Sunday, October 28, 2012

The hills are Salzburg

A few hours away from Vienna is the beautiful city of Salzburg, mostly known by Americans as the city where the Sound of Music originated, and where much a of the filming took place. Though I did not see any singing children riding bicycles through the town, I can understand where the inspiration for such a loved film comes from. The entire train ride over I had my eyes glued to the window, watching the green meadows pass by with small clusters of colorful houses sitting on the hills up above the roads, smoke filtering out of the chimney, keeping warm from the cold mountain air. While the weather did maintain the coolness that I found in Vienna, I was lucky enough to catch a couple of beautiful days with blue skies before the rain rolled in. 

The Salzburg Cathedral was built in the 17th century as a baroque Roman Catholic church that has been reconstructed many times as a result of damages to it over many centuries, the most recent major reconstruction being after a bomb went through one of the major domes during World War II. Massive in size, towering over 100 feet high, and located in the heart of the historical district, the Cathedral is what your eyes are drawn to first in the city of Salzburg, 

Besides the Sound of Music, Salzburg's other major claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Wolfgang Mozart. There are many monuments upheld in remembrance of the great composer, including the actual place of his birth and an entire Plazzo dedicated to his memory, with a stature erected of him in the centre. 

One day of exploration was spent at the Hohensalzburg Castle at the top of the old town, looking out over all of Salzburg. Built on the top of Festungsberg mountain in the city centre, construction originally began in the 12th century but the castle has transformed in many ways over the past few centuries and has been occupied by several rulers who each made their own contribution and alterations.  From the highest tower, the entire old town of Salzburg can be seen, as well as much of the surrounding areas. 

 Near Salzburg are the Hallein Salt Mines that have been mined in for thousands of years and have provided the region of Salzburg a prime economic trading power with mass quantities of salt that come out of the mines each year. This particular area is no longer an active mine and is now an interactive tour to show the inside of some of the mines. Preparation was done before heading below ground, by covering yourself with a white coverall suit to protect regular clothing, and keep visitors warm in the freezing underground tunnels. The journey into the mines began with a train ride through the tunnels where we then trekked through even smaller tunnels, stopping along the way to collect information about the evolution of the salt mining process in this area from our tour guide. The main event of the tour are the wooden slides that take visitors even further into the depths of the tunnels. Sliding down the wooden rails, you travel quickly over 40 meters down into the lower levels of the salt mines. There was also a short boat ride to show how in the past there were areas of the mines in which the concentration of salt was so strong that the best way to retract it from the stone was to pump water in, creating a small lake that became saturated with salt, and was then filtered out once again where the salt was collected. 

The Mirabell Palace is a historical building of Salzburg, but is well known mostly for the beautiful arrangement of gardens that surround the Palace. These gardens are full of different colored flowers, with pathways for visitors to wander through while enjoying the statues and fountains along the way. This area is also the location of the famous "do-re-mi" song in Sound of Music, as the children and Maria dance there way through the city together. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Zagreb, Croatia

Visiting Zagreb, Croatia's capital, had not been apart of my original travel plan, but after two bus rides totaling over eleven hours of travel in one day, I just didn't have it in me to board an overnight train to Austria. Arriving just before the reception desk was closing down, I checked into the last minute hostel and welcomed some much needed sleep. The following day's train schedule allowed me to explore the capital a bit before heading north again. With a few suggestions about what to see from the kind staff, I took off down towards the centre, finding many entertaining scenes along the way. The main attraction for me was the street market. This street market was probably the most vibrantly colored and cheerful market I have encountered through out Europe so far. Instead of following the rows of venders along a long skinny street like how most markets are set-up, this one had an entire square dedicated to the plywood tables full of produce and bright red umbrellas overhead. The assortment of fresh items were scattered around the square as locals and tourist shuffled past. The cartons of berries covered everything variety you could think of, and some tables were stacked two feet high just with potatoes. The venders were all smiles instead of typical quick and impersonal transaction, and were joking with each other about one thing or another. Along the outer rows of the fruits and vegetables were additional venders with hand crafted wood work and woven baskets for sale. Strolling through the market for a bit, I could not resist a fresh container of raspberries. I made my purchase and continued through the city, passing through the largest church in Zagreb, countless memorials and tributes to the wartime heros, and admiring beautiful colors and architecture of each building. Soon enough it was time to head to the train station and I said my farewell to the beautiful country of Croatia. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Drawn to Dubrovnik for its reputation as a perfectly traditional city of Croatia, it was time to venture south. Riding along in the charter bus I had a front row seat to the entire coast of Croatia, passing by tiny villages with small houses with red roof shingles sitting up on the hills, and trails in the thick green forest that leads your eyes down to the beautiful beaches that are left unpopulated in these remote areas. My hostel was positioned with an ideal view of the waterfront and of the large bridge that leads the highway into the city centre. Even though crowded with gigantic cruise boats, the panoramic view was incredible. 

