Fish spa freakout

In its spare time, Cyprinion macrostomus enjoys swimming, nibbling on dead skin, and listening to Andy Williams Christmas carols at the Kuala Lumpur central market.

Categories: kuala lumpur, Malaysia | 5 Comments

The big 3-5 in KL

Hello from Malaysia!  I arrived here by train from Thailand almost a week ago, and I have been stunned by the fascinating blend of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and colonial architecture, culture, and food.  This has been a great place to visit for someone who loves to 1) take photos, and 2) eat.

I had always wanted to do something interesting for my birthday during this trip, but since I rarely plan too far in advance, I really didn’t have any specific ideas.  When my regional itinerary finally materialized during the last two weeks or so, it looked as if my birthday weekend would be right around the time that I would be passing through Kuala Lumpur.  So, still slightly burned out from recent stays at noisy, dimly lit budget hotel rooms of questionable cleanliness, I decided to splurge on accommodation there.  I have always loved historic hotels, but most of them are extraordinarily out of my price range.  Having found a good deal, I booked two nights at the Hotel Majestic near the old Art Deco KL train station.

Quite majestic (but no moose, though)

Quite majestic (but no moose, though)

Let me tell you:  it was worth every last penny.  Between my stay there and my four previous nights at the Museum Hotel in Georgetown, Penang, the last week of accommodation has easily been the best I’ve ever experienced. Worldwide.

My room was modern and gorgeous.  The customer service was phenomenal.  When I went down to the front desk to ask about the shuttle to the train station, the staff person actually sprinted outside to make sure that the waiting shuttle didn’t leave without me.   A top-notch breakfast and laundry service was included (yay!  Clean jeans!)  And my bathtub had its own television.  I discovered this at about 2am just after brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed.  I flicked on the TV just to take a look… then spent the next two hours in the bathtub turning into a human prune – an eyeglasses-and-nightguard-wearing prune- watching Speed.  Ah, Keanu.  Still dreamy after all these years.

Determined to make the most of my birthday lodgings, I spent several hours at the pool and then squeezed in a reservation for afternoon tea.  I have never gone to an afternoon tea before, but it seemed like a pleasant way to get lunch without leaving the building!   Leave it to me, however, to do something stupid before heading to such an upscale establishment.  In my attempts to quickly shower off from the pool before tea,  I somehow managed to aim the shower spray directly into my eyes while trying to avoid getting my hair wet.  Startled, I yelped out and instinctively bolted forward … directly into the shower wall, clocking my forehead so hard that my teeth crashed together and I felt momentarily stunned.   I made use of the minibar by borrowing a cold can of Pepsi  to hold against my swelling forehead as I got dressed.   I was pretty sure that this was not what is meant by “One lump or two?” when going for tea.

Afternoon tea at the Majestic

Afternoon tea at the Majestic

The afternoon tea was an elaborate and delicious offering of little sandwiches, scones, and cakes (although I was wondering if maybe they could dope up my tea with some Tylenol.  My forehead was really aching).  Toward the end, I saw the staff singing “Happy Birthday” with a plate holding an iced cupcake.  I pleasantly thought, oh, how nice, it’s someone’s birthday.  Then I remembered that it was MY birthday!  The dessert was not for me, however, which was just as well:  any more sugary, cream-filled baked goods, and I would have to be ordering a side of statins.

I *did* get a surprise dessert later on, though.  I was getting ready to meet up with my new friend Mike from the US for dinner when my doorbell rang.   A staff member was waiting at my door with a complimentary chocolate birthday cake!   I was so touched that I didn’t have the heart to admit that I am allergic to chocolate :(.  Not to worry: Mike stopped by, polished off half the cake before dinner, then finished the rest when I saw him the next day.  Can’t waste a good cake!

Death by chocolate...potentially ;)

Death by chocolate…potentially 😉

We got a late dinner at one of the only places that we could find that was open, a restaurant called Wong Kok.  They also had a free “birthday special” on their menu:  the largest glass of milk tea I have ever seen.  With its own ladle.

Excuse me, I believe I ordered the LARGE milk tea?  HELLO!

Excuse me, I believe I ordered the LARGE milk tea? HELLO!

We finished off the celebration in typical Zakelj birthday fashion:  singing karaoke until 3 in the morning.

