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

Farewell, Cassini (and other space stuff)

September is a busy month, and there’s a lot I could share. Like our recent trip to the U.S., a new educational program I’m starting soon, or the Amsterdam canal tour en francais that I won last night. But for the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about space. Not square footage – I’m talking about the universe. Fair warning: if this is of no interest to you, or if you think that space exploration is a waste, you may want to stop reading now, because there’s a lot of space stuff to follow…

I’m a bit of a space geek, which in recent years I credit to Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut and former Commander of the International Space Station. He is a true Renaissance man: a musician, an author and speaker, a fighter pilot, and a professor. (He also has an airport, two schools, and an asteroid named after him.) I started following him on Twitter when he was still at the ISS, sending photos back to earth, making science and space travel both exciting and accessible.

Then, while I was stocking up on e-books for our trip to America, I found the wonderful “Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight” by Margaret Lazarus Dean. Dean is a professional reporter and novelist, and an amateur space junkie. She made it her mission to document the last flights of the space shuttle program. She writes with a mix of wonderment and sadness, grateful for having witnessed the later stage of space travel, but mourning the loss of the national vision and individual courage that brought Americans to the moon. It was a captivating read, in part because Dean is roughly my age, and her memories of the Challenger disaster tracked so closely with mine. The book helped me understand the significance of the Challenger explosion. It shook America’s confidence in NASA and contributed to the end of the shuttle program, but it also communicated a profound message to the many students who had watched the explosion happen on television.  Writing about the report of the investigation of the explosion, Dean explains that the failures it catalogued were not surprising to young people: “We had already come to realize that the adults in charge of making the world run smoothly actually had no idea what they were doing”.

But wait! There’s more. This year marked the 40th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 1 and 2, and if you have the slightest interest in this amazing project, go watch The Farthest. The PBS documentary features the women and men who have spent their careers tracking and translating the images that the Voyager satellites send back to earth. The ambitious  “Grand Tour” of the outer planets revealed moons, massive storms, plumes and craters, giving us a glimpse of our solar system and beyond. And if that’s not interesting enough for you, both Voyager satellites carry a golden record with messages in over 60 languages, music, natural sounds, and data that an advanced civilization could convert into diagrams – a global greeting card from earth.

PIA01384~medium

Jupiter Great Red Spot (Photo credit: NASA/JPL).

Just four years ago, on 12 September 2013, Voyager 1 passed into interstellar space, and became the first man-made object to do so. What I remember most about this event is the pleasure of adding the word “heliosphere” to my vocabulary. The Voyager satellites are expected to send data back to earth for another 3-7 years, and then they will continue to travel, silently, long after there is anyone left who remembers them.

Then there is Cassini. In about 15 hours from now, Cassini will end its 20-year journey in dramatic fashion. The NASA website says it best: “Having expended almost every bit of the rocket propellant it carried to Saturn, operators are deliberately plunging Cassini

IDL TIFF file

Saturn, Approaching Northern Summer (Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

into the planet.” In anticipation of this end, Cassini began doing a series of dives several months ago, passing between Saturn and it’s rings. Tomorrow’s Grand Finale will see Cassini make a final approach to Saturn, dive into the atmosphere, and eventually burn up.

 

Now that you’ve put up with all this space talk, I have to admit that it’s not the “how” of space travel that interests me – much of the science is well beyond my understanding – but the “why” of it.  The “how” is mostly about the technical questions: Will it work? For how long? Are our calculations and assumptions correct? Will we get any data back? What can we learn? Once those are resolved, the “why” follows: What will we find? What are we hoping for? Are we prepared for what we might discover?

Many of the people working on space projects do so with the understanding that their project may not get off the ground. And if it does get into orbit, if it goes as planned, they may never see how it ends, as with Voyager. Or they may, in the case of Cassini, purposely and beautifully engineer the destruction of their spacecraft.  These possibilities – or more accurately, the acceptance of these possibilities – fascinate me. It’s the legacy of the first astronauts, those brilliant and handsome young fighter pilots who took on an impossible challenge, some later admitting that they thought the odds of survival were, at best, 50/50. They accepted risk and uncertainty because it paled in comparison to the magnitude of what they might accomplish: going to space.

