ALL THE THINGS
HIRSH AND SARAH'S ADVENTURES THROUGH "GREATER EUROPE"
WHERE WE HOPE TO EAT, SEE, AND DO
ALL THE THINGS THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE HAS TO OFFER
After one last look at Hvar on our way out...
...we took the 11:15am ferry from Hvar back to Split, where we spent a few hours walking around inside the old city walls known as Diocletian's Palace. More of a giant fortress than a palace, this place was built around the year 300AD and was intended to be used as the residence of the Roman Emperor Diocletian and his military. Today, you will find all the typical hallmarks of any modern city: shops, restaurants, hotels, and private residences. While huge for a palace, it's small for a city and takes only about 30 minutes to walk around. It's quite pretty and reminded us of a smaller, slightly less refined Dubrovnik.
After seeing the palace itself, our sole objective that afternoon was to spend the remaining few Croatian Kuna we had on food. We settled for virgin mojitos and one order of french fries at a cafe within the walls, and saved just enough to buy sun hats and our bus fare to the airport that evening for our flight to Rome (merely a connecting airport to our next flight).
Your mind does funny things when you have hours to while away in a tiny airport like Split's. We spent an unhealthy amount of time debating whether we should buy dinner before or after security and ended up making the wrong call. After going through security and having half our toiletries thrown out (things like toothpaste and lotion that had made it through no less than four other security checkpoints at other airports - thanks, Croatia) we pooled our last few pennies on a disgusting airport sandwich. At least we could fondly remember our dinner at Dalmatino's the night before, which just so happened to be written up in the airline's in-flight magazine! Sarah's dish is specifically mentioned, too!
Tonight's accommodations needed no reservations because they consisted of four chairs pushed together in a hidden corner of Rome's Fiumicino Airport. Our flight from Split landed at 10:30pm and our next flight out left at 5:40am, and we didn't feel like wasting a night's hotel fare. Save where you can so you can spend where you want? The border patrol agent didn't want to let us into the terminal at 11pm because you aren't technically allowed in there until the day of your flight. As soon as he realized we weren't bluffing when we suggested standing in front of him and staring at him for an hour (there was literally no one else around), he let us through. It's the small victories. We slept exactly as well as you might expect.
This day started out cloudy and chilly, as promised by the forecast. If it had been another sunny day, we would've rented a boat again and posted up at one of the beach clubs on the surrounding islands. Beyoncé's pregnancy was first revealed when she was photographed by the paparazzi lounging at the nearby Carpe Diem beach club. This is it...
Since it was not a beautiful day, we had to forgo the possibility of running into celebrities and think of alternatives. There's really not much to do on the island of Hvar during the day other than sleep off your hangover and/or wait to see if you'll regain consciousness from your crazy trip the night before (this is an insanely fun party place), so we stayed in our comfortable apartment most of the day and took full advantage of the impressively fast Wi-Fi. We were even able to stream an hour-long episode of Louis C.K. on Netflix! This was the first time we've watched anything other than BBC World News in ten weeks, so it was nice to enjoy a little lighthearted, if crass, taste of home. We also planned the remaining two weeks of our trip and purchased all outstanding flights and hotels. Hirsh can finally relax!
We literally did stay in the apartment all day, surviving on Coke, leftover alcohol from yesterday, Twix, and Kinder Bueno candy bars. We finally mustered the strength to leave just before dinner time and started off with a walk around the pretty harbor and main square at sunset.
We had spent all day looking forward to tonight's dinner. Rated #1 on TripAdvisor for Hvar, Dalmatino has over 2,000 five-star reviews. We couldn't get in last night, so we put our names down for tonight. While we waited for our table to be prepared, we enjoyed drinks at the bar next door and our waiter came to collect us when they were ready.
Dalmatino was everything we expected it to be and more. One online reviewer stated that service at this restaurant was the best he had experienced anywhere in the world. We can comfortably say that we agree. From the friendly and endlessly patient host in charge of reserving and assigning tables to the throngs of expectant tourists, to the numerous waiters who served us throughout the meal, every person with whom we interacted was perfectly pleasant and professional. They manage to be attentive and courteous without being intrusive or stuffy. The food is, of course, outstanding. We started with appetizers of risotto with shrimps and salted anchovies in olive oil. Sarah had the popular Gnocchi "Istria" (black gnocchi with black truffles and shrimps in creamy wine sauce), while Hirsh had Rump Steak "Dubrovnik." For dessert, we shared Granny's Home-Made Cake, a chocolate cake with walnuts and ice cream. Before, during, and after these courses, we were served complimentary shots as palate cleansers. A superlative dining experience, for sure!
