A wall, a missed connection, and a dark past (aka, escaping reality: part III)

Throughout Germany, and many other countries in Europe, there are small brass cobblestones marking the threshold of homes and businesses. Stumbling stones, they’re called. Stolpersteine. Here lived… Here worked… a soul whose days were cut short. I had read about these stones but hadn’t seen any until one morning I (almost literally) stumbled across some at Rungestraße 5, two families’ plights in the stones at my feet.

Here lived Günter, Leo and Ella Brauner…murdered in Auschwitz. Here Lived the Abrahamsohns: Grete…escaped and resettled; David…deported, murdered in Theresienstadt; Walter…escaped, caught, deported, murdered in Auschwitz; Rudolf…Escaped, ran, hid, ran again, resettled.

Stumbling stones at Rungestraße 5

I spent a week in Berlin, walking kms and kms (>50km if add up all the daily steps) seeing where history (and infamy) were made, where brave hearts broke, and where madmen walked. I am here as an experiment in working remotely, so I walked when I wasn’t working, trying to take in as much of the city as I could, in-between time zones, before and after Teams meetings.

I can’t say I fell in love with the city. In fact, a small part of me detested it. But the other part of me started to consider the great lengths this city, this country, has taken not to bury its past, but to exhibit its ugliness in full view and make policy to make certain the atrocities that led to and pervaded during the Nazi rule don’t ever happen again here. Coming from a place whose brief history has been so whitewashed, this approach is morbidly refreshing.

I visited the requisite monuments: Brandenberg Gate, where black and white photos of Nazi parades dance in your head as you gaze in half-awe/half-disgust. Checkpoint Charlie, a now innocuous-looking guardhouse that once made or broke the lives of German citizens, and now commemorates not only the former divide between East and West Berlin, but is a symbol of the different levels of conflict wrapped up in that madness.

I saw the Berliner Dom, the imposing cathedral that looms large on the edge of the Spree. I walked around the hulk of the Reichstag building and I wandered around World Heritage Site, Museumisinsel, gaping at the brilliant architecture of the museum buildings, tucked amongst the modern and brutalist mayhem that is modern-day Berlin. I don’t know what I expected architecture-wise, but since most of Berlin was bombed to smithereens during WWII, there really is no old city left. What emerged from the rubble was spartan at best, gray on even a brilliant summer’s day. I made efforts to find interesting buildings and bridges and monuments each time I set out on foot.

I saw the East Side Gallery, its vivid and evocative murals adorning some of the last intact sections of the Wall. There was the Topography of Terror, an outdoor museum of sorts, bringing the timeline of the Reich and its downfall into the daylight.

I saw the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (aka, the Holocaust Memorial), a strange visit because I was expecting a solemn place, where one could get lost in sadness for those lost lives. Instead, it was a microcosm of chaos, small children running and shouting amongst the columns, the reverberating chatter making me anxious and uncomfortable. Or was it just the place?

Between the historical sites and the city-cum-history lesson were a smattering of parks, and one of the biggest surprises was the Volkspark Friedrichschain, where fountains and monuments and ponds and even a manmade waterfall in an Asian garden make you feel like you’ve stepped out of the grayness of the city for a while. There is art everywhere here, murals and sculptures and brightly-graffiti’d entryways, flashing light into the stone.

The constant reminder that these are not normal times was in the air: the friend I had gone to Berlin to see in the first place ended up being sent to the dungeons of quarantine due to a COVID exposure at work and we missed our opportunity to meet. Par for the course in these strange days…we vowed to meet again soon.

