Dubrovnik: Gem of the Adriatic

Dubrovnik crowd
Though it doesn’t appear so in this
photo, it was wall to wall people

Sure, there were tons of tourists, but that’s because it’s a beautiful city. I’m talking about Dubrovnik, and like Venice, it is well worth checking out despite the crowds. My wife and I spent two days there in early July and the season was in full swing. The main street (it’s all pedestrian in the old town) was practically shoulder to shoulder. At meal time, every restaurant was full, though this didn’t stop them from using barkers/cajolers to verbally drag you into their establishments. From the sound of it, there were visitors from pretty much all over the world. I was surprised, however, to hear so much Spanish. Wasn’t Spain supposed to be reeling from a financial implosion?

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Dubrovnik harbor
Small boat harbor

The place we stayed, Nikolina Rooms, was an eight-minute bus ride from the old city but within close walking distance to the bus and ferry terminal, a big plus when arriving and leaving the city with a backpack. And because it was tucked back on a side street, it was very quite. Getting to and from the old town was never a problem as there were plenty of buses ferrying people back and forth. In fact, we bought a city tour ticket (there are several options to choose from) which included 10 bus trips, entry to the wall walk, and several museums. Though we’re not big museum goers and thus found the visits only mildly interesting, you still come out ahead even if you just walk the wall and ride the bus a few times.

old city
Sweep shot: main gate on
right, small harbor to left

The walk atop the wall surrounding the old city was definitely the high point of our visit. The price, if you choose not to purchase the package visit, is 90 kuna, or about 18 US dollars and it takes roughly an hour and a half to circumnavigate. At each turn one is met with an extraordinary view. At one portion along the sea, we listened to an amusing running commentary by a Frenchman as a number of us watched two teens repeatedly trying to scramble out of the sea onto the rocks. I recommend going in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low so you’re sure to come away with some great photos. In fact, if we’d had more time, I would have done a morning walk as well.

Dubrovnik’s beach

Another nice place to go while in Dubrovnik is to the beach in Lapad which is on the peninsula west of town. This is where the vacationers go as opposed to the sightseers who tend to hang around the old city. Lastly, regarding food, we had a great meal at Nishta, the sole vegetarian restaurant in town. We had hoped to eat dinner there but it was closed Sunday. For lunch the next day I had an orange, ginger, and carrot soup followed by pasta with a mushroom and vegan cream sauce. Both dishes were delicious and a welcome break from pizza.

Plitvice Lakes: The Most Beautiful in the World

Trail head and tallest waterfall

Getting to Plitvice Lakes National Park was a bit of a chore. Our intended means of transport was a rental car but when I showed up at Avis in Zagreb, they suddenly had no cars. I felt oddly special. We took a bus instead: a two and a half hour ride through what appeared to be a landscape of karst topography (that 7th grade geography class really stuck). We arranged to meet a tour group coming up from Split, visit the park, and with them return to Split: a four-hour bus ride. While we waited for Igor and the tour group to show up we ate our picnic lunch and leafed through a brochure from the visitor’s center. While getting the brochure, I inquired about the topography: Nailed it!

Sure felt like going for swim

We started at one entrance and the bus would pick us up to head back to Split at another entrance so there was no walking into the park and returning the same way. The entire walk took us about three hours and included a boat ride across Lake Kozjak. When not on solid ground, the trails consisted of a raised walkway laid across with poles cut from small trees. It blended in esthetically with the environment and was well maintained. As it bordered one lake or another for much of the journey there were always schools of what looked like carp gazing up at us as we walked by. These were moments when the distinction between spectacle and spectator seemed uncertain.

Well designed park and no litter!

