One year ago we decided that we wanted to start a blog about life in Napa Valley wine country and our experiences visiting the restaurants and wineries here. Almost immediately we felt that Napa Valley was too narrow a focus as our travels took us to other California wine region and wineries in other states. Before the blog was 6 months old, we found ourselves in Europe writing about our adventures with food and wine across four countries. A year later, we can say that our blog is still focused on sharing our food and wine experiences, but we no longer feel compelled to limit ourselves to any particular region.
When we started we had no plan for, well, anything – frequency of posts, mix of content (food vs. wine vs. travel), length of blog. To the question “how do I become a writer” there is an old joke response: “You write.” That’s how we started this blog: we wrote. Our first post was about a visit to a wine pick-up party where they served a whole roasted pig to accompany the wines being poured. That first blog can be accessed here: A Bovine and Wine Saturday at HdV. As soon as we published the article as better title came to mind “A Wine and Swine Saturday,” but we were too lazy to change it. Faithful readers will know that as often as possible we title our blog posts with some sort of play on words that we hope qualifies as “clever.” More often that not, though, the titles are more corny than clever.
After the first post we managed to write another 57 over the following year – almost 5 a month. This might sound disciplined but the truth is our blog posts have had peaks and valleys rather than coming out in a steady stream. Each of our first three months we managed 3 posts. In August, we were very active visiting restaurants and wineries and we managed to publish 6 posts. Then came October, our most prolific month, where we published 12 separate posts about our California, Oregon and Europe trips. The past few months the “day job” and other personal projects have brought our monthly volumes back down a bit. Our goal as we head into Year 2 of our blogging adventure is to be a little bit more consistent – at least a blog post a week.
Looking back on the past year there are some facts and figures that blew us away:
We went from 0 followers to just over 8,000 at current count. Writing a blog should be a labor of love because there is no guarantee, when you push “publish,” that anyone will see it, read it, or care about it. The first follower was a delightful surprise as have been the ones that came after.
Our blog has been read in 95 countries according to our analytics reporting. Our first follow, in fact, came from Australia from some fellow wine bloggers that we consider to be among the best in the world. As a thanks we will provide a link to their blog: The Wine Wankers. Of course we could not have expected or even dreamed of such a wide reach. We have friends, family and colleagues in probably 20% of these countries; the others we have been able to reach using social media, in our case primarily Twitter. We would like to give a shout-out to all of our international followers and a special recognition for the one visitor in each of the following countries that has read our blog: Tanzania, Mauritius, Fiji, Djibouti and Antigua & Barbuda. Hey, tell a friend about us, maybe we can get multiple readers in your country.
A large majority of our views come from the United States, not surprisingly given where we live, the language in which we we write, and how we distribute our blog. Our second-largest viewership comes from the United Kingdom, followed by Croatia, Canada, Spain, Australia, France, Italy, Germany and India. As we look down the list we realize how popular wine has become across the globe; even in countries where it may violate local laws and/or customs to purchase or consume wine we have followers.
Wine is being produced almost everywhere. As we have pushed our blog across our WordPress platform, Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels, we have met wine makers in so many places. It was a definite learning for us, for example, that all 50 of the United States produce wine. In addition, our eyes have been opened to the excellent wines being made in parts of the world where grape growing is not a traditional form of agriculture.
As we buckle down to Year 2 we promise to sacrifice ourselves for our readers by visiting as many fine restaurants and wineries as we can and tasting wines from all over the glob. Keep sending us your comments and questions and hitting that “like” button when you appreciate what we have done. We hope to avoid a sophomore slump and will do our best to come up with witty/silly/clever/corny headlines and interesting content.
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.
Today we are leaving on a two-week trip to Europe. Normally, my wife and I plan our trips together and work through the intricate details of itinerary: where to visit, how much time to spend in each place, what sites we should go to, where to find the best food and wine. This trip, I decided to do things differently. I told my wife how long we would be gone and the general weather conditions in the locations we would be going. She had a couple of follow-up questions to help with clothes and shoe packing. Fancy or casual? Any outdoor activities such as hiking? Any cultural restrictions or considerations on clothing?
She has tried to get me to divulge the secret a couple of times – I think more to test my resolve in keeping the secret than because she wants to know ahead of time. Miraculously, I have managed to purchase airfare, book hotels and rental cars, and line up a dozen activities without her figuring out where we are going. This trip will either be the best ever …or it is going to suck. But it surely will not be boring.
The only thing my wife knows is that we are flying from San Francisco to Istanbul this evening. What she does not know is that after a short layover we will be flying to Venice, Italy to spend a couple of days there. You may wonder why we are flying SF-Istanbul-Venice? The easiest answer is that the fare on Turkish Air was almost half of what other airlines were charging into any European destination. Another good reason is that Turkish Air was the most flexible option for flying into one European city and flying out of a different city in a different country.
I wish I could say where we are going after Venice, but it would spoil the surprise. We will be in the air when this blog posts, so mentioning Venice is safe because she won’t see it until …she is in Venice. But I will have a post for every country we visit – at least five, but I’m hoping to squeeze in a sixth country toward the end of our trip.
Wish us luck, and stay tuned for updates!