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provence_pic1Even people who have never been to Provence, France probably have a pretty good idea about what it looks like; images of the lovely region in Southeast France are everywhere at home. Nashville has a chain of bakeries with the Provence moniker, and of course there’s the fancy soap and lotion store that you can find in almost every shopping mall (and, as it turns out, in countless upscale shopping areas around the world) called L’Occitane en Provence. Whether they’re selling bread or bubble bath, the stores conjure up images of fields of lavender, stone houses with colorful shutters and a world painted in yellows, blues and purples.
After spending a few days in Provence itself, we can say with conviction that, if you make a trip there and that’s what you’re expecting to see, you probably won’t be disappointed. (Just make sure you go in late spring or early summer, before the lavender is harvested. We got there too late and saw only the fields where the purple stuff once grew.) An old Provence motto advises people to move “slowly in the morning and not too fast in the afternoon.” Whoever said that would be proud of us; we certainly took it to heart while we were there.
We spent most of our time in Provence meandering through small villages in hopes of getting a taste of the “real Provence.” In Carpentras, we browsed through the morning market, sampling local cheese and sausage and stocking up on lavender-scented soaps. In tiny Oppede le Vieux, we hiked back to ancient ruins and had a long lunch at what looked to be the only cafe in town. In Menerbes, we wandered along cobblestone streets and happened upon a magical little garden that allowed us a stunning view of the area’s rolling hills. In Gordes, we stopped to see the Senanque Abbey, home of monks who live in simplicity and silence and earn their keep by growing lavender and tending honeybees. And in Chateauneuf du-Pape, we sampled some of the wines that have made the town famous the world over. Delicious.
We also spent a lazy afternoon in Avignon, which from 1309 to 1377 was the seat of a papacy that had temporarily relocated from Rome. Seven popes in all reigned from Avignon’s extraordinary Palace of the Popes, an imposing fortress made of interconnecting towers that looks out over the hustle and bustle of the town below. And the town itself is unendingly charming, full of museums, boutiques, sidewalk cafes and even a carousel to entertain the masses of tourists who wander its streets.

We fell so in love with Provence while we were there that I wouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves wandering into the bakeries and shops at home that have adopted its name, hoping for another little taste of the places we enjoyed so much.

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The over-the-top Monte Carlo Casino
When we waved a loving goodbye to Piedmont, Italy the other day and, once again, loaded our backpacks into the Peugeot and set off down the road, we were headed into unknown territory. Literally. We’ve had a guidebook for every country we’ve been to so far, but we were headed into France without so much as a Europe on a Shoestring between us. We had a vague idea that we wanted to be someplace in Provence in the near future, but we knew that we had a day or two to get there. Consulting our map, we realized that one way to get to that area was by driving down the French Riviera, through Monaco, Nice, Cannes and a bunch of other places whose names tend to appear on the pages of glossy magazines in stories about where celebrities dock their yachts. With visions of turquoise water and swaying palm trees dancing in our heads, we set off in that direction.
Entering Monte Carlo
After a few hours, we pulled into Monte Carlo, Monaco. Monaco is a tiny “principality” on the Mediterranean Sea whose territory is completely enclosed by France. It is a constitutional monarchy now led by Prince Albert II, but more famously once ruled by his mother, Princess Grace Kelly. Citizens of Monaco pay no income taxes, a fact that has made the little place a haven for wealthy Europeans who move there as “tax refugees” and now make up the bulk of its population. Monte Carlo is an “administrative area” within Monaco (Wikipedia tells me that it’s technically not a city) that is best known for its extravagant casino, its celebrity spottings and the fact that its streets are pretty much paved with, if not gold, then at least glamour.

