Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the tag “Beach”

Vietnam – Day 8

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12 June 2017

Yesterday’s excursion was the last one with a guide, but the Vietnam tour continues. At 7.30am we were picked up from our hotel by a minibus – and off we drove to Halong, where we were supposed to take a cruise around the bay

The drive from Hanoi to Halong took about four hours, including a stop halfway. There wasn’t anything remarkable on the way, and there were seven of us in the minibus: a Vietnamese lady, a company of three Colombians and one Peruvian, and us, obviously. Finally we arrived on the Tuan Chau island, looking like a proper resort, with an aquapark – and merged into a large crowd of people awaiting the ship. At first we were unpleasantly surprised, as we’d been told that the cruise was designed for a rather small number people (44 guests max), but then it turned out that all these people were actually waiting for three different ships.

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As a result, we boarded ours with our fellow minibus riders and a few more couples, families and companies. As a welcome, we were offered some juice, instructed on safety and itinerary, placed in cabins and served lunch.

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Halong Bay is probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, if not the most. We are surrounded by lots of limestone cliffs and islands covered with greenery, jade-green sea, cruise ships and small fishing and trading boats.

After all the excursion rush on previous days it felt so blissful to just lie in a chaise longue under the sun on the upper deck.

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But in any case, we didn’t get to lie for long – in about an hour, everyone was offered to get on one of the two small motor boats that were traveling behind our ship in tow. We were first taken to some sort of cove, fenced off by rocks from the rest of the bay, with an entrance through a small grotto. There were actually two options to get into the cove through the grotto: either on a bamboo boat with a group of people and a local boatman, or in a kayak, paddling yourself.

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At first, although the idea of ​​kayaking seemed pretty tempting, we were somehow feeling scared – neither of us had ever tried before – and were more inclined toward the bamboo boat. But once on the spot, when we heard that the staff were happy to watch our cameras, we changed our minds.

First, when we just were seated in a kayak, given a paddle each and pushed away from the pier, we felt a bit lost and couldn’t figure out how to paddle, clumsily navigated our way into the grotto, crashed into another kayak, hit the wall, hit a stalactite – and then we finally figured things out and learned to properly paddle, turn and navigate the boat. It felt great, especially that we learned a new skill, even though paddling was pretty difficult – too bad we were only given 25 minutes. By the way, on the rock above the grotto we found an inscription saying “Lesozavodsk 1962”, I wonder how and why it even got there!

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The next stop of the motor boat was the Ti Top Island with a beach. But apart from the beach, there was also an observation deck, right at the top. Of course, I totally had to go there, and that is when I realised that all the time I’d spent on the StairMaster machine in the gym had not been wasted: I managed the 400-something stairs leading to the deck surprisingly easily, while many others struggled and had to settle for an intermediate viewing platform halfway.

Even though, having made it to the top in this humid stuffiness, I was absolutely drenched in sweat, but the full view of the bay which I got to see, was more than worth it. Such incredible beauty, it’s not for nothing that Halong Bay is named one of the seven wonders of nature!

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The descent on the way back, seemed harder and scarier, I must say, but the refreshing sea down below seemed like a reward!

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Kudos to the cruise organisers, who provided for everything: we were given beach towels; then as we stepped off the motor boat back onto our ship we had our feet washed with a hose; the dirty towels were then spread on the floor to make sure we didn’t slip or wet the floor.

After that, they announced the happy hour and gave us some time to relax on the upper deck with a nice tropical cocktail.

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But we didn’t have time to get bored, since a master class on making fried spring rolls started very soon. It didn’t require too much effort from our side actualy: all we had to do was to wrap the prepared stuffing, consisting of rice vermicelli, white and spring onions, minced pork, two kinds of mushrooms, carrots, raw eggs and spices, into rice paper. The rolls were then deep-fried in soybean oil for us, and we tried them, dipping them into fish sauce (that stinky one).

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That wasn’t our only meal for the evening, and dinner was served pretty soon. After the dinner, there was see some French film about Indochina and squid fishing planned – but we weren’t too keen on the former and completely forgot about the latter, going to bed at 9pm instead, because we have major plans for tomorrow: wake up at least at 6am for a taichi class, and preferably even earlier, to catch the sunrise.

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Singapore – Day 5

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28 November 2013

The day turned out very diverse in content which ranged quite impressively from the Universal Studios amusement park to a classical concert. But – one thing at a time.

Since the day before we had spent very limited time on Sentosa, we decided to repeat the visit right in the morning, and started again from the beach, and from the same one. We had kind of got used to it somehow, but the beach attendant must have been having a senior moment: he asked us literally all the same set of questions as yesterday: where we were from, whether we spoke Russian, what kind of country Azerbaijan was and whether it was close to Kazakhstan.

