Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Taste of the Mediterranean

I was most excited for this part of my trip...three days in Dubrovnik, a city which I had never even heard of before until planning my visit to see Kate in Sarajevo. When I first had my grandiose idea of a tour through Europe, Montenegro had been on my list of places to see. Many years ago when the James Bond movie "Casino Royale" came out, I watched it with Jeff, who enjoys James Bond movies. I thought the movie was fine, but what I came away with wasn’t how great the movie was or how attractive Daniel Craig was, it was the breathtaking beauty of a place I knew nothing about...Montenegro. I said out loud, "I want to go there." I told enough people that I wanted to see it that my sister-in-law actually looked into going on a family trip together. None of that ever materialized, but suddenly here was this alluring country right next door to Kate’s home! As we were planning how to get there, Kate mentioned Dubrovnik. It was highly recommended by all the locals as THE tourist destination. When I went online, I saw why. It is stunning in beauty and filled with things to do, rich in history, and easily accessible by bus from Sarajevo. So I planned a three-day trip there, and it became the highlight of the trip because it was also very exciting for Kate, having never been there either. When Kate told the other four girls in her exchange program that she was going, they begged to come along. Would I be willing to chaperone five 18-year-olds in a foreign country for four days? Sure! Having chaperoned teenagers on trips all over the world many times---on teams as large as 100---four extra girls would be a piece of cake. The excitement was palpable. One of the girls on Kate’s team went online and researched the best attractions and restaurants and also made us a budget for all the travel we would do. I booked us a villa. Then one of the other girls found out that her mother was also planning to visit that same week, so she joined us too. It was a funny relationship. The two moms, both of whom are world travelers, would be the "authority," but the girls would be the real bosses, as they were the ones who knew the language and the culture. From the minute we bought our bus tickets, they were in charge. When we bought our tickets, they were four times more expensive than what Kate had told me a month earlier and then we had to pay our bus driver to load our suitcases on the bus, so I was over budget before I had even left Sarajevo! Something told me this "so-much-less-expensive-than-western Europe" trip was not going to be cheap.

Once settled on our tour bus, the girls promptly fell asleep. Even as a teenager I could never sleep on trips...I loved to see the scenery, especially when it was a place I would likely never see again. The scenery was incredibly beautiful. We traveled through the Denaric Alps, driving up and down and through switchbacks, past quaint villages, rushing rivers and snow-capped peaks. With every turn we were rewarded with another vista...I didn’t dare turn off my camera. So many times I wished the bus would stop or at least slow down so I could capture the scenes. When the bus finally did stop for our first break, it was at a little roadside café perched on the edge of a river. We picked out a table by the window and waited to order our coffee...and waited, and waited and waited. No one ever came to take our order, even though we made eye contact and gestured numerous times and the staff nodded back as though they would "be right there." But they never came, and our break was over so we got back on the bus having had nothing. I figured in the long-run it was probably for the best, as coffee can make my stomach upset when I travel, and these twisty roads were a lot to deal with. It was a very slow bus ride.  Dubrovnik is about 3-1/2 to 4 hours away from Sarajevo, and I figured we’d be stopping so I allowed another hour, telling the host of our villa that we would probably be there around noon. Well, that trip drug on for 8 hours!  I had exhausted the little snacks I had packed and was feeling pretty hungry. I also dozed off a few was just so long. We had to cross the border from Bosnia into Croatia, then Croatia back into Bosnia and then one more time from Bosnia into Croatia because of the way they divided the countries’ borders when Yugoslavia was dissolved. Each time we had to stop and pull out our passports. We did stop one more time where they let us get out and have a 15-minute break, which was just enough time to buy gelato and eat it out in the sun. We reached Dubrovnik at 3 in the afternoon. We tried to get a taxi to take us to our destination, but they refused to take all 5 of us in one car. This wasn’t good either, as I knew the three girls would ride in one taxi and split the fare three ways and I would ride with Kate in the second taxi and have to pay for both of us. They threw our luggage in the trunk and bickered back and forth with each other about where the place was, looking at the address and acting like they didn’t have a clue where it was. I knew we were about to be taken for ride and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it but get in the car and go. They zipped us through the winding, narrow little streets and then came to a quick stop. The trip took maybe 5 minutes. The car doors were opened, the suitcases set on the ground, and hands extended for the fare. I know nothing about kuna, which is Croatia’s currency, so I just handed the money over for Kate and myself and figured I’d calculate the exchange later. But the girls instantly knew it was very expensive and were muttering under their breath. The drivers pointed us up a hill and drove away. We picked up our suitcases and started up the hill...and up, up, up we went, probably the equivalent of 3 city blocks, including 9 flights of stone steps (I counted!) and 2 long stone "ramps" where there were no stairs.  We were completely sweaty, exhausted and out of breath by the time we reached our villa. Our hosts, Ivan and Marin, came out to meet us. In a mix of Bosnian, Croatian and English we told them we came by taxi. They asked how much we were charged. The girls told them and they shook their heads in disbelief and said in English, "Evil!!" I vowed right then I would not be taken advantage of again.

