Pulque – The Sacred Drink of Mexico

Pulque is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant. It is traditional to central Mexico, where it has been produced for millennia. It has the color of milk, somewhat viscous consistency and a sour yeast-like taste.
The drink’s history extends far back into the Mesoamerican period, when it was considered sacred, and its use was limited to certain classes of people. After the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, the drink became secular and its consumption rose. The consumption of pulque reached its peak in the late 19th century. In the 20th century, the drink fell into decline, mostly because of competition from beer, which became more prevalent with the arrival of European immigrants. There are some efforts to revive the drink’s popularity through tourism.

Yesterday I visited Pulquería Miktlan, one of the better known pulquerias in Oaxaca. It’s not a large space, but pleasant with several tables. Local men played cards, a small family gathered to share some pulque, as did my friend.

While you can drink pulque natural, most people opt to mix it. Yesterday’s choices included beet juice, celery juice and oatmeal among others. Gaby chose beet and I selected oatmeal topped with a little bit of cinnamon. Both tasted really good to me.

If you want a change from mezcal look for pulque.

Béisbol in Oaxaca!

One overlooked activity in Oaxaca is watching their Triple-A Mexican League baseball team play. The Oaxaca Guerreros arrived in the mid-1990’s. They play their games at Eduardo Vasconcelos Stadium located on Hwy 190 not far from El Centro.  The season runs from the end of April to the end of July (April 26-July 19 this year for the regular season, then the palyoffs).

I’ve been to a couple of games and each time the tickets were 2 for 1. Where I like to sit the tickets are 60 pesos ($3) so you only pay 30 pesos for each one if you come with a friend. Beers are 70 pesos, but they are also 2 for 1. You can buy tortas, crepas, slices of Dominos pizza and other assorted snacks if you get hungry. Last night I took a couple of friends. They had never been to a baseball game and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. They wanted to know when we could go again.

Weeknight games begin at 7pm; Saturday and Sunday games start at 5pm.

If you like baseball watching the Guerreros play is a fun and inexpensive night of entertainment.

Stadium2Stadium2.jpg

Expanding the Blog (a little)

I thought this blog would only cover my Croatia/Slovenia trip, but decided I didn’t want to create a new one for every trip I took so I added ‘and more’ to the title. Now, I want to add something new to the ‘and more.’

Oaxaca, the city I’ve called home for 2 1/2 years, has much to offer. I will highlight special things about it. For example, I’m not going to publish a post for every restaurant I visit. When I encounter a special meal, then I will. Also, I have a friend visiting in May, so I will blog her week here. That’s the blog expansion.

My first post features a restaurant called El Quinque. It’s located in El Centro on Calle Miguel Hidalgo and has become the new favorite restaurant for me and two of my friends. We all agree El Quinque makes the best burger in Oaxaca. We’ve tested 4 of the places that show up frequently on Facebook pages and are highly rated on websites; one major reason is you get the burger the way you asked for it. Most places, no matter how you want it you get well done. Another is the bun; fresh, soft, but sturdy.

I honestly believe they serve the best steak as well even though I have not tried another one in the city. That’s a brazen statement but I will stand by it simply because of all the steaks I’ve eaten elsewhere in the past. What makes it stand out for me is that it’s made with aracherra, which is skirt steak, a cut from the belly of the cow. The meat must undergo a lengthy marination — usually with a concoction that includes citrus juice, garlic, chiles and onions. Aracherra is commonly used in tacos, fajitas and in Oaxaca, tlayudas. However, it tastes best as a regular steak, juicy, flavorful and tender; there’s a bit of a sweet taste to it. I can’t recommend this place enough.

An added bonus: since the owner is also the chef he’s probably going to be there to answer questions you may have. He speaks English. I guess that’s two bonuses.

Puerto Rico – Final Thoughts (and a video)

Travel Tips

Before I dive into my final thoughts I’d like to let my fellow travelers know about a couple of things I ran into on my trip.

  1. I flew Mexico City-Panama City- San Juan on Copa Airlines. When I arrived in PC, I walked to my next gate only to find a mini-security station. These weren’t at every gate and I don’t know why some flights warrant them and some don’t. I had just purchased a bottle of water for the 3.5-hour flight to SJ of which I drank half before tossing the bottle into the bin. If you ever find yourself at the PC airport for a connecting flight, you might want to check your gate first.
  2. When you arrive at San Juan’s airport forget about Uber. You have to use an airport sanctioned taxi to get where you are staying. I had rented a studio apartment fairly close to the airport and my fare was $21 plus tip. Now, going back to the airport you can use Uber. The cost? $7.
  3. Leaving San Juan the ticketing agent told me I had to show proof that I was leaving Mexico because I didn’t have a resident visa, only a tourist stamp. Thinking I had to buy a one-way ticket to somewhere I wondered how much this was going to cost me. Ticket agent to the rescue. He directed me to http://www.gotobus.com where I bought a one-way ticket from Tijuana to San Ysidro, CA. He needed to type in a ticket number for Copa Airlines requirement. Of course I was not going to use it, but it was only $10. I’ve read about this happening to other travelers, but the first time for me.