I left Berlin on a DB train, heading towards a stay with another friend and perhaps some greener pastures. The severity and starkness of the city clung to me as I sat on the train and thought about how I’d describe Berlin. It is an imposing city, both in history and in stature. It’s immense and sprawling, a wide city, interconnected with trams and metros and buses, Mitte being the middle of a multi-spoked carriage wheel whose trajectory might have been thrown off a bit by all the cobbles. I’m not a city mouse, I found myself thinking as the train headed south and east, one of its passengers trying to shake the grayness and correlate that with the visceral pulse of the city: there was street music everywhere, a bass-y urban thrum that gave the wide avenues a lifeline. I stumbled across a pot parade which turned into a rave in a park near Alexaderplatz. Electric scooters zoomed down every street. Art. Graffiti. Gelato. For me, the evening lights of the old domes reflecting in the river were one highlight. And I had some fantastic falafel. And I learnt that you must confront, then learn from, your history if you are to move on.


And onward we go… to where the journey caught an unexpected thermal in the ethers and went from a sojourn to a much more substantial experience.

On castles and forests, fairytale villages and quite a lot of chocolate.

When I think about Europe, what arises is the semi-fascination I have with castles and old brick. I gravitate towards cobblestone pavements and the shells of old architecture as much as, perhaps, to the stories and secrets and folklore these contain. And so, rather than sites and landmarks and tourist hotspots, I wanted to experience the essence of Belgium in its culture and villages and the warmth of its red brick. All credit is due to my adventure-spirited Calvin, who (as he does) interpreted my indecisiveness and planned us a route through Belgium that Lonely Planet couldn’t have possibly outdone.

But first, the Ancestors.

Our ancestors are totally essential to our every waking moment, although most of us don’t even have the faintest idea about their lives, their trials, their hardships or challenges. –Annie Lennox.

My grandfather arrived on Ellis Island from Russia, via Poland and then Antwerp, on a ship called the SS Kroonland. The Red Star Line had a fleet of these ships; immigrant ferries, really, that transported fleeing Europeans to a land of new opportunities. On 12 December, 1921, Josel Widra travelled with his mother and siblings on a 10-day transatlantic journey that would seed my New York roots.

So when I was deciding where I’d go from Holland, I set my sights on Antwerp as a starting point, as this is where my travelling genes were pollinated. Maybe.

It turns out that the Red Star Line had a helping hand in the processing of emigrants as well as the shipping. There were lodging houses and disinfection stations and days, if not weeks, of waiting and cleaning and more waiting and more disinfecting. This, after many days’ journey in crowded trains, all the while the passengers were inspected (for lice and disease and of course proper paperwork) at each step of the way.

While I unfortunately didn’t learn any specifics of my grandfather’s emigration (the museum’s research room was closed due to COVID), I did learn about the collective journey, and thus emerged from the experience with more questions than answers about the lengths that a solo mother (my great-grandmother, Tillie), went through to ensure a safe passage from Eastern Europe to a new life on the other side of the ocean.

The hardest of my hardships pale in comparison.

Exploring.

As is our bent, C and I explored Antwerp on foot, basing ourselves in the center of the old city by the Cathedral of Our Lady, a brilliant and towering Gothic church which served both as home base and a lighthouse of sorts when our (read: my) navigational skills failed. We sampled local beers (thumbs up) and local sweets (ditto), perused local art (Rubenshuis), learnt about local legends (Brabo), and experienced a unique sort of local hospitality that I have not yet categorized in a Soup-Nazi-meets-Falafel-King experience that we’re not soon to forget (yet resulted in some of the best falafel I’ve ever had!).

The city is equally charming and confusing, its architecture is an ad-hoc mélange of step-gabled beauties and 1970’s mishaps, with a surprisingly large red light district that cuts a swath across the gray concrete near the harbour. Leaving, I was relieved that the Belgians seem to be taking this pandemic thing more seriously than the Dutch, and I looked forward to exploring both the Belgian countryside and its fairytale villages. Also pralines.

Napoleon was here.

My personal guided tour of Brussels and its surrounds began in the municipality of Rixensart and had us trapising through the lovely trails on the grounds and surrounds of the Château de La Hulpe (trees! flowers! gardens! ponds! and a castle! 5⭐) and then the magnificent remnants of the 1000-year old Villers Abbey.

