Now that Emily has graduated from Henderson High School and will soon be off to Kutztown University to work towards a BFA in Photography, she gets a "senior trip" . We have told each of the kids that they can have a trip to wherever they like in the world, within reason. When we asked Emily were she would like to go, she said London. Great. We started making plans for London.
About two or three weeks later Emily thought something further afield would be in order. Since we hadn't purchased anything for London yet, we double clicked on google maps and started looking around. She definitely wanted to go to Europe, so I suggested Scandinavia. We looked there for about ten minutes and realized places like Oslo and Copenhagen were very expensive. I then suggested perhaps some places in eastern Europe would be interesting and almost certainly less expensive. We clicked on a number of places, Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, and so on. We then clicked on Dubrovnik, Croatia. Right away, Emily knew that was the place for her. Why you might wonder? Well it is where many scenes from the HBO series "The Game of Thrones" is filmed. It is the setting for King's Landing. Who wouldn't want to hang out with kings?
So, Dubrovnik it was. We made plans, got airline tickets, reserved a place to stay, got an international plant for our phones, cleared a credit card for cash advances, and got passports. Mine expired in 1994, and I forgot that on that original passport they put the wrong year of birth on it. This caused much distress with the issuers of passports, and they requested much more in the way of paperwork and a long form birth certificate. No sweat. It arrived in the mail within a week of our departure. On August 6, Emily and I left Philadelphia heading for Frankfurt, Germany, then on to Dubravnik. While we were in Dubravnik we took day trips to Mostar, Bosnia-Heregovina and to Kotor, Montenegró.
This post will be a condensed summary of our trip. Between the two of us, we took over 1800 photographs. We will reduce that down to the best 100 or so for this post. Over the next couple of weeks or so, I'll try to do a more in depth post on the various places we went, the food, birds, the war, etc.
If you want to skip all the reading and go right to the photos click here.
As a side note, in case you are wondering where the Coffee Blog went, it is still in the works. Shortly after Emily and I set out to visit coffee spots in West Chester, Emily decided to change directions in her life. Up until that time, she was thinking of going to school for a career as a dental hygienist, mostly because mom insisted that she needed to take some direction. Then one day, she woke up and decided that she wanted to go to art school and be a photographer. This meant we had to do some crash courses in drawing, do extra work at school, create twelve concentration pieces for AP art class, and make rush visits to art schools. Something had to fall off the plate, and that something was our coffee blog. As it turns out, Croatian's excel in making great coffee. We think it's probably a good thing that we held off, as we both have a better world view of what great coffee should be.
[Day 1, August 7] On our way to Dubravnik we had an 8 hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany. We arrived at 7:30 AM so we had most of the day ahead of us. With our suitcases checked all the way to Dubrovnik, we decided to head out of the airport and take a train downtown. I had been to Frankfurt 31 years earlier in 1985. It was strange to think that in 1985 none of the four countries that we planned to visit existed as they do in their current state. Germany was still divided and Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro were areas within the former Yugoslavia. East and West Germany came together in a peaceful festive way while Yugoslavia fell apart in a horrible and violent civil war.
We really had no objective with our visit other than to find some coffee and something to eat and to roam around and see what we might find. From the airport we found the train right train to take in to Frankfurt but getting the tickets turned out to be a little bit of of a challenge. There were automated kiosk where you would get the tickets but for some reason the all would only accept exact change, which was 15.80 Euros. Getting that last .80 Euro cents was not easy. We got a pretty grumpy response from all the places we asked for change. Finally we found a train ticket place that had a human being behind a desk and were able to get the ticket with our credit card. Fortunately that was the most difficult part of our day. We got on the train and into town without any problem. We actually made it to town before most of the breakfast places were even open.
We found our way to the main tourist part of town, just as the espresso machines were being turned on. Emily and I sat down to a giant cup of cappuccino and a yummy breakfast. After than we walked around like zombies as jet lag set in. We did get to see a lot of nice sights around Frankfurt. There was a big triathlon taking place throughout the downtown area so we kept running into runners and cyclist giving all that the've got. However, I don't think any of them were suffering like Emily and I were suffering. We walked in a big loop back to the train station and got back to the airport just fine and with plenty of time to catch our flight to Dubrovnik.
