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Beautiful Croatia - September 2020

Croatia, September 25, 2020

"We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us."

This year especially I think that both of these apply!

Oddly enough, 2020 has been a pretty epic year for travel for me. I'm not gonna lie. It's really beyond any possible expectations. The theme has been about spontaneity and low planning this year...not my usual deal. When the carefully laid plans I had made for hiking in Italy in June dissolved overnight back in March "due to covid", I was crestfallen. Steve encouraged me to make something else happen.

Every few days throughout summer I would monitor the notifications of what countries were open or projecting to open to US travelers and Croatia kept calling to me. My normal mode is always to go a.b.a.p. (as budget as possible) which most often means the back rows, center section of low-budget airlines. No checked luggage, no pre-purchased meal, no legroom. No sleep. But I had a Travel Miracle drop in my lap that had me "turning left" instead of right when I got on the plane for this trip and landed me in The First Class. Foreign territory. ...surrounded with pillows and buttons and "Mrs. Hougard" can I get you this and that?, and accoutrement I wasn't sure what to do with. ...and a lay down flat seat. Lord Have Mercy!

As I laid down flat to sleep, full of crab cakes and comfort I thought about some of the feelings I had about being on this side of The Curtain. It's an introspective journey that I won't get into here, but I'll just say this... The First Class experience is a blessing that I hope I never get comfortable with.

The Croatian language is quite a mouthful. There are no silent letters. The main rule of thumb is that every letter gets pronounced and š and č even get an h sound added when there is no h written. So, I'm happy that most people here also speak English.

I arrived yesterday mid-day, found a SIM card in the airport and a bus into town that dropped me at the ferry port of Split. It was warm but breezy as I found my way through the worn, 2000 year old marble walkways into the old town and to my little apartment. The Old Town of Split sits within the walls of the Roman Palace of the Emperor Diocletian, and is a maze of limestone buildings with little alleyways that was once built as his retirement home centuries ago. After a quick nap I walked back down to the harbor for a look around and hit up the market to get dinner and turned in early.

This morning as I sit in bed and write this, there is thunder in the distance which is almost drowned out by the sound of the deluge of rain and hail coming down. So, I'll have a second cup of coffee and look at a map and make a plan...

Split, Croatia - September 26, 2020

"There are times when we stop, we sit still. We listen and breezes from a whole other world begin to whisper." J. Carroll

My only real plan for today was to walk / hike (depending on who you ask) up Marjan Hill which seems to be a favorite leisure activity around here. There weren't many people up there today, which is just how I like it. As per usual with my European experiences, it is a rare day that isn't a stair day. Up near the top I ran across, who I call in my mind The Cat Lady of Marjan. She sat perfectly still on a bench while 20 cats sat at her feet eating what looked like strips of fatty meat. And many of them looked like it wasn't their first rodeo (#fatcat). Onward and upward until I reach the tip top of Marjan.

For those who know me, you know I love a good bench facing the sea and I found one and stayed there for a long time, until I was done. I had a chance to still my mind and listen to my heart. I had read that the scent of pine fills the air up on that hill but I thought it was just good advertising. Nope. It's true. Very piney. Fresh.

There are several different paths and trails around the park. Unlike my usual way, I did manage to find the route that I had intended to, on my first attempt and didn't have to do any back tracking. It was a really beautiful way to spend a good chunk of the day.

Beside getting some food, the only other "have to" for the day was to go the the ferry terminal and get a ticket to my next stop, the island of Hvar. Because of the bad weather forecasted for the next couple of days the ferry I need to catch will not be running. I spent a good part of the rest of the afternoon and evening trying to work out what to do with myself and my plans and figured out I'd just have to wing it, but would need to cancel my next hotel. I emailed them my situation and they said they'd just send someone to pick me up at the port on the sheltered side of the island, where the ferry could still run. I'm sorry it took me so many years of my life to learn to relax and just not sweat about stuff. It's given me all of the adventure without all the stress.

