Moving north from Sarajevo, we opted to spend a month in Zagreb. Our stay timed well with the opening of the Advent markets which can claim the honor of being the best in Europe. We watched excitedly as the little huts were arranged on the squares, lights hung, and an ice skating park assembled near our apartment. The markets didn’t open until December 2, however, so we spent the first three weeks distracting ourselves with other things to do.
An earthquake in 1880 caused the destruction of parts of the city and it was rebuilt with grand buildings and park spaces. It makes the city a sight in its own right. We walked, rather than funiculared, up to the Upper Town to get a better view. Near St. Mark’s Square (which holds the eponymous church with the brightly tiled roof) is the Museum of Broken Relationships. Items left over from failed relationships – a book, a wedding dress, a trinket, a toaster – are donated along with stories tied to their meaning. Sometimes sad, sometimes hysterically funny, it made me grateful to have someone to share the experience with.
Also before the Advent season got into full swing, we had a couple events to attend. The first was InfoGamer, the largest video game expo in the Balkans. Compared to PAX, it was nearly empty of people. Of course, we went in the middle of the day in the middle of the week and InfoGamer spreads out over six days rather than just four. All the major devices and games were represented. We tried out the new Mario Odyssey and a game called Inked that boasted an art style straight out of a paper notebook, and then spent most of our time checking out the smaller games built by Croatian start-ups. One called I Hate Running Backwards was a particularly addicting multiplayer.
We also happened to be in town for the International Festival of Wine and Culinary Art. Though the focus centered mostly on Croatian wine, there were some other countries from around the region represented as well. For just a $30 entry per person, we were able to sample as much as we wanted (really just as much as we had time for) for the six hours were stayed. With about 150 wineries each serving three or more wines, there was far too much to have a chance to taste everything. But we tried. And thankfully, almost everything was delicious (at least from what we remember). A few breweries and distilleries also showcased their wares, especially those evoking holiday flavors. And then there were a few stands slicing up cured Dalmatian pršut, an aged ham tender enough to nearly melt in our mouths.
And then, finally, on the last weekend we were in Zagreb, the Advent celebrations kicked off. The lightings in different squares took place on Saturday evening, as did concerts and the rolling out of a tram decorated as Santa Claus. Mulled wine was a must for staying warm, but it was readily available and cheap. Sausages were also being served up on every square along with balls of fried dough and germknödel, a pastry stuffed with spiced plum jam for dessert. The ice skating park finally opened, full of lights and music. We avoided crowds and skated on a Tuesday morning. Chilly weather is not our strong suit – living out of two backpacks apiece doesn’t let us carry many winter clothes. But most markets have plenty of heaters and warm snacks, and a coffee or pastry shop is rarely more than a block away.
Zagreb is a large enough city to embrace a fully worldwide culinary cross-section. In addition to Balkan specialties like cevapi and štrukle (a cheese-and-cream-filled pastry), we found exceptional locally-made hot sauces and spicy ajvars, and even shops selling imported goods from Asia and the US. It was fun to have ranch and Poptarts back on the menu at least for a few days.
And of course there was plenty of Croatian wine. As the temperature got cooler, we headed to the sprawling Dolac Market for spices and citrus fruits meant for mulling. The wine is usually good by itself, but adding a few spices never hurt.
Zagreb is at least as charming as the coast, and there are fewer tourists, especially as soon as you step away from the Christmas markets. The cost of living was lower too, which definitely appealed to us. I’d like to return someday, though maybe in warmer weather.
This rambling features a bunch of ‘favorite’ European sights that is entirely based on today’s mood (and then basically pulling a name out of a hat if we couldn’t decide) and our current state of melting in ~85+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Anything that reminds us of a cold day probably got moved up subconsciously. And of course, our experiences were colored because some places were under renovation while others were too crowded to make our experience feel worth the admission cost.
Best Art Museum: National Art Museum of Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona. This was the only museum we visited multiple times because Saturday afternoons are free. 🙂 The palatial building has art-filled wings and frescoed domes. It dominates a hillside above Venetian-styled towers, waterfalls and fountains. MNAC’s collection is incredible – 13th century altarpieces (with mayhem-causing demons or saints boiling away in pots), Art Deco stained glass and advertising posters, sketches of the Spanish Civil War’s destruction, works by El Greco, Rubens, Goya…
Favorite Mode of Transit: Seaplane from Split to Dubrovnik. Head to Split’s picturesque harbor, sip on drinks waterside, board to find there are only 3 passengers, enjoy gorgeous mountain and island views all the way down the coast. A 45-minute jaunt and the chance the shoreline slip by is much preferable to a 4+ hour bus ride featuring two bonus border crossings.
