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driving in france

Gilli told me about a time she drove to Nice.   She drove around Nice for two hours looking for a parking place where she wouldn’t have to put the car in reverse, didn’t find one and drove back home.    Makes perfect sense to me.

I can’t think of one time I’ve driven in France when I didn’t want to turn around and go back home.   Unfortunately, I’m usually unable to because I often find myself on really narrow one-lane roads that require putting the car into reverse,  Often a cliff is involved.

The ubiquitous manual transmission

Most of the cars here have manual transmissions.   Many car rental places don’t even offer automatic transmissions and if they do, you will pay dearly for one.   But as I have learned, if you share my fear of stick shifts, you’ll also pay dearly without one.

Even though I learned to drive a manual transmission and I understand the concept, when I try to put it into action, my brain gets all flustery.    I swear I lose about 70% of my IQ focusing on my hand to brain to foot coordination.   If I’m driving the car correctly, chances are, I’m using all available brain cells and I won’t be able to answer a relatively simple question that I can normally answer in a heartbeat ( like ‘what do they call that thing over there?’ Answer:   a stop sign)

this is what the French consider an intermediate sized car

Apparently many French people have the same sense of panic when forced to drive an automatic transmission.   I’m told they are at a total loss as to what to do with their hands and spare foot.   Stupid French people!

Transportation, not lodging

Unlike cars in the US, French cars are not designed to provide all the comforts of home.  Cars are smaller in France.   And for good reason….so are the roads.    Some of the cars are so small, you couldn’t live in them unless you were permanently wedged into the fetal position (or amputated your legs, which would make shifting gears even more difficult).

Get off my ass, Frenchie!!!!

In France, if you are not driving above the speed limit, chances are you’ll be enjoying a steady view of french drivers in close detail in your rear view mirror.   Even if you’re on a roadway with lanes and they can easily pass you, they’ll be there.    I’m told it’s not an act of aggression.   They’re not in a hurry or trying to push you off the road.   It’s just the way they drive.   Good to know, but I wish they’d stop.

Road laissez faire

So far, the only road rage I’ve encountered in France has been my own.   The French are actually fairly mellow drivers.   I’ve often checked my rear view mirror to see if the drivers behind me are cursing me, flipping me off or calling the police.   I rarely see expressions of impatience or rage and in the rare instances it usually turns out the driver is from Belgium.

I’ve done things that I’d be shot for on a California road and I don’t even get the finger here in France.   Maybe a quick honk..   But they seem to take all delays in stride. Which I guess is easier to do when you have four hour lunch breaks.

The beauty and splendor of hazard lights

The first thing the car rental personal always shows me when I start the car for the first time and it immediately shudders to a stop is where the hazard light is.  They’re a godsend.  When I stall, I turn the hazard light on so the people waiting behind me will assume the problem is my car instead of me.   It takes a little bit of the pressure off.

Roundabouts

These little arteries are the most mortifying thing about driving in Europe.

Not only do you have to downshift and yield, you have to read the signs in order to get on the right road, because once you’re on the wrong road, god knows when you’ll be able to get off.   You may wind up in Bratislavia before you find a graceful exit.

The only way to survive the roundabout is to stay calm and try to ignore the fact that there are other drivers on the road.   Go around as many times as you need to even if it takes all day.   Relax and remember that the worst thing that can happen (besides a fatal collision with a truck) is you’ll take the wrong road.   And you can always pull a u turn and double back from Bratislavia.

Toll roads

Oh how I love the toll roadways of France!   There are several lanes, they’re smooth and well kept and you hardly have to shift!   Unfortunately, they had to go and ruin it with frequent toll booths that force one to down shift, stop, manuever through little gates, take tickets, pay and do more shifting.

The pay booths are particularly difficult because I don’t understand the signs indicating which lanes you want to be in for your payment option.   You can pay with coins, you can pay a person and you can use a credit card.

There are icons over each toll booth lane indicating whether there’s a human or machine to take your payment.   Don’t worry if you wind up in the wrong lane.   If you stall in an unmanned tollbooth while searching frantically for the correct change, eventually someone will come out and help you.   Don’t expect them to speak English though.

