Archive for the ‘Croatia’ Category

Swimming: a Picturesque Beach, a Trashy Beach, and a Five-Story Diving Board

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

The morning of July tenth, we drove south along the beautiful Dalmatian coast. Croatia’s impressive Dinaric Alps mountain range runs close to the sea and provides beautiful vistas of rugged peaks and cliffs above gorgeous water. Our path ran through numerous coastal towns of picturesque white villas with clay roofs, ornamental gardens, and roadside cafes. Our enjoyment of the coast was slowed by tourist traffic. Apparently, others had heard of the coast’s fame as a less crowded alternative to the French Riviera. The result seems ironic. We stopped in the early afternoon at what an advertisement proclaimed to be the “Best Beach on the Croatian Riviera.” After a quick lunch, our Ramen noodles and tomatoes attracting the curiosity of some mature Croatian women, we hit the beach for a few hours of relaxation. Swimming in the waters of the Adriatic Sea, wonderfully clear and warm in the Mediterranean climate, soothed our tired bodies. I found the water salty as well, especially up my nose. Each of us was weary, still adjusting to life as one of only two travelers. We were content to read and sleep on the beach of fine pebbles, content to rejuvenate from saying goodbye to our friends, longer stints behind the wheel, more one-on-one time, and our recent stress at the Croatian border.

By-the-way, the Dalmatian name comes from from the Delmatae, an Illyrian tribe that lived along the coast in the 1st millennium B.C. The Dalmatian, “Dalmatinac” in Croatian, is a breed of dog thought to have originated in the area though it’s not known for sure. We didn’t see any Dalmatian dogs. Nevertheless, we continued through a tiny section of Bosnia before stocking up with provisions at a Croatian Lidl, tomato soup, and stopping for the night. We couldn’t understand why cars kept pulling in behind us in the small parking lot at the edge of the mountain until the explosions of fireworks began appearing above a nearby coastal town. Croatian Independence Day? Tardy American Independence Day? The only thing of which we were certain was that we had two borders and roughly 500 km between us and Lezhë, Albania, where we planned to meet our friends, Leon and Naomi Zimmerman at 1700 the next night.

The next morning, we spent some money on vehicle insurance to travel through Montenegro and then some more at the Albanian border about twenty minutes before the Zimmermans were expecting us. Montenegro was beautiful but the roads there and Albania proved disappointingly less than the major thoroughfares we were hoping to find. Our 8-year-old roadmap was alarmingly up-to-date. It was, we reminded ourselves, the Balkans. It took us well over an hour to travel less than 80 kilometers to Lezhë, over some of the sketchiest roads we’ve encountered on this trip. The barely two-lane road, with its occasional patches of pavement, often became three and four lanes as confident locals with significantly better suspension systems then ours passed at unbelievable speeds. They were all Mercedes-Benz vehicles. In fact, I counted. Of the first ten cars we encountered, eight of them were old model Mercedes. Most are stolen or illegally brought into the country, we learned later. Our humble and dirty VW pulled into Lezhë an hour and twenty minutes late when Caleb hailed us with a loud, “Matt Wolfer!” The men of the family, missionaries in Albania, were with Raphael, a man from their church who immediately sized up our car’s condition as needing new shocks. Absolutely, especially after that road.

The two of us and the entire family took off to the beach, an interesting collection of trees, trash, cows (seriously), swimmers, snack shacks, and bunkers. The latter were the remnants of the Communinist era where they were erected around Albania to convince the inhabitants that they were in need of protection. It was a change of pace from swimming in the Croatian Riviera. The boys, Caleb, Micah, Josiah, me, and Dan) rented a petal-boat and set sail for the open sea, braving treacherous waves, partially submerged bunkers, and stories of 2-foot jellyfish before returning to shore. We returned to the family’s small weekend apartment for delicious fajitas and a great, new card game, Bohnanza. We walked one of the town’s two main streets and hit the sack. The next morning Dan discovered someone had attempted grand theft auto, trying to punch out our passengers’ side door lock. No success. We had success, instead, attending the Sunday morning meeting the Zimmermans organize, following their “organic church” concept. After Caleb led worship in Albanian, the group participated in a engaging discussion following Leon’s printed questions about the Samaritan woman’s interaction with Jesus in John 4. It was a refreshing change from the sermon and seemed more beneficial in a society focused on relationships.

