Adriatic Adventure Closure

It was a great trip. Thanks for traveling with us. Thank you for putting up with the missing words and typos. Writing a blog late at night after a big meal isn’t ideal for precise writing or careful editing.

Here are some of our random thoughts when we look back on our Adriatic Adventure. They are in no particular order.

  • After driving a Smart car for a week, it may look tiny from the outside, but we found the car to be shockingly roomy on the inside, very maneuverable, and great when parking is tight. Our Prius will feel like a bus for a while.
  • In Croatia and Slovenia, waiters need to speak a minimum of four languages. In Italy they can get away with only speaking three in most places. German is needed much more than French. We saw lots and lots of German tourists. Perhaps the French just stay home and visit other parts of France.
  • The Germans have grown in height in the past generation or two. They are very tall!
  • We were told that the water we were always served for free in Slovenia was an unusual custom. That proved very true. Thanks for the free water, Slovenia.
  • English was spoken everywhere. Even people who said they didn’t speak much English, spoke enough to help us out.
  • Gelato is a perfectly acceptable meal substitute.
  • Signage in Italy is “budgeted.” They may give you one sign, but don’t count on another one.
  • Don’t try eating at U.S. “early bird special” time. 7:00 is as early as dinner is served. Even then, you’ll be eating with other North Americans.
  • The Idiots Guide to Religious Art—
    • Mary wears blue or blue and pink. That’s it. Don’t even think of any other colors.
    • There are many more saints than you ever read about in the Bible and every church has a favorite.
    • Paintings are categorized as having triangular or diagonal lines. In the case of Titian, think layers. If you walk around and say, “Ah, triangular,” “Hmm, diagonal,” or “Obvious layers” people might think you know something. It’s the art version of Radar O’Reilly’s, “Ah, Bach” approach to classical music.
  • Italy doesn’t charge enough for driving on its toll roads. It is no wonder they have financial issues. We took one highway with at least five beautiful tunnels and at least as many high curved bridges. After being on the road for almost an hour, the toll was 2.30 euros. In France it would have been over twenty, but there would have been lots of signs in France.
  • France charges too much for shoes, especially Italian shoes. The Italian shoes in Italy were not a bad deal. We didn’t buy any, but we did notice the prices.
  • Slovenia deservers more time than we gave it. It will require another trip.
  • In France we have always felt somewhat underdressed. That was not the case anywhere on this trip. Casual dress was common on tourists and locals alike. That isn’t to say that stylish clothes weren’t shown in the store windows. We just don’t know who was buying them or where they were wearing them.
  • Traveling with a GPS from home that you know how to work easily, is a must for driving in Europe. It isn’t worth renting one with the car. Buy one at home and become familiar with how to do what you need to do. We are very partial to Stephen Fry’s voice on ours.
  • The vineyards in Italy are taller, less trained, and regulations are more relaxed. They are allowed to irrigate. They are more Type B. The opposite is true in France, which is certainly Type A in wine production. We think there may be some broader generalizations to extrapolate from there about the people of the country as well, but we’ll leave that to others.
  • France gives prizes for the beauty of small towns. Italy seems to love the more rustic looks. Peeling paint can be seen as charming.
  • We leave for our trip to Bordeaux, the Dordogne, and Bilbao in 365 days, 18 hours, and 27 minutes. The next countdown begins.

The Road to Rovinj

We bid a very sad goodbye to Ljubljana and promised to return to see — and taste — more of this beautiful county. With the little extra time we had before the bus arrived, we walked around the old town area one more time. We stopped in our tracks to listen to a chorus of opera singers going through their warm-ups at the orchestra hall. Just lovely.

IMG_1299

We headed to the bus station to meet our bus that was taking us to Rovinj, Croatia. The topography changed dramatically in the four-hour trip. The colors went from the hunter greens of the evergreens and reds of the geraniums in planters to the sage green of olive trees and bright fushia of the bougainvillea. The giant trees became shrubs. The houses went from Austrian-inspired Alpine homes to Tuscan-inspired stucco homes in shades of peach and yellow.

Here are some things to know about Rovinj.