Derek and I had both been to Monte Carlo years ago, and we decided to take a look around to see if all was still as we remembered it to be. We stopped by the tourist information office to get a map, and then we got stuck in some kind of Monaco vortex. Within 30 minutes, we were inexplicably checking into a hilariously over-priced hotel and trying to decide where to have dinner that night. Consulting (a great resource for people who love food as much as we do), Derek read out some restaurant options. A French place with a coat-and-tie dress code. Nope. Another French place whose entrees were priced starting at $125. Not so much. An American-themed sports bar that served Tex-Mex. No way. We decided to venture into town without a plan, spend the afternoon exploring the area and worry about dinner later. We changed into our fanciest clothes, which is to say I put on Billabong flip-flops and a cotton sundress with a broken zipper and Derek donned something out the of the pages of the REI catalog, and headed out the door.
The over-the-top Monte Carlo Casino
Monte Carlo has a few tourist activities, but its people are by far its most interesting attraction. It has got to be the best place on earth to people-watch, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. We found just the place–a busy cafe right in front of the casino with a prime view of the U-shaped street where Beautiful People cruised, revving the engines of their luxury cars and enjoying the envious sighs of the Unwashed Masses who looked on. A table opened up at the cafe just as we arrived, and I made a beeline for it. A few seconds later, a living version of Monte Carlo Barbie and her pal, Ken, both of whom were clad in matching shades of shiny pink, approached and glared at me with such a sense of entitlement that I determined that I must have somehow stolen their table (which, as it turns out, was not even close to being true). While putting this in print makes me cringe with embarrassment, I admit now that I turned and fled. Even from a distance, I could feel their disgust with my choice of footwear.
Renting a Ferrari
Happily, another spot (with an even better view–take that, shiny table thieves!) opened up fairly quickly, and Derek and I settled in to watch the veritable parade of luxury. Old men in white linen sauntered toward the casino with women who could only have been supermodels on their arms. A pack of olive-skinned teens, one of whom was sporting a fedora, loitered on the corner, each with a cellphone attached to his ear. They all shared space with an endless parade of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and even the occasional Rolls Royce. We laughed at one guy who was driving a shiny, red Ferrari while wearing a red Ferrari hat. Brand overload, perhaps? (Walking around town later that evening, we discovered the reason for the man’s brand-redundant hat: he was the Ferrari rental guy. He accompanied poor, sportscar-less souls who were willing to shell out about $120 for a quick spin around town in an Italian masterpiece.)
American fix at Stars N Bars
After a couple of hours spent trying to make one $22 drink last long enough to justify our presence at the cafe without requiring us to buy another one, we found ourselves suffering from Monaco overload. We fled back to our hotel room and gave ourselves a quick Don’t-Even-Begin-To-Think-You-Can-Afford-To-Play-Alongside-These-People reality check, and then we revisited our dinner options. This time, the $8 plate of nachos available at the American sports bar sounded pretty darn good. And you know what? They were.



Hike in the Soca Valley in the Julian Alps
For the past few days, we’ve been driving through Northern Italy, where the scenery looks something like Under the Tuscan Sun meets The Sound of Music.  Which is to say, it’s incredible.  We’ve crossed over a number of high mountain passes that have landed us in valleys full of fields of hay, where the smell of warm sunshine on freshly cut grass is almost intoxicating.  Apparently, farmers in the area have a tradition of taking cat-naps in the piles of fragrant hay, which often contain the wild herbs and lavender that grow alongside the tall grasses. 

The naps sounded like a pretty good idea to us, so when we read about an opportunity to follow in the farmers’ footsteps without actually trespassing in their fields, we signed right up.  The experience is called a hay bath, and it’s more or less exactly what it sounds like.  We showed up at a local spa, where a technician directed us into separate rooms, each of which contained what looked like a bathtub with a mattress suspended over it.  When it was my turn, the technician covered the mattress with warm, wet hay and instructed me to lie down on it.  Err, ok.  After I did as I was told, she covered everything but my face with more of the same,  then wrapped me in blankets, then plastic and then pushed a button that lowered the mattress directly into the bathtub, which, as it turned out, was filled with hot water.  (A couple of strategically placed pillows ensured that my head never went under, a fact for which I was quite grateful.)  Then she left to attend to Derek.
The whole thing was pretty cozy, and the heat from the water released the smell of the hay, which was delightful.  Just as I was starting to think that I’d rather be out of the tub than in (it was hot in there!), the technician reappeared, pushed a button that lifted the mattress up and out of the water, freed me from the hay, and again wrapped me in blankets, where I remained, coccooned, for a happy and very warm 45 minutes.  When it was all over, I felt ridiculously relaxed, although I didn’t notice any of the medicinal effects that a hay bath is supposed to deliver.  Still, though, I think those farmers are on to something.  Perhaps hay baths are headed to a spa near you…

