Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Before we left for Europe this year we watched a lot of travel videos of places we would be visiting: Rick Steves and Rudy Maxa. Every place looked so beautiful and exciting that I could not wait to see them in person. That is everything except the Blue Grotto on the. island of Capri. Before we left I declared I would never go in it, but today I had a change of heart and loved every minute of it.
Walking to the express ferry this morning someone handed us a tiny brochure, Laser Capri. It was to be a two hour boat tour around Capri with a stop at the Blue Grotto. Arriving there I noticed it was just like the video. Row boats carry four pasengers at a time into a hole so tiny everyone has to lie down flat on the floor of the boat. What changed my mind to try it? I think it was the air of excitement in the boat. Once you are inside the Grotto, the water is a beautiful aquamarine color and seems almost lit from below with floodlights. It was so much fun our boat driver broke into "O Solo Mia" after which we hinted if we liked it we could give him a tip.
We figured that the rest of the boat ride would just be a ride around the island, but it turned out to be a very comprehensive sightseeing tour. We saw where Sophia Lauren and Armani lived as well as Mussolini's former retreat now owned by the president of Gerber Baby Foods. Our driver also took us close into different grottos and upon noticing David taking photos, invited him to sit in the captain's seat for a better view.
To see the really beautiful part of Capri, you must take a funnicular up to the town. The view from the top was spectacular.
It's a whole other world up there. It's a world where those who can afford it relax beside refreshing infinity pools under palm trees while sipping iced tea with mint served by tuxedoed waiters. It's a world where every store is a designer store such as Louis Vuitton and Cartier. One of them had a cute dachshund logo, but when I went inside the same store in Sorrento, the message was clear: Beat it. Serious shoppers only.
The temperature was brutally hot so we did the best we could to stay in the shade. Following the winding lanes was very pleasant.
Even the local cats looked quite content.
Back down at the harbor were the more affordable stores. We sat in the shade at a waterside cafe and were entertained by a flash mob that appeared in a boat.
In the evening we took a final walk around Sorrento. Stopping at a local bookshop for a calendar, I was amazed when a young man working there handed me two art prints of the town as a gift. We thanked the owner profusely and as we walked away, he appeared with another print for us. I assumed he was going to say if we liked it a donation might be nice, but instead he shook our hand and disappeared back into the crowd.
We love Italy. I'll miss its energetic vibe and beautiful scenery, and maybe if we get to come back, I'll try swimming into the Blue Grotto too.
Monday, August 20, 2012
Whenever people think of Italy, images of stucco houses with tiled roofs, beautiful flowers, and cobblestone lanes winding through hilltowns comes to mind. Here in Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast they have all of this and more. In fact, when we gave an armchair travel presentation back home on the Amalfi Coast, we got several invitations from neighboring towns to speak there too. Forget about Rome, Croatia, and Slovenia, it's photos of the Amalfi Coast people came to see.
We started our day with an amazing buffet breakfast that even had a squeeze your own orange juice press with real oranges right off the tree. Everything was so fresh and good that it seemed out of place when the man at the table next to ours plunked a bottle of cod liver oil on his table.
Exploring Sorrento we found some pretty hidden gardens with handpainted tiled benches. Picturesque cafes are everywhere, but you must be careful. If it says "We speak English" and has a poster with colorful photos of the food, beware. There may be no kitchen at all and everything is microwaved.
It's so funny to see cruise ship groups here in town. Some passengers tend to be overdressed for the climate. On a hot day like today, they huddle in the shade. I laughed to myself when I saw one group stocking up on the pretty lemon soaps that smell like cheap cleaning supplies. It's one of those souvenirs that looks great here, but not so great when you get it home.
In the afternoon I decided to take advantage of the lovely hotel swimming pool. It's a great oasis away from the busy town. I met a young woman in the pool who told me she was from Ontario. She asked me if I knew where it was. Ouch! Then she proceeded to say she has been in Italy for several days, but they haven't done a single thing because the pool is so nice. I just smiled politely.
