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29 July 2015

Our trip, in brief – So it's been two weeks now since we got back from Europe. I have been meaning to write something, but it's taken me until now to do so. Combine being very busy immediately upon my return with a general lack of energy thanks to some awesome jet lag and Korea’s refreshing summer weather, and this is what you get. But I've finally decided to sit down and get back into this thing.

“It was a great trip. We saw a lot of amazing things, ate some delicious food, and met interesting people.”

A much fuller account of our trip in the form of a travel journal will be coming at some point in the vague future, but since it's probably going to be quite a while until that happens, I thought I'd give you a quick run down.

Everything kicked off on the 20th of June, when we headed to Incheon in the evening for a flight that actually left after midnight. The only thing of note about our flight was the layover in Doha, during which I briefly experienced the heat of Qatar in the middle of a summer day and spent a few hours in the nicest airport I've ever seen (Hamad International). The flight itself, of course, was absolutely horrible, as long-distance flights tend to be; the sooner they are finished, the better.

Zagreb

Our destination was Zagreb, where I was attending—and presenting a paper at—the SIEF conference there. Zagreb was a very pleasant surprise; it was quite beautiful, but it was also very approachable. By this I mean that there were a lot of old buildings and intricate architecture, but it didn’t feel overwhelming. The food was good and reasonably priced, and we enjoyed being able to pick up cheap and tasty fruit at Dolac Market. Although I did spend most of my time there attending the conference, I was able to do some sight-seeing on our first and last days, and in the evenings as well.

HJ, who spent more time experiencing the city than I did, seeing as she wasn’t attending the conference, pronounced Zagreb very “livable.” (I’ve noticed that in recent years she has added this term to the list of adjectives she uses to describe cities that we visit in our travels—apparently she is building up a mental catalog of cities that it might be possible to retire to.) I enjoyed our brief time there as well, and wouldn’t mind going back for another visit.

Dubrovnik

From Zagreb we took a night bus down to the southeastern tip of Croatia, to the coastal city of Dubrovnik. This bus ride is important in that it will probably (hopefully?) be the last night bus we will ever take. Even though the seats did recline some, it was incredibly uncomfortable and I slept like a log—if said log were being run through a sawmill. On the positive side, we did stop in the town of Neum at some point the next morning; this is the only town in Bosnia and Herzegovina located on the Adriatic coast, and it has some very beautiful views.

Dubrovnik itself is something that has to be experienced to be understood. If you are a fan of Game of Thrones, this is King’s Landing, but my first thought upon entering the old walled city through Pile Gate was that I had stepped into Disneyland. I do not mean this in a good way; there was an immense crush of tourists, and the old city looks so much like a film set (cf. Game of Thrones) that it did not seem real. But we spent three days there, and once I got over the initial flood of tourists and had the time to take a closer look at all the beautiful architecture around me, I realized that Dubrovnik is actually quite wonderful.

Yes, it is very touristy, and for the cruise ship denizens who pour onto the walls every morning it may just be another blur of stone walls and tiled roofs, but there was something deeply moving about the city that I will not be able to describe in this brief entry. I have so many rich, powerful memories of this city: the orange-tiled roofs stretching out beneath me, with the deep blue ocean in the distance; the stones of the Stradun, worn smooth by centuries of foot traffic, shining under the lights at night as if glistening wet with rain; the narrow alleys that wind between stone buildings, spilling out into squares with markets, churches, and fountains.

We had originally planned on spending two days in the city, but we ended up extending that to three. I’m glad we did this, as it gave us more time to enjoy the city—we spent much of one day just wandering through museums and galleries. Had we only spent two days there, I think it would have felt rushed. And I think we could have spent even more time there. We never did get around to taking a boat out to Lokrum Island, for example. But there’s always next time.

Split

From Dubrovnik we rented a car and drove up the coast. I don’t actually enjoy driving the way some people do—for me, driving is a fairly efficient way of getting from one place to another—but the truth is that it gives you a freedom you just don’t have otherwise. At any rate, we arrived in Split in the afternoon, and found our way to the apartment where we were going to be spending the night. After seeing the apartment, we regretted that we didn’t have another day in Split—that’s how nice it was. It wasn’t luxurious, but it was spacious, decorated with care and personality, and had everything we could want or need, including a washing machine.

