Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dovidenja, Croatia!

Sorry for the riveting suspense caused by the delay since our last post. I know all 3 of you reading this are wringing your hands. Don't fear, loyal few, lets move on with our story:

After our time in Split, we jumped over to the island of Hvar. All we had heard of Hvar and its main town of the same name was that they were the most ritzy of Croatia's island towns; a yachting port of glitz and glamour. It certainly lived up to the former; A LOT of yachts - some so over-the-top they must have been sailing advertising campaigns.

Hvar did have a certain younger-EU sparkle to it. It was 99% tourists but, thanks to ferry size, not overcrowded. And while there were less tourist shops, it was definitely geared towards visitors, just ones seeking electronic-music clubs instead of tchotchkes.

We checked into our place and per our lovely hostess's recommendation, decided to walk to a place that served lunch on the rocks... and offered Bill more time in the Adriatic. At 4 p.m., I was starved and would have eaten anywhere, and this was the walk-to location she recommended. I expected a beach hut serving the usual pizza slices but when we walked up, I was surprised by what we found: a-for-all-intensive-purposes beach club. Little cabanas and chaises dotted the rocks and young swimmers tanned waterside with their drinks in hand. A total change of pace from our usual Roman ruins.

Now normally, this would not be our scene. We would turn up our noses at dub-step-accompanied sunsets and alcohol-rich, American cocktails but this time we didn't. We embraced it.

It wasn't a Roman ruin, after all...

So we grabbed a chaise, ordered tortilla chips and salsa off the menu (yep!) and I ordered not 1, but 2, pina coladas (yep, a pina colada. In Croatia.) and we watched the sunset, swam and tanned next to 21-year-old hostel stayers. And it was freaking amazing! So amazingly relaxing that we didn't take a single picture...

Thanks to these people

After tanning and getting intoxicated next to youngins, we stumbled back to our room, grabbed this pic from our window and got glitzy for our dinner out.

The next morning, after catching a ferry back to Split and our car, we started down towards Dubrovnik. It was a pretty standard drive, though we did have the excitement of crossing into Bosnia for a few miles (Croatia's southern most tip is disconnected from the rest of the country) and hoping we didn't look suspicious. We were carrying a lot of truffle foods... 

Dubrovnik is called the "Jewel of the Adriatic" and there's no surprise it got that moniker. Though we should have been jaded of white-walled cities, there was no denying that Dubrovnik is breathtaking. 

Its a large old city perched on rocks and cliffs hugging blue waters. But if that wasn't enough, the city is still enclosed by its original medieval fortress walls. 

These fortress walls are massive. Pictures probably won't do them justice. Even video doesn't! In fact, Game of Thrones shoots here A LOT. Its the backdrop of their capital city but even the grandeur of the show does't do these things justice.

Luckily, you can actually walk them!

A real drawbridge!! 

The walk atop the walls allowed for some pretty incredible views

And also some pretty incredible chances to reenact Game of Thrones scenes...

(Top pic is the real thing, bottom isn't - a little CGI addition and gondola boats make it Kings Landing) 

Just add a big, red castle! 

And, of course, Bill and I's favorite... 

Thanks to Bill... 

No one reading this gets this, so I'll just move on, but that character looses her dragons and has to find them in this building. Don't you hate it when that happens??!


Dubrovnik did have some pretty fantasy-inspiring architecture. It is an obvious set for medieval, Renaissance or fantasy fables. 

And then there is this guy... 

This was actually pretty funny. It was a cat sanctuary. They had so many stray cats so someone took a tiny courtyard and turned it into a cat bunker with food, little beds, water, tons of plants to get shade under, etc. But they had to fund it some how so they put this random guillotine prop in there for photo ops and asked for donations. Odd mix, but hey, whatever works... 

After a hot, lengthy walk around the walls, Bill took another dip in the Adriatic off yet another cliff-side cafe

He thought about trying to scale the walls.... 

