<![CDATA[pale tu - HOME]]>Tue, 09 Feb 2016 20:05:43 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Kruger Park, South Africa]]>Thu, 19 Mar 2015 07:32:09 GMThttp://www.paletu.com/home/kruger-park-south-africa
Latest post is about a self-drive safari and backpacker hike in Kruger Park, South Africa.
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<![CDATA[socotra, Yemen: Dragonbloods, hiking, beach camping]]>Sun, 01 Jun 2014 02:57:47 GMThttp://www.paletu.com/home/socotra-yemen-dragonbloods-hiking-beach-campingSocotra
Alright, since we are reformatting the blog and are woefully out-dated, some articles will be posted out-of-order.  The latest blog/photoessay is from Socotra, Yemen.  This island is called "Galapagos of the East" because of its high endemic biodiversity, including the bizarre dragonblood and desert rose trees.  Also check out tips for backpackers in this handy guide! -RO

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<![CDATA[Turkish Tourist Menu Trap]]>Fri, 13 Sep 2013 14:28:19 GMThttp://www.paletu.com/home/turkish-tourist-menu-trap1Picture

The port town of Kusadasi, Turkey sees a lot of cruise-ship tourists who get off the boat to see Ephesus, the largest Roman ruins in the world.  Consequently, some businesses here see tourists as easy money.  We discovered predatory pricing in two restaurants in this coastal town: Holiday Inn and Carpediem.  We got tricked by the first but avoided the second. 

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Ephesus: beautiful ruins in a sea of tourists
I'm not sure if Holiday Inn is actually a hotel, but the restaurant itself proudly displays a  Zagat-like rating.  The outdoor seating along the pedestrian avenue and aromas were inviting.  After perusing the menu's selection of kebabs and other Turkish fare, the little coal barbeque on the neighboring table caught my our eye.  It had kebabs, grilled veggies, and flatbread with a side plate of yogurt and small salad.  The Belgium couple who had ordered it had good things to say.  So did the waiter.  We noticed the price was twice as much as most other dishes (30 vs ~15 Turkish lira), but the waiter kept saying "for two."  We agreed and eagerly awaited our feast.  Curiously, the picture of the meal did not correspond to the label next to it, and the price was hand-written in faded Sharpie marker.  
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The menu. We ordered the dish in the top left, which is not "Adana Kebap" and costs twice as much as the arrowed number.
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Kusadasi (source: GoTravel.com)
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Holiday Inn, the restaurant (source: TripAdvisor)
The food was a good blend of meat, vegetables, and spice- standard Turkish cuisine.  We were happy to have picked the meal...
Until we got the bill.  It was 60 TL, twice what we expected to pay!  Piecing together what happened (each person is charged 30 TL), we confront the waiter/manager.  He angrily points at the menu and insists we ordered 2 dishes.  Interesting because we didn't get twice the food that was pictured.  We just got an extra plate of garnish.  The establishment was being deliberately misleading from the menu to the way the waiter described the dish.  The couple eating next to us were just as surprised when they got their bill.  I'll admit the food was good, but I hate being taken for a fool.

The next day, we are looking for some food and some WiFi to do some Internet tippy-tappin' when we find a place that has lots of pictures of local food with cheap prices.  This place is called Carpediem and is a case-study in copyright infringement, judging by their TGIFriday's decor.

The waiter guides us to our table and cleans off the white paper placemats, which look like menus to us.  He sets two fancy, yellow, laminated menus in front of us.  We start perusing the menu and notice the prices are 2-3x higher than on the big, colorful banner outside.  Wait a minute!  We tell the waiter we want to order from the local menu, the white paper ones.  Here are some pictures for comparison (sorry the first one is blurry):

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Yellow tourist menu vs white locals menu. Adana kebabs are 27.50 for tourists and 14 for locals. Izgara Kofte is 29.50 for tourists and 11 for locals.
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Water (su) is 1.50… wait, you don't look Turkish. Water is 2.75.
The food was good: tavuk doner, kebabs, ayran, and it was a good value IF you ordered from the locals' menu instead of the inflated, tourist menu. 

Town isn't all that bad: lively (we saw drunk guys in a fist/knife/lamppost fight with the parking mafia guys).  Our couch-surfing host was an energetic and extremely hospitable guy.  The weather was splendid.  All this will be covered in another post.

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<![CDATA[The Islands]]>Wed, 11 Sep 2013 11:42:14 GMThttp://www.paletu.com/home/the-islandsPicture
Daedalus tried his wings first, but before taking off from the island, warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, nor too close to the sea, but to follow his path of flight. Overcome by the giddiness that flying lent him, Icarus soared through the sky curiously, but in the process he came too close to the sun, which melted the wax. Icarus kept flapping his wings but soon realized that he had no feathers left and that he was only flapping his bare arms, and so Icarus fell into the sea in the area which today bears his name, the Icarian Sea near Icaria.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icarus_(mythology)

The Greek islands…I’ve seen them in the movies, read about them, heard stories from friends that have visited.  All signs pointed towards we needed to visit.  At the beginning of the trip it was just on the list as Greek Islands, but then it came time to decide which islands to visit.  There a LOT of islands (~1,400) and it seems they each have their own character.  Once we got to Greece we started asking about the islands, and everyone had recommendations.  One that was repeatedly mentioned was Ikaria, which seems off the usual tourist route.  One person told us that God much have been a good mood when he created Ikaria.  Descriptions like this convinced us to visit.  We narrowed our list of islands to Ikaria, Naxos and Santorini.  

Now, how to travel between them?  We attempted to look up the schedules of how to island hop, but we couldn't find clear information.  There are lots of travel agents in Athens, but they obviously charge a fee.  After so much research and not getting anywhere we finally, reluctantly stopped in a travel agent’s office.  The agent was really friendly and gave us lots of information.  We wanted to think about our options and told him we would come back.  Then we found it!  The website that has the schedules of all the ferries between all the islands, www.greekferries.gr.  Of course, this website also charges a commission so being the cheapskates, I mean thrifty travelers, we found the ferry company, date, and time and then went onto the specific ferry’s website and bought tickets directly, with no commission.  It is a little more work to look up the schedule on one website and then go to another to buy it, but it saved us some money.

Ikaria:
We got up early for our first ferry ride.  Our hotel was near so we could walk to the pier, Pireaus.  There are a lot of hotels near Pireaus, but most of them were out of our price range.  We found a cheap place where I think we were the only guests.  I seemed like it is a very old house converted into a hotel.  It was run down, but had a big bed and private bathroom so it seemed luxurious to us.  Anyway we walked over to the port and found the pier with our ferry.  The ship was large and modern.  Of course, we bought the cheapest tickets, which were considered economy/deck seats.  We found an area with a table and chairs near a little café on one of the decks.  I got a coffee and Remy and I setup to read and connect to the Internet.  We were some of the first people in the area and as it started to fill in we quickly realized that we were surrounded by chain smokers.  We looked around for another spot, but everyone smokes, so we couldn’t escape it.  There was an area with benches, but people were sprawled out with their sleeping bags leaving no room for us.  The ship finally left the pier and we set off to further explore and discovered the ship is huge!  We found indoor lounges, where smoking is prohibited.  Sometimes you have to weave your way through the higher class seating areas, but as long as you went to one of the lounges no one gave you a hard time.  We found a table and chairs, setup camp, and hoped no one would come yell at us to go back outside.  Once we found this space we had a nice, long journey to Ikaria.

PictureLandscape with the Fall of Icarus By: Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569)


First stop, Ikaria, named for Icarus, the son of Daedalus who made Icarus wings of feathers and wax to escape from Crete.

Ikaria has recently been in the news for being one of places with the longest-living people.  We were told a reason for the longevity is the diet and I can believe it.  They eat healthy, delicious meals of fish, olives, tomatoes from the island, plus lots of locally made wine.  Remy and I were in heaven.  

Another reason we were told that so many people live a long time is that they walk a lot, up and down mountainous terrain.  Supposedly, Ikaria used to be an island very attractive to pirates.  The people that lived on Ikaria were scared of these pirates so they lived up in the mountains and had to walk down to the coast to fish and gather food and then walk back up to go home.  We were also told about how the people were so scared of pirates that they only came out at night and that on the island there is still a town that operates on the same schedule.  People don’t come out, shops don’t open, nothing happens until late afternoon, and then people are up all night long.

The Greeks on the mainland told us about Ikaria’s laid-back style, which we definitely experienced.  Shops open when the owners feel like opening and close when they want to leave.   Usually there is a long break in the middle of the day when shops close for siesta and then reopen in the late afternoon and stay open through the evening.  We were also told hitchhiking was easy; if someone sees you walking they will stop and ask if you need a ride.  This sounds amazing, but we were a bit skeptical.  Up to now we haven’t had the best luck hitchhiking.  We arrived in Evdilos, Ikaria, the smaller port, and we hadn’t done much research or planning so we didn’t have a hostel booked.  We walked around a bit and discovered that there aren’t a lot of options and most places were fully booked because of a wedding happening on the island.  We saw another traveler and asked him where he was staying and he said on the roof of a hostel a few kilometers away.  We continued to search but then eventually gave up since everything we found was out of our budget and decided to walk to the hostel the guy told us about.  It was hot and hilly and with big backpacks I wasn’t looking forward to it, but we didn’t have another option.  We were walking for about 5 minutes when a car stopped and asked if we needed a ride.  Marvelous!!! 

We got a ride to the town, Kampo, and then after some asking around found the hostel, Dionysos Rooms.  We were shown rooms and then the roof accommodations.  The rooftop has a few beds, a shelter on three sides, and an awesome view all the way to the ocean.  Other pluses were an area to do laundry, clotheslines, and a kitchen we could cook in.  Also close by there is a big grocery store, which we immediately hit up and stocked up on produce, meat, bread, and wine.  It was a great place to camp out for a few days. 
 
The fellow traveler from town came back.  Turns out he is American and just finished Peace Corps in Mongolia.  We chatted for a while about our Peace Corps experiences (me in the Philippines and him in Mongolia).  I have a lot of respect for him.  Peace Corps in the Philippines had some challenges, but Peace Corps Mongolia makes it look like chump change.  He told us about a time when the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night.  It was -50oF so they couldn’t leave the bus and someone had to keep a blowtorch on the gas line so it didn’t freeze.  From what I know, gasoline and fire don’t mix so I would have been scared out of my britches.  And that was just one of the incredible stories he told. 