Scenes from our hike in the High Tatras mountains
Trying to picture Eastern Europe before I ever saw it, I always envisioned lots of communist bloc housing.  And also cabbage.  And clouds.  After having spent about six weeks there, I can report that it has at least the first two of these things in ready supply.  As it turns out, though, Eastern Europe also boasts some of the most spectacular natural wonders I’ve ever seen.
Scenes from our hike in the High Tatras mountains
Driving from Poland into Slovakia we crossed into the High Tatras, a 15-mile long mountain range that seems to spring up from the floor of an incredibly green, wildflower-covered valley.  We spent a day hiking up the Tatras’s rocky cliffs and, alas, we were not alone.  We shared the trail with lots of other hikers, including a woman in white hot pants who, embarrassingly enough, left us in her dust.  Happily, though, the views (of everything but the woman in hot pants) were incredible, and well worth the climb.

From Slovakia, it was on to Slovenia, where our first foray into the natural world took us into what felt like the bowels of the earth.  We were in the Skocjan Caves, a series of underground chambers covered in stalactites and stalagmites whose bright coloring reflect the myriad minerals they contain.  A river ran through the last cave in the series, and we had to cross it via a dizzying bridge that I really wish we could’ve captured on film.  (Sadly, taking pictures in the caves is not allowed.)
Hike around the gorgeous Lake Bled
After the caves came Lake Bled, Slovenia’s most popular tourist destination, and for good reason.  Watched over by a towering castle, the blue-green lake wraps itself around a tiny, perfect island, on top of which sits a tinier, more perfect church.  Unsurprisingly, the church is a popular setting for weddings.  Some 99 stairs connect the lakeside dock with the church, and it’s said that grooms often try to prove their “fitness” for marriage by carrying their brides up the entire flight.  When I suggested to Derek that he attempt the feat, he became very interested in photographing the family of swans that make their home on the water’s edge.
Hike in the Soca Valley in the Julian Alps
Slovenia’s Julian Alps were our final destination in Eastern Europe, and they turned out to be one of the our favorite places in the world.  Named after Julius Caesar, the Alps occupy Slovenia’s northwest frontier with Italy and its northern border with Austria.  (In fact, in one mountain town we visited, we were just a five-minute walk away from both countries.)  We spent most of our time in the Alps in a small town called Bovec, which is in the valley (the Soca) that witnessed the World War I battles that became the setting for Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  (Hemingway drove an ambulance for Italy during the war.)
Hike in the Soca Valley in the Julian Alps
Looking around at the incredible scenery, it was kind of hard to to believe that anyone could retain the will to fight in the midst of beauty like this.  The ridiculously turquoise Soca River courses down the Alps and into the verdant valley below.  It is joined by another river, the Susec, which has carved out the canyon that served as a veritable waterslide for us during our first-ever attempt at an adventure sport called, accurately, “canyoning.”  Donning neoprene bodysuits, aquasocks, helmets and plastic diaper-looking things that allegedly make it easier to slide over the rocks but are potentially there only for the amusement of our guides, we climbed up part of a mountain (not a tough hike overall, but made much more difficult by the fact that were were wearing not shoes but aquasocks) and then slid and jumped our way back down to the bottom.  The experience was exhilarating, only a little scary and–like so much of what we’ve seen in Eastern Europe–highly recommended.

