The Split Welcoming Committee – Making Friends Croatian Style

I have been abandoned in Split.  Claudia and I kidnapped a young Australian girl named Steph who we met on our walking tour of Diocletian’s Palace.  At the end of the tour, I am surprised when Claudia turns to Steph and asks “Would you like to join us for lunch?”  Claudia’s simple gesture of hospitality is one that we have seen repeated by Croatians and fellow tourists throughout our trip.

Croatians Unplug

It is ironic that although I learn the language of the country before I travel, we usually spend our international vacations talking to waiters and shopkeepers.  However, this trip to Croatia is different.  Croatians are warm, friendly people.  Their desire to connect with each other can be seen in their eyes and their smiles as they sit at outdoor tables sipping drinks and watching the crowd stroll by.

On our third day, as I sit sipping a glass of wine in an outdoor lounge, it finally dawns on me what is missing from Croatian coffee shops; electronics.  Croatians are not hunched over, doubled chinned, staring at their phones.  They do not look like androids with white wires connecting their ears to their laptop.  Their phones are not on the table standing sentry to their social interactions.  Their eyes do not nervously, continually glance at its screen in case some important Facebook, snapchat, Instagram, twitter, text notification might go unnoticed and unanswered for more than ten seconds.   The eyes of the Croatians in their gathering places are on each other, not on their hand held devices.   All you have to do is smile and say “Dobar Dan” or “Bok” and you will find an enthusiastic participant for an enjoyable conversation.

The tourists traveling in Croatia also get caught up in this social butterfly behavior.  Everywhere we go, we strike up conversations.  We meet a Josh from St. Louis who is traveling before graduate school as we paddle our way to Lokrum.  We meet a dancer from London at a smoothie cafe who recommends dance classes for me in the West End.  And now, we meet Steph, a young woman from Australia traveling on a budget.  She is staying at a hostel in Split.  Now Claudia, Steph and two other girls from the hostel are heading to the disco for the night.

Croatian Taxi Etiquette

Before I continue my story, let me give you some tips about taxis in Croatia.  Do not hail a taxi by sticking your arm out and whistling like you do in New York.  Not only will you not be successful, but you will immediately be charged a dumb tourist premium if a driver does take pity on you and stops.  The best way to get a taxi in Croatia is to find a taxi stand.  When the ride is done, take the nice taxi driver’s card when he tells you “call me if you need a ride.”  In Split, the smartest thing I do is take Ivan, the taxi driver’s, card.

We meet Ivan by chance when we arrive in Split.  Claudia and I drag our bags across the street from the Catamaran stop to the taxi stand.  It is late because Split is the last stop on the Dubrovnik to Split ferry line.  Ivan is cheerful.  I greet him “Dobra večer. Mi ćemo u hotel Dujam. Znate li gdje je to?” (Good evening. We are going to Hotel Dujam.  Do you know where it is?)  I have now been in Croatia for a week, so this phrase slips off my tongue without hesitation.  He smiles and responds in Croatian.  We are able to have a small talk conversation where I explain that Claudia is my daughter and that we are Americans.  He tells me that he does not believe me, he thinks I am really Croatian and that I am pulling his leg.  He is a shameless flatterer.  I like Ivan.  When we arrive, he hands me his card.  “Call me if you need a taxi while you are here.” I look at his card and see that his name is Ivan.  I laugh.  Everyone one here is named Ivan.

Diocletian’s Palace

Split is the second largest city in Croatia.  The old town is centered on the Roman ruins of the Diocletian’s Palace, Emperor Diocletian’s retirement home.  On our first morning in Split, we sign up for a walking tour of the palace.  As we wait for the tour to start, Emperor Diocletian shows up with his wife at the palace gate preceded by several Roman soldiers in full armor and bronze helmets.  This theatrical display is thoroughly entertaining, although Diocletian looks very young to be in his retirement.

Sunčana is our guide.  Her name means sunshine in Croatian.  She proudly tells us that Diocletian was the son of a liberated slave born near Split.   The palace was constructed between 295 and 305 BC in anticipation of Diocletian’s retirement.  The palace is a walled city with sixteen towers.  Twelve sphinx from Egypt were installed in the original palace.  The main street is referred to as “Cardo” or heart.  It leads from the Golden Gate to the main courtyard.  The wide road that runs through the palace is the decumanus meaning ten men.  The road was so named because ten soldiers could walk shoulder to shoulder the entire length of the street.

Diocletian was also one of the biggest persecutors of Christians in the early 4th Century.  This history makes for mixed feelings in our guide.  Croatia is a predominately Catholic county.  In the mausoleum of the palace rest the remains of two Christian martyrs, a gesture of penance for its persecuting past.

The baths of the palace had floor and wall heat via lead pipes filled with steam.  My favorite room was the vomitorium.  According to Sunčana, guests at Diocletian’s thirty entree feast could slip into this side room to empty their stomach if they found themselves too full to continue.   If the guest had a difficult time vomiting on their own, a slave would tickle their inner ear with a feather in order to induce the up-chuck reflex.  When the guest did feast in the main feasting hall, their would do so reclined on a table.

Sunčana as tells us that Split has the only fish market free of flies.  This phenomenon is due to the sulfur smell from a hidden sulfur spring.  The market is located near the silver gates of the palace.  The palace is also constructed of travertine stone from the nearby island of Brac.  This stone is unique in its ability to absorb moisture, thus the surface does not get slippery and the rooms are drained of humidity.  These travertine stones from Brac are the same stone that were used to construct the White House in Washington, D.C.

