Your humble traveler is back from an amazing two weeks of constant travel in the Netherlands and Croatia. I initially flew to Holland and from there found myself in the old communist heart of the eastern Europe, Zagreb in late april. From there I flew to the historic city of Dubrovnik on the south end of the country of Croatia. Attached are some photos of the journey. The narrative below covers some of the highpoints of the trip.
The water behind the castle walls in Dubrovnik was in the 50s but I donned my wetsuit and snorkeled outside the walled city while people in a bar on the outside of the fortress gawked and took photos of the idiot American swimming for dear life.
In the evening after a day of touring the walled old town of Dubrovnik, I walked 3 km to my headquarters at the Hotel Zegreb in the nearby town of Lapad. After a hot shower I ate an amazing meal (the Croatian food and wine is really superb and fairly priced). Then I walked to a bar near my hotel called Insomnia. There I met some young people. They were friendly and spoke amazingly good English. They were students. Every one of them smoked like a fiend and drank wine as fast as they could. They had no memory of the war Croatia faught with Serbia. The reason? They were born the year the war ended, 16 years ago in 1996!!!! They claimed the bar owner who was sitting laughing with some other customers at the next table knew they were minors. I shook my head. After a while I had them all cough and they all sounded like TB victims in a hospital ward!
No amount of lecturing on the evils of smoking would stop them. "we are lucky our parents survived the war and are lucky we were born, we don't care...." was their macabre view of life.
The next day I caught a long distance bus and travelled north up the coast to the country of Bosnia and saw how poor the former communist east really can be. From there I continued up by bus to the amazing city of Split, Croatia where Diocletian's palace is in the center of it all.
The palace is a giant walled mini-city where 3000 people and hundreds of shops and bars exist within the 1700 the year old walls. The streets are paved with marble and wind endlessly through little courtyards full of shops, people's laundry and bars. It's literally a maze of shops and little walkways and alley ways that go in all different directions. Finding your way is impossible. There I spent two days never knowing where I was but always enjoying getting lost. The place is so confusing that I once asked directions to "charlies bar" which turned out to be only 30 feet away on the other side of a wall, but no one knew the right 3 foot wide street to take to get there! Lot's of backpackers come here and I met plenty of them, swapping stories and plotting their next stop.
The next morning I headed to the ferry docks and bought a ticket to the Island of Brac (pronounced "brach") on a car ferry. The island is huge with mountains and isolated blue water beachs behind every turn. I took a 1 hour bus ride over the mountains to the west side of the island to the village of Bol. It's heaven on earth and I sat gaping at the endless blue of the Adriatic sea and drank enough beer to gain the courage to swim in the shallow blue water. I swam and looked for old coins and other artifacts but didn't find anything. They said their church was "only" from the year 1475 and therefore the place wasn't considered old by the locals....go figure.
If you got to croatia get a local sim card for your phone and send post cards. The post offices change money, sell sim cards and stamps and are the most efficient post offices I've ever seen. I sat in a resturant after a day of swimming in the freezing water of Bol and devoured an enormous plate of shrimp and spinich pasta along with a half-liter of wine. On the bus to Bol I had met a french couple traveling to Brac for the day with their two small children and we sat in the restuarant and agreed that Brac is the best place on earth. My next trip I will fly straight to Split, take the ferry to Brac and from there take ferries directly to the other nearby islands of Hvar and Korcula. The villas along the pedestrian prominade in Bol are to die for, with a view of mountains behind them and the blue water and endless pepple covered beach in front. The weather was in the 70s but in July they say it turns in the Florida style hot weather so May is the best time to visit.
The next morning I awoke and reluctantly took the morning bus over the mountains to Stari Grad ("old city" in croatian) to catch the ferry back to Split. Goodbye Brac. The chaotic port in Split was full of thousands of Italians and other Euros who had taken ferries from Italy accross the adriatic sea to Split.
I rarely saw americans and after seeing that the Croatian "Kuna" had doubled in value against the sick U.S. dollar in the last 5 years I found out why: in dollars things are expensive in Croatia. The answer is simple: just think in Euros and viola.....everything seems inexpensive!!!!
I took a train the next morning from Split to Zagreb...a seven hour grueling journey that involved getting off the train half way to Zagreb because the tracks were being repaired. A bus took me through empty lands and endless valleys with bombed out villages. The homes in every village had machine gun bullet holes on the side and blown up roofs and no occupants. I met a U.S. guy from Atlanta named Tom who became a church missionary when his tour with the U.S. army ended 6 years ago and he told me the grim tale: toward the end of the war, the Croatians forced all the Serbs and Bosnians to leave the country and that's why so many homes were empty. As we drove along the empty countryside we saw occational farmers fields.
"Look at that sign?", said Tom. He pointed to a big red skull and crossbones sign in Croation.
"Yes," I answered.
"That's a warning about a mine field", he said grimly.
"How do they know there are mines there?" I inquired.
"Well look at that cow," he pointed. By God, the cow only had THREE legs. "There are lots of people with only one leg or arm in this country", he said.
I shook my head. The mine fields were on each side of the tracks and under the power lines. He said they are clearing the mines, but it takes time and a lot of guts to do it. Jesus, I won't complain about anything in Tampa for a while! He said a lot of young people were leaving the country for opportunities elsewhere and that at least housing is cheap. You can buy an enormous house in Croatia for $50,000 in the countryside.
That afternoon I rented a private room in Zagreb. It was along a tram line and near things to see; But it looked like a movie set from a soviet era Moscow movie. Graffiti covered all the walls of the grim soviet era apartment buildings throughout the city and people all walked with a determined grim look smoking filterless cigarettes and never making eye contact; even with a big smiling crazy american in short pants wearing a ridiculous hat. In one hand I held camera and the other I held an open copy of "Lonely Planet-Croatia". Yeeehaaaaa. Cracker.
That afternoon I was starving and found myself in at number 49 Ilica street drinking dark 7% beer and eating potatoes and some unknown meat (don't ask i figured-it was better for all concerned!)
After a while I met two 22 year old students. One was named Srecko. They were studying computer engineering. The two guys lived with their parents and went to church every other sunday and had never been overseas. However, they were super nice and their english was good. They let me buy them a few liters of strong beer. We sat in a tree covered courtyard and in a beer filled haze I glanced around me at the groups of locals, drinking and smoking, looking much older than they were. The two guys did NOT smoke however and were filled with curiosity. "are you a typical american?" one of them asked. "Well, I don't know, but go to america and find out for yourself", was my answer. They were such nice young people I couldn't help but feel optimistic about Croatia.
When I entered the bar I was amazed that even though the weather was hot (80s) everyone had coats and sweaters..why, I thought. I asked the guys and they said, "Look man, this is eastern europe; the weather can change at any moment."
As if on cue the wind blew and the temperature dropped by 15 degrees in minutes. It started to rain a bit and I had to retreat inside the building. They laughed at me,"Do all americans wear shorts all the time?"
The next morning I returned to Amsterdam and spent the next three days biking and enjoying the canals and museums and friendship of the dutch. I barely got a flight out on Delta to detroit because the plane was so full and I was flying standby.
It's good to be home.