I'm a 50-something year-old mother of three adult daughters that's off to Europe for a mid-life adventure with my husband of 33 years. We are living in Pula, Croatia and ready to learn about life here and around Europe. Looking forward to wandering off somewhere and sharing our adventures on this beautiful continent. Please join me!!
On a frigid, dreary day in Denmark at the end of March, Mike and I bundled up in our warmest coats and set out with our friend Carolyn to visit the Roskilde Cathedral in the city of the same name. Our first and foremost stop had been the Viking Museum nearby, but the cathedral was also a place we had looked forward to visiting. Although we knew the almost 800 year-old medieval cathedral was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we didn’t realize just how captivating the place would be until we arrived.
First of all, the cathedral is a massive building that dwarfs you and immediately makes you feel like the peasant you are. Yes, it’s that big. One of the amazing things about this huge building is that more than forty kings and queens of Denmark are buried within the hallowed church grounds.
First of all, the cathedral is a massive building that dwarfs you and immediately makes you feel like the peasant you are.
Even the Viking King Harold Bluetooth (985 A.D.) who introduced Christianity to Denmark and his son Svend Forkbeard, who conquered England, are supposedly buried there. That’s a lot of Danish royalty (or royalty of any nationality for that matter).
The large cathedral overwhelms your senses and immediately makes you feel its timelessness, its history and gives visitors the realization of something bigger and more powerful than themselves. If you are Christian, you definitely feel the presence of God, but even if you are not, I’m sure you will feel a spiritual tug at your heart and soul.
The church is one of the first Gothic cathedrals in the 12th century to have been built of red brick, as this was a new medium for building whose use eventually spread throughout Europe. Like many older churches it has been reconstructed over several centuries. Different monarchs have added burial chapels and porches as well as other additions, so the building at present reflects the evolution of European architecture over the 800 years it has been in existence.
I feel like the Cathedral is so rich in history that there is no way I could do it justice in a blog post, so I just wanted to touch on a few areas of interest through my photos and urge you to read more about it. And by all means visit this place if you are ever near Copenhagen. You will be better for it.
The Viking Museum was wonderful, but this magnificent place had the three of us dumbstruck. We stayed there over three hours and we probably would have stayed longer if time had permitted. We kept wandering around with our heads turning in circles. I was getting a neck ache with all the looking up and down, and all around.
We also were trying to be careful not to step on all of the holy tombstones on the floors of the church, even though many of them were worn by centuries of church congregants visiting their place of worship. All three of us wanted to give the place the respect it deserved.
What’s also interesting about the cathedral is that it is still a working church which is used on a regular basis. While we were there, we saw a class full of students praying together around the altar. It was really lovely to see how the grand Gothic church still had a youthful presence.
The window below is from Trolle’s Chapel, named after a royal vassal, Niels Trolle. It was just one example of the incredible wrought iron grating throughout the church.
I have walked through many churches throughout Europe with some being much more ornate, some grander, some less so, but Roskilde Cathedral touched me in a way that some of the fancier ones didn’t. Have you been to a place, whether it be a church or just a field of flowers, that made you feel so small but so peaceful in your heart? That is how I felt in Roskilde Cathedral.
Many times when we are traveling we have expectations of what we want to see and do and how to pack the most into the little time we do have. We sometimes deviate, but it’s hard to do if you’ve set an itinerary in stone. Planning is good, but a little spontaneity can give us our most lasting memories. And sometimes these memories are of our shared humanity on the bus of life.
Take our recent trip to France. It was our last day in France and we were back where we had started in Nice after 11 days of driving through the beautiful cities of Provence. We were ready to stay put and just meander through the streets of Nice, but the clerk at our hotel had recommended a scenic public bus ride to Monaco as one of the most beautiful bus rides you will ever take.
Since Monaco had been a place that I had wanted to visit, but had I felt like it was just too much after all the running around we had been doing throughout the South of France, it was put back on the list. So we laced up our tennis shoes and decided to venture out on the Bus 100 from Nice to Monaco/Menton.