  • Rovinj is pronounced Row (like your boat) veen (rhymes with seen).
  • It is on Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula, across the Adriatic from Venice.
  • The old town is pedestrian only and the water views are beyond gorgeous.
  • The harbor is bordered by a wide, cobbled (and buffed to a slippery shine by thousands of tourists’ shoes shuffling along) pedestrian walkway lined with cafes. Promenading along the shore is what one does here.
  • This area used to be part of Italy until WWII.
  • Like Ljubljanans, the people of Rovinj speak English very well, almost to a person. They also speak German. And Italian. And Croat. It’s pretty darned impressive.
  • Seafood, truffles, wine, cheese, and olive oil make up the food theme here.
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7K4yHo5Blo

Our first impressions of Rovinj were not very enthusiastic. It was hot, we were tired and sort of lost, and the place was packed to the gills with German tourists. All of that has changed as we end the day. The town is built around a crescent-shaped harbor. It reminded us of Cassis, France on steroids. There isn’t a beach, but people were swimming in the water accessed by steps lowered from the walls around the harbor. The water just hypnotizes you with its clarity and the way light dances along the surface.

IMG_1311

IMG_1310

IMG_1312

We’re staying in a lovely apartment near the heart of the action called Villa Markiz. The owner was very helpful in getting us un-lost, and giving us great suggestions for dining while we’re here. Last night the owner of Pop’s Burgers in Ljubljana suggested a restaurant that he likes here and our hostess agreed. We gave it a try.

Let’s just say that one doesn’t just stumble on Gianniani’s. You have to know it’s there. We started with the Istrian ham and cheese plate. Istrian ham is like prosciutto but drier and less salty. The sheep cheese was a perfect match to it. Jim had some ravioli with truffles and was in paradise. We shared a grilled seafood plate and some cloud-like gnocchi with scallops. Perfection on plates.

IMG_4531
Truffles, anyone?
IMG_4534
Scallops and tomatoes with gnochi
IMG_4533
Mixed grilled seafood
IMG_4532
Istrian sheep cheese and local ham

We tried a little teranino, which is a liqueur made from the local “teran” wine. It is sort of like port with a cinnamon taste to it. Cindy loves it and a bottle is going to somehow find its way back to the prairie.

 

A Julian Alps Birthday

Today was filled with natural wonders. We headed out of the city and picked up a rental car. If you are following on your map, we went northwest into the Julian Alps. First, we traveled from Kranjska Gora across the Vrsic Pass. We may have been on steeper and more winding roads in the past, but with the help of therapist we blocked it out.  The crest of the pass was about 1600 meters. The views were breathtaking, but I didn’t encourage Jim to look for very long while driving.

IMG_1223

For you history buffs, the road through the pass was built by 10,000 Russian prisoners of war during World War I. They did an amazing job given the conditions. In 1916, an avalanche killed over one hundred Russian POWs and some Austrian guards. The survivors built a small Russian Chapel to commemorate the loss. The simplicity and rustic nature of the Chapel’s construction is moving. During the time of the construction of the pass, many more hundreds died of exposure and overwork.

IMG_1231 IMG_1229 IMG_1228

Once we got past the human and animal traffic (sheep!) at the crest of the pass, we headed down the other side of the pass to the Soca River. The water is clear, but the limestone sediment gives it a beautiful light aqua color. I hope the pictures give you some idea of the beauty.

IMG_1253

We stopped by the river to have a celebratory picnic. We had packed our picnic lunch with the treasures we collected from the market in Ljubljana yesterday.  I know food tastes better on vacation because you’re on vacation, but honestly, the raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries were superb. We found some beef and pork salami and smoked sausage at the market. We also had picked up some whole wheat rolls. No cheese? Of course there was cheese. We brought a soft brie-like cheese from Istria and a salty hard cheese from Slovenia. Mixing and matching the fruits, meats, and cheeses was great fun.

IMG_1259

We then headed back over the pass to Vintgar Gorge. We hiked through the gorge along the river and finally had to stop taking beauty shots for fear we’d be there all day. It reminded me of our walk through the redwoods in California. You just can’t believe that you’re lucky enough to get to see such majesty. The water was so clear that we saw dozens of trout during our walk.

