We wrote an article about of adventures in Europe last summer, discovering our ancestral roots in Italy and Croatia, and about meeting online pen pals in Ulm, Germany. The Orange County Register will be running the article along with photos we took in this Sunday’s Travel section. You can check it out here!
After a long and now familiar drive up the Croatian countryside we arrived in Split with no reservations, no energy and no idea how to charter a boat — which was the whole reason we came. This was the part of the trip we had left open. Information online about cheaply chartering boats was scarce so we put off dealing with it until the last minute. After arriving in Spilt we went for a walk around the marina just after business hours had ended and had no luck securing a boat so we set out to find food, a bed and the internet. After finding the internet, Megan used it to find a hotel for the night while Bryan left to find food. Doing the best he could he returned with a low quality pizza in hand. We explored the city confused by the mix of old and older, and more confused by Diocletion’s Palace in shambles which we had imagined to be more of a grand, well preserved museum and instead was a former palace that seemed to be eaten alive by the city. We learned that long ago the people had moved in and taken over, and what appears to be left is a ancient hybrid residence of both the royal and the common with no obvious borders for what once distinguished the two.
Perhaps we will return one day with a guide in tow to help us appreciate and discover the history of what went on here, but Split could not compete with the five-day love affair we had just had in the charming and beautiful Dubrovnik. It was much grittier and more difficult to discover and we just did not have the time or patience. So we headed to Villa Cesar in the suburban town of Kastela. There was no reason to stay in this area, but we chose it for its free parking, internet and price. It was a pleasant family inn, where we were able to rest, eat dinner and figure out how to get ourselves onto a boat the next morning.
Don’t Mess With the Zoran…
In the morning we arranged for a boat. Not exactly the boat we wanted or the price we wanted to pay, but nevertheless it was a boat. What would follow the next two days was an adventure, albeit short but still a glorious living to the edge of our means adventure. Tony, our contact insisted on meeting us at our hotel and directed us back to the marina that we had just been the day before. After waiting for him what seemed like all morning we followed his scooter all the way back to the marina. The little office of the little Adria Coral rental company was where we first met Zoran, who would be our guide and skipper for the next few days. Zoran was Croatian: very tan, very bland and very unenthuiastic about our little adventure. Not to say that these are typical characteristics of Croatians, well except for the tan which might as well be a requirement for a Croatian passport. He seemed to be good for only a few things: 1. Sailing the boat 2. Talking on his cell phone 3. Smoking. All of which he did constantly (as seen in the picture above).
Our first stop was in a quiet bay where a few other boats were anchored. We stopped quickly to swim, read and rest on the way to Hvar. Zoran informed us that the only way to dock in Hvar was with a “reservation” and the only way to get a reservation was to bribe one of the port officers with about €30 (in addition to €40 official fee he informed us we must also pay to dock for the night) when the director was not there. He explained that it was very illegal, but this was just how things were done. When we got to Hvar’s harbor, Zoran called out to the port officer from the boat to get us a space (see video below) and once we docked inconspicuously placed the bribe money in the boat’s papers he handed to the official for inspection.
Docking in Hvar truly made us feel like we were living on the edge of our means. Adding up cost of our boat rental, hired skipper and the new fees we had paid made us think “how did we come to spend this much money in two days?” But it did feel quite fabulous to be docked in on the main strip of “Croatia’s Montecarlo” among the mega yachts of the rich where we could just conveniently stroll off of our sailboat onto the streets of Hvar where all the action was taking place. We could people watch directly from our boat as the main drag was literally where we tied up our boat. With so many people walking by we were nervous about leaving our things out in the open, unsupervised and unlocked, but Zoran informed us not to worry and that he had never even heard of anything being stolen from a boat. That sounded ridiculous to us, but we figured that if someone was going to steal they would be smarter to steal from a fancier boat.