Best City for Drinking Outside: Budapest. This city takes summer drinking to a new level. Mix cheap beer, lots of public space, great transit and voila! Some parks have stands selling alcohol, but it is more common to bring your own. Time of day doesn’t particularly matter, though nights are better, especially if you come across live music or a soccer match screening. Fisherman’s Bastion and the pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge provide some great views and enough drinking space for everyone.
Most Impressive City Walls: Dubrovnik. Game of Thrones is filmed there for a reason. Several cities we visited had walls in the past, but Dubrovnik’s are complete and you can walk all the way around them, exploring towers and the intimidating Lovrijeniac Fortress across a small bay. The blue Adriatic and the tightly packed Old Town fill the views.
Happiest Palace: Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Move over, Neuschwanstein. Not only is the Pena Palace more brightly colored, it was actually lived in. The interior is just as cheerful as the outside with fountains and tiles. The grounds are pretty as well, with rambling trails, live black swans, and carefully planned views.
Favorite Old Town: Tallinn. Small, surrounded by towers, full of church spires, pastel colored buildings, and a pretty hill to climb. Yes, restaurants and souvenir poods dominate. We ignored those and focused on the cuteness, small parks, and quieter streets. Note: we avoided the high season, weekends, and cruise tour groups.
Library Nearest My Vision of Heaven: Trinity College Library, Dublin. One of about three places that looked like their Instagram images, no photoshopping required. Thousands of books, richly colored wood, gorgeous bindings. Large crowds detracted a bit. It isn’t a very wide room since the sides are cordoned off, but at least we could stay as long as we wanted to try to soak it in. The library at Portugal’s Palace of Mafra gets an honorable mention because it is equally beautiful, with far fewer visitors. The downside there is not being able to walk as far into it to get a sense of the scale. But the huge cross-shaped hall is gorgeous marblework worthy of a such an impressive royal residence.
Most Interesting Non-Art Museum: Village Museum, Bucharest. Outside in a city park, the Village Museum let us tour the Romanian countryside without leaving Bucharest. Dozens of old buildings – homes, churches, barns, windmills have been preserved, and turned into a living history museum. Lots of love has gone into furnishing the homes and keeping the carved gates and painted details. It was fun even in a storm (we sheltered in a wine press). The wide variety of structures showcased the different traditional styles from around Romania.
Sports Team with the Most Rabid Fans: Hadjuk Soccer Club from Split. Our hosts warned us that if we were ever harassed in a bar or on the street to just say “Volimo Hajduk” (“We love Hajduk!” – we never had to, everyone was really kind). Graffiti with the name Hajduk and their red-and-white checker colors was EVERYWHERE – sidewalks, buses, underpasses, huge murals on buildings. They have their own branded chocolate, liquor, snacks. Every kid must own at least one jersey. Even in Dubrovnik, Hajduk reigned.
Coincidental Event We Didn’t Plan to See But Enjoyed the Most: Red Bull Air Race, Budapest. Ok, so the weather was terrible, practices were cancelled, events cut short, and we didn’t get to see them fly under the bridge (a thing they convince the planes to do!). And it was still an incredible display of reflexes and flying planes stupidly close to water and between buildings in the center of a city with thousands of people cheering on either side of the river.
Creepiest Cemetery: Cemiterio dos Prazeres, Lisbon. Ghosts clearly come out at night. Above ground tomb, with doors of broken glass, let the lace curtains covering the coffins flutter in the wind. Few people, but cats in surprising places watching you.
Church Putting All Others to Shame: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. La Sagrada Familia is otherwordly. It stands alone, strikingly different from any other church we saw. Inside, the white stone canvas swirls with rainbows of colored light streaming through the stained glass. Statuary covers the exterior, the side portraying the Crucifixion is in violent relief, the opposite showing Creation is decadent with natural scenery. It is expensive, the priciest building we entered, but worth it – even with the thousand other people. While waiting to enter you can even watch the ongoing construction, and dream about what it will look like when finished.
Most Heartwrenching Memorial: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The preserved concentration, forced labor, and death camp complex is a sobering memorial to human suffering and powerful warning about the evils humans will commit. Crowds detract a bit initially, but it was easy to begin to ignore them and turn inward to try to understand the horrors that happened there. Auschwitz I was on a too-human scale, its brick buildings reminded me of college dorms. But of course, inside are the exhibits of human hair, items confiscated from the victims. It’s awful. My stomach churned for hours remembering that people tortured, murdered, starved so many. Auschwitz-Birkenau’s vastness magnifies the horrors of Auschwitz I. Everyone should visit to confront the world’s failure to stop the Holocaust and the ongoing need to keep it from recurring.
Historical Artifact We Should Have Learned about In School but Didn’t: Romania’s Steel Crown. King Carol I asked for a crown of steel made from cannons captured by soldiers fighting for Romania’s independence. He wanted to remember their sacrifice.