In the evening at the restaurant where we ate, a small band appeared with an accordion player, clarinet, bass, and maracas. They played some fun Italian songs and then passed the hat. I wondered if the restaurant owners minded, but they didn't seem to care at all and it added to the atmosphere. In fact, when people think of Italy, the friendly people and music is just what they might imagine in their mind.
Sunday, August 19, 2012
Today was a transition day and as I've mentioned in the past, I don't like them. Even though it was very hot and humid in Croatia. I had grown accustomed to our tiny seaview apartment and the pretty walk along a shaded stone path that hugs the water into towm.
Split was barely awake when we left at 6:45 am, but it was chaos at the airport. No airlines were assiged to any check-in desk so basically it was a pick the shortest line followed by the free for all, show no mercy mentality of Easyjet. But in the end we made it to Rome in under an hour for less than $75.
We are staying in Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast. Our hotel is beautiful with a pool. Beside it is a deep ravine with the ruins of an old six story stone house. It is so curious because one wonders who lived there and when, and how they got down there. It is very mysterious and the only way to get to it would be to traverse a steep path with the railings missing.
The beaches here are what attracts a lot of tourists. They certainly aren't the pristine big sandy beaches that might be on a tropical island. Instead they tend to be crowded with cabanas and beach umbrellas, but with a view of Mt. Vesuvius and the town rising above, it would be a pleasant place to be. Last time we were here a huge Costa ship sailed in close to town to show off the ship with its booming horn echoing off the cliffs. It was a thrilling experience, but after the Costa ship sank off the coast a little north of here doing just that, they stopped it.
Tonight we had dinner in town on a rooftop restaurant. They had delicious homemade pasta dishes. After dinner the town was alive with people looking at shops and eating gelati. The streets were closed off to pedestrians after 8:00 and shop owners quickly moved everything outside to attract customers. A typical display had lemon ceramic dishes, limoncello, and packages of lemon shaped soap. The soaps are so pretty, but all smell like a lemon soap you might get at the Dollar Tree.
Suddenly a band appeared in old fashion costume so we followed it throughout the town. They would stop and grab people from the crowd to dance. It felt as if all of Sorrento was at a street party celebrating summer. This place is a lot of fun so at the end of the day, a transition day didn't turn out to be so bad after all.
Friday, August 17, 2012
It can happen when you least expect it. This morning as we were having a pleasant breakfast on our balcony overlooking the sea, I realized that the crunchy muesli I was eating caused a major filling in a molar to fall out. I wasn't too concerned at the moment because my plan was to get some dental wax to fill it until I got home, but finding some was a whole other story. The local pharmacist said she had nothing like that and pointed to the dentist next door, but when I got there, they said the tooth would have to be fixed.
The dentist's office reminded me of something out of the 50's. Instead of a warm welcoming office like Dr. Kondon's office at home complete with his dog to greet you, this place looked like an old sterile clinic with olive colored walls with two old posters of teeth. The only other decoration was a bouquet of flowers you might see in a church. The dentist was probably in his early 30's and wore a white t-shirt and shorts as if he were dressed for the beach. After giving me a shot of novocaine on the roof of my mouth, he crashed out on a bench behind me listening to hip Croatian music. The novocaine did not take, but they started drilling anyway. The nurse who was very kind said, "Calm down! You're at the dentist so of course it will hurt!" I wanted to bolt. It was at that point they took my small Vera Bradley bag away. Turns out I was clutching onto it for dear life like a security pillow. All around were cases of tools and religious medallions hanging in front of the chair. I just kept focusing on them and after an hour of a lot of sighing, finally they were done. The dentist kindly shook my hand and said through the nurse interpreting, "You should replace all your metal fillings with white ones and I will be happy to do it while you're here." He claimed he made me a new tooth because my molar broke in half during the procedure. He wondered if I liked it. I'll let Dr. Kondon decide.
