Monthly Archives: September 2014

A Trip to King’s Landing

Funny how a day that was never supposed to have happened ended up being a highlight of my trip to the Balkans.

I never intended to go to Dubrovnik this summer.  I had been there before, walked the city wall, snorkled off Lokrum island, and enjoyed it.  I thought it was very crowded.  That was in 2006.  So my initial sentiment regarding a second visit was an emphatic “hell no.”

But then several things happened:

1. I realized how looooong the bus ride was from Trogir to Kotor in Montenegro.

2.  My United credit card was having a special where you could earn a crazy amount of miles by booking a night’s stay through Rocketmiles.  These participating hotels are usually in bigger, more tourist-oriented cities.

3.  I remembered that many of the scenes from King’s Landing in Game of Thrones were filmed in Dubrovnik.   A quick Google search showed… oh hai, Game of Thrones walking tour!

I was sold.

The bus ride from Trogir to Dubrovnik confirmed one of my tenets of travel:  always wear pants (long or capri) on a bus trip.  Unlike in the US, where you buy an intercity bus ticket which reserves you a seat from point A to point B, many of the other countries I have visited operate differently.  That is, your ticket means nothing, and if you can physically cram yourself into the bus, well then, come on down.  Despite my having purchased a ticket days earlier, the bus had no available seats when it arrived in Trogir.  I squished into the main aisle of the bus in the only remaining standing-only spot, which was in front, inches away from the steps that led to the driver’s seat.  I gripped the nearby handles and temporarily enjoyed the panoramic view through the windshield in front of me.  After a few swerves and abrupt halts, however, I realized that there was nothing to prevent my body from being flung through the windshield and so decided to sit.  Sitting on the front steps of the bus wasn’t too much better, since I slid with every move of the bus;  the only way to stabilize myself was to splay out my legs and brace myself with my feet.  And my seat was directly opposite the driver’s fish-eye rear view mirror.

Moral of the story:  unless you want to pull an accidental Britney-Spears-in-the-paparazzi shot for everyone behind you, always wear long pants on a bus!  (I’m glad I did!)

Much of the crowd disembarked once we arrived in Split, so I thankfully was able to be seated for the rest of the trip.  The journey took us briefly through Bosnia, which has a small stretch of land that interrupts the Croatian coastline and where we took a rest stop.

My 30 minutes or so in Bosnia

My 30 minutes or so in Bosnia

The plan once in Dubrovnik was to take it easy in the evening, prepare my things for travel and check out in the morning before heading out for the GoT tour.  I would have several hours to kill in the afternoon before boarding my bus to Kotor.

Once I arrived in town in the late afternoon, I caught a taxi to my hotel, a three-star accommodation which was the most reasonably priced (ahem, cheapest) place I could find on Rocketmiles.  It was stinking hot, and I was ready to shower and lie down for a bit.  But fate intervened.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” said the front desk attendant when I tried to check in.  “There is an issue.  We do not have a room for you here.” Uh-oh.

“But you are in luck today, ma’am.  We will be sending you to our partner hotel” -double uh-oh- “the Hotel Villa Argentina.  It is five stars.  I am calling a taxi now to take you there.  Just sit here and relax.”

And this is how the story starts to become awesome.

A taxi whisked me to the other side of the Old Town, where I checked into the Villa Argentina.  A sweaty mess with a huge backpack entering the lobby, I’m sure I turned a few heads who wondered when the hotel had decided to let the riffraff in.   The hotel was built into the side of the cliff and had a view of the Old Town.  There was a fluffy white bathrobe in the closet and L’Occitane toiletries.  Down an elaborate set of terraces was the pool, which sat right next to the seaside itself.  My tiredness immediately forgotten in my stupefied state, I went down to sit in the gardenside lounge.  Feeling like Daenerys Targaryen herself (after all, I was overlooking the island where Qarth was filmed), I sipped my cocktail and watched the sun go down.


Lokrum Island (Qarth) in the distance




In the distance is where the Mountain fought the Viper.  Honest to Gahd.

In the distance is where the Mountain fought the Viper. Honest to Gahd.