Our hosts showed us around our villa, explaining the usual things like how to turn on the shower and work the stove and where the extra blankets were. She had fresh lemons and oranges from the trees in her gorgeous garden sitting in a bowl for us, homemade candied orange peel, and fresh-squeezed orange juice in bottles in the fridge. Then they invited us upstairs to where they lived, and she served us more orange juice, orange liqueur and a moist crumb cake. Her husband pulled out the city map and showed us how to get around, what bus to use, and the best attractions to see. We were there a good hour. Finally, we were released. We were now 5 hours behind schedule...and starving. We grabbed our map and our bags and set out for Old Town. What a maze of streets and alleys and staircases! And because many of the streets were walled on both sides, it definitely felt like a maze. We worked our way down, down, down and arrived at Old Town, which was quite impressive. Walking across the drawbridge through the gates, we stepped back into time when streets were stone, cities were walled, houses were joined and stacked, cathedrals were prominent, and fountains graced the town square. But the city was most definitely modern, as shops and cafes lined every single street and alley. We were mesmerized. We were supposed to meet the other girl from the team and her mother, but they hadn’t arrived yet, so we wandered aimlessly but happily through the maze of streets, exploring and taking in the beauty as well as getting our bearings for the true sightseeing we would be doing the next day. We stopped for coffee while we waited and sat at tiny tables in a tiny alleyway, hidden from the entire city unless you happened upon this exact alley as we had. Then we walked down to the agreed-upon restaurant for dinner to find the other two. We had a very good meal, but the girls were disappointed it was Bosnian food and not Croatian. Bosnian food is more Turkish and Croatian food is more Mediterranean. It was all new to me, so I didn’t mind, and the restaurant was cozy and dark with an almost medieval feel because of the stone walls, heavy wooden tables and chairs and candlelight. We dined on a variety of dishes, puffy little rolls that were like a yeast donut only not sweet and served with that thick sour cream that isn’t very sour, salads with tomatoes, cucumber, olives, onions, hard-boiled egg and sheep’s cheese, beef, roasted vegetables, and other foods I don’t know the names for. The meal was great, and we happily made our way out of Old Town to head back to the villa, since it was Helena’s 18th birthday, and her mother, Claire, had picked up a Sacher torte when she passed through Vienna on her way to Sarajevo. I was thrilled!  I had really wanted to buy a piece of authentic Viennese Sacher torte when I passed through Vienna, but that didn’t happen when I ended up having to run for my plane, and now I'd get to try it!  None of us realized just how difficult it was going to be to get home. Claire had rented a car, so we squeezed all seven of us into it and made our way up towards our villa. One of the girls navigated using the map we were given, but we ended up on a road that took us right out of the city and far, far up the side of the mountain. It was impossible to stop and turn around, as it was one way with no turn-offs, so we were forced to continue in the opposite direction for a few miles.  Finally we found a wide spot on the edge of the road and pulled over, then, carefully looking in every direction on this curvy, narrow mountain road, we pulled across to the other lane going back into town and made our way back in the dark of night. We followed the map until we figured we were somewhat close to our villa, and then parked along the side of the road as we saw others had done. It was a sheer cliff at the shoulder's edge, so I got out and directed Claire backwards so she wouldn’t go too far and slip off. Then Helena and Claire got their suitcases and we walked single file along that dark stretch of highway with no shoulder, using one cell phone in front for vision and one in back so cars would see us.  We walked like that for a good 10 minutes until we finally found a stone staircase heading down. The girls said, "No, this isn’t our street!" The moms said, "We don’t care, we’re getting off this highway!" For a moment, we were boss again! We climbed down the stairs to the next street level, which was residential and quiet, and then headed horizontally to our street, and then down again until we reached our villa. All homes are enclosed within gates, and all the entrances to the gates are on the sides of the streets, so you never enter a house through a front or back door, always from the side. We were so tired and a little stressed, but there was Sacher Torte! So we sang Happy Birthday to Helena and ate that rich chocolate cake with apricot filling and fudgy frosting at almost midnight! Then, despite the sugar high, we climbed into bed with the shutters wide open to the sea breeze and fell promptly to sleep.

