Croatia wows at every turn

I’ve noted before the way that some places live large in your imagination, or challenge your preconceived ideas. But every once in a while, you travel to a place about which you have NO ideas, no vision, no expectations. That, for me, was Croatia.

We just returned from a seven-day visit to the southern Dalmatian coast. We were traveling with some friends who are even better vacation-planners than I am. They do their research to find the must-dos and the off-the-beaten-path gems, but they’re still flexible and willing to junk the agenda when needed.

We arrived in Dubrovnik in the early evening and had two nights there. The consistent  advice we got about Dubrovnik was to spend one day, then get out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dubrovnik from the city walls

We followed that suggestion, and spent a full day exploring, walking the city walls and visiting some of the museums. It’s a beautiful place, but even in the low season, it was crowded. Cruise ships dock nearby so the tourists seem to appear in waves, a boatload at a time.

 

Acting on another good piece of advice, we planned to take the cable car to the hill overlooking Dubrovnik and enjoy a sunset picnic. After a few missteps at the grocery store (including failing to weigh our own fruits and getting stuck in a private, no-exit parking lot), we were well-supplied and ready to ride the cable car. We were met at the hilltop by a little rain, but that didn’t slow us down, and the clouds added to a dramatic sunset. IMG_3484 (2)

The next day we drove to Orebic via Ston – another city wall to climb and some oysters to eat – and Matusku Vineyard, where we sampled and purchased a light red that they sold as a “breakfast wine”. By afternoon, we were on a quick ferry to Korcula Island. The small, pedestrian-only Korcula Town was our home for the next two nights. We saw the whole town pretty quickly, but it was peaceful and charming. Still lots of tourist kitsch being sold, but fewer big groups to deal with. Highlights included a cocktail bar on the roof of an old guard tower – the only way to get there was a ladder, and the drinks were sent up on an improvised dumb waiter.

And then it was Friday. I’ll admit that I started the day a little dispirited. Our friends were thinking about going to the beach, but we’re not beach people. I didn’t know what we would do – I felt like I was paying the price for my lack of research and planning, and I worried that we were going to waste a day. (Obviously, just relaxing is not a skill of mine…) Happily, the day turned around quickly when our friends ran into a water taxi captain without much business. Hooray for the low season!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Farewell, Korcula! See you in a few hours…

For about $26 per person, he offered to take us around to a few islands, with a stop at a beach. Oh, and he knew of a great little family-owned restaurant where we could have lunch. We spent about six hours going from port to port, with the boat all to ourselves, visiting quiet beaches where some of us swam in the clear turquoise waters, eating freshly caught and freshly grilled calamari, soaking in the sunshine and generally loving our lives.

 

After Korcula,we took a three hour ferry to Split, then a quick drive to Trogir, where we spent our final three nights. Trogir is a maze of narrow stone streets and buildings that all look alike, and it took me at least a day and a series of landmarks to be able to find our apartment. It was a great base to explore the area, and although we never made it into Split, none of us felt we missed out. Instead, we visited Roman ruins and later, Klis Fortress. The Fortress was used as the city of Meereen in season 4 of Game of Thrones, and it was fascinating to think about how a GoT-sized production could have fit into the tiny town of Klis, which had one road, two cafes, a post office, and a parking lot that held 15 cars.

IMG_3572

A view of Meereen. Umm, I mean Klis.

We also spent the better part of a day at Krka National Park, which had incredible waterfalls and a beautiful boardwalk path that leads visitors through the park. A little more rain that day, but it just seemed to add to the lushness of the park and the surroundings.