Unfortunately, Igor wasn’t much of a tour guide. He rattled off a few facts at the beginning of the walk but then never said anything else unless you asked him directly. The problem with that, sometimes, is you don’t know what to ask. Sure, all the information is available online, but for these kinds of things it’s nice to learn in situ. I suppose that the elements that came together to form this unusual landscape could be summed up quickly and easily for a layman and after that, the walk is all about eye candy: lots of lakes and ponds dammed by tufa, and plenty of waterfalls tumbling through leafy woods. It was a wonderful visit so if you’re traveling to Zagreb from Split you definitely have to check it out.

Good drawing of park
Helpful cross-section drawing of geography

Avis Zagreb: A Joke?

I had read about Plitvice Lakes National Park and seen pictures of it while planning our trip around the Adriatic Sea. The tricky part was getting there. I searched for a rental on the internet and actually found a car through Avis for 68 euros—a one-day rental with a drop-off at a different location for that price seemed implausible, but they did give me a confirmation number. Another odd thing about this rental was the office was in the middle of nowhere. Moreover, when I looked up the office on Google Maps before leaving home, I could see on the satellite image that there was no parking lot full of cars anywhere. I contacted Avis to confirm this was indeed where I should pick up my car and they assured me the address was correct.

The night before we were to leave Zagreb we took a taxi to the rental agency and a man inside looked out at us with a look bordering on alarm. When I explained that I was there to pick up my rental he shook his head and said they had no cars at his office. Upon handing over my confirmation printout he said he’d call the airport to see what they could do for me. That sounded helpful. After hanging up the phone, the man told us somebody was coming from the airport. A slight delay, I thought, but soon we’d be cruising down the boulevards of Zagreb. Incidentally, his desk was covered with piles of paperwork the likes of which I hadn’t seen since before the dawn of computers. What was this place?

Another agent pulled up in a larger car than I’d expected but I felt confident. However, it turned out he was simply there to take us to the airport where he thought there was an outside chance we could get a car. What? At the office in the airport he informed me that Avis had no car for me. I didn’t understand how this could be my problem but it was. The agent went around to all the other agencies in the airport to see if they had anything—they did, but for four times the amount. "So," I began to hypothesize. "If I just flew in from London and came to your desk, you’d be obliged to turn me away because Avis doesn’t have one single rental car at their airport location?" "That’s correct," he allowed. When I told him I didn’t believe him, he shrugged. He suggested I try the bus station.

What could I do? "Okay, now that you have deceived me and wasted a couple hours of my time, I’d like to be taken to the bus station." He said he couldn’t do that which is when I began to get upset. As things started to escalate his boss gave him the nod and soon we were being chauffeured back downtown. As I write this, I’m still shaking my head in disbelief.

It turned out there was a bus leaving early in the morning for the park. The price was very reasonable and I didn’t have to drive. In fact, I preferred the bus over the car option, but I’m still annoyed with Avis. What kind of “entertaining” incidents at a rental car agency have you had?

Tropea: A Beach Town in Calabria

View from New Paradise terrace: Lots of greenspace

Tropea is located on the Calabrian coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It actually sits atop a bump on the toe of the boot. When I look at a map of Italy, this bump reminds me of a large corn. In any case, our visit to this seaside town was actually the culmination of a trip around the Adriatic Sea. Though Tropea is on the other side of Italy from the Adriatic, I’d come across some compelling pictures and wanted to check it out and get a general impression of Calabria while we were in the south of Italy.

Tropea atop the cliff

The drive to Tropea from Monopoli was a bit longer than what I’d remembered when planning this trip. After skirting the heavily industrialized city of Taranto, we continued south along the bay of the same name towards Sibari. Though pictures of Sibari weren’t as compelling as those of Tropea, the town has a long history and, as it is responsible for spawning the town of Paestum and giving us the noun Sybarite, I wanted to pay homage by at least slowing down a bit as we drove through. In Italy, road signs can be a bit confusing so after a couple wrong turns and some convincing stomach growls, we paid tribute with a simple salute and pushed on to a picnic spot in the mountains around Costenza.

Long, coarse, sandy beach
Where are the tourists?

