ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 10 (Part 2), LOVELY LA PERLA

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Formerly a fishing boat, Ante Bubalo and his son, Luka purchased the 115-foot-long retired boat ten years ago, had it stripped it to its shell, and completely restored at a cost of two million Euros.  It took three years to renovate and rebuild, a better option than purchasing a new boat, since the hull was of much better quality and thicker than the hulls on new boats.

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It was Luka’s dream to make La Perla a reality, after earning an economics degree at university.  Working with a boat designer to carry out his vision, they gave new life to the old fishing boat by creating a luxury yacht for tourists.  Luka’s wife did the interior decorating, and together, they made La Perla into a comfortable cruising yacht perfect for enjoying the Adriatic Coast.

Although now retired from his business of selling prosciutto to stores and restaurants throughout Croatia, Ante assists Luka with his charters that are booked eight months of the year.  Luka is usually on board La Perla for each charter; however, for our cruise, Ante stepped in to cover for Luka.

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Ante Bubalo

Ante’s favorite task of each day was going shopping, picking up needed provisions as well as treats for the passengers.  Each day there was a new surprise—a special cheese, local chocolates, cookies, or other tasty snacks he placed out in the lounge for us to nibble on throughout the day and evening.

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La Perla was wonderful!  Our cabin was surprisingly spacious, well-designed, and had more storage space than we needed.  Suitcases fit perfectly in the bed platform cabinet, so we were able to stow them away and out of site.  The bed was very comfortable, and we were amazed at how smartly designed the bathroom was for a yacht of its size.  We also enjoyed our cozy balcony!

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Open-seating meals were always enjoyable with the other twenty-two passengers.  There was never a shortage of conversation!  We also never left hungry.  The variety of food on the buffet for breakfast and lunch was terrific, and the chef also prepared dishes to order.  Dinner was white-glove service with multiple courses and plenty of wine, which was included in the cost of the cruise.  I especially enjoyed the octopus we had one evening as well as the wonderful views of the sunset we enjoyed during dinners.  A couple of times, a few of us grabbed our cameras and made a beeline to the aft deck to capture some photos!

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The galley was tiny!

 

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The dining room

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Breakfast buffet

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While we were cruising, the indoor and two outdoor lounge areas were very comfortable to relax at and enjoy conversation with the other passengers.  There were also plenty of lounges for sunbathing, and I even found some deck space by the spa to do my Theraband exercises and yoga.  (Try balancing in a yoga pose on a moving yacht; it was a fun challenge!)

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There was also a (very!) small gym; however, we opted to do a LOT of walking in each port and take in a couple of swim sessions when La Perla was anchored.  (More on that in a future post.)

The most memorable part of La Perla was Ante and his staff of nine.  They were always friendly and eager to please, and we enjoyed getting to know them while on board.  There were plenty of laughs and good times!

If you are considering a trip to the Adriatic Coast of Croatia, cruising aboard La Perla is a great way to go. Not only was the boat able to travel much closer to the coast, but we were also able to spend a day on the island of Korcula, which is inaccessible to large cruise ships.  Considering it was a highlight of the cruise, it was a great decision to go small!

As you will see in later blog posts, La Perla also had the advantage of being able to anchor in coves, so we could enjoy swimming off the platform, kayaking in their tandem ‘yak, and circling a small island aboard their tender.  Besides, we got to know all twenty-two of the other passengers as well as the crew.  Try that on a cruise ship!

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The other “Ante” (no relation) was our bartender/ waiter.

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Now, for a shameless commercial, even though I am in no way affiliated with the company:  Book La Perla through Vantage Travel.  This was my fourth trip with Vantage (and Bruce’s second), and we loved it!  Call (888) 756-6677, give them my name and number (Elaine Krugman 2569087), and you each (if you are traveling with a companion) will receive $50 travel credit.

Stay tuned for more adventures aboard La Perla as we cruise south along the Adriatic Coast!  Meanwhile, check out this video from Vantage.

 

 

 

 

 

ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 10 (Part 1), ZADAR, CROATIA

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On our way to Zadar to board La Perla, the 115-ft yacht that would be our home for six nights, we took a scenic drive through the city of Rijeka, along the northern Croatian coastline, and through the mountains of central Croatia.