On a day of adventuring, the short city bus ride dropped me right at the start of the small old town district. The first destination was to take the trolly car up to the fortress at the top of the city where there is a breath-taking view of all of Dubrovnik, and there is a chance to explore the region that was not too long ago used as a safe haven for the residence, and also as a battle station of protection against the constant attacks as the country fought for their freedom. Much of the city was destroyed through out the war, but they have worked hard to recreate much of what once was to ensure that Dubrovnik remains as traditional and attractive as it always has been. Venturing back down into the city centre I found out quickly what the hostel staff meant when they referenced Dubrovnik's "many stairs." Climbing up and down and all around through the city there was so much to see in such a small area. Wandering out the the edge of the port, I sat and watched the boats coming in and out, some bringing in their catch of the day, while others were out just for pleasure or to carry tourists from island to island.  The evenings in Dubrovnik were spent watching the sun disappear from the hostel balcony, making meals in the kitchen while chatting the night away over a bottle of Croatian wine with fellow travelers. Just a five minute walk down to the water there was a trail full of local people walking their dogs, docking their boats, or just taking a stroll. On one night I couldn't resist a walk to the end of the docks to watch the city turn to darkness, leaving only when my feet were pruning from letting them dangle in the water for so long. The beautiful city and a hostel with the water so near provided such a comforting feeling, I wasn't surprised to hear myself saying to the hostel staff, "I think I'll stay another night." 

Šibenik, Croatia

Just down the road from Krka National Park, the guided tour took us to the small historical town of Sibenik, to visit the Cathedral of St. James. The construction of the basilica began at the start of the 15th century and after worked on by many architects was completed in the 16th century and is still the most important architectural monument in all of Croatia. Along the outside you will see the detailed face carvings of individual people, residents of the city at the time of construction, which was a very unique attribute to the church. In the back entrance there is a large traditional basin that is still used for baptisms into Catholicism. It was placed at the back of the church because at the time of creation it was completely forbidden for anyone that had not been baptized before entering the holy Cathedral. Another unique piece of the church is that it lacks a bell tower, a very rare occurrence for Cathedrals built in that era, but the space and structural design did not allow it. Instead, there is now an electronic recording of the bells that plays on the hour, in place of an actual bell tower. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Krka National Park

Anytime you mention plans to visit Croatia to other travelers, the most common response you hear is “you must see the national parks!” So after listening to the advise of many others, visiting at least on of Croatia’s parks of gorgeous protected land had become a necessity. Lucky for me, the national park of Krka was only just over an hour away from Split and my hostel provided a great hook up for a tour that would take away all the stress that typically comes with transporting yourself back and forth, and would supply some actual facts to go along with the beautiful scenery. Taking off early in the morning, I hopped in the van full of some Aussies, Kiwis, and Germans with our neighboring van full of a rowdy group of middle aged English women following close behind, and we were off. Our chatty and informative tour guide lead us to the park and by the time we were there I was already bursting with more information than I could retain. Walking down the trail for just a couple minutes we had arrived at the breathtaking viewpoint of Skradinski Buk, the Krka Waterfalls. The falls are the result of two rivers combining and flowing together downstream with seventeen waterfalls along the way with the total difference from the first fall to the final one being close to fifty meters. The amount of water that is gushing through the falls varies throughout the different seasons, but averages about fifty cubic meters per second. 

