Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dubrovnik -- and Rain

As mentioned, the rain started immediately after we ended our cycling yesterday. As it continued on and off through the evening and into today (Thursday) we realized anew how lucky we were for the duration of our tour. Despite the rain, we ventured out around six pm for our visit to the salt works -- a series of 53 pools where sea water is evaporated and crystallized. 
At the Mali Ston Salt Works
This has been going on continuously for many centuries. It is now privately owned, having been rescued from debt by our exceedingly enthusiastic host and guide.It turns out that he is also the owner and enthusiastic promoter of our excellent seafood restaurant. In his imprpomptu "quiz" after the explanation of the salt works, I won a kilo of the prized sea salt.

Dinner consisted of many courses of seafood, starting with oysters, raw or grilled, followed by a bowl of steamed shellfish including mussels, clams and a few that I did not recognize. Next was a course with two risottos, one with squid and the black ink that gives the dish its color, and the other with 11 different varieties of shellfish. The main course was scorpion fish, accompanied by a swiss chard and potato blend. All this was topped off with a choice of desserts. I had a special kind of cake made of pasta and chocolate -- it was delicious.
Cristina tries her first oyster
Assorted shellfish
Black Risotto and Risotto with 11 Shellfish
Scorpion Fish
It was raining fairly hard this morning as we bid goodbye to Cristina, Silvija and Ante our three wonderful guides for the last 12 days. We then boarded a large bus for the trip to Dubrovnik where most of us are staying for various lengths of time before heading for various additional destinations.I had made arrangements in a hotel inside the old walled city back in November; about three weeks ago I learned that it is currently closed for renovations. (Why they didn't know this earlier is a sourced of some annoyance.) It was too late to get a different hotel in the old city, so I am in a modern hotel about a mile away. That wouldn't be bad, except for the rain. 

After checking in, I started the walk to the old city, crowded with almost as many tourists as rain drops. We saw several large cruise ships as we entered town. Most of them will be leaving by midafternoon, so it should be less crowded when I return. I was absolutely soaked by the time I got to the bottom of the hill, but made the best of it for a couple of hours before returning to the hotel. I have a walking tour booked at 4pm (about an hour from now). There seems to be a break in the weather, so I will give it a try, taking along my full rain gear. This looks like a fascinating city, and I would love to see it in good weather.

By the way -- I was the first rider in yesterday, and ended up with the yellow jersey. On that note, my blog for this tour comes to an end. Thanks for reading.

Silvija, Ante, Guy and Cristina

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The brodetto

Day 11 -- Vid to Mali Ston

Our final day of cycling

Before getting to today's grand finale to our cycling tour, I must start with last evening's dinner. Prior to eating, we took a short boat ride through the marshy waters near our hotel where, I suspect, the frogs and eels that were a major part of our dinner came from. That's right -- frogs and eels. The meal started with the best bread that we have had in Croatia, along with some salad of tomatoes, peppers, and onions and the usual platter of prosciutto and cheeses. Then came a platter of what looked like egg plant rounds, but was actually sauteed frogs. Not frog legs, but small frogs. They were delicious, but took a lot of work to get the meat off the bones. After this, was the star attraction -- the brodetto, a delicious stew of frogs, eels and fish (mullet, I think). This was served with polenta. 

The Neretva Estuary
The weather looked ominous as we started out for our last day of cycling. We started off through the bustling village of Metkovic and then through the fertile agricultural area of the beautiful Neretva estuary, before beginning the climb to the Bosnian border. We actually crossed into Bosnia through a small, "unofficial," border crossing point, usually used only by the local population. We had special permission to cross and were expected.The sole Croatian border guard inspected my passport closely, as did his colleague, the sole Bosnia border guard. As they finished, some other members of the group came up and were waved through without the need to produce passports.
The Bosnian Border
 It was only about five miles until we reached Croatia again, and this time I was waved through by the sole Croatian guard ( I never did see the Bosnian guard).

Now we started the descent to the small fishing village of Mali Ston, our destination for this evening. We had great views of the large area in which mussels and oysters are farmed. (Guess what we will be having for dinner tonight!, as well as of the ancient wall built by the republic of Dubrovnik for protection against attacks from the Venetians, Turks, and various pirates sailing the Adriatic.Ston (the larger town encompassing Mali Ston) was the second most important town in the ancient Republic of Dubrovnik, largely because it was the only salt producing town in the region. We will visit the salt works this evening before dinner.