The next morning I woke to the sound of birds, big horn blasts from the ships coming and going in the harbor, bells from the cathedral, and mo-peds speeding through the little streets. Sunlight filtered through the slats of the shutters. I got up and opened the shutter doors wide, stepping out on the balcony to take in the view of the sunrise over the sea. From our villa high on the hill, it looked like first a sea of red tiled roofs and then a sea of blue wrapping around the golden hills and islands, dotted with white boats and sparkling under the morning sun. Ahhh...this was wonderful! Kate and I and Anna, who is also an early riser, grabbed some money and headed out for some groceries so we could have breakfast. Down, down, down we walked until we reached street level and the little store. We picked up dried apricots, hazelnuts, milk and yogurt and then turned around and walked straight up again, huffing and puffing and sweating before we’d even truly started our day. Claire and Helena had also gone out early, determined to find their car in the daylight and bring it down to a more convenient and safe location. On their way home they had picked up two loaves of fresh bread from the pekura (bakery) and a paper package of dried figs. After a great breakfast of yogurt with kiwi from the garden and granola from home, one of those sweet, juicy oranges from the fruit bowl and dried figs (the girls chose the sugar cereal I had brought from the States, the fresh bread and orange juice!), we headed down to Old Town to tour the city wall. Since the city is situated on a jutting outcropping of rock into the sea, not only was it a port for commerce and travel, it was also vulnerable to invading navies. So the entire city is enclosed with thick stone walls like the fort on the hill above it, with a walkway as wide as the thickness of the wall built on top. We walked the entire perimeter, taking in the incredible views of city, mountain and sea from every direction. There were more hills and more stairs, and we climbed in the hot morning sun until we had worked up yet another good sweat. Rounding a corner of the wall, we came upon a little café that faced the south sea. It was slightly shaded and offered tall glasses of bright orange-colored juice made of fresh-squeezed oranges, grapefruit, carrots, apples and pears. I thought it sounded wonderfully refreshing, so we sat down and ordered....before asking the price. Well, when I found out it was 60 kuna, or $10 USD, I was no longer very thirsty.  But I told myself, "You are paying for not just the delicious juice you are about to drink but for the experience, which you really can’t get at home."   As we were waiting for our drinks, I noticed a man carrying a big box of Dole oranges. I watched as he dumped them into the juicer. I said to our group, "Those are Dole oranges...they’re not even from here!" The girls looked at me like, "So?" I remembered my vow not to get taken advantage of again, and I decided I would not spend $10 for a glass of Dole orange juice. When the waiter came, I asked him if they used Dole oranges for their fresh-squeezed juice or if they used the local oranges. He acknowledged they used the imported Dole. So, I apologized to Kate for embarrassing her and then said, "I don’t want the juice" and cancelled my order. So while the poor girls gulped their expensive drinks, I drank a much cheaper (but not cheap) coffee, mentally reinforcing my vow to not get taken advantage of as an American tourist.