 

Throughout our trip, we were all constantly surprised by the natural beauty of Croatia. I understand that in July and August, the Croatian islands are nearly overrun with visitors. We were lucky to go when we did, as we were able to enjoy things – especially the boat and the beaches – without having to share them! We also wondered at times about Croatia’s ability to absorb – and capitalize on – the boom in tourism. As good Americans, we saw opportunities for towns and sites to make more money and to develop the tourist infrastructure more fully. Perhaps Croatia doesn’t have the interest or the resources to make such investments, and that’s probably for the best. There is a lot to be discovered and enjoyed in this beautiful country, and maybe it’s ok if the whole world doesn’t know that yet…

Advertisements

The two cards I mailed today

A few hours ago, I dropped two cards in the Post NL box.

One was sent to friends of ours who live about 50 kilometers away. They are new-ish friends who we met about two years ago. We clicked immediately and since then, we’ve had one crazy adventure and a few of those fun, lazy afternoons of laughter and good conversation that stretch into dinner and drinks, and before you know it you’re running for the last bus back to the train station. Yesterday they welcomed their first child, a little boy, and my congratulations-via-whatsapp felt sort of lame and insufficient.  So…a cheerful blue card celebrating Hugo is making its way to their home – a home which, in the coming days, will be filled with family and visitors and new sounds and smells, thanks to the arrival of their son.

The second card has to make a much longer journey, and it carries no celebration. It is traveling to Seattle, to a friend and former colleague who I have known for at least eight years, maybe longer. We worked together in a challenging, fast-paced international health organization, and we got through a lot of difficult days thanks to her humor and perspective. Yesterday I learned that her sister, a vibrant and beautiful young woman, passed away from cancer. She had been diagnosed years ago and was living with the disease, seeking alternative treatments and continuing to travel and run and do yoga and work as a nurse. I met her only once, briefly, a few months ago, at brunch when she and my friend came through Amsterdam. Meg was full of life and light – you would never have known she was sick at all. Even from that quick interaction, it was clear that she was one of those special people who can both soak in and radiate love and energy to those around them. She lit up the room. It seems unspeakably unfair that her life has ended.

It is hard to know what to say to someone in the early days of their grief. No one knows what to say, really, but often the words matter less than the act of trying. So…with that in mind, there is a card making its way to my friend in Seattle, offering whatever comfort I could manage in a few words, reminding her that she is held in the circle of her sister’s love, and the love of many others.

I’m thinking a lot tonight about the gatherings of these two families, one celebrating a birth and the other grieving a loss, and how their respective gatherings may have more in common than one might think: tears, memories, laughter, fear, sadness, regret, anxiety.  As my small wishes and small wisdom make their journeys, I’ll be right here, holding my friends in my thoughts and in my heart.

The end of the experiment

IMG_3298 (2)

Sunrise over the sailing school just outside our apartment.

My month-long Amsterdam Instagram project has come to an end. I’m happy to say that I successfully posted a photo every day for #thewholedammonth. To be honest, it was more of challenge than I expected, but I learned a few things along the way:

IMG_3264

Look up! Where the A’DAM Tower meets the EYE

  1. I am not a good photographer. Even though I’m armed with only my iPhone 5S, I can’t blame the quality of the camera. I’m just not good at translating what I see in my head to something worth sharing. I don’t see angles or better perspectives, my pictures are often blurry, and the finished product never looks the way it did inside my brain.
  2. I am not a good photographer, (Part B). In addition to being technically inept, I also noticed that I wasn’t always comfortable stopping and taking (seemingly) random photos. I felt a bit self-conscious, which is ridiculous, since everyone in Amsterdam is taking pictures all the time. Some with selfie sticks. Also, taking a photo is just about the least embarrassing or showy thing one can do in this anything-goes city. I can’t explain my discomfort, but I was aware of it.
  3. Paying attention is hard. In the everyday comings-and-goings of life, you get used to the scenery around you. You can get used to anything, even if you swore at first you’d never tire of it: a peaceful ferry ride, the bike path that passes a windmill, the flower boxes on the canal houses. It’s not easy to snap yourself out of auto-pilot, and try to be more aware of what’s around you. Still…

    IMG_3242 (2)

    At the OBA, Amsterdam’s public library.