[Day 2, August 8] Our flight from Frankfurt to Dubrovnik was only about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Our landing in at the Dubrovnik airport was about as rough a landing as I have ever experienced. I thought that it must be the pilots first day with the new airplane. However, when we exited the plane on to the tarmac we realized that we should probably give the pilot a little more credit because the wind was absolutely howling!
Our flight arrived around 5:30 PM. I figured we would be pretty worn out by the time we got there, so I arranged to have our hotel pick us up at the airport and drive us into into Dubrovnik. The driver dropped us off at the city gates as there are no cars inside the city walls. All we can say is that Dubrovnik was as stunning from the first time we laid eyes on it until we left seven days later. What a place to behold.
Dubrovnik is one of the few walled cities from the middle ages that is still intact, and as such it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's origins go back until at least the 7th century. Recent archaeological evidence suggest that the spot has been occupied by humans for much longer probably dating back to Greek and Roman times. I won't go into the history here as other webpages do it much better than I can. The wall is in fact completely intact as you can walk around the entire old city on it. This was the first thing we did on our first full day there.
The Old City does not have any automobile traffic with the exception of early mornings when delivery trucks drive in the the city at it's main gate and on the the Stradum. From there deliveries are made on little trucks a little smaller than golf carts. These little trucks can deliver stuff to about half of the cities homes and shops. The others have to have thing brough in on hand carts or by hand alone. The absence of automobiles is the primary reason that we chose to stay in an apartment in Old City as opposed to a cheaper hotel outside of the city walls. While this cost a little extra, it was well worth it. We were able to explore the city for as long or as little as we liked and could easily retreat back to our apartment to rest or take a short nap.
Everything about Dubrovnik was charming. many of the shops were the size of a large closet. Many of the restaurants in fact had no indoor seating. The kitchen's occupied the area of a large closet and the dining area was outside under large umbrella's or simply a row of tables a long a narrow street (a narrow alley by most cities standards). The middle part of the day, however, got pretty crowded with people as the cruise ships would bus people in from the nearby harbor.
The tourist were from all over the world, but it seemed to us that the majority were Russian and Italian. Most of the local residents speak fairly good English, so for us getting around was pretty easy. All menus were in at least Croatian and English, and many were in four or five languages. All of the local people that we met were very friendly and easy to get along with. We really couldn't have asked for a more pleasant place to vacation.
[Day 3, August 9] From Dubrovnik we scheduled two day trips. I was able to schedule these several weeks prior to our arrival through Expedia. Both trips were about $65 per person. Our first trip was to Kotor, Montenegro. Kotor is another walled city which is about 51 miles to the south. Our tour also stopped at Our Lady or the Rocks, in the Bay of Kotor, off the small town of Perast. Montenegró is Europe's newest country gaining its independence from Serbia in 2006.
We took a tour bus from Dubrovnik. We knew things would be a little different in Montenegró as soon as we crossed the boarder. This trip was my first trip out of the country after being employed by the US to guard our borders, thus I took a special interest in who other countries handled such things. When our bus pulled up to the border crossing for Montenegro, there was a long line of vehicles. Our tour guide hopped out of the bus and ran down to the guard station. A after a moment or two, she returned to the bus and we were waved over to another empty lane and made a very short stop at the guard's booth and then headed on down the road. Our tour guide told us that we were able to skip a long wait by bribing the customs officers with bottled water! I would have thought that would at least warrant some Belgian chocolates or a sandwich.
This actually kind of set the tone for the look and feel of Montenegró. It seems to have been struck fairly hard by the Soviet ugly stick. When Yugoslavia broke up, Russia took Montenegró under its wing as a Adriatic vacation spot for Russians and invested heavily in the country. When Montenegró gained independence it applied to be a member of the European Union. This put Montenegró in a rough spot, as the EU had condemned Russia for it's actions in the Ukraine. If Montenegró wanted membership in the EU it would also have to condemn Russia. As a result, Russian money dried up and has left the region in some economic hardship. It shows. To us, Montegeró looked like what most of eastern Europe probably looked like before the fall of the Soviet Union. Everything there seemed to have gray and depressing feel about it.
