A Year (or the World?) Ends… Either Way, I Travel

Photo of people reflected in the fender of a car

Well, today is the day the apocalypse was to happen.  I guess a few hours are still left so maybe I shouldn’t count my eggs just yet.  BUT, if the end did happen, guess what?  I can still blog from purgatory and you KNOW that would be an incredible travel story.  Just hope it is not one of being stuck there forever, like when I was stuck in Europe because of the Icelandic volcano (which did turn out well) or someone else’s horrible travel story.  Also, if the world did end, purgatory looks a lot like my house (and if the world did NOT end, I need to make some minor changes at home…).

So the end of anything usually calls for some reflection and be it the end of the world or the end of the year, I feel like reflecting on my very busy 2012…

A Texas tweetup in January

January saw me taking what felt like a bold step – to travel somewhere to meet people I met online.  At first that has an almost dirty sound to it, doesn’t it?  But I had been talking on Twitter with these three folks for many months and they were clearly people I would enjoy meeting in person and exploring with.  So off to awesome Austin, Texas for the Texas tweetup!  There I met in person @kirkcole, @L_e_a_h, and @LolaDiMarco.  Unfortunately, a severe cold hit me on the day I traveled so I was not able to partake in all the activities but enjoyed a good day’s worth of laughing and eating in Austin!

Photo of people reflected in the fender of a car

Can you find the Austin tweetup fab 5 in the picture?

Normal in February – and other months

Traveling to DC for work permeates every month this year so my normal continued in February.  Recovered from the Austin tweetup and post-Christmas parties in January, February was time to relax and be home (or in DC). Over the year, I got to check new things in DC that I had not explored yet in the last year.  Doing the White House tour was a long-time bucket list item that I finally made happen.  I continued exploring and enjoying many of the DC’s finest hotels like The Mayflower, the Sofitel Lafayette, and the Renaissance on 9th St.  DC is a wonderful town if you get out and explore.  Its many beautiful brownstones and local eateries are a joy to explore.

March Madness:  Mile High Skiing

The traveling continued in March – this time a great ski trip with dear friends to Vail and Breckendridge, two places I had been dying to try for many years.  The trip did not disappoint and neither did my skiing, not having skied since Valle Nevado, Chile in the Andes in 2010.  Vail and Breck WILL be in a future ski trip for me, I can tell.  The bowls of Vail where incredible:  one bowl, then another one behind it, then another.  It seemed to never end!

Statue of skier in Vail, Colorado

How thoughtful! Vail had a statue of me at the base of one of the slopes!

Amicci en Italia and diving into eastern Europe in April

April finally brought about the “long”-planned trip to Italy with two sets of great friends.  Though mainly focused on Rome (a city I love re-visiting), a side trip to finally see Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast was built into the itinerary.  It did not disappoint, especially our guide in Pompeii, one of the preeminent experts on Pompeii!.

But I took advantage of being on the other side of the pond to add another iconic destination I had never explored:  Dubrovnik, Croatia.  Its tiled roofs and architecture combined with the natural setting of its location made it a magical place for me.  Of course, ever eager to see more, I decided to get further into eastern Europe while in Dubrovnik by doing day trips into Bosnia & Herzegovina (Mostar) and into the beautiful mountains and bays of Montenegro!  These day trips were short, obviously, but they definitely opened the appetite to see more of these countries and this part of Europe.

View from up high of Kotor Bay in Montenegro

One of the ridges that divides Kotor Bay into 2 bays in Montenegro

Re-charging, re-connecting, and exploring Chicago

May saw a second tweetup, this time in the Windy City since we were eager to connect with other travel bloggers we had been chatting with for awhile.  The Windy City tweetup had a little bit of everything:  from French goodness (courtesy of the Sofitel Water Tower), Charlie’s Angels, boat tour, fallen traffic lights (not our fault!), doughnuts, cold coffee, good food, drinks (repeat), and the mob.  It was a very fun weekend indeed meeting @workmomtravels, @travelingted, @jettingaround, and @elatlboy in person.

