Friday, December 19, 2014

Kaiseki and Japanese tea gathering in Durham, NC (United States)

For one reason or another, Japan had never quite made it to the top of our "To Visit List." A couple of wonderful, traditional experiences we had locally though just tipped the scales heavily on the side of Go, Go, Go.

Years ago we tried out a very nondescript Japanese restaurant in a strip mall near our then-apartment. The sushi was fine but mostly unremarkable with the usual Americanized fare. The only reason it stuck in the memory was my silent judging of the boisterous group at the next table over: chatty, middle-aged moms in schlumpy clothes who I imagined would balk at chicken with bones or a shrimp in its shell. Imagine my surprise when they enthusiastically ordered the most adventurous selections on the menu! The lesson from judging these books by their covers continues to ring in my head and still has power to humble the hater in me.

Fast forward to our return to North Carolina, and we see the same place -Yamazushi - has been accruing "Best of" awards left and right. Curious, a little digging revealed that a life-threatening illness convinced the owners to overhaul the entire operation and focus on the food they wanted to make: kaiseki. This ancient Japanese tradition is a multi-course meal, originating with Zen monks and, over time, formalized into haute cuisine fit for an emperor. A kaiseki meal can incorporate a dozen or more courses, often small and balanced for taste, texture, and appearance.

It was extraordinary. Autumn appeared as a persimmon and seaweed salad in a cup fashioned out of the fruit and an elegant soup with Japanese matsutake mushrooms - at an average of $90/kg, an ingredient I'd never imagined seeing outside of Iron Chef - served in a teapot. Each course gave us a new favorite. Scallop coated in crunchy rice crackers. A strange forest of carved vegetables with bluefin tuna belly that tasted weirdly like organ meat. A revelation of lightly charred Alaskan black cod that had marinated in white miso for days. And uni! Someone once prefaced our introduction to raw sea urchin as "like when a big wave smacks you down at the beach, and you come up with a mouthful of sand and water." About right at the time. At Yamazushi, however, the uni was a fleeting, creamy custard wonder that made us regret slurping it down.

The food wasn't the only marvel in the restaurant. The ambiance was more akin to a spa, quiet and soothing. During the 3 hour meal, the wait staff was courteous and attentive without being intrusive, even going so far as to ask if we would enjoy a break between courses. We did. Each dish and paired sake was personally described by the owner, and each course arrived on unique pottery thrown by the chef!

Loving attention to detail and appreciation of the seasons were also themes we saw in a traditional Japanese tea gathering (not a ceremony, as we learned is a bit of a mistranslation). Practitioners of the Chado, or way of tea, from the Urasenke family tradition host a monthly gathering at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. It takes place in a Japanese tea house constructed a few years ago in the traditional 4.5 tatami mat style amid the already fine Asiatic Arboretum. We were guided to the waiting bench, where the host, enveloped in a brilliant orange kimono accenting the surrounding fall foliage, welcomed us. Walking down a tranquil, winding path encourages guests to leave behind worries and stresses. Our other host demonstrated the purifying of hands, and we all followed suit, scooping cool water and rinsing each hand, then the scoop and handle a little awkwardly.

The entrance to the actual tea house requires bending and crawling through a small door so that everyone must enter as equals... and cannot fit through with their swords, a point of significance in Japan's warring past. Everything from the sweets to the tea utensils to the poetry on the hanging scroll are thoughtfully selected by the host to highlight the season. The exquisite care taken is observable in the tea-making itself with how the napkin is gracefully folded, how the tea is offered and accepted, and how the bowls are held and turned. Most of the action takes place in silence. One would think the formality could be a strain. We found, on the contrary, that it was quite peaceful. How rare is it, in these modern times, for all of you, in such an intimate setting, to focus solely on watching one person perform their art? A truly lovely experience... only interrupted by the pins and needles building up in our legs. I guess we need to work on our own serenity!  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Lake Placid and the Adirondack Mountains, NY (United States)

The snarl of Montreal weekend traffic was tremendous with construction and poorly signed detours. The drive down south, surprising to me, gave way to stretches of farmland unbroken but for the occasional cluster of grain silos, not unlike the American Midwest. Re-entering the country, we didn't talk a specific game plan beforehand. The border agent was perplexed at our itinerary (yes, we live in the U.S.; no, we flew into Canada; yes, we are driving back in; etc), and nervous answers interrupting each other didn't really help. Despite all our travels, having both been on temporary visa status in foreign countries and subject to the whim of immigration officials always puts us on edge. We'd make terrible drug mules!

The wedding of Pepper's uncle brought us just in time to witness the final blaze of autumnal glory in the Adirondack Mountains. The mountains are unconnected to any other chain, and instead, rise in an eroded dome of 46 peaks in northeastern New York. The "High Peaks" are very popular with outdoorsmen/women with many eager to join the Forty Sixers club of those who've summitted the lot. We opted for the much visited Mount Jo. Even at 7:30 am, we were lucky to snag one of the last spots in the car park next to the lodge and trailhead. Latecomers were relegated to the overflow lot, adding another 1.5 miles to their hike along a narrow shoulder of not terribly scenic and very busy road. The route to the summit itself passes the nature museum and continues on the Indian Pass Trail, skirting the shore line of serene Heart Lake. We went for the short but steep trail on the way up, clambering over boulders and ascending 710 feet with a noticeable temperature change. The reward was the view from the top, offering a sweeping panorama of the High Peaks. Coming from North Carolina, where the fall foliage in our mountains is nothing to be sneezed at, I have to admit autumn color in the Adirondacks is something special. The rich reds and oranges of the temperate forest intermingle with the blue and grey greens of spruce and pine in what is the southernmost distribution of boreal forest in North America. Here and there the brilliant mosaic is set off by the white bark of paper birches with occasional gusts of wind disturbing the little, yellowing leaves in twinkling, gold shimmers.

