Hotel Crashing: Le Meridien Lav Split

I’m pretty fond of French fries. So you’d think I’d be excited about finding a French fry in our very fancy room at Le Meridien Lav Split.

A singular French fry on the floor in the sitting room of our allegedly recently clean, certainly recently entered room.

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It became our mascot. Whenever we would leave the room and reenter, I would immediately check to see if it was still there.

To be fair, the French fry was eventually removed. I was kinda sad about that.

I don’t mind saying….I did not like Le Meridien. It was outdated and desperately in need of an upgrade. It had a very 80s vibe.

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That would be a towel on the floor of a common area. It was there to soak up a leaky door.
That would be a towel on the floor of a common area. It was there to soak up a leaky door.

The layout was disjointed, weird and completely counterintuitive. For example, we couldn’t really find a hotel bar in which to enjoy a sunset drink. There was a large open bar right off the lobby with no separation whatsoever. We almost stopped there one night for a drink, but quickly abandoned that idea when we got an earful of the evening’s talent: an old man playing a saxophone along to a CD accompaniment.

I will say: the female staff at Le Meridien were all incredibly hot. Not at all helpful, but very attractive. So….there’s that.

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Just to give an example: They had these glass cases displaying a special Le Meridien beach bag. It was pretty cute, featured some art work by a Croatian artist and some of the proceeds went to a local charity. We asked at the reception desk if we could see one, and how we could go about purchasing one, if they still had the design I wanted. Confusion descended. Many consultations and phone calls later, just as I was losing my interest, I was told to go down to the spa and purchase the bag there.

By the way, the spa desk area, was about a million miles away and had turnstiles. Not sure why, but it had entry gates similar to the metro entry system. So, so odd.

I guess the Meridien name has some major currency because the place was packed with vacationing families. This became especially apparent in the chaos that was the pool area. It was very packed and not so relaxing.

It was a very beautiful pool and beach, with gorgeous views.
It was a very beautiful pool and beach, with gorgeous views.

Honestly, it was a bunch of little things with Le Meridien Split – the room with an ocean view did have a slight ocean view, visible just past the lovely industrial rooftops of the commercial strip where a lot of the restaurants, yacht and dive shops, and ice cream shops were.  Or the fact that the advertised shuttle service was inconveniently out of service during the entirety of our stay. Or the free wifi that would not accept our login and password, requiring a couple of calls to the front desk and more confusion.

But, I must say, Le Meridien is the first hotel I can remember staying in that gives you a free French fry as an amenity.

Our balcony view
Our balcony view
The other side of our balcony view
The other side of our balcony view
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Croatian Dermabrasion: The Ancient and Improved Split

Every time I hear the word “laser,” I think of Austin Powers and Dr. Evil’s “frickin’ sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads.”

Which is kind of how I now imagine Split got its recent laser makeover – sharks with laser beams trained in the fine arts of architectural preservation.

shark lasers

I’m obviously completely incorrect. According to The Art Newspaper:

Conservators in Croatia have completed a ten-year project to remove more than 1,700 years of grime from the courtyard of the palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (AD244-311), in the coastal city of Split. Lasers were used as the primary method to clean the peristyle of the fourth-century imperial residence—an innovative technique that is normally reserved for cleaning individual sculptures or details of larger architectural elements, as opposed to whole structures. According to the architect Goran Niksic, who works for the city, this is the first time lasers have been used on this scale in Croatia to clean stone.

Pretty cool stuff. Science, man.

And those poor conservationists. Can you just imagine? I get impatient just brushing my teeth for the full recommended two minutes with my electric toothbrush.

Anyway, I don’t really know what Split looked like before, but it was pretty dang nice when we went. Which was a bit of a surprise. A couple we met in Dubrovnik had told us Split was no big deal. They said it was like any other big tourist city and not very charming.

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I’m not sure what part of Split they went to, because we were totally mesmerized.

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Split is famous for being built around the Diocletian Palace. Diocletian was a Roman Emperor who built a retirement home in Split. Just the fact that a Roman Emperor was retiring is pretty unusual. There wasn’t a whole lot of job security or retirement options for Roman Emperors, what with all the back stabbing (often, literally) and scheming of family members and wives and whatnot.

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We walked around the palace/city in the early evening, just as the sun was setting and casting a golden glow on the stone walls. The city is a mishmash of architectural styles, representing the influence of all the various conquerors who occupied the city at various points in its history – Gothic arches from the Venetians, heavy Empire columns from the Napoleonic era, French Baroque, Romanesque, it’s all there.

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We had dinner at an outdoor café in one of the many, many squares, with street performer/fire eaters entertaining crowds nearby. After eating mostly fish for the majority of our trip, we both had cheesy, baked lasagna after seeing the dish at another table. We sat full and content just watching the world go by and finishing our wine.

our restaurant is on the right with the red awning.
our restaurant is on the right with the red awning.

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After dinner we walked around a bit more, stumbling upon another square with steps all around. People were sitting on cushions listening to some musicians playing a Coldplay cover in the shadows of the ancient columns and a sliver of a moon. Better than any nightclub.

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To full for any ice cream (this was a common and regrettable occurrence), we meandered through one portico after another, each corner tucked away with a tiny out-of-the-way restaurant or bar until we finally reached the Riva, where we grabbed a taxi back to our hotel on the outskirts of town.

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With or without a face lift, Split is a lovely lady of a town.

Hvar: Island of Hvarguments and Hvangovers (Part II)

(To read the gripping first part, click here.) 

We awoke the next sunny day, admitted how stupid the fight was, and moved on. We had big plans that involved laying in a cabana on a private beach club on a tiny uninhabited island. Carpe Diem not only has the most thumping open-air dance club in the Hvar harbor, they’ve also co-opted a small island nearby and turned it into a daytime beach club where one can rent loungers or cabanas and eat and drink all day while a DJ spins music.

We sent an email to reserve our cabana ages ago (a serious bargain at only $40 for the whole day) and received instructions on which water taxi to take and who to find once we reached Carpe Diem island.

Our view of Carpe Diem beach from our cabana.
Our view of Carpe Diem beach from our cabana.