Anyway the owners of the hostel are extremely friendly and helpful.  The next morning they helped us rent a scooter and suggested places to explore around the island.  By the time all the arrangements were made we didn’t leave the hostel until about noon.  We hopped on the scooter and went to Nas.  In Nas there is a river that runs into the ocean.  Where the two meet is a beautiful beach with large crashing waves.  We hung out on the beach for a bit and then hiked up the river/gorge.  It is quiet, beautiful, and we saw only a few other people.  We learned that we were there after the main season and could see the remains of all the people that had been living there for the summer.  On the beach and along the river there discarded tents, sleeping bags, and lots of trash.  I’m glad it was much calmer when we were there.  So we hiked up the gorge and hung out along the river and took advantage of some swimming pools.  Oh yeah, Nas is a nudist beach so we saw a few bare bottoms, among other things.

After hiking up the gorge for a bit we came to a dirt road and walked along it back to our scooter.  We decided to explore some of the mountainous areas on our way back to the hostel.  Surprisingly it was quite chilly, which wasn’t that fun when we got lost on very bumpy dirt roads and almost ran out of gas.  Then we decided to walk the scooter down a path to a main road, which didn’t work out so then we had to push the scooter back up the path to a dirt road.  Eventually we found a bakery for some cookies, a gas station, and the road back to Kampo.  It was an adventure, but we got to see more of the picturesque, peaceful island and we had some nice wine to come back to (really we’re not alcoholics).

Our third day on Ikaria we decided to have a grand adventure touring around the island.  We climbed on the scooter and headed towards Seychelles.  There are two ways to get there and we choose the road that cut across the island.  The road climbed in elevation and then wound its way back down providing many scenic views.  We had vague directions of how to find this beach and knew we were there when we saw Seychelles sprayed painted on the side of the road.
We then scrambled down the boulders to the beach.  Seychelles is one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen.  The beach is made up of small, smooth, white rocks and the water is turquoise and so clear.  We stood there taking it in and letting our sunscreen set and then we jumped into the beautiful, refreshing water.  We spent some time swimming around.  Remy found a small cave along the shore.  And then we were beach bums.  The rocks weren’t the most comfortable to lay on, but we found a discarded mat and relaxed for a while.  We knew that we needed to move on if we were going to continue our journey in the daylight, but it was so gorgeous that we didn’t want to leave.  We finally convinced ourselves that it was time to go and we clambered back up the path to our scooter.
It was lunchtime so we puttered to Agios Kirikos, capital of the island.  We wandered the streets searching for just the right place, cheap and good food.  We settled on a delicious gyro place with a lot of locals, always a good sign.   After we filled our bellies we did a little backtracking to Therma Lefkados.  Therma is also a little difficult to find.  There is just a little sign on the side of the road, which we were fortunate to spot.  Once you find the sign then walk down the stairs to the ocean and then scurry along the boulders to the spot.  There were some people there so it made it easy to find, otherwise it might be a little tricky.  It’s about 100 yards from the bottom of the staircase. 
So what is at Therma Lefkados?  Hot springs!  There is another spot, called Thermas, which is in the guidebooks and on the tourist maps, but the owner of our hostel told us you have to pay to go to these hot springs.  Then he told us about Therma Lefkados, completely free and open to the public.  Also less known so there are few people.  This place is splendid!  Hot water, I mean burn your hand hot, trickles into the ocean.  You strip down to your bathing suit and tip toe into the ocean.  If you want to soak in hot water you stay close to the shore.  When you need to cool off a bit you move out a little towards the ocean and to shock your system with cold water swim about 10 yards from the shore.  There are gentle waves that constantly bring in cold water in and hot water hot.  There were just a handful of people and each of us found a spot with just the right temperature.  I liked floating in the really hot water and then shocking my system with the cold ocean water.
When we had enough of soaking we made our way back to the scooter and back towards Ag Kirykos to find the road that heads north and along coast.  To reach the coast we followed the road as it spiraled into the mountains and the further we went up the colder and windier it got.  Just when I thought I couldn’t take anymore cold the road started to descend and we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the coast.  We were enjoying moseying back to Kampo along the coast watching the sun migrate towards the horizon.  We were reflecting on what a wonderful day we had, making plans for what we were going to cook for dinner, sad that it was our last night on Ikaria.  I asked Remy to pull over so I could take a picture and get off my butt (long day on a scooter equals a sore bum).  So I took my picture, stretched, and climbed back on the scooter.  Remy turned the key and nothing happened.  We tried again and again.  We realized we had some trouble.  We called the owner and he told us to wait a little bit and then try again.  So we watched the goats scurry along the mountainside.
We tried again, still no luck.  We waited some more and then tried again and still no luck.  We called back and said it won’t start.  He said he would come out and help us.  The trick was trying to explain where we were.  No signs, no towns, no people; just the road, a broken moped, and us.  We gave him the best description we could.  Remy tried to figure out  what was wrong, but no luck.  We were still about 30 minutes from Kampo so it would be a bit of a wait before he reached us so we decided to start pushing the heavy scooter towards town.  We eventually pulled over and a very nice man stopped to help us.  In minutes he had our scooter started and called the owner and told him where we were.  We waited a few more minutes and the owner showed up, gave us his working scooter, and hailed down a car for a ride to the auto part store.  Turns out the scooter had a broken spark plug.  Remy and I climbed onto our new scooter and had an uneventful ride back to the hostel.  We had a delicious dinner and slept well after a long day.  Our last day we visited the beach, packed our things, and caught an evening ferry to the next island.
Ikaria was our favorite island so I have written the most about it.  Below is a slideshow of the remaining islands we visited with some extra details.

Mykonos:
This was an island that we didn’t originally plan to go to, but the only way to get from Ikaria to Naxos was via Mykonos.  We decided, since we needed to pass through we would spend a day to see what all the fuss is about.  We took a night ferry from Ikaria to Mykonos and as everyone gets on they are scrambling to find a place to unroll their sleeping bags or spread out their blankets.  There were sleeping bodies all over the floor.  



Mykonos is known to be a party island that is expensive.  We found a place with rather inexpensive camping, Paradise Beach Resort + Camping, but most of the reviews complained about it being loud and dirty.  It was a bit loud, but not dirty, at least to our standards.  We were there in the shoulder season so during the day when the cruise ships unload there are lots of people and at night it seems to quiet down a bit.  Mykonos is a pretty island, but it is a bit expensive.  The main town and beaches are very touristy, but it wasn't a bad stop.
Naxos:·      
The great thing about the campsites on both Mykonos and Naxos is that they provide a free shuttle from the pier to the campsite.  All the campsites on Naxos had mediocre reviews so we just picked Maragas Beach Camping, which turned out to be ok. 

Day #1:  We arrived at  Maragas and rented bikes from Ag. Anna.


We did two long days of biking.  The roads were mixed between asphalt, dirt roads, and sand paths and not well marked at all.  Multiple times we needed to get directions and ended up places we didn't intend.  And it was a lot of uphill, but it was an adventure and in a way between then zipping around on a scooter. 
 

Day #2:  We biked from  Maragas to Plaka and then inland.  We got lost on the roads to Vivlos and then headed south past Ano Sagri.  Eventually, we turned north to Halkio for a lunch break and a tour of the distillery.  Finally we biked downhill (yippee) to Naxo town (Hora) (through Himaros, Potamia, Mesi Potamia) and back Maragas to rest our sore legs and bottoms.
Day #3: Another day of biking from Maragas to Plaka then south past Kastraki to Aliko.  We then went north (inland) to Vivlos, west towards Ag. Arsenios and then back to Plaka and finally back to Maragas.


We ended our time on Naxos with a tasty dinner and a good night sleep!
Santorini:
Santorini is a small island with lots of beaches, shopping, and tourists.  It is a very charming island that is raved about in guidebooks and travel blogs and featured in many movies.  I wanted to go see the picturesque white houses with blue domed roofs.  Santorini wasn't debated, it was a must, but I should have researched it a little more before we went.  It isn't very budget friendly and there isn't much to do besides shopping and lounging on the beach.  This doesn't exactly fit us.  We are on a tight budget with limited space in our packs, so there was no shopping.  And hanging out on the beach isn't really our style.  We are not very good at just lazing on the beach.  Plus we are both wimps and the water was chilly and the air cooling, but we should have sucked it up, packed a picnic and books and hung out on one of the many beautiful beaches.  


So what did we do?  Well spent some time walking around Fira, the main town, and Ia, gorgeous, but very touristy.  There is a very nice walking path from Fira going north.  We followed this until we reached the path towards C.Tourlos and Imerouigli.  We were going to continue, but then we saw all the people panting and sweating and decided to skip it and watch the other tourists struggle.  We also found a few wineries that have tasting that are free or inexpensive.  We tried nychteri, a type wine made on Santorini, that is quite tasty.  It is fermented overnight so that it retains moisture.  We rented a car and drove around the island and took lots of pictures.  We went to the Kokkini, red sand beach and near it is an excavation site, but they charged a bit of money and since we had already visited so many ruins we skipped it.  We went to a few other beaches.  The north beaches are too shallow for swimming, but Agh Nikolaos has good swimming.  We thought about going to Is Nea Kameni, the crater, but were warned that it's not worth the money so we skipped this too.



