Saturday, June 27, 2015


Eating continued to be the prominent activity of our hiking trip in Croatia.  Thankfully, the daily stats on my Fitbit told me we easily exceeded 10,000 steps, so at least we were offsetting a few of the calories.  Some of our best eating and best hiking was on the Croatian island of Hvar, where our guide Ante promised that after our morning hike, he would take us to a family-owned restaurant we would never forget, and he nailed it.  The Lambik Restaurant was in a 200-year-old stone house tucked somewhere deep within an olive orchard off the main road.  I say somewhere because we didn't drive to it.  We hiked to it instead, and I doubt we could have found it on our own.   


Ante waited for us at the entrance gate when we arrived.  Picture this:  four dusty, thirsty, hungry hikers sitting at a table situated among a grove of olive trees,  drinking ice cold beer and scarfing up oven hot, thick crusted bread lovingly made by hand.  Ante knew the owners well -- a relatively young couple whose main goal was not only to cook quality food, but to do so in a slow-food movement style with all ingredients organically grown, either in their adjacent garden or in someone else's nearby.  Their specialty was a veal roast cooked over an outdoor charcoal fire and simmered inside a ceramic dome.   Granted the food was fantastic, but it was also the rural setting -- the ancient stone house, the outdoor kitchen, the graciousness of our cute waiter who started every sentence with I'm sorry, which I took to mean I'm sorry about my English, which was actually pretty good. Better than my Croatian.   Then there was the charming chef, who invited us into his outdoor kitchen so we could watch how artfully he prepared the food, smell the aroma coming from under the ceramic dome and watch the pastry chef make semifreddo for dessert, although that was for dinner and not for our lunch.  weep, weep.



The next day we did the hike to knock your socks off.  It wasn't as challenging as the last part of the Ronald Brown Pathway, which I wrote about in my last post.  Instead, it was probably the most beautiful hike I have ever done -- ever.   First, we were dropped off at the highest point (3500 feet) on the island of Hvar and told to walk along the ridge, follow the red circle markers, and eventually make our way down to the sea. Walking down hill might seem like a cop out, but keep in mind that this is Croatia and that means rocks, lots of them, and at times the path was narrow and steep with dropoffs.  So, while the trail meandered down hill for a good part of the way,  you still had to be careful not to slip on the rocks.   We learned that most hikers take between six and seven hours to complete the circuit, so we knew it was going to be a long day, although the actual mileage was only about 8 or 9 miles.  We stopped often to take photos and admire the views.  With the exception of Bruce, the oldest, Mary Jane, Glen and I wore bright blue velcro knee straps that worked wonders in keeping our overused patella from wobbling around.  The weather gods favored us with a bright blue sky,  moderate temperatures in the low 70s, and a light breeze that kept us comfortable the entire way.  





I'm as happy as a pig in shit.  That's what I told Bruce as we made our way along the ridge with 360 degree views of jagged mountains and the bright blue sea with highlights of Caribbean-like aqua colored water lapping at its shore.  And there was this delicate vegetation called fairy grass and white daisies.   Now how beautiful is that.  




Yes, I was happy as a pig in shit.  How could life be better?  Here I am in one of the most beautiful hiking spots in the world, with the man I love, and new friends I am beginning to love, enjoying the sounds and smells of nature, and not only hiking and feeling strong, but eating fantastic food too.   Okay, reader, I promise to stop writing about food because, honestly, after that roast veal in the olive grove,  nothing came close.   Oh, wait a minute.  This is not exactly true.   The roast lamb cooked on the spit at the little outdoor restaurant near Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina came close. And the lunch of roast chicken and princess donuts at Apartment Ada in Gracac came close because we were enjoying it with our new Croatian friends -- Boris and Gordana.  And what about the Prsut in Montenegro, and the grilled sea bass in Dubrovnik?   They all came close too.  Life is good, and now I'm on a diet.  Well, sort of, not really.






