A while back our friends Inna and Igor – fellow wine afficionados – proposed a novel idea for a wine tasting: a side-by-side tasting of the same varietal – in this case, Pinot Noir. What made this proposal particularly novel is that all four wines would be from the same producer, Etude Wines. We have visited Etude on two occasions and posted about our very first visit there last summer (Wine With A ‘Tude.). On our visit to Etude we sampled Pinot Noir from vineyards in Napa Valley’s Carneros region. Our friends’ proposed tasting would consist of four Etude Pinot Noir wines that were new to us: one from Sonoma Coast, two from the Santa Barbara area, and one from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
We didn’t spend too much time thinking about the proposal, quickly agreeing to the idea and setting a date for the tasting. When we arrived at our friends’ house we saw right away how seriously they were taking the tasting endeavor.
Not only were the wines poured but there was a tasting sheet to write notes and comments and tally scores. Like all athletic endeavors, wine tasting needs the right level of hydration and nourishment.
When we took our seats at the table each of us sized up the wines and took a few minutes reading the labels and tried to find some nugget of information that would give us an edge in the wine tasting challenge. For the record, the four wines were:
2014 Etude Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills (Santa Barbara County)
2014 Etude North Canyon Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley (Santa Barbara County)
2014 Etude Yamhill Vista Vineyard Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley (Oregon)
While there were no financial stakes in this great wine taste-off, pride was certaintly at stake and each of the four participants was hoping to show off his or her wine acumen and ability to distinguish aromas and flavors. For the first several minutes only murmurs could be heard as we lifted the glasses and tried to make sense of the different color shades in each glass. Hmmm, the first one looks slightly darker than the second, perhaps that signifies that it was grown in a hotter climate and the grapes ripened more? Then came the sniffing excercise – trying to identify aromas that would distinguish the four Pinot Noir wines from each other.
Looking back, we have to laugh a little bit because we set ourselves up for quite a challenge: identifying which wines came from which region even though 3 of the 4 wines are from California and two of them were from wine regions separate by just a few miles. Finally we got to the tasting, which resulted in more murmurs and mutterings under our breath and furious note-taking. After each wine we confidently assigned it to a region only to furiously cross it out immediately after tasting the next wine and confidently jotting a region down next to it. By the fourth wine almost every confident prediction had been changed to something else, changed back, and then changed again.
When we finally made our collective way through the four Etude Pinot Noir wines and made our “matches” to wine region, the time came to uncover the bottles and reveal their geographic identity. Despite all of our cumulative years of wine tasting, the best effort in the wine tasting match was 2 out of 4, with at least two of us guessing only 1 out of 4. Stubborn people that we are, we decided to do a second round of tasting, mixing the wines up again and trying to apply the lessons learned from the first round. Memory is somewhat hazy after the amount of wine consumed but I recall that no one did better in the second round than the first. Naturally, we concluded that another round of tasting would be a good idea, for some reason expecting that the cumulative effect of the two previous rounds of tasting would promote greater accuracy. Round 3 was no more impressive than than the earlier efforts; clearly none of us is ready to take on the Master Sommelier exam just yet.
Rather than proceed to a round 4 we decided instead to polish off the remaining Pinot Noir and enjoy them just for their own sake, with no competition involved. To top off the afternoon we enjoyed a fantastic lunch paired with one of the Croatian wines that we will soon be introducing to the United States market.
2016 was unquestionably an impactful year no matter what filters you apply to its 365 days: geopolitics, U.S. politics, the global economy, or the premature passing of a disproportionate number of treasured artists. Certainly, a historical understanding of 2016 will require a thorough review of all of these areas and more. Our goal, however, is not to define 2016, put any labels on it, or attempt to put it into any particular context. Instead, we want to celebrate some of the wonderful events and moments that we experienced in 2016 that are as important to remember. Below are ten of our top 2016 moments, not ranked by importance (how could we even do that?) but chronologically.
Wines of the World. In January of 2016 we took our first class in the Viticulture and Winery Technology department at Napa Valley College. Most of our wine education came to us in our important role as consumers (i.e., wine drinkers); we knew a fair amount about California and international wines, but were by no means global wine experts. On our first day of class we were poised with our notebooks and pens to take copious notes about the wines of the world. “Where are your glasses?” asked our professor. Apparently this was a wine drinking class! If we knew that such a class existed we would have taken it years before. For the next class, we brought six wine glasses each and tasted wines from 7-10pm each Wednesday for 15 weeks. Each week, we tasted between 12 and 14 wines, starting with France and moving through the rest of the Old World (Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Eastern Europe) and eventually the New World wines (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America). Along the way we learned about the different wine regions in each country, the grape varietals growth there, unique wine-making styles, and the specific terroir of each location. Together with the wine tasting, it was quite an education!
Bottlerock 2016. Music festivals have become a real “thing” the past several years. In Napa, we have our own 3-day festival, Bottlerock, that has grown since its inception about five years ago into an honest-to-goodness kick-ass event. Each year, the quality of the headliners as well as the rest of the festival lineup has increased significantly. For Bottlerock 2016, the headliners were Florence & The Machine, Stevie Wonder and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. We bought tickets for two days – Florence and Stevie – and came to the festival early to catch some of the unheralded (but often equally impressive) early acts. Beyond the strong performances, the food options were more plentiful than in prior years as were the wine and beer selections. We are looking forward to purchasing Bottlerock 2017 tickets when they go on limited pre-sale tomorrow! Please buy yours some other day.
El Centimo. Through our wine class (see #1 above) we met two of the dynamic people behind El Centimo Real, a wonderful wine from Spain’s Rioja region. Jesus Parreño and Alaina Velazquez both live in Napa and have wine industry “day jobs” but are also trying to share their Rioja passion with the U.S. market. We are often called wine snobs so when we tell you that our New Year’s Eve dinner featured two bottles of this luscious Rioja, hopefully you’ll conclude that the wine is fantastic. More surprising, perhaps, is that the wine costs at least half of what we typically pay for quality California wines. You can find out more about El Centimo Real here: El Centimo.
4. Meeting a Legend. On Father’s Day 2016, we had the opportunity (along with two of our kids) to meet Mike Grgich, the founder of Grgich Hills winery in Napa but also one of the people who helped put Napa Valley on the global wine map. In 1976, Mike Grgich was the winemaker at Chateau Montelena and their 1973 Chardonnay, in a head-to-head contest in Paris, came out on top of a roster of wines that included the best of France’s white wines. This so-called Judgement of Paris ignited the world’s understanding and acceptance of American wines. Here’s a link to our Father’s Day blog entry: A Pair of Aces for Father’s Day.
5. A chance invitation to a wine party. Some time during the summer we received an invitation to join a wine event at a winery with which we were not familiar: Y. Rousseau. Via Twitter, we met Olga Mosina from the winery and she told us about the event and a bit about the winemaker, Yannick Rousseau. Given our interest in and focus on “hidden gems,” Y. Rousseau seemed right up our alley: a small production operation housed in the up-and-coming (but still mostly hidden) Crusher District. As interesting was the fact that Y. Rousseau’s two signature wines are Colombard and Tannat, both rare wines to say the least in the land of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. To read our original post click here: A Frenchman in Napa Valley.
6. Tasting wine with another legend. Again via Twitter, we connected with Amelia Ceja, the founder and owner of Ceja Vineyards. Sourcing fruit 100% from their estate properties in Napa and Sonoma, Ceja makes a number of different varietals, including some really fantastic Pinot Noir offerings. What is particularly compelling about the Ceja story, we thought, was the fact that Amelia and her husband both came to Napa Valley from Mexico as children and went from picking grapes alongside their parents to growing grapes on their own property and making excellent wines. Our write-up on our visit is here: An All-American Story.
