Wandering Ancient Palaces – Split
Pedestrian-only streets paved in white marble, lively bars built within ancient walls, boats cruising the glittering Adriatic, old men strumming mandolins to the tunes of classic folk songs, what’s not to love about Split??
The Roman Emperor Diocletian seemed to agree. After 21 years of ruling the world’s largest empire, he decided it was time to cash in his pension and enjoy his golden years. He chose Split as the location for his retirement home and spent 10 years building a massive palace right on the sea. After Diocletian’s death in 313 A.D., Roman Emperors continued to retreat to this heavily fortified paradise across the Adriatic. Not a bad vacation spot, eh? The only problem was that the Empire eventually fell, and the palace was abandoned.
Having lived in Rome for a year, I’m used to being kept at a distance from monuments. These treasures of antiquity are usually preserved and protected behind glass panels, bars and railings. Not the case for Diocletian’s Palace. After the fall of the Empire, people from neighboring villages sought refuge in the palace and over the centuries, a city literally grew from within its walls. Markets, shops, art galleries, hostels, and restaurants flourish today within the architectural framework of the ancients.
Favorite Split Moment: while strolling the narrow streets after dinner, we stumbled upon a central piazza filled with people; naturally we planted ourselves on a marble step and took in the scene. It was such a mixture of culture and generations: little British kids running in circles and playing tag while their parents plan the activities for tomorrow, local teenagers awkwardly trying to flirt, old men chatting over a drink, street performers dancing to live music…I could have stayed for hours.
The following is a collection of my favorites from Split:
Croatian Islands – Done Right
Croatia has over 1,100 islands along its coast. So how are you ever supposed to choose which ones to visit?!? The lack of a personal yacht and the limitations of a seemingly random ferry schedule can certainly help narrow down the criteria. Still, with the sheer number of islands between Dubrovnik and Split alone, it’s tempting to chart out an island-hopping adventure to give you a little taste of everything. But the more I thought about it, the less the idea appealed to me. Like a meal consisting of only samples, I was sure that a “3-4 islands in 5 days” type of adventure would leave me unsatisfied and still feeling hungry.
So after much thought and deliberation, I determined it would be better to plant on one island and really experience it rather than spread ourselves too thin. And it was by far the best decision I made in those 5 days. We decided on the island of Korčula – best known as the birth place of Marco Polo. While Korčula town can be seen in a matter of hours, the island itself is massive with numerous hidden beaches and fishing villages waiting to be discovered.
We rented a scooter for three days (60 euro) and found just about everything Korčula had to offer: wine & grappa tasting in Smokvica, agritourismo dinners, the sandy beaches of Lombarda, stargazing in Zrnovo, discovering all the shades of turquoise & aqua at Vaja beach, tropical beverages on top of a medieval city wall, and the sleepy fishing villages of Račišće and Zavalatica.
These photos highlight my time in Korčula, with the addition of a few from Mljet Island (an easy half hour ferry ride from Korčula town).
Third Time’s A Charm
While preparing for my semester abroad in the Fall of 2006, I learned that I had a one-week break in September. Having already backpacked the majority of Western Europe, my first thought was “CROATIA!!” A newly independent nation untraveled and, better yet, unheard of by most Americans. Cheap and off the beaten path? Just my style.
My initial research started as it always does – a search on Google Images to get an idea of some of the natural wonders of the region. My search for “Croatia National Park” led me to this photo:
I took an overnight ferry from Italy to Croatia and spent that mid-September week exploring Split and Dubrovnik, hoping to take a day trip to see Plitvice Lakes National Parks. I should have looked better at my maps. With the limited time I had and the infrequent bus schedule during “low season,” I couldn’t get there. Disappointment.
Croatia Round Two – I had 3 days in Croatia at the end of August, 2011 and I put Plitvice Lakes at the top of my To Do list thinking that this time around the bus schedules would be to my advantage. But the downside of travelling in peak season is that you’re subject to peak season pricing. Croatia had been discovered and prices had skyrocketed in the booming tourist economy. To see that National Park I would have spent 5+ hours in the bus each way, for no less than 100 euro, no thank you. I opted instead to take a day trip to Mostar in Bosnia, an experience that moved me more than I expected. Still no waterfalls.