Our base in the region was Lake Placid. It is most famous for hosting the 1980 Winter Olympics, where American underdogs beat the Soviet team in a Cold War victory and went on to win hockey gold in a story known as the "Miracle on Ice." The Olympic Training Center still caters to sledding and skating hopefuls, and with the zoom lens of our camera, we could just about pick out the ski jumpers on top of the 90 and 120 meter towers. Sans snow, apparently these competitors in the national championships have some sort of dry slope technology on which to land, but man, the rug burn if you catch an edge! Yikes!

The village is quite charming with the cafes, bars, and little souvenir shops typical of many ski towns. But oddly enough, the lake that most of the village wraps around is not Lake Placid itself, but smaller Mirror Lake. Despite the bracing temperatures, we hopped into a couple of kayaks to paddle around the tranquil waters. We did get a chance to see the actual Lake Placid, located on the northern edge of the village, for the lakeside wedding. The happy couple even had the eponymous adirondack chairs for guests to sign as a creative alternative for a guestbook!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Montreal, QC, Part II (Canada)

Despite what it may seem from the previous post, there is more to Montreal than just eating. The oldest part of the city, Vieux-Montréal, is lovely to walk around. We wandered onto the grounds of Château Ramezay, the 18th century residence of the eponymous governor. The small, formal gardens create a tranquil spot right in the heart of the city.

Marché Bonsecours was a historic market and briefly housed Parliament under its shiny, silver dome. Today it has an arty cafe on one end and modern shops, including Hatley (the Quebec purveyor of adorable animal-themed pajamas) and a place to buy products that harken back to French Canadian history of fur trade (moccasins, coats, etc.)...  reminding me of the old Kids in the Hall sketches with fur trappers Francois and Jacques, but I digress.

A few blocks away the Basilica de Notre Dame draws big crowds. The façade of the Gothic Revival architecture bears a passing resemblance to the French Gothic one in Paris, but the interior in Montreal is much more colorful with blues and reds and silver and gold on every surface. Curiously, everyone has to pay 5 CAD (~3.50 Euros) to enter regardless. No exceptions for the devout except during actual mass times. We declined paying the upcharge though for an up close and personal concert in the balcony from the organist. Walking in, we quickly realized those 7000 pipes can be heard loud and clear from nearly any spot in the church. It's a wonder the paying audience wasn't deafened! General admission to the Basilica includes entrance on the back side of the altar to the also-ornate-but-in-a-completely-different-way Chapelle du Sacré-Cœur. The warm, wood tones and massive, modern bronze behemoth by Quebecois sculptor Charles Daudelin makes for nearly as jarring a contrast with the main church as the Subriachs's Passion Facade does on La Sagrada Familia. One strange sight I don't suppose I'd see in a European church, however, was a stained glass window depicting conversion of Native Americans... or First Nations folk, I should probably say since this is Canada, eh?

The Musée des Beaux-Arts near McGill University has different riches on offer. It sprawls into four-going-on-five pavillions, and the permanent collections boast 40,000 pieces. Our afternoon was a mere dip of the toe into these waters, and we waffled enough deciding between special exhibitions. In the end, we passed on the finale of an extended Fabergé visit, and instead, opted for opening day of Van Gogh to Kandinsky. There were fewer works by the headliners and greater emphasis on the lesser-known artists encompassed by the exhibit's subtitle "Impressionism to Expressionism 1900-1914." More fascinating than the pieces themselves was the section describing how World War I affected these passionate artists, breaking up the creative communities, and sadly, drastically cutting short many a young life. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Montreal, QC (Canada)

Our arrival into Montreal was a little dubious. It was very late. The street signs were difficult to read through the grubby windows of the airport shuttle, and the indifferent driver made no announcements about the stops. As each tired traveler came to this realization, there was a series of amusing French-English pantomimes, like some sketch out of The Fast Show, as visitors and Quebecois alike tried to puzzle out where we were, using the map that only Rich and I had had the foresight to pick up. We made it to our hotel fine in the end… only to be greeted by a slurring, glassy-eyed man at reception who, I’m afraid, was very, very drunk.

Our outlook was much improved in the morning with bright skies above and a crisp autumn breeze. Our strolls through Plateau Mont-Royal, Mile End, and the Latin Quarter reminded us of the townhouses in D.C. and Chicago neighborhoods. The main difference is that, in Montreal, nearly every door has its own steep, external staircase to the sidewalk. Though all the styles and colors are pleasing to the eye, the sheer thought of the trip hazards over the long Canadian winter made me shiver.      

Jean-Talon in Little Italy is one of the oldest public markets in the city. While it’s not a great challenge to make fresh produce aesthetically appealing, the vendors here do a smashing job with beautiful vegetal arrangements like bouquets. We were fascinated by the different varieties on display: eggplants as big as your head, figs like tennis balls, and tiny plums the size of cherry tomatoes. The strangest by far though was an alien cauliflower whose pale green florets spiralled in mesmerizing fractals!

