Laura's Vacation Blog

Monday, September 19, 2016

Eastern Europe: Croatia

The Croatian Flag

We spent our Labor Day holiday and the two weeks around it in Croatia, about half along the Dalmatian coast and the other half in the North, in the Istrian Peninsula and inland.

Friday, Sept 2

We arrived in Dubrovnik in the late afternoon. The skies were a little hazy but the temperatures warm. This was our first time using Airbnb abroad. We found the address and our host greeted us and got us set up in the little cottage we rented very near the old town. We decided that our first order of business was to make our way to the sea and take a dip. After a quick swim, we cleaned up back at our cottage and headed into the old town inside the city walls for dinner.

Saturday, Sept 3

Dubrovnik's City Walls

One of the main attractions in Dubrovnik are the walls that surround the city. You can walk along the tops of the walls and see beautiful vistas of the rest of the city and the Adriatic Sea. We got a (semi) early start walking the walls and by the time we had made it back to the starting point, we were both hot and sweaty--not from the exercise but from the heat of the sun. We stopped for lunch and headed out to a city beach, Copacabana, west of the city to cool off. One thing we were learning about Croatia is that they have a ton of rocky beaches, often with concrete platforms/seawalls. In our entire trip, we never encountered a sandy beach. The pebbly/rocky beaches are hard on the feet so we hung out on the concrete which was at least easy to walk on, albeit a little uncomfortable to lay on. The water was pretty warm and very clean and refreshing. You could dive off the end of the seawall and we enjoyed watching all of the families and kids goof around on this giant inflatable playground that was floating nearby. It was a good way to escape the throngs of people, many from cruise ships, that had flooded the old town.

Me, resting on the city walls
Dubrovnik surrounding old town
Copacabana Beach in West Dubrovnik

Sunday, Sept 4

Early Sunday, Justin and I rented a car to drive to Bosnia to visit the city of Mostar. This daytrip had been highlighted in the Rick Steve's guidebook and we'd read that many a visitor had felt it was the highlight of their vacation. It was a bit of a long drive and the border crossing took a while (we think the bus tours in front of us might have been the hold up) but we drove into town around noon, in time for lunch. The highlighted attractions in Mostar are the historical bridge, Stari Most, the surrounding bazaar and the city mosque. We were eager to try Bosnian food and found a restaurant with AC because by the time we arrived, it was really heating up. We discovered this tasty sausage, ćevapčići, that is served on bread with onions which we later found all over Croatia as well. It tastes even better with a sauce called ajvar of eggplant, tomatoes and peppers, although that isn't the way it was served to us.

Stari Most
The bridge is really pretty and has an interesting history. It was originally built in the 16th century but destroyed in the civil war in 1993. UNESCO led the effort to reconstruct it with funds from Italy, Croatian, Turkey and the Netherlands and it was rebuilt in 2004 in identical design even using some of the stone from the original bridge that was recovered from the river. Today, daredevil divers plunge into the river below as a stunt for tourist tips. We saw the divers teasing onlookers but didn't actually see a dive from the bridge. There was a diving platform down river that got some use.

Divers jump into the Neretva River
The bazaar in Mostar was a bit of a disappointment. There were probably 20-30 shops on either side of the bridge all selling exactly the same items for the same price. It was a total tourist trap that sort of cheapened the charm of the city.

The common merchandise found in the bazaar--copper coffee sets, metal and ceramic plates/trays, other brick-a-brac.
After leaving the bridge area, we visited the city mosque and walked around a bit. The city still has plenty of scars from the war; pock-marked buildings from the bullets that flew in the 90s. The city mosque is very simple: a large room with only carpets--no furniture. This was the first attraction for which we were the only visitors--we had the place to ourselves!

The interior of the city mosque
Bullet holes from the civil war

After visiting the mosque, we decided to head back to Dubrovnik.

Monday, Sept 5

On our final day in Dubrovnik, we spent most of it checking out the historic sites inside the city walls. We made a picnic for lunch from the farmer's market which was sort of a bust. We had planned to take the gondola up to the top of the Mt. Srd but when we got to the line, it was so long we weren't sure we'd have enough time before needing to catch the ferry that afternoon. So we ended up picnicking on the waterfront at a nearby boat yard, unable to find anything that resembled a park.

Farmer's market
Justin, posing next to the Orlando Column
Justin and I, just outside the city walls, looking out on the Adriatic

At 4, we caught the fast ferry to the island Korčula. Right after we took off, the skies opened and the rain poured. By the time we arrived in Korčula, most of the worst of it was over. Our apartment was right on the harbor and we found it easily. It was a really nice location. We freshened up and headed into town for dinner which was a little hard to find since the rain had shuddered many of the restaurants that have primarily outdoor seating. But we waited for a table at a covered terrace and dined alfresco.