Mike singing a country song

Mike singing a country song

I gotta say:  #35 is going to be a tough birthday to beat.

Categories: kuala lumpur, Malaysia, southeast asia | 22 Comments

Happy Halloween from Mandalay!

Greetings to everyone on my favorite day of the year!   I had wondered how exactly I was going to celebrate Halloween when a) no one in Myanmar celebrates October 31, and b) most of the other travelers I meet are from countries that do not celebrate October 31 (i.e., pretty much every country but America).  However, a fellow traveler, Eileen from Germany, invited me this morning at our guest house to join her at the movies to see Dracula.  This is clearly as Halloween-y as it is going to get here, so I gladly accepted.

We purchased our theater tickets for 2000 kyat each (about $2).  I bought some bottled water and Chickpea Strips (delicious!) and we sat down to enjoy the show.  Instantly noticeable was the amount of noise in the theater coming from the crinkling of plastic and aluminum snack bags.  I know now why theaters at home serve popcorn in tubs:  the crackling made it sound like the theater was on fire.  Dracula, also known as The Cast of Game of Thrones Visits Transylvania, is one of those CGI-crazy revisionist action films where the character you’ve always known as “the bad guy” ends up just being really misunderstood.  I typically hate these types of films.  But Eileen and I had a fabulous time Mystery Science Theater-ing it (as did several of the Burmese folks around us, repeating epic phrases and making us giggle).

Me: “You know, I bet the casting director was saying, ‘Hmm.  I need to find a boy who will cower fearfully and cry a lot.  Is Rickon from Game of Thrones available?  He is?  Great!'”

Eileen:  [as Vlad the vampire protectively leads Rickon away from a final scene of carnage] “Your mother’s dead and I’m a vampire, but it’s totally going to be okay.”

Me: “I’m going to leave you with Thoros of Myr; he’ll take care of you.”

Me: [when Vlad’s silver ring starts to burn him as he becomes a vampire and he throws it into the river] “One ring to rule them all!”

Eileen: “No! The precious!”

Me:  [when Charles Dance as the vampire/devil makes his first appearance] “Dude, is that Tywin Lannister dressed as Voldemort???”

Charles Dance:  “Let us begin the game.”

Me: “Yes… this game … of thrones.”  <insert evil Mr. Burns scheming fingers>

And the like. 🙂 The movie directors did a great job of making a LOTR/GOT/Harry Potter tribute, complete with eyeliner-wearing “Turks” with bad Russian accents.  We had a BLAST.  Hope you all do, too:  happy Halloween!

My hippie farang/I Dream of Jeannie costume at the Mingalar Diamond Cineplex

My hippie farang/I Dream of Jeannie costume at the Mingalar Diamond Cineplex

Categories: game of thrones, mandalay, myanmar | 7 Comments

Still alive in Laos

Hello everyone,

Just a friendly update from your favorite technologically-impaired travel blogger, whose recent online silence has sparked several concerned emails regarding her whereabouts and cardiac status.

Yes, I am alive, and currently in Vang Vieng, Laos.  Since leaving Chiang Mai, Thailand last Monday, I have officially entered The Rest of Southeast Asia, otherwise known as Slow Wifi Land.  Any attempts that I have made in the last week and a half to update my blog and upload photos have been met with imaginary derisive laughter from my iPad.  “Silly rabbit!  Pics are for kids!”  Not that I am complaining.  It just means that I am now about two months behind in my travel updates.  I have this funny feeling that many of my future posts will be completed in snowy post-Christmas Cleveland.

In the past three weeks, I have:

– bathed and fed a family of elephants

– gone whitewater rafting in northern Thailand

– taken a two-day slow boat along the Mekong River from Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos (*** TOP 5 EXPERIENCE OF 2014 ***)

– swam in waterfalls

– watched the daily early-morning procession of Buddhist monks who walk to collect their breakfast, donated by locals

– tubed along the Song river in Vang Vieng while simultaneously avoiding the persistent offers of free shots of Lao whisky from a dude wearing a My LIttle Pony tank top

– purchased and wore not one, but two pairs of baggy elephant-print pants.  Hey, when in Rome, right?  I may look like a hippie farang, but man, are these pants comfortable!

 

Upcoming plans are to head to Vientiane, the capital, this weekend, get my Myanmar visa, then take an overnight train to Bangkok next week.  From there, I will fly to Mandalay in Myanmar and spend the next 2-3 weeks exploring one of the least explored countries in Southeast Asia.  Can’t wait!

