Friday, May 27, 2022

Croatian Roadtrip Beginnings

 Croatians drive on the right side of the road (literally, and figuratively, if you're American), and they have impeccable roads, so no real concerns with the remainder of our trip requiring me to drive from top to bottom of the country.  We picked up our rental car - a small Opel SUV/crossover - and headed for the national park.  

A missed direction trying to leave Zagreb was our only navigational issue, and with little traffic and little construction it was a nice drive to Hotel Jezero.  Since our hotel is one of only a handful inside the park, we had few options for food - but with a car we could easily cruise around to find what few, small restaurants were nearby.  After lunch we returned to the hotel, I bought my park entrance ticket and headed out for a quick hike (my aunt decided to stay and read a book since she was a bit stiff from all the walking the day before).  Photos do not do this park justice, it's a place you have to see for yourself.  I took the trail that led to Veliki Slap ("slap" means waterfall, so I'm assuming Veliki means "big" since this was the "Big Waterfall"), the tallest waterfall in Croatia.  It was a very warm afternoon, but the path was partly shaded in most places and the water in the lakes past which I was hiking was an incredibly shade of blue.

After my return and a shower, we took a short walk near the hotel and then had some coffee (decaf, of course) and dessert on the terrace to round out our day.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Zagreb Day 2

 Jetlag last night made it difficult to fall asleep, despite being tired, so we started the day a bit earlier than usual largely due to the need for coffee (our room had no such amenities).  With some caffeine and food in our system we were ready to explore Zagreb.  Our first stop was the Nikola Tesla Technical Museum, which only bears his name, which we found out once inside.  Although disappointed at this turn of events, it was still a fascinating visit.  It was a technology museum, so it focused scientific and technical appliances used in Croatia's history; showcasing planes, bikes, boats, trains, engines, turbines, even fire fighting equipment.  

The real planes, helicopters, bikes, and boats were neat, but I most enjoyed the exhibit they had on Tesla himself (he is the museum's namesake, after all).  He was a fascinating man and the glimpse into the contrast between him and Edison made me realize I need a better grasp of these two men who changed the course of history.  A book explaining the ramifications for Edison's direct current electricity vs. Tesla's alternating current electricity and why DC beat out AC at that point in time.  *If anyone knows of such a book, please let me know in the comments!

Our next destination was Zagreb's cathedral (formerly known as St. Stephen’s Cathedral)and its stunning neo-Gothic architecture.  It's the country's largest Catholic cathedral, and was only partially hidden behind the scaffolding used to fix damage from weathering and the earthquakes that have damaged the façade.  The church has dominated Kaptol Square since the 11th century, not the original, mind you, since invasions, fire, and earthquakes have all had their way with the edifice over time.  We were unable to go inside, but we did get to see the clock from 1880.  The time always reads 7:03, the exact time when the "The Great Zagreb earthquake" struck.

Onwards towards Dolac's iconic red parasol-ed farmers market!  We snagged some pastries (not as enticing as a French pastry, if I'm being honest) and stopped at a café for another shot of coffee with a view of the beautiful fruits being sold.  It was after 1pm, so many of the stands had already emptied and removed their umbrellas, but we still got the essence of the place.  A brief stop at the kumica monument to the village women who have sold their products on Dolac for hundreds of years and then it was on to Ban Jelačić Square.

Dolac Market

Ban Jelačić Square

"Ban" means governor, and Ban Jelačić Square is the main city square - its size alone gives that impression.  From there we walked to Nikola Zrinski Square which had large trees, Zagreb's first fountain and lots of park benches for resting (which we did).  It is adjacent to two other squares/parks (in a long strip) and they are lined with stunning landmark buildings (on both sides of the street).

