A Love Letter to Croatia

As a young mother you never really appreciate how much you will love your children when they are newly born and how that love will exponentially grow throughout their lives.  I remember as soon as I delivered my youngest daughter Marina, I heard her sweet cry and she sounded like a little lamb. I fell in love with her immediately based on those little bleats, and I hadn’t even seen her yet.

When my middle daughter Madelyn was two days old, Mike and I were singing, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” to her in the hospital, and she opened her eyes very brightly and began looking around like newborns do in that semi-blind manner, and I was completely in love with her. Just dumbstruck.

It was no different with my oldest. When my firstborn Sarah was five months old, I heard a halting “ma-ma” from the back of the car, and I looked at her confused because I thought I was hearing things. Did she really say “mama”? She said it again and for the hundredth or so time in her short little life, I was in love all over again. This love has continued to blossom throughout the decades of all of their lives, and now that they are in their twenties, those feelings have multiplied a thousand times over.

So I haven’t exactly birthed a country, but my feelings on Croatia are undergoing a similar metamorphosis.  They are multiplying. Compounding monthly, weekly. Sometimes even daily. fullsizeoutput_4931

On my first visit, our friends James and Carolyn picked us up at the train station in Trieste, Italy, and as they drove us into Croatia for the first time, I was amazed at the green, verdant hills and the endless olive groves and the little wooden stands selling lavender, fig preserves and honey on the roadsides. We continued to Pula with broken castles in the distance and stony grape orchards set amongst the rusty red soil. The weather started to look a little shaky in the distance, but a giant rainbow appeared across the sky. It was a cool, crisp, windy day in October, and I was in love.

“That’s a sign we are meant to be here,” said Carol, who has taken this journey with us. And I had to agree.

Since that time I have swum in the sparking, cool Adriatic and walked its white stony beaches in awe. I have visited the little town of Rovinj with its tiny batana boats and limestone pathways, and my feelings have grown even more.

fullsizeoutput_53a5After seeing the Roman Arena in Pula and discovering the ancient Roman history of the area, I fell hard again. We are living where the gladiators fought and the Romans built their first communities. It’s exhilarating.

 

 

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I see it in my husband Mike as well. He takes a bike ride each evening to see the sunset over the sea and comes back brimming with excitement. One evening he stumbled upon an ancient stone quarry about a five-minute bike ride from our apartment. “This is where they got the stone to build the Roman amphitheater in Pula,” he said amazed. Who wouldn’t be? It was almost in our backyard.

A few months later we traveled with my good friend Liz to Plitvice Jezera, a world renown national park that has a multitude of clear, blue waterfalls and lakes so transparent that the fish look like they are suspended in midair. A few days later we  went with her to Split and witnessed an outdoor mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi at Diocletian’s Palace, and we were dumbfounded at such a spiritual and majestic celebration set inside the ancient Roman walls of the old town.IMG_3119

Perhaps the most important part of this journey has been the people. The people like our landlord, who treats us like family dropping off figs, local honey and homemade cookies. The locals, who humbly marvel that we love the country so much, and patiently listen to our broken attempts at Croatian.  The waiters who all speak English, German, Italian (and possibly Russian or other languages) and calmly try to teach us a few words of Croatian here and there. Some are just thrilled that we even attempt to speak Croatian and give us a “Bravo” when we say something correctly. One young man fist-bumped me when I said, “Samo malo,” meaning “Only little!” when he asked if I wanted some more water. How could you not love people who are so humble and genuine?

There is almost no crime here and when you meet the local people, you realize why.

For example, during the World Cup Finals, we went to the restaurants for most of the games since Croatia had qualified for the playoffs and the atmosphere was electric. My daughter Sarah and Jonathan were visiting the week of the semifinals, and we decided to go to a small restaurant where we knew the wait staff for the Croatia vs. Denmark game.  The whole place was full, but we were able to get a table. Everyone had on the red and white checkerboard jerseys with the names and numbers of all the famous Croatian soccer players. Red streamers, funny hats, a few blow horns, the whole nine yards. Think Saints’ game enthusiasm, my New Orleans’ peeps, and you get the idea.