7. A cool Oregon winemaker. After drop-off weekend at the University of Oregon we made a visit to another winemaker that we met on Twitter, Jerry Sass, at his estate vineyard near Salem. We quickly became fans not only of Sass Winery but of Mr. Sass as well due to his personality as well as his approach to viticulture and winemaking. Jerry has a dry wit very similar to ours and an honest outlook on life that drew us to him right away. As a grape grower and winemaker, we loved his commitment to dry farming his grapes (no irrigation) and the fact that 100% of his vines on the estate we visited are “own rooted” – no grafting of one grape varietal onto the roots of another type of grape. Jerry considers making wine a craft and respects the land and the fruit he picks. End result? Fantastic white and red wines. You can read our write-up on Jerry and his wines here: A Lot of Sass In Willamette Valley.
8. Hey let’s meet some Italian winemakers! One of the nights we were in Venice we arranged to meet with a dynamic duo, Roberto and Natalia from The Vinum Winery in Ortona, Italy. It was quite an experience sharing dinner with them at the famous Terraza Danieli restaurant overlooking the Grand Canal – and drinking some of their wines with dinner. They make a fantastic Prosecco as well as a number of other white and red wines; we managed to bring a case of their wine home with us and look forward to the day their wines are available here in the U.S. Our day in Venice, including dinner with Roberto and Natalia, can be found here: Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret?
9. What country is this? After leaving Venice, Italy on a Sunday in October we whisked our way north and east into what the wife thought was going to be more of Italy. We quietly crossed the border from Italy into Slovenia and ended up at the Kabaj Morel winery in the Goriška Brda region. We had probably the best overall wine tasting experience of our lives at Kabaj Morel; in fact, it is an insult to the experience to call it “wine tasting.” Our visit lasted 4 1/2 hours and consisted of a five-course lunch and drinking (not tasting) many of the Kabaj wines. Our stop at Kabaj was a top highlight on a trip of top highlights. You can read about our gluttonous feast here: Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.
10. Last but not least. Our trip to Croatia was a major revelation in terms of our understanding and appreciation of wines from that region. Prior to the trip we had little exposure to Balkan wines, varietals and wine regions. We got a major education on Croatian wines during our visit to Basement Wine Bar in the capital, Zagreb. Based on what we learned at Basement, we structured some of our days in the rest of Croatia around tasting the local wines and even visiting one of Croatia’s most well-known regions, the Peljesac Peninsula. While there, we were able to visit Mike Grigich’s Croatian winery (Grgic Vina) which was a nice tie-in to our Father’s Day visit discussed above. Our Croatia adventure can be accessed here: I’ve a feeling we’re not in Croatia anymore.
Crafting this list was difficult as we have visited several dozen wineries this past year and consumed bottles from many more. Easily, we could have done a top 50 or maybe even a top 100, but we thought ten was a manageable number. We hope you enjoyed reminiscing about 2016 with us.
We read an announcement recently that HBO has partnered with Vintage Wine Estates, a collection of wineries based in Sonoma County, California, to produce several Game of Thrones-themed wines.
Vintage Wine Estates produces wines from Sonoma and Napa Valleys, two of our favorite wine regions. But we would have thought HBO would source a GOT-themed wine from a wine region more connected to the filming of the show. An obvious choice would have been Croatia, where significant episodes and scenes have been filmed over the past seasons. In fact, Kings Landing, the capital of Westeros, home of the Red Keep and seat of the Iron Throne itself, is filmed using landmarks in Croatia’s southern seaside town of Dubrovnik. We like to think that a hearty Croatian wine would have been an apt choice for GOT fans and wine lovers alike.
As our regular readers will know, we were in Croatia about a month ago enjoying the many natural wonders of the country as well as their spectacular food and fine wines. Although we live in California wine country, we are by no means wine snobs and always bring an open mind to other wine regions around the world. We found the Croatian wines to be sophisticated, structure, balanced, aromatic and flavorful, with their best wines the equal of the best wines of Spain, France and Italy. Certainly, Croatia has a very long history of growing grapes with a history of wine production going back over 2,500 years. Today, there are hundreds of wineries in Croatia spread across their two main wine regions, Coastal and Continental; within these two broad regions there are 300 smaller geographically defined sub-regions. Most of the country’s production is white wine (about 2/3 of the total) with the balance red wine. Most of the white wine is made in the Continental region while the red wines predominantly come from the Coastal region.
Croatian wine makers produce wine from a host of “international” varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. However, Croatia boasts over a hundred grape varietals that are indigenous to the country including Prosip, Grasevina, Debit, and Malvasia (white grapes) and Plavac Mali, Teran, and Babic. In our Croatian adventure, we tasted several of the whites, including Posip from Korcula and a number of reds including Plavac Mali from arguably the best location in the country, Dingac, on the Peljesac Peninsula.
We brought several bottles of Croatian wine home with us to America and have shared them with friends who appreciate sophisticated, high-quality wines. Everyone that has tried our Croatian wines has told us how surprised they are by the structure and balance of the wines, especially the Plavac Mali red wines. In fairness, we should point out that we only purchased and brought back wines with the highest qualification: Vrhunsko Vino, which means “premium quality wine.” Immediately after tasting the wines we brought back, our friends have asked “how can we get some of these wines ourselves?”
There are some Croatian wines in the U.S. today, mostly from the larger Croatian producers. We strongly believe that the “next big thing” in U.S. wine importing will be wines from Croatia and other Balkan countries. As the Croatian wine industry continues to mature and blend ancient wine-making techniques with new processes and technologies, the wines will only get better. For those looking to find high-quality Croatian wines from the country’s many wine sub-regions, we have two suggestions.
First, if you are going to be in Croatia, build your trip around visiting some of the country’s most well-known wine regions: Istria in the northwest, Slavonia and Danube in the east, and Korcula, Hvar and Peljesac in Dalmatia. If you are going to be in Croatia but do not have the time to visit many wineries, the next best thing is to visit a wine bar that brings hundreds of Croatian wineries to you. Our favorite wine bar in Croatia is in Zagreb – Wine Bar Basement, which is located just below the Zagreb funicular which runs from Lower Town to Upper Town.
Wine Bar Basement is very conveniently located on a pedestrian street in the center of Zagreb and offers more than 120 different Croatian wines, most of which can be ordered by the bottle or by the glass. You can make a reservation here: Wine Bar Basement – Zagreb if you are planning to be in the area. If you go, ask for Dario Drmac and tell him that John & Irina sent you; he will take good care of you. At Basement you can not only taste many different wines but also enjoy many different cheese and meat platters to accompany the wine.
Although sorting through 120 separate wines could be intimidating, the Basement wine list is helpfully broken down by red and white wines within each of the country’s major wine regions. Their list of wines is available online here: http://basement-bar.net/wine-card/.
This regionally based list makes it more manageable to pick a wine; plus, if you need help Dario or the staff at Basement can give you specific recommendations. We spent several hours at Basement and got a really comprehensive overview of Croatia’s varietals, wine regions, and wine styles which was very useful for our later trips to wineries in Dalmatia.
If you can’t make it to Zagreb to visit Basement, you can still benefit from the hard work and expertise that went into curating Basement’s long list of high-quality Croatian wines. In addition to being a co-owner of Basement, Dario is also the founder of an impressive e-commerce site that promotes and sells Croatian wine called TheWine & More . You can search for individual Croatian red and white wines or, if you prefer to have some “virtual” help, the site recommends options for case purchase (Istrian White Wine Case, Best Croatian Red Wine Case, Best of Dingac, Selection of Plavac Mali, etc.). These case recommendations are very useful for those that may not know the individual labels but would like to taste a range of a region or varietal. There is also an interactivemap of Croatia with each of the represented wineries laid out geographically so shoppers can search for wines by region. There are many family-owned and small-production wineries that Wine & More works with that are too small to have their own distribution and shipping channels. It would be very difficult for you to find their wines any other way than through the Wine & More site.
For our European friends, we believe The Wine & More is a great option to tryCroatian wines. Shipping is available to at least 26 countries in Europe so availability is almost universal on the continent. For friends of ours, Dario is offering a promotion code that will allow you to save 10% on your order. At checkout, simply enter code “WQYXUBR” in the box labeled “promo code” and the discount will be applied at checkout. Currently, The Wine & More does not ship to the United States.
We are eagerly anticipating our next trip to Croatia; in the meantime, we will be jealously guarding what remains of the wine we brought home. Nothing against the Game of Thrones wine (we may even buy some), but for our money the real “Kings Landing” wine flows in Croatia.
