Saturday, June 26, 2010

Croatian Sensations and Unexpected Destinations

Kind Reminder:
I think this is probably the longest blog I have written yet to date, so go and get a glass of water and lets get down to business. Also, I'm writing this from Lithuania where I really don't have much time to write. In light of that, kindly ignore my wonderful array of run on sentences and grammatical errors. Thanks for your wonderful cooperation. Oh, and enjoy!

I mentioned at the end of my last blog that I was hoping to write about Croatia within the following 24 hours...well...that didn't happen. Since then I have been to Munich, packed up my life into a backpack, and have taken off to explore the world. Right now I am enjoying the comfort of Jimmy Jumps House (Hostel) in Vilnius, Lithuania. The hostel is actually run by a nice, friendly gentlemen who just so happens to be from Canada (no surprise there). I can see now that it will be difficult to keep up regular posts on my blog during this summer extravaganza. That being said, I will do my best to find a way to make it happen. My trip so far has been fantastic, and I am traveling now with Jason and Sean from Toronto and Edinburgh respectively. It probably need not be mentioned, but I will discuss all of these cities and adventures when the time comes. I'm committed to writing all my blog posts in chronological order because, as I have previously mentioned, I will be making all of these posts into a handy little book. When I arrive home I will also have a bundle of cities to write about which will elongate the blog I so lovingly adore.It all begins with a swift decision in the the city of Zadar, Croatia. The picture above is actually of Dubrovnik, but how we got there has a lot to do with this aforementioned decision. We exited the airport and were confronted with a slew of small huts that would change the fate of our trip. One of these mysterious huts had the sign "Petak Car Rental" on it - Bingo. We all looked into each other's eyes and the decision was made before we even knew there was a decision to be made at all. It was an incredibly good decision because it gave us the flexibility to explore Croatia on our own terms. Not to mention I was able to cruise through the Croatian villages with my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road. I can't tell you what a great feeling it was to be behind the wheel of vehicle again, as I truly missed the reliability of my wonderful car back home. For those who don't know I have a 1991 Honda Civic...Special Edition (Jealous?). It's white, it's slow, and it's known only as the "White Bandit". It was a name handed down to me from my brother's time with the vehicle, but it's fitting because it certainly steals your heart, and perhaps your money as well. Although I don't have a picture of my car back home, I do have a picture of the car that we drove all throughout Croatia. This picture was taken near a quaint Croatian town called, Puljani, Croatia. We actually ended up stopping here because we saw a sign that said "Vino," and we were all curious what Croatian wine tasted like.

We drove into Zadar to pick up Kaitlin who was waiting near the main bus station. Once our brigade was completed it would be Jon, Ellen, Aurel, Kaitlin and I. It turned out to be a great group of people to discover Croatia with. As a city, Zadar has been populated since prehistoric times which indicates the extensive history that the country withholds. As a country, ancient roman ruins can be found in cities such as Split and Zadar (we were lucky enough to witness both). Zadar is also surrounded by water, which is why it boasts a reputation as a beach city. In fact, Alfred Hitchcock agrees and states that the "most beautiful sunset in the world can be seen from precisely this spot on the Zadar quay". Obviously he is being quite specific in his estimation, but the beauty in Zadar is undeniable. After picking up Kaitlin we hopped on the highway with smiles on our faces in the hunt for Dubrovnik. We didn't have a map per say, but we did have some traveling intuition that we had all built from our extensive travels. The highway turned out to be well marked so we didn't have any real problems. I should mention that before we left from Zadar we purchased an item that would change the dynamic of the car. What I am referring to is located in the picture just to the left. Don't scratch your eyes - those are indeed boobs that are adorning the mirror of our car. Why in the world would anyone want to hang dice in their car when they could hang these? I suppose it was our immature (but amazing) purchase of the trip. In all honesty it was priceless to view the breathtaking Croatian landscape through the front window in a serious manner with these ridiculous items hanging from our mirror.

