This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life.

Friday, April 12, 2013

On To Croatia!

The next morning our intent was to head to Pula, Croatia, a long bus journey of about 6 hours. After the conflicts in this region, the old Yugoslavia was finally chopped up into smaller counties. But each demanded, and needed, coastal access. So Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia each made concessions and, though Croatia wound up with the lion's share of the coastline, a journey down the Dalmatian coast does require a traveler to briefly leave, enter another country and then, a few kilometers on, re-enter Croatia. On our way today we were to pass briefly through Slovenia. A new country! But before that we had to get drive through an hour and a half across Italy and cross the border into Croatia.
This is a photo taken the next day actually. Note the snow
at the side of the road.

We got within 15 km of the border with Croatia when traffic came to a complete halt. Slowly inching forward for the next 3 hours we seldom went more than 5-10 mph. It took us two hours to go 3 km. Our schedule was shot to hell and we were not allowed to use the bathroom on the bus. Some explanation was given that, though this bus was built in Germany, here in Croatia, the bathroom can not be used. What? Oh, well. So our fearless leader, told the tour guide that this decision would have to mean more stops along the way so folks could use a public bathroom. We crept on through snow, sleet, rain and an
One of several tunnels we passed through. This one was
four km long. Note the icy road surface
ice storm. The freeway was closed at times and be had to drive across country, sometimes along hair raising cliffs on an icy road. Finally, we got back on the freeway only to drive passed miles of semi trucks all stopped in the slow lane. We kept going somehow. Our guise was a nervous wreck. Or driver looked as cool as a cucumber!

We finally pulled over in some small town after Leslie insisted it was time for a bathroom stop. The guide was far less accommodating than the Venice guide but she relented.

The snow kept falling. More slow highway speeds. We continued to creep along sliding occasionally but making slow, steady progress. The guide called ahead. The city tour had to be canceled due to our lateness of arrival. Then we started figuring out whether or not we'd have to drive right to the concert!

By around 1:30 the bus finally edged across the border into Slovenia. A new country! At the border we had to stop for a few minutes while a border guard came aboard and stamped all our passports which excited all of us since that doesn't often happen in Europe anymore except at arrival and departure in an airport.  Right across the border our driver pulled over in front of a roadside restaurant. It looked questionable but turned out to be the best food we'd had up until then.  Skafye was its name. I had an insalada di pulpo, octopus salad. Perfectly cooked octopus on a bed of greens and I dressed it with the traditional olive oil, red wine vinegar and a little salt and pepper. Others at my table had pastas with various sauces--bolognese, and a delicious truffle sauce that was the winner.

Having had a meal in Slovenia, we could officially claim that we had been to that new country.

Late in the afternoon, the weather began to clear and moderate. We finally arrived in Pula and our hotel. The hotel was supposed to be a resort. If it is it is more like what I would imagine an East German or Russian resort from the communist era would look like. Spartan furnishings, hard beds, the heat was turned off at a certain hour. At one point we turned the water on in the bathroom sink and out ran brown water! I was glad we didn't get up to get a drink in the middle of the night!
The Franciscan Church in Pula. So cold!
Dressed in their formal wear the choir re-boarded the bus for the drive to the church for the first exchange concert, this one with a choir from the University of Pula. It had gotten dark and we had to walk a quarter mile or so up hill to the the performance site--the Franciscan Church of Pula. It looked very old, was all stone with a wooden beamed ceiling and very little ornamentation. It had heat but you'd never know it. It was VERY cold! Our guide told us she didn't think many people would show up since it was so cold. She was so wrong, the church was 3/4 filled with a very enthusiastic crowd.

The Pula choir was made up of about 20 singers only 5 of whom were men. They sang Croatian music which was fun to hear. They only sang for 10 minutes.

The WWU choir took the stage and wowed the crowd with 45 minutes of outstanding music from a wide variety of periods. Of course, the audience was especially appreciative of the American selections. They ended their performance with Hall Johnson's arrangement of, Ain't Got Time to Die. The audience applauded wildly.

Following an informal meeting between the two choirs we walked the short distance to our bus (this time down hill) and were whisked back to the hotel for a late supper. It was welcome but reaffirmed my feeling that we were staying in an old communist era hotel. The food had been sitting on the steam tables all evening and was dried out, pretty basic fare, too. When something ran out it was not replaced. We had to argue with the staff before finally getting a carafe of tap water.

Many students stayed up late in the bar area having fun with other hotel residence, many of whom seemed to be their age. We headed off to bed. Whether an accident or planned, we wound up in a two bedroom apartment. All I can say, beyond what I said earlier about the decor, was that it was big.

After a rather fitful night's sleep on the hard bed, the alarm awoke us for second day in Croatia. We'd packed the night before so we could sleep in a bit more. Breakfast was in the same hotel cafeteria in which we'd had the previous evening's supper. The breakfast didn't change my opinion of the place.  