Siloso Beach

Sentosa

Even though the attendant caused a puzzled laughter with his repetition, the sunny weather which also replicated that of the previous day, was accepted with joy. The water was unpleasantly different though: tons of algae had been brought by the wind, and there was also something stinging in the water.

Sentosa

We hesitated a lot whether to visit the Universal Studios after all, or not. Having googled it thoroughly, we found out that it was basically nothing more than just an amusement park, and I personally am not a big fan of those. Nevertheless, we still decided to go and take a look – a very expensive look, I have to say.

Universal Studios

As a result, we, limited in time (due to the concert in the evening!) visited only three of the attractions. The first one was a complacent and almost childlike Sesame Street ride. The second one could have been the Transformers, but we noticed just in time that the ride included rotation and tipping upside down, which I absolutely can’t tolerate – and escaped.

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

The one we found tempting was the attraction themed on the ‘Mummy’ and ancient Egypt. And that’s where our adventure began! First of all, it turned out that we were not allowed to take anything inside – so everything, including bags, had to be locked in a locker. We accidentally shut the first one, even before we had time to read how to set a passcode for it, and had to call the attendant and ask him to open the locker, promising to show our passports as soon as the bags containing them would be removed from there. We then put our belongings in another locker, properly following the guidance. There was a sign saying that the first 45 minutes were free of charge, and we recklessly trusted the digital clock showing 15 minutes waiting time in the queue – so we didn’t take any money with us, especially that we didn’t even have pockets to put it in. And there we went, right into this hallway, imitating an Egyptian temple, where we got stuck in an endless queue in a totally dark corridor, which took nearly an hour. The ride itself was very short. We expected something absolutely scary, but it was rather fun, despite the dizzying turns forward, backward, up and down, as well as the roars and spits of fire of the Egyptian priests. When we finally got to our locker, we couldn’t open it again – the free time had expired, and all our money was locked inside – so we had to call the attendant for help once more.

Universal Studios

And the third attraction was simply a little 4D cartoon about Shrek with shaking, water splashing and some hairy stuff, supposed to represent spiders, touching our legs.

Of course, we were ‘felled’ by the Egyptian attraction – if it hadn’t been for the hour-long standing, we could have caught another attraction. And all we had time for was having lunch at a Chinese bistro on Hollywood street right at the Universal Studios. At least we were precisely on schedule.

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

And finally the long-awaited concert! It opened with Lyadov’s ‘Enchanted Lake’, but the word “enchanted” can be also applied to our overall impressions of the concert. It was truly an awesome event! Actually, it was a concert of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, considered the best in Asia, directed by Lan Shui. And Lang Lang – a phenomenal, brilliant pianist – was taking part in it, playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It’s difficult to find words to describe the amazing impressions that his performance left on us. I was literally taken away, even being aware that if a piece of music as difficult to grasp as this one, had been played by someone else, it could have just seemed to me a set of random sounds and nothing special. Lang Lang’s virtuosity, power and dexterity are striking, and you just can’t imagine how anyone possibly can perform this piece at all. We were seated so that his face could be seen, so we had the opportunity to observe the infinite palette of his emotions.

Taking pictures and videos was prohibited (that’s how the lockers theme was continued – we had to lock our cameras in one before the concert), but when Lang Lang gave an encore, I, like some others, contrived to take a few pictures with my phone. Talking about the encore – the public went so wild that, despite all his efforts to simply take a bow and leave, he had to stay and play an intermezzo by Manuel Ponce and a waltz by Chopin.

Lang Lang

At first I thought that Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, which was to be played in the second part, was just an unnecessary appendage to the great genius Lang Lang. But in this case there was another genius – actually Tchaikovsky himself, with a very good performance of the orchestra and Lan Shui’s conducting.

Overall, I enjoyed the concert so much that even having to wait an hour for a taxi, which wasn’t extremely pleasant, didn’t spoil the great mood.

Singapore – Day 4

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27 November 2013

This morning, right after breakfast, we went up to the concierge in order to find out whether there was anything interesting going on in town. Instead of an answer, he handed us a brochure, where we read that tomorrow there was going to be a performance of Lang Lang – the Chinese pianist that we had seen in a TV-programme quite some time ago in London, got very impressed and had been dreaming to hear live since then. And now we were lucky: he was here!

We immediately changed the plans for tomorrow: the concert in the evening would make it impossible to spend a whole day on Sentosa island. So we decided to book our concert tickets and then go to Sentosa right today. These plans were overset by the rather useless concierge: in response to our request to book tickets for us, he muttered with a strong Indian accent that he couldn’t do this, basically telling us to go book ourselves. We asked him to clarify whether we needed to go directly to the concert hall and got an affirmative answer. We found this pretty strange, as almost anywhere, we thought, there at least existed box offices around the city, if hotels didn’t provide such services.