The weather gods were with us today. The rain started about three minutes after the last cyclists arrived in Mali Ston.  Tomorrow we will shuttle to Dubrovnik where I will spend a day. Then I will fly to Germany where I will rejoin Kathleen, Doug, Monica and Sammy for a week before heading back home.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Day 10 -- Korcula to Metkovic (Vid)

Today was another multi-modal day, transportation-wise. We started by cycling downhill from the hotel to our private ferry.  Just us and the bicycles. This took us about six minutes, so we were definitely ready for the break provided by the short crossing over the Peljesac Strait to the peninsula. We had to cycle across the peninsula, which involved our now routine 400 meter climb from the sea to the ridge top and then down the other side. 

Statue in the Trapanj Harbor
This brought us to Trpanj, a pleasant small village where we took advantage of the various shops to buy some lunch supplies and to sip coffee in a cafe with free WiFi. (Free WiFi is very prevalent here in Croatia -- just about every cafe has it.) These cafes often have better signal strength than we have been getting in our hotels.

We then boarded a very large, and not very crowded, ferry for the final crossing to the mainland. From the industrial port of Ploce, we had another 16 miles or so of cycling on flat roads along the Neretva river to the village of Vid in the town of Metkovic. It had been suggested that we might want to stop along the way at one of the roadside restaurants specializing in from "brodetto" (soup). As far as I know, no one did. Not to worry, however, since the word is that frog is on the menu tonight. Also on the agenda is a short boat ride on the river. 
Approaching Vid
A highlight of the town of Vid, where we are staying, is the archaeological museum directly across the street from our hotel. Vid is built on and next to the ruins of Narona, a Roman trading post which prospered until about the 3rd century AD. A museum has been built upon the site where they discovered the most Roman statues that have been found outside Rome itself. 
Ancient Roman Statue

After arriving in Vid, I discovered that my camera has been inadvertently set to "fisheye" mode most of the day. This has resulted in some useless photos, and a few that are unexpectedly interesting.
Our Hotel in Vid

Tomorrow is the last day of cycling. I then have one day in Dubrovnik before I head for Berllin. This would be routine, except that Croatia Air has been on strike for about a week. Ever the optimist, I will worry about that when I get to Dubrovnik.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Day 9 -- Touring the Island of Korcula and Swimming in the Adriatic

It doesn't get much better than this. Today we had multiple riding options -- long or short, flat or hilly, to the beach or to the interior. I did them all, for a total of 44 miles and just under 6000 feet of climbing. The base route today was a loop which started with our familiar climb from the sea. As we neared the top of the climb, I took the optional out-and-back to the town of Cara. This meant descending almost back to sea level and then climbing back up to the departure point. It was worth it, with another descent on a great paved road with magnificent views of the sea. In Cara I stopped for coffee and then made the return climb.

After getting back on the original loop, there was a very steep descent for 5 kilometers (three miles) down to the sea. 
Typical vista (taken on second major descent of the day).
Here I took the side trip to the small fishing village of Racisce where I joined several of our group and two of the guides for an "Orangina." Refreshed, I pedaled back to Korcula (where our hotel is located) and happened to see four more of our group just starting lunch. I joined them and had an excellent seafood platter.

Then back on the bike and past the hotel for an additional three mile ride to the beach just past Lumbarda.
Cycling through vineyards in Lumbarda
 Here I ran into Ante (one of our guides) and George (another of our riders, last seen at Racisce). Ante joined me for a swim -- there was a small sandy beach and the water had a nice sandy bottom with very few rocks. The water was much warmer than on my previous dip. In a pinch, bike shorts make a very good bathing suit, and they dry off quite quickly in this warm weather.
Swimming in the Adriatic Sea

Finally, back to the hotel, with Ante and I riding together. Time for a shower and a blog update before our nightly group meeting to discuss logistics.
Approaching Corkula
Old Town of Korkula
I forgot to mention that yesterday's breakfast included an offering of freshly prepared mint juice. I had never had this before, but it was quite good. Almost colorless, clearly tasting of mint but not overpowering, and slightly syrupy in texture. Today I noticed a lot of mint growing wild on the side of the road.