Cheapest Deal: Castles during Croatia’s off season. They often charge at least a small admission fee. But in April, some days no one will be at the ticket booth and the castles will still be open (can’t blame them for wanting to hike up if no tourists seem to be in town). 🙂 Happened at Omis and on Hvar.
Cutest Public Artwork: Book Fountain in Budapest. Water makes it look like the book’s pages are turning. It’s cute. The end.
Prettiest Hiking: Plitvice Lakes, Croatia. We visited during the off-season and avoided the worst crowds, and it was peaceful and pretty. Boardwalks weave around the waterfalls and under the trees; it’s a perfect way to spend at least an afternoon.
Where to See Books & Manuscripts Up Close: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. The large libraries are beautiful in their own right, but only display a handful of books – they are all still on shelves. This museum focuses on individual books and has hundreds on display, all the way back to papyrus from ancient Egypt and fragments from the earliest copies of several books of the Bible.
Favorite Fortress for Exploring: Suomenlinna, Helsinki. A small series of islands in the Gulf of Finland have the preserved remains of a massive fort that guarded Helsinki’s harbor. The tunnels running through many ramparts and rocky waterfronts are open for exploring.
Stress-inducing Thing that was Fun Afterward: Driving in Romania. Driving laws in Romania appear to be suggestions. Roads are shared with speeding semis, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, cars pulling over for no reason. Everyone honks for everything. But the countryside is pretty, especially in the Transylvanian mountains.
City Walking that Doesn’t Suck: Barcelona’s Wide Boulevards. Outside the Gothic Quarter’s tangled mess, sidewalks are huge, open, flat. The city is easy to navigate because just about every street is at a right angle.
Here are some other things grouped by city that I didn’t want to come up with individual paragraphs for:
The damp of Diocletian’s palace basement in Split still shows how good Romans were at construction. Ruins at Solin add to that argument. Klis Fortress is also pretty but they clearly know people are coming due to GoT filming – the price keeps going up.
The shore path on the Babin Kuk side of Dubrovnik was more relaxing than ones nearer the Old Town. Ferrying out to Lokrum Island also avoided about 95% of the crowd and was a nice place to spend an afternoon being stalked by peacocks.
Bucharest has a beautiful Orthodox church every few blocks. Towering over everything, the Palace of the Parliament is a primer in government waste. Two hours away in the mountains, Peles Castle proves that a country doesn’t have to have a royal family for very long before all the trappings show up.
In addition to the Uprising Museum, the entire city of Warsaw is a WWII memorial. Walking anywhere you come upon plaques and statues commemorating events or people, letting you map out the destruction in your own neighborhood. In the suburbs, the Wilanow Palace serves as a reminder of the pre-WWII era.
Krakow crams a lot into a small space, which explains why it’s packed with tourists. The Franciscan Basilica is incredible. The park encircling the Old Town, the riverfront walk, or Kazimierz (the traditionally Jewish area) gets away from some of the horde. Further out, the now-parklike Plaszow Concentration Camp is Auschwitz’s lesser-known cousin that makes a thoughtful accompaniment to Oskar Schindler’s Factory.
Again, these are the places that stuck out the most. Just about everything we saw was worth our time in some way or another. For every place we saw, there are more we heard about but didn’t get to. I suppose yet another reason to head back at some future point….
We’ve moved back to the Americas for the foreseeable future, leaving fall and winter behind. Sorry Europe, it’s time for some beaches in Mexico and Latin American culture. Coming snow and chill aside, I’m going to miss all the countries we visited in Europe. I thought it might be fun to do a recap of the best things we saw and ate and some of the oddities we noticed. New blogs will be light this month as we are staying in a beach town and well… basically going to the beach every day. This post is all about the food and drink in eight countries we visited in Europe, starting with the best food from each place.
In Lisbon, Portugal, egg tarts reign. Just all of them all the time; get them from Pasteis de Belem or literally any other bakery. How their eggs are so tasty is a mystery. Even the eggs we got at the store had richer yolks and seemed tastier than eggly possible.
Best meal in Barcelona is tapas, hands down. Away from the tourist streets they are much cheaper and about 483% better. Every possible combination of cheese, veggies, and meat is available. For a Euro, you can have a couple bites that taste like the equivalent of $40 meal. And usually there is a wide variety so it is perfect if someone wants hamburgers and another person wants fruit & cheese plates.