Travel Thoughts

It took me 10 hours to get from MC to SJ including crossing a couple of time zones. I could have saved a couple of hours by taking an airline that flew a more direct route, stopping in Florida instead of flying all the way down to Panama City. At what time point does saving money not matter so much? Basically, I saved $150 to spend three extra hours in the air. Since I was going to stay in Puerto Rico for two weeks, the extra time didn’t bother me. But, what if my trip were only a week? Does everybody ponder about these decisions?

Food expectations. I overestimate the food quality of every place I visit. I thought all the dishes in Poland would match what my grandmother made. I figured pizza eaten in Italy had to taste better than anywhere else. I’m usually wrong. And disappointed. The lone exception was China.

Puerto Rico experiences

Puerto Rico is a Latin American country so for the first day or so I would begin each encounter I had with Spanish. That changed quickly. I would say “Hola” and the local would reply, “Hi.” For me, being there was a strange mix of the United States and Latin America. Perhaps this changes in the countryside and small, non-touristy towns, but in San Juan 99% of the people I met spoke English. Of course, I was in tourist areas mostly.

One day at the beach two teenage sister were playing paddle ball near me. Speaking to each other they would alternate between Spanish and accent-free English. That was a little weird.

Overall the most interesting people I met were Uber drivers. (I used it a lot.) They give honest opinions, positive and negative, and generally loved to talk if I engaged them. One driver in particular told me it would take 10 years for Puerto Rico to fully recover from the recent hurricanes because of corruption. Now, I’m no fan of America’s lying president, but in this case he wasn’t. Still, the corruption factor was a convenient reason for him not wanting to give Puerto Ricans the money they’ve been allotted when the real reason is they have brown skin. Ok, no more political opinions because this is a travel blog.

I can see why Puerto Rico is popular with Americans. For one thing, because it’s a US territory you don’t have to worry if your 30 or 90 days is up and it’s time to leave. People are friendly. The two beaches I visited were clean, a couple of guys would come around to sell beer and water and the sea water was warm. Still, I won’t return. While I enjoyed myself I didn’t feel an attraction that said ‘man, you have to come back here.’ Also, it’s a big world and I’m not 25. There are many countries I want to see for the first time that repeat visits don’t fit into the schedule.

Let me finish by uploading a one-minute video of some street art near where I stayed.

Thanks for reading. Next big trip will be in October but I hope to blog about a couple of short in-country jaunts before then.

San Juan Food – Part 2

The food scene improved the second week as I found a few places frequented mostly by locals.

The first was Cafetería Quisqueya, a Dominican restaurant where I ate succulent BBQ pork ribs. I also drank a couple of Cuba libres. I had to stop at 2 because as you can see from the photos, the 2nd one had much more rum than the first. I think the waitress liked me a little.

In Old San Juan across the street from Plaza Colón is the San Juan Food Court. It’s really only a bar in front and a cafeteria style restaurant in the rear called Grandma’s Kitchen. I had baked chicken, the tender, fall off the bone kind with a sweet macaroni salad, which seemed to be very popular in Puerto Rico. Tasty and inexpensive.

Then I went on a taco binge. Of course, the tacos in Mexico are better, but the Puerto Rican style wasn’t bad. Just different. And not as delicious. 😉 The first stop was 4Puntos Café. Two fish tacos and sangria.

One afternoon I walked to Plaza Santurce, an area of restaurants and bars that gets quite lively in the evenings, if you know what I mean. 😁 Too lively for me, anyway. I headed for El Coco de Luis. They pour a signature drink of whisky and coco water. Mine was 90% whisky so I didn’t get the proper taste. The highlight of the visit, and perhaps the food highlight of my trip, was their ceviche. Made from grouper fish, this was the best ceviche I’ve ever eaten. Simple and delicious.

The next place disappointed me because it calls itself a Mexican restaurant but doesn’t serve Mexican style tacos. La B de Burro is where I ate a carnitas taco. The meat’s flavor came close to what I’m used to and the cranberry cinnamon margarita (2×1 all day) tasted good, but I question how much alcohol it contained. Not much is my guess.

My final taco destination was a small bar that serves food, Pa’l West. I have no idea what the name means. Here I ordered one spicy crab and two fish tacos, and a gin-based house drink. None were no better than average in my opinion. However, let me say that all three places where I ate tacos are highly rated by the masses on Google Maps. I doubt many of the reviewers live in Mexico.