Posing in front of the Bean in Chicago at Millenium Park

Being tourists at The Bean

More fun with fellow travelers and good learnings

In June, TBEX, a travel bloggers conference, held its North America conference in Keystone, Colorado (very close to Breckenridge where I’d just been 3 months before; who knew I would be returning to the area so soon!).  Besides the interesting learnings, the reception at the mountaintop on Friday night and the ensuing party at the pub at base (free!) really made the weekend a lot of fun and a good time to meet others who share the travel bug and re-connect with others.  Among the great folks I met (too many to list all!):  @BlBrtravel, @stayadventurous, @captainandclark, @lazytravelers, @budgettravelsac, and @travelrinserept.

A trek with a purpose in Romania and a true relic of the USSR

Romania had been a mysterious place that I had always dreamed of seeing.  Not because I knew I would love it but it just called to me.  A wonderful opportunity came my way to do a hike in the Transylvanian Alps with Trekking for Kids, a non-profit seeking to bring improved lives to orphaned/at-risk children around the world.  We worked with the orphanage and just “were” with the kids before and after a hike through some beautiful landscapes around Brasov – we even saw castles other than Dracula’s!  An experience I will never forget every which way, including it was my first multi-day hike ever!

Sphinx-like rock in the Bucegi Mountains near Omu Peak, Romania

Who knew there was a Sphinx atop the Transylvanian Alps (near Omu Peak)??

Since I was headed that way, I decided Romania (more precisely, the town of Iasi, Romania’s cultural capital) would be a great springboard to explore Moldova.  So with my great guide, I explored churches, monasteries, towns (including the capital, Chisinau), and wineries in this little known former Soviet socialist republic still working to undo decades of horrible communist dictatorship.  I am SO glad I made the time for this unpolished gem at the edge of eastern Europe!

The trip ended with a one-day, two-night in awesome Paris, my home away from home in Europe.  Always love re-visiting my favorite areas and still finding new things to enjoy!

Time with Family in Tampa on my sister’s birthday in August

August also included a trip to Tampa where my family lives – always good to be with them, and enjoy good Cuban food and TLC!  I had just been there in June (when I visited the impressively set-up Dali museum) but my Mom turned 70 while I was in Romania and my sister was hitting a milestone birthday of her own in August so I just HAD to go and celebrate with them!

Rest in September

In September, I took a break from travel.  Well, non-business travel… But read on, the year of travel is not over!

Architecture and Wine:  Tuscany or Bordeaux, you say?  No, Virginia in October!

I finally succumbed to friends’ suggestion that I explore Virginia wine country with them.  I had been wanting to do this for a long time but other travel got in the way.  I took advantage of being in the DC area for work to go ahead and spend a weekend with them in wine country.  And got out RIGHT BEFORE Sandy passed by!  As you can read in my writings about this central part of Virginia, Monticello, Charlottesville and the countryside are filled with early colonial history and architecture as well as delicious wines.  And there are close to 200 other wineries in the state to be found and explored!  I was glad to have this opportunity to see more of my own country and other places will be in my sights in 2013 (like Michigan and Wisconsin thanks to friends from Chicago who write about these places!).

Cemetery where Thomas Jefferson is buried in Monticello on a fall day

Cemetery where Thomas Jefferson is buried in Monticello on a fall day

OK, now I rest ‘xcept for Thanksgiving in November

So, my fun travels wrap up for the year save for visiting family again in Tampa where I discover yet another new place for good Cuban food!  Someone STOP the madness! 🙂

I reflect back on the year and I am amazed at how much I have been able to see of places I have always wanted to see.  And this is setting aside the twenty-something weeks of work travel to DC!   The bucket list shrinks and yet I add new places I learn about.  I consider THAT my most important key performance indicator – a never-ending travel bucket list!

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and the best in 2013 for you and yours!