Ajvar is Croatia’s contribution to culinary heaven. A blend of peppers and eggplant, it fits between pasta sauce and salsa. Doesn’t sound too special, but it was my go-to topping for toast, eggs, chips, pasta, crackers, meat, or sometimes just by the spoonful by itself. Especially worth nothing when served on cevapi, a skinless sausage sandwich that may cause you to nearly ruin your shirt in your hurry to get it all in your face because YUM! I searched for ajvar in every European country we went to post-Croatia. (Romania has a similar food called zakusca, but it’s more soupy and forgettable.)
In Bucharest, Romania, the Caru’ cu Bere restaurant served up cheap lunch eats. We had superb sour kraut salad, polenta (with a rich topping of cheese, cream, and egg – it was the appetizer but basically became my main course), and tomato and cucumber salad.
Fish was the best bet in Ireland. There isn’t really any specific way to have it prepared as long as it’s fresh. Locals emphasized that Irish cuisine doesn’t have a ‘must-try’ dish. In fact, Dublin may have had the highest percentage of restaurants and shops focusing on cuisine from other cultures.
Goulash soup was probably the highlight of Hungary. Full of meats, veggies, and paprika, it is warm and rich. It’s probably more suited to winter than summer, so we need to go back in a season when I can eat more of it. It’s definitely not the hamburgery noodles I grew up calling goulash. Also, in a possible tie, Hungary has deep fried potato donuts. These are exactly what they sound like: a mix of potato and donut dough, fried for a crispy outside and soft, warm inside. Though they are called donuts, they aren’t dessert, but another example of Hungary’s love of high-calorie goodness.
Poland claims victory on the pierogi front, naturally. I didn’t know there could be so many kinds. Duck, mushroom, salmon, and berries make excellent fillings though ruskie (cheese and potato) is the most traditional and is clearly the King of Pierogies. Done right, they are puffy, joyous food pillows that I would gleefully eat for every meal.
Estonia wins dessert. Never thought I would say that Estonia has the best (non-egg tart) pastries, but they pulled it off. We were just a block away from a bakery that served up supremely fluffy pastries with the richest, smoothest creamy cheese fillings and icings. And Kalev, the main brand of chocolate, makes some of the best anywhere in Europe. Sorry, Germany, Kinder doesn’t cut it anymore.
Other food takeaways that surprised us:
Frozen veggies are tastier in Europe. There are Italian, Chinese, and Mexican mixes that taste as fresh as a salad. The flavors are intense – like the veggies just came out of the garden. And at $1-2 dollars a bag that would feed both of us for two or three meals, America can learn something.
Horse meat is really tasty. Seriously.
So is moose. It fits somewhere between prosciutto and beef jerky on the meat-flavor spectrum.
Portugal does the egg thing, but Spain must be the beneficiary of the actual chicken. Chicken in Spain tasted like a unique meat, not just a bland food needing lots of seasoning.
Duck is really cheap at Lidl in Hungary. And in Estonia. We shamelessly ate a lot of it.
We ate risottos in several countries and they are now probably a necessary part of my existence. The ones in Portugal were richer, more flavorful, and more gravy-like. At the Time Out Market near Lisbon’s waterfront, I had the best risotto of the whole trip with game hen and mushrooms. Ones in Hungary featured paprika, naturally.
Sushi is common in Estonia and is happy to blend local flavors and products. We even saw a full-color book of Estonian-Japanese fusion foods.
Peanut crisps (think Cheetos puffs with less corn and more legume) seemed to be the most popular snack in Croatia. They are addicting. Hrusk Crisps were my personal favorite. I now prefer them to cheese puffs, though I will admit that I got addicted to Latvian-produced nacho cheese balls in Estonia.
Thank Hungary for fair and festival food. They are masters of fried dough and carryable meat.
Chip flavors vary by country – salsa, paprika, prosciutto, mushroom, hamburger, kebab, dill, steak. There are more traditional flavors as well, the cheeses, onions, sour creams. Missing were Doritos Cool Ranch and Fritos.
We had goose legs for the first time in Hungary. Better than turkey.
All of Europe is terrible at spicy foods. The only partial exception is Hungary, which corners the paprika market, but still only reaches a small percentage of what we got used to in Southeast Asia.
Dill doesn’t seem to exist in most places. It was only readily available in Estonia, presumably because they have salmon in large quantities. And salmon necessitates dill.
Peanut butter is an exotic rarity. While it can be found in some supermarkets, it is 2-5 times more expensive than in the U.S. and is often grittier and lacking spreadability. And often hiding out in the refrigerated section.
Europe loves cheese. The Iberian peninsula favors soft cheeses, while Romania northward seemed much more in love with hard, aged cheeses. Even so, finding appropriate cheese for nachos in Croatia was nearly impossible. Same goes for pre-shredded.
Most know Spain is famous for prosciutto, but Hungary and Poland should also be on the preserved-meat fan’s radar. Especially Poland. Though the Central Market in Budapest had a stall serving what might have been the best prosciutto of the trip.