Day 8 -- Town of Hvar and Ferry to Island of Korcula

We had a relaxing Pentecost Sunday in the town of Hvar, with lots of opportunities for picture taking and shopping. After a leisurely breakfast and getting the luggage off on the van which would proceed us to the Island of Korcula, we met at 11 for a guided tour of the old town. The plaza in front of the Cathedral is the second largest "open plaza" (one side facing the water) in all of Europe, second only to St. Mark's in Venice. (Hope I got all that right.)

We stopped at the exterior of a Benedictine Convent here the nuns have taken a vow never to appear out of doors. They support themselves by weaving an exquisite lace from the fibers of the agave cactus. Unfortunately, we did not get to see their work because it was Sunday

We continued to climb to the fort -- also very old -- which dominates the horizon above the town. After an informative overview, we enjoyed a picnic lunch which Silvija had carted up. After that we were on our own until our 5pm ferry to Korcula, birthplace of Marco Polo. (Our hotel is the Marko Polo, and we will be here for two nights.)

Last evening, I joined Peter and Mary, George and Laura for a very pleasant dinner overlooking the water at  sunset. We made a family style event of it, sharing a tuna salad, tomato salad, greek salad, octopus salad, lasagna and ad "Chuck Norris" pizza.  It was too late to do the blog, so I am catching up this morning. Due to time constraints, I am lumping all the pictures together at the end.
Fortress at Hvar

Cistern from 1475

Silvija prepares our picnic

our ferry to Korcula

Hotel Marko Polo

View from the fortress at Hvar

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Picture that didn't make it to the last post.

Sunday morning update

No cycling today. We will have a walking tour of the old city of Hvar Including the fortress. Then we transfer by ferry to our next island for more cycling tomorrow.
Dinner last night was excellent as usual. We had a variety of local shellfish and a wonderful vegetable soup based on asparagus.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Day 7 -- Ferry to the Island of Hvar and ride to Hvar town

Aboard our ferry
After a week, I am running out of superlatives to describe the highlights of this trip. The perfect weather was back with us today. Our private "ferry" pulled up right in front of our hotel in Bol, and we loaded bikes, luggage and cyclists aboard for the one hour ride to Jelsa on the Island of Hvar. From the water, I could look back at the Island of Brac and clearly see the high point of Vidova Gora, subject of yesterday's climb.

We arrived in Jelsa around 10 am, too early for lunch, but exactly at the right time for an iced
coffee.  I am not really a fan of iced coffee, but this was a treat.
There was a generous portion of vanilla gelato in the coffee which was then topped with the thickest, richest whipped cream ever. (Hey -- I came up with two new superlatives!) This provided ample fuel for the short, level ride to Stari Grad. 

In Stari Grad, Peter, one of the cyclists in our group was actually able to make contact with some distant relatives in the town. (I am hazy on the details -- will probably learn more at dinner tonight.). I wasn't really ready for lunch in Stari Grad, so I just purchased a pastry in a bakery shop.

From Stari Grad, we had another 400 meter climb from the sea, just as we did yesterday. Of course, today, there was no optional additional climb. At the summit there was a small stand where the proprietor was selling a variety of home made/ home grown lavendar products. I was wearing a cycling jersey from Maui, and the owner greeted me with a hearty "aloha."

As always, a good climb is rewarded with a good descent. In this case, straight back to the sea and the town of Hvar, where we are spending the night. I have been really lucky with my hotel rooms -- almost always having a view of the sea. The room wasn't ready when I arrived, so I had a "lunch" consisting of a cheese plate that would have made an ample appetizer for four people.
Hotel Palace in Hvar

Friday, May 17, 2013

Day 6 Postira to Bol,
Side Trip to Vidova Gora

Although it changed often, the weather was generally cooperative today. We left the hotel around nine and had two hours to reach Pucisca about 16 kilometers away. This was more than enough time, although the terrain was a little hillier than some of us expected. We had a series of ups and downs – what we called “rompapiernas” (legbreakers) in Spain last year. Actually, it wasn’t tough, but it was a good start to another interesting day.

