Exploring Wartorn Croatia
Bullet Riddled Church in Sibenik, Croatia……………Photograph by J W Foster
Elaine: The mentioning of our Croatian travel plans to friends and family tended to bring out one of two immediate responses:
Response #1 “Oh, where is that exactly…it’s an island, right?”
Response #2 “What! I would never go to a place that is so war ravaged and dangerous!”
Most of the time when people share their travel plans with friends, they are secretly titillated by the envious comments they hear. “Wow! I wish I had the time to do that”…or “I wish I had the money to go there. You must be doing something right to be able to travel when this economy is tanking so badly.” When we shared our plans to visit Croatia, and the more we heard responses #1 and #2, the more I questioned our judgment in choosing this as a vacation destination. After all, who wants to go to a place you can’t find, or even worse, end up getting shot? I already had nightmares of how I would be dodging bullets from enemy combatants as I carried my rusty pail of unfiltered water across the road and back to our fortressed hovel. I could already picture the airline ticket agent asking, “Will you be checking your Kevlar vest or is it carry-on.” I began to look for excuses not to go. Let’s see, October–no that’s not a good month what with Columbus day and all. No way I could go in November, so close to Thanksgiving, and then there’s Christmas in December–fah-getah-aboud-it!” But of course my husband, Joe, was already in country for two weeks and could see right through my veil of fears. He went straight for the jugular, “Is this the way you want to stay on track with living up to your goals and values?” he asked. He knows that for me it’s not just about exploring places and people, it’s about digging through the mental spaces where fear and anxiety seem to have taken over the territory of my brain like so many robber Barons. With Joe, resistance is futile, and the battle was ultimately with myself anyway, so off I went to Croatia.
Did I mention that in addition to a fear of new places, and a fear of war-torn places, I also have a flying phobia? More on that later…So what is Croatia really like once you get there? Hear is our story……..
Day 1: Venice, Italy to Radovljica, Slovenia
Joe: Sometimes I wonder why I put myself through this. Usually it’s sometime during the first day, after I’ve arrived at my destination jet lagged, no place to stay, not knowing where I’m going and with culture shock slowly settling in. I deliberately set myself up for this and it’s certainly not the first time. All I have to rely on is the fact that I’ve done it before and I know that my brain and body will eventually adapt to these new surroundings. I’m traveling alone for these first couple weeks, then Elaine will join me for the last two weeks.
I arrived at the Venice airport close to high noon and worked my way through baggage, customs, and immigration. I’m looking pretty rough, like everyone else who’s just spent a night in coach, watching movies, trying to sleep or just reading. My first stop, a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant, two of my way too few addictions I then work my way over to Budget Rental Car. I’d made one and only one advanced preparation for this trip (besides the plane ticket) and that was a one month rental of an economy car through an Italian internet agency called “Cheaprentals.com.” I’d requested a car with insurance to drive through Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. The confirmation ticket I held in my hand and the $150 downpayment verified I had a car reserved at Budget. I quickly get to the desk and the young lady efficiently does the paperwork and hands me the keys. As I’m starting to walk away, just as an afterthought, I verified with her that I was good to go for driving in Slovenia and Croatia. “HOLD IT!” she says, “We don’t rent cars for use in Slovenia or Croatia”. I look at her in bewilderment, “but my confirmation ticket says so”. She says, “Sorry, you will have to talk to Cheaprentals.com about that”, “Let me have the keys back please”. “What about my $150 downpayment?” I ask her. She says, “Sorry, you will have to talk to Cheaprentals.com to get your refund”. I’d broken one of my first rules when going on an adventure, “Make No Plans”. It keeps your expectations low and avoids those cold slaps of reality when your false sense of security fails you. I spend the next hour trying to find a rental car agency that will let me have a car. I eventually end up paying about $300 more for a car from Sixt. By 1400 hrs I was on my way northeast on the highway out of Venice. Next stop….find a road map and an espresso.
So why do I do this? Inserting myself in the middle of somewhere like Slovenia or Croatia. Places I’ve never been before and with little to no advanced preparation. Well, first, I’ve found that it helps to sweep the cobwebs out of my brain. It forces me to look at the world, look at people, in a different way. We all have these images in our head of what someplace might look like, what the people might look like, how they might behave. Of course, once you get there, you find that your notions are entirely incorrect. For instance, all I knew about Slovenia was that it was a former communist Yugoslav republic. I had pictures in my head of poverty, lots of soldiers and police, strict enforcement of laws and wary people suspicious of outsiders.
Well, maybe that was 20 years ago. I’m now lost on some winding roads somewhere in the northern mountains of Slovenia. You would be very hard pressed to tell the different between Slovenia and Germany or Austria. It’s very……German….at least here in the northern areas. Lot’s of alpine villages nestled into the mountains (part of the Alps), ski slopes. A few hours earlier I was on an autobauhn with BMWs and Audis flashing there lights to move the hell over, and I’ve already met some very friendly and refined people. The language is a strange mix of German, Russian and Italian. They’d probably balk at that comparison but that’s what my unaccustomed ears hear when they first start talking to me. As soon as I open my mouth and start trying to communicate though, they start speaking to me in English. It doesn’t even matter what I say. I do know a little German and when I hear their language I want to respond with a “guten morgen” “haben sie einen …” or “danke schön!”. They can still tell that I’m English/American and so far everyone I’ve talked to knows my language.
In general, when traveling to new places I try to avoid the typical tourist areas. I want to learn the culture, to meet the real people and places, not the the westernized, commercialized, mass mediaized interpretation of what foreigners might want to see. Rule #2: If you see a sign advertising some place of interest in Slav, Italian, German, French and English it’s usually best to avoid it. I’m sure it’s beautiful and interesting but aside from castles and medeval towns it’s not much different than many areas in the US. And it will probably be surrounded by the typical tourist shops. Now that in itself is one of my “preconcieved notions” but, hey, I only have a limited amount of time to explore so I’m going to focus on the out-of-the-way areas where foreigners typically can’t be found.
I get a kick out of stopping at their version of a gas station/minimart on the side of the autobahn. None of these burnt, day old, drip brewed coffees and refrigerated microwaveable burgers in here. It’s fresh baked food, salads, pasta dishes. A cappuccino bar, smoked sausages hanging from the ceiling, and BEER! Yes, beer and wine are served within 20 meters of an autobahn. This is one thing I’ve found all over Europe, it’s called “personal responsibility”. They don’t have big brother telling you what you can and cannot do. But, God help you if you have an accident and get caught drinking. It’s no “1,2,3 strikes your out”. It’s “your out”
Day 2: Radovljica, Slovenia to Zagreb, Croatia
Joe: I woke up this morning well rested, took a quick shower, dressed and zipped up my backpack. I headed downstairs prepared to ask about where in town to go for a coffee and croissant. Reaching the bottom of the staircase it was dark and empty but I heard some dishes rattling in the back and could smell coffee. The restaurant/bar in the front of the pension was obviously closed as I’d expected but there was something going on out back. I went for a look. Walking through a set of double doors I stepped onto a large glassed in terrace. Before me is a huge breakfast, the waitress tells me it’s included in the 45 euros. A full buffet of eggs, different types of breads, cheeses and meats as well as fresh vegetable, fruits and yogurt. The regular coffee is as strong as espresso. A half-hour later, with a full stomach, I sit back on the terrace with my third cup of coffee and admire the view (see picture above).
