Wanderlust: Croatia, 2012, Part 1

We got up early on day seven, the half-way point in our adventure abroad, to catch the 9 am bus to our next destination: Rovinj, Croatia. It was about a four-hour trip through clouded mountains, then vineyard-laden hills, and eventually, the rugged coast of the Adriatic. We stopped at the Slovenia-Croatia border to get a new stamp in our passports, those beat-up proofs of our journey. I love the tactile nostalgia of a passport, reminders of where we're from and where we've been, yet as we move ever more towards a digital world, I'm sure it won't be long until the passport stamp is 

We arrived in the port town of Rovinj just around lunch time. It's an old Roman city in the Istrian peninsula, an area known for its truffles, olive oil and wine. After some seaside pizza, we got the keys for the apartment (a much smoother transaction this time). We asked the apartment owner if he knew of anyone who could take us truffle hunting at some point during our stay. He made a few calls, but unfortunately without a car, we were out of luck.

After freshening up, we headed out to lose ourselves in the cobblestoned streets of Rovinj. Originally, the city was built on an island, but in the 18th century, the straight separating it from the cost was filled, and the town expanded onto the mainland. The old town, where we were staying, is a pedestrian-only area, with the exception of the garbage trucks (really more like large cars than trucks), propane deliveries, and those getting to mass who have difficulty walking. Overlooking the Adriatic, at the top of the hill in the old city, is an old basilica dedicated to St. Euphemia and said to hold the saint's remains. Rumor has it that after the saint was fed to the lions during Diocletian's purge of Christians in 300-something c.e., her sarcophagus was pillaged, thrown in the ocean, recovered and returned to Constantinople, and later stolen by crusaders who brought it to Rovinj. The basilica has a huge bell tower that's modelled after that of San Marco in Venice.

The sun set behind the sea, and we found a little tapas restaurant for dinner where we had some delicious cheese with truffles, a bottle of wine, and a lot of laughs as we got to catch up more with my favorite sister.

The next day, Aisling's last with us before she headed back to London, Aish decided she wanted to see the coast from a boat. Though it wasn't exactly the 150-foot yacht hanging in the harbor for the regatta that morning--more of a pirate ship-looking thing, actually--the Delphin was just fine for us. The boat was taking us into Lim Fjord, who knew you could see a fjord in Croatia. It was also used as the set for a couple of viking movies in the eighties. Also aboard the Delphin were about 20-some Moroccans who were having a reunion of sorts with music, dancing, stomping, and singing. When the captain came around with grappa for everyone, a licorice-scented gasoline of a liquor also made across the sea in Italy, Aisling and I tried to decline, but the captain was insistent. Nothing like getting seasick off of grappa... Fortunately, we were able to discreetly pour ours overboard. Don't be disappointed dad... This was like the Phillips of grappa. Terrible stuff.

The rest of our afternoon cruise was great. It was nice and warm, and some of the Moroccans were even adventurous enough to go swimming. Since I forgot to tell Aish to bring her swimsuit, we tried to stay as dry as possible. It was indeed enjoyable just relaxing in the sun.

Once we arrived back in Rovinj, the sun had already started to set. Even though the weather was feeling like summer, the early setting sun was a reality check. In five more days, we'd be headed back to Minnesota were winter would be right around the corner... I quickly pushed that out of my head, as we got evening cocktails followed by yet another delicious dinner. Still on this truffle kick, I opted for the truffle tagliatelle again, though this was the best yet. Aish thought she would give the gnocchi another shot, though it just didn't quite meet her high expectations that come from making the little potato dumplings with old Italian ladies during her month in Bari last winter. Corey had some great homemade Istrian pasta with pancetta and feta followed by a veal steak stuffed with pickles and carrots...surprisingly tasty.

We finished off a bottle of wine back at the apartment that night as a send off to my little sis. We bought it from a little old lady in Rovinj earlier that day. She spoke some Italian and told Aish that it was wine from her family's grapes. Oh, family vineyards!

The next day we took the bus with Aish to Pula, the closest city to Rovinj with an airport, from where she was to leave for London. We had a few hours to kill before her flight, however, so we decided to check out what Pula had to offer.