So if you’ve read this far, you should really head over to the NASA image library, or learn about the Cassini team’s tradition of Friday breakfast, or get to know the three new crew members who arrived at the International Space Station just two days ago. And I’ll sit here a little longer and marvel at the fact of space travel and the wonder of it all. That, as Margaret Lazarus Dean put it, “completely normal-looking middle-age people are currently floating in space somewhere overhead. There is simply no getting used to this.”

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!

Copenhagen, or Who Goes North in April?

Looking at our long and ever-growing list of places to visit, Copenhagen seemed like an easy win: it’s close to Amsterdam, everyone speaks English, there’s a lot to see, and the dining scene boasts more than a few darlings of the foodie world. We kept with our habit of planning long weekend trips to coincide with U.S. holidays, and booked for Easter weekend.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect that Copenhagen would be warm and sunny, or that we’d be biking blissfully around the city in t-shirts and shorts. I know that northern European countries have weather patterns all their own. We were prepared for rain and 10 degree weather. We were NOT prepared for 2 degrees. But there’s nothing a few layers can’t solve.  So, wearing almost every item of clothing I had packed, we set out to explore Copenhagen from our base in Vestboro.

(I have to start with a note about the bike situation. In my mind, Copenhagen was second only to Amsterdam in its cycling culture. I was shocked to see that the number of cyclists was nowhere near what we have in Amsterdam. Yes, the city is big, and yes, it was really cold, so maybe that impacted the tally. But there were just a handful of people traveling by bike. The lanes and infrastructure were quite good, but it just reinforced that when it comes to bikes, there is no place on earth I’ve seen that rivals Amsterdam.)

IMG_2986 (2)

St. Alban’s Church, next to the Kastellet

We arrived around lunchtime, so after checking in to our hotel, the first stop was Torvehallerne, a great food market with over 60 vendors offering everything from meats and cheeses to Danish smorrebrod and Spanish tapas. We found Ma Poule, a lovely little piece of France in the middle of Copenhagen, and had a good glass of wine and an amazing duck sandwich. It can be a challenge to find a seat inside the market, but we managed to grab a little table. On warmer days, (or for heartier people) there are picnic tables outside. It’s a great place to shop and graze and assemble your perfect lunch.

After walking around the Kastellet (and, yes, seeing the Little Mermaid, which, frankly, is over-rated), Friday afternoon brought the first of three attempts to get to the Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church) in the Christianshavn neighborhood. I’ve mentioned before that I like to climb. Finding towers or churches that I can ascend is a standard part of my pre-travel research. When I read about this church and its helix spire with an external staircase, it jumped to the top of my must-do list. Unfortunately, the church hours and the tower hours are not the same. By the time we arrived, the tower was closed.

We woke up to a rainy and windy Saturday and headed to the cisterns in Frederiksberg. Until recently, the cisterns were a museum of modern glass art. Now it is an exhibit and event space; the current exhibit is by Japanese architect Hiroshi Sambuichi. Although the cisterns are a bit out of the way, they are a unique and lovely place to visit, and the park and Frederiksberg neighborhood would be good for a wander.

That afternoon we made another go at the church tower, with hours to spare before closing time, only to find that it was closed due to rain. Sigh.

IMG_3030

The view from the gallery

Easter Sunday dawned clear and dry, but cold. I was worried about the tower being open on Easter, but the helpful hotel staff called to confirm, and we were on our way, hoping the third time was the charm. We arrived to find that I was not the only person in Copenhagen waiting to climb this tower. A long line – one that didn’t seem to be moving much – stretched from the entrance door. I hesitated, but my dear husband insisted. It took about 40 minutes to get inside, but once I started climbing I was surprised by how un-crowded the stairs and the tower were.