A note about horrid little medieval villages

Who doesn’t love a charming medieval village?   Well, that’s how I refereded to them before I had to drive through a few.   Avoid them at all costs.   Sure, St Paul de Vence is lovely, Antibes totally rocks as do Les Arcs, Les Baux and Arles.   But don’t go there, unless you park well outside the city limits In a spot with lots of space.   Like the Sahara desert

You can always see nice pictures of those villages in books or online.

dubrovnik. heaven on earth, 18 hours a day

When you’re driving into Dubrovnik, you don’t see it coming. Even when you cross the modern, soaring bridge that looks like wishbones, you’re still wondering “where’s Dubrovnik?  Then you drive around a few more curves, take the Dubrovnik exit, look down the windy road, and gasp.    It’s a huge walled city/fortress built on top of cliffs and rocks overlooking the Adriatic. Everything around it is a jewel toned–the lush green suburb dotted by colorful flowers, the sparkling azure Adriatic..

In fact,  the only thing ugly in Dubrovnik is my mood.

katherine rolling eyes at us under photo of man rolling eyes

It’s about 8:00 PM and we’re about three hours later than our scheduled arrival time.

My dad is checking in to the hotel but there seems to be a problem.  But when I ask what the problem is, my dad screams across the lobby (even though I’m only two feet away) for me to” shut up and fetch his goddamn glasses from the car!”. How rude. How disrespectful. How crass. I scream some shrill obscenity back at him, but try to do so tastefully.

After dropping my bag in our room in the scullery maid’s quarters, I storm the old city gates (the Hilton is conveniently located just outside the Pile gate) and head for the nearest ice cream stand. Like any good bartender, the ice cream guy tries to distract me from my problems. He flips my scoop of forest berry into the air and catches it on my cone. I regress about 40 years and giggle in appreciation of his skill.

My cone and I stroll the Stradum, a wide main promenade of shiny marble slabs that gleam like ice. We look in store windows. We get kicked out of europe’s oldest pharmacy (they don’t allow cones, which I consider racist in this day and age). We climb the tiny sidestreets leading up hills to a series of outlooks that are just slightly different from the last one, but all worth seeing.

We pass a wall and a gate, taking us to Dubrovnik’s small stone harbor. I didn’t notice at the time a hulking beheomoth cruise ship lying quietly in wait to devour Dubrovnik tomorrow morning before scuttling off to Venice for her next meal.

The next morning I make peace with the family over breakfast at 8:30, hit the old city by 9:00, by 9:30 I have a brand new tee shirt and a pistachio ice cream cone and all is right with the world..

Then the crowds start pouring in and I get a chance to see the ugly side of Dubrovnik. Between the hours of 10AM – 4PM, the jewel of the Adriatic becomes the jewelry store of     the Adriatic.

Hundreds of cranky men of various nationalities line the Stradum, waiting impatiently outside jewelry stores for their wives. The theme is so prevalent, I start filming them. While capturing one such cranky man in front of a jewelry store. He looks at his watch, “tsks” and glares inside the jewelry shop. Then he makes a threatening gesture in the window and starts to walk away. It isn’t until he stops and storms back that I realize I’m filming my Dad.

After he destroys the video tape, We manage to drag mom out of Richard’s jewelry boutique #3 in Dubrovnik for a refreshing beverage and snack. But we lose her again at Trinity Jewelers and just hope she knows where to return when it’s time to leave Dubrovnik.

It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago the Yugoslavian army left this place in ruins. It’s only from the wall I can see the only visible effects of the war. The predominantly, redder colored rooftops indicate where reconstruction was needed.