Tuesday, Sept 6

Korčula city from outside our apartment

We spent the morning poking around the old town taking in the sites in this small town and spent the afternoon, sunbathing and swimming from a small dock outside of our apartment. For dinner, our host recommended this really nice restaurant, Nonno.

Justin and I in the tower attached to Marco Polo's house 

Amberjack with onion relish, pumpkin puree and diced vegetable saute. Yum!

Wednesday, Sept 7

The wines of Croatia are pretty unknown, at least to me, but they are pretty good! We'd already sampled several different varieties with our meals but thought it would be fun to take a wine tour on the island. We, and 3 other couples were taken to 2 wineries and 1 wine shop and given the opportunity to taste a ton of different wines. This tour reminded us that it really is a small world...of the three couples on the tour with us, one was from Australia, one from Scotland, and the third from Skagit County, Washington, about an hour north of our home in Seattle. Our first stop was the Bire winery which makes a white wine called Grk. It is really good and only made in this one little part of Croatia. I'm going to look for it in the wine stores around Seattle, even though less than 5% of Croatian wine is exported. We stopped at a small family winery that also made brandy and olive oil. And our third stop was back in Korčula town at a wine shop where the charismatic host uncorked about a dozen different bottles to give us the opportunity to try many from other areas of Croatia as well. 
The wine cellar at Bire Winery
A historic wine press at the family winery
The grape-growing hills of the town of Smokvica

At the end of the tour and after a dozen or more wine "tastes", Justin and I took a walk to sober up. We had a couple of hours to kill before catching a ferry to Split. We had checked out of our apartment but we collected our bags and Justin took a cue from the Germans and changed into his trunks on the beach and took a dip. We arrived in Split after dark, a little after 8 and had a little trouble finding our apartment but made it. Our host was a little upset with us for being tardy but I think we were only about 10-15 minutes late. The Airbnb rentals in Croatia are often advertised by younger 20-30-something folks but often the parents are actually the people that meet the guests (and probably own the apartment). Justin thinks that the younger generation is just more tech-savvy and have a more pleasing presence on these social sites but they are advertising the place on behalf of their parents.
Thursday, Sept 8

Waking up in Split,we took a walk to the nearby beaches to scope out the scene for later in the day. Diocletian's Palace is the main attraction in Split and we planned to take a guided tour through the palace to get a little more of the history of the place. Our tour guide, Katrina, met us at 10:30 and we walked around the palace and learned about Diocletian, a Roman emperor who ruled in the second century. The palace is quite large and right on the waterfront but much of it is in ruins. Over the years, settlers have built up tenements inside the ruined palace and moved in. Today, there are restaurants,dwellings and shops within the palace walls making a little bustling walled in town.

A staged pronouncement from Diocletian and his wife, Prisca, outside his living quarters
In Diocletian's waiting room, an a cappella Klapa group performs.
Exterior walls/gate of Palace

Following our tour and lunch, we headed to the west side of the city to hike up a million stairs for the million-dollar view.

Overlooking Split harbor and downtown

And then we headed to the beach for the afternoon. In the evening, we headed back to a restaurant we had spotted earlier in the day. I had leftover tuna from dinner that I was determined to feed to one of the dozens of felines we saw. We stopped by Diocletian's Palace for the ambiance in the evening and to find a worthy cat to take the tuna.

Belfry at the Palace
Kitties of Croatia

Friday, Sept 9

On Friday, we flew to the north on one of these:


We landed in Pula and from there, rented a car and drove to Rovinj. Rovinj is a lovely, picturesque town on the coast and we stayed in a super nice apartment which touted the best sunset view and I think there was truth in advertising. Rick Steve told us there wasn't much to see/do in Rovinj...just take in the charm so we headed this advice and spent the afternoon at the beach and explored the city in the evening after sunset. For dinner, we had a giant platter of fish and seafood and met an interesting couple at the table next to us from Italy/NYC.

We spotted this on the drive up and stopped for lunch. Yum!

Rovinj sunset from our apartment balcony

Justin, relaxing before dinner.
Rovinj, pictured from the beach near our hotel.
Our home-cooked dinner

Saturday, Sept 10

I had read in our guidebook months before our trip that there was a small town in Istria that had a truffle festival the second Saturday in September so when we planned the trip, we arranged to be in the north in Istria for this event. We checked out of our apartment and drove into the center of the Istrian Peninsula to Motovun where we'd be staying for a couple of days. Our host, Barbara, checked us into a really charming apartment in an giant old house where she lived as well. She was really a great host and had lots of amenities for us and really made us feel comfortable. We moved our bags in and headed out in the car to Buzet where the truffle fest, Subotina, was held. The website indicated it started at noon but when we arrived, everything was still being assembled and there was really nothing happening. We hiked up into the old town and poked around and had a truffle-y lunch at one of the restaurants. We also sampled truffles at one of the stores that sold truffle products.There, we asked when the festivities would get underway and found out that it wouldn't start until around 7-7:30 pm. We got back in the car and decided on a little roadtrip around Istria to a few small towns featured in our tour book. And this ate up the afternoon and early evening.