We spent our days driving around the island, taking lots of pictures, people watching, and spending time with our CouchSurfing host.  Santorini is stunning, but unless you are ready to spend a bit of money and loaf on beaches there might be other islands better suited to your interests.
Kos:
We had to stop on one more island, Kos, on our way to Turkey.  We spent just a few hours touring around the island.
Greece Lessons:
  • Most places you need a motorcycle license to rent a scooter (Ikaria we could rent a moped).
  • Ferries, always take the economy.  You can always find a place to sit inside.  On the deck there are lots of smokers so if you want to escape them definitely head inside.  You can sit in the café or lounge.  You can sleep in economy or airplane seats.  Don’t get a cabin.
  • If you need wifi go to Everest coffee shop.  You can get something cheap and use their wifi.  Everest in Greece is like Starbucks in the USA.
  • At restaurants bread is placed on the table, even if you don't ask for it.  Do not eat unless you want to pay ~$0.50 per person.  We were eventually told that it is now illegal to charge, so if you challenge the bill the  charges will be dropped.
  • If you want to rent a car it is fairly easy to drive and navigate, but be careful the main highway has lots of tolls that are expensive.
  • September is a great time to visit Greece.  The weather is still nice and it's the shoulder season so not too many tourists.
  • Buy food from the markets and grocery stores.  There is plenty of cheap, delicious food including yogurt, fruit, veggies, honey,olive oil, olives, bread, etc.  It is definitely cheaper than going to restaurants for all meals.


Well that wraps up Greece and ends our European part of the trip.  Turkey here we come!

Click here for more pictures of our visit to the Greek islands.

-JG
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<![CDATA[A visit to the gods]]>Fri, 30 Aug 2013 16:10:43 GMThttp://www.paletu.com/home/a-visit-to-the-godsPicture

For me Athens is a big city without much character.  Yes, there are the many beautiful ruins, but it is still a touristy city with restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and lots of people.  That said I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.  We had some magnificent food, accommodation, and sight seeing, but after a few days we were ready to move on.

Before the trip started Remy spent about nine months working in Bocas, Panama.  One of his colleagues is Greek and she happened to be in Greece the same time we were.  So she invited us to her summer cottage for a little R+R and to get some more Greek culture.  Her aunts were also at the cottage and we would spend hours chatting away about the issues of Greece and the US, music, books, food and any other topic that floated through our minds. 

The cottage is not too far outside of Athens and is so comfortable and welcoming.  And where we ate a lot!  In a few days we probably ate what we should have consumed in a week.  For breakfast we had yogurt, feta cheese, honey, figs, bread, and more.  Lunch was Greek salads with bread and fruit.  It was so much, but so delicious I didn’t want to stop eating.  One night they prepared a huge feast of grilled octopus, squid, fish, potatoes, zucchini, eggplant, plus wine, ouzo, watermelon, and homemade ice cream.  It was delectable and almost as enjoyable was watching the three ladies buzz about preparing all the dishes, arguing about if the fire was big enough, laughing, and drinking.  It was a very memorable night and we are extremely grateful for their hospitality.

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The grilling of the fish and squid.
In addition to all of the eating we spent some time at the beach, the Aegean Sea, another first.  It is a rocky beach with LOTS of urchins, but the water was so clear that you didn’t need a mask, you could see right to the bottom, making urchin-spotting quite easy.  We also visited Brauron (Attitca) a small, recently renovated museum.  Brauron was famed for the worship of Artemis Brauronia.  Tradition says that Orestes and Iphigeneia stole the effigy of Artemis by order of Athena and brought it to Attica to establish a sanctuary.  According to myth at this sanctuary the goddess Artemis guided young girls from childhood to adolescence and prepared them for their role in society.

Over those few days we definitely found our rest, which I needed.  Does it ever happen to you that you get to a place, feel safe, your body relaxes and that is when the sickness comes?  The haven of the cottage gave me that feeling and before I knew it I was feeling a little under the weather.  Luckily I had time to get lots of sleep and good food and by the time we had to leave I was ready for the next steps. 

The last thing we did at the cottage was planning, planning, planning.  When we find those nice base camps to regroup we always need to set time aside to plan for the next steps.  This time it was spent researching and booking the rest of our time in mainland Greece and the islands.

So with our bellies full, bodies rested, minds stimulated, and plans made we were dropped off at the airport to pick up a rental car.  We were warned that driving in Greece is crazy, but after driving in Miami for years Athens and the rest of Greece was a piece of cake.  We drove through the mountains and just as we came to the coast we spotted a dolphin gliding through the water.  I took it as a good omen, although there are probably dolphins there all the time.  Anyway we continued along the coast towards Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece.  In Greek mythology Olympus was the home of the 12 Olympian gods of the ancient Greet world. 

As we were preparing for this trip we couldn’t find too much information about the ascent, but once we stopped in Litchoro, the base town, it became clear and was pretty straightforward.  We picked up some supplies, got a map, made a reservation at one of the refuges, filled our stomachs with delicious gyros, and headed for the trailhead.  The man we bought the map from recommended that on the way we stop at Ag. Dioryssiou, which is an old monastery.  The monastery was in the midst of major construction, but there is a very nice hike to a cave monastery.  It only took about 30 minutes each way.

We jumped back in the car and drove to Prionia.  This as far as you can go with a car.  There is a small restaurant and an awesome freshwater spring with super cold water.  It was so good that a guy was there filling up water bottles to take home and put in his refrigerator instead of buying water.  We packed small day bags, attached our sleeping bags and tent, filled the wine bladder and started up the E4 trail.

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Remy excited about his full wine bladder.
It was a very steep ascent.  We started at ~1,100m and the refuge is at ~2,000m.  A lot of the trail is steps, climbing up and up.  It took us approximately 3 hours.  To me it seemed Remy was running up the trail while I was trudging along, hoping to make it to the refuge before dark.  When we finally reached the Sp. Agapitos Refuge all I wanted was the bean soup we heard so much about and to bundle up, it was quite chilly!  The refuge is comfy with fireplaces, restaurant, dorms and private dorms.  Instead of enjoying the comforts of a room, we opted to brave the cold and camp.  We placed our order and then ventured outside to set up our tent. 

Remy and I each had a big bowl of soup with some bread we carried up.  After thoroughly enjoying the soup we sat in front of the fireplace to warm up.  Then we heard the dreaded sound: kkkkrrrrggghhhh… pip pip pip pip thunder and rain.  We ran outside and found our tent, sleeping bags, and clothes were wet.  The cheap tent we got in Athens wasn’t as water resistant as it claimed.  So we shook it out, set it to dry, and dragged our sleeping bags and clothes inside to a fireplace to dry them off by hand. 

Once we dried everything out we layered up, ran back to the tent, spread out our sleeping bags, and hoped that the rain was done and we would get a good night sleep for our ascent the next morning.  But it wasn’t our luck to have a peaceful sleep on the mountain.  Those in the tent next to us were not climbing the mountain the next day so they stayed up all night, really the entire night, drinking and talking.  That meant their incessant jabbering continually woke us up, but on the bright side we were up before sunrise to pack up camp and eat breakfast.

The climb…well the beginning wasn’t too bad for me.  Most likely that was because we were stuck in the middle of a group of older Germans that were moving at a slow pace.  Once we skirted around them Remy took off and I trudged up behind him.  I really wish I had lungs like his.  After about an hour of hiking up the E4 trail, at 2,450 m we made it to the first fork in the path.  At this point we went to the right leaving the E4 trail (orange, #4 on map below).  Most of the group continued on the E4 trail, but we followed what the guy who gave us the map suggested.  The path leads along a ridge with a very steep drop.  When we saw some mountain goats above us on the mountainside I made sure to come to a complete stop and then look, one wrong step to the right would be a long tumble down.  We continued along this ridge to 2,700 m, an area called Louki.  There we noticed the red arrows painted on the rocks to mark the way up to Mytikas (means “nose.”), the summit, only 200 meters above us.  This route is difficult because of the risk of landslides.  Remy and I started up, slowly.  This is more like rock climbing than hiking, as the path is straight up.  I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to safely make it up to the summit.  I was feeling a bit light headed and decided to wait at Louki.  Remy continued on while I watched birds fly below me, goats run down the mountainside, and chatted with another woman that decided to wait as her boyfriend climbed.

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The ridge we walked along with the summit in sight.
After about an hour I spotted Remy scurrying down the rocks.  He made it to the summit and found many other people, including the rest of the group that we left.  They told him there is another path to the summit (yellow, #3 on map below).  Instead of splitting off to the right, towards Louki, you can continue along the E4 path to Skala and then cross to the right to Mytikas.  Remy spoke to a couple who took that path and they said it was a bit sketchy and they used some ropes provided by the Greek military, but seemed easier than a rock climb straight up.  Wish our map provider pointed out this route too.
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Remy at the summit of Mt. Olympus.
We decided we didn’t want to take the same path back so we headed towards G. Apostolidis Refuge.  This is an extremely beautiful and easy walk.  Just after the Apostolidis Refuge and before Chr. Kakkalos Refuge we took a very unclear path (gray, #5 on map below) back towards the Agapitos Refuge, the one where we stayed the previous night.  The beginning of the hike back was really nice, but quickly became a bit hairy.  We had to scuttle down some precariously placed rocks.  We descended from ~2,700m to ~2,100m.  At one point we said that the path might have been better going up because some parts were so steep that it made going down very difficult.  Then we saw two guys huffing their way to the top and realized it was better to slowly go down then to labor up.  It was a beautiful hike, and even in the end of August we found ourselves climbing over some snow.
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We found some snow along the trail.
At about lunchtime we made it back to the refuge and had a very delicious lunch, stuffed grape leaves from a can and tuna sandwiches.  They never tasted so good.  After, we collected our bags and headed back towards Prionia where our car was parked.  We were both in great moods, conquering the mountain of the Olympians, but mine quickly deteriorated.  A lot of steep descending in one day is terrible for my knees!  Most of the time I think I’m a pretty tough cookie, but towards the end of the descent I was biting back tears, as every step down was so painful.  And on top of that it started to pour, and we were drenched.  But the rain stopped, we made it to the glorious freshwater spring and arrived at the car where we could change into clean, dry clothes and grab a snack.  All in all our trek was wonderful and I highly recommend it.  Although it is definitely possible to do the whole thing in two days or if you’re in really good shape probably all in one day I recommend spending a few days in the park.  There are many refuges and trails that would be worth checking out.  I did slightly regret that we didn’t set aside more time to explore the area.
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Map of the trails we took. http://www.olympusfd.gr/us/infos.asp
While in central Greece we decided to explore a couple more sites on our way back to Athens.  Once we made it back to the car, we drove towards Kalambaka, the town closest to Meteora.  Meteora is an important complex of monasteries for the Eastern Orthodox and can mean “middle of the sky” or “suspended in the air” or “in the heavens above”.  Six monasteries, of the original 20, are built on natural sandstone rock pillars.  The surrounding area has been inhabited for thousands of years, but in the 9th century a group of hermit monks settled in the hollows and fissures in the rock towers of Meteora.  These monks lived a mostly solitary life until about the 11th century when they moved into caves.  The exact date of the establishment of the monasteries is unknown, but by the end of the 12th century a larger community began to congregate in Meteora.  Monks were brought here to avoid political upheaval that lasted hundreds of years.  Access to the monasteries was deliberately difficult, requiring either long ladders or large nets that hauled people and goods up the cliff.  It is said that the ropes were only replaced “when the Lord let them break”, which could make the ~1,200ft ride up the cliff at bit nerve-racking.  Fortunately, now there are roads to each monastery that makes visiting a lot easier.  
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Holy Monastery of Varlaam. On the left there are cables, which are for the modern baskets to take things to the monastery.
Of the monasteries that remain four were inhabited by men and two by women, but now the monasteries are just tourist attractions.  The 1981 James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, helped to add Meteora to the tourist map.  Once you get past the lines of tour buses and gobs of tourists it is a very beautiful place, except maybe for all the stairs.  The vistas are gorgeous, and my words can’t due it justice.  I certainly understand why the monks wanted to live up there.  The monasteries are gorgeous and very interesting to explore.  The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron has a great museum and the Holy Monastery of Varlaam has astonishingly large wine barrels for the wine the monks produced.
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Giant wine barrel and ossuary at monasteries.
We spent the day exploring the monasteries.  Each of them charges admission so we didn’t go into all of them, some we just explored the grounds around or admired them from afar.  But if you are in central Greece Meteora is absolutely worth checking out.  Just watch out for the bees. One flew up my dress and stung me on the leg and I had a huge, itchy welt for a few days.