What they did not communicate to us, however, was the fact that (a) although this is a beach club, there will be no towels in your cabana and, therefore, you needed to bring your own, and (b) they only accepted cash. Oh, and obviously, there was no ATM.

We packed a bag with books, sunscreen, cameras, and hats. We paused in our packing to query as to whether we needed towels. Me, ever the pragmatist, said, “No, that’s silly, of course there will be towels. Surely they wouldn’t let us pay for one of their top-line cabanas at a remote beach club and not have a couple of towels sculpted into towel swans awaiting us. Pshaw. What kind of beach club wouldn’t have towels?”

No towels, but pretty amazing views.
No towels, but pretty amazing views.

(In hindsight, I agree, that was quite silly of me to go to a beach with no towel, but in my defense, IT WAS A BEACH CLUB!!)

There were no towel swans. Nor were there any credit card machines. Which meant one of us—poor XFE graciously volunteered and I put up a mildly pitiful counter-offer—had to make the 20-minute trip back by water taxi and procure the essentials, then make the 20-minute return trip to Carpe Diem island. Which just freaking sucked. To put it mildly.

One of the water taxi drivers. XFE became quite chummy with these guys on his multiple trips.
One of the water taxi drivers. XFE became quite chummy with these guys on his multiple trips.

However, it was also during his multiple boat rides that XFE found out that the last water taxi from the island was at 7 pm. Again, something that was not conveyed to us in the numerous email exchanges. Kinda important information to know, since I had no desire to be abandoned on a scary remote island.

So, when XFE got back from his stupid excursions-in-bad-club-director communications, we proceeded to drink lots, and lots, and lots of lovely cold drinks, which led to a very jolly time all around. We read and sunbathed and participated in our favorite vacation activity: people watching. We tried again to dip our toes in the Adriatic (yep, still too cold for me). We had salads and a bottle of rose for lunch, then retired back in our cabana and drank more caipiroskas which are like caipirinhas but with vodka, and infinitely easier to pronounce.

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This was our cabana concierge. He got a little tired about halfway through the day and took a nap.

We finally made our way back to the water taxi and Hvar Town, and decided to check out the beaches in town. A short, 10-minute walk from the harbor brought us to Hula Hula, a very popular outdoor beach club in Hvar.

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Since the sun was slowly setting, we decided to hang out for a bit and found a small bench near a group of guys. Turns out we had stumbled into the private party areas, sorta of like the private bottle-service booths you see in Vegas. But no one kicked us out, so we just kept sipping our drinks and bopping along to the music while avoiding eye contact with our unwitting hosts.

Absolutely we're supposed to be creeping over here by the bottle service tables.
Absolutely we’re supposed to be creeping over here by the bottle service tables.

And that’s when it turned a bit into a scene straight out of a rap video. The wait staff kept bringing the various private bottle-service parties (VPBSPs) bottle after bottle of pink champagne, which the VPBSPs then proceeded to shake up and spray at each other in what can only be described at pink champagne fights.

Hula_Hula

Each group would try to spray their champagne the farthest, douse the most people, and shoot the most bottles. At one point, I saw a guy in Gucci sunglasses and a popped collar shaking and shooting two bottles at the same time! And the wait staff just kept on bringing them more. We couldn’t believe it. It was insane.

It was also, clearly, time for us to go. Drenched in pink champagne and just a wee bit tipsy, we made our way back to our hotel, for pizza and French fries and bed.

The next morning we woke up ready to drive to Split. Now, the most direct route would be to catch the car ferry at Stari Grad, which is only a few minutes from Hvar Town. That ferry goes directly to Split. But we had had such a great time at our little lazy beach the day before we decided to drive back to the Sucuraj-Drvenik ferry so we could check out some of Hvar’s other, undiscovered beach areas.

Lot's o'beaches.
Lot’s o’beaches.

Sunscreen applied and beach plan in hand, we liberated a few hotel towels, and got on the road just after 10 a.m. or so. About 45 minutes later, we ran into a road block with a lone construction worker leaning against a plastic orange temporary barrier. You see, that new asphalt we had so enjoyed the first day we drove through Hvar has to be laid at some point. And that point would be between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Daily. And, of course, there is no alternate road or route through the island. No more beaches for us that day.

When this information finally sunk in, we quickly backtracked to Stari Grad, disappointed and furious that no one had told us about the daily road closure. We drove up to the car ferry terminal just in time to be the first people to be refused entry on the already full 11:30 ferry that was just pulling out. We could be first in line for the next ferry at 2 p.m. Oh. Goody.

Please come back, Mr. Ferry Driver. Soon.
Please come back, Mr. Ferry Driver. Soon.

The ferry terminal at Stari Grad is not….let’s see…how would I put this? Glamorous? It’s not sketchy or anything (believe me…I’ve spent more than a fair amount of time in some bus terminals that should have been condemned), but it’s not very exciting either. Nor should it be. I mean, it’s where trapped people are killing time, waiting for their escape, ie: the next ferry. It’s not a destination hot spot.

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They have a couple of big box-type stores with very sad looking merchandise in them (cheap children’s toys and plastic shoes, primarily). There were, of course, several take-away ice cream shops, including one that did not have any plastic spoons, something that I would think would be an important feature for a take-away ice cream shop. Instead, she gave us metal spoons that we could borrow and bring back after eating our ice cream.

Honestly, if it had been me and I had run out of plastic spoons, I probably would have just closed up for the day, or just let people keep the metal spoons and closed when I ran out. Sorry, boss. I’m not doing dishes for 10 kuna ($1.76) scoops of ice cream.

There was also a pub-type place where we sat glumly and had large beers and hot dogs. Well, I had a hot dog. XFE had a despondent little burger. Quite a difference from our lovely fresh salads and rose of the day before, let me tell you.

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By the time our ferry had come, we were quite ready to shake off the Hvar Blues and get into the Split Spirits. The ferry ride was much longer and more boring than our previous short jaunt from Drvenik. There were also lots more rambunctious children on this ferry, or so it seemed to our Pity Party of Two.

Something had to be done to get us back into our cheerful vacation mood.