Just outside the golden gate is a giant statue of Grgur Ninski, the Medieval Croatian Bishop who convinced the Pope to allow him to give Mass in Croatian rather than Latin.  The locals believe that if you rub his toe, your wish will come true.

The Best Family Run Kanoba in Split

After our tour, we take own new friend Steph to lunch at Kod Sfinge Vaneuropski Zviri, a family run restaurant in the heart of split.  Kod Sfinge is off the main square and hard to find in the heart of Split’s old town.  We stop several times and ask before we find it hidden in a side alley.  It has a lovely outdoor courtyard.  As we peruse the menu, if see a familiar panic in Steph’s eyes as she sees the prices.  I remember that look from my starving student days.  The prices seem immensely reasonable to me from a San Francisco price point perspective. However, Steph is a student traveling on a tight budget, staying in hostels.  I reach over and touch her arm, “let me treat you to lunch.”  She seems genuinely surprised and accepts.

We order truffles in everything.  Truffles, or tartuf in Croatian, are  cheap and plentiful in Croatia.  I love the strong, unique taste.  We eat goat cheese with truffles as an appetizer.  For dessert, we gorge on palachinke, a Croatian crepe, filled with white and black chocolate mixed with truffles.  The restaurant even sells small jars of truffles to take home.

After lunch, we retrace the history of the Palace in Spit’s small museum.  In the courtyard, we taste wines from Winery Kovač, a local vineyard.  The Putalj is a delicate rosé named after the small church in Anton Kovač’s home town.

Ivan’s Card

That evening, Claudia convinces me to allow her to go to the disco in Split with Steph and her friends from the hostel.  We leave the hotel to head back to the Riva, the long pedestrian walkway that follows the harbor in Split.  Along the Riva are palm trees, convenient meeting points for young people in Split.  Claudia is to meet Steph and her friends under a pre-designated tree.

We leave our hotel to look for a cab back to town.  I do not see any nearby taxi stands nor are there taxis waiting outside the hotel lobby.  Then I remember Ivan’s card that I have stowed away in my purse.  A nice man who is shutting down his bike rental shop kindly allows me to use his phone to call Ivan.  I laugh when I learn his name is Ivan too.  Within a few minutes, my new friend Ivan the taxi driver pulls up beside us, his wide face beams with a friendly smile.

Klapa Music

At the Riva, I am abandoned by Claudia and her new friends who are now headed to the pulsating music and flashing lights of the disco at the end of the pier.  I do not have a plan.  I walk along the Riva, past outdoor tables filled with patrons having drinks and dinner.

I come upon a stage.  On the stage, a group of men sing in beautiful harmony accompanied only by a guitar.  They are dressed in white blouses and black pants with red scarves tied around their waists.  Their voices are clear and pure in the night air.  This is Klapa music.  Klapa is translated as “group of friends” in Croatian.  Their voices evoke a timeless feeling deep in my heart that sends my soul drifting backs to old legends of lost loves and homeland pride.  When the show ends, I linger, mesmerized by the music, still under its spell.  I only turn to leave then I see workers start to pack away the sound system.

The Shoe Maker, the Boat Maker and the Trouble Maker

After the show, I wander into the square in front of La Bodega.  The endless loop plays the same few songs.  The song “I Took a Pill in Ibiza”  drifts into the air, its woeful lyrics fill the night.  “You don’t ever wanna step off that roller coaster and be all alone…”  The young women stroll by in high heels and short skirts, gliding effortlessly across the cobble stones in the square.  The women look like fashion models.  The boys wear t-shirts and shorts, under-dressed compared to their elegant companions.

I sit, ignore, three decades older that the strolling crowd.  The night is beautiful, perfect, not too hot, not too cold.  “Never knowing who to trust like this, You don’t wanna be stuck up on that stage singing
Stuck up on that stage singing, All I know, are sad songs, sad songs….”  I sip the cool wine and write in my journal.

A waitress walks towards me with a glass of wine on her tray.  She leans forward, “This is from them.”  She gestures toward a group sitting on the opposite side of the square.   I take the wine, smile in their direction and lift my glass.   I hesitate for a moment, “why not?” I pick up my things and walk toward the group.

I meet a boat maker, a shoe maker and a trouble maker.  The shoe maker is Ivan Ledenko.  Maestro Lendenko is a an artistic genius in the crafting of “cipele,” or shoes in Croatian.  Ivan shows me his gallery of handcrafted shoes from his Facebook page.  His creations are beautiful.  I squeal in delight.  The trouble maker, a restaurant owner with crooked teeth, is annoyed that I find the shoes so impressive.  He keeps trying to tell me dirty jokes in Croatian that the boat maker apologetically translates.

We are soon joined by Ivana, a political journalist from Vis.  She tells me the story of her homeland.  Soon, the workers at the tavern are picking up the chairs and clearing the square.  I realize it is already 1:30 in the morning.  I head quickly back to the hotel, realizing that I have the only key to the room.

Ivan’s Card to the Rescue Again.

