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

Branka the Brilliant Croatian Tutor’s Travel Advice

Finding a Croatian tutor was a challenge.  Unlike more popular languages like Spanish, French or Mandarin, there are no language schools for Croatian in San Francisco.   There is no Alliance Française de San Francisco or Casa Hispana were lessons and tutors abound.  Rosetta Stone and Duolingo do not have a Croatian course.  I look through all of the Meet Ups and cannot find one for Croatian Language Lovers.   Finally, I stumble on a website, UniversityTutor.com.  I fill out a questionnaire, enter my contact information and wait.  In less than two days, I am contacted by Branka.

Branka and I speak on the phone and she agrees to tutor me once a week.  She also graciously agrees to come to my office.  At the first meeting, she arrives early.  Branka is smartly dressed in a rose colored twin set and pearls, her dark hair cut short and stylish.  I soon realize that Branka is brilliant.  Each lesson is a mini cultural lesson filled with wonderful advice and tips for my upcoming trip to Croatia.  Her zest for life and her fiery spirit make me feel like I have found a kindred spirit.  Each lesson, I make notes for my upcoming trip.  I have put together a list of her advice.  Here are Branka’s top nine travel tips for a visit to Croatia.

  1. When in Croatia Toast to Life

Branka’s tells me that when I am in a bar or a restaurant in Croatia, I must lift my glass high and toast “Živjeli” which, roughly translated, means “to life.”  Branka explains that many people in Croatia used to make home-made brandy from plums.  This alcohol was very strong and widely used for medicinal purposes.  When the Croatian people toast to life or to health (nazdravlje) it is in reference to this early practice of using alcohol as medicine.  Branka said that if I do this, I should look squarely into the eyes of the bartender who will immediately raise his glass and respond in kind.

2. Visit Nikola Tesla’s Childhood Home

In the small town of Smiljan in a simple white house, the inventor genius Nikola Tesla was born and raised.   Branka folds her hands smartly in her lap as she tells me, “Many Americans think that Thomas Edison invented electricity.  However, Edison stole many of Tesla’s ideas.  Tesla was a true gentleman.”

As it turns out, Tesla and Edison were fierce rivals.  Tesla did work for Edison.  Tesla originally came to the United States because he was offered a job by Edison.  Edison promised Tesla $50,000 if Tesla could increase the efficiency of Edison’s prototypical dynamos.  When Tesla succeeded and returned for his reward, Edison responded, “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.” Tesla quit.  At this point Tesla and Edison became embroiled in a competition for domination of the electric world.  This conflict was called the “War of the Currents.”   Ultimately, Tesla’s invention of alternating currents (AC) won the day over Edison’s direct current (DC) as the standard for the delivery of electricity in modern electric companies.

Branka loves Tesla.  She has read everything she can get her hands on about this brilliant inventor.  Branka suggests I wander in the fields near Tesla’s home so I can feel the environment that fueled Tesla’s inspiration.  Branka tells me that when Tesla was a boy, he could sense magnetic fields in the area surrounding his home.  Branka herself braved warnings of hidden land mines in order to walk bare foot in the grass near Tesla’s home.  “Obviously, I survived,” she chuckles as she finishes telling me her story.

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3.  Buy Lavender Oil in Hvar

Hvar is a beautiful island surrounded by the clear turquoise waters of the Adriatic.  Hvar will be the third stop on our trip.  In June and July, the island is filled with the color and aroma of lavender (lavanda).  In the end of June, the island of Hvar celebrates this flower with the Lavender Festival held in the town of Velo Grablje.  This year, the Lavender Festival is scheduled for June 24 and 25, 2016.   We will arrive in Hvar at the tail end of the festival.  Branka recommends buying the lavender oil as a lovely scented souvenir.

4.  Visit James Joyce Café in Pula

Although James Joyce was an Irishman from Dublin, he has his own café in Pula, a town in the Istria region in Croatia.   Joyce eloped from Ireland to the mainland of Europe when he was 22 years old with his girlfriend, Nora Barnacle.  When Joyce got a job with the Berlitz English-language schools, the organization sent him to Pula to teach the English language to naval officers.   Sadly, Joyce hated Pula. However, Joyce wrote much of A Potrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Pula.  Now, you can sit on the terrace of the café  and have coffee with a life size sculpture of Joyce.  The café  is called Uliks, or Ulysses in Croatian.

