Friday, October 30, 2009

What I Learned

As I sit on the plane flying back home, I start to think about the things I’ve learned on this latest adventure.

I’ve learned that with nothing more than sheer determination you can accomplish what you never thought possible. I’ve learned there are places were most people are inherently good, where you can leave your bike on the street unlocked, and it will still be there when you return. I’ve learned there are still a few places in this world that don’t have a Starbuck’s or McDonald’s on every street corner. I never saw a Starbuck’s on this trip and only saw a sign for a McDonald’s in Split. Needless to say, the Traveling Hillbilly did not have any Big Mac’s on this trip!

I’ve learned living doesn’t have to end at a certain age. I’ve learned I’ve just scratched the surface on living my life. Travel is all about experiences that make you feel alive. The day to day a lot of us do is not living. It may be life, but it is not truly living.

I’ve learned to keep a little piece of each trip to myself because no matter how hard I try, I will never be able to do justice to these experiences on paper and through photos.

I’ve learned that when things don’t go as expected or planned, you’re often rewarded with a richer experience and even better stories to tell. I’ve learned there are places and people in this world so beautiful they can move you to tears.

I’ve learned I have a lot more journeys ahead. There are many more places to see, people to meet and experiences to be had. The Traveling Hillbilly looks forward to sharing those experiences with you!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Truly Perfect Day

The Traveling Hillbilly awoke, totally excited about the trip to Plitvice Lakes. It was one of the first places I saw pictures of when I was researching Croatia and I was determined to make it there. It’s on the UNESCO register of world natural heritage sites and it certainly deserves to be there! As I said yesterday, I thought I was in for even more amazing scenery and Platvice Lakes did not disappoint!

The guide picked me up in the hotel lobby at 9:30 and off we went. I will never be able to express in words how truly beautiful and picturesque this place is. It is acres of forests, lakes and waterfalls. The leaves have already changed color so it’s a burst of vibrant reds, oranges and yellows which are a striking contrast to the bright green water of the lakes below. They have built a wooden path so you can walk along the lakes, among the waterfalls and at times, over the lakes themselves. It is magnificent. I think I took more photos here today than any other day on the trip. Every turn exposed a view more majestic than the one before. The Traveling Hillbilly has never seen so many waterfalls in one place.

Whenever I travel, I marvel at some beautiful site I’ve seen and think it’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. But this time, I may have topped the list. I just can’t imagine a place more beautiful than this. It was truly awe inspiring.

The Traveling Hillbilly can’t think of a better way to have spent the last day in Croatia.

Finally Sunbathing

The Traveling Hillbilly awoke to another beautiful sunny day. I’m so glad I decided to stay a few extra days. After biking everyday, I felt I needed to get in some good exercise in, so I headed off to the gym. After my workout I decided to explore a little. I walked all along the beach, just enjoying the scenery and the peaceful rippling sound of the water. I just can’t get over how beautiful this place is. It really is a natural paradise. The sky is so blue, the water is so clear, the air is fresh and the scenery is simply breathtaking. It makes you certain that something greater than us created it.

I’m, thrilled to finally have an opportunity to actually lie on the beach and catch some sun. The weather is absolutely perfect, not too hot, and not too cold. The beaches here are beautiful, but rocky. They are full of rocks and pebbles so you can’t just walk along with your barefoot in the water. They are not the sandy beaches we have in California. They are however much cleaner than the beaches in California.

After some time writing and reading on the beach, I decide to head to the market to get some wine and snacks. I thought the best way to end the day would to watch the sunset, with a glass of wine on my balcony. Unfortunately, I discovered I did not have a cork screw in the room, so I enjoyed my salami, bread and cheese with a lovely glass of Coke Zero. The sunset was still magnificent!

Tomorrow, it’s off to Plitvice Lakes. I have a feeling I’m in for even more stunning scenery.

The Traveling Hillbilly, All Alone

It’s sad to wake up knowing everyone has left to go back home. But the Traveling Hillbilly has a few more days left, so better get up and make the most of them. I decided to take the bus over to Trogir before transferring to my new hotel, Le Meridien.

