Saturday, December 21, 2013

Island Solta, Croatia

Solta is a rocky island with a laid back attitude and lots of laid back locals. We spend two nights on the island in the town of Stomorska. We rented an apartment on and were pleased with our apartment ($53 USD a night) and the view it afforded us (though the long climb up the hill was less desirable). We ate in the restaurants, lounged at the seaside, and wandered around the tiny town and neighborhoods. My husband even rented a bike for a day and rode around the island. He had to take a bus to another town to rent the bike. But for $10 for the day, it was an hilly adventure for him to enjoy while I relaxed at the beach. There's also a bee farm on the island that makes its own honey and helicopter rides offered along with other tours if you are so inclined. It was also a popular place for yachters to park for the night, plugin, and drink.  

View from our apartment above the town of Stomorska.
One of the small beaches near Stomorska.

Split, Croatia

Split is a very touristy city, but still worth visiting; but a warning would have been nice. Split is a hub for cruise ships and bus travel so during the day it is filled with people from cruise ships and people staying in town. I think if we were to visit again, we would visit more islands in the area via ferries during the day and enjoy the quieter evenings in Split. For this, the ferries work well as their prices were relatively inexpensive. Getting to one of the islands (Solta) was only about $6 USD for about an hour's ride.

The beaches near the Marjan were nice and not too crowded. There aren't really long stretches of beach but instead access to the water is broken up into different areas. It works out so you can choose the area you want to hang out in (more shade or deeper water or stretches of large rocks to sunbathe on). Note: The walk to this area takes about 20-30 minutes and there is not a lot of shade.

Like the rest of Croatia, getting an apartment (apartman) in Split was pretty common. They tend to cost less than a hotel room and we were able to rent a small studio apartment for about 50€ per night which seemed to be the going rate for a studio or one bedroom.

Makarska, Croatia

I have to admit that I was not impressed with Makarska when I first arrived. For me it reminiscent of the overbuilt beach towns of Florida but with less Americans and more Bosnians. There are apartment buildings everywhere renting rooms, finding good food was difficult at best and the beaches were overrun (and weren’t that spacious to begin with). But, once we wandered into the Old Town, I warmed a bit. Overall, I would say that there are better beach towns on the mainland of Croatian that are less crowded (keep in mind we were there in earl September. I can only imagine what it is like in the height of summer.)

For those who like the club scene, there was a really cool club at the south end of the bay that is carved out of a cave. There are also a number of bars that serve some decent drinks. Some had live music that was pretty good, but most were fairly standard bars.

Blagaj, Bosnia & Herzegovina

About 20 minutes outside of Mostar is a small town called Blagaj which you can get to by bus. There's a fortress on the top of the hill there (locally known as Stjepan Grad) with amazing views of the surrounding area. The fortress is overgrown and dilapidated but that somehow makes it more worth seeing. You walk up a road (follow the one and only sign) and then hike up the switchbacks which takes a total of about 45 minutes. The trail is hard to find in the brush but the frustration is worth the view from the top and its free Note: keep an eye out for an arrow made out of rocks. We missed the arrow and spent a long time looking for the trail. 

Also, there's a Dervish house at the base of a mountain. There are restaurants in the area because of the picturesque views of the cold, turquoise waters coming out of the cave at the base of the mountain. You can rent canoes there, but the water level seemed way to low for canoeing in September 2013.   

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Girona, Spain

Girona is a picturesque town that has a lot to offer if you are ambitious or is a great town to wander aimlessly if you are less ambitious. There is more than enough to do to keep you occupied for a handful of days or it could be wonderful base for side trips in the region.

We spent one morning walking the ancient walls of the city. Starting behind the cathedral and walking south, it was a wonderful way to see the breathtaking view of the town and the surrounding landscape. It took just under an hour and it was free.

We wandered the streets of the old town and the new. There is more history (the cathedral, St. Felix's church, etc.) in the old town but there is more shopping (H&M, Zara, etc.) on the newer side of town.