Student Stonemasons
The reason for wanting to be in Pucisca by 11 was that we had a guided tour of the stone carving school there. As I mentioned before, the island of Brac is famous for its limestone, and this school helps to preserve the ancient arts of carving the limestone with only the hand tools that were classically used. The school is a combined high school and trade school with both three and four year programs. The tour was very interesting and informative.

Rocco and Guy
Before the tour started, I had a conversation with Rocco, a local gentleman in his mid-seventies. He had been born in the town, but left for Sydney Australia when he was 24 and stayed for 40 years. He returned to spend his last years in Pucisca. Following an Experience Plus tradition, I gave him an Experience Plus cap so that he could recall his interaction with this bunch of American cyclists.

Following the tour, we began a long, but not terribly steep climb to a spot where we stopped for snacks and a brief rest. At this point, I peeled off from the rest of the group for the climb to Vidova Gora, the highest point in the Croatian Islands.  It crests at 778 meters (about 2550 feet).  Along the way, I experienced a few sprinkles, but no real rain. (Those who went straight on to Bol, our final destination, had some rain.) The climb was actually quite gentle, and I was pleasantly surprised to realize that the top was at 780 meters, not 900 meters as I had somehow implanted in my mind. Unfortunately, there was a lot of fog at the top, so there were no really good views as a reward for all the climbing.   
Approach to Bol
The remainder of the ride to Bol, was generally downhill, and very easy. The last five miles or so consisted of a really nice descent to the ocean along a well paved highway.  Lots of switchbacks provided a variety of scenic views. I was torn between the desire to enjoy the sheer pleasure of the descent and the desire to capture the view with my camera. I ended up making only one photo stop.

After arriving in Bol and freshening up, I rejoined the group. We had a very informative visit to the premier winery on the island where we saw the winemaking process demonstrated and were offered tastings. Although the winery dates back to 1903, it became known for its premium wines under the present ownership – led by a man named Jako. For a while, it was known as “Jako Vino,” but since this translates as “strong wine” they felt the need to change their image, and today the wine is known as Stina. Nonetheless, the Jako Vino logo is fascinating – take a look at the image of the wineglass in the logo – the shape at the top is the outline of the island of Brac.

Dinner was at a small restaurant near our hotel. As usual, it was excellent. The centerpiece was a fish called John Dory, one that I was not familiar with. It was a fairly firm fleshed fish with excellent flavor, and expertly prepared. While awaiting our meal, I captured this photo of a fisherman and his dog.
Fisherman and his Dog

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Day 5 – Loop Ride from Postira

This morning I awoke as the light streamed in the window. Without putting on my glasses, I looked at my iPhone (which doubles as my alarm clock) and decided that I should be getting up since it was 6:40 and breakfast started at 7:00.  Only after getting dressed and looking again, did I discover that it was (by now) 5:50.  No point going back to bed, so I wandered the small village and had an early coffee at a local café.
Sunrise in Postira
By the time we finished a real breakfast at the hotel, the weather was deteriorating. It was very windy and the forecast was for rain. Undaunted, I set out hoping for the best. The base ride for today was a thirty mile loop. I had hoped to add a side trip to climb to the top of Vidova Gora, the highest point in all of the Croatian islands. Just before the turnoff, after battling winds and climbing for an hour and a quarter, I stopped for coffee. On emerging from the small café, I discovered that the rain had escalated from mere spritzing to a steady drizzle. I  put on my full rain gear before resuming. When I reached the turnoff, I decided that more climbing in wind and rain would not be a lot of fun, so I stayed on the loop route and returned to the hotel. Even without the side trip, the day had 3000 feet of climbing.

The winds were really intense. At times it was difficult to hold the bike to a straight line, and since there were no shoulders I generally dismounted whenever a car approached from either direction. Fortunately, the cars were few and far between. Since we are in the same hotel tonight as last night, there were options other than riding, so only four of us actually rode. Others engaged in more leisurely pursuits.
Statue in the Postira Harbor
The island of Brac is noted for its limestone quarries. In fact, the White House was built in 1792 with limestone from here. I saw a few quarrying operations while cycling today. Given the heavy overcast, I did not see a much else of photographic interest. Brac is the third largest island in the Adriatic