Trogir is a very scenic town. It’s much bigger than most of the villages we saw on our tour, but much smaller than Split. They have done a great job of preserving all the stonework. The Old Town reminds the Travel Hillbilly of Dubrovnik, with its stone shops, narrow alleyways and housing.

As I wandered through some of the narrow alleyways, I spotted a quaint little courtyard café. I decided to have a light lunch and glass of wine. Honestly, the lunch wasn’t that great, but the setting was wonderful. After all the cold wet weather, it was nice to be sitting outside on a warm sunny day.

The town itself is so picturesque, between all the boats in the marina, the mountains serving as a backdrop, homes built into the hillside, the stone walls of Old Town. It’s like stepping back in time.

After a few hours touring, it was time to take the bus back to Split and transfer to Le Meridien for a few days of rest and relaxation. First on the list, a massage followed by a great dinner. The massage was much needed and was absolutely wonderful. The Traveling Hillbilly may have even nodded off for a minute or two. After the massage, I was just too relaxed to get ready for dinner so I ordered some room service and settled in for the night.

All in all, a perfect day!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Watching the Waves of the Adriactic

As I sit watching the waves (not really waves)of the Adriatic roll in, I feel like I’m going to cry. I’m not sure of the reason, maybe it’s many reasons. Maybe it’s because the bike tour is over and I have to say goodbye to all the amazing people I’ve met. Maybe it’s because I’m so moved by the natural beauty of this place. Maybe it’s because I feel so blessed to have had this experience. Maybe it’s all those reasons and more.

I have met people on this trip who have truly inspired me. They are warm, generous and fun. We’ve all met those people who just exude warmth and affection the moment you meet them. While most people are, inherently good, there are those that truly stand out amongst the rest of us. There is just something special about them. I’ve met a few of those people on this trip. The Traveling Hillbilly wants to give a shout out to Jim and Nancy. Nancy is a truly special person and her husband is a gentlemen in the truest sense of the word. From the moment I arrived, they extended their kindness and generosity to me. They have been together over 35 years and you can feel their love and affection for one another. They have inspired me in more ways than they’ll ever know. Nancy was always there to help, to offer support and provide words of encouragement. She made even the most torturous days of riding fun. Her husband took on every challenge with a great attitude and a sense of fun. At the end of the day, all they wanted to now was how you did. They were always concerned and interested in others. I’m truly going to miss them.

Marsha and Doug are another great couple. They have such a sense of fun. There was never a doubt in Marsha’s mind that we were not going to do the longest and toughest options available to us. She is a real spitfire! Vera and Rachel were right there as well. It was each one of them that made me push myself to try and meet every challenge. While they usually left me in the dust on the hills, they were always waiting just around the next corner, taking photos and offering kind words. The Traveling Hillbilly laughed constantly with this group. You would have thought we had all known each other for a long time and had not just met a day or two before.

All in all this was an extraordinary group of people. We had a wide range of ages and a range of biking experience and ability. From Marsha, a serious biker to those of us who just like to take leisurely rides along the beach. We had several people that are older, many even retired, who got on the bikes every morning and rode further than I thought would be possible. Most of them were often passing me as I struggled to climb up a hill. Several of them travel together and have done more than 10 biking trips. But everyone got along, supported one another and had fun. This is one of the reasons I like to travel by myself on occasion. It gives the Traveling Hillbilly the opportunity to meet new people, make new friends.

So thanks to the whole crew; Terry, Linn & Krissy (it’s great to see a family taking this adventure together), Arthur & Miriam (New Yorkers who always made the Traveling Hillbilly laugh), Mike & Vicky (could actually speak the language and often helped the rest of us out), Barry & Karen (a bummer Barry got so sick), Chuch & Jacquie (a great couple of people), Ken & Annie (a truly compatible couple) and of course Nancy & Jim, Marsha & Doug, Vera (a great sense of humor and very photogenic) and Rachel ( an independent spirit and great photographer). Everyone one of them contributed to making this an amazing experience. The Traveling Hillbilly will miss all of you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

71 and Summy

We finally wake up to sunshine and warm weather. What an incredible day for our last day of biking! The Traveling Hillbilly decided to take a quick walk and sit by the Adriatic before having to meet everyone for our day of biking. After a few moments of sitting with my feet dangling in the water, I decided to take a dip in the Adriatic. Wow! How invigorating! It truly made the Traveling Hillbilly feel alive. The water is so clear; you can see the rocks below. The salt makes your skin feel so soft, not sticky. There could not have been a better way to start the day! Well, maybe one, but that was not in the cards for the Traveling Hillbilly today.