We moved on from there and finished the wall right before lunch. We caught a ferry and sailed away to a nearby island called Lokrum, where we were planning to tour then swim. We ate Croatian-style sandwiches at a little café on the island, which were made of good white bakery bread, with proscuitto and fromaggio, lettuce, tomato, and balsamic vinegar and olive oil. They were very good. Dubrovnik was its own republic for most of its history, only recently belonging to Yugoslavia/Croatia. They fought off both the Turks and the Italians to maintain their independence, but they are closely linked to and highly influenced by Italy, which is evident in food, architecture and Catholicism. We walked the island, touring the remains of a monastery that was beautiful with its crumbing stone work and admired the many peacocks that strutted among the ruins. Then we hiked to the fort at the very top and center of the island, which provided a beautiful view of the mainland.  Once again very hot and sweaty, we climbed all the way back down to the sea, picked our way across the massive rocks to the edge of the water, and jumped into the turquoise-blue waters of the Adriatic Sea.

It was cold.  Achingly cold.   We gasped and sputtered with shock, and one of the girls sat with only her feet in for a very long time, mustering up the courage to immerse herself. Once we adjusted to the temperature, it was chilly but bearable. It was totally cool, though, to lay flat on your back and float in the salty water. I’ve been in a few seas around the world, but I don’t recall ever being able to just lie perfectly flat and still and float like that before. If it had been warmer I think I could have stayed like that for hours! Eventually, we began to shiver. The girls who more active, jumping off the rocks, climbing back up and jumping again, did better. But Claire and I pulled out, and I chose to explore the warm tide pools caught between the rocks while she spread out her towel and suntanned on the rocks. When we’d finally had enough, we dressed and walked to the café by the harbor to have coffee, then took the ferry back to the mainland. We then toured the fort, which gave us a view of isolated little coves on the other side of the rocks, and there we found what looked like a great restaurant overlooking the water of the cove. So when we were done with our tour, we stopped for dinner and enjoyed fresh seafood, Croatia’s specialty, in its many forms...some had grilled fish, others had it mixed with pasta, another had black risotto (dyed pure black with squid ink!) and I had risotto with tomatoes, mussels, shrimp and squid, and we all had a delicious antipasto plate of good bread, salmon mousse, grilled vegetables, briny olives and salty anchovies. It was delicious. To drink, I had myrtille juice, similar to blueberry, mixed in sparkling water. We lingered just until dusk, not wanting to walk home in total darkness again. But it takes so long to get up all those hills, that we still ended up in the dark. We took a couple wrong turns and found ourselves going down a big hill, which made us all groan because what goes down must come up. Sure enough, we had missed the correct angle, so we turned around and re-climbed our way back, then found the place where we should have veered toward the right and climbed up the correct way to home. Too tired to wait my turn for a shower, I washed my face and my feet, brushed my teeth, and went to bed.

