My paddle’s keen and bright…

It wasn’t even a real conversation. Catherine: “Dad, do you want to join us for the kayaking tour? I can paddle a double kayak if you want to go.” Dad: “Are you out of your mind?”

I am not out of my mind.

The Elafiti Islands, made up of Kolocep, Lopud and Sipan are tiny islands off the coast of Dubrovnik, accessible by boat only. Two of the islands don’t allow vehicles and Kolocep is inhabited by only 150 people.


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We boarded the ferry in the Port of Gruz for the one hour trip to Lopud, the most “developed” of the islands. There we met our paddling guide Iva who gave us the basic instructions of sea kayaking and pushed us into the Adriatic.

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From Lopud we paddled for about an hour to a sea cave on the island of Sipan. The nine of us on the trip disembarked our kayaks… some of us more gracefully than others… I sort of “fell” out of mine… and swam into the enclosed cave. Normally I’d be quite claustrophobic in a place like this, but it was too enchanting to be uncomfortable. Something about the turquoise water of the Adriatic, the sandy bottom and the little bit of bright light streaming through the cave entrance gave everyone a blue water halo. Quiet, calm and so peaceful, it was a magical discovery.

Outside of the cave we were encouraged to cliff jump. And three of us did…including me, who jumped from one of the lower ledges and screamed like a little girl on the way down. I did have enough sense to shut my mouth and take in some air before hitting the water…

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We paddled on, around the island to a sandy shore, docked the kayaks and went for one of the most impressive fish lunches I have ever had. I don’t normally eat fish (outside of sushi), but the sea bass was so fresh, delicate and perfectly grilled that I think I’ve been spoiled now. I’ll never be able to accept mediocre restaurant fish again.

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Full and a little tired, we made the final paddle back to Lopud Island. Iva said we were one of the fastest groups she’s had for the 15 km total journey. This, despite Erika and Ed enduring rudder troubles that, for a time, allowed them only to turn left… which was at least not the direction that would take them out to sea.

We caught the 7 pm ferry back to the mainland and, tired from the unrelenting heat and sun, and still damp and salty from the paddle, we picked up a Croatian pizza and headed back to the guest house for a well deserved dinner and sleep.

Bosnian Border Crossing

In order to drive from Split to Dubrovnik, you have to cross through a very small section of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We were excitedly anticipating adding another stamp to our passports, thereby making this a 3 country trip (Croatia, Italy and Bosnia). The line was long. We searched the signs overhead…EU passports to the right, all others to the left. We got in the much shorter “all others” line up.

Not CV_0164 WP_20140811_005only did the guy not stamp our passports, he didn’t even LOOK at them. He just waved us through! We were so disappointed… until we realized that we were now ahead of the 2 camper vans we’d been following for the last 50 km through winding mountain passes and we could speed ahead in our Corsa Opal. I suppose it’s the little things that make road trips bearable and, yes, fun.

The old town of Dubrovnik is a fortified city. Encompassed by thick stone walls that you can walk (but only clockwise), and with streets made of marble, old Dubrovnik is unique. The city was first fortified in the 7th century and they’ve been keeping the walls thick ever since. The shelling of Dubrovnik during the “Homeland War” (as it’s referred to here) of 1991-1995, horrified the world. A UNESCO world heritage site, Dubrovnik was under siege for 7 months during the war and sustained 650 artillery attacks — 2,000 shells. 56% of the buildings in this city that’s contained by a wall 2 km in length were damaged. After the war specialist stone masons were brought in to help repair the damage, which today is all but invisible. WP_20140814_028 Dubrovnik is historical but also alive. Much like Diocletian’s palace, it’s a living city within a city bustling with restaurants, shops, historical buildings, cats, tourists, and every day people trying to live their lives among the crush of tourists. Not as crushingly busy as Venice, Dubrovnik is certainly a must see for thousands of people each day. CV_0058 Tired, but well fed at a restaurant we found in one of the city alley ways, we fell exhausted into bed, visions of our next day’s sea kayaking trip in our heads…

Which way to the Palace?