Shockingly, the day started out with a relatively flat ride. We were all enjoying this part of the day, knowing we had a very tough ride coming up in the afternoon. But for now, we all rolled along, enjoying the scenery, stopping to take pictures and chatting. Yes, for once we were actually able to talk with one another without huffing and puffing. It was truly an enjoyable ride. We even stopped in a great little village, Veboska, for a quick lemonade and even more picture taking. Veboska is another seaside harbor with cute little stone bridges reaching across the canal. It looked like a mini-little Venice.

After our leisurely morning ride, we arrived in scenic Jelsa. Matej had a little surprise for us here. His family has a home in the village that has been in the family for many generations. He gave us the opportunity to finally see what one of the original stone homes looked like. It was quite enchanting. We hopped back on our bikes for a very short ride, through beautiful trees with a view of the sea on our left. It was like being in Lake Tahoe. We had a lovely picnic of true Croatian foods, overlooking the sea. The Traveling Hillbilly has to say that for once, the guides spoke the truth. Matej told us Vanja was the picnic master and I must admit, he did a great job preparing our lunch and picked the most scenic spot. . All in all it was a very moving experience, especially knowing it was our last day of biking.

After the picnic, it was time to get serious and start the “real” ride of the day. After our guides informed us that this was going to be the toughest ride yet, several people in the group decided to skip the afternoon ride and go directly back to the hotel. A few people opted to take the van to the top of the hill and just ride down. Just six of us decided to take on this beast of a hill. It was the longest and steepest we’d done yet. I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to make it. The Traveling Hillbilly truly had doubts about this leg of the ride, a steady six mile climb on a steep grade.

It was tough and there were times when I thought I could not go one inch further, times when I felt like I was pedaling and getting nowhere. Did I mention that my iPod died just before lunch so I was having to do this without any inspirational music? What was I thinking? But, I’m proud to say the Traveling Hillbilly made it to the top! Certainly not in record time, but made it none the less.

My sense of accomplishment however was brief as I realized we had more miles to go. Plus we had just turned the clocks back an hour, so it was starting to get dark. We continued on as it kept getting darker. I wondered if the others had already made it back to the hotel. Were they already sitting in the hot tub relaxing their sore muscles? And I’m still don't have my music. I have to admit, I was a little scared. In the dark it’s tough to see the potholes and rocks/pebbles that make you slip and potentially skid off the road and over a steep cliff. Luckily I had a guide with me who led the way. Matej was really great about pointing out potholes, rocks and any other potential dangers along our path. Others were not so lucky and were alone for a bit in the dark. The guides though are never far away and we all made it back to the hotel safely. Another great adventure!

P.S. The Traveling Hillbilly unlike everyone else still feels the ride the day before was tougher!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Guides

What can I say about Matej and Vanja? It is apparent they have a true love and passion for their country. They know their country’s history and can trace their own family history back several generations. At first they were not forthcoming with information, nor very personable. We didn’t feel like we were truly getting to know them. However, after a few days with us, they relaxed and started to open up. They were a lot of fun and we realized they are thrilled to share the history and beauty of their country with its visitors.

They also lie like rugs. They told us the first day would be the worst and toughest ride. They were always telling us, “you’re almost there, just five more minutes to the top of this hill.” All lies! They gave us options of flat or flatter. How can something be flatter?

But all in all, they were great guides and we enjoyed our time with them. They made this a truly amazing experience and the Traveling Hillbilly personally wants to thank them for all their hard work.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Miserable, Miserable, Miserable Day!

After yesterday’s challenging ride, we were looking forward to a lot of down hills on the ride today. However, Mother Nature had a different agenda for us today. We awoke to dark clouds above, but given that there can be a variety of weather conditions on the island, we were still hopeful it would be sunny were we were heading. Well no such luck! We were driven to the highest peak on the island for the start of our ride. As we drove up, it got colder, windier and foggier. We wound up having to drive back down until we had safer riding conditions. About 10 minutes into our ride, the winder started, the rain came down and it didn’t really stop for most of the day. There were times were the Traveling Hillbilly actually had to pedal going downhill because the winds were so strong. There were times, were the Traveling Hillbilly was pedaling, pedaling, pedaling and getting nowhere! It was truly a miserable day. But we persevered and made it through. It was a long and tough day. It was supposed to be easier than yesterday, but given the weather conditions I think today was tougher! The Traveling Hillbilly has to admit though, the scenery was still magnificent.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

31 Miles Down, Many More to Go

Let the bike tour officially begin! Today we biked to the village Pucisca and then on to Skrip, the oldest settlement on the island. In Pucsica we caught a chance to tour the stone cutting school. It’s a high school and kids have the option of going for three years and then getting a job or they can do the four year program and then go on to university. The school has a great reputation and we were informed that for the kids that go there can get a job anywhere. It’s a public school too. In Skrip, one of the local families provided us a sample of their wine and olive oil. The house they live in is over 300 years old and has been in the family for generations.

Now for the ride itself. Honestly it was tough! Now I never ride my bike in 1st gear at home. It makes me feel like Fred Flintstone, just pedaling but getting nowhere. I usually ride on 2nd or 3rd gear and then adjust the speed for hills and such. But I have to admit, I had to shift into first gear and more than once today. We had hill after hill after hill. There is just no flat riding here. It’s either up or down and we had more up than down today! Plus the roads are really curvy so you can’t even take advantage of the down hill to build up momentum for the next hill. After some major hills we were all exhausted and quite dismayed to discover that our last journey to Skrip was the worst incline of the day. But we all figured we’d come this far, what’s a few more miles? Boy were we cursing about 5 minutes later. It was nothing but a steady incline, there was just no break. Let’s just say the Traveling Hillbilly was in 1st gear after the first 2 minutes and pretty much stayed in first all the way to Skrip. Some folks opted to Skip the ride and took the van in to Skrip, while others wound up hopping off their bikes and walking them up the hill, or should I say mountain?!

So yes, it was a tough ride, but we were rewarded with some simple magnificent views. Coming back from the death hill leading to Skrip, we had a stunning view of the water, with another island in the background. It really was a picturesque ride. Everywhere you looked there was something stunning to see; blue, blue waters, mountains, grape vines, olive trees and beautiful countryside. Along the way, we passed goats, sheep, donkeys and lots of locals. The Traveling Hillbilly has always liked to take train rides when traveling. It gives you the opportunity to see things you otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to see just by sightseeing. That is one of the reason’s I decided to do a bike tour in Croatia. I wanted the chance to see more than just the key sites and beaches. So far, VBT (Vermont Bike Tours) has delivered! Tonight we are off to a local family’s home for dinner. But first, we have a quick lesson in Croatian. I believe our guides want to make sure we can speak to the families, in a polite manner!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The First Casualty

The day started off nice enough. We finally had some sunshine! The Traveling Hillbilly sat on the ferry on the way to Brac, sipping a cappuccino, enjoying the view and thinking about what a nice life it is. Why can’t everyday, or at least more days, be like this? What a special day it was starting off to be.

As we pulled into the marina, I’m struck once again by the images from the fairy tales I heard as a kid. It feels like we are stepping back in time, to a different world. It just doesn’t seem real.

We get to the hotel, get checked in and then it’s off in search of lunch. Our trip leader informs us that most of the restaurants are closed or no longer serving food, however if we go across the way, a tiny woman named Marta (spelling?) will open up for us and make us something to eat. While some of the group opts to go to the grocery store, others opt to take a nap; a few of us head over to see Marta. Marta does not disappoint!