Round and Round
The night before we went on the bus, I put my planning cap back on and researched a little about this ride. Bus 100 starts at the port in Nice and takes you all the way to the beautiful city of Monaco and the ritzy casino of Monte Carlo and ends in the city of Menton, stopping at many quaint little towns and villages along the way.
One website I found recommended that you sit on the right side of the bus as you’ll get the best views of the dramatic scenery, and to let a bus pass you by if you see it doesn’t have any seats to offer as the next one will be coming in just 15 minutes and you will then be first in line for your choice of a prime seat. So we had a plan, we’d be prepared to get the most out of this little deviation.
We walked to the bus stop and prepared to get on the bus. There was no line so we tried to board and realized we didn’t have enough change for the ride (a whopping 1.50 Euros per person), but we only had large bills. I walked through the bus as Mike dug for change and realized there was no line because everyone was already on board and there were no seats. We took the advice from the website and hopped off the bus and waited for the next one in 15 minutes. Mike went to go get change, and I waited in the line. We had a plan.
The next bus comes by and we hop on and get our choice of the seats on the scenic “right” side. I am so proud that I did my research and smug that we are going to have a great view.
And view we had. It truly was one of the most breathtaking bus rides I have been on. Even though the day was overcast, the bus meandered through the mountains and cliffs of the Nice countryside and offered dramatic views of small villages that perched on the sides of the Mediterranean Sea.
We passed small towns like Le Port, Petite Afrique and Pont Saint-Jean. Ah, this is the life, we thought.
All Through the Town
We arrive in Monaco and walk around through the infamous city of Monte Carlo. We see the workers setting up bleachers for the 2018 Grand Prix that will take place in just a few days and fixing up some of the buildings. We decide the Monte Carlo casino might be nice to see even though we are not big gamblers. The beautiful people are walking around dressed up to the nines and the tourists like us are gawking and checking out their designer attire and expensive cars.
Next we walk up the steep stone pathway to the Prince of Monaco’s castle and look down at the city below and marvel that Princess Grace had lived in such a beautiful place with gorgeous exotic gardens that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea.
Then we decide we have had enough of the rich and famous and decide to catch the 100 Bus back to one of the smaller towns we had seen along the bus ride and have a coffee and relax. It takes a minute to find the bus stop but we find it, hop it and stop in a city called Le Port and start looking around.
An hour or so later, we head back to the bus stop of Le Port. We sit down to wait for the next bus and two teenage French girls walk up and are waiting with us. One has a black T-shirt on that says New York and the other sports another black T-shirt and has earphones in her ears. They are staring at their iPhones and waiting along with us although they don’t acknowledge us.
About 10 minutes later we see a bus in the distance as it winds down the road toward us. We stand up and get ready to board. Then one of the teenagers gets a look of horror on her face and says, “Oh, Complet!” and falls dramatically back on the bench like only a teenager can do. Mike and I look at each other with question marks in our eyes and see the bus zoom by us with the word “Complet” at the top of the lighted panel.
Oh, it’s full, now I get it. Yikes. It’s about 4 pm and now I’m starting to realize why it’s “complet.” Ouch, maybe we shouldn’t have stayed so long at Le Port, and I’m visualizing us having to take a taxi back to the city as I know the buses stop running at around 8 pm. Both of our phones are almost dead, too. So much for planning.
At 4:30 another bus goes by. Yep, you guessed it, it’s “Complet.” Another 15 minutes goes by. Another bus in the distance. It looks like it …is…going….to…..stop and it does. Thank God.
Move on Back
The teenagers go in before us and then we are in, but it is standing room only, and it seems pretty “complet” to me. We are literally jammed into one another. Still, I’m thankful the bus stopped, and we are on our way.
It’s funny the things you notice when you are standing up in a crowded bus as compared to sitting down comfortably in a seat. Like, where do I put my hands so I don’t fall when the bus stops short or takes a sharp turn fast like buses are known to do?