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Along the way, Sinisa shared some interesting stories about his father, Drago Diklic, who was known as “Yugoslavia’s Frank Sinatra,” and won a lifetime achievement award for his music.  Throughout his career, Drago had performed with many famous American artists, including Louis Armstrong.  Often, they were brought home for dinner and to meet the family, and Sinisa remembers meeting Elton John at his house.

We also learned more about Croatia, including the educational system.  In first grade, children start learning English, and then a second foreign language is added in fourth grade, usually Italian or French.  (Ninety-two percent of Europeans learn a foreign language during their early education, compared with only twenty percent of Americans.)

In high school, students must keep their grades and test scores up if they want to qualify for a free university education.  Everything is paid for by the government except books.  The problem Croatia is having, though, is that after university graduation, too many of the graduates leave the country to pursue a career elsewhere, due to the 17% unemployment rate during the winter months.

Although the unemployment rate is high, there are no homeless people out on the streets at night in Croatia, because the government provides shelters.

When we arrived in Zadar, we took a walking tour through the city following our group lunch.  Zadar, named Europe’s top destination in 2015, is a Roman-era city with an interesting mix of Renaissance, Romanesque, and medieval architecture.

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These handmade clothes and decorations were sold by an elderly Croatian woman I was unable to photograph.

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During our walking tour, I was distracted by this tasty-looking display of ice cream…

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…especially this one!

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This is the Sea Organ of Zadar, the first pipe organ played by the sea!  It harnesses the power of the sea and plays music.  Underneath the steps, there are 35 tubes that are musically tuned.  The sound comes through whistles that are on the sidewalk.  Musical chords are generated by the movement of the sea that pushes air through the pipes.  The types of chords produced depends on the velocity and size of the waves.  I could only imagine what it must sound like in a storm!

Finally, we arrived at La Perla, docked in Zadar.

Stay tuned for a complete tour of La Perla in Part 2!

ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 9, ISTRIAN PENINSULA, CROATIA

The Istrian Peninsula is considered to be one of the most beautiful regions of Croatia, so we were looking forward to this day with great anticipation.  It did not disappoint.

We began in the ancient town of Pula, located at the southern tip of the peninsula.  It is best known for the Pula Arena, one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters, and one of the six largest surviving Roman arenas in the world.

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Constructed in 27 BC – 68 AD, it was amazing to see how much was still standing.  I had experienced that same feeling of awe as when I toured the Coliseum in Rome, and the Acropolis in Greece.  It was hard to wrap my mind around just how old it was and how it was built.

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There was a stark contrast, though, between the ancient arena and modern, high-tech concert stage that stood in the center of all that history.  It sort of ruined the mood when I tried to visualize what it must have been like prior to the year 681 when the arena was used for gladiatorial combats.  (On second thought, perhaps it was just as well!)

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The difference in color is where the limestone was pressure washed.  Unfortunately, it damaged the stone, so the operation was halted.

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After climbing to the upper level and exploring the views from the top, we ventured down to the underground passageways where gladiators and the wild animals they battled awaited their turn in combat.  Now, it is a museum where we learned more about the history of Pula Arena and the area.

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These were used to store and transport olive oil.

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Our guide, Nada, captivated us with the stories she told about the arena and her life.  It was shocking to hear how her grandfather, father, her, and her son were all born in the same hospital, but under different regimes/ countries (Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Croatia).  Of course, the languages were different during the first three regime changes, and they were required to learn them each time.

Next, our group visited the picturesque and romantic coastal town of Rovinj for lunch and a tour.  Once part of Venice’s mercantile empire, it has a distinctive Italian look and feel that makes it charming and quite photogenic.  When I read an article about Rovinj written by Rick Steves, I knew I would fall in love with the place.  It is his favorite Croatian town, so I anticipated it would be a highlight of the trip.  Reflecting back, it was my favorite town of all.

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The ceiling of the Church of St. Euphemia, built in 1736.  Paintings in this church date back to the 16th and 17th centuries

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Back in Opatija, we enjoyed taking a long walk after dinner along the promenade to get a feel for the bustling nightlife.