Tuesday, June 16, 2015


At one time I think we owned three editions of Rick Steves' guidebook to Croatia and Slovenia before we finally bit the bullet and planned our trip.  Our earlier intentions to go were pre-empted by other travel opportunities that popped up, and our Croatia plans would dissolve.   I was not about to question the travel guru about why he had to buy a new guide book each time we thought about 
going, but it did cross my mind as I saw the collection on our shelf grow over time.  As a funny aside, you should know that, until recently, we had never consulted Rick Steves as a travel resource, mainly because he covers only Europe and most of our destinations are to places he doesn't go.    At the same time, we found his TV travel series just a little too folksy for our taste, and thought his style catered more to tourists,  not the travelers we consider ourselves to be.  Thinking that way and writing this sentence embarrasses me greatly because it sounds so arrogant, but that's the way we felt at the time, and that's the honest to god's truth.

Well, it's my turn to eat crow because I have a confession to make.  Rick Steves' guidebook on Slovenia and Croatia turned out to be the best that we have ever used, and now I apologize for dissing him. In a very organized and easy-to-read way, he provides practical information succinctly and steers readers to beautiful sights, excellent hotels and out-of-the-way restaurants.    We're eager to promote him, although I think he's far beyond needing any promotion or testimonies from Bruce and Pam -- tourists, travelers, or whatever name you deem appropriate to give us.

If you have been reading my blog posts, you already know that our May Croatia trip was structured around hiking -- at least that's what we intended.  But after a few days of hiking, we realized that the trip was really structured around eating, not hiking, and that hiking was just a great means to a great end.   I'm not complaining, by the way. I'm just telling it like it is.

The beginning  -- The Ronald Brown Pathway (near Dubrovnik)

Naming a Croatian hiking trail for an American most people have never heard of seemed a bit odd to us, but it looked like a good trail to take on our first day of hiking out of Dubrovnik.   In a variety of roads, switchbacks and marked trails, the path takes you approximately 3000 feet to the top of Mt. Strazisce, where a lone, stark cross has been erected to memorialize Ronald Brown, Secretary of Commerce under Bill Clinton, and 32 others on a trade mission, who died in a plane crash on that mountain top in 1996.  

The Brown Pathway seemed to be a popular trail for hiking,  although we didn't have a map or any instructions except for vague comments on Trip Advisor written by people who had done the hike before.  They ranged from fit people like us to much younger overweight couch potatoes, who thought that taking a picture from the memorial cross would be very cool, but complained about the difficulty in reaching the summit.  We also knew there were some challenging spots:  the markers were vague and the trail was very rocky and sometimes steep, but the view was worth the struggle. Since we weren't meeting up with Ante, our official guide and driver, until the next morning, we hired a taxi to take us to the trailhead, a paved driveway just off the main road near the small village of Cavtat.  Walking between several rows of colorfully painted houses, we eventually came to a hiking trail chock full of loose rocks, but it was negotiable, even with a steep drop off on one side.  The Trip Advisor reviews accurately described the path as becoming steeper and narrower, but left out the fact that the rocks were also becoming bigger and sharper.  Fortunately, Bruce and I were wearing solid hiking boots and used our walking sticks, so we both felt pretty comfortable.   I slung my camera across my body for easy access and carried a waist pack for much-needed water. 





The trail went from rocky path to rocky road back to rocky path.   The operative word here is rocky.   Our traveling companions, Mary Jane and Glen, a bit younger than we, didn't need hiking sticks like we did.  They walked at a decent pace and led the way.   We had been warned about snakes and other creatures we might encounter, but the only snakes we saw disappeared quickly.   Just this green lizard-like creature stuck around long enough for a photo.  


We never got lost per se, although at one point we passed a well-hidden trail marker directing us to the right, but since we missed it,  we added at least another half a mile or so to the total distance of a little over eight miles.  With good tracking instincts, Glen suggested we take the road and approach the  memorial cross from another direction.  If there was a trail, it seemed ambiguous, so we turned back.  "Ah-ha," Glen said, "I see a red circle trail marker hidden behind that bush over there.  That may be the right way to go."   That's when I looked up, saw the memorial cross a long ways away, evaluated the loose rocks and dense brush, and briefly thought about waiting at the bottom and looking at the view through everyone else's photos rather than looking at my own.   But then my determined self kicked into gear,  and I knew that finking out on our first hike would not settle well over the long term.  After all hiking in Croatia was what I wanted to do, and I didn't want to be called a quitter on the first day.   I trudged on.   Reaching the top was well worth the effort.  Waiting for Bruce and me and standing on the cross with her arms outstretched was Mary Jane, who was feeling the cool breezes drying the sweat from her salty body.  What a view!

