Buda, Praha, Paris
From Montenegro I continued my whirlwind tour of the Balkans and Eastern Block with a quick stop in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Dubrovnik is a gorgeous, thousand-year-old city perched on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. Easily one of the most beautiful and picturesque cities I’ve seen during my ten months of travel, it was a great spot to rest for a couple of days while soaking up the sun, wandering the narrow, marble lined alleys, and going for an occasional swim in the gorgeous, crystal clear water of the Adriatic.
The Balkans are a fascinating combination of history, centuries of conflict, and the shifting occupations of numerous empires. Stuck between mainland Europe to the west, and Asia to the east, the Balkans have an amazing legacy as the confluence of two cultures. While Turkey is often labeled as an east meets west middle point, many would argue that Turkey is clearly part of the east, look no further than the mosques that pierce the horizons in every part of Turkey, their Islamic religion, and the fact that most of Turkey’s landscape lies on the Asian continent. The Balkans meanwhile, more truly in terms of geography and ideology sit in the middle, between the east and west, and the result is a wonderful combination of dramatic history and distinct culture, with the benefit of gorgeous landscapes composed of rolling hills, rich farmland, mountains, and beautiful coastline. It’s a shame that I have so little time to see a region that deserves many months of exploration. Among the things I felt I had to see in this region, Dubrovnik was high on the list.
Dubrovnik is the southernmost town of the Dalmatian Coast, it rests beautifully on the shores of the Adriatic, just a ferry ride away from Italy, and a two-hour bus ride from Montenegro. European in feel and influence, Dubrovnik and the rest of Croatia cling firmly to their European heritage as separate and distinct from the rest of the Balkans. With excellent geographical diversity, Croatia may be one of the most beautiful countries you know nothing about, and Dubrovnik one of the most gorgeous cities. With several years of peace and economic stability under its belt, Croatia is quickly regaining its status as one of Europe’s premier tourist destinations.
The old town, like Kotor to the south, is surrounded by an enormous thousand-year-old wall. The city is like a time machine that transports you back to the medieval days. You can’t help but feel like royalty as you stroll down the marble walkways amongst centuries old buildings, surrounded by the fortified walls of the ancient city. The broad, marble lined main avenue branches off at right angles to narrow, shady alleys, where you can find relief from the blazing sun and enjoy a cool drink while sitting and watching the throngs meander by. Sparkling and pristine with white marble and limestone, Dubrovnik is known as the pearl of the Adriatic. Huge stone walls launch out of the sparkling blue sea towards the sky. Formerly serving as protective barriers from canon fire shot by Venetian warships, the walls now exist as one of Europe’s most impressive historical monuments. A walk around the top of the wall is the perfect way to see the best of the city with a bird’s eye view. The architecture and ornamentation of the buildings compliments the cities location, nudged between the shimmering sea and sloping hills to the east. Sadly I had to cut my visit short, and after only two days it was time to carry on. Regretfully I had to skip past the rest of the Croatian coast on my way to Budapest.
Budapest was gorgeous, a bustling city of cosmopolitan young Hungarians mixed in with thousand year old buildings and monuments. After only an hour it quickly became my favorite city of the Eastern Block, of which I have seen very little. With castles and bridges, palaces and parliaments, it’s a great city for sightseeing, hours of wandering, and people watching from one of the endless umbrella covered cafes. I took a couple of days to see the sights, sit in a half a dozen cafes, and was graciously hosted by some Hungarian locals who are relatives of some friends of mine. Leslie and his family generously treated me to one of the best meals of my trip, a delicious display of Hungarian cuisine. On a steamy, hot July evening we began our meal with a delectable chilled cherry soup, a traditional summer dish with a cream base and two varieties of cherries. Each course that followed was as incredible as the first. I hungrily stuffed myself with the delicious local cuisine. It was a real treat to sit with the family, discuss history, politics, and mashed potatoes in a box. Our meeting was a long time in the making, the result of a chance encounter with Leslie’s cousins, who I met in a restaurant over seven months ago in Mendoza, Argentina. Thanks to all of you!
From there I decided to squeeze in one more city before dashing off to Paris. From Buda I overnighted to Prague, the legendary city of incredible history and architecture, and the lone major European city to escape unscathed during the two World Wars. Prague didn’t disappoint. The architecture, walkways, cobblestone streets, bridges, gates and castles made me feel like I was walking through a town of medieval perfection. It’s almost too pristine to feel authentic, the town is like a Disneyland for grown-ups, but here the buildings are real, and really old, centuries older than our own country. With beers selling for thirty cents U.S., and flights from London for fifty pounds, Prague is a popular destination for Brits, particularly for Pom bachelor parties and soccer fans, both eager to fill the pubs with their loud, drunken selves, and fill themselves with the cheap Czech beer. Despite this, the city is unbelievably impressive, and if you take the time to look past the hoards, you’ll see a city of remarkable beauty and glorious medieval architecture that invariably makes you stare in jaw dropping awe.
From there I traveled to Paris, which is so French, so great, and such a combination of throaty, nasally mutterings from guys named Jean-something. Within a half an hour Paris became one of my favorite cities of the trip, right up there with New York and Buenos Aires. The energy and attitude of Paris is stupendous. For those who have been, you know the magic, for those who haven’t; go. Cafes and espresso on every block, and the first city I’ve been to that is too cool for cappuccinos. Of course they have their own version, a cafe crème, which is essentially the same thing, but the first time I tried to order a cappuccino I was denied with vigor, as if the waitress had never heard such blasphemy and had no idea what I was talking about. But the cafe crème she offered in replacement was superb, all the better because of the French attitude it was served with. The French are so very French that way, but the city thrives despite their Frenchness. Besides, all great cities have flare and attitude, it’s not like I’ve had any of the French ask me, “what the F@#k are you looking at?” as happened on two separate occasions with some tough-guy New Yorkers. Of course in New York that just made my happy-go-lucky smile even bigger, as if these guys were perfectly completing my Big Apple experience. And in Paris, the very French French people complete the experience here, just as the chocolate éclairs, crepes and Eiffel Tower.
Bryce arrives in a few hours, and not a moment too soon. I’m getting tired of traveling alone, and the prospect of navigating the Tour route by myself was a bit daunting. But now that he’s coming it doesn’t matter that I have no idea where I’ll sleep tonight, or that I’ll be spending countless hours sitting by the side of French roads waiting for fifteen seconds of the colorful Tour de France blur. No matter what happens it will be so much better doing it with one of my best pals. I’m off to pick him up now, then we jump in the car to catch the critical Alp D’Huez stage on Sunday, then we’ll follow the rest of the tour back to Paris for the final on the 27th, then off to one of the most beautiful places in the world.
See you soon,