After a quick bite, we head off to explore the village around our hotel and find several great photo opps. Then it’s time for our first ride of the trip! After reviewing the rules and some key safety tips, we final head out on our bikes to Dol, the next village over.

As we bike along the narrow road, we are surrounded by mountains, grape vines and an overall amazingly scenic view. I wonder if this is what it’s like to bike in the French countryside. There’s so much charm, grace and beauty, I just can’t believe I’m actually here. It’s truly spectacular.

Then of course, we all miss the first turn and get lost! Luckily we are back on track after a few moments of panic. Halfway through our ride, we come across a great little bar where they have set up some lovely welcome drinks for us. The owner has set out some almonds, figs and brandy (all grown/made on site) for us to try. The bar is actually built into the mountain. It’s stunning.

Time to head back to the hotel and get ready for dinner. As we head into the bar for a pre-dinner drink we are informed that one of our group has already been injured. Apparently, she fell coming down the hill on her way back to the hotel. She has been transported to the hospital to be checked out. We are all saddened to hear that one of our group may be hurt and most likely will not be joining us for our ride tomorrow. Here it is day one and we’ve already been lost and had a major casualty.

The Traveling Hillbilly sends out a prayer for Linn and hopes tomorrow turns out better.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Feeling Bettter, a Little Less Grouchy

Well I met up with the bike group and we all headed down to check out the Palace in our brief time here. It's totally cool. Basically they have built shops in what's left of the Palace. So there are shops among the rubble and apparently some people even live in the Palace above the shops. After wandering through, we headed off to dinner. The Traveling Hillbilly is feeling much less irritable after getting some food! Hunger really can make one grouchy.

I'm sure there's more to see and we'll have one more day here at the end of the trip to more sights. Plus the Traveling Hillbilly is staying a few extra days in Split after the bike tour is over.

I must say though, I'm really looking forward to getting to Brac tomorrow. Here's hoping for sunshine and warmer weather!

Not in Dubrovnik Anymore

It’s time to leave this beautiful but cold and wet city and head to Split for the official start of the bike tour. Despite the rain, the ride along the coast is still stunning. Once again, the Traveling Hillbilly is reminded of the ride along Highway One in California. We pass quite a few small villages, houses built along the sea as well as up in the hillsides. I was very surprised to see snow covered mountain tops just outside of Split.

The first thought that goes through my mind as we approach Split, is we are definitely not in Dubrovnik anymore. The quaint, small town charm of Dubrovnik does not apply here. We aren’t even in the city for a minute, when we see a sign for McDonald’s. We did not see one McDonalds, Subway, Taco Bell, KFC or Starbucks in Dubrovnik (nice to know some places have still not been invaded by the Fast Food Nation). Split is a much bigger, bustling city. Luckily we’re only here for the night and then we’re taking a ferry over to Brac for our first day of riding.

My second thought is, maybe they’ll actually have internet access in the hotel room here. And maybe they’ll even have an adapter so I can charge up my computer. Well I was good on the second thought. My computer is charging as I type. While they supposedly do have wireless internet in each room, the single is too low and I can’t get on! I decide to grab a quick bite to eat, while I charge up my computer. Unfortunately, the café bar in the hotel, does not serve lunch or dinner. The reception desk sends me to a restaurant just down the street where I discover they can’t do take away. I walk a few blocks trying to find something to eat, but no luck.

The one thing I have realized here is every restaurant has the same menu. They all have fish soup, tomato soup, spaghetti Bolognese, spaghetti cabonara, a fish platter, pizza and a few meat dishes. It’s really odd there is not more variety. It’s also odd that lunch and dinner is the same menu. I’m not used to eating a huge meal at lunch everyday. I really like trying the local food when I travel, but right now, I’d settle for a sandwich or even a dinner roll but it doesn’t look like I’ll even be able to find that nearby. Where was that McDonald’s again? Fortunately I brought some Luna bars with me and it looks like that will be my lunch today.