The first 300 or so steps are inside the tower, and were a nice, easy climb (although I did hit my head on the way up. And again on the way down.) There is a viewing gallery at the base of the spire, and then a broad staircase that narrows as it winds its way, counter-clockwise, four times around the spire to the top. It was awesome. There is an

IMG_3032

On my way down…

iron guardrail at about shoulder height, and I thankfully do not suffer from any fear of heights. The views were incredible, and being able to climb outside just made me giddy.

The whole trip up and down took about 90 minutes, and (apart from bumping my head) it was easy and painless. And, of course, totally worth the climb.

You can’t go to Copenhagen without seeing or learning something about Danish design, so we set off to the Danish Design Museum and arrived in time for the daily free tour of the current exhibit, The Danish Chair. This 30-minute tour was given by an enthusiastic young woman who spoke near-perfect English. The tour gave a brief introduction to the principles of Danish design, and also helped me understand why and how something as simple as a chair could be so revolutionary. The exhibit itself is beautifully designed (of course), and displays more than 100 chairs in what they called the “chair tunnel”.

IMG_3039

Inside the chair tunnel.

It was also interesting to wander through the museum and see just how many everyday items, from lunchboxes to routers, are influenced by Danish design.

Add in some good meals, another stop at Ma Poule, a self-guided city walk, and a stroll along the harbor in Nyhavn, and you’ve got a weekend getaway in Copenhagen. I imagine that in the summer months the cyclists rule the city and the waterfront restaurants are filled with sun-basking tourists. We may have missed that Copenhagen, but even in the cold of April, we saw some lovely views.

Holy Mole (Enchiladas)*

We’re often asked what we miss about living in the U.S. Other than family and friends, our most common answers involve food. Sometimes it’s a very specific meal from a very specific restaurant, like a slice of Sicilian pizza from Gino’s in Williston Park (my hometown), or the crab cakes at Legal Seafood. At other times, it’s a more general nostalgia for breakfast cereals or unlimited soft drink refills.

The Amsterdam food scene is diverse and vibrant, and always seems to be getting better. We’ve found good Indian restaurants, great Italian, we’ve been introduced to Indonesian…in short, we eat pretty well in Amsterdam. One notable exception is Mexican. Now, I should admit up front that we’ve never actually been to Mexico. We have, however, eaten at restaurants owned by Mexicans, where we were at least led to believe that we had eaten and enjoyed “authentic” Mexican food. We’re also smart enough to recognize that American chain restaurants like On the Border or Chili’s may fit an occasional need, but should not, under any circumstances, be mistaken for Mexican food.

So we don’t have many Mexican options in Amsterdam (although we seem to be drowning in tapas places). One well-known and well-reviewed Mexican restaurant has gotten our business twice, but the service was so bad and the attitude of the staff so off-putting that I don’t want to go back, no matter how good the enchiladas were. And then a friend-in-the-know, a displaced New Yorker who has some expertise in the field of tacos, suggested we check out Mexico Boulevard.

Located in a part of town we’d never visited before, not far from the Amstel and somewhere between the IJsselbuurt and the Rijnbuurt neighborhoods, Mexico Boulevard certainly looked the part of an authentic Mexican restaurant. Steel sculptures of a mariachi band greeted us from the window, and the interior was bright and colorful and comfortable. We received a warm welcome from Jan, the Dutch half of the restaurant’s pair of owners, and we knew that behind the scenes in the kitchen was Ana, who brought her family’s authentic recipes and love of tradition with her from Mexico. (Yes, of course, we looked at the website and the menu before we visited. Doesn’t everyone?) Together, they created the best Mexican meal we’ve had in Amsterdam. Period.

We both had enchiladas; my Suizas Enchiladas had the tangy, acidic bite of fresh tomatillos, and the Enmoladas met my husband’s high standards for mole sauce. The portions were generous and the black beans – which I usually don’t give much attention – were especially good. We paired our food with a couple of glasses of sangria, naturally. No room for dessert, this time, but the lemon cream pie caught my eye. Finally, our long-standing itch for good Mexican food was scratched.

*Credit for the title of this post goes to my husband. “Holy mole” were the first words he spoke after his first bite. That’s how much he liked the mole. And yes, he can be as cheesy as the enchiladas.