubrovnik, and being ever more certain that our luggage was doomed to have its own private travel plans.

This fear was not entirely unfounded since two out of the four pieces did go missing.
On the plus side, the hotel was conveniently situated right next to the station.

We had the excellent kebabs that we were too rushed to get last time we were here.

Jennica's suitcases were retrieved from her friend's apartment without incident.

We had a dinner which, while more expensive than most of the meals of the last two weeks, did not actually break the bank, was very tasty and allowed us to see part of old town.

Both lost suitcases showed up at our hotel.

Departure from Europe went as well as could be expected: no flights were late, no suitcases were lost, and US Customs and Immigration, while not exactly effusive in terms of welcoming us home, didn't give us a hard time.

The cats, on the other hand, were a bit overwhelmed by the sudden influx of people. Anubis warmed up pretty quickly, but Isis took longer, making sure that we understood the extent of her displeasure at being abandoned.

Eh, she'll get over it.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Full One

Since we really had only one full day in Dubrovnik, we started early and made it count. Since everything started from just about the same place and we didn't spend time travelling from one place to another, there wasn't much dead time, though OMG the people from the cruise ships were a bit irksome. Hordes and hordes of dreadfully slow-moving humanity clogging every sidewalk and every walkway, generally stopping in entryways to chat or dig in purses or whatever.

First we took the cable-car up the mountain where there was a phenomenal view of the city (mostly the old city and the harbour).
I really enjoyed the war exhibition, though it seemed awfully one-sided. Still, Dubrovnik undoubtedly suffered tremendously,and in fact there's evidence of it all over: building sites, empty lots with concrete rubble. The fortress on the hill has chunks missing from the walls that obviously were not eroded way, but were exploded out.
After that, we walked the ramparts of old town.
The views were incredible.
I loved the sea of rooftops, as well as the views of the sea and the islands, but I was simply charmed by the glimpses into courtyards and gardens and clothes lines and ruins inside old town.
After walking the walls of old town we went into the nearby fortress. Climbed. Lots and lots of steps. Lee thinks we must have climbed a couple of thousand steps in the last two weeks, and I suspect he's not wrong.
There were steps to get up to the top of the city walls, up to the fortress, p to our hotel, in the salt mines in Poland, up to the fortress in Hvar, the castles in Prague and Budapest - lots of steps.
And all those steps are so worth it, not only for the Smugness Convernng My Glutes factor, but also because the views have all been stunning.
After covering from the fortress we took a boat to the island of Lokrun.
There's a bit of a monastery (I saw laundry hanging in one of the upstairs windows, so it's at least partially in use) and some ruins (I'm weak for ruins).
The island is also full of very noisy peacocks. This guy yelled at me. Or at one or some of his females. Either way, not a pretty sound. Would be effective as an alarm clock sound.
The botanical gardens, on the other hand, are a bit of a joke. The picture below shows the most manicured part of it.
Mostly there are a couple of scraggly eucalyptus and other non-native trees accompanied by tiny cardboard signs tacked on.
There are some perfect sea views though. I'm not sure it gets much better than that.

After the island, Stuart had had enough, but Jennica, Lee and I went to see a Steve McCurry exhibition - he's the photographer who captured the green-eyed Afghan girl in that iconic National Geographic photo, you know the one I mean.
There was a beautiful sunset from the hotel.
These are the steps we had to climb when we arrived in Dubrovnik. They are steeper and more plentiful than this picture shows. Jennica still hasn't forgiven me for them.

I wish we'd had longer in Dubrovnik, but at least we managed to catch pretty much everything at the top of our list.

I'm really not ready to go home, but at least I have the equivalent of a yummy taste in my mouth, and know that I want more!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Not the Best Day Ever

The day started off just fine, if a little on the early side with a view of the fortress outside my window.
We had to catch the 7:30 ferry from Hvar to Split, and then the 10:00 bus to Dubrovnik. The staff at the hotel were so incredibly nice: they packed us food since we were missing breakfast, and took our luggage to the dock even though it's really close.

The ferry ride to Split was uneventful, and then we boarded the bus. It was a warm day, the windows of the bus did not open, and there was no air conditioning to speak of. Oh yes, and the bus was pretty full.

For four and a half hours.
Sure, the scenery was lovely.
Yes, it was interesting seeing all the new construction.
Absolutely, there were exquisite views from the hillsides. Mountainsides. Very high up.

It was also kind of interesting having our passports checked twice inside half an hour as we first passed into, and then out of, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

But it was brutally hot and miserable and the only good thing I can say is that it wasn't a eight-hour ferry ride, which had been the original plan, scrapped because of the ferry schedules.

Finally we arrived in Dubrovnik, gaily looked at the map and realized that the bus station was a scant point eight of a kilometer from the hotel, an easy walk.

Big mistake.

Big big BIG mistake.

The road we had to turn onto?


I'm guessing a few hundred steps.

