Day 6 – Hot Child in the City

This morning we woke early to clear blue sky and calm clear water. We had to get up and go a little earlier than normal, as we were taking a water taxi from our home base in Perast across the Bay of Kotor to the town of Kotor. Kotor is the main town within the bow tie-shaped bay and has become a popular cruise ship port, so the town has gotten busier and busier in recent years.

The water taxi is really cool and a great deal – 3€ to take the 45 minute put across the bay. The service itself is a pilot project – the boat is electric, zero emissions and sponsored by the United Nations.

The three of us and two Welsh ladies boarded and enjoyed the smooth trip.

As we rounded a corner, we saw two huge cruise ships anchored in the bay at Kotor, enormous and ominous looking compared to all the speed boats and sailboats flitting across the bay. We braced ourselves as we knew it was going to be a busy day.

Kotor is a medieval fortified town that changed hands with whichever empire was dominating the area at the time – Bulgarians, Venetians, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian – but the architecture is Venetian.

Kotor is known for squares and winding pathways and alleys – basically the best thing to do there is to get lost.

Ma and Pa wanted to try and conquer the 1400 stone steps up to the fortress on the hill, which sounded like a complete nightmare for me, so we parted ways, them heading to the ramparts and me winding deeper into the town, a specific destination in mind.

As far as I can tell, there is only one place to buy used vinyl in Kotor, and that place is called Vinyl Caffe. Vinyl Caffe isn’t at all a cafe, but a small hallway of an antique shop, and nestled near the rear of the shop are a few crates of records. I wanted to see if I could find some Montenegrin releases of some of my favourite albums, or at least some old Yugoslavian hit records. The shop keep spike very limited English, but I asked if she had any 70s Yugoslavian prog rock. She said a firm “yes”, and immediately pulled out a record with an unpronounceable artist name, album title, but a provocative album cover. I asked if we could listen to it and she said “of course”, pulled the record out of the sleeve, manhandled the vinyl slightly before placing it on her turntable and dropping the needle. The album was exactly what I expected it to be, folk-influenced prog rock, straight out of the 70s and sung all in Serbo-Croatian (one of the tracks even translates to “How Does It Feel to Kiss A Bosnian, Baby?”). I handed over some Euros, thanked her enthusiastically and headed back out to the stone corridors of people and heat.

Another fun fact about Kotor – it is a town of cats. There are cats EVERYWHERE, snuggled in corners, sunning themselves in squares, snaking through your feet as you eat. The cats of the town are very well looked after, as locals leave out bowls of water and piles of kibbles for the fuzzy felines.

Still on my own, I settled on a shaded pizzeria in a pretty square where I ordered a cold draught and wrote some postcards, getting a few updates from Ma and Pa – “hot. Lots of people. Dumb people” and “20 minutes in. Hot.” Even as I peacefully drank and wrote, I had a small grey feline friend occupy the chair opposite me at the table, who meowed, then entertained themselves with the chair cushion ties.

A bit later I got a text from Ma saying “3/4 way up. Too hot. Coming back down”. About 20 minutes later I was reunited with Ma and Pa, red faced and drenched in sweat. That climb is a bullet I’m thankful I dodged. We ate lunch at the same pizzeria and then decided to get lost in the winding ways of the town.

Most of the shops in town sell either typical souvenirs and tchotchkes, antiques or cat-themes wares, interspersed with cafes and wine bars.

After stopping for another drink, we walked back to the port to hop on our electric water taxi back to Perast. One of the ferryman asked about my tattoos and said how an artist that he knows will be charging him $1200 for a full sleeve. He spotted my Baba Yaga’s hut and noted that in the Balkans they have a similar folk character, but she’s knows as Baba Roga.

By the time we arrived back in Perast it was time for dinner, so we had chicken cooked over an open flame, local bread and beer, then headed back to our room for the night.

Day 5 – Come Sail Away

This morning we were awaken at 0400hrs by a flash of light that lit up the room and a deafening crack – a storm had made its way over the mountains and into the Bay. It went on for about 20 minutes, and it felt like some of the strikes hit our hotel.

When it was actually time to get up, the sky was overcast but not heavy with rain. We enjoyed breakfast outside, leisurely sipping our americanos and orange juice and chowing down on corn flakes with cut up banana (my favourite vacation breakfast).

One of the things we really wanted to do while we were here was to visit a church. But this isn’t just any church – this is a Catholic Church built on a small island that was built upon sunken pirate ships in the middle of the Bay of Kotor. Our hotel offers 5€ boat rides there, so we paid the ferryman and putted over to the middle of the bay.

