Dubrovnik,Croatia

Holiday in King’s Landing: Dubrovnik, Croatia

Your first glimpse of the Old City in Dubrovnik is an incredible sight.  Whether you’re driving in from the craggy hills of Croatia or if you’re on a boat in the Adriatic’s cerulean sea, the city is breathtaking.  The Old City’s walls are up to 20 feet thick and 72 feet high in certain places.  This fact makes Dubrovnik one of the most preserved cities in Europe since potential conquerers weren’t able to get through these barriers for centuries.  No wonder this city is the perfect site to protect the Iron Throne! If you got that reference, then you might already know that the Old City is one of the sets for King’s Landing, a fictional setting in the series Game of Thrones.  I couldn’t help making up my own GoT tour each day when adventuring within the city walls.IMG_4218

We met Zach and Amanda at the airport, and caught a cab to our Airbnb which was right inside of Buza gate, the Northern entrance into the Old City.  Once you enter the gate, picture steep staircases like in Positano, Italy, flanked by weaving vines and ferns alongside the limestone walls.  Laundry lines hang outside of flat windows and you’ll see from my pictures that I was smitten with these historic streets.

A random start to our trip: our Airbnb host’s mother was actually born in Camden, New Jersey if you can believe it!  She welcomed us with a bit of her family history, showed us around the flat, and then suggested Lady PiPi.  It’s a restaurant around the corner from ours but people come from all over the city for a meal.  We lucked out with only two people in line before us.  We had our first tastes of meat and mead (ok, really meat and an Adriatic feast of shellfish and fish grilled with lemon and garlic and potatoes)…and Croatian wine.  I learned that the whites are dry from Konavle, Korcula, and the Peljesac Peninsula.  Reds should come from the Peljesac Peninsula as well and one should sample bottles of Dingac, Plavac, and Postup. I digress…

The terra cotta rooftops were stunning from our restaurant’s outdoor veranda, and we were covered from summer rain showers since the roof of the outdoor space was a trellis with thick grape vines.

First stop after lunch, and after picking up an umbrella, was figuring out how to climb the walls of the Old City.  We picked our way down to the Stradun, the main thoroughfare paved with smooth limestone slabs.  Amanda stopped into the bulk Pirate Candy shop for a ‘healthy’ gluten-free snack to nourish us on our adventures.  Past Onofrio’s large water fountain, you can buy tickets to walk the 1.2 km of the Old City walls.  I described how Varys’ little birds were scurrying along notable corridors, and how Cersei was plotting from the same lookouts we were scaling.

Zach conquered his fear of heights for this trip, and did an amazing job of walking the entire perimeter of the Old City!  He held handrails, sometimes with his knees shaking, and always leaned on his best bud (see video c/o Amanda!).

The views from atop the walls were gorgeous even on a rainy day.  The waters are too clear, and the rain kept other visitors away for the time being.  We shared stories of our travels as we wandered the ins and outs of the walls.  Each lookout seemed more beautiful than the last.  Of course, I continued my GoT story-telling – ‘here is where Jamie Lannister was practicing his one-armed swordmanship’ and ‘these stairs lead to where the Mountain lives’ 😉

The harbor was quiet because of the stormy weather and most tourists were parked at cafes to wait out the rain.  I liked how the lanterns on the streets doubled as storefront names, and how we could fill up our water bottles at the fountains around town.

Buza Bar, a no-frills joint without food or hot drinks, came highly recommended as a wonderful spot to watch the waves crash as the sun sets.  We arrived earlier than most so we could get a good seat to relax before dinner.  I wasn’t a big fan of the Croatian beer they served, but it’s worth taking a rest here for the views!  Buza also means ‘hole’ hence walking through a passage, or rather, a hole-in-the-city-wall to get there.