High Tatras, Slovakia

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Julian Alsp, Slovenia

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Google Video

National Parliament buidling in Budapest
The twentieth century was a tough one for Hungary.  Until then, the nation had been one half of Austria-Hungary, one of the most powerful empires on earth.  World War I brought widespread destruction to the land, both during and after the actual conflict.  Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians were killed in battle, and under a post-war settlement known as the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary’s territory was reduced to 40% of its historical size.  It’s said that, even today, “Trianon” remains a dirty word within Hungarian borders.
Streets of Budapest
During the years between the world wars, Hungary trained its focus on reclaiming its lost land.  It couldn’t turn to the U.S., Britain or France for help in this matter (as the WWI victors, they were the ones who’d taken it away in the first place), so it looked instead to the fascist governments of Italy and Germany, joining them in their fight for territorial domination.  Bad idea.  World War II decimated Hungary even further, opening the door to 40 years of harsh communist rule.
Central Market in Budapest
All of this strife seems to have left Hungarians in a bad mood.  Their national anthem speaks of them as “a people torn by fate,” and their prevailing sentiment is said to be one of “patriotic sorrow.”  Unfortunately, they take their sorrow quite seriously: their suicide rate is one of the highest in the world.  But perhaps things are turning around for this nation of goulash and paprika.  Democracy arrived in 1991, and Hungary was admitted to the EU in 2004.  Those are always good signs, right?  We spent about a week there, and it seems to us that Hungarians have quite a lot to be happy about.  (Of course it does.  As we’ve learned on this trip, Americans are known throughout the world as being impossibly optimistic.)
Plaza in front of St. Stephen's Basilica
Budapest alone should be enough to change someone’s outlook on life.  Divided in half by the Danube, ((Did you know that Budapest is actually made up of two parts? Buda lies on one side of the river, Pest on the other.)) both sides of the city are beautiful.  Spectacular architecture and fine arts abound, as do world-class museums and delectable restaurants, many of which don’t seem to be entirely on the tourist map yet.  That, of course, makes them even better.
Thermal Baths at Szechenyi Baths in Budapest
As it turns out, though, one of our favorite parts of the city was one of its most well known.  Budapest lies on a geographical fault line, from which 30 million liters of hot mineral water gush every day.  These waters are funneled into the many thermal bath houses that dot the city.  “Taking the waters” at one of these baths is said to be one of the ultimate Budapest experiences.  And it was.  One afternoon, we joined throngs of locals and tourists at the bright yellow Szechenyi baths.  We immersed ourselves in pools of all shapes, sizes and temperatures.  Some were tiny and scalding; others were clouded with minerals; still others were chlorinated and felt kind of like the wave pools I used to love as a kid.  We left feeling refreshed and–I’m not kidding–just a little bit healthier.
St. Stephen's Basilica
If the baths aren’t enough of an escape from the hustle and bustle of big-city Budapest, Hungarians can always head a couple hours outside of town to Villany, a village of vineyards that feels like Napa Valley probably did about 100 years ago. The bulk of the small hamlet is situated around a single road, which is referred to by everyone in town as, simply, “the cellar street.”  And for good reason.  Every second building or so is a little, family-run wine cellar, complete with a tasting room and, perhaps, a small restaurant. As we sampled the local wares, we watched locals stop by with big, plastic jugs, loading up on a week’s supply of the celebrated reds that have made their hometown famous.  Good vino… That ought to improve their mood.

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Google Video

Scenes from Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Auschwitz.  Even the name of the infamous Nazi death camp sends a chill down my spine.  Although the camp and its neighbor, Auschwitz II (also called Birkenau), are both in Poland, they were the setting for a living nightmare experienced not only by Poles, but by people throughout Europe.  From places as far away as Greece, Jews and other people designated for extermination by the Nazis ((Among this group were the oft-oppressed Roma, a people without a homeland who are discriminated against throughout what seems to be most of the world.  Half of Europe’s Roma population was decimated by the Nazis during World War II.  Given such tragic numbers, it’s hard to believe that few people know about these invisible victims of the Holocaust.)) were forced to board trains bound for Auschwitz.  Many of them were made to pay for their own passage on the vehicles that would carry most of them to their deaths.