I have a choice between holding on to the little plastic handles that hang down, but I’m fairly short and the things are fairly high up, so they don’t give me the support I need to brace myself. But if I hang on to the seat handles below, I feel like I’m invading the person sitting down’s personal space.
I opt for the latter because the man sitting down smiles kindly at me. He’s an elderly gentleman who is so well-dressed and dapper, yet has a look of sadness in his eyes. He has a brown felt top hat sitting on his lap, sports a brown tweed jacket and a cranberry tie, and he looks like he walked straight out of a Sherlock Holmes novel and landed in the 21st century. I feel comforted by his presence, so I hold on to the handle by his seat, separate my legs into a yoga warrior pose, and I’m ready to go.
The bus true to form speeds around the curves, but the warrior pose and the seat handle work well, as I move back and forth in time to the rhythms of the bus. And I’m still enjoying the incredible scenery as the clouds have lifted and the cliffs look even more beautiful. I can do this, I think to myself.
Then the bus comes to a stop at a bus stop in another small town. Wait, aren’t we full? Apparently not. Geez, how many people can this bus hold?
Apparently about 10 more people because that’s how many jam onto the already crowded bus. At this point I get pushed further in right next to a tall young man who lucky for him can reach the plastic handles, but unfortunately for me, because of my diminished height, my head is rather close to his rather fragrant armpit. The teenage girls are sandwiched in front of him, and so I lean over to a lovely French lady who just boarded and fortunately smells very good, like French soap and fresh floral perfume.
Before I can get my bearing and find a new handle to hold on to, the 10 people who just got on the bus start jockeying around the ticket machine trying to get their tickets cards validated. They are all locals who apparently must ride this bus when they get off of work each day. The bus crowd becomes a living organism with the bus cards being passed back and forth between riders to reach the ticket machine. Everyone helps out and soon all the cards are validated and everyone is all smiles at the team effort. Mission accomplished. And we are on our way.
I notice with amazement that the teenage girls are able to stare at their iPhones and balance in the bus without any problem, and I admire their youthful abilities. I wish I had such good balance, I think, until the bus takes another turn sharply and one of the teenagers falls right into me.
“Pardon,” she says and laughs with embarrassment. “It’s okay,” I say.
A few minutes later the bus takes another turn and it is the French lady falling into me and another more profuse, “Pardon” heads my way. The elderly gentleman smiles at me but looks a little concerned.
All Day Long
Through all of this, there is one passenger (and her owner) that is unruffled and sleeping without a bit of concern about the passengers packed in like sardines around her. It’s a little white puppy dozing comfortably in a basket who sits on an elderly lady’s lap. She is the picture of bliss. (Either that or she has motion sickness and is trying to sleep it off.) You can see a hint of the puppy on her owner’s lap in the photo above, next to the elderly gentleman.
The bus comes to another bus stop but we zoom by it. Our bus now has the “Complet” sign on, and I imagine more teenagers rolling their eyes and plopping onto benches at the bus stop, or people silently cursing the tourists like me who invade their bus each day at rush hour.
We finally make it back to Nice and everyone disembarks.
I feel like I’ve gotten to know the people here in a much more intimate way than on the journey over where I had a prime seat and the best views. Maybe traveling isn’t all about the views and the buildings and the scenery. Maybe it’s about total strangers acting together in perfect synchronicity to help each other board a bus. Maybe it’s about the shared humanity and the individual journeys that collide and separate in ways that change us for the better or the worse.
A few weeks ago Carolyn and I were wandering off in the woods of the Soline Forest again near Pula and ran smack into a little boy of about 6 years-old and his mom. The boy ran right up to us and proclaimed something excitedly in Croatian and showed us a fist full of a green plant he had collected.
“Do you speak English?” we said to them. “Govorim Hrvastki!” (I speak Croatian!) the little boy said enthusiastically and ran off back in the woods to grab some more of the plant he carried. His mom laughed with us and said, “A little.” It always surprises me when someone says they speak “a little” English here because they always seem to be able to converse with us pretty well. They certainly know more English than we know Croatian.