Our last stop in central Greece was Delphi.  We drove another few hours to a gorgeous campsite at Delphi Camping.

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The pool + its view at Delphi Camping. Great way to end the day.
Unfortunately, Delphi was not a highlight for either Remy or I.  Maybe it is because we had already visited so many ruins, maybe it is because I don’t know or appreciate enough Greek mythology or maybe it is because not much is standing anymore.  There is a lot of rubble on the ground with signs explaining what used to be there.  Delphi is about two hours from Athens and many people make day trips to visit the site.  Personally, I don’t think it’s worth it, but others may have very different opinions than I.
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The ruins of Delphi.
For many centuries Delphi was a religious and spiritual center of the ancient Greek world.  And Delphi was considered the actual center of the world.  According to Greek myth, to locate the center of the world Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the earth.  The meeting point of two eagles was Delphi, making it the center of the world and creation.  Zeus marked this spot with a large, egg-shaped stone called the omphalos or navel.
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Remy attacking the omphalos or navel that marks the center of the world at Delphi.
The first terraces were built from 14th to 11th BC for the main deity, Ge (Earth).  Then from 11th to 9th BC the cult of Apollo was established.  Then in the end of the 7th century BC the first stone temples were built and dedicated to Apollo and Athena.  Worshippers and public messengers came from all over the ancient world to seek advice of the gods and oracle at Delphi.  In 582 BC the Pythian games were established and occurred every four years to honor Apollo and commemorate his victory over the python that guarded the oracle of Ge. 

It was suggested that we first walk all the way to the top of the hill to the stadium and then walk down through the ruins because it is hot and there is no shade.  Well, the paths wind through the ruins and we got distracted taking pictures and reading signs so ignored the advice.  But we got there early so it wasn’t too hot while we were there, but something to keep in mind if you visit.

We took a couple hours to explore the ruins in the area, cooled off at the Castalian spring (water source for ancient Delphi) and then hopped back in the car for our journey back to Athens.  Here we found a hotel near the pier since our first ferry ride was the next morning.  We returned our rental car and enjoyed our last night on mainland Greece.

Greek Islands here we come!

Click here for more photos

-JG


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<![CDATA[Athens]]>Fri, 23 Aug 2013 11:34:39 GMThttp://www.paletu.com/home/athensPicture
After a slightly uncomfortable taxi ride we arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece late at night.  The train station was closed.  Shops were closed.  There weren’t people on the streets.  The French couple had a tent with them so they offered to camp with us in a park.  That way we could put our bags in the tent with them and not have to worry about someone trying to steal them.  We started to trudge up the street to look for some sort of green space to set up camp.  Luckily, we didn’t have to go too far.  The tent was set up.  Remy and I unrolled our sleeping bags, tossed our packs into the tent, and climbed in for what we didn’t think would be a very restful sleep.

A few hours later I woke up to the sun shining and people scurrying along the sidewalks probably wondering why the gringos were in their sleeping bags outside a tent in a random park.  I was shocked how well I slept.  I guess after a couple nights of not great sleep and some stressful events my body and mind were ready for some hard sleep.  Shortly after the rest of the group woke up.  We packed up our little camp, wiped ourselves down with a wet wipe, and headed out to find some breakfast.  The French couple was staying in Thessaloniki, but couldn’t check into their hostel yet so they came with us to the train station to eat breakfast at a café.  They are quiet, but adventurous and it was nice to spend a little time sharing stories.  We were already beginning to enjoy Greece. 

We parted ways and while Remy hung out with the packs I went to get the train tickets to Athens.  The next train was in a little over an hour so we had time to find a store to pick up some lunch supplies for the train, perfect.  While I was buying the tickets a woman rushed up and wanted a ticket for the same train.  She seemed slightly panicked and after getting her tickets ran off.  I finished my transaction and walked back to Remy.  He was about to go find some food, but I had this lingering feeling that something wasn’t right.  Why was this woman so anxious?  And then it hit me, there was a time change and now we had 12 minutes until the train left.  So we picked up our packs and went running through the station.  We got to the train just a couple minutes before it left.  Lesson learned, when entering a new country make sure to know if there is a change in the time.

So we had a 5 ½ hour train ride, much better then the train ride to Macedonia on a much nicer train, but no food.  The first thing we did in Athens was get lunch, a beer, and our first taste of ouzo.  Ouzo is a licorice tasting, clear liquor.  It comes in a little glass and you pour a little of it into a glass of water and it turns a milky color.  I’m not a huge licorice fan and the smell of it made me cringe, but a small sip revealed it wasn’t too bad.  I definitely couldn’t drink a glass of it, but Remy loved it.  He said he was being culturally sensitive by partaking in the local refreshments. 

We then wandered through the city streets trying to find a hostel.  We found one a friend suggested, City Circus (www.citycircus.gr).  After rough couple days of travel this was like an oasis.  It is modern, clean, lots of character.  It has big showers with hot water and great water pressure, which we desperately needed.  There is an awesome rooftop terrace overlooking the Acropolis and to top it off an amazing breakfast is included.  It is a little more expensive then we typically spend, but at that time it was totally worth it.  We highly recommended it if you will be in Athens.

After checking in and cleaning up we went to explore the city.  The area around the Acropolis is beautiful, in a big city sort of way.  There were cars whizzing by, tourists bustling along the sidewalks, expensive restaurants next to little shops, locals sitting at cafes, homeless and drug addicts sitting on the curbs and set on the hilltop above is the Acropolis all lit up.  In contrast to the city it looked faked.  My first thought was that it looked like a movie set.  We walked up to the Acropolis and sat on ledge overlooking the city, absorbing it all.

We then meandered back down to the city streets to find some dinner.  Remy and I have a very difficult time picking a place to eat.  We wander around looking at all the options and then try to settle on a restaurant.  We made a lap and there were some tasty looking menus, but a lot of it was touristy.  We wandered into a sketchy part of town and decided to head back to the touristy part and pick a restaurant.  As we were making our way through the narrow streets I saw a door that was open.  I walked by it and then something made me go back and look again.  The door opened to a dimly lit alley between some houses.  There was little tables set up with people crowded around them talking, laughing, eating, and drinking.  It seemed like a place that the locals frequented so we decided to give it a try.

We found a little table tucked in the back against the wall.  When we asked for the menu the waiter recited it.  We weren’t sure what most of the stuff was so we just picked something and hoped it would turn out good.  The waiter asked what we wanted to drink and he listed off a few things they had.  I went with a glass of wine and Remy a beer.  The waiter asked if wanted raki, another traditional, alcoholic Greek drink.  We weren’t sure what it was so he brought us out a sample.  Just the smell of it made me shiver, I’m not much of a hard alcohol fan.  Remy took a couple sips and thought it wasn’t too bad. 

The drinks came out and we sat in silence for a bit, sipping our drinks, and taking in the atmosphere.  All the food was being prepared in the alley on a two burner, propane stove that was set up near the entrance.  This little restaurant seemed like an impromptu restaurant that the neighbors set up in the alley between their homes, maybe to deal with the tough economy.

Then the food came out.  We got a big plate of stuffed grape leaves, fried feta, sausages, fries, lamb kebabs, an egg, veggies and more.  There were things that we recognized and things that we didn’t, but all of it was delicious.  It was all gobbled up quickly and washed down with some good red wine and beer.  We were so happy, content, and glad to be in Greece.  We eventually asked for the bill and were a little apprehensive about what the cost would be.  When the waiter recited the menu there were no prices included so we had no idea how bad the damage would be.  When we got the bill we couldn’t believe it.  It was so cheap!  If you are ever wandering the streets of Athens looking for a good local place, keep an eye out for this door.

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Remy in front of the random restaurant we found.
The next day we went to the central market, which is amazing.  There is so much delicious produce, olives, and much, much more, all for very cheap.  We picked up a few staples and headed off to meet Dimitris, our CouchSurfing host.  He lives just outside Athens so we jumped on a train and had to convince other passengers and the conductor that we were heading in the right direction, opposite the airport where most tourists riding the train go.  We got off the train where Dimitris awaited us and walked us pack to his place.  It definitely was an area that is much more rundown.  There was a lot of trash and the buildings were old and crumbling.  He walked us through the streets and just a few blocks from the station we made it to his place.  He opened the gate and we were greeted by dogs and geese.  He brought us into his home, which is a big warehouse.  He told us that it used to be a plastic factory.  As he walked us to the room we would be staying in we passed cars, motorcycles, and planes.  We went up some stairs to a simple room that had big windows and a simple bed.  Dimitris told us that this used to be the foreman’s office.  It was definitely different to stay in an old plastic factory, but met all our needs.