As I enter the lobby, I walk into the middle of a loud argument.  Steph and two young woman are yelling at a chubby, red-faced Croatian man.  “We did not throw up in your taxi.  We will not pay you.  How dare you kick young woman out of your taxi,” the young women protest.  “I am going to call the police,” says the red-faced taxi driver. The man at the front desk looks alarmed.  As I enter, Steph sees me.  “What is wrong, where is Claudia?” I ask.  “She is upstairs,” says Steph.  She looks at me “did you come from upstairs or did you just get home?”  “I just got home,” I laugh.  She looks at me and says “well done,” with admiration

I approach the angry driver.  In my best Croatian I say “U čemu je problem?” (What is the problem).  He angrily explains that the girls threw up in his taxi and are now refusing to pay him.  The girls protest that they did not throw up in his taxi and that he kicked them out for no reason.  Now they are stranded without a ride back to the hostel and they will not pay him out of principle.  The angry man says that if they do not pay him, he will call the police. I pay him, thank him and wish him a good night.  I then find Ivan’s card.  I ask the man at the front desk to call Ivan the taxi man so that these young women can get back to the hostel.  Within a few minutes, Ivan is back with his taxi and smiling face, to rescue the stranded ladies.

I find Claudia, slumped over like a rag doll waiting for me in front of the door of our hotel room.  “And when I finally got sober, felt ten years older…..”  Suddenly being three decades older made me feel infinitely wiser.

Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Eat well, drink wine, make friends and always take the taxi man’s card.

Adventure in Fluency’s Calendars for 2017: Croatia, Greece and Thailand

Just in time for 2017, we have added three new calendars that are now available for purchase.  Just visit our Adventures in Fluency store to buy yours today.  These calendars feature beautiful photographs from our trips to Croatia, Greece and Thailand.  Claudia Rodriguez, my daughter, and Frank Sandoval, my husband, are the talented photographers.  Where will your adventure in fluency be in 2017?  Let these calendars inspire you and my blog be your guide.

Life is an adventure, not a destination.

Adventure in Fluency’s Travel Inspirations for 2017 Calendar

Just in time for 2017, our new Travel Inspirations for 2017 Calendar is now available for purchase.  Just visit our Adventures in Fluency store to buy yours today.  This calendar features beautiful photographs from our trips to Paris, Greece, Venice, Thailand, Barcelona, the Caribbean, Costa Rica and Croatia.  Claudia Rodriguez, my daughter, and Frank Sandoval, my husband, are the talented photographers.  Where will your adventure in fluency be in 2017?  Let this calendar inspire you and my blog be your guide.

Life is an adventure, not a destination.

Hvar, The Sexy Party Girl Island

Hvar: The Sexy Party Girl Island

Hvar is like a hormone filled teenager compared to sleepy Korčula. Hvar wants to get you drunk and reckless.  Hvar is a sexy island scented with lavender.  There is a sexual fire that burns deep within the core of Hvar.  I can feel its heat the moment we pull into the harbor.

20161018_095756Lavender stand at Hvar habor

Our catamaran deposits us in front of the bar, Carpe Diem, at 7:30 PM.  Carpe Diem, has a boat that whisks people from the shore to an island dance club.  The club on this forbidden island disco does not even start until midnight.  As we walk towards the square to find a taxi, we pass restaurants that line Hvar’s port.  The lounge music pulsates from the interiors of the restaurants as the tourists flow by dragging their luggage.  Hvar is Croatia’s Riviera.   The dance music, the lights, the people; glamorous Hvar is just starting to wake up, stretch her long, tan legs and party.

20161018_095507The Riva of Hvar

After we drop off our bags at the Apartments Pape in the hill above Hvar Town, we return to the harbor.  By then, Havar is a gyrating, pulsating party.  Although June is the low season, the harbor is filled with beautiful people.  Each establishment has its own super-model fashionably dressed in high heels and a short skirt beckoning to the passing tourist, inviting them to read the menu. The yachts are lining up five deep along the port, unloading more beautiful people dressed in barely there fashion.

We dine at Plava Alga, one of the restaurants along the Riva.  Playa Alga has a beautiful young woman who stands in front promising us a spectacular view of the sea from their second floor outdoor balcony and delicious Dalmatian food.  She is a student who spends her summers in Hvar making money and the rest of the year studying at the university in Zagreb.  We are treated to complimentary desserts and a sweet after dinner liqueur.

After dinner, we head to Carpe Diem for a drink.  Claudia, my 20-year-old daughter, and I sit on raised seats that outline the outdoor patio, giving us an elevated view of the bar scene.  This elevated seat gives Claudia a regal appearance as if she is a princess seated on a throne.  Claudia is illuminated by the warmth of Hvar’s heat.  The luminescence from her skin creates a glow that attracts the men of Hvar to her like moths to a flame.  Hvar is casting her spell on us.  I keep seeing boats heading to the disco island leave with people and return empty.  I am suspicious.  Claudia is captivated.  A handsome first captain from a near-by yacht buys us a drink and explains that it is just a short cruise to the island.  Hmmm.  The theme of Gilligan’s Island drifts through my head, “a three-hour tour.”  Despite his best efforts, he boards his boat to disco island without us.  Next a pair of Austrians with a private charter boat offer us a ride.  “No thank you,” Claudia looks dejected.