IMG_1274 IMG_1276 IMG_1268 IMG_1277

From Vintgar, we went to Lake Bled. It’s famous. Rick Steves includes in in his Slovenia show. We drove around the lake and then headed out of town. It was just too developed, and the parking lots and beaches were stuffed with Slovenians enjoying the fine weather on a Sunday.

We then drove to Lake Bohinj — which is as pretty as Bled, but without the crowds and signage (it reminded us a little of Italy’s Lake Como — an Alpine lake surrounded by mountains. The little church there sits on the a site of a church from one thousand years ago. The “new” church is only about seven hundred years old.

IMG_1291 IMG_1285

IMG_1284

For Jim’s birthday dinner tonight, it was the birthday boy’s choice. We went to Pop’s Burgers. Jim had a beer he really liked and that made him very happy. The burgers were made with high-quality beef and were outstanding. We met the owner (born in Slovenia, moved to L.A. and made his mark there, then returned to Slovenia to raise their daughter) who could not have been more engaging. We sat outside at a table by the river, overlooking the main square. This was a lovely way to close this chapter of our trip.

 

Some general thoughts about Slovenia, Ljubljana, and traveling:

  • Ljubljana has a café culture like no place we’ve been before.  The city center is walkable, friendly, and safe. We love it here!
  • Ljubljanans have lots of well-behaved dogs that they take walking around town with them. There are no signs the dogs have been there (unlike France). It’s amazing.
  • The adults don’t wear bike helmets in the city. There are lots of bikes and pedestrians and we have seen no ill will.
  • English is spoken to some degree by every single person we have met.
  • We have still seen ZERO police. We have asked several people about it and they all wonder why police would be needed.
  • The natural wonders here are world-class. There is a mountain biking culture deeply ingrained in the country (more about that below).
  • Restaurants in Slovenia serve water without you asking for it. Always. Not true throughout much of Europe.
  • There are free electric golf carts to take you places if you get tired of walking. We haven’t needed them, but think the idea is cool. Ljubljana was Europe’s green capital for 2016, and they take it seriously.
  • While driving through the mountains today, we saw many, many mountain bikers, ranging in age from 3 to 70. Seriously, there were little kids who were barely off of training wheels pedaling their little bikes up mountain roads (14° slopes), surrounded by cars and motorcycles. We were both amazed and a little appalled (that their parents allowed it).
  • We’ve heard plenty of American voices while in Ljubljana. This town is not as far off of the beaten path as you might think. The secret is out.
  •  When traveling, it’s good to have a GPS. Pro tip — customize the voice of your GPS. We use Stephen Frye’s voice, and it was like welcoming an old friend back to our travels when we heard him today on our drive.

Ljubljana Tastes Great

I write these notes each evening after a full day. It is all I can do to not jump to our experience as struklji makers, but I will save that and continue in order. It has been a great day and we continue to love Slovenia.

We took some time this morning to enjoy a walk, and we headed up to the top of the hill to check out the view from the castle. We live on the prairie. There are no hills and no castles in our part of the world. Oh my. The climb was rather steep and got our attention. We can’t believe we’re here and that it really is as beautiful as we imagined it would be.

IMG_1173
It was a bit foggy this early in the day, but still beautiful.
IMG_1169
Laying siege to this castle would wear a person out. It’s a steep climb even without the iron mail.

Once we got back to river level, we stopped by the open-air market to get supplies for a picnic lunch tomorrow. You’ll see tomorrow what we chose, but all of the options were delightful. We stopped at a café by the river to have a light breakfast, but ended up having strudel with sweetened whipped cream and a traditional poppy seed cake.

IMG_4383
Layer after layer of goodness
IMG_4382
Warm apple strudel with sweetened whipped cream. Is that wrong?

We walked the calories off (in our dreams) by strolling around some other areas of the city.

IMG_4364

Near the center of town they have a rain station. Wires high above the street create a gentle rain shower for people to walk through. It was fun to do as well as fun to watch other people try it.

We met Iva to do more touring of the tasty parts of Ljubljana. There are certainly lots of tasty bits. We realize that Iva conducts these tours all the time, but she manages to make it all fresh and fun. She is passionate about her city, the local producers, and all that Slovenia has to offer. Spending time with her has been a highlight of the young trip. One of my favorite moments was when I said that we had not seen a single police officer the whole time we’d been walking around Ljubljana. Iva’s response makes us love this place even more. She said, “Why do we need police here?”

