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what kind of paradise is this?

One of the recurring themes in all the articles and books I’ve read on Croatia and Slovenia is that it’s a “foodie paradise.”

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but in order to qualify as a foodie paradise, don’t you have to achieve total dining fulfillment at least 4 times a week?

I’m eating at the same places Travel and Leisure, Fodors, Lonely Planet and the New York Times are waxing poetic about, and I’m just not tasting the poetry. No paroxysms of sublime pleasure wafting over my tongue. Maybe I need to adjust my prozac doseage.

Are these travel writers just blissed out by the environment? Are they that starved for good food? Or do they just read the same damn articles and travel guides we do and regurgitate them back to us? Have they even BEEN here?

The food is good, granted. Seafood is the main lure and it’s all fresh. Really, really fresh. In Rovinj, to inaugurate the seafood portion of the trip, we order the mixed seafood appetizer. When I finally summon the courage to try the “tartuffo” (a clam like item), I raise my fork to it and the blob visibly recoils. My niece and I respond by audibly recoiling. Our screams echo through Rovinj. That’s a little too fresh for my tastes.

There are only two times during the 16 day trip I rolled my eyes back in orgasmic bliss while eating something. One was the Calamari at Lokanda Fontana in Trogir. And the other was the fried rocket (arugula) at Sesame near the Hilton in Dubrovnik — it’s the only time I’ve ever seen fried rocket on a menu and now I crave it. If they sold it in grocery stores and fast food places, it would be my favorite snack.

My first sour cream and onion Pringle in Porec also rocked my world, but I’m told Pringles is not a strictly Croatian delicacy.

We also had a really great dinner at Hanibal in Hvartown and a terrific lunch in Cavtat at Leut on the waterfront past the little market.

But a couple of really good meals does not warrant all the foodie paradise blather I’ve been seeing, I’m sorry.

Now, pitch me an article about it being an ice cream paradise and I’m 100% behind you (that’s 124% with butterfat). I’m not sure what it is about the ice cream in this part of the world. The huge fluffy mountains in pretty colors, the endless assortment, the fact none of it is made by a chain so no two “berry jubilees” are alike. You eat it because it’s there. Soon it’s an integral part of your vacation.I guess you could say ice cream has been my significant other on this trip. Through thick and thin, darkness and light, it’s been there for me. Soothing me when I need solace, and heightening my joy during moments of happiness. And even with ice cream, it turns out I’m a fickle, faithless whore.

Up until now, I’ve always been pretty monogamous to chocolate. But somewhere between Ljubjuna and Rovinj, maybe it because it’s was hot, I ordered forest berry. After that, there was no turning back. There is no berry on the continent that I haven’t savored in all it’s rich creamery glory. I intersperse the berry flavors with an occassional Snickers, black forest, banana split, german chocolate, pistachio, mandarin, Almond Joy, tiramisu, macaroon just to keep things interesting. I don’t know whether I’ll go back to chocolate when I get back, but I do know I’ll regret it for the rest of my life if I don’t try the cinnamon.

I suppose if we consider ice cream cones a square meal, I might be able to accept the title “foodie paradise.” I guess it’s not too much of a stretch when you consider that a cone has dairy and grain (in the cone) and if you add some nuts and a fruit flavor, you’ve got the protein and fruit and veggie part of the food pyramid covered. I’ve long considered a scoop of chunky monkey an excellent well-rounded breakfast.

I’m not denying that Croatia is paradise. It definitely is. It’s a paradise for people who like a little history mixed in with their stunning natural scenery and beaches. It’s paradise for people who love to travel but hate tourists. And for people who have to plan birthday vacations for three generations of family to enjoy, it’s as close as you’re going to get to paradise. I happen to believe the place is magical. It would have to be. I just spent 16 days here with three generations of family and it only aged me a year.

the halfway point

Trogir and Split are the halfway point of this trip. This is officially where the Dalmation coast begins. Where North turns into South. This is also where the trip is halfway over. We’ve been tromping through foreign countries together for about a week and half now.

For me, the halfway point is a time of taking stock. This is when I start counting how many days are left and wondering whether I can stretch 3 days worth of underwear into 7 days without washing anything. This is when I wonder if that tickle in my throat is allergies or a cold. Or bird flu (or whatever the next great plague will be). This is where I decide I don’t need to shave my legs again because nobody is looking at them anyways except in this case,  my mother (and yes, she is judging me).

The halfway point is where we start having heated arguments about which direction the airport was in Zagreb. Who had the lamb in that place between Ljubljana and Rovinj. Whether using the the word “Mongoloid” is racist when uttered with a pure heart. A vicious “discussion” about the relative merits of watching college football vs Oprah threatens to end my parents’ 51 year marriage.

This is always a dangerous juncture in any vacation because it’s usually the time where horrible secrets are revealed (my niece likes German boy bands), dreams, expectations are shattered (George Clooney does not have a villa here) and the wounds inflicted earlier in the trip (or in life) become scabs to be picked at.

if you’re traveling with relatives, It’s also the point where you discover great truths about them that explain why your family is doomed to an endless cycle of dysfunction.