<insert dock photo>
In Hvar we went up to the castle which had a great view of the town below and surrounding islands. After we walked around the town we ate at the restaurant Zoran recommended, where Bryan enjoyed fantastic John Dory. Later in the evening we strolled along the harbor window shopping and checking out the tiny town’s nightlife. We listened to jazz musicians and admired what Megan called the “most beautiful jewelry” she had ever seen. Sadly the prices were too many Kuna, and we were in no mood to be spending any more money. So as we headed back to our boat, Megan vowed to return one day in a bigger yacht with a better Zoran and the money to buy all the aquamarine necklaces she desired. Hvar lit up beautifully at night, proving to be the gem of the Adriatic island towns. We returned to our cabin after a romantic night in the breezy seaside village to find all of our possessions intact and fell asleep with the gentile rock of Hvar harbor’s little waves.
<insert photo from castle and hvar town at night>
Bol: Croatia’s Iconic Beach
The next morning we set off for Bol, which in doing any research on visiting Croatia you will know as the famous sand bar beach jutting out its finger into the beautiful blue-green water. The pictures we had seen were just so enticing that we just had to see it, despite Zoran’s lack of enthusiasm for the place. We set sail mid morning and arrived there in the afternoon. As Zoran had said Bol was a much more interesting sight from the air and its characteristic peninsula was not very visible from the sea, but nevertheless a nice place to go for a swim even though it was crowded. We anchored a few hundred feet from the beach and swam into the the rocky beach, which plunged off quickly into the sea, which is visible only as the dramatic color change in its waters. The water in the northern part of Croatia was much rougher and colder than around Dubrovnik, but still refreshing. We dove off the sailboat and swam toward the beach, where we relaxed on the sand among the Europeans, who Megan blent in seamlessly with the absence of a top. We only stayed long enough to get a feel for the scene and made our way back to the boat we were nearly run over by speed boats providing banana boat rides to sun seekers.
That Zoran is Making Us Angry!
We had told Zoran that we wanted to anchor in a private harbor for the evening, that would be both free and relaxing, however, we suspect that Zoran had other ideas. Upon pulling into “Shoulter”, Zoran told us that there would be another docking fee for the night. We tried not to let him see our anger with him, trying to keep in mind that it could have been a misunderstanding between us, but we suspect that Zoran had an agenda all along. We were sure that he would rather spend the night in a small fishing village restaurant than be stuck on a boat alone with us in a secluded harbor. So we forked over more money and spent the evening in a sleepy town with not much to offer, angry with the Zoran and ready to slow the spending. The next morning Zoran sailed us back to Split early before we woke up. Despite the obvious drawbacks, the experience felt exclusive, expensive and unforgettable. We hope do do it again in the future, for a longer period of time and maybe get some friends to share the cost with us as we had originally intended.
Travel allows people to learn many things about places they visit through the people they meet. Zoran was not the most talkative guy, but he did lend a perspective to the Croatian point of view, or at least the Zoran point of view. We learned that the government was set on joining the European Union even though most of the people are not in favor of it. Also that “Croatia has maybe 10 blacks,” which was Zoran’s way of explaining that Croatia has virtually no immigration (except for other former Yugoslavians) unlike most of Western and Central Europe. This lack of immigration made Croatia feel very strongly Croatian, which was neat to experience as a tourist. We feel that large the immigrant populations that many countries in Europe now have have watered down the strength of the native culture.
The Super Modern Highway & Winding Mountain Hill Roads: The Road to Dubrovnik is a long one
The road to Dubrovnik from Zadar, was a long one especially with Megan’s parents behind the wheel. There was the jolt from the slamming on the breaks at a stoplight that sent a bag from the back of the station-wagon flying forward, smacking megan in the head and emptying its contents all over her lap. The screaming and panic from the stalling and rolling backwards on a hill. The bickering over who is a better driver, who can take the heat and who needs to get out of the kitchen (basically who can handle the driving critiques and who is super sensitive). The arguing about where to eat and the long winding hilly roads. All of talking and tense moments seemed to take place between the two over 50′s in the front seat, while the more youthful humans in the back sat nearly silently except for a few snickers and eye-rolling. Luckily we were able to take the newly constructed super highway part of the way, which cut this torture to a minimum.
