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.