I had been very excited about our upcoming trip that would take us to five countries we had never visited (well, had Montenegro had the decency to let us in their damned country, it would have been five, but as time drew closer to leaving, I felt a slight twinge of trepidation. Was the pace going to be too fast? Were we trying to see too many things? Diesel or Super Gas (some events remain in your psyche forever)?
As it turned out, my fears were more than allayed, and the Czech Republic, Poland, Croatia and Slovenia far exceeded our wildest dreams, and when people ask me today what part of the trip was my favorite, I just answer, “All of it.”
As in 2005 and 2001, our friends Kim and Mary (obviously gluttons for punishment) joined Tracy and me on our four-week sojourn. Our travels would take us to Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Olomouc, Krakow, Vienna, Dubrovnik, Trogir, Plitvice National Park, Ljubljana, Bled, Rovinj, Venice and places in between.
Neither the intervention of a stealth Slovenian policeman nor the border guard at the Montenegro border (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Benito Mussolini) could put a damper on this 28-day adventure. Heck, we even lost Kim for three days smack dab in the middle of the trip, but that’s getting too far ahead of myself.
So before I have another Buza Bar flashback, it’s time to go on Maitai’s Central (Don’t Call It Eastern) European Excursion.
DAY ONE - THE HEATHROW NIGHTMARE IS ONLY A DREAM, IS THAT A BOMB UNDER YOUR HOOD AND “THE STAIRS”
A trip that had been one year in the planning was finally underway. My ingrown toenail dilemma that threatened to derail the vacation just a few days before we left seemed to be resolved (at least the toe hadn’t fallen off, and there was no gangrene to speak of). Kim and Mary drove up from San Diego, picked us up at the house, and we were off to LAX.
They had a 4:30 p.m. flight to London on Air New Zealand. We took off a little more than one hour later on American Airlines. Our first goal of the trip: attempt to navigate the Living Hell we were told was Heathrow Airport and hook up with Kim and Mary for our 3 p.m. flight to Prague on British Airways.
“Be prepared,” we were warned by many, “you will be lucky to make your flight to Prague. Heathrow is a nightmare!” Even with 2 ½ hours in between flights, the words seemed ominous.
“I think about a million,” I answered, attempting to lower expectations.
Our flight was my favorite kind…uneventful. Even the two little kids right behind us cooperated by sleeping most of the trip.
The only unsettling event happened a few minutes before landing (well, at least when we were supposed to be landing). “We’ve been told there is a lot of traffic,” the pilot said, “and we will have to circle for about half an hour.” Cue Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis (yes, the good Out-of-Towners movie).
The flight arrived about 12:45, and we scurried off the plane searching for information on which terminal we should go to for the London to Prague leg of our journey. “Terminal 5,” we were told. We cringed.
“Oh no, Terminal 5 is the new terminal having all those problems.” Could we be doomed already?
The answer turned out to be an emphatic, “No.” So much for all the doom and gloom stories of Heathrow that we had heard before we left. They proved to be fiction (at least for us). We walked from the plane to where we would be transported from Terminal 3 to Terminal 5, hopped on the bus and soon we were at Terminal 5.
When we walked into Terminal 5, Tracy said, “What’s all the fuss about? There’s nobody here.” Sure enough, there were only about ten people waiting to go though Customs. One of the information people saw our amazed (and relieved) look and said, “Yes, the nightmare of Terminal 5 is grossly overrated.”
We zipped through Customs and less than an hour from landing, we were inside Terminal 5 looking for Kim, Mary and a drink (not necessarily in that order. Hey, we had four more weeks with them). Within a few minutes, Kim and Mary appeared, who had also navigated the "Nightmare Of Heathrow" with relative ease.
We were all pooped from the Transatlantic journey, but fortunately we were finally able to get a little sleep on the two-hour flight to Prague.
This was going to be a different type of trip for the four of us when it came to lodging. In order to save a few dollars so we could purchase extra wine, we had reserved some apartments instead of hotels along the way, and Prague was to be our first one. We had booked the Vlasska Apartments, which are owned by the Arcadia Residence.
The apartments had received good reviews on Trip Advisor, and I had liked the location in the Mala Strana area of Prague. Of course, since I had never been to Prague, that observation was a sheer guess.
I had been in contact with Pasquale, who runs the Arcadia Residence, and he said there would be a driver at the airport to pick us up, and he would meet us at the apartments. After getting our luggage (yep, not one lost bag, either), there was a gentleman with a sign with our names on it and a van that would transport us to our appointed destination.
Soon we were on a street adjacent to the Vltava River, and we turned up a street where the driver said our apartments were located. Suddenly, he pulled over to the curb, and two policemen told our driver to open his hood, and they started using mirrors to see if anything was lodged in the undercarriage. “What the heck is this?” we thought.
“They must have known you were coming,” Kim said.
Actually, it turned out our apartment was just up the street from the American, German and Irish embassies, and I was not a Czech government list of undesirables…yet. When we arrived at the apartments, Pasquale was there to greet us and, after showing us our apartments, he offered to take us on a little orientation walking tour.
The Vlasska Apartments are only about a five-minute walk to the Charles Bridge, so the location was perfect. “It is also much more quiet over here at night than in Old Town,” Pasquale said. As it turned out, he was right.
Since we all had a second wind (well, maybe a third or fourth wind by now), we decided to go out and have some traditional Czech cuisine. Pasquale had given us the name of a place that would fit that bill, and when we asked him how to pronounce it, he said, “Just look for the name of a restaurant that you will not be able to pronounce.”
When we saw the name “Baracnicka rychta”, (http://www.baracnickarychta.cz/) we knew we had found it. The place was full of locals (well it was full of people speaking another language, so we made that leap with confidence).
Well, seasoning additives for beer actually consisted of Olomouc cheese, pickled in chopped hot peppers with oil and onions, seasoned with cumin and pepper. Not bad. Not especially good, either.
I believe I won the best meal award for my marinated pork ribs with four spices (cumin, mustard, onions and horse radish). Kim also had pork, Mary had turkey breast, while Tracy tried something called Moravian Sparrow, which I think was a mini roast pork and not something that flies around in our backyard.
It was not quite dark outside when we exited the restaurant, so we decided to hike up to the Prague Castle Complex to scout out the format to acquire tickets the next day. This would be our first encounter of climbing the more than 200 steps to the castle, a route that would be known in a few days as merely (and not kindly might I add) “The Stairs.”
As we started up “The Stairs”, the sound of fireworks started erupting. “What a nice welcome for us,” I said to three people who pretended not to hear any more inane comments from me on this night. At the top, we looked out over Prague. The sky was a glorious, velvet blue. What a night and what a view!
We scoped out St. Vitus Cathedral and the Prague Castle tour propaganda, got theneeded info about opening times, took some pictures and headed back down “The Stairs.” Kim and Mary decided that was enough for one day and headed back to the apartment, while Tracy and I walked on the Charles Bridge and took the steps down to Kampa Island.
Although Kampa Island was relatively quiet, the Charles Bridge had it going on at 11:00 on a Saturday night, but the only thing going on for us was an onset of SVFS (Sudden Vacation Fatigue Syndrome), so we headed back for a good night’s sleep.
Tomorrow would be our first full day to explore Prague, but sadly it would be the quickest ever into a trip that Tracy would give me “the look” and call me an “idiot.” Of course, her wrath would be well deserved.
At home, you have to drag me out of bed on Sunday morning. On vacation, however, I am The Energizer Bunny.
On this particular, beautiful Prague Sunday, I was standing on The Charles Bridge at 7 a.m. shooting pictures while the others got another hour of sleep. A person I met on the bridge said this was the first day in weeks where they expected really nice weather. “Rain,” he said. “We’ve had lots of rain.”
“Timing is everything,” I thought.
The reports are correct. If you want to be on The Charles Bridge without hordes of people trampling you, early in the morning is the only time to accomplish that trick. By about 9:30 or 10 a.m., it’s every man, woman and child for themselves.
As I traversed the bridge, looking up at the Prague Castle and out onto the Vltava, I noticed there was one statue that seemed to garner much more attention than any other on the bridge. I recognized it as the statue of St. John of Nepomuk, who, like most saints, received his sainthood status the hard way. Nearly everyone who passed the statue rubbed on the gold engraving, which is supposed to grant each person one wish.
Believers, I don’t want to spoil a good story, but it doesn’t work, and my wish was not very complicated. Oh well, maybe it just doesn’t work for Presbyterians.
I met up with the rest of the gang about 8:15, and after some incredibly overpriced espressos and cappuccinos, we walked up “The Stairs” to the Prague Castle Complex.
Mary asked, “Isn’t there another way to get up there?”
Well, yes there was, but it wasn’t until we returned home that I was reminded of that easier method to transport people to the castle. But, what the heck, we had to get in shape for the rest of the trip.
After trudging up “The Stairs”, we were able to go inside St. Vitus just before Mass, and the sun streaming through the stained glass windows was a spectacular sight to behold. We had to scurry out, but knew we would see the entire interior of the church at the end of our audio tour.
The Castle audio guide tour cost 250 Kč per person, and it included entrance to the Old Royal Palace, St. Georges Basilica, the Golden Lane, Daliborka Tower, and (best of all) with the audio guide, we would also be allowed in the exit of St. Vitus Cathedral when it reopened, bypassing the long line waiting to get inside. It was like having a Paris Museum card in Prague (only a lot larger and heavier).
While traveling down the Golden Lane, we found a tiny, little residence, where we could take a picture of Tracy, making her look like a giant. I was going to e-mail her mom and tell her that Tracy had consumed a magic Czech potion that made her grow substantially in size, but decided against it.
After getting through the first four parts of the tour, and since St. Vitus wasn’t going to open for another 90 minutes, we put our audioguides in our pockets and headed up to Strahovský kláster (Strahov Monastery & Library), the second oldest monastery in Prague.
I don’t know if they frown upon tourists taking audio guides off the premises, but on this day we did without any ramifications. Plus, they had my driver’s license, so they knew where we lived.
We viewed the incredible ceiling in the Theological Hall of the library. The old collection of books and the now extinct Dodo bird on display was kind of cool, too.
All of this culture can make a group thirsty (a dodo bird is culture, right?), so after touring the library, and since we still had time before St. Vitus opened, it was time for a libation. Close by to the monastery, we spied a restaurant that had a magnificent view of Prague from its outdoor patio. It was noon, so it must be time for beer. In just a few minutes, we were to reach pivo nirvana.
We sat down at a table at the Bellavista restaurant on this warm day and ordered an Urquell dark, draft pivo (at least I think it was Urquell). I am not a big beer drinker, but this beer was stupendous. For a dark beer, it was light, flavorful and even a little sweet.
If we hadn’t stolen four audio guides and needed to get back to St. Vitus, I could have stayed here all day. The menu items looked interesting, and we decided to come back here for dinner one night.
In a magnanimous gesture, I offered to pay for the pivos and handed the waiter some money. He looked at the money and started laughing. “Sorry, we don’t take Polish money here.” I had mixed up my zloty with my koruna.
“Just like the old days before the euro,” I thought.
As we walked toward the entrance of the castle complex, there were a bunch of guys in uniform, and I was afraid they had sent out troops searching for a group of Americans with stolen audio guides. Fortunately, it was time for the changing of the guard ceremony. By now, the castle was packed with visitors.
The line for St. Vitus was long, but when it reopened, we went in the exit and wound our way through the cathedral. The four of us have visited many (sometimes we feel too many) churches and cathedrals, but St. Vitus vaulted into all of our “Top Five” lists.
Although we had done a lot of walking, there was an “opportunity” for us to walk up the 287 stairs to the top of St. Vitus. Since I never met a set of stairs that could not be vanquished, up we went.
The views out over Prague were astounding. The throngs of people traversing the crowded Charles Bridge looked like ants.
It was now after two in the afternoon, and I made the huge mistake of saying, “Let’s eat lunch over in the Staromestské Námestí (Old Town Square). By the time we found a place to sit down and eat, it was after three, the weather had become quite warm and I could see that our walking warriors were getting a little testy with their fearless leader.
Sitting outside gave us a good opportunity to people watch while we devoured some pommes frites, soup and a refreshing pivo. I could tell everyone was tired from the day's already packed schedule.
Did that deter my first-day walking tour of Prague after lunch? Well, not really. As I sat in the square, looking out at the statue of Jan Hus (who was burned at the stake in the 1400s, but who did get a statue of himself built here 500 years later), I had this idea to walk over to a famous beer garden after lunch.
As it turned out, by the time we got there, Tracy, Kim and Mary had notions of burning me at the stake.
But before we started walking, we looked at our watches, and it was 15 minutes before the hour. A huge crowd was hurriedly gathering in front of The Old Town Hall orloj (Astronomical Clock). Yes, the dance of the glockenspiel was only moments away, and people started jostling for a good position to watch. For a Southern Californian, it was similar to being at the scene of a Brittney Spears’ arrest.
At the top of the hour some goofy little characters did a dance (well, they shook anyway), and then, poof, the spectacle was over. When it ended, almost as soon as it had started, there was a vocal, collective sigh that filtered through the crowd, as if to say, “I wasted 20 minutes of my life for this.”
Speaking of collective, although our collective feet were tired and getting more and more sore by the step, we walked toward our next stop, U Flecku, one of the oldest beer gardens in Prague.
On the map, it didn’t look that far. In reality, it was turning into a big Tom mistake, and as we finally sat down at the table in the beer garden, my beautiful and trusting wife gazed at me and said lovingly, “What the Hell were you thinking, you idiot?” Sometimes I don’t relish my role as tour director.
Kim, always there to help, equated the last part of our walk to a death march, while Mary just looked happy that she was married to the “other guy” at the table
We walked back across another bridge, and the river was full of paddleboats, canoes, kayaks and other floating devices. Spring had sprung, and the citizens of Prague were taking full advantage of the sunshine. Everyone was in a jovial, cheerful mood...well except for my three traveling companions who were muttering something about a "mutiny."
We trudged through Kampa Island over to a unique statue of two gentlemen taking a pee. Then it was up the stairs to the Charles Bridge and back to the apartment. Looking at our watches, it was after 6 p.m.
Tracy wasn’t talking to me for the moment, so I had a chance to reflect on the day. We could not have been more fortunate that the weather had cooperated, and we experienced Prague on such a gorgeous day. The views both from and of the Prague Castle were stunning. The city was so vibrant, and although Prague was filled to the brim with locals and visitors, it was not even a minor nuisance.
Old Town Square was really cool with the spires of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn rising above it. It would have been nicer had there not been a structure built right in front of it, which I think was the doing of Hapsburg era folks.
We had not had a large lunch, and by the eight o’clock hour both my wife and friends were once again speaking to me, as was my nearly empty stomach. There are an abundant number of nice, little restaurants on Nerudova Street in Mala Strana, and we wandered nearly all the way to the top of the street checking them out (just can’t get enough walking).
We decided upon Vpodhradi (Nerudova 8), which we had passed early in the walk up the street. It was very cute and had a garden in the back, but since it was reserved, we ate under the nice vaulted ceiling in front. The dinner was good, and they had a good selection of steak, chicken and fish dishes. Mary sampled a goulash with very bizarre bread dumplings.
What we noticed most about the restaurant was its intricate plating. Over the course of the next few weeks, it became apparent that in many restaurants in Central Europe (or at least the ones we frequented) plating was an important part of the presentation. It also became apparent that the food was going to be better than what we had expected.
We walked back near the embassies and happened upon a very neat wine cellar that would become our home away from home in Prague and then we had a quick drink at an Irish pub.
It was here I made the error of saying, “Geez, my feet are killing me.” I tried to stop, but it was too late. It was the first “collective look” I had ever received. They all looked like Mr. Spock as they stared incredulously at me.
The following day our friends Doug and Jackie (who had just flown in on this night from Southern California) would hook up with us for a day of sightseeing, and I decided we would go at a more leisurely pace. What I did not know was that we were going to dine at two fantastic restaurants.
DAY THREE – A JEWISH HISTORY LESSON, THAI-ING ONE ON, SEEING RED, CELLAR DWELLERS, BEWARE OF FLYING MICE AND MAYBE ONE DOES COME TO PRAGUE FOR THE FOOD
Since I didn’t know yet that St. John of Nepomuk really didn’t grant ones’ wishes, I decided to meet our friends Doug and Jackie at his statue on The Charles Bridge to start the day. They looked none-the-worse for jet lag, and our day was underway.
After hooking up with the rest of the gang, we walked over to Josefov (Jewish Quarter), which we had been told had some of the more interesting Jewish sights in Europe. The places to visit are located within a three to four-square block area, and you buy an admission pass that lets you visit six of them. You must purchase a separate entrance ticket to the Staronová Synagóga (Old-New Synagogue).
We bought the pass outside the Pinkasova Synagóga, where the hand written names of more than 75,000 Czech Jews who were sent to Auschwitz cover the walls.
If that wasn’t enough to make one somber, upstairs is a collection of artwork done by children from the concentration camp. Below the art are the names and dates of the children’s birth dates and date of death. A few of the children survived, but most of those who had art displayed here unfortunately did not survive. It was quite moving.
Exiting, we walked over to the Stary zidovsky hrbitov (The Old Jewish Cemetery).
I’m sure many of you have seen pictures of this place with its askew tombstones. It was quite fascinating to see this burial ground.
After the cemetery, we visited Obradni Sin (Ceremonial Hall), Klauzová Synagogue, Maiselova Synagóga and the Spanelská Synagóga.
Remembering my miscalculation of the lunch hour the previous day, it was decided we would eat lunch at a normal time, so since it was the noon hour, and we were all famished, it was time to find a restaurant.
I believe one of the hardest aspects of traveling with four or six people is deciding upon a restaurant, and once again, we started meandering aimlessly through the streets of Prague. “Oh God, not a repeat of yesterday,” I thought. It was bad enough having three people mad at me, but five would be too much.
Perusing menus, comments such as “does that look good?” and “well, that’s kind of expensive” could be heard uttered. The restaurant search might have gone on for a long time, but mercifully it was resolved shortly.
Fortunately, Doug and Jackie pulled out a Lonely Planet guide that had an interesting restaurant very near to where we were standing. Traditional Czech cuisine was not in the offing on this afternoon.
The Orange Moon is a Thai restaurant located between Old Town and Josefov, and its menu of Thai, Burmese and Indian cuisine was spectacular (at very reasonable prices, too). We dined on such dishes as beef kabobs, stir fried beef with basil and chili sauce and a chicken salad with fresh mint, Galanga, lemon and fresh chili.
Of course, this was all accompanied by copious amounts of pivo. Love that pivo!
We deemed Kim’s dish of fried rice noodles with chicken, bean sprouts, leeks and ground peanuts as the overall best dish. He must have liked it since he was nearly licking the plate afterward, and we could hear him exclaim on numerous occasions later in the day (and later in the trip), “Damn, that lunch was good.”
We walked through Old Town, gave Doug and Jackie the lowdown on when to see the Astronomical Clock Dance (if at all) and past the Havelské tržiště,the ancient farmer's market selling fruits and vegetables from its many stalls.
The group was on its way to Nové Mésto (New Town) and Wenceslas Square. To paraphrase The Who, “We met the New Town, but it wasn’t the same as the Old Town.” Knowing us, we would not get fooled again.
Of course, there was a reason to walk to the New Town. We were looking for a specific museum that we were told was near a McDonald’s.
We found one McDonald’s, but there was no museum upstairs, just a bunch of people raising their cholesterol counts to near deadly proportions. I had to run out before the addicting smell of their pommes frites drew me into a “Vortex of Unwanted Calories.”
We walked three quarters of the way around the block and happened upon another McDonald’s and a sign pointing us to our next destination, The Museum of Communism. There are a lot of witty propaganda posters with clever captions like one of Stalin that said, “They coined the term politically correct fifty years before the West caught on.”
After visiting the few rooms full of interesting and authentic artifacts, you can view a 15-minute film showing Prague’s history under Communist rule and the Velvet Revolution. It could have been quite an interesting film, but someone needs to edit it because the same footage is shown time and time again. I believe if someone spent some money and worked on this project, this film could make a much more powerful statement.
While in the New Town, we caught a glimpse of The Powder Tower and Obecní Dum, but it was getting late in the afternoon, and we were going to all get together later for dinner. In an event to avoid complete exhaustion (like yesterday), we decided to walk back to our respective apartments (by the way, Doug and Jackie stayed in Vinohrady, an area they said they enjoyed).
Kim and Mary decided they were going to take a little nap. Since my mom had once told me I had not napped since I was six weeks old, I had another idea. Our apartment was located very near Chram sv. Mikulase (Church of St. Nicholas). I asked Tracy if she minded stopping in to the church (yes, I had learned a valuable lesson 24 hours earlier), and we went in. The church is quite lovely, and we climbed the stairs to view some Baroque paintings. Then, it was back to the apartment to relax.
I guess relaxing is different for Tom and Tracy.
Refreshed after a 30-minute nap (well, Tracy napped) and nice shower, we were going to hook up with everyone at the downstairs wine cellar, The Noble Club, which the four of us had stopped by for a moment the previous evening.
Walking down the stairs to the cellar and, in a startlingly similar fashion as I had 20 hours earlier, I knocked over the candle at the end of the stairs (you can actually see the exact candle on its website). Fortunately, it was not lit, or I would be posting this from Prague Prison.
Kim was already flirting with the wine girl (the lovely Denise) upon our entrance to the cellar, so I knew the evening was getting off to a good start. This vinotheque (located at Tržiště 371) offers several wines by the glass and has a nice selection of wines from around the world. The music was perfect (I can hear Julie London singing “Fly Me To The Moon” as I am writing this).
We sat in a little room (no smoking) that had about six or seven tables lit by candles. The entire place was charming, the wines Denise selected for us (a Zweigeltrebe 2003 Moravian wine and the Chateau des Ducs Bordeaux Superieur) were good. They also served (on a wooden platter) some bread, cheese (Swedish), tomatoes and green olives. Everything was perfect, but now it was time for us all to walk up to the Bellavista for what we hoped would be a fantastic dinner.
The evening was gorgeous, and the Bellavista was pretty empty when we arrived a little before 9 p.m. We secured a spot on the patio that had fabulous Prague views.
We had been in Prague for 50 hours, and Mary had not uttered one crazy line yet. This was about to change. Shortly after we arrived, our waiter came over, and Mary started the evening out with this conversation starter, “Do you ever get bats?”
“Bats?” our waiter asked.
Mary quickly retorted, “Yes, you know, mice that fly.”
Fortunately, Jorge (our Bolivian waiter) stayed and filled our drink order, while Kim quickly checked Mary’s purse to see if she was dipping into the Ambien again (please see Italy Trip Report 2005).
To begin, Kim, Doug and I sucked down another dark, draft, delicious Urquell. Then it was on to (arguably) the best dinner we had on our 28-day journey..
First of all, Kim’s grilled salmon with pesto was so incredible that I wanted to sing, “Salmon chanted Evening” but thought the better of it. Kim even had to take a picture of his dish, which became a reoccuring theme throughout the rest of our trip. His potatoes were also scrumptious.
My mushroom risotto with Mascarpone was phenomenal, while Tracy’s rocket salad with pecorino, tomatoes and lemon dressing also was scrumptious.
Our dishes were rounded out by spaghetti with olio and garlic peppers, a grilled Kielbasa with Tuscan mustard and grilled chicken breasts with spinach salad and pine nuts. Every dish was fantastic; the wine was good and the pivo memorable (obviously).
The Bellavista receives rave reviews from all of us. It’s not often you get great food coupled with a great view, but this is the exception to the well-established rule.
We said goodbye to Doug and Jackie (who would be leaving for Salzburg in a couple of days). Our nightcap once again took us to the Irish pub down the street from our apartments, and we were in bed before midnight.
I couldn’t figure out why, as my head hit the pillow, that I was flashing back to putting the wrong gas in our car in 2005. Then it hit me: Tomorrow, we would be picking up our first rental-mobile of the trip. God help us all!
Each morning before the taskmaster (aka maitaitom or ”idiot,” depending on who you talk to) had us going all over town, we would stop at Malostranska Kavarna (across from the wine cellar) and have coffee and muffins to get us going.
On this morning, Kim ordered a chocolate croissant, and after one bite, he said, “Tom, I recommend you buy one of these.” Good call. It was so good, I had to order an extra one.
Bolstered by extra sugar, we crossed the Charles Bridge and I rubbed…well let’s just call him St. What’s His Name from now on. We walked to the Intercontinental Hotel to pick up our rental car. The car we had ordered was unavailable (I think maybe it had read my trip report from 2005 and was hiding in the bowels of the garage), so we were upgraded to a Passat Wagon.
Sensing trepidation on my part, the rental car guy gave us a thorough explanation of how the car worked, including the very important petrol/reverse issues that had plagued us a few short years ago.
I was ready to drive us to Kutna Hora and reached into my pocket for my International Drivers License, and, voila, nothing. I was sure my trusted and lovely spouse had put it in our daypack, but no luck. Although upset at myself, unlike Rome a few years back, I didn’t run like a mad man back to the hotel, because Kim also had one, so we were on our way.
Today, a new companion joined the four of us, but at first, it seemed she just did not want to talk to us. It wasn’t that she was shy; it was just that she had not warmed up to Mary’s constant touching of her different parts.
Hey, watch what you’re thinking! Mary was only trying to program the Garmin GPS and was having a little trouble. But about one quarter of the way to Kutna Hora we heard the melodic and soothing words that we would hear another 1,493 times in the next few weeks: “Recalculating.”
It was a pretty straight shot to Kutna Hora, so we just let the Garmin rest. It was her first day after all. Kim did an expert job of driving, and I tried to put my Type A personality on the back burner and savor my role as passenger.
Kutna Hora is a cute, little town with a few places we wanted to explore before we headed on to Kostnice u Sedlici (Sedlec Bone Church). But sights always take a back seat to sustenance, so after parking, and since it was hot, we found a restaurant.
The meal was very good under large shade trees in a walled garden patio. Beer of choice at this place was Gambrinus.
We exited the restaurant and walked over to Chrám sv. Barbory (St. Barbara’s Cathedral), which has been a UNESCO sight for more than a decade, I believe. Inside are a couple of interesting frescoes and some beautiful stained glass windows.
Kim had read that viewing the stained glass and frescoes would make your jawbones drop. “I guess we’ll have to go to the Bone Church to pick up the jaw.” Obviously, we both need new writers.
Strolling through Kutna Hora we found the Stone Fountain and the Stone House but somehow missed out on Sly and the Family Stone. It was now time to go from stone to bone, and we got in the car for the short drive to Sedlec.
However, before we got to the parking lot, in a moment of spontaneous exuberance, Tracy and Mary decided to dance in the streets of Kutna Hora. It was enough to make your jawbones drop. Tourists and locals alike marveled at their impromptu flamenco routine, and for only a short moment, Kim and I were the most sane of our foursome. Instead of Dancing With The Stars it was Dancing With The Cars.
It became apparent that not all roads lead to Sedlec, because for some reason we could not find any signs and the Garmin did not have it on her radar. We just kept ending up back at Kutna Hora, and although we liked the place, we wanted to see some bones.
Finally, after Kim stopped and I got directions from a bus driver from Denmark (ok, that really didn’t help), we finally found the Sedlec Ossuary (hint: look for signs to Kostnice), whose interior is created out of human bones.
At one point, this was one of the top-notch burial spots in Europe, but since it got so crowded, a monk was given the job to collect all these bones for an ossuary. Then in the 1800s, an artist was hired to decorate the church with all the bones, which supposedly represent every bone in the human body.
Tracy said that had to be hard work, and I replied, “Yes, but he made no bones about it.” It’s hard to imagine traveling four weeks with us, isn’t it?
The trip back to Prague was enlightening as the Garmin GPS took us on our merry way. Since we were not in any hurry, and even when it seemed she was leading us astray, we followed her every command. I believe this was the first day she was dubbed “Lady Garmin,” a name that she would keep for the duration of the vacation.
Soon we were in downtown Prague traffic, and Lady G navigated us through the crowded streets like a woman twice her age (which would only make her two days old). We drove by the Tančící dům (Dancing House), which made Tracy very happy because now we wouldn’t have to walk here.
It is very apparent that its architect, Frank Geary, had spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, because the Dancing House looks like it just was hit with a magnitude 7 earthquake.
We then drove up our street and, of course, were pulled over to the curb by the police to inspect our car before heading by the embassies.
“Please open your hood,” he said to Kim.
Just then we had an instant head-slapping realization (I could have had a V8) that we had not asked the rental car guy how to perform that seemingly easy operation. Fortunately, the policeman assisted us, and we were on our way to our next dilemma. There was no public parking near our apartment.
Fortunately, our landlord Pasquale had mentioned that the Hotel Constans, located up the street from the Vlasska Apartments, might have parking available. The Hotel Constans is a charming boutique hotel (picture from their website), and the girl behind the desk was charming as was the hotel manager, Filip. Yes, they had parking, we were told.
Filip opened the garage for Kim, who expertly navigated through the narrow space and was then told him to stop. There was another car in our space, but suddenly the door in front of that car closed and then, within seconds, it opened back up to reveal an empty parking spot. Perhaps Filip was David Copperfield in disguise.
“No,” he explained. It seems the Hotel Constance has an automatic stacking parking lift that can hold up to eight cars. We didn’t see anything stacked like that again until we got to Poland (pardon me). It cost a little more than 30 bucks a day to park there.
The Hotel Constans looks like a place to check out on a future trip here.
As we walked back to the apartment Mary had a sudden thought, “We need to get our money to Steven tomorrow.”
“Umm, who is Steven?” Kim asked. “Do you mean Pasquale?” Not knowing how Mary confused the name Pasquale for Steven, Kim did another quick Ambien check, but everything seemed fine.
We were tired from our day, but not too tired to head over to the Noble Club for a bottle of Dornfelder 2006 Moravia late harvest wine and some cheese.
In a Jimmy Stewart “It’s A Wonderful Life” moment, I once again grabbed the candle on the way down the staircase and, like the two days before, it dislodged from its appointed place. Fortunately, the owners must have known I was coming and the candle was not lit (although in a true test of faith, they did light it before we left)
There was a restaurant on Nerudova Street that we had wanted to try for dinner, but it was closed, and since we were tired and did not want to go in search of food for the next hour, we decided upon a place serving pizza outside in the back patio, where we dined with three Indian doctors from England. It was fine, but nothing to write home about or even here for that matter.
Kim and Mary retired shortly thereafter, but, of course, Tracy and I zipped down for our nightly libation at the pub, where the conversation with the bartender quickly turned to groups like U2 and Queen, and, finally, after a few nights, I was starting to get the hang of the Jameson and water thing.
The next day was to be our last in Prague, and we still had a lot to accomplish, but I told Tracy we could sleep in a little…very little.
Although I slept well, I woke up at 6:40 a.m. with a case of Anthophobia, which is the abnormal and persistent fear of flowers. It is a phobia that only occurs for me when Tracy and I visit Europe.
Every vacation, I promise Tracy we will find some nice and colorful gardens, and invariably every trip we had taken in the past seven years, the gardens I chose turned out to be terrible. Whether it be weather or just plain, bad maintenance, I could not catch a garden break.
Just before we visited Chateau Villandry in the Loire, there was a heat wave that scorched the gardens. When we stopped by the Villa Garzoni Garden in Collodi, Italy, it was a dilapidated mess. The more I tried, the worse my garden excursions became.
But, since I am a San Diego Padres’ fan, adversity lies around every corner, and I continued in my quest to find some beautiful gardens for Tracy to enjoy.
Our first stop on our final morning in Prague was to be the Valdštejnský Palác Zahrada (Wallenstein Palace Garden), located only about five minutes from the apartment. After reading about the palace, I decided that if the gardens were a bust, at least we could witness the fountain with the woman sprouting water from her breasts. One way or another there was going to be a bust.
Incredibly as we walked in, there were gardens, but alas only a few flowers were blooming, yet the setting was stunning. I glanced over at Tracy, who actually had a smile on her face at a garden. A garden I chose! I think the Day One “Death March” fiasco was now officially a thing of the past.
Around one section of the gardens, the palace has a unique, faux grotto wall that has stalactites and, if you look closely, you will swear there are skulls and other odd looking things in there, too. It’s hard to describe, but cool to look at.
As we strolled the large grounds, suddenly a blood-curdling shriek came from the corner of the far garden, located near a pond. I had not heard a scream like that since a woman saw me with my shirt off at the pool in 2005.
We rushed over to see what the commotion was all about and came upon the most beautiful, blue peacock strutting his stuff.
He was gorgeous, and he knew it! Angelina Jolie doesn’t pose this well for photos, and there were plenty of tourista paparazzi filling up their memory cards with pictures of this guy, who mugged and screamed for about 20 minutes. He was doing his best Gloria Swanson imitation. "I'm ready for my close up."
We exited the palace and ostensibly headed for the river. It was then I remembered overhearing a conversation at one of our watering holes about the Palacove zahrady pod Prazskym hradem (Gardens Below The Prague Castle). Sure enough, on the left, there was the little entrance.
It only cost a few euros apiece to go in, and as we entered Kim, Mary and Tracy looked at me with amazement. “This place actually has real flowers,” Mary said. Yes, I was riding a tour guide high, ladies and gentlemen.
The gardens were terraced. Roses, lavender, peonies, grape ivy, climbing hydrangeas and other beautiful flowers met us at each turn and every climb. Near the top of the gardens we looked out over the red roofs of Prague. There is an entrance to the castle at the top, too. The Gardens Below Prague Castle was an unexpected pleasure and only confirms my belief that the best ideas come to you while drinking.
It was only mid-morning, and we crossed the river to head over to Staromestské Námestí to see a few churches we had wanted to visit.
First, we made a quick detour to the Kláster sv. Anezky Ceské (St. Agnes Convent). We did not take a tour, but we did visit some empty rooms, which gave us a feel for the place. I hope to return here.
On the way out, as we headed to the Old Town, we made reservations at a restaurant that looked nice, and I had read some good reviews about it.
It was nearly noon, and I wanted to hurry over to the Kostel Sv. Jakuba (Church of St. James). We scurried through the Tynsky Dvur (Ungelt Courtyard), which has a number of cute eating establishments, and got to the church in time to see its main attraction, the arm of some poor guy who tried to steal the jewels off the Sacred Virgin Mary, located near the altar.
One of the stories I had read said that the Virgin Mary actually grabbed his arm, and the monks then cut his arm off. The shriveled and rather disgusting looking arm now resides to the left of the door when you leave.
Back in Old Town, the four of us stepped inside the Kostel Panny Marie pred Tynem (Church of Our Lady Before Tyn). This church started out Catholic and then became the main church of the Hussite movement. As stated earlier, the entrance is truly weird because of the building constructed in front of it, but the inside is quite beautiful.
Even witnessing the severed arm earlier could not take away our ravenous appetite, so we walked toward the street with the public market (Havelská). Kim had set a rule that we could not eat at a restaurant that showed pictures of the food, but since by now we were incredibly hungry, we broke the rule and sat down at U Radnickych.
Fortunately, Kim’s rule did not apply to this restaurant, and we had a terrific lunch. I loved the goulash soup in a rye bread bowl with a spectacular side of pommes frites.
After lunch, we bade farewell to Steven (I mean Pasquale) and made our way back to Mala Strana. We picked up a quick gelato, walked across the Charles Bridge, rubbed old St. WHN’s gold again, and headed toward the Petrin Hill funicular.
On the way, we came upon yet another church. Tracy recognized it from my pre-trip notes as The Church of St. Mary The Victorious, aka “The Church of the Bambino.”
“I didn’t know babe Ruth was that big in the Czech Republic,” I replied. Kim, Mary and could only shrug knowing they still had 23 days with me.
Actually, the nickname comes from the fact that this is the home of one of Prague’s most famous religious artifact, the Prazské Jezulátko (Infant Jesus of Prague) or “Bambino.”
The Nuns from a nearby convent change the Bambino’s outfit (although I saw no Yankee uniform) on a regular basis (rather habit forming, don’t you think?) There is a museum of those outfits on the second floor.
Now it was off to The Petrin (don’t call me Eiffel) Tower. We got on the funicular to the top of the hill where the fake Eiffel stands, and about 2/3 of the way up we saw a place we knew we would be sitting at soon, an outside patio serving delicious, refreshing pivo.
It cost 26 Kč for the round trip, and once on top, you have 75 minutes to explore the grounds and climb to the top of the tower (299 steps). There are lovely rose gardens at the top of the hill (I’m thinking I’ve spoiled Tracy for any subsequent trips). The troops were weary, so I took one for the team and climbed the tower by myself. The views were spectacular.
We decided to pass up the Museum of
Jára Cimrman, the Genius Who Did Not Become Famous, in deference to our now hourly thirst for beer.
We made the 75-minute deadline with minutes to spare and hopped on the funicular and rode it down 1/3 of the way to the Prague Pivoland (not its real name) stop. It was very relaxing to sit and reflect on our time in Prague. We agreed Prague more than lived up to its advanced biling.
Yes, the city was crowded, but as a group we have a pretty good ability to block out the crowds and enjoy a city for its obvious virtues, of which Prague has many. I remember reading on one post that a couple visited Prague and, after one day, became bored and wanted to move on. With apologies, they obviously must have been visiting Prague, Nebraska.
Even with my frenetic pace, we had not seen everything. It was at that point that Tracy said, “I thought we were going to see the Loreta (Loreto Palace).”
I knew it closed at 4:30, and there was no chance we could make it. All I could say was, “We’ll get back, Loreta.”
Before dinner, we made our final appearance at The Noble Wine Cellar, and fortunately I was not a klutz because on this evening the dreaded candle I had knocked over each time was lit. Our last wine was a repeat of the Dornfelder 2006 late harvest vino. Kim, Mary, Tracy and I toasted our luck for the 322nd time.
We scooted across the bridge one more time and dined for our last Prague meal at Chez Marcel, a French restaurant in Old Town. My escargot starter and entrée of balsamic duck breast with mashed potatoes would usually be enough to satisfy me, but an apple tart with raspberry and chocolate drizzle finally sucked me into “The Vortex of Unwanted Calories." It was well worth the journey.
Kim, however, ordered the dessert du jour that had the group shouting, “Mon Dieu!” His chocolate/orange mousse with just the right amount of Grand Marnier was merveilleux. As usual, the plating of every dish at this meal was superb.
Our waiter had been very friendly, and it turned out he was from Algiers. We had already met our Bolivian waiter earlier in the trip, Pasquale (aka Steven) was originally from Italy and numerous others we had encountered along the way here in Prague were from somewhere else.
On that topic, in a moment of philosophical creativity as we all sipped our final drops of vin rouge, Kim sat back in his chair and mused, “The diversity of cuisine in Prague reflects the diversity of nationalities and cultures.”
As we pondered his sage ramblings, we took one more spin (and with the amount of wine we had consumed, spin was the operative word) around Staromestské Námestí, looked up at the beautiful Tyn Church and walked back to the apartment.
Although it was late, we were very excited, because tomorrow we would venture into the Czech countryside for one day and one night in Cesky Krumlov, a town that elevates cute to an entirely new level.
There was less than hour left for us in Prague, but that did not deter me from one last goal; two chocolate-filled croissants down the street. Fortified by those incredible treats and a double espresso, I was ready for the drive to Cesky Krumlov.
Although the apartments had been a little on the Spartan side, they were clean, the location was terrific and Pasquale had been a great host. Pasquale met us at the apartment, gave Tracy and Mary a little parting gift (boxes of chocolates) and we took to the streets of Prague, heading out of town. Thankfully, there were no mishaps, and driving out of Prague was quite easy.
Lady G had been programmed, and she was on top of her game (except for the time she wanted me to make a sudden U-turn as I was barreling down the highway toward CK). I had toyed with the notion of stopping at one of the many castles that dot the landscape (Hrad Karlštejn, Konopiště, Orlik or Zvíkov), but decided that it would be best to get to CK and enjoy what had been touted as “one of Bohemia’s prettiest towns.” The castles would have to wait for another trip.
The Czech roads were great and, especially for a Southern Californian, the traffic was non-existent. In exactly two hours and twenty minutes we were driving over the bridge and parking in front of our home for the evening, the Hotel Konvice.
When I booked Hotel Konvice, the only space available was an apartment/suite with two bedrooms on the top floor. I had decided that since we would only be six days into the trip by the time we arrived, the four of us would still be on speaking terms, so I took a chance on it.
When we got up to the room, there was one large bedroom and one small bedroom. The larger room was appointed nicely and had a big bed with down comforters.
The smaller room contained two single beds. Kim and Mary volunteered to be Rob and Laura Petrie for the evening and sleep in the single beds.
Our balcony looked out onto the Krumlovský Zámek (Krumlov Castle). The bathroom was new and large, even by U.S. standards. It had a shower with a separate tub, and much to Tracy’s pleasure, fluffy towels. It would be our best bathroom of the trip, for what that is worth.
After depositing the luggage, we parked the car on the other side of town, but CK being a pretty small place, the walk back to the hotel was only about ten minutes. That walk confirmed what has been stated by so many; Cesky Krumlov is, to quote my friend Kim, “felony cute.”
The weather gods shone down upon us again this day, so we searched for a lunch spot outside and found a place by the name of U Dwau Marii. By coincidence (or perhaps fate), in English it translates to “At the Two Marys”!
“Wow, how about that Kim, now you have three Marys?” I said. I don’t believe he answered.
We sat at an outdoor table along the riverbank looking up at the castle. You could not draw up a better scenario than what we were experiencing…and it would just keep getting better.
Our waiter, decked out in peasant attire, explained some of the more interesting dishes on the menu, and we were about ready to embark on our first of what was to be two great Cesky Krumlov meals. Our lunch would be a feast that featured traditional, Bohemian cuisine that was popular during the middle ages. Since we are all middle aged, we felt this would be perfect.
Every dish was tasty from Kim’s trout to Mary and Tracy’s chicken with tarragon potatoes.
Since the beginning of our trip, we had marked down “Wow” dishes, and I was the lucky recipient this time. I ordered the “Old Bohemian Feast.” As I watched the ducks swimming on the river and people canoeing under beautiful, blue skies, I devoured roasted chicken with a millet and ham casserole. I really wanted to try the Žahour (sweet dumplings in a blueberry sauce), but my stomach said “no.”
We shed some of those calories on our walk up to the castle, which was turned over to the state in 1949. It was in beautiful condition, as were the four of us by now from all of our walking in Prague.
As we headed into the castle area, down in the moat surrounding it was a sight that might enthrall some, but to me, was a sad sight. There, on a very warm day, were Katrina, Maria and Kov, the castle brown bears, munching on some unidentifiable foodstuff. They have been there since 1986, which must be tough for them to bear.
The only method to tour the castle is with a guide (about $17 each), so we bought our tickets and wandered the grounds for a while before it started.
The tour lasts an hour, and, unfortunately, ours was lead by a young woman who came straight out of the movie “Invasion of The Body Snatchers.” There was no emotion as she stated the facts about the castle and warned us not to touch anything. She constantly reminded us that if we took pictures we would be turned into huge pods (ok, I made the last part up). Her voice never changed pitch for the entire hour.
In her defense, as it turned out, this was the only English she knew, because when someone asked her a question, she could only shrug her shoulders. Granted, she knows a lot more English than we know Czech, however I would think at a tourist sight like this, the castle could do a little better job in hiring.
As we walked through the castle, there were ominous signs for the future of Katrina, Maria and Kov. In many of the rooms, the floors were partially covered by bearskin rugs. I wanted to warn the three bears on the way out, but figured they didn’t understand English.
After the tour, Tracy said, “Hey, they have gardens here, too.” I had created a monster.
Tracy, Kim and Mary hiked up to the gardens, and after taking some photos for about ten minutes, I hiked up to meet them. They were nowhere to be found. Six days into the trip, and they were already trying to ditch me. It turned out they had just left the gardens by another exit, so the team was still intact.
I was the only fool to climb the 162 steps to the top of the tower (about $2). The last three flights were a little more precarious than I like, but I lived to tell the tale.
For the rest of the afternoon, we just walked around Cesky Krumlov. Had we had just a little more time, it would have been fun to canoe, raft or kayak on the river that weaves itself throughout CK. It doesn't take long to circumnavigate the entire town by foot, but even with all the stairs I had climbed, I needed to shed all those calories from our delicious lunch. I was also hoping for a delightful dinner, and it was now time to go searching for the entrance to our next meal nirvana.
Because of a post I had read on the Fodor’s Travel Board before we left, when we got to the main square I searched for a Chinese restaurant; not because I wanted to dine there, but because nearby was a set of stairs that would take us down into a "secret" place where I hoped we would have dinner later that evening. But could I find it?
Sure enough, as I walked closer, there was the sign for Pivna KataKomby, and the door was ajar. I told Tracy that I would be right back and started to descend the dark, spiral staircase that lead to, well I didn’t know where I was headed.
At the bottom of the staircase there in front of me was another world. There was a beautiful bar with tables in one room and then I entered another room, and another, and another, all in a surreal, cave-like setting (the bears would have loved it). In the back, there was a large wood-burning pit where the restaurant’s grilled specialties are cooked. As I neared the staircase to go back up, I heard a voice from above (no, not that one, it was Tracy). “Tom, are you ok?” she asked. I told her I was more than ‘ok’ and that I had found the spot where I wanted to have dinner.
On the walk back to the hotel, we walked along the river for a bit we stopped by the Church of St. Vitus.
We decided on an early dinner, so Tracy and I made our way back to Pivni KataKomby a little before 7 p.m., with Kim and Mary joining us a short time later. We were seated next to the dumbwaiter, which for some might be vexing, but for us afforded the opportunity to get a closer glimpse of how a place like this functions.
Our two waitresses spoke no English, which just gave a more authentic feel to the restaurant. The grill was fired up in the back, and we were fired up to try some of the unique menu items.
Now, we are no foodies by any stretch, but as the evening progressed, we all realized we had stumbled upon something very special.
We shared an appetizer of crispy, fried bacon and onions that was delicious. It contained fried chunks of pork with white onions (al dente), seasoned with lots of black pepper. It was served with gherkins and salad.
I had ordered goulash soup, but it didn’t come, so it was on to the main courses, and every dish was plated so nicely that Kim took pictures of each culinary delight (you’ll have to wait for the blog to see them) before we started eating. As spectacular as they looked, they were even more terrific to consume.
I had the grilled skewer of chicken, pork and beef with fresh peppers and salad.
Tracy ordered a pork tenderloin served “English-style.’ It came with asparagus, artichokes and peppers.
Mary had the specialty of the house, which was called a “Krumburger.” It was a huge hamburger patty that lay on a bed of fresh cole slaw. She also had a side dish of a baked potato with herbed crème fraîche.
Kim’s grilled lemon chicken on a bed of arugula, peppers, tomato relish and grilled garlic bread was good, but his side dish, “gratin au potatoes,” garnered the evening’s “Wow” award.
These potatoes were absolutely amazing, and we all know because we all tried them. We figured there had to be about 50 thin layers of potatoes, with a touch of garlic and Parmesan cheese. It had a golden, crunchy top.
After we finished, I said, “Thank God they forgot the goulash soup. I can’t eat another thing.” As if on cue, our waitresses showed up with, you guessed it, my goulash soup. Being the consummate guest and a glutton for punishment (not to mention just a plain, old glutton), I ate all the soup and some of the rye bread, too.
All that food including five beers, one glass of red wine, two Campari, plus two bottles of 2005 Modry vino from Portugal (no driving tonight), came to 2,316 Kč., or about $150 plus tip.
As we ended our meal, two couples from Canada who were on a two-month holiday (and we thought we were slackers) stopped by the table and we chatted for quite some time. There was an easier exit than the way we had entered, which was fortunate due to our expanded waistlines.
As we wandered Horní Street (just doesn’t sound right, does it?), we heard a band blaring from the terrace of the Hotel Ruze. “Let’s check it out,” Mary said.
It seemed there was a wedding reception going on with free food and free booze for any interloper who stumbled in from out on the street. I looked at Kim. Kim looked at me, and we decided not to partake of the free goodies. Maturity does have its downside.
We could hear the band just as well from the bar located a short distance from the Ruze, so we made our way to the patio overlooking the river, and there were those friendly Canucks again.
As you could tell by our dinner choices, one more cocktail was more than enough for all in our group. Back at the hotel, we opened the door to our balcony and there was a stunning view of the Cesky Castle, a perfect ending to what was a perfectly great day.
But there would be no rest for this weary group of travelers. Tomorrow we would once again hit the roads of the Czech countryside that would lead us to Olomouc and an ever-so-slight confrontation between a rental car and an immovable object.
Despite staying out late the night before and (perhaps) consuming one too many glasses of wine, I was up at exactly 6 a.m. I was trying to be quiet, but the floors were a tad creaky, which in turn made my wife a little cranky. “You’re going to wake up Kim and Mary,” she said. As I made a few more fateful (and loud) steps she added, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you wait in the car?” I think she was being sarcastic.
Eventually everyone awoke, we had a nice breakfast at the hotel and started on the road to Olomouc, our next stop, which is roughly about half way between CK and Krakow. About an hour outside of Cesky Krumlov, Lady G put us on the “road less traveled.” It was a little, two-lane road that took us into scenic, green rolling farmland.
We then went through Dvorce, which I hoped wasn’t some kind of evil foreshadowing. At least I didn't see Tammy Wynette singing D-V-O-R-C-E while standing by the side of the road (or standing by her man) Then came my first driving faux pas not my last, of course) of the trip.
In one little town, I attempted to pass what I surmized were some parked cars. In reality, they were a group of polite, local drivers who were trying to allow a semi truck (that was now directly in front of me) to pass going the opposite direction.
Chagrined, I backed up from where I had come. The other drivers were looking at me like Tracy did earlier in the morning at the hotel. After a couple of illegal U-turns, we were back on our way. Soon, the farmland turned to lush forest, and as we made our way through many cute towns, we all had one thought, “Where the Hell are we?”
But Lady G was right on and soon we were back on a major thoroughfare and, in less than four hours from leaving CK, we were in the heart of Olomouc. I made a right hand turn, and in about 100 yards, Lady G said, “You have reached your destination on the right.”
“Show off,” I thought.
Of course, she was correct, because on our right was the Vítejte v Penzionu Na Hradě (photo from website on right), our one-night lodging in Olomouc. Kim and Mary went up to their room, and Tracy went up to ours. As I was about to follow her, the man behind the desk said I had to turn the car around because I was headed the wrong way on a one-way street. I then made a fateful decision.
I could have driven around a few blocks and come down the street the correct way, or I could make a few sharp little turns, and just back up the street and park the correct way in front of the hotel. Sadly, I choose Option Two.
I made two little turns perfectly, but as I backed up toward the hotel, the car suddenly stopped and not by its own volition. Meat Loaf might think that “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad,” but when it comes to parking, that phrase doesn’t work out so well.
In trying to not run over any of the local Olomoucan population, I instead had backed directly into a pole. In hindsight (something I obviously did not have while parking), I should have waited for one of my troop to help me, but I had thought, “What harm can I do while just parking?”
Tracy came out and saw that I was a little perturbed, but she was still on a Lady G high. Her first words were, “Wow, that Garmin was amazing. She knew exactly where we were.”
I replied, “Yeah, it would be nice if she knew where stationary posts are located, too.” Tracy looked at the car and shook her head in disbelief.
In an attempt to make things go quicker, I said, “I am an idiot.” Kim and Mary were now at the car, and sadly no one refuted my words. Fortunately the damage to the car was minimal. The damage to my ego was slightly more.
We wandered through the Horní náměstí (Upper Square) and saw the Sloup Nejsvětější Trojice (Holy Trinity Column), which is the tallest plague column in Europe, and also walked by a couple of the many Baroque fountains that are in Olomouc.
Before seeing any more Olomouc sights, we needed food, and found a covered patio next to the Miklice Church. Lunch at the Potrefená Husa, which turned out to be a chain, wasn’t spectacular, but we didn’t care, and, hey, the pivo was good.
We wandered over to the Astronomical Clock, but alas the only time its tiny characters do the crazy little dance is at noon, so we missed it. The original astronomical clock had been damaged by retreating Nazis and was rebuilt by the early 1950s.
It was very hot, and we were all a little tired, so we meandered our different ways for a while, ducked into a couple of churches and stopped by a pharmacy. In a Paris 2006 Christmas flashback, there on the counter was a big sign that said, “Magic Cream,” the ointment that helped save our vacation two years ago.
Well, the sign really said “Voltaren” and it was only 167 Kč, so we bought a couple of tubes in case disaster struck on the trip. Fortunately, we never had to use it. We then returned to our comfortably air-conditioned rooms.
The Na Hradě is a clean, modern and no-smoking lodging option that is in a great location (well, except for that damned pole). It has a garden terrace, with a view of a church and a beautiful ivy, covered wall. It also had, as we were soon to discover, its very own wine cellar.
After a nap, we told Kim and Mary we would meet them in the cellar, and the girl at the front desk walked us outside the hotel.
You enter via a small doorway entrance, which I, of course, became momentarily stuck in as I nearly stumbled down the stairs. I assured the girl that I had not been drinking, and we were lead inside. It was a peaceful and cool (both in look and temperature) oasis.
The prices of the wines we consumed were in the 200 - 450 Kč range. Our hostess/desk girl had also brought us some cheese and salami to go with our vino. Tracy and I toasted that it had been 18 years ago to that very day that we had met each other (not bad for an idiot, huh?). Tracy wrote down the names of the two wines we drank, but in looking at them, I don’t think my computer has enough memory to spell them completely.
As we sipped the wines with the unpronounceable names, Kim gave us some bad news. In two days, while we would be in Krakow, he would have to fly back to Los Angeles for a meeting (this guy will do anything for frequent flyer miles).
He would miss the last two days in Krakow and an afternoon and evening in Vienna, but if everything (including all his airline connections) went perfectly, he would meet us at the Vienna airport in time to catch our flight to Dubrovnik. It was enough to make us buy another bottle of wine.
We wandered back by the Potrefena Husa, and although we could sit down at the patio, they had more than an hour wait to get food service. Well, we really don’t like eating at the same place twice anyway, and since we found out that this was a chain, we were glad we got shut out there. However, we did stay long enough for another pivo!
We found Viktoria, a place filled with hip, young locals, and now, us. I had a delicious strip sirloin with onions and lots of hot red peppers. The Campari was going down easy on this night, too.
In what I thought was an uncommon fit of indecency, Tracy then blurted out, “Those sure are mini balls.” I was about to get very angry until she told me she was referring to the mozzarella balls on her Caprese salad. If you decide to eat at this restaurant, I also highly recommend the roasted potatoes.
Our week in the Czech Republic was almost over, and we would definitely like to return one day to do some future exploring of the countryside and drink pivo in Prague.
We decided to turn in early so we could get an early start to Krakow since Kim only had a couple of days to see the city. Plus, there is only so much Campari you can drink in an evening.
We were up at seven and were greeted by a young man in the lobby of the Na Hradě, who was setting up a breakfast buffet. There was cereal, lunch meats, cheese, sausage links, delicious pastries and he made us some very good egg dishes. Yes, this was breakfast heaven.
I asked Tracy why she didn’t do this for me every day, and she replied, “Because I work harder than you do.” You can forget a lot in just one week of traveling.
By 8:30 we were on the road to Kraków after filling up with Diesel (you can’t fool us every trip). It only took us a little more than three hours to drive to Kraków and our home for the next four nights (for almost all of us), the Cracowdays Apartments.
After parking on the street (and deftly avoiding every pole and Pole), we walked up to a set of big doors. There was graffiti in the area, but we had stayed in Trastevere before, so we are not quick to judge a book by its cover.
After meeting the Cracowdays’ folks at their office, they took us to our rooms (from the Cracowdays' website - left, our room), which were very nice, and there was also internet in the hallway for the guests. The rooms are very secure, the beds comfortable, the showers good, and we enjoyed our stay here.
The Cracowdays Apartments are located only about a ten-minute walk to Rynek Glówny, the largest medieval town square in Europe. The sky was a beautiful blue (as just about all our days had been so far) and the square was bustling with people, both walking and being taken around town by horse-drawn carriages. There were also lots of booths selling wares and many pork, food items.
At the time, I remember thinking how young the population looked. It would be a reoccurring theme.
Another reoccurring theme was this group’s capacity to eat…and eat often. Kim and Mary went off to find some food (Kim was forever searching for pig on a stick, and this was certainly a place to find one).
Tracy and I plopped down at a table overlooking Rynek Glówny. I was in my “when in Rome” mode, so when the waitress asked for my beverage choice, I immediately said, “Wódka.” In fact, I ordered cherry vodka.
“Yuck! It tastes like cough syrup,” Tracy said
Robitussin, straight up, baby!
The restaurant was named Grill 15/16, and when I ordered my second vodka, Tracy said, “Just because the name of the restaurant is 15/16 doesn’t mean you have to drink 15 or 16 vodkas.”
Boy, what a spoilsport.
As we sat there, the sound of a lone bugler started up from one of Kościół Mariacki’s (St. Mary’s Church) towers. Like an unfinished symphony, the song abruptly ends.
Tracy reminded me about the legend of the town watchman who sounded an alarm to warn Krakówians of an impending Tatar invasion. Unfortunately, for the town watchman, as he played the bugle a Tatar arrow zipped though his neck, thus prematurely ending his song.
Today, the bugle can be heard every hour, and believe me, you hear it from just about anywhere.
Lunch was fine, and we met back up with Kim and Mary to take a stroll though old Kraków. We knew just where to find them, too. Kim was lookingly longingly at some meat being roasted at a little stand.
We began at the Barbakan, the town’s old fortification, and walked through the Brama Floriańska (Florian Gate). Kraków was crowded, but not to the point of feeling inundated.
We walked a few blocks down Ulica Florianska to the large St. Mary’s Church. Tickets to go inside are purchased across the alley. The interior of the church is very lovely, and we spent about 20 minutes or so wandering through it.
Another thing we noticed during our first few hours in Kraków, besides its youthful population, was that virtually no one was speaking English (although most of the Kraków locals we met certainly could). As a matter of fact, we had run into very few Americans so far on the trip.
We then walked by St. Adalbert’s, the oldest church in Krakow.
In the middle of the square is the Sukiennice or cloth hall, which was once a place where traveling merchants met. Today, it is a place where traveling vacationers can pick up a gift that nobody will really ever want. There were plenty of trinkets to be bought, but we used our willpower and got out without buying anything.
Since Kim only had one more full day here, the group pressed on. We walked down Ulica Bracka, which to me sounded like one of “The Godfather’s” hired killers. But instead, this church led us to a man of the cloth, none other than Kraków’s favorite son (or I guess that would be father), Pope John-Paul II.
We stopped into Bazylika Sw. Franciszka (St Francis Basilica), which was John-Paul’s home church when he served as archbishop of Kraków, and then headed over to Grodzka Street, or as I called it Kebab Street. It seemed like you could get a kebab in every shop, but amazingly no one was hungry.
We walked down to Mary Magdalene Square, and thought we would look inside the The Church of Saints Peter and Paul. There was lots of construction in the area, and by the time we started heading in the direction of the church, out came a beaming bride and groom (well, the groom looked a little shaken).
We waited for them to all exit and then took a quick look inside. When we got out, and after trying to get in the wedding pictures, I started to cross the street.
“Where are you going?” Kim said.
“St. Andrews,” I replied.
Kim quickly retorted, “Well, you forgot your clubs.” I started counting the hours to his departure.
We wandered many of the arteries off the Rynek Gløwny and on one of them spotted a little Italian restaurant, Del Papa (picture on right from a Kraków website). We made a reservation for later that evening, and went back to Cracowdays to freshen up.
Back at Cracowdays, I ran into one of the managers who had helped set up the reservation with me, and she was just as nice in person as she had been in all our email correspondence. She apologized for the graffiti in the area, and since she did not look like a tagger, I told her she had no reason to apologize.
The area was not sketchy at all, with plenty of restaurants and shops lining the street leading back to our street where the apartments were located. At no time did we feel unsafe, and I would highly recommend this as a place to stay.
On our walk to Del Papa that evening, we all commented on the youthful locals of Krakow. “Where did they put all the old people?” Mary joked.
I replied, “Maybe that Cesky Krumlov tour guide turned them all into giant pods, and they came back as young people.”
Kim was now counting the hours to his departure.
It was on to Del Papa. We had a very lovely, young, redheaded waitress, and Kim uttered his favorite line, “You know, she is felony cute.”
I had to remind Kim that anything he thought about her might also be construed as a felony, and we moved on to dinner.
The dishes at this restaurant were terrific as was, once again on our trip, the plating. I had tomato soup that was served in a bowl with basil lining the bottom, and the actual soup was poured from a teapot.
Tracy’s velvety, green pea soup was also poured from a teapot over a mound of pancetta and dill. Although Tracy said it looked lovely, green pea soup always reminds me of “The Exorcist.” I turned away before my head started spinning around.
All the dishes from ravioli stuffed with veal and mushroom sauce to a beef filet with balsamic reduction on a bed of arugula to gnocchi with gorgonzola cream sauce to grilled salmon with roasted shallots and balsamic reduction were delicious. Oh yeah, I topped it off with a nice panecotta and strawberries.
After Del Papa, we walked over to the square, which was packed on this Saturday night (and I’m guessing every Saturday night). Outside of us and a few other rumpled tourists, everyone on the square was young and good looking, with no one looking more than 35-years-old.
“Maybe there’s something to your pod theory,” Tracy said.
Kim and Mary walked back to the apartment, while Tracy and I made a quick stop at the Metropolitan Restauracja, where I am sure you are shocked to read we had a martini nightcap. The Metropolitan also was supposed to have a good breakfast, and we put that in our mental notes.
The next day would be Kim’s final full day in Kraków, and it would also be the day we made another interesting (well, I guess you’ll be the judge of that) observation about the local residents.
DAY NINE – THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, FOOLS ON THE HILL, MY LEGS ARE DRAGON, GOT MILK, FREE ART AND OUR POLL OF POLES
As you have read, we (and especially me, the dessert king) had done a lot of eating the past week. For many months before the trip, I had been on the Jenny Craig diet (well, the modified Jenny Craig, which includes martinis, mai tais and the occasional chocolate flourless cake that Jenny doesn’t tell anyone about in her literature).
I had lost a little more than 30 pounds, so before the trip I had to get some new travel clothes because I was down two sizes from nine months before.
Well, when I tried on my new “Svelte Pants” on this beautiful Kraków Sunday morning, I came to a quick realization. “I think I’m dying,” I told Tracy.
Even though I had eaten like a pig for the last week, my new pants were now almost too big. I was shrinking like that guy in the movie. By the time that we reached Croatia, I surmised, I would be small enough to be bitten to death by a Dubrovnik mosquito. I was frightened by the fact that when I returned home, I might just be devoured my own cat.
Even Tracy was amazed. When we told Kim and Mary about my pants (on the way to finding some breakfast), Mary said, “Maybe you’re losing weight because we are walking ten miles a day.” I think she was still a little miffed over the first day in Prague.
To try and bulk up, we had some croissants, jelly filled pastries and some great espresso at a little place just about a block off Rynek Glówny. We were then on our way to walking up to Wawel Hill, home to more tourists than any other sight in Poland.
Before we hit Wawel Hill, however, I told the gang I wanted to stop at the Bar Mleczny. Looking at her watch, Tracy asked, “Isn’t it a tad too early for a drink?”
I said, “No, but don’t worry this is a milk bar.” I just wanted to stop in to see the place where Poles and tourists alike can get a cheap meal. The milk bars are supposedly subsidized by the Polish government. It was the cheapest bottled water we bought on the entire trip.
We walked through the Heraldic Gate and passed Wawel Cathedral. We couldn’t go in to the cathedral until 12:30 because they were having Sunday Mass, so we toured the beautiful grounds and took pictures of the unique exterior of the cathedral, with its two domed chapels.
After wandering around the grounds, we saw the entrance to Smocza Jama (The Dragon’s Den), a route that (for 3 zloty) would take us through some caverns down to the Vistula River and the monument to Smok Wawelski, whose name sounds like a jazz musician, but is really a famous dragon in Polish folk history.
Supposedly this dragon liked devouring girls and was only happy if the townspeople left a young girl in front of the cave every month. This didn’t go over too well with the townspeople, especially, I would assume, young girls. Finally, some guy stuffed a lamb with sulpher and left it outside the cave.
Smok the not-so-magic dragon ate the lamb, which, of course, made him thirsty. No matter how much water the Smokmeister drank, he could not get full, so he started to drink from the river. After drinking about half the river, Smok did what most dragons do after drinking half a river…he exploded. Coincidentally, I felt the same way after my panecotta from the night before.
We descended into the bowels of the cave and fortunately no one became the object of a dragon brunch on the journey. It was worth the 3 zloty.
After 135 steps down to see the dragon monument, we were a little draggin’ ourselves, but we made it and were instantly approached by a beautiful Krakówian woman. I thought she was going to commend me on my new, buff body, but instead she started shilling for a boat ride on the river. Being the tourists that we are, we took her up on the offer.
Actually, since it was a hot day and there was still an hour until the cathedral opened, the boat ride turned out to be the perfect call. The boat ride made for a nice respite from the warm weather. There were nice views of the castle complex and we shared the river with people canoeing and kayaking.
By the time the boat ride ended, and we walked up to the entrance of the cathedral, it was 12:18. Why do I know that? Because there was no one yet in line for the cathedral, which seemed odd to us, I asked the girl at the entrance if it opened to the public at 12:30, and she said, “Yes, it will open in ten minutes.”
In five minutes the line that had been non-existent only minutes before had swelled to way more than 100. Once again our timing had been impeccable (and fortuitous).
If you are into Baroque memorials and tombs, Wawel Cathedral is your place. Kazimierz the Great and St. Jadwiga are two of the tombs with a view here.
We walked around for about half an hour and then headed back toward Old Town, and since Kim is a big fan of Pope John Paul II, it was time to take a little detour on our way to lunch. The Archbishop's Palace was Pope John Paul's home away from home when he traveled here from the Vatican. It is said that after a long day of leading Mass for the masses he would come back her and chat with more masses of people on a range of topics from religion to sports (I assume he was a Saints or Cardinals fan).
We bought a few Pope John Paul Gold Coins and went in search of a place to whet our insatiable appetites. Mary happened upon a place that looked interesting and a couple of gentlemen said they had "an offer she could not refuse," but we were concerned they might serve horse head on a platter so we continued on our way, but not before Mary posed with these gentlemen, who we now refer to as "family."
Searching further, we found a little outfoor spot off the main square. Across the street from the German Embassy, we lunched at The Tram Grill. Although supposedly open at 1 p.m., no one was there to greet us and the area was roped off, but as soon as we arrived a head popped out, and we were shown to our table on the terrace. First we get the head of the line at the cathedral, and now the restaurant magically opens once we arrive.
After downing some goulash soup and salads, the group was back on its way to seeing more Kraków attractions like the Wyspianski Museum. We wanted to see some of the stained glass from the man who had created the stained glass in St. Francis Basilica.
Personally, I found this place to be boring. This is always the first symptom of “Museum Overload,” but that did not deter us from attempting to find the Muzeum Czartoryskich after leaving.
Guidebooks showed the museum would be closed by the time we arrived, but Kim really wanted to go, so we gave it a try. We had been lucky to be first at the cathedral and the restaurant opened for us, so maybe the museum would stay open late for us since we were on a Kraków roll.
Well, not only was it open; it was free on Sunday. This museum was supposed to house a Rembrandt and a Da Vinci, but only Da Vinci’s Lady With Ermine was on display. Although not an art aficionado, I found this oil painting quite spectacular, as did the rest of our group.
By the time we left it was after 4 p.m., which means…martini time. We had walked by the Bunkier Café in the Planty with a nice outdoor patio, and it was the perfect place to plop down for a bit.
Being a product of the 60s, I had to try a drink made from Vodka, Blue Curacao and limeade called The Aquarius, and it certainly put me in the Fifth Dimension. The place was packed, and outside of us, there was no English to be heard anywhere.
As we downed our libations, Kim and I started commenting on the women of Kraków. We were very effusive with our praise of the statuesque beauties of Kraków, perhaps too much, because then Mary and Tracy started waxing eloquently about the men of Kraków.
In our very unofficial poll about Poles, although we are from the land of the beautiful people, Southern California; the real beautiful people were right here in Kraków. I told Kim, if were 30 and single, this would be a nice place to live.
We needed a little nap before dinner, and then headed out to the Bodega Marqués at Slawkowska 12. Since Kim and Mary had just built a house in Bodega Bay, California (watch out for "The Birds"), we thought the kismet of the thing would work…and it did. And we were not attacked by any birds.
It was a gorgeous, warm evening, so we dined on the street patio. The waitress took me to the back cellar to pick out some vino for the evening (well, at least that's what I told Tracy), a 2004 Sumarroca Syrlot (a Spanish Syrah/Merlot blend that was so good that we had to buy two bottles).
The wine went very well with my Spanish sirloin steak with gorgonzola and roasted potato. Mary had a spiced chicken grilled with sliced roasted potatoes while Kim (Caesar salad with chicken) and Tracy (salad with goat cheese, bacon and pine nuts) took the healthy route.
After a walk around the square and witnessing a man literally playing with fire, Kim and Mary took off for the apartment, while Tracy and I headed back to the Metropolitan for (in unison) a nightcap. An espresso martini and a Polish cocktail of cherry vodka and grapefruit juice later, we followed them back to the apartment.
Tomorrow, we would bid farewell to our friend Kim, yet Mary, Tracy and I had two full days together left in Kraków. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought, “What could one guy do with two women?” Speaking of playing with fire!
I awoke with a start remembering that the free parking on the street ended on Monday, and even with a mini-espresso martini hangover, I remembered that today was Monday. The apartment manager had told me that I should ask a man in a yellow vest about getting the necessary parking passes for the street. Instead, I ran into someone who looked more interesting than a guy in a vest.
I asked a local (well, she was tall, young and really good looking, so I figured she was a local), where to buy the street parking ticket to put in my car. She was quite nice, spoke perfect English and, after coming to the sudden realization that I was still married, I quickly hurried to a little kiosk across the street where she said I could purchase the parking pass.
I proceeded to buy nine, one-hour slips that I had to fill out and put on the dash of the car. Speaking of dash, I had to dash back to the rental car and got there only minutes before I would have received a ticket. By the time I had put all the tickets out, my dashboard looked like a bookie joint.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Kim headed for the curb to catch a taxi. He was about to set off on his own version of The Amazing Race.
Kim would fly to Chicago, change planes, fly to Los Angeles, sleep, then drive to Orange County, get his laundry done, work during the day, make an important speech that night, sleep, drive back to L.A., fly to New York, and change planes in order to get to Vienna by Thursday morning, where he would meet us in the nick of time to catch a flight to Dubrovnik.
It made me hungry just to think about it, so I said goodbye and grabbed a chocolate croissant and espresso.
Kim had made us think about our own laundry. It had been pretty hot during the first part of our journey, and we were going though clothes faster than Obama and McCain go through potential vice presidential nominees. Since we pack light, we were down to our last shirts. We could have done our own washing, but we gave ourselves a treat and took them nearby to the Betty Clean (the name of a place, not a person). It wasn’t cheap, but the clothes would be ready in 24 hours, and this way we had more time to explore Krakow.
We walked back up to Wawel Hill, ostensibly because there had been signs in the Tourist Information office on the previous day that there would be some sights open at no cost. Obviously, it was just a trick to have us walk up tht hill again, because nothing was free, and we were in a frugal mood, so we strolled around on the courtyard, enjoyed the sunshine and headed toward our next destination.
Tracy, Mary and I walked to Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter), about 20-30 minutes from Rynek Glówny. Kraków's Jewish quarter is not as well marked as the one in Prague, so we kept walking around the street a few times looking for the Old Synagogue and the Old Cemetery. We ran into a few others who were as lost as were. When we saw a sign for "Yiddishland," we knew we were close.
Then Old Tom said, “I think it’s time to eat.” I could see the gang was a little “churched and synagogued” out. We ate outside in the courtyard of Magma Restaurant. The food was nothing to write home about, but it is where I met the first of a few new “Mrs. MaitaiToms.”
It is kind of a running joke that when Tracy sees me be a little more flirtatious than usual (hey, I’m not dead, yet!), she refers to that unfortunate woman as the “New Mrs. Maitai (not our real last name).” She is then quick to add, “And if she wants you, I am sure the two of you will be happy living in the back of your Honda.” Tracy has a way of spoiling the moment sometimes. As you can see on the right, I surreptiously got the new Mrs. Maitai in the picture, in between Mary and Tracy.
I had wanted to climb the Town Hall Tower in Rynek Glówny, so we walked back after lunchtime. Along the way, we passed a hostel that seemed to be a little hostile toward Communism, but with a sense of humor about it. The walk backto the Rynek Glówny seemed a lot longer as the heat index kep soaring.
Once back in the center of town it was time to climb the tower, but was informed that it would be closed this week (Damn!). After Tracy and Mary completed the “Oh Boy, We Don’t Have to Climb The Tower” dance, we wandered the square, which was very crowded on a Monday afternoon.
We window-shopped for a short time, and Mary decided to head back to the apartment, while Tracy and I plopped down on the square at Da Pietro to have some late afternoon nourishment. We split a crostini misto and sipped some wine, Prosecco and a little Campari.
We actually got in a nap for about an hour back at the apartment, but since I was still shrinking, we headed out for dinner. We found a Brazilian place called Ipanema on Tomasza that had been recommended, and suddenly the song started going around in my head for the next hour.
Our waitress, dubbed the “Girl From Ipanema,” was a little off on this night, bringing a wrong dish to our table and forgetting my drink. As she kept going by the table without my drink, I kept obsessing on those song lyrics (although with a variation the theme), “Each time she passes, each one (especially me) she passes goes Aaagh!”
The food was not bad, but we had been pretty spoiled by the food throughout the Czech Republic and Poland, so it was a bit disappointing. However, the Blue Rio, a concoction of rum, blue Curacao, coconut milk and pineapple juice was pretty darned tasty.
We checked our watches, and by now we surmised Kim was running to catch his flight in Chicago, which turned out to be the truth. He made it with only seconds to spare.
Meanwhile, back in the Land of Travel, we meandered back to the apartment, via the Metropolitan, our new nightly hangout. The three of us had a decision to make for the next day; either travel to the Wielicza Salt Mine or visit Auschwitz. The vote was unanimous.
I don’t usually pass on places of historical significance, but we decided to forgo Auschwitz in favor of the salt mines. The three of us have all been to concentration camps (I have been to a couple), and although Auschwitz is definitely deserving of a visit, on this day we opted for a more cheerful experience.
For breakfast, we stopped in to a spot that reminded me of being back in Los Angeles (well, except people were speaking Polish and not Spanish). We sat down to our breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast while perusing our U.S.A. Today. However, we were not in L.A., but still in Kraków eating at the Metropolitan, our late night drink rendezvous spot of the past couple of evenings. I have to admit, a little home cooking tasted good.
After picking up our clothes and depositing them at the apartment, we walked over to the bus to take us to the Wielicza Salt Mine. We detored one more time through the lovely Planty that surrounds the Old Town. There were a lot of people enjoying the sunshine by strolling the grounds or just relaxing on one of the many park benches.
As we walked into Old Town, it was very crowded and we dodged a few bicycles along the way. Bicycles are a primary mode of Krakównian life, so be on the lookout for wayward cyclists who might make you a spokesman if you're not careful.
The preliminary reports I had read online made the salt mines out to be a very touristy thing to do, but on this blazing, hot day, we were happy to go under the earth’s surface for a few hours. Plus, damnit, we are tourists!
Obviously, chivalry was dead on this day (as it is many days that I am involved), because as I started to get in the bus, I turned around to see my two companions trailing me by almost 100 yards and the bus getting ready to leave. I looked like a mixed-up football referee waving my hands and arms around in a disjointed manner that neither Mary nor Tracy could quite comprehend.
Fortunately, the bus waited and, as Tracy got on board, I heard the phrase that all husbands worldwide can relate to, “What the hell were you doing?”
“I was waving you both to hurry up,” I replied.
“Did you not see we were stuck at a red light? Did you want us to get run over by a bus? Don’t you know the damned bus runs every ten minutes?” Tracy said.
Looking at her not-so-happy countenance, I decided not to give the flip answer flittering precariously at the end of my tongue. Mary just watched, now missing her husband more than ever.
Tracy was a little hot under her collar, but soon Mary and I joined her, because on this scorching day the bus was a makeshift sauna. By the time our 25-minute bus ride had concluded, the sardines inside were fully cooked and ready to be served. I only weighed 90 pounds by this time (okay, I made that up).
The English tour cost 65 zloty, and we had a blast. First, we walked down 800 or so steps, with our tour guide making sure none in the group croaked before we reached the bottom. Although we were on an English speaking tour, most of the group were not Americans. There were Swedes, Germans, Dutch, Aussies and Brits, but I only counted seven Americans.
Our tour guide was terrific, and her banter with all of us was entertaining. The temperature in the salt mine was a constant 57 degrees, which made it incredibly comfortable, even though I was in shorts. Fortunately the Fashon Poilice don't travel this far underground.
I had paid the ten extra zloty for photo privileges (I don’t think they enforce that rule, but I never have a problem shelling out money to help these places keep preserved). Unfortunately, those priveleges don't make me a smart photographer. As I zoomed to take a shot of the hall with the salt chandeliers, I forgot one small detail. The lens cap was still on.
As I zoomed the camera, the lens cap flew off and fell on to some seats where worshippers some time come for services. Fortunately, today their prayers were answered, because the seats below me were empty. After alerting our tour guide of my mistake, she let me in to this area to retrieve the lense cap and a little of my dignity.
We took pictures of chandeliers made of salt, a salt Last Supper and a salt Pope John Paul II. Salt, salt everywhere! I couldn’t figure out why, but suddenly I had a strong desire for a margarita.
In an effort to keep tourists from keeling over dead, the salt mines does not make its visitors walk 800 steps back up to exit. That is taken care of by an elevator that swiftly (and I do mean swiftly) transports you back to the surface.
Somehow, Mary, Tracy and I got in a grouping with a bunch of Polish school children. These second and third grade kids all spoke English, and they were a bit on the precocious side. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the boys offer Mary a piece of gum. Another kid warned her that it would give her an electric jolt.
Always the kind traveling partner, Mary whispered to the kid that I would be happy to take a piece of gum, and then she surreptiously asked me to be a “volunteer” as the “unsuspecting” foil to this young rascal.
The boy reached over and asked me if I wanted a piece of gum. Playing dumb (one of my easier roles), I took hold of the “stick of gum” and, sure enough, I was presented with a very strong shock.
In an act that Curly of The Three Stooges would have been proud of, I went though my fake gyrations much to all the kids’ amusement. It was only a moment later that I realized, “Geez, I really have no feelings in my fingers.” I don’t know the voltage of the gum, but that kid has a future in a Correctional Center somewhere.
Finally, we squeezed into the elevator with about ten of the kids, and when it began its ascent to the top, the kids screamed at the top of their lungs. Their teachers tried to look angry with them, but even they could only laugh at their funny antics.
We were glad we chose this Unesco site. It was fun, it was educational and, thankfully, it was cool.
Back in Kraków after a much more comfortable bus ride, we had an afternoon snack at Café Botanica, just off Rynek Glówny. Mary had chicken curry in a tortilla with a small salad. Tracy’s eyes lit up at the coffee with ice cream, while I, being the real man that I am, enjoyed my quiche.
As we walked around town, we saw a place that offered a "Pork Knuckle's Festival." Thank God, Kim and his passion for pork was not with us, and soon we happened upon a restaurant that piqued our interest. It looked cute, and the menu looked great. I went in, asked for eight o’clock reservations, and they pointed at a table near the door, “You have the last table,” he said, and I am so glad we were able to reserve it.
Guliwer, ul. Bracka 6 (shown here from a website photo), turned out to be one of the best restaurants of the trip. When we arrived, we were shown to our table, and true to his word, it was the only empty table in the house. As we sat dining, many others were turned away.
This is one place where I will describe the dishes. They were that good! Mary started with a wild mushroom soup (Polish specialty) and went on to Provencale-style chicken liver with onions and red peppers along with roasted potatoes.
I had a scrumptious veal cutlet with herb garlic butter, fried apples paired with some delicious pan-fried potatoes. It received a “Wow” rating. This would be a night for “Wows.”
Tracy’s first “Wow” dish was a refreshing, cold cucumber and watermelon soup. Her duck filet with a pepper sauce and celery salad with raisins and nuts was great, too.
With dishes like these, we could not stop. On to dessert! I had a Crepe Suzette, which was fabulous, but Tracy’s second “Wow” of the night came in the form of vanilla and chocolate crepes filled with ice cream, an orange-chocolate sauce, whipped cream and lots of orange zest. We were told the orange-chocolate sauce is made in-house.
All this and a bottle of 2004 Chateau Pertignos Bordeaux made this dinner most memorable.
I highly, highly recommend Guiwer for dinner. Simply tremendous!
We walked over to the Rynek trying to shed a few of the calories. For the umpteenth time we walked next to a gigantic statue of a head that lays sideways on the square. You could even walk inside of it, but after our big dinner we might have become stuck.
Before Mary headed back, we found a small bar where the three of us had a final drink together to toast Kraków and its charms. After Mary departed, Tracy and I bade farewell to the Metropolitan bar and its array of martinis.
Over one last round of cocktails, Tracy and I tried to figure out where the “old people of Kraków” reside, and we decided we could turn this in to a Stephen King-type novel. The plot: “People over 40 are locked in Kraków basements all over town while their good looking, tall children roam the streets at night dining on great food and drinking potent libations.”
We all decided that Kraków would be a fun place to visit in ten years to see the further renovation of the city. If anyone is planning a trip to Poland, Kraków is well worth your time.
We needed to get to bed, because tomorrow would be the driving day from Hell. In order to get to Dubrovnik, we needed to catch a flight from Vienna, about a six-hour automobile ride from Krakow. Can a guy drive and survive six hours with two women (three if you count Lady Garmin) and no other guys in the car? I would find out in only seven hours.
When I had originally mapped out our trip, I had us flying directly from Kraków to Dubrovnik on SkyEurope. Yes, I had the perfect plan. Well, almost. Unfortunately, I received an email a few months after booking our overseas flights that SkyEurope was going to discontinue that route. It was back to the drawing board for me.
The good news; in the ensuing months we booked a flight on Croatian Airlines to Dubrovnik. The bad news; it was from Vienna. I had enjoyed my previous visit to Vienna, but the thought of the six-hour drive from Kraków didn’t thrill me, especially because I knew we would only have one night there. However, that was my only choice, and this was the day we were scheduled to make the drive.
We had said out goodbyes to the Cracowdays’ folks (I recommend this for an inexpensive and convenient place to stay in Kraków - just a short 10 minute walk to the Rynek), and we were on the road by 7:15.
Tracy (who was dubbed “Backseat Tracy” on our first trip with Kim and Mary to Italy in 2001) took up her customary backseat position (sort of like Fred and Ethel when they came to California with Lucy and Rickey), allowing Mary to be up front with Lady G and the maps. Mary loves maps! Tracy likes to read (although if you have ever seen any of my other trip reports, she is a top-notch navigator).
The three of us rambled through the Polish and Czech countryside and, as we did, Mary became increasingly more talkative (and she’s not quiet to begin with…of course, none of us are).
As Tracy sat in the back reading a book about love, an elephant and water (not necessarily in that order, I guess), Mary began asking questions about my life, loves, work and anything else that came in her head. There is a lot in her head, let me tell you.
My one and two word answers didn’t seem to be going over very well, because the less I answered, the more she asked. By the time we had reached the Czech/Austrian border (4 ½ hours later), Mary had obtained more information about me than Dr. Phil could ever imagine (Dr. Mary...I like it). I felt like laying down in the back seat to answer some of her questions, but that makes for unsafe driving tactics, and I'm a bad enough driver sitting upright.
I looked in the rear view to get some verbal respite from Tracy, but she was weeping over something she had read in the elephant book (I think the trainer had run out of peanuts or something terrible), so I was on my own. Actually, she had been reading Water For Elephants, a book she now highly recommends, especially for those who like to weep.
To tell the whole truth, all that talking made the trip seem shorter than the exactly six hours it took us from Kraków to Vienna. Suddenly I was having a Vienna flashback (although there was no Third Man or a Ferris Wheel involved).
My initial driving experience in Vienna in the 1990s had been a disaster. Trying to find our hotel became a quest, and it took us more than an hour to find the correct route into the center of town. There was no GPS in those days.
With Lady G, Mary and now Tracy guiding me in, we found the rental car agency easily. The car rental guy showed me on the map where our hotel was and said to just take the nearby U-Bahn to our nearby destination. This was going to be a snap. Yes, you know better than that.
When Tracy asked me if I knew where the subway was, being a guy (a somewhat over-confidant guy), I stated, “Yes, I do.” In reality, I didn’t really have a clue, but the rental car person said it was very close. Well, we walked this way, then that way, and then every which way until Tracy’s and Mary’s exasperated looks could only mean one thing. “Ask for directions,” they said in unison. Hey, at least there was no “idiot” in their vernacular. Yet.
We asked one woman (not a local, but she seemed to know what she was talking about), who gave us partial directions that lead us into a shopping area. We asked another person who gave us a couple of platform choices. After hitting a dead-end, we asked a lady with a baby-stroller, and she pointed us across the courtyard. “That’s where you want to be.”
After descending the escalator, we were once again pointed (by someone who really seemed like they knew what they were talking about) in a direction that led us to, what we thought, were our platforms. They were platforms, but just not our platforms.
Our bemused looks caught the attention of a kindly, older woman, who took pity on the stupid Americans wandering aimlessly in a Vienna U-Bahn station.
She said she was going in the same direction as we were going, and to just follow her. We asked her about buying tickets, and she shrugged and said to keep following her. We followed her right onto the train taking us to our destination. “Umm, what about tickets?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” she said and walked away. (She had a nice, honest face. I was sure she would visit us in prison). The three American felons then rode to the next stop, which was (fortunately) our destination, and quickly got off. As the train pulled away, there was the nice, old lady waving to us from inside the car with a big smile. Sometimes, it just takes a village.
Vienna’s hotels had been very full when I tried to secure reservations, but luckily I had found Pension Nossek, with a great location on the Graben in the heart of the old city. The location was great.
This is a place that gets mixed reviews and for good reason. The pluses are its location, a really nice breakfast, and the staff is very friendly and helpful.
On the negative side, the rooms are in desperate need of some tender, loving care. To say our room was worn was an understatement. It was also very muggy on this damp day, and the fan in the room ran very slow (it’s not good when you can see the individual blades going round and round) and provided no relief.
“Oh well,” I said to Tracy, “I’ll take a refreshing shower,” which we all needed after lugging the luggage on the subway and over to the hotel. From the bathroom, Tracy heard a “Holy (Expletive To be Named Later)” from the shower. Knowing that I was not re-enacting a scene from Psycho, Tracy ran in to see what the commotion was all about.
There was no shower mat, so I had calmly stepped inside the shower and turned the water on. How I stayed upright when I took that first slip is still something I am amazed I was able to do. Now I know how Peggy Fleming (yes, I am dating myself, but she was my first true love…unbeknownst to her, of course) felt during the ’68 Olympics.
“Nobody’s breaking a hip on my watch,” Tracy said and she stayed with me during the duration. Finally, Grandpa Maitai got out of the shower unscathed. “Just get my walker and let’s go out to lunch,” I said.
We found a quaint Italian restaurant in a nearby alley, and since it was already after 3 p.m., the three of us were famished. Afterward, during a little downpour, we ducked inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and became a bit perplexed. “Is this the inside of a church or a sailing regatta?” I asked.
The interior of the cathedral had a very odd display of giant, white sails and bright, blue lights. It was like we were visiting a place of worship, and The America’s Cup had broken out. We never did find out what this exhibit was all about.
I thought about going up the stairs to the top of St. Stephens, but Vienna was getting socked in with clouds and rain, so there would be no view, and fortunately for my traveling companions, no stairs.
Our next stop was the Crypts of the Imperial family (4€ each). We saw Franz Joseph and some other Hapsburg tombs, and then, tired of dead people, we headed back to the Graben for a little vino outside, since it had stopped raining.
Our vino stop was quite near the Plague Column, which looked like it had been cleaned since our last visit to Vienna.
Mary told us about a specialty store in Vienna called Meinl am Graben, and since it was early in the evening we decided to explore the store before finding a restaurant for dinner. Wow, what a store!
The three of us walked around the entire place that included restaurants, a wine cellar and specialty foods in different sections that beckoned us to buy. Reluctantly, we walked away, looking for a dinner restaurant, but our minds kept drifting back to the store we had just visited. Yes, we were in love with Meinl!
Let’s see, we all like wine. Meinl has a bar that serves wine. What should we do? We hurried back to the Meinl Weinbar, where we plopped our butts down for, as it tuned out, the duration of the evening.
We sat in a non-smoking area (what a change from my first Austrian visit in 1984 when you couldn’t even see inside restaurants due to the thick cigarette smoke) amongst a vast array of wines. Our server was knowledgeable, showed us a litany of wines, and we were very happy to partake in a few glasses…apiece.
This was a comfortable setting, and after chatting with a U.C.L.A. alumnus for a bit (yes, as a San Diego State guy, I can go slumming), we decided to see if they had some food to go with the wine. We left that to the server’s discretion, who came back shortly with a bountiful platter of prosciutto, various cheeses, capers and crunchy bread, which was now our dinner on this evening.
The bill came to 89€, and the night turned out to be quite fun and relaxing. Plus, since Mary had asked me everything about my life earlier in the day, it was the patrons and server at the wine bar who were peppered with inquiries about their lives. They never knew what hit ‘em.
She asked our server where he was from, and he said, “Croatia.” We told him we would be flying to Dubrovnik the following morning.
He informed us he was from TrogIr, a place we would visit after Dubrovnik. He said, “You will love Croatia. It is so lovely.”
Tracy added, “We are looking forward so much to seeing your beautiful country.” Mary was also hoping her husband, currently somewhere between Los Angeles and New York on his whirlwind journey to join us back in Austria, would also be able to join us on our journey to our next destination.
One thing I was sure of; Mary would have many questions for him.
DAY THIRTEEN – DOES KIM MAKE THE PLANE, DOES HIS LUGGAGE, ROOMS WITH A VIEW, MIRROR IMAGE, CRUISE OUT-OF CONTROL, AND THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE MODERN WORLD
We awoke to a driving rainstorm and had a delicious, little breakfast in the charming breakfast room of the Pension Nossek. The hotel had pre-ordered the taxi to meet us, and the driver was up (you have to take a lift to get to the pension lobby) at the reception desk after we finished breakfast and helped us with our luggage.
I talked a lot to the driver on the way to the airport and asked him numerous questions (obviously Mary had rubbed off on me). Our driver pointed out many monuments on the trip to the airport.
It turned out he was also from Croatia and was very excited about the upcoming European Cup, because Croatia was going to open it against Austria. Although he had lived in Austria for years, there was no delay when I asked him which team would command his rooting interest.
“Croatia,” he said. He then proceeded to help me with Croatian pronunciations so I would not embarrass myself more than usual when I spoke to the local Dubrovnik populous upon arrival.
After checking in, Mary was very nervous knowing Kim had a small window of opportunity in order to make our 10:10 flight. At 9:35, she started worrying even more.
I bet her a glass of wine Kim would be coming down the escalator within five minutes. “Kim never loses a bet for me,” I said.
Remember the ease showed by O.J Simpson (sorry, wrong photo) running through airports in those old Hertz commercials? Well, Kim’s disheveled and sweaty appearance did not resemble O.J. in any manner as he walked off the escalator (of course, Kim also has never been a double murderer).
Kim had been directed to the wrong terminal for our flight (probably the same people directing us to the U-Bahn the day before), and he ran as fast as he could (which, unfortunately, is not very fast) to make our flight.
Then, like clockwork, the man at the Croatian Airline gate announced that the flight from Vienna to Dubrovnik would be delayed 30 minutes. Always the true friend, I said, “See Kim, you didn’t have to run after all.”
We arrived in Dubrovnik at noon and proceeded to grab our luggage. Well, three of us did. Kim’s luggage was somewhere in the world between Los Angeles and Dubrovnik. I told him, “Well, at least you have clean, lost clothes.” At that point, and I’m not sure of this, Kim gave me “the look.”
Our driver that had been sent by our apartment host, Jadranka Benrussi, gave us lots of information on the area. When I asked him his favorite restaurant in Dubrovnik, he said with a sly smile, “I don’t really have a favorite. They are all pretty touristic. My favorites are out of town.”
He dropped us at the Hilton Hotel parking lot and said he would help us with our bags because we had a little walking left to do. We walked up some steps, came to a dead end, turned left and walked up more steps. Tracy and Mary were very happy Peter (our driver) had offered to help. Over the course of three days, we became very acquainted with these steps. Tracy counted 99 of them in all.
We went though a small gate on the left, down some stairs and there were our two separate apartments, which also had a nice outdoor courtyard that afforded views out over the neighborhood all the way to the Adriatic. Needless to say, the four of us consumed a good portion of wine on that patio during our evenings in Dubrovnik.
Kim only had his sweaty traveling clothes, and it was a very warm day. Tracy then offered Kim a pair of my shorts and a shirt, and when he emerged from his apartment, there I was. No wait, there he was. I got to see those clothes on him for the better (well, better might not be the correct word) part of the next two days.
Jadranka’s apartments, located below the family residence, is located a short distance from the Gradska Vrata Pilc (Pile Gate). As we got closer to the Pile Gate, there were hundreds of people all shuffling along at a snail’s pace in huge herds following the ubiquitous Umbrella People in all directions. These were the swarms of cruise boat touristas who, as we were to find out, descend upon Dubrovnik every day between about 8 and 4.
As we jostled our way through the Pile Gate and down some stairs we decided to head to the harbor for lunch. To get to the harbor we walked down Dubrobnik’s main drag, the Stradun.
We had only walked for a short time when it looked like Tracy taken a slight misstep. “I slipped,” she said. And sure enough, the Stradun is a little slippery because of its limestone coating and made even slicker by the thousands of people who walk on it each and every day.
“Wow, I bet people fall here when it’s wet,” Mary said, and I could only hope that shower-slipping “Grandpa Maitai” would not be one of those unfortunate people.
The Stradun was packed with tourists at its plethora of shops and restaurants that line the street or are located just off of it. Restaurant hucksters were hawking their respective places but we walked by, and by the time we had reached the harbor, the massive throngs were, for the moment, blissfully gone.
After lunching on pizza, pasta and salad, we started walking around Dubrovnik to get our bearings. It was getting later in the afternoon, so the cruise boat navy numbers were lessening by the minute, and the narrow lanes became much more pleasant for strolling instead of elbowing.
Then it happened!
Now this might sound a little dramatic, but at a few minutes before four in the afternoon on a gorgeous afternoon, June 5, 2008, my life changed forever. Tracy, Kim, Mary and I stepped through a little hole in the Dubrovnik Wall, walked down some steps and were thrust into a place that I modestly refer to as the Eighth Wonder of The Modern World. We had entered the most mystical spot on earth. Others know it simply as the Buza Bar.
Yes, I’d seen pictures. Yes, I’d read accounts by people who had visited, but nothing could have prepared me for this wine and beer paradise.
The tables and chairs are set out on little cliffs that command incredible views out over the Adriatic Sea. There are are very few rails, so if one sits back in their chair the wrong way, well, let’s just say that could be your ultimate final call. Nearby people were swimming and diving off cliffs into the sea. The water was a color of blue that was so beautiful not even pictures could do it justice.
All of this ambiance and wine, too, please pinch me. Kim joked that Croatia obviously must not have strict OSHA regulations, and then he promptly cut his leg open just a tad from a tiny, exposed piece of metal. It was nothing that a band-aid and a few small bottles of red vino couldn’t fix.
Buza has just one girl who works behind the bar, and upon our arrival she traversed the terrain like a celestial mountain goat to take our order. She then glided back to the bar and within minutes was at our table carrying wine and beer. If they had an Olympics for wine and beer servers, she would receive the Gold Medal.
During my second or third wine (math is useless in a setting like this), as I looked out on this incredible view, I waxed poetic, “This is like your first kiss or your first love.”
Kim responded, “How about your first wife?” Once again, the sage lyrics of the omnipresent philosopher Meat Loaf immediately danced in my head, “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad,” I said.
For those of you who travel to Dubrovnik, even if you do not drink alcohol, this is a spot not to be missed. Be sure to get here by about 4 p.m., because by 4:30 each day, the Buza Bar was packed.
As we soaked in the atmosphere (and the wine), the four of us spent 90 minutes solving virtually all the world’s problems. As we sat there, small boats were hurrying the last of the day-tripping cruise people out to the gigantic motherships located off the Croatian coast. These ships were so large that on a clear day I firmly believe they could block out the sun and cause an eclipse.
Then, in a tale of two watercraft, a wooden boat, looking a pirate ship, passed into view. In the distance was the giant cruise ship. What a dichotomy!
Tracy dragged me out of the Buza Bar (where I could have stayed for all three days in Dubrovnik), and soon we were back on the Stradun, now peacefully devoid of tourists (except for us and a few others).
The four of us showered (not together people, this isn’t the 70s), and we sat out on our apartment patio sipping wine (that we had purchased at a little market on the way back to the apartments), looking out over the trees toward the Adriatic and listening to Kim’s IPOD. “Oh yeah”, we agreed, “The four of us are very lucky people.”
After exiting the Buza Bar, we had seen a cute restaurant that caught our attention and we made reservations. So after our wine and music interlude on our apartment patio, we strolled the now, nearly empty and lovely Stradun, over to Ekvinocijo Konoba and dined on its outside patio. It was a lovely evening.
The very nice server said the fish at this restaurant “was fresh from the Adriatic” so Mary had the fresh fish filet and a very good grilled zucchini.
Tracy started with another “Wow” dish. The fried calamari was incredible (and I am not a big calamari person). It was fresh and had just a light hint of garlic. She complemented that dish with the seafood risotto.
I also had risotto, of the shrimp variety, and the best French Fries I had eaten in quite some time.
Kim had the only weak dish of the evening; a breaded shrimp he said was “cold and a disappointment,” much like many of the dates Kim and I had taken out in our college days (Kim was the first person I met at San Diego State in 1970).
Of course, we needed something to wash down those dishes, and a liter of the house white did the trick.
For the most part, the four of us always split the bill no matter who buys what dishes. We do not itemize. We do not say, “Oh, but you had one more appetizer and a coffee while we just had a dessert.” Obviously, if someone only has a salad, one of the couples will put in a little bit more.
This method has worked on all of our European trips, and there has never been one squabble about money. I’ve witnessed groups in Europe have terrible verbal exchanges at tables next me to me, fighting over “their fair share of the bill.” It is painful to watch. Life’s too short, and I would have to think that over the duration of our many trips, we have all come out pretty even.
We laughed at this particular bill, because it seemed no matter what country we were in, what restaurant we were in or what we all ate and drank, the bill always came out to the equivalent of $75 per couple. Tonight was no different.
We walked off our dinner (those 99 steps are good exercise) back to the Benrussi apartments. Tomorrow, we would further explore Dubrovnik, and Kim would hope that he wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the trip in my clothes.
As dreams of the Buza Bar (and, I believe, Shania Twain) danced in my head, I had a restful sleep at the Benrussi Apartments. Although it was at our apartments, the four of us started getting ready to face the new day, because we knew that shortly we would encounter the “Attack of the Umbrella People” (aka the cruise crowd).
On this particular morning, it must have been confusing to be part of a cruise tour, because it was raining and everyone had umbrellas, not just the group leaders. I envisioned mass anarchy amongst the cruisers, so Tracy and I scurried through the Pile Gate and found a dry spot with a convenient awning that caught most of the raindrops.
We had been hard-rolled and jellied for so long, it was comforting to have a couple of ham and cheese omelets. While we ate breakfast, Kim and Mary went to the nearby Croatian Airline office and were given the good news that their luggage had been found. Unfortunately, it had not been found in Dubrovnik.
“Come back in a couple of hours, and we will have more news for you,” they were told, so they joined us for some more Dubrovnik strolling, only this time with a purpose. Although there are not a lot of so-called “big ticket items,” Dubrovnik does have some interesting sights.
We had already piled through the Pile Gate and its tourist masses many times, but this time we had more of a plan. After entering the Pile Gate, we saw the very tiny Church of St. Savior on the left and to the right is the Velika Onofrijea Fontana (Onofrio’s Big Fountain), one of two Onofrio fountains in Dubrovnik.
The big fountain is where you see cruise ship people eating their gelato all day long (ok that’s just a guess, but whenever I saw a guy in plaid shorts, a striped shirt and huge belly, I leapt to that perhaps mistaken observation).
We walked down the Stradun, which had been made a little more slippery from the morning’s precipitation. At the far end of the walk is Luza Square and Orlandov Stup (Orlando’s Column). Orlando looks pretty passive for a knight, even with his sword and shield, but I still felt like belting out, “There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Orlando.”
Tracy shook her head and said, “Tom, that’s Fernando.”
Ah, my lyrical Waterloo (actually, I knew it was Fernando, but I was trying to liven up the crowd on this misty morning).
Speaking of something stupid (and I don’t mean the Frank and Nancy Sinatra song), Tom’s Tuscan Tours (I didn’t feel like changing the name from our Italian trip) then had a little slip up. “Let’s check out the Franjevački samostan Muzej.” Of course, I said it in English, “Franciscan Monastery Museum.”
We walked inside a peaceful, Mediterranean-style building with beautiful arches encircling a small garden. There was religious art and a church with a 15th-century Gothic cloister.
But the highlight I wanted to show everyone was what is thought to be the oldest working pharmacy in Europe. The only problem was we couldn’t find it. Being a guy, I walked around the monastery a couple of times before asking the ticket man where the pharmacy was located.
“Where is the pharmacy?” I inquired.
Much to my chagrin (and to the utter amusement of my traveling companions), he smiled and answered softly, “I am sorry, sir. You are at the wrong monastery. This is the Dominican Monastery.” Well, I was as quiet as a monk.
We ventured back down the Stradun to the Franciscan Monastery, but we all agreed we liked the Dominican Monastery better.
It was getting hot, and since I had been the only one to believe in the weather gods and wore shorts, the others decided to walk the 99 steps and change to more comfortable attire to beat the heat.
I walked over to a little outdoor patio spot for a beer and waited for them. While sitting and sipping, I overheard a conversation between what I perceived were a local man, a gentleman from India and, I think, a Scandinavian (my Norwegian is a little rusty) woman.
The two people who were not locals were attempting to ask a question in Croatian and not getting very far. Then the local guy said, “Do you speak English?” Soon, the three were chatting like old friends, speaking in almost perfect English, and, closing my eyes, I could have just as easily been sitting at the Redondo Beach pier listening to this conversation.
People might not like it that the English language has permeated their cultures, but there is no doubt that it came in handy for that threesome.
After the group rejoined me, it was time for lunch at a good little Italian restaurant on an alley. Kim and Mary also had news. “Our luggage will be here at 3 p.m.,” Mary said.
I think the restaurant was called Renaissance or perhaps Tracy was starting to write down in the journal that I was a Renaissance man. It is unclear to this very day.
In any event, I loved my veal risotto, Mary enjoyed her mackerel, while Kim and Tracy were happy with their calamari and French fries. It was about 2:15, so Tracy and I took a little walk and would hit the Dubrovnik Walls after 2:30 p.m., which is when Jadranka (our apartment host) said the crowd is lighter. Mary and Kim would gather Kim’s clothes and then meet us at Heaven On Earth (aka the Buza Bar).
Walking the Gradske Zidine or Town Walls is something that you must do while visiting Dubrovnik. There was nobody in line, and Tracy and I each paid the 90 kn to walk the wall while listening to the audio guide (that ticket also includes the Fort of St. Lawrence, located outside the Pile Gate).
The day, which had started out on a wet note, had turned into another gorgeous afternoon, with a beautiful blue sky and an Adriatic Sea to match. It is almost impossible to walk more than 20 feet without stopping to take another photo. Beautiful vistas and panoramas popped up at every turn.
As we walked along the wall, we found one sight quite amusing. There was a giant cannon pointing out to sea with its barrel pointed directly at two cruise ships, whose passengers were being whisked back to their behemoth vessels. If only I had some cannonballs and some gunpowder, I thought.
Our apartment host had been correct. As soon as 2:30 descended on Dubrovnik, the walls cleared out and we could perambulate at our own pace.
Soon we were looking directly down at the Buza Bar. Wine and relaxation beckoned us, but we were only about half through the wall journey. The sight of the Buza did hasten us to pick up the pace, however.
We continued our walk with beautiful Adriatic and then harbor views commanding us to take more pictures. There are a few places along the wall to enter, and I would recommend that if you try to walk before 2:30, you use one of the less crowded entrances.
As we walked on the side nearer to the hills behind town, we looked over the roofs of Dubrovnik and could see all the newer tiles that were needed to replace the ones that were shelled during the war. It does give one a moment to pause.
Then something else gave us a moment to pause. Behind those orange roofs a monster was moving. One of the floating monstrosities of the sea was chugging along, and the top of the ship was several feet above the Dubrovnik skyline in the foreground. It made for an interesting photograph.
Near the end of the walk on this now very hot day, there was a little entryway into a room. On the counter was a bowl full of oranges being fresh-squeezed into orange juice. The juice was way overpriced and, on this now very hot afternoon, worth every Kuna.
We then made our way to the highest point of the walls, climbed some steep steps and for a brief second stopped to rest. But then we realized, the Buza Bar was beckoning, and we me hightailed around the rest of the wall.
We briskly made our way to the Buza Bar. It was 4:30 and we secured one of the last available tables. Soon afterward, Kim and Mary joined us. I could tell before they spoke something was wrong. Kim was still in my shorts!
“Well, the bus arrived from the airport that was supposed to have Kim’s luggage,” Mary said. “The only problem was the guy forgot to put Kim’s luggage on the bus.”
A few vinos later, the problem seemed miniscule, and then Croatian Airlines called Kim on the satellite phone. They would have his luggage back at the office at 7 p.m.
As we sat and enjoyed another spectacular afternoon, our lovely server came over with an order of wine and chuckled while saying, “Did you hear the news? Two of the cruise ships bumped into each other not far from here.”
Now, lest you think our server to be evil (she was nothing of the kind), she also knew it was just a minor altercation where no one was hurt (except for the reputations of the two captains).
It was another couple of hours in paradise, but we eventually got up and walked back to the apartment. Kim and Mary made their last trip to Croatian Airlines to pick up his clothes, and we picked up some wine for the patio.
Later we met Kim and Mary on the patio. Kim had been so excited to get out of my shorts, that he also bought wine, cheese, salami and bread. It looked like we would be on the patio for the duration of this night. The views at sunset were wonderful.
What a spectacular evening! The weather was perfect, the wine was good and we got to meet our hostess, Jadranka, who came down to visit with us. She was a very gracious host who sat with us for nearly hour sharing her knowledge on the area and her thoughts about the war.
We asked if she had left town during the war, and she said, “No. I had to make a living.” So each day, as shells were raining down on Dubrovnik, she and her husband would go to work and their children would attend school.
Then came what could have been a very embarrassing moment. Kim had brought his IPOD, and the four of us had been debating great sing-along songs before Jadranka arrived to sip wine with us. Kim had made a play list of what he perceived to be good sing-along songs while he was home, so he had said, “Let’s listen, and we can all decide.”
As Jadranka was relating the tales about the war, out of one ear I heard “Germany was having trouble; what a sad, sad story….”
“Crap,” I thought, “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers was starting. While in college, Kim, myself and a few others would go down to the theater (in lieu of studying) and sit through Blazing Saddles and The Producers for a buck (we also had to suffer through The Twelve Chairs, but the other two movies made that 90 minutes of tedium worth the wait). In any event, we could nearly recite both movies verbatim by the time we ended our college careers (I’m sure my parents thought that was money well spent).
At this moment in time, however, the juxtaposition of Jadranka talking about war and a goofy song from a movie that has a musical about the worst person in the annals of history just didn’t seem like a good mix. I quickly kicked Kim, who instantly realized the situation, and he turned off the song immediately.
“Next time,“ I said to Kim, “we should stick to the theme from Blazing Saddles.”
In any event, we had a wonderful evening with Jadranka, who has a great sense of humor and was fun to talk with on this evening. Her apartments were quite charming, complete with a little kitchenette and air conditioning for spoiled American tourists such as ourselves. The patio with Adriatic view was quite a bonus.
After Jadranka departed for a party for which she was now quite late (Mary’s wine pouring expertise should never be underestimated), we decided that we would just hang out on the patio and finish our wine, cheese and salami, and call it a night.
Tomorrow, our plans were to pick up rental car number two and spend the day driving south and exploring beautiful, rugged Montenegro. However, for this group of travelers, it seems our best-laid plans sometimes have a strange way of going completely awry.
T (AS IN TROUBLE) WITH MUSSOLINI, A NICE DETOUR, WARNING: DANGEROUS PARKING, DINNER BY THE SEA AND MARY TAKES US ON A “SHORT-CUT”
This was the day we had all been waiting for; our much anticipated day trip to mysterious Montenegro. I didn’t even have to rally the troops on this misty morning. It was as if everyone had been injected with double espressos as we scurried down the 99 stairs, pushed our way through the assembled multitude of umbrella people at the Pile Gate, zipped down the Stradun, made our way through the Ploče Gate and walked to the Hertz office to get our car.
Although we had asked for a car with manual transmission, they did not have one at Hertz and I was “upgraded” to an automatic. For me, that was not an upgrade because I enjoy a stick, plus I knew this car would not get as good gas mileage as a manual transmission. In any event, nothing, not even the plentiful drops of rain, could put a damper on this day.
I had prepared an extensive list of things to do and sights to see on “Montenegro Day.” As we headed down the narrow, main coastal road past the airport and Cavtat, the gang were all reading about the exciting new places we would visit.
We were going to travel though Perast (here is a picture I would have taken had I ever made it there), a supposedly beautiful Montenegrin town, through the village of Dobrota and wind our way down the marvelous Montenagran coast to the Bay of Kotor (see Perast), where we would enjoy lunch and all the beauty this mysterious had to offer.
Oh, this was going to be a marvelous day of exploration, and it would be another new country stamp to add to our passports. Expectations were running high.
Soon we reached the border that would soon be our portal to magnificent Montenegro; well we almost reached the border. A line of cars about 15 or 20 deep stretched in front of us waiting to get into Montenegro. “No problem,” we thought, “we’ll get through this in no time.”
So we waited. And we waited. And we waited. In the span of 25 minutes, we counted all of one car that had passed through the border checkpoint. We also only counted one car that had exited Montenegro back into Croatia. It was perplexing, and now just a tad bit frustrating. But, hey, we’re from L.A. and used to traffic delays, so we sat and waited patiently.
Then, out of seemingly nowhere, a man appeared, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Benito Mussolini (although he was not hanging upside down at an Esso station), and he strode out from amongst the cars and looked me straight in the eyes (well, I thought he was looking straight at me).
He began motioning me to pull out of line and come forward. “Is he talking to me?” I asked the other three. No one really knew for sure, but he was staring directly at me. I pointed at myself and, in a DeNiro moment, mouthed the words “You talkin’ to me.” He nodded “yes” (that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it).
I then pulled out of line and headed (slowly) toward him. Suddenly, he began waving his arms like, well like Mussolini, and shouted something at me. I don’t believe he was saying, “Welcome to the beautiful country of Montenegro. Have a lovely stay.” I know this because he had a similar facial expression that my dad had when he learned I had flunked 8th grade algebra.
But Mussolini’s expression was much nicer than the next visage I encountered. A man, who obviously had been in line for a very long time, leaped from his automobile, came up to our car and started screaming at me in “Croenglish.”
Croenglish can best be explained as “the ability to utter multiple expletives in Croatian and English at a faster than normal rate of speed.” His usage and vast array of American curse words bordered on the remarkable, and I remember thinking this guy would be a natural to drive on the Los Angeles freeway system.
Back to the reality of the moment; I was now in the lane where people exiting Montenegro were to drive when they enter Croatia. Fortunately, nobody seemed to be entering Croatia, so any head on collision was averted.
“Do you think someone will let me back in line?” I asked my traveling friends who were now ducking in case there was gunfire. As Kim turned and looked out the window at 15 cars full of angry Croatians, he said quietly, “I wouldn’t count on it.”
We decided to go to the back of the line, which, as it turned out, was only a few cars from where we had started this comedy of errors. There was really no place to turn around since, I’m sure, this is not an everyday occurrence, so I backed up past the line of cars. In a couple of minutes, we were in the queue again. “What the Hell happened there,” I inquired?
Tracy told me that, as the Croatian driver was yelling at me, a large tour bus passed us, and that Benito must have been pointing at him to move forward, not us.
For the next twenty minutes we sat, and no car was allowed to enter Montenegro, nor did one car exit from Montenegro. It had now been about an hour since we had reached the border, and only one or two cars had gone though. Obviously, besides my erratic driving, there was a major problem.
Well, we can sit in traffic jams in California, but not on vacation. In a unanimous decision, we decided to blow off Montenegro and head back. “Another time,” we sighed.
DIGRESSION: A couple of days later Mary was talking to her daughter back in the U.S. who told her that she had seen a news report of an “incident” in our general area of the world and the border of Montenegro had been virtually shut down in an attempt to locate whoever the authorities were looking for (thankfully, not me). For once, timing did not go our way, but as my dad used to always tell me, “Roll with the flow.”
Oh yeah, back to our little story: On the way to Dubrovnik, we saw the exit again for Cavtat again. “What the Hell,” Mary said, “Let’s see that town.”
“Damn right,” I said. Obviously the Croatian guy who knew every American swear word had infected our group’s vocabulary, but soon we were in charming little Cavtat, and soon Mussolini’s brother and the border problems became a distant memory.
We sat at a harbor side café, drank some cappuccinos and ate some sweets (gotta put that weight back on), and then took a wonderful hike along the sea that eventually brought us back to our car. We could see Dubrovnik in the distance as kayakers and canoers stroked by. It was no Montenegro, but it was a nice stroll back to the car.
Next stop was Lapad Bay for lunch at Casa Bar Restaurant. Today, Lady G had been flawless to this juncture, but she forgot to give one last, little detail as I started down the street toward the restaurant. “What did I do this time?” I thought, as I saw a young man waving his arms at me. At least, he didn’t look like a former dictator.
“You are driving in a pedestrian zone,” he said. “It would be wise to back up.”
Well, wisdom had not been a key word for me on this day, but I backed up, and we ended up having a nice lunch on the water at the Casa Bar and Restaurant. It had commanding views of the sea, and the food was quite good. I really liked the spaghetti with olio.
We hopped back in the car and drove to Dubrovnik to attempt to find the parking lot, which was nearby our apartment. Yes, there was a parking area, but the route to get there was a little more difficult than we had been told. Although a two-way street, only one car could navigate it safely at a time. Plus, there were more than a couple of blind spots.
Having already nearly caused a border incident and, shortly thereafter, driving in a pedestrian-only zone, my confidence was not at its peak. Fortunately, the troops had my back.
Forming a human parking attendant chain, Tracy, Kim and Mary positioned themselves along the route shouting directions and warning each other if any other vehicles were coming toward our direction. A few near misses later, and with looks of amazement from other drivers, we were safely ensconced in our parking spot at the top of the hill (which, by the way, had terrific Adriatic views).
By the time we got back to old Dubrovnik it was mid-afternoon. We all had things to do.
Kim and Mary finally got their opportunity to walk the Dubrovnik Town Walls, while Tracy and I strolled through town for our final visit to the Buza Bar.
In case you are wondering, we did visit Buza 2 on our three-day stay, and although the views are beautiful, the ambiance of Buza 1 could not be beat.
As Tracy and I sipped wine at Buza 1, looking out at a majestically blue sea, we heard a booming voice from above. “Hey Mr. and Mrs. Maitai (not our real names), look up here.”
I thought, “Well, if this is where God is going to pluck me from this earth, I can’t think of a better place.” Of course, it wasn’t God, but Kim on the Town Wall with his camera ready to shoot photographs of the most contented couple on earth savoring their final hours at this remarkable spot.
When I close my eyes, I can still hear that song, and I will always remember the Buza Bar, from the death-defying seating arrangements to the lovely, nimble wine server to the flirty, little bar cat and finally to the incomparable Adriatic views that have left an indelible image in my brain, in my heart and, most importantly, in my soul.
The Buza Bar has to be experienced to be believed. If you can’t be relaxed here, you might as well give up the quest. If you can’t be happy here, seek professional help as soon as you return home. If you can’t be contented here, satisfaction will always be beyond your grasp.
I hate to over-hype a place, and as a rule I do not, but the Buza Bar was that special for me. I can still close my eyes and picture us sitting here, sipping wine and taking in some of the most incredible atmosphere on earth. I shall definitely return here!
Kim and Mary had arranged reservations that evening at a little restaurant they had happened upon while embarking on one of their many luggage wild goose chases. Restaurant Orhan, located adjacent to the fortress, had a patio overlooking the Adriatic, and we got there just as the sun was setting. The setting (both the sun and the restaurant) made for a perfect backdrop to enjoy our final evening in this beautiful city.
Dinner was quite good, and afterward, it was time to climb those steps back to the apartments…or maybe not. Mary told us she had discovered a “short-cut” back to the apartments. “I saw this earlier today, and I don’t think we’ll have to climb 99 steps if we go up this way,” Mary said confidently.
Well, Mary was correct. About three thousand steps later (ok, that’s a slight exaggeration) we were back at the apartments, and those calories from dinner were but a distant memory (as was the feeling in our legs).
It was another beautiful night at the Benrussi Apartments, but this would be the end of our stay in delightful Dubrovnik. Tomorrow, the road warriors would be back on the highway, terrorizing Croatian drivers at every turn, as we drove up the coast to our next stop, Trogir, a place where we would soon be enveloped in red and white madness.
Since this was to be a traveling day, we all got some extra shut-eye and didn’t weave our way out of Dubrovnik until almost 10 a.m. We walked to our car, bypassing Mary’s unique shortcut of the night before, thus saving ourselves about 15 minutes.
The human chain worked to perfection as no pedestrians were injured exiting the parking lot, and we easily found the huge bridge heading north out of Dubrovnik, a place I definitely will return to someday. I might even attempt a journey down to pesky Montenegro, but will check all international news stations before I head south next time.
On the way to Trogir, the skies were beautiful as was the rugged Croatian coastline. We passed the road that led to Ston, which had restaurants that supposedly served the best oysters and mussels in Croatia. Since it was so early, I was shellfish and would not turn off the road (pardon me for that one).
We kept driving, and soon, up ahead in the distance loomed the Bosnia-Herzegovina border. We hoped that Mussolini had not phoned ahead about the “crazy, lane-switching Americans.” Obviously, he had not sent word to our Bosnian friends, and the guards waved us through without so much as giving us a second glance. A short while later, we were back in Croatia. The movie will be called, “If It’s Sunday between 11:30 and Noon, It Must Be Bosnia.”
We stopped at a little seaside town for lunch. Mary looked out at the car and said to me, “You had better turn off your lights (another Tom foreshadowing alert).” The laws in all these countries state that you must drive with your lights on, but sometimes the forgetful driver (aka me) would forget to turn them off. Fortunately, it also takes a village to help a driver.
At about 3 p.m. we arrived in Trogir. After missing the first exit (I was groovin’ to some really great Euro-pulsating music and didn’t hear Lady G (or Mary or Tracy or Kim) tell me to turn, so I got off at the next Trogir exit.
After passing some homes, we found ourselves in a rather industrial part of town. “This doesn’t look like a UNESCO sight to me,” I muttered. But sure enough, we were in Trogir, and there to our left was our home for the next two evenings, The Apartmani Trogir.
From the outside, it looked like a motel and located right next door to it was an auto repair shop. This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for a place to stay, but it had received good reviews, and remember, we are not “judge a book by its cover” type people. The Apartmani Trogir turned out to be a great find, located just about 1/8 mile from the bridge that takes you over to the center of Trogir.
Luka and his son were great hosts, and they had a nice breakfast spread each morning. The four of us shared a large apartment with a balcony (where, of course we would sip wine each evening), and the price was very inexpensive. The clean and modern apartment also had a kitchenette, secure parking area and wireless Internet.
Upon arriving, Luka gave us walking directions, and we made the short jaunt down to Trogir proper. As we walked from the parking lot over the bridge it now had the feel of a UNESCO World Heritage town, with its narrow alleys and pretty harbor. Soon we were in the historic center of town.
Once scaling the stairs, we were afforded lovely views over Trogir out onto the harbor. From the top we could see people dressed in some sort of uniforms, but it was not until we descended that we realized tonight was going to be a boisterous evening in Trogir. It was time to head back down to see what the heck was going on.
There were not a lot of people walking through Trogir late in the afternoon, but every time we came upon a restaurant there were tons of people dressed in red and white outfits and goofy looking hats. Yes, tonight was the first game of the Euro Cup, and these fans were ready to party as the game with Austria was just about ready to begin.
At one outdoor spot, there were dozens of Croatian fans, both of the two and four-legged variety. That’s right, even the dogs don their Croatian gear (I’m sure with a little help) for these games, and within minutes the cheering (and barking) was deafening as Croatia took an early 1-0 lead with only about five minutes gone in the first half.
Of course, this being soccer, that was the only score of the game. We had drinks at a place near the water and watched the first half. Watching the fans was much more entertaining than the game, and by the half, it was time for us to find a restaurant. However, I did want to celebrate with one of the fans.
As we walked through town in search of a restaurant, we ran into a kid who defined the soccer fans of Croatia. I think he barely had enough strength to wave his country's flag, but he was having fun doing it.
We found the Restaurant Capo inside the walls and it was a very pleasant evening of dining. Mary was now into the Croatian fish dishes and she dined on the mixed grill, while Tracy had salad and spaghetti. I enjoyed a steak with grilled zucchini and spinach, while Kim opted for the chicken. The dishes were all quite good.
The town was in a frenzy as we departed (no, not because we were leaving) because the game had just ended in a Croatian victory. Horns blared as cars zoomed to and fro across the bridge. I was now a full-fledged Croatian soccer fan.
We walked the short five to ten minutes back to our apartment, pulled some big chairs out onto the balcony, drank some wine, argued about the greatest sing-along songs of all time and headed off to bed.
It was the first night I had a little trouble getting to sleep, but I blame that on the fact that “YMCA” by the Village People was blasting through my brain. I just prayed I didn’t start dreaming of a cop, an Indian and a construction worker (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
In the middle of the night it started pouring down rain. “Damn,” I said, waking Tracy with a start. “Did we bring the furniture back to the room?” We were out on the balcony in two seconds.
No, we had not brought it back in, but on this night luck was on our side, and the rain was blowing the other way. The furniture was dry, and within minutes Tracy was sound asleep. I, on the other hand, had a new friend.
Every time I reached sleep mode, the buzzing of a lone mosquito had me swatting at air. This, of course, would awaken Tracy, and even though the lights were off, I felt her “look.”
Fortunately I had gained some weight back and was no longer the “Incredible Shrinking Man,” so I had a fighting chance against this evil, sleep-depriving monster of the night. I finally drifted off to sleep and, by morning, we would know who won this epic battle between man and insect.
(I finally drifted off to sleep and, by morning, we would know who won this epic battle between man and insect).
And the answer was…the insect by TKO. I awoke on this cloudy morning with multiple mosquito bites, but these weren’t the average run-of-the mill Southern California mosquito bites. These babies were huge, and there was one bite so big on the inside of my elbow that I thought I was growing a new appendage. The good news, the West Nile Virus was nowhere to be found in Trogir.
There was no sign of the monster mosquito, but I envisioned he was sitting out on the balcony smoking a cigarette and chatting on a cell phone to his mosquito buddies about his conquest. The funny thing about these bites was that they did not itch; not at all. The only problem was lifting my arm that now had a giant red mass attached to it.
After a nice breakfast cooked by Luka’s wife at the Apartmani Trogir, we took off for the second largest city in Croatia; Split. Our goal for the morning was to see Dioklecijanova Palača, (Diocletian’s Palace). In the late 200s Diocletian wanted a retirement residence to be constructed, but this palace was not going to be Leisure World.
The palace took more than a decade to build, and safety surely was not the order of the day. More than 2,000 people lost their lives building it, but I’m sure Diocletian did not care because he was busy torturing and executing Christians. By the time our car reached the parking area for the palace, the four of us were ready to torture and execute the people who were in charge of sign directions in Split.
We got off at the appointed exit we had been told to take, saw a sign for the palace and then…nothing. There were no signs, but we followed a course that seemed to be going in the general direction of the palace.
Driving through Split, we were very happy we had not made this city our base. Split was big, and it will not go down as one of my favorite European cities. We drove down to the harbor, saw no sign of or signs for the palace, figured we had made a wrong turn and headed back. We did this a few times until we realized our first instincts had been correct. “Just find a parking space anywhere,” Tracy said. “After that big breakfast, the walking will do us good.” Words she would regret only a couple of hours later.
We walked down to the Obala Hrvatskog Narodnog Preporoda (Croatian National Revival Embankment), which is known as the Riva. The promenade has been a focus of controversy because it was recently redone, and many people think it looks too modern. We thought it looked fine, even with the slight smell of sulpher, a smell that I first blamed on Kim (hey, we've known each other a long time.
We toured Diocletian’s Palace for about an hour. There were numerous rooms that we meandered through and crowds were fortunately at a minimum, so we could view them as they might have looked centuries ago.
It was then time toclimb the stairs to Katedrale Sv. Duje (Cathedral of St. Dominus). The last part of the stairwell was rather precarious, but we again lived to tell about them.
At the top, Kim had me pose with four new “Mrs. Maitais,” whose combined age was younger than some bourbon I have drank in my life. Tracy reminded me again about living in the back of the Honda, and once more my dreams were shattered.
On the way back to the car, we strolled through an outdoor market where I picked up a melon that smelled delicious. The gang was ready to split Split and get back to quaint Trogir for lunch, and it was at this moment that Kim and I made our fatal decision.
“Don’t you think if we walked up this street, it will take us right back to the car?” Kim said.
“Absolutely!” I said stupidly.
Our wives were not quite so sure about this and lobbied to go back from whence we came.
“No,” I said stubbornly, “Kim is definitely right.”
About 15 minutes and 20 “looks” later, Kim and I realized we had no clue where the hell we were or where the hell we were going. It was now very hot out and Tracy’s expression made Medusa’s stare look romantic. Fortunately, I did not turn into stone.
Mary was happy, because now her Dubrovnik “short-cut” was a distant second in walking miscues on this trip.
Eventually we got back on track, found the car and after the mandatory 10 minutes of silence, the couples were once again speaking to each other in civil tones.
We parked back at the apartment and scurried over to Old Town Trogir for a little more exploration of the town and a much-needed lunch and found a place on the Trogir Riva. Kim and Mary went back to the apartment first, while Tracy and I finished some wine.
When we arrived about 20 minutes later, Kim was standing next to the car. “What are you doing out here?” I asked.
“You left the lights on,” he said, “and I don’t know where you put the key.”
“No problem,” I thought. I was sure that this car was just like my Honda (where I would live if I ever cheated on Tracy), and the lights would shut off automatically after a few minutes.
We climbed upstairs; I grabbed the keys and said confidently, “I’ll be back in a few seconds.” I hurried downstairs, got in the car, turned off the lights and, just so I could reassure everyone when I returned, I turned the key to start the car.
Holy Buster Keaton, all I could hear was silence. I tried again. No luck. It was 4 p.m. and we were going to leave tomorrow at the crack of dawn to go to Plitvice National Park. Yes, I had a dilemma. Think fast.
Then I remembered. Our apartment was located next to an auto repair shop. I walked briskly over to a few guys standing in front of a dismantled car and asked if anyone could speak English. Of course, they all spoke English and fortunately the young man working at the shop had some jumper cables. “Give me a couple of minutes, “ he said.
By the time I had walked back to the car, he was there on his motorcycle. He hooked up the car to the motorcycle, and I heard the beautiful sound of our rental car’s engine humming. “Keep it on 15 minutes and you’ll be fine,” he said. The charge (pun intended) was about ten bucks.
Right after he left, Kim came down and said, “Well, it looks like everything was ok.” I thought about just answering “yes,” but because we are “the story comes first” type of people, I came clean. He just shook his head; laughed and said, “See you up on the balcony for some wine.”
Later, as we sipped our vino, Kim and Mary said (or I thought they said), “How about Marijuana tonight for dinner?”
“Is that legal in Croatia?” I asked hopefully. Wow, first I’m nearly turned into stone and later I might get stoned. I wondered if Kim had any Grateful Dead songs on that IPOD.
Strolling through Trogir, we tried to get lost in the little alleyways that cropped up throughout the town. This UNESCO town is good for an overnight and is definitely cute, but there really is not an abundance of things to do here.
Of course, Kim and Mary didn’t mean marijuana, but the restaurant called Marijana. It was a nice way to end an unusual day, and the food was again fine, although Croatia’s food had not been, in our opinion, as good as the food we had eaten in the Czech Republic and Poland. However our resident fish connoisseur Mary was very happy with the choices from the sea in Croatia.
We arrived back at the apartment relatively early, because tomorrow we were going to drive inland and spend the day in Plitvička jezera (Plitvice National Park). As the four of us drifted off that night, we did not have a clue that one of the most gorgeous settings on the planet lay only a few hours away.
For once, it was not Tom who awoke Tracy from her deep slumber. Instead, it was the never-ending sound of bells from a nearby church that jarred her from her blissful repose. By the time she had finished counting (why she was counting, I don’t know), she had tallied 144 rings. Being my loving companion, she, of course, then woke me up to tell me all about how she was awakened from a deep sleep. I could relate.
Well, no harm done since we were all planning on getting an early start so we could spend a full afternoon at Nacionalni Park Plitvička jezera. We had a quick breakfast at Apartmani Trogir, said good-bye to our hospitable host Luka and started out for Plitvice.
The Apartmani Trogir was another winner for us, and its location next to the car repair shop, once thought to be a detriment, turned out to be our saving grace. It was inexpensive, clean, quiet (well, except for some late night Croatian soccer fans honking their horns), provided a nice breakfast, and I would recommend it, especially for those who like a good deal.
Once again, the sun was shining brightly and the skies were blue. The drive to Plitvice wound through the hills near Trogir, but we soon found ourselves on a new stretch of highway that we were told would cut off a lot of time on our drive. After more than an hour, we drove our car through a tunnel (a very long tunnel) that had been carved out of the mountain. Fortunately, we did not have to utilize one of the many “Exit-Escape” routes that are interspersed throughout the tunnel. It was quite a remarkable display of technology and one of the neatest tunnels I have ever been inside (I’ve always been a sucker for tunnels since the first time I saw “The Great Escape” as a kid).
Once we reached daylight again, the topography was quite different than when we first entered the tunnel. It was greener, lush and much more reminiscent of the Austria countryside than what we had previously seen in Croatia. From the highway exit to Plitvice, it took us just under an hour on a two-lane road through the forest setting to reach our hotel at the park, The Hotel Plitvice. The drive from Trogir had taken exactly two hours and 45 minutes.
At first glance, the Hotel Plitvice resembled a boxy, Communist-era hotel and does not appear to have been updated since the Sixties. I thought the Brady Bunch might appear at any moment as we rambled up the stairs, although I’m not sure if any of them were actual Communists (maybe Marcia, Marcia, Marcia). We were pleasantly surprised when we reached our respective rooms. Both rooms had spectacular views of one of the lakes with just a snippet of a glance at a cascading waterfall. This view (photo right) gave us only a glimpse of the natural beauty that we were about to see.
Although the hotel had shut down its breakfast service, they offered us the opportunity to eat and, what the heck; you can never have enough hard rolls and jam. Plus, we knew the remainder of the day would be a good workout, so we could afford a few more calories and carbs. The dining room was definitely national park Sixties era, but the views and service provided by the hotel staff more than compensated.
After breakfast, we rambled (there’s lots of rambling in national parks, as you can well imagine) on a paved path about five minutes from the hotel to the actual entrance to the park, where we bought our tickets and waited for the shuttle to transport us to the Donja Jezera (Lower Lakes). I had read in Rick Steves’ book that it was best to start at the Lower Lakes, and although, as I have stated, I don’t follow his restaurant and hotel advice often, his tips on visiting tourist sites have, for the most part, been right on the mark. He didn’t fail us this time, either.
Following a short tram ride, the trek began, and the first views of Plitvice were breathtaking, to say the least. We overlooked a panorama of waterfalls and lakes, not to mention a hell of a lot of tourists walking on the boardwalks that wind through, around and over the lakes and falls.
In about ten minutes we saw the signs for Velicki Slap (not a Croatian wrestler, but meaning Big Waterfall), and we took the ten to fifteen minute detour to take pictures and experience the thunderous, cascading water.
The Velicki Slap is the tallest waterfall in Croatia. The numerous lakes are lined with wooden boardwalks with a twofold purpose: one to keep you on the path and away from any unexploded landmines (the first person killed in the war was a forest ranger at Plitvice) and also to preserve the delicate ecological balance of the park.
As we walked along the wooden path along the lakes, it didn’t take long for Mary to go into her rendition of the Drifters’ song “Under the Boardwalk.” By the way, Mary is the only one in our group who not only can carry a tune, but who actually knows ALL the lyrics.
The Plitvice boardwalk system really is something to behold and something they would never allow in the litigious United States, since there were no rails to keep uncoordinated tourists from falling in. The lakes are incredibly pristine; so pristine that you are not even allowed to touch the water for fear of ruining the ecological balance (so you had better not fall in buddy!).
Water in the turquoise lakes was so clear that the school of fish glistening in the afternoon sun were smiling (probably because they knew that they would not be dinner for any of the tourists).
At each and every turn, a new, incomparable vista awaited us with another series of waterfalls tumbling down into the gorgeous lakes. The more we walked, the more people we saw, but thankfully most were going the other way having started at the Upper Lakes, so thank you Mr. Steves for your recommendation.
I don’t have a clue how long it would normally take to navigate the Lower Lakes, because every minute or so one of us stopped to take another in a seemingly never-ending series of photographs. After going through the countless pictures we snapped, Kim and I agreed that even our best photographs could not capture the astonishing beauty that is Plitvice National Park.
When our walk through the Lower Lakes ended, we arrived at a lake that had picnic tables and a place to get some refreshments, including barbecue items that smelled tantalizing. We grabbed some water, and soon found ourselves transported by boat about twenty minutes across Jezero Kozjak (so beautiful that I didn’t even make a Telly Savalas joke) to the Gornja Jazera (Upper Lakes) region of the park.
The tranquility and serenity here is indescribable, and even though we were only half way through our journey at this amazing park, we all commented that Plitvice might be the most fantastic national park we had ever visited.
If possible, the Upper Lakes were even more beautiful than the Lower Lakes. “Unbelievable.” “Incredible.” “Remarkable.” “Stupendous.” You can go through a litany of possible adjectives, and I believe by the end of our hike every superlative known to mankind had been uttered not only by us, but also by everyone we encountered on the trails of this wondrous park. Between the Buza Bar and Plitvice National Park, Croatia now had two of the most scenic spots on earth.
Our hike continued past where most tourists call it a day, and we were rewarded with even greater solitude and even grander views from above. Finally, the lakes and waterfalls became less and less prevalent, but by this time we were in “breathtaking scenery overload” mode.
At the end of the trail there was a sign explaining how the park was formed. Centuries ago there was a forested valley with a river running through it (actually, looking at a recent picture of Robert Redford, he might have been there). Over time, limestone was formed which broke off and caused the river to dam up and form the beautiful lakes and waterfalls that compose Plitivice. The unspoiled, white limestone lakes, submerged trees and schools of fish (not only are they happy fish, but educated, too) only add to the exceptional beauty.
The hiking at Plitvice is certainly not strenuous, and to this day the four of us marvel at the great boardwalk system that was built here. It gives the visitor to the park optimum views and a sense of awe that is hard to explain. This will definitely be a place I come ck to in the future.
We caught the bus back to where our day’s journey began. It tooks us a little more than four hours to wend our way through Plitvice. Back at the hotel, still enthralled with our day, we took a shower and decided to head down to the hotel bar. Better than that, they had a nice outdoor patio that made a perfect spot for some relaxing cocktails.
We spent the late afternoon chatting with other guests on the beauty of this national park. Looking out onto the National Park, the four of us once again counted our lucky blessings for being so fortunate to experience a day like today.
There were other spots we could travel to for dinner in the park, but we decided to dine at our hotel, and that turned out to be a very good choice. The food at the Hotel Plitvice was quite delicious. Kim and Tracy had the Veal “Stake” (obviously a favorite with Count Dracula) with a lemon cream sauce, salad, potato balls and sautéed mushrooms.
Mary, who had begun sprouting gills after all her seafood dishes, decided to go for the pork chop stuffed with sausage (the heart attack special, we called it), and she also had the requisite potato balls.
My motto on this trip was “You can never have too much Gorgonzola,” so I had the beef with Gorgonzola sauce, along with sautéed mushrooms and a salad.
By the time we had finished our meal, the girls were pooped and went back to the rooms, but Kim and I had a quest. Unbeknownst to me, Kim’s only quest was to watch me have a drink. The entire trip, I had wanted to try a drink called Slivovitz.
I had stolen the following quote from somewhere online and had it in my notes: "Real Slivovitz contains between 50 and 70% alcohol and can make even hardened drinkers cough and splutter. It will also burst into flames if you wave a lit match over the glass. Good Slivovitz should be served in a snifter like any other fine brandy, while low-grade Slivovitz should be swilled like any other cheap intoxicant." Yeah baby, bring it on!
Kim finally decided to join me in a shot of Slivovitz, so he asked the bartender if he liked the stuff. “Oh no, no; not at all. I wouldn’t drink it,” the bartender answered. Ok, that was not an overwhelming endorsement, but it did not deter us from the task at hand.
Although it was served in a snifter, I decided to go the “swilled like any other cheap intoxicant” route and chug it down, which I did. In an instant my face turned bright red, I began sweating and the hair on my body stood on end and saluted as if an honor guard was passing in front of me. If anyone had been smoking in my general vicinity, the hotel would have exploded into flames. Now I know how The Incredible Hulk felt during his body transformations.
I also believe I gasped, but right at that moment I was somewhere in limbo between a seizure and a coma. I do have the hazy recollection of Kim and the bartender doubling over in laughter at my alcoholic plight. The good news was that I had not burst into a fireball and that I still retained most of my internal organs.
When I regained my eyesight and 25% of the rest of my faculties, Kim and I walked, slowly, back to our rooms. Tracy was heavily involved in her reading, but took the time to ask, “How did the slivovitz experiment go?” She then looked up from her book, saw my slivovitz-induced flushed face, and in her best Rosanne Rosanna Danna imitation said, “Never mind.”
After brushing my teeth for the next couple of hours (slight exaggeration) and staying away from any flammable materials that might be in the room, we slipped into a tranquil sleep in peaceful Plitvice. My recommendation to anyone who travels to this part of the world is, “Do not miss Plitvice!” And, oh yeah, skip the Slivovitz!
I awoke early, happy to still be alive after the Slivovitz show of the previous night. I turned toward Tracy to whisper sweet nothings in her ear. Her reply, “Go brush your teeth. Your breath would kill an ox.” Romance was in the air.
We met Kim and Mary for a leisurely breakfast in the Hotel Plitvice restaurant. Croatia would be in the rear view mirror in a couple of hours as we were about to embark on a four-day journey of Slovenia. The destination today would be Ljubljana.
The first hour of the drive was very scenic at some turns, but it was the more graphic scenery that grabbed the attention of the passengers. About every five to ten minutes I would hear, “There’s a pig on a spit” or “There’s a pig barbecue.” Obviously, grilled pork was big in this part of the land, but being a city guy, I really don’t like to know what my meat looked like only minutes before eating.
I remember going to a county fair with Tracy in our early dating years. She had been a 4-H member as a kid, and I remember seeing this cute pig at the fair. “I had a really neat pig, too, when I was in 4-H,” Tracy said.
Being the naïve guy I was, I said, “What did you do with him after the fair?”
“We ate him,” was her not so subtle reply. That was the end of county fairs for me.
Anyway, in the two hours it took to reach Zagreb, the scenery became greener, and the architecture was much more in the Austrian/Swiss style. We got stamped at the Slovenian border, and we were cruising along on their nice, new highway system. Two hours later, we arrived in Ljubljana.
After a couple of Garmin and then human mistakes, we found our lodging for the next two nights, the B&B Slamič. This turned out to be quite a find.
Ljubljana is not an inexpensive town, and I found the Slamič quite by accident online. It had its own, gated parking, and we were then lead upstairs to a doorway that opened on to a foyer with two separate, lovely rooms that had hardwood floors and were nicely decorated.
Downstairs was a café dispensing coffee, pastries and cocktails, and one story above was a lovely breakfast room and outside patio. This was one of, if not the, nicest places we stayed during our four weeks.
“Why not?’ I inquired.
“Your president was here, and it was terrible.” I couldn’t tell if she meant the traffic or the man himself. Yes, we came a day after the George Bush Farewell Tour and judging by the reviews he received over the next couple of days George didn’t go over too well with the Ljubljana natives. At least this time he didn’t mix up the Slovenian prime minister with the Slovakian prime minister (“This job is hard!”).
After our nearly four hour drive, we were hungry, so armed with our Ljubljana map, we headed toward the Ljubljanica River and the heart of town, Prešeren Square. We crossed the Tromostovje (Triple Bridge that was designed by famed Ljbuljanian native-son Jože Plečnik) and plunked ourselves down at a cute riverside café, Stara Macka (Black Cat).
Mary had two giant (and delicious) hamburger patties with baked potato, grilled eggplant and zucchini. Kim decided on the Caesar salad with salmon
Tracy dined on the Stara Macka salad (arugula, pears, apples, grapes, red onions, peppers, blue cheese and goat cheese), while I went straight for a very good rib-eye steak. The local beer Union was just ok in our opinion, as we liked the Pivovarna Laško better.
The entire area was full of young, hip locals (and old, hip travelers), and we also overheard a lot of nattily clad Americans, who we surmised were here on government business and decided to stay for a day or two after Bush departed. There are plenty of cafes and bars lining each side of the river, and they spill onto side streets and alleys. We were all pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed Ljubljana.
After lunch we walked through the Old Town over to the funicular, which we took up to the castle area (3€). The gang thought they had avoided any stairs, a notion that was quickly dispelled when we saw signs to climb to the top of the castle tower for 3.50 €. The view from the top was lovely, and Ljubljanians say that on a clear day you can see forever (well, really about 1/3 of Slovenia) from here.
Kim and Mary then went their own way, while Tracy and I wandered the streets trying to find a restaurant (Gostilna AS) that had been recommended to us by someone who had lived in Ljubljana for a year.
We crossed the Zamajski Most (Dragon Bridge), a bridge that was originally dedicated to the Emperor Franz Josef. You can find dragons everywhere in Ljubljana thanks to a hero from one of my favorite childhood movies, Jason of “Jason and The Argonauts.” Supposedly, sometime after he stole the famed Golden Fleece (I bought mine at Land’s End), he slew the terrible Ljubljana dragon.
Since we were striking out when it came to finding the elusive restaurant, we did the best next thing and found an outside spot for a late afternoon cocktail (it really is always 5 o’clock somewhere) at the Hotel Slon.
Afterward, we took a circuitous route home past a couple of “Stop” signs that now read “Stop Bush.” Figuring they weren’t NFL fans and didn’t know who Reggie Bush was, we were pretty sure the comments were aimed at the prior day’s visitor. We also passed a wine cellar (enoteca) that we would return to the next day for an interesting demonstration.
When we got back to the B&B Slamič, Kim and Mary had placed a business card under our door. It was for Gostilna AS. We had looked all over for it, but couldn’t find it. They weren’t looking for it, but happened to pass by it.
We freshened up and walked back down toward the river to dine at Gostilna AS, which is located in a little walkway that runs perpendicular to the river. The more expensive AS restaurant is located downstairs and inside, but it was a lovely evening, so we decided to eat at the less expensive, outdoor restaurant. The downstairs restaurant would have to be pretty spectacular to beat its outside brother.
First of all, we had a terrific young waiter by the name of Micha (spelling is a guess), who recommended we try a bottle of San Tomas wine (20 €). It was so good, that we ordered a couple of bottles (shocking). The basket of warm baked goods with breadsticks, crostini, corn muffins and focaccia was quite a nice way to start the meal.
I absolutely loved my gnocchi with Quattro formaggio (Micha told me a small appetizer portion would be a good accompaniment to my entrée choice) to start. Then Kim and I had the “Crazy Veal”, which is a delicious Veal Chop that comes with grilled veggies and a potato with four cheeses (my arteries harden every time I think of this meal). The photo on left is from the internet.
Mary put her scuba gear on and dove into the Big Sea Platter of fresh fish, while Tracy had the Agliata z rozman (roast beef slices with rosemary on a bed of Arugula (hopefully that won’t be too “elite” for some of you). It also came with the four-cheese potato.
Somehow, even though I was now expanding at an alarming rate, I wasn’t full. Micha suggested I try the vanilla pannecotta with plums. It was a “Wow” dish. Then he surprised the table by bringing over a platter of sweets (chocolate covered strawberries, dark chocolate truffles, walnut pastries, chocolate covered pears and vanilla sugar cookies). Jenny Craig turned over in her grave and she’s not even dead!
Of course, I ordered another glass of wine to help the dessert go down easier. All of this overindulging (plus a hefty tip for Micah) came to about $95 per couple (well worth it!).
We took a very long route home since our waistlines were now bulging. Ljubljana was beautiful after dark, and I implore people to not overlook this underrated town. The people are nice, the B&B Slamič was terrific, and I think Ljubljana is well worth a couple of days and nights as a base.
We were all looking forward to the following day because the four of us were going to visit one of Slovenia’s most famous places, and since the forecast called for rain, this would be the ideal spot to spend the morning.
The forecast of rain turned out to be correct (yes, miracles occur even in meteorology) as we awoke to a flurry of showers. We met in the cozy breakfast room for cereal, croissants, hard rolls and yogurt, and then it was time for Postojnska Jama, which was not something we put on our rolls. We were about to travel a little less than an hour southwest to the famed Postojna Caves.
There are two large cave systems to choose from in Slovenia, Postjna or Škocjan, which is a little further from Ljubljana. Tourists have visited these caves since the early 1800s. After parking, we crossed a little river in the rain and scurried to buy our tickets for the next time slot. Ticket for entrance to the caves is 19€.
To enter the cave, all the cattle (I mean passengers) are herded on to a little train that twists and turns its way into the cave system. I don’t know how fast it travels, but it’s got some zip. The train ride was really neat, although you felt like you could be decapitated at any instant, which makes any ride just a bit more thrilling.
In fact, passengers are warned to keep their heads down, all the while keeping your extremities inside the train at all times. Kim, at 6 foot 3”, also attempted to take photographs while the train weaved very close to overhanging rocks, and he came precariously close to making Mary an instant widow (I think for 19€ she would have finished the tour, however).
Once inside, the groups are split into groups by language. Our tour guide was a terrific (and bright) young man who also led tours in French and Slovenian. He guided us on the paths and bridges that weaved through the unworldly stalagmite and stalactite realm. He told us that Russian prisoners of war had built these walkways during World War II.
The caves were both very cool and…very cool. Temperatures hover around the 46-degree mark, so taking a sweater or jacket is a wise move. At one point Tracy felt my arms and said, “Your skin feels like it has been rejuvenated.” And she was right.
Between the salt mines in Kraków and these caves, something in the cool, moist air was making my skin softer and younger looking (Geez, that sounds like an Oil of Olay commercial). “If I spend a week in these caves,” I told Tracy, “you could be married to a 20-year-old.”
Our guide also told us that algae was infiltrating the caves, and if they are not very careful, at some point they might have to be closed to the public, which would be terrible for my now youthful skin. After one last look at a subterranean lake, we hopped back on the Guillotine Express. As you can see on the left, the woman behind us looks as if the next corner will do her in. Luckily, we all survived.
The rain was still pelting down when we emerged from our underground adventure, so we drove a little further on the small two lane road through the lush countryside (between the scenery and our foursome, lush was the key word on our trip) to our next destination, Predjamski grad (Predjama Castle).
Located about six miles (or about ten kilometers) from the caves, Predjama is an imposing looking castle built into the side of rocks. Predjama Castle was the last known hideout for Erazem, who fancied himself as a Robin Hood-type character, although he actually was a thieving baron. Erazem killed the emperor’s cousin in a duel and used this place as a base to lead raids on nobility and merchants.
In the end, Erazem got it in the end. One day, while sitting on the can, soldiers sent a cannonball through the thin walls into the latrine, and Erazem was killed where he sat. That’s the straight poop or as much straight poop as any legend can have.
As you walk to Predjama from the parking lot you pass by bleachers where people attend jousting matches in the summer. Alas, there was no jousting today, but we were hungry anyway, so it was time to get back to Ljubljana.
Kim and Mary wanted to go see an art exhibit, so they stopped and had a quick Mexican cuisine lunch (Si, I don’t make ‘em up). Tracy and I strolled over to the river and onto a little sidestreet where we found a little teahouse that had been recommended by the same girl who had turned us on to Gostilna AS.
The Cajna Hisa Pod Velbom was a nice place to take refuge on a rainy day. We both had chicken curry salad and a nice glass of red wine. I guess we really didn’t have tea for two after all.
By now, it had stopped raining so we walked around Ljubljana some more and saw a beautiful building, which survived the big Quake of '95 (1895 that is). The Hauptmann House, as you can see (right), is very photographic.
Then we walked over to the Riverside Market and made our way cack to our next appointed destination.
Our next stop was the aforementioned Enoteca, located down a flight of stairs at Nazorjeva 12. Inside we met the proprieter, Sasha, who educated us on wines from the region.
He recommended we taste both a Carolina (not from North or South Carolina, but western Slovenia) white and red wine, and they both were quite good. We had told him that our next stop was Lake Bled, where we were going to learn Sabrage (how to open champagne and wine with a sword ) from a monk at the castle (well Tracy was going to learn that art, as I would surely kill an innocent tourist in the process).
Sasha said that he was sure the monk would charge some money for that demonstration, while he said he could perform Sabrage for free right here in the cellar. I stood a safe distance away as Zorro (I mean Sasha) whipped out his blade, slid his trusty saber toward the front of the bottle and cleanly separated the cork and collar from the neck of the bottle of wine.
“Now you can try that at your next dinner party,” Sasha said. Impaling guests is not my forte, and I said I would just be happy with the memories of Sasha’s sword expertise. Sasha recommended we dine at Cubo restaurant, located a couple of kilometers from the center of town. I wish we had followed his advice.
Instead we opted for something closer to our B&B, and it turned out to be a mistake. Fortunately for Kim and Mary, they were dining at another place on this evening.
Tracy and I were told Gostilna Sestica was a “traditional Slovenian restaurant.” At first, everything seemed normal. A cute hostess seated us in a lovely courtyard. There were quite a number of locals dining here. That was as normal as dinner would get on this evening (photo is from a Visit Ljubljana website).
The restaurant has supposedly been open since 1776, which coincidentally was the year our waiter was born. He appeared to speak perfect English, pointing out specials and answering all of our questions. It was then that something was literally “Lost In Translation.”
The waiter, who might have been the slowest moving human in Slovenia, would bring out one dish at a time to the various tables at a pace so slow that would even irritate a snail. Our wine, which we had ordered about 20 minutes before still had not appeared, so we asked if Igor (not his real name, but we had lots of time to come up with fictional names) could please bring it over, which he eventually did.
Another twenty minutes passed. Then it was half an hour. Igor would appear periodically to serve other tables, but we were inexplicably passed by. “Do I still have the breath that could kill an ox?” I asked Tracy. She assured me I was not the cause.
Finally, after an hour, Igor started to bring out our dinner; only the dinner he brought out was not the dinner we ordered. Tracy’s Arugula salad turned out to be watercress and radicchio salad. My beef noodle soup turned out to be, well it turned out to be nothing because he never brought me my beef noodle soup.
We asked Igor about Tracy’s salad, and he said that it was Arugula. Trust me, even an ignorant Obama detractor from Iowa would know that it was not Arugula. I was going to ask about my soup, but the main course came soon after Tracy’s fake Arugula salad arrived.
Tracy had ordered risotto with chicken and mushrooms. She was served rice with chicken and tomatoes. My “Steak Ljubljana Style” was supposed to be (according to that wacky menu) beef with roasted potatoes. Instead, I had a veal cordon bleu with polenta. When I asked Igor about this dish, he insisted that this was the “Steak Ljubljana Style.” I decided not to argue, and we decided not to have dessert here for fear we would be served pickled herring in a chocolate-raspberry purée.
As soon as the bill was paid (unfortunately for Igor, his tip was rather paltry) we rushed back to Gostilna AS where I had another delicious pana cotta, while Tracy ordered an incredible chocolate soufflé with crème anglaise and strawberries (a “Wow” dish to be sure). A couple of Irish coffees later and our “Lost In Translation” dinner was a faded memory (well, I guess not too faded).
We strolled the streets of Ljubljana again until about 11 and headed back to the b&b. The following day would be the short drive to Lake Bled, a drive that would be made just a tad bit longer by the surprising cameo appearance by a suave, Slovenian police officer.
Overcast skies greeted us on this morning and after breakfast at the B&B Slamič, we were on the highway for the short one hour jaunt to Lake Bled. As we neared the Bled turnoff, the highway quickly shrunk from four lanes down to two, and after another 100 yards, off to the side of the road, I spotted a man in uniform.
As it turned out, he had spotted me as well, and, holding a little sign, he waved me toward him. Knowing he was not the official Lake Bled greeter, but not thinking I had committed any driving infraction, I pulled over.
I rolled my window down and said, “Dober-Dan.” Well, I think that’s what I said.
DIGRESSION: By the end of our four weeks in the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Croatia, we were pretty messed up with which language we were attempting to speak, especially when it came to saying “Good day and hello.”
In Czech, it was “Dobrý den.” In Polish, it was “Dzień dobry.” In Croatian, it was “Dobar dan” and in Slovenian the aforementioned “Dober-dan.” With all the brain cells killed throughout these countries, we had been known to mix up our “Dobers” with our Dobrýs and our “dans” with our “dens.”
So, by the time I encountered the officer, I could have said something like “Daffy Duck” or “`Dizzy Dean” for all I know, but I think he knew what I said, because he just said “Hello.”
This guy had a really cool voice. If you are a fan of Magnum PI (or even if you’re not) he sounded exactly like the Soviet agent who blew up Magnum’s buddy Rick in the Ferrari and who called Magnum “Thomas” in an inimitable way (until today). It is the greatest episode of Magnum PI ever; a two-parter entitled “Did You See The Sunrise?”
The officer asked me for my driver’s license, international license and my passport. Fortunately he did not ask for my first born because I don’t have one. On the outside I was Magnum cool. On the inside, I was Don Knotts’ nervous.
“Thomas,” he said slowly in his unmistakable movie star voice. “Do you know what you did?”
I did not.
“When you see signs that the highway is narrowing to only two lanes, it is a ‘No Passing Zone’.” I hadn’t passed any other cars, and he was around a corner so I don’t know how he would have known if I passed a car anyway, but getting into an argument with a Slovenian cop did not seem like a prudent course of action.
After checking all of our passports, he continued. “Thomas (although nervous, I really enjoyed hearing him say my name),” usually the fine for what you did is 20 euros.”
Like a great Shakespearean actor, he then took a dramatic pause, looked away for a split second, turned back toward me and added, “But today is your lucky day and I am going to let you go with just a warning.”
If only he had said, “Well, do you feel lucky? Well, do you punk?” I guess hoping he would impersonate a Clint Eastwood character would have just been too much to ask.
We drove (carefully) the rest of the way to Bled and our hotel, the charming and inexpensive Hotel Berc (photo is from our last day when the weather was better). According to Tracy’s notes, it was a “gorgeous, Swiss chalet style hotel with an abundant amount of natural woodwork with a pretty garden setting in the back offering breathtaking views of the mountains.” I will stand by her account.
Our host, Luka (our second Luka of the trip), was very apologetic about the inclement weather saying, “It had been very warm up until the past few days.” We had been very lucky to this point, so que sera.
As we started walking toward the lake, a deluge of water drenched us as a substantial rainstorm hit the area. By the time we reached the Panorama restaurant, the four of us were soaked, but we were on a quest that neither rain nor sleet nor hail could keep us from (well, maybe sleet or hail, but since it was only rain, we continued).
I had read and been told about a Lake Bled specialty called kremna rezina (or kremšnita). It is a layer cake, but unlike any layer cake we have ever experienced. This cake has a layer of cream and another of vanilla that resides inside a delicate crust. It is said you can buy them elsewhere, but that the only genuine ones are found in Bled. The name is derived from the German word Cremeschnitte, or “cream slice.”
The kremna rezina was absolutely incredible. Never have 50,000 calories gone down so easily, and surprisingly the cake is very light. It absolutely just melted into my mouth, and I have craved this dish ever since coming back to Southern California. I told Tracy that I would return to Bled just to experience a kremna rezina again. The flavor was magnificent and with an espresso to go with it, it makes for an unbeatable combination in the morning (or afternoon…or night).
Back outside it was still pouring, and even though we had just consumed all those calories, it was time for lunch. We quickly hurried inside the Park Hotel (where kremna rezina was invented in 1953) and sat down at a window overlooking the lake.
The décor of the Park Hotel Restaurant is 80s Las Vegas chic with turquoise and lavender the prevalent color scheme. All that was lacking were some slot machines, a Keno girl and Wayne Newton. Fortunately, the view onto the lake kept our group from going temporarily color blind.
The food was good, however. I had pasta with blue cheese; Tracy opted for a beef broth with pommes frites, Kim a cheese omelet and Mary a veggie soup with salad.
It was now nearing mid-afternoon, and there was no sign of a let up from the rain. On the way back to the Hotel Berc, Kim and I found a little restaurant that looked perfect for dinner. Since we rarely ever knew what day of the week it was, Kim and I did not go in and get reservations, which would have been smart because it was a Friday night and Bled is a big resort town for Slovenians, Austrians, Germans and as we found out, Brits. There was also a huge rowing event taking place on this particular weekend.
We went back to the room for a little R&R and I got caught up with some work on the free Internet provided downstairs just outside a lovely breakfast room. About 6 p.m. we meandered back down to the lake because the weather had cleared some, and there were now spectacular views of the Julian Alps, the castle on the hill overlooking Bled and the signature piece of land here, the island with the church on the lake (well, actually the island is on the lake and the church is on the island and the hand bone’s connected to the arm bone).
We stopped into a little pub and watched some soccer (of course, no one scored while we watched). Across the street from the pub was the restaurant where Kim and I decided earlier we would eat. By now it was really cold outside, and Kim had and I, in our best unscripted Abbott and Costello started adlibbing, a mistake that would soon bite us right in the ass and still lives in infamy today.
I believe Kim started this impromptu routine by saying, “There’s the restaurant we booked for tonight, Tom. I hope our table is ready.”
Then (in a moment of sheer stupidity) I added, “Yes, tell them we have the reservations by the fireplace. We’re just going to take a couple of more pictures.” Now as you might remember, we had no reservations and we did not have a clue if they had a fireplace.
“Great,” Tracy said, “I am freezing.” “Me too,” Mary added.
Like a couple of dolts, we stayed behind to take some pictures of the mountains, the lake, the tiny island in the center of the lake, the castle lon the hill and a blazing sunset. Meanwhile back at the restaurant (Ostarija Peglezn), there were two freezing women sitting out on the patio, shivering and none too pleased with their respective spouses when we approached a few minutes later.
Our wives had gone inside and Tracy had asked for the “table by the fireplace” we had reserved. Well, of course, there was no reserved table…and no fireplace. They did have a table, however. Outside. On the patio. The very cold patio. Well, it was actually freezing.
Speaking of freezing, for about the next twenty minutes I received the deep freeze from Tracy. She was even too cold to give me the look or call me an idiot. That spells trouble for Tom.
“Isn’t the view wonderful?” I said to Tracy. “Look at how spectacular the mountains look tonight.” I might as well have been talking to the mountain. I hadn’t been in this much hot water since the famous “Rome Train Station Sherpa Incident of 2005.”
Thankfully, our charming waiter, great wine and terrific food thawed her out. She began speaking to me again through Kim and Mary, so a quick Slovenia divorce had been narrowly averted.
I started with a goulash soup and then ordered at the beef peppercorn steak with polenta.
Tracy had a really terrific dish of sliced beef on a bed of arugula (thankfully this place knew the difference between arugula and watercress).
Mary stayed the fish course with a fish soup and seafood risotto. Kim either didn’t eat or we forgot to write it down (I assume it was the latter, since Tracy had not completely thawed out from the fireplace incident).
This was all washed down by a couple of bottles of very good cabernet that our waiter called “gorgeous.”
“Just like my wife,” I added. She shook her head. She wasn’t buying that romantic drivel for a minute.
We liked the restaurant so much we made reservations for the following evening…inside!
As soon as we walked in the door of the Hotel Berc, the rain started up again, and we hoped it would let up tomorrow so we could get a better view of beautiful Bled. We had things to do, places to see and only one more day to do it!
By morning the rain had subsided, and we decided to get an early start because Luka had said the forecast called for more rain by the middle of the day. Our local Southern California goofball weather forecasters are about as accurate as my golf shots (that would basically be never), but so far on this journey, the reports had been almost perfect.
I was the first one down at the charming Berc Breakfast room, but it started filling up with travelers. One man, who I believe was German (I had run into him the previous day at the computer), walked into the room, saw me sitting at the first table and said, “Good morning.”
I am very happy to inform those Europeans on the board who believe Americans don’t respond to such early morning greetings, that, although sluggish from a tad bit too much wine the previous evening, I looked up from my caffeine and replied, “Good morning.”
The rest of our gang joined me shortly thereafter, and we partook of a breakfast buffet that included fruit salad, cereal, yogurt, meats, cheeses and hard-boiled eggs. The Hotel Berc gets high marks for everything from the rooms to the buffet to Luka, who was a terrific host.
Our plan had been to take the pletna boats to the island first thing in the morning, but because of the previous night’s rain, the pletna gondoliers were still bailing water out of most of them. Not wanting to drown on a full stomach, we decided to postpone the island trip for a bit.
Still loaded down by all those excess carbs, we walked over to St. Martin’s Church where we caught the steep trail leading up to the Blejski Grad (Bled Castle). In Rick Steves’ guidebook, he said it was a 20-minute walk to the castle. We made it in ten. For those who can’t hike (or for the extremely lazy), it is possible to drive up here, too, but that is not allowed on Tom’s Tuscan-Slovenian-Croatian-Czech-Polish Tours (I better come up with a shorter name by the next trip).
Entrance to the castle is 7€. The interior of the castle was entirely forgettable with uninteresting displays. However, the views of Lake Bled and the little island were incredible from the castle patio.
This is also the place where the monk entertains visitors by performing Sabrage on champagne bottles for 15€ a pop. We walked over and talked with the monk, who was quite funny, but we decided that since it was just a little after 9 a.m., it was a bit too early for champagne (yes, even we have our alcohol limits, albeit they are very narrow limits to be sure).
We took the path back down to the lake, where the pletnas were now devoid of excess water and starting to take off for the island. Our pletna gondolier waited for the boat to fill up, and when enough people were on it to make it worthwhile for him, we were off on the short ride to the Otok (the island).
Our skilled gondolier weaved his way through a rowing competition and delivered us to the island safely.
When he dumped us off, he said we had thirty minutes until he would head back to shore. The island big-ticket item is the Church of Assumption and its famous 96 stairs, where grooms supposedly carry their brides all the way to the top from the lake (where they presumably cry 96 Tears).
We started to climb the stairs, but I thought it would be fun to pick Tracy up for a photo opportunity that would dazzle our friends when we got home. This way I could tell them I carried Tracy up 96 stairs (yes, I know they wouldn’t believe it, but what the heck). I would muster up all my superhuman strength and attempt to pluck my lovely wife and lift her skyward as Kim captured the moment on his camera. It would be a magical moment.
With one fell swoop I lifted and, well let me just say, it is only a mild hernia. Tracy was laughing so hard she could barely get off her trademarked line, “You’re such an idiot.”
A couple of minutes later Mary delivered even more distressing news. “Tom, these are not the right set of stairs,” she said. “The 96 stairs you were talking about are on the other side of the island.”
I was incredulous. Not only had I ruptured my spleen, pulled a groin and thrown my shoulder out of whack, but I did it all on the wrong stairs.
I limped over to the other side of the island, where we climbed (slowly) the correct 96 stairs (there was no more lifting, however) to the church. Although you can go inside, we did not. Many did, however, because the bell kept clanging and clanging thanks to the folklore that if one rings the bell three times, their wish will come true. I thought about going in and wishing for a new body, but realized I was too far gone to be helped.
The round-trip pletna experience cost us 12€ per person, and if you come to Bled, it is something you should do. I would pass, however, on the lifting experience unless you are in better shape than myself or are married to one of the skeletal stars of 90210.
The weather was threatening, but we decided to take the 3½-mile hike around the lake. This is a very easy hike and took us about 90 minutes to accomplish.
Along the route, we ducked inside the Vila Bled, which was the former residence of Tito (the dictator, not the Jackson 5 member). It is now a hotel, where I almost booked us, and, after visiting, we were glad we did not stay here. Although we had friends who said they had a wonderful time at this hotel, it was just a little too posh and polished for our tastes.
Speaking of tastes, we had nearly completed the loop around the lake when the skies opened up, so we went in search of cover…and lunch. We had met some Brits on the pletna ride, and they recommended a pub that served a really good lunch, Gostilna pri Planincu, which has been around since 1903 (or so it said on its façade).
Inside, there were license plates on the ceiling, which always says to me “delicious cuisine.” Because of the inclement weather, the inside of the pub was packed, so, in what was now becoming a Bled tradition, we ate outside in the freezing weather, but at least under an awning that kept the rain from pouring down upon our table. License plates not withstanding, the food actually was very good.
On a cold day, nothing can beat a bowl of goulash soup, and the one I ordered did not disappoint. It was chock full of beef chunks and made me forget for the moment that I was losing feeling in many of my extremities.
Mary and I, thanks to a recommendation of a gentleman from Portugal sitting at the next table, had a local specialty of far too many sausages that, I believe, are still residing in my system to this very day. Kim went for the garlic soup, grilled chicken and French fries while Tracy had the grilled calamari with potatoes and spinach.
We had a nice, long talk with the Portuguese guy who was in Bled on business. One of the things we love so much about travel is the interesting and diverse people we meet along the way.
The walk back to the hotel was interesting since the wind had picked up and was blowing the pouring rain into our faces. By the time we trudged back to Hotel Berc, it looked like the four of us had taken a swim in Lake Bled.
After a nice afternoon nap and terrible movie on the making of the television show Dynasty, we all met in the backyard of the Hotel Berc and sipped some wine. The hotel also had a little stash of alcohol in the breakfast room. Whether it’s booze, orange juice or water, if you take anything from the little bar area or refrigerator, you are on the honor system to write it down.
After our only nap of the vacation, the four of us hooked up in the back yard of the Hotel Berc for some more freezing al fresco snacks (wine included, of course). It was a marvelous setting, and the four Southern Californians were even acclimating (finally) to the weather conditions. Their were stupendous mountain views that got better and beter after every sip.
For dinner that evening we went back to the Ostarija Peglezn, where we had dined the previous evening. This time, however, we were seated indoors, much to the delight of a certain Mrs. Maitai.
My choice of dinner perplexed our waiter and everyone else at the table. I ordered gnocchi with pancetta to start and followed that up with arugula gnocchi with four cheeses.
“Yes,” I answered. You can never have to much gnocchi.
Mary dined on a grilled, fresh tuna steak on a bed of grilled veggies. Tracy had the beef on a bed of arugula, while Kim enjoyed his cheese gnocchi and grilled salmon.
I finished it off with a great dessert called Charlotte Cake. It was similar to pana cotta and had a terrific strawberry sauce drizzled on it. The days of having my pants slip off due to my skinny frame were long gone. I was now “The Incredible Expanding Man.”
As we walked back to Hotel Berc, we could see some clear sky opening up through the cloud cover. We were leaving Bled in the morning for our drive to Rovinj, Croatia, but we did hope we could get a glimpse of this lovely place on a clear day before departing.
Sunshine! Blue skies! Finally! So this is what Lake Bled looks like on a beautiful day? It was stunning. I wish we would have had one more day to explore the area, especially since the weather turned so delightful.
Up very early, we strolled about half way around the lake, taking new and improved sunshine pictures of the lake, the castle, the island and anything else we could find. I know Eddie Rabbitt loved a Rainy Day, but as beautiful as Lake Bled was the past couple of days in the dampness, being here on a perfectly sunny day is ten times better.
As we meandered lakeside path, a family of swans (well, they looked like a family because they were fighting a bit) approached us, apparently looking for someone to give them a breakfast treat. Heeding the warning signs not to feed the swans anything but dandelion leaves and, being the suckers we are, Tracy picked up a handful of leaves and threw them to the hungry little guys.
They gobbled it up faster than me scarfing down a kremna rezina. “This must be swan arugula,” she said. (lots of arugula talk on this trip)
Speaking of kremna rezina, it was almost 10 a.m. when we strolled up to the patio at the Hotel Park, the birthplace of my new favorite food on earth (ok, maybe it was tied with gnocchi). I was having cake withdrawal syndrome, and it wasn’t pretty.
It was already about 20 degrees warmer than it had been at anytime since we had arrived. We sat down at a table on the outside patio with a beautiful view of the lake and the morning’s rowing competition. Fortunately the waitress, sensing my kremna rezina withdrawal symptoms, immediately stopped by the table to take our order. If anyone is traveling to Bled in the near future, please Federal Express me some kremna rezina. Life has not been the same without it.
We wanted to stay, but there was a full day of sightseeing activities ahead of us, and this was no time to dawdle. We bade farewell to Luka and the terrific Hotel Berc to head toward our first stop of the day, Vintgar Gorge, which, Luka told us, was only a few minutes away. Well, it would have been only a few minutes had we followed the correct signs. About a half hour later, after some nifty and highly illegal U-Turns, we found Vintgar Gorge (and what a find it was)
Once there, we walked to the little shack where you pay the 4€ admittance fee and within a few seconds we were in the midst of picturesque scenery. Although not hyped by many, the four of us thought Vintgar Gorge was one of the super highlights of our four weeks.
Similar to Plitvice, there was a boardwalk with handrails, and it paralleled the river Radovna. Bridges crisscrossed this fast flowing river that also contains a number of waterfalls. The views were stunning, and this rivaled Plitvice for the number of photos taken.
We walked all the way to a big waterfall, a hike that took approximately one hour (due to the many photo opportunities along the way). The return hike to the parking lot took about 25 minutes. For those of you who travel to Bled, I highly suggest a side trip to Vintgar Gorge. Some might call it a "Poor man's Plitvice," but I say it is well worth your while to visit.
Back in the car, we headed toward Ljubljana, where we got on the highway pointed toward our next destination on the way to Rovinj, Croatia. About an hour south of Ljubljana was the turnoff to Lipica, home of the Kobilarna Lipica (Lipica Stud Farm) and famed Lipizzaner stallions.
This had been high on Tracy’s list because she grew up around horses, which is probably why I looked and smelled good to her when we first met. Tracy had performed at numerous horse shows in Northern California growing up, so she was very high on seeing these prancing phenoms.
The stud farm is located about ten minutes off the main highway, and we were on pace to be able to see the horses out in the field and catch the show at 3 p.m. We walked over to the area where a bunch of the Lipizzaner mares were hanging out, and after about ten minutes of petting (the horses) and picture taking, we walked over to the concession stand to get a bite to eat.
Unless you haven’t eaten for a few days, I would recommend skipping the food here. And, as for souvenirs, this place needs some definite marketing expertise.
The 3 o’clock show was about to begin, so we bought our tickets for 16€ each and entered the Lipizzaner Dome (not its real name) for the half hour extravaganza. Here is where reports of the show might differ among those of us who have attended this show.
For about ten of those minutes, a couple of carriages being pulled by these nags (excuse me, incredibly talented steeds) crisscrossed (slowly) around the Horsey Dome (not its real name). Charlton Heston in Ben Hur, it was not.
For another ten minutes, the Mr. Ed look-alikes performed dressage while riders whose personalities would make Brit Hume look jovial (actually, the horses bore an uncanny resemblance to the Fox pseudo-journalist) pretended to be interested in the proceedings.
Then for another ten minutes, we had to look on excruciatingly as the horses leapt up to stand only on their hind legs. I had visions of Barbaro as these horses were forced to perform these feats of daring-do, which really after the first time was hard to look at.
Afterward, Mary (the nice one in our group) turned to Tracy and said sincerely, “That was very interesting.” I believe that is when Kim and I erupted in laughter. Even Tracy had to snicker.
“No really,” Mary went on. “That was fun to see.”
Tracy did say that what we saw was not easy to do for either the riders or the horses, and Kim and I, in between bouts of uncontrollable laughter, agreed. Was it worth it? I’ll leave that up to others. I will say I liked it when the horses went into a kind of sideways stutter step that reminded me of myself dancing after drinking heavily.
Obviously I had been a little bored at the show (ok, it was really boring), so to wake myself up for the drive to Rovinj, as we all made our way to the car (with many of those in the audience walking right behind us), I suddenly went into a slapstick Lipazzaner routine by side-stepping back and forth along the path while making horse noises. You've heard of The Ugly American, well I was now The Crazy American.
Albeit, it was no Tina Fey imitation of Sarah Palin, but there was laughter and a smattering of applause. No one offered me any hay. By the way, I was slivovitz free at this time and no travelers or horses were injured during my performance.
Well, needless to say, we decided not to take the tour of the farm, and we piled back in the car for the trip to Rovinj, which would take about another 90 minutes or so.
As we approached our destination, there were multiple signs to Rovinj. The problem was that the signs pointed in different directions. Of course, as it turned out, we took the wrong direction, but at least we got close enough to call our apartment host. She explained how to enter the car-free zone and met us in the old town to show us our place of lodging.
We dumped the luggage, and Kim and I drove back to the car park located on the edge of town. On the way back to the apartment (Porta Antica), I stopped at a souvenir stand and purchased a Croatia capt to root for my new favorite soccer team.
The apartments were great. Our rooms overlooked the beautiful Rovinj harbor, and, as it turned out, was only about 100 yards from where we would catch the boat to Venice in a few days.
Rovinj is quite charming (and small). After getting freshened up, we all walked around town to get the lay of the land until we decided it was time to fill our stomachs again (that sandwich at the Lipica Stud Farm was thankfully a distant memory by now).
We ate at Lampo, a place that overlooked the harbor, and although we found out later it is a Rick Steves’ choice, the food was fine (we like him for travel tips, not fine dining). I had a beef soup with rice and an Istrian-style risotto (with beef and mushrooms).
Tracy decided to go with a mixed salad and seafood risotto, Kim had a beefsteak with veggies and pommes frites, while Mary had the fish soup and grilled sea bass. By this time, Mary had eaten so much fish that she could actually breath underwater, and I swear her clothing covered a sophisticated set of fins.
After Kim and I had finished our dessert of chocolate crepes, the waiter came over with a surprise that nearly sent us into shock. Yes, the table was rewarded for its exemplary dining skills with a free round of slivovitz, and we all lived to tell about it (well, that’s because Kim and I took one for the team and drank our wives’ shots, too).
We then walked down to a little place called Zanibar (no we did not run into Dorothy Lamour) and had (very expensive) drinks. Not content with our alcohol consumption for the evening, we hit another local haunt that had the Turkey/Czech Republic European Cup match on its outside television. Having just been to the Czech Republic, we rooted for them, but in a stunning comeback Turkey rallied to win, however that might have been the most entertaining 20 minutes of soccer I had ever witnessed.
Both couples then retired to our respective apartments (no elevator and the stairs were a little steep, but the rooms were terrific). We called home and received some very distressing news. Our cat, Cupid, was not doing very well. We went to sleep, but it was a restless sleep to be sure.
DAY TWENTY FOUR – TRACY GETS IN HOT WATER, SCARY STAIRS, ALLEY OOPS, TRUFFLE TIME, THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT AND WINE TIME
Worried about Cupid, we didn’t sleep too well, but it was not the fault of our apartment (Porta Antica) or it’s location (quiet). We both looked forward to a nice hot shower the next morning, and being the consummate gentleman (ok, I was just trying to get an extra ten minutes of shut eye), I let Tracy go first.
Tracy put her Invisalign braces in a cup of hot water to soak and hopped in the shower. “Whoa,” I could her blurt out from the shower. By the time I had gotten my tired body out of bed, she was fine.
“What happened?” I asked.
“That water really gets hot fast,” she answered. We didn’t know how hot for a few more minutes.
Uon exiting the shower, she went over to the cup where she had her braces were soaking…or what was left of them. If those braces could have spoken, they would have been like the Wicked Witch of the West and yelled, “I’m melting! Melting!” Yep, they were goners.
Obviously, I took a very careful shower, and then the two of us met Kim and Mary in front of the apartments, and we went in search of breakfast. If anyone would like an entrepreneurial idea, I suggest opening a breakfast place in Rovinj. There were opportunities for ice cream sundaes, but not a lot of spots to find a croissant and an espresso, but, of course, we eventually did find a little bakery.
We ventured back to the sea to the place where we watched a litle soccer the previous evening. and ordered some espressos and coffees. We were totally enjoying the fresh air and spectacular ambiance of Rovinj.
It was a little overcast, but the sun was making its move early, so we were confident it would be a beautiful Rovinj day. We meandered through some alleys and streets and reached the Sv Eufemija (Church of St. Euphemia), the large, landmark church in Rovinj that you can see from just about anywhere in town or on the sea.
It’s campanile rises nearly 200 feet and is a replica of the one we would see at St. Mark’s Cathedral in a couple of days. Having had the most caffeine, I was the designated climber and started up the 192 stairs (after paying 1.60€). As stated in previous installments, I don’t shy away from these things, even though I do get a little edgy about high places. The last part of this trek up the campanile was among the scariest stairs I have climbed.
Although never fearing I would fall to my death, the steps were treacherous, so much so that a number of people turned back. Knowing I would never hear the end of it had I attempted to wimp out, I made my way onto the skinny, wooden stairs that lead to the viewing platform, and the vistas from here were well worth the vertiginous climb. I waved to my three companions who seemed content sitting outside enjoying the now gloriously sunny morning.
After rejoining everyone, we went back inside the church to find the sarcophagus of St. Euphemia. So the story goes, as a young girl, Euphemia was arrested by Diocletian’s henchmen and brutally tortured. They even put her on a wheel and broke her bones, but she would not die.
Ticked off by her refusal to expire, Diocletian then tried to feed her to the lions, but miraculously the lions did not devour her, instead talking some playful nips at her arm. Unfortunately in those times, becoming a saint meant a premature death, and, sure enough, the Romans finally managed to kill her.
Many years later, a huge, marble sarcophagus containing her remains washed up in Istria. People wanted to transport it up to the Church of St. George (this church’s name at the time), but the damn thing was too heavy.
But the happy ending (well, except for the broken bones, drowning and death thing) occurred when a kid with two calves appeared and dragged her relics up to the church. There is also a fresco of the lions playfully nipping at her arms.
We walked back down to the harbor along Grisia Street, which I believe means “a street where tourists are quickly parted from their hard-earned cash by numerous shopkeepers.” A couple of missteps on this alley street almost had me going head first into the pavement, but my deft 56-year-old reflexes saved me from certain scoffing by the others.
We nearly made it to the end of Grisia Street, but a wine shop loomed directly ahead and, mesmerized by the call of the vineyards, we stepped inside.
Not only were there a number of various wines, but also numerous bottles of truffle oil lining the shelves. We had happened upon the “Gifts For Family and Friends Back Home” Emporium (the actual name of this great wine bar/store is Piassa Granda).
After assuring the proprietress we would stop back for an early evening wine sampling, we walked over to Scuba (to eat, not dive), a restaurant next to our apartment building. Kim tried the fried calamari, Mary had a hamburger and fries, Tracy gobbled down a Greek salad and small crunchy pizza, while I was tempted by the gnocchi Gorgonzola, which was terrific.
Kim and Mary went off to walk the streets of Rovinj, while Tracy and I, savoring the beautiful weather, caught a boat and departed on a one-hour tour of the harbor and nearby islands. Although it had a glass bottom (the boat, not Tracy), we opted to sit out on the deck and enjoy the sunshine.
This was another picture taking bonanza; with spectacular views back toward Rovinj beckoning me to take one photograph after another.
This was an opportunity for Tracy and me to relax and hopefully take our mind off of Cupid, but that was easier said than done. However, the boat ride was enjoyable and it felt good to sit out in the sunshine and take advantage of this truly spectacular weather.
Upon our return, we hit one of the many spots along the harbor where you can grab a gelato. We liked the one where the Gelato Guys flung scoops of gelato in the air and nabbed them in their scooper, never missing a beat. Stop by Gelato Artiganale when you visit Rovinj for great gelato and a great show.
By now it was late afternoon, so we phoned home and got even further distressing news about Cupid. It didn’t look good that he would survive the rest of the week.
Now this will sound crazy to many, but Tracy wanted to find a flight home in the next couple of days thinking that maybe if she got home, there could be some kind of miraculous recovery. I didn’t disagree, and we went on online and purchased her the least expensive non-refundable, non-exchangeable, non-cheap flight out of Venice on Thursday morning (it seemed like a good idea at the time).
Although saddened by our news, it was time to meet Kim and Mary back at Piassa Granda for our early evening vino. After (carefully, very carefully) taking a shower, we met the two, who had started without us (we quickly caught up). The owner (Helen) was still there. She and the amiable sommelier suggested some various Istrian wines for us to sample.
The four of us strolled around Rovinj on this incredibly lovely evening. The streets were devoid of crowds, and it was quite peaceful to enjoy this town that gets very crowded during the summer months.
Our notes from this night are pretty weak due to how upset we were. We dined at a restaurant on the water that had an outdoor patio, but we had to dine inside because of a heavy mist that had shut down the patio service. We did not write down the name of this restaurant, but it is the last restaurant on the left as you head out of town toward the church.
Despite our deepening sense of foreboding, I had an appetite and started my meal with prosciutto and melon followed by an unbelievable gnocchi with truffles. Kim enjoyed an almond-crusted turbot and Mary continued her fishy behavior by downing the fish platter that included grilled squid and turbot. Tracy did not have much of an appetite and just had prosciutto and melon.
As the two of us were not very fun traveling companions on this evening, we gave Kim and Mary our cash and let them enjoy the rest of the night away from the weepy “Black Cloud of Tom and Tracy.”
Tracy and I stopped at a little outdoors bar for a nightcap and discussed our options. It was then back to the apartment for a restless night’s sleep.
We awoke after another restless night's sleep, found some croissants and espresso and made our way to the parking lot. We had to return the car to Porec, but before we hit that coastal town, we had decided to travel to one or two of the Istrian Peninsula’s hill towns. Number one on our list was Motovun.
Lady Garmin was having a bit of problem in Croatia (perhaps all that recalculating had taken a toll on her brain), so we tried to rely on our map and road signs. As we headed north, there was our sign to turn off for Motovun. So far; so good.
We traveled for a short distance until we came upon a “T” in the road. One small problem; there was no sign pointing us in the direction of Motovun. There was only one way to decide. Since we were all going to vote for Obama, we decided to head left.
We traveled on…and on…and on. We whisked through a couple of villages that were not on the map and none of the road signs read “Motovun.” Our official keeper of the map, Mary, said she was certain we were traveling in the correct direction; so on we went.
There were still no road signs, so at the next sign of humanity Tracy and Mary said we should ask someone for directions. Even though we are guys and asking for directions is a no-no in the Official Guy Handbook, Kim and I reluctantly agreed.
Shortly, up ahead in the distance was a small parking lot congregated with a group of guys who looked like they were part of a construction crew or a group of felons. It was hard to tell, but we stopped anyway being the confidently ignorant tourists that we are.
Before you could say, “Prison break,” Mary bolted from the car to ask them directions. I asked Kim if he was going to go provide Mary protection. “No,” he said, “by the time Mary gets through asking all her questions, if they’re prisoners, they’ll want to go back to jail.”
We saw the guys pointing and Mary nodding her head, so we all felt confident she had the information when she returned to the car. Mary got in, and we asked if they had given her directions. “Yes, we go to the next town and turn left at the first road we reach. They said Motovun was near.”
Obviously “near” in Croatian is a little further than in English. We quickly reached the town, made a left and drove for quite a distance through very scenic, town-less countryside. Persevering, we finally came to a sign pointing us again to Motovun, and in a few minutes we were winding up a narrow road to this hill town.
Motovun is closed to cars (except for locals), so parking on the narrow road nearest to the town proved to be quite a challenge, but eventually we made it (park as close to the town as you can get because if you park in the allotted parking lot, it is quite a hike).
We started the ten-minute walk up to Motovun. About the only facts I knew about this place was it was the birthplace of Mario Andretti and it is the most visited of all the Istrian hill towns. In the fall, they get 20,000 for a film festival (parking must be fun for that event). On this particular day, it was pretty quiet.
We walked past an old man who was working on some spectacular woodcarvings and contemplated a purchase on the walk back. After passing through the gateways, the panoramic views of the valley below are fantastic.
We made a quick refreshment stop and started the walk back down to the car, stopping in a few of the very cute shops selling lavender, truffle oil and olio. We also decided not to get the woodcarving, but it was beautiful.
As we continued our stroll down the narrow road out of town, suddenly, in a Blazing Saddles instant, a striped object swung down in front of us, impeding our walk for the moment. It was if we had been transported to the Governor William J. Le Petomane Thruway.
I added, “Somebody’s gotta go back and get a shitload of dimes.”
Only our respective spouses knew what we were doing and, for once, they were laughing with us and not at us. Other people in the vicinity, visitors and locals alike, just stood perplexed and bewildered, wondering what was wrong with these crazy Americans. Mary then took a quick picture of Kim and me “stranded” at the “toll booth” until the gate went back up (to let a local driver go though, we assumed).
We were supposed to drop off the car by noon in Porec, but our longer-than-we-thought drive (plus that damned toll booth) had put us behind schedule. We arrived at the outskirts of Porec, and since Kim and I had already broken the “Guy Code” once, we decided to stop at the TI to get exact directions to Hertz. After getting a lecture about saying petrol and gas being two separate entities, we were on our way.
The directions were perfect. I parked the car, ran inside and looked for the Hertz guy. A woman (who did not work for Hertz, but seemed to be having a bad day judging from the tone she was using in a phone conversation), looked up at me after getting off her call and basically said, “What do you want?”
“I am returning our rental car to Hertz. I’m about an hour late.”
“Well,” she said. “The man from Hertz has left, and he is not coming back today. You should have thought of this before returning the car late. You will just have to keep the car until tomorrow. Since we were taking a ferry from Rovinj to Venice the next morning that was not exactly the answer I needed to hear.
Fortunately, before I had to listen to any more of her shrill voice (I think she might have been my fourth grade teacher reincarnated), a young guy walked in and asked, “Are you Late Returning Tom?”
“Yes, I am very sorry.”
He said, “Hey, no problem, I just went out and got something to eat, but I do have to charge you for an extra day.” I had no problem with that.
It was about 1:30 when we walked over to the nearby bus station to see what time the bus from Porec to Rovinj left. The next bus left at 3:10, and it was fortunate we got here in time for it because the next bus after that didn’t leave until 9:30 p.m.
After ordering a fuzzi stew (a traditional Istrian dish with pasta), the waiter asked where we were from. When I said Los Angeles, the waiter’s eyes lit up and he said, “The Lakers won last night against the Celtics. Kobe made some big shots.” It is definitely a small world.
The air-conditioned bus ride cost 27kn, took about 50 minutes and soon we were back at the apartment.
Now for a little bit more on the Porta Antica Apartments (this is a view from Kim and Mary's room).. As stated, the location is fantastic. It is a short 5-10 minute walk to the car park. If you are taking the ferry to Rovinj, the dock is only 200 yards from the entrance of your apartments.
The steps are a little steep to the rooms, so if mobility is a problem, that could cause difficulty. Both our rooms (we had Room 3) looked out onto the harbor. They had kitchenettes, a television and very hot water. There is also a Bank-in-the-Box directly across the street. The apartments don’t have phones, but there is an internet café a couple of doors down.
After a little nap of about three minutes (no rest for the weary), we all headed back to the Piassa Granda for more wine. Our favorite on this night was a Rosé sparkling wine from the Istria region. If you are in Rovinj, stop in and see Helen at this place. She even let me pick out the tunes. I was in the mood for a little Dean, Frank, Sammy and the gang, and she had the right mix for us.
Helen had told us about her restaurant in town named Toni. She even called and made reservations for us.
Although Toni has a patio on one of the squares in Rovinj, we decided to eat inside in the charming yellow dining room with pastel-striped curtains and family photos adorning all the walls.
There was only one waiter, but this young man was the James Brown of waiters (the hardest working man in the serving business). Food here was very good from my beefsteak with truffles and homemade pasta to Kim’s ravioli with truffles and Mary’s Greek salad with Mussels.
Tracy went outside her comfort zone and after having a delicious arugula salad, decided to try the black risotto with seafood, which temporarily caused her lips to turn blue. Luckily, they turned back to their normal color before we called paramedics. I would definitely recommend this restaurant if visiting Rovinj.
We had after-dinner drinks with Kim and Mary at our harbor side bar, and then went upstairs and made a quick call home. Cupid was still laboring, but had eaten that day, so we had a slight glimmer of hope. Since we had a very early morning trip to Venice, Tracy and I packed for the long day ahead. At the time, we didn’t know just how long a day it would really be.
It was between 4:30 and 5 a.m. when Tracy and I awoke to get ready to hop on the 7 a.m. ferry that would transport the four of us to our final European destination, Venice. I was out of bed first. Kim and Mary had given us their satellite phone to us to call home, and although I still had held out some slim hope for Cupid recovering, I had a bad feeling inside my stomach as I keyed in the number.
When the voice at the other end answered, I could immediately tell that my worst feelings were going to be, unfortunately, confirmed. “Cupid passed away about fifteen minutes ago,” our friend Susan told us. She was with Cupid (seen here in his favorite spot to get a suntan while watching the hummingbirds) when he died, and for that we were grateful.
I had to relay the bad news to Tracy, and by the time we met up with Kim and Mary, they could tell by our faces that we were now at, what we called, “The Vortex of Sorrow.” The Porta Antica location, like I mentioned earlier, is just a short walk from where you catch the ferry, so at least that was positive.
As we waited for the ferry, the skies, in an attempt to mirror our mood, opened up, and we were greeted with a heavy downpour. The moment reminded me of Marty Feldman’s Igor in Young Frankenstein when he and Gene Wilder were exhuming the body.
“Could be worse,” Igor said. Dr. Frankenstein replied, “How?”
“Could be raining.”
Fortunately the ferry had arrived and we scurried on board.
Once underway, I decided I needed some caffeine to get me through this day. I got up and had them make me two cappuccinos. When they handed them to me, I found it somewhat odd that they also gave me straws for the drinks, but I took them and returned to my seat. It was now time for some Tom madcap comedy.
The boat was skipping over the rather rough seas at a good clip, and each time I attempted to raise the cup to my lips, the boat would bounce and the coffee would spill over the cup onto my pants. After watching me continue to partake in this fruitless endeavor for a few moments, Tracy reminded me that these straws were probably given to me for a reason.
The ferry made a quick stop in Piran, Slovenia, and then it was on to Venice. A few minutes out, I had a terrible thought. Tracy had booked that “expensive, non-refundable, non-exchangeable, no way in Hell you’re getting your money back” ticket to Los Angeles, and now, of course, there was no reason to go. I forget which online agency we bought them through, but now we were stressing about a huge payment we didn’t need to make.
The weather was turning progressively better as we zipped across the sea, and by the time we reached Venice, the skies were bright blue. Once again, location turned out to be on our side.
Venezia Lines dropped the passengers at a ferry building, which, as it turned out, was located only two bridges from our next hotel, Pension La Calcina, where the four of us stayed in 2005. Amazingly, the staff let us come back for a return engagement.
The first thing we asked was whether we could book the rooftop patio at the hotel for the evening, and we reserved it from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. (I do not know why other guests do not take advantage of that space, but we are always happy that they don’t). You can see the patio in this photo I took of the hotel from a Vaperetto.
Before lunch, we told Kim and Mary that we had to go online (computer is located downstairs at La Calcina) and see if we could finagle a way out of having to pay for Tracy’s ticket, although we knew the chances of that were remote at best.
When we checked our email, we had a message that said, “Due to one of the legs of your trip becoming unavailable, we are going to have to cancel your entire itinerary. Your credit card will not be charged.” We were, of course, quite relieved and was our first inkling that maybe Cupid was doing some magic on this day.
Our room was the same as the one we had occupied in 2005. It was small and clean with a small patio that had just a sliver of a view of the Giudecca Canal (foreshadowing alert). We unpacked a few things and met Kim and Mary on the deck of the La Calcina restaurant, La Piscina, which sits out over the canal.
I had a delicious crepe with Gorgonzola and haricot verts. Mary enjoyed rice with zucchini and roasted yellow pepper sauce. Kim and Tracy had the pasta with pesto and green beans.
It was a gorgeous day, but at this moment, we were not the best traveling companions. We told Kim and Mary that we would meet up with them later so they didn’t have to be followed by the “Tom and Tracy” Black Cloud.
This might have been the most beautiful day we had ever encountered in Venice, but at this time, we just could not enjoy it. We meandered the alleys and found ourselves lost somewhere in the neighborhood behind San Marco.
I kept telling Tracy that my chest felt tight, but when she asked me to sit down I just kept walking (yes, I can be an idiot). Finally, after doing this for ten minutes, she said, “Either you sit down or you’re going to have to have a heart attack on your own.”
Well, although I was sad, I wasn’t quite in the mood to die, so I did what most people do when they think they might be having a heart attack. I went in search of the place where I had my first Cafe Corretto back in 2005. Nothing stops heart pain better than a little espresso and grappa, I thought.
On the way back to La Calcina, I stopped and picked up a bottle of wine at Cantine del Vino Schiavi. It just so happened they had a bottle of Lamole di Lamole Chianti, a place that the four of us had visited in 2005.
We met Kim and Mary in the lobby, and Tracy had to tell them about my fake heart attack. Well, that’s all Dr. Mary needed to hear (although not a doctor, she is a qualified dental hygienist and more knowledgeable than the doctors I go to on a regular basis). Mary had me sit in a chair in the lobby of the La Calcina and took my pulse. Fortunately, she did not pack a stethoscope.
“Tom,” she said. “I have determined that you did not have a heart attack but are suffering from heart break.” Of course, we all got a good laugh, proving once again that laughter is the best medicine. She prescribed that I go upstairs and take a shower. “After some rest, you’ll be fine to drink wine.” First, Tracy and I shared a"Singing Gondolier" (aka sgroppino), because this was the first place we had ever tasted one.
“I found a special bottle of vino,” I told Kim.
He smiled and said, “Well, so did I, and I bet I know what you bought.” Sure enough, we had bought the same wine at the same store.
The view out onto the canal from the rooftop at La Calcina (if you stay here, take advantage of this spot) dazzled the mind and the senses, and we toasted not only Cupid, but also our fantastic good fortune that we had been able to return to this beautiful place. Venice never ceases to amaze me.
We had planned on dining at a restaurant we had read about in Dorsoduro situated on a tiny alley called Osteria Al 4 Fei, but when we got there, we found out that it was closed for the month of June. Plan B turned out pretty good for us.
Located near the Campo San Barnaba and next door to the restaurant we had wanted to dine at on this evening, we saw a charming little restaurant called La Bitte. It had a tiny garden with four tables and a cozy interior.
We had (at first) a rather grumpy but (later) funny waitress who grew up in Kentucky, and the food was terrific. Mary and I decided on the lamb chops with peppers, zucchini, yams and mashed potatoes. Tracy went for the pasta with cherry tomatoes, while Kim had another pasta pesto (I think he just liked saying it).
Only one of us had dessert, and that, of course, was me. That’s because they had a scrumptious panna cotta with chocolate sauce on the menu. As our waitress handed it to me, she told me how much she loves eating panna cotta. Without missing a beat, to the tune of “Betty Davis Eyes,” she sang out, “That’s Why I’ve Got Panna Cotta Thighs.”
That night, as we walked back to La Calcina, there was a harvest moon that shone an amazing reflection onto the Giudecca Canal. It was truly spectacular, and fortunately Kim was able to take a fantastic picture of it.
The day that had started out so sad was coming to an end, and fortunately the beauty of Venice, while not erasing our sad memory, was at least able to captivate and charm us again.
Back up in the room, Tracy went to bed, but I was really restless as the thoughts of this very long day raced through my brain. I was drained. I decided to snatch one of the overpriced mini-bottles of wine from the mini-bar and sip it out on the patio.
I plunked myself down at the small table, opened the wine and poured it slowly. It was a very warm, comfortable evening with just a hint of a breeze. After taking a sip, I lifted my head to gaze out at my narrow view of the canal and what I witnessed still resonates with me today.
The harvest moon, seemingly at that exact moment in time, was filling up what I perceived as the entire sky and it was situated directly in front of me. The canal, its water lapping at the foot of the nearby bridge, appeared to be on fire from the reflection. The entire spectrum of my view was filled by this remarkable tableau, and the sheer beauty of it remains ingrained in my memory. To say the least, I was completely mesmerized by this phenomenon.
I was thinking, “This is absolutely incredible. I only have this miniscule view onto the canal, and look at what I am experiencing right now.”
At that moment, no matter how silly and improbable it seemed I truly believed Cupid was making a grand earthly exit and telling Tracy and me that he was fine. I had no doubt that if any cat could have pulled it off, it most certainly would have been him.
Crazy? Maybe. But one thing is for certain; that is one Venice view I will never, ever forget.
There is nothing quite like having your breakfast on a sunny, Venice morning overlooking a canal, but that is just what the four of us did at La Calcina. After my requisite number of espressos and cappuccinos (perhaps I should invent intravenous caffeine), it was on to the nearby vaporetto (we purchased the two-day pass), and after a quick little ride, we arrived at our first destination of the morning, San Giorgio Maggiore.
It was so beautiful that Tracy wanted to have her picture taken near the canal. Over the years, I have taken numerous “Tracy in Peril” pictures throughout the years, much to the consternation of her mom. Of course, she’s not really in peril, but we just make it seem that way in the photos.
On this morning, as Tracy feigned falling into the canal, she actually lost her footing on the slick surface, and starting slipping and sliding on the pavement and for a brief moment, I thought I might have a real “Tracy in Peril” photo of her floating (hopefully) in the canal. After a Michael Jackson Moon Walk move, she regained her footing, and it was on to the church.
After zipping through the downstairs interior, we bought our tickets to visit the campanile. We were directed to the elevator. “Elevator?” I said. Yes, there would be no stairs on this journey.
The views over San Marco and all of Venice were fantastic, and out in the distance we saw a huge church. As we perused our guidebook, we determined it was Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Castello, so we decided that would be our next stop.
After a quick bite to eat, we stopped by a shop that was making and selling masks. It was a husband and wife team, and the masks in this shop were quite beautiful. He gave us a lesson on how to differentiate between a mask made in Venice and one made in China. Obviously, I had killed too many brain cells, because five minutes afterward, I didn’t remember, but we did buy a mask, which the shop owners signed as a gift.
We then went in search of the infamous Cat Puppet store where we had purchased one in 2005. I don’t know if it was because of our sadness or the store didn’t have as many choices, but Cat Puppets would not be purchased on this trip. Instead, I opted for another Café Corretto, meaning I was now ten times over the caffeine limit for the day.
We took a circuitous route back to La Calcina (the recommended way to visit Venice) and stopped at another mask store in Dorsoduro (they said they had made some of the masks for the movie “Eyes Wide Shut”). Since I had never seen (nor ever will) the movie, I took them at their word.
Tracy then took a little nap, while I walked over to a little wine shop. A short time later, we were back up on the roof for “Vino Time.”
Our restaurant for the evening was Cantinone Storico, on a little canal near our hotel. The dinner was enjoyable, but not overly memorable. What made this place so nice was being able to sit outside on the canal. It was another beautiful Venice evening, and we wanted to take advantage of it.
It was a great evening to just do the Venice thing of "walk and get lost," so the four of us leisurely wound ourselves through the alleyways, every once in a while coming upon another little gem of a canal. It's no wonder that I used to go through a ton of rolls of film when I visited here before the digital age.
This was our fourth visit to Venice and we had never gone to Piazza San Marco late at night to hear the “Battle of the Bands,” but that would change this evening. We made our way to Caffé Florian, which has been here for nearly 300 years, and sat down at one of the tables, which means even before we were served, we were now destitute.
For the next hour and a half, we enjoyed a couple of champagne cocktails each and the delightful orchestra. Of course, we paid way too much money, but enjoyed every minute of it. When “our” orchestra took one of its breaks, we could hear the orchestra playing from the other side of the piazza at the Caffé Quadri.
Am I glad we finally decided to experience this Venice tradition? Absolutely! Would I do it again? Only if my portfolio gets back near to where it was when we were in Venice. We navigated our tired bodies back to La Calcina and went to sleep knowing our epic trip was nearly at an end.
Once we dragged our tired bodies out of bed, we knew that this day was going to be a scorcher. It was so hot that I limited myself to two espressos and one cappuccino on the La Calcina breakfast deck. My caffeine intake was reaching dangerous levels.
Tracy had decided the gift du jour for many of our friends this Christmas would be beautiful wine stoppers made from Venetian glass. After breakfast, we went to a nearby shop that we had seen near our hotel and bought about 15 of them.
We were going to meet Kim and Mary about noon and visit the Teatro La Fenice. It was lucky we picked this time, because it was only open from 12 until 2 on this day for a reason we could not figure out.
We decided to purchase the audioguide, which I would recommend. It gave a detailed look into its history. It had burned down in 1836 and again in 1996. Although some critics say the place looks too new, it really is something to behold. It also kept us out of the heat for about 90 minutes.
Kim and Mary then departed to go shopping, while Tracy and I walked down to a little restaurant by the name of Vino Vino. Due to the fact that I had ordered inordinate amounts of vino during the trip, this seemed like an appropriate place to have our final lunch.
Shockingly I had another pasta dish. Tracy and I toasted the beauty of Venice (and I’m sure we said a little toast for Cupid, too) with a glass of cold Prosecco. The food here was good, and true to its name, there are many choices of vino vino to drink drink, which we did did.
After lunch, we walked past Harry’s Bar (another trip with no visit to Harry’s). To beat the heat, we walked over to the Palazzo Ducale and took the Doges Palace Tour. I think it’s the third time we have done this, but one good thing about getting older is how much you forget. I’m sure we’ll visit again in about ten years, take the tour and it will all seem new to us again. It was then over the Bridge of Sighs to see the prison cells, and soon we were back out in the Venetian heat.
Amazingly I said no to grappa on this afternoon. I knew it must be time to go home.
On our final night, Kim and Mary generously took us out to dinner at the Calcina’s La Piscina restaurant to thank us for planning this long journey. Although La Piscina does not have the greatest food in Venice, I wanted to dine here because I could think of no better spot to have our final meal on a candlelit patio watching the moon slowly rise over the canal.
The four of us toasted (yes, we do a hell of a lot of toasting) for the umpteenth time our fantastic fortune in being able to travel to these spectacular spots on earth. I don't know how much wine we consumed, but I am sure it was more than our fair share. It was then time to take one last walk around Venice.
This was our fourth visit here, so I do not know when or if I will ever return. Surely, however, I have enough memories for a lifetime here, but I "never say never" when it comes to returning to any place I visit (ok, Aixen-Provence is probably a "never").
The four of us walked around Dorsoduro for a final time and came upon a restaurant that we had not seen on our previous visit. It, too, was located on the canal, so maybe I will have to come back and give it a try.
The four of us just walked sllowly savoring our last hour, but finally it was time to return to our rooms for the final pack. Both couples had early flights, and we had reservations on the water taxi that would pick us up at 4:30 a.m.
Mary called our room at 4 o’clock to make sure I wasn’t still drinking (well maybe to just make sure we were awake). We quietly carried our luggage down the stairs to the La Calcina lobby, where the man behind the desk made us espressos and cappuccinos.
This was our second visit to La Calcina, and just like the first time, we were very impressed. From the staff to the restaurant to the Singing Gondoliers, we once again enjoyed our stay here very much. Dorsoduro is a good spot to stay in you want to not feel inundated by the crowds of Venice.
It was about a half hour trip by water taxi to the airport, and it’s fun to travel the canals so early in the morning. It does give Venice an even more magical feel.
We bid arrivederchi to Kim and Mary and found our airline to go home. As always, the four of us had a wonderful time together, and we always get along great. God knows, four weeks with me can get a little crazy. Just ask Tracy.
However, the four of us just completed a weeklong trip to Washington DC and are planning (health and money willing) a couple of monster trips to France in the next couple of years.
While in waiting in line for our plane, we chatted with a woman and her son from Washington D.C., whose husband was nowhere to be found. She then told us he was on the phone with their rental car agency. Sadly, when they dropped off the car, she thought he had the camera, and he thought she had the camera. Ouch!
When he met up with us waiting in line, he said no camera had been found. Three weeks of photos were now gone.
The last we saw of them was in Madrid where we changed planes. He was going to get on the phone again with the rental company to see if they had found the camera. They were not very confident. I didn’t want to tell him that between the four of us we had taken nearly 2,000 pictures (none lost).
We had to change planes once more in Chicago (frequent mileage customers equals frequent stops). I got on the phone with our friend Dan (whose camera is still resting comfortably at the bottom of a canal from their 2005 trip). I asked him what was new, and he said, “Nothing, except that gas was five bucks a gallon.”
I laughed, only to find out on our way home from the airport that he wasn’t joking.
It had been quite a trip, exploring so many areas of the world we had never visited before. Each destination we visited holds special memories for all of us. I still have Buza Bar flashbacks at least three times a week. From Prague to Cesky Krumlov to Krakow to Dubrovnik to Plitvice National Park to Ljubljana to Lake Bled to Rovinj to Venice, we loved it all and everything in between (ok, the Lipizzaners not so much).
And even though we got tested near the end of the trip, I will stick with my motto.