In the heat and humidity.



I was slightly afraid I'd have a heart attack or faint or something unhealthy. It was awful, but the view from the hotel is incredible.
You can't tell how high we are from this picture, but trust me, it's really high. Tomorrow I'll try to remember to take a picture of the stairs so you can see I'm not just being a diva.
After some serious showering and relaxing, we finally made it to Old Town.

It's pretty cute.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Vacation Perfection

The view from last night's hotel room, with Croatian sock yarn.
So far, this has been the only time I've been able to pay with my credit card for anything in Croatia. All of the restaurants seem to take only cash, ditto the bus and ferry lines.

Because we left Split early, the rooms we had last night are not the same as the rooms we have tonight - they were much nicer!

This morning after a very hearty breakfast, we decided to climb the hill to the Spanish fortress. The path starts like this:
At the end of the staircase, there's a very zig-zaggy path which starts off at the wall that goes all the way up to the fortress. Here's looking down at Hvar (the town):
And here's looking up at the fortress:
Along the path there are glorious views.
From the fortress I could see my new hotel room. It's almost dead centre in the picture, only barely not behind the curve of the fortress wall.
I'm having a hard time figuring out why I don't live on the coast.
I wonder if I could get a job here and learn Croatian? I could open yet another little jewelry store and sell my beadwork and smile at tourists, but it would be worth it because it's just gorgeous.

Vacations probably make people unrealistic, but there's got to be something cathartic and therefore healthy about fantasizing about living in paradise.

We're missing the cats. Amy says they're So Over our vacation and need us to come back.
On the way down the hill we happened across a pair of feral kittens so tiny they didn't know to be afraid of us. If this was home, I'd have taken them straight to the vet for de-worming, de-lousing, de-ticking, de-fleaing, so that we could take them home with us. Jennica was in love...
This is the staircase as the descent starts. The town is so very pretty.
Everything is alleyways, each cuter than the next. As well as the shops and restaurants, people seem to live here too.

After our strenuous climb, we relaxed on the beach.
You can tell that those knees are really into this vacation thing. They're totally chill.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hvar, Oh Yeah

Really, what's not to like?
The cutest seaside village ever, on an island, with mountains, sea, old buildings, bright clean stone everythings, fabulous hotel (it's dead centre above, just to the left of the tower thing where the palm trees are).
My room has awesome views (this is one of three) and a huge balcony.

The worst thing I can say (and it won't be true for too long) is that the weather is a little too cool.

There is not what anyone could call a surfeit of beaches - there are quite a few excruciatingly small pebble beaches which have all the charm of any miniature.

Some are merely very, very small.

There are trees which smell heavenly, a bit like magnolia, and they're all over.

See? Boats, mountain, cute stone buildings, sea, gorgeous cloudy sky. It's all good.

Boats. A big old building on the hill. Nice stone docks.

Seriously. It's so pretty. Really.

After last night's unpleasant local dining experience, we didn't even ask about non-tourist restaurants, and had a delicious semi-Italian meal i n the square in front of the cathedral. Actually, it was probably more authentic than Italian in St Louis, since we're a hop, skip and a jump by ferry across the Adriatic from Italy.

Lovely, lovely birthday.

I think I'll allow it to continue into tomorrow since it's going so well.

Split, Meh

It just turned out that I booked most of the hotels through one booking site; two were through two others. The hotel in Budapest, one of the alternative booking agents, was fine, the accommodation in Split from the other alternative, less so.

It wasn't clear that it was rooms in a private home; the name of the place, ______ Inn, was not indicative. And until two days before, when they emailed me to offer airport transportation, I had assumed that like everywhere else, I would be paying via credit card.

Driving in from the airport, I saw loquat trees, pink oleander, fig trees, backyard grape vines, and a number of plants I realized that I hadn't seen since I left Cape Town. I was immediately predisposed to like Split.

As we approached town, I was slightly dismayed at the big box stores, the graffiti, the traffic, the look of careless industry, but I was still sure I would love the place.

Our driver dropped us in an alleyway, and we followed a woman up stairs, around corners, along alleys, and eventually entered a somewhat decrepit back door where we were led up to our rooms. The twin room was sweet in a rather spare way, with a kettle, a couple of mugs and bowls, a fridge that wasn't plugged in, and an adequate en-suite bathroom, but the double room, cute though it was, had no tables, closet space, nothing to put anything on or in, and the bathroom was in the outside hallway.

The very friendly proprietress showed us on a map where everything was, and recommended a couple of restaurants, and after settling in, we set off to explore.

To be sure, it had recently rained and was overcast and a little chilly, but hey! Cute seaside town! What's not to like?