When I woke up my hair was very curly from the salt water the day before, but figuring we’d probably go swimming again, I simply pinned it away from my face and showered and dressed. Marin had made a pot of coffee for Claire and I, so we sat on the patio under the trellis that formed a canopy of kiwi and grape vines (I never knew kiwi grew on vines!). We drank the strong, sweet Turkish coffee that even Italian Catholic Croatia serves, and sliced into another delicious orange while Marin pointed out all the beautiful fruits and vegetables she grew in her garden...a little orchard of mandarin oranges, which were in blossom at the moment, producing a heavy, heady fragrance that hung in the air everywhere we walked, oranges and lemons which were presently in season, kiwi, which had just finished, cherry soon to come, and pomegranate in the fall.  In the ground she had planted onions, lettuce, squash, and strawberries that were just starting to ripen, of which she picked us a bowl and offered us the first-fruits of her harvest! When we left, she walked with us a ways before separating to go to the market with her grandson, and we headed up this time instead of down, on towards the cable cars. The cable cars are brand new and 100 times safer than those I rode in India! The original cable car station had been bombed during the war and was destroyed. The had turned the new station into a mini museum/memorial. Everywhere are reminders of the war. The view from the top of the mountain was gorgeous, as you would expect, but more interesting to me was behind the cable cars, where Kate and I found the stone remnants of an old amphitheater and an underground tunnel emerging from the rocks in the hillside. The mountain itself is quite barren and rocky, not lush and green like the alps we had crossed coming out of Sarajevo. There was a rugged beauty to the mountains rising above the sea. There was really nothing to do at the top but admire the view, so we basically just wandered and relaxed for awhile, then took the cable car back down and headed to the port.  There, we walked out on the jetty to the furthermost tip of land reaching into the sea.  We sat down on the rocks, slipped off our shoes, and soaked our hot feet in the cool water that lapped rhythmically in a soothing, refreshing manner. It was a slower-paced day. No one really felt like moving fast. Everyone just wanted to nap in the sun. But eventually we headed back into Old Town and stopped for a gelato, then toured the Franciscan monastery and the second oldest synagogue in Europe and peered into the cathedral, which was charging more than we wanted to spend. We found a little Italian café tucked in one of the alleys and ate Italian pizza and pasta and bruschetta. We finished the last of our touring and slipped between the stone walls and through a tunnel to come out on the outside of the wall, where a café was built right on the rocks overlooking the sea. There we had cold iced tea sitting on the rocks, watching other people swim. Although it was nice to tan a bit, I was dying to jump in that blue water and cool off. It was a hot day. Because everyone felt done touring, we hopped a transit bus back to the villa to get our bathing suits and then walked all the way down to those little coves we had spied the day before and went for a swim. The water wasn’t quite as cold in the cove as it was in the open sea, but the sun was behind those towering walls of rock, so the shade made it chillier than it should have been. Still we all went in. I found a cave and half swam, half crawled on the rocks to explore it a bit, picking my way carefully over the slippery rock bottom covered in algae, through the fish swimming around my ankles, and past the most ruby-red sea anemone I have ever seen. After swimming, we were hungry again.  The girls wanted Mexican food, something they haven't had since they left the States, but that’s about the last thing I wanted, so we parted ways and Kate and I walked all the way down to the marina on the opposite side of the city which we hadn't yet explored.  We watched the sun go down over the water and had the most delicious meal of the whole trip at this wonderful restaurant with a rooftop terrace nestled in the hillside with trees behind us, cushioned benches with pillows, and candles everywhere, with the only electric light flickering on and off at will. I had butternut squash soup with toasted hazelnuts and a dollop of the sour cream that’s not sour and then a grilled portabella mushroom stuffed with couscous and gorgonzola cheese on a bed of rich and garlicky ratatouille. Oh, my...soooo good! Of course there was more bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Kate had grilled chicken with polenta and ratatouille, and she loved that too. We contemplated tiramisu, but we had already had gelato and it was almost 10:00, so we reluctantly passed on that. We gave in to our fatigue and took the bus home instead of walking, but that still left us the last long descent (1 big ramp for approximately a block, then those 9 flights of stairs) to our villa. When we got home, I threw all our wet clothes into the washing machine with a little laundry soap I had saved for just such an occasion and hoped to hang them out on the clothesline and go to bed. But that washing machine just wouldn’t quit.  Finally I gave up waiting and went to bed at midnight, too tired to even care that I’d have to lug home wet clothes the next day.  The Dubrovnik trip was over...but Mostar was yet to come!


1 comment:

  1. Pekara not pekura :)
    You also have a few ENGLISH mistakes, but no biggee.