5.  Tour the Viennese Opera House in Zagreb

The Croatian National Theater in Zagreb is known as HNK (Hrvatsko narodno kazalište u Zagrebu).   The theater was designed and built by famed Viennese architects  Ferdinand Fellner and Herman Helmer whose firm had built several theaters in Vienna.   The theater was officially opened in 1895 in a ceremony where Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph I symbolically performed the final blow with a silver hammer that was sculpted for that occasion by Robert Franges Mihanovic. The hammer is still on display in the theater.

Today, the theater provides a venue for opera, theater and ballet.  Branka recommends that we not only tour the theater, but also attend a performance.  I am thrilled to discover that on July 4, 2016, the day we arrive in Zagreb, the Zagreb ballet ensemble will be performing Petar Pan, a new ballet by Italian choreographer Georgio Madia.  I immediately purchase tickets on-line.

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6.  Eat Lignje na žaru

This Croatian seafood delicacy consists of an entire squid grilled to perfection. You can order it with French fries (pomfrit) or chard and potatoes (blitva).  Branka says that blitva as a side dish is fantastic.

7.  Buy Candy at Kraš

Kraš is a sweet shop that can trace its beginnings to the first chocolate shop in Zagreb founded in 1911.   Today, according to Branka, it is the high quality sweet that Croats give each other on special occasions.  Branka recommends buying a box of bajaderas or a bar of rum pločice.  Bajaderas are nugget desserts made with almonds and hazelnuts.  The name bajadera comes from the word Bayadera, the elegant temple dancers in India.  La Bayadère, the ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, is named for these same beautiful dancers.  The other famous confection from Kraš is the  rum pločice, a chocolate rum candy bar.

8.  Eat Palačinke for Dessert

A palačinke is the Croatian version of a crêpe.  They can be sweet or savory.  You can ask for them with sweet cheese, chocolate or frui, whatever your pleasure.  Branka says that the best palačinke is filled with walnuts.  Branka also recommends eating cherry strudel (štrudla za trešnja) for dessert.  This dessert is made from the Marasca cherry, a small sour cherry that grows in coastal Croatia.

9.  Swim Naked

“You will rent a car so you can drive along the coast?” Branka looks at me.  I can see mischief in her eyes,  “Yes,” I respond.  “Let me explain something.” She smooths her pants with her elegant hands. “In Croatia, it is perfectly legal to swim naked.”  My eyes go wide with surprise.  I laugh with delight.  I am not expecting this pronouncement, but I love this woman’s spirit.  Branka explains that I should drive along the coast until I find a beautiful, secluded spot. Then I should strip down and swim naked.  “It is a wonderful way to commune with nature.”  I love the idea.  Let’s see if I can work up the nerve.  I will have to channel Branka’s fearless spirit.  However, I am definitely not going to be posting any selfies of that experience!

Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Live it with the insight of a local and the fearless spirit of Branka.

 

 

 

Lost and Found in Venice

The Storm Clouds Gather

The storm clouds in the evening light remind me of Hawaii.  As I look out the airport window, the hill to my left is lush and green from this Spring’s rain.  Unusual for San Francisco where the hills are usually the color of yellow straw.

Terminal 100 is quiet.  Everyone seems remarkably calm for people waiting to fly to Europe.  I am so excited I want to jump up and do the happy dance in the middle of the terminal while chanting “I am going to Venice!”

It is funny how the more I travel, the more I crave it.  Today, I re-did my list of places to visit.  I am now up to 21.  If I travel to a different destination every year, I will not finish my list until I am 65!

Claudia, my seventeen year old daughter, finally got excited today. What started as another mother-daughter trip has become darker and more urgent.  “Clinical depression.”  I look at the young, pretty counselor in her office at Kaiser.  “Are you sure?”  “Hide all your knives and your pills,” she tells me matter-of-factly as she goes through her check list on what to tell parents when their child is diagnosed with depression.  “Are you serious?  Even the vitamins?”  My father’s ghost has come back to haunt me.  It is funny.  I thought my son Max was the one who brought his spirit back into the world with the same big blue eyes.  But it is in Claudia where my father ‘s tragic sadness lurks.