The hour and a half walk around the wall also provides eight million of Dubrovnik’s finest views and is best in the morning or late afternoon when the sun isn’t raging. You’ll get an inside look at 1200 years of history as well as a peek at modern peoples’ kitchens and backyards. Someone even has a little orchard growing on the rooftops of Dubrovnik.

cavtat

cocktails on the rocks

 

I also recommend walking through t

he old town early in the morning or late at night when you can hear your footsteps echo; A 40 minute boat ride to the town of Cavtat during the 10-4 Dubrovnik tourist hours, Have lunch on the harbor; Back in Dubrovnik, Have a drink on the cliff rocks on the outside of the Dubrovnik walls facing the sea in the afternoon.

Dubrovnik is a testament to forgetting the past and moving forward. They’ve survived foreign invasions that are hard to imagine. And yet here she is, a beacon on the Adriatic, glowing with the hope that no matter what destruction may befall us, pleasure and beauty can always endure. Sure, there are still grim reminders from past onslaughts. But the tour bus will pick them up by 4:30.

See more pictures of Dubrovnik

the lavender fields of hvar

I’ve been wanting to go to Hvar ever since I knew there was a Hvar. I think the clincher was “the island is covered in lavender fields which scents the air”.

I’m not an island person, but I’m a sucker for a good smell. And lavender has all these amazing properties, aromatherapeutically speaking. It picks you up and calms you down. It’s not only a disinfectant and repels bugs, it also soothes, balances and restores the spirit. It even cures headaches when rubbed on temples and nausea when rubbed onto the fifth chakra (which is the throat…or Achilles tendon, I just rub it on both to be sure). Just think how great it’ll be to be naturally surrounded by it. It sounds like the herbal good smelling therapeutic equivalent of a speedball or Irish coffee.

Hvar itself is an emerald green island under aquamarine skies surrounded by a sapphire sea (in case anyone wants to commemorate the trip in jewelry).

The port in Starigrad looks like a big skating rink, which makes me nervous right off the bat. We aren’t staying in the old town here, so we should be able to find our hotel easily. Unless all the buildings look like skating rinks.

It’s about an hour and a half boat ride from Split to Starigrad, Hvar. And a winding 20 minute drive from Starigrad to Hvar town.

I become downright jittery when the arrow pointing the direction of our hotel, the Podstine, indicates it has only one star. The car trembles with the force of my mother’s shudders.

We pull over so we can regroup from the shock. Our eyes are hollow with horror as we imagine the implications.

Finally Dad breaks the silence and posits tightly, that ”at 200 a night, it can’t be one star. It must be a mistake” Yeah. I rejoin, feebly, saving my strength to break the waves of queasiness lashing at me. I unroll the car window desperately, remembering that the Lavender air should help sooth my nausea. I don’t smell the lavender. The fields must be further inland.

Up until now, I’ve been using the bottle of lavender essential oil strictly for medicinal purposes: repelling bugs, swabbing pink spots on cheeks. But right about now I really need a balancing, soothing whiff. I rub a dab into my temples and breath deeply.

The Podstine is modern and blends in with the stone cliffs overlooking the Adriatic From the lobby off the tiny road.  The hotel is built down, into the rocks, rather than on top of them. The lobby is on the top floor. So are our rooms. Nice, big, bright, clean rooms. With big balconies and sea views. Downstairs there’s a restaurant and café with tables on the deck. And a lower deck for lounging by the side of the world’s most gorgeous swimming pool—the Adriatic, It’s very nice.

Katherine on balcony of podstine hotel, relieved.

That’s one more potential disaster averted.

It’s a pleasant 20 minute walk from the Podstine into Hvar Town, yes, another medieval village. We chose not to stay in the Old town this time because I’d seen Hvar Town on an episode of “Wild on” and decided it would be good to sleep at a safe distance. A good choice since at 3 in the morning you can still hear music blaring from the direction of Hvar town on the hotel balcony.

But Hvar town is cool with the big fortress on the hill above the small harbor. And of course, the little shops. And sometimes the square becomes so happening, it doesn’t seem like the small town can handle it. Like the night they had Miss Croatian Universe Pageant. We catch a part of it on the way back from dinner one night. Katherine becomes offended by and wanders back to the hotel ahead of us. After the Croatian Stephen Tyler performance, the pageant continues. We watch until mom becomes offended that Dad is enjoying it.

