I arrived at the main train station about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. The day was a bit gloomy with a light rain methodically drenching everything. The streets were wet and slick and setting out into the city without a map or idea where I was going didn’t strike me as overly appealing. Luckily there was a tourist information center in the train station. Unfortunately, the lady working there was anything and everything but helpful. I did manage to talk her out of a booklet that listed the Venetian hostels, but as luck would have it, the booklet just had addresses and lacked a map. After setting off on a short- lived foray I returned to the station and was about to request a map or directions to the closest hostel when Jordi and Brent – two guys I had met in Split and traveled to Dubrovnik with-walked in. They had just arrived from Rome on a similar train and had two Canadian girls they had met with them. We were all equally lost, but between my map, the semi worthless tourist info lady and their Lonely Planet guidebook we got a map and figured out which direction to head in. With map in hand we found our way to a hostel, only to find that it didn’t open to the public for another 40 minutes. We waited it out only to be told they were full for that night, but that they had space the following evening. The receptionist did recommend a 1 star hotel which was near by. We got 2 rooms. A double for the girls and a triple for us. All told it cost about the same as the hostel.

We washed, showered, got dressed and set out to explore the city. The city itself was a lot different than I remembered it. When I had been in Venice previously I remembered it as smelly, dirty and disappointing. My memories were of a city that had a few small canals but didn’t really resemble the city I had seen in movies. I remember being incredibly disappointed and for years have thought of Venice as a waste of time. My trip there this time was more because it was Halloween and I figured where better to pass the holiday than in the city that celebrates Carnival with such gusto.

Perhaps it was because of the people I was with, or the approach I took to exploring the city, but my views on Venice have changed drastically. I still think the city is a dirty, smelly hole for most of the year but with the fresh rains, cold air and the presence of a soft breeze in the afternoon the smells and grime were mostly washed away. That left a city that was much friendlier and encouraged exploration. I also found that there were a lot more canals than I had remembered, though I think it was because of the part of the city I was in. The area around the St. Marks square is without question a much drier area than the islands we stayed on and many of the other areas I wandered through. Our Hotel the first night was on a larger channel, the hostel the second night on a small one and the hostel the third night as accessed via a bridge over a small canal that took you straight to the door. The same canal then wrapped in a large semicircle around most of the hostel.

One of the things that stands out in my memory is the overwhelming number of Carnival masks. The masks are absolutely incredible. Some are shaped like large animal heads. Others are small and classic in design. Made from plaster, wood, paper mache and other materials I don’t dare guess. Some are decorated with bright colors and large feathered plumes while others are nothing more than eyes, a huge nose and vibrant jester’s colors.

The beautiful thing about it being an oceanside city is the fresh nature of the seafood. During our stay there were several days where the fish stands that were set up, seemingly at random, had a large spread of fresh fish and crustaceans. In many cases the shrimp and crabs were so fresh they were still crawling. The boats themselves having just dropped the fish off straight away after hauling in the morning’s catch.

While Venice is famous for its canals it should also gain a bit of praise for its bridges. After all, each canal needs several bridges and these bridges, while typically simple, add as much flavor to the city as the canals and boats that decorate them. From water taxis to overpriced gondolas the boats race throughout the city busily transporting everything from food and people to refrigerators and car parts. It’s odd in a way, as it feels like a body – more so than any normal dry city. The canals serving as the main arteries while the walking areas full of meandering pedestrians are the veins that disperse the city’s life blood.

I saw the famous sites, though the duomo was covered in scaffolding and fairly boring as a result the rest of St. Marks Square was in excellent form including the famous pigeons doing what pigeons do. It’s pretty neat seeing that many birds all in one place as they wrestle and fight for food. Though I have to say, for all the people that freak out and worry over things like the avian flu places like St. Marks make me laugh. Not to say that a vigilant eye isn’t necessary, but places like St. Marks really illustrate how easy it would be for things to spread if they were legitimate in a more global sense. With people covered in the pigeons, from head to foot, and the pigeons themselves literally walking over each other to try and get at the food on the ground it’s an odd experience on so many levels. Especially if you step back and ponder the greater realizations that can come from watching the behavior.