Split itself is another old city on the coast, known primarily for the Diocletian Palace. This area is quite nice to walk through, and it has quite a different feel from Dubrovnik. Like Dubrovnik, though, there are a lot of tourists here. We took the time to climb up the bell tower of the cathedral, which provided us with views of the city all around us. We also went up to a high point at the edge of the city (at the recommendation of the apartment owners) to get a panoramic view of the city between the high mountains and the blue sea.

Although we only spent about twenty-four hours in Split, we enjoyed ourselves. We did manage to squeeze a lot into that twenty-four hours, including an excellent meal at a tiny place serving Dalmatian cuisine—they cooked up freshly-caught fish there, and that ended up being one of the meals that stuck in my memory.

Šibenik

Our next destination was Zadar, but along the way we stopped in Šibenik, partly because I wanted to see St. James Cathedral there. It was indeed quite impressive, but unfortunately much of the central apse was covered, both inside and out, for restoration work. On the whole, Šibenik seemed much less vibrant and much sleepier than either Dubrovnik or Split (or Zadar to come). We only spent a few hours there before heading on to Zadar.

Zadar

Zadar was a very pleasant surprise. It was nearly cut from our itinerary when we were first drawing it up, but I pushed for it, and both HJ and I agree that the right choice was made. (This was another city that HJ labeled “liveable.”) It’s a nightmare to drive in the old city itself, but once the car was safely in a parking lot outside the city walls, I was much happier. The old city sits on a peninsula that juts out into the ocean, but it feels much more spacious than either Dubrovnik or Split. I think that might be partly because there weren’t as many tourists in Zadar as in Dubrovnik or Split, but it also just seems to be more spread out, with more open space.

There is a lovely stone walk along the ocean that leads to the sea organ and a solar-powered light show built into the pavement; it’s a nice place to visit at sundown, even if there are a lot of people there. The rest of the city has its fair share of churches and other examples of the architecture we had come to love, as well as some ruins that give the place character. The food is excellent here—we had dinner one evening at a place called Bruschetta, where I had what was probably my favorite meal of the entire trip: calamari stuffed with mozzarella and artichokes (a Mediterranean version of a favorite Korean dish of mine, ojingeo sundae, or stuffed squid). Man, that was so good. I still think about it.

Plitvice Lakes

From Zadar, we drove up into and through the mountains—something of a struggle for our little economy Spark—to get back to Zagreb, but along the way we stopped at Plitvice Lakes. It is almost criminal not to put a photo here, but rest assured that I am preparing a small selection of photos for my next posting, and there will be a photo of Plitvice. Still, I don’t know how much can actually be conveyed through a two-dimensional, still photograph. Even the videos I took don’t really do it justice.

What is Plitvice? It is a series of lakes that sit at different elevations, meaning that the water cascades down from one lake to the next, making for the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen in one place. In fact, you could probably call it “Stunningly Beautiful Waterfalls National Park” and no one in their right mind would argue with you. It is almost otherworldly, and I can definitely say that I have never seen anything like it, nor do I expect to see anything like it in the future. I am glad we stopped on the way, and I’m glad we budgeted enough time to do the long tour of the park—there are shorter routes that you can take, turning back at various points along the way, but we wanted to get as much of the park as we could, so we chose a 5-6 hour route. Every moment that we spent there was worth it.

Budapest

We returned to Zagreb that evening, spent the night there, and then got on a train the next morning for Budapest, where we spent two-and-a-half days. Budapest is another very beautiful city, but it felt much more imposing than anything we had seen in Croatia. Everything seemed so much bigger and grander. At the same time, it was also a city that we quickly began to feel at home in. It probably didn’t hurt that we were staying in a very nice hotel, one that had air conditioning. This might seem like an odd thing to mention, but Europeans don’t seem to be really keen on air conditioning, even when the mercury hits 39 degrees (as it did while we were in Budapest).

We did quite a bit in Budapest, visiting Buda Castle, going to an outdoor spa and bath, hitting the Great Market, stumbling into a beer festival for lunch, and going down to the river to watch planes fly through pylons and under bridges in an air race that just happened to be going on during our stay. We also had some very good food while we were there. Although I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, given how much I pride myself on being adventurous, we ended up eating dinner twice in a row at the same restaurant, a place that very obviously catered to foreign tourists. But the food was so good there, and on the second day it was late by the time we got around to thinking about dinner, so... well, you know how it goes. I don’t regret it, though, because we had two great meals.

Prague

From Budapest we took a night train to Prague. The last time I took a night train through Europe was two decades ago, when I was much younger and far more resilient. Still, even back then, after spending a night in regular seats, my companions and I decided that we had had enough of that, and for the rest of our night train trips we upgraded our seats to couchettes. This time around, HJ and I went one better, reserving a compartment for just the two of us. It wasn’t first-class, but we had fairly comfortable beds and a sink all to ourselves.

