Posted in Croatia, Dubrovnik, Europe

Croatia – Day 3


26 August 2012 – Sunday

Today we went to the city centre again – not just randomly, like the day before, but on an Old City walking tour. Yesterday, while watching tourists walking on the city walls under the burning sun, I personally felt their pain, already sadly imagining myself in their ranks. The reality was far more enjoyable: we met our guide Ivana – a very nice girl with a bandaged leg – and within a group of 8 people we walked around the Old City in a “derated mode”, trying to avoid direct sunlight and even sitting down every now and then. The tour lasted two hours, during which we learned a lot of interesting things about Dubrovnik.

So, Dubrovnik once used to be an independent republic, known as Ragusa in Latin. The republic was democratic (albeit conditionally, as the right to vote belonged only to male noblemen). The city had a rector, who was elected for a 30-day period during which he had no right to leave the palace, where he lived alone, without family. Apparently, this was done to ensure that he did not have any outside influences and cared only about the government’s interest.

The Republic had very strict rules and laws, concerning even the construction of buildings. Thus, the buildings had to look pretty much the same – no one was allowed to show off their wealth, at least outwardly. The windows of neighbouring houses were not to be facing each other, as everyone had the right for privacy. Nobody could build their house even a foot or two ahead of others; the punishment for violation of the law was indeed very strict: the house would be demolished, and its owner would face a penalty charge AND go to jail.

Foreigners were allowed to stay in the city only during the day – at night they were expelled, and the city gates were locked. The only exception was made for the Jewish quarter, due to the extreme utility of its inhabitants to the city. But this quarter too was locked at night on both sides, so formally it was kind of outside of the city. When Dubrovnikers were blamed for the fact that they were cherishing the infidels, the very diplomatic city authorities replied that the Republic often had to deal with other infidels – the Ottoman Empire – so it was better to have these infidels communicate between each other. By the way, this quarter has the second oldest synagogue in Europe, the first one being in Prague.

In general, it must be said that the mercantile Dubrovnik had always managed to juggle between its main enemies: the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire. Its motto was “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro” (meaning something like “Liberty can’t be sold for all the gold in the world”), yet the authorities spared no expense for buying this liberty – that is, they paid off their enemies.

On one of the side streets we saw the Church of St. Roch – the patron saint of plague patients. There is an interesting story associated with it: once children used to play some football-like game just outside of the church and kept pounding the ball against its walls. At some point the priest had enough of it, so he scribbled a curse on the wall saying “May peace be with you. Remember of death, those playing the ball”. The children scribbled a response – something like “We want to play – and so we will!”

On one of the staircases Ivana asked us if we could figure out why the balustrade was solid up to a certain height. Our version was that it was done in care of children, so that they didn’t fall out. The reality was nothing like that. Noble ladies, climbing the stairs on their way to the nearby Dominican church, of course, had to lift their skirts, revealing their ankles. The architecture of the staircase did not allow loitering young men to stare at them from below.

The old town is associated with many contrarieties, for example, in 1806 Napoleon deceived the authorities of Dubrovnik, asking to give him permission to just pass through the city to hit Montenegrins – the Russian allies. The authorities trustfully opened the gates for the French emperor and… the city was seized. Napoleon even built a fort atop of Mount Srđ. However, these fortifications built by an invader, saved Dubrovnik during the war for independence in 1991. By the way, during this war, Dubrovnik was besieged for real: from the sea it was blocked by the Montenegrin Navy, and from the land it was bombed by Serbs, who also cut off all communications. People, believing that the Old City was a safe place (as bombing historical objects is prohibited by international military law) rushed under the protection of its walls. However, as Ivana told us with indignation, it was bombed in the first place.

But finally there was peace, and as previously, Dubrovnik is respected among Croatian cities. If someone says, “I’m from The City”, this means that they are from Dubrovnik. The rest find this pretty annoying, but nevertheless they have also become used to calling Dubrovnik “The City”.

At the end of the tour Ivana told us a touching story about the local “Romeo and Juliet” – Silvana from the Roman settlement and Dubravko from the Slavic one. As it always happens with lovers from warring clans, they perished. Interestingly, the names of both, each in their own language, are related to the word “forest”, and the name of Dubrovnik itself is derived from the word “dub”, meaning  “oak”.

Left on our own, we walked along the main shopping street, but didn’t find anything decent in terms of good value for money. Tourist shops, no more than that. We wanted to have lunch in the Old City, but somehow ended up in the same terrace restaurant on the Pile Square, as yesterday.

After lunch we went back to the hotel, and as intended, swam in the sea, right until a tangible wind got up, bringing some rubbish to our pristine shores. From the evening impressions it’s worth mentioning an awfully brazen cat in the restaurant: it was not actually begging for food, but rather demanding it discontentedly, wagging its tail menacingly and sharpening its claws on our chairs no less threateningly. Fortunately, one of us didn’t like his Caesar salad, so virtually all of the chicken went to the impertinent animal.