The city has some excellent cooked eats also. Like New York, Montreal is proud of its own take on bagels (handmade, boiled in honey water, and baked in a wood fire) and smoked meat sandwiches (beef brisket cured for days, smoked, and steamed, then sliced thinly and served with mustard). We also tried Quebec classics like poutine (pillowy cheese curds and rich gravy over fries) and tire d'érable (boiled maple sap on snow to make maple taffy… just like Laura Ingalls Wilder used to make!).

For serious stick-to-your-ribs grub, we headed to Au Pied du Cochon. Martin Picard’s spin on Quebecois cuisine is so extravagant that, along with standard sections like Starters and Sides, there is one dedicated to Foie Gras. Seared with a balsamic reduction, our choice brought back delicious memories of San Sebastian’s tapas bars. The canard en conserve (a literal duck in a can) was opened tableside to reveal duck breast, vegetables, and even more foie gras. Not to be outdone for gluttony, the melting pot had pork belly, roast pork, boudin blanc sausage, and black pudding over a heaping helping of mashed potatoes. The charming yet cunning waiter even convinced us (à la Monty Python’s “Finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint…”) to share a traditional pouding chômeur, Quebec’s maple-syrupped answer to a sticky toffee pudding. Rich & Julie: 0, Gout: 2. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pilot Mountain State Park, NC (United States)

“Watch for falling bombs!” is what the sign should have read as we were pulling into the campground. While we were a tad early for fall foliage, giant acorns from chestnut oaks were dropping all around with resounding thunks. A helmet wouldn’t have gone amiss… especially when a direct hit to my thigh hurt like a paintball at point blank range, complete with a yellowing bruise.

We were in Pilot Mountain State Park, one of my favorites out of the forty-some lovely state parks of North Carolina.  The park is located on the western end of an ancient, isolated range called the Sauratown Mountains, which rise sharply above the surrounding terrain.  Pilot Mountain itself was a landmark for Native Americans and pioneers. Today the peak - a white hump of quartzite capped with greenery - makes for a spectacular view, even from the highway (US Route 52).

The Jomeokee trail, looping around the peak, is a very popular one with easy access from the picnic areas and parking lot. A sign informed day-trippers driving in that the waiting time for a parking spot up top was at least 30 minutes long! The trail is a little technical, but short at a scant 0.8 miles. It rounds the dramatic rock faces of Big Pinnacle, and turkey vultures circled effortlessly in the blue skies above. More strenuous is the Ledge Spring Trail following along the rocky cliff. A fine afternoon meant the trail was fair littered with climbers and their gear – everyone from Boy Scouts to a sorority reunion seemed to be trying their hands (and feet) at it.     

Roads less taken included the Mountain and Grassy Ridge Trails, ascending and traversing the mountain. Yellow wingstems were in full flower along the sunnier patches of the upper Mountain Trail, and sprawling stands of pokeweed with their hot-pink stems and deep purple berries made for striking contrasts in the shadier parts. Grassy Ridge deserves its name. The same weeds we mow in our sad excuse for a lawn back home were growing in riotous green splendor on the forest floor, producing a rather restive feel under the canopy. Grassy Ridge is also a bridle trail, though most of the evidence we saw were riders at the junction heading down the longer corridor trail to the river.  This actually put us more at ease, as our dog has a tendency to bark at horses and, even more unsettling, a penchant for their poop!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ocracoke and the Outer Banks, NC (United States)

Growing up in the landlocked Midwest, the idea that you could get to the ocean in anything less than the grueling 16+ hour trips of my childhood spent in the back of a 15-seater van was a revelation. Where we live in the Triangle means the beach is an easy weekend away or even a day trip... ok, it's a far cry from our 25-minute walk to Barceloneta in Europe, but for most Americans, this is a relatively short distance. Our first year we also discovered that tacking on a few more hours would get us to a really special place: the Outer Banks.

The Outer Banks are a 200-mile chain of narrow barrier islands that outline the coast of North Carolina. They are a popular destination on the east coast. Maybe you've even seen the bumper stickers "OBX"? Many families or friends book beach houses for annual reunions... even humorist David Sedaris has written about it! Nowadays we feel like a house can be quite reasonable when split between a bunch of people. But imagine our delight back when, as broke students, we discovered you could camp for $12 a night!

It seems like everyone who goes to the Outer Banks has a favorite island. We've been going to Ocracoke (pronounced "oh-kra" like the vegetable and "coke" like the cola) for over a decade. It is reachable only by ferry, either from the mainland across the Pamlico Sound or from Hatteras Island, just to the north. The pirate Blackbeard used to ply these waters and frequently anchored in Ocracoke inlet. The place was isolated for so long that you can still hear a touch of the "high tide" accent (pronounced "hoy toyed" in the native brogue) among locals. There is a small museum as well as a British cemetery, where sailors from a British vessel sunk by a German sub during World War II rest in foreign soil. To guide passing mariners, nearly every island on the Outer Banks boasts a lighthouse, usually painted in a distinctive black-and-white pattern, but Ocracoke's, in a simple, solid white, is the oldest in operation.