We ate at Azur on our first night, a spot that cleverly calls its food ‘Cro-Asian’.  Sitting outside for meals was one of the highlights for me, and this little tucked away spot didn’t disappoint.  We had a wonderful server who rightly suggested the tacos to start.  My laksa had a wonderful bounty of seafood but the broth left something to be desired.  We also got a proper wine bar suggestion from our server- D’Vino Wine Bar. It’s in the heart of the old town and it’s incredibly cozy whether you want to sit inside with subtle lighting or outside with a cushion on the stairs that lead down to the doorway.  It was a really fun night because we met up with Corey’s colleague Tondi, her sister Nyasha, and their good friend Ella, who had just come back from a private boat tour around the Dalmatian islands.  Their pictures were amazing!  I also learned a bit about the reputations of Northern and Southern Germany, and a lot about how Hamburg is an unsung hero when it comes to visiting Germany (I’m in!).  Side Note: Our server also said that Matusko Wine Bar was another spot we should visit but our group didn’t make it past D’Vino that night.


Good morning, Dubrovnik!  Today, we decided that we’d take a trip to Lokrum which is just a fifteen minute ferry ride from the old port.  Admittedly, we didn’t have a serious plan scheduled–we just walked down to the docks and lucked out that the next boat was leaving in five minutes.  The landing dock at Lokrum is a quiet cove that makes you feel as if you’d discovered a quaint island away from it all, even if the major hotels are just across the way.

Lokrum is a mix of shrubs, trees, and beaches with huge stone slabs, rather than sand. It’s highly recommended that you bring or buy water shoes to avoid sharp rocks and infamous sea urchins–though we didn’t see any of these probably because the beach areas we visited were didn’t have actual shores- it was more of a drop directly into the ocean type deal.  It’s also worth a mention that Lokrum is known for its peacock and rabbit populations.  They’re pretty bold if you have snacks, and are indifferent to your cameras.

This first set of pictures was taken on Lokrum’s nude beach.  The signs leading to the beach warn you that you are not allowed if donning a swim suit, but the local woman at the cafe said no one was sunning themselves this early.  It really is a prime location for a beach, nude or otherwise.  The slanted rocks basically give each person their own platform for laying out.

We trekked further around the island and found the main beach on site.  You can see more rocks form the beach area rather than sandy shores.  Check our our little pool below!  We enjoyed taking it all in even though the waves were higher than usual due to an incoming storm.   It was crazy seeing tourists try to brave the waves.  I couldn’t look half the time since I was worried someone would get taken out to sea!  It was sunny at the beach, but once back on the boat, we hit some choppy waves.  Zach suggested we play a game so that I wouldn’t have a panic attack on the boat. Thanks for that!

This afternoon started our actual attempt at finding the Game of Thrones landmarks in the city.  First, we found Rector’s Palace.  Apparently, the stairs at Rector’s Palace are adorned with hands on each rail, but we didn’t pay the ticket price to get that close to see them. Instead, I captured this shot when the guard wasn’t looking to make sure that I could prove I was in the same place as the spice trader from Qarth (images far left, top and bottom).

Next, Cersei’s famed walk of atonement starts atop the Jesuit Staircase.  If you are going to watch the series, then that’s all I can say to avoid spoiler alerts.  (center images top and bottom)

Finally, the exterior of Museum Rupe stunts as the outside of Littlefinger’s brothel.  Tyrion and Oberyn Martell are seen walking away from this space in deep conversation about an upcoming plot for revenge (far right, images top and bottom)

 

We ate huge pizzas at Mea Culpa, one of the many pizza places located in the Old City. It’s a cheap meal if you avoid a bottle of Zindfandel which basically doubles your bill.  After lunch, we caught a very small Dali exhibit with a lot of work that I hadn’t seen before. Still bizarre for my taste, but interesting to see earlier works before his melting clocks.

Another beautiful sunset from our Airbnb as we all took a bit of rest before the main event: Konoba Dubrava.  You have to call in advance if you want to order meat ‘under the bell’ which is the restaurant’s version of a slow cooker or of a smoker. I couldn’t tell you entirely, but definitely call ahead! We were told there would be lamb and veal, and we were not upset by double ‘sheep’ on our plates.  With stewed potatoes, and a suggested order of veggies/salad, you will be stuffed to the gills.  The seafood salad was also a nice touch and they serve an aperitif of cherry, walnut, or plum- basically like a sherry before dinner.  We whiled away the final night even while a storm hit.  Guests are all seated outside under awnings, and we saw a few of the coverings give way and soak guests as the nearby tables.  We stayed cozy, filled our bellies, and talked finances, family backgrounds, politics, and debated about sending our future kids to GS or nah.

