By the time I got to Split it had started to rain, putting the damper on my plans to wander around the old town at night. Instead I just sat around my dorm room talking to an Argentinean research scientist who works in Germany on biomaterials. Again I was in private accommodation, taken in a by a woman who always (a) called everyone "love" and (b) had a cigarette clutched in her fingers. I don't think I ever saw her without one. Croatia has the highest concentration of smokers yet, beating Greece and Italy. I'm not sure why I'm noticing smoking here so much; probably because I'm spending more time sitting inside cafés than before (colder weather + better coffee). I don't particularly care if people smoke, believing that any adultish person with a sentient brain should decide for themselves how they want to live their life. Maybe it's because every generation over ten years old is doing it, not just geezers in bars. Someone needs to start a lung cancer campaign here.
The translation of Old Town into Croation is Stari Grad, so there are stari grads everywhere. Like Springfields in America. The stari grad in Split is Diocletian's Palace, a walled city built by Emperor Diocletian from 295 to 305 as a place to retire after persecuting Christians and making martyrs (remember Saint Euphemia?) I know I just wrote that old towns were starting to bore me, but Split managed to hold my interest. As Croatia's second biggest city, it's more lively that its little sister stari grads, and a modern city has sprung up around it. Walking around on a rainy day in the off season gave it the feel of a city humming with regular daily routines, rather than a sucking tourist vortex. Just, you know, with Roman and medieval buildings. The mazy streets are good fun to get lost in, discovering little bookshops and cafés squirreled away in corners and courtyards. Admiring the architecture isn't easy, since the streets are so narrow; I kept having to remind myself to look up, doing my best turkey caught in the rain impression. Since the rain that was falling was quite cold, by evening I had purchased a cheap pair of gloves, a cheapish toque, and a shawlish scarf, all for 130 kuna. The scarf was sort of a splurge purchase, because I thought it was more pretty than functional. I've already trashed it a bit, but its proven its snuggliness in cold weather more than once so far. If it keeps me warm until California it'll have served its purpose. Also a waterproof covering for my rucksack, which is almost more important, since the rucksack itself isn't waterproof. If I get caught in one rainstorm without a covering, everything near the outside surfaces will get wet, and having a pile of soggy things to sort out in a hostel is a royal pain.
I never figured out why, but a few statues in Split were all wearing red ties.
The treasury of the cathedral is full of saints' bones. Probably why dogs aren't allowed inside. I'm always curious how different places and countries choose which dog silhouette should represent the Canidae family.
Islands are strung out all up and down Croatia's coast. Lots of them are known for one particular things or another. Brač, near Split, is famous for white building stone. White stone, White House. That's right, one of the most recognizable symbols of America is not built with domestic material, but Croatian stone. I didn't go there, but did a day trip to Hvar Island instead. I'm not really sure why I went there. Probably because everyone recommends going to Hvar, Croatians, travelers, and guidebooks alike. And I thought while in Croatia I should see at least one island. They're worth going to, but the time and cost to get out to them really warrants staying for at least one overnight. Unless you're there in the summer and want a day in Adriatic waters, visiting one little town on an island isn't terribly different than visiting a little town that's only a fifteen minute bus ride away from wherever you are on the mainland. There wasn't anything specially distinctive about Hvar Town compared to Split, other than the cappuccinos cost twice as much. Deciding to not let the day be a waste, I went to a restaurant that had Pag cheese on the menu. Pag Island is close to Zadar, and is famous for producing a distinctive sheep's cheese. The sheep graze on grass which has been permeated by salt from sea winds, which flavors their milk, imbuing the resulting cheese a tang. I got a plate of it in Zadar, and it was yummy, but I couldn't really distinguish it from a high class parmesan. The plate I got in Hvar was far superior.
It's usually served with bread, tomatoes, and olives, and the serving in Hvar also came with a scoop of fish paté, or mousse, which was also good, but super fishy. I only managed half the scoop, and unsuccessfully tried to think of a way to get the remainder out for stray cats. It was sort of a snackalicious day all around. Other than the overpriced cappuccino, fine cheese and puréed fish, I also ate crackers, an apple strudel, a chocolate turnover, a processed juice drink, some sort of Croatian version of funyuns, Schweppes tangerine soda, and a slurpy hot chocolate. Blargh. I figured I should get some fruit the next day. You know, that doesn't come wrapped up in a flaky pastry.
A pigeon pooped on me in Dubrovnik. I thought it was sort of a shabby move, since just that morning I had been defending the honor of this lowly bird against a fellow hosteler who called them flying rats. Guess the memo that I was a supporter hadn't circulated yet.