The evening ended with a pleasant walk along the sea, so on the whole the day hasn’t been lived in vain.

Posted in Croatia, Dubrovnik, Europe

Croatia – Day 2


25 August 2012 – Saturday

The day consisted of two parts: a very pleasant swim in the sea and a rather worthless trip to the city. Actually, we only needed to change money, buy some stuff, and eat out for a change.

In the morning we rushed right to the beach immediately after breakfast. The sea here was unusual for us, in the sense that it wasn’t a strip of sandy beach, where you could walk into the sea from anywhere and paddle in shallow water until you reached the depth that was suitable for swimming. Here the shore was rocky, there were only a couple of places with pool ladders, where one could get into the sea, and right at once it was so deep that we couldn’t even touch the sea floor. But it’s almost impossible to sink (hopefully!), because the water is very salty, or at least, it seemed so to us in comparison with the moderately salty Caspian. Anyway, swimming in the sea is an enormous pleasure!

For those who can’t or don’t want to swim in the sea, there were swimming pools – two with salt water, and one with chlorinated fresh water. The beach area was purely civilised, with sunbeds and towels provided to hotel guests.

We indulged in this ‘dolce far niente’ twice today – in the morning and evening. In between, as already mentioned above, we went to the centre of Dubrovnik.

Impressions: hot, huge traffic jams on narrow streets, a hell lot of people (more than in Beijing, it seemed!), the complete absence of any shops (for decency’s sake, let’s say that we might have been brought to a wrong place), so that we were only able to buy souvenir refrigerator magnets. If there was a bright moment in this whole journey, it was eating outside at a terrace restaurant by the sea. So it turned out that we drove for such a long time, stuck in the traffic, only to have lunch. Well, never mind.

Also, as always when we arrive somewhere, we tried to book some guided tours. So first of all, tomorrow, we are visiting the Old City, on Tuesday we are doing the three islands tour, on Thursday we are going to Montenegro and on Friday – to the island of Korčula. We had to worry a bit about the trip to Montenegro: the agent described the tour along the Bay of Kotor as something incredibly magnificent. But as we became totally excited, we got turned down: she was told on the phone that Azerbaijani citizens needed a visa. We tried to argue that we had heard on TV about the temporary cancellation of visa regime for this summer, but we were told – no, we can’t sign you up for the tour, go on your own if you want. We were terribly disappointed, but decided nevertheless to clarify this on the Internet. We could find a couple of news sites, confirming our original idea, although on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Montenegro it was really stated that a visa was required. We made a second attempt to talk to the agent in the afternoon. We barely started to explain the situation, when she happily interrupted us: it turned out that their staff had already checked everything and confirmed that we could go! So, we are going, hopefully the border guards are also informed about the visa regime relief for summer!

Posted in Croatia, Dubrovnik, Europe

Croatia – Day 1


24 August 2012 – Friday

We took the direct Baku-Split flight. There was not a single Croat on the flight, and not even any other foreigner – the plane was packed with Azeris, who couldn’t be any happier with the opportunity to travel without a visa. There isn’t actually anything to be said about the flight, as it was pretty ordinary: we took off, landed, applauded the pilot.

Split met us with a stifling heat, worse than in Baku. That’s what I call “out of the frying pan into the fire”. The airport was very small, “chamber-sized”, I would say.

Generally, when upon your arrival everything passes smoothly and without a hitch: passport control, the transfer driver holding your name sign, etc, – of course, you feel happy about it, but when you start writing, you feel some disappointment, because it turns out that there isn’t much to write about.

But, on our way to Dubrovnik, I made some observations: the first impression was as if I hadn’t travelled beyond Absheron, at least the landscape was very similar. However, it changed quite soon. On our left there were mountains: sometimes green, sometimes bald; and on our right was the clear blue Jadran (Adriatic Sea). Its water was of the colour I’d never seen before, and so clear, that the sea floor near the shore could be seen even from far away. The whole coast was basically one big stone beach (sometimes civilised, sometimes wild), and people were bathing here and there. All along the coast there were signs of hotels, B&B facilities, flats for rent, even rooms for rent in people’s houses – all persistently beckoning tourists. Pretty much everyone was walking around in bathing suits, even in urban areas.

The peculiarity of the way was that part of it (about ten kilometres) passed through a neighbouring state – Bosnia and Herzegovina. Everything was as it should be: the border-crossing post, the police, which, however, didn’t perform any checks, taking on trust that we were driving from Split to Dubrovnik. We noticed that an active construction of new, more serious border-crossing points was going on: in a years’ time this is going to be not an ordinary border, but a Schengen border, as Croatia will enter the Schengen zone while Bosnia and Herzegovina will not yet.

