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Into Every Life

The rain finally falls in Ukraine

rain 76 °F

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St. Michael's Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine
It is only appropriate that I am looking out my 13th floor window, watching a beautiful, golden-orange sunset, as I write about the last two days of my Ukrainian adventure. I had a day and a half to wrap up the sights I wanted to see in Kiev. I'd arrived back in the capital around 9 am after an uncomfortable night train from Kamyanets-Podilsky. The hotel let me check in early for a fee, and I caught a few hours of sleep to make up for what I didn't get on the train. After showering, I sat down with my guidebook and maps and made a checklist for the day.
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St. Volodymer's Cathedral and its golden interior
There were a number of churches on the list, but also a museum and a quaint, riverside section of Kiev I had not visited, yet. My first stop was St. Volodymer's Cathedral in the University district. I loved it's yellow facade and starry, blue domes, but the trees all around it frustrated getting a good picture of its exterior. The inside was very atmospheric, and the golden glow of the mosaics was equally photogenic. Although the church is less than 200 years old, the mosaics give it a very Byzantine feel -- like Kiev's St. Sophia (which had my favorite interior). Volodymer was the Rus ruler who arbitrarily decided his kingdom would become Christian. As saintly Dark Age European rulers tended to do, he forced his subjects to convert at the point of a sword.
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St. Michael's domes gleaming in the afternoon sunlight
From there, I walked to an even newer church -- the one with my favorite exterior in Kiev. St. Michael's Monastery has those shiny, golden domes you think of when you envision Orthodox churches. It was built in 2001 to replace one the Soviets decided to tear down when they ruled Ukraine. Determinedly atheistic states can make policy decisions like that, trying to un-convert the populace at the point of the bulldozer. I actually visited St. Michael's a second time the next day, because the sun was shining and I wanted pictures of those domes against blue sky rather than the gray, overcast afternoon I was having today. The interior was brightly colored with frescoes, but couldn't hold a votive candle to St. Sophia's medieval masterpieces.
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Scythian armor hangs in the National Museum of Ukrainian History
The next hour-plus of the fading afternoon was spent at the sprawling National Museum of Ukrainian History. Monday is free entrance day, I was happy to discover. Even more thrilling were the comprehensive English language labels on the four floors of exhibits. Some of the more modern items were labeled only in Ukrainian, but the old stuff -- my favorite Ancient and Medieval history -- was covered. The museum even allowed photography, which these days is a rare bonus. I particularly liked the artifacts from the Scythians, Greeks, Avars, Sarmatians, and Rus. There was some really cool stuff in there, like a set of Scythian scale armor made from horn. Equally inspiring were the Viking swords and helmets -- the "Rus" were nothing more than Swedish Vikings plying Eastern Europe's rivers like the Danes and Norwegians did the North Sea. That is partly why you see so many blonde haired and blue eyed Russians and Ukrainians. The museum is so huge, and it's exhibits go on and on, that even me -- a History teacher -- was crying "Uncle!" near the end. A common feature of Ukrainian museums are the elderly (usually female) attendants in every single room. I think it is a carryover from the 100% employment of the Soviet days. When I tried to take a shortcut and skip a room that didn't look interesting, I was scolded. Chastened, I made a show at checking out the fascinating collection of 19th century, hand-held fans.
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Andrew's Descent begins to wind it's way down to the neighborhood of Podil
I eventually escaped their clutches and took a walk down the winding, cobblestones of Andrew's Descent, as the sloping way to the riverside is called. This took me to Podil, an artsy, eclectic neighborhood of gorgeous buildings and interesting churches. Souvenir sellers and painters set up stalls along the way, and there are lots of restaurants and cafes. I spotted my first brewpub in Ukraine, and checked out its posted menu, vowing to return for dinner. I stopped to take pictures of the architecture and some interesting murals on the buildings.
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Surrealistic mural in Podil
The first stop was the walled and gated grounds of the Florivsky Monastery. I noticed there were lots of cats sunning themselves or prowling the 15th century grounds. "What's with all the cats?" I wondered. The white churches and bell towers with their green domes were simple, and blended well with the well-manicured flower gardens and trees inside the complex. When I watched one, stern nun chew out an old lady, who had obviously broken some rule, I remembered it was a convent -- home to nuns -- not monks. As I ducked inside the church to avoid the nun's eye, it dawned on me. Despite being in a holy place, it was all I could do to restrain myself from laughing. Single ladies, many of them older...now I knew why all the cats! It was a convent of crazy cat ladies!
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Orthodox service going on in St. Nicholas Neberzhny
At this point, the churches began to blur together. I visited the Church of Mytola Prytysk, as well as St. Nicholas Neberzhny. The coolest part of coming in early evening was that all of them were having some sort of service. I love the sound of the Orthodox call and response music. The priest will chant verses in an almost Gregorian sound, and then the choir of ladies will sing a response. It is very beautiful. The male and female parts play to the strengths of their voices and blend together in a lovely religious duet. As I'd checked off all my sights, it was time to close out the evening with a delicious dinner in the brewpub. I was not disappointed with either the food or the beer.

