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................

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