Apart from the village, the rest of the island is dominated by the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Its campground is where you can pitch a tent with nothing but a sand dune between you and a glorious expanse of - what is for all practical purposes - a private beach. The sea oats wave golden against the bright blue sky... and they help stop erosion. Funny little sanderlings and sandpipers run along the edge of the surf, and small, roped sections of the beach show where loggerhead turtles have laid eggs. We usually bring our assortment of toys: books, frisbee, volleyball, a stunt kite from local shop Kitty Hawk Kites, and bodyboard (Cape Hatteras itself is popular with the surfers). On clear nights, the stargazing is incredible with the luminous Milky Way stretching across the sky, and on the ground, the highly entertaining ghost crabs scurry in and out of their burrows in the sand, much to our dog's delight. A few days of this life makes for a relaxing way to wrap up the summer!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Linville Gorge and the Blue Ridge Parkway, NC (United States)

North Carolina offers a multitude of options for connecting with the great outdoors, and many a weekend of our previous lives here saw us tramping, as the Kiwis call it, the length and breadth it. As we've been back in the States over a year now (!), it seems high time we revisit some of our favorite spots.

The old mountain chain that runs down along the east coast of the U.S. are the Appalachians (pronounced "a-puh-LATCH-uhns" for the yankees or foreigners out there), and the western part of North Carolina is in the section aptly named the Blue Ridge Mountains. People from around the country visit, making the 400+ mile stretch of scenic highway known as the Blue Ridge Parkway the most visited unit of the entire National Parks System annually. Highway is a bit of misnomer in the usual sense. The speed limit is often around 35 miles per hour and even that will slow to a crawl with traffic during the fall foliage season. The many overlooks do offer gorgeous misty blue views, and the winding road makes it very popular with motorcyclists as well. 

Just off the parkway, the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area lies inside the Pisgah National Forest. The Linville River winds through old growth forest before plunging as a series of waterfalls: an upper twin set flowing into a curving small gorge, then dropping again another 45 feet to the pool below. The trails around and overlooking the plunge basin are relatively easygoing, and recent heavy rains only further improved the whitewater effect. The river continues on with much more technical hikes along the upper ridge of the Linville Gorge proper and steeply descending the 1400 feet to the river below. Topographical maps and compass - and the ability to use them - are highly recommended as not much may be marked beyond the trailheads in this dense forest. There also be bears. Black bears, to be specific. We didn't see any, which was probably a good thing, as Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods has given me a few too many wayward thoughts along those lines... and we didn't have the recommended bells on. There was a colorful array of mushrooms in the undergrowth of this hardwood and pine forest. Unfortunately, the wet conditions that produce such fungi and the gushing falls had a downside. The low-lying rain clouds obscured views across the gorge and even sometimes a few feet in front of our faces. Hours of hiking on slick trails also made for a little unpleasantness, particularly when I succumbed to the inevitable belly flop in the mud in my typical bumbling style. The good news was we discovered our new rain jackets passed the downpour test!       

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Washington, D.C. (United States)

We were in D.C. years ago, but I had adamantly vetoed the National Air and Space Museum since, at the time, it seemed like the only attraction I'd ever seen in my childhood trips to the nation's capital. My denial probably constituted cruel and unusual punishment for an astrophysicist and former Air Cadet. When work took Rich to Washington, it seemed like a good time to make amends.

The National Air and Space Museum is the country's most visited museum with roughly 8 or 9 million people annually oohing and aahing the world's largest collection of air and spacecraft. It's a madhouse inside, of course, but really, in these times of STEM funding under fire, who can begrudge kids of all ages getting excited about science?! The rockets and displays with gear from the Gemini and Apollo missions are always a big draw, and we really enjoyed the exhibit celebrating over 10 years on Mars. The high def images from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers are gorgeous, and the full-size replica gives you an appreciation for the engineering and design involved. 

Air & Space is only one of the 19 wonderful - and free! - museums that are part of the Smithsonian Institution. Luckily, our visit also coincided with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Each year, the institution highlights the cultural heritage of different countries by hosting performances, discussions, and demonstrations. This year China and Kenya were showcased in a massive camp set up on the National Mall. We watched a troupe from Fujian Province with marionette puppets, stepped inside a traditional pokomo hut, and tried Kenyan coastal and upland cuisine. In short, it is what all international festivals dream to be.

In what is rapidly becoming a bad habit for us in visiting big cities, we hit the art hard in D.C. Rich wandered into a private tour with a docent at the Phillips Collection, which he was still raving about the next day. The National Gallery of Art filled that impressionist hole in our hearts with a fine exhibit on Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas. A video montage loop at the Hirshhorn Museum questioned whether any art is new, and the juxtaposition of Christopher Robin from "Winnie the Pooh" and Mowgli from "The Jungle Book" in eerily identical animation clips blew our minds.

Washington is also a fantastic place to see performing arts. For our indie buzz, the Source Festival was putting on 10-minute plays, chosen from over 500 nationwide submissions. The 6 plays in the series on mortality were alternately absurd and funny and moving with a cult, cancer, and the zombie apocalypse. "Dressing Bobby Strong," about a funeral director's assistant preparing the body of her unrequited first love, managed to be not at all creepy, deeply touching, and our favorite of the bunch. For a distinct contrast, we saw "Shear Madness" at the Kennedy Center. It's a murder mystery set in a hair salon. To explain more would ruin it, suffice to say it was hilarious, so much fun, and easy to understand why it's one of the longest running plays in the world.

As an added bonus, we saw an SUV double park and block traffic, thereby, pissing off the van behind him. The drivers got into a honking and shouting match, ending in the SUV driver trying to deck the other guy through the window. Unfortunately for him, the driver and passenger of the van were undercover cops, who hauled him off in cuffs in seconds!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Dubrovnik (Croatia)

Heading southeast on a bus from Split along the Dalmatian Coast brought us through the thin strip of land that belongs to Bosnia-Herzegovina and back into Croatia. We had that brief moment of anxiety when the customs officer walked off with the stack of passengers' passports before he returned. One German couple on a shopping spree didn't even realize we'd be crossing borders. They got a stern dressing down but were let through in the end.

Four and a half hours seemed a long way to go - European-wise at least - to just visit one city, but Dubrovnik is called the Pearl of the Adriatic for a reason. Before Napolean conquered it, the city was the center of the republic of Ragusa for nearly 500 years. Nowadays tourists from the cruise ships are the only ones swarming the city walls... and judging from the hordes when we were there, we dread to think what the flood is like in the actual high season. Nonetheless, the walls are very impressive. They run intact nearly 2000 meters around the old city, and as fortifications, were never breached during Medieval times. The buildings within, however, were razed by shelling during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Now the city walls offer impressive panoramas of the painstakingly restored, orange-tiled roofs - icons of the old city. The views of the sea are also superb. If any of it looks the least bit familiar, it's because medieval Dubrovnik doubles for King's Landing in HBO's Game of Thrones. Squeezing by groups on the walls, we had to giggle at overhearing Spaniards cut through the tour guide's historical spiel with, "¿Dónde está Blackwater Bay?" Not to get all fanboy, but there is a killing to be made on getting photo ops with, say, the severed head of Eddard Stark.

The entrance ticket to the walls also includes a pass through round towers, along bulwarks, and several fortresses. St. John fortress houses an aquarium and a maritime museum, and nooks here and there hosted small exhibitions of Croatian artists. Outside the city walls, Lovrijenac (or St. Lawrence fortress) is known for hosting theatrical productions. When we were there, the risers and staging we saw being constructed looked more in line with a fashion show or exclusive dance club with big spotlights and bars at the ready. Possibly, it was part of the celebrity hoopla overrunning the city.

One morning we brought our newly stamped Dubrovnik Pass to one of the most beautiful and important historical places in the city: the Rector's Palace. To our consternation, the entire complex was roped off for the wedding of some New York socialite and wealthy banker. We were furious! No one we spoke to - not the official tourist office who pitched us the expensive day pass, not even the people at the ticket counter at the Rector's Palace itself who had persuaded us the afternoon before to delay our visit until the following morning - had thought it worthwhile to mention the star attraction would be closed! The plaza outside was clogged with people craning their necks to look at the rich and famous. Although we'd never heard of the bride and groom, such names as Leonardo DiCaprio, Snoop Lion née Dogg, or Angelina Jolie were rumored to be among the guests. That might have explained why, at dinner the night before, Rich had seen a group of men with big cameras jump up from their tables to run lenses out and flashes going... so at least the paparazzi were in attendance!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Trogir and kayaking on the Dalmatian Coast (Croatia)

Once upon a time we went on a week-long trip kayaking around the cayes of Belize. While the setting was beautiful, and the stars at night glorious, the trip was plagued by rough conditions on the water, a constant and insidious swarming of sandflies on land, our poor physical training beforehand, and an utter lack of support from and for the guides. It culminated in what we like to call a "marriage-building experience" of capsizing a fully-loaded double kayak with a tall sail on it in the middle of a 13 km crossing. We survived, but never again, we thought...

Well, memories fade over time, and the Adriatic Sea along the Dalmatian coast presents some of the world's best kayaking. Most people opt for the stretch outside of Dubrovnik, but Rich found a small outfit outside of Split that sounded like it would suit us. We were still a bit worn down from our colds, but we embarked outside of Trogir on a sunny day with equally hopeful outlooks. We were pleasantly surprised to find we were alone on the tour, and our private guide was an amiable local fellow who looked like a tanned Bradley Cooper and whose Croatian name sounded an awful lot like Dragon. Old Homestar Runner fans out there might appreciate how difficult it was not to herald our guide with the Trogdor song every time (He was a dragon-man!)... but I digress.

The conditions were pretty close to perfect. There was the lightest of breezes, and the waters were so calm! One morning especially was like a mill pond. Only our kayaks breaking the surface caused the gentlest of ripples. The limestone coast meant fewer sandy beaches but made up for it with incredible clarity underwater down 10 or 20 meters. The spot off of Drvenik Veli deserves its name: The Blue Lagoon. Boats appeared to hover over their anchors, casting sharply defined shadows on the seabed. The water was still a little on the chilly side, but it was a refreshing swim after a long paddle. It certainly didn't deter the early season holiday-makers renting small yachts.  The limestone also created interesting formations with cracking striations and tiny karst islands, making the region popular with rock climbers. Quite a few of the smaller islands were completely uninhabited (goats and water fowl being the exception), and Dragon explained the rows of olive trees we were seeing were from many of the younger generation coming back to replant what had been groves in their ancestors' days. Despite the idyllic atmosphere, we had to throw in the towel a tad short of our goal. Our poor health (battling colds, recovering from a recent wrist injury, and not being in great shape) was getting to us, and we were absolutely exhausted. The decision was for the best, and our disappointment was somewhat assuaged with delectable calamari at a gorgeously situated seaside grill as we waited for our pick up.