One raging disorder reveals itself (again) when we check into the Villa Sikeaa in Trogir. In every hotel so far, my mother has wanted OUR room. Even if the rooms are exactly alike, there’s something about our room that looks better to her. If it’s bigger she wants it, if it’s smaller, she wants it. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, It seems totally reflexive.  Not a day has gone by where my mother hasn’t sighed several times a day and exclaimed “your room is better”. Katherine and I decide to conduct an experiment.

The minute Mom makes the inevitable comment that she likes our room better (often entering the lobby upon arrival), we offer her our room. She takes it gratefully. After we’ve moved rooms and it becomes hers, she’s happy for about an hour. The next time she comes to our room, she looks around and sighs “your room is better.” I’m sure there are deep psychological implications in this story, but I’ll ignore it for now because it makes me laugh (In a hysterical, rocking back and forth, emotionally scarred kind of way.)

Trogir is a great in between place. It’s a medieval village (what a surprise!) and UNESCO World heritage site. The entire old town is smaller than the Lobby of the Empire State building and surrounded by a small canal. It’s packed with tiny shops, a church, ice cream vendors and restaurants. .

On one side of the old town is the market. It’s not as “pretty” as the market in Rovinj, but it has its charm. Here, they recycle old bottles to bottle their homemade grappa and other herbal concoctions. A smart shopper can get a Croatian farmers’ homemade berry and lavender grappa in a classic coke, Herbal Essensence, or Crisco bottle for the equivalent of 3 Euro. In my opinion, that kind of souvenier gives you more bang for your buck than a “Simpsons in Trogir” tee shirt.

On the other side of the old town is the small harbor (a two minute walk), guarded by an ancient stone fort. Our hotel is across the harbor (a 5 minute walk) and affords a great view of the old town. Gorgeous boats park in the tiny harbor. Our room has a birds eye view and I shop for potential husbands in the comfort of my hotel room during the hot midday hours. We’re in the south now, so everything and everyone has a golden glow.

There’s something about Trogir that isn’t conducive to cultivating negativity or wallowing in psychological wounds. The only time I come close to crossing over to the dark side in Trogir is at night when those loud motorbikes blast by our hotel. I spend an hour parked at the window with a big glass of water, waiting to douse the next offender. Thankfully, my attention deficit disorder prevents me from spending the entire night poised at the window in ready-to-splash position.

Split on the other hand, has meltdown written all over it. There’s always a palpable tension in our car when nearing a city, When we round the bend and see Split’s sprawling metropolis, the tension rises into what can only be described as a shrill escalating siren sound in my brain.

I try to drown it out by engaging in a little genial rhetorical chit-chat with myself. “So, this is where Diocletian decided to retire back in 300 AD. Probably a shrewd real estate investment. Highly desirable location. It was probably a lot nicer back then. Without all the communist era buildings, rigs and industrial crap.”

The further into Split we go, the more panicky I become. Maybe we should turn back now. We’ll NEVER get out of here.. I don’t even know who Diocletian was, why the hell do I need to see his goddamn palace? And just when I think Split can’t get any more horrifying, we find ourselves at the gates of the old town, where cars dare not go. Our hotel is in here somewhere.

The pros of staying in the old city (which in Split is everything within the walls of Diocletian’s place) is you get the place all to yourselves in the evenings when the tour groups have departed. The con is finding your hotel once you find the old city. And as we recently learned, medieval villages and roman palaces were not built for driving.

I decide this is a good place to abandon the car along with everything in it. I clamor out and immediately become entranced by some shiny object at a nearby market stall flanking the old city wall. Mom and Dad are calling me, but I am hypnotized by the bright shiny object. Must watch bright shiny object. Cannot get back in car. Will see you later at hotel. Must. watch. shiny. object.

While they’re watching the shiny object, I vanish behind the gates and into another world. Inside the walls, it’s like a fairy kingdom. Modern life coexists with 1800 year old ruins. Ice cream every two steps, . Blue water and sky peaking in through roman gates. Amazing ruins intermingled with fabulous boutiques!

There’s something about the old town waterfront that reminds me of Nice. The palm lined promenade. An air of grandeur tainted with a whiff of seediness. The ferry docks are right next to the harbor and the walls of the Palace, so the view is a more romantic if you blur your eyes a little bit.

At night the lighting in the old town is dramatic and some group is playing classical music near the entrance of the Palace. It’s not the least bit crowded. I can’t remember the last time I cursed a German. Since we’re staying inside the walls of the old city, we can ignore the rest of Split. We’re taking a ferry to the Island of Hvar tomorrow morning.

Try as I might, I’m not finding the angst here. I’m starting to wonder if I should do something to induce it, just to get it over with. But that wouldn’t be in keeping with my new “let life happen” philosophy and decide against it. I’m sure the meltdown will happen in it’s own good time.

Right now I’m perfectly happy sitting on the waterfront with my ice cream cone looking at a calm sea under a cloudless sky.

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