  4. It’s worth it to try. I found I approached my commute and my travels through the city with open eyes. Sometimes I felt like I was wandering around to get a photo of something – anything – to keep the month-long streak alive. (As my dear husband pointed out, by the middle of week two I had photographed every element of my daily commute – I really stretched my bike ride into a Instagram extravaganza.) But at other times, my photo project helped me to be more alert and aware of the small things.

    IMG_3259

    Closed for repairs, but still an awesome bridge.

  5. I live in a pretty damn beautiful place. If nothing else, this month was a reminder that Amsterdam is gorgeous. It’s beauty isn’t always showy or grand (much like the Dutch themselves). Instead, there’s a philosophy about everyday objects and landmarks beautiful. Yes, we need a bridge here, and there’s no reason it can’t be a dramatic, swooping arc of red steel, conjuring up a roller coaster ride or the back of a dragon. And yes, of course we need a library, so let’s give it whole walls covered in furry, yellow-green textile, and let’s put a terrace on the 7th floor with a view over the city center. Why not? Everywhere I looked, I saw Amsterdam’s commitment to the idea that city life and civic space can and should be inspiring.

Now that I’m at the end of this effort, the challenge is to try to integrate these lessons into my everyday, even as the remainder of the year picks up speed and starts racing by. Thanks to those who cheered me on and helped me see what’s in front of me.

July: The whole dam month

It’s July 1st, and as of today, we don’t have any travel plans for the coming month. (That could, of course, change at any time. We may just hop a train to…somewhere before the month is out.)

We’ve done a lot of traveling during the past two years. Amsterdam is a great location from which to explore Europe, and we’ve covered Italy, Spain, Portugal, France (multiple times), Denmark, Malta, most of the U.K., Poland, Belgium, Germany. We’ve also seen a lot of the Netherlands, from Maastricht to the mud flats of Ameland. As a result, we have a reputation of always being on the go. Every weekend, a new city! But that’s not the case this month.

So…since we’re staying put in our adopted city, I’ve decided to give myself an assignment for July. It’s a way to make sure that I’m not taking Amsterdam for granted, that I still see the lovely things around me, even if they’ve become everyday sights. For the whole “dam” month, every “dam” day, I’ll be posting a photo from Amsterdam. The daily shots will be on Instagram (@kgkamsterdam, #thewholedammonth, if you want to follow along), and I’ll do my best to collect the photos here, once a week.

As humans, we’re adaptable. We get used to anything, whether it be deprivation and discomfort or luxury and excess. We settle in to our life and our surroundings and we often forget to lift our heads and look around. My July project is a small attempt to counter that tendency; to pay more attention to what’s around me and to share what makes Amsterdam unique and beautiful in my eyes. Enjoy!

Krakow: Now, the rest

In spite of what you might have gathered from my last post, we did actually do more in Krakow than eat. The city has a lot to offer, and we tried to see as much as we could. But truth be told, we did sometimes plan our activities around the next meal!

IMG_3069

St. Florian’s Gate, seen from the Barbican

The city is small, making it easy to wander and explore. There’s also a good tram/street car system for longer trips. The first thing we did on Friday was to buy the Krakow Card, giving us access to all public transport and free entrance to many museums and attractions. (It’s worth noting that the most visited sites, like the Castle, are not included in the Krakow Card.) Our first day took us to the Barbican, one of the last remaining parts of the fortified city walls. St. Florian’s Gate leads into the Old City. We decided to stop in St. Mary’s Basilica, and ended up arriving just in time for the opening of the Veit Stoss altarpiece.

As often happens when we travel, we stumbled into something that we weren’t expecting, and didn’t know anything about. When we entered St. Mary’s, I was surprised by the size of the gathered crowd, and wondered if we had arrived just before a service. But we soon realized that the opening of the altarpiece was the attraction.  Thanks to the dumb luck of timing, we were able to see the sculpture, carved between 1477 and 1484, fully open. I later learned that the altarpiece had been seized by the Nazis in 1941; it was discovered five years later in the basement ruins of Nuremburg Castle and returned to Krakow.