We were in luck. As we pulled into the Split harbor, a young man came slowly strolling through the cabin of ferry, spraying Ax Body Spray all over himself as he walked. It was seriously, just “psssst pssst pssssstttttttttttttttttt” as he walked through a crowded, enclosed cabin. Even children sitting nearby wrinkled their noses and fanned the air in front of their noses.

ax

Someone had serious plans for the afternoon and he needed to be FRESH.

XFE and I busted out laughing and like that, the mood was alleviated. We began making jokes about what the most popular Ax Body Spray scent might be in Croatia. Would it be Carpe Diem Party Musk? What about Hvar Lavender Slate? Maybe Split Sexiness?

Here’s the thing about vacations: you don’t want to waste a whole precious day with mundane things like getting from point A to point B. You’ve only got so many days and you want each one of them to be full of wonder, or relaxation, or special memories; and things like logistics and boat schedules and road crews and credit card machines just put dents in your bright, shiny holiday dreams. But they’re also a very real part of travel.

Not every day will be full of pink champagne sunsets and suntanned skin. Sometimes you’ll miss a ferry. Sometimes you’ll get a face full of Ax Body Spray (this actually is especially true in Italy, by the way).

Ice Fight

Sometimes you’ll get in a fight with your loved one over ice. ICE.

But. You’re still on vacation. And a vacation fight beats an average, ordinary at-home fight pretty much any day of the year.

Hvar: Island of Hvarguments and Hvangovers (Part I)

Lest you think our vacation to Croatia was just sun-dappled blissfulness every single second, I bring you Hvar.

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Actually, Hvar was really a nice little beach town. It was quaint, with narrow medieval streets, cute little square where throngs of young people sat in the shadow of a large church talking and eating ice cream, beautiful harbor full of ridiculous mega yachts that were close enough to give you a glimpse of how the fabulous live.

Hvar Town (not my picture, by the way)
Hvar Town (full disclosure: not my picture, by the way)

There were just a few hiccups in Hvar, and by this point we’d become quite spoiled (thanks a lot Villa Dubrovnik), so those hiccups felt like hemorrhages of pure annoyance.

There are approximately 1,000 islands in Croatia, so island hopping is a pretty easy feat. What’s not so easy is picking an island to go to. There are so, so many and they all have their reported charms. Should we go to Korcula, the reported birth place of Marco Polo? Or should we go to Vis, which was off limits to visitors for decades? Maybe we should go to Bisevo, which has a creepy yet beautiful blue cave?

In the end, we went with Hvar. It had lovely lavender fields, a twisty road running through it, and quite the cosmopolitan party scene. It was, we were told, where the rich go to play.

We took the car ferry from Drvenik (a bit north of Dubrovnik) over to Sucuraj, a tiny town on the tip of the island of Hvar. After a nice leisurely lunch in Sucuraj, we started along the twisty old road that snakes through Hvar island.

(Please notice I said, “road,” singular. There is only the one road running through the island. Sure, there are little trails shooting off from the main road, but they were largely unpaved. My point is: there is only one primary road. You can just make it out in the map below.)

hvar map

About halfway across the island, we noticed that the road got significantly smoother and there were signs of new asphalt. How nice, we thought. Capital improvement projects at work in Croatia. Hooray!

We arrived on the outskirts of Hvar Town, carefully following the directions toward the place where we were allowed to park our car. You see, because Hvar Town is pedestrian (and yacht)-only, we had to park the car at a different hotel than the one we were staying at in the center of town.

We quickly hit a traffic jam on the tiny pedestrian street that led to our parking spot. A very frantic Croatian Good Samaritan came over and loudly proclaimed (with much gesticulating) that there had been a gas spill, that there was no way to get through and that we’d have to turn around. She estimated that the road would be open again in about 4 or 5 hours.

"You cannot get through! You can't! You cannot!"
“You cannot get through! You can’t! You cannot!”

Unable to find an alternate route to the car park, we called the hotel, who directed us to a local paid parking lot. We then waited for the golf cart that would come and pick up our luggage to take it to the hotel. Just the luggage. We would have to walk. Which was fine, but just struck us as pretty funny.

The Riva Hvar Yacht Harbor Hotel was a typical European hotel in a great location. It had very sleek and modern interiors (think red lacquer and large, pixilated images of Hollywood icons), impossibly tiny rooms (we had to move ourselves and our luggage around like Tetris pieces to maneuver), and a hopping outdoor bar scene.

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They had given us one of their best rooms, which had a tiny balcony overlooking the outdoor bar and the harbor packed with luxury yachts.

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We knew that the Riva Hvar Yacht Harbor Hotel would be loud – it had an outdoor circular bar out front, for crying out loud. (That’s it below)

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We’d been forewarned and we had read (and thoroughly believed) the reviews. Hvar’s main open-air dance club, Carpe Diem, was literally two doors/patios down. So the nonstop thumping club music didn’t bother us at all. In fact, when we got there in the late afternoon, there was quite the daytime party going on at Carpe Diem, complete with bikini tops, suspenders, and country flags worn as capes or cover ups. Along with the ubiquitous Croatian naval cap.

The ubiquitous hats. I, in full disclosure, may actually have one of those striped ones there.
The ubiquitous hats. I, in full disclosure, may actually have one of those striped ones there.

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That’s Carpe Diem in that picture about three canopies over.

We had dinner reservations at one of Hvar Town’s best restaurants, Gariful, which certainly lived up to its excellent reputation.

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The waterfront location was lovely, the service was superb and our grilled fish platter for two was so good, we went out and bought our own grill basket so we could grill whole fish at home. The server did an unbelievable job deboning the various fish on the platter (amberjack, sea bass, and one more, I think). We accompanied it with a wonderful bottle of crisp Tomic Chardonnay.

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(Honestly, the lobster was overkill)

At around 10, Carpe Diem (which is next door to Gariful) started up again after a three-hour break/cleanup. We finished our dinner and were planning on making a quick stop at our hotel for an in-room pre-game drink before heading over to the club.

It is a universal truth that there comes a point in one’s vacation where one is quite touchy over the abundance – or lack thereof — of ice. Ice certainly is a very basic hotel amenity, and when your hotel converts into a bar at night, you’d certainly expect to be able to get a small bucket of ice.