I found my way back to the highway and drove south-east towards Croatia. Stopping at the capital of Slovenia, the city of Ljubljana, I quickly find a cafe with WiFi to check emails. I then used Skype to call back home to Elaine. It was a bit surreal to be face-to-face on the computer with Elaine while lounging at an outdoor cafe overlooking the Ljubljanica River in old eastern-block Europe. After lunch I climbed back into the car and headed to Croatia, the capital city of Zagreb.
Zagreb is much larger and spread out than I had imagined. I’d gotten accustomed to the typical European towns where there is usually a fine definition between the surrounding farmland and the city limits. Not here. Zagreb is huge, very industrialized on the outskirts, reasonably modern as you approach downtown and then very ancient when you enter the city center.
A month ago, when planning this trip, I’d shopped around for a room and had actually started making reservations at a little family run hotel called the Hotel Fala. I then decided against it because of my “no plans” philosophy, I just wanting to take one day at a time. So here I am in a large and strange city looking for a place to stay. Sensing I was getting close to the center of town I exit off of the highway and immediately get lost in a maze of back streets, alleyways and dead end gravel roads. I was a little worried about getting onto a bad section of town, which I’m sure is something that exist in every large city in the world. But, how can I tell? What is the normal part of the city suppose to look like? I drive past old garages with broken windows, abandoned cars, small houses with chain link fences, aggressive dogs and locked gates. I make a right turn that takes me through some deep, muddy puddles under an overpass. I then notice a small sign, about the size on an 8 x 11 piece of paper. It had an arrow on it and the words “HOTEL FALA”. What’s that old saying about god looking favorably on saints and fools? I follow the arrow and drive down the street about 100 meters, there it is, Hotel Fala. I travel half way around the world, drop myself into a large city, get lost and find myself looking at the one and only detail I could remember about the city. Here is a link to the hotel: http://www.hotel-fala-zg.hr/en/index.html
Hotel Fala is a wonderful little place, clean and friendly. They have internet access, free breakfast and I felt right at home. It’s located about 50 meters from a bus stop that will take you right into the old part of the city. I drop off my bags and then ask the receptionist how to catch a bus downtown. She said, “You need to buy some tokens and then go to the bus stop across the street that’s heading north.” I ask her, “Where I can get some bus tokens?” She says “Downtown.” I give her a “look”. She then leans over and says “I’m not suppose to tell the visitors this but most people here don’t pay for the bus. They just use the backdoor.” “The foreigners go in the front door and pay with their tokens.” When in Rome, do as the Romans do…..I walk to the bus stop, try to blen in with the local residents and board through the back door. I’m off for the city center. I never bought any bus tokens while I was in Zagreb.
The next morning, while I was eating breakfast the receptionist came up to me and asked (in her very broken English) if I was going to be spending another night. I said, “I don’t know, what do you think, should I spend another day here?” She looked at me strangely for awhile, I guess waiting to see if I was going to say anything else. I just looked at her (I like making young people nervous). I guess she finally realized that I was waiting for an honest reply and she said, “Yes, I think you should”. So, I spent another day and night exploring the city. I got lost again but this time on foot and it pushed by boundaries a bit, I was scared. It was about 10pm and I was on one of the last busses at night heading back to my hotel. I’d then gotten off at what I’d thought was my stop. It wasn’t, I’d missed my stop and gone way past it. I had no idea where I was or if there was going to be another bus taking me back the way I came. After approaching several people, who seemed more scared of me than I was of them, I finally found someone who: 1) could speak English and 2) knew the bus routes. After a few minutes of walking I was back on another bus going in the right direction. I didn’t miss my stop this time!
Day 4: Zagreb to Plitvicka Jezera National Park
Joe: After two days of exploring the capital city of Zagreb I headed out of town. I wanted to sightsee so I ignored the highway signs and took a little side road that the map had indicated would get me going in the right direction. I got lost within 10 min, all the damn street names look the same. I stopped at a coffee shop and relaxed with a good book and a cappuccino. An hour later, I tried again. I saw another highway sign, wimped out and took it heading south-west. After about 20 minutes of driving my courage came back and I took the next exit. Got lost within 10 min again, did some back tracking and eventually got going in the right direction on a local farming road.
I love driving through Europe on narrow winding back roads. You do not have to worry about getting stuck behind a slow poke. It’s everybody’s responsibility to maintain their speed. And, since “maintain their speed” is different for each person it’s also everybody’s responsibility to move over when some one comes speeding up behind you. Or, for that matter, heading towards you while they are passing someone else in the opposite lane. Good thing everyone drives small cars around here.
About halfway to the Plitvicka Jezera National Park I stopped at a roadside inn for lunch. I had yet to have a traditional Croatian meal so decided this was the right time and place. I ordered a glass of red wine and started browsing the menu. That didn’t last very long, apparently once you get out of the cities the menus no longer have English translations. I asked the middle-aged matron (I mention age here because the ability to speak English is inversely proportional to age) to bring me something traditional. We eventually deciphered that I wanted the “sampler”. It was about the same price as any of the other entrees, 70 lunar ( about $12). I wasn’t sure what the sampler consisted of and I thought that the prices were a bit high for such an out-of-the way place but I was already here.
I should of started worrying when she brought me the wine. This was not your average 1/3 full wine goblet we’ve gotten accustomed to in the US. It was filled to the brim. Images of those winding narrow mountain roads ahead of me immediately popped into my mind. I slowly sipped my wine and continued reading my book while waiting for my meal. About 15 minutes latter my waitress returned carrying a large silver platter overflowing with grilled vegetables and assorted meats. I assumed she was going to serve be some portions from this platter in a traditional family style. No! She put it down in front of me and walked away! I hope she didn’t see my mouth drop open. It was huge. The platter was filled with grilled zuccinni, eggplant, red peppers, a salsa, pom frites (French fries), two types of sausages, chicken, lamb, pork steak and liver (yuck!) along with a half loaf of bread. It was enough food for three teenage boys! I rolled up my sleeves, took my time and about 45 minutes later I’d made it about half way through before surrendering. I paid my bill and respects to the cook and rolled out the front door to continue my journey.