Everyone in the restaurant was rooting for Croatia. Everyone, that is, except a small table of four in the far corner, where a family of Danish people sat with their two children: one a ten-year old boy who sported a Danish soccer shirt. The game was close all the way through, so it was very tense, but every time Denmark scored that one table got very, very loud, and in my opinion, a little obnoxious. Well, not just in my opinion. They cheered just a little too long and a little too loud and aggressively. Aggressive as in beat on the table for several minutes aggressive. You could see people getting a little uneasy with their extreme enthusiasm, but no one said anything.  Sarah, Jonathan, Mike and I exchanged glances, and we wondered how this was going to end.

Well, if you happened to have watched the World’s Cup finals, you know that in that particular game Croatia won in the final seconds of the game. This was history in the making. The restaurant erupted in cheers, everybody was jumping up and down and hugging and high-fiving each other, when I saw the waiter run to the bar and rush back with some rakia, a Croatian brandy that is passed out during celebrations and happy occasions. I thought he was bringing it to the large table full of Croatians celebrating, but he walked right up to the Danish family.

He then handed the adults each a glass, bowed deferentially to them and held out his hand for a handshake. A Croatian man with his young son then walked over up to the Danish family and shook hands as well, and they took a photo together. That the people in that restaurant had the empathy in their moment of victory to acknowledge their rivals so respectfully sent shivers up my spine. You could see the young Danish boy was heartbroken as it meant Denmark would not go on to the final games, but I think he got a much more important lesson that day than any happiness a Danish victory would have given him.

Those are just a few of the stories. We’ve had older people talk to us at bus stops explaining the history of the region and the war that was only 20 or so years ago. They talk to us like we are old friends and tell us their stories. It’s hard not to love that.

The people are kind, the scenery is breathtaking, and I’ve already written of our love for the olive oil, but we also love the brancine (sea bass), the sardinelas (grilled sardines) and the blitva (spinach, garlic and olive oil with potatoes) and a host of other delicacies that we have come across. And I have to confess that I’ve been taking pictures of fruit since we got here. Yes, I can’t help myself. It grows everywhere and it is something that I love about this place. It’s like California in that everyone has some sort of fruit tree growing in their yards. They have kiwi growing over the trellises that cover their carports, grapes on their fences, pomegranates on the trees and don’t forget the apple and olive trees in the yards or in empty lots. And the fig trees. Geez, it’s like fruit heaven.

I had another crush of happiness a few weekends ago driving through the countryside near the tiny hilltop town of Buzet watching people harvest the grapes we’ve been watching ripen on the vines everywhere we go. We almost got hit by a speed demon driver (Did you know that Mario Andretti was born near Buzet in the town of Motovun in Croatia? Believe me, his relatives are still speeding around the Croatian countryside by the driving I’ve witnessed😳.) The driver was trying to get around a tractor with a trailer behind it spilling over with grapes.

The grapes were shining in the sunlight, more than I’d ever seen in one place at one time, and I found some more of them at the festival we visited a few hours later in the hilltop town of Buzet. The woman who was selling them had three varieties and handed me a generous little bunch of each to try. I filled up a bag of the big purple globes of the Concord variety to take home and thought about the precious gift of being able to watch the vines grow all throughout the countryside from rough, brown, twisting trunks to shooting green vines, from tiny little pebble-like spheres to the perfection of harvest, and how it made me appreciate their value all the more.IMG_3709

As I watch Croatia move forward into the twenty-first century, I see their growing pains and know, like my children, the country is not perfect. About 25 per cent of the country’s youth is moving away each year because there are few opportunities beyond those in the tourism industry. Many complain of the government’s corruption and its lack of investment in the farming communities allowing foreign importers to run small farmers out of business. These are just a few of their concerns, but watching the hard work of those that remain here, their intelligence and willingness to learn, their compassion and fair-mindedness, I have no doubt the country’s future is a bright one. And though it is not perfect, it is perfectly lovable.

The Beautiful Doors of Dublin: an Open and Shut Case

Dublin has some beautiful, majestic and electric-colored doors that stop and dazzle passersby.  On our recent trip to Ireland, we found a multitude of different colors on a variety of entranceways that turned a outing from our lodging in Rathmines to the city center into a pleasant trek of door-watching.

One of my favorite things about traveling to the small cities throughout Europe is ogling the old wooden doors: some bare, some with their peeling paint or glossy finishes, some dressed up with fancy door knockers of all kinds or with hinges that harken back to another era.

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Here is a an old wooden door I saw in the small town of Vodnjan in Croatia.