Instant ramen is ubiquitous (college kids everywhere survive on that stuff), but Poland took it a step further and had beetroot borscht alongside the chicken and shrimp flavors. Sure enough, same cheap noodles, but this time with a spice packet that turned the soup bright reddish-purple. And yes, it was good.
Of course, drinks go with food:
Literally ALL THE WINE IN PORTUGAL IS GOOD. We drank 3 -or 4-Euro bottles almost exclusively and had no regrets. The best ports were pricier. We shared a single small glass of 30 year-old port that cost about $7US and was smooth and flavorful. If only we had enough for whole bottles of that stuff…
Alcohol in Spain was disappointing; perhaps it was overshadowed by Portugal’s. The wine was more expensive and not to our liking, and the beers were forgettable.
Croatian wine, especially a grape variety called plavac mali, was the best thing to drink. The best bottle (we splurged for our birthdays) was produced by Zlatan Otok. We’ve never seen Croatian wine anywhere else, even other European nations, much less in the U.S. We were told their industry was growing, so hopefully we’ll be able to find it in the future.
An aside on Macedonian wine: They made their way frequently into Croatian stores, and it turns out they also deserve to be better known. Some are even aged in amphorae, modern versions of the containers pulled up from shipwrecks. This makes for more earthy wines, and is a fun way to feel a little more connected to the region’s history.
Sweet red wines are Romania’s forte. Even wines listed as dry are not. Kevin wasn’t thrilled by this, but I took it as a sign to make wine my dessert.
Hungary’s best drinking was sweet white wines from the Tokaji region. Like Romania, lots of residual sugar.
It turns out Poland does make a little bit of wine, but they make much more beer and (SO MUCH!) vodka. Too many (really cheap) drinkable beers to name, but there is one vodka that stands out. Bisongrass vodka isn’t available in the US (it’s just a teeny bit toxic), but it is the best vodka either of us has had.
Redcurrant wine in Estonia. Berries take the place of grapes here; thank goodness they can be fermented and aged the same way. More like drinking syrup than alcohol, it is another example of their domination of desserts. Though kvass (beer made from fermented bread that tastes like toast), should get an honorary mention.
Overall, the best countries for (grape) wine were 1. Portugal – a perfect blend of inexpesive and flavorful wines 2. Croatia – for their own unique grapes and the other Balkan countries that were represented, a little pricier but still lots of deals 3. Hungary has more sweeter wines and it matches well with their cuisine.
For beer, the rankings are mostly based on Kevin’s opinion. He appreciates beer more than I do, but the more we travel, the more I find ones I like. 1. Poland wins beer. It was cheap, there was a lot of it, and there was a wide variety. And all of it was good. Nothing randomly pulled off a shelf disappointed. They also are proud of a growing craft beer industry that has produced some interesting combinations. 2. Hungary snags second place because beer there is very cheap and usually of high quality. We did find a few duds, but for pennies a bottle, it is easy to experiment. 3. Estonia has a much bigger craft scene, so there is a lot of variety for a small country. Their overall cost of living means beer is pricier than any other European country we went to on this trip. But it is tasty and there is always something new to try.
Kevin gets to exclusively pick the favorites for harder liquor awarding first to: 1. Ireland for its smooth whisky. 2. Poland because they have all the vodka. Aisles and aisles of vodka. And all the locals love it. We saw an 80 year-old couple checking out at the store with chicken, three apples, a can of coffee, and about 8 bottles of vodka. Not sure if that is how they stand each other or their children or just because they are 80 and who gives? 3. Estonia has Vana Tallinn, which makes run-based liquors and some that have winter spices in the mix – cozy for the growing chill.
Europe takes alcohol seriously. Quality is important, but so is quantity… In Croatia and a few other places, wine often comes in 1 liter bottles (rather than the U.S.-standard .75 liter). And beer. Beer cans in Europe make the standard U.S. can look like a child’s toy. Mass produced beers also come in 1- and 2-liter bottles, because beer! In Estonia, Finns hop the ferry over to buy cheaper alcohol. Estonia obliges by providing 10-packs of vodka (aka the “Finn-pack”) at all stores near the ferry dock, as well as handcarts to make carrying it back easy.
One of the interesting challenges was to try to find packaging with the most languages. The winner seemed to be a pizza box we got at Carrefour in Poland with full instructions and ingredient lists in 7 languages. (Two to four seemed to be about the average.) There was also a ketchup packet that had 11, but in almost every language the translation for ‘tomato ketchup’ is ‘tomato ketchup.’