I cannot think about it for too long before a lump of panic sticks in my throat.  All I know is that I must be strong, very strong, and reach out to pull her back from the edge.  I will not lose her, not to depression, not like I lost my father.  Life is too beautiful, too much of a great big adventure to not be seen to its completion.

So we embark on another adventure.  This time to Venice, the city of falling angels.

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Suspicious Characters

In the bathroom in the Marco Polo Airport in Venice, I brush my hair, and touch up my makeup.  Next to me Claudia does the same.  We straighten what has been crumpled after 12 hours on a plane.

By the time we reach the baggage claim, our luggage looks lonely and abandoned as they slowly circle, left all alone on the metal carousel.  We laugh and grab our suitcases, small and compact.  We have learned to pack light since dragging our humongous bags up and down the narrow stairs of Paris.

As we try to leave, a small woman approaches us.  She asks me if I speak Italian.  I am confused by her question.  I tell her in Italian “Sono Americana” (I am American).  I think she is a tour guide or a bus driver. But for the I.D. around her neck, she is dressed casually in jeans.  She curtly gestures for us to follow her.  She directs us to place our suitcases on a table.  Without explanation, a uniformed guard searches brusquely through our luggage.  All of my carefully rolled clothing is disrupted and undone.   Of course, everything is in order and we are free to leave.

As we are handed our small suitcases, I ask “Dov’è la fermata dell’autobus.”  She looks surprised and then suspicious.  She points just outside of the entrance of the airport.  As Claudia and I head towards the waiting bus, I hear her mutter to the guard, “Sapevo che era italiana (I knew she was Italian.)”  

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Hansel and Gretel

Our guide has deposited us at our apartment in Venice.  She led us on the short walk from Piazza Roma to our little one bedroom apartment in Ca’Marin.  I try to memorize the way to the apartment by counting the turns and the bridges.  But, soon, I am just a rat hopelessly lost in the maze.  She gives us a map and sketches out a path to a Campo Santa Margarita which she promises is filled with restaurants and night life.

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At the door, we feel like Hansel and Gretel.  I want to leave a trail of bread crumbs or tie a string to the door so we can find our way home. Venice is a maze of streets.  I have no sense of direction because the streets are narrow and seem to twist back on themselves.  I look at the map.  It is useless because what I see before me does not match the wavy lines on the map.  I stand at the door panicking.  It is dark. We are alone.  However, I am hungry and the warm night beckons us.   We plunge into the labyrinth.

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We wander aimlessly in the beautiful, clear night.  Venice, the carless city, is so quiet.  I can hear the water from the canals rhythmically lap against the walls.  We find a restaurants with purple wisteria clinging to the lattice above the entrance.  I can smell their perfume in the night air.   We cannot find Campo Santa Margarita, but this restaurant looks inviting.  We stop and eat.  Somehow, my head fuzzy with wine, we find our way home.

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Counterclockwise

We island hop from Venice to Murano to Burano.  When we arrive at the vaporetta stop, I think I am being smart to jump on the 4 instead of the 42 to Murano.  Both lines go to Murano, but the line for the 4 is much shorter.  I soon realize that although both lines go to Murano, one goes clockwise around Venice and the other counterclockwise.   We got on the boat going the wrong way around the clock.  We basically travel from 3 to 12 when we just needed to go from 12 to 3.

As we wind all the way around Venice in our circular detour to Murano, we pass by the Castello side of the island.  This side is the tail of the Venetian fish.  It is the working class district.  The back stage view of the glamorous Venetian show.

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On Murano, for 3 Euros, we watch a man shape a horse out of hot glass.  He looks likes Zeus shaping the creatures of the earth from molten lava.  At the end of the show, he blows a giant bubble of glass that teeters on the end of his blow pipe and pops into a mighty explosions of glass shards that makes the audience jump.

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We arrive on Burano in the late afternoon.  Burano is a beautiful, festive island.  Each house is painted a bright color.  These brightly colored houses line the canal.  They look like beautiful girls at a party.  Burano is Venice with a fresh coat of paint.

Burano is filled with families all in their Sunday best.  It is Easter Sunday.  The children still have on their miniature suits and ball gowns.  This is the island of lace with small shops displaying table clothes, baby dresses and scarfs.

We can see Torcello, its ancient church standing all alone in the middle of the flat, grassy island not far from Burano.  It looks so sad and isolated compared to the cheery fairyland of Burano.

