Sunday, December 18, 2016

TRAVELERS: Croatia/Slovenia Travelogue (Part 1 – Arrival)

The 2016 movie recap looms, so let us take the second in what I hope is a regular series of diversion travelogues to clear the palate and the mind.

Many people have asked what inspired me to go to Croatia and Slovenia.  It was never a bucket list location like Machu Picchu, but it has lurked for a number of years in the back of my mind.  I knew very little of the countries’ histories, and I suppose that was a significant part of the appeal.


November 20-21, 2016 (Sunday and Monday)

My flight to Paris had been delayed 30 minutes, but I chose to keep my Super Shuttle reservation unchanged.  Better early than late in international travel.  The shuttle driver listened to KUSC (the public classical station), so the drive to LAX was pleasant.  On the plane I sat next to a very sweet Latin couple (though I couldn’t be sure if they were husband and wife or mother and son).  She watched Spanish language TV most of the trip and laughed heartily.  My baggage was checked through to Venice -- my final airline destination -- so I was able to make a tight connecting flight at Charles de Gaulle.  However, that flight was delayed because there were too many bags checked onto the plane.  After about an hour on the tarmac the pilot sheepishly came on the intercom to inform passengers that about a dozen pieces of luggage would not make it to Venice on this flight.  We finally took off after about a 1½ hour delay.  I checked my itinerary, and according to the paperwork my transfer to the first Croatia hotel was only obligated to wait one hour.  So I flew in suspense wondering whether I would have luggage when I arrived and/or whether I would have to find my own way to Opatija.

I arrived in Venice and both my luggage and my transfer were waiting for me.  I didn’t have to go through customs when I arrived, which was unexpected.  Perhaps that’s a perk of EU membership.  Several other members of my Gate 1 travel group were waiting as well (and had been for close to 2 hours).  Unfortunately, one of our number was among those whose luggage had been left in Paris, so we waited an additional hour while the couple filed their report before leaving the terminal.  Next was a 3½ hour drive to Opatija.  It was dark, so there was nothing to see scenery-wise.  More sleeping ensued.

We met our Tour Manager Elvis (yes, Elvis) at the Grand Hotel Adriatic and received the particulars of our stay, checked in, and enjoyed a welcome buffet dinner.  I was famished, as I had eaten little since around 13:00 (it was 21:00).  Though the dinner was meant to introduce group members to each other, everyone was so wasted from a day of travel that little socializing occurred.  Most went straight back to their rooms once the meal was finished, myself included.  It took a few minutes to figure out how to turn on the lights in my room.  You needed to insert your key card into a slot next to the door in order to activate the lights in the room.  I approve of the environmental efficiency.

There is an optional tour of the Istrian peninsula tomorrow, which I will forgo to decompress from 24 hours of travel and to stretch the old pins by walking around Opatija.

Last night I dreamed that I lived with my Aunt Janet and Uncle Ralph in Arizona.  A person they just met needed help, so they decided that the family should relocate to help this person.  I tried to persuade them to visit the new town first before making this commitment.  They disagreed.  We grabbed something to eat from a local café, while I determined whether I had the correct currency to pay for it.  A traveler’s nightmare.
November 22, 2016 (Tuesday)

Opatija is a quaint coastal town on the northeastern edge of the Istrian peninsula, like a more picaresque Cambria.  Today it is socked in with rain and clouds.  I woke up and did a full stretching routine in my hotel room – much needed after an entire day crammed into plane and bus seats -- then down to breakfast.  I arrived about an hour before the service ended but didn’t see any of my travel companions from the night before.  I had hoped to sit with some and chat.  Yesterday, I had no desire to talk, only to listen.  And even that had been exhausting.

Like Cambria there are no significant sights in Opatija.  However, there is the Lungomare, a seaside walk that weaves along the coast for several miles.  This would have been ideal on a less rainy day.  Instead I aborted the walk part way and began to look for places to eat back on the main drag of Marsala Tita -- filled with small shops, banks, restaurants, and coffee houses – that runs north (or is it east) to Volosko.

I found a recommended seafood place well off the beaten path in Volosko, a quintessential fishing village that itself feels off the beaten path.  I saw two fisherman walking the street in modified waders and felt momentarily transported to an earlier time.  Unfortunately, the restaurant didn’t open for another hour, and there was nothing to do in Volosko but wait.  It was cold, so I traipsed back the ½ mile to Opatijo.