Back at our airbnb, we sang 90’s r&b, finished a bottle of rose, and tried to plan our excursions for the following day.  Unfortunately, we had to say our goodbyes to Amanda and Zach the next morning. They decided to ride the gondola to the top of the hill, and then a walk down.  They were heading out for the islands of Split and Hvar and only had the morning before leaving Dubrovnik.  Since Corey and I didn’t have any big island tours in our agenda, we decided to make our way out to Gruz Harbor which is just north of the Old City.


Gruz Harbor the main port where ferries and cruise ships are carrying passengers further out along the Dalmatian coast.  Our plan was to head out to the three Elafiti Islands (Kolocep, Lopud, and Sipan).  Lopud, we heard, had the best beaches yet still didn’t allow commercial vehicles on the island like Sipan, so we started there and figured we’d hop back to Kolocep later in the afternoon.  The ferry was relaxing and the waters were so clear you could see fish swimming below the boat.  We were the first boat to arrive at Lopud, and we discovered then that there wasn’t a need to island hop.  We recommend taking one of the golfcart cabs to Sunj beach since it’s a literal hike to the other side of the island. You can catch the cabs about a 10 min walk from the harbor, if you just follow the signs to the beach.  I picked up a couple of snacks and water bottle along the main strip as well.

When we arrived, we rented the 50% off chairs and umbrella even though we weren’t really sure why they were cheaper.  I should mention that we didn’t need water shoes for this trip as the beach is one of the few sandy shores in the area.  Private boats anchor outside of the cove buoys so that passengers can swim into the beach area.  We took the opportunity to swim out to see the yachts.  I was happy we had our snacks (a peach and pastry with ground meat and large water bottle) since there was only one restaurant in the area.  The sunshine was wonderful, and we couldn’t help but reflect on how lucky we were to be swimming in the Adriatic sea.

We caught a golfcart back to town for the 3pm ferry.  There wasn’t a lot to explore around the main strip. We saw a few stalls and more pizza restaurants, but decided to beat the crowds that would be piling into the last boat at 6pm.  We looped past Sipan, before being dropped off at Gruz harbor.  We had another pastry and a glass of wine in Lapad while waiting for Pantarul Restaurant to open.  Umm, but it never opened.  I failed to read that the restaurant is closed on Monday. Well…. more exploring down near the Lapad harbor! It’s definitely more of a neighborhood feel, and there were families at the restaurant that we finally found on the water- Orsan. The moonlight on the water was my favorite of the meal- oh yea, and Corey finding out how just how sunburnt he’d gotten during our first course.

After dinner, we decided to find the best ice cream spot, and all online votes pointed to Dolce Vida in the Old City.  It had the infamous After Eight ice cream (looked like mint chocolate chip ice cream).  I enjoyed the Forrest Berries though my stomach paid for it later.  We walked along the moonlight lanes for as long as my tummy could handle it.  The streets are so magical!


Our Airbnb shared on the morning of that we wouldn’t be able to have a late check out, and that we wouldn’t be able to store our bags. Argh!  So we solved the problem by renting a car.  I’d read that Ston had something akin to a mini-Great Wall of China, and that Mali Ston, Ston’s next door neighbor, was known by gastronomes for amazing seafood.  The gentleman at the car rental also suggested Seosko Domaćinstvo Ficović for lunch.  That was enough for us.  We’d figure out the rest when we got to the seafood restaurant.  We drove along the bright green pines and looked down the cliffs at the sparkling waters.

Ston does have 14th century fortifications to guard against an attack by sea.  The town is incredibly small and very relaxed which is probably very different from when it was a town poised to protect the Republic of Ragusa (the former name of Dubrovnik).  Mali Ston is only a walk away from Ston but we didn’t spend any time there.