BEAUTIFUL FLOWERS AND UNDER THE BRUSH?  ROCKS  (see the red trail marker on the rock?)



Depending on our hiking sticks for support made for a slow descent, but we crossed our fingers and hoped the small taverna we passed on the way up would be open on the way down.   Indeed it was, so we stopped for a bit,  ordered some rounds of cold Croatian beer and fed our hungry tummies with home-made apple strudel slathered with thick whipped cream.  Not exactly the trail mix and Gatorade that hikers are supposed to eat, but that stuff sure hit the spot.

The Small Country of Montenegro

The next morning we finally met up with Ante, the week-long guide Bruce found through Trip Advisor, who loaded our luggage in his van.   We drove from charming Dubrovnik south to the small country of Montenegro, where that day's hike would be a city tour in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kotor (accent on the first syllable). The small city is situated in a deep fjord and watched over by an imposing wall that fortified the city during Venetian rule.  Kotor is about as unspoiled a place as one can find in an Adriatic town.  It's a place for aimless strolling, although our local guide captured our imaginations with stories about Kotor's 2000 year history when it was controlled by Romans, Serbs, Venetians, Russians, Napoleonic soldiers, Austrians and Tito's Yugoslavia.  This region has a complicated history and it's still sorting itself out. 


To call the day's city tour a hike would be a bit of a stretch, but we probably covered five or six miles on cobbled stone streets which gave us at least some sense of accomplishment.  We didn't burn sufficient calories to justify the hearty lunch that Ante had in mind, but he suggested we prepare for tomorrow's taxing hike and fortify ourselves with a healthy meal of grilled seafood in a setting with a babbling brook, flowering trees, and a big sign that in Croatian said,  You are dining at The Old Mill.  Made me feel right at home.




As bad luck would have it, we awakened the next morning in Kotor to wind and rain.  Not a particularly good day for hiking, but Ante didn't seem deterred by the weather.  As we turned hairpin after hairpin up the white-knuckle drive to find our mountain trailhead,  I courageously asked Ante, "Do you have a plan B?"   Our water proof gear would keep our heads and bodies dry, but the idea of getting our legs and hiking shoes wet didn't appeal much. 

ANOTHER HAIRPIN TURN WITH A VIEW OF KOTOR.  (Glad we left the cruise ship behind)

  "Yes, I have a plan B," he said, "and it's called brunch.  Do you like prosciutto?"  Twenty-six hairpin turns later, we pulled off the main road into a driveway and parked next to what might be called a covered picnic area, except it was attached to someone's house, and across the street was a big barn with wisps of sweet-smelling smoke emanating from the roof and sides.   Ante had obviously called ahead because there, waiting for us on the stoop, were a lovely older couple motioning us to come in.  

"You have to see the smokehouse first," Ante said, and so along with the older man, who was the farmer, we scampered across the street, and went inside the dark, smoky barn that smelled really good.  What I saw when I looked up were dried leather sacks hanging from the rafters.   With Ante as the translator, we learned that we were in the village of Njegusi (try and pronounce that one), where the wind changes direction ten times each day, alternating between a dry mountain breeze and salty sea air.  Perfect for seasoning and drying ham hocks.  


Again through translation, the farmer described how the mountain air in the Montenegro interior was incredibly dry, and that the special current of wind they had there enriched the salty smoky flavor of the smoked ham.   Njeguski Prsut (prosciutto) is the best in the world.  Forget Spain.  Forget Italy.  Montenegro's Ngeguski Prsut is the best, hands down.   The leather sacks were not leather at all, but legs of dried firm pork, seasoned by smoke from local birch wood.  At the time we saw 200 impressive pork legs drying in the barn, but we learned that during high season 1600 legs can be hung at one time.   


Proud of their trade, hard work, and the beauty of this special area, the prsut farmer and his wife invited us to sit down at the long table where they sliced and served us a large plate of prsut, plus chunks of golden ripe cheese cut straight from the wheel she made by hand.  As an accompaniment, there were red-ripe tomatoes, home-made bread and some unusual-tasting brined olives that complemented the meal beautifully.   And of course, they wanted us to enjoy their home-made red wine and grappa.  By now the local word for cheers rolled easily off our tongues.   Zivjeli!!


