Friday, November 2, 2012

Back to the Balkans

Sometimes, setting is more important than characters and plot.  It can be enough to drive a story.  Up until now, I haven't blogged much about repeated settings of travel adventures.  This is a mistake that I hope to redeem in this Croatia post.   This setting does drive story, but it's the characters that make this story memorable. 

 Five of my traveling companions (two being children) and I arrived in Dubrovnik late Saturday afternoon.  We were prepared for the wet weather.  Sunday, we walked around old town Dubrovnik and walked back to our rented apartment, 20 minutes up hill, drenched.  By then, two more of my friends had arrived and we were ready to face the weather again.  Our spirits were not dampened!
 The next day brought sunnier skies and periods of rain...perfect for wine tasting!  Ken, Alyssa, Rachel and I rented a van (a godsend actually, it came with two car seats and the promise of two adventure filled days) and drove out to Ston to wine taste in the region I had visited with Tracey and Sarah (see post from June 2010).
The scenery was just as stunning as I remembered.  We ended up in a little town, and were the objects of curious looks by a curious little man.  He waved and laughed the final time we passed him.  It reminded me of how genuine the people of the Balkans region are. 
 One word about language: Before living in a Russian speaking country, I had no idea how VERY similar Slavic languages are.  It was quite humorous (refreshing actually) to read signs, similar to Russian, in plain old ordinary Latin letters.
 After a few wrong turns and another kindly gentleman, we drove through an olive grove on our way to our first tasting site.  Rachel jumped out of the van and picked a handful of olives.  We all tried them...I think they taste much better out of a jar!
 The first winery was a place I had been to, but didn't recognized because we took the back way.  I do remember buying a lovely rose there.  Alyssa bought one for her mom and Rachel bought a white.  I was saving my wine allotment for the Matuska winery.
 Farmer Rawly standing in a small vineyard!  He's too cute.
 Our second stop was a lovely surprise.  It was recently open and I had never been there.  The owners had a simple little house, running their tasting room from a hallway of the home.  The husband grew grapes and sold them to larger wineries.  Then, the family decided to open their own wine business.  The wife was a gracious hostess and her three children were good helpers too.  I did buy a bottle of their dessert wine, made from the dignac grape, because it was the best dessert wine I'd ever tasted.  I'm not a dessert wine kind of girl, but seriously, this is not too sweet and there is something that made my taste buds take notice.  They also made delicious schnapps and lemoncello.  I'm a little sad that I didn't buy the lemoncello because that, too, was the best I've ever tasted.
 And now back to Matusko winery!  It's become so much more commercialized since my last visit, but it's easy to taste why.  We tried to beat a tour bus inside, but that effort failed.  I told myself that I could get the wine from their wine bar in town, but my gut told me to buy from the tasting room.  Boy am I glad that I did.  The mark-up in town was outrageous.  It was at least quadrupole the price.
Alyssa and I were patiently waiting behind a group of Turkish tourists (from the previously mentioned bus) and our patience was rewarded.  There were three pourers and I instantly recognized the lady from three years ago.  I told her how much my family, friends and I enjoyed the wine.  Once the Turkish tourists left, she brought out the hidden reserve collection for Alyssa and me to try.  She eventually poured us samples from a $125 bottle of wine. 

Dusk began to fall as we drove back to Dubrovnik.  We still wanted to take pictures along the road home.

 What wine tasting adventure is complete without a dashboard laden with snacks?
 The next day is spelled ADVENTURE.  Actually, it's spelled Bosnia Herzegovina.  Yes!  I actually went to Bosnia!  We, along with Jenny and John, re-rented the van for the day and drove easily over the boarder.  Our destination was a heavily hit town, Mostar, which has slowly been rebuilt.  Slowly.
 The old town reminded me so much of Albania.  The Turkish influence was everywhere.  (I couldn't leave without eating a piece of Baklava).  The food overall was Albanian.  Or maybe Albanian food is Bosnian.  Either way, I really really really like Balkan food: the grilled meats, the bread soaked in oil and vinegar, the fresh salads.  Yum.

 Pretty isn't it?  We were standing on the rebuilt Old Bridge that was bombed in '93.

 Zoya had no trouble balancing and playing on the cobblestones.  This was near the point when some of our group went and explored the graveyard.  I didn't go, but they reported the tombstones were filled with 1993s.
 Happiness is lunch under blue skies along a river...
 Happiness is kittens who love a cuddle!
 Once upon a time, there were snipers in those hills.

