Preface: I had not taken a proper holiday all year. Months of 50+ hour weeks were grating on this wanderer’s spirit. I had planned literally NOTHING for the trip, save a B&B for the first and last days. I had not read the guidebooks. I had not figured out what one does in Croatia or Montenegro or Bosnia and Herzegovina for that matter. But I was on a plane, headed for the Balkans.
Part I: Dubrovnik
I arrive, late and groggy, and foggy from the long flight. Warm sea air and fortress walls welcome me to a new place I’ve read near-nothing about due to a near-overflowing plate of things to do back at home. All work and virtually no play for months make this a much-welcomed holiday (NB: as I begin to write, I am 9 days into a 17-day holiday and have not as yet looked at my work email or read any news.).
I sat and contemplated the upcoming 2 weeks, toes dangling in an aquamarine Adriatic on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, thinking and so it begins:
The B&B here in Dubrovnik is the only place I’ve booked for the trip, and the only “known” knowns at this stage of the adventure are these: my feet are on the ground, there is an old walled city to be explored, and my co-adventurer will arrive at 2100 tomorrow. I am the least-prepared for any trip I have ever taken.
Also, I have never read or watched Game of Thrones. This, I mention, because from the throngs of tourists on GOT tours throughout the city, it’s disturbingly clear that these filming locations were the show-stoppers, and ensuring proper selfie angles were more the goal, than admiring Dubrovnik’s centuries-old and history-rich walls and streets and architectural marvels.
First, Dubrovnik Old Town is gorgeous. Its marble streets are stunning, and the fairytale-esque fortress walls certainly seem less daunting in peacetime than when they were erected – outdoor cafés and gelato shops certainly help. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old city’s fortress walls were built in the 9th Century, re-fortified in the 14th Century, and even further strengthened in the 15th Century. What they hadn’t figured out then was how to protect themselves from a 1667 earthquake that demolished the city, and the 1991 onslaught by the Serbs (ditto). Speaking to any native Dubrovnik-ite, one gets the clear message that the signage throughout the old city about the Homeland War and especially the attack on Dubrovnik in 1991 is there to remind visitors that while GOT is a fantasy world, theirs is an everyday reality. Even 28 years later.
No other metaphor is nearly as apropos: playing something like a Game of Throngs, we walked the old city’s streets and tallied countless steps through the alleys and fortress walls (little did we know that this was only a mere taste of what was to come in the days that followed!), we found what locals consider the best gelato in the city (Peppino’s), the best spot for watching the sunset (atop Mt. Srđ), a quiet place to (cat) nap by the sea, and so many charming little hidden alleys with cats galore.
But 2 days in Dubrovnik is more than plenty, so it was time to move on. Next stop: Montenegro. Kotor first; then, as they say, we’ll figure it out.
*Doživljaj (Croatian/Serbian/Montenegran/Bosnian): n. experience, adventure. NB: I discover that they are not big on vowels here and that many words I’ve tried to pronounce have me sounding like a drunk muppet. Naprijed!
Day 1: Arrival and the beginning of a mini-adventure, in which I meander from Termini (station) to Forum (B&B), arrive in awe of the sheer magnitude of the architecture, and wander about the crowded streets that divide the Fora and lead the throngs to and from the Colosseum.
The evening before, I had boarded a British Airways 747, my frequent flyer miles and some manipulation of schedules landing me in a Business Class seat. A multi-pronged luxury it was, as the past 3 months had been a whirlwind of work and little sleep, resulting in an unintentional avoidance of adulting, and a lack of attention to detail on the home front. When you get home, you’ll have to deal with it all, a somewhat-envious inner voice reminds. That noted, I feel only a bit guilty at the indulgence and glad to leave the gray December New England skies behind if only for a few days.
I arrive groggy, from both a short night’s sleep and more than enough vino plied by the nice airline folk. A Roman day with its crisp and clear blue sky greets me, tho; the relative warmth already seeping into my pores.