Croatia was an incredible surprise for me. Other than perhaps Norway (and of course Canada) I'm not sure I have ever witnessed such surreal beauty from a country's landscape. All this considering that it was only in the early 90's that Croatia was in a full fledged war. As we drove 8 hours through the countryside it seemed as if every time we would stop the locals would be in awe and wonder. Perhaps they were wondering why a group of tourists had blessed their town with a tourist stop, and maybe hoping further that it wasn't just a pit stop for a bathroom break. Nonetheless, we were sensitive to the fact that these people lived in these destinations despite the obscure location. We had a particular affliction with a town called Puljani (mentioned above). I can't tell you why really, but it was our flagship Croatian village for the trip. In this town we were also able to witness something quite interesting, or maybe bizarre is a better word. Although you can't see it well, there is a girl probably around the age of 10 driving a full fledged construction truck. I suppose apprenticeships begin a little younger in Croatia.

Our wish for Croatian wine was soon satisfied when we spotted a wine stand on the side of the road, thus leading Aurel to slam on the breaks. This inevitably left a beautiful skid-mark on the road ensuring that Croatia would never forget us. Shortly after Aurel's driving blunder we entered into Bosnia and Herzegovina, as we had to drive a considerable distance through this country to get back into Croatia where Dubrovnik was located. It was fantastic to cruise through the Bosnian mountains making me feel as if I was in the Gran Turismo video game within seconds. We had a musical soundtrack during these adventures as we stopped to buy some CD's while in Bosnia. The two selections couldn't have been more different and hilarious. The first CD we were to purchase was Ibiza dance-floor 2009-2010 and made our car rumble, well, like a dance-floor. The other CD provided a little more comic value. The CD was by a young talented artist by the name of Oskar Erotica. Well now that I have stopped laughing out loud I can inform you that he was probably the most horrific Bosnian rapper in the history of time, and that takes some talent. Some of his songs included consistent farm animal noises, while others were so great as to bless us with the sounds of the accordion. The CD shop that we walked into was essentially a massive collection of pirated CD's. There was literally not a single legitimate copy of anything in the whole store. Maybe regulation on piracy in Bosnia is a little bit less enforced.

We finally arrived in Dubrovnik which is an absolutely stunning city. Not only is it incredibly beautiful, but it is also distinct and unique. Each and every city is unique, but this city acts like the rest of the world doesn't even exist - in a good way. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and everybody knows how much I love those. Actually, I visited to my 20th UNESCO World Heritage Site today here in the Old Town of Vilnius. You can smell, taste, and see the history in Dubrovnik, which makes sense, as it was founded in the early half of the seventh century. Our accommodation also happened to be incredible. We stayed at Anna Guesthouse which essentially provided us with our own personal apartment for the 5 of us in Croatia. I would highly recommend this hostel to anyone who is traveling to Dubrovnik. Anna is also a extremely generous and welcoming person and was nice enough to let us park for free at her friend's house. I should probably mention now that the purpose, or at least inspiration, of this trip was to celebrate the 21st year that Mr. Jonathan Kriner has been alive. He decided upon Croatia and after some research it was a thumbs up. In all actuality Jon just walked into my room and politely informed me that I would be accompanying him to Croatia. Well, Birthday's generally mean celebration so as we stopped in Bosnia for CD's we may or may not have also stocked up on cheap alcohol. We decided to add some excitement to our life by purchasing a bottle of "Zadarski Marashino". The picture to the left is us praising it before we took a sip. I mean, it was clearly a desert beverage and it got a little harder to drink with each sip. But, nonetheless, I always enjoy trying something new whether it be food, drink, or just some kind of new experience. Trekking across countries at such a pace has really allowed me to try and experience something new each and everyday however insignificant. At the core of it all perhaps this is why I want to write a blog - to share and reflect on these experiences.