After we set down our bags and settled ourselves we went to join Dimitris on the porch.  The great thing about CouchSurfing is that you meet locals who can give you a better idea of the culture, politics, history and much more.  Staying in a hostel you don’t get this layer.  It does take time to chat with your host(s), but it adds to the value of the experience of visiting a place.  Anyway, we chatted with Dimitris for a while.  He told us about the difficulties in Greece, a theme we would hear much more as we traveled through the country.  A lot of what he talked about centered on the economy, but he also talked about the huge amount of corruption.  He also told us about the planes he has stored in the warehouse.  He is an ultra light pilot.  He got all the certifications and the planes and wanted to start a business flying tourists to the islands instead of having to spend hours on a ferry.  Sounds like a great idea, right?  Well he was blocked from doing it because just a few families own the ferry businesses and they carry a lot of political weight and wouldn’t allow for someone to compete with them.  Dimitris said that sadly this happens often.

Dimitris is technically unemployed, but he works odd jobs to earn some money (amazing that he is still hosting people).  So after chatting for a bit he was off to do some work.  Remy and I decided to walk around to find something to eat.  We found a place that sold souvlaki and had a couple with some beers.  We wondered what the difference between a souvlaki and a gyro.  Upon researching it I found that there is a lot of debate on the subject, but here is what I could narrow it down to.  For a souvlaki the meat is cubed and grilled on a skewer.  You can get it still on the skewer or served in a small pita with fries, tomatoes, etc.  For a gyro the meat is cooked slowly on a vertical rotisserie.  The meat is then shaved off and placed in a pita with tomatoes, onions, fries. etc.  Anyway, after eating some yummy food we headed back to base camp to do some laundry and get ready for an early morning.

On our third day in Athens we headed to the Acropolis, an ancient fortress containing the remains of several ancient buildings.  There are many other acropoleis in Greece, but because of the significance of the Acropolis of Athens it is known as "The Acropolis" without question.  Construction on this rocky hill began in the 5th century BC and continued for many years.  For example, when the Parthenon and the other buildings were seriously damaged during the 1687 siege by the Venetians because the Parthenon was being used for gunpowder storage and it was hit by a cannonball.  Or when the Parthenon was changed into a church in the Byzantine period and then a mosque under the Ottoman rule and then after the Greek War of Independence it was attempted to restore it back to its original form or when the restoration was done wrong and had to be taken apart and done again.

Anyway, back to our visit.  Someone recommended that we get there early, i.e. just as it opens and that is what we did.  Well, a little after opening because we missed the first train into Athens.  We went into the south entrance, which does not seem to be as popular.  We walked past the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus and the Herodes Atticus Theatre, the later which still has performances in the summer.  Unfortunately these are too expensive for us.  But it is a beautiful open-air facility.

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Herodes Atticus Theatre
We then made our way up to the Parthenon.  There were a lot of people, but not too bad.  We could easily take pictures without tons of people in the way.  Remy and I did a photo exploration and spent about two hours exploring all the different structures and views.  The Parthenon is the most famous, but there are others such as The Old Temple of Athena, Temple of Athena Nike, and Sanctuary of Zeus Polieus.  Although the Parthenon was impressive my favorite was the Old Temple of Athena.  The statues were so massive and intricate.  Walking around all the ruins made me wish I knew much more about Greek history.  But here is some of what I learned.  The Parthenon is dedicated to the maiden goddess Athena, whom the people of Athens considered their patron deity. Construction began in 447 BC and continued until 432 BC.  
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Remy successfully jumping, Jenn attempting to jump in front of the Parthenon.
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The Old Temple of Athena and the beautiful sculptures.
I really liked learning about the pediments, the sculptures on the ends of the Parthenon.  
The east pediment shows the birth of Athena from the head of her father, Zeus. According to Greek mythology, Zeus gave birth to Athena after a terrible headache prompted him to summon Hephaestus' (the god of fire and the forge) assistance. To alleviate the pain, he ordered Hephaestus to strike him with his forging hammer, and when he did, Zeus's head split open and out popped the goddess Athena in full armour. The sculptural arrangement depicts the moment of Athena's birth.Unfortunately, the centrepieces of the pediment were destroyed even before Jacques Carrey created otherwise useful documentary drawings in 1674, so all reconstructions are subject to conjecture and speculation. The main Olympian gods must have stood around Zeus and Athena watching the wondrous event, with Hephaestus and Hera probably near them. 

The west pediment faced the Propylaia and depicted the contest between Athena and Poseidon during their competition for the honor of becoming the city's patron. Athena and Poseidon appear at the center of the composition, diverging from one another in strong diagonal forms, with the goddess holding the olive tree and the god of the sea raising his trident to strike the earth. At their flanks, they are framed by two active groups of horses pulling chariots, while a crowd of legendary personalities from Athenian mythology fills the space out to the acute corners of the pediment.
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Some of the sculptures on the outside of the Parthenon.
We then headed back down to the city.  By that time there were tons of tourists.  It seemed like the cruise ships were off loading.  We walked down the Acropolis hill and up Filopappou Hill, which has a great view of the Acropolis.  Not many people do this, but I highly recommend it.  It is another perspective of such a beautiful site.  Afterwards we spent some time wandering the park and saw the supposed prison of Socrates.  The sign in front said it may or may not be the actual prison.  Wandering this park is a great thing to do.  There were very few people and it was a nice environment with nice paths to stroll and ruins to see. 
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Remy jumping with excitement at seeing the Acropolis from afar.
The last thing we did was visited the Acropolis Museum.  We typically are not very big museum people, but this museum was great and worth the money.  The signage told a story.  For example, when a cup was showcased it explained what the cup was used for and the story depicted on it, not just this is a cup from such or such area or time.  We also learned the buildings and statues around ancient Athens used to be colorful, not just dull stones that you see today.  After a long day of touring we returned to Dimitris’ for dinner and more chatting.

The next morning we almost missed the train again, but we ran and jumped on just in time.  But we missed our stopped and then had to back track to get back into the city.  First we walked through the flea market, which was extremely random.  It had a little bit of everything, antiques, camping supplies, clothing, food, and much more.  The goal of going to the flea market was to find a tent.  We were able to bargain with a bunch of vendors, but actually found a better priced one at a shop just outside the flea market.  We were able to find a tent for 20 euro, which seemed like a great deal.

We read about some other off the beaten track things to do in Athens.  One thing was to visit Athinas Street.  Supposedly there is a flower market, but we could not find it.  There is also a shop with handcarved wood toys, but it was closed.  So we spent time exploring the street, which you can find anything else you could ever want, spice shops, butchers, button shops, hardware stores and so much more.  And it seems that similar shops are next to each other:  hardware, hardware, hardware, button, button, button…not sure how they make a profit with so much competition.  Anyway, we got lunch provisions here, cheese, salami, raki, and bread.  The store we bought it at was so proud and excited for us to sample and buy their local goods.  We then went to the central market for the rest of our lunch supplies, olives, tomatoes, figs, and peaches.  We went to the National Gardens for our picnic.  The Gardens are not too nice.  It is a nice green space, but there is not too much landscaping to make it gardenish.  There is also a pond with way too many turtles in it.  But we had a nice picnic to same random ruins.

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Our picnic lunch.
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Remy taking a nap after too much raki and food. Some random ruins in the background.
After lunch we went to the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  I really liked it, but there was no shade so we did not say too long.  The size of the Temple’s pillars was really impressive.  To me it was absolutely beautiful. 
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Temple of Olympian Zeus with the Acropolis in the background.
We then walked through the Plaka area, which is really touristy.  The restaurants and souvenirs are really expensive, but the area is really nice with cobblestone streets and buildings with a lot of character.  There were a couple of other ruins that we missed the day before that I wanted to see.  The Tower of Winds, Roman Agora, and Ancient Agora, all closed.  These other sites are included in your ticket for the Acropolis, but the entrance times for the these other places seem a bit random, different than those for the Acropolis even though it said they were the same.  We looked at them from behind the gates, took a couple pictures, and then headed out to find some greek frozen yogurt.  The greek frozen yogurt was good, but we both prefer gelato.

We headed back to the plastic factory for our last night.  In the morning we said goodbye to Dimitris and his dogs, geese, and newly acquired cat.

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Remy + our host Dimitris.
Click here to see more photos from our time in Athens.
-JG
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<![CDATA[We short-changed Serbia and got scammed in Macedonia]]>Sun, 18 Aug 2013 20:12:20 GMThttp://www.paletu.com/home/we-short-changed-serbia-and-got-scammed-in-macedoniaPicture
Opting to take the overland route from Zagreb to Belgrade to Thessaloniki, we arrived in Belgrade (Beograd) late on a Saturday night (Click here for other options on how to get to Greece from Croatia).  Because we wanted to go to Greece as quickly as possible, we hadn’t researched Serbia at all.  The city immediately impressed us with its blend of old and new architecture.  The hostel we found (Hostel40) was clean, modern, cheap, and courteously staffed.  A beer festival with cheap beer was in full swing that weekend.  The city also has a giant castle with nightclubs and an open-air theater.  People were out and about everywhere, socializing in trendy bars next to colossal buildings.  We are still kicking ourselves for leaving the next day.  We really short-changed Serbia.  

All the Serbia pics we got in a few hours.
If Serbia was the city we had until then never dreamed of visiting, Macedonia is that loud, blaring alarm clock that wakes you  cursing.  In Belgrade, the bus station told us the next bus for Greece wasn’t leaving until the next day, while the train station told us it had a train leaving that morning for Macedonia, where we could then catch a bus to Greece.  We opted to take the train.  What we didn’t know was that the Soviet-era train would take four hours longer than what we researched and would arrive in Skopje, Macedonia after the last bus to Greece.  The creaking, non-air conditioned train crawled across the Balkans for 12 loooonnng hours and didn’t have a food cart so we were tired, sweaty, and irritable.  Luckily, we had a bit of groceries to blunt the hunger.   
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20 minutes in
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9 hours, 20 minutes in
Once you arrive in Skopje, a city devoid of architectural creativity, you are blitzed with taxi drivers.  One latched on to us and waved away others.  We just needed some breathing room to find out about the buses to Greece or some wi-fi to look up our other options. I discovered that the Belgrade bus station didn’t have information on all the buses going to Greece, and a tour company had a bus that left Belgrade that evening and would be passing through Skopje in an hour or two.  Great!  I just need to give them a call to schedule our evacuation.  I asked a tour agency lady if I could use her phone.  