The prisoners were told that they were being sent to a labor camp and that they could carry with them only one suitcase full of all of the goods they would need to live for the unforeseen future.  And so they did as they were forced to do.  Unable to cram everything they owned into just one suitcase, many of them wore nearly all of their clothing at once, which only made the heat on the crowded trains more unbearable.  But that was nothing compared to what they would face once they arrived at their final destination.
Selection Process at Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
At Auschwitz, the prisoners filing off of the trains were separated into two groups–those the Nazis thought fit for hard labor (this group consisted mostly of young and middle-aged men) and everyone else (this group was made up of nearly all of the women, the children and the elderly).  People in this second group were told that they needed to be sprayed with a sort of delousing agent before they got settled into their barracks.  They headed into the showers, unsuspecting. There was no precedent in their minds for this kind of evil, and thus they had no way of predicting what was going to happen.  But you know the rest.  The “showers” were gas chambers.  All of those layers of clothes, all of those suitcases packed with the goods needed to begin a new life–worthless.  The Nazis kept meticulous records of all of the prisoners who lived at Auschwitz.  But the names of those killed immediately upon their arrival never even made it into their records.
Work Brings Freedom sign at entrance to Auschwitz I
The “lucky” people in the group selected for labor were housed either at Auschwitz I in old army barracks (although surely the soldiers who once lived there were not made to sleep three or even more to a twin-sized bed) or in what were formerly horse stables at Birkenau (buildings that once housed 52 horses now held 400 people).  Their prisoner numbers were tattooed onto their forearms and they were put to work.  (Once in awhile, you see a Holocaust survivor with such a tattoo. It’s a sure sign that he or she was imprisoned at Auschwitz; it was the only camp that tattooed its captives.)  Forced to endure inhospitable temperatures, psychotically inhumane medical experiments and near starvation, most of these prisoners died after only a few weeks.
Auschwitz I
The Soviets liberated Auschwitz I and Birkenau on January 27, 1945–nearly 5 years after Auschwitz I was established and more than three years after Birkenau opened its creepy doors.  Tragically, the Germans had been forewarned about the Soviets’ arrival.  Just days before the Soviets arrived, some 60,000 prisoners were forced to undertake a death march to a concentration camp in Germany.  The 20,000 of them who made it to the camp weren’t liberated until months later. When the Soviets finally did get to Auschwitz, only 7,500 prisoners remained.  Most of them were weak and near death, but they were alive.  All in all, about 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, about 90 percent of whom were Jews from nearly every country in Europe.
Scenes from Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
The day we spent touring Auschwitz was, of course, terribly upsetting and emotionally exhausting.  Thanks to a great guide, however, it was also informative.  Evidence of the Nazis’ atrocities was everywhere.  40,000 pairs of the victims’ shoes filled one room.  Their toothbrushes and shaving kits were piled in another.  Human hair took up a massive space along one wall.  (The Germans shaved their victims’ heads and, unbelievably enough, used their hair to make fabric.  When they liberated the camps, the Soviets found bags of the stuff waiting to be shipped.)  Still another room–the saddest of all–was filled with the suitcases the prisoners brought with them on the trains from their homelands.  Each was marked with its owner’s name and birthday.  With tears in my eyes, I noticed that one of the suitcases belonged to a child who, at the time, was less than a year old.