Hvar’s intensity is irresistible, but my fear of getting burned is greater.   I look at my beautiful daughter and remember what I would have preferred at twenty.  I would have jumped on the first boat and dived straight into Hvar’s hedonistic flame, abandoning myself to the disco debauchery.  But, I am forty-nine and I hold Claudia back.  Am I motivated by the fear of what might happen to her?  Or is it maternal common sense of knowing exactly what might happen to her?  No, in reality , I am restrained by my own inability to follow her.  We are, after all, mother and daughter, not girlfriends.  No matter how much I love spending time with her, laughing at her goofy fake Russian accent or jamming to her play list, it is different.  Although I love basking in the glow of her beauty and all of the free drinks it includes, I am terrified of looking like a complete idiot in the middle of a dance floor jammed with grinding twenty-somethings.  Claudia and I return to Apartments Pape without taking the boat trip to disco island.

20161018_095557Hvar’s old town

Hung Over in Hvar

The next morning, we descend from our room at the Apartments Pape.  Our room is located in a small building at the top of a staircase not far from the harbor on the hill of cinder block houses.  The walk from the apartments to Hvar town is a short fifteen minute walk mostly along the waterfront.  At this end of the sea walk, the locals park their small commuter boats.  There is a sandy beach with a juice stand where children play as their parents lounge nearby.  The less flashy restaurants at this end are filled with smells of strudel and people beginning their day.  A man, woman and small child arrive in a tiny boat and snuggle it among the moored boats, finding their parking space for the day.  Here I hear more Croatian spoken than English.  Dobar dan, kako ste? (Good Morning, how are you?) Sve u redu (All is well).  We order in Croatian.  A man on a motorcycle with a trailer filled with food stops to make his delivery and grab a kava (coffee) with a side of gossip.  I sip my fruit smoothie hoping to quell the throb of last night’s barrage of free drinks.

20161018_100018The quiet side of Hvar Habor where the locals park their boats

On Top of Hvar, Formica Španjola

We head to Hvar’s old town to explore.  Hvar’s name comes from its Greek name Pharos.  The Greeks from Paros gave the island the name Pharos when they settled in Hvar in 384 BC, drawn by the unusually fertile plains of the island.  The fortress of Formica Španjola on the hill high above Hvar’s old town traces its original foundation to these Illyrian settlers.  When Hvar shifted to Venetian rule, the Venetians constructed the present day Fortress.  Part of the Fortress was built by the Spanish, explaining its name, “Španjola.”. The fortress  saved the island of Hvar from an attack of the Turks in 1571 when the entire town was about to take refuge within its walls.  Today, it looks down on the town, offering the best view of the sunset and, according to local legend, fairy dances at night.

20161018_102456Claudia on the path to the fortress

We wander through the maze of stairs and alleys that climb the hill of Hvar Town from the plaza to the fortress.  In the cool corners are restaurants, shops, wine bars and a public shower with drop-off laundry service.  We stop in a shop filled with brightly colored dresses and pants.  I ask to try on a dress.  A woman with curly blond hair and tan skin offers me a place to change.  I realize that behind the curtain of the changing room is the sewing room for these creation.  The woman smiles when I ask if all of these clothes are hand-made by her.  “Yes, there are all made by me.”  I slip into a long sun dress next to her sewing machine and piles of fabric.  I am sold, I buy the dress.  I ask if she has a Facebook page or a web site so I can share her beautiful work.  “No,” she responds “I do not have time for all of that.  I would just rather be here and meet the people I sell my clothes to.”

20161018_102907Posing with the dress designer

We walk to the top of the stairs, cross the street and climb the winding path to the top of Formica Španjola just in time to watch the sunset.  Hvar is spectacular from the top with the blue Adriatic below and the fuchsia and orange heavens above.

20161018_10210720161018_10224020161018_102700The view of Hvar at sunset from the fortress

The Center of the Sapphire

On our second day, we skim the waves towards the island archipelago near Hvar.  Yesterday we signed up for an all day tour on a speed boat.  Our contact is an African man dressed like a captain who sits in front of Carpe Diem launching fast talking sales pitches to passing tourists.  On our boat are couples from South Africa, Ireland, Spain and Brazil.  Claudia and I sit in the very front of the boat, the part that slams up and down the most dramatically as we crest over the waves. Our captain, Daniel, has the music turned up loud.  He is playing American pop music, a favorite here in Croatia.

As I am rocking up and down riding what feels like a wild sea-horse, the song Seven Years plays.  This song is my nine-year old son’s favorite song.  As the singer journals his life’s accomplishments from seven, to eleven, to twenty, to thirty and to sixty, I think about my life at those ages.  Sitting on a speed boat in the middle of the Adriatic Sea with my beautiful daughter when I am on the verge of fifty is exactly where I want to be.

13501772_739987152807137_557109379607724579_nOur speed boat perch after our wild ride

It is also where I never imagined I would be when I was seven when our definition of a vacation was packing up our entire house and moving annually at ages seven, eight and nine.  At twenty, Europe seemed like an exotic and unattainable destination for a college student on scholarship working my way through school.  I could barely afford to buy my own plane tickets home and spent every Thanksgiving as an orphaned guest at various friends’ houses.  At thirty, as a newly single parent of a two-year old daughter, it was a struggle to pay our rent and dig my way out of debt and student loan default.  But today, oh today, today I am on a boat in the middle of the Adriatic Sea.  The journey is even sweeter because the path was not so straight and certain.  As I listen to the song, I struggle to choke back tears.  I stare straight into the wind hoping no one will notice.  Of course, Claudia notices and squeezes my hand as she hangs on for dear life to the wild bronco boat.