To find the best local food I’m a firm believer in walking a few blocks beyond where 99% of the tourists draw their “safe line.” That’s how I found the tastiest pernil al horno ever at George’s BBQ. While I was waiting for my food, Alfredo tried to sell me a beach house. He was a really nice guy whose family runs a real estate business.

I’ll finish this post with pastelillos, small empanadas. I ordered codfish, spinach and mozzarella and corned beef. They are great snacks and can be found at Cafe D’Luna.

I will publish one more post, a summary of sorts, about San Juan, travel thoughts and a cool video of a street mural.

More San Juan Sights

After the hurricanes hit Puerto Rico the governor wanted to show that the city of San Juan was recovering. He wanted a positive symbol to illustrate this so he hung the colorful umbrellas on a block in OSJ. I believe the light blue building at the end of the street is the governor’s mansion. On another block near La Plaza del Mercado de Santurce. I discovered more umbrellas, all white. Regarding the hurricanes San Juan is functioning well but I can’t say about the rest of the island. Much work must be needed somewhere because an Uber driver told me it would take 10 years for PR to fully recover.

One day I went shopping at Plaza las Américas, a mall with more than 250 stores. Of all the places to choose from I ended up at J. C. Penney’s. 😁 It was a good choice because I paid $70 for $160 worth of clothes.

Sales tax in PR is outrageous. 11.5%.

Two castles were built to protect San Juan from foreign invaders (French, British, Dutch and Portuguese). The larger of the two is San Cristóbal Castle; the smaller one at the point of the island is San Felipe del Morro Castle. Next to El Morro is a cemetery. Seems odd to put one right on the water’s edge. These photos are of both castles and with a couple of exceptions aren’t too interesting. A castle (I would call them forts) is better seen in person.

The last photo is a room where soldiers slept.

This next photo shows El Morro in the distance and the cemetery on the right. All white grave stones.

Puerto Rico doesn’t only worry about hurricanes. These signs are found on the streets around the two beaches near where I’m staying.

That’s it for today. There will be another food post in a few days, then back to Mexico.

San Juan: The Food

My opinion: the more places I visit, the more I realize there are just a few countries where food is a major attraction. Puerto Rico is not one of them. I’ve eaten a few “local” foods so far and only two were better than average.

The maintenance guy where I’m staying has been a wealth of knowledge. He told me about the cafe at the rear of the grocery store. My fish filet makes the top two list. Nothing fancy here, just tasted good. And it was $5.99. 👍

After leaving my intended restaurant for lack of a seat, I found Jauja Street Food & Spirits. It’s actually two food vendors under the same roof. I ate at Arepas Rellenas. According to my waiter, the arepa is a Venezuelan food. The Puerto Rican version uses wheat instead of corn to make the bread. An arepa is snack size so you need 2 or 3 to make a meal. I ordered the shrimp. Nicely seasoned, I’ll return for some other options.

The sign on the far right says Perurrican. That’s the other vendor, more of a full plate place. Many people start with an arepa then have the big plate.

Next up is Areyto Puerto Rican Fusion. I believe fusion is a word that translates to “our scam to charge higher prices.” I ordered fried pork with an Asian sauce. The meat was so dry I had to ask for additional sauce. Didn’t help much. The sauce was a few fried onions in soy sauce. The pleasant surprise of the meal was the malanga, a root vegetable. I tasted garlic as one of the seasonings. Whatever else they added made for a tasty side dish.

I don’t usually drink smoothies, but I have changed my mind about them after trying one yesterday from Crush Juice Bar. Mine had strawberries, banana, peanut butter, almonds and some other stuff. So delicious!

Most of my meals pass without any drama save for the occasional “sorry, we don’t have that today.” Not so yesterday. I’ve copied and pasted my Google maps review of Café del Ángel below.

“I’d give a zero star rating if I could. After sitting for 30 minutes waiting for my food, I asked where it was only to be told that the waiter never put in the order. Not only that, but he left the restaurant for half of the waiting time. We discussed for a couple of minutes what kind of mofongo I wanted so it wasn’t like he didn’t know. And the $10 drink the bartender concocted was worth half the price. Other people ordered and ate with no apparent complaints. Just my bad luck.”

From there I walked down the street to Ruben’s Café. I ordered mofongo con pollo but the waitress thought I said arroz con pollo, so that’s what I got. I was so happy to see food on a plate in front of me that I decided not to say anything. Towards the end of the meal a different woman asked me about the food. I jokingly told her that it was good but not what I ordered. She must have been the manager or owner because she gave me mofongo free of charge. That was my dinner last night. The good and bad in life usually evens out.

Shiner Bock is the featured image. I stopped in a bar in OSJ and asked for a dark beer. Thought I’d get a Puerto Rican artesanal, but was given a Texas brew.

That’s all for the food update. I’m going back to OSJ tomorrow or Thursday so there will be more photos.