In Ireland, the doors had a different twist. They were dressed in all the colors of the rainbow and then some, and provided a little magic to the otherwise monotone streets of neutral-tone brick buildings.

In some of the neighborhoods it gave a little personality to an otherwise homogenous landscape. When searching for the origins of these colorful entrances, I found that is exactly why residents as far back as the 1700s began to paint their doors.

According to the Irish Culture and Customs website, it started in 1700 when Dublin residents who felt confined by the strict Georgian architectural requirements on their residences started using the doors and transom windows to express their individuality or to make their properties stand out. “In order to set themselves apart, the former residents of Georgian Dublin painted their front doors whatever color they fancied, added ornate knockers, elegant fanlights above the door, and wrought iron boot scrapers near the entrance,” says Bridget Haggerty in her article, “Whose behind the doors of Dublin?”

 

 

 

The beautiful doors reminded me of my mother’s door back in Abita Springs, Louisiana painted a bright hue of pink that never fails to warm my heart when I visit.  (It also reminded me of how much I miss her since I have been traveling abroad and living in Croatia.)  The yellow and purple doors I saw standing next to one another on a street in the city center were reminiscent of the bold colors of my alma mater Louisiana State University.

Our doors often offer windows into our personalities, our hearts and our tastes. Some people like to blend in, to keep their door in the style of their home. Some like a dignified entrance and use distinguished colors and brass-plated door knockers. Others like the glitzy, cut glass doors which reflect the light and illuminate the home. Colorful doors provide a way to give your house a little spark of cheerfulness and personality. It’s also a way to add some charm to your old battered wooden door, especially if the door needs restaining (I speak from experience).

Besides the penchant for colorful doors, Dubliners definitely have a way of brightening up their streets and storefronts with colorful colors, flowers, lights and personality.

 

It sure makes a long walk into a city more interesting and appealing.  At least that’s what it seemed to do in Dublin.

I think it’s an open and shut case.

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Even this beautiful church in Dublin had its doors painted a lovely shade of red.

On Pašte and Patience

fullsizeoutput_55b8What a difference a week makes! School started this week in Pula, the tourist crowd is dwindling down to a enjoyable amount, and there is a hint of autumn in the air with the temperatures hovering in the mid-to-high 70s.  The rocky beaches that were swarming with people from all over Europe are now dotted with a few here and there, and we are not getting mowed down on our street by speedy German, Italian, Slovenian and Austrian drivers in a race to find the closest beachside parking spots.

With harvest season on the horizon, it’s fast becoming the popular food festival time here in Istria.  Istria is the peninsula we live on by the northwest side of Croatia just next to Italy and Slovenia.  Olive oil, truffles, wine, grapes, sir (cheese), prosciutto, and of course, the infamous Istrian truffles, are all celebrated in the fall months in Croatia. However, one food festival held mid-summer was all about another well-loved food here in Istria, “pašte” (pronounced “pash-tah”), or as we know it,  pasta.

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Fuži is the popular pasta handmade in Istria by the locals.  The spindle shaped delicacy can be found in restaurants and konobas (small homestyle taverns which cook food over an open fire) all over the peninsula.

Although in the U.S. pasta is primarily known as an Italian food, many people don’t realize that the Istrian peninsula was once a part of Italy.  Rome built the city of Pula, Venice ruled the peninsula in the 1500s, and most of the area went back to Italy after World War I for a period of time.  Because of this, many people in the area speak Italian or a mixture of Croatian and Italian. This language melting pot can be really confusing if you are trying out the few words you know in Croatian, and they look at you like you are crazy.  I speak from experience.  Anyway, this mixture of cultures also makes their Istarski fuži pasta quite delicious as a result.

We attended the Istarski Festival Pašte in July held in the courtyard of the beautiful village of Zminj with its small castle walls that were built in medieval times. The village is typical of many in Istria with its old town center sitting on top of a hill filled with beautiful stone buildings amidst cobblestone streets and topped with a bell tower from the Church of St. Michael. One of the amazing things about Croatia is that many of the festivities here are held among ancient buildings and structures that give ordinary events a priceless ambience. (For example, they hold pop concerts in the ancient Roman arena in Pula.)

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The view from the castle walls in Žminj where the Istarski Festival Pašte was held. Families from all over Istria attended the event. 