After walking in completely the wrong direction for a while (and cursing that our google maps didn't work), we eventually made it to more of the city center. There is a great big amphitheatre in Pula, "one of the sixth largest Roman amphitheatres in the world" according to the guide book. We walked around it and then stopped in at a cafe for a coffee. I took advantage of the wifi and found a restaurant for lunch that was recommended on TripAdvisor. It was okay, but not exactly five stars in my book. Aish tried decided to give the gnocchi one last shot, but it was decided that it should only be ordered in Italy or your own kitchen. We did, however, have a nice little mushroom carpaccio which consisted of sliced mushrooms with an olive oil and balsalmic drizzle. Simple, but delish. And there were pivos (one of the few Croatian words I have learned, meaning beer) all around.

We walked back to the bus station where, after a teary goodbye, Aish caught the shuttle to the airport. Since the bus back to Rovinj didn't leave for another three hours, though, Corey and I set out to see if there was anything else to this city. We stumbled upon the old citadel from which we had a great view of the whole city and the coast. They also had an interesting exhibit in which I learned that when this area was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Pula was one of their major port cities. Glad I learned all about that in Vienna!

We visited an old Franciscan monastery, and then found some of the main shopping streets, though many of the shops were closed due to the fact that it was Croatia's Independence Day. It was pretty quiet all around, though--not quite like the 4th of July in the US or Bastille Day in France...

We got back to Rovinj, ate our final dinner in the city at a restaurant overlooking the harbor, and turned in early to pack up our things. The next day we were headed to the south of Croatia to the city of Dubrovnik.


Wanderlust: Slovenia, 2012

On day four of our journey, we took the train south to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. It was an incredibly beautiful train ride through the mountains--very Sound of Music looking, even though that's really more in northern Austria. When we arrived at our destination, we had about a 20 minute walk to the apartment we were staying at, this time just a room in someone's house. When we got there and rang the bell, however, no one answered. We decided to walk back to a cafe to have a rest and email our hosts to make sure they were, indeed, expecting us. The cafe was far from a Caribou, however. Called Green Moon, they served everything from coffee to drinks with names I cannot repeat on this here blog...

After we sent the email we went back to see if anyone had shown up. One of the hosts spotted us from the Spanish restaurant next door. Once we got into the apartment, all I wanted to do was sleep. With the go-go-go to see as much as we could in Vienna, I was just exhausted. I should also mention that when I was packing for this trip in the wee hours the night before we left, I thought it would be a good idea to bring two pairs of heels instead of two pairs of tennies... In hindsight, not my wisest decision for cobblestoned streets. 

After a brief nap, we set out to explore Ljubljana. We wandered through the old town, a pedestrian-only area, which is surrounded by the Ljubljanica River. For dinner, we decided on a place that was much like the Slovenian version of Heartland Restaurant where all the dishes are traditional recipes sourced from local ingredients and a little market in the front of the restaurant sells the spices, produce, meats, and wine used in the cooking. Much to my delight, they are big on pumpkin this time of year. Our salad was drenched in a pumpkin seed oil dressing, and our porcini pasta even had a hint of nutty pumpkin-ness.

After the sun had set, we took the funicular up the hill to the castle. The museum was closed, but we could still wander around and check out the ruins. There was a little exhibit of photography from the early 20th century on display, and one of the photos was of a little girl who looked so much like photos of my own mum as a child that I had to check the name on the plaque. The little girl's name was Marta.

We ended the night with some plum and walnut brandy, and a dessert that was like a walnut-stuffed dumpling--think baklava meets ravioli. The plum brandy, known as Slivovitz, is a staple of the area, and we are somewhat familiar with it thanks to Corey's uncle in Duluth. The walnut brandy was a delicious surprise, tasting of Christmas with a molasses aftertaste. 

The next day, we had breakfast at the market. It had everything from clothes, local veggies, meat, fish, brandies and a special section for these huge mushrooms. Some of them looked more like toad stools than the delicious fungi. We bought some dried porcinis to take home. My breakfast consisted of my usual cappuccino and croissant. Corey had a cream cake consisting of a custard base, cherry jam, a lighter cream top with an almond crust, it was served with a side of chocolate drizzled whipped cream. Uncle Muckala would have loved it, but Corey couldn't finish it.