Arrival is always a little overwhelming; not knowing the way, the landmarks, the language… It’s mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve eve, my first time in Rome and I’m still semi-embarrassed because it’s a rather frivolous way to end one year and herald in the next. I’m here a day early to shake jetlag and get my sea legs before I meet my co-hedonist. I navigate the uneven Roman streets from Termini station towards my B&B, thankful for Google Maps to guide me because I’m too frugal (read: aghast) to pay the 60€ for a car from the airport. This is a marginally longer commute, but I rather like walking and it’s a nice way to get immediately immersed in a new place on arrival.
I’ve been warned enough of the pickpockets here from the travel blogs I’ve read and all the signage everywhere… Is it such a rampant problem, I wonder, or are they just stoking visitors’ anxiety around being in a Foreign Place? Foreign, being a relative term, as it looks more foreign to me than it actually feels. Decidedly European, I decide on first impression; confirmedly ancient, I then observe, as the Colosseum leaps into view when I turn a corner towards my hotel. There it looms, large and impressive at the end of the via. Another corner, and 3 columns of one of the Fora materialise at the end of the street. Cobbled steps, a fountain (one of hundreds that are scattered throughout the city) flowing with clean, fresh water. 10 more metres and I’m at the B&B, where I see my first ruin up close.
I arrive also
without much of an itinerary, save a map I’ve bodged together to mark recommendations
from friends and sites that look too good to miss. It’s in the spirit of getting the lay of the land that I set
out to wander the neighbourhood to keep occupied and awake enough until proper
Real first impressions: it’s crowded, where crowded is an understatement. I start the journey a little off-put if I’m honest. I don’t want to spend our precious days here waiting in line alongside tour groups. I chalk up the looming mood to cranky, hungry, tired, travel-weariness. But the sites so far are breathtaking: the Colosseum at dusk, the Foro di Augusto glowing in the evening’s light; the Roman Forum across the way; the 35-metre tall Colonna Traiana, with its comic book-looking depiction of the wars between the Romans and Dacians spiralling up its length; the magnificent Typewriter building, the Altare della Patria, whose imposing stature dwarfs the other wonders in this area.** Non male, as they say, for the first few hours…tomorrow, I explore!
Throngs and wonders, a big dome with a hole in it, a creepy crypt, and things that go ka-boom in the night
Day 2: Before C arrives, I’ve got about 5 hours to see some of the sites I’ve plotted on my map. First, it’s the Pantheon – not to be confused with the Parthenon (Athens) or the Panthéon (Paris)! 😂
Like many monuments, the Pantheon is a former Roman temple that now serves as a church (I take a heathenistic moment to ponder whether there are enough congregants for the astounding number of churches in this city). One of the factoids I’ll learn this week is that the dome of the Pantheon is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The astounding fact to me, tho, is that it was built in 126AD and still in pristine condition! And as if to out-do all other fountains I’ll see here, the one in the Piazza della Rotunda is a wonder in its own right.
Speaking of fountains: toss a coin over your (left) shoulder (with your right hand) into the Trevi Fountain, and it will ensure a return trip to Rome (more coins assure both romance and marriage). And over 1m € per year are thus tossed. I’ve read that the €s go to the needy. I’m not hard pressed to fling coins, but I’m pressed hard as I squirm my way to the fountain’s edge, disenchanted by the throngs by the time I’m down there.
On the way to the Pantheon, though, I passed a man playing what I surmise is a hammered dulcimer. He’s set up in front of an elephant bearing an obelisk that sits in front a nondescript church. It’s the little wonders, I remind myself, and not necessarily the big attractions that are some of the most memorable.
After Trevi, I find I’ve still got time, so I head towards the Spanish Steps (when in Rome…). These 174 steps run from the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the the Trinità dei Monti church and are the darling of many a famous movie and song. More fountains; ditto, the throngs: it’s because of the latter that one cannot see any actual steps, and for just a moment I wonder if I’ve mis-stepped in coming here.