We never planned to spend much time in Split, as it was just a stopover point to get to the beautiful party island of Hvar. So, we took the 9am ferry from Split and in about 45 minutes, we were there! We had budgeted two nights in Hvar, knowing (from other travelers' blogs) that we wanted to spend one full day island hopping in our very own rental boat. We didn't yet know which day that would be, but when we disembarked from the ferry in Hvar, the beautiful weather told us today was the day! We hustled to the boat rental area and descended upon the latest victim of Hirsh's aggressive negotiating tactics. Once he got the price down to something we could stomach, we threw our bags in the boat, loaded up on food and alcohol from the nearby market, and we were off! We were a little anxious for a few reasons: we fibbed about having operated a boat before, it was an extraordinarily windy and somewhat dangerous day, and all our belongings were with us in that little boat - clothes, passports, copies of passports, cash, credit cards, medications, etc. If the boat sank, so did we. Figuratively, if not also literally.
You have to admit, Hirsh does appear to be in his element driving this boat. The island of Hvar is in the background.
We had been given a handy map of the surrounding Pakleni Islands by the man who rented the boat to us, so the first order of business was to circumnavigate the barrier islands so we could get to the south-facing side where the winds are much calmer. We found a great spot in a beautiful cove, Stipanska, and dropped anchor to enjoy our lunch, a nap, and a swim in the azure blue water of the Adriatic. You can't tell from these photos and the iPhone doesn't capture it, but the crystal clear water is full of bright blue Finding Dory fish. 😄
Croatia is well known for its nude beaches, and has been recently featured on the cover of some in-flight magazines for just that. Finding one of these beaches was a top priority for us, and we found it right away. We had pictured a beautiful white powder strand in a secluded cove where people are frolicking around the way God/Nature intended. The reality was very different, with the nudists perched on the edges of low rocky cliffs and not a grain of sand in sight. Bummer. No matter, we created our own natural paradise for the afternoon on our private boat. Photos tastefully cropped for the sake of our future political careers...
After a couple of hours, we cruised around to another cove, Palmizana.
In all, we were out on the water for a good seven hours. It was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable days of our entire trip. We understand now why people charter yachts with a group of friends to sail around the Caribbean or BVI for a week! Friends...any takers?
After returning the boat at the latest permissible time, we checked into our Booking.com accommodations, Apartments Rogosic, where we cleaned up and headed back into town for dinner at a fun pizza joint, Alviz. Hirsh had the expected pizza and beer while Sarah had unexpected Croatian beef stew. Delish!
Happy Labor Day! We spent the unofficial last day of summer in The States braving a very rainy drive from Plitviče to Split, the second largest city in Croatia. If the weather had been nice, we had planned to stop at Krka National Park and swim! Since you aren't allowed to swim in any of the Plitviče Lakes, and the water looked oh so inviting, we were pretty excited about the possibility of Krka. Here's what it looks like on a beautiful day...
But the forecast was right and it rained cats and dogs pretty much all day. At least we got to see Plitviče at its most spectacular, which was our main objective. Hirsh drove our latest rental, an ugly little bright fuschia Mitsubishi "Space Star" (not so fondly renamed the "Death Star" by us for its death trap construction) the four perilous hours to Split, with a brief detour in the town of Zadar to see the Sea Organ.
The Sea Organ is pretty neat. It's a series of tubes housed under marble steps right at the edge of the sea. The waves interact with the giant instrument to create random and impressive harmonies. We parked nearby and could easily hear the unique sound from our car, even over the hammering rain. Hirsh, of course, had to get out and see it for himself. We had come this far already. In the thirty seconds he spent outside the car, he managed to get thoroughly soaked.
Annnd that pretty much sums up our time in Zadar. We could tell it would be a fun city to walk around, but not today. So, on to Split!