“Si je n’étais pas l’homme representé dans mes images, j’aimerais être l’oiseau. J’ai toujours envie de m’envoler, de bouger, de partir dialoguer avec le vent.”

Folon

A short ride away, we explored the battlegrounds at Waterloo, my American education’s rendition of European History glaring in its unenlightenment, and then Brussels proper, where I was as equally stymied by the arbitrary architecture as I was in Antwerp. Even more strange was the reenactment of some obscure tradition we stumbled into at the Grand-Place, involving giant puppets, a speech, a parade, and some ceremonial carrying of cheese (or an egg or something) to Greece. I may have some of these details slightly wrong.

We perused the fantastic Cook & Book, saw Mannekin Pis (because, Brussels), and ate gaufres (ditto). After 1/2 a day, a torrential downpour and not enough castles, we were headed to Bruges.

Des pralines et les rues pavées.

The quintessential image of Belgium (in my head at least) is of the medieval cobbled streets and picturesque canals of Bruges. Apparently, after its main waterways silted up (500 or so years ago), Bruges lost out to Antwerp as a major trading/shipping city and this setback ended up preserving the area: its medieval façades remained virtually intact as other Belgian cities gentrified, and Bruges was spared most of the damage from WW1 and WW2 that other cities faced. Today, to say that Bruges’ centuries-old architecture delights and enchants is an understatement.

So we wandered, delighted and enchanted and content, through the rues pavées, over canals, along the river, and in and out of praline shops (n.b., we managed to find the absolute BEST pralines in Belgium)…my only regret of the trip was not buying an entire kilo, as we also managed to consume the lot by the end of the week.

And into the hills…

Fairytale villages, eclectic architecture, historical battlegrounds and loads of chocolate behind us, I had no idea what to expect for hiking in the Ardennes, except that it was to begin with a kayak trip “on that river by the castle”. I had seen pictures, and wanted to experience it for myself.

Fast forward, and we’re kayaking down a semi-bloated river which only weeks before had been the scene of horrific flash floods and unfortunate casualties (life and property). And while the cranky shoulder did complain, the sight of a castle as I’m kayaking down a tree-lined river in the heart of the Ardennes with one of my favourite people on the planet really put into perspective what’s important: the best things in life aren’t tangible, but instead are stitched together from these feelings of warmth and belonging, of peace and ok-ness even whilst floating on a river with a throbbing shoulder thousands of kilometres from home.

(photo courtesy of Chris G.)

The day continued with another castle (la roche en Ardenne), some of the best strawberries I’ve had this season, local beer, Dutch cheese, some borrowed butter, and deep sleep in fresh country air. More kudos to my tour guide for finding us the most precious and absolutely picture-perfect maison d’hôtes in a former farmhouse situated in the heart of rolling farmlands and quaint country villages.

We rounded out this leg of the adventure with a hike: it should be mostly flat…it’s just the perimeter of a lake, after all. Famous last words, but a quite enjoyable 15km trek around the lake/river, its ups and downs testing our wander-weary limbs. The climbs were technical, the views were lovely, and at the end of the day, its two adventurers were sweaty, muddy, hungry, but nonetheless sated…

So I said au revoir to Belgium, leaving things on a to-do list for next time: more hikes, a 1-month sojourn in said guest house to hunker down and study French, more storybook towns and ditto castles.

Next stop, Berlin: Unexpected detours and an experiment in remote work.

On windmills and cheese: A trepidatious foray back into the world.

579 days ago I stepped off a flight from Burma, via Thailand, through Hong Kong, and into a new world order. In that many days, I have spent face-to-face time with fewer people than I have digits on my left hand. This morning was the first meal I have eaten indoors, in a restaurant, in 18 months.

Anxiety, social awkwardness, uncertainty, stranger-danger, general uneasiness… all feelings that have been percolating these last months. And with that also brewing was a weird claustrophobia, leaving me feeling stranded on some desert island. Sans desert…or palm trees…or anything remotely resembling bright blue seas.