Our first stop was the Our Lady of the Rocks. This is a small church built on an artificial island ????? the By or Kotor. Legend has it that a sailor found an icon of the Madonna and child on a rock in the bay. A tradition formed where sailors who returned from sea would drop a rock at the site to pay respect for their safe return. The story goes that after 200 years of dropping rocks and sinking old vessels loaded with rock ballast, there was enough island to build a church on it. After the church was built instead of leaving rocks sailors would leave items of various and sundry nature. What we have today is a church in the middle of the bay with a vary large and strange collection of odds and ends from the last 500 years or so. To get to the church, you have to take a short ferry ride. The church is still used today for sailors who still leave stuff and weddings. There is a tradition that the brides leave their flower bouquet attached to the inside of the church doors. There are hundreds of bouquets hanging there now.
After a hour or so we headed on to Kotor. Like Dubrovnik, Kotor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is about the same age as Dubrovnik and it its old city walls are mostly intact. However, it looks much different as it was under Venetian rule for 500 years. So the architecture more resembles that of Venice. The old city of Kotor is much smaller than Dubrovnik. You can pretty much walk around the entire city in a few minutes. The difference is that the city walls go high above the city up a hillside to a height of 260 meters (850 feet). In all there is approximately 3 miles of wall that goes up and around the hillside (mountain side?) The walls were built this way in order to defend against invading Turks. Otherwise, invaders would just about be able to sit on the hillside and throw rocks down onto it's inhabitants.
The most interesting thing that we saw in the old city was the church of St. Lukes. It was built in 1195 and looks notably older than everything else in Kotor. It was used by both Catholic and Orthodox worshipers until 1812, and is still used by Orthodox today.
Lokrum and Mount Srd
[Day 4, August 10] What we didn't mention about our trip to Montenegró was that we had to get up "early" and meet the bus at 8:25 AM. This of course nearly killed Emily. To be honest we were both really tired after the day's bus ride. For the midway point of our trip we chose to stay close to Dubrovnik and sleep. Well Emily slept in, Dad got up at 5 AM and went birdwatching.
We visited the island of Lokrum and took the cable car up to Mount Srd. Lokrum is a small island that is actually within the city boundaries of Dubrovnik and only 600 meters from the mainland shore. It is a short 10 minute ferry ride the first of which leave the Dubrovnik harbor at 11:00 AM. This was almost to early for Emily to make but a valiant effort on Dad's part to get her up and moving before noon (with the promise of a nice breakfast and big cup of coffee) we made the first ferry out. The ferries come and go about every 30 minutes throughout the day so you can leave pretty much whenever you are ready.
Lokrum is a billed as a nature preserve. It has a monastery, a nice restaurant, a spa, soccer fields, and a bar where you can get some relief from the wilds of the European forest. We brought our own lunch but we did take advantage of the local watering hole. I got a freshly squeezed glass of lemonade and Emily got a fruit smoothy. Very refreshing. We spend a fair amount of time on the rocky beach and walked around the island seeing the sights. We walked to the very top of the island where there is an old fort that was built in the early 1800s.
Emily's big contact with nature was a fish pedicure in the spa. This is the the trendy new thing where tiny fish nibble the skin on your feet down to make for smooth soft skin. Or so we are told. Whatever the purpose, Emily seem to really enjoy it. The forest there was actually fairly nice. The trees were full of cicadas which were doing what cicadas do, which as buzzing so loud that it was kind of hard to hear anything else. All in all it was a very pleasant day spent in the out doors.
We headed by to town early enough make sure we could get on the cable car up to Mount Srd to see the sunset on the Adriatic. We still had to wait about 45 minutes before we could get on the cable car. At the top of Mount Srd there is a war museum commemoration the Bosnian War from 1991 to 1995. There is an old fort at the top of the mountain that was built during the Napolianic Wars in the early 1800's This fort and Mount Srd was the site of fierce battles between the Serbian army and air force and the Croatians.
The views from the top of Mount Srd were breathtaking (by the way, don't ask how to pronounce "Srd" as we don't have a clue!). You could see the many island to the north of Dubrovnik. On the other side of the mountain to the east the you can see the many mountain peaks of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The boarder with Bosnia and Herzegovina is only a little more than a mile from the top of Mount Srd. We headed back down after the sun set and found a nice place to eat in the old city.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
[Day 5, August 11] I didn't let Emily know the bus for Bosnia and Herzegovina left a little earlier than the one for Montenegró, 7:45. There was lots of moaning. Fortunately Cafe Festival starts serving breakfast and espresso at 7:00. Moaning arrested.