"Into every life, a little rain must fall," we say. I had been exceedingly lucky so far on my trip. Yesterday, it had been sprinkling as my train pulled into Kiev. It stopped by the time I awoke from my nap, though. This morning, I looked out the window as I was waiting for the elevator and noticed people far below carrying umbrellas. I dashed back and grabbed my rain jacket. It was only sprinkling as I walked to the subway. I was headed to what is billed as Ukraine's most holy site: the Kyevo Percherska-Lavro Complex. My guidebook described it as a "feast for the eyes" with its gold domed churches on a hill above the river. Even cooler, I thought, were the caves -- a catacomb beneath the churches where the monks are buried, their clothed corpses inside their coffin on display in glass and wood cases. Sounds amazing, right? Well, the Lavro area would be my only real, major disappointment of the trip.

As I emerged from the subway, I noticed the rain had picked up. I should have changed into my hiking sandals when I grabbed my rain jacket, I thought as I tried to thread a course that avoided the growing puddles. My pants were soon soaked, and my shoes and socks would follow shortly. At the entrance, the helpful cashier directed me to the caves. I wanted to hit them first before the accumulating crowd made them into a claustrophobic nightmare. At the entrance, I bought my candle and shuffled in behind the line of pilgrims visiting the caves. There are two sets of caves, one of which is open to the public and the other only to legitimate, Orthodox pilgrims. The Nearer Caves, which I visited, were probably the biggest letdown I've ever experienced at a historic sight. Picture a roughly finished stone basement, with whitewashed walls, and those were the "caves." Yes, there were coffins here and there, often with a painting of the monk above it. Yes, some pilgrims left candles in offering, prayed there, or kissed the glass. It obviously meant a lot more to them than to me. I made the circuit in perhaps five minutes. It never felt like a cave to me, and I didn't feel the History there. As sacrilegious as it sounds, it felt like a tourist trap in the basement of a church. As a Historian, I understand this is a deeply religious site for Orthodox Christians. But I would caution visitors who do not have the religious connection to reconsider a visit there -- or at least research other's opinions.
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The Dormition Cathedral at Kyevo Pechersk-Lavro complex
As I emerged, the rain turned into a downpour. I also discovered that I had arrived on the day I'd a huge, religious event at the complex. A half dozen TV cameras were set up in the square in front of the Dormition Cathedral. I could hear there was a service going on inside, and the square outside was packed with people who arrived too late to fit inside. Even more, there was a line stretching back to the entrance of people waiting to get into the square or cathedral. There were a handful of small lecterns set up, each staffed by a monk or priest, who appeared to be hearing confessions from the visitors. It was a mob scene -- an orderly, respectful one -- but a mass of people nonetheless.
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Part of the Gold treasure found in a Scythian burial mound
I retreated to the Historical Treasures Museum, which had an awesome collection of precious artifacts from the people who have lived in the area of Ukraine. The highlight was the hoard of gold jewelry found in burial mounds left by the Scythians, a steppe people from the time of the Ancient Greeks. I was the only visitor -- everyone else was attending the service. I took my time and wandered through the museum's two floors. There were several paragraphs in English posted at the entrance to each room, plus some of the items in the cases were labelled in English, as well. The museum is set up very well, and it was cool to see treasures from people I'd read about in history books. Often, a mannequin was clothed in recreated dress of the people, with the golden treasures on their headdress, belt, or whatever. The thrill of seeing these artifacts temporarily made me forget how big of a washout my visit to the complex would be. I left shortly afterwards, and made my way back to the subway and my hotel, completely drenched.