... but even Bill wasn't going to break Dubrovnik's record for never being breached

Dubrovnik also had a plethora of live, extremely-talented musicians. There were a ton of free concerts set in these beautiful white stone museums and churches. And, fitting the romantic atmosphere, all the concerts had candles leading guests to them. 
But we did spend a few evenings walking around, listing to pianists, Spanish-guitarists, string trios, jazz bands and piano mans. 
(Ok, "men", but that doesn't rhyme, does it?) 

A few more good meals, a final museum tour and Bill's final dip into the sea ended our next day in Dubrovnik before we had to catch our flight back up to Zagreb. It was also our fond farewell to Cherry Bomb. :-(
Heavy sigh.

We got back to Zagreb and were lucky enough to have our next host schedule a private pick up from the airport. Our driver was a barely-speaking-English man in his middle-years who used to be a famous folk dancer in Croatia. Of course he was!

Our place this time in Zagreb was right in the middle of old town, which was perfect as we were only there for one more evening before our long trip back home, early the next morning.

The view from our apartment's window. The cathedral, apparently, is under constant construction because each original stone is slowly being replaced. 

We walked the very short but very pretty Stossmayer Promenade, but since it was so bitingly cold (and we without much in the way of a jackets), we didn't snap a pic. So thanks to this person for this picture. But its a very romantic, chandelier-lit walk with a little wine kiosk and benches, which, if it weren't for the cold, we would have probably taken advantage of.

Instead, we finished our trip back at our (at least my) favorite restaurant

It was a wonderful end to a truly wonderful vacation. It definitely scratched the travel itch I had and was a great experience together. 

Even if Bill had to have me be a back-seat driver in another country and give him this face at pretty much every picture... 

William! Did you eat my share of the cheese plate!?

Haha, just kidding. I probably ate his. ;-) 

El Fin! 

Thanks for joining us on our tour of Croatia. 


Monday, September 28, 2015

Croatia - Part II

Pula's lack of sights was kind of perfect as we had to head out early the next morning for our longest drive to Plitvice Lakes. This national park in the country's interior is stunning. Fed by several rivers, the park's highlight is 16 cascading lakes and their waterfalls, ranging from babbling rocks and pools to 250 ft drops.

Unlike American national parks, Croatian parks are designed for tourists. It was like if Disney did a national park. Gorgeous and Hobbit-like, but there wasn't much "hiking" to be had. In fact, I noticed a few women wearing fashionable flats for the entire walk. A series of wood planked walkways connect the lakes, making a beautiful walkway through reeds and over azure pools. Later, a boat takes passengers over some of the larger lakes.

(Doing my best teapot impression for some reason in one of the parks caves)

Probably the most striking part of the walk was just how vibrantly turquoise the waters were... 

Ok, you've probably seen enough water and trees now, but it was really an incredibly beautiful place. We were glad we went later in the day and in Sept though because larger crowds of people easily ruin the experience. 

That night we stayed in our one non-AirBnB booked room. It was a little inn on the outskirts of the park made of a few remade houses filled with cozy but plain little hotel rooms. But we were so pleasantly surprised by our hostesses (another mom and her daughter) and their wonderful, non-touristy cooking. 

(Croatian plum brandy to start and finish!) 

(sorry for the dead fish picture, but it was an amazing dinner!) 

After our day 'hiking' around the interior and eating meat and potatoes, sitting in a Venetian-styled square in Zadar sipping our coffee again was wonderfully refreshing. Zadar was one of our favorite coastal cities. For some reason, it wasn't overly awash with tourists. It was vibrant, full of life with the locals, and yet had all the usual tourist-appeals: a fabulous Adriatic view, coastal promenade, cafe-lined main square, and even a few Roman ruins. But because we got all of this with fewer tourist-shops, Zadar made the top of the list. 

(Certainly didn't hurt that our digs were beautiful. This picture is also called "Can you find the Megan?") 

Zadar's forum with Roman ruins

Bill gets very proud of his water drinking ability. 