Anyway, what the little boy was running around exuberantly collecting was wild asparagus which grows around the Croatian countryside during early spring. It apparently is a delicacy here and widely sought after like the truffles are in the fall. Croatians have been scouring the countryside for these little spears called “šparoge” for many centuries. They believe the plants have medicinal properties, and of course, with all of the vitamins and antioxidants packed in the asparagus, they have nutritional ones as well.
This little boy and his mom proceeded to show us what to look for in the brush to locate the small spears that were just bursting forth from the established plants. They are a lot thinner than the ones we are used to eating in the U.S. and apparently there are plenty to go around. The next thing we know, thanks to the young mom and her son, we were spotting them on our own.
I brought one with me to show Mike and James who were waiting for us at a local cafe while we explored. The waiter saw I had an asparagus in my hand and told us proudly he had just collected a large amount of them in Premantura the previous weekend and told us where to go to find our own. Much bigger than the one I had found, he said. I love it that the local people are so free with information about their area. Unfortunately, we never were able to go wild asparagus hunting in the woods in Premantura, but the next week I found them in the local market and bought a large bunch for about 25 kunas (~$4 USD).
The lady above sold them to me and told me the small spears are good in omelettes, with pasta, in salads or just on their own with Istrian olive oil. I made a pasta dish with the delicate shoots and they were really good, a little more pungent than the bigger ones we are used to, but I can definitely see their appeal. And the fact you can just go pick them on a pleasant day in spring for free makes them even more appealing.
Here is the dish I cooked with them for our dinner. It was very good, except that I didn’t do a very good job of taking off the bottom part of the stalk which was a little woody, so there were some left over stems on our plates. Whoops. Next time I’ll know better.
Living in such a fertile area like the Istrian Peninsula makes it easy to eat by the growing seasons. Having read the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver who discusses her family’s experience of a year of eating only locally-sourced food had inspired my book club and I to attempt to do it in New Orleans at one point, but it was a little difficult. I can see it would be a lot easier to do in a place like Istria where the neighborhoods are surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, and fig trees and other fruit trees grow like weeds around every corner.
Our neighbor’s trellis here in Pješčana Uvala hung heavy with a multitude of kiwi last October when we we visited, and I can’t wait till those bad boys are in season here. Right now it’s also strawberry season, so I’ve been scooping them up at the market, too. What can you forage for in the area surrounding your home? Could you live by eating just what is produced in your area by the season?
I have a favorite quote from Maya Angelou that says: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” I’d like to offer a slight twist to that quote for travelers:
“When locals give you advice about their hometown, believe them. And take it, of course.”
So many times in the last few months we have talked with our Airbnb host, waiter, or hotel receptionist and have visited places that we probably would have skipped or not even known about had we not listened to their recommendations. Those places were truly the ones that most inspired me on our recent quest through the heart of Provence. But first, remember, ask and you shall receive. You have to ask people for their advice in order to receive it.
One of the first recommendations that we received was from our Airbnb host François in Antibes who strongly recommended hiking the trail along Cap d’Antibes and a visit to the medieval walled town of St. Paul de Vence. Both of these destinations were not even on our radar when we planned the trip, and both turned out to be two of the best places we visited on our two week journey.
The Cap d’Antibes hiking trail was an incredible coastal walk along the peninsula among steep limestone cliffs and rocky coves which were bursting with spring blooms and whose yellow-orange stones provided a sharp contrast with the view of the azure water below. The trail also brought you through the exclusive neighborhoods that boast millionaire villas which house the rich and famous.
The walk was truly breathtaking and after we finished we sat at a ritzy little cafe on the French Riviera. We were extremely thirsty after the long walk and so we got some expensive water (I mean, it was the Riviera), and then I fell in love with this italian lemon sorbet dessert called Segel, so it was a win, win all around.