I changed clothes, had lunch, and ventured back out a few hours later when the rain stopped and the sun broke out. It was nice to walk Kiev's main drag, again -- Kreshchatyk Street -- do some last-minute shopping, and take some more photos. The sunshine felt like Ukraine was smiling at me, again. We'd had our little spat, but now she wanted to make up. Like a beautiful lady, Ukraine at its best is hard to resist. I strolled Kiev's streets one final time, remembering all the good times we had on this trip together. Then I headed back, to write my final account, and pack my bags to return home.

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:00 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Spring in La Sernissima

Easter in Venice

semi-overcast 58 °F

Have you ever taken a roundabout way to get somewhere because it is cheaper? Like a LOT cheaper? Well, with only a week plus a few days for spring break, time is a precious commodity when you're traveling internationally. I really, really wanted to see Croatia. In fact, I've been wanting to visit the coastal Eastern European country for decades. Looking at airfares, they were all $1,400 or so. On a whim, I checked the fare from Toronto, because every city I looked at departing from in the U.S. had ridiculous prices. Half price...less, actually! Would I be willing to drive 5-6 hours to Toronto to fly to Croatia? You betcha!

So, now you're saying how does Venice fit into this picture, you big cheapskate? Well, it was even cheaper to fly into Venice and simply drive to Croatia, which isn't far away. So, the trip would start off with two nights in Venice, and end the final night there, as well. To me, Venice is the most beautiful city in the world. This would actually be my fourth trip there. Last year, I led a group of 22 students and parents there as part of an educational tour. If I can save money by traveling through Venice, I'll seize the opportunity and chance to visit one of my most favorite places in the world. So, it was slightly groggy from 6 hours in a car from Columbus to Toronto, and another six or so by air to Paris, and finally to Venice.l

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Hello, Venice, my old friend....

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Here's how you park your "ride" in Venice...

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Public transport in Venice...

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Near the Rialto Bridge

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Venice's beautiful churches, like this one -- the famous St. Mark's cathedral

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:03 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Why I Love Venice

A Photo Love Affair

sunny 60 °F

"La piu bella citta del monde" -- the most beautiful city in the world, is how I have always described Venice. It is an artist's dream. Every corner is picturesque...a blend of pastel-colored Renaissance era buildings, quaint arching bridges, and panoramas of sky and sea catching your eye at every turn. No traffic sound of horns, gargling engines, or holed mufflers. Just the swish of the water and the dull throb of boat engines moving people and products about this bustling city.

Venice does not have a "laundry list" of sights to see like its older sister Roma does. Instead she unabashedly flirts and shows off her loveliness at every turn of street and canal. This little sister took over and flexed her muscles as her elder declined, becoming one of the medieval era's most powerful cities. She was rich beyond the comprehension of her dowdy European cousins, Paris, London, Bruges. She inspired a love amongst her citizenry that made them fiercely defend her against Christian and Muslim Turk rivals. History slumbers on every corner as you walk through Venice.

So, without further ado, this History teacher and former art student presents you with his pictorial dissertation on why he loves Venice....

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A misty start to an early morning...

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Churches reign regally on the seascape that is Venice...

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The Queen of queens, St. Mark's Cathedral...

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Dusky, gold-flecked, mysterious...the sonorous interior of La Serenissima's greatest church...

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Brought back as booty by the callous veterans of the 4th Crusade, this bronze four-horse chariot team, is a 2,000 year old masterpiece of Greek style art...

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The sun strikes a rosy glow from the pink stone of the Doge's (Duke's) Palace, next door to St. Mark's...

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The gilded interior of the Ducal Palace, that sumptuous tribute to the world's most unabashed oligarchy, where the rich rule...

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The armory inside the Doge's Palace, replete with weapons used to defend the Republic from the bladed medieval era to the days of gunpowder

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The Bridge of Sighs, that passageway from the Ducal Palace to the prisons, that elicited an outburst of longing for that last glimpse of their beloved city from condemned prisoners...