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Quite obviously, we didn’t know the exact location of the hall, so we had to stray a bit – but no rest for the wicked, so we strayed, searched and found. The receptionist at the concert hall – a nice Chinese young lady – seemed way more helpful than our concierge: she told us that the ticket office actually opened an hour later, but there were options to either book tickets online (and she gave us the link) or else to buy them from SISTIC Outlets – a ticketing service with outlets all around Singapore (which actually did exist after all!); she then asked us where we were going from there (to the Harbour Front station, in order to head to Sentosa from there, as you remember), and advised where the nearest outlet was. Surely there must have been at least one around Orchard Road as well, and if the concierge had told us about them, he would have saved us at least an hour, or even an hour and a half.

Esplanade MRT Station

Esplanade

Outram Park MRT Station

Anyway, we found a SISTIC Outlet in the Vivocity mall, which could be accessed directly from the tube, bought our tickets and, totally relieved, albeit later than originally planned, got on the Sentosa Monorail right from the mall. By the way, the train fare can be paid with EZ-Link cards, which are also valid for other types of public transport, and can even be used even in some stores.

Waterfront Station

Once on the island, we decided to limit ourselves to the beach and the Aquarium only, and then come again another time to visit the Universal Studios separately. It was lunch time and we sat down in an Asian eatery, where, as we had already seen in many places, the complete diversity of the south-east Asian cuisine was represented by countries: China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia – but also some western food, like spaghetti or Fish’n’Chips, for those tired of Asian food. Generally, what I like in Singapore, is this spirit of pan-Asianism – although it would be weird to expect anything else from a city-state with such a colourful ethnic composition: the backbone of the population is formed by Chinese, Malays and Tamils.

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

The weather was exceptionally suitable for the beach: as a special gift, the sun was shining all the time, without a single drop of rain (all the previous days had been cloudy). Arriving at the Beach station, we realised that there were beaches both to the left and to the right, and, after hanging about near the signs announcing this, like Buridan’s donkeys, we eventually chose the one to the right – Siloso beach. We had never seen such white fine soft sand before. The beach was quite uncrowded. Among the few other visitors there were a group of teen school students (maybe even skipping classes) who were swimming right in their clothes – both boys and girls.

Siloso Beach

Siloso Beach

Siloso Beach

Siloso Beach

Siloso Beach

After swimming to our heart’s content we headed to the Aquarium – the largest one in the world. It’s simply gorgeous, especially its huge glass arches, where fish glide both along the walls, and above one’s head – a very strong impression. We took tons of pictures and videos of various fish: the “smiling” rays resembling Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson, disguised as a ghost, the sharks with their concentrated yet dazed snouts, and the moray eels. I loved the large amphitheatre, where the whole wall was made of glass, and it felt as though there was a whole ocean behind it. There we just sat on the floor and stared at the fish scurrying to and fro, among which rays stood out again, but this time giant ones.

Little Ray

Some Crustacean

Nautilus

Some Jellyfish

Some Jellyfish

Ray and some other fish

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Shark

Shark

Moray Eels

Lionfish

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Next to the dolphin displays, we were warned not to attract the dolphins’ attention, or beckon them, because they might decide what we offered them food, get discouraged and never come again when beckoned. It is understandable, as dolphins are highly intelligent beings, unlike, for example, some big fish, which had been staring at us for quite a long time with the stupidest expression (and painfully resembling someone I know, just couldn’t remember who exactly it was) – whether you beckon it or not.

Stupid Fish

Dolphin

We had dinner right on Sentosa, and oddly enough, at a Mexican, not Asian restaurant.

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – Baia di Sorgeto

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Whoop whoop, it finally happened – the bustling Larissa’s efforts overcame the passivity of the Italian side: they managed to find the tour operator conducting tours in Russian, and its representative came to our hotel to provide all kinds of guidance to its Russian-speaking  guests.

A small group of the latter gathered in the pool area, dominated (or at least, so he thought) by a man from St. Petersburg, with traces of heavy drinking on his face, not speaking any foreign language, and trying hard to show everyone how rich and cool he was: he expressed the desire to have only individual tours, was only interested in Michelin-starred restaurants and said something like “One should use a choke chain on the tour guide, to make sure they only do what you tell them to do”. His aspiration for ‘separatism’ was actually quite convenient for us, as this specimen would be extremely unpleasant to be around on any tour. His wife, by the way, looked quite simple and seemed to feel uncomfortable with her husband’s statements.

As a result of the conversation with the representative of the tour operator we got vouchers for a tour on Wednesday, and also learned about the Sorgeto bay located right here, near Sant’Angelo, and Le Fumarole beach located on a volcanic basin, heating the sand up to a hundred degrees centigrade. It sounded, though, like all you could to at Le Fumarole was baking potatoes and eggs in the sand, so we decided to abstain from a trip there and visit Sorgeto. As we were explained, the beach there pretty much consisted of natural stone beds with trickles of thermal water at 90-100 degrees Celsius flowing into them from under the ground. Combined with sea water, it results in overall temperature of around 35-40 degrees.