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene 2
What’s the difference between Grgic and Grgich? Looked at one way, there is almost no difference – they are just an “h” apart. Looked at differently, they are about 6,271 miles apart. In the tiny town of Trstenik, Croatia, a literal stone’s throw from the Dalmatian Sea, sits the Grgic Vina winery.
This winery, founded by Miljenko Grgic, a Croatian-born winemaker, can be found on the famous Peljesac Peninsula where the best Plavac Mali grapes are grown. This winery produces both a red wine (Plavac Mali) as well as a white wine (Posip). Both grapes are indigenous to Croatia and have unique, structured aroma and flavor profiles.
Miljenko Grgic moved to the United States decades ago to pursue the American dream. Along the way, “Miljenko” became “Mike” and Grigic gained an “h” to help Americans pronounce it more easily. Today, Grgich Hills Winery in Napa Valley is one of the most respected operations in the world.
In the past month, we had the privilege to visit both Grgic and Grgich, 6,271 miles apart in distance but much closer together in vision, philosophy, style and quality. We were at Grgic Vina in Croatia on Halloween and at Grgich Hills in Napa the Saturday after Thanksgiving. At the Croatian winery, the tasting was two wines; our Napa tasting was a little bit more elaborate and came with a winery tour led by a genuinely nice and knowledgeable guide, Marty.
We have visited Grgich Napa before for tasting but had not taken the tour. We really enjoyed visiting the barrel rooms (always a fun show!) and hearing about the production methods for the white and red wines.
During the tour, one of us fell in love …
Not to be greedy, but wouldn’t a 1,500 gallon container of wine be the best gift? There are lots of giving occasions coming up in December; just saying.
After the tour Marty led us to our table in the wine library where we sat down to a great wine and cheese pairing.
We started with Chardonnay as expected given that Miljenko is widely regarded as the “King of Chardonnay.” This informal title has been bestowed as a result of two major milestones in the history of American wine: Mike making the chardonnay that beat the best makers of French Chardonnay at the Judgement of Paris in 1976; and Mike’s chardonnay beating 221 other wines at an international tasting competition in Chicago in 1980.
We knew we would like the Grgich wines as we have tasted at the winery before and are members of the Wine Club. What we were more interested in was seeing how similar the wine would taste to those that we sampled at Grgic Vina in Croatia. Interestingly, the Zinfandel we tasted was very similar to the Plavac Mali that we had in Croatia. Genetic testing has determined that the Plavac Mali is a relative of Zinfandel and this relationship was clearly evident in both the aroma and flavor of both wines.
We will be back to Grgich Napa soon for some club event or other, no doubt. It is a strong hope, though, that we can get back to Grgic Vina soon as well – perhaps when the new winery building has its grand opening. We also hope that, if we make it, that Miljenko will be able to make it as well.
This is the sixth and final installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going. She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city. In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed previous installments you can find them in our archives or here:
There is a scene in the famous movie “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy awakens in a strange and unfamiliar land and says to her dog: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” We had a similar experience as we wrapped up our two-week adventure in Europe, which started in Italy, took us into Slovenia, and then into Croatia. Our final country was so different from any of the others that we visited – definitely different from Croatia (and Kansas!).
When planning the trip, my original hope was that we could make it to six countries during our stay. However, there was too much to see and we did not have as much time as I would have liked to country hop. But I did have one more country up my sleeve to round out the trip.
We started our trip in Venice, Italy, and our second-to-last city was Dubrovnik, which the missus enjoyed quite a bit. According to her, it was her second-favorite place after the incredible Plitvice Lakes National Park. So where to go from Dubrovnik for the last two days of our trip? I booked our last couple of nights in Sarajevo, which is the capital of Croatia’s neighbor, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Technically, we had already been in Bosnia during our trip. Why “technically?” Well, the only way to get from the center of Croatia to Dubrovnik on the coast is to travel through Bosnia. That’s right – the north-south freeway requires about a 15-20 minute detour through Bosnia before re-entering Croatia. So the missus had already been in Bosnia and thought that the brief pass-through would be our only stop there.
As we left Dubrovnik, she halfheartedly tried to get me to say where we were headed. “That way,” I told her, pointing north. After about an hour, we crossed the now-familiar Croatia/Bosnia border detour and soon were back in Croatia again to reconnect to the main freeway. We were not done with Bosnia, though, as about 30 minutes later we came to another Croatia/Bosnia border stop. “Again?” she asked. “How many times are we going to cross into and back from Bosnia?” “It’s the last time,” I assured her.
This time, the crossing was a more formal event. Unlike the “pass-through” crossing where they don’t even stop the car or require documentation, this time we had to show our passports for stamping. About 100 yards later we saw the first sign that Bosnia was going to be different than Croatia: the sign for Bosnia & Herzegovina was written in both the Roman (western) and Cyrillic alphabets.
For my wife, this was very comfortable as the Russian language also uses the Cyrillic alphabet. All navigational and street signs we passed in Bosnia were written in both alphabets.
The second hint came as we passed several mosques on our drive north towards Sarajevo. From my pre-trip research I was aware that there are three main ethnic groups in Bosnia: Serbs (generally of the Orthodox religion), Croats (generally Catholic) and Bosniaks (Muslim). As we drove further north, the prevalence of the Islamic faith in Bosnia became more obvious.
As we were leaving Dubrovnik in Croatia to head to Sarajevo I decided we would stop somewhere along the way for lunch. All of the people we met in Croatia told us that Mostar was a “must stop” destination, so we combined a “must stop” with a lunch stop. As we entered Mostar, the third and perhaps most compelling sign that we were no longer in Croatia became apparent: war damage. Certainly, the 1990’s Balkan war affected Croatia, including several of the places that we visited. In Bosnia, however, the duration, intensity and brutality of the war was on a scale that shocked and saddened us.
A Twitter “friend” of ours had given us the name of a restaurant in Mostar to stop for lunch. Attempting to follow the garbled pronunciations of our Garmin GPS, we made our way through Mostar towards “Stari Grad” – Old Town. From the car window the evidence of war was still visible: buildings with bullet holes in them and destroyed buildings waiting to be rebuilt. Finally, we found a parking space close to where she-Garmin was telling us the restaurant was located.
We stepped out of the car and in a few steps were in the Old Town part of Mostar. Within 50 meters we found the restaurant that we were looking for and we happily plopped down and ordered some water and traditional Bosnian food.
Yummy Bosnian food at TimaIrma in Mostar
In Europe, “old town” really means old: Mostar has been around since the 15th Century and there are structures in the city that remain from that time. Easily the most famous structure in Mostar is its bridge; in fact, “most” in Serbian means bridge. The mostari were the bridge keepers, which gave Mostar its name back in the Ottoman Empire. After lunch we walked through Stari Grad and crossed the old bridge (Stari Most) and checked out the shops in the narrow streets of the old shopping district.
Built in 1566, the bridge stood for 427 years until it was destroyed in 1993 by Croats during the Croat-Bosniak War, one of the many Balkan conflicts that erupted after Yugoslavia fell apart. It was not until 2004 that the bridge was re-opened to allow pedestrians to once again cross the Neretva River from one side of town to the other.
We only stayed in Mostar for a few hours, but the wife was really impressed by the feel of the old town, the bridge, and the connection to the culture of six centuries ago. It was also our first exposure to the importance of the Islamic faith in Bosnia, as we heard the mid-day “call to prayer” being broadcast over the loudspeaker from a local mosque.
From Mostar, we continued driving north until we arrived in Sarajevo, the last stop on our trip. We checked into the Hotel Bristol for two nights in the city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. Or, as our guide the following day would say, “only the second communist city to host an Olympic games.” “And the only one that the United States attended,” I added, since the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. We were tired and hungry and appreciated the personal welcome when we got into our room.
The following morning, we woke up and had breakfast in the lobby of the Hotel Bristol. The previous ten days of our trip, we awoke to beautiful sunshine and blue skies . Our first morning in Sarajevo, there was no sun to be seen, only grey and black clouds. “Rain,” I brilliantly opined. Nevertheless, we decided that we were going to tour the town even if we got wet. After all, when would we get back to Sarajevo again?