I’m of course in my element, because if you’ve read my previous years of travel, you will remember how much I love boat tours.

Our ferryman dropped us off, letting us know we can spend as much time as we like on the island. A little bit about the island – it’s an artificial island, with construction starting in 1452 when sailors found an icon of Madonna with child on a rock. Over the years they filled seized pirate ships with rocks and sank them in the same location, and once the island broke water, they built the Catholic Church that stands there today.

The Church is tiny, with a small sanctuary and a bit of an ad hoc museum upstairs, housing all sorts of recovered treasure and bounty adorning the walls and floors.

After moseying through the Church, we grabbed a bench outside and watched two enormous cruise ships enter the bay, and dark dense clouds creep over the mountains. Being from Raincouver, we know when it’s time to start looking for cover.

We found our ferryman pretty quickly and boarded the boat as droplets started to fall. After the five minute sail we were back on land and downpour was imminent, so we found a covered restaurant, ordered grilled meats and charcuterie and watched the warm, pouring rain.

Maybe two hours passed, and the sky was nothing but blue and white fluffy cloud, and the sun heating up the air and evaporating any puddles left on the road. We had noticed a small ice cream stand right beside our hotel and decided it was time to test it out.

My lavender cone was delicious, but the sun was making us drowsy, so we all grabbed our books, found some chairs in a sitting area of the hotel and read away the afternoon.

We watched a few wedding parties and tour groups stroll by, and before we knew it, it was dinner time. We again dined outside, tried the local rakia and watched the sun set.

Day 4 – Seaside Rendezvous

This morning we were leaving not only the town of Dubrovnik, but also the country of Croatia for the rest of the trip (well, until we have to go back to the airport at the end), so we repacked our bags and had breakfast on the go. We hired a driver through a car service to take us from Croatia to our next stop, Perast, Montenegro with a stop in Herceg Novi for lunch. We wheeled our luggage across the shiny cobblestones and stole a few glances of the old city for the last time, happy we got a second at Dubrovnik but it was definitely time to leave.

Our driver arrived early in a black Opel. His name is Jasmin and he struggled out of the vehicle with a cane, so told him not to worry and loaded the bags ourselves. During our drive to the border(s), Jasmin pointed out a lot of interesting facts about the surrounding area (why an island is cursed, which mega yacht with helicopter and submarines belongs to a Russian oligarch, where he lived when the Serbians invaded) and had some real talk that has been repeating and resonating a lot with me lately – live your life to the fullest, because you never know when it can all get taken away from you. Six years ago Jasmin had been riding his motorcycle when he had an aneurysm that left him completely paralyzed. His wife sold his car rental business and left him. He now has full use of his limbs and is working again, often mentioning how lucky he is, instead of complaining about his lot.

The border between Croatia and Montenegro is like a double border – you go through a crossing to leave Croatia, then through a no man’s land, then another crossing to enter Montenegro. Both crossings went smoothly, and soon we were coming upon Herceg Novi, a quaint little old town (although Novi means “new”) that sits on the north end of the Bay of Kotor. Jasmin said he would chill by the car and smoke while we went into the old town for some lunch.

The old town is tiny, but clean and cute. We picked a restaurant with a charming owner and funny waitress and dined on beer, salad and fries and made friends with the local cats.

After getting the obligatory fridge magnets, shot glass and post cards (and trying to get away from the book seller trying to sell me his book of sonnets in English, French and German), we met back up with Jasmin and headed deeper into the Bay towards Perast.

Perast is very small, and the main seaside street is pedestrian only. Jasmin called our hotel to advise them that we were close, and the staff met us at the gate in a hotel branded golf cart. We said our goodbyes to Jasmin and scooted off to our hotel, sitting perfectly in an old stone building with the adjacent restaurant jutting out over the Adriatic Sea.

Perast is not very big, and the majority of the village is lined along the water; seafood restaurants, boat rentals, stone piers.

We dumped our things on our wood-beamed room and headed out to walk the seaside street. The weather is interesting and ever changing here. The Bay of Kotor is Europe’s southernmost fjord, so the bay is nestled between green stony mountains. Like in Vancouver, the clouds get stuck over the mountains, dumping their payload there while the bay lies drenched in sunshine. The water is clear and aquamarine, warm on my toes and the briny breeze reminds me of home.

We chose to stay in Perast over the more popular Kotor, as Kotor hosts cruise ship crowds and we wanted to take a break from getting bumped into.

We came across a bar hanging over the sea and decided to take a break for a beer (sorry Croatia, the beer is definitely better in Montenegro) where we relaxed and talked about the upcoming Canadian federal election.