“No.”  

Fair enough.  I’ll buy a SIM card.  

Hmmm, maybe I don’t want to spend $10 on the SIM card to make one phone call.  

I’ll ask the shopkeeper if I can use his cell phone.  He points me to a landline phone.  Awesome, what a champ!  I call the Greek tour operator main office but they have no way of reaching the bus driver (no radio, no cell phone number??).  Damn.  Guess we will stay the night.  

Well, I’ll buy a couple things from the shopkeeper to thank him for letting me use the phone.  He rings me up: 27€.  What?  27€?  Ah, there must be a decimal point in there somewhere.  Nope.  I actually gagged in disbelief.  After putting back the two juices and cookies, I ask him to ring me up again: 24€.  Disbelief is quickly turning into shock with rage not far behind.

What do you mean 24€?

Calls from landlines are expensive.  You should have used a cell phone.  

Jackass.  Thanks for not letting me know beforehand.  Thanks for not suggesting I just buy the SIM card.  Thanks for pointing me to the landline instead of letting me use your cell for a couple bucks.

After asking to see prices and arguing, there’s nothing left to do but pay.  Lesson learned: Always ask for prices before you use any services or sit down in the restaurant.

I storm off to find Jenn who in the meantime has a flier for a hostel and has found a French couple willing to split the taxi to Greece (140€ total split 4-ways = about the same as if we each stayed in a hostel that night and bought a bus ticket the next day).

OK, let’s do Option B and leave this place.

The taxi man calls his taxi son-in-law to pick us up.  Before we leave, Jenn goes with the taxi man to get some food.  Since we had such short time in Macedonian, we didn’t exchange any money for Macedonian denars.  No problem because the taxi man offered to buy the pastries.  What a champ!  Jenn chooses 2 pastries for 105 denar (1.70€).  Oh wait, he’s not treating us.  Fair enough.  How much?  All we have is a 20€ note.  He takes it, gives Jenn the change, then shoos her into his son-in-law’s taxi.  As we leave, Jenn counts 11€ change.  He charged us five times what those tasteless, macaroni-filled pastries actually cost.  Jackass!

We bring this up to his son-in-law.  His response?

Not my problem.  I didn’t scam you.  What?  I’m related to him?  That’s different.  He’s my father-in-law, not my father.  No, I won’t give you the correct change and get the rest from him later.  You should have told me before we left Skopje (we did).  You should have exchanged for Macedonian denars anyway.  More excuses, ad nauseum.

Jackass.

In a few short hours in Macedonia we were repeatedly ripped off, which didn’t give us a favorable impression of the country.  We couldn’t have been happier to leave.  Hopefully, Macedonians will eventually learn to treat tourists as people instead of walking targets.

If you ever end up in Macedonia, these are the taxi men (surname/firstname):
Taxi man: Jandrijeski Nove 
Taxi son-in-law: Jovanov Goran
Avoid them.

And if you’re stuck in the Skopje train terminal, there was free wi-fi in the stairway between the train platform and the ground-level ticket offices.  Use it to find a way out of that god-forsaken place.

If we had to do it again, we would spend more time in Serbia and then bus straight through to Greece.  That or ferry to Italy then to Greece (How to get to Greece from Croatia).

After arriving in Thessaloniki around midnight with the French, the four of us free-camped in a park outside the train station.  We breakfasted together then went our separate ways.

Click here for more photos


- RO
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<![CDATA[Sailing the Adriatic Sea]]>Sat, 17 Aug 2013 21:34:23 GMThttp://www.paletu.com/home/sailing-the-adriatic-seaPicture


After Plitvice Lakes National Park we planned to head to the coast and island hop.  Even better, Remy found a post on Couchsurfing about a group that had a boat and was sailing around the Croatian islands.  The woman organizing the trip is Polish and although her English was good, we still didn’t have a firm grasp on the arrangement, schedule, or many of the other logistics involved in spending a week on a boat.  But we decided to go for it, which meant we didn’t need to figure out transportation and accommodation logistics.  We finally got the thumbs up that there was space for us on the boat and the departure point, Zadar.

So from Plitvice we caught a bus to Zadar.  It was an uneventful ride except for when the bus stopped for lunch and we walked into the restaurant and found a deer walking around.  It had a bell on its neck.  It seemed like it was someone’s pet. 
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The random deer in the restaurant trying to get into the fridge with the drinks.
We arrived in Zadar a couple of days early to do some travel planning and visit the city.  We didn’t prearrange accommodations, which to some can be nerve wracking, but ended up working perfectly. 

As soon as you step off the bus there a bunch of people offering you rooms to rent.  Some of them are apartments and others are rooms in their homes that aren’t being used.  We unsuccessfully tried to bargain with a few women.  As I have mentioned before we are frugal, cheap, thrifty, so no one wanted to accept our low offers.  When it became apparent to these women that we could not afford/would not pay as much as they wanted they called an over older man.  It must be known that he takes those that are on a tight budget.  He was tall, big-boned, bowlegged, and as he walked he slightly rocked back and forth.  He spoke no English, but we figured out that he had a room with a bathroom, internet, and a kitchen – everything we needed.  With hand gestures and pen and paper we eventually worked out a deal.

Now that the deal was made we had to get to his place.  He tried to put us in a taxi, but we are cheap and insisted on taking the bus.  He scribbled on a piece of paper the stop we needed to get off at, helped us buy the tickets, and then explained to the bus driver where we needed to get off.  He then hopped on his scooter and left the bus behind.  We had no idea what we were getting into or where we were going, but at least we knew we would have some sort of place to sleep, as long as we could find him.  Amazingly just a few minutes later we recognized the bus stop and there waiting on the sidewalk was the old man.  We then had to walk a bit, the old man puttering slowly on his scooter and us trudging behind with our way too heavy packs.  Finally, we made it to his place.  First thing we noticed was it was directly across the street from the marina, where we had to meet the sailboat, very convenient. 

We climbed the stairs to his apartment and he welcomed us in.  He showed us the room and we were relieved.  It was clean and simple and the only thing it was lacking was a fan, which in the coming days we would really wish we had.  The old man sat us down at his kitchen table and began trying to speak to us.  This was interesting because he spoke no English and we spoke only the token words of Croatian.  We managed to understand each other a little and there was a lot of nodding and smiling.  But when we had no idea what he was talking about, which happened often, he would talk louder.  And for some reason he thought I understood him better than Remy, so he would grab my arm and speak at me loudly expecting me to understand.  He insisted we have a drink, some sort of tonic water and sugary syrup, and although it was not very good, it was cold.

At one point Remy was trying his hardest to have some sort of conversation and I was taking in the scene. The old man sat at the head of the table smoking a cigarette.  He has big hands, a rugged face, and firm voice.  He seemed like he was a serious man without much laughter in his life.  I realized that we still did not know this man’s name and I’m not sure we would ever find out.  I continued to look around the room at the worn kitchen noticing the little feminine touches left from his wife, until behind me I spotted a scrawny, extremely dusty, stuffed squirrel mounted on the wall.  I had to stifle a laugh because it seemed so random, but I am sure it was of some importance to this old man. 
 
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A very random stuffed squirrel.
We were eventually released and could settle into our room.  He left the apartment and shortly returned with another unknowing tourist, an Irishman.  He went through a similar song and dance, except the Irishman got cold watermelon instead of a drink, which made Remy a bit jealous.  Then a group of three returned to the apartment and we realized that this old man had rented out his whole apartment to tourists.  He made sure everyone was settled and then left, to where we have no idea.

The next couple days Remy and I spent time in this apartment researching and planning for after our sailing trip and exploring Zadar, a beautiful city.  When it got too hot to stay in the apartment, remember no fan, we went swimming.  Of course, while we were in Zadar it was supposedly the hottest day on record.  But we got to add another body of water to the list, the Adriatic Sea.  We didn’t visit a beach, but a stonewall that surrounded the city.  You can jump off and then climb up ladders that were placed periodically along the wall.  The water was clear, refreshing, and very salty.  We also visited the sea organ, an interesting tourist attraction.  A series of PVC pipes were placed along the wall and as the waves come in it causes different notes to escape the pipes.  To me it sounded more like a whale than an organ.  We also spent time wandering the cobblestone streets, admiring the beautiful architecture, surrounded by many tourists, and an amazing number of pizza restaurants and ice cream shops.  

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Jenn eating another ice cream cone in Zadar, overlooking some of the ruins.
After a couple days it was time to get on the sailboat to sail around the Croatian islands in the Adriatic Sea.  We headed to the marina with no idea what to expect, but hoping for the best.  And we were greeted with a beautiful boat and friendly captain and other guests.  We quickly found out that everyone else, besides us, was Polish.  We were supposed to leave mid-afternoon, but someone was stuck in traffic.  Supposedly it is really bad in August from all the tourists that come from Italy and other European countries.
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Our home for the week. Behind is another sailboat filled with tourists from Poland.
We did a quick trip to the grocery store, loaded onto the boat, watched the sunset, and then motored away from the Zadar marina.  At first there was a lot of confusion about what needed to be done and who was doing what.  Everyone wanted to help out with maneuvering the boat so I decided to stay out of the way.  I sat towards the front of the boat and enjoyed the clear, cool night.  I watched the lights of Zadar disappear and the stars in the sky emerge.

We docked at an island called Kuklijka and got a beer with one of the other guests on the boat, Alex.  The next morning Remy and I woke up early, ready to set sail and enjoy being on the water, but after waiting for a while everyone was still asleep so Remy and I went for a walk and a short swim.  The water was amazingly clear, but too cold for us.  We have become such wimps after living in Miami.  Eventually we left the marina, around noon, which we learned would be the norm for this trip.