We pulled into Tropea around four in the afternoon and began searching for our lodging. Our GPS for much of southern Italy was useless, as if this was a part of the country that nobody bothered with. (Upon returning home, my wife did some research and it appears others have had similar experiences with their GPS.) After asking a local for directions, we found our lodging (New Paradise) just outside of town and up from a wide beach. We parked and walked around what appeared to be a rather neglected property: half a dozen abandoned small camper trailers, unused shower/changing rooms surrounded by rubble and cut branches from overgrown shrubbery, half completed construction from years ago, and overall neglect of the landscaping. Finally, after calling out "Buongiorno!" repeatedly at the front desk, someone appeared to help settle us in. Unlike the rest of the place, the reception area was very nice and had a lovely covered outdoor lounge bordered by a wide walk and seating, all of which commanded an elevated panoramic view of the sea.

Walk from center of town to
beach: Broken lamps & benches
trash, rubble everywhere

Like the other towns we visited in southern Italy (Bari, Monopoli, and Matera), Tropea has a charming old center but is ringed by endless stretches of uninspiring concrete buildings. And like New Paradise, decay and neglect were everywhere. Civic pride and the upkeep of public space have long been buried under tons of litter and rubble from uncompleted construction, or more typically, urban decay. We saw this everywhere in the south. Even alongside the highways we’d see bags of garbage people had no qualms about leaving at emergency stop areas. I felt like I was revisiting the worst parts of Casablanca or even Bamako.

New Paradise on hill at left above rocks

The beaches, however, were very nice and the sea was delightful on the two hot days we were there. Out in the water, one can look back towards the hillside behind the town and see that it remains refreshingly undeveloped. Indeed, below New Paradise and right up to the edge of Tropea one looked down on mostly green space, much of it occupied by gardens and vineyards. And to end on another good note, for our first night at New Paradise, the cook prepared us a special vegetarian menu, and though simple, it was delicious. The tasty food combined with the sunset to make for a very pleasant meal.

A Sybaritic Coffee Break

With the outskirts of Taranto about half an hour behind us and Sibari not far away to the south, my wife and I decided it was time for an espresso break. Spotting a gas station, I pulled off the road, parked, and we walked into a dimly lit room with a short coffee bar and two little round tables set off to the side with tall bar stools around them. To our "Buongiorno" we were greeted with two bright smiles—one from a man in his mid forties, the other from his young helper, a guy in his mid twenties—and an enthusiastic "Buongiorno!" both of which immediately lit up the place. These two fellas seemed to be really enjoying their job. When I think back on the scene, it seemed like we’d just walked onto a small stage set of Saturday Night Live.

We ordered two espressos and they asked us where we were from. "Siamo americani." To this the older fellow exclaimed, "Americani! Di dove? Che città?" "Sono nato in Philadelphia," I responded. My wife, having embraced Italian on this trip with untapped vigor quickly interjected "Io sono di Chicago. Al Capone." They laughed and we continued chatting in Italian. At one point the older of the two said something to my wife which she didn’t quite comprehend so she pointed out that I spoke Italian better than she did: "Mio marito parla italiano meglio che io." The man said "Di me." My wife repeated what she’d just said and again, he responded with "Di me." She turned to me with a slightly confused look on her face. To both of us it sounded as though he was putting the accent on the first syllable. In other words, we were hearing "Dime" as if it were Spanish and interpreting it to mean "Tell me." Now my wife, visibly confused responded by asking what he wanted her to tell him. "Di le che?" To this, our new teacher said, "Mio marito parla italiano meglio di me." Now we could clearly hear the accent move over to the "me" part of "di me" and all confusion immediately evaporated: he was correcting her grammar.*

During this exchange, the only other person in the room, a fellow hovering around one of the little tables with an enticing glass of white wine, said "Soprano. Morto in Roma." It took me a second before the penny dropped. Yes, Tony Soprano. We’d read two weeks before that James Gandolfini had died of a heart attack in Rome. Now the five of us were chatting away. They asked us where we were coming from and where we were going. When we said we’d just come from Monopoli and we were heading to Tropea, they all nodded approvingly saying they were two of the nicest places in southern Italy.