We paid our tab and realized it was time for dinner, so we headed back to the restaurant attached to our hotel, lauded by the internet and travel books alike for its outstanding seafood dishes. Sadly for us, none of us really eat seafood, so we tried their non-fish fare (which was mediocre at best).

After dinner we turned in for the night, watching the lights from across the bay sparkle and turn in the emerald water.

Day 3 – It’s Like Thunder, Lightning…

Today is our last day in Dubrovnik before we ease down the coast of Montenegro, and we woke up to torrential rain and crazy thunder and lightning. In Vancouver we’re known for rain, but this was some RAIN. We took our time getting ready, bought a couple of umbrellas and headed for a leisurely breakfast overlooking the old marina. We watched as tour after tour group paraded by, a walking rainbow of waterproof ponchos shuffling by.

After breakfast we headed to the first of two monasteries we wanted to see, this one being Dominican. The Dominican Monastery is known for its beautiful chapel and peaceful cloister, as well as a good collection of artwork. As I am not a religious person, I try to enjoy the monasteries and cathedrals for what they are – architectural feats and priceless pieces of art.

The entrance fee is a pittance, but we paid in trying to navigate around the tour groups, walking slowly and bleeding into every walkable crevice so that when we got caught in a tour group, we kind of had to make the same movements as the tour group.

We made our way to the cloister right away, quiet and lush, an oasis in the middle of the busy arid city.

We moved into the small art gallery, filled with dim and dark brush strokes depicting Jesus suffering and the sainted patrons who helped bank roll the church. What I was most interested in was a 15th century book of motets and mass (think post chant, pre JS Bach), with square runes instead of round note heads. I wish I could read them.

After enough time fawning over the relics of martyrs, we headed towards the other monastery of interest, the Franciscan. In order to get there, we had to cross town, shoulder to shoulder with every other person ever, so we decided to take a less busy back alley.

A back alley in old Dubrovnik is a delightful thing – lined with quaint cafes and restaurants, lamps, greenery, cats and galleries – out of the sun and myriad of people. We reached the Franciscan Monastery, paid not the right amount (the front desk clerk could be described as “day drunk” and gave us a deal) and entered again into a serene cloister, very similar to the Dominican one.

The main reason why we wanted to visit this monastery was because it houses one of the oldest still operational pharmacies in the world (3rd oldest in Europe). There was a small museum and gallery in this monastery as well, with a wall dedicated to the ancient instruments and bottles of tinctures from the days of yore.

There were again more paintings, relics, and a few hymnals from the 14th, 15th and 16th century, but the most impactful thing for me, was a framed hole in the wall labeled “shell shot December 6 1991”. We haven’t talked a lot about the Balkan War on this trip, but on the previous mentioned date the Yugoslav Army (later called the Serbian Army) bombarded Dubrovnik’s old town, leading to worldwide condemnation and sanctions. The army retreated and left Croatia to declare their independence (only to siege Sarajevo for 4 horrible bloody years that somehow evaded the notice of the West). I think the reason that the Balkan War resonates with me is not only because I fell in love with Bosnia 5 years ago, but because I remember the War. I was young, but I remember hearing names like “Sarajevo”, “Serbia” and “Milosovic”, and we have been able to speak with people who lived through it. Anyway.

We were keeping our eyes to the skies as we had read that there was another storm moving into the city, so we decided to grab a drink by Onofrio Fountain (our waiter asked “do you have somewhere safe to go? There will be storm”) and an ice cream while we watched the black clouds roll in (I had mint chocolate, Pa had “Game of Thrones” flavour, which is dark chocolate and rum). We got back to our apartment in time to hear the skies to rumble and light, followed by the deluge. We listened to podcasts and played games on our devices as we waited out the weather. Around 1700hrs the clouds broke, the blue skies came back and we headed to a beautiful restaurant for some happy hour cocktails (Pa had Glenmorangie scotch, Ma had some sort of virgin berry cinnamon concoction and I had a raspberry rum cocktail) and a delicious dinner of roasted chicken and ratatouille.

As the sun set over the old city, we wandered back to our apartment for the last time, taking in the smells of lavender and incense and the golden glow of the buildings.

Day 2 – Out On the Tiles

This morning we were up bright and early (brighter and earlier than we intended as we’re still on incredibly jet-lagged) as we wanted to walk the old city walls and ramparts, and we wanted to do it before the crowds as before the heat got too oppressive. The walls are the most recommended thing to do and we didn’t get a chance to walk them during Dubrovnik 2014, so we made sure we did them this time.