Hvar is a good place to read, swim, and wander medieval streets and shops, eat ice cream, nap. But it’s so pretty, you’ll want to nap with your eyes open.

But there is one problem: the air is NOT scented with lavender. Apparently some big fire destroyed all the lavender fields on this side of the island three years ago.

This could be a problem because I was counting on that lavender scent and its soothing properties.

Now you may wonder why I need to be soothed. Hasn’t everything gone remarkably well? Even my biggest concern (plitvice lodging) has turned out happily. Hvar is blissful, what the heck am I so stressed out about?

Perhaps you don’t understand the anxiety involved in waiting for something to go wrong You know it will. It’s only a matter of time. In fact, by your schedule, things should have gone to shit at least twice by now. This is unsettling. You don’t want to be caught off guard. God forbid you should be too happy and comfortable when it happens. And you can’t help thinking that the longer you have to wait for something to go wrong, the worse that something will be.

Mom swimming in the Adriatic

My family feels it too. And the stress of having nothing major to complain about shows itself in little ways.

My dad simmers with anger because the hotel waiter serves us too much food.

My mother sighs and sadly reflects that my grilled lobster looks better than her grilled lobster, Katherine announces that if she sees another grilled fish she’ll puke. I splash lavender oil on all seven chakras.

When my elbow hits the knob that adjusts the water temperature in the shower, giving me an unwelcome blast of cold water,  I curse god’s tyranny and shower myself in lavender oil.

Sure, we may look rested, tan, well fed and healthy, but we are obviously at the ends of our ropes. And we reek of lavender.

When I get to the check out desk with my luggage, my dad and the guy with a cold sore are conspiring. If we leave now, drive an hour and a half to the other ferry port, we can catch the 11:30 ferry on the other side of the Island that takes us to Drvenek which is only a half hour ferry ride and we’ll end up an hour and a half closer to Dubrovnik than if we ferry back to Split and drive from there as originally planned. It’ll save a lot of time. But we have to go now. There are too many numbers in this plan for my little brain to process.

I ignore the nagging sense of foreboding. There’s something about the math here that isn’t adding up. But I’m a mathematical moron, so I defer to the wisdom of my dad and cold sore guy. Cold sore guy must know more about getting around Croatia than I do. When I look at the map, it almost makes sense. And maybe we’ll see some lavender fields.

We race the island’s narrow winding roads to catch the ferry. Well, my mother is driving, so we race in a safe, leisurely manner. We elected mom to drive the narrow, windy roads. figuring she’s going to be clutching, steering and pumping the breaks no matter who is driving. So we might has well let her actually drive. We’re hoping this will give her a sense of control. On this outing she vacillates between taunting the asshole on her tail to pass her or cursing the old goat in front of her who is driving too slow.

We’re in the middle of nowhere, Hvar (who knew a little Island could be so big?) By now it’s only an hour until the ferry leaves. We’re supposed to be there an hour early and god knows how far the damn ferry port is from here. From every point we see a bay that “must be it.” that isn’t.

Despite the fact I’m sweating lavender, I open the bottle for a few more drops. And at this moment, the car screeches to a halt followed by thud and impact. I pull my neck out trying to catch the lavender oil bottle which has been jolted from my hands.

Everyone in the car is checking their most valuable possession to make sure it’s okay. Mom is checking her lipstick. Dad is patting his Cal Bears fall football schedule. Katherine is checking her face and boobs. And I’m grieving my last drops of lavender which are now a part of the floor mat.

I don’t know whose fault the accident was. I was too busy trying not to be car sick at the time to notice.

The Bosnian guy who slammed into us is nice and concerned. But his wife sickens me. She’s so busy protecting her own ass from possible litigation, she can’t see my suffering. Here I am with an empty lavender bottle and a stiff neck and she’s blithely saying “at least everyone is okay.” Then she tries to imply that my stiff neck and lost lavender are the result of my own negligence because I wasn’t wearing my seat belt. But I was. Jesus, whatever happened to humanity and compassion? My neck feels pretty much better. So feeling fairly certain I won’t be able to sue her for making me an invalid, I can pretend to have lost movement of my entire lower body whenever she looks at me.