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Sights on drive to Sighisoara
When you think about Romania, one of three things probably comes to mind: (1) Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 in the ’76 Olympics; (2) the draconian rule of Nicolae Ceausescu ((A communist who was president of Romania for more than 20 years, from 1965 to 1989, Ceausescu brought Romania to its knees with idiotic and often cruel policies.  In an attempt to eliminate foreign debt and look good in front of the world, he exported Romania’s food while his own people were forced to ration what little remained.  In hopes of increasing Romania’s birth rate, he instituted a tax on childless women and men over the age of 25 and gave significant benefits to mothers who had at least five children.  Finally overthrown by revolutionaries, he and his wife were executed, after a two-hour trial, on Christmas Day in 1989.)) ; or (3) Dracula himself.  (After all, the count who was the inspiration for the evil character is said to hail from Transylvania, an area in central Romania.  His name was Vlad Tepes, or “Vlad the Impaler,” a name bestowed on him in recognition of his preferred method of punishing his enemies.)
Sights of Sighisoara, a Saxon village
We spent some time in Transylvania during our visit to Romania, and while we can’t testify to any close encounters with a blood-sucking monster, we did stay in what used to be a serf’s cottage on the grounds of a true Romanian Count’s former residence.  Located at the edge of a village called Miklosvar, which is so small that it didn’t even make our map, the cottage made a great base for exploring the area.  One day, we drove to the medieval town of Sighisoara, where we saw Vlad’s supposed childhood home, as well as the charming, cobblestoned Old Town, a bustling local market and a lovely Gothic church wherein lies a fresco of the Holy Trinity in which the Holy Spirit is depicted as a woman.
Cows coming home!
We also spent time exploring the countryside near the Count’s residence.  The area is peppered with tiny villages that seem to have remained largely unchanged over the last few centuries.  The progress of our Peugeot on the single, dirt road that led through each town was often hampered by slow-moving, horse-drawn carriages carrying hay and a couple of weather-beaten farmers.  Old women gossiped in front of what was often the only store in town.  Kids rode their bikes nearby and cast suspicious glances at the strange car with foreign plates.
Incredible Voronet Monastery in Guru Humorului
No matter what we did during the day, we always tried to make it back to Miklosvar by the time the cows came home.  And I mean this literally.  In that village and, as far as we could tell, in most of the surrounding ones as well, the cows come home at 7:50 on the dot.  That is to say, just a few minutes before the magic hour, the resident cowherd rounds them up from the pasture just outside of town and parades them slowly down the street.  Each cow seems to know where he or she lives and so, with no prompting from anyone, will turn off upon approaching the right house.  I think it’s one of those things that you have to see to believe.
Beautiful Humor Monastery
The painted monasteries of Romania’s Southern Bucovina region also fit into the so-much-more-amazing-when-seen-firsthand category.  Listed among the greatest artistic monuments of Europe, the monastic churches are covered inside and out with colorful, biblical-themed frescoes that were rendered in the 1500s. They are located inside fortified monastic complexes designed to stave off the attacks of Turkish invaders that were all too common in those days. During the attacks, the complexes sheltered both armies and peasants, many of whom were illiterate.  The frescoes were intended to educate and entertain this audience and, centuries later, they certainly delighted us.

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Google Video

Dubrovnik's Old Town
In 1776, the Republic of Dubrovnik became the first foreign state to recognize a small, upstart republic known as the United States of America.  The people of Dubrovnik had, for centuries, guarded their own freedom against incursions by larger, wealthier states.  It seems they were eager to support others who wanted to do the same.

The concept of liberty has always been close to the hearts of the people of Dubrovnik.  This may help to explain the recent behavior of the contemporaries of those early Dubrovnik citizens.  In June 1991, Croatia (of which Dubrovnik was, by then, a part) declared independence from Yugoslavia.  Within weeks, the ragtag Croatian army was at war with the longstanding, Serbian-dominated Yugoslav one.   The war raged mostly on the Croatia’s interior, until the Serbs shocked the world by attacking seaside Dubrovnik, the gem in Croatia’s tourist crown.
Views from our walk along the city walls of Dubrovnik
The Serbs expected Dubrovnik residents to run for their lives.  Instead, they bunkered down in their cellars and waited.  Ordinary citizens grabbed their hunting rifles and set off into the hills in search of the would-be attackers of their beloved town.  The people of Dubrovnik withstood eight months of bombing, and then the Croatian army finally showed up to bail them out.  The defenders of liberty had prevailed, and their city was safe, if a bit battle-scarred.