After all that excitement it was time to take a one hour catamaran to Split. Out hotel is five minutes away from Diocletian's Palace. Diocletian was a Roman emperor during the 3rd century CE. He was probably best known for the splitting the Roman empire into four regions which according to some historians, helped to accelerated the empire into ite demise. His palace is a mssive structure which was once accessed from the water. What is noteworthy about the palace today is that it is both a museum, and businesses and residences sharing a space. It's a working building.
Tonight there was a huge festival celebrating Split in the form of a Roman celebration. There was a cast of over 100 performing sword dances, Roman marches, and acrobatics. There must have been many VIPs present because camermen and tv reporters were everywhere. As it turned out, I sat directly behind one of the most important VIPs of all based on the paparazzi taking photos. From the sore tooth to the VIP's, the day was full of cultural backdoor moments.
I wish I could say Croatia is undiscovered, but it's not true. Although during the past three summers here we have seen very few Americans except in Dubrovnik, the rest of Europe is here and Australians too. Yet I still think Croatia retains a lot of the same charm it probably had years ago when this area was a popular place to visit in the former Yugoslavia. Old stone buildings with red tiled roofs and wrought iron trim have wooden shutters which are closed during the day to keep out the heat. Hidden winding alleyways with steep stone steps all connected by ancient stone streets give Hvar the feeling of a unique Adriatic seaside town.
Today we took a boat to Palmizana, an island about 20 minutes away. It was an old wooden boat tucked in between two sleek yachts with 21st century satellite systems. The captain's wheel looked like one from a picture book, but instead of a sea captain, the boat was driven by a college age student texting friends. The boat had many controls missing from the outdated control panel, but it got us there and we knew we had arrived when a chorus of cicadas filled the air.
Following a dusty rocky path from the dock which was lined with cactus, we found a tiny cove with a swimming area marked off. Croatia does not have sandy beaches. To get in the water you have to scramble over jagged rocks and then plunge in. The whole experience can feel quite treacherous on your bare feet, but our accommodation owner thoughtfully provided water shoes and they made all the difference in the world, especially since I spotted sea urchins hidden in the crevices of the rocks. Once you are in it is paradise. The water looks so purified you can see the bottom from way out deep.
Tonight we had dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Luna. It was on the rooftop of an old stone building and service was impeccable. We actually thought it was a better restaurant than the Gariful where we ate last night which is the restaurant where the stars and Prince Harry eat. Beside our hotel is an expensive resort, the Amfora. It looks like a hotel from the Tito era of Yugoslavia and it turns out it was built in 1970. Today it has an elaborate pool area with waterfalls. We decided to check out the bar area on the top floor and the view was incredible.
Yes, the word is out about Croatia and it's growing into a major tourist destination quickly. I imagine that as in other places, large resorts soon may take over what is now remote coastline. The good news is that the yachts of the rich and famous may now be arriving, but in the places we have visited, there are no Burger Kings or Starbucks and many independent shops, restaurants, and accommodations thrive. Generations of families are still living here. I hope it stays this way. If you come to Croatia, you must come now, before it is too late.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
When I was growing up, we were never really beach people. I spent my summers at Keuka Lake and Squam Lake. But even if swimming in the ocean or going to Florida for spring break was nothing my parents were ever interested in, we did enjoy going to places with a great views of the sea.
Croatia is a place my family would have loved, but when it was part of the former Yugoslavia, I doubt they would have come here. Today in Hvar you can still see some of the former hotels built during that era and although today they have an ugly boxy quality about them, they're fun to see. The water here is an incredible aquamarine and so clear the ocean looks like a giant swimming pool. No wonder everyone heads out early in the morning to find the best spot for sunbathing.