Putting the Nik in Dubrovnik
We don’t know if that can really mean anything, but we like the way it sounds and if there is a Nik in Dubrovnik, there is no doubt that we put it there. We spent 5 days in an apartment rental in the hills high above the old town. It has a beautiful view, both day and night, but there are 350 steps to the old town, which caused us to break a sweat upon every ascent. Dubrovnik is magical, enchanting and despite its bombing in the 90′s by the Serbian army, it has been restored almost to its former glory. It is an old fortified city situated directly above the sparkling Adriatic sea. Its marble and limestone construction seems to glow at night and the polished stone streets reflecting light is absolutely gorgeous.
The first night we had a delightful meal at Proto Restaurant, which turned out to be the best meal of the trip. The next day we went to go see Megan’s 3rd cousin Doris (age 20) play tennis. It was sort of an awkward set up with 10 Americans peering through a gate watching her in a practice match that no one else was attending. Doris was ranked #2 in Croatia, so it was kind of interesting to see her practice, but a real match may have made more sense to attend. Later that evening we all met up for dinner in old town with the whole gang consisting of Megan’s aunt, uncle, cousin, her grandpa and his wife. Shortly afterward Megan’s grandpa introduced us to his Croatian 2nd cousin Nikko, his wife and two daughters.
There are tons of things to do while in Dubrovnik. Swimming is our favorite because the water is so clam and refresshing and there is access to it nearly everywhere. There is a place called Café Buza just outside the walls that serves drinks and overlooks the sea. It is a great place to enjoy the sunset and even go for a swim as there are steps that lead to wonderful swimming below. There is also another spot to swim if you walk from the town’s tiny harbor around the walls, you will see a water polo court set up in the sea. Water Polo is extremely popular in this part of the world. We really really wanted to Kayak to Lokrum, the island just a stones throw from old town, but instead rented a boat. The boat took us to a spot on the island where we swam in a cave and got our first taste of Croatian naturalism. We also went on a boat tour of three islands to the north of the city called Lopud, Suđurađ and Koločep with the Meyer’s, Megan’s aunt, uncle, cousin Aerin and Nina.
Dubrovnik’s fashion week was taking place while we were in town and every night there was a runway fashion on the Stradun. A lot more was going on at night than we had imagined and Doris even took us and Megan’s sister to the bars one night. One night just the two of us dined at Gil’s, which was supposed to be good but turned out to be extremely over priced. It was in an excellent location, with a beautiful view above the harbor, but although it had a hip setting, the food wasn’t as great as they thought it was.
Our last morning in town we walked the city walls during the peak of noon heat, against any common sense and advice we had been given telling us to avoid the crowd at heat in during the morning or evening. Knowing it would be hot and crowded midday, we did it anyway because it was our last chance. We were very glad we did it, because the tour offered a whole new look at the city and its surroundings. There were many things you could only see from above and we realized that the town is actually much larger than it feels when you are down on the street. From the walls you can see hidden sectors of old town that have not been fixed since the bombings. Old Town is still pretty tiny though, proving so because in the 5 days were there we ran into Doris about 4 times accidently. Which was always helpful because we had questions she could answer.
Turn Right at the Goat
Before we came to Croatia, Megan’s grandpa had told us a great deal about the remote village his mother was born in. Along with meeting distant relatives and seeing the pearl of the adriatic (Dubrovnik), we expected to also visit Mikulici, a tiny village in the southernmost countryside of Croatia. In the years leading up to the trip we had heard about the 250 year old stone house Megan’s great-grandmother was born in and the 26 similar old homes are perched high above the sea. Where the people still lead a traditional lifestyle, growing their own food, fishing and making fig brandy miles away from where tourists venture. We were surprised to find out that our itinerary did not include a stop in Mikulici, but we were determined to see it anyway.