We drove into Pula for a short morning of sightseeing before heading to our next destination. We had a walking tour through the old town ending with the not-to-be-missed Roman amphitheater. That is what they insisted upon calling it and it is how it is used today, but its history is most definitely that of an coliseum complete with animals and gladiators. Built in 1 A.D., it is either well preserved or well restored, depending on the explanation you listen too. Today it is used only for summer concerts. We took a group photo in the center of the old coliseum, and then went down the ancient steps leading under the arena floor where the animals were kept and the gladiators prepared. Today it is a museum explaining the architecture and housing relics from the period including lots of ancient amphora. Not having been to Rome yet, this was a real thrill for me to see. Definitely a highlight of the trip.

Back on the bus we braced ourselves for the 6 hour journey ahead to the region of the Dalmatian coast where we would spend a couple of days in the city of Zadar.  We made stops every couple of hours for toilet breaks or to have lunch. Our drive took us through the mountains which were covered with the fresh new snow we'd experienced in the ice storm the previous day.  Today it was cold, crisp but sunny and beautiful.

Our travel day finally came to an end when we arrived in front of our hotel in Zadar. It was a beautiful resort hotel sitting right across the street from the Adriatic Sea. Our room had a view of the beach and out onto the sea. Even the room was lovely. Nothing like the communist era accommodations of our previous night. This room reflected the place. It had a nautical look with lots of warm wood accents and was very nicely appointed.

Amphora in the "basement" of the coliseum in Pula.
The choir was surprised by being greeted in the hotel lobby by several members of the choir they will share a performance with tomorrow night. What a kind thing to do. They were warm and happy to see us.  They insisted on taking us on a walk around the old town center, a 10 minute walk from the hotel. Leslie and a former WWU grad student, along on this trip as a member of the tour choir, accepted their invitation and headed off within minutes of our arrival. I chose to stay in for the evening to catch up on my journaling and process the photos I'd taken so far.
I  was fine with it. I find I get to a point where I just need a break from people from time to time and relish the peace and quiet, the calm, the by-myself-time. Leslie is very supportive of my odd
The view out our hotel window in Pula. 
little quirk, though I am sure she wishes I would tag along on her high-speed jaunts. She gets a lot more sightseeing done as a result of being able to go at her own pace.

She rolled in  a few hours later having had a wonderful time and chattering away about what she'd seen. We slept very well that night and awakened this next morning to a mild, sunny day which would be filled with a walking tour of old Pula and what would turn out to be a special experience at that evening's concert. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Ice Cold, Beautiful Venice!

Our flight, though a long 10 hours from Seattle to Frankfurt, was uneventful. Watched a couple of movies, they fed us twice with predictably terrible airline food, but it gave us something to do.

The real adventure began in the Frankfurt airport.  My advice is to avoid that airport if at all possible. It is sado-masochist's dream come true. We landed and, after descending the portable stair system they dragged up to the exit, we were immediately herded onto buses that took us to a terminal where we were herded down one long hallway, then through security all over again, then back down the same hallway only on the other side of the wall, then down four flights of stairs, since the one elevator couldn't begin to handle the demand, then down a VERY long hallway at least a quarter mile long ( I guess we walked under a runway) and back up four flights of stairs. No, not done yet. We were finally in the correct terminal, however, another quarter mile walk was necessary to get to the far end of the A terminal and our gate. By the time we got there they were already beginning the boarding process.  We poured ourselves into our seats, hot and exhausted. The experience was like being a rat caught in a maze. Yikes!

Landing at the Venice airport an hour and a half later, we again had to board a bus. This time, however, the bus drove us all of about 100 yards, and stopped. The doors opened right into the baggage claim area. Laughter erupted inside the bus as everyone realized the absurdity of the situation.

Our Venice guide, Julia greeting us in Venice.
Luggage in hand, we went through the doors that separate passengers from those waiting for them and there, blessedly, was our guide, Julia, holding up a sign--"Western Washington Choir" and smiling warmly.

San Marco square
Julia gathered us up and got us on the bus that would take us to the boat landing. From there we took a vaporetto on an hour long cruise past some of the islands around Venice. She described what we were seeing as we went along. It was a great boat ride and landed us only a few hundred yards from San Marco Square. We walked across four bridges toward the square and when the square opened up to the view of the students, there was an audible "Ahhhh"! from them.  The sun was shining and though quite cold, Venice looked her wonderful.

As we walked along towards San Marco, we were surprised by Ed and Carla Rutschman, professors at WWU who had showed up to greet us. We knew they were in Venice and planned to attend the Palm Sunday concert, but this was a nice surprise.

Typical square tucked away and waiting to be discovered.
Once the students had been given their instructions for where and when to meet, we walked around Venice with Ed and Carla as our guides.  We grazed along the way buying a slice of pizza here, a cone filled with gelato there and even some delicious frommage!

