Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Croatia - Dubrovnik

We spent a little longer in Dubrovnik, so it was nice to have some relatively relaxing time. Still, we kept busy with a walk on the town walls around the old city, a guided walking tour (we were the only customers, so we had a private tour), a trip up above the city on the cable car, and a trip to Lokrum Island, a 10 minute boat ride away from Dubrovnik but a world away from the city. Lokrum has more peacocks and peahens than I have ever seen in one place, and they are completely unafraid of people.

The old city's streets are made of polished limestone. They are very clean and very shiny and look like they would be very slippery when wet. Luckily it didn't rain on us! We quickly learned that Dubrovnik is best enjoyed starting in the afternoon. The cruise ships come in in the morning and can add several thousand tourists each to the streets. But for the most part, cruise passengers have to be back on board by early afternoon, leaving things fairly peaceful. 

Stradum at night

Walking along the wall. 

Gail was the only one brave enough to try a swim!

Dubrovnik from Lokrum Island
The old port of Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik was heavily shelled the winter of 1991-1992. According to our tour guide, everyone had believed up until that point that the old city would be respected and not targeted. Two-thirds of the buildings and many of the streets in the old city were damaged in the war, but virtually everything has been repaired. Even the buildings completely burned out have been rebuilt, with craftsmen using old techniques and original materials where possible. I had been worried that maybe it wouldn't be as I'd long heard it described, but other than some shrapnel marks on a few buildings and a map depicting the damage you'd be hard pressed to know that anything had happened. Our tour guide told us a little of what it had been like, cut off from the rest of Croatia, seeing their old town bombed, living without water or electricity.

One of the museums we visited was a war photography exhibition. It had some pictures from the wars in Croatia and the other parts of the former Yugoslavia, but also many from African conflicts and some from the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts. Many, many pictures of children involved in wars as victims, combatants, or both. We skipped another war museum, mainly because the entrance description was all about the heroism of the Croatians and the villainy of the Serbs. Things are rarely that black and white, and evidence abounds that there were atrocities on all sides. According to our guide book Croats and Serbs are ethnically identical: the only differences are religion (Catholic vs. Serbian Orthodox) and language (though the languages are closely related). We noticed on our drive from Plitvice Lakes toward the coast that virtually every small town had a ruin of a church. I wish I had some way of finding out whether that resulted from a natural shift of population away from small towns or if those Catholic churches were targeted during the war.

To get to Dubrovnik by road you have to pass through Bosnia Herzegovina. I wasn't aware, until looking at the map planning our drive to the city, that there is a narrow section of land called the Neum Corridor that gives Bosnia access to the sea. It meant we had to go through customs twice (once for Croatia and once for Bosnia Herzegovina) each direction. Luckily it was just a glance at the passports and a wave through each time, but at border crossings one never knows.

Today we drove back to Zagreb. It was a very uneventful drive. No snow, no major road closures, no major traffic jams. More on Zagreb later.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Croatia - Split and Trogir

It was quite a change to go from snow in Plitvice Lakes to palm trees in Split! We used Airbnb for the first time, and we are fans. We had a very small apartment less than 5 minutes from the waterfront/Dioclesian's Palace. The only problem - parking!

But the waterfront was beautiful, and certainly a big change from the snow we'd woken up to in the mountains!

The most famous part of Split is Diocletian's Palace. For those not up on Diocletian, he was a 3rd century Roman emperor who built the palace/fortress for his retirement. He was reportedly so worried about assassination that he slept in a different room every night. It is now a warren of museums, shops, restaurants, apartments, hotels, etc.

This is one of the remaining gates of the palace.

We climbed the Cathedral tower within the Palace complex for wonderful views over Split. The large ship is one of the ferries that goes to the many islands in the Adriatic.

From Split it's an easy one hour bus ride to Trogir, another World Heritage site with a beautiful old town. And of course, there was a cathedral tower that needed to be climbed!

This was the view from the fortress on the waterfront.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Croatian holiday - Plitvice Lakes

I wasn't sure exactly what to expect from Croatia, other than that it would be beautiful. It is. My first impression was that it is a cross between Poland and Italy. I know that sounds VERY weird. But the architecture (the newer, post-WW2 architecture), the shops, the open-air markets for clothes and food (including meat), the bus stations, the language, all remind me very strongly of Poland. The beauty of the old architecture, the white-stone streets, the light, the coast, all remind me of Italy.

We were very lucky with the timing of our departure from Germany, as the train engineer's strike ended at 4 a.m. the day of our departure (the train is by far the best and least expensive way to get to the airport) and the pilot's strike of Lufthansa began at 1 p.m. Our flight was at 12:20. Note to self and visitors: it took us an hour and a half to get to our gate and that was without stopping anywhere not required: check in, security, and passport control all had significant lines.

We arrived in Zagreb, picked up our rental car, and headed for Plitvice Lakes National Park. Along the way we stopped for dinner at a place in a beautiful town. The restaurant has a trout farm in the middle (and resident cats hoping to share in your very fresh dinner!).

Plitvice Lakes National Park is gorgeous. It is a series of cataracts and waterfalls with walking paths along, under,and around them.