I spent Halloween in Venice. With my Canadian companions we set out to find our costumes. Making a pact to put them on right when we bought them and wear them until the end of the evening. The girls split off to shop and do what they do, while the three of us went and set to our business. Before long, desperate for something cheap we settled on dressing as gondiliers. Before I continue, I suppose I should note that my Halloween adventures were perhaps the most culturally insensitive antics of the trip. I was well aware of it and decided it was worth it for a bit of fun.

We found the striped shirts they wear as well as straw hats with the ribbon streaming from the back. I threw on a pair of black slacks and from there, when we finished haggling the price down to something dirt cheap, we headed to a small wine store. There we picked up a number of bottles and set to taking advantage of Europe’s liberal drinking laws. Dressed up and looking like idiots with wine bottles in hand we meandered the city exploring canals, alleyways, small shops and larger streets. The looks we received from locals and tourist alike were priceless. During the remaining two days we spent in Venice we bumped into a number of people that recognized us and I imagine we’re in a good number of photos. Given some of the attention we got, I think people may have enjoyed our antics more than they were actually enjoying Venice.

Eventually we met back up with the girls at the appointed time…it turns out that they had been on the same wavelength. They were dressed in the striped venician shirts, though they had skippers caps (think of the skipper from Gilligan’s Island). With a laugh and a few jabs back and forth we all set off to poke around the city a bit more. We explored the city, hitting up major monuments before eventually finding dinner and settling in at a few of the local bars. All in all the night was a blast.

That’s all for now. I also have some new photos up which I’ll try and link to soon.

Split, an Island, and a taste of Dubrovnik

Island of Broc - Croatia

The bus I caught from the waterfalls ended up being a regional slow-moving one. Its route took it down rural roads and through small villages. The up side of which was an exceptional view of the Croatian countryside. The downside of which was an added hour plus to the bus ride. After four hours on the thing my legs were cramped, I was tired, hungry, and anxious. The hostel I had reserved a spot closed their reception at 8PM unless you had e-mailed ahead, which I hadn’t as I fully expected to arrive closer to 5 than 9.

The city of Split itself is fairly large, much larger in fact than I expected. The old town however is tiny and ironically enough, much smaller than I expected. The good news was the bus station was located right by the ferry station/port and right next to the old town. I’ve hinted and flat out mentioned it before – but I suppose this is another prime example…I’m doing everything by the seat of the ol’ pants so of course I had no clue where the hostel was, lacked a map and only vaguely remembered the hostels name (it was easy after all…Split Hostel…I was in Split and it WAS a hostel…soo yeah go me).

Split - Croatia

I quickly found an over-priced internet cafe, paid for 10 minutes, printed a HORRIBLE map off their website and set off to find the place at a bisque pace (it was already 8:40). Split is a fascinating city, it’s also incredibly confusing – but more on that later. I wandered around, ended up completely overshooting where I was going and was thoroughly confused as to where exactly I was. I asked a local, who in the drop of a hat set to helping me find the place. He had recently started English lessons as was eager to gain a little experience talking to me. He wasn’t sure where the hostel was, but together we wandered around the heart of the old town for a few minutes. Eventually, he asked another local, who joined up and also set to helping locate the place. The newcomer split off after taking us to another square and seeing things were in hand. This left the original local and I to locate the small alley behind a magazine stand that led to the hostel. Relieved to be there and to have met such incredibly warm and friendly people, I said my thanks and wandered up the stairs to the hostel.

Roman Palace in Split, Croatia

Luckily the place was still open. I walked past the small courtyard in front which was full of hostel residents all gathered around drinking and getting to know each other. I then paid for my room, dropped off my stuff and set to introducing myself. I joined the others out on the patio and practically threw myself at the stool I was going to sit on. Collapsing in an exhausted, relieved heap, I introduced myself and as often occurs in a good hostel was immediately part of the group. We all socialized a bit, then all set off to a nearby bar. There we settled in and closed the place down, mixing, mingling and exchanging wild stories.