Photo Essay: The Tiled Roofs of Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik, Croatia: a sea of red/orange tiles surrounded by the sea

Tiled roofs seldom tell such a vivid story as they do in Dubrovnik, Croatia.  Stories of war.  Stories of reconstruction.  The war of the early 1990s destroyed most of the tiled roofs of this jewel of the Adriatic.  Not enigmatic like Venice but inviting, though both are definitely charming in distinct ways.

I wrote earlier about the charms of this Adriatic town loaded with history from older times and recent times.  Its emblematic roofs catch your eye from up high as you approach the town from the airport.

Dubrovnik, Croatia: a sea of red/orange tiles surrounded by the sea

It is quite a view even if this photo is not the best as it was taken from a moving bus.  Walking along the old walls that surround the town is one of the best things to do to see the town from a very unique angle that most cities do not offer.  From there, the tiled roofs caught my eye in a different way.  This post will share some of those roofs, the new and old (most are new, repairs from the most recent war) as I keep pondering the stories the town could tell us…  Enjoy them!

Tiled roof of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tiled roof of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tiled roof of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tiled roof of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tiled roof of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tiled roof of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tiled roof of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tiled roof of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tiled roof of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tiled roof of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tiled roof of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Photo of the Week – Harbor in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Harbor or port in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Everything in Dubrovnik is picturesque (check out other sights in this jewel of the Adriatic!), including the view below of a harbor used by smaller craft including local fishermen.

Harbor or port in Dubrovnik, Croatia

The Jewel of the Adriatic – Dubrovnik, Croatia!

Approaching Dubrovnik, Croatia coming from the airport and meetings its famous tiled roofs

For a long time, Dubrovnik has been in my radar as a destination.  The images of this city sitting on the Adriatic Sea with its tiled roofs has always captured my imagination – as I hope it does yours, if you have not been to this gem of a place!  This initially was going to be one post but there was so much I wanted to share, I decided to split into two, to not short change you, my readers!

Planning a trip to Italy with friends, I began wondering where else I could go after the Italy visit since I was already across the Atlantic.  As I reviewed the map (first mentally, then online), I zoomed in on Croatia.  Very close to Italy… I did not have a hard time making my mind up.  Croatia it was and Dubrovnik within it….

Arriving in Dubrovnik

I landed in the small but very efficient airport and boarded the bus to town, saving tons of money and paying little to be dropped off right outside one of the main gates into the old city.

The main bus stop area outside of Pile Gate in Dubrovnik, Croatia

As I rode the bus along the coast, I kept my eyes wide open waiting for my first glimpse of Dubrovnik.  And that moment was still as impressive as I thought it would be:  this place looked like out of a fairy tale!  Though I didn’t luck out in the weather department that week, it was impossible to not be charmed by Dubrovnik…

Approaching Dubrovnik, Croatia coming from the airport and meetings its famous tiled roofs

Not too bad for a pic taken from a moving bus!

My Home for 4 Days – The Hilton

My hotel, the Hilton Grand Imperial was almost across the street from the bus stop.  Lucky guy!  (In fact, you can see in the top picture on the top right of the picture!)

Grand Hilton Imperial Hotel in Dubrovnik, Croatia

The beautiful Grand Imperial!

Sample architecture in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Building across from the Hilton Grand Imperial Hotel

The hotel was built in the late 19th century and suffered greatly in the attacks in 1991 (I saw a picture of its roof burning in a local museum where a photo exhibit shows the pain the city went through that year…).  It is now a beautiful Hilton property with excellent service, great location, and an incredible buffet breakfast (along with a well prepared gym to burn off any calories you don’t burn by walking around!  Oh and an indoor pool, sauna, and steam room – imperial indeed.).  (Check out my TripAdvisor review for this hotel.)

Hilton Grand Imperial welcome treat in my room in Dubrovnik, Croatia

A nice welcome treat after a long day coming from Rome via Munich at the Hilton!