So about a month ago, when the EU opened its gates to blue passport holders with that magic little card, I felt like I was holding not a vaccination certificate, but something of a golden ticket. I found myself clicking “purchase” on a round-trip flight to Amsterdam with a long window of unknown in the middle.

Fast forward a few weeks and I’m sitting in a hotel in a little city just north of A’dam, having spent the afternoon amongst canals lined with storybook architecture and meticulously cobbled streets, marshy canals teeming with European waterfoul, and centuries-old windmills looking, even in their retirement, as impressive as the day they were commissioned.

Alkmaar windmill. Yes, this is real.

Welcome to Amsterdam.

I’ll back up a few days to Sunday morning, when I landed in Amsterdam, met a friend at my hotel, and began a whirlwind couple of days traipsing back and forth across the city. Me: masked; the rest of A’dam: much less-so!

My first impression is that travel has changed not least because there are more things to worry about: standing too close to someone in a queue; whether there is outdoor seating at a restaurant; putting on a mask, taking it off, putting it on again, then wondering if it’s ever okay to maybe not wear a mask for a bit; Borders! Did I fill out the right entry form? Can I even enter, or have the rules changed again? It is quite honestly a little stressful. And so I’ve arrived on the other side of the proverbial pond, but have arrived also quite apprehensive. I’m feeling a bit shell-shocked by the amount of “outness” in more than a year and a half. We introverts were able to spend this time mega-introverting…this is hard. And a bit weird. And I’m not entirely sure I want to go back to the old verison of normal.

That said, the architecture is lovely, and I managed to also try many of the local delicacies on offer: stroopwafel, frietjes, and broodje haring. Note: unlike the stroopwafel, broodje haring is definitely a subjective taste: it’s salt-cured herring with pickles and onions on bread, like a cross between pickled herring and a oniony, jello sandwich. Or something. I gave it a thumbs-up! Ditto to the fresh stroop wafels, hand-made using the secret family recipe!

Onwards. Holland, Part II: Windmills and cheese.

Did I mention the trains? Coming from Boston where the T works when it feels like working, and the Commuter Rail takes one far enough as to be only semi-convenient, the trains in Holland are like magic. Take Dutch perfectionism and overlay that onto a web of trains and trams and metro lines, sprinkle in speed and cleanliness, and one gets from point A to point B quickly, conveniently and hassle-free.

As such, it took about 1/2 an hour to go roughly 40km, and like that I was literally transported to that little city north of A’dam: Alkmaar for Part II of my Holland experience: Windmills and cheese.

My first day in Alkmaar was a train ride and a wander about the town, where I stumbled upon a busy-ish main shopping street (bleh) and a load of tourists (no masks: bleh x2), and a local park where I found a windmill and some very strange outdoor art (flanked by a sign in Dutch that read pas op loslopende mensen” which loosely translates to “watch out for stray people” – this, I found amusing!). I went to bed that first night a little disappointed and wondering where had all the windmills gone? (and maybe a little about the stray people)

So it was to my very pleasant surprise the next morning, when I got into a conversation with a local college student out walking her dog, and she offered to show me her city. We ended up at a nature reserve on the other side of town (that I’d never have found on my own!) where there are 4 intact-but-dormant windmills. I learnt that the town had a castle in medieval times, and although the town sat higher than some of its surrounding area, these windmills (there were originally 6) helped ensure that the water flowed away from the castle and the town. From there we looked at the Grote Kerk (literally, big church; more formally Grote Sint-Laurenskerk), wandered about some more, and found possibly the best cheese shop I’ve ever been in.

Windmills and cheese, sorted.

A simple conversation with a stranger led to a serendipitous afternoon and a mini-adventure I’d never have known about otherwise. These are the things I’ve missed during lockdown: small kindnesses, chance encounters, simple but new experiences, cultural connection, situational spontaneity, small wonders with old (and new) friends…


And, so, the short sojourn in Holland ended with my getting on another train… this one to Antwerp for the next leg of the journey: Adventures in Belgium: Castles and forests.