Though it was only a 15-minute interlude, this coffee stop was one of the best experiences of the trip. It was a distillation of everything that we love about Italy: the incredibly friendly people, the wonderful language, the great coffee at a reasonable price, and the knowledge that no matter where you went (outside of Venice and a few other extremely touristed places) you were sure to come away from any interaction feeling happily enriched.

*On a linguistic note, my wife and I found the differences between how to say "He speaks better Italian than I" in Spanish, French, and Italian a bit curious.

Spanish: Habla italiano mejor que yo.
French: Il parle italien mieux que moi.
Italian: Parla italiano meglio di me.

Spanish and English use a subject pronoun (yo / I) in the comparative adverb whereas French uses a stressed pronoun as does Italian (moi / me). Also, one would assume, though erroneously, that Italian would follow the pattern one sees in Spanish and French: the use of que. After all, though it is spelled differently, the same word exists in Italian (che). In fact, the break in the pattern is so unconvincing that when I ran into my Italian teacher at the store here in Menton I had to ask if this wasn’t perhaps a regionalism. It’s not.

Monopoli: Adriatic Jewel of Italy’s South

Sweep shot of inner harbor
One street in it’s beautiful

Monopoli was the town we chose to stay in while visiting Puglia; however, it was not because Bari didn’t seem interesting or centrally located: it was both. Rather, the lodging I’d found in Monopoli—40 kilometers down the coast—looked comfortable and it was equipped with a kitchenette. Moreover, the town itself appeared to have plenty of charm, at least from the photos I’d seen.

Just before Angelo helped us

The newer parts of Monopoli are a vast sea of banal looking concrete apartment buildings latticed by streets with no stop signs. Negotiating our way through all this without getting in an accident was a monotonous chore. I later learned that Monopoli has a population of over 50 thousand. It seemed even bigger. The old town, however, is comparatively small and easily explored by foot. The old limestone buildings and stone streets beckon you inside the labyrinth which I was stupidly seduced into doing with the car. Just beyond the archway depicted in the photo I saw a local shaking his head at me in an unflattering way. Angelo was a nice guy, however, and kindly took the wheel in order to get us and the car out of there without causing any damage. Later, on foot, we checked out the frescoes in the archway but we couldn’t tell what they were: Ex-votos? Byzantine iconography? A memorial for accident victims (surely not by car)?

Monopoli’s beach

HelloApulia set us up in a place next to the old fort and close to the town’s little beach. We went swimming there twice and it was wonderfully refreshing, but seeing kayakers made us long for home so we could begin to enjoy picnics at sea in Menton. Speaking of picnics, our first morning in Monopoli we decided to hit the market to avoid restaurant food for a few meals. We bought a a small bag of cherries, a melon, some basil, two onions, a kilo of tomatoes, and two cucumbers for under 5 euros. Nice! At the cheese store around the corner, we bought two large boules of bufala mozzarella and two small boules of smoked mozz all for 7 euros. Very nice indeed! Finally, the wine was laughably cheap yet still good.

The campanile of Maria
Santissima della Madia

Would I visit Monopoli again? Definitely. Not only is it a cute town with plenty of cafes and restaurants ringing a lovely plaza, it is centrally located with respect to Alberobello, Bari, and all the points further down on the heel including Brindisi and Lecce. We didn’t get to visit all these places as we chose to hang out in Monopoli, but for the short amount of time we had and not wanting to be driving all the time, I think we made a wise choice.

Bari: Just a Ferry Terminal?

Plaza in the old quarter

Bari is located at the back of the heel on the boot of Italy. Because of its location, Bari, along with Brindisi, is for many travelers little more than a jumping off point for heading to Greece. Yes, it’s southern Italy, the deep south, and thus it’s assumed that nobody actually goes there for its own sake. It’s basically a ferry terminal and that’s it. However, when planning our trip around the Adriatic, I did some reading, checked out some photos, and became intrigued.