The Basilica is also the site of the hourly Hejnał Mariacki, the St. Mary’s Trumpet Call. The trumpeter is in the Basilica’s tower, and from there plays the piece four times, in the direction of the four old city gates (with a wave to the cheering crowd below). The noon performance is broadcast worldwide by radio. If you listen to the piece, it seems to end very abruptly. The legend is that sometime in the 1200s, a trumpeter was sounding the alarm against an invading force, and was shot in the throat by an arrow, putting a quick end to the tune.

St. Mary’s is on the edge of Market Square, which is crowded with cafes, vendors, and horse-drawn carriages. Cloth Hall, once a center of international trade, is now a good place to buy amber, football jerseys, and other souvenirs. Our friend-turned-tour guide had tipped us off to the rooftop cafe at Cloth Hall, which was a great place to spend an hour or so in the sun.

IMG_3126

The view from the Cloth Hall roof cafe…

(You have to earn your way in, as the entrance is not easy to find…it’s located inside a museum that happened to be closed when we were there, though the cafe was still open.)

One of Krakow’s most popular attractions is not in Krakow at all: the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Although it’s only about 10km from Krakow, it was almost a day-long activity. You can only tour the mine with a guide. Tours are offered in at least seven languages, but if you speak anything other than English you should check the tour schedule before you go. The English tours were offered every half hour, but the Italian tour, for example, was only three times per day.

We went on a Saturday and as a result had to deal with huge crowds. Rookie mistake, I know. It was also a slightly confusing system, with an initial queue for tickets and then separate lines for each of the different language tours. Our 11:30 English tour was so large that they split us into three groups, making the tour feel a bit rushed, since there was always another group on our heels.

IMG_20170527_121032

A (salt) statue of Copernicus

We spent close to 3 hours in the mines, exploring the third level, about 135 meters underground. For some perspective, the mine has nine levels.  Since the 13th Century, men (and later, horses) worked the mine, extracting salt through dangerous and intense labor. Somehow, in the middle of this work, they also found time to carve sculptures and religious chapels, including the remarkable St. Kinga’s Chapel, an enormous underground church. All carved out of salt. And available for events, special masses, and concerts. Weddings, too.

I wasn’t able to figure out why these chapels and monuments existed. I would assume that either the miners were mining, or they were making their way back up to the surface of the earth. When would there be time for prayer, let alone sculpting?


IMG_3092One morning we traveled across the Wisla river to visit Ghetto Heroes Square, located in what was the center of the Krakow Ghetto. The Square has a haunting memorial of 33 empty chairs representing the Polish Jews who were imprisoned in the Ghetto during World War II. Over 20.000 people were locked up in an area where only 3.000 had lived previously. The Square was a place of assembly from which inhabitants of the Ghetto were sent to Nazi death camps. Across from the Square is the Eagle Pharmacy Museum, which has been restored to its 1940s condition. The pharmacist was the only non-Jewish inhabitant of the Ghetto, and he and his staff provided care and help to the Jews, including smuggling food and information, and sheltering those who were going to be deported. The small, interactive museum shares the stories of the Ghetto’s residents and provides powerful, humanizing testimonies to their lives and deaths.


Our friend’s list of suggestions had one major omission: Krakow is home to a Pinball Museum. I’ve never been one for video games, and I won’t pretend I’m great at pinball, but I really love it. It’s hard to find pinball machines – most arcades don’t have them anymore. So to discover 300 m2 of pure pinball was a dream come true. IMG_3100Some machines dated back to the 1970s, others were more modern. You’re not going to learn much about the history of pinball, but that’s not what you came for. The entrance fee lets you play all day or come and go, and all the machines are set to free play. It’s also a bar, and while you can’t put your beer on the machines, you can take a break for a sip now and then. Heaven.