20161018_103041Biševo

Our first stop is the Blue Cave on the island of Biševo. We dock our speed boat at a small harbor and transfer into a smaller motor boat.  A young man stands on the front of the boat as we approach a cliff face.  As we continue to glide directly towards this shear wall, I notice a small opening just at the water level.  The young man standing on the front of the boat orders us to crouch down.  We all double over in our seats as we enter the low cave, the ceiling just a few inches from our backs.  It is pitch black and disorienting.  I sit up when I sense rather than see that we are through the cave.  It is still pitch black. However, as we ease forward suddenly a blue glow fills the cave.  We have emerged into the center of a liquid sapphire. The blue glow turns Claudia and I into iridescent mermaids, our faces glowing blue like the creates in Avatar.  Everywhere, the water glitters like a liquid jewel with an intensely blue light.  The cave’s color comes from openings just below the caves surface that filter in the sunlight.  It is so beautiful, I do not want to leave.  However, the long line of motor boats each with a young man perched on its bow wait to enter the sapphire.

20161018_10332620161018_120324Claudia and I in the Blue Cave

After the Blue Cave, we visit the Green Cave on the Island of Vis.  Vis  has a fascinating story.  Vis spent much of its recent history serving as a military base for the Yugoslav army, cut off from foreign visitors from the 1950s right up until 1989.   I met a woman in Split from Vis. She told me that because of this isolation, the inhabitants of Vis are still a little wary of strangers.  She also told me the story of her uncle, Jozo Borčić.  He was a Croatian ballet dancer who studied at the  National Theatre in Split.  He danced in Milan, Italy with La Scala Ballet.  Now, he is the head of the international ballet summer school in Komiza on the island of Vis.

20161018_103902View from the restaurant in Molo Trovna cove

The Green Cave cast two sparkling liquid emeralds onto the surface of the water in the cave.  The Spaniard jumps in to explore while the rest of use snap pictures.  We head to what Daniel promises is most beautiful beach in the world, Stiniva, voted best beach in 2016.  We arrive at yet another cave entrance.  “Can you swim?”  Daniel asks all of us.  Funny question for him to ask now considering we have all been riding in his speed boat now for over two hours without wearing life jackets.  In Croatia, it is Darwin tourism, only the strongest survive.  “Sure'” I respond.  I can do a mean doggie paddle.  “Okay, there is the beach.”  He points to a white beach through the arches of the cave entrance.  The boat cannot pass through the small entrance into the protected cove.  We all jump in and swim for it.  The beach feels farther than it looks as I alternate between the breast stroke and a side stroke.  The beach is covered with tiny small white pebbles, making it very beautiful, but very painful on which to walk.  I drag myself onto the shore with all of the grace of a sea-lion.

After Stiniva, we stop for lunch at Molo Trovna cove and then head back to Hvar.  On the way back, we ride in the back of the speed boat. I almost prefer the bouncing bronco ride in the front.  In the back, each bounce sends massive splashes of water that soak me to the bone.  By the time we reach Hvar, I am shivering despite the 90 degree heat.  We head to the public shower just off the square of the old town and pay for a private shower.  This hot shower is worth every kuna.  We return to Carpe Diem just in time to pick up our bags and board the Catamaran to Split, our last stop on our ferry hoping portion of our Croatia trip.

As we pull out of the harbor, I take one last look at Carpe Diem. It is filled with a group of twenty-somethings all dressed in white dancing on the tables and the bar with their arms raised, bouncing in unison. It is 7:30 PM and Hvar is at it again, that tireless party girl island.

Life is an adventure, not a destination, carpe diem and be exactly where you want to be.

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Korčula, The Shy, Soothing Island

Korčula: The Shy, Soothing Island

Korčula is cool by design.  It’s old town was designed by the Venetians.  The ocean breezes weave through the carefully laid out streets designed by the Venetians to optimize the natural cooling properties of the wind.  Korčula is shy and laid back. She is the friend  who takes care of you when you need to be soothed and comforted.  She is not fancy or flashy.  She is intimate and cares deeply about her home and her inhabitants20160626_103508

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We ride to Korčula via the catamaran ferry.  Riding the catamaran to the islands is like riding a Hop On Hop Off ferry.  The line runs from Dubrovnik to Split everyday with stops at Mijet, Korčula, Hvar, Brac and Split.  We buy all our tickets for all our island stops at the Jadrolinija office in the port of Dubrovnik the day we arrive.  The tickets are very affordable and easy to purchase up front.  Buying them in advance makes island hoping easy and stress free.  The ferry is air-conditioned, has food and beverages and plenty of indoor seating.  There are shelves at the entrance on which you can store your luggage.

We arrive in Korčula on Saturday night.  My ankles are swollen.  The skin on my shins glisten with the red raw meat look of a third degree burn.  The entire island of Korčula is draped in red and white checkered banners and flags.  Everyone is wearing a Croatian soccer jersey. In the square next to the port in an outdoor amphitheater a DJ is playing American pop music next to a giant screen.  It is the day that Croatia plays Portugal in the Euro Cup in the sweat sixteen level.  As we walk to our hotel, the dreary Hotel Park, dragging our rolling suitcases behind us, we pass outdoor restaurants and bars with television screens mounted on the exterior walls.

That night, we perch precariously on a wall in the square squeezed between the entire population of the island.  All eyes are transfixed on the screen.  It is less than three minutes in the game after two extra times and the score is nil, nil.  Suddenly Croatian hits the post and the entire island erupts in shouts of joy thinking Croatia has scored.  They cheers become stifled cries of anguish as Portugal rushes to the opposite end of the field and scores amidst the confusion.   The island and all of her people hang their heads in unison.  Silence and bitter disappointment engulf the crowd.