I’d originally thought that I would avoid the tourist sights and try to just blend in with the local culture. But, several folks here suggested I visit Plitvicka Jezera National Park. They said it with such enthusiasm that I decided to at least check it out. My plan was to spend an hour or two walking around and then move on to the Adriatic coast. I was wrong. Yes, it was very touristy with groups in busses, souvenir shops, higher prices, etc. but it was absolutely gorgeous. Having lived in Huntsville, Alabama for a number of years, I understood the geologic consequences of running water through limestone. North Alabama is the caving capital of the country. These mountains in Croatia have taken it to another level. It is impossible for me to adequately describe the beauty of the waterfalls, gorges, caves, clear emerald colored lakes all in a temperate rainforest climate that even had snow in some of the shadowed areas. I spent the whole day there and must of hiked up and down and around the lakes for 5 hours. The crowds tended to be cyclical so whenever I found I was being overtaken by a tour group I just sat down and waited for the area to clear out. By the time I’d finished my exploring it had gotten late so I decided to just get a room for the night and head out for someplace new in the morning. I slept great that night! You can check out pictures of the National Park at this web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plitvice_Lakes_National_Park
Day 5: Plitvicka Jezera National Park to Zadar
Day 6: Zadar to Sibenik – My Place in the Sun
Joe: I am sitting in a coffee shop in the town of Sibenik (pronounced Cee-ba-nec). It’s a nice sized town on the Adriatic coast at the mouth of the river Krka. I believe I’ve found my place in the sun. It just feels right. It’s very ancient, built into the sides of a high mountain. The maze like cobblestone streets are narrow with 4 and 5 story buildings blocking out the direct rays of the sun. As I was driving into the city I saw a “Sobe” (room) sign outside a home about 1 kilometer from the center of town. I parked the car, walked up to the front door and knocked. An elderly couple answered the door but that couldn’t speak a bit of English. Through sign language and my repeating “Sobe, how much Kuna?” they figured out what I wall looking for. It then took another 10 minutes of them speaking in Croat, me speaking in English, broken French and German until “Papa” showed me the room. Except, it was not a room, it was an apartment.
The apartment has a large bedroom with a terraced balcony overlooking the city and the sea. It has a combined kitchen, livingroom and dining area and a small bathroom. It the custom here to always show the room before actually settling down to talk money. I felt bad, they seemed so nice and really wanted to rent the apartment but I knew it would be over my budget. All I wanted was a cheap room for a few days and I tried to explain it to them. I don’t know if they understood me but they finally brought out a pen and paper and wrote down a number…..400 kn (roughly $70) . I was trying to keep my nightly lodging at $50 per night or less and was stating to negotiate when she wrote down on the piece of paper “4 dani”. I said “No, no, I only want 3 days. I held up three fingers, shock my head, and crossed out the “4” and wrote down a “3”. In my amazement she then crossed out the 400kn and wrote 300kn! They wanted to rent this apartment to me for $20 a night! An apartment that overlooks an ancient Dalmatian city and the Adriatic Sea with numerous islands off in the distance. An apartment with a queen bed, a fully outfitted kitchen, and a stone courtyard entrance all for $20 a night. I stopped all my attempts at negotiating and said “Okay!” Everyone knows what “Okay” means.
Day 9: The Windy, Winding Coast of Dalmatia
Joe: I checked out of my little apartment in Sibenik and headed south along the coastline to Split. Several folks had recommended Split to me but it just wasn’t my kind of place. Too big, to modern, too crowded. I guess it’s a young persons place, lot’s going on. I turned around and headed back north. This area is famous for it’s sailing, so curious, I stopped at the largest marina I could find to ask about sailboat charters. The tourist season is long over and I suspected I might be able to get a good deal. The marina must of had a dozen different charter companies lined up in a row running along the edge of the boat basin. I started going down the line. I started negotiating as soon as I walked in each of the offices. “The last outfit said they’d give me a 38 footer for a week for $1200, can you beat it?” Half way down the line I cut a deal. I reserved a 40′ sailboat for a week for $1000. Since a “normal vacation” could easily cost $200/day in lodging, meals and transportation I felt I had a pretty good thing going. When Elaine arrives, we’ll get rid of the rental car, buy groceries and head out into the Adriatic to go island hopping.
After reserving the boat I drive further north up the coast. It quickly becomes very isolated and desolate. I spent several hours weaving along the jagged shoreline at the base of these very large mountains. I couldn’t help but think about chaos theory and “fractals” (what a geek). The day before a young lady at a cafe had mentioned there were heavy winds coming in. They came in. There were at least 50 knot winds roaring down the mountainside trying to blow me off the road and into the surf tens of meters below me. I could see the gusts hit the sea and blow plumes of water up into the air and carry them across the sea. They made beautiful rainbows in the setting sun. Right after sunset I eventually came to a small town sitting right on the water but built into the mountainside. I checked at the only hotel I could find. I did not want to be on this road in the dark.
You know you have gotten onto a road less traveled when even the young people can’t speak English. A had to track down someone to check me into the hotel and found a couple teenage girls working in the kitchen. The rough brick and timber dining room was filled with local fisherman playing cards, drinking and smoking as well as a couple of large families sitting around large round tables having dinner. The conversations in the room noticeably lowered as I walked through and into the kitchen. One of the young ladies at the grill grabbed a room key and walked me up to my room. The only English she knew was “Passport please.” I thought it was nice to have teenage daughters helping out in the obviously family run hotel. I stayed up late that night eating dinner while talking to a couple bikers from Germany who were riding their motorcycles through the mountains. The whole time those two teenage girls were cooking and serving the entire room, they sure could cook some nice meals. At the end of our meals they automatically brought this dark liquor for our dessert. It tasted somewhere in between coffee, chocolate and hazelnut. I stayed up late talking with the Germans about life and motorcycles while we drank beer and watched the fisherman. They were getting louder the more they played and the more they drank. Eventually saying “Gute nacht”, I excused myself I went off to bed, I feel asleep quickly as the catabolic winds rattled the windows of the hotel.
The next morning the same two girls were at it again, preparing breakfast for all the hotel guests (three of us). It’s then that I realized they were not “helping out”. They were completely running the hotel and the restaurant. I saw their Dad occasionally pass through with papers in his hands, quickly disappearing through the front door. It’s a different world over here.
Day 10: The Fishing Village of Fumicinio
Joe: I just love it when you walk into a B&B asking for a room and they say “Sorry, we are full BUT let me call a friend.” Without fail, they find you a room and you just know it’s going to be off the beaten track. I drove into Rome to be near the airport for picking Elaine up the next morning. The Rome airport is actually located just outside of the small town of Fumicinio, about 20 minutes from Rome (if riding in a Mercedes taxicab doing 120 mph – but that’s another story). While scanning the map to see if there were any small towns nearby to spend the night I noticed a small blue line indicating water. The line wove its way across the map from Rome to the sea. Ah Ha! A river, a port and a fishing community? Appealing to the mariner in me, I drove past ROme, past the airport and right up to the waters edge where the river meets the Mediterranean. There, I found fishing trawlers, sailboats and mega yachts running up and down the river. There was a drawbridge, sailors mending nets, and the hustle and bustle of a blue-collar seaside town, a perfect place to find a room for the night.