 

Traditions, traditions

My daughter Sarah and her husband Jonathan visited us mid-summer, and we had quite a good time on the old Kaštel (castle) grounds at the festival sipping Istrian wine, sampling craft beer, and eating the pasta. That is, once we got it.  It was quite an ordeal to achieve this and had to do with another little known fact about Croatians. They don’t have a lot of respect for the line, or queue as its known in the UK. This means they cut ahead sometimes.

“Ah, yes, this is Croatian tradition,” says my tongue-in-cheek landlord Edvard.

We saw this tradition in full effect at the festival as the line for the pasta buffet turned into just a mass of people just surrounding each other waiting and talking as more Croatians joined in to make the mass even larger.

Line Jumping Classifications

On a side note, I’ve noticed there are several type of line jumpers here:

First is the “here is my friend I haven’t seen in ages, let me talk to her and bring my whole family to join in the line in front of these people who have been waiting forever” line cutters.   Then there is the one person in line who is holding a spot for 10 other people who show up at various times in front of you, much to your surprise. Of course there is always “the meander in front of you pretending not to know how far the line goes back” cutter. The list goes on.

“Ah, yes, this is Croatian tradition,” says my tongue-in-cheek landlord Edvard.

When we waited at the police office for our visa applications, we found another type of line jumper. And there they even printed out numbers to avoid people skipping the queue. This type was the “I just have one small question for the clerk” line cutter. Needless to say, everyone in line had just one small question for the clerk. That’s why we had the numbers. But these people didn’t feel like waiting when they saw how long the line was and were so sincere in their pleas that the clerk often waited on them to the detriment of everyone else in line. Carolyn, James, Mike and I got pretty good at standing shoulder to shoulder and nose to back to block your garden variety line cutters when the ticket machine was broken at the station, which happened several times. Ah, those were trying days. Not really though.  It’s nothing we haven’t experienced waiting for a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, so I guess line jumpers are a universal problem. But I digress.

We made it!

We finally made it closer to the pasta buffet when a lady from the festival decided that the mob should be separated in half, and one half was brought to the other end of the buffet line. Then it was just mayhem and people were cutting like crazy. Mike and I have discussed many times that Croatia could really use some outside help in setting up more efficient processes. They were definitely needed here.

Finally we fought our way up to the unfortunate folks (I think it was three) that had the monumental task of serving all the different pastas to a hundred or so people and got our dishes. Of course the pasta was incredibly delicious (I’ve yet to have a bad pasta dish in Croatia), and it was served on really nice plates for festival fare, but next time we won’t come hungry. Or we’ll come after we try some Istarski pašte at a konoba first. Konobas are family run restaurants that cook a lot of their food over open fires in stone ovens. Rustic and quaint, they are an interesting and cozy experience all in themselves.

Anyway, Jonathan was really hungry and went back for second go in the line (he’s a brave soul) and accidentally ordered a ravioli that turned out to be a dessert. He thought it was shrimp ravioli because, of course, the signs were in Croatian.

He was very disappointed and almost considered a third attempt in the line, but alas, went and got a Croatian craft beer instead. Yes, they had that, too, at the festival. They had a whole section set up for a variety of craft beers with catchy names which the beer lovers in our group enjoyed immensely. And most importantly for my husband in that section was that they were playing an incredible selection of vintage rock music from English and American musicians, as well some really unique renditions, that made us feel right at home.

Back to the Pašte…

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What was really fun there was watching the ladies hand roll the different types of pašte. It was a beautiful process and was interesting to watch them roll out the dough and cut it, then shape it into what looked like tiny canollis to me. For one type, they just pulled off little pieces of dough from their dough ball and rolled them by hand. They had simple ingredients and they worked very fast. The festival offered their creations served with truffles, mushrooms,  meat and gravy, or vegetables and olive oil and cheese. Delicious!

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I know I’ve been complaining about the line cutters, but Croatians are extremely kind people, especially to foreigners in their country, and I don’t want to give the impression that they are not in any way. They really have been nothing but kind to us and part of the reason we like it here so much is the friendly nature of the people here. Croatians are also very loving, devoted parents, and their kids seem happy and carefree everywhere we go. At the festival they had tables set up for the children to make their own pasta with machines, and they were having a blast.

Croatian children got a chance to try their hand at making their own pasta at the Žminj Istarski Feste Pašte. They took their jobs very seriously.