We did have one issue though. We got lost at the beginning of the trail and we took about an hour detour until we actually found the hiking trail. That was a little frustrating. Someone told us to turn left when we should have turned right, but I won’t mention any names. Someone also blamed it on Google Maps. Nevertheless, it was a extremely good place to get lost in. And we reached our step-goal that day for sure. C’est la vie.
‘Les heures nous invitent à la rêverie’
The second place Françoise recommended was St. Paul de Vence, which was a picture perfect medieval village perched high up a on a hilltop about 17 km from Antibes. I recently learned that the bell from the tower from the town hall was cast in 1443 and has the inscription, “‘Les heures nous invitent à la rêverie’,” which means, “The hours invite us to dream.” And dream people have. Artists, writers, poets, actors, and everyday people like you and me have visited and been inspired. I’m already dreaming about how I can go back there.
Surrounded by ancient stone walls, the incredible scenery of the village and the dreamlike way the light hits the old stone buildings and small alleyways have inspired some of the world’s most famous artists. I was not surprised to see the gravesite of Marc Chagall in the small cemetery there and learn that Pablo Picasso and other famous artists and writers have spent time in this magical little village. The village has since become a mecca for artists and is filled with art galleries and an art museum. While we were walking around we saw several artists including the one in the photo below painting or drawing in the little rustic alleyways.
After we left Antibes, we got another recommendation from our sweet French host Eden in Aix-en-Provence who told us we should go to Cassis and the Calanques and then drive along the Route de Crêtes, when we asked her for her favorite places to visit in Aix-en-Provence. Note: These places were not even in Aix-en-Provence, but she said these were the places where she liked to spend her free time and visited any chance she could. We really could have skipped Aix-en-Provence altogether and spent all of our time in Cassis and the Calanques because we wound up loving that area so much, but then we would never have met Eden.
She also said in her precious French accent that we picked the perfect time to visit Provence, the shoulder season of March-April (she also recommended September-October) before the tourists descend on the place and when the weather is nicer. There were already many tourists there, but it wasn’t packed like it apparently gets during the summer, so remember that if you plan a trip there.
So what the heck is a “calanque”? It sounds like a noise you make when you drop something. The Calanques are little creeks or inlets that dip into the limestone mountainsides along the area from Marseille to the city of Cassis. They have little azure water coves in them, and you can take a tour of them by water in a boat, which we did, or hike them, which is what I would do if I ever return. I honestly don’t think the photos we took do them justice, but here are a few of these majestic natural phenomena.
Cassis is a charming little city that sits on the hilly coast between the Calanque National Park and the Route de Crêtes, a fabulous ride along the coast with magical scenery and ochre-colored cliffs that are worth a visit to that area just on their own merits. If you have ever ridden along Big Sur on the Pacific Coast Highway 1 in California, this French route rivals that beautiful drive, which has always been at the top of my lists of scenery that is the most beautiful in the world.
And speaking of drives, one of the best bus rides we have ever taken was aboard the Number 100 from Nice to Monaco-Menton which was recommended to us by a hotel receptionist when we asked what his favorite thing was to do in Nice. Again, it took us out of the city of Nice where we were staying, but it offered some truly dramatic views that I’ll never forget. The bus trip itself was so interesting that it will be the subject of a future post called, “The Wheels on the Bus.”
So thank you François, Eden, Jean-Dominique and others who have helped us along our journey throughout Provence. Your favorites have become our favorites, too.
What was the best travel advice that you have been given by a local? And what places in your hometown would you recommend to a traveler that might be off the grid?
We learn a lot about our true nature when we are traveling, and some of the things we learn about ourselves aren’t so complimentary. Often times when things don’t go as planned or places don’t meet our expectations, we balk, we gripe, we complain. But these are the very experiences that teach us the most about ourselves and the world around us.
Our recent trip to the South of France was no exception, and we had several of these types of experiences. Some turned out great and far exceeded our expectations, while some taught us lessons that will change the way we do things the next time. Many of the things that happened to us were not planned or expected on our recent journey, which overall was a glorious and beautiful trip. But it wasn’t perfect.