Bari’s fishing fleet

The overnight ferry from Dubrovnik was ten hours on a huge ship with a capacity of 1000 passengers and dozens and dozens of cars. It’s really the only way to and from Italy’s southern Adriatic coast—I checked out flights and there were none, at least from Croatia. Amazingly, we were two of maybe 30 people and perhaps 6 cars and a truck. Jadrolinija, must be hemorrhaging money. We arrived in Bari around 8:30 and though our rental pick up wasn’t until 10:00, rather than lugging backpacks around town while we explored the city, I opted to get the car first. The hike from the ferry terminal to Hertz was longer than expected and by the time the paperwork was filled out it was nearly 10:00.

Unusual pedestal at
Basilica San Nicola

We were already a bit hungry by the time we pulled away from Hertz and we’d planned to have lunch in Alberobello, about an hour’s drive away. Nevertheless, we drove back towards the old city of Bari to check it out. Many old towns along the Adriatic—indeed, all over Europe—have an old part which lies within the city walls and a new part that appears to have spread out from the ancient perimeter like a cold, that is to say with no sense of taste. By the drab concrete look of them, these parts all appear to have sprung up after World War II. In any case, the old cities are largely comprised of  buildings made of limestone and streets paved with stone of the same material. The look is solid, sometimes sculpted, and always a lovely creamy hue. For as large as some of these cities are now, what lies within the city walls is always surprisingly small and thus wonderful to explore on foot.

Facendo la pasta
La nonna facendo la pasta

Though our time in Bari was short, I’m very happy we didn’t let our stomachs dictate the itinerary and have us leave without taking a peak. These old towns are full of interesting nooks and crannies and no small bit of mystery. In the little plaza fronting the Basilica San Nicola was a plaque in Italian with a Russian translation. What did this mean? Surely the Basilica wasn’t Russian Orthodox. And the pedestal shown in the picture above is extremely unusual. The ox symbolizing Luke? And the nonna (grandmother) making orecchetti (little ears) pasta was happy to let us snap off this picture and answer a question: no egg. In short, the old part of town is beautiful and I could see spending a couple days checking it out. Unfortunately, that was the amount of time we had allotted for all of Puglia. I’ve come to call these quick visits "scouting expeditions." In other words we get to know whether a place is worthy of another, longer visit. Bari, and certainly Puglia, pass the test.

An Unconventional Way to Learn Spanish

My first experience with a second language occurred when I was five years old. It was 1965 and my father had been selected to be a Regional Peace Corps Director in northern Columbia. That summer our family moved to Barranquilla, where we would be living for the next two years. Because a young child’s brain is more adept at language acquisition, I began picking up Spanish immediately. Soon my parents were asking me to interpret for them and I remember finding this extremely annoying. Continue reading

Employing Spanish to Learn Italian

Upon moving to France, I started studying Italian at the AVF in Hyères. When we moved to Menton, I picked it up again at Menton Plus, our local community center. Classes typically meet once a week for an hour and a half. It’s not much, but the class in Hyères got me started and the one in Menton helped maintain what I’d learned. In between, I was fortunate enough to do a three-week intensive at the Instituto Michelangelo in Florence. The progress I made was considerable, but to be fair, the total number of hours in Florence was equal to a whole year in Hyères or Menton. Continue reading

Water-Powered Paper Mill

We’d been wanting to visit the Perigord since moving to France five years ago so last summer we rented a flat just outside of Sarlat in order to have a look around. One of the things we did was visit an old paper mill, the Moulin de la Rouzique. From what I gathered, the raw material for the mill initially came from rags and clothing made from American cotton; however, the interruption in the cotton trade brought about by the American Civil War forced this mill and others like it to switch to hemp. Continue reading

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