IMG_4361

Today Iva took us around the markets and explained, and had us sample, some of the local specialties. We tried grapes that reminded me of muscadines, buckwheat ravioli stuffed with cheese and topped with toasted buckwheat breadcrumbs, and cheese that was a mixture of sheep and goat milk.

img_4391
Buckwheat ravioli

We also tried pumpkin seed oil, both cold pressed and roasted, several honeys, and some fruit liqueurs. We sat outside and enjoyed a wonderful polenta with herbs, goat cheese, young leeks, and zucchini. Super! We also had a chicken baked in parchment with figs, potatoes, and thyme. Yes, there were also stops for more cheese, beer, and gelato. Every single step and taste was perfection.

IMG_4397
Herbed polenta
img_4400
Some of the famous orange wine from Slovenia

Are you saying, my goodness these two have eaten a lot today? Let’s hope that’s it. Nope. This evening we took a cooking class! We’re still thinking the long walk this morning will help balance things out. We arrived for class with Spela at Cook, Eat, Slovenia www.culinaryslovenia.com and the fun began.

Here is the link that got us interested in this class. http://www.savoirthere.com/12106/slovenian-cooking-class-ljubljana/

We made these reservations almost a year ago and I can tell you that it exceeded a cold winter’s worth of imagining it. We were treated to a table of tasty nibbles as we chatted and got to know each other better.

The first course was something we’ll be making a lot from now on — prosciutto with wine and polenta. I won’t give away the secrets, but it was okusno, my Slovene word of the day. Okusno means “delicious.”

IMG_4429

The main course was beautiful sea bass served with potatoes and chard with a sauce of parsley and garlic. We were very proud of ourselves.

IMG_1220

Now for the kicker. We made struklji, which is pronounced STREW klee. First, we made a dough that we rolled to the thickness of newsprint. It was then covered in a mixture of sour cream, cottage cheese(ish), and sugar with some buckwheat crumbs. This was then rolled, wrapped in a piece of cotton, tied with precision, and boiled. To say we were proud of ourselves is the understatement of the decade. After being boiled for 30 minutes, it was sliced and topped with butter and toasted buckwheat crumbs. OH HEAVENS!!!!

IMG_4495

This was such a great experience. We sat with Spela after dinner and enjoyed some homemade fruit and herb liqueurs.

IMG_4499

We’ll fall asleep with visions of struklji dancing in our heads.

Let’s dream on.

 

 

In LOVE With sLOVEnia

We flew over the glorious Alps to get from Munich to Ljubljana. The small plane pulled up to the tiny airport (way smaller than Chicago’s Midway airport) with a backdrop of the Julian Alps. Anything would look small against that. Jim and I don’t usually believe in love at first sight, but we may make an exception for Slovenia. Our first impression was GREEN.

If you aren’t familiar with Slovenia, here are some quick facts.

  • Slovenia has only been an independent country for 25 years and has slightly over 2 million citizens. It used to be the northern part of Yugoslavia.
  • Slovenia is a member of the EU.
  • Slovenia and Slovakia are different countries. Here they speak Slovene.
  • Slovenia is bordered by the Adriatic Sea, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia. They like to say that Slovenia is shaped like a chicken. I guess if you squint, tilt the map, and drink some of their famous orange wine (the wine is the color orange, not made from oranges), you can imagine a chicken.
  • Ljubljana, the capital city, was selected as the European Green City of 2016. They have a pedestrian city center and have taken bold steps to be environmentally friendly. There are lots of bikes!
IMG_4317
A charming wooden bike
  • Ljubljana has a thousand-year-old castle on a hill in the center of town. The town has B.C. Roman roots, and some say Jason and the Argonauts, of golden fleece fame, spent a winter here.

We’re staying at Petra Varl https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/906407 in the old part of Ljubljana. We are right in the middle of the old part of town. We feel settled in already.

IMG_4297
Our room is the one with the patio above the front door.