The walkways are mostly boardwalks. In a few sections it was pretty overrun with busloads of tourists, (I can't imagine what the high season is like), but in others nearly deserted and very peaceful. We have been astounded at the number of Asian tourists. I don't know why it surprises me that Croatia is a big destination for them. Some of the busloads of tourists were day trips from cruise ships - that would be a pretty long day trip from the coast! And some of the passengers looked pretty surprised to be walking in the forest.

The weather at Plitvice Lakes is important as it's a day of hiking. We were lucky. Although we didn't have sunshine, which would have been nice, it wasn't raining, either. And it turns out that we were fortunate it was not snowing, as on our departure day we woke to this.

Sorry, I got distracted by the homemade doughnuts made by the owner of the place we stayed. Just like Polish paczki! THIS was the surprise that morning.

While it was certainly beautiful, we did not come equipped to hike in the snow. It made the first part of that day's drive to Split very exciting! 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Chagall stained glass and more

Chagall stained glass
Today was warm and sunny and we enjoyed a great long walk around Mainz. We visited St. Stephen's Catholic Church, which has stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. They are gorgeous, especially on a sunny day.

We used our new book, roughly translated as "111 places in Mainz one must see," and had fun finding and reading about them. They included the foundations of a Roman entrance to the city, some ugly statues, and some pretty ones. We also strolled through the Anatolia Festival, which was crowded on such a nice day.

Chagall stained glass
Mainz Cathedral from Kupferbergterrasse

Vendor at Anatolia Festival

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Day on the Rhein (by Gail)

Every once in a while, Mom gets the idea to go on a day trip. It can be to a castle or a garden show, a museum or on a boat tour, but there are always three things: public transportation, sore feet at the end, and either Dad or I not knowing about it until the night before. As skeptical as I was about today's trip, I must say that it did not disappoint.
First, let me make one thing clear: the beginning was not my idea. I cried, I begged, I threw a fit, but my parents were adamant and deaf to my pleas. You are right to gasp in horror, for I had to get up early on a weekend. A weekend, if you please, when I could have slept the blissful sleep of the weary, but no. They made up some excuse about how we had a bus to catch or something, but is that any reason to rouse a poor little child out of her nice warm bed? If it was up to me, we would have caught the afternoon bus or perhaps a bus tomorrow or the day after, at some nice, reasonable time such as eleven. But why on earth would they listen to me?

However, the day could only get better after such a dreadful start. The bus ride took about an hour, but it was a beautiful trip along the Rhein river, and it passed quickly. After getting off, we wandered into the city, which I'm sure would have been beautiful if I could have seen it; but the gift shops thought otherwise. Let me tell you, it was tourist heaven. The worthless and only-slightly-less-worthless merchandise lined the shelves in tourist trap after tourist trap. One could go in and never come out again.
Emerging dazed and about forty dollars lighter, we stumbled upon the Medieval Torture Museum. It got good reviews on TripAdvisor, and clean bathrooms were worth far more than the modest entrance fee, so we went in. Let me just say that it was good that it had been a while since I had eaten, and Mom was looking positively green; but at least the bathrooms were nice.

After a bit more shopping, we got in the line to ride the cable cars up the mountain. It took forever, but I will be the first one to say that it was absolutely worth it. To be stuck in a long line and then a hot, noisy engine room, and then to get in the car and have it swing up into the cool air and silence… no words can describe it. There were sweeping views of the river and vineyards for at least ten minutes as we glided our way through the air up the mountain. It was heavenly.
Cable cars
Grape harvest, as seen from the cable car
When we reached the top, we strolled leisurely to the Germanic monument overlooking the river. It was originally built as a thumbed nose at the French for having lost the Franco-Prussian War, and is thus covered with German symbols and mottos. After admiring it for a few minutes, we had a picnic lunch and then moved on.


At the top of the hill, we took a hike, with lots of sweeping panoramic views that are not actually all that fun to read about, so let me just say: it was really beautiful. There were lots of vineyards and various pretty scenery, with lots of overlooks and trees (more of the latter than the former, although sometimes it seemed the other way around.) 

Sweeping panoramic view

When we were done, we took the Seilbahn down, which was kind of like a ski lift but in both directions. It was not quite as beautiful and felt quite less secure, at least to Mom. I liked it a lot, but her outlook on heights is a little less sunny than mine, and I'm surprised the bars didn't bend under her iron grip. However, we made it to the bottom okay and took the ferry across the river, where the ice cream was delicious, and then onto the train home. All in all, a very satisfactory day.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Weekend in Deggendorf

Last weekend we visited our friends Karl & Sigi in Deggendorf. I will say an entire weekend of speaking German is well beyond what I can easily manage. Thank goodness they are very kind and willing to repeat themselves. While there we went to the Garden Show. It's hard to describe the scale of these shows in Germany - they are typically open for five or six months and are enormous. The playground pic in the previous post is of a playground built for the show in Deggendorf. So I'll just give you a few visuals!

This activity is harder than it looks!

Garden gnome made entirely of water bottles

It is Bavaria . . .