Alas, the Riva Hvar Yacht Harbor Hotel was out of ice on this particular night, which led to what shall be forever known as “The Dumbest Vacation Fight in the History of the Known World,” and a cancelling of all evening festivities. Instead, we put in our earplugs and went to bed, the room vibrating around us.

Check back tomorrow for the gripping conclusion. Will either of us get any sleep? (surprisingly, yes) Will we break up after the DVFITHOTKW? (no, we did not) Will we ever find ice again? (yes) Will we ever get off the island of Hvar? (Now there’s a good question…..)

Croatia: What Goes With Oysters? Pasta Cake of Course.

Meandering around medieval cities, popping into photography museums, and lying on pebble-y beaches is all well and good. But what I really like to do on vacation is drink wine during normal business hours while my fellow cubicle dwellers are in over-air-conditioned purgatory.

So, we went to the Peljesac peninsula for a day.

One of the surprising things about Croatia is how fantastic their wines are. But honestly, it shouldn’t be, considering how similar Croatia is to Italy, and well, we all know how Italian wines have turned out.  (It’s also apparently quite good in the northern part of Croatia — Istria — according to this knowledgeable lady who was also JUST there.)

Other than some traffic in and around Dubrovnik, the drive up the peninsula was lovely. Lots of slate colored rocks pushing up into mountains and dotted with greenery and grape vines. Oh, and ocean views pretty much everywhere you looked.

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There’s only one main road going up the 40 mile peninsula, but the drive takes about 2 hours due to the terrain. We ended up going about three-fourths of the way up the peninsula, stopping at a tiny little picturesque cove of Trstenik where we watched the goats beat up against the small docks and just viewed the sleepy little town from across the cove.

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After that peaceful little time out, which involved me waiting patiently while my Ansel Adams boyfriend XFE took numerous pictures with his fancy new camera, it was time to backtrack and hit some wineries.  (Literally, the town was so still and quiet I thought it’d had been taken over by alien-ghost-zombies. I stayed close to the car, ready to leave XFE to the apocalypse, if it came down to it. Sorry, i’m not sorry. I totally would. I have a cat to raise.)

I had done a ton of research and identified about a dozen wineries that we might be able to visit, but like so much of the Peljesac peninsula, things were a bit sleepy on the informational front, meaning that many of the wineries did not have websites and those that did, did not have hours of operation. They’re very much along the lines of, “just stop by and flag someone down and they’ll give you some wine.”

Our first stop was a disappointing bust. We tried to stop at Grgich. Grgich is quite famous. Apparently the wine maker, Miljenko (Mike) Grgich came to the United States as a young man and met a very rich person who set him up with his own winery. That’s not at all what it says in his bio for his Napa Valley winery, but that’s what our waiter at lunch told us. When he found out we were from Washington D.C., he ran and got a bottle of Grgich Chardonnay and told us it was the White House white wine.

That would be the only Grgich wine we would see that day. The Grgich winery, which was in a very simple stucco building, was closed on the weekends. Which, to me, makes absolutely no sense. What winery isn’t opened on a Saturday? Isn’t that a busy day for visitors?

Vinarija Matusko in Potomje worked out a bit better, in that, at least it was open. We had a very nice young lady take us through the various wines, of which there were plenty, including Dingac, Posip (not to be confused with Prosip, which was a sweet wine),  and Plavac Mali. The Dingac was, not surprisingly considering the rocky terrain, far too mineral-ly for my taste, but we did like the Plavac Mali and ended up buying a bottle.

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The wine wench (?is that appropriate?) told us a bit about the peninsula, which apparently is as subdued as we suspected. To be frank, she said it was quite boring. And you need a car. She also taught me how to say “dog” (there was a large wine dog watching us with big bloodshot eyes nearby) in Croatian and “cheers.”

After tasting some wines, we went down the road a short bit to Vinarija Milos. This time, there were quite a few other people there for tastings, including an American family with about 4 kids. Because you know what I love to see at a winery, besides pregnant women? Loads of children.

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It was also a very homegrown operation, with the wine maker on hand pouring and his wife hand washing wine glasses just on the other side of the tasting bar. I don’t know if it was the scent of dish-washing detergent or the children, but I just wasn’t into Milos’ wines. What can I say? You win some, you lose some. I’m sure the wine was fine, but we just weren’t feeling it. Plus, it was time to go to lunch.

We were ridiculously excited about lunch. The Peljesac peninsula is known for two things: wine and oysters. Very special oysters that you can’t get anywhere else.

Right where the peninsula meets the mainland is Ston and Mali Ston.  Ston’s natural lake-like bay has been the site of mussels and oyster farms since Roman times. We even saw fishermen selling oysters by the road. The area is also known for it’s salt flats, but I wasn’t interested in salt so much, unless it was sprinkled on some oysters.

We had lunch reservations at Bota Sare in Mali Ston, an 800-year-old stone building that had been used for salt storage in ye olden tymes.

Our restaurants boat.
Our restaurants boat.

The oysters are a variety called Ostrea Edulis and only 2 million are produced each year, solely for domestic consumption. The oysters are smaller than others we’ve had, and the shells are very fat. The meat was rich and firm and wonderful.

We ended up ordering about 4.5 dozen oysters — raw, grilled and fried. They. Were. Amazing.

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I’m also pretty sure that our fellow diners were quite impressed at how many oysters we put away, but since we knew we couldn’t get these anywhere else (and they were delicious), we gorged.

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However, I still found room to take home some dessert. I overheard our waiter explaining Ston cake to another table and was intrigued. A cake made with leftover pasta? How’s that? Yes. Yes, I want some.

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It was weird, and cinnamon-ey, and lemon-y and just…..odd. It wasn’t pretty, really. It was very odd looking. And the texture was….interesting.

Just like the Peljesac peninsula — totally distinct but in a good way.

Wars, Orphans and Orbs: Dubrovnik’s Old Town

My travel buddy for life XFE and I live in a part of Northern Virginia/Greater Washington DC area known as Old Town. It’s pretty cute. Full of cobblestone sidewalks, antique shops, and historic buildings with plaques announcing that George Washington once drank some cider on this exact location. Most of the old houses, churches and pubs were built in the 1770s, which is one of the reasons it’s the third oldest historic district in the country.