We got to the entrance by the Ploče Gate by 7:55, and it opens at 8:00, which we’ve learned by now is merely suggestion, and not a hard and fast rule. We were 2nd in line with a queue already forming, and the poor gate worker could not get the ticket machine working. It’s not something he could just wave people in for free – entrance is about $20CAD. After about 10 minutes of fumbling, trouble shooting and calls to what I assume is Croatian tech support, the poor significantly sweatier man got the machine working, and we were through.

The walls were originally built in the 9th century and further fortified in the 14th century in order to keep out the Turks (a common theme in the area). You can also see the difference in the orange tiled roofs – faded tiles are obviously older, bright orange indicates the roof and/or building didn’t survive the significant shelling during the Balkan War of the 1990s.

The walls are almost 4km with lots of stairs and ramps along the way, and for someone whose limbs can best described as “dachshund-esque”, some of the stairs were pretty challenging. The views made the blasting of my quads, hams and glutes worthwhile, with a total panorama every step along the way.

One thing I always think is interesting when huffing around in 29 degree weather is the fashion. When I travel I wear pretty basic clothing – black pants, black low-cut top – the Kelly uniform. There were women in sky-high espadrilles, women in unflattering tune tops, women in shockingly short dresses, schlepping their shit up all those stairs. If they can stay cool and comfortable, more power to them.

The sun started to really punish us, so we stopped at one of the many refreshment stands along the walls for some orange juice, but were swiftly talked into some “signature” drink there. Turns out, this pink concoction contained not only oranges, but also beets and carrots. Not super refreshing or tasty, but very healthy.

The wall walk ended up being more interesting with more beautiful views than I was expecting, so I’m glad we did it and would recommend it to visitors! It’s supposed to take about an hour, but it took us two, as we stopped a lot to take what felt like the same photo 30 times.

It was a little after 1000hrs when we exited the ramparts so we decided to get a lot of water and coffee as well as some brunch in a beautiful restaurant that faces the marina so that we could people watch and watch the boats come and go. The coffee was delicious and our water looked like Croatian Javier Bardem.

The rest of the day was a relaxing one. We left the marina and headed for Buža 2 – another bar built into the rocks on the outside of the wall. They didn’t have the lemon beer that Pa and I have come to love, but they had cold beer and beautiful views in spades.

After our drinks and a mid day siesta, we went to a tobacco shop to buy some stamps and then set up shop at one of our favourite people watching restaurants along the stradun where we sipped more beers and I wrote and sent some postcards to some of my nearest and dearest. Again the parade of people was a fascinating sight – tour groups, bros, a bridal party, screaming children with disinterested parents. After dinner, we headed to back to our apartment around the corner, as it took every last ounce of strength to wash my face and brush my teeth before crashing into bed at the ripe old hour of 1930hrs.

Day 1: Well It’s A Hot One

After a relatively eventless travel day yesterday (Vancouver to Frankfurt, 4 hour layover including beer and pretzels, Frankfurt to Dubrovnik) we arrived at our apartment in the heart of the old town at around 1800hrs. Our apartment is mercifully air conditioned and surprisingly quiet, as all around it restaurants, markets and tchotchke shops are bustling.

This is actually our 2nd time in Dubrovnik. We originally came in 2014 during our Balkan odyssey where things went awry mere days into the trip, as on day 2 in Sarajevo Pa tripped on a low post and shattered his elbow into a bajillion pieces. After 5 days in a Bosnian hospital, 2 surgeries and a bunch of steel in his arm, Pa met up with us in Dubrovnik, only getting to spend half a day there and drowning his sorrows in spaghetti after eating only what can be described as gruel at the hospital. Obviously, we wanted to recreate our memories of the city.

This morning we wanted to get up and out to not only beat the heat early, but also beat some of the crowds – Dubrovnik’s popularity has skyrocketed since it was burned to crisp by some dragon lady in some show (I’m kidding. I know it’s called King’s Landing in Game of Thrones). We had a delicious and leisurely breakfast on the main stradun, enjoying some French toad while listening to American rockabilly before we started to amble around.

We wandered out to the water, clear and emerald green and turquoise, where boat tour operators hawked their business and bikini-clad twenty-somethings headed for the cliffs.

We walked as far as the path would allow before we turned back, seeking shade against the already oppressive sun. Even by 11am, most people were sporting sweat-soaked spots on their shirts.

One of the cooler spots in the old town is a place called Buža, or “Hole”, because you quite literally have to crawl through a hole in the city walls to get there. Once through the hole you climb down stone stairs to a bar, shaded by bamboo and clinging to the rocks overlooking the Adriatic. The view is spectacular, and although the drinks are expensive, you’re really paying for the experience. Because we were there relatively early, we grabbed a good table facing the sea and enjoyed a few beers (and a Fanta for Ma).