We had a very brief visit in Trogir itself before our final transfer out of the region. The historic town has an ancient harbor, the best preserved Romanesque-Gothic in the Cathedral of Saint Lawrence, and a satisfyingly medieval castle in the Kamerlengo Fortress. Too bad we couldn't stay longer!  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Split (Croatia)

From Plitvice, we drove the 3.5 hours south through the interior and east back to the coast. Split is the second largest city in Croatia, and our friends had assured us that we'd enjoy it. Upon arrival, we quickly understood why: Split looks and feels a lot like Barcelona. With the palm trees, stalls selling jewellery and other accessories, and umbrella cafés looking out to the boats in the harbor, the Riva seafront promenade could have been a stretch along Barceloneta or Port Olímpic. The arches and neo-Renaissance buildings of Trg Republike (or Republic Square) make it a ringer for Plaça Reial, and the wide, pedestrian street Marmontova ulica sporting shops like H&M, Oakley, and Zara could be Portal de l'Angel. There is even a Montjuïc equivalent in the forested Marjan hill on the western banks of the Split peninsula. In such environs, eating old favorites such as black rice with cuttlefish or carpaccio of cod and fresh anchovies made us more than a little homesick.

Split is an old Roman city with the Emperor Diocletian first bringing it to prominence in the fourth century. He built his retirement home here - a lavish palace/fortress complex and UNESCO World Heritage Site of local limestone and marble that still dominates the city. Three towers, the walls, and all four gates remain. Outside the Golden Gate (or Porta Aurea) on the north side, the statue of the bishop Gregor of Nin by famed Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović dominates. Gregor's toe has been rubbed to a conspicuous golden sheen by tourists for luck. In the maze inside the palace walls, museums and ruins intermingle with modern shops and restaurants. Diocletian's mausoleum became the Cathedral of Saint Domnius, and the Temple of Jupiter was converted into a baptistery. Guides expound on history and visitors rest on red cushions littering the steps of the grand open court known as the Peristyle. In the Vestibule with its open-air occulus, groups of men in black suits take advantage of the wonderful acoustics to perform the traditional Dalmatian style of a capella singing called klapa. The cool, underground cellars, which once stored wine and foodstuffs, may be recognizable to Game of Thrones fans from Daenerys storylines. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Plitvice Lakes National Park (Croatia)

At around 12 - 30 kuna (roughly $2-4), boreks are a cheap and hearty option for breakfast on the go. Puff pastry is rolled in a tube shape - or perhaps layered in a pie and served as a quarter slice - and filled with either ground meat, fresh cheese, or a sweet fruit compote. The meat ones, seasoned with black pepper and minced onions, taste almost identical to a Cornish pasty. The boreks are so generously portioned that you usually need both hands to eat it, and they also made easy packed lunches for our visit to Plitvice Lakes National Park.

The place ranks very high on the must-see lists. Tourists who may see nothing else of the countryside will come to Croatia's largest national park in a long day trip from the larger cities of Split or Dubrovnik. That being said, the park does lend itself pretty well to visitors of limited mobility (or those who just plain aren't used to the great outdoors) with trams and ferry access points and all of the main highlights neatly arranged in a series of clearly marked routes.

One quickly realizes the universal appeal of Plitvice. Breathtaking waterfalls drop from limestone cliffs into a succession of 16 clear, turquoise lakes. The highest waterfall, Veliki Slap, rises 78 meters high (~ 256 ft). Boardwalks meander around lush vegetation and smaller cascades rush over travertine terraces. Anywhere else in the world you would have had to rack up serious miles driving and hiking for days to achieve an itinerary of this many waterfalls.

Plitvice's popularity can mean congestion. We actually saw traffic jams, queues of people forming on the trails for the most impressive sights! There were some stragglers left from the marathon that occurred earlier, but we counted ourselves lucky that our visit still was just before the start of the high season. On the other hand, we were not so fortunate in the weather. Frequent, cool showers put a damp-er (Rich made me say that!) on our visit as we were ill-prepared without rain jackets in the first place, and even more so, after we lost the umbrella. In the end, we had to leave Plitvice a little early in search of dry clothes and hot showers... which were, sadly, not enough to ward off the colds we got as souvenirs. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Poreč, Karojba, Motovun, Oportalje, Buzet, & Grosnjan (Croatia)

About 45 minutes north of Rovinj (or what should have been 45, but single lane stopped traffic stretched that considerably) is the coastal town of Poreč. We dropped by to take a look at the Euphrasian Basilica. In the ruins upon ruins, we came upon an odd sight of beautiful floor mosaics that were covered over with... layers of other beautiful floor mosaics. The Roman times were known for the relatively lavish lifestyles so I guess this is how successive owners all decided to redecorate?! As the current occupiers of the basilica, the Catholic Church has also done some interior design by accenting it with reliquaries, aka bits of dead saints in gold and bejewelled containers. Classy!