 By the time we finished gorging ourselves with prsut, cheese, and bread,  the rain had let up, but we were feeling too bulbous to hike.  In his usual not-letting-us-off-the-hook style, Ante suggested we walk the road up to an impressive granite monument and mausoleum for a beloved Montenegro king, designed by a great Croatian sculptor.  "I'll meet you at the top, and we'll have a look around."   The walking should have been easy, but with the prsut digesting slowly in our guts, not to mention the effect of the wine and the grappa, it was slow going.  But again, once we got to the top, the views were spectacular.   And there was even a little snow.  If I told you we walked two miles that day I'd be exaggerating.  But the food was absolutely delicious.






A prsut brunch meant no lunch, so around suppertime, as we drove back to Dubrovnik,  we stopped at a local butcher and picked out our personal steaks, had them grilled, and ate in an adjoining dining room.  As I said before, if we walked two miles,   I'd be exaggerating.  

Stay tuned.  The adventure continues................

Saturday, June 6, 2015


All we needed to hear were these three little words, Can Aussies Come? and our Croatia hiking trip was a go. 

This response was the only affirmative I received to my Facebook post, seeking at least four more adventurous people in order to meet the minimum of eight participants required by the tour company that we had signed up with for their May hiking trip in Croatia.  The query came from Mary Jane and Glen Treacy, an Australian couple we met last year while cruising the wild Kimberly Coast of their country.  Since the tour company never reached the minimum needed to proceed, they cancelled the trip.  However, given our strong desire to see some of the best parts of Croatia on foot, the four of us decided to use the tour company's itinerary as a template, find an experienced guide to lead us, follow some suggestions by travel maven Rick Steves, and do the trip ourselves.

One of my husband's many talents is constructing a trip in which no stones are left unturned.  First he found Ante Batarelo, an English-speaking guide, who is both Croatian by heritage and Australian by birth.  Then Bruce booked overnight accommodations in lovely boutique hotels in the cities, and agriturismos out in the countryside.  In places like Dubrovnik, Korcula, and Split, he reserved small rental apartments, which are quite common in Croatia, since tourism is growing there.  These units gave us the ability to sit outside on our terrace in the evening and enjoy wine and nibbles, something we often called dinner because we usually pigged out at lunch.

Ante Batarelo, our excellent guide

Bruce, Glen, Pam & Mary Jane enjoying wine and nibbles

The four of us arranged to meet in Dubrovnik to begin our trip.  Prior to that, Mary Jane and Glen traveled for two weeks in Austria and Italy, while Bruce and I explored beautiful Slovenia for eight days, about which I have already written.

Our First Croatian Highlight:

After getting our passports stamped at the Croatian border, our reliable GPS led us to the small mountain village of Gracac, where Bruce had made a reservation at Apartman Ada.  When we pulled into the driveway, a lovely woman with a big smile came out to greet us.  While much smaller in size than either of us, she quickly grabbed our hand luggage and assured us that her husband would be home shortly to help us with our other bags.  With enthusiasm and warmth, she welcomed us into her home, and introduced herself as Gordana.   Her husband, Boris, arrived a few minutes later and the two of them showed us to our room upstairs.  We had no idea what to expect when Bruce booked Apartman Ada, but when we arrived, we felt like we were staying in someone's home because of the personal hospitality.  For some people this may not be ideal, but since we prefer the authentic over commercial, Apartman Ada was perfect.

Boris and Gordana Gugic

Boris and Gordana seemed very excited to meet us.  "I asked myself who is this Bruce Berger," Boris said.  "Is he old, young?  Will he come by car, motorcycle or bike?  I have no idea.  I only have a name, but I wait with excitement to see you."  They invited us to sit with them in a room attached to the main house, a kind of entertainment room that Boris built himself.  With walls of old brick, the room served as a combination dining area and kitchen with an open barbecue where they could serve meals and entertain their guests.  

After drinking some of their smooth home-made grappa, an easy conversation flowed among us.  Boris's English was slightly better than Gordana's, but she understood everything that was said, and she giggled effusively when Boris told us how he learned English.  "I learn by watching American movies on TV."  Rick Steves mentions in his Croatia guidebook that this method is quite common among older Croatians, since none of the American movies are dubbed, only subtitled.  "I watch Rambo 1, Rambo 2, Rambo 3," Boris said with a big grin, "but I don't speak Sylvester Stalone."