We eventually ended up at one of the local restaurants where my excellent attitude started to degrade a little. The olives tasted pretty much like the cheap canned olives I avoid at my home supermarkets. The bread was homemade and good and the sheep cheese wasn't bad though. The vegetables were boiled, rather too much (and oh yeah,potatoes are not really vegetables). They clearly hadn't heated the oil for the fries to high enough temperatures, as they were limp and drenched in grease. The njoki (gnocchi) were doughy. The fish was greasy and unseasoned. The beer was apparently tasteless.

Jennica wasn't feeling well, so we came straight home. I found shutters to make the room dark - I like that! - and slept quite well, but not long enough, especially given that (a) it's my birthday and (b) we were meeting for breakfast at 10.

Then I showered, and approached the end of my goodwill.

No soap except for three-quarters empty travel-sized shower gels clearly th leavings of previous guests.

The. Hot. Water. Ran. Out. Before. I. Had. Finished. Soaping. Myself.

I cancelled the second night and extended our stay in Hvar, and we organized bus (to Dubrovnik on Friday) and ferry (to Hvar) tickets, wandered around Diocletian's Palace

and the fish market

and old town,

ate an overpriced but tasty meal (sigh. At a tourist restaurant. I'm now leery of the local cuisine) and here I sit on the fast catamaran to Hvar, which I am determined to like. I'm hoping for a delicious birthday dinner.

Indoors. It's chilly and drizzly.

I think I'll take my birthday some other time, since this one just isn't working out so fabulously.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Budapest and Beyond

The view of the corner opposite our hotel. Love the details and colours of the buildings here - Budapest is such a mix of incredibly run-down and beautifully maintained. The parliament buildings are white and shiny when viewed from the river or from Buda, but from the bus in Pest the rear is sooty and a bit dreary.
This is the (I know I'll get this wrong, but I'm in the airport and don't feel like looking it up) church of St Matthias in Buda Castle. I was so taken with the colorful roof tiles that I took too many pictures (for me; taking snapshots in general not being what I do, but I was given orders before leaving, so pictures-r-us). The detailing on the building, the whiteness of the exterior (yes, it looks grey. It's not really quite so grey at all) combined with the shiny brightness of the roof just got me right here (punches chest).
See? Pretty!
And the view of the Danube isn't so shabby either.
Yeah. More roof tiles and baroque details.
The kids weren't so much into palace tours or church interiors (yup, I'll have to come back some day), but did agree to see the labyrinth, which was very dark and dank and cool.
I'm not entirely sure why they were building a concrete throne underground, but I'm sure there's a good reason for it. Imagine the king that would hold court underground - there has to be a movie in it somewhere.
The above was actually the first building we saw in the castle area. It was used as military headquarters during the war, and as you can see, they didn't fix the bullet-holes in the walls.

After the castle we went to the Great Market Hall.

It's three floors of Stuff.

The ground floor is produce: beautiful strawberries and asparagus and kohlrabie and cherries, dried sausages and fresh meats, everything pickled you can imagine, dried fruits and nuts and candies and baked goods and spices (the price of saffron is insanely low). Hunger-inducing.

The basement is the fish market and a supermarket.

The upper floor is more of a balcony area, as it mostly hugs the exterior walls, leaving the gloriously soaring ceiling wide open, and is filled with traditional foods (we tried stuffed cabbage and hotdog in a croissant and mashed potato between a pair of crisp-fried meatloaf patties and then sadly were too full for dessert) and stunningly inexpensive and lovely leather purses (a gorgeously soft leather bag which would have run me $250 in the US was around $50), embroidered peasant blouses and folk art and tourist crap, among which were the ever-popular scarves that we've seen in every city so far.

I had bought one in Krakow labelled cashmere and silk (70/30 if I recall correctly), but it seems that labeling is utterly random. Some are labelled cotton and cashmere, or silk and cotton, or pashmina (which as we know IS NOT A FIBRE) and silk, and so on.
Some of the heavier weight scarves are labelled 100% pure cashmere, and they're nice, but may well not be pure cashmere, and as you can see, some are even labelled 100% angora, which is so far outside the bounds of reason that it's purely laughable.

I think they're most likely rayon, possibly with a bit of silk, though I'd need a burn test to be sure.

After the market we took in one of the traditional bath-houses, though unfortunately not the one I wanted, as it didn't have mixed (gender) bathing. The one we chose (Szechenyi) is a large building around an oval courtyard with a few outdoor swimming pools. Inside the building are thermal baths of varying temperatures. Instead of the usual smell of chlorine and feet that I associate with public pools, there's a faint eau de sulphur from the predominant mineral. The entryway with its little foot bath through which you have to pass to get to any of the thermal baths list the minerals, but I didn't pay too much attention, so all I remember seeing is iron and calcium in the list of a couple of dozen.

Next time in Budapest I'll set aside most of a day for the baths (and I'll go to Rudas, the one I really wanted to visit) so I can have a massage and facial and all that good stuff.

Right now? I'm in the airport waiting for our flight to Munich and then on to Split, Croatia, where I'll spend my birthday tomorrow.