We made our way over to Tivoli Park, the Central Park of Ljubljana, to see the International Graphic Arts Centre housed in Tivoli Castle. I was nerding out a little, and Corey was kind enough to go along. The museum turned out to be much smaller than I had expected--just one level of the "castle." The current exhibit, however, was on Patterns and Symbols in Islamic art, which was nonetheless fascinating.
We then visited the home of Joze Plecnik, an architect from the early part of the 20th century who is responsible for much of how modern-day Ljubljana looks. He designed, for example, the pedestrian Triple Bridge, the Market Colonnade, and the Ljubljana riverbank area. He liked to combine post-modern influences with classical architecture for a style that spans the ages. His bedroom/office was completely round, which one might find problematic for furnishing, but he managed to make it work by dividing the space into different quadrants.

It happened to be the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, so it was only natural that we stop by the giant, pink Franciscan Church. After all the walking we had been doing, it was a welcome break to just sit and meditate. 

For a pre-meal snack, we got some chestnuts from a street vendor. Once the sun goes down, it cools off significantly, so the toasty chestnuts were especially tasty. For dinner, we ate along the riverside at a restaurant I had picked based on the lemons they had hanging from the chandeliers. Corey was well contented with a bowl of red pepper soup with some sea food mixed in, followed by some decadent pâté. I had some ravioli made from buckwheat (another thing we've seen a lot of here), which was good but filling.

Our final day in Ljubljana, my sister was flying in to meet up with us for part of our journey. Since she didn't arrive until later in the afternoon, we had decided to take the bus to Lake Bled, a fairytale-like place in the Julian Alps. After an hour and a half of winding roads, we had arrived. Unfortunately, the weather was especially grey and slightly drizzly. We hiked up to the castle for a great panoramic view of  the lake. There is a little island in the middle of the lake with a church on it. We had hoped to take a boat out to the island, but since it was a dreary, off season day, the boat rower insisted on having at least ten people aboard before he would row across the lake. We have noticed that in Slovenia, especially with regard to transportation, there is a lot of "hurry up and wait."

Since we didn't have time to wait, we caught the next bus back to the city so I could catch the international Biennial Design exhibition before we met Aisling at the bus station. It was pretty cool, with awards for everything from print design to environmental design to system design.

We made it back to the bus station, and after about 20 anxiety-inducing minutes, the airport bus showed up. Much to my relief, Aish walked off of it. With neither of our cell phones working here, I was indeed a little nervous about connecting with her. I know people survived just fine before cell phones, but I wonder if they worried more without them...

We ate at another little restaurant along the riverbank. Aish had the venison gnocchi, Corey the rabbit bolognese, and I, in anticipation of our journey to the truffle-laden Istrian peninsula the next day, some truffle tagliatelle. We then took Aish up to the castle for a night-time view of the city. We introduced her to Slivo, toasted her arrival, and indulged in some strudel before calling it a night.


Wanderlust: Vienna, 2012, Part 2

Our second day in Vienna, we went on a biking and wine tour through the Wachau region, just north of the city. And to prove what a small world it really is, our guide was from Marathon, WI, and her grandparents live in Hermosa, SD. She just happened to marry a Viennese man, and know she lives in Austria. Also on our tour were about 10 Australians who were all on multi-month backpacking trips across Europe. Apparently that's a popular thing to do in Australia after high school and/or college.

The first winery we stopped at was a co-op of sorts for the region. There are three different categories of wine from this region, they are classified by alcohol content from 10.5 to upwards of 16 percent. Starting with the category with the lowest alcohol content is Steinfeder, which translates to "stone feather" and is named after a plant that grows in the rocky soil. Next, is Federspiel or "feather play" and is a term used to in training hawks, another popular activity in the valley. Lastly is Gramand, named after a lizard that suns in the vineyards. (Who knew Austria had lizards, and these are like serious, big lizards we're talking about.) Most of the varietals that are grown here include Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, and can be made into any one of these three wine categories depending on fermentation.

We hopped back onto the bikes and headed to Durnstein where we had lunch (Weiner schnitzel for Corey and sautéed veggies for me). Then we samples some of the local apricot schnapps. In addition to  grapes, the area has quite a few apricot, apple and pear trees, from which they also make liquor. However, what we call schnapps in the US is really more like a liqueur in Austria, and Austrian schnapps is like straight up moonshine.

In the afternoon, we rode right through the vineyards. It was nearing the end of harvest time, but we still saw a few people out in the rows picking the last of the grapes by hand. Our final stop of the day was at a Heurige Mana in Weissekirchen. A heurige is is traditional Austrian wine tavern. However, for hundreds of years, only the church could sell wine for profit. It was Empress Maria Theresa who finally allowed winemakers to sell wine from their homes, but to prevent over saturating the market, the laws only allowed for two heurigen per town to be open during tavern hours. These laws are still in place today, and when it is the heurige's day to be open, they place a wreath outside their doors.