My prediction of rain turned out to be wrong, and, unfortunately, optimistic. As I looked out of our hotel room window just before we ventured out, I realized that it was snowing! Here’s a cool video of the view from our hotel window.
Since we don’t see snow often, I didn’t want to drive my trusty VW Golf into Stari Grad (yes, every town seems to have an “Old Town”). Instead, we grabbed a cab and the driver dropped us off at the start of our tour. We spent two delightful hours with a Sarajevo native who took us all around town. Here are the things that we saw and learned:
Sarajevo is a majority-Muslim city, with about 80% of the residents identifying as Islamic; minority populations include the Serbs (about 4%) and Croats (5%). In the 1991 Census, Muslims made up only half of the population, with Serbs accounting for nearly 30% of the city’s population. The dramatic shift in the population between the 1991 and the 2013 census surveys is almost entirely accounted for by the drastic reduction in the population of Sarajevo’s Serbs, many of whom left during and after the war.
Even though Sarajevo is majority-Muslim, it defied our expectations of what such a city would look and feel like. Certainly, there were many mosques in town, especially in the Old Town. As we experienced in Mostar, we heard the “call to prayer” multiple times while we were walking around Sarajevo. What surprised us, though, is how modern and contemporary Sarajevo felt, even in the Old Town. Most men and women were dressed in typical European fashions and styles and all of the expected brand stores were represented in the shopping zone. Unlike other Muslim cities, it is less common for women to wear the hijab in Sarajevo. As the wife describes it, Sarajevo is an “East-meets-West” city; in fact, there is a spot in the Old Town that has been created to show the intersection of both East and West.
The pictures above depict a line in the Old Town of Sarajevo that dissects the town’s two personalities – Eastern and Western. On the Eastern side, you can see the mosque and the traditional Ottoman-style stores. On the Western side of the line are the European and American brand stores selling lingerie, sneakers, jeans, dresses and products that would be available in any Western city. While the East-West divide expresses part of the diversity of Sarajevo, there is also an impressive diversity of religion in the city with active houses of worship for four faiths: Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Orthodox.
Within a 500 meter radius in Sarajevo you will find the mosque, synagogue, and churches (Catholic and Orthodox).
There is excellent food, wine and coffee in Sarajevo (did anyone doubt we would find it?). We got our first taste of the excellent Bosnian food when we were in Mostar; in Sarajevo we ate at several fine restaurants and sampled many different types of dishes. After our Sarajevo city tour on Day 1, we opted for a seafood restaurant just outside of the Old Town.
On our last day in Bosnia, we opted for something with traditional Bosnian food and found a place called Dveri that was mostly full of locals.
Since it was our last day, we decided to select some real Bosnian comfort food.
This fantastic meal was washed down with a carafe of the house Blatina.
At the end of most of our meals, we opted for a traditional Bosnian coffee which is served in a small copper container and poured into a small cup to drink. “Sort of like Turkish coffee,” the missus said the first time we saw it. “We like to call it Bosnian coffee,” the waiter replied. In fairness. though, the coffee is clearly one of the remnants of hundreds of years of Ottoman rule, so calling it “Turkish coffee” is not really incorrect. Just ill-advised.
Bosnia has an honest-to-goodness wine country! There are vineyards across Bosnia (most in the Herzegovina region) and we drove by thousands of acres of them on our drive up to Sarajevo.
In fact, Mostar is well-known for its production of an indigenous white wine varietal, Zilavka, the most common white wine in Bosnia. We found extensive wine menus at all the restaurants we visited which included not only Bosnian wines but offerings from Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia. On our next trip we will need to include more wineries in our itinerary. We strongly believe that Balkan wines have the depth, complexity, aromatic strength and flavor to compete with wines anywhere.
War and conflict is very much a part of the legacy of Bosnia in general and Sarajevo in particular. Our city tour started at the spot where a Serb assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, the catalyst that led to the First World War.
After World War II, the Balkan countries were united together into a single country, Yugoslavia, led by Communist leader Marshall Tito. When Tito died in 1980, the glue that held together the six separate Yugoslav republics (Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia) weakened. The rise of nationalist sentiment eventually led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and a series of wars across the Balkan region. The 1990’s conflicts are still very visible in Sarajevo, with buildings that still bear the scars of war and others that are waiting to be rebuilt. For Sarajevo, the destruction came during what is now known as the Siege of Sarajevo, a 1,425 day siege by Serbian forces that created a virtual blockade of the city. Controlling the hills around Sarajevo, Serb forces repeatedly shelled the city (an average of 300 per day for the nearly four-year siege) and snipers preyed on residents as they attempted to move around the besieged city. By the end of the siege, 13,000 people were killed and over 90% of buildings were damaged or destroyed. It was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. These images are played out across Bosnia.
For us, the war stories were all sobering, but none more than the Srebrenica Exhibition in Sarajevo, which tells the tragic and devastating story of the fall of the town and the subsequent massacre of nearly all of the Muslim men and boys in the town. On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces conquered Srebrenica after an extended period shelling the town from the surrounding mountains. As the Serb forces came into the town, many boys and men attempted to flee through the forest, only to be killed by mortar attacks. Those that did not flee were rounded up and murdered and buried in mass graves. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan referred to the Srebrenica event as the worst crime on European soil since World War II, and others have referred to the event as a genocide. In total, tens of thousands of Muslims were killed as a result of “ethnic cleansing” during the Balkan conflicts.
Our two days in Sarajevo were fast but productive; we saw many things and immersed ourselves as much as possible in the rhythm of the city and absorbed as much history as we could. Nevertheless, we need to go back as there is more to see, not just in Sarajevo but also in the rest of Bosnia. Without question, we need to visit the Bosnian wineries that we drove by on our way from Croatia to Sarajevo. Next visit, we would also like to make it to Montenegro and Serbia to learn more about those former Yugoslav republics.
The French have a word called terroir to describe the conditions in which a grape grows – conditions that subtly impact the aroma and flavor of the wine that grows in a particular region. While there are many definitions of terroir, the one that makes the most sense to me is “the place.” Nis the place the grapes are grown; everything about that place. The temperature, the rain, the wind, the soil type, the presence of other plants in the area, terrain (sloping hills vs. flat ground, elevation), the presence of trees or mountains that provide shelter from inclement weather. Beyond the natural elements, tradition and history can also be part of the terroir.
Having spent the last ten days or so in Croatia, we feel like there is a distinct “terroir” that makes up this place – not just for the grapes, but for the people who live here. Certainly, there is a distinct natural element that defines much of the Croatian experience – the sea, the rivers and lakes, the massive mountains, the rolling countryside. Adding to the terroir, though, are the history and traditions that contributed to the formation of the people who live in Croatia – their food, their daily routines, their culture. We have had so many wonderful experiences that it would take weeks to catalog them and chronicle them in our blog. We want to share them on a more real-time basis so we have divided our experiences into a few categories and we’ll lay them out as follows: Natural Beauty, Food & Wine, and the People.
1.Natural Beauty. In a previous blog (Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns) we shared our trip to Plitvice Lakes, a definite “bucket list” place to visit and one of the most impressive national parks we have been to on any continent. It would be a mistake, though, to think that Croatia’s natural beauty is confined to this one park. We drove literally the length and width of the country and its beauty is astounding. Between the large cities are large swaths of lush, green countryside intersected by, in some instances, rolling hills, and in others dissected by huge mountain ranges. There are also many rivers and lakes in Croatia and, accidentally or otherwise, the primary route from major city to major city follows closely along the rivers.
After our 5-hour trek through Plitvice Lakes we only needed a day of rest before our trek to another of Croatia’s famous parks, Krka National Park. Like Plitvice, Krka has some impressive waterfalls formed by the confluence of a number of creeks and the Krka River. Here is a brief video of the brilliant waterfall that greeted us as we started our hike around the park.
As we drove south towards Split, we also passed the lovely Cestina River, which was our companion as we traversed the mountainous region on the way to Split.