After returning our rental car in the most inconvenient of places (smack in the middle of a busy town with narrow streets and no actual parking lot for the rental cars - just wedge it in between some other cars on the street) to the most unfriendly rental car agent (it's impossible to really describe her, you just had to be there...words like brittle, caustic, and dismissive come to mind. At the end of our drop off, she said "Any questions? No? OK, you can leave."), we walked to our Booking.com accommodations for €30 per night. It was basically a tiny room in a family's home, but it was clean and well appointed and perfectly located.
Dinner was at a newly opened restaurant called Articok and came highly recommended online. It's a fun, vibrant place with beautifully presented and imaginative food. Hirsh had fish tacos and Sarah had fettuccine carbonara.
And we couldn't resist a little dessert at the Choco Cafe. We had walked by this place when we first arrived in town and knew we had to return later. We shared a divine piece of homemade caramel chocolate cake and cappuccinos.
Today we visited one of the main attractions in Croatia - and the main reason we visited this country to begin with - Plitviče Lakes National Park! Fortunately, we keep our schedule ever flexible because following this day, the next five days or so are supposed to bring torrential rains. We had originally planned to visit the park on Monday, but moved it up to Sunday so we could take advantage of the last of the beautiful weather for awhile. Thank goodness we did because this place is almost too perfect to be real and seems plucked straight from a fairytale with its Kool-Aid blue water, endless waterfalls, and carpets of lush green moss. Here's the Pinterest photo that inspired us to visit this park...
Yes, it really is as beautiful in person as it is in this glamour shot. You can see why we wanted to go on a sunny day when the light reflects off the clear, turquoise water just perfectly. We tried desperately to find this exact vantage point but never could, and now we're certain the above photo was captured via drone. We did manage to find a somewhat hidden trail, thanks to advice from a friendly San Francisco couple we met at Buza Bar in Dubrovnik two nights before. The key to enjoying the park, they said, is to get there right when it opens at 7am. See the big waterfall first and then work your way up to the upper lakes. The tour bus rush begins at about 10am and then the trails become so crowded, you can barely pose for a picture. They were right!
Here's a pic of us with the big waterfall in the distance, just as you enter the park from Entrance 1.
And a view of another stunner on the way to the "big" one. Beauty everywhere you look, no big deal.
Directly in front of the big one...
The steep hidden trail takes you up alongside and then behind the biggest waterfall in the park, where we foolishly climbed to the edge and kept a death grip on one small tree for a magnificent view.
Then it was time to move on to the many other waterfalls in the enormous park, with 16 equally gorgeous lakes to admire along the way.
It was a wonderfully exhausting day. We spent 11 hours in the park and Hirsh's fitness tracker on his phone recorded 24,000 steps (11.5 miles)!!! Thankfully, the endless beauty mostly distracted us from more physical exertion than either of has done in a very long time.
In desperate need of a real meal after three straight meals of gas station/supermarket sandwiches, we treated ourselves to a hot meal of homemade beef and noodle soup and beef cevapi at Babic, a restaurant five minutes from our guesthouse and recommended by our hostess. It really hit the spot.
Sore all over, we turned in early and treated ourselves once more... this time to the welcome shots of brandy our guesthouse hostess had gifted us the day before. We were saving them for a special occasion, which we had not anticipated would be pain control.
This was mostly a driving day where we had to get from Dubrovnik to Plitvice, approximately an 8 hour drive. We had considered taking a bus there, but car rental won out once we learned about the beauty of the coastal drive that is the Adriatic Highway. The bus would keep us on a boring inland highway, but we're here to see all the things. As an added bonus, we can add another country to our tally because we spent about 10 minutes in Bosnia on this route. The Croatian and Bosnian governments have reached an agreement where Croatian residents and visitors are allowed to briefly drive through Bosnia on this route due to how the borders are drawn. Although it's illegal to "enter" Bosnia by setting foot in it without undergoing a standard border check, we quickly jumped out of the car to take a photo to make it really count. Here are a few pics from the long drive...
We finally arrived in the town of Korenica which is just outside Plitviče Lakes National Park. Comfortable and affordable accommodations were courtesy of the Guesthouse Nikolina. Cheapfully delicious dinner and packed lunches the next day were courtesy of the local supermarket, its ingredients to assemble turkey sandwiches, and yours truly.