At first we did not do too much sailing.  The winds weren’t the best so we did a lot of motoring from place to place.  Most days we would leave the marina and motor to a bay.  We would have some time there to swim, snorkel, and explore.  Remy and I would typically swim to shore and hike around the island for a bit before swimming back to the boat.  The first time we did this we discovered the many, many sea urchins.  I managed to get a spine in my knee and Remy in his toe.  The islands are really rocky and many barren.  There were a few with vegetation, but it was limited.  And no sandy beaches.  

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The view from the top of one of the islands we visited. Lots of rock and little vegetation.
Our days were filled with motoring around the Adriatic Sea, swimming, and exploring the small islands.  Our nights varied.  One town we stopped in for the night was extremely beautiful with cobblestone and marble streets, old stone buildings, and alleys that wound through the town.  There is an old castle too, which we all set out to find.  Instead we stumbled upon a firehouse with the firefighters outside playing volleyball.  Remy and a couple of other guys from the boat joined in.  
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Remy playing volleyball with some local firefighters.
In another town we docked in had a lively bar where Remy and I practiced our salsa moves.  One day we motored up a river to a small town.  Here we switched to another boat that went further up the river to the entrance of Krka National Park.  This is a small park with beautiful waterfalls and swimming holes.
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Krka National Park has some beautiful waterfalls.
A couple of the nights we moored in a bay instead of docking at a marina.  One of those nights we took the skiff ashore to a little beach bar for some adult beverages.  Here we were introduced to Croatian honey vodka.  I am not a big fan of hard alcohols.  You’ll never find me sipping rum and if I can taste the alcohol in my mixed drink I usually dilute it.  But honey vodka, that is dangerous.  We had a small glass to sip and it was delicious all on its own.  It is probably good we had only one glass each.  On this trip we were also introduced to another Croatian specialty, Ajvar.  This is made of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and paprika.  It is sort of like a thick tomato sauce or smooth salsa, but it is very versatile.  You can eat it with your eggs for breakfast or on a piece of bread or with rice and vegetables.  It is delectable.

Besides learning about Croatian specialties we learned a bit about Polish culture and language, my great grandmother would be so proud.  It was funny that we were sailing in Croatia, but learning about Poland.

In a short time we became a big family.  We took turns cooking, we ate together, we explored the small island towns together, and we spent hours on the deck of the boat chatting about a myriad of topics.

About halfway through our trip we found out that a strong windstorm was coming and we needed to find a place in a marina for safety.  All of the slips were quickly filling up, but we found one and decided to hunker down for a couple nights.  The winds were not supposed to pick up until the afternoon so we decided to rent a pontoon boat to motor around, explore some nearby islands, and swim.  This turned into a bit of a disaster.  After our first stop the boat wouldn’t start again so the owner of the boat had to come out and rescue us.  He got the boat started and took us to the nearest port.  We had a bit of time while he fixed the boat so Remy and I left the group and found some ice cream and a swimming spot.  When we got back the boat was ready to go, so we went to explore another island.  After some swimming and snorkeling we pulled up anchor and attempted to start the boat.  Again, the boat would not start.  So someone else came out with another boat, which we all piled onto and motored back to our sailboat.

The storm passed uneventfully and it was finally time to sail.  We left the marina and the sails went up.  It was another time when everyone wanted to be part of the action so I stayed out of the way.  I went below deck to secure everything that started to roll around.  The wind was pretty strong so it was an exciting sail as the boat leaned way to one side or the other.

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Remy, a happy man, watermelon in one hand and steering a sailboat with the other.
Our last night we went back to the marina we spent our first night.  We went out to dinner and had ice cream.  The rest of the people on the boat were returning to their lives in Poland, their vacations were over.  And although Remy and I were a little sad for our sailing adventure to be over we were excited for the next step, Greece.

In the middle of the night our captain, with the help of Remy and one other person, brought our boat back to Zadar.  I slept through it.  We woke up and gathered our belongings.  We were lucky that our new friend, Alex, gave us a ride to Zagreb so we could catch the bus to Belgrade, Serbia.  This should have taken 2 ½ to 3 hours; instead it took 4 ½ hours.  This was the summer traffic that Alex got stuck in on his way to the sailboat.

It was time to leave Croatia.  What we learned that it was a lot more expensive than we expected.  It has become touristy, but few American tourists and many European tourists.  There are lots of pizza and ice cream shops.  And lots and lots of bees!


Click here to see more photos of our Adriatic adventures.

-JG
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<![CDATA[Plitvice vs Krka National Park]]>Tue, 13 Aug 2013 13:53:58 GMThttp://www.paletu.com/home/plitvice-vs-krka-national-parkPicture




Croatia is a ruggedly beautiful country no matter where you look.  We were fortunate enough to visit two national parks that showcase this country’s natural wonders: Plitvice and Krka.  This is a comparison of the two so that you, dear traveler, can choose wisely if your budget is limited.

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Plitvice (UNESCO World Heritage site)
2-day entry: 180 kuna ($31 USD)
2-day student entry: 110 kuna ($19 USD)

Plitvice covers 297 km² with extensive boardwalks that take visitors past crystal blue lakes and hundreds of cascading waterfalls.  The collection of bacterial mats growing on rocks and trapped logs eventually created the network of terraced lakes interconnected by waterfalls.  The water color changes from azure blue to turquoise depending on the mineral content and angle of light, so visiting Plitvice is like playing with one of those mood rings that were popular in the 90's.  If you want to get away from the crowds, there are 13 km of trails in the mountains surrounding the lakes.  This place was great.  Read the full write-up here.

Tip: If we were to do it again, I think the best approach would be a car or camper.  This allows you mobility in a town where the park shuttles only run twice daily and there isn’t much else to do.  There are car camp parks with support facilities and pay parking at Plitvice.  The 2-day pass is well worth it.

Sidenote: The best swimming hole in the world is located here (scroll down below for the map).  Swimming isn’t allowed in Plitvice park, but just downstream of the park where the D42 and D1 roads intersect, the Korana River flows beneath a bridge.  Here you will find the best swimming hole in the world (no exaggeration): a small waterfall spills into a natural rock pool about 50 ft wide.  The water temperature is cool enough to shock any sleepiness out of your system but paired with the sun, it is the essence of refreshing.  At the far end, wild blackberries grow in the thickets, sun-ripened so that they burst as soon as you pluck them.  The pool shallows to wading depth, and at the end it cascades as another waterfall into a deeper pool below with natural ledges to soak in the scenery.  One enterprising family built a house next to this pool, and there are carved stone steps that lead into the water.  They definitely chose a wonderful place to build a house, even if access by road is a pain and the house is essentially under a bridge.  Visibility is at least 80 ft (25m).

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Krka
1-day entry: 95 kuna ($17 USD)

A long time ago (sorry- my memory's fuzzy on the details and I can't find anything on the Internet to fact check), Emperor Ferdinand visited the Krka River and was so impressed by the area’s natural wonders and the reception he received (all the locals lined the banks and fired their guns in the air while whooping and hollering like Balkan hillbillies), he designated it a special place.  The area was formally established as a national park in 1985.  Krka hosts much wildlife, including several species of endemic lizards and snakes, and is a biodiversity hotspot for birds.  At the base of the biggest waterfall is a huge swimming area, which is Krka’s best feature.  However, the favorable points stop there.  The park is packed like a music festival.


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Krka national park
We quickly got the impression that Krka and Skradin, the gateway town to the park, were designed more for separating tourists from their money than providing a quality experience for visitors.  For example, there were only two ferries shuttling tourists to the park, which meant a half hour wait between trips.  Given the huge number of people and long lines, a couple more boats would have improved the situation.  It took us about 1.5h to buy tickets and get to the park, so we spent almost as much time waiting to get into the park as we did actually visiting it.  While slightly cheaper than Plitvice, Krka is also a lot smaller (2.5 km of trails).  Furthermore, after charging you 95 kuna to get into the park, you can also expect to pay to use the bathroom and pay for ketchup if you order fries in the park restaurant.  Finally, there’s this water fountain:
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Croatian water fountains: for decoration only.
The fountain is shallow so you can’t fill your water bottle and the spigots point inward, so you can’t actually drink out of it.  Look at that poor chump in the picture, cupping his hand to get a sip of water.  Ok, so maybe this fountain was worth a bit of entertainment value.

Tip: You can avoid the line for tickets in Skradin and buy them at the park itself.  You don’t need tickets for the boat shuttle from Skradin.  In fact, you can bus or bike to the park.  Wear a swimsuit.

Conclusion: Plitvice!

Overall, we felt Plitvice Park was more attuned with its environment and a better value.  Both parks are beautiful and warrant a visit, but Plitvice deserves its reputation.  Don’t forget that swimming hole, and please let us know if you found it.

Pictures of the parks.

- RO

Map to the best swimming hole ever

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<![CDATA[Better than the pictures: Plitvice Lakes National Park]]>Wed, 07 Aug 2013 19:54:06 GMThttp://www.paletu.com/home/better-than-the-pictures-plitvice-lakes-national-parkPictureThe image we saw of Plitvice (justthetravel.com)


When Remy and I started planning this trip we made a long list of countries we wanted to visit.  We slowly whittled the list down, but Croatia stayed on there.  We have both heard good things about the country, but the real pull was a picture we saw.  It was these gorgeous waterfalls and lakes at Plitvice Lakes National Park.  

And, we heard it was rather inexpensive to travel in Croatia.  So Croatia was the first country we were going to spend significant time in.  After our unexpected stopover in Trieste, Italy we headed by bus to Rijeka, Croatia.  Crossing the border from Italy to Croatia was our second interaction with the authorities.  When we got to the border someone came on the bus and collected the passports of everyone that was not Croatian or from the European Union, which included me (not Remy since he is traveling on his French passport).  I handed over my Canadian passport (that's the one I'm doing most of my travel on because visas are typically cheaper.  Thanks Dad!).  After a few minutes the bus driver came back on asking for me.  I had to get off the bus and go see the border agent.  He asked how I entered Europe and then I remembered my entrance to Paris.  When I got off the plane I went through customs and they looked at my passport and sent me through.  I then collected my bag and thought I would have to go through a final check, but when the sliding doors opened I was out in the main part of the airport.  I thought it was weird that they didn't stamp my passport, but then maybe that is just the way the French do it.  I should have thought listened to my gut.  Anyway, luckily I had all the details of when I flew into Paris and the border agent was nice.  He told me to make sure that my passport always gets stamped, gave me a Croatia stamp, and sent me on my way.  

