Friday, May 31, 2013

Croatia’s natural treasure–Plitvice Lakes

May 18-19, 2013
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Our next destination after Zagreb was Plitvice Lakes, which was set aside as Southeast Europe’s first national park in 1949. The small villages surrounding the park are filled with signs that say “SOBE” or “ZIMMER,” the Croatian and German words for “room.”

The kitchen, with a professionally dressed chef, was in the little brick building behind the house.

We used to book a night in House Ivan, a small guest house near one of the park’s entrances. We had an upstairs room with a separate bathroom in the hallway, which is typical for the area. Our host showed us around the the back of the main house to a tiny brick building which housed the kitchen, where we were surprised to meet a young chef, dressed in professional chef’s attire, including the tall white hat, who would be cooking our dinner.

Croatians in general are very tall, and they eat big meals. Each region has its food specialties, and in the Plitvice Lakes area it’s meat, put in a covered pot and cooked over a wood fire. We were both thinking that we could order one and share, but we knew that wouldn’t be right. The meals were fixed price, this was a tiny establishment, and we needed to support it by ordering two dinners. Mark had a meat combo, and I ordered the “hamburger stuffed with cheese.” Would you like soup, we were asked? Cream of mushroom? Ok. Two huge platters of food arrived, each with french fries and vegetables, plus a basket of wonderful home baked bread, and a carafe of wine. I could only eat half of my hamburger, which was shaped in a half-circle like a turnover and stuffed with gooey cheese. We hate to waste food, so we made two sandwiches with the rest of the burger and the bread, and I wrapped them up to eat on our hike the next day. Then, the host came back and asked us about dessert. When we protested, he looked so disappointed that we relented and ordered the pancakes – which were delicious crepes, filled with chocolate and dusted with sugar. I’m pretty sure that the filling was Nutella, which we see everywhere we go. I keep telling Mark to buy stock in Nutella.
We had breakfast outside is the crisp, fresh morning air.Mark has taken up cigar smoking, since you can get Cuban cigars in the UAE and Europe, so he enjoyed a cigar outside at the picnic table after dinner. It was so lovely and peaceful, sitting in the cool twilight air. We were wondering how to keep the sandwiches, since we didn’t have a refrigerator in our room. I figured that the car would get cold enough overnight to keep them fresh. Mark didn’t believe me, but it worked perfectly. You could never do that in Abu Dhabi!

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Plitvice Lakes, which has been inhabited for thousands of years, has been a popular tourist attraction since the late 19th century. A group of preservationists founded a conservation committee in 1893, and it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

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It is also, I was surprised to learn, where the Croatian Homeland War began. A Croatian police officer named Josip Jovic was the first person killed by the rebel Serbs. He was shot in the park on March 31, 1991. The Croatian Army retook the park in 1995, and the damage to park property and hotels, which were used as barracks, has been repaired. You would never imagine, seeing it now, that this was a war scene 20 years ago.

We chose the eastern side, with the big falls
We had to choose one section of the park for our one-day visit, so we chose the northern side, where we would see Velki Slap, the Big Waterfall. The park is a series of 16 lakes, linked together by cascades and waterfalls that are constantly changing because of the nature of the limestone karst and tufa deposits, which cause streams and falls to dry up, change direction, and spring up in new places.

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If we had more time we could have taken several days to see some of the upper lakes, and hike the 30 kilometers of educational and recreational trails in the forest, which covers 3/4 of the park. The trails have interpretive signage to educate visitors about the forest ecosystem. Perhaps we could have seen some of the 55 different species of orchids.

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We took a boat, which was included with our park admission ticket, to the tip of the most northern lake Jezero Kozjak where, if you wish, you can stop for a snack or a beer. From there you take a path that leads through the lush forest and onto an extensive boardwalk trail across the cascades up to Velki Slap.

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How we would have loved to have just a fraction of this boardwalk trail on The Nature Conservancy’s River Fork Ranch project I worked on in Carson Valley, Nevada! You had to watch your step, though. The boardwalk was uneven, and there were places where the rushing water was encroaching on it. I wonder how often they have to relocate it?