I should have taken an earlier bus from Split to Dubrovnik, because the road is like California 1, curling right along the coast. Rocky hills rise on one side, the cliff drops into the sea on the other. I saw about half of it before the sun set, but at least by taking a late bus I didn't feel like I left Split before I was ready to. I gave up trying to find postcards that weren't tourist schlock, and instead shopped for new glasses frames. For some reason every third store in Split seems to be a frame store, so I had some hope of finding a new pair. I love my Lafonts, but they need a break to recharge their snazz. Split didn't do it for me though. Everything in every shop was locked down, and a staff member had to unlock racks in order to try anything on, hovering nearly with a set of keys. I can't make important fashion accessory decisions under that kind of scrutiny. And the joy of shopping for new glasses frames is being able to wander around the store and freely try on goofy pairs that you have absolutely no intention of buying.
There's a funny little tab of Bosnia and Hercegovina that sticks through Croatia all the way to the coast, so when you travel the distance on land, you need to have your passport handy for border checks. If you take a ferry, this isn't necessary. Going into BiH we all had our passports checked, but on the crossing back to Croatia the agent just boarded the bus for less than thirty seconds for a cursory look down the aisle before waving us through. I used to avoid arriving in strange cities at night, but after two months on the road have relaxed my attitude towards this approach. The hostel had pretty clear directions on how to get there, which worked out dandy, and soon I walked into the bustling common room at Dubrovnik Backpackers. All new arrivals get a welcome drink, a home-made honey liqueur, plus watermelon slices and some pastry cake. The hostel is run by a family, and the mother, Milka, has an astonishing ability to remember everyone's names. She is the one who handles all the passports, but her husband later mentioned that she's always been good with names and telephone numbers. He in turn always referred to us as "girl" or "boy." "Good morning, girl. Did you sleep well?" It was endearing. The entire family had been in Dubrovnik during the siege, and had lived as refugees without water and electricity while the city was bombed. Dubrovnik Dad used to work in a hotel that just isn't there anymore, and during the siege had been involved in the city's defense.
Croatia has some schizophrenic weather. Three days after freezing my butt in Split, I was rambling through Dubrovnik in shirtsleeves and rolled-up trousers under sunny skies, even under moonlit skies. Unfortunately the two following days were overcast, slightly windy, and with a tiny bit of rain, which means they cancelled the ferry service that runs to Lokrum Island. I think the operators really just wanted a couple of days off, because the crossing is only supposed to take fifteen minutes, and the seas were barely choppy. Maybe too rough for a paddleboat, but any seasoned ferry captain worth his salt should have been able to manage it. I'll have to catch Lokrum the next time, because I didn't want to stay another day just to chance having the services cancelled a third time. Other than that, I just wandered around, forcing myself through clogs of cruise ship passengers who had been bussed in from the harbor. I didn't go to any museums or walk the city walls since I felt like my pocketbook had taken a beating from all the bus trips down the coast. The city walls are substantial beasts, fully enclosing the city, all pale stone looming overhead. I got the sense that if a giant came along and tripped over Dubrovnik, he'd break a toe before damaging the walls. But for all the damage the city took under siege, the appearance today is almost too slick. It's a good contrasting study to Split. Dubrovnik is solid, clean, smooth. Split is gritty, jagged, stained.
I cheesed out my last evening in Dubrovnik. I had some extra kuna left so went out to dinner. I ordered pag cheese, but they gave me fried cheese instead, which was heart-clogging meltiness, and then chicken fillets in a puddle of gorgonzola. My plans for dessert were nixed due to lack of room in my stomach. I waddled to Old Town to see it lit up at night, and by the time I was walking back to the hostel was able to stop at a café for a hot chocolate. Since it was around 9:30 on a Saturday night, I felt kind of stupid ordering it. Like I should have been wearing my pajamas and holding a teddy bear at the same time. The funny look I got from the waitress didn't make me feel any less stupid. And then I still had over 200 kuna.
Sitting in Dubrovnik I was ready to leave Croatia. Gloopy hot beverages, wide selection of pastries, and gourmet cheese aside, I was feeling like I wasn't seeing many new things during the second week. I was tired of paying to see museums and sites, and wasn't interested in seeing any more churches, so had been looking at a lot of Croatia from the outside. One city was running into another because my eyes were too glazed over by the shiny marble streets to distinguish the details that set them apart from one another. I've been trying to write this blog for a week and a half, and everything I write seems boring, and I realized it's because I was bored. Maybe my expectations were too high, since mostly everyone I spoke to before arriving waxed lyrical with misty eyes about how sensational it is. Had I taken a two week vacation to Croatia alone I would have had a much different experience, but as is, I was seeing it after two months of Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Slovenia. Stiff competition if nothing else. I also felt caught in a popular tourist route, which was mostly just a result of Croatian geography; almost everyone I met was visiting the same succession of cities, either going up the coast or coming down. Even going to Bosnia and Hercegovina wasn't going to shake me out the well-trodden backpacker path, but at least it would get me out of the narrow strip of land that comprises the Croatian coast. If I get the opportunity on the trip back north, I'd stop in Zagreb again for a day or two, but otherwise it's time to move on. Mostar, ho!