But, our Old Town is a pimply preteen compared to Dubrovnik’s Old Town.

Old Town's Stradun Street
Old Town’s Stradun Street

Dubrovnik was founded in the 7th century by a group of refugees from Epidaurum. I don’t even know where Epidaurum is or was. I think it’s part of Greece or Rome or something, but I couldn’t say for sure. Let’s just say, shit is that old.

I had read a history of Croatia, including the sly way that the rich merchants in Dubrovnik were able to play conquerors off each other and avoid being occupied themselves. Dubrovnik stayed an independent city-state until the French came along in the early 1800s.

Funny wall decoration in Old Town
Funny wall decoration in Old Town

Despite my considerable, newly-acquired Croatian expertise, we decided to continue our custom of hiring a tour guide for the day to show us around the city. After searching around on the Interwebs a bit, I found a great new website called ToursByLocals.com. The idea is pretty self-explanatory: You click on “Find a Tour” and the website gives you a whole list of local tour guides along with their qualifications, photos, expertise, prices, and recent reviews. It was totally like Match.com for tour guides.

We picked Almira as our tour guide, asked if we could have an earlier start time, and ToursByLocals handled the rest. Almira emailed us within 48 hours of our request and we were confirmed. We’ll definitely be using them again.

You can see Almira. That's her hat on the bottom left.
You can see Almira. That’s her hat on the bottom left.

The morning of our tour, we walked the 30 minutes from our hotel to Pile Gate entrance to the Old Town. Almira was right on time and very friendly. Armed with water and sun hats, we started our walking tour right outside the gate in a public square where executions took place during World War I (Italians executing Croats).

"Your execution super spot since 1308"
“Your execution super spot since 1908”

Almira explained to us how the Epi-Greek/Roman people established their settlement on the island and named it Laus, while just across the way at the bottom of Srd Mountain, the Slavs had their own little settlement called dubrova which meant oak forest. When the channel that separated these two settlements was filled in the 12th century they were united. The main street through the Old Town is called Stradun but in Croatian, it’s known as Paca, which derives from the word for “dirt,” signifying the dirt road that was filled in to connect the two settlements.

Another view of the Stradun
Another view of the Stradun

Right inside Pile Gate, Almira showed us a map that shows you where the Old Town was damaged during what Almira and other Croats call the Homeland War, the Croatian War for Independence from Yugoslavia and an emboldened Serbia. We sat silently perusing the map while behind us vendors sold ice cream and school children ran around trying to give each other the Croatian version of cooties.

The primary evidence of the war can be seen in the rooftops. All the roofs in Old Town—which you can clearly see from the top of the city’s medieval wall walk–are made of distinctive orange terra cotta tiles. More than 70% of Croatia’s red roof tiles were destroyed during the Balkan Wars, so everywhere you look, there are new tiles interspersed with old tiles. There was quite the collection and conservation effort after the war, with nations around the world donating replacement tiles made in Toulouse, France.

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It was quite sad to see beautiful old medieval wars pocked with shrapnel, but it’s nothing compared to the damage seen by other cities in Croatia. In fact, it was the attacks on Dubrovnik, a much-beloved UNESCO-protected Heritage Site that finally galvanized the international community to say, “whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s enough of that. It’s all well and good to annihilate some podunk little village in the middle of nowhere, but let’s not go after a cultural and artistic center.”

What's that? More red-tiled roofs? No problem.
What’s that? More red-tiled roofs? No problem.

After our tour, XFE and I went to the War Photo Limited museum, a two-story museum owned and operated by a photographer who had covered the Homeland War. It was very well done and a gut wrenching experience. It’s difficult to see contemporaries–people wearing similar clothes to you, using common  everyday brands that you use—and seeing them in the midst of war right in their own streets. Instead of seeing photos of brave soldiers, you saw photographs of people just trying to walk down their street and getting hit by sniper fire.

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When we walked out of the cool, dark museum and out into the sunny narrow streets of the Old Town, I had to blink away what I’d just seen. We walked quietly through the beautiful narrow streets, our sandals skimming the slippery, worn down stones that made up the streets. We stumbled across church after church, many of them featuring statues of Dubrovnik’s patron saint, St. Blaise. There are, according to Almira, 27 St. Blaise statues throughout the tiny city, including three seated figures and one in profile.

I can't spot it, but I'm sure there's a St. Blaise statue somewhere in there.
I can’t spot it, but I’m sure there’s a St. Blaise statue somewhere in there.

We walked past St. Nicholas church. Good old Saint Nick was the patron saint of fisherman, so of course he has a church in this port city. What I didn’t know is that St. Nicholas is often pictured with three gold orbs, which were a dowry he gifted to three poor sisters. He threw the first two orbs through their window, but he threw the third down the chimney, which is why he’s associated with chimneys.

We also went past a tiny window with a sort of Lazy Susan swivel that was used by noble ladies to drop off their unwanted babies in the dead of night. Apparently, Dubrovnik is also home to the oldest orphanage, which was established in the Old Town in the 1400s. In another romantic touch, according to Almira, the babies would be given a half coin piece and the mother would keep the other half. That would allow the disgraced noble woman to come back and retrieve her child someday, if her circumstances had somehow changed.

By now, we’d worked up a good appetite and were ready for a mid-day glass of white wine, so we headed to one of Almira’s recommendations for lunch, Kobun, which lies at the top of some stairs that are very similar to the Spanish Steps in Rome. After a leisurely lunch of mussels for me and monkfish for XFE, we walked past some stalls selling jewelry, including a type of necklace called a Dubrovnik button, also called Konavoske Puce. It’s like an open filigree design that’s used in necklaces and earrings. I picked one with a bit of coral, which is also very popular in this area.

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It was a very pleasant and illuminating day. In the battle of the Old Towns, I’d have to give Dubrovnik a slight edge over Old Town, Alexandria. But just barely. After all, we’ve got George Washington plaques all over the place to tell us how important everything is.

