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!