In some cities, there are still wonderfully diverse markets showcasing local produce and meats. Some are considerably cheaper than stores for in-season produce, but others are tourist-focused and overcharge accordingly. Usually they are worth going to in either case.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that food has become a main part of our trip. We mostly ate at home, Kevin taking the opportunity to try new recipes (paella and ratatouille and fish), while using local ingredients. Unlike Thailand and Malaysia, eating out often in Europe would have drained our budget too fast, though I will say that doner kebab is cheap and yummy and very common. It was a little tough moving each month because we never knew what kitchen utensils we would end up with or how well our stove would work. Some of our favorite foods were ones we’ve had before but that had new twists or tasted completely different because of the quality of the ingredients. While we are happy to have moved on to a place where spicy food is again available and taco trucks are on many corners (namely ones by grocery store parking lots), Europe has so much more deliciousness to offer that we will have to head back… Even eight months was only enough time to get to a small portion of it all…
Lokrum Island is only 10 minutes by ferry from Dubrovnik’s Old Harbor but manages to completely leave the city behind. The noon sailing was packed and we sat on the boat’s edge looking down over the water.
Lokrum is protected as a forest reserve and holds a few ruins – it was once home to a monastery and a fort was built on the highest point in the 1800s. Now, however, legends declare the island is haunted and no one is allowed to spend the night.
The main attraction is wandering around the island itself. That, or paying too much for food and drinks at one of the cafes. We spent our four hours exploring trails and crumbling buildings. The highlight turned out to checking out tide pools where jagged sections of limestone vanish into the sea. The cracks in the rock wear down much faster than the surrounding stone and make interesting (and photogenic) pools and channels for sea creatures to hide in. Fish and small crabs were the most lively occupants. I was hoping for starfish, but didn’t manage to find any.
Much of the monastery was off-limits for restoration, but a small museum in its wings remained open. It houses a replica of the Iron Throne. We took all the requisite pictures of ourselves seated in it trying to look kingly and evil.
Fort Royal, built by Napoleon’s troops, is now surrounded by trees blocking some of the view. Still, from the top of the tower we could see most Dubrovnik’s walls and miles of mountains sloping down to the Croatian coast.
The most crowded spots were the cafes near the port and the fortress. Walking a few minutes down any forest trail let us escape from other tourists. The quiet of the island was a welcome relief after the cramped feeling of the Old Town, even though we could hear jet skis and some especially loud motorcycles on the mainland highway. Parts of the island were full of pine trees, and it almost felt like hiking in eastern Washington and smelled a little like Christmas.
Unlike the mainland, there seem to be no cats on the island, but bunnies and peacocks were released at some point and have taken over the lawns by the restaurants. While the rabbits are cute, the peacocks scream too loudly and too much. Fortunately, they do not like the brushy parts of the island and it’s easy to avoid them. Fire hoses were also strangely common. Fire danger on the island was very high (despite rain in the forecast) and there is no underground water system, so this is the best way to respond quickly to any flames.
We picked a warm day with lots of sun to walk around Old Town on top of the walls. Basically everyone we asked about Dubrovnik said this was the one thing we needed to do. It has all the benefits of clambering around a castle, hiking, and sightseeing in one.
Now bursting with tourists (and tour companies handing out flyers), the Pile Gate was clearly built to be intimidating. A wide moat is crossed by drawbridge leading through stone walls at least fifteen feet thick. The gate itself is intensely fortified, towers stand on each corner of the wall and another watches from across a small inlet.
Surviving an earthquake in 1667 and sieges all the way into the 1990s, Dubrovnik’s walls took on their current shape by the 1300s. Built up through the centuries, some spots are more than 80 feet high and seem to rise from the sea itself. Commanding views that allowed advance warning of an attack let us admire the city from a different angle.
A hundred or more steps took us to the top of the wall. Church towers stick up, easier to find from above than when wandering around the narrow streets. Almost every structure is made of white stone with a red roof. Many roof tiles are still unweathered – replaced after the 1991-1992 bombing during Croatia’s fight for independence. Lokrum Island, a forest reserve, sits just offshore, and other islands and boats dot the water.
We had to come back the next morning to see Lovrijenac, a separate defensive fortress outside the main walls. It turns out you can rent it for events; the afternoon we toured the walls we could see it being set up for a wedding reception.
The fort overlooks the rest of the city from a few hundred feet away. Using this rock as a fort goes back at least 1000 years, and it has been reinforced several times with cannons in mind. The view of the Old Town completely encapsulated by its wall is stunning.
Totally aside from the walls, one of the strange things we’ve noticed is feral cats. Our neighborhood in Split had a few that spent most of their time near the waterfront. But Dubrovnik takes it to a new level. A dozen cats seem to be in every quiet corner; they wait outside grocery stores and lounge around parking lots. I’m amazed there are any birds left.