Dubrovnik's farmer's market, which had some amazing candied almonds, lemon and orange peels.
Dubrovnik’s farmer’s market, which had some amazing candied almonds, lemon and orange peels.

Hotel Crashing: Villa Dubrovnik

I was riding the metro to work the other morning, a pretty mundane task, since I’ve done it pretty much every working day for the last 10 or so years I’ve been in D.C. It was 7:45 in the morning and already a muggy 78 degrees. I had just walked the 10 minutes from my house to the station and missed my train by mere seconds. It was pulling out of the platform while I bounded like a madwoman up the escalator stairs, whacking my fellow commuters with my lunch bag, purse, and umbrella (late afternoon showers predicted).

The next train would be 5 minutes.

As I stood on the platform with sweat rolling down my professionally-attired back (and even my knees – how do knees sweat??), dabbing away with a soppy Kleenex at rivulets of sweat that were careening through my carefully applied makeup, and willing another train to come in the opposite direction, merely for the novelty of creating some type of breeze, my mind whirled back to Villa Dubrovnik and the gentle non-humid, breeze-carrying air of the Adriatic.

The entry to the Villa Dubrovnik
The entry to the Villa Dubrovnik

Sometimes, memories can be unintentionally painful.

Especially memories involving sunshine playing so brightly on the cool blue water that it made your eyes hurt.  You had to squint to protect yourself from the twinkling starburst-like effect.

Yes, Villa Dubrovnik was lovely. It was beautiful. It was sublime. And like most good things, it’s both pretty pricey and a bit difficult to get to.

The view from our room balcony.
The view from our room balcony.

The 56-room boutique hotel is situated on a cove just a short walk south of the charming Old Town. It’s a lovely (and shaded) 20-minute walk from Old Town, along a very narrow switchback lane that’s almost impossible to find if one’s driving there from the airport. Oh, you may well be adequately armed with maps and Google directions, but you’ll soon find they are utterly useless. Primarily because maps and directions use things called “street names,” and there are no street signs in Dubrovnik.

In addition, because the roads surrounding Dubrovnik are carved into the hillside and involve a number of switchbacks, you will catch tantalizing glimpses of your far-off hotel, but there will be no discernible way of actually getting to it.

When we finally arrived at the Villa, the valet asked us how many times we’d had to drive the entire loop around the Old Town before we found the switchback.

We only did the loop once before stopping and asking someone. The local guy assured us that the blue sign with the red circle with the line through it did not, in fact, mean that you could not drive down the street that eventually got us to Villa Dubrovnik. Silly us.

I'm sorry, which sign is it?
I’m sorry, which sign is it?

But from the moment you arrive, everything at Villa Dubrovnik becomes effortless. The service is beyond excellent; there’s not a single thing that hasn’t already been thought of, and the staff accommodates every request in a totally relaxed and unobtrusive manner. You won’t get scolded here for carrying a glass of your own wine into the top floor Proscuitto and Wine Bar. The bartender merely asks if you need anything else.

Don’t like the exact position of the sun on the rock and concrete sunbathing area just below the hotel’s cliffs? You just find one of the patiently-waiting nearby staff to lug the sun-lounger, ginormous umbrella, and all your gear to a different, more remote spot, preferably making them scramble over rocks like a billy goat. Oh, and feel free to ask him to bring you another mojito on his way out.

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On one particularly breezy morning, the staff did not set up the tables on the outside deck of the restaurant for breakfast. A stubborn family of guests were determined to sit out there with their newspapers flapping in the breeze. Instead of informing the family that they weren’t serving outside that morning, the staff just quietly brought out the table cloth and service sets. Predictably, the family soon moved inside. Nobody seemed in the slightest bit bothered.

The hotel architecture was just gorgeous – modern and sleek, it blends seamlessly into the cliffs and every room has a view of the sea, the Old Town or the island of Lokum (or all three).

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We were in a corner (executive) room on the fourth floor, which oddly enough, is the first floor/reception area, with three more floors being built beneath it and two floors above it. Even more confusing, the entrance is just an elevator shaft at street level, which takes you down to the reception/fourth/first floor. Confused yet?

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Don’t worry. The hotel is small enough, you won’t get too lost. On the first floor are the spa, an indoor pool, and outdoor deck with covered cabana beds, in case you don’t want to sunbathe on the rocks.  Adjacent to the pool is a garden area where you can have lunch al fresco and the stairs leading down to the rocks, a changing area, and to a dock for their vaporetto to take you to the Old Town.

Actually, this brings me to my only complaint about Villa Dubrovnik, which is the erratic vaporetto schedule. It’s sporadic at best, and dependent upon totally calm seas. There is a shuttle service when the boat is out of commission, but that may be little use if you are stuck in the Old Town and don’t know that the boat has been decommissioned.

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But more annoying is the fact that there’s no service at all for about 5 hours in the middle of the afternoon. We had a late lunch in the Old Town one afternoon, finishing up around 1:30 and had to take a cab back because the last run was at 1:15. Plus, the last trip back from the Old Town was around 11, which was a bit early for late diners.

The third floor has a library lounge and the restaurant which has unbeatable views of the Old Town walls. We had breakfast there every morning (my favorite was the smoked salmon with capers and arugula.) We also had a fantastic dinner there one night – I almost licked my bowl after eating the seafood risotto.  The scallops were also great. It was one of my favorite meals of the trip.

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We went up to the Proscuitto & Wine Bar every night at sunset to have a glass of Posip, which was a nice way to kick off our evenings. We were at the hotel right before the high season began (on July 1, when rates totally skyrocket), so I don’t know if it was the time of year or what, but the bar was hardly ever busy.

The rooftop bar at sunset.
The rooftop bar at sunset.

The busiest it got was late one evening after a free concert in the Old Town by Croatia’s top pop star, Severina (I’ve included a video of her performance below). The concert was a gift to Dubrovnik to celebrate Croatia’s accession to the EU and there was a rumor that there would be fireworks after the show, so a bunch of guests gathered at the bar to watch the fireworks. Alas, the fireworks never came, which became a running joke for us the entire trip.