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Your vehicle of choice if you live in Venice is a boat...it can be overstated enough how soothing a city's sounds can be when no automobiles are around...

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The modern jostles elbow to elbow with the past in this panoply of energy, commerce, and beauty along the seacoast of northern Italy...

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I hope my visual dissertation has swayed your heart to consider Venice for a visit, one day...yes, it is expensive...yes, it lives and breathe to make euros, those modern day ducats...but it is a rare glimpse of the poetry that was the European Renaissance, and is well worth a visit...

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:41 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Driving Down Dalmatia

On the road in Croatia...

rain 58 °F

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Croatia's gorgeous coastline along the Adriatic Sea, facing Italy

With cheap air fare to Venice, and The Croatian border only a little more than an hour away, a fly/drive Italy/Croatia combo was a natural combination. The only problem was that the part of Croatia that I wanted to see most -- the walled, medieval port of Dubrovnik -- was clear at the opposite end of the country. I'd been wanting to visit Croatia for decades, so we decided it was worth the drive time. We would do the drive in two stages, stopping off to see some sights on the way. The middle part of the trip, the meat of the sandwich, would be two days in Dubrovnik.

Our first driving day involved some serious chewing to get through the bread, so to speak. We detoured onto the Istrian Peninsula, a bit out of our way. The reason, and our first sight in Croatia, was the Roman Arena in Pula, Croatia. It had been cloudy throughout most of our drive there, even threatening rain a few times. However, the sun broke through just as we pulled into Pula. It was as if the travel gods were saying, "Yes, this place is worth the trip."

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Awe inspiring, the Pula Roman Arena -- Croatia's Colosseum

The arena was huge, and its outer walls were even more intact than the Colosseum in Rome. Instead of five stories tall, this one appeared to be three. About one third of the stone seats had been restored, while the rest of the interior was in a more ruined state. The arena floor was dirt -- no subterranean section here. But this meant you could walk out to the center of the oval and turn slowly, 360 degrees, and imagine the cheering and jeering crowds. It took all I had to not raise my arms and shout, "Are you not entertained?" in my best Maximus voice. It was a truly amazing sight to see the soaring stone archways enclose you, looming above, mute testament to the engineering power of Rome. I had never even heard of this place before planning my visit. How many places did that mighty civilization leave its imprint upon? Nearly 2,000 years later, the arena could still evoke awe and wonder in the sparse crowds visiting it that day.

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As we headed back toward the main highway south through Croatia, the rain that had threatened earlier fulfilled its promise. We had a good road map, but we're depending mostly on our smart phone Mapquest app to navigate. I'd purchased a SIM card in Paris on our layover, and it provided service like my research showed. We lost signal when we went through the dozens of mountain tunnels -- some up to three miles long! No exaggeration, I think I went through more mountain tunnels in Croatia than the rest of my life combined. Croatia stretches like a pork chop along the coast of the Adriatic Sea across from Italy. The coastline is famous for its beauty, though we were seeing little of that on the gray, rainswept mountain highway. Eventually, after we lost Mapquest for the umpteenth time, I switched to the Apple Maps app, and that worked so much better. It guided us to the door of our hotel accurately and easily. And on a dark, rainy night in a foreign country, that is a good thing!

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We'd paid our time in Purgatory, apparently, and our continuation of the drive the next day's was under sunny blue skies. We abandoned the mountain highway and took the coastal road. Here was that amazing coastline for which Croatia is famous. Wow! Blue, blue sea, white-walled and terra cotta roofed villages and towns along the way...and overlooking them all like a stern grandfather were those enormous granite mountains we'd driven through yesterday. These mountains are the bone in the Croatian pork chop, and run the length of the country, never very far from the sea. Their peaks seemed shrouded in clouds, so doubtless other drivers up there were having yesterday's weather while we basked in sunshine.