Leaving Buža we noticed the town was busier (cruise ships had moored) and the sun was hotter. Me, and already ghostly white person, had started to pink about a half an hour in the sun.

We wandered around back alleys and passageways until we came upon the Spanish Steps. The steps are a beautiful grand staircase that connect the upper part of the old town to the main level, and I think I heard the words “shame walk” a dozen times – these stairs are prominently featured in an episode of Game of Thrones where Cersei takes her walk of shame (I don’t know the story behind it, I’ve never watched the show). Tour guides were scattered about the steps, all holding up pictures of Lena Headey in her questionable pixie cut.

Ma and I decided that we should continue our travel tradition and pick up some fridge magnets (and me some postcards for some choice friends), so we walked up one of the main market streets, mottled with shops selling jewellery, lavender goods, licensed Game of Thrones merchandise, and typical souvenirs. By this time the streets were packed, everyone bumping elbows and jostling each other to get around. We took respite in an ice cream shop that we had noticed the night before, as it had a line up out the front door. I had a lemon pie ice cream and could see what all the hubbub was about.

Sweaty, sun-weary and jet lagged, we decided to head back to our apartment for a brief siesta in order to cool down and take a bit of a snooze.

About 2 hours later we were ready to get sweaty again, so we went to the main stradun, grabbed an outdoor table at a restaurant and sipped lemon beers while we watched the people go by. Soon, it was dinner time so we made for a large square where we ate spaghetti and roast chicken before retiring for the night.

Day 24: The End of the Road

This is my last post of the trip as tomorrow is our last full day and we’ll be just relaxing and I won’t be taking any photos.

We decided to take the day to explore Antwerp. We had a lovely breakfast and headed to the Church of Our Lady, a giant Catholic/Calvinist/Catholic Church in the middle of the old town that houses 4 paintings by Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens. The church also has one really big tower and one noticeably less grand one beside it, as the money had run out and they did what they could to just finish it up.

I found the Rubens works to be very dramatic, lots of movement, but not my favourite style of art. The Rubens pieces in the church actually inspires a story called A Dog of Flanders about a boy named Nello and his dog Patrasche who spend all the spare time they can revelling in the beauty of the paintings. The story is very sad and ends tragically, and attracted a Japanese diplomat who brought the story back to Japan in the early 1900s, and to this day is a popular story among Japanese youths. There is a tribute to Nello and Patrasche out front of the church.

After saying goodbye to Rubens, Nello and Patrasche, we headed to the square over, that houses one of the landmarks of Antwerp, the Brabo Fountain.

The story is, is that back in the day there was a cruel giant who lived in the area named Druon Antigoon. Antigoon would guard a bridge along the river Scheldt and collect taxes from those crossing or passing. If you couldn’t pay, Antigoon would rip off their hand and toss it in the river. Finally, a brave Roman soldier named Brabo killed the giant, cut off his hand and threw it in the river. According to legend, in Flemish it was called “hand werpen” (hand + to throw), which is how the city got its name of Antwerpen.

We hung out with Brabo, then decided to grab some lunch and a beer in the sunny square.

Following lunch we headed to the river side and took the old clacking wooden escalator to St. Anna’s Tunnel, a 900m under ground tunnel that takes you under the river. We considered walking the length of the tunnel, but the cyclists zipping past us made us nervous, so we went back to the surface.

We headed further north to the industrial/port area of the city, where stands a gleaming modern structure of brick and glass, the Museum Aan de Stroom, or MAS.

MAS is 10 floors of art exhibition, from the Flemish Masters to modern photography. The sun was pressing, so we tucked into the MAS cafe for a beer and some ice cream. The roof of MAS is a free panorama, and Pa and I wanted to check it out (Ma wanted to stay more grounded), so we took the 10 escalators to the very top and looked over the rooftops of Antwerp.

Back on solid ground, we walked back into the old town, to a restaurant where we had reservations for dinner with our cousin Dominique and this time with his wife Els, daughter Eva, son Cédric (my 3rd cousins), and Dominique’s parents (who would have been 1st cousins with my grandfather Joseph). We drank beer and dined on Flemish classics (stoofvlees, a beef and beer stew served with frites) and got to know each other better, share stories and DeCaigny history and characteristics. We ate dessert and drank coffee, took photos and sadly parted ways, my head buzzing with the connection I had made with a family member I just met this week.

Sunday afternoon we fly out of Schiphol, 11 months until our next European sojourn. Thanks for joining me this year.