Old San Juan (OSJ)

My new “must do” when arriving in a capital city: take the free walking tour. The guides’ extensive knowledge of the history of the city and country  always make for a most enjoyable history lesson. Be sure to tip well as this is how the guides make a living. Many are students or artists.

For the San Juan tour we met in Plaza Colón (Plaza Christopher Columbus).

One of the oldest buildings in OSJ sits across from the plaza, the national theater. It’s named after Puerto Rico’s most famous playwright.

While I’m on the subject of theater, I spotted this cafe while meandering through OSJ after the tour.

OSJ doesn’t have any “oh wow” architecture, in my opinion. Still, I saw a couple of interesting buildings.

This next photo looked like a typical OSJ residential street.

After the tour it was time for lunch. I headed for El Jiberito, a combination restaurant/cafeteria. You order off a menu, but the food is already prepared. Quick, tasty and relatively affordable. I chose sawfish with onions and peppers and a side of amarillos fritos (fried yellow plantains).

These tours offer highlights of the city which give me an idea of where I want to explore further. I’ll go back to OSJ in a few days, take more photos and post.

Since this visa run centers on writing a new play, there won’t be a lot of sightseeing pictures. Just letting you know. 😁

San Juan First Impressions

Where to begin. I’m staying in a tourist area called Ocean Park. My studio apartment is 1/2 block from a park and 2 blocks from the ocean. You see a lot of houses with signs like this around here advertising rooms/studio apartments for rent.

Long or short-term and a phone number

Last night I ate at an Italian restaurant near my place. I ordered a personal pepperoni that reminded me of a NY slice. It also cost $11. San Juan is expensive. When I told my host my opinion, he laughed and said it didn’t take me long to figure that out.

Medalla is a local beer. I didn’t know it was a light beer when I ordered it. I drank it but it’ll be the only one in this lifetime.

Went to the beach this morning and had to walk through a gated community to get there. The beach is nice and kite surfing is very popular, especially on a day like today when the wind was blowing 20-30mph.

If you look closely at the 3rd photo you can see 4 kite surfers.

For lunch I visited a barbacoa restaurant. The area around it is a little sketchy. Two businesses near it have security guards that buzz you in. The BBQ place is really nice though. I opted for the lunch special, garlic roasted chicken with rice and beans. It almost tasted like the delicious chicken I used to eat at a Puerto Rican restaurant in Brooklyn. Almost.

Ocean Park seems to be divided into two sections. The area near the ocean and the area beyond those 4 blocks. Calle Loiza is a mix of hip, upscale bars and restaurants (restobars, I’ve learned), and empty businesses. Maybe it’s going through a renaissance or the small businesses lost everything in the hurricanes. I discovered some street art, which I’ve read is plentiful in San Juan.

Tomorrow I’m taking a walking tour through Viejo San Juan. More photos to come.

A Word About Mexico Before I Leave

Because I usually have an early flight from Mexico City to anywhere I go, I stay at an Airbnb near the airport the night before. Case in point, I have a 5:45am flight tomorrow morning.

The point of this post is that of all the places I’ve lived, the most welcoming, helpful people are Mexicans. The example I’ll give here is just one of many.

My Airbnb is not located in an area with lots of eating options. When I asked my host for suggestions, she said, “Un momento.” A few minutes later she brought her daughter to take me looking for food. Thank goodness because I would have gotten lost on my own. To top it off she took me to a guy selling tamales on the street. Molé tamales.

Such fabulous people live in this country!

Molé tamale en un bolillo

San Juan, Puerto Rico

This is my next destination. A short trip by my standards–2 weeks–I’m truly excited to be going there. I had a favorite Puerto Rican restaurant in Brooklyn when I lived there and can’t wait to taste all of the delicious foods that await me in San Juan. After doing my research I know this will be a food-centric trip. Lots of food trucks offer local fare and I will eat some seafood. How can I be on an island and not do so? 🙂

I going to partake in a few organized activities, but my main focus for this trip will center on food, talking to locals and the beach.

I will be there April 2-16. If you sign up to follow the blog you’ll receive an email each time I publish a post. Hasta luego!

I have a new blog!

While I love to write about my travels, an equal passion is theater. I’m a playwright and have just created Michael’s Plays and Other Writings. Most of the plays I publish on the blog have been produced; some in English, some in Spanish. Hope you enjoy reading them and if you happen to be a theater professional, you can produce them royalty free. Contact me to discuss. Thank you.

Here’s the link: https://michaelsshortplays.wordpress.com/

 

Free Book!

From 2010-15 I lived in China and taught English at a Chinese university. I wrote emails to family and friends about my experiences in a new country, culture and more, including all the countries I visited during my school breaks. I have written a book with the emails and my added thoughts, things I couldn’t write about when I lived there.

For the next few days, until January 6th, I believe, the e-book is free. Here’s the link to find it. Please share this and leave a review on Amazon if you wish:

Thank you.

