Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mostar, Bosnia: The Most Brilliant Bridge

So I was supposed to head from Split to Dubrovnik and spend an extra day in Dubrovnik relaxing....but.....well.....you know me.  I decided to audible the plan at the last minute and head into Mostar, Bosnia, for a night (it's kind of on the way, therefore efficiency). I had heard the most incredible things about this city and I was thinking I might not get this chance again for a long, long time.

David clearly had no idea what he was getting himself into, because he decided to come along with me.

Again, it was a miracle we made it to the bus station and onto our bus - let's just say it involved me leaving my phone in the hotel room and then locking myself out of it and then walking down halfway to the station before I realized.  #hurricanewang.  ANYWAYS. All's well that ends well. 

What It's All About:
Mostar is a city in Bosnia & Herzegovina, about an hour away from the border. Coming here was incredibly surreal, because I remember being a kid and "Bosnia" being a really scary word - I don't think I understood exactly what was going on (ok, that's giving myself too much credit - I had no idea what was going on), but I knew there was some kind of war and it was not good.

The famous Old Bridge overlooking the city and bridging the two sides
There is a huge Muslim influence here, which is evident in the city's numerous mosques (which live alongside Catholic churches), and the city loudspeakers play the call to prayer 7x/day.  The city itself is absolutely beautiful - especially the riverfront - but even walking down the street, you see remnants of the war everywhere.  It's more than common to see buildings with shrapnel and bullet holes everywhere, or burned out shells of buildings sitting right next to new builds. It's crazy for me to see, and still very surreal. I mean, the war here was only 20 years ago, which is so recent.

A Brief History Lesson:
When Yugoslavia broke up, the Croats/Bosnians initially fought together against the Serbs - but then eventually turned on each other. The Western side of Mostar (primarily Croats) and the Eastern side of Mostar (primarily Bosniaks) were divided, and a lot of ugly fighting happened. I was wandering down one of the main dragways in the city, and it was said that you couldn't even walk down that street back in the 90's, for fear of being taken down by snipers. People would only go somewhere exposed to the open at night, and even then they had to wear all black, and run fast.  The bullet holes in some of the buildings are ridiculous - it's not just a couple here and there; it's literally everywhere on these buildings. You can get a small feeling of how insane it must have been.

Building riddled with bullet holes. These are everywhere; you don't even have to look hard for them
More bullet holes

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Got into town in the afternoon - after the Bosnian border control scared the living daylights out of David, as he was sleeping when they got on the bus and he was prodded awake by a Bosnian policeman (omg. hilarious.). We checked into our hostel (ironically named Hostel David), which is the best - our host immediately welcomed us with a snack of fried dough and a glass of blueberry juice.

 Blueberry juice and fried dough welcome snack

  • Walked on down to Old Town to see the Old Bridge (Stari Most).  The bridge is an iconic symbol of the city - it was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century and it has long been an incredibly proud point for the city and all the different ethnic/religious groups that have lived here (Muslims, Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, etc.).  Despite their differences, everyone embraced the bridge and what it stood for.  It survived for almost 500 years - even after Nazi tanks rolled over it during the war. When the Bosnian War went down, however, the bridge was shelled heavily - both because they were shelling everything, but also as a statement against a symbol of Muslim architecture. It ended up crumbling into the river below.  After the war, UNESCO and private donors raised almost $13M to rebuild the bridge the exact same way it used to be - they even used the same rock quarry and used the same technology/method of cutting the stone as the Ottomans did back in the day. It was completed in 2004 to a huge fanfare, and citizens embraced it just like their old friend beforehand. 
The Old Bridge (Stari Most)
View from the bridge - you can see at least 3 mosques in the background

David and me on the bridge. Just to prove we were there
  • Nowadays, you can still find youths jumping the 75 feet from the bridge into the icy river below: historically it was done to carry on tradition and as a way to impress girls (I would absolutely be impressed by this. Call me later).  However, looking from the bridge down into the water, I can't understand how anyone would be compelled to jump (it's SO HIGH).  The guys who jump even charge tourists 25 Euro to jump if they want to do so - for that price, they give you a brief tutorial on how to jump and a certificate of completion after you finish. We watched a professional guy jump earlier in the day, and he dove seamlessly into the water - barely even a ripple.  Then later, I saw a tourist making the leap - he hit the water so hard that the thwack it made was painful to even hear.  I was sitting on the banks as he crawled out of the river - he told his friends his entire body was burning. 
The tourist with arms outstretched is about to jump