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Saint Mark’s Day

Today is St. Mark’s Day, a holiday unique to Venice.  St. Mark is the patron saint of Venice.  Claudia runs to a man carrying a bunch of red roses and buys me one.  This rose is called a bucola.  On St. Mark’s Day, a man gives a bucola to the woman he loves.  Claudia is smiling which makes me very happy.

We wander the streets of Venice, trying to follow a walking tour. Periodically, we stop to examine the map and realize that we made a wrong turn.  We double back and try again.  We tour San Giorgi Church and peer at the view of St. Mark’s Square across the Grand Canal from its bell tower.  We drop a 50 cent euro in a box so that the light will illuminate the painting of the Last Supper.

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We tour the Fernice, the opera house of Venice that was burned in 1998.  It has been completely restored and offers guided tours.  After the tour, we eat lunch in the square directly in front of the Fernice.  The sun shines brightly but the storm clouds are gathering in Claudia’s mind.  I can see her visibly withdraw.  After lunch, she is impatient and does not want to walk with me.  I try to show her that we are going the wrong way.   She rushes ahead.  When I finally get her to stop, I realize that we are accidentally, unexpectedly and fortunately standing right in front of our apartment.  We go inside.  I can hear her in the other room sobbing.  She falls asleep.

After her nap, Claudia is Claudia again.  The storm clouds have lifted. It is early evening.  We decide to take a gondola ride.  Of course, we have to take a gondola ride in Venice.  What I did not expect was how comforting it would be.   The lagoon gently rocks us in the gondola like a mother rocking a giant cradle.  We succumb to a calm meditation as we glide under low, arched bridges.  A moment of reflection. Accidentally, we find exactly where we want to go.

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Lost and Found in Venice

The calming, hypnotic effect of Venice has put me in a trace.  It has cleared the storms clouds from Claudia’s mind and restored a serenity in her.

This morning, as we walk to Piazza Roma, we walk slower, smiling in the sun as the light breeze snows down flowers from the trees.  I feel like everything is moving in slow motion.  On the vaporetto, I tell Claudia to follow me.  We go all the way to the back of the boat and sit outside, rather than in the crowded, interior seats.  The difference is striking. The cool breeze helps lift the heat off the canal.  The sound of the motor of the vaporetto is muted and less intrusive.  The traffic of the Grand Canal bobs and bounces by the boat.  Each gondola, vaporetta and motor taxi miraculously missing a near collision with the other.


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We walk the streets of Venice on our last night.  The water rhythmically lapping on the stairs and the boats is hypnotic. The lagoon rocks the entire city of Venice to sleep.  In the piazza next to the Scuola Rocco a violinist plays the same measures over and over.  We pause to enjoy the yearning, melancholy  sounds.

We wander, not trying to follow a map or find a particular destination. We have surrendered ourselves to the maze.  In this surrender is a trust that although we may not know where we are going, we will eventually arrive where we need to be.

We emerge from a narrow path into a large square filled with strings of lights, cafe tables and people laughing.   Claudia stops to talk to a group of teenagers who she recognizes from a few days ago.  She laughs and visits, a normal teenager happy to meet other teenagers on her Spring Break vacation.  This is the Campo Santa Margarita, the square we set out to find out first night.  Again, accidentally, we find ourselves exactly where we want to go.

Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Surrender yourself to the labyrinth and see the journey to its completion.  Never, ever cut your journey short because the best part may be just around the bend.

This story is dedicated to Claudia Rodriguez, my beautiful daughter and epic travel companion.

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The Monkeys are Coming – Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Mangoes are falling.  Branches shake in the trees high above me, moved by invisible hands.  The monkeys are coming.  I can hear chirps that sound like high-pitch dolphin calls.  Soon a parade of monkeys jumps from tree to tree above our porch at Villa Titi.   I sit frozen, afraid to even sip my coffee.  I do not want to scare them away.  It is early in the morning on our first day in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.  I am enjoying the fresh air of the soon to be humid and hot day on the porch of our rented villa.

As if by magic, I am suddenly surrounded by monkeys.  There must be at least twenty of them in the large mango tree that grows above our villa.  These are the squirrel monkeys; tiny, delicate, light tan monkeys with soft white faces.  My eight year old son Max has come to the door. I slowly gesture him to stop.   Max stares at our tiny guests who beam at us with small intense eyes. They are so close I tingle with excitement.  I have never been this close to monkeys without a fence separating us.  A baby clings to its mother’s back staring back at us in wide-eyed wonder.