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Both Mark and I had cameras. Mark’s goal was to capture the water in different ways using different shutter speeds. I was just trying to capture the best scenes, best shapes, best light, best moods, best colors. As the day went on, the weather began to change and clouds were moving in. The light changed. We shot a lot of pictures, but everyone else along the trail was constantly stopping to take photos, too. The digital camera is the world’s greatest invention at the moment, in my opinion.

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There were busloads of people who had come on tour packages and were staying in the big hotels. They came in waves, walking in groups with tour guides who were holding umbrellas. There were generally two types of tourist, if I may generalize. Asians were heavily represented, and also Caucasian people of retirement age. Like us, I guess, only maybe a little older.

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There were some young people on the trail too, including this Paris Hilton look-alike and her boyfriend, who Mark managed to photograph as we passed by. 

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This place, Plitvice Lakes, really is, I believe, one of the wonders of the natural world. The rushing water, the placid fish, the turquoise blue lakes, emerald green woods, the wildflowers in bloom … they all did my desert-parched heart good.

The hike is told in photos. We went up above the big falls to the small lookout point where you get the “money shot” of the beautiful lakes. The tour groups are probably too big to get up there. We have so many photos, but at each turn we saw something new, and we never got tired of the views. It was like we just couldn’t get enough, and each photo is precious to me. So you may see some photos that look the same, but some of the scenes deserve a second or third look. Or fourth, or fifth, or …

To see a very good article about Plitvice Lakes on Wiki Travel, click this link.
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As we neared the parking lot, it clouded up and began to rain. What perfect timing! We bought beers and ate our sandwiches, which tasted delicious, like meat loaf. I went to admire the strudels and cheeses, and woke up the vendor to buy a chunk of tangy cheese for a snack to go with a bottle of Croatian red wine later.

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I resisted the strudel, which is my favorite, for the time being. It was only our second day.

Then we were on the road again. We were headed for Split, which is thought to be the home town of Mark’s grandfather, who we believe was named Marko Tomic. This would be the beginning of Mark’s investigation of his Croatian heritage.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Zagreb, Croatia’s Capital City–by Segway

Saturday May 18, 2013
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We flew from Istanbul to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city, and were surprised and pleased to see how small the airport was. Zagreb’s small size is its charm. It is compact, made for walking, and filled with parks, inspiring architecture, and locals doing their thing. We had originally considered spending our first night there but, when we looked at our desired itinerary, we realized that we would have to settle for a short stop, and wouldn’t have time to see much if we walked. It was the perfect opportunity to take a Segway tour, which I booked online at Segway City Tour Zagreb.

Zagreb_map-OverviewWe picked up our rental car and headed toward town. It was my responsibility to be map reader, and know where we were and which way to turn at all times. I will just admit right now that this is a source of tension, because it is impossible to read a map and pinpoint where you are while in a moving car. Especially when the driver is saying “Where are we? What street are we looking for? Which way do I turn?” while accelerating through intersections which have no signage or, if they do it says something like “Hrvatske Bratske Zajednice.”

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At times like this, my Master’s Degree in Geography with an emphasis in Planning is an emotional burden. We had to turn around a few times, and when we finally made it to the city center, we still had trouble finding the Regent Esplanade hotel, our meeting place, because of the one-way streets. I was getting worried that we would be late and miss the tour, but we found the hotel, parked, and arrived just a minute or two before noon.

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Perfect timing, but where was everyone? The hotel bellman led us around to a tiny building outside the entrance, and there were a few Segways and a guy in a yellow shirt. “Are you Darko?” I asked, remembering my favorite male Croatian name from the confirmation email. “No,” he said, “he is the Owner, but I am your tour guide. My name is Z.” Where was everybody? Were we the only ones on the tour? YES!

I mentioned to Z that we were lucky to make it on time, and he was very sympathetic to my challenges as navigator. A few minutes later, Darko showed up, saying that he had tried to call my mobile number to confirm. Unfortunately, my phone was turned off and he got an Etisalat message in Arabic, ending with “shukran,” the Arabic word for “thank you.” I imagine he came out just to see us and find out whether I would be trying to ride the Segway wearing an abaya and niqab!