The tourist jumping into the water. I can't believe people pay to do this. 75 ft = no joke

  • Later on, David went back to the hostel to rest, so I wandered around the Old Town for awhile by myself. As I was sitting on the riverbanks and dipping my feet for a bit, I met a couple from New Zealand, Cody and Gizelle - they've been traveling for 4 years (!) (my dream!?!) and were passing through Mostar. After chatting for a bit, we went and grabbed drinks at a cafe overlooking the bridge. It was awesome hearing about all their traveling stories, and I loved meeting them. So many people out there doing such interesting things! 

Cody and Gizelle - drink buddies
View of the city from drinks

CATS! Cats everywhere!

  • Later on, David and I got dinner and drinks in Old Town - there are so many cool bars in Mostar!  And with drink prices rock bottom, you could seriously just stay out forever.

Old Town and its cobblestone streets. Which are a death wish in flip flops, FYI.
The Old Bridge at night

Dinner of beef and rice, as well as the delicious local beer
Ridiculously awesome cave bar.  Never mind the complete lack of people.

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • Bosnia is not included in AT&T's international data plan, ever, under any circumstance - which they will not inform you of until after the fact. Consequently, they charge $20/1MB of data, which they will also not inform you of.  FUN, FUN FACT
  • Everything here is so cheap!!! Beers cost nothing, and my hostel was 10 Euro/night - which was accompanied by the most incredible guy running the place (Peeta, which is not how his name is spelled, but Hunger Games reference FTW)  - in addition to the welcome snack, I was sitting in the courtyard at night on the phone and he brought me a cold beer.  And then he personally cooked breakfast for everyone the next morning (though he did not own a bakery - another Hunger Games ref, WIN). AMAZING.
  • Buses in Croatia charge you for each piece of luggage you bring on board, which typically costs around $1. Also, the seats recline SO, so far back.  And as I type that, the guy in front of me currently has his seat reclined so far into my personal space that my laptop is scrunched up on my lap.  And while we're on the topic of buses, every long-distance bus I've been on here has stopped multiple times at rest stops - however, the bus driver will start up the bus again and just take off without any warning, head-counting, or even checking to see if everyone made it back. No nonsense; just the way I like it. I've taken up the habit of always asking how long the break is before I get off the bus, because I have these visions of clutching an ice cream in the middle of nowhere as I watch my bus take off into the distance.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Split, Croatia: I've Made it to the Coast!

I arrived in Split Saturday evening - walking from the bus station to my hotel, my first thought was that it was so warm. The sun was setting as I was walking along the Promenade, and it was so pretty. It finally felt like I was on a tropical vacation.

Split, you are so attractive. And warm.

What It's All About:
Split is a coastal city, the 2nd largest in Croatia after Zagreb. The city is super interesting because back in the 4th century, the Roman emperor Diocletian built his ridiculously large palace here - after the palace was abandoned, the locals moved into the palace walls and built their homes, lives, etc. inside the palace walls. Then the Venetians moved in and added on. So it's this crazy city where half of the "Old town" is still inside the former palace walls. The people who moved in built their own structures with the rubble from Diocletian's former palace - so it's this interesting combination, bc you can still see the super super old-school Roman palace, but now it's filled with tiny winding cobblestone streets and homes and Venetian architecture. 

Walking down the Promenade, you can still see parts of the palace mixed with newer buildings - the atmosphere kind of reminded me of South Beach (waterfront, outdoor cafes, street performers, palm trees) only with a ridiculously ancient old-school Roman palace throwback.  

Promenade at sunset.  Doesn't this feel just like South Beach!?

