Tag: split

Croatia’s Terroir

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View of Old Town Dubrovnik from Mount Srd

This is the fifth  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 the first installment you can find it here:  My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going.  The second installment is here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.  The fourth is here:  “A” to Zagreb. The most recent is here:  Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns

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.

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Beautiful waterfall at Krka National Park
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John and Irene high above the river at Krka National 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.

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Cestina River in Central Croatia

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.

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Lunch on the Cestina River
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Cestina River break before hitting the road again

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.

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View of Split from our room
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The marina and view of the back of our hotel
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Marina view from our patio
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View of Adriatic sea and island of Brac in the distance

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.

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View of Old Town Dubrovnik from our patio
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The Adriatic Sea seen from the Peljesac Peninsula
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The Adriatic Sea and Dubrovnik seen from Mount Srd

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.

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Breakfast at hotel in Split

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.

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Enjoying a Posip (white wine) at Grgic Vina
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Enjoying a Grgic Plavac Mali
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View of the Dalmatian Sea from the parking lot at Grgic Vina
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Crazy hillside vineyard across from Grgic Vina

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 …

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A gift from Drazan – Plavac Mali from Peljesac Peninsula

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.

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Dubrovnik 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!

John Ingersoll

November 2, 2016

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Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns

This is the fifth  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 the first installment you can find it here:  My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going.  The second installment is here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.  The fourth is here:  “A” to Zagreb.

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:

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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.

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This is where we stopped to see waterfalls

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.

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Me, she and falling water

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.

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Vila Lika in Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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.

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Our room at Vila Lika

The view out of our patio was stunning as our villa building overlooked the entrance to the national park.

 

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View from our room

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.

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On the boat to the Upper Lakes
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Stunning waterfalls
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Gorgeous backdrop
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One of the beautiful lakes
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What can I say?
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Hiking along the lower lakes
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Lovely fall colors
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Did we mention lakes?

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 ….

John Ingersoll

October 29, 2016