Severina's stage the day of the show.
Severina’s stage the day of the show.
The sky, sans fireworks
The sky, sans fireworks

Anyway, we loved Villa Dubrovnik – excellent location, fantastic staff, gorgeous rooms and shared spaces. And our room had a hot tub on the deck, so that pretty much seals the deal in my book.

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The rocky cliffs are a far cry from the sweaty metro platform that makes up my typical day. But, vacations must be paid for somehow, and when I close my eyes as the next train blasts warm air into the station, I can almost imagine I’m standing on our private deck at the Villa Dubrovnik again.

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Croatia: Sometimes Getting There is Half the Fun*

(*OK, maybe not half. Maybe more like, a third of the fun. Or even a smaller fraction. If I were good at math, I’d be able to tell you what a smaller fraction would be. But I’m not. Back to the blogging.)

First, let me clarify: it does not take 20 hours to get to Croatia. Unless. Unless you are travelling using your United Airlines miles, which automatically puts you at a direct-flight disadvantage, particularly if you’re going overseas.

And, if you want to go on a specific airline because they have a new product, like, for example, they’ve upgraded their business class (like Austrian Airlines just did) or, you already know and like the existing product (like Lufthansa first class).

Let’s review — the options are: get to Croatia relatively quickly (7.5 hours to London, 2 hours to Dubrovnik), but crushed back in coach, OR take the long way in first class and eat mountains of caviar and sample wines and champagne from around the world for hours on end while wearing Lufthansa-provided pajamas. That you get to KEEP. Croatia 006

We went with the second option. And today, Lufthansa is low on their monthly caviar supply.

Croatia has long been on my bucket list of places to visit. I heard about it pretty much the same way everyone else did – on the news because of the Balkan Wars and the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Later on, when I lived in London in 1997, I remember British people telling me about how beautiful Croatia was before the war and how it had been such a popular vacation destination. They talked about all the beautiful coastline, and how it was like Italy but cheaper (that’s still true, by the way).

And, it just sounded so exotic and different. I certainly didn’t know anyone who’d been there (other than the nostalgic British people I came across). I just kept reading about it on travel lists.

Then suddenly, we were going to Croatia. The right deal at the right time just came along.

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After my embarrassment over my ignorance of Peru’s recent political upheavals (“wait, is there a Peruvian version of ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians?’ No? Oh, well then I’m not really invested”), I decided to actually read a bit about Croatia’s history.

I read two books: one bodice ripper “Croatia: A Nation Forged in War.” Let me tell you, it was a laugh a minute. It was a very dense book, but it definitely covered everything. And what I learned is Croatia has been a country that’s been kinda screwed. It had been occupied by the Greeks, the Romans, the Venetians, the Austrians, the Hungarians, and even the French before being consolidated into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which was then invaded by Germany during World War II.

That’s another thing – I also learned about Croatia’s own ethnic cleansing and genocide against Jews, Serbs and gypsies during World War II. I was totally unaware of the Ustashe before I read this book.

The other book was called “They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in The Hague,” by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic. This cheerful tome was actually a much easier, if grim, read. I whipped through it pretty quickly, although the subject matter was chilling.

Well-prepared, I luxuriated in Lufthansa first class, finally tearing myself away from the caviar just in time to get my first glimpses of Croatia’s more than one thousand islands (no, seriously, there are over 1,000 islands). They were little dollops of greenery edged in tan and turquoise dropped into the cerulean blue Adriatic waters.

Yep, it was that inspiring and poetic. And romantic.

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We eventually waddled off the plane in Dubrovnik and picked up our rental car. This was actually done outside the airport at these portable buildings like they used to have at school, which gave the whole thing a slight air of delinquency. I kept looking around to see if any scholastic authorities were about to pounce and ask me what I was doing hanging outside the portable classrooms.

But no, my only companions were a bunch of mildly Mediterranean dudes smoking cigarettes and dealing with other clueless tourists, primarily very young people from England and Japan.

After securing our Volkswagon, we were off, driving about 35 minutes of twisty hillside roads from the airport to our hotel in Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you all about that hotel. It’s worthy of its’ own post.

Croatia 018That’s not a picture of our hotel, by the way. That’s me, bedding down in first class.

Unusual Vacation Pictures: Croatia

Dober dan, my patient little Internet friends! That’s Croatian for “hello.” Actually, it’s “good day,” but it’s the primary greeting everyone uses.

Petunia wearing a bowler hat. Seems fancy, like saying "good day."
Petunia wearing a bowler hat. Seems fancy, like saying “good day.”

I’ve actually been trying to make a point of learning some words in the language of the countries my permanent travel-partner-for-life XFE and I visit. I did pretty well on the Croatian. I learned hello (dober dan), thank you (hvala), please (molim vas), kako stey (how are you), good night (laku noch), sutra (tomorrow), dog (pas), white wine (bijeli vino), finished (gotov) and zivoli (cheers or long life). So basically, I could move there tomorrow and be just fine.

Anyway, I often get asked what my favorite travel destination is, and I always say that it’s wherever we last visited. But for some reason, I have a feeling that Croatia will always rank pretty high on my favorite list.

Nice flags there, newest EU member (as of July 1)
Nice flags there, newest EU member (as of July 1)

If I were in the least bit smart or clever, I would tell everyone on the Internet that happens to stumble upon this blog that Croatia is just awful. The cities aren’t at all pretty. The Adriatic Sea is a muddy mess. The Croatian people are mean and throw flip flops at you every chance they get. The wine was utterly undrinkable.

But that would all be a gigantic lie. My biggest complaint about Croatia (besides the fact that I’m not currently still there) is that the Adriatic is too cold for my taste. (Although XFE did overhear some spoilt American young girls in Split complaining about the pebbled beaches. We didn’t mind—they were very smooth and beautiful pebbles–but these girls did.)

XFE and I got back from Croatia a couple of days ago and I think we’re both still in shock by the fact that we are not laying on some beautiful beach somewhere overlooking some amazingly preserved, UNESCO protected medieval city. Alas, we are back, and there are a ton of mundane post-vacation chores to be done.

Further proof that Croatia is magical: The Choco Doner. I didn't even know I needed that.
Further proof that Croatia is magical: The Choco Doner. I didn’t even know I needed that.