Balkan Doživljaj, final chapter: All roads lead to…Istanbul?

I’ve just spent 2-1/2 weeks travelling, bouncing between historic stone towns wrapped in ancient fortresses and a mesmerising display of what happens when nature gets to push its boundaries. I spent time in Croatia and Montenegro, and then a couple of drive-throughs of the Bosnia end of Bosnia and Herzegovina (passport stamped 2x, but it feels a little like cheating to “count” a country without really seeing it). Croatia, and to some extent Montenegro, draws cruise ships to its ports, but thankfully many of the wonders of both are too far inland or too small to be considered “worthwhile” destinations.

Worthwhile is in the eye of the beholder: I’ll always gravitate towards that which is lesser-known, farther-flung, not-as-trodden, ditto obscure; grateful for the opportunities that health and employment and relative freedom afford.


Before going home, I further bounced to a stopover in one of my favourite cities, Istanbul, where I set my sights on seeing things I hadn’t in my previous visits here. In all its own ways, this city mesmerises. On so many levels, it’s where East meets West and where secular meets orthodox. The Adhan, call to prayer, echoes in the streets at its regular cadence, the chants melding with the city’s din. In the market crowds, suited or Levi’s- and T-shirt-garbed urbanites jumble with burqa and niqab and headscarf-clad women to create a kaleidoscopic patchwork of cotton and silk and wool and skin.

It is an architecturally fabulous city, elaborate and historic mosques and the 5th-century Walls of Constantinople that surround the oldest parts of the city, juxtaposed against the gleaming downtown bridges and myriad shops…there’s a sweet shop on nearly every corner selling a regional favourite – Turkish Delight.

I spend my first afternoon reacquainting myself to this old town neighbourhood – Sultanahmet – known primarily for the Blue Mosque and its neighbour, the Ayasofya (or Hagia Sofia), an Orthodox cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-cultural museum. It’s the latter I’m intent on seeing this day. The mid-day tourist crush has diminished and I breeze in without much wait. It is immense, and an engineering wonder on its own…(the interior height of the dome is an astounding 55.6 metres high). (Re-)built as a cathedral in 537AD, it was considered a pinnacle in Byzantine architecture. Once the Ottoman Empire did its thing in the 1400’s, Ayasofya was converted into a mosque (in the process, the spectacular mosaics were plastered over). Today, the structure serves as a museum, and as such, we see a restoration of the old Orthodox tilework with Christian works contrasted against the elaborate mosque décor, including 8 massive calligraphic discs depicting the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, and other related messengers and bigwigs (thus concludes my knowledge of the Islamic hierarchy). At present, the Turkish government is arming for a fight with the UNESCO folks, as Erdoğan is angling to turn the museum back into an active mosque.

Next morning, I hop a bus to get on a boat that takes me on a water tour from the Golden Horn (Istanbul’s old trading port and current and bustling waterfront) and into the Bosporus Strait, the waterway that serves to connect the Black Sea with the Aegean, and one of primary reasons Constantinople was a key trading post along the Silk Road. There are reminders of Istanbul’s place in history scattered throughout the city, like the Obelisk of Theodosius or a little stela, almost hidden between a tram stop and the crowded entrance to the Basilica Cistern, called the Milion Stone, marking the “zero point” to everywhere else that was important in the Byzantine era, with distances. Constantinople was the center of the modern world and this stone told you how far away the place you wanted to go was from the only place that mattered. It’s these little wonders that just add to the magic of this city.

Istanbul is the largest city that sits on the cusp of two continents, the Bosporus separating the European from the Asian side of the country. And from the water you can definitely see many of the historical influences in the variety of architectural styles. Grand mosques, old and new; modern industrial eyesores, marble palaces, red roofed stone houses built into the hillsides, pretty painted neighbourhoods that look like something from a travel magazine… And, to my delight, a castle! As we make our way down the Bosporus towards a stop on the Asian side, I see a massive fortress on the European side. The Rumeli Fortress, I learn, is one of several fortresses here. It’s not really surprising, knowing something of the history of the region, and these are now (all!) at the top on my list of what to see next time I return.