Early this morning we followed a wooded path along the water's edge into town. As we approached the main square, we noticed many beautiful yachts moored in the harbor. The secret about Hvar is out and it is now a popular place for stars. We think we may have seen some celebrity has-beens today. They swept through the square looking dignified wearing white linen and designer sunglasses. All heads turned, but no one seemed to recognize them.
There's an old Franciscan monastery in town. Inside we saw a painting of the Last Supper. The painting, dating from the mid-16th century, comes with an interesting story. It was allegedly painted by a sailor who had been suffering from scurvy and abandoned on an island near Hvar. Monks from the Franciscan monastery took pity on him and brought here. The sailor, wishing to thank the monks for their deed, created the Last Supper which continues to take pride of place in the monastery. This quiet, seaside place of worship also features many ceramic bowls rescued from ship wrecks. Mass was taking place and the sanctuary was packed with people fanning themselves to cool off.
Visiting a church on a hot day can be a pleasant experience because it's usually very cool inside. Parts of the Cathedral of St. Stephen dates back to the 15th century. I lit a candle in memory of my parents because I knew they would have loved this town. Outside we heard the bells ring at noon echoing throughout the square.
In the late afternoon we sat in a cafe by the water for people watching. Young guys wear tropical swim trunks with mismatched shirts and some of the older men walk about with their button down shirts completely unbuttoned. Everyone looked positively wilted from the heat, yet happy. The smell of lavender is everywhere and this island is famous for it.
Tonight we went to Gariful, a famous restaurant with fish fresh from the sea. We had mussels and fish cooked in wine, but some tables spent a fortune with what they ordered. Heading back to the hotel at midnight, the city was alive with people dining at cafes or eating on their yachts. It's truly summer holiday time here in Croatia.
(Special message to my U.S. blog readers today. If you would like to receive a nice lavender surprise when I return home, leave me a message in the comment section . I'll even mail it to you if you don't live near me)
Last night we discovered a beautiful rooftop terrace on our hotel. Standing tall in the distance was the 1,200 foot tall tv tower which was built in the former East Berlin in 1969 for the 20th anniversary of the communist government. Beside the tower is a great department store, Kaufhof, which was the commercial pride and joy of East Berlin. On the first floor is a gourmet market and watches displayed in gleaming glass cases. One of my teacher friends at school and I are huge Swatch fans so I picked one out for each of us. It's one of my favorite souvenirs every year.
Today we flew on Easyjet from Berlin to Split, Croatia. Since seats are not assigned, at the gate it was an every man for himself and show no mercy mentality. It can get crazy, but to be able to buy the ticket for under $75 is a really good deal.
Landing in Split, I immediately noticed the clear aquamarine water, white stucco houses with red tiled roofs, and barren mountains. I tried to figure out what it is about this country I love so much. Sometimes when we go places we look for something familiar about it from our past to make a connection with it, but during the past three years I have come to the conclusion it does not really remind me of any place I have ever been before. I think what I love about it here is it seems to be such a nice blend of the old and new world here, plus having once been part of the former Yugoslavia, it has an interesting history which the locals love to share with you.
This year we are staying on Hvar Island. We don't have a cell phone here and couldn't get a strong enough signal on the ferry for our Skype phone, but no problem. Everyone here has a cell phone so I searched the crowd for a friendly face and asked someone to call our accommodation for us to let them know our arrival time. There's a fun summer time vibe on the ferry and the views of the Dalmatian Coast are amazing.
Once we arrived in Hvar I wondered how Ana, our accommodation owner who was picking us up, would know who we were on a bus of 60 tourists. I guessed she would look for two clueless people and I was right. She called out my name right away when I glanced across the street. We are renting a self catering apartment with a sea view. (see photo below)
Dinner was at Villa Dinka across the street where we had grilled tuna fresh from the sea. The dollar is strong here. Our entire meal with wine was under $50. Tonight as I write in my journal from our balcony we are serenaded by a chorus of cicadas. We hear them every year here and to me they are a sign of summer. What a warm welcome to Croatia!