Milna, Hvar, Croatia - Sunday, September 27, 2020

"If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else." - Yogi Berra

All the pictures I had seen of Croatia were of smooth, crystalline blue waters…which isn’t what I’ve experienced while here, thus far. I thought it was just a little wind and some rain. But yesterday when I tried to buy a ticket for my ferry to Hvar I was told it wasn’t going to be running because of the bad weather. (At least they didn’t say because “covid”.) Anyway, I changed the port for my arrival and found the ferry that would take me there and had a smooth, lovely ride over to Stari Grad, while working on my Solitaire game.

Sime, who helps with the apartment bookings at Duje Apartments in Milna, Hvar was there to pick me up and shuttle me to the other side of the island, and the little cove village of Milna. Along the way he gave me a lot of interesting information about the island and where I could hike before the “cyclone” hit. Um, excuse me, what? So apparently this isn’t just a little wind and rain. A storm like this rarely happens here. They’ve pulled some boats out of the water and such. No swimming for me.

My original (best laid) plan was to arrive in the town of Hvar, on the island of Hvar (a tad redundant) and explore the town before walking the coastal trail, about 4.5 miles to Milna. The “adapted” plan had me instead arrive at the port of Stari Grad and shuttled by car to my apartment in Milna (red line on map). It was suggested that I high tail it along the coastal path to Hvar and either take the short cut through the forested area to get back or, if the rain came, to give a call and they’d come get me in the car. I, indeed high tailed it to Hvar, up to the Napolean fortress on the hill above town, around the terraced alleyways of the old city and back via the same, long coastal trail (marked in purple on the map).

I arrived back exhausted but with some fresh croissants and a heart full of gratitude for the day and how everything worked out. I beat the rain and am in bed, plum tuckered out after 11+ miles running and walking on a rocky coastal path. Looking out the window at the storm which is now letting loose and planning my hike back over to Stari Grad tomorrow (marked in green on the map), I'm hoping Sime's prediction for the storms passing by is right.. Oh…and I’m feeling pretty accomplished because I was able to use technology to mark up a map for your viewing pleasure. Wonders never cease.

Milna to Stari Grad, Hvar, Croatia - September 28, 2020

“I think that the world should be full of cats and full of rain, that's all, just cats and rain, rain and cats, very nice, good

night.” - Charles Bukowski

After an evening of raining cats (and dogs) I was happy to wake in the middle of the night to see a moon and a few stars amongst the clouds. The storm of the sea raged on, but there was hope that the morning skies might clear. and they did.

I packed up and started out around 9:00, with no one around anywhere to see me off. It's more than just "shoulder season" around here. It's late September and covid and cyclone and no one is around. And I like it like that. And so, I'm off.

Up through the olive trees, through the tunnel, up, up, up...for 3 full hours. I stopped for a bit in Malo Grablje, the abandoned village in a deep valley with rocks and stones and boulders all around and explored the vine covered arches and dilapidated stone buildings...older than my country. There are olive trees here older than my country. It gave me pause to think about how America, in such peril right now, is just a blip in time in the history of the world. I'm sure that we are not the first nation to think we will be the last nation. The Great American Experiment... It's just another marker on the long timeline of this earth.

From Malo I continued up the road to Velo, also Grablje. Velo G. is inhabited... but just barely. As I reached the church, which I thought might finally be the top of the "hill", I sat down on a wall to get some water. An old woman who was washing something in an little alleyway beside the church looked over at me with a “What the Hell?” flavor. WTH indeed.

I cannot even, e-v-e-n begin to describe the richness and goodness and delight of the scent of lavender in the air here. Hvar is, like, the capitol of lavender and I'm a tad sorry I'm not here in June for the harvest. I can't imagine what it smells like then. Memo to me: Come back in May when it is in full bloom.