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ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 8, OPATIJA, CROATIA

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Well, here we are just a few days before Christmas, and I am finally able to return to one of my favorite hobbies:  travel writing.  I had hoped to have this trip wrapped up by the end of the year; however, our busiest quarter of 2018 was even crazier than anticipated.  Add to that an impromptu ten-day trip back to my home state of California, and here I am finally getting to Day 8 of our summer trip.  We haven’t even made it to the boat yet!  We’re still in Opatijia…

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We began the day with a guided walking tour of this seaside resort town, including a portion of the 12-kilometer long promenade that followed the rugged coast.  Seeing that gorgeous, crystal clear water below was a distraction; I couldn’t wait to get in it for a nice, long swim!  Fortunately, that came later in the day.

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Opatijia was the vacation spot of choice for wealthy Viennese during the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Today, it attracts wealthy sun and water lovers from mostly Italy, across the Adriatic Sea.  In addition to the beautiful water, upscale shops, restaurants, and hotels keep the tourists coming back year after year.

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Next, we boarded the bus for a scenic tour of Opatija Riviera’s villages, including Monscenice, one of the oldest settlements in the region.  Dating back over 1,000 years, this was such a charming little village! Perched high up above the sea, the views from Monscenice were breathtaking.  Poking around every corner with my camera was a blast.  This is what travel photography is all about!  I was in my element exploring this tiny village of 100 residents!

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Included in our tour guided by a local expert was a visit to a 500-year-old olive mill where we learned how olive oil is made.  We also tasted a delicious assortment of local brandies and honey.

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After returning to our hotel,  Bruce and I headed for the water where I had my first refreshing dip in the Adriatic Sea.  Known for visibility up to 200 feet, the 77-degree sea water was amazing to swim in.  I could see fish far up ahead with every stroke!  Swimming pools are never that clear!

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A full-on training session in the huge roped-off swim area built up my appetite, especially since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and it was now late afternoon.  Lunch wasn’t to be, though, because we (I!) had our heart set on walking up to the Kras chocolate and ice cream shop for an ice cream sundae!

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Kras is to Croatia as Ghiradelli is to the U.S.A; however, Kras’s chocolate, chocolate sauce, and chocolate ice cream are all tastier to me.  This was an unforgettable “lunch,” a gastronomical highlight of the trip!

To end the day before our group dinner, we attended an excellent lecture on everyday life in Croatia.  The talk was given by a retired professor, and we learned so many interesting things about the country.

For one, everything in the Croatian language (including names) revolves around nature.  The name for the month of April, for example, means “grass is growing” in the Croatian language.

We also learned that when communism ended, Croatia had a very difficult transition, economically.  A new government was formed from scratch, and they had to take on loans from other countries to rebuild the infrastructure.  Later, repaying those loans presented quite a financhial hardship.

An airline also needed to be established; so, over time, the country’s national airline was built up to a small fleet of fourteen airplanes, from just one.

Another challenge was that property that had been seized by the communists needed to be returned to their rightful owners.  It was a complicated mess!

We were pleasantly surprised to learn that medical care in the country is excellent—some of the best in the world.  Croatian doctors are well-educated and highly skilled.

Although medical care is “free,” it is paid for by the 16% taken out of each worker’s pay check.  Another 35% is deducted to pay for other government services.  As a result, the average Croatian takes home only about $1,000 per month salary, and half of that is spent on food.  This is quite a contrast to the 8% (on average) that Americans pays for food.

Since housing is relatively expensive, the typical married couple lives with one of their parents for nine years before they can afford to purchase their own house.

At least the benefits are good for working mothers.  A mother receives full salary after her child is born and is encouraged to stay home and bond with her baby for a full year.  The first month salary is paid by her company, and the remainder is paid by the 16% tax taken from each Croatian’s pay check.  If a mother has three children, she earns a full pension after 15 years of work.

Life in Croatia is slow and relaxed (so there aren’t many fast food restaurants in the country).  Due to this relaxed culture left over from the communist system, however, work productivity—and the economy—suffers.  A typical worker puts in only 5-1/2 hours of productive work in an eight-hour day.

The most common industries in Croatia are medicine/drugs, textiles, wood, furniture, and ship building, in addition to the 16% income earned from tourism (including medical tourism for inexpensive, top-quality surgeries).

Croatia has become the top destination in the world for small ship cruising, and Americans are increasingly choosing that option.  In 2017, only 50,000 Americans had visited the country; however, in the first half of 2018, 300,000 Americans had cruised Croatia.