During the summer months the river would be full of paddlers and swimmers enjoying the refreshing relief from the hot summer sun. The region was much more tranquil for our visit, with most places closed for the season. We did stop for lunch, though, and had a very nice view of the river from our window table.
Rivers and lakes – what could be better? Well, how about hundreds of miles of the Dalmatian coast? Much of the north-south drive in Croatia runs along the cliffs overlooking the Dalmatian Sea, with breathtaking (and sometimes frightening) views. To recover from our national park treks, we scheduled stops in both Split and Dubrovnik, two coastal towns with picture-postcard views of the sea as well as the islands off of the coast. In Split, we found a hotel right on the water that had a very nice patio overlooking the marina, the Adriatic sea and, off to the right, the old town of Split.
During the “season” – which we understand runs most of the summer months – this view would have been priced way above our comfort level. For the period we were in Croatia, the room cost about as much as a Holiday Inn in the United States. When we went to Dubrovnik, we were again blown away by the beauty of the town, particularly its orientation to the Adriatic sea. As in Split, we stayed in a hotel with panoramic views of the sea, surrounding islands as well as the Old Town.
2. Food and Wine. The missus announced this morning that we are going to have to do some sort of detox when we get home. Optimist that I am …this must mean we have eaten very well. Certainly, we have eaten a great deal of food at every meal, starting with breakfast. In the United States, breakfast at a hotel or resort is generally the most boring meal of the day. It is almost guaranteed that breakfast will consist of some eggs, bacon, and fresh fruit. Our European vacation breakfasts have included so many different types of offerings: cheeses, meats, breads, eggs, seafood, shellfish, etc. As I have tried (and failed) to keep up with my no-carbs program, this is what a typical breakfast might look like. If you look closely, you can see the bread roll on the right.
Lunches and dinners have all been at traditional Croatian restaurants serving dishes with local and seasonal foods. We do not like to eat at restaurants similar to those at home, so we often research the best places for hours and walk around until we find the right one. In Croatia, fish and meat are prevalent in all dishes but the proximity to Italy has also contributed pasta dishes to the mix.
When we say we need a detox, the pictures above should provide some context for why we will need to recover when we get home. In addition to eating traditional food, we also prefer to drink the local wines when we are traveling. In Croatia, there are some fantastic wines made from grapes that only grow in this country. In total, there are dozens of indigenous grape varieties in Croatia. One of the most famous is Plavac Mali, a small dark berry that produces a high-tannin red wine. “Plavo” means blue in Croatian, and “mali” means small – so translated literally, “little blue” grape. It was once thought that Plavac Mali was the same as Zinfandel, but subsequent DNA testing has proven otherwise. Famous Napa Valley winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grigich, a native of Croatia, worked with a grape geneticist at U.C. Davis to perform DNA testing on the grape. What this testing determined is that Plavac Mali is a descendant of Zinfandel and another indigenous Croatian grape (Dobricic).
Everywhere we ate (or drank), we ordered Plavac Mali. To honor our favorite Napa winemaker, we also visited the Grgic winery on the Peljesac Peninsula, where the best Plavac Mali grapes are grown.
We have become huge fans of Plavac Mali and we now have so much wine to take home that the missus has decreed that we need another suitcase just for the wine. One bottle that I will make sure we take home (if we don’t drink it before we go) is perhaps my favorite because it is truly a local wine. After our visit to Grgic Vina, we went to the town of Trpanj to visit a new friend, Drazan, that I “met” through our WordPress blogs. Drazan invited us to come to his house right by the water in Trpanj and share some cheese and bread. And wine. Here is what we went home with …
When Drazan gave us the wine it was full to the top; you may notice that there is now some space at the top of the bottle. Yes, we had some. Yes it was very nice. There is really something special about drinking young wine straight from the barrel made by real local wine makers.
3. The People, History and Culture. At some point during our stay in Croatia, the missus said to me: “I think I could live here.” Thinking she was making a casual comment, I replied “sure, it’s a nice place.” “No,”she said, “I mean it. I would like to live here.” We had a long conversation about what it would take to live in Croatia some day – when we are retired. My ego was happy to hear this because it meant that I had chosen wisely with my choice of trip, and everything was going well (so far). More than that, however, I appreciated how much she appreciated the people and the place. The terroir, as it were.
It is impossible to understand the Croatian people without understanding the history of this part of the world over the past century or so. World War I started with a famous assassination in the Balkans. During WWII, Croatia was occupied first by the Italians and later by the Germans. Most recently, the Croatians were swept up in the Balkans War in which thousands were killed and many sacred buildings and monuments were destroyed. In fact, as we drove from Zagreb south, we passed numerous small villages that were completely empty, abandoned by their former residents and left to decay over the past 20 years since the end of the war. Even larger cities such as Dubrovnik were not spared as the Old Town, with buildings dating back to medieval times, was shelled from the sea and the land. We had a nice coffee in old town overlooking the clock tower.
Here is a view of that same clock tower during the 1991-1995 war.On the European continent, war is largely confined to the distant memories of grandfathers and great-grandfathers. In Croatia and the other Balkan countries, nearly everyone has a memory of war, destruction, deprivation and hostility. Despite the recency of the war, though, we were impressed with the character and the resolve of the Croatians we met. At the risk of over-generalizing, we found them to be modest people, stoic yet confident, resilient and with an appreciation for their country, their nature, their land …their terroir. In every city we visited, war damage was mostly repaired and life has continued normally.
We are leaving Croatia today, but our trip is not at an end yet. We have one more country to go – the missus is still in the dark about where we are going. We’ll have our final post in a day or so and then we will be home!
The first five days of our trip we did not need a car as we were in Venice (where no cars are permitted) and then in Zagreb where we were able to walk around. For the rest of our journey, though, we will be traveling by car. Before leaving Zagreb, we swung by the local office of European car rental agency Sixt to pick up our trusty vehicle for the next 10 days or so: a Volkswagen Golf. Thinking ahead, I requested that the car be equipped with navigation; when the car pulled up, it had a Garmin GPS system plugged into the power source. Because my wife did not know our next destination, I took the Garmin and typed in “Vila Lika,” which the GPS located immediately and told us was just over 2 hours away. How wrong it would be! Or, should I say, how wrong “she” would be. You see, the voice for our Garmin was a female, and she spoke in what initially we thought was a charming British accent. As the day wore on, we would find “her” to be more and more annoying.
Pulling away from the car rental agency, though, we were full of anticipation and excitement as this would be our first European road trip together. Our many previous trips have been of the planes and trains variety, but generally did not include long stretches of driving. For my part, I was looking forward to being behind the wheel of a stick-shift car again – something that has all but disappeared in the United States. In my younger days, all of my cars were manual transmission and shifting gears was second nature. It has been a long time, however, since I drove a car with a stick. My father used to say that driving an automatic car is just “steering,” not driving. I have to agree with this, so I specifically requested a manual transmission car for the trip. Since the missus is an old-school kind of woman, she also can handle stick-shift cars so no worries there.
After finally figuring out how to find reverse, I backed out of the space and asked the wife to use the Garmin to navigate. That’s when the fun started. Pretty quickly we realized that our lovely British-accented Garmin lady guide did not know how to pronounce any of the Croatian street names. In fairness, the Croatian language seems to have a grudge against vowels. You will find entire words that are 100% consonants. On top of that, although the alphabet is mostly the Roman alphabet (A to Z) that we use in English, there are enough new letters (and pronunciations) thrown in to really mix things up. The way I see it there are three “C’s” and a bunch of “D’s” and “S’s”. Try singing the old “ABC” song to this:
Clearly, our she-Garmin did not study Croatian in school as she blithely ignored the little “hats” that sat above the C’s, S’s, and Z’s. One symbol turns a “c” into a “ch”; another into an “sh”. But like all confident speakers who don’t know any better, the Garmin just crammed all of the letters into a cruel soup of sounds that could not be comprehended to save one’s life. The first three turns we were supposed to make just getting to the main road in Zagreb we missed because the Garmin pronunciation sounded nothing like the name on the street sign. After a while, we wondered whether some sadistic programmer at Garmin conspired to record just a single pronunciation for the tens of thousands of Croatian street names. To us, everything sounded like “yelkamostya oolika.” Already, the two-hour trip estimate was under stress as it took us 25 minutes to leave town.