The interior of the Istrian region, however, bears a closer resemblance to the Italian countryside. Getting around this region still only lightly touched by tourism requires a car so we hired a VW Polo to tool around the tiny hill towns that overlook olive groves and vineyards. We stayed on a family farm in blink-and-you'll-miss-it Karojba. We quickly learned the "ham and cheese" option for breakfast was a large plate full of thin slices of przut (Istrian prosciutto) and a nicely aged sheepsmilk not unlike manchego.  

Each little hill town has a similar layout. Narrow, stone streets wind between charming old buildings in various states of romantic dishevelment. Motovun was by far the most touristic. Visitors must stop up along the steep road as only locals are allowed to drive into the town. Little shops sell handicrafts and gourmet foodstuffs to the coach tours who want to walk the city walls and take photos of the scenic valley below. 

In contrast, Oportalje was the most ramshackle of the towns we visited. Nearly half of the buildings were crumbling or under renovation. However, we did manage to visit a local olive oil producer not far outside it and taste his wares. The one restaurant in Oportalje did make a truly wonderful homemade pasta dish with an obscenely extravagant amount of fresh, shaved black truffles on the top!

Buzet, though, is the town most famous for its truffles. Black truffles found during the summer, and white ones from September to November. We bought into their reputation whole-heartedly and purchased wares there. 

Grosnjan was especially difficult to reach. We somehow missed a key sign and ended up on a single lane road that dead-ended in the tiny hamlet of Kostagna, where we had to execute an Austin Powers-style multipoint turn with the assistance of an amused, middle-aged, local lady. We retreated but then tried again to find Grosnjan later on the way home. We were rewarded. The town became an artists' haven, and it seemed like every other door was a gallery or workshop for painters, sculptors, photographers, or potters. Another round of delectable house made pasta with truffles - though not quite as luxurious as in Oportalje - made a very satisfied ending to our Istrian jaunt!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Rovinj (Croatia)

To continue on our way, we got up to take the 5:45 am bus back to Ljubljana, just in time to catch the small van that leaves once a day to cross the Slovenian border back into Croatia. This time we were heading to the coast.

A former stronghold of the Venetian Empire, the region of Istria (actually Istra in Croatian) has changed hands so many times that one could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into Italy. Rovinj is a fishing town, whose colorful buildings and labyrinthine alleys have guaranteed its popularity as a holiday destination. The frequent ferries between it and Italian towns across the Adriatic Sea help, and the port seems to attract the well-heeled yachting elite, too. We were greeted in German more times than we could count, a testimony to how many Austrians and Germans also find Rovinj irresistible. The town still manages to maintain its charm in the onslaught. Having a sladoled (= Croatian gelato) cafe on every corner and abundant fresh seafood sure doesn't hurt. When a typical Istrian dish of cuttlefish stew with polenta arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find it bore more than a passing resemblance to low country shrimp and grits.

The basilica of Saint Euphemia sits high on the hill of the peninsula dominated by the old town. Legend has it that the remains of the martyr arrived safely on the coast of Rovinj after being thrown into the sea, which could explain the fisherfolk's devotion to her. There is an interesting mural of the saint with the lions who refused to eat her, and among the other usual suspects you'd expect to find (Blessed Virgin, angels, etc.), a statue of Mother Teresa who just looks too weirdly modern in such august company.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Triglav National Park and the Julian Alps (Slovenia)

Triglav Mountain, the highest mountain in Slovenia at 2864 m (9396 ft), is so emblematic that it features on the national flag. The park that bears its name is difficult to see via public transport so we joined an organized trip. Another reason not to drive yourself is that the road into the Julian Alps climbs steeply and winds through 50 switchbacks. Our first stop was a short but steep hike up a mountain still covered in snow... in our sandals. Near the top, we could see for miles: in one direction lies Austria, and in the other, Italy. The shifting fronts of World War I could still be seen in abandoned concrete bunkers and empty lookouts posted along the ridge. Part of our drive was through the Vršič Pass on the Russian Road, so called because of the many Russian prisoners of war who built it. A chapel commemorates those who died doing so.

Much of our route followed the Soča River. We hiked to the source, climbing boulders, and in some cases, clinging to cables anchored in the sheer rock walls. The water gushed out of the rock, flowing over a giant snowball, probably several meters in diameter, the last remnant of the winter snow melt. More cables and narrower rock bridges also brought us to a lovely waterfall cascading into a secluded cavern. There are many opportunities along the Soča for postcard pictures of alpine forests and dramatic limestone landscapes.

For a more active river experience, whitewater rafting was an excellent way to get the juices flowing again, especially after a long time in a minibus. The water of the Soča is a surreal turquoise hue and an invigorating 7 °C, making us glad for the thick neoprene wetsuits we were wearing. While the class III rapids weren't the most extreme we've done, there were sections that required some hard paddling and all hands taking cover in the center of the boat. No one fell out, although when the opportunity to voluntarily jump off a big rock into the whirling waters presented itself, I misjudged it, of course. Rich was a little nervous watching me swim hard against the current to make it back to the extraction point!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Lake Bled (Slovenia)

Lake Bled has been a popular holiday destination for over a hundred years... and deservedly so. A pristine lake with a small island in the middle, evergreen forests surrounding, and a castle atop a cliff thrown in for good measure - it is what the word picturesque must have been invented for.