This month we took the classier way of getting from one city to another: seaplane. It didn’t cost much more than a bus ticket, and saved several hours and border crossings in to and out of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Basically European Coastal Airlines is my new favorite transport.
The “terminal” in Split was a few harbor-front tables. When it was time to board, no gaggles of people waiting around the gate, just a nod from the attendant that we could find our seats. We were two-thirds of three passengers. Everyone got a window. A trainee rounded out the crew of two pilots. A quick safety orientation consisted of pointing out doors and lifevests and asking for a thumbs-up when our seatbelts were buckled.
It was bumpier leaving the harbor than I would have liked, aided by the day’s decent breeze. But once the engines throttled up, it took less than 8 seconds to get airborne.
In short order we were over our suburb of Podstrana, Omis’s mountain-top castle, the Makarska Riviera, and dozens of islands. Vineyards, olive groves and fish farms dotted the mountains and sea. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s waterfront city was set back in a beautiful bay. We flew lower than surrounding mountain ranges and were occasionally buffeted by wind, especially where deep valleys cut through. It was worth the extra bit of bounce to be able to admire the Croatian coastline.
Finally came Dubrovnik. It was set perfectly against the Adriatic, its massive, fortified city walls visible from miles away. Newer suburbs accosted the Old Town from all sides, and the neighboring coasts are thick with hotels and resorts.
The seaplane port at Dubrovnik’s harbor is currently under construction, so we landed at the airport south of the city. To my surprise, some seaplanes have landing gear hidden in the pontoons. Being in such a small craft really made clear just how large runways are; we flew over it for quite a while before touching down and it took up the entire front window.
A tiny staircase met us on the tarmac and our luggage was handed directly to us (no annoying waiting for it to pop out on a conveyor belt). It all felt very elegant and exclusive…
We’ve wanted to take a seaplane ever since moving to Seattle and seeing them on Lake Union. We even bought tickets for a aerial tour at one point, but never got to take it. I’m so glad we finally got to cross this off our bucket lists.
Our hosts were kind enough to take us to the Klis Fortress during our last week in Split. The fortification sits atop a steep hill near Split; we had seen it from the highway as we headed other places. Currently it is a popular attraction not just due to its history, but because it was one of Game of Throne’s Croatian filming locations (along with a few other spots in Split and Dubrovnik’s Old Town). The multiple layers of walls and wide paths that double back on themselves would have made it easy to defend and to stage a TV shoot.
The hill Klis sits on has been used as a defensive position since before the Romans arrived. Throughout the centuries it outlasted sieges, served as the seat of Croatian Kings, and held a key defensive position that helped prevent the Ottoman’s attempted invasion of Europe in the 1500s. Looking over the steep cliffs that Klis is built on, I realized how much more fun it must have been to been a defender rather than an invader. (Not that I want to do either; I like modern conveniences and reliable food stores…)
We also got a side tour of the Roman ruins at Salona just a few miles from Klis. I enjoyed these more than the fortress. We stopped first at the amphitheater. In its heyday it would have had three tiers of seating and room for 17,000 spectators. Thanks to Venetian orders for destruction, only portions of the lowest level remain. A few arches have been preserved and knocked down column are scattered in the weeds. I kept imagining how many ancient plays I’ve read might have been performed there.
A five minute walk down the road – apparently a Roman road with some original stones still in place – were a couple of early Christian churches. The smaller church was just a faint outline of stone in a grassy field. The larger church, its baptistry, and its outbuildings were better preserved and their shapes clearly visible. Broken columns were scattered where they fell and I could get a little lost among all the walls that were still taller than I. It was easy to visualize how it might have looked centuries ago.
Salona’s ruins are situated in a residential neighborhood; more modern structures use stone taken from the Roman buildings. Homes and yards sit right next to ancient history. It makes it feel almost ordinary.
For a birthday adventure I opted for hiking in the nearby town of Omis. The bus ride south follows a coast-hugging road that cuts through churchyards and the middle of tiny towns with streets barely wide enough for two-way traffic. We got off at a stop after crossing the Cetina River near one of Omis’s marinas. Our trail up the peak began along the river and went up through a pine-forested valley.
Even at a pace that let us enjoy the surrounding spring flowers (and avoid bees), the trail was a 45 minute battle against a cascade of sliding rocks. The Starigrad Fortress balances on a mountain above Omis, barely visible from the town itself. We couldn’t see it until we were more than half way up. Built in the 1400s as a defense against raiders, it takes full advantage of the terrain. It wouldn’t look good for any potential invaders.
No one else was on the trail, and even the castle’s caretaker seemed to have the day off. Fortunately, the door was left open and we had the place to ourselves. From the top of the tower, there were expansive views of the surrounding mountains and shorelines. A peregrine falcon played at flying on updrafts. The river hid in the valley; centuries ago pirates hid upstream and attacked passing merchant ships.