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That night, the island’s soothing nature lulls us to sleep.  Early the next morning, we head to the old town to explore.  We climb to the top of the Revelin Tower to see the view from above the port.  The tower contains a museum dedicated to the Moreška dance.  This dance is a traditional sword dance which is performed in the courtyard of the Revelin every Thursday night.  The dance centers around two battling kings and a veiled princess.  Marco Polo is also said to have been born on this island.  Claudia buys a compass at the Marco Polo Shop.

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We eat lunch at Cafe Cupedo at outdoor tables lined up against the old town’s wall.  Unlike the walls of Dubrovnik, the walls of Korčula have been lowered to half their original height in order to capitalize on the cooling breezes that flow through the town.  Our fixed price lunch consists of bread, salad, swordfish, vegetables and fig cheese cake for the equivalent of $16.50.  Korčula also has many fine wines that are made from grapes from the island.  At a local wine shop, Tociona Vina, we test Popić Grk, a wonderfully light white wine, and Dingač, Croatia’s version of Zinfandel.

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After lunch and wine tasting, we following the stairs from the wall down to the water.  I dip my blistering legs in the cool, soothing waters.  Everything about Korčula is refreshing, the breeze, the water, the food, the wine and the people.   There are no hordes of tourists or laser pulsing discos.  There is only quiet and tranquility. We wander back to the hotel, aimlessly drifting through the pedestrian only back streets. We turn a corner and above us fly dozens of colorful umbrellas held by invisible hands.

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Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Life it in soothing peace and tranquility.

 

 

 

 

Lokrum, the Bewitchingly Beautiful Island

Island hopping in Croatia is like visiting different enchantingly beautiful women. Each island is beautiful in her own unique way.  Each island has a very distinct personality, as if the island’s spirit breaths from the core of her island and intoxicates its inhabitants with her ways.  As we travel from island to island, Claudia and I are the same people.  However, each island evokes a different mood from us and castes her own unique spell on us.

Lokrum: The Bewitchingly Beautiful Island

Lokrum, the cursed island, is only available to receive visitors during the day.  A short boat ride from the old City Harbor near the Ploce Gate in Dubrovnik, we buy our tickets from a stand in front of the boat.  Lorkum rises above the sea with a sheer wall of tan colored rocks topped by a layer of green trees.  The island is surrounded by rocks fitted with ladders that descend to the clear, cool Adriatic sea. From the small pier on the island, paths branch out with signs pointing to a cafe, botanical garden, beaches and the ruins of the monastery.

Claudia in LokrumClaudia sitting on the Lokrum pier

I want to visit Lokrum because I am fascinated by the story our Adventure Dubrovnik guide, Darijo, told us about its curse.  According to Darijo, the Benedict Monks had a monastery on the island.  One day, Archduke Maximilian Ferdinand of Habsburg came to the island and fell in love with it.   The spoiled Archduke ordered the monks to leave.  On the last night, the monks walked around the island three times with their candles held upside down so that the wax dropped on the ground.  They cursed the island so that anyone who acquired the island for their own personal pleasure would meet personal and financial doom.  After Maximilian moved his family onto the island, he was assassinated in Mexico, his wife driven insane and his son bankrupt.  Now the people believe that anyone who spends more than three nights on the island will suffer a similar fate.

DSC_0627Enchanted Peacocks

As we disembark from the boat at Lokrum’s pier, strange cries emerge from the interior of the island that sound like dinosaurs from Jurassic Park. These cries are the calls of the peacocks. The island is covered with these beautiful, majestic birds. As we walk towards the cafe, one has stopped in the path to put on a show for the visitors. He stands with his tail feathers fully unfurled, the indigo blue and green eyes on his feathers stare back at the crowd. He slowly turns like a fashion model on the catwalk so that each tourist can snap a picture. Suddenly, a small brown female peacock crosses the path in front of him. The male peacock stops dead in his tracks and begins to vibrate furiously while uttering a loud, strange buzzing noise.  His body and feathers shake at such a high velocity it is as if he is being electrocuted.  I have never seen anything like this ritual.  The female, unimpressed, continues her on her leisurely path, not even deigning to give him a glance over her shoulder.  She is completely unimpressed by his efforts.

IMG_20160625_153551A Peacock Poses on the Ruins of the Monastery

We walk passed the ruins of monastery to the olive grove in the island’s interior.  On the grass under the trees, bunnies sit munching on plants. More peacocks languidly walk between the bunnies, dragging their elegant tail feathers behind them.  It is a surreal scene to watch bunnies and peacocks decorate the quiet lawn in the serene olive tree grove.  I can feel the enchantment that haunts this island.  Claudia and I speak in low voices as if we are in church.

Beautiful Lokrum is the cursed island.  Today, only the bunnies and the peacocks spend the night as all of the tourists are ushered off the island by the authorities at nightfall.  I look at the bunnies and peacocks and wonder if any of them are enchanted tourists who dared challenge the curse and spend the night.  A chill runs down my spine and I head back to the pier to catch the next boat back to Dubrovnik.

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Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Live it with enchantment and a healthy dose of superstition.