My Second Book Is Finished!

I know that this has nothing to do with Croatia, but I can justify posting about it as it falls under “& More.” 🙂

Below is the promotional blurb for the book on Amazon.

When my Peace Corps service ended (Kyrgyzstan 2008-10) I knew I wanted to continue living and teaching abroad. The first offer came from China, a country that mystifies many and is understood by few. I accepted a teaching position at a university in Nanchang, Jiangxi province and began an exciting, adventurous new chapter of my life. Thinking I would only stay a year, I lived there for five as I taught, traveled and most of all, learned much about a part of the world that was previously a mystery to me.

The format of the book follows that of my first one, “Mail from Kyrgyzstan: My Life As An Over-50 Peace Corps Volunteer.” It includes the emails I wrote to friends and family, and in addition to them I have added my personal thoughts, expanded on stories and added new material that I didn’t think appropriate to write about at the time.

Only $0.99 for the ebook. Please share this post and thank you for your support.

 

No More Posts

I’ve decided to shut down this blog for a number of reasons.

  1. I looked at the photos I took over the past four days and they are all of old churches, old buildings and old statues; pretty landscapes; food you’ve almost certainly seen before. They are not exciting when I look at them, I can’t believe they would be for you.
  2. Readership is way down from my Portugal blog which tells me that the Balkans aren’t so interesting or my posts aren’t. Most of my several followers haven’t even read a single post. Friends of mine who signed up for email notifications haven’t read anything, either. I know this because I know where they live and their country hasn’t shown up on my map widget.
  3. Most importantly, I’m not excited about this trip and what I’m seeing. It’s a rehash of other countries I’ve visited. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between Poland and Croatia/Slovenia. Churches, castles, similar foods. Writing about it is work, not joy.

I chose Croatia because of the hype. It was the new hot place to go. My curiosity was piqued. In the future I will listen only to my instincts as I’ve done in the past.

If you really want to learn more about this part of the world, there are thousands of blogs online written by people who are enthusiastic about the Balkans.

Until next trip…

 

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Overview

Slovenia, the native land of America’s first lady, didn’t thrill me like I had hoped it would. Well, in a couple of areas it did. Perhaps it’s not fair that I’m comparing it to Croatia and Zagreb, specifically–it could be totally better than other Balkan countries–but that’s my only reference point. I was expecting the country to be a cool place simply based on the cool sounding name of its capital, Ljubljana (lube-lee-ahna), but it wasn’t, at least not in the immediate feel, first impression kind of way. What disappointed me the most is that overall, the people aren’t as friendly here and, sadly, as I read in a museum this morning, the xenophobic feeling of Slovenians, which existed for many centuries, is making a comeback.

I liked a few things about the country. You can drink the tap water. That saves money. Drivers are courteous, stopping to let pedestrians cross at every crosswalk where no stoplight is present. The scenery in the countryside is picturesque, some of the most beautiful I’ve seen. Even better than Portugal which I was sure couldn’t be surpassed. On the bus from Zagreb I saw hillside houses, farms and fields and thought how nice it would be to live there. Oh, and the beer. The pivo was one of the two highlights of my time in Slovenia. (More about that in the food section.)

The other one was five young people I met with whom I was able to engage in lengthy dialogues. This is one of the benefits in traveling during the off-season when crowds are smaller. Speaking of crowds, I truly believe half of the foreign tourists in town right now (as opposed to national tourists) are from Asia. Japan and China make up the majority, but one store owner told me lots of Koreans, Indonesians and Malaysians also visit. Back to the young people.

The two guys in the photo below are students. They work at a kielbasa shop and we chatted for almost an hour as business was slow in mid-afternoon. They’d like to find jobs abroad. Leah is a bartender who wants to attend a dance academy in Amsterdam. Auditions are next April. Lidja, another bartender, was applying for a higher paying job and when she heard me say I was an English teacher, she asked me if I would help her with her cover letter, which she conveniently had with her. That was total fun. And finally, my waiter at a restaurant near where I was staying told me that he lived in Miami for six years when he worked on a cruise ship. I told him that he probably lived on the ship more than in Miami. He laughed and agreed. The time I spent talking with these locals, well, it was special.

Carniolan sausage. OND smoked porter & 2 crazy guys!.jpg
Beer and sausage

I’m sad that I’m writing about Ljubljana and I still have 2 1/2 days here. I’m manufacturing things to do to get me to Tuesday. One thing I’ve learned in my travels is that not every destination lives up to the self-imposed hype we place on it. My track record has been top notch, but I missed the boat with Slovenia. Two more posts, activities and food , will follow shortly.