We take care of the business and continue to the ferry, knowing deep in our souls that we’re screwed. The feeling is confirmed when we turn a corner, expecting to see the harbor ahead and being faced with a long narrow highway of bumper to bumper cars, all waiting to get on the 25 car ferry.

Judging by our count, we’ll have to wait for two more ferries to get on. The third ferry today departs at 6:30PM. It’s 11;30 AM and the perfect storm has just converged.

Rage short circuits my brain. I’m quiet, but I know sparks are flying all over the car. I want to destroy everyone responsible for this. Starting with the guy with the cold sore guy back at the hotel. Do we have time to drive back, torture him thoroughly and still catch the later 4;30 ferry from Starigrad? The thought makes me carsick. My neck hurts. This is all THEIR fault. Everyone elses. Nobody appreciates me. I’m an idiot. I should never have listened to dad and the guy with the cold sore. I’ll probably GET a cold sore. I’ll need lavender for that cold sore I’m going to get and now I’m out. And mom and dad and Katherine are breathing what little is left of MY scented air! It’s so typically thoughtless. We’re stuck here in the car. For six hours. But nobody stops to think that maybe I NEED that air? Jeez, do I have to actually sit here for 6 hours with these barbarians? Katherine sighs. I glare at her and she sighs again. A big sigh. That’s unnecessary waste of my scented air. MOM! Katherine is pigging my air. Like they care. They’ve always liked Katherine better than me. Why? Why am I forced to endure being stuck on the tip of this godforsaken island, with nothing to do except check out some goddamn lavender fields?

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.

up plitvice lakes without a paddle

I planned this little three generational Croatian adventure. Airlines, hotels, car rental, ferries, you name it. The only place I hadn’t nailed down at least a month in advance was Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. The three huge hotels in the actual national park are handled through the national tourist office and I was told by email, all booked. But “with my patience, they will give me some ideas for other accomadations.” What they didn’t tell me is that I’d have to be patient until the moment we get here.

Nobody I ever met has even heard of Plitvice Lakes. How can it be booked? It’s about four hours from Rovinj, south and inland to Plitvice National Park and World Heritage site. It’s sort of in the middle of nowhere, so the risk is high. It’s supposed to be spectacular. I’m not a woodsy type of person, but for some reason, I mus see Plitvice Lakes. Somehow it will all work out.

After four hours in the car I’m getting a little panicky. There sure are a lot of empty tour buses driving out. Does that mean nobody came or they’re all staying at one of our hotels? What if it’s another three hours to Plitvice the hotels are all booked and we have to find a place to sleep in the dark? What if we can’t find a place and have to sleep in the car? Someone please just throw me off this spectacularly gorgeous waterfall now! Hey, we’re in Plitvice.

They weren’t lying. The place is beautiful and the three huge ugly hotels with separate parking for tour buses really are booked.

Which leaves us two options: go to the tourist office and find lodging or drive through the valley haphazardly looking for houses advertising sobe, zimmers and kamere for the night.

Of course, we make the obvious choice and spend the next hour on the road, discussing the various merits of places with sobe zimmer and kamere signs as we drive past them.

Then we decide that this isn’t really furthering our cause and venture into a few of the nicer looking driveways. Only to be rebuffed. Sometimes they hold up a “No” sign. Sometimes they shake their head and glare. We even get chased down one driveway. We can’t help but take it personally, even though the places really do look full. My mother takes to muttering “yeah, well, screw you, too!’ as we beat our retreats.

This leaves us no choice. Somebody is going to have to get out of the car and talk to a Croatian.

I’m tired and blame not having reservations here on Croatia. And I blame mom and dad, of course, because this whole trip is their fault. If they weren’t paying for this trip, we wouldn’t be in this mess.   Let them deal with it. I’ve dealt with everything else. I’m too frazzled and frail and delicate to cope any more. Katherine stays in the car in solidarity with my frazzled, frail delicateness…or maybe just to stake out her spot in the car to sleep tonight.