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • After I checked into my hotel, I spent a couple hours just roaming the streets. It was so ridiculously peaceful and nice.
    Split Cathedral
  • The next morning, I took a walking tour - the tour guide spoke a million miles a minute, and her accent was very heavy, so I estimate I picked up about 30% of what she said. Things I did pick up include 1.) Diocletian was kind of a tyrant. His palace is HUGE and so intricate and it only took 11 years to build bc he used 3,000 slaves. 2.) I think he also persecuted Christians? Yes, that's definitely right. 
    Just hanging out in the old palace square
Old palace walls still in tact. WITH A MINI CITY INSIDE
Acapella groups sing in the former domes bc of the great acoustics
Tiny cobblestone alleyways
  • After the tour, I went to lunch with my new friend David, who I'd met the night before in our hotel lobby. David is originally Irish, but now works as a yacht captain doing private charters on fancy boats for rich people (I'm paraphrasing here). He's been based in Split, and happened to have the week off.  We went to lunch at this delicious spot called Fife - huge seafood portions for a reasonable price.  Afterwards, we hit up the beach - we went to a local one vs. the super touristy one, and it was nice and not-so-crowded. We sat on the beach, drank beers, and traded stories - I got to hear about some of his yachting customers and stories, which was so fascinating. In case anyone was wondering, his life is kinda-sorta-but-not-really-at-all like the Bravo show "Below Deck." Because obviously, I asked. You're welcome.

Our tiny local beach
My new friend David; walking along the harbor back from the beach
  • That night, we had dinner in a courtyard near our hotel (there are so many courtyards in Europe! I might now start to shun places where i can't sit under the stars #spoiled), then went for drinks at a couple local spots. It was overall a nice, vacation-type day that I thoroughly enjoyed. 

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • Apparently you can smoke in bars here. Like, inside. It's cray. Does anyone else remember being little and going to a restaurant and having them ask if you wanted to sit in the smoking/non-smoking section? Throwback Monday, y'all.
  • Split is a big transit hub - from here, you can take ferries out to all these islands (the most popular of which is Hvar). If I'd had more time, I 100% would have taking a boat from Split, through all the islands, and down to Dubrovnik. Darn you, tight schedule *shakes fist* 
  • Croatian and Slovenian have the same word for "thank you." It's hvallah (another fun fact, I spelled that purely phonetically), which is easy for me to remember because I just think about shouting "voila!" to everyone, like I'm unveiling something super great 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia: Magical Waterfall Heaven

Omg. So before I planned this Eastern European excursion, I'd never heard of Plitvice Lakes before. However, Rick Steves recommended it, and anyplace Rick loves, sign me up.

I took an early evening bus out from Zagreb to Plitvice last night - it's crazy because the bus literally just drops you off on the side of the highway.  Plitvice Lakes is a national park, so I had chosen one of the three hotels that are actually situated inside the park: especially handy if you don't have a car.

OK. YOU GUYS. YOU HAVE TO COME HERE. OR LOOK IT UP. LOOK, I'll even do all the work and post a link here for you to click on so you can see how magical this place is. 

What It's All About:
Plitvice Lakes is a series of 16 terraced lakes - and not just small, wimpy lakes. Like, any of these lakes by themselves would be a major tourist attraction - but THERE ARE 16 OF THEM. Not just lakes (which are a gorgeous, clear, Cancun-like, green/blue color), but also waterfalls. Hundreds and hundreds of waterfalls (ok I may be exaggerating - maybe like dozens). DOZENS OF WATERFALLS.

The entire park has a series of winding wooden bridges and forest-paths that let you wander through the lakes.  I loved it because you follow these different winding paths/hiking trails, and sometimes you come across baby waterfalls, and some paths take you up high so you can overlook the falls, and some paths walk directly over the falls. Some areas are full of other people, and some paths are quiet and peaceful and deserted.  It's the kind of place you can take 3 hours to hike, or 8 hours.  

I'll stop talking and just start posting photos of this magical waterfall-land.