King Tomislav Square, with his statue proudly presiding over the square, was the last in the lineup.  Opposite his statue is the beautiful Art Pavilion, built for the 1896 Exhibition.  Surrounding the statue are signage explaining the history of the monument.  Tomislav is considered to be the first king of Croatia, somewhere around year 925 (historians debate the year), and although little is known of his reign, the invasion of Hungarians was stopped and there was a unification of different regions of the country during his time. "The celebration of the thousand years of the existence of the kingdom of Croatia took place in 1925.  its goal was to strengthen the national consciousness and to develop the Croatian national identity...During 1925 there were numerous cultural and artistic events."  In 1927 they dedicated the square in his name, and his monument (much political disputing delayed its erection) was finally placed in the its current location in October 1947.

The stunning Hotel Esplanade was our next stop and it was built in 1925 to lodge passengers traveling the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul.  It retains its Art Noveau architecture (inside and out), very glamorous, and I'm not only referring to the architecture.  Their list of A-List guests over the years includes Charles Lindberg, Alfonso XIII (King of Spain), Vladimir Gajdarov, and even Jane Seymour, and Omar Sharif.  During WWII the Gestapo and the Wehrmacht turned it into their headquarters, but you wouldn't know that today.  We found a small café on the grounds in front of the hotel and sat by their fountain to enjoy a cold beverage and people watch.  We so enjoyed the atmosphere that we probably sat there for two hours; they don't care how long you stay at restaurants and cafés here, it's refreshing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

A Long Awaited Adventure

Our arrival into Zagreb was uneventful, for which I'm always grateful.  We got an Uber ride from the airport to Hotel Laguna, our very friendly driver  gave us some good recommendations for our visit as well.  We were able to check into our room early so we managed a nap before heading out to do some exploring.  We knew nothing about the city and had no desination in mind, so we wandered and looked for some dinner.  In the end we ate at Pizzeria Karijola, located across the street from our hotel, but highly recommended by the Uber driver (he was correct, the pizza was fantastic).

Our first full day (May 25th) started with an unimpressive hotel breakfast we caught an Uber to Upper Old Town.  We'd learned the night before that we were well "below" the Old Town (tourist attractions) of Zagreb, so an Uber to the farthest destination and walking back was the outline for the day.  Our driver dropped us off a "Trg Sv. Marka" to visit St. Mark's Catholic Church.  It is one of the city's oldest architectural monuments (13th century I believe), and the iconic roof tiles show the medieval coat of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia on the left side, and the emblem of Zagreb on the right.  

Due to the earthquakes in Croatia a few years ago, many of the churches and historic buildings, which often house museums,  are closed to the public due to the ongoing renovations.  The Klovićevi Dvori Art Gallery shows both Croatian and international art, and since it was open we decided to visit.  Here we were introduced to the country's renowned artist Vlaho Bukovac.  The "Roots and Wings" exhibit was a highlight, he was a phenomenal portrait artist; paintings to lovely and clear they almost looked like photos!  

After spending the morning in the gallery we wandered back into the streets and past the Stone Gate (their only preserved city gate from the Middle Ages) which has since become known for the chapel there to "Our Lady of the Stone Gate, Protectress of the City of Zagreb".  A fire in 1739 spared a painting of the Virgin Mary so it is a place of worship for all devout Croatian Catholics now.  From there we headed down to the Lower Old Town and had lunch in Petra Preradovića Square.  We enjoyed being off our feet for a bit and with an outdoor table we had a prime spot for people-watching.  

At our stop next to the Nikola Tesla Monument we met a lovely couple from Sri Lanka (now Aussies) and had a lovely chat about our respective visits to Croatia, American politics, and travel safety to name a few.  Unbeknownst to us before arriving, Tesla was born and raised in Croatia (although it was Yugoslavia at the time), and as such they have capitalized on his identity.

Our last stop for the day was the Botanical Gardens which opened in 1891.  Professor Antun Heinz of the University of Zagreb founded it and it is still mainly a scientific institution.  Home to about 10,000 species of plants, 14 greenhouses, and many sub-gardens in various styles, it was quite impressive.  We enjoyed the shade and bench by the duck pond (it was unseasonable warm) and then enjoyed the incredibly variety of flowers while meandering back through to the entrance/exit.