The clock was beginning to feel the pressure of a new day. Maybe it would be easier to just state that it was almost midnight. This meant Jon could now drink in America - If he was even within a few thousand miles of it. Of course he was not, and we all left our room and flooded into the main cobble stone street of the ancient city. As the great tower's bell rang out in celebration we all followed suit and crowded around Jon to wish him a happy birthday. I am still attempting to figure out how I will be able to surpass this birthday back in Canada in October, but it seems rather impossible. We headed off in search of noise really as there wasn't necessarily a receptionist desk to consult. We ended up going to a Sheesha bar to relax and enjoy some Balkan tobacco. It's not necessarily my cup of tea, but it's a great social tool to bring everyone together. Jon ended up taking a small nap at the bar and we eventually decided to find a little bit of a food on our way home. Everything seemed to be closed until we were confronted with a lone Croatian stumbling down the street. We inquired about food, thus he led us to a local tavern. This is one of those fateful events that ends up making my blog infinitely more interesting. It is also a strong indication of the incredible hospitality of the Croatian people. We arrived in a smoky tavern that was clearly a hotbed for the locals. The bartender informed us that they no longer served food, but did in fact have a great present for us. They proceeded to arrive with a literal chalice of Croatian alcohol informing us that we should feel free to indulge. The chalice is located in the photo on the left hand side. However, for me this wasn't the highlight of this adventure. As I began to interact with the Croatian locals it became evident that they were actually veterans of the war that occurred in the early 1990's. They told us that their gracious attitude was a result of the fact that now Dubrovnik was once again a place where you could live and flourish. At one point during the war I was informed that there was no food, water, or electricity and the harbour was littered with bodies. It is almost impossible for me to imagine such a scenario, as I am lucky enough to be born in a country like Canada. These people truly appreciated each and every day that they were able to tap into the essentials of life and avoid a war torn city. Dubrovnik was also such a stunning and wondrous city that it was even harder for me to imagine it being occupied. In the 1970's it was demilitarized to prevent such a catastrophe, but Yugoslavia erupted in war and Dubrovnik succumbed to it.

Our night was not quite over, however, as one more piece to the puzzle was added under surprising circumstances. We came across arguably the friendliest cat on the planet on our way home who I would later deem "Coconut" (I think it is because I was eating a bounty bar). After playing with him for a little while we ended up walking home. As we entered our humble abode, we looked behind us and noticed that he was still at our heels so we invited him up for a cup of coffee. In all actuality we didn't have any extra food or drink, and yet Cocunut still wanted to stay. We luckily had the freedom of our own apartment and were able to do this, although I am sure the woman who rented our place would not have been extraordinarily impressed. All that mattered is that Jon awoke as a 21 year old fellow with a loving cat curled up on the end up his bed. That cat actually really seemed to fall in love with us, and the love was mutual. I'm happy to have had this encounter now because I'm to understand that I now have two energetic kittens bouncing around my house back in Toronto. I'm jealous that I don't get to play with them, but at least I had Coconut in my life.

This was the type of trip where I literally want to post every photo on my blog. It turned out to be a beautiful day the following morning and I was able to snap epic photo after epic photo. We grabbed some delicious Croatian breakfast and then were off to explore a little more of Dubrovnik. We explored some of the more secluded streets which included some fairly ancient churches, and then decided we would walk around the fortified wall that had been surrounding the city for centuries. This gave us some excellent vantage points:
I figured these pictures would help to put the nearly indescribable beauty into perspective. We had a fantastic time gaining innumerable outstanding views of the city known only as Dubrovnik. It would be hard to imagine the best camera in the world being able to capture the feeling of the experience. We came down from the wall and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring all the crevices and alleyways that you can see in the pictures located above. That's the beauty of the city. It was extraordinarily compact which made exploring the city exciting and diverse. We re-grouped back at our hostel which was really more of our own apartment. From there we essentially followed the noise...surprise...we ended up at an Irish pub. We met more generous Croatians who were nice enough to buy us a drink, or perhaps more than one drink. From the bar we decided to move back to our hostel again. On our way we encountered another loving Croatian animal who was to be deemed "Dubrovnik the dog". He came back with us to our hostel, and we unwittingly left the door open, but this led to a rather interesting situation. This interesting situation was a result of Coconut following us back and encountering us cheating with Dubrovnik the Dog. We made a group decision and let Coconut stay with us for another night. Kaitlin wasn't to pleased about that because she had a particular affliction for the dog, but Coconut was our pet. We all ended up sleeping on the same bed (which wasn't that big) and woke up feeling like better friends than ever.