After the meeting, we drove an hour to Kruja’s castel where Scanderbeg, the Albanian hero, held off the Ottoman Turk hords, restraining the Muslim expansion from reaching more of Europe. We reenacted such a competition with the boys before appreciating a delicious meal of pizza and salad. It had been so long! We continued on to Tirana where the Zimmermans live most of the week. A enthusiastic game of Scattergories, some time on the Internet, sleep, and we woke to a overwhelming breakfast of pancakes with peach or banana slices with whipped cream or a ham and potato topping, perfect with homemade syrup. We explored the city center with the children and then Dan and I accompanied the two youngest to a nearby swimming pool facility. We spent three hours tossing the football and frisbee into the air above the water for each other to dive after and team keep-away with the frisbee. Then we faced the high-dive boards. It was a structure of diving boards on every floor for five floors. At the end of the fifth board, however, it suddenly became quite death-defying! Naturally, Dan and I had to try pencil-jumping from the fifth floor board. There is nothing like jumping from five stories into water. I started at the fifth story.

That daring feat completed and my ears still stopped with water, we walked home for kebabs and conversation about colleges with Caleb, planning our trip, and romantic relationships (sort of). We then walked the town to a high-rise with a rotating restaurant on its top. Slowly rotating 360 degrees an hour, we enjoyed coffee and Leon’s explanation of the organic church. We must have made it 480 degrees before returning to earth and the Zimmerman’s house. I handily (ha!) beat the two youngest at two more games of Bohnanza over the midnight hour as Naomi cut Dan’s hair. One last night with the incredibly gracious family and we set our sights for Greece.

To Dalmatia, with Problems

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

The night of the 8th the 50% smaller crew arrived in Venice and wandered the streets for a while. We both decided that Venice is a city best visited with wives. We figured it was good to scout it out, though, just so we knew what we were doing if we ever brought our wives there. I especially enjoyed all of the amazing architecture, almost all built on piers in the middle of the water. It’s difficult to determine where the islands end and the water begins and there are no streets of asphalt or even cobblestone, just walkways and waterways.

We slept that night an hour or so outside of Venice, and the next morning took off toward Slovenia. The border crossing with Slovenia went off without a hitch and we were in… but then we remembered that we had to make a call to an Italian toll-free number to verify with our bank that it was, indeed, us who were using our cards all over the continent. We turned around, made the call, and then headed back into Slovenia. Wanting to avoid paying a vignette (highway tax) we took the scenic routes, leading us to the top of a mountain with a centuries-old graveyard overlooking a beautiful valley. We eventually made our way to a border crossing with Croatia and were turned back because it was for local use only, but the border guard did give us very clear directions to a border crossing we could use.

We approached the crossing in a carefree manner, unconcerned since the past several dozen border crossings had gone without a hitch. We pulled up, they took our passports, they asked us to pull to the side, all good so far. The one border guard, a rather curt fellow with unhappy features, started searching our car. Not a problem, we had nothing to hide and had gone through a few cursory searches before. But this one was different. Everything was taken out, the car was ripped apart. Every bag was opened, all of our seasonings, our dried soup mixes, our bookbags, our CD cases, everything. The guy searched everything while a second fellow, slightly younger, called in our passports for background checks.

In the meantime, another fellow took Matt and I one by one into a small, air-conditioned room for about 10 minutes of intense questioning and a strip search. They were looking for drugs and were certain that we had them. We were told time and time again that it would be better for us to just give them the drugs and we could go. “Just give us the drugs” they said. “We don’t have drugs!” we said. They asked if it was ok if they gave us a urinalysis and called the drug dogs. We readily and heartily agreed! Finally a way to definitively prove our innocence! They were disappointed and didn’t call the dogs or drug testers.

They continued to search the car, they took all the bags out, they opened our ibuprofen bottle, they called in our passports to other officials. They were completely convinced that we had drugs, especially when they learned that we had been to both Amsterdam—home of Marijuana—and Morocco—home of Hashish—AND were students traveling Europe. They made us sit on the curb while they searched and called, searched and called. They discovered Matt’s GORP and exclaimed in glee! “Checka! Checka Checka!” They were disappointed when they realised it was trail mix.

It took almost two hours of humiliation for them to begrudgingly accept that we weren’t smuggling large quantities of who knows what. I’m still not sure they were convinced, but they did wave us on. It took us almost 10 minutes to get enough of our stuff (as little of it as there is after Dan and David left) back into the right places in the car and off we went, free of the tyranny of the Croatian border guards and it turns out we didn’t have any drugs… surprise, surprise.

I had mixed feelings about the entire situation. For one, it’s good to protect nations against illegal drugs and their importation, on the other hand they could have been more polite as we cooperated fully, they could have had a dog check the car, they could have been more careful with our things, they could have put things back where they found them. These were the hurt feelings I was mulling over as we drove away, but all of this was mixed with a feeling of relief.

We had to find somewhere to relax after the past few days of stress culminating in the unnecessary intrusion of our privacy at the border so we headed for the beaches of Croatia along the Dalmatian coast.