After a pause, the monkeys begin the business that brought them to our tree.  It is breakfast time.  They begin their morning routine.  They seem to have forgotten us completely.   They throw the mangoes down from the tree. They run down to the ground to retrieve their fallen treasures.  On the ground, they take a few thoughtful test bites before they carry the mango back up into the tree.  Max and I watch with silly grins on our faces.   As suddenly as they arrive, as if by mutual agreement, they all leave.  The shaking branches and fading chirps mark their retreat.

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Max notices a giant iguana peeking at us from the bottom of the steps.  When Max goes closer to inspect, the iguana retreats into a large drain pipe leaving only the tip of his tail sticking out.  The humming birds are out too. I can hear them fussing at each other, a different style of high-pitched chirps.  They sound like they are scolding each other.

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Tourist Central – Playa Espadilla Norte

Now, we are seated in a cafe opposite the beach, Playa Espadilla Norte, waiting to eat breakfast. It is very hot here. What a big change from the cool cloud forest of Monteverde.   This beach with its strip of restaurants across the road is tourist central.   All the locals run forward to rent us a chair, a surf board, passes to the park. I guess I look too tame with an eight year old in tow.  The locals do not offer me other more lascivious delicacies. Perhaps my friends who have visited Manual Antonio have exaggerated the outrageous offers for sex and drugs they received here.

Earlier, when we parked our rental car in the lot near the public beach, a man came over and demanded payment.  My husband waved him off, “why should I pay for free parking?”  The man looked perturbed but did not pursue us.   Claudia asked a local teenager standing nearby “Is it free public parking?”  The young man nodded.

The beach has an excellent beginner spot for surfers.  The wave breaks in a long, clean, languid line.  The beach curves around to create a little cove. Rock islands topped with green vegetation are scattered at the entrance to the cove. The beach is narrow and lined with palm trees. The sand is brown.  Para gliders fling themselves out over the waves at regular intervals.  Surf instructors line up tourists like little ducks and push them into the waves.  A few students manage to stand on teetering legs.

When it gets really hot, we stop a girl and her father who are pushing a cart filled with ice blocks along the beach.  They shave us fresh ice and pour flavors into the cone-shaped cups.  I like the coconut flavor the best

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Natural Beauty – Playa Espadilla Sur

The next day we pay the entrance fee to Manuel Antonio Park.  The entrance fee is $16 per adult and free for children under 12.  Make sure to bring your passport or you will not be able to purchase a ticket at the entrance.

Inside the park of Manuel Antonio, there are other more secluded beaches.  The walk to the beach is a beautiful and filled with more monkeys.  This time, we see a howler monkey with a baby.  The male howler monkey announces his presence with a loud reverberating call that sounds like Prince at the climax of one of his songs.

Monkey and mamma

The best beach in Manuel Antonio Park is not the first one you reach. Keep walking through the mangroves where the tiny crabs back into holes between the roots.  The next beach is the small cove of Playa Espadilla Sur.   Here the surf pounds hard on the tan smooth sand and the undertow will knock you off your feet.  However, this beach is quiet.  It is free of vendors, para gliders and ladrones crouching under the trees waiting for unsuspecting tourists to abandon their belongings for the turbulent surf.

Claudia does her best monkey imitation and climbs a tree near the beach.  She makes herself comfortable and reads her book.  Below, iguanas slowly creep towards unguarded picnics.  This beach is Costa Rica at its finest.  I am glad I did not learn about the salt water crocodiles that make this cove their home until after I returned home.

Claudia in a tree

close up Iguana

Life is an adventure, not a destination.  In this year of the monkey, may your year be a playful, mischievous  and unpredictable adventure.

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Sunset at Quepos, photo by Claudia Rodriguez

 

Croatian Line Dancing on Valentine’s Day

“Please don’t make me go, please don’t make me go.”  It is Valentine’s Day.   I have on a bright red blouse to match the red purse my husband Frank gave me this morning.  My eight year old son is in the back seat of our Mazda.  We are arriving at the Croatian Cultural Center on Onondaga Avenue just at the corner of Alemany Boulevard in San Francisco.