What impressed me about Croatia was the country’s very low street crime rate, it has the 16th highest quality of life ranking (U.S.A. ranks 8th, and France is 1st), and it’s the 12th cleanest country in the world

A few fun facts:  Croatia also has the tallest people in the world and most Olympic medals per capita.  Here’s more:  torpedoes, neck ties, writing pens, miniskirts, and parachutes all originated in Croatia!

Those facts provided some interesting table conversation during our fabulous fish dinner, back at the hotel.  It was accompanied by a traditional performance of klapa singing by an excellent local group.

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The night concluded bidding farewell to Zoran, our fabulous and friendly bus driver who had been with us since the beginning, but was due for his vacation.  The following day, we would take on our new driver and tour the Istrian Peninsula.

 

 

ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 7, ZAGREB, KEZELE, & OPATIJA, CROATIA

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Our final morning in Zagreb was beautiful, so we got an early start and squeezed in a final walk into Old Town to shoot pictures and poke around the farmer’s market.

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One of our favorite things to do when we travel is to visit the markets of each place.  It’s a great way to observe the culture, see and sample the local foods, pick up a local handicraft to take home, and enjoy all of the bright colors of the produce and flower displays.  Vibrant colors are what inspire me to put my camera into action, and markets never disappoint!

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After returning to the hotel, our group checked out, boarded our bus, and headed out through the mountains towards the Adriatic Coast.  Along the way, we stopped at the Kezele Family Estate in the village of Sumecani for a tour and another wonderful al fresco lunch.

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The Kezeles were an interesting family!  Janko gave us a tour of the winery, his parents’ museum, and his mom’s ceramics studio.  She is quite a talented potter, and her massive collection was proudly displayed.

Both parents collect all sorts of things, so they are organized in a small museum they share with their guests.  We got to see their collections of antique irons, grinders, lanterns—you name it.  It was an eclectic mix!

Meanwhile, the chef was heating up his huge metal pot to prepare our lunch.  On the menu was, Kotlovina, an ancient traditional Croatian dish consisting of chicken, onions, tri-colored bell peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, and mushrooms in a white wine and red pepper sauce.  It was, of course, enjoyed with some Kezele wine.  Delicious!

Janko was a wonderful tour guide, so I gave him a set of my photo note cards as a token of our appreciation of our memorable visit.

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Following lunch, Zoran drove us through the hills of central Croatia to Opatijia, a scenic seaside city located on the northern Dalmatian Coast of the Adriatic Sea.  A popular tourist destination for Croatians and Italians, the resort town also draws tourists from around the world.

After settling into our rooms at Hotel Sveti Jakov, Sinisha led our group on a walking tour, which concluded at the marina where Bruce and I decided to return for dinner.

Unfortunately, smoking is popular in Croatia, and we were first sat outside next to a table of diners who were all smoking like chimneys!  Knowing that more smokers would soon be surrounding us, we asked to be relocated inside.  That request landed us at the best table in the house!  Not only was it smoke-free, but it was at a lovely table next to an open window overlooking the boats.  Perfect!  The view was even better!

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Our calamari dinner was delicious, just like the squid we had enjoyed a couple of times in Slovenia.  Accompanied by a tasty local beer, it was one of our favorite meals of the trip!

ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 6, KUMROVEC & ZAGREB, CROATIA

In my Day 4 post, I wrote a bit about Tito (Marshal Tito), the Yugoslavian statesman who led the resistance to Nazi and Fascist forces during World War II and established a Communist State.

One of fifteen children (only seven survived into adulthood), Tito was born in the village of Kumrovec, now a lovely museum of traditional rural life.  The original houses of the village are still standing and are well-maintained, providing a great opportunity for us to see what life was like during Tito’s childhood years.

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During our morning guided tour of the village we learned that the people of Kumrovec lived very modestly and worked hard, looking at obstacles as opportunities.  Each generation tried to improve on the craft of the previous generation.

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One of the handicrafts of the village was painted wood hearts with a mirror in the center.  If you lived in Kumrovec during Tito’s time, you would give one to a person you loved so they could see their reflection in your heart.

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After Tito left his village, it was evident that he left his heart behind.  After he became the leader of his country, he would ditch his bodyguards each year to return home and visit.

I can see why.  I was captivated by the stories of Kumrovec’s people, their culture and traditions, resourcefulness, and optimism, something Tito never forgot.