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We immediately hit it off with Z, whose full first name is Zvonko and now my #2 favorite Croatian name. Have we ridden a Segway before, or is this the first time? Mark’s answer was a definite no, but I wasn’t sure. Maybe I did once, I said, but if so I must have been drunk because I couldn’t remember clearly. Or maybe I dreamed it, or just imagined it. No worries, Z assured us, we would be experts soon. We had our first lesson right there in front of the elegant Regent Esplanade Hotel.

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At first it was disconcerting to be standing upright on this contraption that wants to move all the time, but after a few minutes you get used to it. It reminded me of characters in old space-age cartoons like The Jetsons, who hover in space. You are always balancing, and never quite still. We practiced forward, backward, and turns. Pretty soon, Z announced that we had graduated from Novice to Competent, and we were on our way.


Our tour was the two-hour Zagreb All Around Tour, a loop beginning and ending in the city’s planned Lower Town “Green Horseshoe” with its wide boulevards lined with parks, hotels, museums, and galleries, and winding up into the medieval Upper Town with its narrow streets, bars and cafes, outdoor market, and cathedrals.   

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Our first stop was Tomislav Square, which as a railway station and a monument to Croatia's first king. Tomislav, who reigned in the 10th century, is celebrated as the founder of united Croatia, also has a beer named after him


Croatia - Zagreb (17)Next we stopped in another square, mostly deserted, to learn higher level Segway skills. Z told us we had been in low gear, and would now graduate to Proficient. The Segway actually has a speed governor, and slows or even stops if you go too fast. Once again Mark and I circled around, practicing. For me, the trickiest part of driving the Segway was going up curbs where you had to speed up and keep your balance, hopefully without getting too much “air.” I made a few pretty big hops on some of the curbs but stayed on board.

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One of Zagreb’s most famous landmarks is the twin-spired Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary which, like most churches and cathedrals, has undergone many changes over the centuries as it has survived wars, conquests, even earthquakes, and been rebuilt and restored.

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We arrived at the same time as a tour group, which was something we would experience everyplace we went except for the Island of Brac. Croatia is unspoiled, but it is not undiscovered.

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We rested our feet here. A word of advice about riding on a Segway: it is not for everyone. You need to be able to stand and balance, and it puts stress on the knees, ankles, and feet. Wear really good, supportive shoes. I picked the wrong shoes – they were flats. Even with all the stand-up paddle boarding I’ve been doing, my feet and legs were hurting. Z joined me in some bending and stretching.

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Mark had a couple of things that were must-do, and one of them was to get a photo of a certain statue of a woman wearing a scarf and carrying something on her head, which was in a picture that his Croatian cousin Mirta, who now lives in the USA in North Carolina, had sent after her trip to the homeland. At first Z was puzzled, and then he realized that Mark was referring to the statue of the typical peasant woman at the top of the stairs above Dolac Market.

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She represents the women who have grown food and sold their wares in the market here throughout the centuries. I think if I had been born in another time and place, I would have been one of these ladies. I love growing food.

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I can’t get enough of these markets, with the beautiful produce and flowers. We look forward to traveling at a more leisurely pace in the future, when we will stay someplace for a month or two, we have a kitchen, and we can shop and cook like locals. Maybe even have a garden.

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We wound our way through the maze of shops and cafes where locals were enjoying a Saturday morning coffee or mug of beer. One of Zagreb’s pastimes is to see and be seen in the outdoor cafes, and we were a curiosity as we rolled by on our Segways.

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The other item on Mark’s to-do list was St. Mark’s Church. Mirta had also sent a photo of this church, built in the 13th century with a colorful tile roof added in 1880. On the left is the medieval coat of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia. On the right is the emblem of Zagreb.

Z then took us up a steep and winding street to a viewpoint where we came upon a group of school children, who seemed more interested in viewing us and our Segways than the landmarks below that were being pointed out by their teacher. “You have it easy,” she remarked to Z. “You only have two.  I have 64!” I could relate.