From Sea to Sdr – 360 Degrees of Beauty in Dubrovnik

It is already 88 degrees in Dubrovnik and it is only 10:30 in the morning.  We are standing at King’s Landing in the Old City of Dubrovnik.  In front of us, workers are loading a dark brown pirate ship with explosives.  They will blow the ship to smitherines in a few days as part of a historic film.  Behind the ship are the towers of the wall and large jagged rocks.  We are about to circumnavigate the island of Lorkum in sea kayaks with Adventure Dubrovnik.

Kayaking is a lot harder than it looks.  In a few strokes, Claudia and I are in last place.  Claudia is sitting in the back as the “engine” and I am in front as the captain.  Kayaking takes great cooperation, something that is sometimes difficult for mothers and adult daughters to do.  We glide out towards the island.  The breeze from the Adriatic and the cool water splashing into the kayak finally stops the stream of sweat that has been pouring off my body for the past twenty-four hours.

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Lorkum rises above the sea with a sheer wall of tan colored rocks topped by a layer of green trees.  Darijo, our guide, stops us when we reach the island and tells us of its curse. The Benedict Monks had a monastary on the island.  One day, Archduke Maximilian Ferdinand of Habsburg came to the island and fell in love with it.   The spoiled Archduke ordered the monks to leave.  On the last night, the monks walked around the island three times with their candles held upside down so that the wax dropped on the ground.  They cursed the island so that anyone who acquired the island for their own personal pleasure would meet personal and financial doom.  After Maximilian moved his family onto the island, he was assasinated in Mexico, his wife driven insane and his son bankrupt.  Now the people believe that anyone who spends more than three nights on the island will suffer a similar fate.  Today,  the only creatures that live on the island are the peacocks and the bunnies.  The island is covered with them as well as tourists and naked sun bathers during the day who come to visit the gardens and the ruins.

We continue our circle of the island.  On the far side, we head towards a large cave in the coast line of the mainland.  He stops again for another story.  Darijo points to a large rectangular building just to the right of the Old City.  He explains that this building is the Lazareti, the ancient quarantine building used by the Republic of Dubrovnik to prevent sickly visitors from coming into their community.  Visitors would have to spend forty days in the Lazareti before they were allowed into the Old City.  During this time, doctors would monitor them for signs of illness.  It was with this method that Dubrovnik was able to avoid the Plague.

Darijo points to the tall mountain that rises above Dubrovnik, Sdr.  He tells us that in 1991, when the Yugoslavian Army attacked Dubrovnik, it was from this mountain that the people of Dubrovnik were able to successfully defend themselves.   Darijo tells us that he was only eights years old, so he remembers this seven month siege from the perspective of a child.  On the plus side, there was no school.  On the down side, there was no chocolate nor bananas.  He remembers hiding in the basement with his school friends.  Darijo is a young man.  Hearing that he was eight when this attack took place reminds me that it happened in the not so distance past.  As most of the people we met in Dubrovnik were born there, It dawns on me that most of the population must carry memories like these in their psyche.  What also strikes me is the commitment and loyalty that the people of Dubrovnik have to their city, staying in the city with their families for seven long months, refusing to be intimidated as the roofs of the homes are being systematically bombed away.  Today, they remain, their roofs perfectly maintained red tiles, rebuilt by decree of the mayor.

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We complete our trip by snorkeling in a cave and munching on sandwiches.  Darijo wears the word “sve” tattooed over his heart.  Sve means “all” in Croatian.  Claudia asks him “Does this mean you love everyone?” “It means I love everything.   It is a life philosophy.”  When we return to King’s Landing, I have a new perspective of Dubrovnik, from heart and sea.

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At sunset, we catch the cable car to the top of Sdr.  Just to the left around the fort is an outcropping of rocks.  On the top of the rocks sits a simple, small cross.  Couples sit close together, dangling their legs over the edge.  The top of Sdr offers a 360 degree view of Dubrovnik and the jagged range of mountains just to the East.  To the Northwest, I can see the islands off the coast start to glimmer as the sun throws stripes of red and pink across the sky.  I wear the word “Mir” which means “Peace” in Croatian around my neck on a small blue medallion.  Being here at this moment seeing all that the people of Dubrovnik held so dear gives me another perspective, a higher one.

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We descend into Old Town and dine at Restoran 360, the only restaurant in the Old City with a rooftop that offers a 360 degree view of the Old City of Dubrovnik.  Darijo has told us that the chef is the best in Dubrovnik.  We take a chance and see if we can get same-day reservations.  At first, the young woman tells us “no.”  She had just finished dealing with a group of very snobby demanding American woman who were acting like her perfect English was incomprehensible.  I say “Dobar dan. Imate li stol za večeras?” (Good day.  Do you have a table for tonight?)  At first she says no, then she says, “I do have one.  Let me show it to you and see if you like it.”  Speaking a little Croatian has just helped me get reservations in Dubrovnik’s most exclusive restaurant.  The table she shows us is on a raised platform set back from the edge.  It has cushions and bench seats.  It looks very VIP to me.  She explains that it is the walk in table, but she will reserve it for us.

Our culinary experience at 360 is unparalleled. The butter is infused with truffles.  The oysters float in a sea of green sauce. We have tartar, scampi, and sea bass.  Each plate is more delicious that the next.  The Chef sends out surprise complimentary treats.  The wines are all Croatian and perfectly paired.  We have several waiters, each one stopping to explain the ingredients of each course in exquisite detail.  When the bill arrives, I am amazed that the whole thing only cost the equivalent of $230 US dollars.  In San Francisco, a dinner of this caliber would have easily cost four times as much.