So the moral of the story is to not go to the pašte fest hungry and have a little patience. Go with an open mind and an open heart.  Good advice for any visit to a festival!

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Here is a picture of my lovely daughter Sarah in front of some Roman ruins that were found during the construction of a building in Pula. The bench has a quote from US author Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

Trading Beautiful for Beautiful

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It’s May 12th and we are on our way to Bologna, Italy by car from Croatia. It’s a symphony of red poppies as they are blooming everywhere along the roadside in our new hometown of Pula.  I’ve never seen red poppies blooming outside of photographs, and the landscape doesn’t seem quite real dotted with these red circular flowers growing in the wild.

The barren twisted brown grapevines that we passed just a few weeks ago are now bursting with leaves and reaching for the skies.

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They naturally know the right direction, and as we head off to Italy, I wonder, do we? Why are we leaving one beautiful place for another?

And it truly is a beautiful sight as we pass through the rugged Croatian countryside on the way to Italy.  You pass through olive orchards full of trees with gnarled branches of sage and silver leaves. The fertile ground that they are planted in is full of white stones covered with the ubiquitous rusty red soil of Istria.

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The dirt here seems to be filled with nature’s own Miracle-Gro as the plants here don’t just seem to bloom, they seem to burst forth with colorful flowers and bright green leaves at a rate which I have never seen.

 

Little circular stone houses can be seen from the highway sitting to the side of vineyard and olive groves.fullsizeoutput_48c4 The unique huts, known as “kažuni,” were traditionally used as shelters for farmers and shepherds as they worked the land. The huts gave them respite from the weather as they worked the land.  Their geometric shapes give a semi-primitive and uniform aspect to land, which also has stone walls blocking off farms and tracts of land. Farmers had to clear the rocky land from stones and in doing so built fences and kažuni from the cleared stones.

Why are we leaving one beautiful place for another?

As you drive down the highway throughout the Istrian peninsula in Croatia, you can see medieval villages on hills in the distance with their pointed bell towers and red terra-cotta roofed homes circling the hilly countryside. They all seem to bear a striking resemblance to one another and again, the uniformity gives the landscape a calm, peaceful feel. Historically the villages were built on hills with protective stone walls to keep out invaders, but now they just add to the beauty of this rugged, hilly terrain.

We travel for about an hour or so until we come up to the border crossing for Slovenia, as you have to pass through a small portion of Slovenia to get to Italy from Croatia. Cars are lined up for at least a mile already, and one car has overheated during its wait. Its distraught occupants are all crowded around the hood like surgeons around an operating table.  Their journey has been temporarily halted, like many of ours in life. It’s a minor aggravation that will hopefully push them forward and make them appreciate their journey more once it has resumed.

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Onward we travel, through the Italian countryside which provides a contrast to the Croatian one. The trees turn tall and pointy, or short and spherical, the soil changes to a light brown color, and the grassy fields become more manicured. Still you can watch miles and miles of  incredibly beautiful vineyards and olive orchards, although they are on much larger plots of land. In fact, I start to spy more and more tractors, which aren’t a common sight on the Croatian landscape, and more luxurious villas as we move closer to Venice.  It’s trading one type of scenery for another, both of which are lovely in their own way.

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Photo by Roland Dumke on Pexels.com

 

As we journey onward, I reflect back on the beauty of Southern Louisiana with its cypress-kneed swamps, bright fuchsia azaleas and mossy oak trees, and of my friends and family there who are gathering eating spicy crawfish and drinking cold beer that I have traded temporarily for fresh olive oil, whole grilled sea bass, wild asparagus with Istrian wine. Both are delicious and exotic and yet are so different.

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Why do we search for places that are beautiful and different from our own? What is this wanderlust that is so strong in some people’s natures and not others? As I travel onward to Bologna, I only know one thing: The journey is breathtaking, but what I leave behind is equally so.

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And yet… this wanderlust I feel is stronger and it carries me forward like the tide….. I will continue to move with it until I can no longer.

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On Being Grateful and the Nature of Traveling

fullsizeoutput_3e33We 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.

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James and Carolyn in the oldest elevator in Trieste.

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?fullsizeoutput_15c3

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.

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“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

“Moj Grad Je Vinograd” (My Town is a Vineyard): Festival of Wine 2018 in Gračišće

fullsizeoutput_456aOn 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.)IMG_0753

 

 

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.