We took a water taxi to Sorgeto. The sailing was very pleasant, and we saw the “Elephant” rock on our way. However, Sorgeto itself, where we had been even encouraged to go at night, did not impress us that much: it was basically a jumble of huge boulders, looking scary to even step on (to us, at least), and even more so to try to lie on – it seemed absolutely impossible. Therefore, we returned to Sant’Angelo on the very next taxi.

Can you spot the elephant?

 

Baia di Sorgeto

 

Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – Ischia

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On our first day in Sant’Angelo we took a look around. At first glance our hotel seemed small, labyrinthine and beachless. We stared in disbelief at a small stone slab under our balcony with a couple of sun loungers and pool ladders leading into the sea. Look, we were saying to each other pointing into the distance, that hotel there has got a magnificent sandy beach. Had Booking.com simply duped us like that? It hadn’t, as it turned out. A huge spa area, covering the entire hillside, with a variety of pools – with thermal water, sea water and fresh water, hot and cold – and also part of the same beach which we had been drooling over – were all part of our hotel complex. Then we faced another problem: in order to reach it, we had to walk quite a long way up and down the stairs and paths under the baking sun. Looking ahead, I can say that in the following days this road did not seem as painfully long, as for me personally, I sometimes swam all the way from the stone slab to the sandy beach instead of walking there (about five hundred metres across the sea).

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

The Tyrrhenian Sea is clear, blue, moderately salty (not as salty as the Adriatic), the only problem is going in and coming out: the sand here is quite different from the dense and compacted one we have at the Caspian Sea, on which one can walk without falling through, the local sand actually looks more like tiny pebbles.

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

So what can I say about Sant’Angelo? It is a village, situated in the south of the island and is connected by a thin isthmus with a small peninsula, which is basically a lava formation. In the very heart of the village there is a pedestrian zone comprised of a square and a few adjacent streets, dotted with restaurants and shops. The shops look tempting at first glance, with closer examination, though, it turns out that a lot of them sell very cheap trash or the same kind of trash, but at exorbitant prices.

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

The food here is quite good, but rather unvaried: seafood, pizza and pasta. Interestingly, there are virtually no soups. The atmosphere in this area is very Italian with music playing, people dancing, children screaming, their mothers yelling at them, someone fishing and small mongrels barking furiously. Somehow the children are mostly girls: it’s either that a century of peace awaits Ischia, or for some reason boys are kept at home.

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

The vacationers here are mostly Italians themselves, there are also a lot of Russians, some Germans, French and British, and that’s pretty much it. There are no Chinese or Japanese tourists, which is surprising – I think you’d agree that places without crowds of either, cause some suspicion.

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

Here our observation of the locals’ laziness got developed and validated. To begin with, the vacationers swim surprisingly little – if you see someone swimming in the sea, most certainly they’ll turn out to be French, or Russian, or those writing these lines. Italians prefer to float lazily on mattresses, or not to go down to the sea altogether, lying around the pool instead. As for the staff, it is astonishing that any simple request grows into a big problem requiring a vigorous discussion between a few people.

For instance, on our very first day, as we usually do arriving to a new place, we tried to book tours and excursions, naively believing that this should be an easy and usual practice for the hotel. We came to the reception, and the girl working there readily laid out several maps and brochures, noting the places which she would recommend to visit, and considered her mission completed. We let her know that we weren’t going to call any tourist organisations or taxi services ourselves and clearly hinted that we expected these services from the hotel, in accordance with the notices on the walls. The girl was surprised and puzzled, and called a colleague to help. He pulled out a few more maps and brochures, and, in his turn, showed the places, which, in his opinion, would be interesting for us to visit. We stood our own and tried to persuade them into organising something for us. Finally, he remembered with relief, that they had a Russian lady named Larissa working for them, and she would come in the evening and help us.

Unlike the Italians, Larissa took up the matter enthusiastically. She told us that only the day before she sailed to the Amalfi coast on a private yacht with a Russian couple for 1,500 euro. We asked her to take us at least on a tour around Ischia – and a cheaper one preferably! – and agreed for the next day. Larissa had been living in Italy for the past seventeen years, so had perfectly mastered the talkativeness of the locals. However, these talks ended with zilch: she didn’t manage to get the day off.
Then we went back to the reception and importuned the girl until she finally called us a taxi. This is how we literally wrung out of them a trip to Forio and Ravino Gardens. Gino, the driver, turned out to be a nice fellow, who couldn’t speak a word of English, though – however, he knew a couple of phrases in German and for some reason was using them every now and then communicating with us. Here it’s worth pointing out another feature of the Italians – they are normally nice and willing to help, unless they are playing the big boss. So Gino voluntarily offered to take us not only to Ravino Gardens and Forio, but also to drive us around the whole island, for just a little extra payment.