Split is a buzzing Mediterranean-style city that vibrates with tourists, chic dining and partying along its marble promenade. It looks just like you think the Riviera should…. white, grand open spaces, sun shining… backpackers sprawled out EVERYWHERE! Ships, both grand and tiny, from all over the world dock in its harbor, the 3rd busiest in Europe.

A city rimmed with beaches, our closest beach is a 10 minute walk from the ancient fisherman’s cottage we’re currently calling home. Located within the oldest part of Split, our apartment is extremely charming and well appointed, but like every other place we’ve been so far, by being located right in the heart of the action it’s of course hidden down a narrow, winding street built for horses and wagons not Opal Corsas! It took us several wrong turns and a number of vague directions from locals to get us here. But what a delightful surprise once we (finally!) found it.CV_0199

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Facing the sparkling harbor is Diocletian’s Palace, one of the most imposing Roman ruins that exist, and a UNESCO world heritage site. . It’s neither a palace (any more) nor a ruin, but a living, vibrant city within the city of Split. The labyrinthine streets are filled with people, bars, cafés, shops and restaurants. The narrow streets include homes of actual palace residents, their washing hanging out above the heads of tourists and revelers. It’s enchanting and almost surreal. Like you’re really on a movie set and someone will yell “cut, it’s a wrap” at any point!CV_0217

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The Palace is built of luminous white stone and was the summer palace of the Emperor Diocletian. Built over the course of 10 years starting in 295AD. The guy clearly spared no expense on his summer extravaganza as columns, statues and magnificent decorative touches abound. Entered through 4 gates — Bronze, Gold, Iron or Silver, there are 220 buildings within the palace that house the 3,000 residents. Not sure what the real estate prices are — an agent’s office is the one thing we didn’t find within the walls — I’d love the opportunity to see what the inside of a home there looks like.

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Above our fisherman’s cottage is the Marjan Forest nature reserve and a 10 minute climb up a set of old stone steps reveals a look out that spans the entire city. If we followed the marked trails through the forest, we’d come to Bene beach, a much quiter, family style beach than the see and be seen beach (no sand) of Bacvice beach (the in town beach we visited yesterday), ringed with bars and restaurants and where concerts are held throughout the summer.

Before once again hitting the beach, today we dive deep into the palace, both for the walking tour and then just Erika and I, for the shopping. They say if you can’t buy it in Split it doesn’t exist in Croatia, and I think they are right.

I have to be careful though. One of the downfalls of travelling just with a backpack is the lack of space for purchases and souvenirs. If I’m not careful, Erika’s husband Ed with be saddled with carrying my Italian purse, and whatever other treasures I can fit into it, through customs. I wonder if they’ll believe that he packed it himself?….

On Monday we’ll tear ourselves away from Split and head 3 hours down the coast to our last stop, Dubrovnik. Absolutely everyone, including people in Split, rave about how beautiful Dubrovnik is. I can’t imagine how much more wonderful it will be than here… I’m enchanted with Split and am truly sorry to leave!

O Solo Mio!

Europe is extraordinary for many reasons, the least of which is that in just 3 hours you can set sail from one country and be in another. Three hours in Ontario (Canada) will get you…a little more into and around Ontario.
By some miracle we managed to get ourselves together and board the 7:30 am Adriatic Jet in anticipation of being whisked us to the most magical and illogical of cities, Venice.

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Built on a series of islands and on water, there are no cars in Venice, but rather a canal system that functions as the street. Private boats, water taxis, water “buses” and gondolas each vie for their section of the “street”.
On land the streets are narrow, erratic and without a logical layout. They say everyone gets lost in Venice, so don’t worry about it. Since I have less than zero sense of direction, I’m secretly pleased that, for once, everyone else is lost too.CV_0379
From the boat we made our way across a series of bridges, and not the kind we’re used to, but bridges with steps, and many, many other people, toward St. Mark’s Square, one of the most recognizable and well known areas in Venice. Apparently 15,000 people pour into Venice every day in the high season and today was no exception.