After the heurige, we went down by the Danube river and got a game of sand volleyball going with the Australians. Now, I may have had a per-conceived assumption that all Australians were great at beach sports like vball and surfing, but that stereotype was proven wrong. For once, I wasn't the worst on the team! One guy even split his pants trying to dive for the ball... Too funny.

At the end of the day, we had biked just over 17 miles. It was a perfect day, only made better by the delicious meal we had once we returned to the city. We headed over to the Naschmarkt, an open air market with a ton of restaurants, and ate at a fish stand. I had the best pumpkin soup of my life with a tasty scallop swimming on top, and Corey had a giant pot of steamed clams. Just lovely.

Our final day in Vienna was busy-busy as we tried to fit in everything else we wanted to see and do before leaving. We started out by returning to the Naschmarkt to check out the day crowd. In the mornings, it's much like a farmers' market with fruit, vegetable, cheese, meat, bread and wine vendors up and down the alleys. We bought some bread, speck (cured meat like proccutio), and cheese (French cheeses, seeing as the few Austrian cheeses we had tried earlier did not impress), and set off with our picnic lunch to the Schonbrunn Palace, the Hapsburg's summer residence.

We toured the, again, ridiculously large summer palace where Napoleon had stayed for a while, and where a 6-year-old Mozart played violin for Maria Theresa way back when. Once we had made our way through the palace, however, it had started to drizzle outside. We found a dry-ish bench in one of the several gardens (once upon a time, this palace was considered "out in the country" and they would go hunting in the huge gardens). 

To warm up after our picnic, we had some coffee and cocoa with some famous Viennese apple strudel back in the palace. It was a all very posh. They also offered a cooking demonstration on how to make strudel, but after seeing a few of the photos, we decided strudel was like puff pastry...it's much easier and tastes much better if you let someone else make it.

Our next stop for the day was the Belvedere museum, home to a huge collection of Klimt's, including the famous "Kiss." My mum introduced me to Klimt a few years ago when I helped her paint the set that she had designed for Charlie's Aunt, done a la Gustav Klimt. Thus, it was pretty fun to see his gold glinted work up close and personal.

Before we knew it, the sun was setting--but we still had a few sights left on our list to see before we left for Slovenia! We made our way over to Prater, a Coney Island of sorts, to ride the Farris wheel made famous by The Third Man (which is now on my Netflix for when I get home). On our way, we made pit stop to see the Hundertwasserhaus, an apartment building designed by Austrian architect Hundertwasser who didn't believe in straight lines or flat surfaces. Pretty bizarre, but pretty outstanding.

Back to the Farris wheel. So this thing is like an old school carnival ride with huge, enclosed cars that fit up to twelve people or so. It takes up to half an hour to go around once depending on how many time it stops, but the view from the top was well worth it (even though I may have been looking a little ghostly).

For our final sight of Vienna, Corey insisted I see St. Stephen's Cathedral. Located in the heart of downtown, it's beautiful both inside and out. The exterior is full of Gothic spires, many of which were destroyed during WWII. The parts that survived are all black and charred. They have restored the fragile spires, but with white stone, so there is an interesting contrast. 

By this time, we had worked up quite the appetite.  One of the guides on the bike tour the day before had recommended a place called the Twelve Apostles Keller, somewhere in the vicinity of St. Stephen's. Cursing my lack of i.phone 3G technology, we were forced to ask for directions. We asked three different people for directions, and they all responded with something along the lines of, "Ahh, the Zwoelf Apostelkeller! Yes, I've been there. It's very important that you go. Very Austrian. But I don't remember where it is. Walk in that direction and when you get closer, ask someone else."  Like searching for the holy grail!

At around 10:30, we decided to give up and head back to the subway. In one last-ditch effort, I asked a couple of women if they knew where it was. They looked confused, but one let me use her phone to Google map it. They were headed in the same direction and said they could take us there. Turns out, they were actually Hungarians living in Vienna, hence their unfamiliarity of the place.

We finally found the place with an unassuming sign on the sidewalk, only a block away from where we had asked the third person on our quest. Incredibly grateful (and hungry), we offered to buy our new Hungarian friends a pint, but they declined, telling us to instead visit Budapest on our next trip abroad. Looks like it will be Hungry in 2014.