The Ravino Gardens are basically a small botanical garden dedicated to cacti and succulents only, which are more numerous and diverse than in the famous glasshouses of Kew Gardens in London. The specialty of these gardens is their own very tasty cactus cocktail.

Ravino Gardens, Ischia

Driving us around the island, Gino still somehow managed to give us explanations in his Italian-German and diligently stopped in the most beautiful panoramic places for us to take pictures. So we pretty much saw almost all of the towns of Ischia: Forio, Lacco Ameno, Casamicciola, Ischia Porto (where we took a look from afar at the Aragonese Castle, a local landmark on the top of a cliff), Barano.

Forio, Ischia

Lacco Ameno, Ischia

Ischia Porto

Ischia Porto - Castello Aragonese

Ischia Porto

Ischia Porto

Croatia – Day 8

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31 August 2012 – Friday

After the two tours we had had with the “Elite Travel” company, where we were picked up next to the “President” hotel, our impressions about this company and their work were quite good. And looks like we put an “evil eye” on them: our today’s trip to the Korčula island started with a hitch: the bus didn’t arrive. It turned out that the day before we had been forgotten to be included in the list. As a result, we were picked up by a separate minibus and delivered to the port of Gruž, where we eventually found our group and the guide. The guide (also named Ivana) initially seemed to us a bit rude (instead of apologising immediately, she attacked us – saying something like, come on, what’s your problem, you’ve been finally brought here after all!), and most importantly, uninteresting – she was literally falling asleep while making comments in English and German. She seemed more willing to speak German, by the way – generally I noticed a clear preference shown to German tourists here.

Another problem – among the group there was a family with a two-year-old toddler, for whom this long road, quite obviously, was way too long: in the good moments he was spinning like mad, while in the bad ones he was crying and throwing up. So, his presence added neither peace, nor fresh air to other passengers.

We climbed high into the mountains, again very close to the burning Bosnia. In the town of Slano we picked the last passengers. The location is called Slano (“salty”), because, starting almost from the first settlements, when salt used to be worth its weight in gold, it was mined here. Because of this salt, the Ottoman Empire’s caravan ways passed through these places.

This time the road was totally crazy. In some parts of it even looking down was scary, and at the same time it was hard to tear oneself away from the window – the view was unbelievably beautiful!

Virtually the entire foreseeable space around us was covered with vineyards. The plan was to visit one of them for wine tasting on our way back. Our guide told us that mainly red wine is produced here, and Postup is considered to be the best of all. Looking ahead, I can mention that Korčula is famous for its white wine, Pošip.

We were transported to Korčula on a small shuttle boat from Orebič (a very nice town, by the way), and got to observe how cars and even buses were transported on a large ferry.

In the town of Korčula we were to visit the Old Town, and the whole group was divided into English speakers and German speakers. The English speakers stayed with our gloomy, moody and sleepy guide, – and that was when she suddenly revived, and showed great artistry and a sense of humour.

First thing, she told us about the local “wind rose”. There is the north wind “bura”, which blows in winter and brings clear and sunny weather, although lowering the temperature to zero. There is a south wind called “jugo” or “siroc”, the locals’ least favourite: it blows from the Sahara in summer and brings dust, and, oddly enough, rain. The city walls are located so that this wind could penetrate the city as little as possible. Finally, the wind most preferred by the population is the western “mistral”, bringing cool air in summer. The city is open for this wind from the sea, and, as Ivana joked, this was the first air-conditioning system in the world.

On the city gates the name of the first Croatian King Tomislav is engraved, and above it there is the Venetian winged lion, as the city used to belong to the Venetian Republic for a long time. These lions usually have their attributes, or symbols, showing how easy or difficult it was to get into the town. If the lion has a closed book before it, it was hard, and if the book is open, it means that the Venetians were accepted almost with open arms.

We came to Korčula thinking of ​​Marco Polo, because we had heard that he was from here. However, it turned out that Venice claims to be his hometown as well, and also, his home as such does not exist – the assumed house is a ruin. As our guide indignantly mentioned, in communist times nobody really cared about history, and in the times of crisis the intention even was to sell it. Luckily, the town borrowed some money and bought the house out (currently the price of these ruins is half a million euros!), but that money wasn’t enough to restore the building and make a museum out of it, as planned. For the time being some enterprising and patriotic Korčulan opened a souvenir shop named after Marco Polo, and behind it, the Museum of Marco Polo, in a totally different place.