The Golden Horn is a natural harbour, and as we come into port, it warms my heart to see some of its resident dolphin population. This harbour was once bubbling with fish and these dolphins’ ancestors, but here, too, they’re sadly feeling the impact of overfishing and pollution.

We’re at port and I bid farewell to the hungover Finns I met onboard. My next stop is what’s becoming an annual pilgrimage to the Mısır Çarşısı, the old spice market, where I acquire enough Turkish Delight, cheese, olives and biber salçasi (a thick red pepper paste) to eat like a Turk for a while back home!

My remaining hours here fly by – I walk back towards my hotel along the water, watching the fishermen cast their lines in the channel where the Golden Horn meets the Bosporus. On the way, I wander through the lovely Gülhane Parkı and make it back to my neighbourhood. It’s all becoming more familiar to me; even the human traffic jam I encountered at the spice market seemed amusing, and I had a laugh at the situation with strangers in the crowd.

Dinner is at a cosy little place lit by hundreds of Turkish mosaic lamps, then I meander back to my B&B a bit slower than necessary. Early the next morning, I do a last wander around Sultanahmet before the crowds arrive. I patted some stray dogs, got adopted by a cat, had a fresh-pressed pomegranate juice and then brekkie in the lovely B&B courtyard before starting the journey back to the real world.

In a blink of an eye, I’m on a bus, reflecting on the string of encounters I’ve had in this strangely enchanting city. The bus is taking me back to the airport, and to the air ferry that will magic me over the continent of Europe and then over the sea that separates this continent from mine. Sitting next to me is a smiling woman from Kabul, here in Istanbul for a few days of shopping. Back home, she teaches Arabic. In broken English, hand gestures and Google translate, we shared a little bit about ourselves. Then she WhatsApp calls her teenage son in Kabul so he could meet me. The world is so much smaller than we are led to believe (and parents around the world will forever be embarrassing their teenagers, I think). People are people, regardless of their wrapping.


When I travel, I try to come home knowing more than I did and seeing something new or from a different perspective. Sometimes it makes me question the rat race, makes me more worried about the rabid consumerism that spreads like a virus, makes me want to work harder to find that balance between work and play, where play should win out but doesn’t always…

Until next time, Istanbul. I’m readying for the next adventure…


Read the whole Balkan Doživljaj story here: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains of Montenegro | Part III: Fleeing the Russians for the Countryside | Part IV: Nature, Fog, and Maybe Going to Hell | Part V: In Which I Split

Balkan Doživljaj Part V: In which I battle a crowd for lunch and (travel to) Split

I had sworn to not go back to Old Town, especially now knowing that there are literally two boatloads more people in town than there were a week ago. But… There’s a food festival in Old Town, says my host. And I’ll drive you there on my scooter. My boat doesn’t leave until 4. I’ve already booked my ferry ticket. I can’t refuse.

We zip our way through traffic from Port Gruž to Old Town (this is the way to get around here, I think, as I become a little wistful about my own former scooter) and he locals me through the crowded Pile Gate, bypassing all the tourists as if we’ve got the golden ticket. We do, sort of, because living in a place like this earns you a right to skip past massive tour groups. We wander around the Old Town for a little while as he tells me about the war, his thoughts on immigrants (we disagree), his thoughts on the US’s president (we agree, mostly), and general tidbits about Dubrovnik. Then he explains the lay of the land for the food thing: there are tables set up on which the local restaurants and hotels lay out a spread of food. It’s a charity event, so you buy tickets – each ticket entitles you to some food at each restaurant’s table. So if you want to taste a few things, you buy a few tickets. We’re here early under the guise of my host wanting to go to church at 11, but really the game is to scope out the tables as they’re laid out and see which food you want to taste. They hold the back public until noon, but if you line yourself up at your intended mark, you’ll be right in front of the stuff you want to eat when they open the gates.