After dinner, we walk to the end of the pier just past the Ploce gate.  Even though it is midnight, it is warm and the wind feels wonderful.  Sve u radu. (Everything is great).

Life is an adventure, not a destination. Find your sve by looking at life with a 360 degree perspective.

Note to all my friends, Alexandra at Adventure Dubrovnik tells me that she will offer you a 10% discount if you mention that Elizabeth referred you.

 

 

Heat, Heights and Heaven in Dubrovnik

It is the hottest day of the year and we decide to ascend the steep stone stairs so we can walk the walls that surround Dubrovnik’s Old Town.  It is just past one o’oclock at the hottest time of the day.  It is 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  At the top, the narrow walkway is almost deserted.  Only a few panting tourists cling to small slivers of shade in the corners of the winding way.  The heat is merciless.

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From the top of the wall, the view is as spectacular as the heat is ruthless.   Sweat pours down my back, soaking me shirt.  Claudia’s shorts have a “v” outlined in water just below her waist. We cannot rush this promenade.  Every few feet, there is a photo begging to be taken.  The domes, the orange tile roofs and the grey granite stone creates new intricate puzzle piece mosaics below as the Adriatic sparkles beyond the walls.  Dubrovnik is magical.  Walking through the gates is like walking through a time portal.

This morning did not start off well at all.  I wake up feeling weak and nauseous.  My stomach clenches in painful cramps.  At breakfast I order an “omlet” (omelette in Croatian) but it sits there looking wilted in the heat.  I cannot eat it.  I cannot even speak English let alone Croatian.  I wonder why I traveled over 20 hours to be in this horrendous heat.  The nice waitress is concerned and brings a free bottle of water to me in the bathroom after I pay the check.  This act of kindness is the first of many that we experience today in Dubrovnik.

We go to the Farmacia and speak with a woman behind the counter.  I only know how to say “Ja nisam dobra” (I am not fine) as I point to my stomach.  She does not speak much English, however, I understand enough to respond “sve” (all) when she asks me my symptoms.  She gives me a box of pills and tells me to take no more than 2 per day.  I immediately pop 2 in my mouth.  Thirty minutes “sve u radu” (everything is good).  We go the the port and buy our ferry tickets for our next 3 stops, Korčula, Hvar and Split at Jadrolinja at the old port.

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Now, I sit on a rock one hundred stairs below St. Jakov’s Church.  We accidentally miss the first set of stairs.  Instead we walk past a sign that reads “private property, enter at your own risk.”  We pass a grafiti covered abandoned building serving as a moped parking shelter.  To the right and down the stairs, young men play soccer barefoot in an abandoned amphitheater, all in ruins except the pristine newly painted floor.  At the bottom of the stairs a silver ladder connects the rocks to the water.  The sun is sending a sparkling path of light across the crystal clear waters to my feet.  A radio is playing American pop music.  To our left, one of the young men suddenly flies off a rock and into the water.

Claudia and I slide into the Adriatic.  It is so clear and so cool.  It immediately resets my body temperature to normal.  A local befriends Claudia and they disappear under the water to swim through an opening in the wall to a hidden cave.  Claudia returns exhilirated “Come on mom.” I try, but I cannot work up the nerve.

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We go back up the stairs to the road and find the right set of stairs that descend at the end of the parking lot just behind St. Jakov’s Church. We find a beach with chairs, umbrellas, a shower, toilets and a restaurant.  We eat lignje na žaru on the terrace as we watch the sun set just to the right of the old town.  My bottle of Jana water says “Slušam svoje srce u svemu što činim” (I listen to my heart in all I do.}  Ahh, I am in heaven.  This is why I traveled for over twenty hours.  Is my first day in Dubrovnik already over?  Is my glass of wine already empty? Šteta (pity).

Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Listen to your heart and you will find your heaven.

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And We Are Off – Virgin Flight on Virgin Atlantic

A British accent just makes everyone seem so polite.  It softens the jagged edges of the two-hour delay.  Even when the flight attendant is telling us to get back in our seats because of the turbulence, she says very politely “Do return to your seats please.” In America, the flight attendant would have said, “What’s wrong with you? Didn’t you see the sign? Get back in your seat, now!”  Well maybe not that harsh, but the tone would have been seeping with annoyance, not dripping with honey.

The flight attendants glow with pleasant expressions, their hair and make-up done up to look like 1950’s pin-up models. Their voices sooth as they drop hot towels into our outstretched hands or pull complimentary bottles of wine from their carts.

Inside the pocket of my seat I pull out a goodie bag; travel trinkets designed to make the trip more pleasant.  There is an eye mask, ear plugs, socks, a pen, a toothbrush and tooth paste, all in the signature Virgin scarlet red  Also tucked away is a bottle of water and sturdy head phones as if a thoughtful mom packed my seat for me so my trip would be just right.

A small red menu announces our meal choices.   It labels breakfast “Wakey Wakey.”  After a nice six-hour snooze, the lights in the cabin turn on just two hours shy of London.  A cheerful young woman with a round fresh face and curly brown hair cheerfully calls out “good morning” to each passenger as she hands them their Wakey Wakey.  I feel like Mary Poppins has whisked my away to a magic fairyland of pleasantry.  My virgin voyage with Virgin Atlantic is a jolly good success.

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Next stop Zagreb…..then, Dubrovnik

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