An Amazing Place Filled with Amazing People

All in all you can see all the sites in the old city in one day, but if you only do one thing in Dubrovnik, you must walk along the wall. It’s kind of like the Great Wall in China, but a much smaller version. It loops around the whole city and is only 1 ¼ miles all the way around. The wall offers incredible views of city and the Adriatic Sea. It actually reminds me somewhat of Capri, Italy. You have the sea on one side and these beautiful homes built into the mountain side. It truly is stunning.

Other sights to see include, The Franciscan Monastery, which houses the one of the oldest pharmacies still in operation in all of Europe, The Dominican Monastery and the Dubrovnik Cathedral, which includes a piece of the real Cross.

If you have some extra time you should consider taking the “History of the War” walking tour. Our guide was just 16 when the war broke out in 1991 and he provided us a first hand account of what it was like during the siege. After hearing his story, we decided to go to the Sponza Palace and check out the Memorial Room. It is a room dedicated to those who stepped up to defend Dubrovnik. There are pictures of those who died, as well as, photos taken while the town was under attack. As you walk around you wonder why anyone would want to destroy such a beautiful city. It saddens you to see the holes in the walls, some of the houses with no roofs. However, the people of Dubrovnik have done a remarkable job of restoring their city. The truly should be commended for what they’ve been able to do. While there is a sense of optimism among the people here, they are still wary and you can sense there are emotional scars that may never heal.

The Old City

Shortly after arriving at the hotel, I met some wonderful people from Virginia and Michigan. They have known each other for years and have done several trips together. They were kind enough to invite me along to tour the old city with them on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, we woke up to some cloudy and slightly chilly weather.

However, we didn’t let that dampen our spirits. We are off to tour Dubrovnik, the walled city and all it has to offer. Of course within minutes, the rain came down! Now Dubrovnik is a very small town. The main attraction is the old city. Most of the sights worth seeing are located within the walls of the old city; a couple of monasterys, a few cathedrals and several very small museums. There are two main entrances, Pile Gate (western) and Ploce Gate (eastern). The main street, the Stradun, runs from one gate to the other. Now it’s a very short distance and you can walk from one end to the other in less than 10 minutes. However, there are several narrow streets and alleyways filled with shops and restaurants. It’s truly amazing to see and feels like you are walking around in a medieval city. Of course, there are also lots of shops and restaurants. Everything is made of stone and it truly is an amazing sight to see.

It makes me realize, how great is it is to be back in Europe. Given all the trips to Asia, it’s been a few years since the Traveling Hillbilly has been to Europe. Boy it’s good to be back.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

5 Buses, 4 Airports, 3 Planes and 2 Taxis…

Yes after a very long day of travel, The Traveling Hillbilly has finally arrived in Dubrovnik Croatia! Given there are no direct flights, it is not an easy place to get to, but the weary traveler is greeted with such kindness and beauty, the hassles of travel are quickly forgotten.

The Traveling Hillbilly’s first thought flying into Croatia, wow, it’s surprisingly green! There are lovely green fields below, surrounded by amazing limestone mountains, all under an amazingly blue sky.

The ride from the airport to the hotel is all along the coast. With its stunning views, it reminded the Traveling Hillbilly of driving along Highway 1 (PCH) in California. There’s the Adriatic on one side and mountains on the other. The one major difference though, it truly is a village. When you here the word village, it conjures up quaint stone houses, castles and other visions from the fairy tales you heard as a kid. Dubrovnik delivers on that vision! It is known as the walled city. It’s surrounded by a huge stone wall, making it look like a castle. As we drive in to the “old city,” the Traveling Hillbilly is half expecting to see men standing along the wall, guarding the place.

What makes this place truly special is they’ve managed to maintain the small town, village feel even as they’ve grown, renovated and built out into the “suburbs.” All the new houses and shops are made of stone and look like they’ve been around for hundreds of years. Finally a place that truly looks like what one imagines it will. It’s not just a big city, with a lot of tall office buildings and hotels everywhere. It looks like the kind of place that might not even have an ATM or internet access. It does have ATMs. As for the internet access, none in the hotel room, but they do have 2 computers in the lobby where you can go online for 30 minutes for about a buck and a half.

The Traveling Hillbilly can’t wait to explore!