Photos and posts… well, they will happen when they happen.  Off to eat some pumpkin soup to remind myself in this humid, tropical weather that yes, it is October!

Categories: Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Tirana and Berat

I had booked a shuttle from Budva to Tirana, the capital of Albania, through a nearby hostel. At the early morning meeting point, I was introduced to my fellow passengers and to Bato, our Montenegrin driver. Once Bato learned of my Slovenian heritage, it was like we were old friends, and we chatted almost the entire way to our destination. He knew an incredible amount of information about both Montenegro and Albania, as he is a trek and tour guide as well as a driver, and is planning to open his own tourism company next year. Look out for this guy: he is awesome! We stopped to take a photo break overlooking Sveti Stefan, a tiny island on the Adriatic coast that has now been turned into a private resort, so no actual visiting allowed unless you shell out the big bucks :(. As we headed away from the water and towards the more mountainous parts of Montenegro, I soon regretted not allotting more time there: just between visiting monasteries and outdoor excursions like rafting and hiking, there is so much to do there! Add that to my ever-growing list of countries that I need to revisit.

Gorgeous coastal view with a teeny tiny Sveti Stefan in the distance

Gorgeous coastal view with a teeny tiny Sveti Stefan in the distance

Crossing into Albania in a way was like stepping back in time. It seems like the entire country is under construction in some way, shape or form, but there are still constant reminders of how much has yet to be done in terms of infrastructure. (I will delve further into this and transportation in a later post).

Bato took us to an atypical garden restaurant not far across the border for a lunch break. The owner had designed the restaurant and gardens himself, with hand-painted murals covering the walls inside. Delicious and inexpensive food!

Our shuttle crew with Bato (center)

Our shuttle crew with Bato (center)

Handpainted murals in the restaurant

Handpainted murals in the restaurant

When we arrived in Tirana in the early afternoon, the van’s temperature gauge read a sweltering 42 degrees Celsius. Bato dropped us off near Skanderbeg Square, which- thank God- was not a far walk from my hotel. Drained of all energy from the unbearable heat, I promptly passed out in my air-conditioned room and slept the rest of the afternoon. I emerged not long before dusk and strolled around the neighborhood. Passing the beautiful mosque in the square, I continued past parks where green-aproned ladies watered the lawns and children played. Everyone had come out, it seemed, to finally enjoy the evening now that it had cooled slightly, and the streets were abuzz with people of all ages.

Skenderbeg Square

Skanderbeg Square

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Et'hem Bey Mosque and clock tower at night

Et’hem Bey Mosque and clock tower at night

The following morning, I left by bus for the town of Berat, nicknamed “The White City” (from its former Slavic name of Beligrad) and “City of a Thousand Windows” due to its hillsides covered in squat white Ottoman-style houses. The bus dropped me off near my hotel, the Hotel White City, whose immaculate inside lavender-and-white painted walls stood in stark contrast to the dusty, torn-up street outside. With the exception of a distractingly blinking fluorescent light in the lobby (if I were epileptic, I would have been very upset), the rooms, service, view, and location were spot-on. It was possibly the nicest hotel that I have stayed in this year. I was offered a complimentary welcome beer which I gladly accepted to quench my thirst, only to realize halfway through, temporarily woozy, that perhaps an alcoholic drink was not the smartest idea in this intense heat. it looked like it was going to be another afternoon of napping in the a/c! I quickly introduced myself to a British couple that had also just checked in, Will and Camille, and we made plans to meet for dinner later that evening.

The windows of Berat

The windows of Berat

View from my balcony

View from my balcony

Once the sun began to set, the three of us ventured out to walk up the nearby hill to get a view from the fortress on top. In the previous few days, I had begun to feel little twinges of tenderness in both hip flexors similar to what I had on the Camino. On our walk up the hill, this rapidly deteriorated from a mild discomfort into “Owowowowow!”

My tendinitis was back. Yippee.