I drove around Fumicinio for about 15 minutes, eventually finding a small pension behind a bakery. The office was empty so I walked back outside and in through the rear door of the bakery. Meeting the brother of the proprietor, he said he’d go find her and get her over to the office right away. I walked back to the hotel and soon thereafter a beautiful, 30-something signora appeared and greeted me happily in perfect English.
Angela is the owner of the pension but obviously worked at the bakery as well, she was covered in flour and had a wonderful aroma about her. A mixture of sugar and yeast and baked bread. She told me the pension was all booked-up but quickly said “let me call a friend.” She picked up the phone and dialed a number. She chatted in Italian with someone on the other end for quite a while, from the relaxed tone I suspected they were discussing more than just a traveler’s need of a room for the night. Saying “Arrivederci!” she hangs up the phone and tells me that Giovanni would come over to escort me to his place in about 20 minutes. There were no discussions about price, about the type of accommodations or even a question about my accepting this new arrangement, only, “You will be sleeping with Giovanni tonight!” I immediately pictured a sleeper couch at best and Giovanni at the worst. While we waited she made me a cappuccino and we talked about our travels.
Angela was a local Italian girl but had traveled the world for several years before deciding that southern Italy was the most beautiful place in the world to live. I personally couldn’t find any reason to disagree with her. I soon met her friend, Giovanni, as he came bounding into the small office where Angela and I were sipping our cappuccinos. They exchanged double-cheeked kisses before we headed out the door. I followed him in my rental car to a very plush upscale house enclosed by a high bricked wall and an electric gate. Parking my car and following him in through the front door I first spot his teenage son. He’s sitting on the couch playing video games, the very same games I’ve watched my own sons playing on many occasions. Giovanni showed me to one of four large bedrooms that he rents out. Wondering how he can afford to own such a large home I ask him what he does for a living. He gives me an odd look and says, “This IS what I do for a living!”
The next morning as I sit at the kitchen table with an Air Italia Airline pilot he gave me the rest of the story. Giovanni caters to pilots. He picks them up at the airport, anytime, day or night. He has a fully stocked kitchen and bar that the pilots have free access to. After a good nights sleep he delivers them right back to the airport for their next flight. As the pilot explained to me, “It’s a home away from home for me”. I read a small sign on the back of my bedroom door that stated the normal room charge is 120€ per night. Wow! That’s around $160 US. I was a little alarmed at what this was going to cost me. No wonder he can make a living at this, Let’s see…..maybe 20 days/months x 4 rooms x 120€/day = 9600€/mth. Not bad for a little fishing community. I was fully prepared to have to pay the going rate but when I explained to him my down to earth traveling techniques, Miguel only charged me 50 euros. Whew!
Day 11: Rome to Tuscany
Joe: I picked up a very tired Elaine at the airport this morning. It was an overnight flight and she hadn’t been able to sleep. Climbing back into the rental car, we headed out of the parking garage. Our first goal was to go see the Sistine Chapel before leaving Rome. We’d tried once before last time we were here in Rome, but had gotten there too late in the afternoon and it had closed. We knew we wouldn’t be too late this time and made a beeline to the Vatican. There were a lot of police on duty. The March on Wall Street yesterday had triggered some massive riots in the financial district. It was now very peaceful and quite downtown. What luck, we found a parking spot right away and it was just down the street from the Vatican, unheard of in this tourist rich part of the city. It must be because it’s Sunday. We headed to the eastern wall, the Sistine Chapel has a small entrance on the side of Vatican City. Arriving, we notice that there wasn’t even a line. Being early, I guess we really beat the traffic, what luck again. It then slowly sank in as we approached the locked entrance to the museum….Sunday morning….Vatican….Ohhhhh! We did an about face and walked over to the central square where we watched, on giant TV screens, the Pope giving Sunday morning mass for us and about 3000 other visitors.
After mass, we climbed into the car again, found the first main road and headed out of the city. The Rome cityscape soon gave way to the countryside with rolling hills filled with vineyards and olive trees. Further east we drove, up into the high central mountains and down the other side to the Adriatic coast. Elaine missed most of the scenery though, she’d slept for almost two hours. We were on the eastern coast of Italy by the time she was up and ready to explore. We turned north and drove another couple hours before exiting the highway to find some lodging for the night. We passed through the city of Faenza without seeing any place interesting so kept heading west up into some more of the wine country. It was late Sunday afternoon and there was a long line of cars decending out of the hills. I noticed that all the cars had couples or families in them so I assumed it was weekenders returning from some R&R up in the mountains ahead of us. We drove further west.
Elaine soon spotted a small sign on the side of the road labeled “AgroTourismo” along with a picture of grapes underneath. We wondered what it meant and we turned right as the sign had indicated. It was a small, narrow road that took us past some farmhouses and up towards some steeper hills. The road narrowed further and grew rougher. There were no more houses now, just a narrow, winding road climbing up the side of a mountain. Elaine was starting to get nervous. What if this was someones personal property? We passed a sign on a vineyard gate that said “Non inserire” meaning “do not enter”. We drove on. Finally reaching the top of the mountain, we turned a corner and saw a good sized house with some out-buildings and a large empty parking area. There were no signs, no people we could see. It just what looked like an empty house. We parked our solitary car in the parking lot and got out. I still didn’t know what “agrotorismo” meant or if this house had anything to do with it, so we walked up to the front door to ask. I knocked. No answer. We walked over to the side door where there was a large screened-in terrace with a number of tables and chairs. Looking at each other, I shrug my shoulders saying “I guess this is a restaurant.”
Knocking this time on the side door brought a young, teenage girl to the window. Seconds later the door opens and we’re welcomed in to our first “agrotourismo”. It’s a working farm or vineyard that has rooms available for guests. They serve traditional meals, show you how the farm operates and just make you feel like part of the family. What a perfect place to find on a Sunday afternoon. Since it was October, there are few vacationers, just the occasional weekenders such as the ones we saw streaming home on the main road. Gloria was the young ladies name but contrary to the norm, she did not speak very much English. She’d taken it in school but up here in the mountains I’ll bet she didn’t have very many people to practice it on. We did somehow manage to communicate that we wanted a room for the night at which time she went to fetch her Papa.
A few minutes later a tall, good looking man about our age enters and introduces himself as “Luciano.” He spoke not a single word of English but explained; mostly by writing it down, using sign language and Elaine recognizing the words that were similar to Spanish, that there was a room available up stairs. We’d assumed that much judging by the empty parking lot. We asked “Qual è il cost?” and he replied “45€.” That sounded reasonable to us but as it is the tradition here in Europe, we ask to see the room first before agreeing. Luciano traps a key from behind the counter and we follow him up the back stairs. At the top of the landing he slides the key into the wooden door and in we walk.