Sometimes the trail markings can be quiet for a while...sometimes they aren't totally clear. At one point in Velo I came to a fork in the road which left me a little bewildered. I followed a vague trail of single red spray painted dots up a narrow stone stairway and around the corner of an old building. I laughed out loud when I realized that this wasn't the trail, but the marking to a bathroom of sorts. I'm sure someone was watching me and also got a chuckle.

When I was about to give up on the idea that I would ever hit the apex of this island, I came upon a little chapel. Apparently it has some particularly historic significance. Of course, it was locked. "No Jesus for you today". (That's ok. I bring my Jesus with me, btw). At this point, the road forked off in quite a few directions and I had to go with some intuition and pray for the best. I had a few words with the Jesus I brought with me and asked for a sign and I'll be ding-danged if I didn't come around a turn in the road, in the middle of no where and see a luxury resort, restaurant and literal sign telling me which way to go. So, nothing left to do here but give a big shout out to the Jesus who comes with me!

Without saying...but saying it anyway, from the apex, it was all down hill to Stari Grad. Narrow, unkept, super rocky trail for miles...miles of solitude, and gratitude and peace...and the out loud singing I only do periodically. And then finally, with m' dogs-a-bark'n I reached the lovely, coastal trail along the harbor into ancient, pristine Stari Grad.

While texting with my apartment hostess about making my way into town my phone battery died and I dealt with it like some kind of 20 something-euro-wander-hippy who had to duck into a smokey bar and ask if I could charge my phone. Clearly this wasn't the mid-50's housewife bar and I was received haltingly. So I ordered a beer ("Small? or Large?" he asked. "Duh" I answered) and pulled out my laptop and Millenialed myself into some kind of social acceptance.

My little apartment with 300 year old walls is cozy and cute. I found a really great place to eat, then wandered along the harbor to take some photos. Now I'm tucked into bed listening to some crazy Croats singing and the rain and hail coming down and the church tower bells ringing and I'm happy to be removed from the discord and dis-ease of America... Mymerica. I hope we can get it together.

Stari Grad, Hvar, Croatia - September 29, 2020

“Every day God invites us on the same kind of adventure. It's not a trip where He sends us a rigid itinerary, He simply invites us. God asks what it is He's made us to love, what it is that captures our attention, what feeds that deep indescribable need of our souls to experience the richness of the world He made. And then, leaning over us, He whispers, "Let's go do that together.” ― Bob Goff

I set my alarm for 7:00 today. Not that I had anything pressing on the schedule. But it seemed like the adult thing to do. The church bell tower is literally right outside my window. It doesn't ring during the night, but come 6am, it takes seriously it's job of waking the whole old city and surrounding hillsides. I won't bother setting my alarm for tomorrow.

After I got my heart restarted (!) I realized that today I need a rest day. My body just feels tired. So I scrapped the loose plan I had had to ride a bike across the Stari Grad Plain (not as far or dramatic as it sounds) to the town of Jelsa and instead stayed in bed a little longer and drank black coffee. ...not as good as creamy coffee, but way better than no coffee.

Around 10:00 I walked the trail to the ferry dock to look into getting my ticket back to Split for tomorrow. Honestly, I could have just bought the ticket tomorrow, but the 30 minute walk from town is really pretty, so it gave me a destination for today. After making the return walk I continued on around to the other side of the harbor to get a different view of the old city. I found a bench in the sun that was blocked from the wind and sat for a while. Little boats tied to the dock bobbed up and down along the harbor. Kids left the school building across the street behind me and rode their bikes home for lunch. Some old folks walked by with bags and baskets full of things from the farm stand. To say it was peaceful and serene is an understatement. After a stop at the market and lunch in the little apartment my aching legs and feet begged for a nap and the rest of me didn't put up a fight.

I had read that the hill above the harbor was a great spot to view all the surrounding area and was especially good at sunset. I wasn't exactly sure when the sun would set behind the mountain in the middle of the island, so I just headed up there after my nap to have a look about. It was a decent little walk and hike up a rocky trail to the little chapel and cross at the top. This chapel was unlocked, but the alter was locked up behind bars inside and I couldn't help but laugh at the Jesus in the jail cell. Inappropriate.