Unfortunately, this occurred at a spot that was most of the way up the hill, so it was pointless to turn around. I’m glad we didn’t, because (hip pain aside) we spent the next half hour exploring in the fading light. Unlike most other UNESCO sites that I have visited, this area only had a handful of tourists, and much of our wanderings took us past intact local neighborhoods on the hill. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live next to fortress!image image

Local street next to the fortress

Local street next to the fortress

An old Orthodox church makes for beautiful wedding photos

An old Orthodox church makes for beautiful wedding photos

Overlooking Gorice from the fortress

Overlooking Gorice from the fortress

After dark, we painstakingly made our way back down the hill (I say this  because of both my hip and the extremely slippery cobblestones of the steep road.  I think at one point Will gave up and went barefoot, but tendinitis plus tetanus was not something that I particularly wanted to risk). We ate dinner at the roof patio of the Hotel Palma, which had fanastic views of the old town in addition to its yummy food.  Thumbs up to Ferdinand, our waiter, who was a sweetheart!

The eagle, symbol of Albania, watching over Berat at night

The eagle, symbol of Albania, watching over Berat at night

Dinner at the Hotel Palma with Will and Camille (and my wings, haha!)

Dinner at the Hotel Palma with Will and Camille (and my wings, haha!)

Will and Camille left the next morning, but I still had another day planned.  Remaining indoors and resting my hip during the heat of the day, I went out in the early evening to explore again.  I crossed the bridge near the Hotel Palma to take some photos of the river, which had dried to a shallow stream in the summer heat.  On the opposite side of the bridge, the Gorice section of town, lay a tiny roadside produce market.  I watched as a middle-aged woman led a much older white-haired lady in a black dress down the steps from the Orthodox church.  image

As I wandered, a friendly Albanian man who was missing most of his teeth beckoned to me and offered to show me a spot with good views of the town. Hesitant at first because of my hip and the upwards hike, I accepted and followed him up the steps. Introducing himself as Vasil, he became my tour guide for the next hour. We stopped at the Orthodox church, where we met a young boy of about 11 by the name of Dmitri.  The enthusiasm of these two was infectious, as they leapt around the building (sometimes literally, as when Vasil climbed to a benchtop to get an aerial shot of me in the church!),  pointing out important works.  “See!  This is St. Nicholas!  Very important!  This is Last Supper!  Take a picture! Wait, stand here!  Good view!”  I admit, Vasil has some great photography skills.

Dmitri and Vasil

Dmitri and Vasil

Creatively shot photo inside the Orthodox church

Creatively shot photo inside the Orthodox church

I thought the tour was done, but we continued on, winding upwards through the labyrinthine Ottoman streets of the town, talking in a gibberish of English and Italian and Albanian but able to understand each other well.  Vasil, like the majority of Albanians that I met on this trip, had a very favorable view of Americans.  He scrambled up a roadside wall to pick me a ripe fig off a tree.  I got to see every nook and cranny of that neighborhood.  Above us, a head popped out over a roof.  The woman overhead and Vasil had a conversation in rapid Albanian.  The next thing I knew, I was being led onto the balcony of a family home and taking pictures like this:

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The family was incredibly gracious, with little Elena handing me a tissue to wipe off my fig-covered hands.  Liliana, who appeared to be the matriarch of the family, is going to be opening a guesthouse next year and so gave me a tour of their property, complete with a tiny kitten in the still-unfinished bedroom.  It was a beautiful view.  If I am ever back in Berat, I’ll know to look up Hotel Elena.  I was thankful for the opportunity to meet such a nice family:  it’s experiences like these that make me glad that I am traveling alone.  I don’t know if people would have reached out in quite the same way if I hadn’t been solo.

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Back in town, I stopped again at the Hotel Palma for dinner (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!) and prepared for my trip to Saranda the next day. The promenade between the hotels and the city was flooded with people, who avoided the ubiquitous areas of construction and open holes in street during their evening stroll.

The new university at dusk

The new university at dusk

Riverside promenade (under construction, but still striking)

Riverside promenade (under construction, but still striking)

Berat was a very special city for me due to its beauty and warmth (if not its mid-August heat!)  I know that as the construction finishes, tourism will flourish here, so I was happy to get a taste of it while things are still a bit simpler.  Do yourself a favor and visit, and while you’re there, say hi to Vasil for me.

Categories: albania, balkans, berat, tirana | 2 Comments

To Budva and beyond

This is going to be a short post, mainly because I don’t have much that’s interesting to say about Budva.