Zadar has a gorgeous promenade along the sea with 2 very cool additions from a local architect: The Sea Organ and Sun Salutation. The Sea Organ is a set of pipes that sit under stairs on the sea. The wind off of the sea and its waves enters the pipes from holes in the stairs and plays a beautiful, whistling sound (like a pan flute) all day and night. Check it out here
The sun salutation comes from a series of solar panels in the promenade that produce enough power to light the walk way as well as produce a nightly light show... 

We ate dinner in the square again, where we also landed in the morning, where we got to watch 2 folk dance groups do a lot of fun twirling

After our fun in Zadar, we actually went back for some more national park-ing, this time to Krka, another Disney-like, waterfall adventure, but this time, the wooden paths took you to a pool that you could swim in! 

Believe it or not, I actually went in as far as Bill is there, but there is no proof of it. You'll just have to take my word for it

We stayed the night then in the small but very pretty town of Sibenik. Very few tourists stop here, which was fine by us, particularly because we didn't need a reservation to dine at one of our top 3 Croatian restaurants, overlooking the stunningly beautiful Cathedral of St James. I kept remarking on just how white the stone was. Later, I realized that probably wasn't the only one - the extremely white limestone comes from the Croatian island of Brac which was used for many highly-white constructions, including even the White House (though it depends which historian you ask...) 

That's my proud-I-drank-that-water face. 

This was one of our favorite meals in Croatia. Unlike so many of the tourist-driven spots filled with the same grilled octopus, shrimp risotto and pizza (not to mention the countless beer gardens set up for the hoards of German summer tourists), this place was a real culinary treat. It even introduced us to orange wine! Yep, orange. 

(those little white rolls are charred polenta! yum!) 

Our setting certainly helped. We even got to watch a very playful kitten jump on dust and grass in front of the cathedral while a local choir group practiced in one of the rooms above the restaurant. Perfect European entertainment! 

The next day we drove down to Split, which I think I can summarize in one sentence: We were tired

At this point, we had been travelling for 8 days, 9 if you include the plane trip, which is longer than most of our vacations. Plus, at this point, other than a few hours in national parks, we were starting to run a theme - coffee, Roman ruins, Venetian square, risotto lunch, check in, dinner, coffee, Roman ruins, Venetian square, risotto.... 

So another day of Roman ruins, this time the very large Diocletian's Palace, had little appeal for us. So the city that a lot of people call their favorite did little for us. We were just too jaded. Plus, Split's narrow corridors are infamous for being overly congested by tourists. 

When we finally did go out to explore the palace, which is essentially most of the old town (Roman emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace here and after his little fortress's collapse a few hundred years later, settlers started building a whole city in its walls. So now the 'palace' walls encapsulate various medieval and Renaissance-period streets and homes), we actually got a few enjoyable sights... 

Like this a cappella group who utilizes Diocletian's round 'foyer' for acoustics 

The white (yep, from Brac) walls of the palace

My favorite part, though, was probably the storage halls underneath the palace, which are massive and quite impressive architecturally in their own right. Not sure what he stored down there in his retirement but later the medieval townsfolk stored their poop down there. Seriously. They tossed all their waste down in the halls until it was a gross soup. At some point in history, it all had to be drained out of there and now we walk around in there! 

Actually, some major scenes of Game of Thrones are filmed down here, right in the old sewers... 

(Keep your wine down there, your poop, or your dragons! The basement halls and very versatile!) 

 Split was also the site of what was probably Bill's favorite meal. The plethora of restaurants that make up coastal towns' promenades are generally junk, rented for prime tourist real estate. But this place, while in the middle of tourist territory, was remarkably good.

We ended our time in Split with our first dip into the Adriatic ("Finally!", said Bill). Bill spent the early morning, while I was still lazily snuggled in bed, cycling around the town, looking for swimming spots. Our house hosts were nice enough to leave a couple bikes for their guests! So after breakfast (at Bill's favorite spot, of course) and before we jumped onto our ferry to the island city of Hvar, we spent 30 mins at a busy public beach, dipping our toes into the sea and soaking up a few rays.


Next post will be about our last few days and nights in the yacht-hopper town of Hvar, the "pearl of the Adriatic" Dubrovnik, and our last night back in Zagreb.