It was a good time for some introspection. It is good to have time of real rest, real soul quiet. It's hard to get that when we are at home, surrounded with our familiar distractions and "have to's" and the constant many of them negative and draining. I've heard more than a few questions and comments about my solo adventures that are heavy with judgemental undertones. It doesn't bother me like it used to. In those still, quiet moments with just me and the Jesus I bring with me, there is honesty and vulnerability. I feel like I set down whatever heaviness may be on me walk on in peace with joy and a lighter load.

On another note: I love lavender and decided to check on picking up some small bottles of oils to bring home in this cute little shop. I figured out how many I wanted and the lady gave me the total in Kunas. I haven't really mastered the art of exchange rates because I generally only buy what I need to get by. It's just like Monopoly money. Anyway, I didn't have enough cash and so I handed her my card. She told me Id have to go to the ATM to get cash. Once out the door I did the calculations and realized I had just luckily dodged the bullet from buying $185.00 worth of lavender oil! I would have needed ALL it's calming properties once I got the Visa bill for that one!

...and on one other note... do you ever see a dead bird squished on the road and wonder how he didn't just get out of the way? Well, after leaving the lavender shop, I crossed a little street and had just stepped up on the curb when a truck passed by. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a pigeon land on the street I had just stepped from and then heard a popping sound. So, that's how that happens.

Stari Grad to Split, Croatia - September 30, 2020

My apartment in Stari grad was on a path that had a gate opening out to the road which they lock at night. The instruction for checking out was to lock the apartment door and drop the keys into the mail slot when leaving. Well, if what happened is not obvious to you yet... of course it wasn't until I had dropped the keys through the locked slot that I realized the gate out to the street was locked and I was trapped inside, and with a ferry I needed to catch! I knocked on the doors of the other homes behind the gate to no avail. I knew the BnB hostess had left earlier to go harvest grapes at her cousin's house and wouldn't be back all day, and so... I assessed the situation, determined if there would be any benefit at all to yelling for help to the men who were working on the church roof next door and decided that there just had to be another way... something...anything more dignified. I studied all the stone walls around me... Which was lowest? How far was the drop on the other side?... What was the a route out from the other side? As time ticked on I knew I just had to commit to a plan so I chose the lowest wall with the best visible possibility of a route to the outside. (Que Mission Impossible theme music.) Unfortunately that route was the one in clear view of all the men working on the church roof, but I put aside all my unresolved issues about being embarrassed and my gross lack of physical flexibility and threw my pack over the wall and into the thorny vines below. I’m going to say that I got over that wall with the confidence of a young, Russian gymnast on the pommel horse. Then, I snatched up my pack and said a quick prayer that the gate on that side of the wall was unlocked. I made my ferry with only a few superficial flesh wounds. I'll just leave it at that.

My old friend and travel buddy Bob had just arrived in Split a few minutes before my ferry pulled in and together we found our way to the apartment where we'll stay for the next couple of days. There was a fabulous little restaurant right across the little walking street and we had lunch of salads and shrimp risotto that was darn good.

The weather was really fantastic today and the water was much smoother than just a couple of days ago, so Split has quite a different look and vibe to it today than when I was here a few days ago. Tomorrow should be good too. We took a walk up to the look-out on Marijan Hill for sunset which was topped off with the almost full moon rising over the mountains. Perfect way to end the day.

Skradin, Krka National Park, Croatia - October 1, 2020

Two attempts to make the post for today ended up with the whole thing disappearing. So, the story for today will just be a pictorial. It's time for bed.

Early rise will get us to our ferry (weather permitting) and off to the island of Korčula.

PS.I learned a new fruit. It tastes like a Golden Delicious apple. Inside it looks like a grape and it has a pit like a date. Sometimes called a Chinese date, it's also known, in English as a Jujube!

PPS. We had a late lunch in a great little restaurant in Skradin. So much good food cooked in a peka.