For example, upon our arrival to Trieste, Italy, where we had to spend the night before our flight to Nice, we checked into our hotel. Or tried to. We were tired from an uncomfortably warm bus ride from Pula that had given James, Carolyn and I a mild case of motion sickness. We thought that because we had booked a hotel that it would be easy to check-in. Well, it was a little more complicated than that.
After we walked several grimy streets in the area of Trieste near the bus station, we finally tracked the place down. It was behind giant wooden doors in a large 19th century building that you needed someone to buzz you into. The sign was very small, the door was very large. The place was advertised as a hotel with a shared bathroom and truth be told I chose it because it was the cheapest.
After several attempts to find a way to get into the place, we finally called the owner. He wasn’t there, but could be there at 8 p.m. There is no one at the hotel? we wondered. It was 5:00 p.m. We were carrying backpacks and we were tired, so we finally got him to agree to be there at 6:30. Then we get another phone call, his assistant would be there at 6:30. Okay, so we showed up then.
We waited at the giant wooden door and waited. Finally around 7 p.m. a woman walks up, fumbles with some ancient skeleton keys and lets us in. The place has an elevator from the early 1900s and it’s actually pretty cool.
She says it’s the oldest in the city. It’s a nice elevator but only holds two people, so some of us walk up the four floors on the beautiful old staircase and some of us take the elevator. My poor pack mule husband who was carrying both our backpacks up got to ride it up.
A stench hits us when the lady opens the door to the “hotel.” It’s some serious cigarette smoke, and we hear some men loudly talking in the first bedrooms near the entrance. I hold my breath as we go by their rooms. You can hear our footsteps on the old wooden floors. The building seems ancient and reminds me of an old school dormitory or better yet, a convent. Wooden floors, artificial flower arrangements from another decade or so and old wooden furniture with dusty doilies, like the kind your elderly grandmother had.
“We’re staying at some old Italian grandma’s house,” James says.
The assistant shows us where the shared bathrooms are on the way in, and we see a lady sitting by the receptionist desk. A receptionist? Where was she when we were waiting by the giant door? Apparently, we just had to buzz her, and she would have let us in. We thought we did. We’re perplexed. Why didn’t the owner just tell us that? We walk down the long wooden halls with our footsteps echoing down the corridor. I feel like I’m in the movie, “The Shining,” waiting for the ghostly twin girls to appear at the end of the hallway, but here we are. We are at the door of our room. There are three single cot-like beds in the double room Mike and I booked. We can just push two of them together, the lady tells us. So we do.
There are also two small disposable plastic cups on a small table, about the size of the type you use to rinse your mouth in, and we are informed we can get water down the hall in the bathroom. No sink or faucets in the bedroom, or mirrors, for that matter. Do vampires live here? I’m silently shrieking inside, we have to drink water from the bathroom faucet where people use the restroom? This was not worth the $30 dollars I saved. I’ll just have to be thirsty.
Meanwhile Carolyn and James are shown to their room which is like an old dorm room and a quarter of the size of ours with only two single beds. We tell Carolyn she can come sleep in our room if she feels too claustrophobic. We have the extra bed. She doesn’t but should have because she said she was up the entire night because every time she turned over her bed squeaked loudly and she could hear every move in the hotel as well. Mike and I sleep pretty well thanks to the down comforters with covers that were super soft, but I was a little thirsty. We had to be up at 4 a.m. to be at the bus station for 5 a.m. in order to catch our flight from Venice to Nice.
So what is the moral of the story. We survived. The place wasn’t filthy, just ancient. The bed covers were amazing. We could have been stuck out on the street somewhere in the cold. And yes, I broke down in the morning and drank some of the water out of the old bathroom faucet. I mean, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom, what was the difference?