When mom and dad emerge from the tourist office looking triumphant, my heart leaps in hope. “There’s a house with two sobes with bathrooms and everything. Right over there” (they wave vaguely in a direction). My heart sinks in despair.

Our lodging is supposed to be about 20 minutes outside the park, way up a winding road on cliffs we could easily fallen to our deaths from. I’m happy to say we don’t die and find the place relatively easily.

It’s almost disgustingly picturesque. A small farm with a vegetable patch, some chickens, ducks geese, pigs, turkeys, goats, kitties, dogs and a brand new litter of three rolling puffs of fur. It’s a veritable petting zoo. We’re overlooking a gorge or valley or some other natural formation I don’t know the name of. I’ll tell you one thing, no tour bus could get up here.

The rooms are fine. Probably 1/2 star.   There are some ants but we give them a good splashing of pure Croatian lavender oil and hope they’ll go away, The environment is a lot nicer than the groddy hotels that rejected us. And everyone knows that the scent of lavender is balancing and soothing.

The smiling proprietress gives us a short tour in Esperanto. She points to herself and says “Mama”. She points to my mother and says “Mama”. She points to the puppies’ mother and says “mama”. We now know everything we need to know and settle in for the night.

I take a deep breath of the lavender scented room.   As long as these aren’t flesh eating ants, I think we’ll be okay.

 

you gotta love these quaint goddamn medieval villages

We’re spending three nights in the village of Rovinj. Our hotel is in the middle of the medieval old town where attempting to maneuver a car gives mere mortals a nervous tic. You don’t see many SUVs let alone Hummers in this part of the world.

The Angelo D’Oro, is probably the closest thing to a boutique hotel you’ll find in this neck of the woods. It’s a converted townhouse. Homey. Small. Decorated with antiques. It’s got a garden where breakfast, drinks and dinner is served. There’s also a tiny covered porch area near the roof great for kicking back and enjoying the view or a book.

The other recommended hotel options are outside the walls of old Rovinj in big old communist block buildings which offend our sensibilities. The main downside is instead of having the luxury of a paved path to a pool, our hotel choice forces us to walk up the narrow street past the church courtyard to the edge of Rovinj and climb down some rocks to swim in the Adriatic. Here, People sunbathe on the rocks that jut out from the cafes bars homes and churches overlooking the sea. They look like happy flesh colored seals in unbecoming bathingsuits. I love the picturesque-ness of it. And the sight confirms my deeply held belief that humans are not meant to be a sunbathing species. But damn that water looks good.

I particularly like the outdoor market in Rovinj (just outside the wall). The fruit and vegetables all look particularly luscious, big and ripe. And they have great looking bottles with herbs and fruits in them that facinate and tempt me even though deep in my heart, I know they’re grappa. It’s the only market I’ve seen that sells colorful strings of various whole, raw seasoning…laurel, different colored hot peppers, garlic and other stuff that are really beautiful in the simple arrangements The first day in Rovinj we bought fruit and stuff from the market and had lunch on the hotel roof porch.

I’ll always remember Rovinj because my first work of art is acquired here. For my birthday present (like the trip isn’t enough) my parents bought me An oil painting done by a local artist of a couple of rowboats parked in front of a pair of shuttered townhouses in “downtown.” Rovinj. The painting seems kind of impressionist, so I particularly like it. But I’m sure I’ll curse is existence when I have to take it back to Paris, or worse, the US (not going to think about it).

On our second morning in Rovinj, my dad and I break from the pack and drive to Pula to see the ampitheatre and a medieval village or two. We find our way easily and check out the well preserved remains of the roman colloseum. It’s up there with Rome, Verona, but this is probably the nicest location. Kind of a northern Naples. There’s an old town, an old church, an old forum and old medieval streets. And the school where James Joyce taught for five minutes and developed an aversion to the region (he must have had the same problem with Zagreb airport we did).