The old city of Mostar has long been a place that I had wanted to visit for a long time. From Dubrovnik it is only about a 2 and a half hour bus ride. The first thing that we learned from our tour guide is that you never say just Bosnia when referring to Bosnia and Herzegovina. She said it would be like saying just "Great" for Great Britain or "United" for United States. Bosnia-Herzegovina is acceptable. Also the area of Bosnia and Herzegovina that we were visiting was actually Herzegovina. Herzegovina occupies the southern part of the country while Bosnia occupies the northern part of the country. Our tour that we signed up for also included stops in Medjugorje and Počitelj.
The first stop of the trip was a rest stop that served espresso, which we were very happy about. If you look at a map of Bosnia and Herzegovina you will notice that it is a completely landlocked country with the exception of a small narrow dog leg that shoots out towards the sea. This small dog leg also separates the narrow southern extent of Croatia from the rest of the country. We were told that this little dog leg was a concession from Croatia to ending the Bosnian war (Also known as Croatia's War for Independence). Bosnia and Herzegovina's only costal town, Neum is there. This is where we had our espresso. We are happy to report that everything is alright.
Not counting the three border crossings (Croation into Bosnia-Herzegovina, back to Croatia, then back into Bosnia-Herzegovina, and there was no bribing the Customs officers with bottles of water), our first stop was Medjugorje. We had never heard of this town and had no idea what was there. We should have asked the Catholic in the family, Mom, because she knew exactly what it was, a famous pilgrimage site dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Apparently, back in the 1980's a group of kids claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary on a hillside. And that would be all she wrote. Catholic pilgrims now flock there by the thousands. The town and church otherwise is nothing special to see. What is staggering is the a degree of commercialization that surrounds it all. There are countless shops selling every kind of religious trinket imaginable. Most of the tourist there were Italian. We were there on a Thursday morning and the church was filled to capacity. There were 500 to 600 people outside of the the church who couldn't get in. Behind the church was a large outdoor amphitheater that could seat another 8000 or so people
We were only there for about an hour, which is good because Emily said she was starting to feel uncomfortable and was afraid that a nun was going to jump out of an alley and try and convert her at bible point. Mary commented that frankly, she was surprised we didn't spontaneously combust.
Moving on we arrived at Mostar at about 11:00 AM. Mostar is a very old city who's origins go back to Roman times. It is a city where east meets west and where Europe starts to turn into the Middle East or Asia. The city is famous for its bridge that spans over the Neretva River and the old town areas is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over half of the cities residents are Islamic.
The bridge much of Mostar were destroyed in the Bosnian Civil War from 1991 to 1995. The bridge and the old city were rebuilt and reopened in its current state by 2004. However, if you go out side of the are of the old city, the scars of war are still very easy to see. Many buildings are still in a state of ruin. The apartment buildings at the spot where our bus dropped us off were absolutely riddled with bullet holes. It all stood as a stark reminder of the bad things humans can do to each other.
Nonetheless, our stay in Mostar was fairly short. Our local tour guide was fairly long winded and once she was done we had just enough time to get some lunch and walk from one end of town to the other.
One the way back to Dubrovnik we made one one more short stop at yet another walled town from the middle ages, Počitelj. This small wall town (population of about 900) is unique in that it has change very little moving into the modern era. It is still a living city that is, for the most part, contained within it original walls.
[Day 6-7, August 12-13] Our last two days of our trip were spent in Dubrovnik shopping and relaxing. We tried to walk to spots around the city where we hadn't yet seen. We did sign up for a "Game of Thrones" tour that walked us around the city to see the locations that were used for various and sundry scenes in the television show. That was neat to see, but our tour guide might possibly have been the most annoying person ever. We got dressed up and went out for a nice last dinner at a place call "Lady Pi-Pi" The meal was great. The name of the place is strange. We will give a full explanation on our post about food.
Our flight back home was also annoying. Remember, when you buy the cheapest tickets you are probably going to pay in other ways. Our flight from Dubrovnik left at about 9:00 PM. It went to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. We got there a little after 10:00 PM. Our flight to Frankfurt didn't leave until 7:30 AM. We were left with nothing to do other than find a quiet corner of the airport and try to get a little sleep. That was only a little bit successful. Once we got to Frankfurt, we had another long layover of 5 hours. Thankfully, the Frankfurt airport is very large and had many good options for a grand breakfast, our last meal in Europe. Our flight from Frankfurt to Philadelphia left at 1:00 PM and arrived at 4:30 PM. I think by about 6:00 we were both fast asleep!