As we made our way out of the village, we came across three neighborhood boys, all ten years old.  One of them (in the middle below) spoke perfect English.  He learned some English in school; however, he learned most of it by watching You Tube!  He was so well-spoken and wise beyond his years.  As a treat, Sinisa sent them off with some Croatian Kunas to go buy themselves ice cream.

After leaving the village, a beautiful drive through the mountains took us past farms where we saw corn cobs hanging from farm houses to dry for cow feed.  Farmers in the area raise cows for their own use, mostly for cheese and milk.

Our destination was Sinful Vineyards (the English translation of the family-owned vineyard name), where we took a tour of the estate, learned about their winemaking process, tasted their wines, and then enjoyed more wine with a delicious traditional lunch of duck, veal, pasta, and potatoes.  The setting was beautiful with grape vines growing around us, and a view of a castle beyond.  Traditional live music completed the enjoyable and relaxing atmosphere.

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After returning to Zagreb, Bruce and I headed back to Old Town to re-visit the sites we had previously seen when the skies were cloudy and drab.  In the golden light of the late afternoon, everything was so much more photogenic and enjoyable!  It was a lovely evening to wander the city.

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Parliament Building

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This building was across from our hotel.  All of the yellow/gold buildings in the city date back to the period when Austria ruled the country.

AMERICAN QUEEN STEAMBOAT COMPANY PHOTO CONTEST

Note:  My Adriatic Coast blog posts are still in the works.  It has been a slow process in between our busy craft show season; however, more posts will be on the way soon!

A few months ago, Bruce and I were sitting in our booth at the summer Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair, pouring over some photographs during the late afternoon,  and the crowd had left for the day.  American Queen Steamboat Company had announced their photography contest in the Steamboat Society of America’s monthly newsletter, The Paddlewheelerand I was trying to decide which photos to enter.  We each had ranked my final selections and agreed that this photo was our favorite:

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We were aboard the American Queen in 2017 during a 23-day “Mighty Mississippi” cruise when the American Duchess embarked on her maiden voyage.  We met up with her in Paducah, Kentucky when I shot this photo.  This past January, we cruised aboard the beautiful paddlewheeler.

After entering the contest, I forgot all about it.  Today, we are sitting here in our booth once again for the fall Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair, and I checked my e-mail in between customers.  Surprise!  The latest edition  of The Paddlewheeler was in my inbox.  I clicked on the link, scrolled down to see the winners– all much better than my entry.  Oh well; I lost.  I scrolled down further to read the remainder of the newsletter, and I saw the second place entries, and there it was!  I won second place!  We are going on another cruise aboard the American Duchess, so I will get to use my credit then.  Fun!

Well, the band ended their set, and the customers are cruising the aisles once again, so it’s back to work!

Stay tuned for another Adriatic Coast post soon!

 

 

ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 5, ZAGREB, CROATIA

Hotel Esplanade, located adjacent to the central train station, was built in 1925 for passengers of the Orient Express.  Walk into the lobby, and Art Deco is immediately what comes to mind.  Cool.  It was love at first sight!

Our room (see previous post and captions) was amazing!  It was the lovely dining room and breakfast buffet, however, that caused my jaw to drop.  There were so many options, I stood frozen, not knowing which direction to head first.  On the buffet were only the cold selections, though.  For a hot breakfast, there was a menu at the table listing amazing offerings prepared to order by the chef.  Yikes!  Too many decisions!  I didn’t even go there, but Bruce sure enjoyed his daily omelets!

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That bowl of chocolate spread in front?  Mmmmm!

Chocolate is normally my nighttime indulgence; however, I couldn’t resist the bowl of BLACK chocolate spread on the buffet that was too dark chocolate to be Nutella.  Spread on top of a chocolate croissant for my breakfast “dessert,” I was in a state of bliss.

Somehow, I managed to tear myself away for our morning bus tour of Zagreb, followed by an excellent walking tour of the city highlights and Old Town.  (We needed a good walk after that breakfast!)

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A bit of interesting trivia about famous Croatians was learned during our stop to view three murals.  First of all, Tesla (no, not the car!) was born in 1856 in what is now Croatia.  Nikola Tesla was the famous inventor, best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system.