Foodwise, Zanparzan was a great find. The night we went in, it was standing room only for awhile. Luckily, we were able to snag a table quickly, camped out, and ate to our heart's content. The pinxtos where delicious and were about €1.40 each. We also stumbled upon a Mexican restaurant that was actually worth going to (I find that Mexican food outside of the States and Mexico usually isn't very good). It was not cheap (about €15 for an entrée and margarita) but the food at Maguey, Cort Reial 1, was a nice change from tapas and pinxtos.

While in Girona, we stayed in any apartment we found on The man who owned the apartment, Oriol, also has a bike tour company (click here for the website). While we did not have the opportunity to take a tour with Oriol, he was such a wonderful host that I can only imagine the tours to be well planned, entertaining, and a great way to spend a day.

View from our apartment in Girona.
For side trips from Girona, I recommend going to the tourist office and asking for bus schedules. We looked online but couldn't always find good, basic information. Also, keep in mind there are two bus stations in Girona. One is just outside of the old town but the other is further south in front of the train station.

We also took a daytrip to the small town of Bezalu. It was picturesque and lovely. There is a lot of history to see there. Unfortunately, because it is such a small town most of these "attractions" are closed to the public unless you take a 30 minute walking tour of town, which only takes place a few times a day and is only offered in Spanish. But if you want to get into the “sites,” go to the tourism information center to find out the starting times for tours and do so as soon as you arrive in town.The start times for the walking tour are also posted outside most of the main sites.

Bezalu, Spain

Friday, May 3, 2013

Barcelona, Spain

Recently, my friend Katie and I traveled to Barcelona. When we travel together, we tend to focus mostly on wandering around, eating, and drinking. Here are some of our finds and a few tips.

We stumbled across a great little tapas bar in Barri Gotic called La Cala del Vermut, Carrer de les Magdalenes, 6. It's not far from the Cathedral de Barcelona, but it's tucked away enough that the tourist crowds can't find it. We had a small lunch of a few tapas and a drink which cost about €6 per person. The staff was very friendly, answered our questions, and tolerated my poor Spanish.

La Bodegueta, Rambla de Catalunya, 100 is a delightful little tapas place usually full with patrons. It's too small for standing so grab a table and order something wonderful from the menu. We really liked the Manchego cheese, the tiny pimientos de Padrón (grilled peppers) and the pa amb tomàquet (bread rubbed with tomato and garlic, then drizzled with olive oil). We ate here twice and both times the bill was under €10 a person.

Taktika Berri, Carrer de Valencia, 169 is a great pinxtos bar. At €1.45 per pinxtos, it can get expensive if you eat a lot but you can also try a handful of great items and keep it under budget. The general rule is to let the bartenders serve you unless its very crowded; then you can take what you'd like for yourself. Also, remember that when you are ready to pay, your toothpicks will be counted (usually at the register) and you will need to tell the bartender who many drinks you had. It will all be tallied up. Side note: It seemed that most people did not tip at pintxos bars. I'm not sure if it was because you kind of serve yourself, although they are filling your drinks and bringing around new pinxtos. We decided to tip when we felt that the service was exceptional.

We didn't only eat and drink, if that's what you are thinking so far. We also took a bike tour of the city (bad idea), went into the Cathedral de Barcelona (which is free before 12:45 p.m. and supposedly free after 5:00 p.m.), and we made the pilgrimage to La Sagrada Familia. Do not wait in line to get into Gaudi's church. Tickets are available online via Ticketmaster (for a fee) or you can buy them at one of the many yellow ServiCaixa ATMs and skip the fee. The machines are tricky and don't seem to work with all credit and debit cards, so try more than one card, pick a date and time, and skip the line at La Sagrada Familia.
We also made more than one trip to La Boqueria, the large market just off La Rambla. It's a good place to buy produce, cheeses, and ready made snacks, but it is also over-run. Watch your bags while you are there.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Saving money on accommodations in Europe

All hotels, hostels, and guesthouses in western Europe must post their star rating on the outside of their establishment. The star rating has everything to do with amenities and price and nothing to do with how nice it actually is. Also, at the front desk, a list of room prices must be displayed for all guests to see. This is very helpful when trying to stay on a budget. Also, it is very common to ask to see the room and tell the front desk you are looking at a few hotels and will be back if you choose their hotel or guesthouse. This is a great way to see how far your money can go. Sometimes when I travel and am staying in one town for more than a few nights, I will book a hotel for the first night and then take an hour or so to walk around to other hotels and see if I can find a better deal. This works best in the off season.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Isla Bastimentos, Panama