To round out the day I taught my Aunt my lazy-travel-dinner secret (Australian tuna flavors, I miss you) of flavored tuna and crackers.  Purchased at a little convenience store and enjoyed at a small park near our hotel, it "hit the spot" as they say.

Monday, May 23, 2022

The Grand Balkan (That Wasn't To Be)

Since I've now heard a few times, in person and through the grapevine, about how my blogposts were missed I will attempt to give some glimpses into my trip.  Traveling on your own certainly affords more "downtime" to blog, but when you have a traveling companion the concentrated time required seems a bit rude.

When I booked our Grand Balkan adventure in October of 2019 I was anticipating getting 4 passport stamps and visiting an area of the world of which I knew very little.  Touted as a "13-day odyssey through Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia" that would give us a look at the region's most impressive sights, it sounded perfect. One of the things I enjoy about Group Tours is that the tour guides are a wealth of information - from culture, to history, to personal stories and experiences, they are a huge asset when visiting another country (if you came to learn, that is).  As many of you know, the pandemic was blamed time-and-again for the cancelation of our tour.  They would postpone and I would buy another set of plane tickets, then they would do it again.  I have refused to add up all the money I have spent on a tour that never materialized, it would have been far too depressing.  When they cancelled again in March of 2022, my aunt and I had both decided we were done.  They continued to refuse to return our money and they would only offer travel vouchers, but since our plane tickets were still valid we were stuck.  When I saw that they had a self-driving tour of Croatia (only Croatia, not the Balkans), we concurred that this was our best option at this stage of their little game.  We had to pay more money, which was nearly unthinkable, but we felt desparate to get out of their clutches so we did it anyway and had them book our rental car and hotels for us.  

After many delays and email exchanges we finally got all of our vouchers with less than a week before our departure (can you tell how incredibly disgusted I was with them by this point?).  It was then that I realized the company with which I'd booked our tour is more of a travel broker.  The vouchers were from a completely different company (in Slovenia), so the tour wasn't their tour, hence they had no control over whether it operated or not!  But enough about our travel woes, we had a plan and we were packed and ready on May 23rd for whatever the trip might bring.  The bright spot was that the week before our trip Croatia decided to waive all Covid Restrictions!  No testing or vaccincations required, no masks, just live your life.  Since we transited through Germany there were Covid restrictions on the journey to and from (the U.S. didn't remove their testing-to-return requirements until the week after we returned), but once there it was smooth sailing.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

One Happy Island

 The Aruba Health App (where you can get your test results back) didn't have a notification when I woke up Sunday morning, but I decided to log in and check anyway.  To my delight, our results were in and they were negative; we were "free to move about the cabin", or in our case, the outside world.  The email confirming our negative status was sent at 1:06am so that was a pretty good turnaround.  We putzed around for a bit and then decided a trip to the grocery store should be prioritized because although I had brought coffee with us, we didn't have any milk.  As it was Sunday, we weren't sure what would be open, but we found a small shop down the road from us.  Back at the apartment with coffee in hand we headed for the water.  

It was a 5-6min walk down the road to get to the water, but I wouldn't call it a beach.  Malmok 'Beach' is more of a rocky ledge of limestone and coral along the coast.  A nice place to snorkel (the Antilla Shipwreck is off-shore and visible because of the clear water) and swim according to the visitor guide, but definitely not made for sunbathing.  Despite only being 10am it was hot, so we sat under a palapa (little thatched umbrellas) and chatted while watching the little lizards (some of which are bright blue) scuttle around and reveling in the salt air and blue vistas before us.