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The Goodyear Blimp is a modern example of the airship invented by David Schwarz, the Croatian aviation inventor, born six years before Tesla.  He invented the rigid airship with the envelope made entirely of metal.

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Finally, there was Penkala, inventor of the ink pen.  Slavoljub Eduard Penkala came along later, born in 1871.  After inventing the mechanical pencil, he developed the first solid-ink fountain pen.  These weren’t his only inventions.  He held 80 patents for such things as a hot water bottle and rail-car brake.

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Up the stairs from these murals was a great view of the city below; however, drizzly, gloomy skies made for drab photos; so, we returned to our favorite spots over the following two days under sunny skies to re-shoot those pictures.  They will appear in a later post.)

After our walking tour, we used the bus/rail ticket we were provided to venture out to Mirogoj Cemetery, considered one of Europe’s most beautiful cemeteries.  The gloomy skies were perfect for this somber setting!

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We found it interesting to see that this massive cemetery inters members of all religious groups, because it is owned by the city.  We saw everything from Jewish to Muslim to Catholic symbols on grave markers, and the various religions weren’t segregated.

The grounds and architecture were stunning, and at times, literally breathtaking!

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After a long stroll through the grounds, we returned to the Old Town section of Zagreb to explore more of the area.  We stopped first at a bakery to pick up some snacks to pair up with a local beer.  The bars allow you to bring in food, so we relaxed on the patio while enjoying these delicious local treats!

We enjoyed the atmosphere of the old part of the city.  Between the colorful old buildings, cobblestone streets, abundance of outdoor cafes, and people out enjoying it all, it was a great place for a relaxing walk.

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This statue of Ban Jelicic is located in the main square of downtown Zagreb and is a popular meeting place for friends.  They say, “Meet me under the tail!”

Between Old Town and our hotel was a beautiful fifteen-minute walk through several parks that lined one of the main boulevards.  We enjoyed the walk several times during our three-night stay in the city, including at night after dinner and a walk around town.

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ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 4, SLOVENIA TO CROATIA (PRE-EXTENSION)

Yesterday’s rain continued, and we wondered what the next two weeks would be like.  Little did we know at the time that after Zagreb, the remainder of the trip would be mostly rain-free and beautiful when it mattered the most!

On this day, we got SOAKED, at least from the knees down, where the umbrella and rain jacket made no difference during our walking tour of Ljubljana (“LEW byah na”).  At least we had a terrific local guide with a great sense of humor.  He was a hoot!

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A little background about the city, Ljubljana has been the cultural, educational, economic, political, and administrative center of Slovenia since the country gained independence in 1991.  It is a vibrant city with a mix of architectural styles dating back to the Roman period.  After the 1511 earthquake leveled much of the city, it was rebuilt in the Baroque style.  Another earthquake struck in 1895, so many of the buildings had to be rebuilt once again.  Hopefully, that’s the last of the earthquakes, because the remaining old buildings are so much more interesting than the contemporary boxes!

After our tour, we had free time to poke around the farmer’s market and wander the streets of the city.  Fortunately, the rain had stopped, so we could enjoy the sites with closed umbrellas.

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St. Nicholas Cathedral door

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Glass or plastic?  Choose your bottle and fill ‘er up!

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The “Epl” (Apple) computer store

Ljubljana was the last we would see of the picturesque country before traveling on to Zagreb, the capitol of Croatia.  Having grown fond of Slovenia, I would have loved to have seen more of the small country that puts such a high priority on preserving their pristine beauty and is ranked 5th in the world in recycling!

Zagreb is our program director, Sinisa’s home, so he could speak plenty from personal experience about what it’s like to live in the bustling city now, and what it was like under Tito’s rule before Yugoslavia broke apart.

Sinisa, 50, had an interesting childhood growing up as the son of popular singer Drago Diklic, known as “Croatia’s Frank Sinatra.”  During one of our bus rides, he played some of his father’s music and showed us pictures of his dad with Tito (Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s communist leader from 1953-1980).

In the early 1990’s, when the war broke out and Serbia attacked Croatia, Sinisa fled to London while the remainder of his family stayed behind in Zagreb away from the fighting that destroyed Vukovar and other cities in the eastern region bordering Serbia.