On the way back we take the scenic route. The road winds along a rocky green shores dotted with picturesque medieval villages and steeples. It’s a Sunday but we figure we’ll stop at one of the little restaurants in one of the villages for lunch. Obviously, my dad and I are the crazy adventurous ones in the family on this trip.

We wisely opt for parking outside our chosen village and look for our restaurant. We can’t find it and everything looks closed. We look confused and an Italian family visiting Croatian relatives offers to show us where the restaurant is by walking us there.. It gives the 10 year old girl a chance to practice her English. She is also the only one in the group with any crossover translator abilities (except me, with my new Auvers inspired gift for mime).

After a few minutes of trying to draw the girl who has clearly been put on the spot out of her shell, she tells me haltingly in English that “it is very important to be good at another language.” I nod encouragingly. “ Yes! That’s very good! And true!” Unfortunately, those are the only words she knows in English and 10 more than what I know in Croatian or Italian.

Nonetheless, It’s a lovely interlude. Visualize it: two families from different cultures strolling along the Croatian coast (maybe in silhouette) together on a Sunday afternoon. One of them is gesticulating wildly.

The restaurant is closed like everything else in this damn medieval town. We escape to the car before the family can invite us to have lunch with them. All this pantomiming is more exercise than I’ve had in years. I’m physically and emotionally exhausted.

We escape to the car, and the moment I let my guard down, I take the wrong turn.

I’m suddenly driving in the pedestrian area of the goddamn medieval village, with no apparent legal exit (of course there’s no legal exit, there’s no legal entrance). And since it’s Sunday, there are no helpful vendors directing me towards the correct exit in an effort to keep me from backing into their displays. Fortunately, there are a couple of kids and cops out, who direct us when we get our car wedged between several goddamn quaint medieval buildings. Is the air-conditioning on? I’m sweating like a pig.

On the way back to Rovinj, all I can think of is how nice it would be to have an ice cream cone and a paved path to a swimming pool. But noooooo, because we’re staying in a goddamn quaint medival village I have to walk up the street carrying a towel and climb down some rocks to swim. Which also requires wearing a bathing suit in a public place.

Once we get back to Rovinj and have a quick lunch, I resolve to brave it. The street, stairs and rocks are easy. It’s the bathing suit and water part that are hard. I finally am in position to dive in. I dip my foot in and goddamn, the water is cold. Goddamn unheated Adriatic water. I take the plunge and dunk my whole body in. It’s blue. It’s clear. It’s refreshing. I’m swimming in the Adriatic. I can see my feet and fish. But they’re not scary fish (in fact, they look delicious). My feet are another story.

I look up and see the quaint little medieval village looming above me. The sun sparkles on me and the water around me. Goddamn, this is good.

 

traveling in a pack

I usually travel solo.

There are a lot of reasons for that. The most obvious being I’m single. Also, a lot of my trips have been the result of a sudden decision that if I don’t go Tunisia in the next week, I will spiritually perish. It’s really hard to convince a friend or loved one who doesn’t know what continent Tunisia is on, that they should drop everything and fly 9 hours to see it (it’s worth it, by the way).

I’ve heard people wax poetic about how traveling with someone is so much better than traveling alone because you’re SHARING the experience.

I tend to believe if part of your concentration is focused on the person or people with whom you’re sharing the experience, that dilutes the core experience. But that could just be a lonely old hag rationalizing.

I do have empirical evidence to support my theory. On one of my first “big” trips, I went sailing off the coast of Turkey with a soon to be ex-boyfriend now refered to as “Toxin” (nothing personal, of course). That was 15 years ago when all anyone knew about Turkey was Midnight Express and the most exotic place I’d ever visited was England.

I remember very little about the cultural coolness of being in Turkey from that trip. The truth is, It took two subsequent trips to Turkey on my own before I figured out exactly what my route with Toxin was and what villages and towns we visited.