The bus from Kotor to Budva took less than an hour.  I walked in the already scorching heat to my hostel, where it was too early to check in.  This was not my first choice of accommodation, but as it was high season and I booked at the last minute, this was about all I could find.  While sweating on the common room couch (which was later covered with a sheet and charged as a bed, I believe), I met a couple of backpackers heading into town and asked if I could join them.  After stops at a bookstore (one of the guys was collecting a copy of Lord of the Rings in every language) and another hostel to meet up with other travelers, the group of us sweated away the afternoon at a bar/cafe in the Stari Grad.  image

Budva's Stari Grad

Budva’s Stari Grad

The hostel crew.

The hostel crew.

Curious dental cafe decor

Curious dental cafe decor

In the afternoon, I tried to cool off a bit by heading to the beach, which was definitely a see-and-be-seen sort of place.   It was like Club Med, only everyone was speaking Russian.

Pretty laundry

Pretty laundry

Mellower section of beach where I went swiming

Slightly mellower section of the beach where I went swimming

Unable to bear the heat anymore, I walked past the plethora of yachts on the dock and back to the hostel to check in.  I had a private closet room with its own bathroom and a dust-caked fan wedged between the wall and the foot of the bed.  In the hallway, I met a friendly German guy with a Fantastic Mr. Fox tattoo on his arm, then kindly declined a staff member’s offer of weed (um, thanks but no thanks?).  Later on, I rejoined the group for dinner and a drink, but the scene along the strip of beachside clubs was not really up our alley. Overly loud techno music, young women with sky-high heels and obvious plastic surgery, and laughably ostentatious decor.  An Eiffel Tower with strobe lights and disco balls?  A neon-lit glass waterfall?  Really?

Although we were enjoying each other’s company, we called it a night fairly soon since some of us had to leave early the next morning.   That night, I had to tip the fan precariously backwards in order to keep my toes from hitting the fan blades in my sleep, which was restless on account of the dust-induced sneezing fits.

In the morning, I tiptoed passed the sleeping backpackers on the couches and the patio tables strewn with overflowing ashtrays and beer bottles on my way out the door. (Needless to say, this was not an A+ hostel experience).  I was all too happy to be leaving Budva: I had a shuttle to Albania to catch.

Categories: balkans, budva, montenegro | Leave a comment

Get your Kotor runnin’

The bus ride from Dubrovnik took much longer than I anticipated. While the bus zipped along for the beautiful views at sunset along the coast, our trip was stalled at the Croatia-Montenegro border for over an hour. After the standard collection of passports for inspection by border patrol, the guards picked two young men -both in scruffy, bohemian clothes- and asked them to step out for questioning and luggage check. I can only assume that they were looking for drugs, because this was not the first border check where I have seen guys with a similar appearance singled out. In the meantime, the bus was shut down, turning the inside lights and air conditioning off: Sweat City. This lasted entirely too long, and I was wondering how much longer it would take, as we still had quite a bit farther to drive and I didn’t bring much food with me. I watched as a family of dogs galloped around the security office like they owned the place.

The men were finally allowed back aboard, and the bus continued in the dark. (Later on at the station in Kotor, there was a huge shouting match between the two guys and our bus driver during which they swore like sailors and accused him of discrimination). The rest of the trip went smoothly, though, punctuated only by the gargantuan yawns of the British backpacker sitting behind me: “YEEEEEAAAAWWWWWWWWWWWW.” After the 7th or 8th of these, she started receiving dirty looks from other passengers. “Whuh?” she countered. “Cahn’t a person even YAHWN in peace?”

Kotor, our destination, is an old city on an inland bay which is often mistaken for a fjord. The road there swerves directly along the water, tracing the multiple inlets of the bay like the petals of a flower. In the dark, only the moonlight illuminated our surroundings. I could see the reflection of the water, the tiny lights from cities across the way, and the eerie blue sheen of the nearby peaks. It would be interesting to see what this actually looked like once morning came. In the distance, I saw rows of bright lights which I assumed was a hotel. As we approached, I realized that it was not a hotel but instead an enormous cruise ship docked at the port in Kotor, dwarfing everything around it. It was almost frighteningly large. The Yawner was also impressed: “GAWD! I cannot even WRAHP my HEAD around the sheer PHYSICS of that thing!”