Back at the apartment we live-streamed my pastor's sermon and then had some lunch.  Our third travel-mate was soon to be arriving, so we decided to hang out at the pool for a spell while we waited.  She had a vastly different experience at the airport (no lines it seems).  Plus she'd been able to get her PCR test before leaving the U.S., because of her line of work, so she ended up having to wait for us -- the directions on my phone to get to the airport were not the reverse of the route we'd taken the day before, so that slowed us down as I don't trust myself with directions.

We quickly collected her from Queen Beatrix Airport and went in search of coffee (she drinks coffee like I drink water).  Our first two attempts resulted in business that were closed so we headed towards the Cruise Terminal hoping the tides would turn.  We did find the "I 'heart'Aruba" sign and a stand selling empanadas.  Not knowing if our issues with closed stores was due to a Sunday or the pandemic we decided to just head back to the apartment when she spied an open coffee shop - point for us.  After showing us our little home for the week we quickly decided that we should do a sunset sail and we should do it tonight (the biggest discounts are on Sunday).  We booked and paid online, got dressed and headed out.  While standing on shore waiting to get on the boat we read a sign that said there was a rope swing on this cruise - which explained why everyone else was wearing swimsuits!

The boat was nice enough and the crew was entertaining.  We sailed south towards Eagle Beach and they put down the anchor so we could use the rope swing.  The youngest really wanted to go in and I wasn't opposed.  As our Grandmother had taught us: if you don't have a swimsuit, don't let that stop you, clothing dries!  I'm not a fan of heights but the swing wasn't that high off the water and the water was amazing.  We even did some tandem swings, which turned out rather comically.  The sunset on the way back to dock was just lovely and we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

The sun actually sets rather early here, so since two of us were already wet we figured some time in the pool was the perfect ending to our day.  Add some Domino's pizza delivery, eaten while in the pool, and a warm Aruba night - vacation perfection!

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Pandemic Travels

 As the world continued to reel from the effects of COVID-19 it became clear, in late April, that my trip (scheduled to depart at the end of May) to the Balkans was not going to happen.  I was incredibly disappointed that my long awaited trip to Croatia would not materialize and yet relieved that the decision on if I should still go was out of my hands.  With that trip post-poned to 2021, and vacation time to use, I scrambled to find a pandemic-friendly alternative.  Flights to Aruba were relatively cheap and who doesn't love a week at the beach?  But oh, what a roller-coaster just to get here.  Our first set of flights, on Spirit Airlines, were cancelled so we had to try to get our money back; the the rules about open/closed borders seemed to change week-by-week.  The accommodations I had booked were non-refundable so we decided to take our changes and book another set of flights.  Blessedly, my cousin did some research and found out that we had to get COVID tests prior to our arrival (I was just planning on showing up, we had a place to stay, what more did we need?).

We had our plans in place and about a week before we were to leave I decided I'd better read up on this Covid testing process and I realized our plan was fatally flawed.  Aruba was only accepting 1 type of test, the PCR test. In our area getting a PCR test is not that easy and even if you get one the results take 5-7 days.  Aruba was requiring you to be tested and upload your results within 72 hours of your arrival in their country.  If you do not do this you have to pay them $75 and they will test you at the airport.  You then have to go straight to your hotel and quarentine in your room until you get the results.  We were going to pay $90 here in the U.S. for a Rapid Test, but further digging revealed that it wouldn't be a PCR test, and therefore would not qualify...  

Well, it took a really long time to get out of the airport.  They were only allowing small groups into Customs & Immigration (despite the customs area being designed to handle large crowds), but I eventually managed to get my 2020 passport stamp and we headed off to baggage claim.  Another long line to get everyone through the bag X-ray and then on to the medical screening.  Once there the test was quite fast (since we'd paid already) - fast, but not comfortable at all.  A throat swab and a nasal swab, a little packet of face masks and they sent us to our apartment to await our results.