 Bullet holes are still evident through the entire town of Mostar.
 We came upon another small town, now a World Heritage Site, and explored as the afternoon waned into evening.  This town (name forgotten) reminded me of Berat, Albania, home of the 1,000 floating windows.  It even had a fort at the top of a hill, just like in Berat.  Something tells me this was an Ottoman town!

 A lonely little Coke machine in the middle of the stairs up to the fort, don't ask me why.
 I get shivers just looking at that sunset.

 Inside the topmost tower of the fort, we had some pretty amazing views of the area!  Too bad it grew so dark, it wasn't entirely possible to capture in pictures. 

 This was a Mosque that was bombed in '93 and rebuilt in 2005. 
 A note about our van:  It didn't like to come to a complete stop and have the doors open for more than five minutes.  Luckily, the gas station attendant helped push start it with Ken and John.
 Our final full day in Croatia was spent walking around Dubrovnik's city walls.  At first, I wasn't all that excited about repeating this activity, but since then have discovered that no visit to Dubrovnik would be complete without this activity.  The day was beautiful, the company kept me laughing, and the Adriatic was at its calmest.

 Rawly loved playing behind the iron gates.  He would trap anyone in who willingly ventured into the lookout towers.

 After a great day on the wall, Rachel and I went shopping.  I'm still kicking myself for not taking pictures of our happy discovery.  We stumbled upon handmade hats and the hat maker herself, seated behind her sewing machine.  What followed was a good thirty minutes of hat trying and exclaiming, story telling of war-torn Dubrovnik and seafaring life, and the purchasing of two hats.  I decided to be sensible and buy one to wear in cold weather.  But my heart wanted the black straw hat shaped in a jaunty 1920s style.  Rats.  I should have bought that one.  Oh well, it might mean a third repeat trip to Dubrovnik.  More wine and straw hats!
Night falls on another adventure... Even if I repeat settings, this year, I will faithfully blog.  Each story is different and worth the telling.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Spain, Finally!!!

 This past February I finally traveled to Spain.  It has been on my travel list for about 18 years.  What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it shrivel up or does it explode?  This dream ripened and resulted in a week of city life and beach living.  Do I have Spain out of my system?  Not hardly!  I feel like I just scraped the surface and can't wait to go back and explore region by region.

I love the city streets in Madrid.  Green leafy trees, even in winter, and meandering sidewalks were welcoming to my eyes.  It was a particularly cold and snowy winter in Kyiv, which meant I was happy to be free from snow boots.  I could have skipped down these streets.

Wine and strawberries!  It's like home.

I went on a bike tour through the city.  Madrid isn't exactly the best town for biking, but the parks were lovely.  I nearly ran over one football playing youth and the group was caught up in a political rally.  This has been the year for them!

Tapas!  We shared these with new friends from the bike tour; our bike tour guide had recommended this place.  The restaurant was rustic and almost entirely filled with locals.  A traveler's dream.
Snow in Spain...
Third largest palace in Europe.  You've seen one, you've seen them all.  Just kidding!  I was struck by the chapel area and the gigantic statue of Queen Isabella.  The chapel layout reminded me of the California missions, which of course come directly from the Spaniards.
More tapas!  This one represents a sample of many of my favorite flavors: cheese, sundried tomatoes, onion and stuffed olives.  Heaven!
And then it was off to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands!  I needed the ocean.  I craved it all winter.  Sun and salt air for three days put me in good spirits for the rest of the miserable winter.

The island was a mix a city beach resort, historic and natural beauty.  This library is old.  How old?  I don't remember.  But, I love libraries and old arches so I was a happy camper.
I remember this picture!  It is the small chapel that Christopher Columbus prayed in before his great trip across the ocean.
Overlooking the courtyard in the Columbus Museum.

One very friendly Islander insisted on taking our picture.  He was a kindly gentleman.

Rachel and I hopped on a local bus and went for a hike.  Only, I thought it was a walk and didn't wear proper shoes.  It was beautiful and definitely something off the beaten path!

Our last day was a beach day.  I did nothing but read, swim and sunburn.  I always forget what happens to winter-white skin.  Major pain.  But, to swim in the Atlantic in February... that was a dream come true.  The open water was warm enough for me to swim for over an hour.  Bliss.  Pure bliss.