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.

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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