After that it was rather uneventful.  In Rijeka we switched to another bus to Karlovac and then a final switch to a bus going to Plitvice.  This last bus was completely full so Remy and I had to stand, which ended up not being too bad since we had been sitting the whole day.  On that last bus ride I noticed that many of the houses either looked freshly painted or had what looked like bullet holes.  When we planned to visit Croatia it didn’t cross my mind that this country was at war not that long ago.  I remember watching news coverage on TV when I was in high school.  I didn't remember too much about it so I did a little research.  Here's a little history so if you’re not interested or already know please skip this next paragraph.  

The Croatian War of Independence was fought from 1991 to 1995.  This was when Croatia declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and tried to kick out the Serb forces within Croatia.  Croatia sought independence, but Serbia wanted to stop it because the Serbs were looking to expand their state and wanted to include lands within the Croatian borders.  The Serbs tried to conquer as much land as possible and eventually the whole country.  The Serb rebels did extensive shelling in Croatia and Yugoslav forces attacked major cities, including Karlovac, the one we drove through. I was extremely surprised to learn at the beginning of the war Croatia didn’t have much of a military and the police were taking the brunt of the fighting.  In addition, there was little access to weapons so Croatian forces were either unarmed or using rifles from WWII.  But they were motivated to defend their new country and eventually, both Serbia and Yugoslavia were defeated and Croatia gained its independence.  For more information click here.  Today there continues to be tensions between Croatia and Serbia, as seen in this article.  I found it very interesting to be in a country that had been ravaged by war so recently and except for some of the homes it was hard to see other signs of war.

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Because I was standing on the bus it was hard to get a picture of the homes, but this is what they looked like. This is a picture of bombardment damage in Osijek. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Osijek-2.JPG)
Back to our adventure.  We finally made it to Plitvice, literally to the park.  This was unfortunate because our hostel was in a small town, Grabovac, about 11 kilometers away.  We spoke to the security guard and he told us that there is no public transportation from the park, rather inconvenient, and taxis are expensive.  When we mentioned where we were staying he smiled, turns out he is friends with the owner of the hostel so he gave them a call and they came and picked us up.  We stayed at House Osana, which is a very nice place.  The family has turned part of their house into a guesthouse.  It was simple, but clean with a big bathroom.  The other plus was that we were able to cook in the owner's kitchen, which was great because there are limited options for eating out and it is very expensive.  Many homeowners have converted their homes into guesthouses, so travelers there won't be surprised to be greeted by homes with signs advertising rooms for rent or by the proprietors themselves at the bus stations.

After dropping off our bags we headed into town to get ourselves oriented.  This did not take very long since town consists of about 5 buildings.  There are two tiny markets with very limited selection and one of them was closed.  We went to the open one and picked up supplies for our meals for the next few days and a local beer to celebrate finally making it to Croatia.  We also got the shuttle schedule to get to the park the next day.  Back at the hostel we sat on the balcony overlooking the mountains and relaxed for a while.  Then we cooked dinner and got ready for our first day at the park.

We woke up early and had a leisurely breakfast on our balcony and then headed into town to catch the shuttle.  When we got to the park a long line to buy tickets had already formed.  We got a 2-day pass and headed into the park.  As soon as you walk into the park there is a grand view of some of the lakes and waterfalls.  Two things entered my mind:

1)   This is more beautiful than the pictures.  The lakes are amazing colors and the water is so clear.
2)   There were TONS of people!

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Overlooking the boardwalks that wind through the lakes.
Here is a little background on the park.  Plitvice Lakes National Park was Croatia’s first and largest national park and established in 1949.  The park is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The park is known for the lakes that have distinctive colors ranging from azure to green to grey to blue.  The colors of the lakes are constantly changing depending on the quantity of minerals and organisms in the water and the angle of the sunlight.  There are 16 lakes, which are formed by natural dams of travertine.  Brace yourself; I’m going to get a little dorky science here since I find this pretty interesting.  Anyway, these dams are created by a special process and form waterfalls where the water flows from one lake into the next.  Under certain conditions calcium carbonate (CaCO3) is extracted from the water and deposited on the bottom of the lake.  The depositions are continually growing and are chalky, hard, porous, and fragile limestone and full of the remains of microscopic and petrified masses.  These growing depositions are called sedra, travertine, tufa, bigar, or vapneni macak.  The supersaturation of water by calcium salts is the basic condition for travertine to be created, but the water has to be clean and must not contain high concentrations of organic substances.  If you go further down the Korana River (the one that flows through Plitvice Lakes National Park) travertine formations end quite quickly, even though the water is super saturated with calcium salts.  This is because there is an increase in the concentration of organic substances in the water.  In addition to the lack of organic substances in Plitvice there are also plants that are travertine forming.  The algae and bacteria that live on the shoots of the mosses in the Park secret mucus that the first microcrystals of calcite adhere to and then very quickly other microcrystals are deposited on top and this creates travertine.  This process needs a warm and humid climate so travertine is created much faster during the summer than in the winter.

What does all this mean?  No swimming!  If people were allowed to swim it would introduce organic substances, which would inhibit the process.  Also, swimming would mix up the deposits on the bottom of the lake disrupting the travertine formation process and make the water cloudy so the lakes wouldn’t be as clear or beautifully colored.  I respect this, but on a hot day those clear, cold waters looked so enticing.

Once we were completely enthralled at the first overlook we hiked down the path to the boardwalks in between the lakes and waterfalls.  These were very nice raised boardwalks, but it was a little tricky to maneuver around all the people and stop and take pictures.  We spent the morning wandering the boardwalks and taking way too many photos.  If you look at the gallery of pictures from Plitvice be prepared to see lots of waterfalls and lakes.  Eventually, we ended up next to a small waterfall and found a nice log to have our lunch on.  After lunch we continued walking around the lakes and before we knew it it was time to head back to the park entrance to catch the shuttle back to town.
  
It was nice to have the 2-day pass because the second day we already knew the lay of the park and were prepared with a plan for second day.  Plus we got to skip the long line and head right into the park.  We wanted to get off the main trails and explore a little more of the park.  As we hiked to the north part of the park towards the trails we found a boardwalk that we had missed the day before.  If you go definitely don’t miss the path between Lake Gradinsko and Lake Galovak.  There is a magnificent set of waterfalls that are captivating.  Why is it that we love to stare at water pouring over rocks and the higher it is the more mesmerizing it is?
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One of the many small waterfalls in the park.
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One of the large waterfalls between Lake Gradinsko and Lake Galovak.
Once we got to the north end of the park we found the trail that heads into the surrounding mountains and let us explore more ecosystems.  It was a nine-kilometer hike and it went through dense forests, meadows, and small villages.  It was a nice contrast to the day before where there were tons of people and on the hike we saw maybe 5 people.  The first part is a steep uphill climb and it was extremely hot, but at least it was well shaded.  We were a little disappointed because we didn’t get to see the Eurasian brown bear, but didn’t really expect that we would get to see one.  Even without seeing a bear I highly recommend this hike.
On our way back into the main part of the park we looked for a way to access the set of waterfalls always pictured (the one we saw), but we had no luck.  We think that they are no longer available for tourists to visit.  All the paths that lead to them were blocked off.  So we enjoyed a little bit more of the lakes and waterfalls and caught the shuttle back to our hostel. 
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The uphill trail through the forest.
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When we got back to town we grabbed a beer for a private happy hour on our balcony.  We were amazed to find a 2-liter of beer in what looked like a soda bottle.  So of course we had to get it.

Our last day in the Plitvice area was short since we needed to catch a bus, but we wanted to find the swimming hole.  When we got picked up the day we arrived the hostel owner stopped along the road to pick up another couple.  We noticed that it seemed they had been swimming.  We couldn’t ask the hostel owner because his English was very limited.  So we decided to walk along the road until we found it.  It took us about an hour to find it walking along a busy road in the hot sun, but that made it even more enjoyable when we did get down to the river.  It was SO cold.  Remy jumped in with no hesitation and I followed after pumping myself up.  It was so cold that when you hit the water it took your breath away.  There are two small waterfalls that you could jump off into the pools below.  It seemed like a secret place.  There were only a few other people there.  We marveled at the older couple that had a house right on the river and what seemed to be their own private swimming hole.  We swam around for a bit and cooled off.  It was amazing!  And to top it off we found a wild blackberry bush and were able to grab some delectable fruit before we had to make the long, hot walk back to town to catch the bus.  It was stunning and refreshing.  We could have spent the whole day there.
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Remy jumping off one of the waterfalls at the swimming hole.
Moral of the story: if you ever have the chance to visit Plitvice, do it!  It is a gorgeous place.

Tips:
1)   Rent a car.  The buses are expensive and they charge to put your luggage below.  So with two people it probably would have been cheaper to just rent a car to get there.
2)   If you don’t rent a car stay at the accommodations within the park.
3)   There is a campground in Grabovac.  We didn’t stay there, but there seemed to be a lot of people there and it would have been nice to meet other people.
4)   The park opens early and closes late so having a rental car would really help.  When I booked the hostel in Grabovac I read that there was a shuttle from town to the park.  What it didn’t say was that the shuttle left town at 9am and picked you up from the park at 3pm.  That is a short day, at least for us.  If you had a car you could go on your own schedule and even leave in the heat of the middle of the day and return in the afternoon.
5)   The markets in town are expensive so it would be good to load up on groceries in a bigger town before you come to Plitvice or have a car so that you could find a bigger, probably cheaper super market than those in Grabovac.
6)   Stay for two days!  Many people just go in for one day and see the main lakes and waterfalls, but there is a lot more to see, especially on the trails around the main attractions.  You can use one day to see the main sites and the other to explore the parts off the beaten path.


Click here to see more pictures.

JG
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