Zagreb – Food & Drink

My first night I walked about 5 minutes to Baranjska Citadela. It serves food from the Baranja region of Croatia in the far eastern part of the country. I ordered ćobanac, a beef and dumpling soup with a spicy paprika broth. I envisioned my Polish grandmother standing at her wood burning stove tending to the soups she made. I drank a beer brewed in the same region, Osječko.

In a park not far from the main square (Zagreb has many green spaces.), 20 or more hamburger restaurants were grilling all kinds of fancy fare. Burgers with black truffles, with white truffles, with a Jameson whiskey sauce and who knows what else tempted hungry tourists and locals alike at a Burger Festival. My burger, along with a locally brewed stout, made for a delicious lunch.

Based on a recommendation from Kristina, our walking tour guide, I visited a small local eatery near the square called Heritage; small as in 2 tables, 5 stools and no toilet. A winner of Best Chef of Croatia and a couple of his friends opened a tapas-like place that uses only ingredients made and grown in Croatia. The food was so good that I went there twice. The server explains the origin of each ingredient in each tapa you order. I drank a tasty artisanal beer and a glass of blackberry dessert wine there, as well. Click on the tapas’ photos to learn the ingredients.

Cheese and olives tapas
Cheese, olives and capers with a blackberry dessert wine

Another wonderful restaurant in my heighborhood (menu only in Croatian) introduced me to čufta–which is meatball in Croatian–a large minced pork patty topped with melted cheese and bacon. Good thing my diet doesn’t begin until I get back to Mexico. This meal was also accompanied with a dark beer, Korlovačko crno. Crno means black.

 

I ate my favorite meal today. It rained all morning and it was quite chilly, but I knew I had to go out to find something to eat. As I was leaving, my host Izidor told me he had made some soup and would I like some. He didn’t have to ask twice. It was a savory bean and barley soup with homemade bacon. He offered seconds and I readily accepted. What a great way to end a week at my Airbnb!

I encountered an interesting practice at a few restaurants, all of them in my neighborhood, not the tourist area. Here’s an example: I ordered spaghetti bolognese at an Italian restaurant near my house. On the receipt pictured below you can see that I was charged for both the spaghetti and the sauce. It was not a surprise; it’s listed that way on the menu. If I had ordered penne, I would have been charged 12kuna instead of 14. And carbonara was a different price than bolognese.

Restaurant receipt.jpg

Tomorrow morning I take a 2.5 hour bus ride to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. I’m excited about the week I’ll spend there. Not sure what’s up after that.

 

 

Zagreb – Lots to Offer

Activities

This city of almost 1 million people–the country has 4 million–offers something for a wide range of tourists’ interests. I love zoos and Zagreb’s is located inside a lovely lake-filled park, Maksimir Park.

Zagreb Zoo.jpg

As soon as I took the photo, it turned its head away

One of the best ways I’ve found to learn about a city’s center is to take a walking tour. In Zagreb, a free tour is available through https://www.freetour.com/zagreb/free-spirit-walking-tour. Our guide, Kristina, covered the important sights over two hours, added some historical context, and sprinkled in her personal thoughts and experiences. It was informative and enjoyable as Zagreb is her hometown.

I visited two museums. I wanted to see the retrospective of the Croat impressionist, Izet Đuzel, at the Mimara Museum; the Museum of Contemporary Art featured a fascinating look at life in the 1960’s in Croatia, then part of Yugoslavia and under the control of Russia. The decade seems to be one of rebellion, avant-garde ideas in the arts and product innovation. I took a few photos of products that looked like what we had in the US at the same time.

Mimara Museum.jpg
Mimara Museum

Talk about sightseeing rarely includes cemeteries, but Mirogoj is an exception. Huge crypts can be found everywhere because entire families are buried together. I saw one headstone with 10 names. If cemeteries can be beautiful and architecturally interesting, Mirogoj fits the description. Two main features of Mirogoj are the wall surrounding it and the impressive looking tomb of Franjo Tudman, the first president of Croatia.

Zagreb – Where to Stay

This post isn’t specifically about Zagreb, but I’m going to use it for this one. Zagreb is home to close to a million people and as with most large cities, the action is downtown, or as it’s called here, “The Centar.” Most people choose to stay where they can find everything they want within a few blocks. I usually do that. But, this time I chose an Airbnb outside the center in a middle-class residential area called Ravnice. My room was $12/night; rooms in the center averaged $25 and up.

From my house I had to walk 10 minutes to reach the tram (cheap, popular and lots of them); the ride downtown took 10-15 minutes. It never seemed like a long trip and I saw some of the city that I otherwise wouldn’t have, like the big football stadium.

Negatives: time spent commuting unless you use Uber, which is pretty cheap, too; not as many of anything to choose from, especially restaurants; menus only in Croatian because the clientele is 99% locals, but most of the waiters speak English and are happy to translate.

Positives: seeing how the locals live; finding unexpected restaurants that serve quality food at non-tourist prices; being closer to some popular attractions such as the zoo and a beautiful park with many small lakes; peace and quiet.