By the way, three things are cited as proof that Marco Polo was born here indeed: first, there is a De Polo family still living here to this day, while in Venice there are no families with such name. Secondly, there exists a register of baptisms of the 14th century, which mentions Marco de Polo. Of course, the great traveller lived in the 13th century, but because it was quite common to give children the names of their ancestors, this could well be some great-grandson of his. Well, and thirdly, the book written by Marco Polo’s cellmate brings his own words, saying that he saw the tower of his hometown Corcyra Melaina and sailed towards it. It is proved that this is how Korčula was called in the ancient times, and no other city, including Venice, has claims on this name. As there is only one tower in the town, the house of Marco Polo could be identified.

One of our stops was in the atrium. Ivana showed us, where the mayor and his secretary would seat and how they would collect the citizens’ complaints, literally portraying and mimicking each of them.

In front of the atrium was the doctor’s house. Doctors used to be lured from Venice, the bait being this very house. The doctor could live there with his family as long as he remained in the service of the city of Korčula.

We made good use of our free time – at least, I got a chance to take a quick dip in the sea, right in the city, among boats – even there it was very clean. I deliberately found a deep place, as it was impossible to get into the water in the shallow part because of the large slippery rocks.

On the way back we were taken to a huge winery belonging to the Matuško family. This family produces 500,000 litres of product annually, 90% of which is red wine, and the remaining 10% is comprised of white wine, dessert wine, schnapps and olive oil. They have huge cellars, completely cluttered with enormous barrels.

The first wine we tried was Plavac Mali. The name generally belongs to a grape variety, grown in the continental climate, in places where there is enough water, but not so much sun. 4—5 kg of grapes can be collected from one plant. The wine turns dry and light (only 12.2%), and is only drunk young.

The next wine was Dingač, made from the same grapes variety, but grown in Mediterranean climate: a little water and a lot of sun, and the sunlight comes from three sources: direct, reflected from the sea and reflected from stones. As a result, no more than one kilogramme of grapes is collected from each plant; the wine turns more robust, almost black (14.5%), and is preserved for several years.

The next drink to try was the sweet dessert wine called Prošek. It can be maintained for many years: according to tradition, when a child is born in a family, a barrel of Prošek is made, and it can only be opened at this child’s wedding. Personally, I found it it too sweet. And finally there was a 40% grappa and a 25% cherry brandy, made from this very grappa.

We then had a short stop in the town of Ston. There, too, there is the old town and a fortress, but we didn’t get to see them.

Croatia – Day 7

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30 August 2012 – Thursday

Today, by contrast, was a very active day: we took the long-awaited trip to Montenegro. The mountain forest road, which took us quite long to drive through until the border, was indeed beautiful, but the day was extremely hazy. At first we thought it was fog, but then it turned out that it was the smoke from forest fires in Bosnia. We were told that the situation was really critical there, so a few sections of Croatian firefighters were sent for help.

In general, our guide Petra told us a lot of things, mostly about Croatia, though. For example, we learned that the Lokrum island (very close to Dubrovnik), famous for its parks and entertainment,  had been cursed. A very soon death is believed to await anyone who stays there overnight. The superstitious Dubrovnikers still believe in this, so every day the last, eight o’clock boat to the city is fully packed with people hurrying to leave the island.

We also learned that  Dubrovnikers do not like to rent housing, but tend to buy it instead – so they feel safer. In this case, they have to take mortgage loans for 30-40 years because of very high cost of real estate.

Driving further up in the mountains, we saw three islands from up high: Mrkan (St. Martin), Bobara (St. Barbara) and Supetar (St. Peter’s). In the 14th century, first quarantines in history were located on them, and all those traveling to Dubrovnik (then Ragusa) were required to spend 40 days there, hence the name (from the Italian word “quaranta” – “forty”). Owing to this, plague spread very little in Dubrovnik.

Driving past Konovle, we heard about the fertility of these lands. Here exists a kind of black market for vegetables here: there are women working on the fields, referred to as “our ladies”, who can be called any time and asked to deliver fresh vegetables, which they will do the same day (or, the latest, the next morning), bypassing shops and markets.

We got slightly anxious, approaching the Montenegrin border, and took out our passports and insurance documents in advance. But everything went smoothly and no one got into the bus to check anything – Petra sorted everything out by herself.

Generally, the difference between Croatia and Montenegro can be noticed immediately: Montenegro seems poorer, the houses are more dilapidated, there are lots of signs in Cyrillic script (they use both Latin and Cyrillic scripts here) and in Russian too.

The official currency is euro, even though Montenegro is not part of the EU and not going to be one in the foreseeable future. There is an explanation. This area is located at the junction of the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, which results in frequent earthquakes. After one of such earthquakes in the second half of the XX century, Montenegro had to borrow money from Germany for rehabilitation and reconstruction. When in the 80’s Yugoslavia suffered an economic crisis and, therefore, a high inflation, Montenegro, in order to pay off the debt in German marks, asked for permission to make them their local currency. After Germany switched to euro, so did Montenegro. However, the government does not have the right to print money, it still gets it from Germany.