We’d assumed that on the other side of the door would be a bed, a couple end tables and a desk. We instead walked into a formal dining room. To the left was an adjoining living room. He then led us to the fully outfitted kitchen which even included a fireplace sitting at counter height (for our wood-fired pizza?). Next, Luciano led us to the large bedroom. Walking up to the windows, he opens the heavy louvered wooden shutters. We were immediately presented with a gorgeous vista of the countryside below. Elaine was alarmed, something must be wrong. She asks “Cuántas personas se quedarán aquí?” He understood her Spanish enough to answer that this is our apartment, no one else will be staying here with us. We were still in shock when he walked over to the living room balcony and swung them open. An equally gorgeous vista looking west at the setting sun and the mountains of Tuscany, all this for $60 per night. Preparing to leave, Luciano asked if we’d be having dinner in the restaurant downstairs. We smiled and nodded our heads in acceptance.
Day 12: A Girl in a Bar and “Sabina’s Apartment”
Joe: After last nights wonderful discovery of the agrotourismo we’ve decided to completely bypass the typical search for hotels. Checking out this morning we headed north and then east through Slovenia and into Croatia. Near sunset we exited off the highway in the northern mountains. These mountains were so steep that the highway seemed to have as many tunnels as there was open sky. We wound down and into the mountain village of Fuzine, passing right by a couple of hotels along the way. We were not interested. We parked in the center of town. Climbing out of the car, we hadn’t realized how cold it was up here. It was probably about 45 degrees as we headed down the main street and entered a corner cafe. Walking up to the young waitress behind the bar I asked “Do you know where we can find a room for the night?”. “Certainly!” she smiled, “Let me call a friend.” We then had just the right amount of time to sit down and enjoy a glass of wine. Sabina pulled up out front fifteen minutes later. Speaking perfect English, she introduced herself and asked us to follow her to her home. As we entered the front door I smelled the old, nostalgic scent of a wood burning stove. She told us that the entire second floor had been set up as a two-bedroom apartment. Reaching the top of the stairs I felt the heat radiating from the stove in the central hallway, it would be our only source of heat for the cold mountain night and I was loving it. Setting our bags down in the bedroom I immediately started stoking the fire.
Sabina later told us her story. She had married a seaman and he was gone on a cruise ship most of the time. She’d decided to open their version of a Bed & Breakfast, not only for the extra money but for some company as well. The large country kitchen was fully stocked with coffee, juices, bread, and snacks. We were to just make ourselves at home. After spending most of the day in the car we decided to go for a walk under the stars. There were several streams running through the village, as we walked through the stone streets we were rarely out of earshot of running water. We soon found a restaurant in the stone cellar of another lodging house where we sat down and ordered huge grilled mushrooms, vegstables and frog legs for dinner, along with a carafe of wine. This is what journeys are all about; new places, new people, great food.
Day 13: Our Yacht Awaits
Joe: Leaving Sabina’s behind us, we drove several more hours to the marina where “Molat” awaited us, stopping at a grocery store on the way to stock up on a weeks worth of groceries. Reaching the marina we checked in to the office, grabbed some keys and loaded all our possessions into a two welled cart to haul to the boat. Molat’s a well constructed european-built yacht designed for charters. She has three separate bedrooms (staterooms), two bathrooms (heads), and a large main salon and kitchen (galley). We were certainly going to be comfortable. One of the charter companies deck hands came down to the boat to run me through all the boat systems and once he was satisfied that I knew what I was doing he said we ere good to go and walked away. The only problem was that I wasn’t all that sure I knew what I was doing. Sure, I’m a very experienced sailor but this ship, these waters, this weather was all new to me. Not to mention my concern about any different rules and regulations regarding navigation a large boat in European territory. The charter company didn’t seem to be worried though, maybe because I’d had to put down an additional deposit of $1000 to cover any potential damages.
Elaine and I took about an hour to get comfortable with the boat. She put all the groceries away while I studied the charts and learned how to use the electronic navigation system. We discussed the possibility of spending the first night in the marina before heading out. The winds were blowing quite strong out of the south so I knew we’d be dealing with some decent sized waves and it was already starting to get into the late afternoon. Elaine said she was ready willing and able to take on what came our way so we fired up the motor and headed out of the marina.
I was right. Departing the safety of the harbor we headed for open water. The waves grew quickly as we exited the channel into deeper water. The wind was bitter cold and howling much stronger than inside the protected marina. I started thinking, “Maybe October isn’t the best time to go sailing in these waters.” We pulled up a fully reefed mainsail and let out about a third of the roller-furled jib. This brought some stability to the boat and was completely enough to put us on a nice reach heading west. I reached down and killed the diesel engine. We’re sailing the Adriatic now!
The coastline of Croatia is filled with long, narrow rocky islands pointing north and south, most of them uninhabited. They’re leftovers of the last ice age, glaciers carving them into their current orientation. The southerly winds run up the channels in between the islands, getting funneled through narrow passes and causing the waves to pile up on top of each other. The closely packed waves hit us broadside and crash over the forward port quarter covering us repeatedly in cold salty water. Luckily, I’d asked Eline to bring our wet weather gear that we kept stored in our sailboat back home. It was good gear and kept us reasonably warm and dry (except for our hands, feet and faces). I was amazed at how well Elaine was taking this. She actually seemed to be enjoying it. I one the other hand was worried about all the endless possibilities of disaster due to my unfamiliarity with everything around me. I was just going to have to be extremely cautious and learn to adapt….quickly. The dark clouds above us were moving as fast as the wind and I knew we had little daylight left. We aimed for the island closest to us. the chart showed that it had protected anchorage that would be calm and safe for us and our ship that didn’t seem to be all that big anymore.
Elaine: We entered the little harbor and “boondocked” near three other boats. It was still windy but nice, the surface of the water were practically flat. It was my turn to be in charge now, Joe was a bit worn out from the anxiety mixed with the physical effort. I cooked pasta for dinner with an Italian Barillo tomato sauce and fresh French bread. My first night on the boat and I was afraid of pirates on the Croatian coast. I woke up once in the middle of the night thinking that someone was going to hijack Molat.
Day 14: Now I’m Scared!
Joe: I’m much more relaxed this morning now that I’ve learned more about the boat, the weather and the area. All the boat systems seem to be working well and the winds have let up a bit. It’s even warmer out. We decide to sail west to another island further out into the Adriatic sea. It’s more secluded and appears to have a wonderful anchorage that’s well protected from these southern winds and waves. In fact, it’s protected from every direction except the north-east.
We haul anchor and pull up the sails. We are off on an adventure. The sun occasionally pokes it’s head out from between the billowy clouds and the southerly winds and waves hit as we once again enter open water. This time though, it’s actually fun. Elaine says that it reminds her of riding horses. It took us about four hours of riding this horse before we were able to tuck ourselves in between some islands. The anchorage was beautiful, but a bit problematic. The water depth drops off so quickly that the only way to anchor is to get very close to the shoreline. Since the winds have been coming from the south for the last two days we head for the southern end of the anchorage. We dropped anchor in about 20 feet of water with the shore about 100 feet away. It’s perfect, the island completely blocks the wind and the water is flat and smooth. It’s crystal clear, we can actually see the anchor sitting on the bottom underneath the boat. Now feeling safe and relaxed we sit back and enjoy the view.