I’m still a city guy at heart, but I’d do the occasional stay a short distance from the tourist hub again. You can’t put a price on peace and quiet.

 

Zagreb – First Impressions

I hadn’t been on the ground five minutes before making my first mistake and encountering my first understanding Croatian. At Passport Control I found myself at the EU citizen booth because I saw “All Passports” without checking to see if I could just go to any line. Of course, I’ve traveled enough to know that nationals and tourists go to separate lines, but I was really lacking sleep when we arrived in Zagreb. Anyway, after telling me my error, the agent said not to move, that he would stamp my passport. This saved me the embarrassment of moving to the end of the correct queue.

To get to my Airbnb I needed to take the tram, but didn’t know which direction would move me to and not away from it. The man I asked not only told me the direction, but also counted the stops and told me mine was the second one after the big stadium. Once off the train I became confused at a fork in the road and didn’t know which street to follow. It soon became obvious that I was walking in circles. And because my phone hasn’t been working so well, Google maps couldn’t help me. All of the five people I eventually asked for help did so happily, even though they didn’t actually know where my house was located. I eventually found a spot where I could use my phone and found my way. What should have been a 15-minute walk took an hour. I prefer to say I wasn’t lost, just exploring the neighborhood.

This leads me to my final first impression. Everybody I asked–from students to seniors–spoke decent English; some spoke it very well. It’s almost as if English is a co-first language in Zagreb. Perhaps this isn’t true outside of the capital and the tourist areas, but for now it’s helping me learn a lot about Croatian culture firsthand instead of having to search the Internet.

The weather has been a pleasant surprise. The afternoon temperature yesterday and today was about 28C. The forecast calls for cooler weather in a few days but still warm.  Yippeee!!!

On my Portugal blog I wrote one post for each city I visited. I think for this trip I’ll post whenever I have enough information to do so.

 

Week 1 – New York City

New York City, my adopted hometown. I lived there for 10 years, leaving in 2008. It has changed so much and not for the better in my opinion. While I enjoyed my visit, walking the city confirmed my long-held belief that I left at a good time. I still think it’s the best city in the world, but a city for the wealthy, now more than ever.

And now that I’m over 60 I see that it’s a mecca for the young, trying to prove themselves in any number of professions, the arts and Wall Street foremost among them.

Wealthy NYC.jpg
New luxury residences near the Hudson River

My greatest pleasures were seeing my friends. I ate lunch with my tenant of many years (until I sold my apartment)(no photo); my boss at Citibank (until I left for the Peace Corps)(left photo); and my dear friend, a stand up comedian and theater director (middle photo). To give you an idea of how expensive NYC can be, the three lunches totaled ~$300 and we didn’t go crazy with drinks. At one place I ordered a cheeseburger; $20. But, hey it came with fries.

The man I call my brother (right photo) took me to a Yankees game. We also hung out as often as we could when he wasn’t in rehearsal for his latest play.

I stayed in a northern Manhattan neighborhood called Inwood. It’s labeled the last affordable area on the island because you can still get a one-bedroom apartment there for $2000/month. Inwood is also a very green area with three lovely parks. One side note: the neighborhood is predominantly Dominican so one hears Spanish spoken everywhere. I felt like I hadn’t left Mexico.

Dyckman Farmhouse
Dyckman Farmhouse, one of the last remaining in NYC
Fort Tryon Park entrance
Entrance to Fort Tryon Park

My final night in the city I visited my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. Such wonderful memories and yet, I wouldn’t want to live there again. It was a very special time in my life, but lots of world to see for me. I’m happy I made the stop in NYC because I have no idea when I’ll be back. For that matter, I don’t know when I’ll be back in the US. Several years, I’m thinking.

A Short Stop before Croatia

Because I lived in NYC for 10 years and it’s (sorta) on the way, the first week of my trip will be spent there visiting friends and seeing what’s new since my last visit, like the High Line Park and the new WTC. It’s a good thing I’m not superstitious. I’m flying to JFK on September 11th.

I can tell you now that my blog is misnamed because while I’m going to explore some of Croatia, my journey will also take me to Slovenia and Trieste, Italy. I might spend more time outside of Croatia than in. It’ll depend on how much of Italy I want to see. That’s okay as I’m pretty sure this won’t be my only visit to the Balkans.

One of the matters that must be dealt with on a multi-country trip is money. Slovenia and Italy use the Euro and while Croatia is also part of the European Union, they have their own currency, the kuna. So, with my pesos, dollars, euros and kuna I could be a cambio. I’m bringing a few plastic ziplock bags to keep them separate.

The weather forecast for my week in Zagreb is 20-22C. Ljubljana is cooler at 16-18C, but Trieste is supposed to be 20-22C even in the 3rd week of October which is very welcome. After the Arctic chill I endured in Portugal in January/February I’ve earned some good weather. : ))

I’m totally looking forward to this trip and should have some interesting posts to publish here.