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Sun drenched, a symphony of sea, coast, mountain, and sky, Croatia's Adriatic seashore is a sight to behold

We stopped frequently to take photographs of the stunning seascape. They are a painter's dream. I can imagine a landscape painter venturing into Croatia a young man and not coming out till he was old and gray. If I were driving we perhaps never would have made it to Dubrovnik that day. Instead, I was navigator....a job that usually matches well with my anal retentive, perfectionist personality. I switched off Apple maps after an hour or so, having the road network down by that point. We would not turn it on again until it was time for it to guide us -- expertly, as usual -- to a parking lot near the old town. In the meantime, we enjoyed the show that Croatia's coastline staged for us.

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One oddity of the pork chop that is Croatia's geography is the nine kilometer "Neum Corridor." When the politicians were drawing the lines of the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, they decided that Bosnia-Hercegovina should have access to the Adriatic Sea. Thus, a nine mile section of coast containing the town of Neum, became A Bosnian toe that poked through Croatian territory dipping into the sea. Since then, a resort has obviously blossomed. There were more resorts and hotels in Neum than any area along the coastline except for Dubrovnik and the Croatian second city of Split. We had to drive through a passport control station at both borders. No traffic backups, the customs agents examined our passports, the Croatians stamped them, and we drove on. Later on, I Googled the Neum Corridor and read that 92% of the inhabitants are Croatian. Hmm, I wondered...how do they feel about becoming Bosnian so that they have an access to the sea? On our drive through, we noticed one language of the dual language traffic signs was spray-painted over. Was that Croats angrily whiting out the Bosnian script? It would be interesting to delve deeper into this.

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The miles to Dubrovnik kept counting down, and soon we were within sight of this fabled city. We were staying in the walled, Old Town, which is an entirely pedestrian zone. So. We had to park outside and walk to our hotel. This went very smoothly. We telephoned our contact at our apartment room we were renting, and they were waiting there for us when we rolled our bags up to their door. The Old Town looked like a movie set, it was so authentically medieval, with its cobble stoned streets, matching yellow stone buildings and gleaming terra cotta roofs. In fact, we discovered we had just missed the filming of Star Wars, which was using the Stradun, or Main Street of Dubrovnik for one of its scenes. We already knew that many scenes from HBO's Game of Thrones were filmed there. We looked forward to our exploration of its sights. It was time to unpack from the long, two-day drive and set out!

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Posted by world_wide_mike 12:10 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Dubrovnik: Worth Waiting Two Decades For!

Medieval seaport is a brilliant marriage of History and scenery

sunny 70 °F

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Me on Dubrovnik, Croatia's medieval walls

For decades I had been wanting to see Dubrovnik. This fortified, medieval seaport was Venice's rival throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Known as Ragusa back then, the city made alliances to stay independent of the mistress of the seas, Venice. Most importantly for the traveler, her walls remained intact through the centuries and her location on the gorgeous Dalmatian coast had captured my imagination from the moment I first saw photographs of her gleaming walls and terra cotta roof tiles. During the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Serbian artillery rained down on this UNESCO world heritage sight. The Croats resisted, though, cut off from the rest of their countrymen. The damage has been repaired, and the Old Town greets visitors with shining walls and even freshly scrubbed slick, stone streets.

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In fact, Dubrovnik looks so pristine it has been used by Hollywood to film a number of movies over the past few years. I knew that the city is a stand-in for King's Landing in the HBO Games of Thrones adaption. We were surprised, though, to hear we had just missed filming of the next Star Wars installment by a week. Though it would have been cool to be there during the filming, in hindsight, that would have meant closed sights, blocked off streets, and other inconveniences. So, best to miss it, we surmised.

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Our exploration began on the Stradun, the pedestrian main drag through the compact, walled town. After checking into our hotel, we walked maybe 50 yards, and there we were! It LOOKED like a movie set, it was so pristine. Had they given the walls and streets a thorough scrubbing for Disney? Perhaps. We didn't ask. We checked out a few of the sights, including the Sponza Palace, built in the 14th century and elegantly remodeled during the Renaissance. Not much of it is open to visitors, but there is a photo exhibit in one room honoring the city defenders who died holding off the Serb army. Facing the palace across the square was the Church of St. Blaise, which we ducked inside to see a service going on. Though they were speaking in Croatian, my Catholic upbringing and its ritualistic mass meant I could tell what they were saying.