Back in the room, the fatigue set in quickly.  I hadn’t eaten much all day, and I needed to shower and get some dinner, which would require going down the hill to the Old Town.   The prospect of doing anything at this point (it was after 8:30 pm) was very unappealing.  But wait… this is what room service is designed for!  Believe it or not, I had never ordered room service before.  So that was the most delicious bowl of French onion soup I ever had:  hypoglycemia and a fluffy white bathrobe will make anything taste superb ;).

in the morning, I slathered on my sunscreen and headed to the tour meeting point in the Stari Grad.  Our tour guide, Ana, distributed headsets to all of us (a brilliant idea which allows you to hear your guide even in a large crowd).  She then told us, “You are in luck, because the HBO team is here in Dubrovnik today casting for extras to be used in the upcoming filming of Game of Thrones Season 5.  So if you want, after the tour, you can go there to audition.”

SHUT THE FRONT DOOR.   I may have shrieked aloud.

Ana took us all over Dubrovnik, showing us sites that were used as filming locations.  Some were easy to picture;  others were a bit trickier to envision because of the heavy CGI use.  Ana had a flip book of stills from the show to help us make a comparison.  The tour was a great mix of city history, information about the filming of GoT, local art and architecture, and Ana’s personal anecdotes about being an extra herself.  (“You’re tall,” she told me, “so you would probably be cast as a noble if they hired you.  I’m not, so I was a peasant.  We would go to makeup, but it was really just putting dirt on our faces”).  It was a blast hanging out with other GoT obsessive fanatics enthusiasts, who actually joined in when I did the following:

Since it would take forever to explain most of these photos (and many of you may not watch Game of Thrones, you poor souls), I will just present a gallery here.  If you don’t squeal in recognition, then just enjoy some pretty scenery ;).

Ros and Shae watching Sansa and Littlefinger on the dock

Ros and Shae watching Sansa and Littlefinger on the dock

Me watching tourists on the dock

Me watching tourists on the dock



Not Ser Pounce

Not Ser Pounce


Daenerys at the House of the Undying

Daenerys at the House of the Undying

Me outside the House of the Undying.  (And scowling, probably because it was deathly hot).

Me outside the House of the Undying. (And scowling, probably because it was deathly hot).

The tour made for an incredible, but hot, afternoon.  I cooled down by jumping in the water at the hotel, then dried myself off and jumped in a cab to go to the HBO casting.  It was being held at the Valamar Lacroma Hotel on the other side of the city.  (What do you wager they picked that location because it sounds like valar morghulis?  I’d like to think that’s the reason.  But I am a nerd).  I entered to see this sign:



I didn’t know exactly what to expect.  I had never been to a casting before.  As it turned out, all that was required of me was to take several photos (front and profile) and to fill out a form with my contact information; specifics like height, weight, eye color, dress size, etc.;  and then whether or not I would be willing to do a nude scene.  LOL. That’s all I need for my fifteen minutes of fame to come from being cast as something like “Pear-Shaped Concubine #2.”  I checked “no” :).   (As it happens, I need not have worried, because I have not heard from them and filming has already started.  Maybe it was my still-wet-from-the-pool Medusa hair that ruined my chances.  Darn).  Grabbing my backpack, I was still able to make it to the station in time to catch my bus to Kotor.

All in all, it was a 24-hour experience that any Game of Thrones nut would have treasured.   Maybe I should check out when filming starts in Spain….

Montenegro bound

Montenegro bound

Categories: croatia, dalmatia, dubrovnik, game of thrones | 4 Comments

Fall update


Contrary to what my lack of recent posts might suggest, I am not being held captive somewhere on the Dalmatian coastline.  The month of August was spent traveling through the Balkans, of which I set foot in every country except for Serbia, which was a bit too far north to work into my travel schedule.

On September 1, I began the Asia leg of my journey.  While China was a fascinating place to visit, the extremely hectic schedule of our tour and the unreliability of the internet there (I never realized just how much I use Google!) were not conducive to writing blog posts.  While in Shanghai and then Shenzhen, it was much more fun to hang out with old friends again than to update my website.  I battled a nasty cold for my first few days in Kowloon (Hong Kong) , then decided over the following days that Hong Kong has made the list of my Favorite. Cities. EVER.  Who wants to work on a website when you’re exploring the coolest place on Earth?