Lunch: Truffled Omelet
Lunch: Truffled Fuzi (Pasta)
A little chapel in the village of Roč. We went to the tourist info building and they gave us the keys to the two churches in the village to view at our leisure.

One of the neat old buildings in the town of Hum. Hum prides itself on being the smallest town in the world with a population of 17 +/-.
The gaping chasm of Pazin. We arrived a little too late to hike down to the bottom to walk into the abyss. There were people zip-lining across this.

We headed back to Buzet and by that time, the festivities were underway. There were dinky carnival rides, food booths/beer garden, a central stage for performances, a handful of booths selling miscellaneous non-truffle stuff and the pièce de résistance was the giant truffle omelet making setup. The town was in it to qualify for a world record!

Butter, oil and eggs so far...

 Bowls of sliced truffles and truffle oil being added...
Not so much an omelet; more like scrambled eggs.

Sunday, Sept 11

These sleepy Istrian interior towns aren't too lively on a Sunday but we found some activity in Motovun. We climbed up the hill to the old town and explored the little shops selling jewelry, artwork, oil and truffles. Unlike most everywhere else we had been, this little town didn't seem to deal in the kitschy souvenir experience which was a welcome change. The views from the top of the hill were sweeping and we took a long lunch (truffle pizza) up at a restaurant with a terrace at the top.

Valley surrounding Motovun
Truffle pizza lunch
Motovun town gate
By early afternoon, the day was heating up. The apartment that we rented had a lovely terrace and garden so we headed back to relax and read our books. Because the kitchen was so well stocked at our apartment, we decided to buy ingredients to have a little cookout that evening instead of restaurant food. We barbecued chicken and onions and made a nice salad and enjoyed a bottle of wine that we'd purchased from a wine maker earlier in the day.

Motovun sunset from our apartment's terrace

Monday, Sept 12

Only two days without a beach and Justin was itching for more sunbathing. Technically he was itching from the mosquito bites incurred throughout our trip. Amazingly, the salt water helps suppress the itch quite a bit! We researched beaches on the east side of Istria which is the direction we needed to head to get to the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Ičići beach was our destination and we spent most of the day soaking up the rays and swimming. Around 4, we packed up and headed toward the National Park. Along the way, we passed though many small towns and farmland. One interesting observation we made were the power poles.

The trees of Croatia grow a little crooked.

Tuesday, Sept 13
We wanted to get an early start to the day because we had heard that we could expect crowds at the Plitvice Lakes National Park. We arrived at the park around 8am and while it wasn't crowded, we didn't have the place to ourselves. That all changed by around 10am when we couldn't make much forward progress on the boardwalks due to the quantity of people stopping for photos.
Plitvice is a beautiful park with several lakes and waterfalls. The water is turquoise and so clear you can see the fish swimming and all of the detail of the bottom of the late. There are a few caves to explore and for the more serious hiker, many trails away from the lakes.

By early afternoon, we had hiked 8 miles and packed ourselves into the car and headed for Zagreb. We had made a plan to check into our apartment at 5 but ended up arriving quite early so we took advantage of our wheels and headed up to the highest point in Zagreb, Mt. Medvednica and exploring the medieval fortress Medvedgrad. Amazingly, hardly anyone was there--a welcome change from the National Park.

The fortress and walls
Zagreb City
The black queen and her knight

Wednesday, Sept 14

This was our last day in Croatia. We had an early morning flight out of Zagreb on Thursday so the objective was the maximize our visit. We started out the day with breakfast at the Dolac Market. We collected a few souvenirs from the vendors at the market and then started out on a self-guided walking tour of the upper town. We saw the giant cathedral, the Stone Gate which is now a Catholic shrine,  St. Mark's Church, the sabor where parliment meets, the presidental palace. We poked into the atelier for Croatia's native son of sculpture, Meštrović and then went to seek out a lunch spot.

Dolac Market fruit and vegetable sellers
Stone Gate (shrine)
St. Mark's Church
The guard shack at the presidential palace
A peak into the courtyard at Meštrović Atelier

In the afternoon, we visited a very unusual museum: The museum of Broken Relationships which has  a bunch of mementos with short stories next to them explaining the significance of the objects in the broken relationships. There were things like mixed tapes, clothing and my favorite: a license plate from a car they had crashed (the story that went along was touching). We also visited the museum of Naïve art which showcased artists who had no formal art training.

For our last supper, we went to one of the restaurants our host had recommended and ordered some of the Croatian specialties that we hadn't had enough of earlier in our trip. And that was it, except for 13 hours of air travel returning us to our Seattle home. Hvala Croatia!

Pršut (prosciutto), sir (cheese) and some unfamiliar but delicious salami