After Boris poured us a second shot, we talked for hours until we learned that Gordana had to take the 6:30 a.m. bus 50 kilometers to work the next morning.  "She work for judge," Boris explained, as he fluttered his fingers pretending to type .  Gordana was a court reporter, and Boris worked for the railroad.  They alternated shifts so that someone was home to greet their overnight guests.  They were determined that this was the way to make a future for their family, so their four sons would not have to log trees and hurt their backs like Boris did.  He knew education was key, so his oldest son, Milan, age 22, was in college in Dubrovnik studying marine engineering,  Ledan, age 18, boarded at a private high school, and their two youngest Potjeh, age 12, and Ognjen, age 9, were still in the local school in Gracac.    It didn't take long for Boris and Gordana to find a permanent place in our hearts especially since they reminded me so much of my own mom and dad, who worked 24/7 to make sure their kids got the education they never had.

Ognjen, age 9

Politics, taxes, and the old Yugoslavia versus new Croatia were some of the topics we discussed. Boris explained the challenges of keeping his head above water financially, noting that he already failed in one business venture and was now starting another. "My priority--after the kids' education--is to build the future with Apartman Ada," he said.  When we inquired about wi-fi, he said repairing his computer was too costly, especially since he could do his apartment bookings on his smart phone instead.  He thought investing in better roadside signage was important, but this too required money that took time to accumulate. It was clear that it was a slow struggle for him financially. 

Although Boris's English had some gaps, there were no language barriers between us when discussing life, family, and the importance of investing in the future.   He understood big words like innovation and entrepreneurship, and although he had no training in hotel management, he knew his family's life would improve by hard work and taking risks.  Just hearing these words reminded me of my Dad who took a big risk to build Perkins Motel, a concept that was totally new in the 1950s.  Boris's goal was to create a place where guests could stay overnight and sample Croatian hospitality in a warm and personal environment.   There was no doubt in our minds that he was well on his way, but it was a slow struggle.

When Bruce and I went to bed that night, we discussed how lucky we were to live a comfortable life, and how grateful we were for the opportunity to meet a couple as special as Gordana and Boris.  That's when we talked about how we might help.

The next morning when Boris served freshly baked bread and Turkish coffee, I told him how my Dad taught me to make Turkish coffee by bringing the coffee to a rolling boil three times.  I also told him we wanted to make an investment in his family's future, and I handed him several large dollar bills.  Boris lowered his head and stared down at the table.  It was obvious he was stunned.  "I don't believe this.  I don't know what to say."  And that's when he started to cry. "This is too much money," he said, although he didn't really know how much there was since I folded the money in such a way that only a one hundred dollar bill was visible.   I can't tell you exactly what happened after that because Boris was very emotional and couldn't say much except thank you, and I was overwhelmed by his reaction to a gift that didn't make a dent in our lives but obviously meant a great deal in his.   We told him we didn't care how he used the money, but we wanted it to go towards his business.  He could apply it towards a new computer or use it to have more signs made.  The only words he could say over and over were I don't believe this, I can't explain how I feel, and I will never forget you.  

Boris, Gordana, Pam & Bruce

After much hugging and picture taking, we said our good-byes, promising to stop at their home again when we and the Treacy's drove through Gracac on our way to Plitvice Lakes 12 days later.  I think if we hadn't made that arrangement, he would never have let us go.  That's how emotional and grateful he was.

When we arrived with Mary Jane and Glen for the promised return visit, Gordana and Boris greeted us like we were family coming home from a long trip.  Gordana made a beautiful lunch of chicken noodle soup, roast chicken, fried chicken, roasted potatoes and a green salad with lettuce just picked from their garden.  For dessert she served delicious custard-filled cream puffs which she called princess donuts.  Boris served us Turkish coffee that he brought to a boil three times.  

Princess Donuts

After lunch, Boris proudly brought out the new Apartman Ada road signs that were made during the time we were traveling.  He beamed with pride as he thanked us for making this happen.   Boris and Gordana also made a strong personal connection with the Treacy's (who tucked a Euro bill inside the small stuffed Koala bear they brought as a gift).  As we said our final good-byes and waved farewell, we left feeling that while we had made a difference in their lives, they also made a big difference in ours.

Gordana, Mary Jane, Boris and Pam 

Stay tuned.  The adventure continues............