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.

 

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.