Cliffnotes of the Day (photo version):

Seriously, how many waterfalls can you spot in this pic? And to give an idea of scale, you can see
a tiny little footbridge snaking through the middle left of the screen
MILLIONS OF TROUT. Because the water is perfect
The "big waterfall" (I did not name these)

Everywhere you turned there was a waterfall

The lakes are divided into an "upper half" and a "lower half" - in between the two halves, adorable tiny boats will take you across the largest lake to the other half
Riding the boat across from the lower half to the upper half

It was like this rock had too many waterfalls to handle
A trail that took you to the top of a hill overlooking one of the lakes

Is there a more perfect place to eat a pear? (obviously stolen from the hotel breakfast)

Looking down on one of the little wooden footpaths + tiny ant people + waterfalls
Seriously Jurassic Park-esque  

It was, hands-down, one of the most naturally stunning places I've ever been. It was like a labyrinth, where every 2 seconds, you would come across another set of waterfalls. Unlike Iguazu Falls, where there's just one huge section like BAM HERE ARE ALL THESE AMAZING THUNDEROUS WATERFALLS IN ONE PLACE, Plitvice is more like a maze - you can choose any one of tons of trails to hike, and each one has its own set of falls. I got up at 7am to explore the park before the tourist day-trippers all arrived - you know that means it's serious.

Moment of the Day:
I had arrived in Plitvice the night before, intending to check into the hotel and crash (given my 5:30am wake-up that morning to catch the train to Zagreb). However, I had heard that a perk of staying at one of the hotels in the National Park was that you could buy a ticket and they would give you a stamp allowing you to return the next day for free.

I wandered on down to the ticket office with the intention of buying a ticket so I could get it stamped for the next day, in order to avoid the ticket office lines the next morning. However, upon purchasing my ticket, the information lady clearly thought I was trying to go to the park that same day, so she looked at her watch (it was 6PM) and goes "You go to the park now. You have time. Last boat is at 8:30. Follow signs for Trail H", and shooed me on my way.

I didn't explain to her that I'd intended to go to the park the next day - I was thinking that it couldn't hurt to wander the park a little, so I got on the shuttle bus - and that is how I ended up exploring Plitvice on my own for almost 2 hours.  It. Was. Perfect.  It was so close to closing time, that the crowds had left the park for the day and there was nobody there; I was the only one on the 5-car shuttle bus - and the entire time I was wandering the park, I maybe came across 3 other sets of people total.  In high season, the park gets over 13,000 visitors a day (mostly local visitors) - so to be able to wander the park and feel like I had the whole thing to myself was such a treat.

No people also meant I could take as many selfies as my heart desired

These are the tiny wooden footpaths you follow. This should be a cover photo to something #magic

Plitvice at dusk

Is this real life

2 hours later - I was the only one on the boat back!! It was like my own private tour

Meal of the Day:
In the National Park, there are fairly few dining options. My hotel's restaurant was closed for the night (since it wasn't high season), so I had to go to the hotel across the street for dinner. I walked in kind of gross-looking, having just come from my personal 2-hour hike and having been on a train beforehand.  The hotel restaurant was clearly more upscale-ish than I was expecting, as they had white tablecloths, cloth napkins, and waiters in suits.  It was hilarious, me sitting there in this fancy restaurant with yoga pants, a tee-shirt, tennis shoes, looking like a hobo - like a hobo at the Ritz.

Fancy risotto + yogz pants

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • The bus station for Plitvice, as mentioned earlier, is just off the side of the highway. When I was leaving the park to head to Split, I had to watch out for my bus and wave it down from the road.  That was an interesting time.
The Plitvice "bus station"

  • Then, on my 4-hour bus to Split, we had a bunch of rest stops on the way. On one of them, I got off the bus to buy an ice cream (naturally), and went for a little walk around the market to find this rando deer farm tucked behind the center.  

Deer farm??  There was even a rando goat inside 
The Hotel:
In Plitvice, I stayed in the least expensive of the three hotels in the park - Hotel Bellevue.  This hotel, according to reviews, was a pre-Soviet hotel - and not much has changed since. It was wild. Orange walls, carpet, and wood paneling as far as the eye can see.  I kind of liked it - the people there were no nonsense, and I kind of felt like I was living in a theme park. The best.

Bellevue Hotel

Even stranger, my "single" room had 3 beds

Orange hallways

Long story short, I loved Plitvice and it always blows my mind how many places there are like this; places that the locals know about, but that we never know exist.  Also, I would like a smidge of credit for consolidating my 10 million photos of the park into a mildly photo-heavy blog post.