The next morning I’d dedicated to checking out one of the local islands. First though I started out by exploring Split a bit. Split (the old town) is an incredible city. Located beside the harbor it shows obvious signs of being a major tourist haven but has a more aged and historical feel to it as well. Home to arguably the last (or second to last) western Caesar it was once a beautiful palace. It has also served as a major fortification and general city. The old town itself is an odd mix of old buildings and marble-paved streets. The city is (IMHO) designed to be defended from military attack. The old city is tiny – a 5 minute walk will get you across it. However, it is a crazy mix of tiny streets, small squares, alleyways and stone structures.

Split - Croatia

The city is designed to both confuse and limit successful troop movement. Even if an invading force were 10 times that of the defenders they would easily become lost in the warren of small streets and alleyways. At some points only 1 person can walk down the street, while others allow for a spacious 3 or perhaps even 4. All the while invaders would be exposed to rooftop assault. Its often hard to tell if you are turning into a small walkway that will dead end, or a dead end that turns out to be the entrance to a large courtyard with 3 or 4 other exits and entrances. It took me quite a bit to figure out the lay of it and it was not until I started exploring every small, odd, tiny little crack in the walls that I truly got to explore the city. The streets themselves are made of a marble-like stone and washed every night creating a clean, uniform feeling to things.

Island of Broc - Croatia

Cats – Croatian cities have tons of cats. It’s fantastic and while the cats are arguably wild they are clean, well kept and well fed. I heard it rumored that they were partially there to keep the snake, rat, and pigeon populations under control. Many of the locals leave food out for them and the rest they catch and scavenge. As a cat lover, it was great having beautiful cats all over the place. In many ways cities like Split and Dubrovnik belong more to the cats than to the people.

Island of Broc - Croatia

After exploring Split and finding some food, I returned to the hostel where I bumped into 3 of the girls I’d talked to a bit the night before. They had missed their initial ferry and were preparing to catch a later one to a different (and closer island). I inquired about the island and their plans and they invited me along. It fit with my plans and seemed like a good idea so I grabbed my bag and out the door we raced. We caught the ferry and headed to the island of Brock. A windy and cold hour or so later we unloaded off the boat into a small town. I’d heard some of the other guys that had done the island the day before talk about renting a car or scooter. Eager to see the island and countryside the girls and I quickly decided to give it a try. For $20 each we got an automatic car for the day. One of the girls offered to drive and I took up the co-pilot’s seat map in hand. The island itself it turned out was…well an island and a small one at that, which, worked perfectly for us allowing us to see about half of it during the course of the day.

Island of Broc Coast Line

Our first stop was about 5 minutes outside of town along the coast. We raced down to the jagged stone beach and snapped a few photos before resuming our 7 km trip to the next town. There we parked the car and explored a picturesque little village with a quiet harbor. There were very few people around and no other tourists. The town itself was pristine. Surrounded by olive groves, vineyards, and orange trees it was nestled in a small valley. The harbor was framed by palm treas and the entire village was covered in pomegranate trees, kiwi trees and grape vines…all interlaced with beautiful red and sandy-colored blossoms on large bougainvillea type vines. Everything was in bloom and I was reminded of the old movies and sailors tales of island paradises where you could roam around picking fruit right off the vine while the waves gently rolled in. We walked about and I had the epiphany that kiwis actually grow on vine-like trees. Not really sure where else I thought they would grow, but…well…sometimes its the little details that get you.

We piled back into the car and started inland. The roads were narrow and wound through the countryside. The island itself is incredibly rocky and once you get away from the water only suitable for vineyards on terraced mountainsides and rugged olive groves. We wound up to a small village that the map said had a museum and an old castle. Upon arriving we found the old monastery locked and paid the admittance fee for the small museum. There a younger Croatian woman, who spoke incredible English, shared the island’s history with us…from its early greco-roman residents…to the Napoleonic wars when a Croatian commander sank several English war ships. Her eyes positively shone with love of country and history.