In general, we were told that the highlanders and the seaside residents were like two different nations. The highlanders used to lead an austere life, and very often, especially during the Second World War, when a family was left without men, some women had to take on the role of head of the family. These women, called “virdžina” (i.e. “virgin”), dressed like men, carried weapons, talked about themselves in the masculine, were always in the company of men, and only performed men’s duties around the house. Nowadays this tradition has practically disappeared. As for the seaside residents, they, in particular Kotorians, used to be were very educated (education was received by both young men and women, even from common families) and looked down upon the highlanders.

When the Boka Kotorska (Kotor Bay) eventually  appeared in sight, we were really disappointed: in the haze it looked like a decal, devoid of any colors, moreover, the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see almost anything. We were taken to a place which was supposed to have a magnificent view and where we could take photos of the Kotor Bay. But there wasn’t much to take pictures of.

And so, sad and disappointed, we drove to a place called Risan, famous for its Roman mosaics. There are the remains of an ancient Roman villa, which has fragments of these mosaics on the floor.

Near the town of Perast we boarded a boat and headed to a small man-made island called Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks) with a church of the same name. The origin of the island is rather interesting. For some reason, the Catholics in this area did not have their own church. But once, as legend says, a fisherman found an icon on a rock right in the middle of the Bay. This was considered to be a sign from God, so since then fishermen would throw more and more rocks one on another, after returning from each successful journey and also sank their old ships, loaded with stones.  That is how the island was built.  The tradition to throw rocks still exists – every year, on the day when the icon was found, local people throw more rocks. The church looks very nice inside, with many beautiful canvas by a famous local painter Tripo Kokolja. The altar is made of several kinds of marble, the most rare and expensive of which was exchanged for silver on a  kilogram per kilogram basis.

As we were driving down towards Kotor, Petra told us of some humorous stereotypes which people of the former Yugoslavia have about each other. Thus, the stereotypes are that the Croats are very good singers, but also are too arrogant, the Bosniacs have great sense of humour, but are not particularly bright (sorry, don’t mean to offend anyone – these are not my words, but those of a Croat lady after all!), and the Montenegrins are very lazy. There is even a joke about a competition on who can lie on the road for the longest time. After 24 hours, the competition had to be stopped because the three participating Montenegrins were still lying there with no intention of getting up in the near future. We were shown a card with ten funny Montenegrin Commandments:

In Kotor we were passed to a Russian guide (a lady named Katya, from St. Petersburg, living here for seven years). Very quickly, she walked us around the Old City, as we only had two hours of free time, including a guided tour and lunch. The Kotor city walls are located high in the mountains, and we didn’t get to climb up there. The Old City has plenty of churches and monasteries, the first music school in the Balkans, the first theatre (now it has been sold to become a hotel, so there is no theatre in Kotor anymore). There are both Catholic and Orthodox churches here, but the Catholic ones are more in number – as there are more Catholics here, although generally the majority of Montenegrins are Orthodox. In tough times, many churches had a Catholic and an Orthodox altar at the same time, i.e. were open for both confessions.

Along with other memorable places, our attention was brought to the Pima Palace on the Flour Square. Head of the Pima family used to be one of the largest grain traders here.

Interestingly, in contrast to Dubrovnik, the buildings here are necessarily located at an angle to each other – it was believed that locating them in a row would bring bad luck.

The Kotorians are most proud of the fact that they never were under the Ottoman Empire, even though in their history they used to be subordinate to Venice, were occupied by a Napoleon’s general and by Italian fascists (for two months). On this occasion, we heard a story how Jesus Christ appeared to a girl named Katarina from a mountain village and told her that in two hundred years, the Turks would attack Kotor. The girl didn’t hesitate to come down from the mountains with her mother to warn the Kotorians about the danger. The latter immediately started building a wall to protect their land, succeeded in this and, when the the Turks did attack, they managed to parry the enemy’s strike. Katarina herself had become a nun. In appreciation, her relics were later transferred to the Church of St. Clara, right here, so that the saint would continue to defend the citizens.

By the way, her descent from the mountains was no big deal – we were informed that some inhabitants of the mountain village Njeguši do it every day when delivering products to Kotor.

Driving out of Kotor, we saw a beautiful town on the other side of the bay (the fog had already cleared a little) – either Muo or Prčanj, where we weren’t taken. There was no time left for bathing either, although there were beaches here and there.

On the way back we were told that during the previous tour a few days before, the car queue on the border was seven kilometres! The most thorough shakedowns are usually undergone by those with Albanian and Kosovar passports – this road is actually a drug “Silk Road”. Recently the guards caught a couple in a car with German plates, transporting drugs for the sum of 10 million euros. But this time we were lucky, there was only one bus ahead of us, from Ukraine, which took quite a long time to check though.