Split and Korčula, Croatia - October 2 and 3, 2020

"I'm just thankful for it all... the hills, the valleys, the storms and the sun. Every turn and bend in the road. It's just all a great adventure." - Me

Yesterday was a day with some uncertainties regarding the ferries running (or not) from the mainland out to the islands. The weather has continued to call the shots. The loose plan was to try for the 7:40am boat from Split to Old Town Korčula, where I had an apartment booked. But when we got to the ticket booth in the morning the lady just shook her head "no". So we bought tickets on a different boat to Vela Luka which is at the other end of the island of Korčula. ...we'll just get to the island then figure out how to get across it to the right town.

When we arrived in Vela Luka it looked to affirm that this whole country seems to shut down after September 30th. The streets were empty of any tourist (but us) and almost no one else. We found a bus that took us up and over to Korčula old town, past vineyards and olive groves and through the clouds that shrouded the highest point on the island. I smelled cigarettes on the bus and thought it pretty ballsy for someone to light up on a bus. Then I looked up into the rearview mirror up front and saw that it was the driver. He drove that mountain road like he had done it every day of his life. Fast and efficient ...and we arrived safely in the beautiful, historic town of Korčula, birth place of Marco Polo.

Our handsome AirBnB host Pero had told me to let him know when we'd arrive. I didn't expect that he'd meet us at the bus, but there he was, to walk us through the arches and alleyways and up to the pink house on the hill... the home that had been in his family for 200 years. His grandmother lives on the ground floor, the apartment unit is in the middle and he and his young family live on the top floor. There is a vine covered terrace outside the apartment and though the wind hasn't stopped howling, it is warm and just sitting out there and having lunch felt like a postcard... one of those moments you want to remember.

We thought we'd rent bikes and ride to the south end of the island today but the bike place was closed, probably due to no renters and the wind, so we just set out walking. It wasn't a short walk, but we pressed on so as not to miss what might just be around the next bend, and the next... until we found ourselves in Lumbarda and I remembered reading about a kind of wine they make there called Grk... which, I think is just plain funny. So we sat ourselves down at a sidewalk caffe, the empty one, next to the sidewalk caffe full of large, Slavic, smoking'/drinkin' men and asked the waiter if they had Grk. He said, "wait 5 minutes" and jumped on his scooter and rode away... and then came back with a bottle of the Grk. Cute as he could be.

After Grk and coffee we set out on our way back to town, went back to the same restaurant as last night (it was that good) and have turned in.

Tomorrow is Sunday and the only day that the weather shows a full sun as the forecast. Could it be a swim day in the clear waters of Croatia? We shall see!

Korčula to Dubrovnik, Croatia - October 4, 2020

The wind has been gusting since I arrived on September 25th. Until 2am this morning, when it stopped. It didn't die down gradually, it stopped so abruptly that the lack of sound woke me up. When the sun came up this morning the sky was bright, blue and cloudless. I was hopeful that the bathing suit I brought with me would actually get some use.

We walked on the coastal road until we found a small strip of beach and a stone deck. The water was crystal clear and sea urchins were everywhere, like little land mines which could mess up a foot that misstepped. I dove in off the deck and it was just plain good. Cool, clean and refreshing. We hung out there in the sun until it was time to get cleaned up and packed up and get to our bus to Dubrovnik.

I'm not sure if it is the scheduling due to the time of year it is or due to the weather, but the ferry wasn't running to Dubrovnik. The bus had to take a short ferry to the mainland via Orebič and then headed down the coast. We started out on high, edge of the cliff, winding roads which made me appreciate that this bus driver wasn't like the sleepy, distracted driver we had a few days ago. Along the way we passed through small seaside villages and vineyards. I made a note of some of the towns that I'd like to come back and visit. One in particular was Ston which has a big fortress and walls that could be seen from a long way off. After about 2.5 hours we made it to Dubrovnik.