There is a mock-up village museum located at one end of the park where we toured through the small historical rooms to learn a bit about the culture of the Croat people that lived off this land. We were able to see the inside of a traditional kitchen with the short chairs and tables where people sat close to the ground so they didn’t breathe in the hot smoke coming from the open fire oven. We also visited a blacksmith and a woman weaving clothing to show us the traditional ways in which people provided for their families. The force of the water rushing through the falls so rapidly was a vital part of their every day life as it provided natural ways to churn grain into flour and produce a higher quantity with less physical labor. 

After our museum tour, our guide led us through the rest of the park on the wooden walkway as we stopped frequently to enjoy the view of the falls from every angle. At the end of the rivers is the only spot where visitors can take swim, since the rest of the park is full of rapid waters too dangerous for swimming and also the protected falls won’t be polluted if the only entrance for people is down river. Being the only member of the group willing to brave the water I enjoyed a perfectly relaxing, and some what chilly swim through the fresh river water, and was reminded how much more I prefer fresh water over the salty sea water. 

Tragic war, a giant Palace, and one shiny golden toe.

After several hours spent on the train and arriving at the port of Ancona, Italy to catch the over night ferryboat, I had to remind myself that this would truly be the final one of these journeys before stepping on board. Surrounded for the first time in quite a while by a variety of languages, no longer just Italian flying back and forth, I found my seat and prepared for the long ride. As the ship sailed away from the coast of Italy, I said good-bye to my Italian adventures and welcomed the newest country to explore, Croatia. With not much of a travel plan in mind, I had decided to start my visit in the city of Split. The boat docked early the next morning and I was off in search of my hostel.

The historical district of Split sits within the walls of Diocletian’s Palace. Diocletian was a Roman Emperor that built his massive palace in the fourth century as a retirement home. This retirement home is now the city centre that has been transformed into various apartments, hotels, shops, and tourists offices, with the green marketplace and main promenade, and waterfront surrounding the outside. With three separate entrances, the gold, silver, and iron gates each lead you to the two main cross streets and connect to the countless tiny alleyways that will guide you through the historical district.  My hostel, located just inside the silver gate, was constructed along one of the original walls of the palace. With the whole day ahead of me, and having very little knowledge about the area, I decided to join the free walking tour that morning to find out what I could learn about the city. Our friendly guide wandered the streets with our small group providing both interesting historical facts and helpful tips from a local to shed some light on the Croatian culture.

It is a very unique experience to be in a country that has such recent history. In 1991, Croatia officially declared independence from Yugoslavia. Surrounding countries, particularly Serbia, were not willing to let Croatia claim their independence without a fight. The desire to keep Croatia part of the Yugoslavia nation was strong, mostly due to the prime location of the beautiful land and their access to the Adriatic Sea. The War of Croatian Independence began in 1991, and concluded in 1995 when Croatia was officially recognized as a free country with its current borders. Those long years of the war resulted in thousands of Croat deaths, and many people fled the country to avoid the brutal destruction of their cities. It was very surreal to have this history told to us by some one not much older than myself that can remember first hand the amount of tragedy and destruction that took place in her country not too long ago.

Along the way of the tour we visited many interesting points of Split, Including the huge statue of archbishop Grgur Ninski outside the palace walls. This man was a Croatian bishop that was responsible for being the first to go against the Pope and held services in the Croatian language instead of Latin, because the majority of the population did not understand the Latin language. His statue is most famous for the giant golden toe, that shines so well as a result of the consistent rubbing that both the local people and the tourists do when passing by to say a prayer, confess some bad deeds, or make a hopeful wish for the future. There are also many famous opera theatres through out Split that we passed by during the tour, and though all of the performances are only in Croatian, our guide recommended them to us saying that since it’s opera, it really doesn’t matter what language it’s in because it all sounds the same anyways. Located so close to the sea, Split also has a fantastic fish market where people can go daily to get fresh fish brought from the sea that morning. You will not find any flies at this fish market because of the sulfur spa located not too far from there, which keeps the pesky insects away from the area. At the conclusion of the tour we climbed to the top of the bell tower that sits in the centre of the palace and I was able to look out over the entire city and out across the sea.