We walked back to our car the following morning on our way back to Zadar. We figured we would stop in Split on our way back because of its historic reputability. When I first arrived in Split I was confronted with a screeching noise, and then I found the culprit. It was indeed a peacock, and probably the first peacock that I have witnessed outside of the zoo. I managed to catch a photo that I figure couldn't capture the behaviour of peacock any better (Right). We got out of our trusty vehicle that we deemed "Kroner" out of love for the Norwegian currency, and so badly thinned all of our wallets. Split is also one of the oldest cities in the area, and is traditionally considered just over 1,700 years old. It then makes sense that we were confronted with ancient ruins in the old town of the city. We spent some time at the ruins for a little while, and then felt the rumble in our tummies that meant it was time for food. We ate some delicious Croatian cuisine then hopped back in our car so could hopefully make it back to Zadar before dark. We didn't make it back before dark, but when we arrived at our hostel it was brightened by the partying of a group of University students from Zagreb. Our initial intention was to relax even perhaps take an evening off, but the bustling students changed our mind fairly rapidly. They were immediately excited by the foreign influence and brought out the impossible...a 6 litre jug of wine. It wasn't the tastiest wine in the world, but it sure made the Croatians more excited and wild. We then headed off to the bar along the water that was near the hostel. This is all of us enjoying the company of the warm and welcoming Croatians (pictured left). From there we entered the bar where we met the legendary "professor". He was the professor of the group of these students and proceeded to a) get completely and utterly drunk b) make attempts on the nice young ladies we were with c) buy drinks for his students and us. All hail Croatian education!

The following morning was quite a sobering experience (no pun intended) because the volcano all the way off in Iceland had decided to destroy European air travel. We were generally informed about it thanks to Jon's mom, but this morning it became a reality. Ryan Air had canceled our only flight out of Croatia two days before my exam back in Norway. We had to make the best of our last day in Zadar so we went down by the water and enjoyed the weather. The highlight was eating some delicious mussels that were seemingly caught only hours before their preparation. It was delicious and we completely forgot about our problems for the time being. Reality struck again when we returned to the hostel, but then again not really. This is because instead of fretting we decided upon a plan and lay on the beach while reminiscing on great times. Tomorrow would be the start of the journey that would take us from Croatia to Norway without ever seeing an airplane. Our plan began with driving our rental car to the capital of Croatia (Zagreb). We planned to take the bus that was offered from Zagreb to somewhere in Sweden, but the problem was that we couldn't get our tickets online before we arrived there. At the box office we were sorely informed that we couldn't buy a ticket because the bus was full with a 5 day waiting game at stake. Did this stop us? absolutely no chance.

We fought our way down to the platform that was our ticket home. The first news we get is from a rather angry Croatian who yells, in a language that doesn't resemble English in the slightest, that without a ticket there was just no chance. Well, that just was not going to cut it at all. I made friends with a Croatian woman who essentially told the bus driver that we were part of her party and that we would pay on the bus. We bustled past the attendant, sat down, and crossed our fingers. When the bus finally left the station we all breathed an immense sign of relief. But of course traffic wasn't moving too fast because the rest of Europe was in as much of a panic of as we were. We were even stopped at the Slovenian border to have our passports checked and wait even longer, but at least we were off the bus for a little while. In Slovenia we had to grab another bus which essentially was an over-heated large wagon. It was terrible, but it took us to places like this (pictured left). This photo was actually taken somewhere in the Austrian Alps. In all, we had to go from Croatia then through, Slovenia, Austria, and Germany. From Germany we caught a ferry to Denmark. It wasn't quite over yet as we bussed all through Denmark into Sweden. Our ticket was to Malmo in Sweden, but we quietly stayed on for a few more hours until we arrived in Gotenberg. We were able to get there then grab a bus that would take us to Oslo. I ended up arriving in Oslo about 7 hours before my exam. However, I was so exhausted that I contacted the faculty that thankfully had my exam re-scheduled. Overall it was 40 hours, 8 countries, 3 buses, and the most legendary to return to Oslo in history. We started off with the intention of exploring Croatia - 8 unintended countries later we were home. I suppose that is the beauty of travel, good or bad, there is always an element of surprise.

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