 

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“The hills are alive with the sound of” accordions. Accordions? Yep, accordions. This is the incredible view from the medieval town of Gračišće which hosts a large Istrian wine festival each year with plenty of local food and traditional music.

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.

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Mike, James and Carolyn at the Festival of Wine 2018 in the medieval town of Gračišće, 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.

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When you live in Grasčiče, signs like the center one that say, “My town is a vineyard” are appropriate

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.

 

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Carolyn and I are “molto tranquillo” at the Festival of Wine. James and Mike wish they were this “tranquillo.”

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.

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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.

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This sweet young woman posed for us at one of the wine counters in one of the small medieval buildings that served as booths for the wine tasting.

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.

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Guests at the Festival of Wine 2018 wander around the beautiful medieval church of St. Mary in Grasčiče.

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.

 

The Viking Museum at Roskilde

IMG_0915Just a short day trip from Copenhagen is a place that was a must-see for my seafaring husband, and I have to admit, I was pretty excited to go there as well. That place was the Viking Museum (or Vikingeskibs Museet) in Roskilde, Denmark, which houses five original sailing vessels from the 11th century.

If you think of what that means,  these boats, which were dug up in the fjord near Roskilde in 1962, were used, touched, and sailed by the actual Vikings!! So grab your Viking spangenhelm (helmet) and come along with us!

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Mike rocking a spangenhelm. (photo by Carolyn Stewart)

As you enter the parking lot for the museum, you notice the museum itself is not just one building but a group of buildings complete with an area near the harbor which is lined with many different types of Scandinavian sailing vessels, both large and small. The buildings house workshops where students are able to learn how to do various types of shipbuilding, woodworking and sailing related crafts like rope-making and sail-making.

On the day we visited, we saw a group of college-age students doing woodworking with traditional tools from the Viking period. In the indoor workshop, the students worked to plane a rudder scraping and sanding it with primitive tools.  All of the work done on the grounds is done with period tools including the felling of trees, splitting of the wood and actually constructing the boats.

It was freezing outside because we were there on a rather cold March day, so there were not many people visiting the museum, but I’m sure in the warmer months the place must be bustling with action. But in true Viking style, Mike, Carolyn and I braved the cold weather, donned our Viking garb and set forth to see the sailing vessels.

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Mike knows it’s serious business being a Viking, but I’m just happy to be along for the ride. (photo by Carolyn Stewart)

The main reason for our visit were the actual longships and sailing vessels that were inside the large Viking Ship Hall.  These five vessels were actually sunk on purpose a thousand years ago in order to make a defense barrier in the fjord as an underwater obstacle to thwart invaders.

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This ship was found in 1962 and was pieced together after the restoration process was complete. In the background, Mike admires the actual prow of the sailing vessel.

It’s truly incredible to come so close to a piece of history and to imagine the men who built the vessel and sailed it.  Thinking of what their lives must have been like, the harsh conditions they faced, their pagan beliefs and perseverance really makes you wonder how you would have survived in such an environment.

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Learning about the excavation process for the ships was just as interesting as seeing the ships themselves. The archeologists had to rope off an area of the fjord and drain it to begin mapping out the wreck site. The thick planks of wood which make up the vessels had been underwater for so long that they had to devise a way to keep the wood from shrinking and disintegrating when they took it out of the water. The wood had to be kept moist as it was dug up, and then placed in a chemical solution for a long period of time until the wood was preserved enough for it to be freeze-dried.

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A close up of the thousand year old planks that make up the Viking vessels.

While the museum collection is based on these five Viking ships that were excavated at Skuldelev in Roskilde Fjord in 1962, it also has a working boatyard where it has made replicas of the five ships and other Scandinavian longships. In the summertime, visitors are able to take cruises on a longship and help row it across the fjord and set the sails.

IMG_0915“From the museum’s own harbour, you can cruise around the beautiful Roskilde fjord and admire the museum’s large collection of traditional Nordic boats,” according to the Visit Copenhagen website.

It is incredible that the remains of these ships have survived so many years.  I highly recommend a visit here if you find yourself in the Copenhagen area.  It is an easy day trip as it’s only 1/2 hour away from the city, and you can also visit the Roskilde Cathedral while you are there, which is another fascinating destination full of history that is worth the trip to Roskilde alone.

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Carolyn tips her pink cap as she steers the Viking vessel away from the Vikingeskibbit Museet.