Croatia – Day 6

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29 August 2012 – Wednesday

Today we had a lazy day, swimming in the sea, walking around, drinking cocktails in the bar, playing table tennis and swimming again.

In the evening we had dinner in a fantastic place, where they served us delicious (not just plain delicious – but incredibly delicious, I can’t even describe it!) grilled fish, tuna pâté (as a starter on the house), the freshest oysters and excellent local white wine –  Kozlović.

Croatia – Day 5

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28 August 2012 – Tuesday

Today we got up almost at the crack of dawn to take the trip to Elaphiti Islands. As it was expected, people were picked up from various hotels and taken to the port of Gruž. That’s where we boarded a 16th century galleon (well, a copy of one, of course). Altogether, there were at least 150 people on the galleon, coming from virtually every country in the world. And there were four guide girls, each speaking a different language: English, French, German and Russian. The guide for the English speakers was Ivana, whom we had already met, and since we found here very knowledgeable and nice, we decided to join her group.

So, back to the Elaphiti islands – only three of them are inhabited, and we visited all three. The first one – Koločep – is absolutely tiny, with a population of 50 people. Actually, there wasn’t anything to do on the island, neither were we given much time to explore it. We walked up the street (the only one here possibly?) a little bit, and hurried back to board the ship.

Before we got off, we had been told that everyone could change places after coming back, so seats shouldn’t be reserved. At the same time, it was allowed to leave bags and other belongings – and of course, everyone left them where they had been sitting. So when we tried to move to the upper deck (previously we had had really bad seats) returning from the first island, we encountered the stormy displeasure of a Russian couple who claimed that they had left their things under the seat, therefore it was theirs. So we realised that after the next stop we better look for seats which have no bags on, next to, or under them.

We really enjoyed the sailing, but I can’t say that the coast was of an absolutely marvellous beauty. Once again, these were no Norwegian fjords.

The next island, Šipan, was marked by the abundance of churches and olive trees per capita – for a total of 600 inhabitants there are tens of thousands of olive trees.

As we were told, there are very few people constantly living on these islands – there are almost no jobs, so the islanders mostly work on the mainland, and come here for the summer and weekends. Especially that there are only primary schools here, and also no regular medical care – the doctor looking after the islands only visits each once or twice a week.

We went up to the Church of the Holy Spirit, which looked much like a fort – it used to serve as a shelter from pirates, and the big bell was rung in case of this danger. Today, the bell signals either someone’s funeral, or that there is a forest fire.

The view along the road was very beautiful, with spectacular fields, orchards and olive groves. Overall, a very stereotypical Mediterranean view, I should say.

As we came back, there was a very nice light lunch served right on board: grilled fish, coleslaw, water, and dry wine.

And the next one – the main destination for the majority – was the Lopud Island, famous for its sandy beaches, which is quite a rarity for these places. Here we were given about three hours of free time, and we decided not to waste them looking for a taxi to get to the famous Šunj beach on the other side of the island, but to settle on the closest one. So, we had plenty of time to swim, tan and get all covered in sand. We hadn’t taken any towels with us, and there was nowhere to get them, so we had to allow ourselves some time to get dried off.

By the way, captains of ships used to settle on this island – provided, of course, they were rich enough to build sturdy stone houses.

Croatia – Day 4

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27 August 2012 – Monday

Today the sea showed us that it is not always quiet, so probably it would have been difficult to swim at our beach, where one has to use the ladder to get into the sea. Even last night, when the wind was just beginning to rise, we found it quite hard to swim. Luckily, in the morning we spotted another beach, a public one, where the sea was shallow and where we could enter gradually, as we are used to. It was just 10-15 minutes away along the coast.

The beach, however, was so stony that we immediately had to buy rubber swimming shoes. The bottom was very uneven – not only were there pebbles, but also quite sharp rocks as well. Sun beds and umbrellas had to be paid for, of course. The beach was also offering sea bike rides, which I wasn’t up for, while the rest of our group were. So I stayed to watch them from the shore.

In the afternoon we visited a local shopping center on the Lapad peninsula. Basically it was very close to the beach we attended in the morning, but we did not know it then. We went there by bus. The mall was of a really modest size, but we still managed to purchase some small things there. I have to say that all everyday products here are cheap enough, however, clothes and cosmetics are pretty expensive. Initially we were planning to have dinner right there. But then we got cold, and besides there weren’t really any restaurants around – only cafes serving drinks. So we went back to the hotel, and not by bus, which we spent ages waiting for, in vain, but by taxi. Interestingly, the price for five of us turned out exactly the same – so there wasn’t any point in waiting for the bus anyway.

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