Fleeing the masses, I point my GPS in the direction of an Atlas Obscura oddity: the Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts, or the Crypts of the Capuchin Friars. This ossuary rivals that of the Catacombs in Paris; what it lacks in grandeur it makes up for in creativity. Suffice to say that the artiste took creative liberties in arranging not only the stacks of bones (some 4000 skeletons are (dis)assembled here), but also the various bodies in repose (fully-frocked Friars) and flight (child-sized bodies looking down from the ceiling; skulls with scapula-wings). The walls and ceilings were covered in mandalas and chandeliers, each surface laden with myriad symmetrical designs, all made from individual bones and carefully arranged in gruesome patterns that affected something of a moribund paint-by-number display.
As I wend my way back, I stumble across the We Run Rome road race and flash a 2019 goal to do a 10k (we’ll see!). But first, it’s Pizza for lunch, a trip to a local wine and cheese shop for aperitivo supplies and then back to the B&B to get ready for New Year’s festivities.
Ringing in the New Year, Roman style!
Italians eat dinner late. So an 8:30 dinner is on the early side, but we’ve managed to find some fantastic melanzane parmigiana at a little local place in the piazza near the B&B. New Year’s Eve, thus far: Prosecco and Parmigiana. Next stop, Pyrotechnics.
I’m not a fan of huge crowds or wild New Year’s Eve parties. But since it’s my first in a European city, la Fiesta di Roma is on the docket. It takes place in Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), the grand sports stadium where they once held chariot races and Ludi, festivals for the gods. In its day, the capacity was 250,000. Tonight, I’d estimate there’s 50,000+ modern Romans. We listen to the weird music, watch the bizarre dance and aerial show (a tribute to the ludi of yore?) and ooh and ahh over the fireworks display over the ruins of the Palatine palace. It may be the most dramatic setting for fireworks I’ve ever seen.
The festival goes for 24 hours, but 2am feels like we’ve been up for a week. We make it long enough to purchase a bottle of bubbly from a street vendor (C’s post-midnight haggling is impressive!) and toast to goals and future adventures.
*Jet lag avoidance tip #1: when travelling East, stay up as long as possible the day you arrive, so you go to bed at proper local bedtime in an attempt to fool your body into waking up at a moderately human hour the next morn.
**Among other nicknames for the monstrosity are la dentiera (the dentures, in reference to its white marble in stark contrast to its surroundings) and la torta nuziale (the wedding cake).
I’m eating Swedish pancakes and yogurt on a boat in the Stockholm Archipelago, mere steps from the exquisite Riddarholmskyrkan, the Riddarholm Church. Just a bridge and a few more blocks away is the famed Gamla stan and Stockholm’s Old Town, in which I stumbled around during my Day-1-massive-jetlag state yesterday afternoon.
My bags are laden with supplies, for I am to meet my Swedish Interpreter/Adventurer here this evening.
Supplies: enough for the week-long backpacking and kayaking expedition we’ve planned in the Swedish wilderness.
The Swedish wilderness: of this, I am a bit leery, but with the weeks I’ve had back home of late, I’m ready for this or any other adventure the days ahead may bring.
Preparedness: To get myself up to the task, I’ve been walking and hiking and yoga-ing and squatting and planking. And shopping…I’ve got new hiking boots, sleeping bag, pad and other accessories, borrowed a proper backpack. I dehydrated a week’s worth of interesting foodstuffs, made energy bars and snacks. I’ve stuffed it all into my largest rolling duffel, added clothing for being seen in public and touristing around Stockholm for a few days, plus garb for a 3-day stopover in Iceland on my return. I somehow managed to come in under the 23kg weight limit for checked baggage. [Note: it’s an understatement to say that navigating the cobbled streets here is tricky under load.]
Last night I managed to navigate from the airport to Stockholm’s Central Station, then to the Tunnelbana, Stockholm’s Metro, and on to Gamla stan, then a short walk along the water to the boat-hotel, with views of the surrounding islands. Ferries marked “Djurgården” zip back and forth. I’m to discover Djurgården for real later in the week.