It’s amazing how dark it can get out here. With no civilization or any other boats at this time of year I felt we could be floating on a completely different planet. The clouds thinned out and I could see thousands of stars in the night sky. Elaine had made a wonderful potato soup tonight and we were now sitting back again in the cockpit. It was getting cold so we bundled up well. It was around 10 pm when we went to bed. The winds had picked up a bit but we were well protected. Over the course of the next few hours, while I was laying in bed half asleep, I could hear the winds increasing. After another half hour, I started getting a little concerned. Molat was starting to rock in the waves. That’s not suppose to happen.
I climb out of bed, pull on some warm clothing and head up on deck. It’s so dark out that I can’t even see the shoreline but I can hear it. The waves are starting to crash on the rocks….and it sounds close. That’s not suppose to happen either. I jump down below, flip on the light switch for the compass up on deck and grab a flashlight. Climbing back up on deck, the flashlight pierces the darkness and I point it towards the sound of the crashing waves. I’m shocked! The shoreline is less than 20 feet behind the boat and I can feel the wind and the waves steadily increasing. I look at the compass, the winds have shifted to the east.
A recent memory came back to me and I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The memory was of the catabolic winds that I’d experienced last week while driving the western shoreline. I realize now that they were coming from the north-east. The one direction that this anchorage is not protected from. These winds pour out of the mountains like a stampede of screaming wild horses, carrying anything in it’s path down to the waters edge and beyond. They are notorious for reeking havoc on the coastline, sometimes hitting 70 – 80 miles per hour. They hit the water with such ferocity that they actually sucks it up in great clouds of mist and carries it across the waters surface for miles. We are in trouble.
In the calmest of times, re-anchoring a boat in the pitch dark is neither easy nor safe. There is a temporary period when the boat is half anchored and half adrift as you bring it up over the top of the anchor to haul in the rode/chain. Tonight, in this chaos, it would be a huge undertaking. If one of us went overboard in this murk they be very difficult to find. Any mistake, any temporary drifting of the boat while pulling up the anchor would quickly put us on the rocks. In these conditions, she’d be holed in minutes. And, with the steepness of the shoreline, she’d be sunk to the point that only the mast head was above the surface within an hour. I was scared. We still had 20 feet between us and the shore but what if the waves get bigger? what if the anchor slips? what if the wind direction changes? Our situation becomes very clear to me. We are anchored off a deserted, barren rock of an island. We are miles from any type of civilization. Its pitch dark out, I can barely see my hand in from of me. And it’s getting even colder. If we go aground, Elaine and I will be sitting on this island, probably in wet clothes, for God knows how long, maybe for eternity.
I have to make a decision. We can sit tight and hope for the best, hope that the conditions will stabilize and the shore will stay off the stern quarter. Or, I can attempt to move the boat to a better anchorage, one that protects us from the intensifying north-east winds, but in the process I risk loosing the boat. It’s going to require two of us in these conditions and I have inexperienced crew. Did I say that this is Elaine’s first ever overnight sailing trip? I’ve only used Molat’s anchor windless once, in calm conditions, in daylight. Moving the boat in the dark, without any lights to guide me would require me to pilot the boat using only the electronic GPS chart plotter. Are those charts up to date? How accurate is the GPS? What if it suddenly dies or we loose power? Do I have time now to plot a course on paper as a backup? Should I put together a ditch bag, fill it with food, water, warm clothes? Should I try calling “Mayday!, Mayday!” on the VHF radio? And, out here, would anybody even hear me? It’s 2 am All these questions are going through my head as I sit and watch the boat swing towards the shore and then away again. She’d bucking like a bronco, trying to throw off her rider. I sit and watch and wait and watch.
I finally make my decision as the boat swings even closer to shore, now only 10 feet away. Action is much better than inaction. I go down and wake up Elaine. She knows something is wrong. I tell her what we’re about to do. She’s actually calm, as if this is just normal. She either has too little experience or way too much faith in me. Probably too much of both. She puts on some warm clothes and then we put on our life jackets. I explain that I’m going to have her operate the electric windless while I steer the boat. I figure if anybody’s going to run this boat up onto the rocks it’s going to be me. I start the engine to get it warmed up and the batteries charging, then Elaine and I crawl forward on the heaving deck. I carefully show her how to operate the windless, being adamant, “No matter what happens, never put you fingers near the spinning capstan, you’ll loose a finger in a heartbeat.” “Promise me, please!” Elaine agrees. I have two deep scars on my hand from a fickle windless’ on a cold, wet night many years ago. I’ve learned the hard way how easy it is to reach down to try to untangle a chain or release a cleat and get bitten by it.
I’m scared as I feel my way back down the side of the deck to the cockpit. I don’t like leaving Elaine up there all alone in these conditions. She don’t understand the dangers but I do. I’m just going to have to trust her. The added problem is that she’ll never be able to understand my instructions over the noise of the howling wind. I explained to her before I left that when I scream, “Okay!” she’s to haul away and not stop until she sees the anchor hit the bowsprit, no matter what. Who’s the one with anxiety NOW?
Stepping back to the helm I look forward. I can’t even see her except for the faint glow of the flashlight that she’s shinning down at the anchor chain wrapped around the windless. How did I get us into this mess? I step forward and look down into the cabin where the chart plotter is mounted at the navigation station. I make a mental picture of the layout of the anchorage, the shoals, the depths. I then return to the helm, put the boat in gear, take a compass heading and push the throttle forward. I drive her hard towards where I think the anchor is, yelling, “OKAY!” As Molat moves forward into the wind, I see the flashlight beam bouncing around on the bow so I know she’s up there doing something. I wait…..it’s now taking too long, somethings wrong. I feel the boat hesitate and swing to starboard. I’ve gone too far, the anchor is still on the bottom and trying to pull me back towards the shore. I then hear Elaine scream, I can barely understand her, she repeats it again, “it’s jammmed!” Shit!