Dubrovnik's old town is pretty small and we saw the vast majority of it yesterday, so we spent today relaxing on the beach. Besides, the turquoise Adriatic Sea had been beckoning us since we first laid eyes on it. Banje Beach is a private beach just outside the walls of the old town where you can rent an umbrella and two lounge chairs for the entire day for 200 kuna (or about $30). We got there early enough to claim chairs in a prime location right at the water's edge, as we do. We thought the price was steep, but it's the cost of doing business in a tourist hot spot. It was worth every penny.
We stayed out there until nearly dusk, when we quickly showered at the pay showers at Banje Beach's facility. Actually, instead of paying for our shower, we jumped into other people's water that they abandoned early and were able to shower for free. Hey, save where you can so you can spend where you want, and we wanted to spend on beer.
The next stop on our Dubrovnik tour had been at the top of Sarah's list since spotting it on Pinterest. Buza Bar is built into the stone cliff and hangs precariously over the sea. It is undoubtedly the best place in town to watch the sunset. In-the-know tourists are aware of this, so you have to arrive at least an hour before sunset to get a seat. Finding the place is half the fun and an adventure in itself, as it's not clearly marked on any map or by any sign. We wandered the interior of the city wall where we approximated the location to be until we guessed at the correct unmarked entrance.
Here's a photo from above where we caught a glimpse of the bar while walking the walls yesterday.
As we've mentioned before, one of our favorite things about traveling is meeting new people who share our love of seeing and experiencing the world. On this evening, we sat beside a cute young couple from Washington D.C. who used to be in the military but now travel the world as professional wedding photographers. They are on the road six months out of the year and have been to all kinds of amazing places. Talk about living the dream! They showed us some photos from their portfolio and they are clearly very talented. We only wish we'd met them 3.5 years ago before our own weddings! We had a great time talking to them and they even generously offered to take a few photos of us with their professional camera in the old town. Those are forthcoming, but for now we'll settle for a questionable picture of the four of us with the selfie stick.
We said our goodbyes with a promise to stay in touch and then rushed to make our 8:00 dinner reservation at a restaurant called Taj Mahal. Surprisingly, it's not Indian food, but rather traditional Bosnian food. We had tried to get in yesterday night, but the place was packed, so we were excited to see what all the fuss was about. We shared beef and noodle soup, cevapi (minced beef sausages in pita), and a fancy apple dessert.
And then we took one more leisurely, admiring look at the old town before calling it a night.
We didn't go to Dubrovnik expecting to love it, but we'd heard and read so many good things about the city that we thought it would at least be worth visiting. We were absolutely blown away!
Our rental apartment was at the top of the hill outside the city walls, so we descended the hill for the 10 minute walk to the old town. It was incredibly hot, so our first stop was lunch at the cool and highly recommended Soul Caffe and Rakhija Bar. While the restaurant's food menu is very small (it's mostly a music and beverage kind of place), they serve some of the best sandwiches we've ever had, including perfectly crusty bread with accompanying condiments! Not sure why Europeans love to skimp on condiments, but at this point in our travels we consider them a true luxury. It was so tasty, we almost ordered a second round of sandwiches.
With full tanks, the next order of business was to walk the old city walls. We waited until a little later in the day for a couple of reasons: 1) it was too darn hot to do it earlier, and 2) we wanted to avoid the massive throngs of cruise ship tourists who crowd the walls midday. Walking the walls is the #1 thing to do in Dubrovnik, and for good reason. It's unique, the views are spectacular, and it's just a really special experience. As a bonus, many scenes from Game of Thrones have been filmed here. While neither of us has seen the show, it's now at the top of our to-do list when we get home just because of how much we love this place.
We stopped for cappuccinos and this amazing view of the Adriatic Sea.
And then we kept on walking. It takes about 2 hours to walk the walls at a normal pace. They close the entry at 6:30 and start kicking people out around 7:00. We entered at about 4:00, so we took an extra leisurely pace and made sure to take tons of photos.
We were charmed by this galleon, or "pirate ship."
And then Hirsh went ahead and changed into his nice button-down for dinner because this photo may or may not be making an appearance on this year's Christmas card.
As beautiful as this city is during the day, it becomes pure magic at night. We walked around with mouths agape, admiring how the light reflects off the immaculately maintained old white stone walls and the gleaming stone pavers in the street.
Dinner was at a restaurant right in the heart of the main square. The food was nothing spectacular, but we were there for the view.