It’s not that I didn’t remember visiting those places. They were clearly imprinted. There was the beautiful place where Toxin got really, really drunk. The beautiful place where I was full of seething rage. The beautiful place I was seasick. The beautiful place where he was nauseous. The beautiful harbor where I wasn’t getting enough attention, the beautiful place where I proved useless in the galley.  The beautiful place where I was happily in love.   The beautiful place where I almost crashed the boat.    And the beautiful place I had the nightmare about fleeing Toxin and trying to get back to the US from godknows where I was in Turkey without any money. Not that I didn’t have a great time and I’m not eternally grateful to Toxin for the trip. I just wasn’t viewing the amazing experience through the clearest lens (it was as fogged up as hell.)

The point is, for better or worse, traveling with people changes the experience. I’m prepared for that.

Right now, we’re headed for Rovinj, which is described as a stunning medieval fishing village that juts into the sea like an exclamation point. The old town still bears the influence of the many empires that captured it over the centuries. It’s surrounded by clear teal blue water and to die for views. One legend has it that Rovinj floated away from Venice at one point or another. It’s about a two hour drive. I’m definitely excited to get there. We all are.

There are supposed to be some interesting sights on the way between Ljubljana and Rovinj.

postojana caves

The Postojna and Skokjan Caves are near the Slovenia/Italy border and sound amazing. They elicit deep discussion. Some of us get a little claustrophobic. And what if the mandatory guided tour is too long and we can’t escape because we’re in a cave? what if we get lost in a cave? That would be horrible. Can you imagine having a heart attack lost in those caves? And there are probably stairs. Lots of Dark, narrow, clammy stairs. And i we stop to see the caves, do we go to Postojina or Skokjan? Which one is better? It would be horrible to make the three hour detour and later discover we went to the lesser cave. That would just be too painful. Hey, didn’t we just pass the exit?

Our next potential stop, Koper. A medival town on the 30-mile Coast of Slovenia. It says it’s a 20 minute detour. But that’s what they said about Zagreb Airport. Can we risk loosing the three hours to get here and 7 hours to get back? It doesn’t sound nearly as charming as the next medieval town on the way.

piran

Next potential stop, Piran. A medieval town that’s supposed to be more charming than Koper. It’s also on the Slovenian coast, but further off the highway. We don’t like the name. It sounds shifty. Didn’t we just skip a medieval town? Why did we skip that one? Is this medieval town supposed to be more charming than OUR medieval town? Can’t we just go there?

We skip Umag because nobody has gotten to U in their travel guides’ list of places to see in Slovenia.

Not wanting to be total wusses, we do exit the highway at one point for a detour visit to the Porec, a charming Medieval town on the Croatian coast. But it’s closed, in preparation for

porec

some boat show. Well, it’s not really closed. The parking lot is full and we’re waved towards another parking lot which turns out to be over a mile walk from the old town, and it’s hot and screw them.

After Porec, we’re never quite sure we’ve found the right road to Rovinj or are even traveling in the right direction. This prevents us from making further scenic route attempts. So if any of the charming Medieval coastal towns of Istria complain that they don’t have enough tourists, blame it on Porec.

We dare not venture a meter further off the mapped route than necessary or we we’ll never see Rovinj in this lifetime, So the roadside mom and pop farmhouse type inn somewhere between Ljublana and Rovinj seems the perfect place to assuage our now raging hunger. (We were planning to eat in goddamn Porec.)

I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but it’s very picturesque. A hearse is the only other car in the make due parking lot. (looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture of that).

I’ll never remember what I’m having for lunch. It was either meat or fish. It’s pretty good though.   I will remember that one of us had cramps, that lunch really hit the spot, and we hope we don’t get food poisoning.

During the trip we also contemplate stopping at several rest stops and gas stations before finding one that appears up to our discerning standards (clean, not groddy, do they sell Pringles?).

I do happen to notice that the countryside is beautiful. I steal a moment to savor the rolling hills of a sunsoaked, dusky wine region with the legs of a sparkling Adriatic shore.

rovinj (we’re almost there!)

When we see the isle- town of Rovinj from a far we feel pretty darn smug. It only took four hours, not including the lunch stop to get here. Mission Accomplished! We pat ourselves on the back for being such worldly travelers.

With that success under our belt, we surge onward. It only takes another three hours to find our hotel.

 

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