Trying to steer a sailboat in the wind and the waves with the anchor down is like trying to steer a horse by pulling on it’s tail. You might be able to get it going in the general direction you want but you are going the have to go in a lot of circles before getting there. That’s what I was trying to do, keep Molet pointed in the general direction of open water while Elaine worked her way back to the cockpit. “I can’t get it to come up, it just stopped!” Elaine said when she reached me. I told her, “Okay, you are just going to have to take the wheel and do your best to keep it pointed into the wind.” The wind was really howling now and it was coming right from the north-east along with the waves. At least we knew which way to go to get out of here. I rushed forward to the bow with the flashlight stuffed in my pocket. I wanted to use both hands to hold on. Reaching the windless I pull the light back out and take a look and immediately see the problem. The anchor chain knotted up as it ran through the capstan and jammed the whole thing. I got down on my knees and start tugging, wondering the whole time if this will be the time I loose a finger. Looking closer, I notice that the windlass is installed wrong, there is no way that a chain could freely run around the capstan and down the through hawse pipe without eventually backing up and jamming. I loosen it through a combination of running the windless in forward and reverse and yanking on the loose links. It finally freed up. I hit the UP button and start hauling up the anchor chain while keeping the bottom of my shoe pressed firmly again the spinning links to prevent any more jamming. Maybe I’ll loose a toe instead. It worked. As soon as I felt the anchor tug free of the bottom I didn’t even bring it up the rest of the way. I stopped the windlass and ran back to the cockpit. Grabbing the wheel from Elaine I opened up the throttle and headed for deeper water, dragging 20 feet of chain and an anchor under the boat with us.
When the windlass jammed I’d thought for sure we were goners. I was convinced that the shortened scope of the chain and the higher winds and waves were going to drag the anchor and push us onto the rocks before we had time to recover. As we motored to safety I had Elaine go forward and slowly bring up the anchor the rest of the way, watching it closely to make sure it doesn’t jam again. My adrenalin started to wear off and I relaxed for the first time in about four hours. The chart plotter worked like a dream and guided us to another anchorage that protected us from any kind of easterly wind. The direction that I now know is home of the catabolic winds that Croatia is famous for. It was about 3 am when we dropped anchor again and I was soon sound asleep.
The rest of our week was idyllic which warmer temperatures and a mild wind that kept us exploring up and down the coast. We took a break from our writing and just relaxed.
Elaine: Joe stayed up until 0300 watching the boat afraid it would “unanchor” and slam into rocky island. It was cold and very windy. He woke me in middle of night to help haul up the anchor so we could move away from shore of island. We were able to dislodge the anchor and move further away, enough that Joe could feel safe to go to sleep. Here are my random notes…..
Friday, 21 Oct 2011 – Vodice Marina
- I’d recorded the sound of the wind howling yesterday but my phone was ruined by salt water leaking in from the waves crashing on the deck. There was a leak in one of the hatches and my phone was right under it.
- We paid 60 euro to dock at a nice marina for one night. Wow!
- It was very quiet and I was able to take a shower which was a wonderful experience after being on boat and thinking we were running out of water (but we weren’t, it was just a faulty gauge).
- Next to dock was a municipal dock but it was not as easy to “rent.”
- Many Germans visiting, marina had books only in German.
Saturday, 22 Oct 2011 – City Dock in Sibenek
- Tied up at the seawall in Sibenek, met a nice dock master and visited St James Cathedral.
- Walked through the a garden and cemetery where a cat followed us
- Ate dinner at Pellegrini’s again
Sunday, 23 Oct 2011 – Krka via ferry
- Motored up a river and visited some beautiful waterfalls
- Saw a black swan for the very first time
Monday, 24 Oct 2011
- Anchored off of Mira Oaza in Drage and used the dingy to row ashore
- Walked through a beautiful autocamp with several levels, brand new construction, many apartments and people seemed to be building everywhere
- Visited private part of island with swinging bench, sat and looked at the water, felt very peaceful.
- Town is essentially shut down until the next year tourist season
- Lots of fisherman mending nets, working on boats or just hanging out
- After dusk they then head out into the waters with propane powered lights to fish for squid
Tuesday, 25 Oct 2011 -back to Zadar Marina
- Started heading back towards the marina
- Saw a swordfish jump out of the water off our bow
- Getting back to the marina I was able to shower again—ahhhhh
- Said goodbye to Molet and drove away for the next phase of our journey
Day 20: Return to Plitvicka National Park
Joe: We returned Molet, our Vicktor 401 without a scratch to the charter company and headed to Plitvicka national park again. I wanted Elaine to see how beautiful it was. After the park we headed north to Karlovac and then east towards Slovenia. It had gotten rainy and dark so we got off the highway to find a room for the night. We ended up in the middle of nowhere, got lost and ended up driving down a single lane maze of logging roads on border between Croatia and Slovenia. We ending up stopping at the Hotel Rim where they seemed to “open” hotel just for us.
Elaine: They say a picture is worth a 1000 words but pictures just can’t do justice when it comes to Plitvicka National Park. Your other senses play such an important role in appreciating this national treasure; like the smell and feel of olives that you pinch between your fingers as you pop them in your mouth in ____ or the mist feel of salt water around your feet as you walk along the coast of Zadar. At Plitvicka (pronounced “pleetvitseh”) it’s the rushing sounds of the waterfalls and the sensation of their gentle mist on your face, as you make your way along the winding trails through the park. The waterfalls interconnect a long series of lakes, cascading from various heights through lush vegetation and over travertine dams formed by minerals, moss, algae and bacteria. The effect appears like a million little jets spraying through the gaps of this living barrier formed by the dynamic intercourse of water, air, minerals and plants. Plitvicka is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage register for a reason. It is sure to take your breath away–as a starter. As I stood there, looking, listening, smelling and feeling the water crashing before me, I can distinctly remember feeling that that my life could end at that very moment and there would be nothing but a sense of awe and peace in my heart knowing this kind of beauty still existed in the world. As luck would have it October was a perfect time to travel to Croatia because just like our “leaf peeping” season in New England, the local trees change colors there too and with a magnificence that rivals anything you would see in the most touted tourist destinations in the states. To top it all off, the water is so clear, you can see the gills moving on the fish swimming in the blue water. I have read that the water in these lakes change color from blue and blue green to grey depending on the angle of the sun, the mineral content, and the creatures inhabiting the water down to the smallest micro-organism. Now, before I go on painting this incredibly rosy picture of one of my experiences in Croatia, I want you to know that just as I felt I had tasted a small piece of heaven there in Plitvitce, I also got a choking mouthful of near death while lost on narrow logging roads in the northern mountains that would have made Hannibal stock up on disposable underwear! Am I being melodramatic? You be the judge……
Day 21: Lost in the Mountains!
Elaine: There is a cold rain falling on the windshield and we are lost on a dark, narrow logging road in the steep mountains of northern Croatia. It’s pitch black outside and the desolation combined with our traveling in previously war-torn country is where my irrational fear starts to take over. There are no signs indicating how far it is to the next town. There are no guard rails protecting us from the edge of the cliffs. The roads are so narrow and winding that I can’t imagine how we’d make space for an approaching truck, or even a Volkswagen for that matter! Joe’s at the wheel of the rental car and my mind is going into overdrive. “What if it’s too narrow for cars to pass by from the opposite direction?” “What if we plunge over this mountain because we take one of these curves too fast and our tires slip on the wet ground?” “What if we have a head-on collision because this mountain road is so narrow?” My heart is beating so hard and fast that it makes my chest hurt. I try to tell myself to have faith in Joe’s driving ability. I try to tell myself to let go and let God. But no matter how hard I try to stop the panic, my heart refuses to listen. It’s getting worse. My brain screams, “Stop the car…just STOP and let me out!” But how can we stop a car in the middle of a steep, slippery mountain road with no shoulder? There is nothing for Joe to do but keep driving.