Once on the road, my bad-ass self took to shifting gears as often as I could, even when shifting was not entirely necessary. But hey, when you’ve got the stick in your hand you have to use it, right? We settled in for what we assumed would now be a smooth ride. About half an hour in, the Garmin instructed us to proceed on some undecipherable road, which we gathered was straight ahead. Unfortunately, the road was closed for construction and a very major detour was put in place, forcing us to head due east for many miles instead of south as intended. This part of Croatia is not particularly wide and I was afraid we would end up in Bosnia. For nearly 50 miles, our Garmin guide, in “her” perfect British accent, instructed us “as soon as possible” to make “a legal U-turn.” This, presumably, so we could go back to the road that was blocked off. The missus and I kept thinking that “she” would readjust her bearings and give us a corrected route, but we were mistaken. She continued to bleat out the same request for us to turn around until, finally, we were able to reconnect to the main road.
When I originally planned this destination, I saw on the map that there were some impressive waterfalls along the way. Given the detours we had taken, I was no longer positive that we would pass that way. However, at the last moment, as we were about to drive by, I noticed a sign for the town where the waterfalls were located. I whipped the car over (downshifting twice, I’ll have you know) and parked by the side of the road. “Is everything okay,” asked the wife, “why are we stopping?” “I thought this might be a good place to take a picture,” I told her. Boy was I right.
I didn’t bother asking she-Garmin how to pronounce the town – Grad Slunj. But it was a gorgeous location with some amazing powerful waterfalls created by the confluence of two rivers. These are the views from just next to the main road.
We have visited Oregon several times and without question that state has some amazing waterfalls, including the impressive Multnomah Falls. Croatia, though, may have the most impressive series of waterfalls we have ever seen.
The missus would have stayed longer but I dragged her back to the car. Unbeknownst to her, we would be seeing even more impressive waterfalls the following day. Eventually, she-Garmin started to get optimistic, telling us that we were 50, 30, 10, and then finally 1 kilometer from our destination. We pulled into the driveway of a lovely lodging property that backed up to the mountain.
We got our key and headed to the room to crash. We brought food with us because I knew the location was somewhat remote and there would be few local restaurant options. The room turned out to be very nice – not overly spacious but recently built with some very modern and elegant touches.
The view out of our patio was stunning as our villa building overlooked the entrance to the national park.
So where were we, you might ask? We were about .4 kilometers from the entrance to Plitvice Lakes National Park, the largest national park in Croatia. It is on the bucket list of most sensible people who are aware of it, and the rightful source of national pride for Croatians. Think of it as their Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellowstone Park. It has been chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its immense natural beauty. We were there to check it off of our bucket list.
We went to bed early and got up early as we wanted to see the entire park before heading off to our next destination. We enjoyed an impressive buffet breakfast at Vila Lika (including one of the best omelets we have had in many a year) and headed off to the park. In all, it took us about 5 hours to get around the park, which included nearly 20,000 steps and 60 floors of walking, a tram ride, and a boat ride. Plitvice Lakes is an immense place and we saw every inch of it. The missus was blown away as generally I would not think to include something in our itinerary that involves a great deal of walking. For her, and for this place, I made an exception and I have no regrets. It was one of the most stunning places either of us has ever been.
Plitvice Lakes has sixteen lakes in total, and so many waterfalls that we have not seen a reliable count. Some of the waterfalls are huge, cascading over 275 feet from top to bottom, while others fall just a few feet. But there are waterfalls every way you turn and everywhere you go.
During the first half of the day I told the missus, “I don’t think I could ever get tired of seeing waterfalls.” As we rounded hour 5 and made the steep climb to get to the top of the walking path for the Upper Lakes, I reconsidered. “I’m over the waterfalls,” I told her, perhaps in jest. Perhaps not.
Anyway, we were proud of ourselves for making it through the whole park. We made it back to the car, did a quick change of shoes, and again I set the destination in the Garmin. Due to high winds crossing the mountains we were diverted from the main highway onto a series of switch back mountain roads that seemed more dangerous than the original one. Garmin told us it would be two hours to our next destination. We were starting to think that a variation of the “Los Angeles” phenomenon was in play: when we lived in LA, if someone asked how long it took to get from Point A to Point B, we would say “20 minutes.” Maybe “two hours” is the answer in Croatia? In total, the trip took about 3 1/2 hours with a series of missed turns – some of them our fault, and some of them “hers” due to the wretched butchering of street names. Next post I’ll tell you where we ended up ….
The wine-infused drive through Slovenia and into Zagreb all but assured that the post-Venice leg of our trip would be a positive one. What really had me worried was three nights in Zagreb, a city that neither my wife nor I had every visited. Of the many risks of planning a vacation without any input or knowledge of one’s “other half,” probably the biggest is picking the wrong hotel. After 11 hours on the road from Venice, our driver dropped us off on a side street in Zagreb, about a block from our hotel. She explained that our hotel was in the “pedestrian zone” and therefore she could not get us any closer to the hotel via car. Thus, we dragged our large suitcase, two backpacks, and an entire case of wine that we picked up in Venice from our new friends, the Abruzzo winemakers.
As we approached the hotel from the other side of the street, I couldn’t help but think it looked very unimpressive. Rather than having a grand entrance like many hotels, the Jägerhorn had a small archway stuck between two retail stores. Oh boy, I thought, this doesn’t look anything like the pictures on the website. Because it is “off-season” in Croatia, many of the places I planned for us during our trip are much lower than summer rates – in some cases a third of the cost. My first thought about the hotel was, maybe I played it too cute – did I get us too much of a bargain? Three days in a bargain hotel would be a great way to mess up the entire “surprise” nature of this entire trip.
I shouldn’t have worried. Once we passed the archway and entered the courtyard, I could see that the hotel was as nice as it looked online. Because we had not eaten for several hours, we had some coffee and tea and dessert in the hotel cafe before heading up to the room. “Oh my god!” said my wife as she pushed the door open. As any husband knows, “Oh my god!” can have several positive connotations and many negative ones as well. When uttered, it is often difficult to tell what the motivation behind the words are in that moment. I held my breath as the missus looked around the room. “Is this a suite?” she asked. “Why yes, of course it is,” I answered, as if I could have reserved nothing less.
She breezed into the bedroom and I heard another “Oh my god!” “Yes?” I asked nervously. “I love it!” she exclaimed. “What a beautiful room!” An examination of the bathroom ensued, which also turned out to be more than acceptable and generated a final “oh my God!”
Everything about the hotel turned out to be ideal. The buffet breakfast each morning was cozy and well-stocked. The cafe/bar was a perfect spot to stop in every night before heading up to our room for the night. And the location could not have been better: we were right in the middle of the coolest part of town, about a quarter of a mile from the main square and no more than 10-15 minutes walking distance from all of the places we wanted to go. Our hotel was located in the “lower town” of Zagreb, but literally through the center of our hotel courtyard were stairs going to “Upper Town.”
One of the things I read while planning this trip is that Zagreb is a town for people who love coffee. According to many blogs and travel sites, there is a coffee shop almost every 50 meters in Zagreb. If this is an exaggeration, it is only a small one. We did in fact find coffee shops all over town. Most importantly, these coffee shops were authentic, local places serving really nice brews. I am happy to report that there is not a single Starbucks in Zagreb; in fact, there are zero Starbucks locations in the entire country of Croatia. There will also be no Starbucks locations in any of the countries remaining on our trip. Just real coffee made by genuine roasters of coffee beans and brewers of coffee. Okay, I will get off of my soap box now.
Needless to say, we consumed a lot of coffee in Zagreb, although it took us a while to learn how to order what we wanted. I started out ordering “coffee,” but that confused the people at the coffee shop, and they would reply “American?” Well, no, I don’t want “American” coffee – do I have to get back on my soapbox about Starbucks? What I realized is that “American” means coffee with milk, although I tend to think as “American” as black coffee. Eventually I figured it out and we made the most of the both “American” coffee, black coffee, and various Croatian takes on espresso, cappuccino, latte, and other coffee drinks.