The Keller was totally worth the journey. It's deep underground in a cellar that dates back to the 1300s. We graciously ate our goulash and roast beef while sipping on our cider-like wine, thankful for the serendipity that traveling brings. For dessert, we indulged with a Kaiserschmarrn, chopped up pancakes with some plum jam, which is said to have been Emperor Francis Joseph I's favorite meal. Corey ordered us a round of schnapps, and we made our way back to the apartment just before the subway closed for the night.


Wanderlust: Vienna, 2012, Part 1

"Destinations are only desirable because a journey lies in between," wrote Elizabeth "Sisi" Empress of Austria. She had an unquenchable thirst for adventure and travel, spurred on by her unease at the royal court.

Though we can't complain about life at home, Corey and I have had a similar itch to explore the world--this time in Central and Eastern Europe. Our destinations over the course of two weeks include Vienna, Austria; Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia; and Rovinj and Dubrovnik in Croatia.

We left for Vienna on September 28th. After a delicious dinner and some wine at Surdyk's Flights (my favorite excuse to arrive early to the MSP airport these days), we took off for an evening flight through Amsterdam to Vienna.

Once we arrived, grateful that our bags had made it as well, we took the train to the apartment we were renting near the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. We dropped off our bags and set off to explore the city before dinner. We stumbled upon the botanical gardens where we saw some pretty cool terrariums and learned the German for common garden herbs and spices. 

After a short nap, we went for some comfort food at an Italian restaurant. (I was sick much of the flight to Amsterdam, so I figured it would be best to go easy on my stomach with something that was a bit more familiar than sausage this and schnitzel that...) On our way back to the apartment, we stopped at a retro bar called Daniel's for a nightcap. It was here that we discovered Sturm, fresh wine (literally, from grapes picked a week or two ago) that is still in the fermenting process. Our friend Katy, who had spent a semester in Vienna in college, had told us to try the "wine with the tin foil on top," so we did!  (They can't seal the bottle it will explode from the CO2 that is produced during fermentation.) It looks like cloudy, unappetizing wine, and it's slightly sweet. Since it isn't all that strong, they serve you a full 1/4 L glass. Not bad at all!

Our first stop on our full day in Vienna, was Karlskirche, named after Blessed Emperor Karl I, the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was essentially exiled during WWI.

Then we checked out the Butterfly Garden at the Hofburg Palace, followed by a tour of the palace itself. The Hofburg was the winter residence of the Hapsburg family. It's huge with over 2600 rooms, a beautiful garden, and the Spanish riding school where the famous Lipizzaner stallions are trained. Even though Maria Theresa and Francis I had 16 children, that's still more than 144 rooms per person! It's Downton Abbey on steroids.

Next, we marched over to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, mostly because my dad has a strange obsession with Caravaggio and requested that we check out his works there. We were pleasantly surprised. In addition to a couple of oh-so-dark and dramatic Caravaggios, there were several Rembrants, Rubens, and even a Vermeer. And turns out Gustav Klimt added a little something to the ceiling frescoes above the grand staircase, so that was cool to see, too. For a rest, we had a coffee and some famous Viennese Sacre Torte in the museum cafe, which was an experience in itself. We both decided that the Sacre Torte was really more of just a dry, chocolate cake, and not really worth all the hype...

Later in the evening, we checked out a wine "stube," where we tasted some of the local vintages. Though Austria is much more widely none for its white wines (Gruner Veltliner and Riesling), we had a tasty Zweigelt red, which we found most drinkable. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we went back tot he apartment and registered for a biking tour through the Wachau wine region for the following day.


KG & Coco B go to Europe: Interlude

A brief Interlude: Biking

A couple of times over the coures of our week at Castle Stoutenberg, Corey and I borrowed Carolien and Marco's bikes to visit the nearby towns--Leusden, Hoevelaken, and Amersfoort, the last of which is the epi-center of the area, a 750-year-old village of just under 150,000 people. Here are some of our observations:

  • Everyone bikes in Holland.
  • Cars must (and usually do) yield to bikes.
  • No one wears helmets.
  • Biking and texting: almost worse than texting and driving...
  • Dutch bikes have built-in locks on the back tire. Pretty nifty.
  • Biking is super easy because it is so flat.
  • Biking is not so easy in gale-force winds. Think biking on I-90 between Mitchell and Chamberlain.