I’m having my first ever full-blown panic attack. Escape is impossible.
I am a prisoner of my own body. Heart beating, chest tightening, difficulty breathing. “Why can’t I stop shaking?” Then the wave of nausea and dizziness kicks in. The catastrophic thoughts spin out of control. “What if I die right here on a mountain in Croatia?” What if no one finds my body?” “No, they’ll eventually find my body, it’s not like we are on a deserted island.” All this thinking just keeps the flood of catecholamines spilling into my bloodstream. I feel completely alone even though I’m in a car with the person I love most in my life. Controlling my mental and physical alarm systems seems impossible. I am watching the scene from behind prison bars, trapped in my own body. The tears cascade down my cheeks and I feel suddenly like it’s not even me sitting in the car.
Joe carefully drives several more kilometers through the murk while I slow my breathing with deeper inhalations. I remind myself to focus on navigating, instead of continuing to unsuccessfully ignore my body. Finally, my prayers are answered. We find a lumberyard where there are some late night truckers loading logs onto a flatbed. Joe asks for directions using sign language and his best pigeon Croatian. The loggers look at us, thoroughly confused, but they do eventually point us back into town. Retracing our steps, we hit pay dirt–a beautiful little hotel with a built-in restaurant. The hotel is closed for the season but the owner behind the bar see’s how ghostly pale and shaken we both look. His response? Well, let’s just call it Croatian hospitality! He not only opened up a cozy lovely room but turned on the heat for the entire floor just for us. Instant shelter. A warm bed in a quiet, peaceful lodge nestled into the mountains was a mighty nice reward for pushing past the panic on that dark and stormy night.
Day 22: Paragliding off the Alps
- Great pizza at a small grill restaurant next to hardware store.
- Wine tasting at a vineyard in the north western mountains of Slovenia
- Nice tour of a very small mom and pop winery, wine cellars are caves in the side of a mountain with natural springs running through them.
- Bought a Zelen wine made from a variety of grapes grown only in this local area.
- Stopped and watched paragliders launch off of a mountain top and spend the next 30 minutes riding the thermals before gently coming in for a landing
- Stayed at a little farm/hotel in Arkade
Day 24: Areviderci Italy
Joe: This is our last night of one of the longest and most exotic vacations we’ve ever taken. To even call it a vacation seems to do a disservice to the varieties of people, cultures, and places we’ve experienced over the last few weeks. We spent the previous night in the mountains of northwestern Slovenia right on the border with Italy. It was another one of those “Oh, let me call a friend” experiences where we ended up at a farm house/vineyard where they had rebuilt one of their concrete and wooden beam barns into a very nice set of bedrooms with a communal kitchen. The refrigerator was stocked with the basics: coffee, milk, cheese, butter, wine and grappa. “Grappa” appears to be a type of schnapps made from white wine (I’m just guessing by the taste) that will knock you on your butt if you are not careful. It was tastefully packaged in a small water bottle that the non-English speaking hostess pointed out with an expression of “be careful”, I guess it’s their version of moonshine……or maybe it was just fuel for the stove. Either way, it tasted great and was a perfect nightcap for a long day of driving, hiking, and exploring in the mountains.
Today we drove out of the mountains of Slovenia and headed west for Venice where we will catch our flight home on Sunday morning. As usual, I managed to get lost, this time due to overconfidence with my familiarity of the areas around Venice. We eventually landed in Mestra where I had previously stayed a couple weeks ago. Mestra is a large satellite town west of Venice where there are few tourists, much lower prices, and better food. We ate lunch (pizza as usual) and wandered around town until I got my bearings straight and headed to the hotel I’d stayed at last time. I was tired and wanted to be at a place where I knew my way around, where I didn’t have to figure out how to get to the airport in the morning. Elaine had other ideas. They wouldn’t have a room ready for us in a few hours, she didn’t like the crowded atmosphere and wanted to be out in the country. After some quarreling, I gave in and we moved on. About an hour later I was thoroughly lost again when we found a nice B&B run by an elderly couple. Elaine was right, it was a very upscale place, free run of the kitchen with a real espresso machine, and just a short walk away from one of the best restaurants I’d ever eaten.
One of my favorite meals is a very basic pasta dish called “spaghetti aglio olio a pepercinno”. It’s simply spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and banana peppers with a small amount of Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. At home I also add pine nuts and chopped basil but that’s another story. One would think that spaghetti aglio olio would be pretty easy to make, hard to screw up, no brainer. Wrong. Because of its simplicity the importance of each ingredient is amplified. It has to have fresh ingredients, quality pasta cooked “el dante”, a flavorful olive oil and the right kind of garlic. The garlic and peppers are sautéed in the olive oil before being added to the pasta and is then served immediately. The last time through here on my way to pick up Elaine in Rome I’d decided to take the bus to the center of Venice, find an out of the way restaurant and have the best spaghetti aglio olio I’d ever tasted. I took my time, walking through the maze of streets, filtering out the obvious tourist traps and eventually settled on a café where the ……………Tonights meal was the complete opposite and I have Elaine to thanks for it.
After getting settled into our lodging for the last night we walked down the street to “La Forence”, a classic looking Italian restaurant on the main street in town. It was about 1730 (5:30pm) and they were not open yet (people eat late around here,) but our waiter quickly seated us and asked us in broken English to just take it easy, explore the menu and he would be with us in about 20 minutes. This was the same waiter who earlier, around lunchtime, had given us directions to the B&B down the street. I’d decided ahead of time that I was going to try the spaghetti aglio olio again and started to explain to the waiter my experience in Venice. He immediately cut me off. He said to never eat in Venice, a good meal cannot be found and the poor meals are way overpriced. We thought that was maybe a bit extreme but soon found out he was not overly boosting. As La Forence slowly filled up with locals our waiter came back over to our table, spent an excessive amount of time with us, explaining the menu mostly to Elaine, recommending dishes and discouraging other dishes based on Elaine’s tastes. We eventually settled with the spaghetti aglio olio, a fresh local seafood platter with octopus and prawns, a veal scapolenni, and a half liter each of a local red and a sparkling white vino that was “on tap” at the bar. For desert we shared a chocolate mousse-cake-crunchy something pyramid and a small glass of lemonchello (anyone remember the movie “Under a Tuscan Sun”?). During the meal when our language barriers between Elaine’s Spanish and the waiters Italian stumped us the little 9-year-old girl with her family in the both next to us would throw out the correct English word. She beamed with pride, her mom beamed with pride and we were all happy. The meals were extraordinary and were a perfect ending to our extended vacation.