What else did we do besides drink coffee? We walked around Zagreb quite a bit to soak up the ambiance of the city. Neither of us likes to go to a city and take the mandatory 25 pictures of monuments so that we can say we “saw” the city. We prefer to follow the rhythms and routine of the locals and go the places they go and do the things that they do. If we see some monuments along the way, that’s a bonus.
The first morning we left the hotel to get to know Zagreb better. A wonderful part of traveling so late in the year (“off-season” for sure in Croatia) is that there were almost no tourists in town. We were walking among Croatians, among the people who live and work every day in Zagreb. It was an amazingly lively city, very reminiscent of a place like Milan: everyone was dressed very stylishly and there were fancy stores and quaint squares on almost every block. Certainly, it was not what I was expecting, having visited Eastern Europe and Slavic countries in the past. Zagreb was much more cosmopolitan than I imagined and more reminiscent of a Western European capital.
The missus, who is originally from Russia, was delighted that she could understand quite a bit of the Croatian language being spoken. Apparently there are many words that are identical or very similar between Croatian and Russian. She did most of the talking when we were not speaking English. Right across the street from our hotel she ordered her favorite thing: chestnuts.
We then decided to walk to the main Zagreb Farmers Market. It is important to distinguish between the U.S. version of a farmers market and the Croatian version. In the United States, the farmers market is usually a weekly event where people pay too much money for small amounts of fruits, nuts, vegetables or other food items. No one (at least no one in their right mind) would do their weekly shopping at an American farmers market. In Zagreb, by contrast, the Dolac Farmers Market is the market – the place where locals of all income levels do their fruit, vegetable, fish, meat, eggs and other food shopping. The giant market has both an outdoor and an indoor section and covers several acres.
It would have been fun to buy some mushrooms, meat, pork or chicken and cook it up but this was not possible as we were staying in a hotel. We did, though, pick up some very tasty local fruits and hazelnuts for our walk around town. From the market we made our way to Zagreb’s Upper Town, perched on the hills overlooking the city. We were in search of another coffee shop, of course – Palainovka, which we had read about in a blog about Croatia. To get from Lower Town to Upper Town there are two ways: walk, or ride a funicular. We were feeling energetic so we walked up the stairs next to the funicular, which we were later told is the shortest one in the entire world.
We did pass some cool monuments along the way to the coffee shop and we dutifully took pictures of them.
But we mostly enjoyed blending into the city as much as two Americans can and living the live of Zagreb citizens. We went to a restaurant one evening that was recommended by locals – Lari I Penati. We ate some great Croatian dishes and had our first taste of Croatian wine.
After nearly three years in Napa Valley we have gotten used to the big, bold flavor of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. The Croatian red wines have a much different aroma and flavor profile than anything we are used to drinking at home. The flavors are subtle and the wines are silky and fruity, although not overly so. We are planning on drinking more local wines during our trip including visiting some actual wineries when we get farther along on our trip.
Because we are not experts on Croatian wines (yet), we thought it would be fun to get a deeper understanding of them. While planning the surprise trip, I “met” Dario Drmac (through our blogging and Twitter), a real-live Croatian who lives in Zagreb. Not only does he live in Zagreb, but he runs an online wine export company focused exclusively on Croatian wines, and he owns a bar that serves only Croatian wine. As it turns out, this bar, Wine Bar Basement, was about 200 meters from our hotel. Before leaving the United States, I arranged to meet Dario at Basement for some charcuterie, cheese and, of course, Croatian wine. Dario and his partner spent nearly three hours with us taking us on a tasting tour of Croatian white and red wines, as well as our first ever “black” sparkling wine. Most sparkling wines are either white or pink; we had a Croatian sparkling wine that was very dark. Anyone visiting Zagreb must make time in their schedule to visit Wine Bar Basement and check out their assortment of well over 100 Croatian wines. One thing we liked the most about Basement’s wine selection is that Dario focuses on small-production family wineries that are generally not available in stores or restaurants. He is committed to supporting local Croatian producers. Ask for Dario and let him know that you are friends of ours.
Wednesday morning came and it was time to leave Zagreb. Our bags were even heavier than when we arrived a few days earlier as we purchased several bottles of Croatian wines from Basement the night before. But no worry, we were renting a car from Zagreb and heading ….well, you’ll have to wait until the next installment.
We left Venice at 10:00 a.m. after a short stay in that magical city. Because it is impossible to rent a car in Italy and drop it off in our final country, I found a great service (Ondaytrip.com) to drive us to what i told my wife was “city 2 and City 3.” As we set out in the car, she thought we were going somewhere else in Italy. As we continued on the freeway, the signs pointed the way to the Italian cities of Udine and Trieste. Along the road there were miles and miles of grape vines, leading her to conclude we were visiting some northern Italian wineries. Cagey man that I am, I did not correct any of these impressions and merely grunted every time she made a guess.
She wasn’t wrong in terms of the direction we were traveling – north and east of Venice – and the famous wine regions that can be found in that direction. But before we arrived in Italian wine country, we veered due east and took some small roads through the beautiful countryside at the foot of the Dolomite mountains. One minute we were in Italy, the next minute we were in Slovenia. Twenty-five years ago, this crossing would have been much more momentous and could not have happened in such a sneaky manner. Back then, the trip would have been from Italy to Yugoslavia, which was one of the Soviet-bloc countries and had much stricter border control. Today, Slovenia is a member of the E.U. and the borders are open, unmanned and require no surrendering of passports or other documentation.
After we crossed the border, we meandered through the Slovenian countryside for a few miles before turning off on a small road and making our way a narrow mountain road. Halfway to the top we pulled into a parking lot for an establishment called Kabaj Morel. “What’s this?” asked the missus. “It’s where we’re having lunch,” I told her.
Two weeks before we left on our trip, Jean-Michel Morel, the winemaker at Kabaj Morel, was in San Francisco promoting his Slovenian wines to the California market. A friend met him and got one of his cards for me. I decided that it would be fun to visit since it was only about two hours from Venice and on the way to our next destination. “Where are we?” she asked. “Goriška Brda,” I offered, as if this was helpful information. “That doesn’t sound Italian,” she replied. “What a relief, since we are in Slovenia.”
Any possibility that she might be upset or shocked by being whisked to an obscure winery in Slovenia was erased by the views visible from the parking lot as soon as we got out of the car.
It was as if Napa Valley and Tuscany got together and produced the perfect offspring. Rolling hills covered in grape vines with beautiful houses and a church at the top of almost every hill. We went inside and were greeted by Jean-Michel Morel’s wife Katja Kabaj, whose family has been tending vines in the local area for many generations. Together, they have been bottling their own wine since 1993. Katja told us that lunch would ready in about a half hour and that we should take some wine with us to enjoy on the patio outside overlooking the vineyards. We found the perfect spot with the perfect view and enjoyed a glass of Zeleni Sauvignon, which translates to “Green Sauvignon” but we would call it Sauvignon Blanc in the United States.
When we were called in for lunch, Katja told us we could choose between a five-course lunch, with each course pairing a different Slovenian offering from their Kabaj label, or we could order any of the items from the course menu and have it a la carte. We chose the five-course menu, naturally, which turned out to be the absolute right decision. Each course was an authentic Slovenian dish made from locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients, but accentuated with a modern touch.
For each course, Katja brought a different wine and explained how it was produced, how long it was aged, in what type of barrel, etc. We were blown away by the uniqueness and quality of these wines. In terms of color, aroma and flavor, they were not at all similar to anything we are used to consuming in Napa Valley or other U.S. wine regions. Many of the white wines were, well, not so white – they had more orange and in some cases brown hues, a result of the process of “maceration” where the juice is left in contact with the skins for extended periods of time. Almost all of the Kabaj wines have long maceration periods to extract impressive colors and deep flavor.