I had booked a private room with a shared bathroom in the village of Prčanj, which is about a 10-minute drive from Kotor. (I tend to gravitate toward places with unpronounceable, vowel-poor names that end in a silent “J.” They comfort me.  Call it solidarity 😉 ). Once at the station, I had been warned to only use taxis which used a meter, so I accepted a ride from a tough-looking but honest female taxi driver named Anđe. I couldn’t get to the room fast enough: I was exhausted, sticky with sweat, and famished. I was welcomed into the apartment complex by Danijela, the daughter of the owners, who spoke in excellent English and offered me some homemade pastries. I almost cried. She showed me to my room, where I declined her invitation to join her at a neighborhood festival in favor of going straight to sleep.

Peach pastries to match my peach-and-orange guest room.  Delicious.

Peach pastries to match my peach-and-orange guest room. Delicious.

In the morning, I got to see what I had missed the night before. Holy cow.

View from the common area

View from the common area

View from my room

View from my room

Prčanj ended up being the best possible place that I could have stayed; in fact, I ended up booking an additional night (and would have stayed longer had there been availability). The apartments were a two-minute walk from the water. In the village were several small grocery stores where I bought food to cook in the shared kitchen, a few restaurants, several churches, and scattered docks from which to swim. A local bus came by hourly on the way to Kotor and cost only 1 Euro. I saw mostly local tourists (Montenegrin along with several Bosnian and Serbian license plates). Families filled the docks to swim during the day, but the place was quiet and peaceful at night. I was in love.

The waterfront in Prčanj

The waterfront in Prčanj

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It was a great place to do nothing. I’d go swimming daily, enjoying the water, which was considerably less salty than the Adriatic had been, and marveling at the enormity of the surrounding cliffs. I could never get tired of looking at them.  I took a trip one afternoon to Kotor, which was pleasant but whose noise level made me very thankful that I was staying elsewhere.image image

Inside St. Tryphon's Cathedral.  Check out the pink stone.

Inside St. Tryphon’s Cathedral. Check out the pink stone.

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Midway through my stay, I was returning one afternoon from the “beach” and ran into two women about my age in the hallway. I was surprised to hear them speaking English. They introduced themselves as Fernanda, who is originally from Brazil but has lived and worked in the US for over 15 years, and Elena from Italy. Fernanda was also traveling through the Balkans solo and had a itinerary oddly similar to mine. Elena,  a surgeon, was completing a shorter trip, but on her motorcycle. Two words: BAD ASS. They convinced me to ditch my plans of staying in for the evening and to instead join them for dinner in Kotor. They had even arranged a taxi, which would be arriving shortly. OK, twist my arm.

By the way, the road along the waterfront to Kotor could be described as treacherous at best. Not quite wide enough for two cars and at points only inches from a dropoff to the water, it created frequent traffic jams during busy periods and games of chicken where only one vehicle would be able to pass at a time. Add that to the curves in the road, and you can see why I almost got hit several times just while walking to the store. Our cab encountered no hassles, though, and I made our taxi driver (another cool woman who was really into classic rock) laugh by singing harmony to “More Than Words.” The three of us wandered the streets of the old town together.  It was so nice to have dinner with other people: I don’t mind being alone at all, but company is almost always appreciated!

Those cliffs again.  Ain't they purty?

Those cliffs again. Ain’t they purty?

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Mother of Dragons, Montenegro style

Mother of Dragons, Montenegro style

Though Elena was leaving the next day, Fernanda would be staying, so we decided to hit the beach together and then get a taxi to visit Perast, a quaint town on the other side of the bay. We didn’t do too much there other than get coffee, but it was a beautiful place to see at dusk. Fernanda and I got along so well that we checked her itinerary to see if there was a way that we could meet up again somewhere in the Balkans. We set a tentative goal of meeting in Albania in the following week. Isn’t traveling fun?image image image

Note the narrow road and its proximity to the water.  Yikes.

Note the narrow road and its proximity to the water. Yikes.

Oddly well-centered selfie of me, Fernanda, and the Perast belltower

Oddly well-centered selfie of me, Fernanda, and the Perast belltower

With regret, I left the Bay of Kotor for my next stop, Budva.

Categories: balkans, kotor, montenegro, perast, prčanj | 2 Comments

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.

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Lokrum Island (Qarth) in the distance

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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

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Not Ser Pounce

Not Ser Pounce

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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:

Goosebumps!

Goosebumps!

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

Hello!

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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Trogir

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 booking.com, 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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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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