We can testify to the fact that–largely due to the efforts of those same, brave Dubrovnikers–those battle scars are barely visible today.  During our recent stay in Dubrovnik, we saw not battle wounds but, instead, an incredible–and incredibly charming–town with countless offerings for the seemingly infinite number of tourists who flock there each year.
Views from our walk along the city walls of Dubrovnik
The heart of Dubrovnik is the Old Town, with its cobblestone streets and terracotta roofs, and the heart of the Old Town is the Stradun, a wide promenade that runs right through the center of things.  Along the Stradun itself and on the many narrow alleyways that connect to it are hundreds of pizzerias, ice cream stands and sidewalk cafes, where locals and tourists alike gather to people-watch and to admire the beauty of their surroundings.  The Dubrovnik Summer Festival was talking place when we were there, so all of this was done to the accompaniment of live classical music, which only added to the ambiance.
Views from our walk along the city walls of Dubrovnik
When we weren’t trying to beat the heat with a gelato and a cold drink, we spent some time learning more about the 1991 siege of Dubrovnik.  In the Memorial Room of Dubrovnik Defenders, we saw photos of dozens of the locals who lost their lives in the fight to protect their town.  In a photography museum called War Photo Limited, we found graphic, powerful documentation of the Croatia-Serbian conflict and the many others like it that sprung up when Yugoslavia began to dissolve.  Later, we walked the one-and-a-quarter-mile loop on top of Dubrovnik’s city walls.  75 feet high in some places, the walls were a great vantage point from which to see the whole of the Old Town and a perfect place to appreciate the efforts of all those who have sprung to the city’s defense over the years.

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Views of the town of Split, Croatia
Realizing that you’re in the midst of one of the best experiences of your life always feels pretty strange.  Although such a sensation is usually reserved for big, life-changing events–your wedding day, the birth of your child, etc.–I found it a little while ago aboard a yacht named Jolly.
Scenes from our tour of Diocletian's Palace, completed around 300 A.D.
Yup, I was on a yacht.  Here’s how it happened: Todd, Heather, Derek and I arrived in Split, Croatia and, after an amazing couple of hours spent exploring Diocletian’s Palace–which was built in 305 A.D. (!?!) by a Roman emperor who planned to use it as his retirement home–we found ourselves in need of a plan for the next few days.  Todd mentioned that he’d read that it was possible to charter a yacht for a few days and island-hop among Croatia’s gems in the Adriatic Sea.  Although each of us was certain that such a luxury was far beyond our budgetary reach, we set off to check it out anyway.  The day was sunny and hot, and the pull of the marina, with its turquoise water and its rows of sparkling boats, was irresistible.
The Jolly
Upon our arrival at the marina, we confirmed our earlier expectations that–no kidding–renting a yacht was expensive.  We set to work applying negotiating skills that would make our respective law schools proud, and we met with some success (mainly because it was a truly last-minute rental).  We researched all kinds of options.  We hemmed and hawed.  We vacillated.  And then we saw the Jolly.

We fell immediately in love.  A 47-footer she was, and only a couple of years old.  She offered all kinds of space in which to lounge and–we were all certain–to have the best time of our lives.  We couldn’t help ourselves; we hired a skipper named Damir and signed on the dotted line.
Scenes from our short stop on HvarAnd so there I was, book in hand, lying on the front of a yacht in the Adriatic.  When we got hot, we dropped anchor and swam in the sun-drenched sea.  Later, we docked at a small island named Vis and made our way, per Damir’s advice, to a small, family-run vineyard in the middle of the island.  We feasted on fresh fish and lamb and returned to the Jolly to be lulled to sleep by gentle waves.

The next morning, I went for a run (my favorite way to explore a new place) and realized that the town in which we’d docked, which was also called Vis, was even more idyllic than I’d previously imagined.  Inspired, I set off, camera in hand, to capture some of what I’d seen.  I happened upon a produce stand where fresh figs were sold (delicious! and impossible to find at home…) and returned to the boat to eat them alongside some incredible cheese that Derek had procured.  Soon thereafter, we set sail for another part of Vis, a small town called Komiza.  The whole thing felt like a scene from a movie.  It also felt like utopia.
Scenes from the town of Vis
From there, things went slightly downhill, primarily due to Damir’s abject laziness and to some rather uncooperative weather.  Seemingly deaf to our repeated requests to please use the sails (first of all, because we were on a sailboat and wanted to experience it in its full glory and, second, because gas is even more expensive in Europe than it is at home) and to drop anchor at some of the delightful-looking coves that we were whizzing past, he motored from one port to another without so much as a moment’s pause.  On our third day aboard the Jolly, he told us that it was too windy to move the boat at all.  What could we do?  We gave up our dreams of spending the evening in Hvar (a nearby island that is famous for its nightlife) and instead rented scooters and explored Vis.  Exhibiting brattiness befitting someone aboard a yacht, I whined to Derek that, “it’s not called island-hopping if we stay on the same island the whole time.”  It wasn’t my proudest moment.