Croatia Round Three – I found myself approaching August, 2012 with a gaping hole in my work schedule. Most Italians take their 1-3 week vacation in August and head for the beaches; those who stay in Rome aren’t too interested in English lessons. I took the opportunity to head to the Balkans for 5 weeks, making Plitvice Lakes National Park my absolute #1 priority. It wasn’t easy to organize, but I’m happy to say that after 6 years, I finally made it to those waterfalls!!! And they lived up to their hype, see for yourself (and imagine their beauty & power in April when the water’s high):
Zadar, “Zara” for the Ancient Romans, is a small port town in the northern Dalmatian Coast. It is classically Croatian with blinding white marble streets, narrow alleyways, and charming cafes. The city is not exactly a “must-see” as the main attractions are few, but I chose to stay a few days to catch up on some reading, researching and relaxing.
I covered all the tourist sites on my first afternoon stroll through town. The cathedral, the ancient forum, the sea organ which hums a few notes with every passing wave…check, check, and check. And just when I thought I had seen everything, I stumbled across a fast food joint that made me do a triple take. Identical in logo, color, and slogan; this was a photo opportunity not to be missed.
The worker asked me something in Croatian. Having no idea what he said, I simply pointed to the name written on the awning and said, “very famous in the USA.” He laughed and responded in very broken English, “Yes. Google. Copy Paste.”
Without a doubt, the internet has made the world a smaller place. Because of it, we can now add In n’ Out to the list of Fast Food joints operating internationally.
No, I didn’t eat there. Tempted as I was, I didn’t think it would quite live up to the name.
Kids These Days
A Croatian Experience
The old man started his work as soon as the wheels of the 8am bus rolled out of the Zadar station. As he worked his way through the front half of the bus, I realized that his work day started 3 hours ago in Split and he still had 7 hours to go until Pula. Quite a long day for an elderly man, I decided to forgive him for his lack of warmth when asking me for my ticket. Without a word, he moved on to the person sitting next to me.
I know precisely 6 words in Croatian: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, wine and beer. Hey, I have my priorities. But I didn’t need fluency to gauge the gist of the conversation that unfolded between the ticket man and my seat-mate, a teenager in every sense of the word. It went a little something like this:
Yah. Look here. (holds up his computer with confirmation of online purchase)
Fine, but do you have a ticket?
Yes, it’s here. (Points again to computer)
No, I mean a ticket. Holds stack of bus tickets he’s collected from the front half of the bus.
Yes, look. See here? I paid using visa.
NO! A ticket must be on paper.
But here is the logo of the bus company, and a confirmation number of my purchase!
The ticket man, shaking his head and muttering under his breath, wrote down the boy’s confirmation number and continued to the rest of the bus. A half hour later, he came back with a receipt in his hand, nodding his head that the company confirmed via telephone that this crazy “purchase confirmation” was in fact valid. The boy is free to ride the bus without a fine.
Kids these days.
Italia mi ha rovinato – Italy’s ruined me
The next time you come across an Italian, ask about their experiences eating food outside of Italy and be prepared for a half hour rant about the horrors of foreign cuisine.
It’s a well known fact that Italians are masters of the culinary arts, and we love them for their ability to take an empty refrigerator and somehow come up with a mind-blowing first & second course meal. For the past year, I have had the pleasure of listening to many spontaneous lectures on topics ranging from “Pasta: the proper way to boil water” to “Food Pairing Nightmares: a sure and sudden death when mixed.” Seriously, just the thought of adding a glass of orange juice to your breakfast yogurt is enough to give an Italian a side cramp. Apparently acidic foods and dairy should NEVER mix in your stomach.
And when it comes to eating non-Italian cuisine, Italians are the worst. Food Snob or Picky Eater doesn’t even come close to describing their attitude toward foreign food. Plain and simple, taking an Italian to a restaurant outside of Italy is like trying to make a 5-year old eat caviar. A simple cheese plate appetizer in the fisherman’s village of Racisce, Croatia resulted in the following look of disapproval:
While he is a trooper and quite an adventurous eater for an Italian, I knew that it would be difficult to meet my boyfriend’s expectations when it came time to eating in Croatia. For that reason I did my homework, consulting and cross-referencing 3 different guidebooks as well as Trip Advisor – I was careful and deliberate in my research and was very excited to show my Roman that fish can be cooked well outside of Italian coastal towns.
What I did not consider was the fact that the authors of the books and internet reviews were all American or British – it doesn’t exactly take much to impress us. To a Brit, a gorgeous red tomato is about the best thing on earth. But that same tomato is finto – fake – to an Italian, lacking not only flavor, but also the proper texture and juiciness. The result of my hard work was 4 consecutive nights of looking at the same Italian face of utter disappointment.