So, this post is just a quick check in and tease of sorts — a download of some of the more odd pictures from our vacation. I’ll be back this week with information on our second Lufthansa first class experience (one compound word: mounds-o’caviar); the highs and lows of Dubrovnik (one high: our truly unbelievable hotel, singular low: disappointing restaurant experience); drinking wine and eating oysters on the Peljesac Peninsula; the party scene that is Hvar, and, subsequently but unrelatedly, how to get stuck on the island of Hvar; a comparison of Croatian beaches (spoiler: they’re all great. You’re on a beach drinking beer, for crying out loud); people watching in Split; and seafood, seafood, seafood.

luggage tag

My handwritten luggage tag. As you can see, we went from Baltimore to Charlotte to Munich to Vienna to Dubrovnik. And even with these super sketchy tags, our luggage made it all the way to Dubrovnik, without having to pick it up and recheck it along the way. Pretty impressive, US Airways Ticket Counter Agent Nelson. I totally doubted you.

On our 20-plus hour trip to Dubrovnik, I came across this magazine in the lounge in Vienna. In my sleepless state, I swore it was Weiner magazine. On our 20-plus hour trip to Dubrovnik, I came across this magazine in the lounge in Vienna. In my sleepless state, I swore it was Weiner magazine.

no gentlemenA sign on the ferry. I think it means, “No Gentlemen in Overcoats.” Which makes sense since it was warm out. Very suspicious to be wearing a top coat.

drink signExcellent marketing of a bar in Dubrovnik.

suppliesStaying hydrated is very important when sitting in the sun. Cipi Chips helped with our sodium.

orlando boatWe had dinner next to an American family one night in Hvar. Later that night, we saw them getting on this boat. A couple of days later, we saw the boat (a rental) listed in a high-end luxury yacht brochure in our hotel in the Meridian Split. Dang. We should have made friends with them.

Toonie doppelgangerWe saw a Toonie doppelganger in Dubrovnik one night while eating dinner. She killed me. So, so cute. I begged XFE to let me take her back to the U.S. He seemed pretty close to caving when he saw her playing with a bottle top. But then he reminded me about how friendly Petunia is towards humans and other animals, and the conversation came to a screeching halt.

strangled treeComing back to the Meridian late on evening, we saw staffers wrestling with a potted olive tree. There were olive branches all over the floor from where they had jammed it through various sliding doors and low-ish ceilings. Which is pretty ironic. Olive branches ripped from a defenseless tree? Not very peaceful.

EU accession

As you can tell by the blurriness of the picture, I too celebrated Croatia’s EU accession.

The XFE Packing Solution

(Editor’s Note: XFE is back with another guest post.)

That’s right friends I am back and not with just some hotel crashing post full of pictures, but with real, get to know XFE content.  As readers of ThePoeLog know, Poe struggles to get herself properly packed for all of the fabulous trips she takes and quite honestly the whining has to stop.  As a result, our upcoming trip will be packed using the new following approach.

Step 1: Poe will go ahead and pick her suitcases and start the process.

I am sure she will use something like this from Style BluePrint in Nashville full of great tips like “3 swimsuits, and if they are 2-pieces, make sure the bottoms coordinate with the tops so you have even more options.” Thanks for the incredibly helpful tip. You may want to also add something like “If the top of your two-piece with the detachable neck tie, you may want to bring that detachable neck tie, otherwise you will be trapped in Peru and XFE will have to MacGyver you a neck strap from one of your shoe laces from your hiking boots.” But who am I to enlighten the packing community?

This little gem of a packing list is by women for women, and although Croatia-specific it is also backpack specific, with tips like “5 pairs of underwear – Laundromats are plentiful in each town, but I just washed mine in the sink and let them air dry.” I am not sure how Poe could go wrong. Sink rinsed and air dried chonies are fine for the bunk beds at the hostels Poe used to frequent when she was a broke traveler, but not appropriate for Austrian Business class.

Who wants to brush their teeth near these things?
Who wants to brush their teeth near these things?

This list did allow me to learn about another apparently great travel invention The Diva Cup. I will let you read the article. I, however, have already been scarred enough today.

Finally, Poe will undoubtedly turn to some other general packing list, or my personal favorite, she will work to combine multiple packing lists from various sources into her own super mega packing list/approach/methodology. This behemoth will ultimately result in arriving to sunny summer in Croatia with 6 pairs of pants, 1 skirt, 3 shoes (not pairs; you can mix and match) and a handful of hair ties. It will be like last year in Austin where she brought two pairs of cowboy boots AND  bought a third pair of boots but failed to pack a sweater for 50-degree windy January days. So that is it. That will be Poe packing approach. Right until we reach step 2.

Step 2: Poe has to fit whatever pile she has gathered from above into one half of the selected suitcases.

Half suitcase

Only half.

Step 3: XFE will completely ignore what Poe has gathered and will fill the remaining half of the suitcase with bikinis, dresses, skirts, tops, and underwear.  Now, how does that sound different than step 1, you might ask? Well let me tell you: I am not over-thinking it. I am just reaching into the dark corners of the drawers where the skimpy items are tucked, and the top shelves of the closets to find all those great lost gems I have stood outside of dressing rooms watching Poe buy.

This is the Dalmatian coast; where the sun is bright, the air hot and the parties go on forever. Hotel rooms are sold with line passes to nightclubs. We will be there when the country is admitted to the EU, maybe a celebration will break out. We are staying at the #1 hotel in Dubrovnik with a balcony overlooking the city. Heels and a skirt to tour wineries and sample oysters? YES! Wedges and a dress to sit and drink through a long lunch? Yes! Heels and a cover-up to get from our room to the lounges below? YES! The smallest little G-string you own? Yes! It is vacation — YES! YES! YES!

Our hotel in Dubrovnik. Coverups: optional
Our hotel in Dubrovnik. Coverups: optional

This is Croatia and our summer vacation. Have I turned Poe into a Barbie? Maybe – but if it gets her packed and out the door and looking cute for the duration of vacation, it is victory. I am all for it and so should you be, my readers.  Otherwise, we are all destined to be subjected to this packing drama for all of eternity, and I am just not up for enduring that pain.