I’m currently in Macau for the weekend and will be heading to Thailand on Monday.  After almost two months of moving at what now feels like warp speed, I have no set plans.  The slower tempo will be good for settling back into somewhat of a normal routine, outlining an itinerary for the rest of the trip, and doing some major updating on the website.  In addition to writing about all of these lovely places and people I’ve just mentioned, I’d like to do some cleanup of the site to make it more organized.  I can’t believe that I have written over 75 posts so far!

OK, back to fantasizing about being in a 007 movie.  Macau was featured in the last James Bond flick, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t listen to Adele’s “Skyfall” on repeat for about 2/3 of the ferry ride here.

I never said I wasn’t a nerd ;).Macau casino

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I was disappointed to miss Trogir the last time I visited Croatia. Less than an hour by car from its much bigger neighbor Split, this tiny stari grad-on-an-island can often get bypassed. I was looking forward to my visit and had booked what looked like a great deal on TripAdvisor: a room with a private bath and kitchenette just over the bridge from the old town on the mainland. Three nights for a good price. Perfect.

[Side note: every time I entered “Trog-” in an online search, I would automatically want to complete the word with “-dor.” And then I would get the Trogdor song stuck in my head for the next hour. Which doesn’t even make sense: Trogir is a town in Croatia, while Trogdor is… the Burninator. No embedded YouTube link available at this time: you’ll have to look it up if it sounds intriguing to you. Thanks, Chinese internet censors!].

I could write a very long-winded and detailed rant about the accommodation disaster that followed, but I will try to sum up briefly. The apartment was NOT in the location shown on the map in the TripAdisor ad, but instead in a different town on a hill that cost $18 in a cab to reach from the old town. ($36 round trip just to see the actual town you came to visit is not a deal!) When I arrived and remarked to the owner that although the place was beautiful, it was not in the advertised location, she became incredibly defensive, nasty, and unwilling to have any type of discussion about it with me, concluding with the sentence, “If you don’t like it, fine. I will call the taxi back, and you can go find someplace else to stay.” So I did. I refuse to deal with someone who is so unprofessional. Minutes later, I was walking with my backpack back down a winding hill to the shore and finally found a water taxi that could take me more cheaply to the old town. Within 24 hours, I found that my full payment had gone through as scheduled, and I am still embroiled in a back-and-forth with TripAdvisor that I have a strong suspicion is going to get me absolutely nowhere. Updates to follow.

Back in the old town, I was furious but very nervous. I had just walked out of my place to stay for the night, and this was high season. I worried that there might not be any rooms left. I walked into a travel agency to ask to use their wifi; when I explained my situation, the staff there bent over backwards to help me. Between their contacts and my search on, I was able to find something in the middle of the old town for three nights. And it couldn’t have been a nicer place. The owner took me in, sat me down at her kitchen table, and fed me watermelon and sandwiches as she listened to the day’s events in disbelief. Then she showed me to my room:


Every cloud has a silver lining: my new room was perfect!

Once settled in, I was finally able to enjoy my stay in the town. I spent the mornings getting groceries at the market and writing on my iPad over coffee at the bar around the corner (which liked to play techno music at all hours, but who’s complaining?) In the afternoons, I would slather on the sunscreen and head over to the pebbled beach of Okrug Gornji, skipping the lounge chair fee in favor of spreading out my towel for free directly on the stones in a less crowded area. The only rain that I felt for the entire month of August in the Balkans fell in sporadic droplets from a sunny sky my second afternoon in Okrug Gornji; it was followed by a rainbow that made for some amazing photos.



Back in town, I climbed the rickety steps of the belltower of the cathedral of Sv. Lovro – not for the faint of heart, folks!- to get a fantastic panoramic view of the town and the surrounding coastline.





In the evenings, I would wander around the Old Town, checking out the ridiculously posh yachts that had docked along the banks for the night. There were street musicians (including a house band that played an almost unrecognizable cover of “Me and Bobby McGee in a thick Croatian accent. Janis Joplin was turning in her grave that night), street performers (a puppeteer whose puppet reminded me of Franklin from Arrested Development) and vendors selling everything from necklaces to roasted corn. The smell of the corn was so enticing that it actually persuaded me to ditch my restaurant plans and just continue wandering, corn dinner in hand, for the rest of the night.


IMG_4035.JPG A mini donut’s what? Call the grammar police!