At a few minutes before noon, the emcee announces it’s time to start, which turns out to be a happy chaos. It also turns out that they don’t really care about the tickets all that much, so I’ve bought 2, plus one for wine, and I’m able to taste a smattering of fabulous seafood dishes plus some decadent desserts. My host is a big guy who has done this before so he’s at the front of the crowd in no time, helping me squeeze my way in to get to the good stuff. It was a funny scene, great food, and I’m glad he talked me into going. With the crowd at hand, the event was over within an hour, and I was back on a bus to Port Gruž in no time, with plenty of time to wander the throngless Port area, pack up, and get ready for the next leg of my journey.


Fast forward 5 hours and I’m some 230 kilometres north. It’s almost 10pm, and I’m wandering around dark streets in a completely new place. Google Maps is telling me the guesthouse should be Right. Here. And it isn’t. And I’m exhausted and I’ve got a head cold and I want a hot shower and a comfortable bed. So without the help of the kind waiter at a local restaurant, I might still be looking for that teeny tiny alley, behind another little restaurant, exactly where Google said it should be. By this point I had begun inventing Croatian expletives (hint: there are not many vowels in use).

The good news was that my Dubrovnik host had made arrangements with my Split host, and she was expecting me. So I was greeted with a smiling face; I had a hot cup of tea, a safe place to crash, and all I needed to do was figure out what to do here for the next few days.

There’s some history in this city. The Roman Emperor, Diocletian, built his retirement palace here in the 3rd Century. It evolved from a palace and fortress to a retreat for Roman royalty into the city itself – to this day Diocletian’s Palace remains the center of this bubbling place, stone archways, labyrinthine streets, narrow alleyways and all!

But I’d had enough of the cruise ship and tourist crowds, so after a day of seeing what Split’s old town was like (Diocletian blah blah, 1000-year-old palace walls, gelato, Egyptian relics, cats, narrow alleys and – WOW – where did that giant statue come from, and why are people rubbing its toe?), I decided to split Split and get me into some nature.

First up was Krka National Park. I get on a tour bus in near dread mode, then lighten at the prospect that I’m not required to stay with the group for more than an hour or so at the beginning, and then I’ve got most of the day to wander the park.

This is labelled as the mini-Plitvice, so the expectation is lakes, waterfalls, lush forest. What the guide, nor the guidebook, adequately describe is this geared-for-tourists place where you walk on a wooden plank path, counterclockwise around the park (follow the arrows; those who go against the grain will be flogged), landing at the prescribed shops and/or viewing stations along the way. There is no wooded trail, per se, and it is virtually impossible to get lost. It’s end of season here as well, which works in my favor: the crowds are smaller, swimming is not permitted (bonus opp for the picture-taking), and there are no lines for the ferry which ferries us from the small town of Skradin, across the lake, to Krka National Park proper.

The lakes here are a mesmerising emerald green and give the impression that some mythical creatures reside in their depths. In fact, there is one such being in Croatian folklore called Vodanoj, a water spirit who lurks by old mills (one still is in operation here), awaiting unsuspecting humans to trap and keep as slaves in their underwater castles…maybe it is he (or she) that helps these lakes give off their mystical hues.

I’ve wandered from the pack at this point, walking the prescribed path to admire the small falls and ponds along the way, and then to stop and gape at the exquisite Skradinski Buk, Krka’s crowning gem. After this, the rest of the park is disappointing, and since I’ve got something like 3 more hours here, I decide to walk the 4kms back to town rather than take the ferry.