But the incredible thing was that Eugenio was not alone. I found that I was also surprised at the fact that our grilled fish had been coated in salt and olive oil – fresh fish on a grill has a flavor so brilliant that it needs no seasoning. Why would they destroy that flavor with herbs and spices? Was it to mask the fact that the fish wasn’t fresh? Our scampi, squid-ink risotto, and calamari were all decent, but certainly not of the highest quality. Come on, this is Croatia! It doesn’t exactly take much to pull fish out of the Mediterranean. They practically jump into your boat, begging to be eaten! And don’t even get me started on the octopus salad, a staple dish on the Dalmatian Coast. We ordered it 3 times in 2 different towns – the octopus itself was usually good, tender instead of the rubbery texture you often find in the States. But after I finished the salad, I found myself with a mountain of red onion on the side of my plate. They put WAY too much onion in this dish, and it completely overpowered the flavor of the octopus. UGH!
Now wait just a minute…what am I saying?!?!? Too much red onion? Olive oil and salt to mask the lack of freshness? Here I am, in Croatia, reluctantly ordering from a menu with my fingers crossed, hoping that perhaps this time the dish might meet my expectations. Damn it – I am criticizing foreign food like an Italian!!!! Italia mi ha rovinato – Italy has ruined me. Am I ever to enjoy food outside of Italy again?
The answer is yes. The best meal I’ve had so far in Croatia was night #5 in Korcula. The restaurant: our studio apartment. The food: mussels, scampi, and spigola (sea bass) purchased by yours truly at 6am on the docks. The chef: my Roman. I suppose I better get used to eating better at home than I do in a restaurant.
Sixty Six Hours in Croatia & Bosnia
For many reasons, and I won’t bore you with the details, my original plan to have a 14-day Croatian adventure turned into only three days. I was in Dubrovnik five years ago, so my original thought was to spend my time sunbathing, reading, swimming and cliff diving. Good, old fashioned, rest and relaxation. But anyone who knows me well knows that I am incapable of relaxing. Katie Farrar put it best: “the only time you actually relax is when you sleep,” an observation made after living with me for a full year in San Francisco.
True to form, instead of working on my tan, I filled my days with two day trips: one to the gorgeous Mljet Island National Park and the other to the war-torn city of Mostar in Bosnia. My evenings were spent wandering around Dubrovnik, which turned out to be the perfect time since the cruise ships take thousands of tourists back to sea around 5pm. At the end of each day, I found myself mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted.
Dubrovnik and Mostar were both devastated in the early 90’s by the war following a declaration of independence from Yugoslavia. The stark contrast between these two cities post-war is mind-boggling and I have spent two weeks trying to make sense of it.
Considered to be the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” Dubrovnik rises proudly from the sparkling sea. It is the largest city on the Dalmatian Coast and boasts a spectacular late-medieval wall which you can walk in its entirety. The old town is anything but old; it’s like the entire city was cleaned with a pressure washer. It is pristine, shiny and new with its white marble streets and gray stone buildings. There are souvenir shops on every corner, and street performers who dazzle you with their tricks, in exchange for a few Kuna coins of course. Small alleyways lined with cute hanging lanterns and signs advertising today’s lunch specials, it feels like Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth. It is only after a conversation with any of Dubrovnik’s residents, that you realize this is a superficial band-aid covering a gaping wound. At first glance, it is hard to believe that this city was torn apart by war.
On the opposite end of this spectrum is Mostar in which very little has been repaired, rebuilt, or covered up. I would argue that Mostar rivals Dubrovnik in natural beauty with gorgeous mountains serving as a backdrop. The shockingly cold, emerald-green Neretva River cuts through the town, providing a geographic and symbolic divide between East and West. But the city itself still screams the echoes of the war, as if it were just yesterday; shrapnel and bullet holes scar the walls, over half the buildings on the main street are still bombed out. A downtown park was converted into a cemetery during the war because it was only here, under the protective shade of the trees, that people were able to bury their loved ones without being shot by a sniper. I have never seen war that up-close and personal, and it utterly silenced me.
Since my return, I have tried again and again to sit down and put words to the roller coaster of emotions I felt during those sixty six hours. I failed. I simply cannot do it justice. What I will say is that I was ashamed at my ignorance. To be so blatantly unaware of such terrible ethnic genocide that occurred less than 20 years ago, to have no knowledge that this war was fought not between armies, but between neighbors in the same community and of the same ancestry…it made me sick.
I will not attempt to write about the reasons for the war, nor will I choose a side. The history of the clashing cultures and religions is too complex to summarize, but I will continue to study this period in hopes of making some sense of it, if there is any to be made. I encourage you to do the same.