Bananas Apartments was landscaped to perfection and the Dutch caretakers were lovely - pandemic perk: we had the entire place to ourselves!  Our flight had left very early in the morning, so we were exhausted by the time we arrived.  Thanks to an hour spent in the pool we managed to stay up until 9pm.  I was keeping my fingers crossed that our test results would be in overnight and we could pick up our third member at the airport the next day with a clear conscience....

Thursday, December 12, 2019


How could one do such a remarkable woman justice in a few short minutes?  An entire lifetime of memories, and boy are we blessed to have so many wonderful memories with her.

How many of us grandkids can finish this chorus thanks to Grandma?  Skidda merrinky dinky dink…….  And I’m sure many of us can also say that we had our first sip of coffee at her house too; she loved having us spend the night.  She could never babysit just one grandchild, if she had to babysit one she would immediately drive to another one of her children’s homes and picked up their kids as well.  She was definitely onto something with that, she never truly had to babysit as we’d all entertain each other.  Sometimes she’d take us all to the pond, but we never seemed to have swimsuits (as half of us had been picked up spontaneously).  Not that Grandma minded, she’d always tell us, “You don’t need a swimsuit, just swim in your underwear!”  I don’t recall how our mother’s felt about that (or perhaps they didn’t know), but there are incriminating photos to prove that many of us did just that.

Most people have memories of their grandmother’s cooking, but by the time we all came along she’d already spent 20+ years in the kitchen.  I don’t think I ever saw her bake, ever.  But she always had a cabinet stocked with Chips Ahoy or Oreos and she would pull them out with a smile and joke that they were fresh from the oven.  Ramen Noodles, one would hardly call that cooking, but just the smell of them and I’m transported back to her sun-room, sitting around the lunch table with my cousins, slurping from a steaming bowl.  She would always cut and peel apples for our lunch as well, and one time she peeled a potato and snuck it onto the plate.  Seth and Zach were fighting over the last piece, and I believe Seth won the battle, but Zach and Grandma had the last laugh.  Since we’re on the subject of food and her jokes, here’s one she told a few times: “How do you turn anything into a vegetable?”  “Throw it up in the air, and voila, squash.”

When I think back, it’s a small wonder that none of us girls work in retail-sales considering the countless hours we spent in her basement buying and selling Shaklee products and playing “store”.  Speaking of Shaklee, we all have strong bones and teeth because she would always let us eat the protein bars off the shelf – to us they might as well have been candy bars.

How many of you remember the year she bought Christmas gifts, wrapped them all up and then put the name tags on them?  Inevitably many of the tags were mixed up and some of the boys received baby dolls and the girls received toy cars.  I distinctly remember receiving a baby’s playmat, so that had to have been Zachs.  After that she started taking us all to see Disney on Ice as our Christmas present.  I can’t say for sure how many years we went, but they were certainly a highlight and the memories lasted far longer than any toy ever could; she was ahead of her time in that way.
Even in her later years, she never lost her sense of humor or her mischief.  I know we can all remember a time when we weren’t entirely sure she was following the conversation, or even paying attention, and then she’d turn to you and give you some snappy remark.  If you ever had the pleasure of escorting her to Bingo, you surely heard this reply when asking her where she’d like to sit, “On my bottom of course!”  Speaking of Sunnyview, none of the single employees were safe when Barb was around.  Some of us grandchildren were very well aware of Grandma’s matchmaking attempts, others perhaps not so much.   The grandsons were easy targets as most of the employees are female, but she was an equal opportunity matchmaker. On more than one occasion she embarrassed me by asking me to push her down the hall so she could find someone, and low and behold, she was trying to introduce me to another one of her physical therapists! The worst was when the poor guy had to kindly explain that a match just wasn’t possible as he was already engaged.  These sorts of incidents never perturbed her…  Another one of the therapists moved away before I got a chance to meet him in person and I’m not sure she ever forgave me for not making more of an effort. 

Grandma was a gem and will surely be missed.  She always told me that “home is where you go when there’s no place else to go” and now she’s truly home.  She was ready to go, and we were never going to be ready...