Tomorrow’s weather forecast is for more of the same. If we are lucky and the actual conditions are better, I will have an opportunity to approach Vidova Gora from a different direction. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Day 4 – Pedal from Trogir to Split; Ferry to Island of Brac

Today is best described as a blend of the best of Croatia – pedaling through the seven “Kastela,” circumventing traffic via boat, taking a guided walk through the Diocletian Palace in Split (that I was unable to do Saturday night), ferrying to the Island of Brac, and pedaling on to the town of Postira where our hotel is located. The last leg (only about six miles) was easy, and as one of the first people off the ferry and onto the bicycle, I was once again first to the hotel and the proud claimant of the yellow jersey.
Kastela Village Fishermen
Guy in fishing village

The seven Kastela villages are each centered around a 15th or 16th century castle built by the noble families for defense against the Turks. Today, these small fishing villages have largely merged into one. After arriving at the last of these, Kastel Sucuracat, we regrouped and boarded a small boat, just big enough to hold all the bikes and riders. The boat took us to a point not far from the center of SplitSplit, Croatia’s second largest city.
Arriving around noon, we were on our own for lunch until about 2 PM, when we would have our guided tour of the immense palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The family of our of our guides, Ante (who hails from this part of Croatia), met us in Split, and Ante’s father accompanied five of us to a choice local restaurant for lunch. While we enjoyed traditional dishes cooked directly in front of us (the restaurant only holds about 8 people), he kept us spellbound with tales of his life in the Merchant Marine, living under the Tito regime, and about Croatian culture and history. For lunch I had “black risotto” (a rice and squid dish) which was excellent.
Preview of the walking tour 
After lunch, we met a guide for the walking tour of the ancient palace. The tour took a good two hours, and was fascinating. Near the end, we had a brief concert by a group of a capella singers (a Croatian hallmark).
A capella singers

We then boarded an immense ferry for a 45 minute crossing to the Island of Brac, the largest of the central Dalmatian group of islands. We cycled on (about six more miles) to the village of Postira, our home for the next two nights. Today’s riding was extremely leisurely, so when we encountered a decent downhill, I decided that I needed a little more exercise, and stepped up the pace, thus regaining the yellow jersey.
View from Hotel Pastura

Tomorrow is a day filled with options built around a base suggested ride of about 30 miles. If the weather holds, I plan to build on some extra climbing, to the top of Vidova Gora, the highest point on the island of Brac (about 2,550 feet). 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Day 3 – Primosten to Trogir

Looking back at Primosten
Today we moved inland, cycling through olive groves and vineyards. After a few  short but steep climbs, we descended again to the sea and the old town of Trogir (another UNESCO World Heritage site). We were on the road by 9, and even with a very leisurely pace and many photo stops, I was at the hotel shortly after noon. (And I no longer own the yellow jersey.)

The terrain is extremely rocky and it is a wonder that they can eke any crops at all out of it. In the photo on this page, you see grapes and olives growing together on the same inhospitable surface. It was more common to see the grapes set apart, but I doubt that we saw a vineyard as big as an acre. Certainly a far cry from what we see in Napa.

Once again, the weather is delightful. I’ll call it “balmy” today. I am writing this while sitting on the balcony of my room at the Palace Hotel, watching a sailboat pass on its way to the harbor. Lunch and dinner are both on our own today, leaving us lots of time to explore Trogir. The small walled city dates back to the 4th century BC when it was a Greek colony. Later it became a Roman municipality.

View from St. Lawrence Cathedral bell tower
The highlight of the town is St. Lawrence’s Cathedral a romaesque structure begun in 1213 and finished three centuries later. There is a small Treasury in the Cathedral which serves as a museum of several old church artifacts, many dating to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. After visiting the interior, I climbed the bell tower via the rickety stairs (especially the metal ones at the top). The fantastic views in every direction were a nice reward for the climb.

The Palace Hotel

After visiting the Cathedral, I walked through the market area, located outside the walled city. Here I saw several old women selling the small amounts of produce that they had, and several vendors with prodigious quantities and varieties of olive oils, figs and fig products, and honey of many varieties.

We don’t have any really long riding days on this tour – we generally finish fairly early which leaves us lots of time to explore. Today’s ride was 26.6 miles and involved about 2400 feet of climbing.