Sinisa returned to Zagreb after the war ended and lives in the city with his wife and son.  As we entered the city, he pointed out the contrast between Slovenia and Croatia:  Slovenia is extremely clean and free of graffiti, whereas Croatians aren’t nearly as conscientious about recycling and there was a lot of graffiti on old and new buildings alike.  It was heartbreaking to see some of the lovely old Austrian architecture defaced; however, if there was any consolation, we learned that none of it was gang-related.  There are no gangs in Zagreb, and the city is actually quite safe to walk around, even at night.  The graffiti is done by destructive kids, and authorities are having a difficult time getting a handle on the epidemic.

The city is large, home to about one million of the over four million people in Croatia (or “Hrvatska” as the locals call it).  There is a generation gap in the population, because many older people were killed in the war, but even more younger people are leaving the country for jobs in Germany and other countries.  As a result, Croatia has the oldest population in Europe.  This leaves remaining Croatians feeling worried about the future of their country.

Croatia’s past was tumultuous.  Elders, including Sinisa’s grandmother were Austrian, Italian, Yugoslavian, and Croatian in their lifetimes without ever having moved from their home once!  It has been occupied that many times in one lifetime.  Each time, people had to learn a new language, obtain new documents, and live under a new set of laws.

If you were fortunate in the early 1990’s, you still had that home after the war.  One eighth of Croatian’s homes were destroyed, and it took twelve years for the country to build 160,000 homes to replace them.  So many schools were destroyed that remaining schools had to educate children in two or three shifts, including one at night.

Due to land mines that still haven’t been cleared (and won’t be until 2024, according to government estimates), much of Croatia’s food must be imported, because of the dangers associated with farming.

If Croatians could wind back the clock to any period of their past, most would choose to live under Tito’s rule once again.  Although there was a documented (very) dark side of their leader and how he had dissenters killed, life was good under Tito’s brand of communism.  Tito had divided Yugoslavia into six republics after World War II, and Croatia (along with its friendly neighbor, Slovenia) was the most industrialized and successful.  Practicing religion was permitted, passports were granted, travel to foreign countries was allowed, and Yugoslavians had the best lifestyle and most freedoms of all of the communist countries.

During the industrial boom of the 1960’s, apartments were provided for free to all factory workers, there was job security, and every citizen had free medical care and free education.  Nationalism was forbidden and there were no elections, but if you didn’t mind (or kept your opinions to yourself), you had a comfortable lifestyle in an extremely safe country.

The 1970’s brought a boom in tourism to Yugoslavia, a popular destination for Austrians, Germans, and Brits; so, the country prospered even more.  But, in 1980, the “Benevolent Dictator,” as Tito was called, died.  His funeral was the largest in history; over 159 nations attended.  Not only was he well-loved by his own people, but he was well-respected by world leaders for having stood up to Stalin in 1948.

When Tito was alive, he wanted Yugoslavia united as one with no nationalism; however, when he died, nationalism was out and the Serbs wanted independence.  Ten years after Tito’s death, his legacy was destroyed.

Sinisa looks back on Tito’s days fondly.  Life was good back then!  Although his family and friends didn’t have access to the variety of items other countries enjoyed, the freedom to travel made it easy to pop over to Italy for a shopping binge and pick up Italian shoes or jeans.  In Austria, they would make a beeline for chocolate.  (I can relate to that!).

It was interesting to hear Sinisa’s stories a well as those told by the local guides, lecturers, and hosts of our home visit for dinner later in the trip.  Having been to Vukovar and Osijek, Croatia on a Danube River cruise in 2007, I had learned about Tito as well as the horrors of the 1990’s war; however, the experience wasn’t as in-depth.  I was completely captivated this time around.

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Our room at the Hotel Esplanade, built in 1925 for passengers of the Orient Express.  The TV greeted us with “Welcome, Mr. Cook,” and we could program a wake up call to have the TV turn on at our scheduled time with various peaceful videos of the ocean, forest, etc.

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ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 3, SLOVENIA (PRE-EXTENSION)

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Julian Alps

Our program director, Sinisa, told us he had a “surprise” for us today.  He has a good sense of humor.  When we arrived at our “surprise,” we were in ITALY!  Sovenia is bordered by Italy and Austria, and you could actually bicycle through all three countries in one day quite easily.  Since all three are members of the European Union, you wouldn’t even need a passport.