A short, steep hike brings you to the castle, where we found the beginnings of a medieval camp, complete with tents with streaming banners, armor, and archery targets. Alas, we were a few days early for the festival! Hence the only activity we saw were the costumed docents grilling sausages over the fire for their lunch. The interiors of the castle contained a museum detailing who had occupied it, descriptions of the region at different historical and geological times, and several slightly creepy mannequins dressed based on local archaeological, burial finds. There was also a medieval printer's where you could press your own bookmark on handmade paper.

An easy walk around the lake takes but a few hours. However, should the romance of the setting take you, you can hop into a traditional pletna boat with a local man to pole you to the island, gondalier-style... or row your sweetheart yourself in a rowboat for two. On the island, 98 stone steps rise to a small church. Legend has it that grooms who manage to carry their brides up this ascent will have good luck, and the custom is still alive today.

Lake Bled was also where we got our first taste of ćevapčići and pljeskavica. These were, respectively, minced meat sausages (served in a hefty portion of 8 or 10 to a person) and giant minced meat pancake (accompanied by a scoop of local soft kajmak cheese more akin to butter). We found out later they are originally from Sarajevo but were so popular that variants could be found throughout the countries formerly part of Yugoslavia. Both dishes are delicious and very cheap, making them appear frequently on fast food menus. The most iconic dish of Bled, however, is a dessert, the kremšnita. Sandwiched between two layers of puff pastry is a thick layer of custard under an even thicker block of whipped cream. The concoction has been made fresh daily by chefs in the local grande dame hotel for over 60 years although every place around the lake seems to be well-equipped to serve it al fresco.  

Monday, June 16, 2014

Ljubljana (Slovenia)

The man in seat 61 (a most helpful website for all things locomotive) highly recommended doing the journey from Zagreb, Croatia, to Ljubljana, Slovenia, during the day. The 3 hour train ride follows the Sava river as it winds lazily through peaceful farmlands framed by mountains. Neat vegetable gardens abut alpine cottages, and wooden hayracks in the traditional Slovenian style (like very wide ladders with little roofs) stand upright all over the landscape.

Our accommodation in Ljubljana was unusual - a former penitentiary turned hostel and art gallery. Our room was a cell, complete with bunkbeds, bars on the doors, a narrow window set high... and tiny sculptures backlit under the glass floor (the arty part).

Arriving late into the city, our only option for food was, happily enough, a restaurant serving traditional Slovenian cuisine. Gnocchi in a game meat sauce was a good stick-to-your-ribs meal. Rich opted for the country feast: a meat extravaganza featuring roast pork, sausage, ribs, black pudding, and a sort of buckwheat hash with pork crackling. Portions in Slovenia rival American ones so we were stuffed!

Ljubljana has been touted as "the next Prague." Having never been there, we can only assume they are referring to the paved stone streets, cheerily colored Baroque buildings, and tall spires. Strolling along the river front, open market stalls sell vegetables and handicrafts, including the intricately decorated red, heart-shaped cookies to be given for special occasions (but not for eating although technically edible) and wooden boards from bee hives hand-painted with strange rural scenes (for example, medieval peasants being chased by a giant snail). The castle above the city itself is also a slightly odd mixture, with its ancient walls and modern design, where ramparts overlook a trendy cafe. However, there's no arguing that the vantage point does offer the best views of the city!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Zagreb (Croatia)

The former Yugoslavia had been a vibrant holiday destination in southern Europe. Years after the collapse of communism and civil wars, the tourism industry is booming again. The region, as a delightful plan to go leisurely along the Adriatic, had made our short list of where to spend our gloriously long summer vacations in Spain. The American move has dictated a far more truncated version.  

We had intended to get off our flight to Zagreb and head overland straight for Slovenia, but the airport shuttle and train schedules did not agree with that plan. Stowing our packs in the main train station was amusing as a couple of older Indian ladies in socks and sandals and with fanny packs around their waists evidently took us for experts and peppered us with questions about it. Killing time before the next train did allow us to walk around quite a bit of the Lower Town and Upper Town of Croatia's capital. St. Mark's Church gets top marks for fanciest roof with the medieval coats of arms of Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, and Zagreb worked in elaborate tiles.

We were particularly curious about the award-winning Museum of Broken Relationships, which started as an exhibit before expanding into full-blown museum. Contributors submit art, mementos, and stories about their broken relationships. It's a theme people the world over can relate to: the ultimate breakup mix tape. Pieces dedicated to ephemeral first crushes, the crash and burn of passionate romances, and the slow crumbling of long-term marriages all feature. The tone ranges from lighthearted humor to disturbing and tragic. There's the "toaster of vindication," a mundane appliance stolen in a final passive aggressive act by a man moving out of their shared apartment: "How're you going to toast anything now?" ... A woman who'd helped her addicted lover stay clean for months shared a home drug testing kit showing a devastating result of positive  ... One stiletto from a dominatrix prostitute reuniting unexpectedly with her first love as a john. Not all of the submissions were romantic or sexual in nature. A whole room was dedicated to broken relationships with parents, from separations both natural (time, distance, absence) and unexpected (divorce, death, even suicide). Reading these stories of heartbreak could have so easily felt voyeuristic, but somehow, the museum strikes the right balance. Visitors are witnesses to the pain and can empathize with them, and contributors get cathartic release, freeing themselves from the hold these love tokens and memories have over them.