Looking back I realize I’m more than just a little spoiled about creature comforts. I don’t know if it’s my age or our culture that says everything has to be exactly how we want it to be. We think we can’t inhale cigarette smoke and we think we shouldn’t drink water from a bathroom faucet. But everything can’t be clean and washed and pressed in life. Life is not always perfectly comfortable, especially when you are traveling. You are going to come in contact with bad smells and uncomfortable conditions if you are truly taking a journey. I’m sure there are many younger people who are used to traveling in hostels or in third world countries where things like this are normal and part of the experience. If I had booked a hostel, I guess I would have expected more discomforts. But there is that stubborn word, “expected.” Often times in life, that is the problem. Things don’t meet our expectations. But are they enough? Are our needs met? And I look back more than a little ashamed that I was so unappreciative of the beginning of what was to be a beautiful adventure. My next posts will show the more glamorous side of the journey, but for now, I’ll be more grateful for what I am given, even water from a public bathroom faucet.
“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”
On the day after Easter Sunday our landlord Edvard told us there was a festival we should consider attending. The week before we had been away from Croatia traveling in Denmark, then had returned home and gone sightseeing around Croatia with our guests from Hungary, so I guess we were more than a little tired. Actually, we were quite exhausted. (But if you are like my daughter, Sarah, you are not really feeling too sorry for me right now.)
Anyway, Edvard mentioned two things about this festival that peaked our interest: one was that it was centered around Istrian wine and another was the setting of the festival was a small medieval village called Gračišće, which is surrounded by vineyards and boasts panoramic views of the Učka mountain range and the Julian Alps of Slovenia.
The price to enter the 25th annual Festival of Wine 2018 was a mere 10 euro ($12 USD) and with that fee, you received: a wine glass with a little bag to carry the glass around your neck, a wine guide with each maker and their offerings, and a plethora of wines around the village to sample. Since I used to work the wine tastings at the Wine Market in Slidell, Louisiana, with my lovely friends Michelle and Doug Reker, I thought it might be interesting to taste some of the local wines we had been encountering in the stores in Croatia.
The entrance ticket to the festival allows you to sample all of the 251 wines from 82 winemakers in the Istrian region. Quite the bargain! (Or quite the hangover if you are ambitious enough to try them all!) Festival goers walk in and out the medieval buildings to sample the delicious Istrian wine offerings. Delicious local food was offered for sale as well.
Considering that over 10,000 visitors were expected to attend the festival, we thought it would be a great chance to immerse ourself in the local culture.
The visitors were said to be primarily from Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Italy. We can attest to the fact that there were few if any other Americans there. Carload after carload of people pulled up to the little mountain town which had men in fluorescent colored vests directing traffic onto large fields on the outskirts of the city which served as parking areas for the festival guests.
Many of them were local Croatians from nearby cities and villages, but not all as we found out.
At one point Carolyn accidentally bumped into a petite leather clad Italian biker who was very chic-looking with her jet black hair and carrying her shiny black helmet. The alleys through the town were quite small and crowded, and by this time, we had sampled quite a few wines. Still, the woman gave her an unnecessary scowl and said rather sharply, “Tranquillo!!” (Calm down!). Carolyn apologized profusely (her and I were both already “tranquillo”), but she was perplexed as to what exactly she had done to receive the wrath of the biker lady. Luckily, none of us spoke Italian, so we’ll never know. So yes, we met at least one Italian.
Other than that, the crowd seemed like it was mostly Croatians, and besides the encounter with the biker, everyone we met was extremely friendly. A little pushy sometimes to get to the wine counters (aren’t we all?), but friendly none the less. Below is a picture of the inside of the amazing little medieval cottages the crowds flowed in and out of to get their wine samples.
And here is a photo of a very friendly girl who posed for us while pouring Carolyn a wine sample. She said that not too many people from the USA normally attended the festival.
The most amazing thing about the festival had to be that thousands of people were walking around a village that had been there for centuries with many of the buildings almost like they were 500 years ago. In the photo below, festival goers stroll around St. Mary’s Church which was built in 1425! I found a fascinating blog called “Istria Outside My Window,” which tells the whole history of the town and its buildings for those who are interested in reading more about this beautiful little village. There is even a post from the blog about St. Mary’s Church.