Once in Prague, we found our way to the Charles Bridge Residence, which is—unsurprisingly—located not too far from the Charles Bridge. This means that we were a short walk away from most of the old town, and we did spend a lot of time walking around. Like Dubrovnik or Plitvice, Prague is one of those places you have to see to believe. Again, there will be photos, but for now, picture a city as it might appear in an old fairy tale of kings and knights, of princesses and fairy godmothers. That’s Prague. There are certain specific sights that everyone checks out, like the castle, but just wandering around the city is an experience in and of itself. Not too far from our residence, for example, was a beautiful building that we walked by every morning—when we finally took a closer look on our last day, we realized that it was the embassy of Malta. When even the government buildings are works of art, you know the city is something special.

There was an absolutely stunning cathedral not too far from where we were staying, and one evening we went to a concert there: mostly organ music, but some singing from a very talented soprano as well. I don’t think I am being bombastic when I describe the experience as “transcendental.” Hearing the music in that space gave me a better appreciation for why cathedrals were built in the first place. And this was not our only religious experience; we also visited a great beer place called Lokal and made a pilgrimage to a traditional tankovna pub.

Berlin

From Prague we took a morning train to Berlin, arriving at our hotel near Zoo Station (yep, the one from the U2 song; in full, it’s called Zoologischer Garten station). Berlin was a very different experience in a number of ways. For one, it was the only city we visited during our trip that I had actually been to before, even if it was a quarter of a century ago. But it was also very different from the cities we had visited previously. I don’t know if anyone would describe Berlin as “beautiful,” at least not when comparing it to places like Dubrovnik or Budapest or Prague. Berlin is a very modern city, with very little remaining from before World War II (for obvious reasons). It has its own merits and attractions, but it did feel a little jarring.

It also felt a lot heavier than the other cities we visited. One of the first things we did on arriving was visit a museum called “The Story of Berlin,” which was located not far from our hotel. It was a very interesting museum, and very informative, and it included a tour of a working nuclear bunker from the 1970s. But it wasn’t exactly an, um, uplifting experience. And that pretty much set the tone for the rest of our visit. The Holocaust Memorial, the Topographie des Terrors, the Tränenpalast... all of these places are well worth visiting, but they are places of somber reflection. After a while, it starts to wear on your soul. And Berlin started to wear on our bodies as well—for most of the time we were there it was cold, windy, and rainy.

This is not to say that we did not appreciate our visit to Berlin. I think a lot of it did have to do with the weather, and the fact that it had been a long trip up to that point—and the fact that, despite being tired and ready to go home, I had another conference to attend. I’ll have a lot more to say about Berlin in that future travel journal, but for now I will just say that it was a very unique experience.

Bochum

Our last stop was Bochum, a small town located halfway between Dortmund and Essen that seems to be known mainly for its role in Germany’s mining industry. And we did visit the surprisingly interesting and very worthwhile mining museum while we were there—in addition to all the big machines and models of mining equipment, there is an actual model mine beneath the museum that you can wander through.

Most of my time here, of course, was spent at the AKSE conference. Despite the fact that I got sick on the first day of the conference and was sick through the entire thing, I enjoyed the conference and met a lot of interesting people. I also managed to present my paper without hacking up a lung. The time I did spend wandering around the city (much of it in the rain, if I remember correctly) left me with the impression that it wasn’t the sort of place you would visit if you didn’t have a pressing reason to do so, but it was not at all unpleasant.

And with that our journey drew to a close. The day after the conference ended, we took a morning train directly to the Frankfurt airport, from where we got on a plane back to Seoul (once again via Doha). It was a good trip, but it was also a very long one. I think the fact that it was bookended by conferences at which I was presenting papers didn’t help. This is something that I have decided I will not be doing again. Going to a conference and then spending some time traveling around afterward, knowing that all I have to worry about is getting back home when it’s all said and done, is one thing. But getting to that last city, being worn out and ready to go home, and then realizing that a conference stand between you and that goal... that was not a happy moment.

Still, when all is said and done, it was a great trip. We saw a lot of amazing things, ate some delicious food, and met interesting people. I hope that this (relatively) brief entry gives you at least a vague idea of what it was like. In my next post I will be sharing a small selection of photos to provide a visual element to the experience, so stay tuned.

Send me your thoughts.

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