Friday, October 25, 2013

Field Guide to Dubrovnik

Here’s the thing. Dubrovnik is stunning, almost dreamlike. It's no wonder they film scenes for Game of Thrones here. It’s also a tourist trap. We knew that we’d probably end up eating at overpriced, mediocre restaurants and pushing through tourists from every nation on the Stradun, or main street. But you know what? It was worth it.

Of course, there are a few things you can do to escape the crowds and get a real, beautiful, and fun experience in Dubrovnik. If you get the chance to escape for a few days there, here’s what I’d recommend.

Rent an apartment.

Dubrovnik isn’t known for high hospitality or swanky hotels. So for the first time ever, we booked an apartment from airbnb. Ours was right in the middle of Old Town, within the old medieval gates. This gave us a chance to make our own breakfasts (which we didn’t do often, but we should have) and stay inside the oldest part of the city.

If we ever go back, I’d probably choose a flat down a quiet side street—silly me, this time we stayed right off the Stradun. The first night we were there, I woke up to drunk teenagers singing Croatian folk songs at 3 a.m. Not good for someone who had been traveling for 24 hours and needed her sleep!

But the coolest thing about the apartment we stayed in? It has been in the owner’s family since the 17th century. It was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1667, but still has all the charm of a quaint European flat: exposed wooden beams, white stucco walls, and stunning hardware.

Kayak the Adriatic.

This wasn’t on my original to-do list for Dubrovnik, but when I realized that this may be my only chance to kayak the Adriatic, I signed us up. We registered through Adventure Dalmatia before we even left the States; just a quick email and we were done. We chose the 9 a.m. venture, just so we could get back by lunchtime and still have a full day to ourselves. I suppose everyone else thought that was too early, because we ended up kayaking with one lovely British couple and our local guide, Mario. On top of that, boat traffic was minimal at 9 a.m., so we didn’t even have to deal with that as we crossed the harbor. (Later that day we watched kayakers compete with terrifyingly fast speedboats to get across the water.)

Local guides are the way to go, I’ve learned. Even if you’re part of a tour group, there’s nothing better that speaking to local folks who know the land, the culture, and the history. Mario showed us around, told us some local legends of Lokrum Island (how true they are, I don’t know), and even talked about how his parents still feel about Montenegro and how local schools don’t teach about the war. It was really fascinating to talk to someone about this stuff, instead of reading poorly translated museum labels or Wikipedia pages. 
The wind was so strong that morning we couldn’t go all the way around Lokrum Island, as originally planned. Honestly, this was probably the best thing that could have happened to us. We are NOT kayakers, I have learned. It was HARD. Our companion kayakers nearly quit on the way back in. I’m so glad we did it, but I’m also so glad it’s over.

Eat octopus salad.

Okay, I wasn’t going to do this either, even though Rick Steves recommends it. It wasn’t until Mario said we just HAD to try it that I swayed. Jon and I found a seafood restaurant in a guide book, discovered that there were six other people waiting in line to get in, and figured, it must be good. And it was! Grilled chopped octopus paired with fresh tomato and cilantro and a dash of lemon juice. It was light, a little chewy, and delicious. I’m probably not brave enough to make this on my own, so I’m glad we were able to enjoy it in Dubrovnik.

Relax at Sveti Jakov Beach.

It was a hike to get out here, but so worth it. There’s a beach very close to Old Town called East West, but it’s basically a party beach. Loud music, drinks, and tons of people. That’s not really our scene.

But if you walk out of Pile gate and down the road along the coast for about 20-30 minutes, then take a sharp right at a church, and climb down more stairs than you’ve ever seen in your life, you’ll arrive at Sveti Jakov, or Saint Jacob’s Beach.

It’s a small beach, and on a Sunday afternoon, there was no one working the bar. You’ll find more pebbles than sand (ouch!) on your way to crisp blue water. There were a few families playing in the surf, and a few couples lounging in the sun (just one without a bathing suit on, although I’m pretty sure this ISN’T a nude beach). Locals had anchored their boats just off the shore. It doesn’t get much better than views of Old Town Dubrovnik across the sunny Adriatic, away from the crowds. If you’re trying to get some relaxation in on your holiday, this is definitely where I’d go.

Watch crazy Aussies jump in the Adriatic while you sip a drink at Buza.

We mostly stumbled into this little bar one afternoon. If you go, try to get a seat at against the railing, where you’ll get the best views of the ocean. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a crazy Aussie climb up the rocks and jump 50 feet into the sea. You never know how fun it is to be surrounded by strangers cheering on these kids in every language until you’re in that situation.

Climb the medieval walls. Use your pass to climb the medieval walls to visit the old fort.

The city walls are definitely the most touristy thing on my list. Even though we got up there early in the morning, we were already fighting crowds. It’s hot up there—there’s no shade—and while there are spectacular views of the city and the sea, I wouldn’t say it’s worth elbowing your way past gawkers who stop and stand in front of you. Instead, use that ticket to visit the old fort, just outside the Old Town walls.

I don’t think most people realized that there tickets worked at the fort too, because the place was nearly deserted. We got to mosey around, take photos out old windows. There’s not much to do there other than take in the view, shoot photos, and relax, but it was lovely to get away from everyone else.

Watch the sun set over the Elefiti Islands from Mount Srd 

I don't have the fondest memories of this because I was battling an awful migraine, but it was beautiful.
When Napoleon seized Dubrovnik in 1808, he built a fort at the top of Mount Srd. It was later bombed during the fall of Yugoslavia, and parts of the building still showcase bullet holes and crumbing stone bricks. It now survives as a museum to the War of Croatian Dependence, and we stood on the roof to watch the sun settle into the horizon.

Notice the small details. 

They're everywhere. You just have to look for them. Like a pink letter box, and open window, or old fishing nets left on the dock. 

What do you think? Did I miss anything? I'll post more photos from the rest of our trip (Bosnia and Hungary) soon. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hello, spring!

The forecast might still call for snow, but darn it, today's the first day of spring. I'm celebrating with a sweet little desktop wallpaper.

Click here to download. Use it on your laptop, iPad...whatever strikes your fancy.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

let's go get lost in the rain

On this misty, dreary day, I'm getting nostalgic.

Nearly three years ago Jon and I honeymooned in Italy. This was right around the time that unpronounceable Icelandic volcano errupted, and although our flights weren't canceled, the weather was cold and rainy for the entire trip.

But you know what? Some of my favorite memories were made in the rain. And at some places, it just seemed right. Maybe, like Owen Wilson's character says in Midnight in Paris, some places are particularly beautiful in the rain.

I can't imagine visiting the Tivoli gardens in sunshine. On that muddy May day we dodged puddles and danced between the raindrops--and enjoyed some quiet time since the weather cleared out many of the other tourists. The rain made Tivoli special, just for us.

There were still a million tourists at the ruins in Rome, though.

And then, of course, the rain followed us to Florence, and then to Venice. Rain or shine, you just can't diminish the beauty of Italy.

We managed to get a few lucky breaks, though.

Especially in San Gimignano.

But the rainy weather seemed fitting in the city of water. Yes, this is a gondolier on his iPhone. When he wasn't talking on it, he was texting.

Even if it meant this little European kid couldn't fly his kite.

What other places are better in the rain? Paris? The English countryside? You tell me. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!

Today I resolve to make things happen.

To be bold and do what I love to do.

To take action and embrace setbacks.

But also to relax, live in the moment, and enjoy quiet.

To love more and regret less.

To be grateful and sincere.

What changes will you make in 2013?