The restaurant, in Hodilje, is neighbors with an RV campground, but the grounds are so small that you don’t really notice them unless you go around to the side of the restaurant. If you had to choose a spot to camp or live in a trailer then this isn’t such a bad location at all– in fact, it’s absolutely gorgeous!

Seosko Domaćinstvo Ficović was too perfect. The outdoor seating was serene with a warm breeze and with cleverly draped fishing nets as decoration.  It’s an understatement to say they had amazing ambiance.   We hit the jackpot!

We had divine oysters straight offshore from Mali Ston, and the waitress kept apologizing because they didn’t have everything on the menu.  She said ‘We only have what’s fresh so I’m sorry there isn’t a lot of choice.’ We said ‘Perfect! Bring us what ever is fresh!’ My favorite was the clams, mussels, and venus shells (I think that’s what she called them. They don’t open when you cook them actually but they are yummy!). The garlic sauce was too good!  Then we had tuna and sea bream. I was over the moon!  It was the best meal of the entire trip.

We also watched as Croatian families actually take swim breaks between their courses at the restaurant!  What a life!  The waitress there asked how we found out about the place since we were the only tourists in the area, and she kindly suggested that we visit the numerous wineries in the area.  We didn’t think wine tasting while driving was a good look, so we inquired about the beaches in the area.  She said her favorite was an untouched beach called Vucine.  ‘It’s better than Prapratno’ were her words (Prapratno was in my guidebook but Vucine was not).  So, of course, we wanted to take on the beach less traveled!

As you can see, Vucine was just gorgeous. It’s a bit difficult to find, but once you get there, it’s a small strip that you don’t want to leave.  We turned a lot of heads when we set foot on the pebbly beach.  The families there hadn’t predicted that a mixed couple would show up that day.  Corey received a warm ‘he-llo’ from a small boy swimming next to us.  He was definitely trying out the few words he’d learned in English which was really cute.

On the drive back to the airport, we stopped a few times for the look-outs, and also for the honey and olive oil stalls.  We couldn’t commit to checking a bag so we didn’t get anything.  Our final meal before the airport was at a pretty terrible spot (Dalmatino), but at least we got to watch the Euro basketball cup.  Too bad Croatia lost to Spain.  Croatia actually has two players who are on the Sixers this year, and I should put in writing here that Corey has claimed the Sixers will win the chip in the next five years.

Traveling in Dubrovnik was a really relaxing trip, but, upon reflection, this (s)log took longer to write since we did end up doing more than just sunbathing.  This is a random mention but I saw two different Croatians with the same tattoo:  ‘My life my rules’.  It’s not particularly dreamy like ‘ Live life to the fullest’ or ‘Dance, Live, Love’ (I think that’s a magnet somewhere), but I liked the straightforward realistic nature of the phrase.  When you’re surrounded beaches, sun, wine, and fresh seafood, and your country has also recently experienced a siege in the last 20 years, I imagine that it’s not a bad motto to live by.  We’d highly suggest Croatia as a place to visit, and I look forward to seeing the islands and to traveling to neighboring states asap!


Quick Shot: 

Eat / Drink at:

  • Konoba Dubrava: as seen in the NY Times article; order ahead for meats ‘under the bell’ (takes 3 hours to cook)
  • Seosko Domaćinstvo Ficović: order the mussels & clams in garlic (need a car to get here, there is no website, and it’s on an unnamed street)
  • Lady Pipi for whatever meal you can get without waiting in line 🙂 Do it!
  • D’Vino Wine bar
  • Dolce Vida for ice cream and pancakes
  • I’d suggest a winery too even though we didn’t get to one; they all looked lovely!