The second half of the loop path took us back into Omis. It wasn’t as steep as the first portion, but still rocky enough to make us take our time. Buildings were cozied right up against the mountain and Jurassic Park-style catch fences were the only barrier between rockfalls and the uppermost homes.
The walking street where we ended our hike was mostly still shuttered for winter. The church on the main square was open. It was much less ornate than many churches in Spain and Portugal, but felt more relaxed inside. The poetic exterior had bunches of purple flowers growing out of the stones.
The waterfront promenade was also undergoing renovations and the beaches were being refilled with sand and stone and new sidewalks laid. A second castle tower, Mirabela, sits right above the old town, but was closed for the day.
We bussed back and Kevin cooked up a delicious supper of ratatouille. We’ve been sampling Dalmatian wine and had some well-made Zweigelt to go with the meal.
With a lot of sun in the forecast, we decided Tuesday was a good time to take a ferry out to the islands. We ended up on a catamaran from Split to Hvar, a town on Hvar Island nestled under the watchful walls of a centuries-old castle.
The tourist season doesn’t start on Hvar for another month or so, and it was incredibly quiet. A handful of restaurants around the main square were doing business, but most other tourist-centric places were shut down. Beachfront bars were still in the process of being assembled and given a new coat of paint for the upcoming season.
We stayed a 20 minute walk outside town, and though many of the houses have rental rooms, we felt like the only visitors around. It was glorious: we ran into our host in the grocery store and the owner of a shop we stopped at while on the waterfront.
Most of our time was spent meandering the town and the waterfront. Every view had red-roofed buildings, old facades, the sea, and an archipelago of treed islands. Several side streets have abandoned buildings that are slowly crumbling and being taken over by weeds.
We visited the Franciscan Monastery and its collection of amphora and clay dinnerware from a 2nd century Roman shipwreck. The dishes and pots looked just like ones I’ve used. I’d be happy to own some of the jars on display, minus tube worms and barnacles.
The other main sight is Spanjola Fortress above the town. I think its the only castle I’ve been where the walls functioned perfectly and it saved the entire town from sacking (by a Turkish naval fleet in 1571). Apart from the expansive views, my favorite part was the prison. Down a narrow and slippery staircase were a half-dozen cells barely big enough for a person. Working as a prison guard must also have seemed like punishment. The floors and ceilings were growing stalagmites and stalactites. It must have been chilly in winter wind and stifling in summer heat. It must have been particularly cruel with the sounds of the waves drifting up in summer.
A small shop full of local flavors sat just behind the main square. Though we only purchased a single bottle of island-grown wine, the owner fed us olives, prosciutto, figs, and local cheeses. I think he was happy to have customers during the slow season, but he told us we needed to come back “when we grow up” so that we can show our kids the island. I think we agree that lines up with our current plans…
New month, new country! We’ve moved on from Barcelona to the smaller, more relaxed Split, Croatia. Rather than being in the center of the crowded Old Town, we rented an apartment with a luxurious view in the suburb of Podstrana.
Split is an ancient town, and Roman ruins of an even older city are nearby. The oldest portions of Split are inside the walls of Diocletian’s Palace, the Roman Emperor’s retirement villa. Street-level lanes are narrow and puzzling; many buildings are constructed out of the palace ruins. But underground, the original foundations are largely intact. Entering into the Old Town from the waterfront, we passed through a subterranean gallery of small shops. On either side are entrances to the rest of the basement levels.
For hundreds of years, many of the rooms were full of rubble, but excavations started in the 1950s. Now dozens of rooms and halls are open. Many blocks are from the original construction around the year 300. Even some of the ceilings remain, with circular or angled patterns of stone. Some areas are still inaccessible – the foundations of street-level buildings rest completely on the rubble. Like a lot of other basements, the rooms are cold and damp. An assortment of green mosses seems to be colonizing the brighter areas.
Coming out the other side of the underground passage, the bell tower and Cathedral of St. Domnius sit on a small square. To the right is one of the old palace gates, the Iron Gate. The ruins merge seamlessly with the current structures; in some places there are even apartments inside the palace’s walls.
Claustrophobic streets open up to small squares or courtyards crowded with restaurants. We are here during the off-season, but outdoor tables, especially along the Riva waterfront promenade are still packed. It is clearly an area made for tourists, shopping, and eating.
Split was under Venetian control for portions of its history, and it feels very Venetian to us. The architecture, culture, and abundance of gelato stands remind us of northern Italy.
We really like the slower pace here – an afternoon of beach walking or watching a sunset is a perfectly acceptable way to spend time. Smaller towns, islands, and national parks also are beckoning us, but it is also nice to have a quiet place to relax after Barcelona.