Back in town, Skradin turns out to be something of a hideaway for boating types and rich recluses (one of Skradin’s claims to fame is that Bill Gates called it his favourite place in Croatia). There’s a marina, and if you follow the river far enough, you will eventually end up in the Adriatic. For a panorama of my surrounds, I climb to the top of the Turina fortress, built in the 13th century by the Šubićs (one of Croatia’s twelve noble tribes). From this perch, I enjoy the view over the sweet little town. After a while in the hot October sun, I descend in search of gelato. Finding the shop closed, I decide to rest on the sea wall by a park, where a few of the local swans stalk tourists in search of snacks. Unbeknownst to me, the she-swan is jealous and threatens to take me out should I flirt with her mate any further. At least I come away with all digits intact, and a bonus silly photo opp or two.

The next day’s adventure is the farther-flung national park called Plitvice (pronounce it if you dare) Lakes. This is another UNESCO World Heritage site*, and a proverbial Instagrammer’s dream for its teal pools and magnificent waterfalls (Veliki slap is nearly 80 metres high). Again, this park has been plotted (and gridded and girded) for the tourist trade. There is NO hiking here, and one may only travel via the planked paths around the park. Luckily, our group is small-ish and the tour guide bearable, so the few hours of the sheep-like following of the paths is tolerable. I resent the bus/train up from the parking area to the start of our journey (why can’t we walk?); the boat ride down also seems frivolous, but the intent here is to move as many people around the park as efficiently as possible, not to actually experience the nature that surrounds, but to view it and move on. Stopping to gaze for more time than it takes to snap a selfie is mostly frowned-upon, as the group needs to progress on schedule. By the end of the day, I’m feeling a tad like I’ve been a piece of luggage on a baggage carousel, wary of getting bumped by other baggage angling for the perfect angle. Also glad it wasn’t higher season, as I can’t imagine what that experience would be. I get back on the bus more under than whelmed to the overall Plitvice experience. The highlight was probably the restaurant we visited en route home, where we shared road stories over local cheeses and salad and beer (and tea for me – still fighting the bug).

These tour experiences further convince me that group travel is not my thing, though I’d met a couple of other solo travellers this day – a Canadian and an Irish woman, with whom (in search of a currency exchange and some gelato) I’d get lost in the alleys of Split’s old city that evening.

This is the beauty of itinerary-fluid solo adventures: the laughs one has with people you may or may not ever see again; the solidarity and trust forged in fleeting road connections. We laugh as we rub the toe of St. Petar (he was the first to go against the Vatican and deliver mass in Croatian rather than Latin. Heathen!) Lore has it that you rub his big toe and your wish will come true. I rubbed and wished…Jury’s still out on saintly magic.

I’ve got a morning to wander the promenade and the old town, then a bus (and a promise of another stop – and passport stamp – in Bosnia), then back to my guesthouse in Dubrovnik and an early morning flight to Istanbul for a few days to round out the Balkan Doživljaj.

That last evening, I run through the past two weeks in my tired head. I indulge in some brown bread from the little local bakery with some cheese and figs (and Ajvar OMG!) I’ve saved from the fresh market in Split… and I’m going to sleep this last Balkan night sated. I’ve hiked mountains and seen some unbelievable vistas; spent a week making memories with one of my favourite humans, and learnt how to pronounce some words I may never use again (and botched many more!). I’ve nearly filled my passport, adding 3 countries on this trip; and I’ve rekindled a love of seeing the world. I’ll go home with a camera full of photos, a head full of words, and another dose of Fernweh, that farsickness that draws me away when the real world gets to be just too real.

Next stop, Istanbul.


*UNESCO World Heritage Site tally for this trip, 6:

Croatia: Old City of Dubrovnik, Historical Complex of Split with the Palace of Diocletian, Plitvice Lakes National Park

Montenegro: Bay of Kotor (Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor), Fortification of Kotor (Venetian Works of defence between 15th and 17th centuries), Durmitor National Park, Biogradska Gora (on the tentative list)


Read more about our road trip: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains | Part III: Fleeing the Russians | Part IV: Fog and the Road to Hell (sort of)