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Everywhere we went, we attracted attention, and Z seemed to know many of the locals.

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Next stop was the Ban Jelačić Square, the meeting point and heart of Zagreb. The statue in the background is Governor Josipa Jelacic, who led an unsuccessful campaign for Croatian independence against the Austrian crown, and whose symbolism as been alternately positive or negative, depending on who was in power.
Installed in 1866 by the Austrian-Hungarian government despite protests from the Zagreb city council, it was later denounced, removed and put into a cellar by the Communist government in 1947, then returned to its original location in 1990, this time facing south toward modern Croatia instead of its original orientation, which was north, facing the victor, Hungary.

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We went through a passageway with a beautiful domed ceiling, where Z paused and he and Mark discussed politics. It’s only been a few years since the Croatian war for independence, known locally as the Homeland War, which lasted from 1991 to 1995, when Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, which was opposed by ethnic Serbs in Croatia, who then attempted to establish their own independent nation within Croatia, and fought for their cause. Croatia eventually won a total victory.

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This, along with communism and its aftermath, are the life experiences and personal history of everyone Mark’s and my age and younger. Yet they move on. “What happened, happened,” Z said. “I have Serb friends. It’s not a problem. They were not part of that. You just let it go.” So they gather peacefully in their rebuilt outdoor spaces to drink coffee, beer and raki.

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This is Tklaca, Zagreb’s Saturday morning place to stroll and drink coffee, see and be seen, and where again we were ogled. Rather, our Segways were ogled.

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It was time to head away from the lively Upper Town, back through the comparatively quiet, staid and imposing gardens and architecture of Lower Town. We recognized all of the buildings, which we had circled a couple of times by car looking for the Regent Esplanade.

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What a charming city Zagreb is, and Zvonko was a really fun, funny and thoughtful tour guide. He pronounced us to be Experts, and gave us each a souvenir heart that said “Zagreb” on one side and “Segway 2013” on the other. We could not have asked for a better experience.
Now it was time to hit the road. The clouds were moving in, but we took no notice. We were headed to Northern Dalmatia and Croatia’s oldest national park, Plitvice Lakes.

Thanks for reading, and please stay tuned for the next few posts, including an amazing original source connection to Mark’s Nona on Island Brac.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dubai–Architectural Eye Candy



Last weekend was a surprise 3-day weekend for Mark, which is typical here; you never know when holidays are coming until they are upon you. We decided to spend a couple of nights in Dubai. We stayed in the Rotana Rose Rayan, a business hotel in the Financial Area of Dubai. We were on the 56th floor of the 70-floor tower, with a view of the Burj Khalifa, the World’s Tallest Building, from our room – behind the television.


One of my main goals was to finally capture the magnificent eye candy that is the architecture of downtown Dubai.


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We had two other goals: to ride our bicycles, which we brought with us, and to go shopping at Dubai’s two most famous malls, Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates.





On Thursday, we rode our bikes at Meydan Bicycle Park, which is a camel racetrack just outside of downtown Dubai.





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In the afternoon, we rode the Metro to both malls from our hotel. I was amazed at how easy it was, and also how many people were riding the Metro. It was very encouraging. We had seen both of these malls before, with the Ski Dubai at Emirates Mall and the aquarium at Dubai Mall.



But what I had not previously seen was the Level Shoes. OMG. This place was unbelievable. Imagine: a combination of the most delectable candy store – where you see every kind of candy you ever loved, artfully displayed – and somehow combine it with the most beautiful museum, but where you could try everything on for size. Oh, and it’s lined with pictures of your favorite movie stars – no matter how old or young you are.

I couldn’t even begin to take photos – not in the shoes I was wearing, which were 29 dirham flip flops. Mark was trying on 4000 dirham driving shoes which reminded me of my dad’s bedroom slippers, but fortunately they didn’t quite fit his very unusual feet.


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The second day, we rode our bikes at the Dubai Marina, which I was surprised to find so easy to ride. There are a lot of little cafes and restaurants, including a Mexican place that I want to try.


And always, you are looking up at the amazing architecture.