We left the old converted house and then realized that one of the buildings we had walked by – thinking it was another (though larger) house – was in fact the remains of the old castle. Most of it had fallen or been incorporated into other things but once you knew what you were looking at its original pedigree was unmistakable. As we took it in, an old Croatian lady that didn’t speak any English, came in and beckoned for us to join her. The castle as it turns out was her home and after walking us around it briefly (it was a tiny thing, no larger than a normal home in the states) she led us to a cellar-barn area full of large vats and with a small table set up. On the table there was an odd assortment of water bottles and old plastic coke bottles filled with two different substances. One of the substances was homemade olive oil. She poured us a spoonful to sample and the rich taste was fantastic. Then with a playful gleam in her eye she poured a sampling of the other – it was clear and in bottles with rosemary in it. Elegantly displayed despite being housed in an odd assortment of old water bottles. The first girl took a sip and immediately her eyes bulged and she began to cough. The bottles contained a local alcohol. I forget the exact name but its something like Rakleon. It tastes like rubbing alcohol (with a taste of rosemary) and definitely had a bit of a kick. We all tried both, then decided we could not/did not want to purchase the two. Only slightly disappointed she then asked if we wanted to try vino.

More manageable and eager to try a bit she walked over to a huge glass vase and poured a sample. The wine was a deep red. If you held it up to the light the sunlight would be hard pressed to make its way through. Deeply tasting of grapes but not overly bitter – or sweet it had a sound taste. The price for a 2 liter bottle was $4. As much because I wanted to repay her kindness (and salesmanship) as out of eagerness to try the homemade wine, the girls and I each picked up a two liter. The old lady was delighted, pouring from the huge vase into a funnel that filled the old plastic bottles. She then threw in a few ripe pomegranates for us to enjoy with the wine. Delighted we said thank you and left, piling back into the car and on a mission to find food. We wandered to the next village down which was the 2nd largest we had seen we parked the car again and found one of the only open food places we had seen. A small pizza place by the old harbor. We ate, then explored the town a bit. It was gorgeous and closely resembled the other, except that it had a soccer field and there were more people out and about.

Relaxing on Broc in Croatia

We made our way out and about once again winding up to a tiny town on a hillside with a small chapel. There we took a few quick photos, had a brief conversation with a mule, and then decided to head back towards town to eat our pomegranates and drink our wine. We found a spot, sheltered from the cold wind, on the protected side of the breakwater and dove into our pomegranates. Before long we were all sporting blood-red noses, hands, and stained mouths. The pomegranates and wine tasted great. With about an hour and a half left to kill we decided to explore the northern end of the island. Driving in a huge loop we wound up and toward the center of the island on tiny streets. Some were on the edge of small cliffs. At times it was a pretty exhilarating experience as the roads were tiny, the locals drove incredibly fast, there were no lines and the edge of the road ended with an immediate drop off the side of the cliff. In many places there were no guard rails and others lacked even so much as a 1 inch shoulder. The island was beautiful.

Roman Tower in Split, Croatia

Eventually we found our way back to the port safe and sound, put in a little gas and returned the car. We piled onto the ferry and headed back to Split. That night we all went out, watched the England-South Africa rugby cup then contented ourselves enjoying the evening.

The next day I spent relaxing, napping, hiding from the rain and exploring the city. My brunch was a rotisserie chicken and an apple purchased at the local outdoor market. The market itself was a fun mix of butcher shops, produce tables and florists. While most of the butcher shops were actually shops I did see one merchant with two halves of a sheep or goat laid out in the bisque morning air on a folding table. It’s definitely a wonderfully different world than back home. I hiked to the high point and overlooked the city, then meandered through the inner city a bit more. That night a good group of us got together and did the hostel thing.

As I talked to a few of the guys at the hostel we all discovered that we were heading to Dubrovnik at about the same time. We formed a small group (there were 4 of us) and made our way to the bus, then struggled through the 6 hour bus ride to Dubrovnik in the very south of Croatia.

I heard a lot of people compare Dubrovnik to Split but I found it to be very different. Surrounded by an intact old city wall, the old city itself was beautiful but more organized, cleaner, and I would say touristy. That said, time is up and my fingers are tired. I’ll tell Dubrovnik’s tale as soon as I get the chance to write another update.