One of my favorite things about the festival besides the old medieval buildings and churches were the locals playing music throughout the streets. One band came strolling through the streets like a second line band in New Orleans and made me feel right at home.
Other musicians stood in the alleyways and on doorsteps and belted out Croatian folk music. For some of the songs, the crowd would join in singing. Even the younger generation was carrying on the tradition as we saw a very young trio of musicians playing the traditional instruments and songs surrounded by younger couples waltzing around the group. However, this accordion player on the right in the bottom photos won the prize. He played straight from his heart.
Sometimes you are asked to do something you had not planned on doing. Maybe even thought of doing. Or dreamed of doing. That is what happened to Mike and I when we were asked by a good friend to host a foreign exchange student.
Our children were grown and living on their own. Our youngest, Marina, was planning a wedding, and the house was very quiet. Almost too quiet. Still, would we have thought to bring a teenage girl into our home to relive another year of high school and all the responsibilities that go along with that?
We went back and forth about it. It was almost like the decision-making process you have when you are thinking of having a baby. Is this the right time? Can we provide everything she needs? Do we have the time and energy to give her the attention she deserves?
Fast forward three years later and we are sitting in Croatia with that fearless, spunky young Hungarian woman that we are so glad we welcomed into our lives and her very lovely family sharing a bountiful Easter meal. Living here in Croatia has allowed us to not only meet her family but spend a unforgettable holiday that we will always cherish.
Meeting the Leitner family was such a pleasure for us as we had only met them through Skype when Dorka was living with us in Louisiana. We felt an immediate bond with them as only those who have shared the trials and tribulations of raising teenagers can.
Béla and Zsuzsa, Dorka’s parents, and Dorka and her little sister Luca, brought with them a Hungarian bounty of foods including Tokaji wine, paprika, a huge slab of smoked bacon, ham, cheese and sausage and the infamous pálinka that Dorka had warned me about. The food was incredibly delicious. And for those of you who have never had the pleasure of trying palinka, it’s a very strong fruit Brandy that the Hungarians drink for celebrations that was invented in the Middle Ages. It’s very potent and was an immediate icebreaker. In the picture below, you can see it in the cool corked bottle. It’s half empty. This was the morning after we met the Leitners.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” — Ernest Hemingway
Béla gave a heartwarming toast after they arrived and we chugged our glasses of palinka and wiped the tears from our eyes. Was it the toast or the palinka? We may never know. What I do know is that sometimes you need to take a step out of your comfort zone and do something that you have not planned on doing. It may be a lot of work. It may be uncomfortable and difficult at times.
For example, a few days after Dorka arrived we had a serious family emergency, and she had to live through it with us and adjust to what we were going through. It could have made things very difficult for our relationship with her, but it only strengthened it and brought us closer. Throughout her time living with us, there were many moments of joy, laughter and silliness. And many Taco Tuesdays as Dorka became a true Mexican food fan with my daughter Sarah and son-in-law Jonathan. But there was also heartache and pain with the death of my father-in-law and the illness of my father. I think we all grew as a result of the situation.
Dorka became part of our family and will always be a part of it. And now that we have met her parents and her sister, they, too, have become a part of our family. We hope to see them again before we leave for the USA. So I have nothing but gratitude for that friend who asked us to become a host family. (Really, thank you, Ron Davis!)
This picture above taken in Rovinj summarizes the incredible year we spent with Dorka: sunny but with life’s storms to overcome in the distance; like the water, clear and deep, like the limestone, hard but beautiful beyond belief.
By the way, for all you New Orleanians, don’t think I didn’t introduce our favorite Hungarian family to the food we all know and love in New Orleans! When they arrived, I made gumbo and jambalaya which everyone loved. I took a picture of the preparations but forgot about the finished product.
And we had to have a Taco Tuesday with the Leitner family, even though we did it on Easter Sunday. We shared a wonderful Mexican meal complete with guacamole, tacos and burritos with Dorka, Luca, Béla, Zsuzsa and Carolyn and James. Good times. May you all be so fortunate to enjoy such a moveable feast with old friends and new!