IMG_4299

The busy Friday market, just steps from our B&B, was in full swing when we arrived. As you might guess, we quickly dropped of our luggage, grabbed our cloth shopping bags, and headed toward the food. On Fridays the market flows into the “Chef’s Market” which is sort of like Taste of Chicago on a different scale. Fifty or so restaurants and other food vendors set up booths with their offerings. We needed a little nibble and had some falafel, hummus, and beet slaw. That hit the spot.

IMG_4301

We didn’t know it but we needed to hit the spot again a little ways down the street. Slovenia is famous for the potica cakes they make at holiday time. We went to Le Potica and tried the plum potica and the tarragon and cheese potica. Both were yummy, but we decided to get a little tarragon cake to hit that spot again.

IMG_4308
They had us at Free Tastings.

IMG_4310

We walked around a bit on our own to get the lay of the land. Ljubljana is a beautiful and extremely walkable city with a river running through the center. Three bridges help you easily get from side to side.

IMG_4305

The Dragon Bridge is a common landmark and meeting place. Dragons are a charming, whimsical symbol of the city. It is said that the dragon on the bridge flicks its tail when a virgin walks across the bridge. Hey, the country has LOVE it its name. Needless to say, we saw no flicking of a dragon’s tail today.

IMG_4370 IMG_4369

At 4:30 this afternoon, we met Iva Gruden with Ljubljananjam for our first walking tour of this trip http://www.ljubljananjam.si/food-walks. Cindy and Iva have been communicating for about a year. Thanks to Facebook and email communications, we felt like we were meeting a friend rather than just taking a tour. The tour lived up to all of our imaginings of it.

This evening’s tour began with lettuce soup, chantarelle mushrooms with barley, and stuffed peppers at Repaete. What a way to begin!

IMG_4318
Lettuce soup with toasted pumpkin seeds
IMG_4320
Sour cream and sourdough bread with stuffed peppers in tomato sauce

IMG_4319

We then walked to another outdoor café to try some Istrian food at Altroke. The owner is a winemaker as well. We tasted the fried sardines with garlic potatoes and chard.

IMG_4329

Then came the most beautiful meat and cheese plate! It had two types of prosciutto, cow and goat cheeses, an egg yolk with horseradish cream, fresh fig, and olives. Pinch me now!

IMG_4330

We followed up that stop with a café by the river at TOZD so Jim could try some local beers. The “Dizzy” American-style IPA was his favorite. They also made a cheese tray that was killer.

IMG_4338 IMG_4337

IMG_4333
Ricotta-type cheese with honey, a creamy blue cheese, walnuts, pears, apricots, and figs

You might say that was enough, but no. We then went to a coffee shop that charges you, not by the glass, but by the amount of time you spend there. They have a large assortment of clocks you can use to keep track of time.

 

IMG_4341

But wait, there’s more. We sat outside of Moderna and had liver pate with pickled wild garlic.

IMG_4343

We ended the evening with amazing gelato eaten outside looking up at the castle bathed in emerald green lights.

Chocolate gelato with amarone cherries with a scoop of pistachio
Chocolate gelato with amarone cherries with a scoop of pistachio
IMG_4347
Our first impression of Slovenia was GREEN and that’s how we ended the day.

Are you seeing the theme? Ljubljana loves outdoor dining.

I hope you will excuse any typos tonight. We’ve flown 5,000 miles with crying babies much of the trip and tasted several of the local beverages. We must say that this has been a great way to kick off the trip, but the pillows are calling us.

 

Vorfreude 2016

You may remember from our pre-trip note last year, that vorfreude is the joyful, intense anticipation that comes from imagining future pleasure. Jim and I leave tomorrow for our long-anticipated trip to Slovenia, Croatia, and the Veneto region of Italy. We’re calling this trip our Adriatic Adventure. If you get out your world maps, you’ll see that the area we’ll be covering is near the northern part of the Adriatic Sea.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 3.22.45 PM

We’ll be taking two cooking classes, strolling on three culinary walking tours, sipping our way through several vineyard visits, getting up close to some great art, enjoying some mountain hikes, and wading in some serious Greek, Roman, WWI, and WWII history. Doesn’t it sound like a wonderful trip? Did I mention that there might be cheese involved?

 
We’ll be back in touch on Friday from Ljubljana, Slovenia. Until then, we’ll be knee-deep in vorfreude.