The wines shown above are what we would traditionally think of as white wine. We also tasted one of their red wines, a blend, and it had a very nice balance of fruit, earthiness and minerality.
We stayed at Kabaj for 4 1/2 hours and left well fed and most definitely over the 0.08 alcholol limit, which made us very happy that our driver Barbara was at the wheel. We felt a little bit bad for her that she could not drink with us, but felt better about the decision as we headed east out of the wine region and across some windy roads to our intermediate destination, Ljublana, the capital of Slovenia. It was dark when we arrived so we asked Barbara, who lives in the town, to take us somewhere where we could see the city lights and enjoy a bit of the evening ambiance. We started at the castle, which sits high above Ljublana with near-360-degree views of the capital city.
We then went into town and walked along the river and down some of the streets where there were many bars and restaurants and people sitting on outside terraces.
We did not have enough time to enjoy Ljublana and will definitely go back on our next trip to this region. It looked like the kind of town where a two night stay would be very enjoyable. But we were on a mission – heading east again – and left the capital city after about an hour and a half. “Where are we going now?” asked the wife. “You’ll see soon,” I told her. It would have been nice to sneak her across another border, but this time we were traveling to a country with a traditional border control/passport inspection. After surrendering our passports for a few minutes, we were in Croatia and on the short drive to Zagreb. Despite the long day, the wife was still smiling and told me as we drove to the hotel: “You’re 2 for 2.” Let’s see how long I can keep that streak going.
If you followed my first post about the two-week European trip that my wife and I have embarked on, you’ll know that I planned the trip all by myself and just gave her enough information to make reasonable decisions on what clothes to pack. We have a dynamic itinerary and the goal was to have her discover each new destination literally as we crossed a new border or entered a new city. Thirty minutes into the trip, even before leaving San Francisco, there was a breach, one that I tried to anticipate but failed to think through all of the possible failure points.
The first leg of our trip was San Francisco to Istanbul – that part she knew. I figured she needed to mentally and physically prepared for a 13 1/2 hour flight. The part that she didn’t know was that we would have a few hour layover in Istanbul and then fly to Venice. After printing out our boarding passes at home, I gave her the SFO-Istanbul card and kept the Istanbul-Venice pass in my backpack. As we checked in our bags at the airport, the woman at the desk told us, just as we were wrapping up, “The bags are checked through all the way to Venice.” AAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGG!
Whipping my head around, I thought maybe the missus wasn’t paying attention, but from the grin on her face I knew she did. “Venice?! We’re going to Venice?!” If she wasn’t carrying a backpack with two weeks worth of clothes at the time, I think she would have jumped up and down. “I never guessed Venice; it never crossed my mind.” So destination #1 got out of the bag a bit sooner than I was hoping, but there is a silver lining: knowing that she was going to Venice seemed to make the flight to Istanbul more tolerable. When they served dinner she asked “How much longer do we have to go,” to which I replied by pointing to the flight tracker on our personal video screen.
She didn’t complain too much about the flight length and in truth the 13 hours passed faster than either of us would have expected. After getting off the plane in Istanbul, we found a comfortable place to sit and wait for the connecting flight to Venice. Following the old rule “when in Rome,” or in this case, “when in Istanbul,” we ordered some Turkish coffee and a traditional Gozleme pastry.
Finally it was time to board our flight to Venice. We slept almost the entire way and woke up just as the flight was approaching Venice. After landing and clearing customs, it was time to make our way to the city! Because we were scheduled to land after midnight, and public transportation becomes sporadic, I pre-booked a taxi to take us from the airport to our hotel.
Of course, there are no cars in the city center of Venice and the only access is via the canals. Our “taxi” was a motorboat that picked us up adjacent to the airport and dropped us off just a few yards away from our hotel. A bit after midnight, nearly 24 hours after leaving San Francisco, we were at our Venice hotel.
Planning a vacation without input from a spouse is fraught with danger. Planning a vacation without input from my particular spouse? The danger is compounded ten-fold. She cares much more than I do about the style of the places she visits. Picking a hotel that she would like was not easy because the most expensive or luxurious is not always the best choice. The missus prefers hotels with their own personality and charm and a sense of the locale. After wading through TripAdvisor and Expedia and other travel blogs, I thought that the Hotel Giorgione was the perfect choice. Nestled in a quiet street a bit away from the bustle of Venice, the hotel seemed to have the right blend of history and local Venetian charm.
Even before walking in to the hotel, the missus pronounced her verdict: “I love this place!” After checking in we took the elevator to our room and again she seemed very happy with our home for two quick nights. I have to say, it was a very nice room with a living area downstairs and the bedroom in a loft above.
We fell asleep almost immediately, around 1:15 a.m., but due to the jet lag we were both wide awake at 5:30 in the morning. Unable to sleep any longer, we had breakfast downstairs and were walking around Venice very early in the morning (early for me, anyway, as I prefer to sleep in and hit the town closer to lunch time). We wandered around aimlessly, which in Venice is often the best way. We crossed many canals and walked down the uniquely Venetian narrow streets and alleys.
From there, we set a course for Venice’s most famous spot, Piazza San Marco. As soon as we entered the piazza I remarked how much it reminded me of Plaza Mayor in Madrid.
My other observation was that it seemed very crowded, although everyone we talked to told us that it was “off-season” and much less congested than it would be in the summer. Given how many people there were in late October, I have vowed never to visit Venice in the summer. I know that I could not tolerate the crowds and what has been described as oppressive heat and humidity. My better half, though, did not mind the crowds as much and I’m pretty sure she would need no convincing to come back again at any time, including the heart of summer.
By 10 a.m., when I prefer to just be climbing out of bed and logging my first steps, we had already exceeded 10,000 steps according to our FitBit. We decided to stop and enjoy some coffee behind Piazza San Marco overlooking the Grand Canal. Applying the “when in Rome” principle again (or “when in Venice”), we ordered traditional Italian coffees and a Venetian pastry to enjoy as we people-watched.
After basking in the sun for a while, I suggested that it might be fun to take a gondola ride. I know that such activities are only for tourists, but I did not care and kept bringing the idea up every few minutes. Eventually, she wore down enough for us to go and ask the price; after hearing the price, we politely declined. The gondolier, however, pursued us and twice reduced the price; we appreciated his charming persistence and agreed to take the “medium” ride – about 40 minutes.
Much to her surprise, the missus really enjoyed the gondola ride – not just seeing the canals and the buildings from water level, but hearing some interesting facts and history from the gondolier about Venice. We probably will never have to ride a gondola again, but I’m glad we did it this one time.
Because we only had one full day in Venice, we wanted to make the most of our time so we continued walking around town after the gondola ride, checking out the many stores and bars. We worked up an appetite and decided to have a “when in Venice” lunch – a traditional Italian pizza and some Italian wine. We chose a restaurant with outdoor seating so that we could enjoy our lunch and still feel a part of the Venetian energy.
We shared some calamari, a small pizza, and a half bottle of Brunello wine. After lunch we decided to head back to the hotel and take a nap so we would be rested for a dinner where we would be meeting some new friends. Both of our phone batteries had died and we had no GPS to help us navigate the labyrinth that is Venice – a series of canals and dead-end streets. Occasionally we would stop for directions and a kind local resident would point in a vague direction and assure us that we were only “cinque minuti” (5 minutes) away. After about 45 minutes of being only cinque minuti away, we finally made it to our hotel. We passed out and slept for about 3 1/2 hours and then got dressed in our fancy clothes to eat dinner at Terraza Danieli, the rooftop restaurant at Venice’s famous Hotel Danieli (where the Johnny Depp movie “The Tourist” was filmed).
Through our blogging and Twitter activity, we had met an Italian husband-wife team that make wine in the Abruzzo region. They drove the 6-7 hours from their home to Venice to meet us for dinner. They turned out to be a fantastic couple and we had a wonderful time getting to know them and hear about their adventure making wine. They even brought a couple of their wines that we enjoyed with dinner, including a lovely Prosecco. We are looking forward to the time when their wines will be available in the United States.
We went to bed quite late and then it was time to leave Venice. Stay tuned for the next chapter in this surprise vacation …