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As we wandered up stairs and around twisting Medieval streets, we could see most of the city's buildings were made with same light, yellowish stone. It gave the buildings a unity of appearance and made them glow with luster when the sun struck them. Over the next day and a half, we also visited both the Franciscan and Domenican monasteries. Each had similar cloisters surrounding gardens, with carved, stone pillars capped by interesting capitals. We declined to visit the museums in each, as we wanted to save the bulk of our time for Dubrovnik's greatest attraction: walking the circuit of the city's medieval walls. We were biding our time, keeping an eye on the sky. We wanted the best possible lighting for Dubrovnik's premier sight. When the sun broke through in earnest, it was time to begin our assault.

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The walls were built in the 10th century and improved three centuries later. As we climbed higher and higher, the panorama of terra cotta roofs spread out beneath us. Many of the tiles were a newer, brighter orange, replaced since being damaged during the 1990s struggle. Some were relics from further back, and their darker and duskier tones intermixed with the new ones. The colors shining back at you looked like swatches from a paint store's selection of oranges. Rearing up through the ocean of tiles were church bell towers, like giant stone sea creatures, grazing and passively watching the smaller life swim by beneath them. Out to sea, the blue Adriatic sparkled like gemstones, parted by the prows of ferries, tour boats, and speedboats. Beyond the landward walls, green hills rose up like an amphitheater to enfold the city on two sides. White walled houses shined back down at us, their view doubtless the equal of our's atop the walls.

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It was easy to get lost in the past, climbing up the stout towers and pacing along the battlements. The quiet, contemplative stroll was suddenly interrupted when a huge high school group of French students burst onto the bulwarks like an invading army. Shouting, laughing, and taking selfies, they marred the dreamlike quality for awhile. Thankfully, they descended the walls at the halfway point, though I cringed the rest of the day when I heard the "musical" (read nasal) tones of French being spoken. One of my favorite things to do when I visit a historical sight is to slowly wander through it. Dubrovnik's walls are perfect for that. I stopped to take dozens of photos -- every set of steps you climbed or medieval turret you peer through is an amazing view. The wedding of the magical Dalmatian coastline with the martial splendor of a medieval walled city has given birth to a world-class sight.

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To gain another perspective, we rode the cable car to the top of one of the hills that overlooks the city. Tourists pointed their "selfie sticks" -- one of the more annoying inventions of recent years -- every which way. We were elbowed aside several times by a Japanese tour group, but what could you do? Under sunny blue skies, on a warm Spring day, how could you really get angry? It took a bit of doing to find a view of the city below that wasn't partially blocked by the cable car towers and wires. When we did find it, I couldn't resist a smug satisfaction that the tour group was nowhere around, and seemed to miss out on that secret. I felt less guilty about my feeling when the tour group pushed in front of us and ditched us in line, forcing us to wait 15 minutes or so for the next car.

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Once down on street level, we grabbed ice creams and ate them on a bench overlooking the harbor. We then moved to the breezy sea promenade and sat on another bench, marveling at the glorious weather and view. I felt myself dozing off, contented and satisfied. At this point, we'd seen the top sights we'd come to see. We flipped through our guidebooks to figure out how to finish out our second afternoon in Dubrovnik. I picked out the Maritime Museum, which was a mistake. When a History buff is bored, you know it is a poor museum! Next, we decided to take a sightseeing boat tour to get a chance to get a new perspective on the city. It was about a 45 minute cruise in a small boat with only a dozen or so of us. The captain gave us occasional commentary -– the most interesting of which dealt with the millionaire hotels along the coastline leading back to the harbor. I recognized the gardens of the one which had been used in Game of Thrones filming.

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We finished out the afternoon watching the sun sink slowly into the Adriatic Sea from a seaside cafe located just outside the walls. Although they were sold out of virtually everything, they had plenty of Croatian lagers. I had worried that only two days in a city I had waited two decades to visit would not be enough. It had turned out fine, though. Sure, I could have taken an excursion to one of the islands in the area with a third day, but that wouldn't have been Dubrovnik, would it? Two sun-soaked, Spring days to visit this medieval relic of the Middle Ages were without rival. I looked forward to spotting places I'd visited in Hollywood productions for years to come.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 13:07 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

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