Day Trips to Beaches:

  • Vucine- need a car
  • Lopud- boat from Gruz Harbor
  • Lokrum- boat from Old City port

Sights:

  • Walk the city walls
  • Opt in for a do-it-yourself Game of Thrones tour (or pay to have an expert take you around)
  • Ride the gondola for stunning views of the city

 

 

Standard
London, England, Oslo, Norway

Big Barbara Comes to Town

IMG_9234On Friday, I was actually more excited to be in the airport itself than to be in the new city I’d just landed in.  Why?  I was meeting Barbara in just a half hour at the baggage claim!  She was flying across the pond to hang out for almost two weeks, and the first part of our adventure would be in Nesoddtangen with her longtime friend, Trine (pronounced Trina).  I should clarify that I was excited to visit Norway, but I hadn’t done much research on what I wanted to see in Oslo.  This is probably because it was the first time I was traveling to a place where I’d know a local.  For me, the ‘must see’ sights would be any and all suggestions by Trine and her son, Julian.  And, of course, a highlight of the trip would be witnessing Barbara and Trine reunite after many years.

After meeting at the arrivals terminal, Barbara and I texted with Julian to get directions to get to their home.  Nesoddtangen is about forty kilometers from Oslo, right on the fjord.  We ran to catch the ferry at Aker Brygge, met Julian in the parking lot on the other side of the fjord, and enjoyed the short drive to their house. I felt like I was in a combination of seaside home with light blue walls and shells lining the windowsills, and a mountain cabin, cozy with furry blankets and birch logs lining the fireplace.  It made me realize how many big cities I’ve been to and how relaxing it felt to be in a home surrounded by nature.  I lost track of the number of times that I sighed ‘how beautiful‘ in just a 48 hour period.

When I visit friends and family, the first night I expect to stay up way too late because we’re so excited to catch up on everything in our lives.  This evening proved to be no different between Barbara and Trine, friends for over 30 years!


The next morning, after a long lie-in (British for ‘sleeping in’), Trine made us scrambled eggs, fresh orange juice, and gravlax.  We walked with Yogi down by the bath houses along the fjord.  The bath houses used to be connected to a property on the overlooking hills.  Families would use the bath houses as changing rooms before swimming or wading.

Taking the ferry to Oslo takes exactly 23 minutes and you get a great view of the fort, Aker Brygge’s promenade, and the city hall.  The first stop on our list was Vinmonopolet, or the wine monopoly shop.  The government-owned wine shop has limited Saturday hours until 3pm and is closed on Sunday. You have to plan ahead if you want to imbibe on the weekends.  When we asked the staff member to help us pick our red wine to pair with our dinner, she wanted to know what vegetables we’d serve and how the lamb would be prepared and other specific details that no one has every asked when I’ve picked out a wine for dinner. Who am I kidding…I just pick a label I like.

With our wine in tow, we rode a smaller boat to Bygdoy island to check out the open air Norsk Folkemuseum.  This museum showcases life in Norway from the 1500s to present day with 160 historic buildings that have been relocated from regions around the country.  Staff members wear traditional dress native to each region and give various cultural demonstrations for visitors.  Trine actually used to work here when she was in high school, and could remember bits and bobs about her time in these little neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, we were too late to visit the Viking Ship museum but we peeked through the windows to see the most famous ship on display.  After the ferry back to Oslo, we checked out city hall.  Lining the walkway to city hall are huge wooden panels telling the story of creation and depicting Norse gods in various mythical scenes.  We also visited the Nobel museum gift shop before resting our legs at Sputino for an aperitif.

For dinner, we had homegrown lamb!  The couple that rents the attic at Trine’s raises sheep, and that’s how we had Lulu the lamb as a treat for dinner.  Trine made broccoli and mashed potatoes which paired perfectly with our red wine just like the lady said it would.  I forgot to snap a picture because I started eating so quickly.

Here are a couple other random shots from our day.


Sunday, we had another lie in, but as I was up a bit earlier, I spent the time finishing up bits of my blog while watching the fog burn off the fjord.  I could make out boats dotting the horizon and neighbors walking along the path by the bath houses.  I felt so relaxed having Yogi, their black lab, at my feet and their calico kitten nipping at my pen as I was scribbling on the page.  Julian started a fire and we had another lovely breakfast of eggs, cucumber, cheese and marmalade.

Trine explained that her neighborhood is deregulated– no cops or authorities– just artists and alternative thinkers living their lives on the water.  The forest was also just a five minute drive from her street.