Stockholm is a strategically-situated city, the center of which sits amidst 14 islands, an impressive archipelago at the intersection of Lake Mälar and the Baltic. Most of the islands are connected by bridges, making it seem like a nice city to wander around, if (literally) scattered. There are also archipelago cruises you can take, which, I’m noting, would be a lovely way to spend a summer afternoon. Wind is whipping across the way, and it’s September and I’m already layered in an early-winter jacket, so I’m also noting that swimming here might be even colder than a dip back home.
Jetlag avoidance tips: Take an overnight flight. Dricker mycket vatten (employ some of the 11 or 25 Swedish words absorbed for the trip). Remain awake and upright throughout arrival day. Walk off the late afternoon weariness. Take in the tail-end of a half-marathon. Stare in wonder at local landmarks. Eat a proper dinner. Wobble back to boat-hotel, stopping to gawk at the low-hanging crescent moon, shining golden above the twinkling lights of the boats on the water. Collapse into boat-bunk and sleep for a solid 10 hours.
Awake, rested, fed and watered, I’ve embarked on a day of wandering, biding time until I meet up with said Interpreter. It’s bilfria gator dag, car-free day, here in the city center. I have had no time to read up on things to do in Stockholm, so I’ve just wandered down to the waterfront by the Grand Hotel, where I’m currently being berated by a one-legged magpie for not sharing more of my kanelbulle with him.
This city is working its magic on me already. First, it’s spotless. There are trash barrels every 20 metres (where people consciously, if not religiously, recycle). The architecture is a fantastic display of 16th and 17th Century buildings, some even older… In this part of the city, there are churches and palaces and grandly-carved stone arches and gargoyles and rooflines everywhere you turn; the buildings a palette of warm and inviting hues that has me wanting to redecorate when I get home.
I wander into one of the Royal Palace’s exhibition halls to view the decadent royal carriages on display, wherein I learn of a certain young Swedish Count (Hans Axel von Fersen the Younger) and his seemingly torrid affair with Marie Antoinette (in the process noting my ignorance of pan-European historical scandal).
The waterfront: exquisite, as are the elaborately-spired buildings lining the water across the way
Because it’s Sunday and additionally car-free day, it’s quite nice that nobody seems to be in much of a rush to get anywhere. And so, I’m absorbing what I can as a stranger in a (somewhat) strange land.
Observations: Stockholm is a more multicultural city than I expected. Though I of course know different, somehow I still envisioned a city full of leggy blond folk, and I’m curiously surprised to observe legs of all heights and hues, attached to bodies just as varied. This morning I chatted with an Iraninan-born woman, a biomedical engineer living here now. Here, of course, the immigrant debate is alive and well, fueling (or fueled-by) an uptick in the volume of the far-right Swedish Democrats, aparty perhaps more frightening than our own right wing extremists back home.
I’ve overheard chatter in a multitude of languages, and my attempts in Swedish (tack, ursäkta, snälla, en kannelbulle tack…) appreciated and replied-to en engelska. I’d been warned that Swedes like to practice their English as much as visitors want to butcher (erm, attempt) their language (Scandinavian efficiency wins). It’s refreshing, the chatter without the in-your-face loudness of a place that Needs To Be Heard (All The Time!). I realise I’m quieter when I travel; not only because I don’t know the language, but also because sometimes it’s nice to not hear even my own American English.
I take in the quiet of car-free day. And as if to punctuate the day’s non-din, the drumming from two guys in a cart, being driven around by a bike (a Swedish Tuk-Tuk, perhaps?), is a silly surprise as it clambers by.
I stroll. The day warms. And the lovely afternoon affords nearly 20kms of urban hiking by day’s end. It’s time now for this not-as-weary traveller to meet her co-adventurer and continue the journey into the Swedish wilderness.