This neighborhood is old San Francisco.  It is a neighborhood filled with small, compact, single family homes.  The living rooms perch on top of the garages, peering out at the street through their wide windows.  The driveways divide up the street inefficiently, not leaving enough room for street parking between the dipped curbs.  The colors of the house looks like a crayon box on Easter, pastel blue, peach and pink.  An outlier has painted one house bright blue like the dome roofs of Santorini.  This neighborhood remains untouched by San Francisco’s tech explosion.  There are no throngs of twenty somethings, beer gardens, overpriced lattes or fishbowl condos.  In this untouched corner lies the heart of San Francisco’s Croatian culture. Today is the Tamburitza Festival at the Croatian Cultural Center.

“Please.  I feel like we are crashing someone’s birthday party.”  It is not my son who is resisting my plan to crash this festival, it is my husband.  We drive around the block.  I too feel nervous anxiety about barging into a new place filled with people I do not know just so I can satisfy my cultural curiosity.  I am on the verge of being talked out of this crazy plan.  “I promise we can leave if it sucks.”

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At the front door, we peer into a large room.  Ponoć is playing.  Ponoć is a  tamburitza band.  Five young men dressed causally in jeans are playing guitars, a mandolin and a bass.  I like the music. It has a lively beat that makes me smile from ear to ear.  The lead singer’s voice has a beautifully smooth quality like an opera singer’s.  The music accelerates with the repetition of each verse.  The crowd begins to clap.  I want to stay.

I tell the nice lady with the welcoming smile, “three please.”  As she hands me my change, she asks “Are you Croatian?”  “No,” I reply, “I am traveling to Croatia this summer.”  “Ah, you are here to learn about our culture.”  She is delighted.  My anxiety subsides as I feel her acceptance of our intentions.

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I pick up some papers at the entrance table.  One paper tells of the history of the Croatian Cultural Center in San Francisco.  The Slavonic Mutual and Benevolent Society was founded in San Francisco in 1857 by Croatian immigrants.  In 1975, they let women join their group.  In the early years, the majority of Croatians who migrated to San Francisco were from the Dalmatian coast.  I was surprised to learn that in 1875, at least forty percent of the coffee houses and twenty percent of the restaurants on the Waterfront were owned by Croatians.   In 1979, the building that we are standing in opened its doors as the physical home for this society.

Another leaflet explains  the history of tamburitza music in San Francisco.  A carpenter by the name of Ilar Spilrtak founded the first tamburitza ensemble in San Francisco in 1902.  He called his ensemble the Tamburica Orkestar “Zvonimir.”

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After Ponoć completes their set, the Kolo Festival Band begins to play.  A group of seniors dressed in bright reds, melons and  cobalt blues, form a line.  They stand shoulder to shoulder, braiding their arms across each other so that they look like a human lattice.  The footwork pattern in complicated and lively.  As the line grows, the leader snakes the line around the dance floor.  The man leading the line adds flourishes with his hands, letting go of the line periodically to pirouette.  During one dance, the line grows so long that it winds throughout the audience and around the entire banquet hall like a Croatian conga line.

My husband is being mischievous.  “Do you think I could request Losing My Religion?  It has a mandolin.”  He makes me giggle.  Max lights up when he sees a table covered with paper plates filled with cookies and cupcakes.  I buy him a plate.  He munches on his treat and watches soccer videos on Frank’s phone.  A little boy comes over with his IPad.  “I’m Sebastian. I’m six.”  His eyes are deep set and brown. “Do you speak Croatian?” I ask.  “No, but I know how to do Croatian dance.”  He stands up and performs a few high knee lifts as he claps his hands together under his raised knees.

Ponoć takes the stage again.  My husband tells me, “I am trying to figure out what the words sound like.  This song sounds like they are singing ‘That’s my carrot.'”  The lead singer sings the verse and now all I hear is “that’s my carrot.”  I giggle so hard that I can feel tears oozing from the corners of my eyes.  This is not the appropriate way to learn Croatian. The lead singer begins to strum a solo on his mandolin.  It has a Devil Goes Down to Georgia quality with the speed of the fingering and the increasing octave of the scales.  The rhythm is infectious.  My toe cannot stop tapping.  Happy music for a happy day.  Happy Valentine’s Day.

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