We hiked along Trine’s favorite trail that afternoon.  The pine trees were striking and the forest floor was soft with moss.  There were also sprawling blueberry and lingonberry bushes on both sides of the trail.  Berries weren’t in season yet, but seeing how many bushes covered the forest floor would mean more berries than I could imagine.  I can see why Trine considers the Bjornemyr forest her therapist, her gym and her church.

We had just enough time to take a very very chilly dip into the fjord before heading back into Oslo! Trine mentioned how exhilarating it would be, and Julian said it was highly recommended, so when in Rome… ahem, when in Nesoddtangen?!?!

Vigeland Sculpture Park was my last stop before I had to get on the airport tram.  It’s a beautiful park with over 200 naked statues in various still and active positions. Families, joggers, couples and tourists alike were giggling and posing with the statues, making their own fun.

There’s in a word I learned on this trip: dugnad, which means to do something together; create a garden, pave a road, or shovel snow with everyone from the neighborhood helping.  Being in Nesoddtangen, with such natural beauty, made me think about how small I am but how much we accomplish when we do things together in this way.  I guess I just felt a calm sense of possibility looking out over the water each day.  Big shoutout to Trine and Julian for welcoming us into their home, and I’m happily dreaming about what reunions will be like with my girlfriends after 30 years of friendship.




Barbara stayed an extra day in Norway, so our visit in London started Tuesday! Because Corey was home healing his kidney, he and ‘Big Barbara’ would have breakfast and plan out her days’ adventures.  Of course, he started the nickname ‘Big Barbara’ as well.  Here are the escapades day by day.

Tuesday: Corey and Barbara visited St. Paul’s Cathedral, and she climbed to the top to see the 360 view of London.  They spent time in the free exhibits at the Tate Modern, namely in the Rothko section. For a late lunch, we all met up at the National Theater for a proper afternoon tea! We shared sandwiches, scones, and even small meat pie.  The themed menu was based on the plays of the National Theater.  Our gift certificate also included a backstage tour where we saw the props and costume studios, as well as the three stages on site. I’ve only seen a show at the largest theater, but was inspired to check out more show dates in the future.  We relaxed that evening with a meal of roasted veggies at home.

Wednesday: Big Barbara went big! She conquered the West side, visiting both the Design museum and the V&A! She also walked Kensington gardens and still had energy to meet up with a friend of mine for a play called Posh. The play tells the story of a fictional drinking club (think fraternity) at Oxford that must confront their own definitions of brotherhood.  This modern version kept the exact same script but was played by an all female cast creating lots of food for thought.  It was also an experience to see a show where we could understand the literal words of the play, but where we didn’t understand most of the British context,  jokes, or references.

Thursday was Westminster Abbey, St James Park and Buckingham Palace.  Memorial flowers dedicated to the four victims of the attack on Parliament were laid out across the lawn in front of the Abbey.  With a stroke of luck, we saw the changing of the horses guard, and Corey met us for a lunch at Koya, an udon bar in Soho. I went to visit a school in the afternoon while Corey and Barbara made their way back to the flat.  After a day of walking, it was a perfect evening for a feast at Gokyuzu, my favorite Turkish restaurant.

Friday: She is still going!  Barbara checked off the Tower, Tower Bridge, and the South bank. We also had a tasty lunch at Borough market after I left my meetings.  It was a good day to have some Hendrick’s G&Ts at the Pig and Butcher before making a tasty dinner at home.

Saturday: We spent time at the Tate Britain, and then rode the Thames Clipper back to central London.  We wiled away the afternoon touring Spitalfields market, seeing Brick Lane’s graffitied walls, and strolling down Regent’s Canal.

Sunday: Rise and shine for Columbia Flower market, and a hefty Sunday Roast.  Then Kew Botanical Gardens and a final Sunday supper of Ottolenghi take out. Barbara said she felt inspired by the veggie dishes!


I hope that after reading about Barbara’s trip, you’ll feel inspired to visit us as well, and use this outline as a starting point for your own travels. We had such a good time adding new sights to our repertoire and thank you, Big Barbara, for bringing a bit of CA home to London.

Standard