At 6:30 an exhausted and happy group of students met at the two pillars in San Marco near the gondola station to walk over to dinner along the water front. We dined on a primi of ravioli and a secondi of roasted chicken and potatoes.  Our dolce was two more scoops of gelato.

Some students, myself included, were actually falling asleep at the dinner table. We took a shorter boat ride over to the island where we could catch our bus. The ride to the hotel was very quiet. No one could get their room key fast enough. Within minutes, everyone was in their room and quiet. No noise or shenanigans tonight. Only very sleepy people scooting into their warm beds. We did the same but prefaced that with a nice hot shower. 24 hours in the same clothes, running through airports, walking all over Venice in the cold....I don't know how anyone wouldn't have dreamed of a hot shower and a warm bed.  We went to sleep immediately and slept through the night.


Waiting to board our vaporetto.
The next morning gave us a chance to take a better look at the place where we were staying. It was actually a lovely hotel. Very well appointed. We all met in the breakfast room at 7:45 where students entertained us with stories of figuring out how the European electrical and plumbing systems worked. We breakfasted on cheese, ham, croissant, fruit and eggs. The coffee was delicious. It was wonderful to indulge in a typical European breakfast.

It is so fun to watch students who had never experienced any of this before, especially those who are from more sheltered backgrounds, like myself on my first trip to Europe, so long ago. However,  I'd say that a sheltered American in 1972 knew significantly less about the world than one in 2013 what with our access to so much
more information today.

We boarded our bus again for the trip back to the island where we could catch a boat and retrace our steps from the night before. This morning there was a light but steady rain greeting us in San Marco Square and it was cold. Students had brought along there formal wear for the concert mass they would perform later in the day. We walked a short distance to a store room our guide had arranged for and dropped off the items they would not need until the concert.

Students took turns singing Italian arias while
riding the gondolas. The gondoliers were impressed!
After giving them their instructions for the day, everyone walked off in different directions.

We had prearranged to meet the Rutschman's for lunch at noon. They treated us at a place just off San Marco Square. We each got the 16 tourist meal which turned out just fine.

A city tour preceded an afternoon gondola ride. Our group was scattered between 7-8 gondolas, about 6 per boat. Students took turns singing Italian arias and other art songs they knew. Scattered applause was offered from along the shore and above on the bridges where small crowds gathered when they heard the lovely singing echoing off the buildings in the narrow canals.  It was wet, cold and wonderful. It was magical, just the way a gondola ride should be.

Entrance to Saint Mark's.
At around 5 we headed over to the church to get changed for the concert. The same two guys behind the counter tried their best to hurry everyone. We walked behind San Marco and, plopped our belongings in the seldom seen crypt below the church and headed upstairs.

I left the group to go out front and see the vespers service before their mass.  Very uninspiring. 45 minutes of a cantor, seemingly bored stiff based on his delivery, exchanging unrecognizable phrases with the congregation.

The mass began and the choir sang beautifully! Ubi Caritas, There is a Balm in Giliad and a couple of other pieces all performed in the appropriate places during the mass.

The WWU choir sings a mass in San Marco!
The congregation indicated its appreciation at the end of the service after the priest introduced the guest choir. Leslie had hoped the choir could sing a few extra pieces after the mass but the minute the mass was over someone hit the light switches and the place was all but dark. Thanks, now get out! Friendly place. We'd been told the choir couldn't sing more pieces because they were having special tours for special guests after the mass. Baloney! They were closing up shop.

Dinner was at a little restaurant a few minutes walk from the church. Nothing to write home about. A lasagna al Forno, a veal cutlet dry and tasteless without any sauce with a few roasted potatoes and a dish of hazelnut ice cream which was the high point of the meal.

We walked back to our boat that would take us to the bus. The high tide had come in with a vengeance  and the elevated walkways, I had seen pictures of in magazine stories, had been put up to allow us to keep our feet dry. The sea was coming in over the sea wall and washing across the walkways. It was raining sideways and so cold.

The WWU choir loved their ride in a gondola.
Nothing could dampen their spirits. Not even
the cold, rainy weather.
A boat took us back to the island to our bus and dropped us off. The skipper was obviously in a big hurry hollering at everyone to get on quickly, a dangerous thing to do under the wet and stormy conditions. The dock was slippery and rocking due to the tidal surge. Then he insisted we hurry off when we arrived.

Cold, wet, freezing and exhausted,  we marched over to the bus station where we bus!  The driver had forgotten the pass to be able to cross the Freedom Bridge to the island and had to wait for someone to bring it to him. So we sat on the cold concrete floor and waited, and waited and waited--for an hour.
We slept the sleep of the dead again. Our last night in Venice. Up early, we breakfasted in the hotel, then boarded the bus that would take us on the next leg of our adventure and to Pula, Croatia! A new country!