We were seriously mouth opened in awe as soon as we saw this city. The massive walls, the grand promenade and the picturesque walkways were hard to take in as Bob hit the accelerator to find our apartment, drop off our things and get back out on the town. As designated trip photographer it was a struggle to keep up with him and capture some images.

As the sun was getting low, we raced over to the cable car to ride up above the city and catch the sunset view. We barely made it so the pictures aren't great but the view was truly amazing. To see just how many islands were along the coast, large and small, from that perspective was pretty cool.

Back down in the old town, the few people who had been there earlier were either gone or were off having dinner, but the main street was almost completely empty. What a privilege it was to see the grandeur of that place without people. Really special. We wandered around for a while and explored and made lots of cat friends. I mean a lot.

Dubrovnik, Croatia - October 5 and 6, 2020

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” -Henry Miller

Every time I take a trip I want to encounter a new place, a different culture and way of life. But I also long to discover something much deeper which comes from how those new places and cultures and ways challenge me and the culture of my thinking and my ways. I will come away from Croatia with some things to think about.

To be in a place like this...walking past a tiny church with the date etched on the front,'s sobering. As a country America is a baby and it's been a long time since we've had some growing pains. Bob and I talked about the war here, just a short time ago in 1991. We in America have suffered some attacks from the outside, but not a war on our soil. It gave us an uneasy perspective... like war is supposed to be something from way back historically. But for folks here, even younger than we are, it was something that touched them personally with loss and their home town. I can't help but think about our American state. Waring against each other. Do we realize what we have and what we have at stake?

Anyway...enough of that. Once I stop transporting from one town to another there is a noticeable shift in how things feel for me. That happened the night of the 4th, once we arrived in Dubrovnik, the last stop on the journey. When we got off of the bus in Dubrovnik station we opted to take a taxi for the short ride to the old town. As I stated before, we felt an urgency to take in as much as we could because there was supposed to be rain coming, so we put the pedal to the metal. The bad weather never showed up, so we have had beautiful weather to explore every wall and walkway, x2. But, the vibe has changed from adventuring to absorbing. The pace slows way down.

Our apartment is at the very top edge of the city so we have (well) over 100 stairs (steep stairs) up every time we go down to town to get something...groceries, bread, etc. I have a love / hate relationship with the stairs. I love the narrow walkways, and to see how worn the steps are and I think of the years and the feet that have caused them to wear down and be worn so smooth. I hate them, well, because it's a lot of work. I feel the burn. It doesn't help that Bob decides to prove something to himself every time we start Up and he takes off, stomping quickly, which makes me laugh and lose my breath and struggle all the more.

#(My room is right above the top of one of those stair ways and I appreciate being comfortable in my bed hearing other feet stomping up those stairs and the heavy breathing and even panting. )#

Yesterday we got off to a slow start and decided that walking the city wall was the Thing to Do, so we did. OMG. more stairs. As soon as we paid the ticket, we turned the corner and I heard Bob say "Are you kidding me?" and we started up. We paid 200 Kuna to Self-Ambulate around the city. It was hot and scenic and voyeuristic and historic as we made our way up and down and around the old city along the top of the walls. We looked down on the deep teal sea and small gardens and, of course, cats (wow, the cats) and skivvies hanging on clothes lines...and into a few windows of people who live in this tourist driven, ancient place. Once we came down from the walls we gathered some ingredients for dinner and did a bit of tourist shopping and hoofed up our stairs again.

Last night the weather report said we would wake up to rain today, so the bright blue skies were a nice surprise. We enjoyed some coffees on the terrace with our "pet" kittens who live in the little yard next door. Bob bought them food and now they are "ours". Then we headed down to a plaza in town for more coffee and croissants... and our last bit of tourist shopping. We walked over to Gradac park outside of the city and leisured a bit along the water and just had an overall relaxing day finished off with a dinner on our terrace.

Tomorrow, we are expecting rain (?) and will leave for a place near the airport outside of town for an early flight the following day.

It has been a beautiful trip.

I'm grateful.

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