For us, the Panama trip continued to be an adventure. After driving cross country to get to Almirante, we parked the car, and hopped on not one, but two water taxis (also called launchas) to get to Isla Bastimentos. Check out this link for transportation info. While on the island, we stayed at Tio Tom's guesthouse. It was right next to the public dock which was helpful and not a drawback. The guesthouse is sparse but a good deal at about $25 per night. The owners, Tom and Ina, are a friendly German couple. During our stay, they were very welcoming though opinionated about life on and off the island.

Two restaurants on the island that I recommend are Roots and Kesha. Both have great, affordable food around $6 per meal. Also, drinks are pretty affordable most everywhere on the island, $1-2 per beer and $3-4 for the ever-popular cuba libre.

We were only on Isla Bastimentos a few days so we had limited time to see the island. We thought about taking a day tour (average $20 per person) to snorkle, fish, etc. but decided against it and chose to walk to Wizard Beach instead. Be wary of our choice. We were told that there was a trail from Bastimentos town to Wizard Beach and that it was “kind of muddy.” This was the understatement of the trip. We walked uphill to get out of town (it looks like you are walking through someone's backyard at times) and finally found the trail. But the trail was not a little muddy, it was a lot muddy. There were points where we were walking in mud a foot deep. This would not have been a problem had we not worn flip flops and been concerned about what lies underneath the mud. Once we got use to the idea of being muddy, sweaty, and possibly lost, it went a bit smoother. Once we passed through the land of mud and abandoned flip flops, we made it to Wizard Beach which was quite deserted (the only way to get there is to walk as the riptide is too strong for a dock). To get back from Wizard Beach, you have two options; walk back the way you came (about 45 minutes and, did I mention the mud?) or another 45 minute walk down the beach and through the jungle to Red Frog Beach. From there, you can get a boat back to Bastimentos town for $4 per person. We arrived on Red Frog Beach as a band of ragamuffins; sweaty, muddy, exhausted, and with stray dogs in tow. We celebrated at the bar as all good explorers should.

Panama City, Panama

We stayed in Panama City for a few days and I think that was enough for us. While the city seemed nicer and safer than other Central American capitals we have been to, it's not a budget friendly city. All the hotels/hostels seemed either cheap and really rough or okay but not worth the money for what you get. We stayed in the Las Vegas hotel and paid about $85 for a double room. And while it was adequate (air conditioning, wifi, fridge & microwave, good location), it seemed expensive compared to the rest of the country.

We went to Casco Viejo which was nice looking but seemed like a false front when you have already seen the real city. I do, however, recommend taking a cab (about $5 per person) out to Panama Viejo to see the ruins. It's free to wander the grounds and look at the beginnings of the city. We did not pay to get into the museum so it was a cheap outing. Also, we went out to the Panama Canal to see ships go through the locks. To save some money, I recommend only paying for the observation deck. Skip the museum and 3-D movie and watch the PBS special before you go.

While in the city we ate some great food but it was harder to find a good, cheap meal. Prepare to spend about $10-$20 per person on lunch or dinner in Panama City. We ate at Beirut and Caffe Pomodoro after having had our fill of Panamanian cuisine. Also, on average the national beers (Atlas, Balboa, and Panama beers) were $2.50 in the capital.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Roadtrip through Panama

On a recent trip to Panama, we decided to do something completely new to us and rent a car. In the past we have always stuck to public transportation whenever we travel internationally. But this time, since there were four of us, we thought we would roadtrip it from Panama City to Bocas Del Toro. While driving cross country was an adventure, it was definitely more stressful than taking the buses. It was a different kind of adventure for us; winding, mountainous passages, potholes galore, police checkpoints, and unforeseen sinkholes in the road not to mention the lack of signs anywhere. And the roads in Panama are supposedly the best in Central America! Also, be warned that some car rental companies (Alamo, I'm looking at you) charge mandatory car insurance that do not tell you until you return the car. We asked repeatedly if there were any other charges and we were told no over and over. So while we thought the rental car would cost $68 plus gas, it actually cost $131 plus gas.