Travel Bloggers

While planning my trip I have learned more about what I call “professional” travel bloggers. These are the people that make money when potential tourists click on or buy something that’s mentioned in one of their posts, or profess to be very knowledgeable about their topic. While I have no doubt they want to enlighten travelers to the country or products/services they’re pushing, I believe money is their main motivator. My opinion covers bloggers everywhere, not just Croatia.

I began following a few Croatia travel blogs on Twitter. It didn’t take long for me to see that 90% of their posts focused on the coastline; the remaining 10% talked about Zagreb and the surrounding area. It’s as if all the inland cities and towns don’t exist. Within a couple of weeks, after seeing posts that were basically variations on a single theme (Croatia’s coast and its islands/cities), I unfollowed them. I wasn’t seeing anything new and nothing about the other parts of the country.

These bloggers say that they are there to help, so if you have any questions, please email them. I thought this was a great idea, so I did. I emailed two bloggers asking for a few places of interest as I travel from Zagreb to Vukovar in the far eastern part of the country. That was weeks ago and no response from either. Perhaps they can’t be bothered because that’s not a money-making section of Croatia for them.

I don’t blame bloggers for “following the money,” publicizing the most popular parts of a country, but don’t say you cover the entire country, because in my limited experience, that doesn’t seem to be true at all. I’ve decided to check TripAdvisor where I can read about the experiences of regular travelers; I’ll also rely on the people I meet at the places I stay (hotels and Airbnb) for advice. I’ve been assured by one host that she’ll help me with my itinerary.

I’m less than one month from arriving in Zagreb and very excited about my trip. Please share my blog address with anyone you feel might be interested. Thank you.

Planning My Itinerary

Normally when planning my itinerary I look at the map of the country I’m visiting and decide whether to go north or south first, write down the names of some cities and go from there. I’m trying to do the same thing with Croatia, but it’s a little more difficult because of the country’s irregular shape. It’s not always easy to get from here to there.

area-map-of-Croatia

Most tourists fly into Zagreb, spend a few days and make haste for the coast. Croatia is a country of 1200+ islands, lots of beaches and a couple of “must see” cities, Split and Dubrovnik. I plan on taking a different route.

I want to stay mostly inland for two reasons. One, two-thirds of my trip is in October which is past the sunbathing season and two, so many of my previous trips have centered around beaches that I’m not as enthusiastic about them as before. I’ve also read that Croatia has mostly pebble beaches. I’m sure they’re nice, but I’m a white sand kind of beach guy.

After a week in Zagreb, I’ll visit towns/villages around it, such as Varazdin (north of Zagreb), Samobar (20 km west) and Plitvice Lakes (a day tour). From Varazdin I can take a bus into Slovenia for a few days if I want.

Making my way back to Zagreb, I will then bus my way to the far eastern border city of Ilok, across from Serbia. Places to see on the way include Vukovar, Marija Bistrica and Osijek, among others. There are regional foods and wines to be tasted and I believe the culture will be a little different than the capital and the coast; fewer English speakers, too, is my guess.

From there I have two choices. I can fly from Osijek to Dubrovnik and make my way up the coast, or I can take a bus into Bosnia-Herzegovina to visit Sarajevo and Mostar before returning to Croatia.

These plans are very flexible and I’m still doing some research. I have six weeks to plan for and I’m thinking I won’t stay in Croatia the entire time. You can see from the map how close I am to Italy, so a week there is also an option.

That’s my update. I’m getting more excited by the day. If you become a follower you’ll be notified every time I publish a post.

Seeking Information

Hello again. I’m heading to Croatia for six weeks, from September 17-October 29. I know I’m posting this a trifle early; maybe more than a trifle, but there is a reason for doing so. I’m soliciting advice, recommendations and anything else that doesn’t fall into those two categories. Anyone who has been there within the past two years or less (preferably) please leave a comment for me. There is so much information about the Balkans online, but one can never have enough.

I’m not going to spend much time, if any, on the beach in October so you don’t have to leave “best beach” recs. 🙂  One thing I’d like to know is whether 6 weeks is too long for Croatia. Should I go to Bosnia for a spell?

If you don’t leave a comment then just take this as the first notice that I’ll be blogging again in less than 3 months.

Thanks.

Michael

Off to the Balkans

Zagreb, the capital of Croatia

Earlier this year I traveled to Portugal for three months. Well, two months actually, because the cold weather in February drove me to Morocco for a month. Anyway, my initial plan called for an additional 3 months in the Balkans, but I needed to get back to Mexico and some heat. So, figuring the temperatures will be acceptably warm in September/October, I’m going there for 6 weeks. Maybe longer if I’m captivated by the area.