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.

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.

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.

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.