The sites on the usual tourist route – the Castle, the Cathedral – were nice, but very busy, especially with school groups on spring field trips. Tickets to the Castle rooms were sold out, so we only saw the outside. We were able to visit the Cathedral, but soon discovered we had hit our limit on the number of Gothic churches we could absorb in one weekend. By the time our Monday evening flight came around, we were churched-out, walked-out, and ready to head back to Amsterdam. But Krakow more than met our expectations. With its rich history – both medieval and modern – excellent food, relaxed pace, perfect weather, and unique attractions, Krakow earned a place on our list of great European cities.

 

 

Krakow: First, the food

What do you do when a Thursday/Friday one-two punch of Dutch holidays collides with Memorial Day in the US? You plan a weekend city break. Destination: Krakow.

The city had long been on our list of places to visit, thanks to a well-traveled family friend who had lived in Krakow on-and-off for some time. He named it among his top three favorite European destinations, and, in advance of our trip, provided an exhaustive list of things to do and see (and eat), complete with a pronunciation guide.

A late flight and a further delay got us to the airport after 11pm on Thursday night. We took a taxi to the hotel – a rare luxury for us, but worth it due to the late hour. Our return trip on Monday would be via the comfortable, reliable, and very cheap train. On Friday morning, we explored the city before meeting up for our afternoon food tour with Delicious Poland.

Food tours have become a standard part of our travels. They are a great way to learn about the local cuisine, find lesser-known eateries, and meet fellow travelers. Plus, any guide worth their salt will give you recommendations to help plan the rest of your visit.

We met our guides, Kamila and Göksel, at a market in the Kazimierz district. They are a couple both personally and professionally, working together to build their tour company around their love of travel and food. They greeted us with bread and salt, a traditional Polish welcome. We were surprised that we were the only people signed up for the tour that afternoon, so we got the VIP treatment!

While Göksel went ahead to prepare things at the first stop, Kamila toured us through the market, which was filled with local farmers selling fresh vegetables and fruits. Then it was off to the first of seven stops on the tour: Przystanek Pierogarnia, to sample Poland’s famous dumplings. We tried four different pierogi, including dessert pierogi, filled with strawberry and drizzled with sweet cream. Yum!

Over the next three hours, we sampled the best of Polish cuisine, most of which I can’t spell or pronounce. The tour was a great combination of strolling around the neighborhood and sitting down for soup or a selection of main courses. Everything was arranged well, thanks to Göksel’s advance work. Throughout the tour, Kamila gave us

IMG_3070

Barszcz (beet soup) with dumplings, for Christmas Eve

some history of the Kazimierz district, and background on the different foods and when they are traditionally enjoyed. We learned a lot about how the privations of Communism impacted Polish cuisine. Chronic meat shortages required Polish cooks to be inventive – they found other flavors and other ways to make filling and satisfying meals.

 

Our favorite stop was Kuchnia u Doroty, a very traditional restaurant where we tried six dishes and a drink, and found the best dish of the day: placki ziemniaczane, potato pancakes “Hungarian” style, with pork and a goulash sauce that was just delicious. (We went back to Doroty later in the weekend and I ordered it again.)

Even though we were starting to fill up, we had several stops to go, including a bakery for a rose-hip jelly filled donut, then a craft brewery for some beer.  A visit to Plac Nowy (New Square) let us try zapiekanki, a sort of French-bread pizza with the toppings of your choice. Zapiekanki is only found in Krakow, and the traditional version is with mushrooms, melted cheese and chives.  It’s sold from small kiosks and shops; that it is both cheap and delicious makes it a favorite late-night snack, especially for students and anyone heading home after a few hours of drinking.