We were able to squeeze Mikulici in between Montenegro and the Lamb dinner on our last evening in Dubrovnik. Without a map showing Mikulici’s location, we simply took our best guess and headed west off the highway. The roads took us to a sparse and charming rural area, on one lane roads, sometimes unpaved, winding above the sea. We were lost in the real Croatia, the part tourists never get to see. Where a herd of sheep blocked the road, wandering by with the bells tied around their necks clanging and no shepherd in sight. It was very much enjoyed getting lost here, it was a charming and peaceful place to be.
Just before spotting the “Mikulici” sign we ironically spotted mercedes with California plates, which was very strange considering it was one of the only cars we saw on the country roads at all. Once we entered the village we realized that it was unrealistic that we were going to “discover” anything on our own, but it was nice just to see it. We had not a clue which house was “the house” and there was an old man starring at us presumably baffled as to why we were rolling slowly through his sleepy village wide eyed and taking pictures of everything. For all we knew he was probably a distant cousin, for all he knew we were weird lost tourists. We knew that of the few people we spotted in Mikulici none of them would speak any English and it was hopeless to get any help. We did, however, find a graveyard with the graves of many “Kuselij” people who presumably are deceased distant relatives. Later at the lamb dinner we learned that there was an ancient greek burial yard on the top of the hill that we missed. Something about giant stones. Sounded like something cool we could have explored on our own.
Perhaps one day we will return, better prepared and with a Croatian translator who can show us around. Maybe we can even purchase the stone home itself, it couldn’t be too expensive and would be a good spot to hide out in the event of nuclear war. After all it is an exquisite and beautiful location. After we got a few shots of the coastline and Mikulci we headed over for the lamb feast at a restaurant in the town Gruda. All 18 of the Croatian and American relatives gathered on our last night together to celebrate Megan’s grandfather’s birthday.
As we drove across the border, Megan’s sister Michelle, declared that her “eggs were tingling” because we had now returned to the country of her heritage, well at least a quarter of her heritage anyway. She had a loose idea of finding a Croatian husband here, but by the end of the trip it never materialized, despite Megan pointing out several men along the way. Also Michelle’s eggs for some reason only tingle in Croatia, and not in Ireland, England or Germany, country’s that contributed far more to her DNA, however, Croatia is easier to identify with because it is more unique to be of Croatian decent than the others. Michelle provided the entertainment on this leg of the trip. Where along with such outrageous claims, she read aloud her book Skinny Bitch it a hilarious British accent that kept gradually turning into an American country western one. To Michelle, all accents are pretty much the same anyway.
Croatia’s Surgeon General doesn’t do warnings
Nevertheless we made it to a weird little resort village near Zadar for the night. It seemed to be a place where only Croatians vacation, and while we were there we were asking Megan’s “where exactly are we?”. We had the executive suite at the Hotel Laguna, which basically meant that it was way larger than necessary and had adjoining rooms. We went for a dip in the sea, a jog, ate dinner and watched a pregnant woman about to pop smoke like a chimney and drink like a sailor.
Megan’s Striptease for the Sea Organ
In the morning we headed to Zadar, before our long drive down to Dubrovnik. Zadar’s old town was pretty cool. It seemed like there were ruins strewn about, that the government had not decided what to do with. Very old roman columns and stone tombs, just lying around for anyone to get inside of and kick around. We went to a wonderful open market with plenty of fresh local organic produce. We were in heaven! This is one of the best things about the country, that the agriculture is not globalized or industrialized. It is all fresh, local, picked ripe and organically grown. Before leaving we stopped off at the sea organ, which was not making music at the moment because the sea was too tame. The sea looked so refreshing and inviting that Megan decided to remove her clothes and jump from the stone dock into the sea. After she emerged she confirmed that it was indeed worth it, even if there were a few starring eyes.