Background to appreciate this beautiful place even more…

Dubrovnik competed with Venice, in its heyday (as it does today in my head!), for being one of the most important centers of trade in that part of Europe.  In fact, the Republic of Ragusa, as it was known, was the only contender in the eastern Adriatic to Venice.  It was a skilled center of trade working through complicated politics and centers of power to remain independent until a series of mishaps in the late 17th century started eroding its staying power to be independent.  Little known to me and likely to my compatriots from any of our history courses, this place was definitely unique in history.

Eventually, after many different circumstances, Dubrovnik ended up in Yugoslavia.  When the Yugoslav state began falling apart, Croatia declared its independence along with Slovenia.  Unfortunately, it was not a clean break for Croatia.  Dubrovnik suffered serious attacks in 1991-2 that destroyed parts of the city and most of the tiled roofs that added a lot of charm to the place.  Most of the tiled roofs you see today, in fact, are reconstructions due to the war.  It is very sad not only for the loss of human life and the destruction suffered upon this beautiful city but this city had been demilitarized in the 1970s on purpose to ensure it would never suffer war due to its beauty.  But nationalist zealots don’t respect much…  Dubrovnik paid the price – still visible as bullet holes in some buildings and by the new-looking roofs.   Who is laughing now, though??

Old Town and the City Walls

For sure, the best part of Dubrovnik is what is in Old Town and what surrounds its:  its famed and still intact city walls.  There is so much to share on this that I devote another post to what Old Town offers.  For now, until a few days from now, know that exploring every corner and alley of Old Town is a delight!

The following are views of different portions of the famous city walls as I walked them!

Along the city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Along the city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Along the city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Food – Because You KNEW I Was Going to Go There

I mentioned in my review of the Hilton how good the buffet breakfast was – so that was one meal I did not go elsewhere for!  I had a nice meal at a local place in Old Town one night, and then another meal right between the Hilton and the Pile Gate at a restaurant that was good but pricey.  However, the star of the show for me was Restaurant Posat.  Though in my TripAdvisor review I mention that it was pricey, it was a great deal.  I had mussels for a starter and then a local grilled fish for the main course.  The mussels and the fish were very fresh (and I know fresh fish having lived in Chile for a year!!).  I sat by the waterfront, under the aegis of the St. Lawrence Fortress (or Fortress Lovrijenac).  The restaurant, though outside of the Old Town and very close to the Pile Gate and the main bus stop, was and felt tucked away.  Oh, and they had good wifi!

View from Restaurant Posat in Dubrovnik, Croatia

View from straight ahead from the Restaurant Posat

View of Fortress St. Lawrence in Dubrovnik. Croatia

View of Fortress St. Lawrence – the immediate neighbor of Restaurant Posat!

Great Location!!

Dubrovnik is not just a phenomenal destination unto itself.  It is a great jumping place to many different places.  Island hopping in the Croatian coast, I hear, is incredible.  Heading to awesome Split not too difficult.  Day trip to Mostar, a jewel in Herzegovina?  No problem.  Saunter off to Kotor Bay, the double-bay in Montenegro, or visit Riviera-like Budva also in Montenegro?  Very easy.  Dubrovnik is just blessed with its location as a great place to base a lot of travel in the region.

How Do I Wrap My Head around Dubrovnik?

I have to say that I have seen many places and many places that I like.  I have seen many charming European towns and villages.  I have seen Venice.  And Dubrovnik fares EXTREMELY well when I stack it against any of these.  I dare say its charm is very unique, as is Venice’s.  Except no foul smells, floods, or sinking buildings here…  Stay tuned for part 2 where I hope you will continue to see why I so enjoyed this jewel of the Adriatic!

View of the eastern approach from the sea to Dubrovnik, Croatia

Beautiful view of the eastern harbor, the Fortress of St. John, the Bell Tower, the Dominican Monastery, St. Vlaho’s Church and the wonderful tiled roofs!

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