Speaking of drinking…our final stop was a vodka bar where we sampled four different vodkas, one traditional and three flavored, all delicious. We toasted our tour guides with a final Na zdrowie! Kamila shared a map and a list of some of her favorite stops in Krakow, so we were well-prepared for the rest of our weekend. We said our goodbyes and headed back into the neighborhood, full and happy and more than satisfied. If you find yourself in Krakow, check out Delicious Poland – in addition to food tours, they also do vodka and craft beer tours, so there’s something for everyone!

Next time: the Salt Mines, castles and cathedrals, and a visit to one of Krakow’s hidden treasures: the Pinball Museum!

IMG_3100

 

Kings, castles, and unexpected elves

I’m already a week behind in reporting on our long and festive four-day weekend! Well, better late than never. We begin on April 27th:  Koningsdag, the Netherlands’ annual celebration of the King’s birthday and all things Oranje. King Willem turned 50 this year and the country celebrated with the usual mix of parades, music, boats, and lots of drinking.

IMG_3045

So. Much. Orange.

Koningsdag is a day like none other. First, it is the one day of the year that you can sell things without a permit, so Amsterdam becomes one giant flea market. Weeks before the holiday, people claim their space on sidewalks, marking their territory with chalk or masking tape. There are some traditional activities: children play music or organize games of chance, hoping to earn some small change. For a euro or two, you can throw eggs at someone who has volunteered for this strange duty.

In the city center, there are stages and DJs and food and drink everywhere. The first year we experienced Koningsday, we were both surprised by the atmosphere and the attitude. When you consider that most people have been drinking (some heavily) for hours, the party is remarkably friendly and festive. This year, we spent the morning in our new neighborhood, which had a festival that covered several blocks. In the afternoon, we met up with some friends in the busiest part of town, just off of the Prinsengracht. After getting through the worst of the crowd, we did have a good time, enjoying the people watching and learning some classic Dutch songs at a corner bar.

Continuing with the royal theme, on Sunday we decided to go to Kasteel de Haar, located outside of Utrecht. A colleague had gone recently and recommended it. Although it involved two trains and either a bus or a bike ride, we figured it was a lovely day for an adventure, and we headed out. I will note that on the Castle’s website, I read that the visiting hours were different due to an event (“Elfia”), but I didn’t think much of it. I really should have paid more attention to that.

In Utrecht, while we waited for the next train, we noticed a number of people in costume. A Hobbit here, a sort of anime-elf woman, there…no theme that I could figure out. When we got off the train in Vleuten, there they all were again. And more. It seemed clear to us now that something was indeed happening at de Haar, and it involved a lot of mythical creatures and very creative costumes.

IMG_3050

Every soldier needs a broodje.

With some help from a young Dutch couple (who were as puzzled by all the costumes as we were), we made our way via shuttle bus to a stop about 15 minutes from the castle. As we walked closer, we saw even more: zombies, British redcoats, guys from Braveheart, angels and demons and teddy bears. By the time we arrived at the entrance, it was clear that this was no ordinary day at the Castle. The Elfia fantasy festival was in full swing, and a visit to the castle would require a €24 festival ticket for each of us. Our curiosity was pretty high, I’ll admit, but not high enough to justify the cost of entry. We gave the elves their victory.

We did manage to rescue the day from complete failure. Another bus ride and a short train ride brought us back to Utrecht, a city we both really enjoy. We found a table in the sun at one of the many lower-level canal-side restaurants, and I enjoyed the season’s first glass of rosé.

IMG_3051

This is as close as we got to the castle.

What I still can’t figure out – and I’ve given it more thought than it merits – is the underlying theme of Elfia. In what universe do Luke Skywalker, fairies, Scottish warriors, Victorian ladies, Harry Potter and zombies co-exist? Maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there, and, much like Koningsdag, Elfia is a celebration just for the sake of celebrating.

We will make another attempt to visit the Castle. Next time, though, we may try to convince some friends with a car to join us. And we’ll check the website first.