Lodging fiasco aside, Trogir was a beautiful, albeit crowded, place to visit. When I calculated how long it would take to get to my next stop, Kotor in Montenegro, by bus, my total time did not sound like it would make for a very fun day. Why not break up the trip by making another stop on the way? Time to head to Dubrovnik.

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Into Dalmatia

On Friday morning, my mother and Majda dropped me off at the bus station. My plan was to spend the month of August inching my way down the Balkan Peninsula, heading back north and ending up in Bulgaria by the end of the month. My reasoning? Not only have I not visited most of these countries, but I needed to get out of the Schengen area. As a US citizen, I am only eligible to spend 90 out of every 180 days within the countries of the Schengen zone without getting a visa. I had entered France on May 9, which meant that I needed to be outta there by August 9. (Not sure what the consequences are for overstaying your welcome, but I wasn’t about to find out for myself!) While Slovenia is a Schengen country, Croatia is not, so I decided to head there first, making up an itinerary as I went along.

I had not originally planned to spend much time at all in Croatia, since I have visited several times before and really wanted to focus this month on seeing new places. (Also, Croatia seems to be The Place To Go now. Not to sound all “been there, done that,” but since my family is Slovenian, Croatia had often been a natural extension of many trips we took back there. I was first in Croatia in 1994. A typical reaction to mention of any Croatian travel plans back then went something like, “Oh! Wow. Where is that? Wasn’t that in the news lately?” Now when you mention a trip to southeastern Europe, you hear, “Make sure you go to Dubrovnik! Have you heard of Dubrovnik?” So I just think the whole thing is really funny). My plans to bypass Croatia pretty much went up in smoke, however, when I perused a map: it is a really broadcountry. Unless I wanted to fly -which I didn’t- Croatia would be a necessary stop on my way southeast. This Zakelj had to decide between going via Zagreb or Zadar. (So many Z’s! I feel so at home!) I opted then to stick to cities along the coast that I have never seen before. Zadar would be my first stop.

My bus from Ljubljana to Zadar went without any problems. Once over the border, we stopped at a rest area. Upon leaving the bus and walking toward the building, I noticed a mother pulling her young son’s shorts down and allowing him to urinate on the treelawn. Um, ma’am, there is a toilet facility 100 feet behind you. Am I missing something? I bought some peaches from an older woman with a fruit stand, ate my lunch, and reboarded the bus. Soon, we were passing fantastic peaks like this:


We arrived in Zadar, and I was picked up at the bus station by the owner of my rental apartment. She was incredibly sweet and offered me a glass of juice when we reached the place. Since there would be no other tenants that weekend, she allowed me to pick which bedroom I wanted. It was great: I had an entire place to myself! I took a short walk and bought some groceries. One thing I was looking forward to was cooking a bit for myself. Sometimes when I travel alone, I just crave a bowl of cereal for breakfast. That first evening, I was so tired that I ended up staying in: it was fun just to cook dinner and watch music videos in the apartment.


The next two days, I got to explore the town a bit (which included getting lost on my run while trying to find the bus station). Zadar does not have quite the same level of tourism as say, Split, so it was pleasantly busy without being too crowded with people. The Old Town’s major attractions -other than the city walls and the old town itself – are the Sea Organ and the Sun Salutation. The Sea Organ is built beneath the steps of the waterside promenade: as the waves wash under the steps, the movement of the water plays the organ and creates a calm, whistling melody. (No video right now as I am still having WordPress video issues. I apologize!) The accompanying Sun Salutation is a large circular set of photovoltaic cells embedded in the cement of the promenade. Using the solar energy harvested during the day, the cells turn on series of colored LED lights whose patterns are determined again by the underlying waves. The combination of the two makes for fun people-watching during the evenings.



Hrvatski Subota Night Fever

I really enjoyed Zadar. In addition to the sights of the laid-back Stari Grad (Old Town), they also had several free performances while I was there. I was on a walk in the evening when I heard folk music playing. I made my way through the crowd to see folk dancers and a Dalmatian band on a large outdoor stage. Back in the day, I used to do Slovenian folk dancing in Cleveland, so watching this made me really happy (and a tad wistful that I no longer dance!)



View from the apartment




I had a good experience booking my apartment in Zadar. Little did I know what a fiasco would occur when I arrived at my next destination, Trogir.

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