Actually, it has to be mentioned that we had previously imagined the famous “Jadranska Cesta”, that is the Adriatic Highway, to be a really wide highway. In fact it is a quite narrow winding mountain road. In general, the road was very picturesque: the turquoise sea, red tile roofs, trees, palms, flowers, mountain slopes. However, it’s quite far from the stunning beauty of Norwegian fjords. Maybe because a sight like this is more or less familiar to our eyes.

We’d been previously slightly frightened by forest fires occurring in the countly, and we did see smoke on the way, but luckily it was off our route.

The duration of the Split-Dubrovnik “rally” – a little more than four hours – was not enough to be seriously tiring, but slightly longer than required for a pleasant car drive.

The Neptun hotel is part of a resort complex with three pools and a private beach. It made a good impression, even though we didn’t yet have the opportunity to look around properly. Funnily, after all the talks about Absheron, my mobile Facebook made a mistake and, while I was uploading a photo with the sea view, made from my window, it defined my location as Mashtaga (note: it is a place near Baku, famous for its lunatic asylum – so one can just imagine what my Facebook friends thought, when they read my status, tagged in Mashtaga, but saying I was in Croatia!).

By the way, I noticed the dominance of Russian, German and Spanish tourists in the hotel.

Posted in Europe, France, Paris

Paris, je t’aime – Days 8 & 9


28 March, 2010

This was my most idle day in Paris. I was going to meet a friend for lunch, and didn’t know how to kill the time before that. I couldn’t really go anywhere as my ankle still hurt. When I saw 12:00 on my mobile, I started getting ready, but then, giving my watch a glance, realised that I somehow managed to change the clock not one hour, but two hours ahead, so it turned out I had an extra hour to kill!

When I arrived to the place we agreed on (near the metro Bastille; while getting there, I saw the Canal Saint-Martin from the train window, where Amélie Poulain was throwing pebbles, not sure where exactly – the channel is pretty long), I had to wait for my friend for an hour! It turned out that she was coming by car, and not by metro, in order to save time, and it turned out even worse – some roads were closed.

But at least, on her way she called the Latin American restaurant “Barrio Latino” we were intending to go to, and made a reservation (we found out that you had to make one to be allowed in). So there we went, and we had a very good time. The restaurant was absolutely packed, because on Sundays, those who took a brunch buffet were offered free salsa lessons. We were sitting on the second floor, watching people dance downstairs.

As for the rest of the day, I had to spend it in my hotel room – all my friends were busy this evening, and I still wasn’t able to walk by myself.

29 March, 2010

My last day in Paris – hopefully, the last one this time. In the morning I rushed to buy some makeup, and also chocolates for my colleagues in the office (my ankle was doing much better). The weather was very good, and all the beggars had gladly poured into the streets. Speaking of beggars, I didn’t mention earlier that there were a lot of them here! Some of them just sat quietly and peacefully in the streets with signs saying there were hungry, and always with pets (mostly dogs, although I once saw a cat too). I don’t quite get the point of this, probably they have those pets for company, or maybe the sight of a poor hungry animal is intended to soften the Parisians’ hearts more than that of a poor hungry person. And some others keep constantly pestering you in the street, coming up with different tricks – just like that scam with the ring that we had had the pleasure to witness and take part in.

So, after shopping, I decided to visit Versailles, especially that the weather, as I said before, was good. But, as a Ukrainian proverb says (I couldn’t find its English equivalent anywhere), if a poor man is going to get married, the night will be short. In the beginning everything was going fine. I took the metro to Saint-Michel, then changed to RER to Versailles – and there I went, admiring the beautiful scenery along the way – the suburbs of Paris are much greener and more picturesque than the city itself, especially with all the flowering trees!

Once in Versailles, I decided to have lunch first. The waiter in a local restaurant was just bursting with compliments – ah, “princesse”, etc.

After lunch, I walked to the palace, and once in its territory, paid attention to the suspiciously small number of visitors for such a famous landmark. My worst suspicions were confirmed when I went to the ticket office: “Le château est fermé le lundi” (“The castle is closed on Mondays”) – read the sign categorically. Who would have thought that it might be closed on a day like Monday! I should have checked though…

But at least, the park and gardens were open, of course. I wasn’t really up to walking around on foot, but luckily I noticed a little train running through the territory. The ride on the train was very enjoyable – the sun was shining, there were beautiful green lawns and sheep everywhere.

Having made a full circle, I went back to the station, and returned to Paris. But before going to the hotel, I went to Montmartre to see and photograph the Moulin Rouge! And in the evening I met some of my French friends.

Overall, I liked Paris a lot. It’s true that I didn’t have to deal with any local crime or the local bureaucracy. But still, it’s a wonderful city, and I hope to be back some day!