As it turns out, we were able to spent a little time on Hvar on our fourth and final day at sea.  We wandered its cobblestone streets for a couple of hours and paused for a snack in a sidewalk cafe.  By the time we docked back in Split, we were sun-burned, exhausted and happy.

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For a country that has only been around since 1993, the Czech Republic has a fascinating history, and one that’s full of interesting phrases…
When Czechoslovakia turned Communist in 1948, scores of non-believers were violently oppressed and imprisoned.  Twenty years later, during a 1968 movement known as the Prague Spring, it adopted a milder version of communism, which it described as “socialism with a human face.”  Unhappy with this development, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia later that year, and the communist reins tightened, only to be dissolved entirely when democracy came to the country in 1989 after a non-violent uprising known as the Velvet Revolution.  Four years later, in 1993, Czechoslovakia split in two; one part became Slovakia, the other the Czech Republic.  For its part, the Czech Republic has managed to attract hordes of tourists from all over the world, and we can see why.
Our first stop in the Czech Republic was Karlovy Vary, a town famous both for its spas (the sulphurous springs that run beneath the city are said to have healing powers) and for its annual film festival.  We never made it to the spas, but we did arrive in Karlovy Vary just in time to check out the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.  We’d read that we didn’t need to purchase tickets to the various movies showing at the festival in advance but, instead, could procure them upon our arrival.  We’d read wrong.
We got to the box office in time to find out that every movie being shown that day (i.e., our only day in town) was completely sold out.  If we were to make it into any movie that day, explained the ticket guy, we’d have to camp out in front of the theater at least an hour before showtime and hope for the best.  So that’s what we did, joining the throngs of other would-be movie-goers who also had neglected to purchase tickets in advance.  We waited in line for three movies and made it into only one, and that was by the skin of our teeth.  The movie we did see was called Man on Wire (see trailer HERE), about a French tight-rope walker who, among other things, snuck into the World Trade Center in 1974, strung a rope between the twin towers and then walked between them, high above Manhattan, for 45 minutes.  It was so good that it made the wait entirely worthwhile.
Leaving Karlovy Vary, we made our way to Prague.  We’d heard great things about the city, and it appeared that millions of other travelers had, too–the city was jam-packed with tourists.  (How odd it feels to be someplace during the high season; that’s (intentionally) pretty rare for us.)  Happily, a few of those tourists were dear friends of ours from Nashville, Howard and Elizabeth Lamar and Heather and Todd Rolapp.  We had only one night with the Lamars, but the Rolapps would be with us for the next week or so.
Together, we wandered through Prague’s old town square.  The square is dominated by a clock tower from which, every hour on the hour, a parade of apostle figurines and a bell-ringing skeleton emerge, much to the delight of the hordes of onlookers.  We also met up with an opera-singer-turned-tour-guide named Josef.  Josef led us through Prague’s streets and shared with us stories of life under communism.  (“People had to wait in line for hours to buy meat,” he said.)  He told us of the glorious days when democracy finally came to his country: “Thousands of people took to the streets, shaking their keys; it was their way of ‘ringing the bell’ on communism.”
Derek and I also wandered over the Charles Bridge (a must-do in Prague) and made our way up to the Prague Castle.  The biggest castle complex in the world, it is the seat of Czech power, playing home to both the president’s office and the ancient Bohemian crown jewels.  (A side note: The ancient land of Bohemia makes up the western two-thirds of today’s Czech Republic.  The term “bohemian” comes from the French, who thought that Roma gypsies, who actually have origins in India, came from Bohemia.  Today, the label “bohemian” is often applied to anyone living an unconventional lifestyle.)  While at the castle, we watched the changing of the guard, meandered through the astounding St. Vitus Cathedral, with its spectacular stained-glass windows, and explored the Old Royal Palace, which was full of elegantly vaulted ceilings and offered incredible views over Prague.  All too soon, it was time to say farewell to the Lamars and to Prague and to climb back into the Peugeot for the 12-hour drive to Split, Croatia.

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