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We walked into Italy at this now-shuttered border station to take cheesy pictures at the Italia sign and have a good laugh about the additional country we were visiting.

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Sinisa Diklic, our program director

At one time, this border separated communism from capitalism.  (More on that in a future post.)  Now you can go all the way to the English Channel without a border crossing slowing you down.  In 2020, Croatia and Montenegro will also be members of the European Union, so there will be even less need for a passport on road trips.

Our next stop was really the unexpected surprise:  Planica, Slovenia’s Olympic ski jump center and location of the most recent ski jump World Record.  Set in 2015, Peter Prevc jumped a whopping 248.5 meters (about 814 feet or 271 yards)!

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When we first arrived, I said to myself, “Ok, we’ll see some beautiful mountains with ski jumps and just imagine what it would be like to jump off them.”  I had visited the Olympic ski jump in Oslo, and I thought that was amazing enough.  I would have been happy just having an experience like that again.

Surprise!  There were skiers jumping, and it was SUMMER!  Little did I know that except for the main jump where the World Cup is held, the training jumps were covered in a special Astroturf that was kept wet for the skiers to train on all year long.  In addition, there was an indoor cross-country ski course, where we braved the cold for a minute (in our t-shirts and shorts) to take a quick snapshot before going back outside to watch the jumpers.

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After getting an overall view from the center’s balcony, we got an up-close look to watch the ski jumpers.  It amazed me how YOUNG some of them were!  One of the kids flying through the sky couldn’t have been more than ten years old.  (I missed the shot of him.)  That’s a brave kid!

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In Slovenia, they start young, learning how to ski at the same time they learn how to walk.  Once they are stable on their skis, the kids learn how to jump by starting on a playground slide-sized jump, and then work up from there.

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This is the highest ski jump where the World Record was broken by Peter Prevc.  The World Cup is held here. Note the tiny ski jump at the bottom.  This is used to train toddlers!  Next, they graduate to the longer jumps behind it.

We had so much fun watching (and trying to photograph) the jumpers that we could have stayed there all day.

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Laura, this one’s for you!  Bring in da goat!!

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Free time was spent nearby exploring the ski resort town of Kranjska Gora, surrounded by beautiful mountains.  There was a ski lift directly behind the hotels; no driving required!

Unfortunately, those lifts didn’t get any use last year due to the lack of snow.  It usually snows October to May; however, global warming has caused quite a weather change in Slovenia, including less snow and more tropical thunderstorms.

The lack of snow made for good foraging in the surrounding forests, however.  Berries and mushrooms grow in abundance, and mushroom soup (which we enjoyed later on at dinner) is a mainstay of the cuisine in the region.

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A cheese vending machine!  Laura, don’t ya love it?  We saw a milk vending machine the following day, and they even sold both glass and reusable plastic bottles to dispense the milk in.

When we returned to Lake Bled, I had hoped to go for another swim; however, the clouds looked threatening and thunderstorms were in the forecast.  Instead, we grabbed our umbrellas and set out on a 3.5 mile walk around Lake Bled, not worrying about rain, but hoping a lightning bolt wouldn’t strike our umbrellas!  It turned out to be the only time rain was a nuisance on our trip besides the following day on our walking tour of Ljubjana.  The walk around the lake was gorgeous, though, even in the rain!  It is one of the most popular walks in all of Slovenia, and I’m glad we didn’t miss it!

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This was our hotel.  There was a ski lift on the right.

For dinner, we were taken by bus to a traditional local restaurant, Gostina Lectar, in the town of Radovljica.

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Antique skis were displayed in the lobby.

The restaurant has been in existence since 1822; however, the 500-year-old house has been in the Lectar family for three generations.

Before dining in a private room, we first watched a private ginger-bread-making demonstration in the charming basement bakery and gift shop.  Actually, it was really honey-bread, since ginger isn’t native to the area, but honey is abundantly available.

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Dinner was served by Mr. Lectar himself, and we started with his family’s locally-made wine and mushroom soup in a cute bread pot.  Very clever!  Platters of meat, sausages, potatoes, and sauerkraut were then served (one platter per four people), and plenty remained behind as we were all quite full from the abundance of food.  There was still dessert, though, and we were served apple ice cream in a carved-out apple.

The town was so picturesque, that I was glad I slipped out to take this picture before night fall.

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