About a ten minute walk from the hotel I found Ruzmarin, a restaurant which I had been looking for earlier in the wrong part of town.  (Sometimes losing your way actually pays off.)  I was hungry by then, so I went in.  My Croatian is pathetic, and the patient wait staff spoke English to me.  I ordered mushroom soup and what I thought was a monkfish sandwich.  The cabernet needed to breathe more but the soup was delicious.  When the monkfish arrived, it was a full dinner plate with sides.  It was very good but I had no idea how much it might cost.  The full fish dinners looked pricey on the menu, so I braced for the worst.  When the bill arrived all was fine.  It was more than I had originally expected to pay but less than I had feared.  According to Lonely Planet Guide there’s a service fee in Croatian restaurants, so you tip by rounding up.  It felt odd doing this, but the waiter didn’t run after me demanding more money.  So I guess it was fine.

After lunch it was still raining, so I walked around a nearby park then headed back to the hotel once I got too wet and cold.  After a refreshing nap/sleep I walked about 15 minutes for dinner at Roko, an Italian influenced restaurant.  I had a Greek salad and an excellent margherita pizza with a superior glass of cabernet.

In both Ruzmarin and Roko I noticed the background music tended to be acoustic, easy listening versions of popular songs by the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Coldplay and Dexys Midnight Runners (?!).  More often than not the singer was a woman (though I’m pretty sure I heard a man singing a cover of Madonna’s “Material Girl”).  You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced an acoustic version of “Honky Tonk Woman” performed by someone who sounds like Karen Carpenter.


November 23, 2016 (Wednesday)

Alarm at 6:00.  Wake up call at 6:15.  No time for niceties. Luggage had to be out of the room by 7:00, so the porters could stow on the bus.  Down to breakfast.  Checked out and on the road by 8:00.  This was my first time having porters pick up my luggage outside the room; however, when I returned after breakfast my bag was still there.  Fearing a misunderstanding I took my bag downstairs and found a cache of Gate 1 bags waiting for loading.  Turns out it just took longer for the porters to collect bags than I had given them.

Elvis is a remarkable guide.  As we drove to Zadar he gave us a brief history of Croatia to set up the tragedy of the “War of Separation” that begin in 1991.  Contrary to media coverage it was less a war of religion or ethnicity than it was a fight over which of the provinces would control which parcels of land.  From the Venetians to the Ottomans to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the stage had been set for a bitter and fractious separation of Yugoslavia into its various provinces – which had been held uneasily together by Josip Broz, better know as “Tito,” until his death in 1980.

We had lunch at a cafeteria-style restaurant.  I was still full from breakfast, so I stuck with the cheese sandwich, tomato soup, and some fresh fruit for dessert.  I need to have tomato soup more often.  It’s the perfect comfort food.

In Zadar we were left to our own devices for a couple of hours.  Zadar is a peninsula.  At the tip are the Sea Organ, which uses wind and waves to create an eerily soothing music, and the Sun Salutation, solar panels that collect sunlight during the day and emit a light show after dusk.  We arrived in the early afternoon, so no light show.  But the Sea Organ was impressive, especially when large boats churned past, stirring up the waves.

We arrived in Split and checked into the Radisson Blu.  As a surprise Gate 1 treated the group to dinner to make up for the rainy day suffered the day before in Opatija.  Since the hotel was out of the city center and finding a place to eat on my own would have been a chore, this worked out well.  We were offered the choice of a meat dinner, seafood dinner or vegetarian dinner.  I considered the seafood option but, as portions in Croatia were much larger than their European counterparts’ I went with the vegetarian option – a nice salad and tasty pasta with fresh vegetables, washed down with the house red wine.  Small samples of a dessert pancake and flan were brought out.  One of our number (Agnes) was celebrating her 57th birthday the next day, so there was off-key singing.  Also, an older couple (the husband was Serbian) celebrated an anniversary that very day, which led to a couples dance while two musicians wandered the room playing a guitar and an accordion.  I spent much of the meal talking travel with Sharon from Chicago, who was with her boisterous husband.  She persuaded me to make Vietnam and Cambodia my next travel destination.  Elvis had to herd the group out quickly in order to get out driver back by 21:00 – union rules.  We were just wrapping up when Sharon’s husband strong-armed the amenable wait staff into bringing him an additional dessert of tiramisu.

After dinner some of the group went to the hotel bar.  I needed rest, and I was not sure I wanted to see how more alcohol might affect members of our group.  Apparently old town Split is beautiful at night, but it would entail a taxi ride, so I opted out.  I will see it in daylight tomorrow.

1 comment: