Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Meeting Cujo in Croatia

This is about my three days in Croatia, on Hvar island 10/1/13 - 10/3/13

My taxi came at 4AM, I listened to the German radio station playing in the taxi and some 80s music show was playing.  The Axel F theme song came on and it was the perfect, kooky, over-synthed send-off.  I had planned a scatterbrained trip around the periphery of Eastern Europe to see a few new countries. It was going to be rushed and a little stupid. My flight home was out of Warsaw, but I had a need to see Croatia and go to a beach. Later, I researched Croatia and was on the fence about it. Then, after a cold summer in Chicago the Croatia idea re-surfaced. I had almost three weeks, I can do it. I wouldn't recommend this itinerary to anybody else, though.  Who goes to Sweden, runs a German marathon, rushes to Croatia and then busts ass to get back to Poland so that she can spend three days eating pierogi? Me. 

I was in Split in two hours. The intense sunshine and heat was wonderful. A few friends warned me that Split was just so-so, and the places to go were Hvar and Dubrovnik. Waiting for the airport bus to the harbor, I met an American girl named Sarafa and her German boyfriend whose name I forget, but it was something like Milko. They were also going straight to Hvar so bought tickets together for the one hour ferry. Sarafa and Milko live in Berlin and crushed some of my romantic notions about living there. They thought that people were a bit unfriendly and simple utility services came with attitudes and silly rules. They were looking to move. I always found the people in Berlin to be great (and I stay in a more residential neighborhood) and I live with comcast and com-ed. Sarafa doesn't get to speak English often with another American so she talked my ear off, which I enjoyed. They were an interesting and well-travelled couple. 

Hvar is beautiful. A sparkling Mediterranean port with villas and architecture that wasn't quite Italian, not Greek or Spanish, more restrained.  It reminded me of a less hectic and cleaner version of a Greek island. It smells like salt air, pine and lavender that grows on the island and is for sale everywhere in little pouches for $2. I loved it immediately. 

bird and rabbit money!

I didn't have a hotel reservation in Hvar but had a few places in mind to check out. Sarafa and Milko went off to their apartment rental and I walked around. The first place didn't have a room but they knew of a guy who had an apartment so I went with him to go look at it. The apartment was an offshoot of somebody's laundry room in a basement with no windows. Nope. I went to the palace hotel which was a blocky white hotel built in the communist days overlooking the harbor. It was fine for one night and cheap. The next day I'd look for something a little more my style. 

I was still beat up from the marathon and all the graffiti tour walking so I parked myself at a cafe for some surprisingly good pizza and blogged. I sat and admired the harbor. This place was so perfect, I couldn't find anything wrong with it. I IM'd with my coworker friend Allison and told her that I was already bored.  

I IM'd with some friends and people-watched.  There is definitely a Dalmation coast jet-set thing going on in Hvar.  Swanky shops, people in designer clothing, men in track-suits.  I was definitely back in the Mediterranean! 

For dinner I walked the tiny alleyways and looked for a place with lobster. I found a little place in a charming alley that might have been a little too fancy for me. I accidentally spent as much as my hotel room on one of the best meals I've had - definitely the best in 2013. Oops! I do believe that a good meal is worth splurging on once in awhile, though - and I'd make up for it later.  Lobster that I had to dissect myself with a giant vat of perfectly aldente pasta with tomatoes and green beans with crispy bits of pancetta. I used a whole loaf of bread to mop out the pasta skillet. With a glass of Hvar plavic wine. I texted a few people about the meal because I felt the need to talk about it immediately.  Unplug, goddammit.  What is wrong with me?

After my perfect meal on the perfect island and doing nothing all day and being completely bored, I made plans to go hiking the next day on a different, less inhabited island. 

The next day I moved to Villa Nora, a little sobe (privately owned hotel) in a 16th century building with stone walls. I had a great view out the window of a tiny stone alley and a soccer store! 

Rick Steves recommended a restaurant that you can hike to on palmaziana in a hour and a half. A rustic little farm place that served home-cooked local meals. The people at villa Nora thought it was closed so I brought along some snacks to keep me alive until I hiked to the other side and back. 

This was a real hike. Rocky and a little treacherous. I climbed over rocks and fallen trees and saw views like this: 

I kept having Greece flashbacks:

My restaurant was closed. Sadly, it looked like the family farmhouse of the Croatian grandmother I never had with a stone outdoor oven and inviting tables. I know the food I didn't get to have would have been great! There was another tiny hotel next to it that I thought might have a restaurant. I saw a woman preparing food but she shooed me away and said it was only for guests. I ate my sad little luna bar and hiked back to the harbor where I had some polenta and laid in some nice beach chairs. The people next to me were from a suburb of Chicago.  There were some guys from Brazil laying out too and everybody chatted.  I was happy to talk to the Chicagoans, because apparently I can't unplug and just immerse myself in Croatia.  

For dinner I tried another Rick Steves recommendation, konoba menego. They only serve local things. No coca cola, only wine from Croatia, only seafood from Hvar. I sat up in a little attic candle-lit room with barrel tables and close tables. The benches were uncomfortable but the smells coming out of the kitchen kept me there. 

I had sea bass with sheep cheese and honey with more plavic wine. Before I took my second bite, I knew I was coming back the next day and every day I was in Hvar. The people at the next table were eating drunken figs and gave me some. It was the kind of restaurant where all the tables talk to eachother. 

I stopped in a tiny wine cellar restaurant that had glasses for about a euro. The man who makes the wine serves out of big barrels to communal tables, I loved it. I met an older, know-it-all couple from Liverpool who had been coming to Hvar since 1975. They tried to ask me where I was staying and how much I was paying. Of course they were staying in an apartment for half the price. I tried to explain that I'm on vacation and don't want to cook and I like to stay IN town. 

The next morning, I prepared for my bike ride by packing a picnic lunch!  I had no idea what was in these rolls. I saw green, so I assumed it was spinach.  (it was - it was like a spinach pie-roll!)

I rented my bike. I had grandiose plans to bike ALL over the island.  I figured I was in shape for this and it would be easy.  I go to spinning class once a week.  I just ran a marathon.  Wrong, wrong wrong!  It was the opposite of this. 

The hills didn't look steep but they went on for miles.  I had to put the bike in a very low gear and pedal like crazy ON the highway.  Luckily there wasn't much traffic.  I got just outside of town and strongly considered turning back!

I planned to stop at a quiet beach an hour outside town and eat my lunch. I got lost finding the beach and after going down an abandoned steep off-shooting road, I met some friendly Australian bikers who made the same mistake and saved me from going the rest of the way where there was no beach.  They were REAL bikers, biking around the island with all of their belongings and they were struggling too, so I didn't feel so bad.  Maybe biking is just hard, all of the time.  Maybe I just don't enjoy it the way I enjoy when running is hard.  I just accepted that it was going to be hard and it got a lot better!

I finally found the little beach!

le pique-nique:

Sometimes there weren't guard rails. I had to stop and hope the cars veered left and I wouldn't have to jump off the cliff. 

While riding up one hill, I had a standoff with a large mean dog who didn't want to let me pass. I froze and waited for the owner to come.  And waited.  And waited almost 5 minutes while it growled, bared its teeth and barked at me like crazy.  Most people know that I am not really a dog person.  My friend's dogs, I love. I yelled and yelled for the owner but nobody was around. I had just spent over an hour getting up this hill and in about a mile, I would be going downhill for good, ending up in Brusje and eventually back in town.  If I didn't get around the dog, I would have to go back downhill and call a taxi. Passing the dog was going to have to be on the UPHILL.  This was awful.  No people around. 

Finally, I decided to gun it! I rode past the dog while it while it chased me up the hill and snapped at my pedals and leaped at my legs. I had to ride hard and fast UP the hill to get away from it. Jerk dog! I totally regret not taking a picture of it.  Finally I got past it. 

Looks like a leisurely bike ride!

Finally the road leveled off and I didn't have to pedal any more!  All downhill!

The village of Brusje - it smelled like lavender.  

My reward for the 5 hour bike ride.  I wasn't bored anymore.  I just needed some adventure!  

I went back to last night's restaurant and told the waiter (the same one) that I would eat whatever he suggested.  I got some seafood tortellini and a side of the same sheep cheese with honey from the night before.  I had really good luck with Croatian food.  I had spectacular dinners all three nights!

before and after:

They have a half marathon in Hvar that travels much of the route I took today.  The first half of this would be really difficult (and would go past the mean dog!)

The next morning I took the boat back to Split to take the bus to my next destination, Bosnia.  I saw this sign that made me laugh.  If a friend got stung by a sea urchin, I wouldn't laugh at them, maybe I would pee on them?

I spent an hour or two wandering around the old ruins of Split:

Next:  Bosnia!