To accommodate the hordes of tourists, there are many, many rules, including no removing your shirt (men mostly, not sure what the rule is for women), no jumping into the canals (€2,000 fine, and a nasty skin rash), no sitting or lying down in St. Mark’s Square (they have a policing patrol to enforce this) and no feeding the pigeons. Oh the pigeons. There are hundreds, and they all seem to know they are part of the photo op, so the simply walk up to people with cameras and literally look up expectantly for their “close up”.

Absolutely no visit to Venice would be complete without a gondola ride. €80 for 30 minutes…it’s not cheap and it’s a total tourist trap, but really, who comes to Venice and doesn’t get into a gondola?CV_0406

To become a gondolier, one must be born male, in the city of Venice, to a father who is a gondolier, and undergo years of training (and well worth it, our gondolier skimmed past other boats and stone walls without once scuffing his boat).

Not singing O solo mio...
Not singing O solo mio…

All gondoliers own their own boat, which cost about €30,000 and take several years to make because there are only 2 gondola building workshops left in Venice. Each gondolier puts his own flair on the interior boat décor, but all boats are painted black in commemoration of the plague that left Venice decimated. Originally thousands of gondolas criss-crossed the canals, but today only 500 are in existence.

Gondola ride taken, we indulged in gelato, photos on the Rialto bridge, I bought Italian leather gloves and 2 Italian leather purses (on of which is shockingly not actually for me), avoided the guys selling knock off bags (for you pretty lady…good price today) and people watched our way through the day until our water taxi ride back to the boat.

CV_0411Standing at the back of the water taxi, my hair flowing in the breeze, I felt just like all those movie stars look coming into the Venice film festival…yes, I had a Gwyneth Paltrow moment…but where were George and Amal???

Roman Holiday

Located on the most southern tip of the Istria peninsula, Pula has been variously occupied by the Romans, Italians, Austro-Hungarians, French, Austrians (again), Germans and Yugoslavs. Continental Croatia meets the Adriatic in Istria and the coast is extremely popular with sun seekers.

In fact, the coast has many of Croatia’s naturist campgrounds, resorts and beaches…. as a group, we’ve decided to ski those… I mean really, who brought that much sunscreen?

Pula is the largest city in the Istrian region. Mainly a port city, it’s where we’ll catch the jet boat ferry tomorrow for our day trip to Venice. But it’s the abundance of Roman architecture that really makes Pula worth visiting. There’s an extremely well preserved Roman amphitheatre (known locally as the Arena) in the heart of the city. Designed in the first century to hold 20,000 spectators, it’s no longer a venue for gladiator games, but now hosts outdoor concerts and festivals. To put the size into perspective, the entire population of Pula today is only 58,000.

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The oldest part of the city, and the part we’d exploring, follows the Roman plan of streets circling the citadel… no easily followed grid plan here!

CV_0448Today is Dad’s 70th birthday, and we’re celebrating  with dinner at the alfresco Amfiteatre restaurant overlooking the Arena. What an amazing meal, and an amazing waiter. Clearly this man is a professional waiter and politely schooled us on every aspect of our meal, from where the ingredients came from to how it was prepared.

Local and fresh, I had a truffle pasta that he assured me was pasta made by old grannies! I didn’t see the old grannies at the restaurant, presumably they keep them in the basement…

It’s a Small World After All…

So dad has a second cousin living in Zagreb called Vilko who he’d like to contact. We looked him up on Google… what did people actually do before Google?… and went down to the front desk of the hostel to use the phone. The phone number doesn’t work, but as it happens, the guy on the desk lives on the same street as Vilko…and his brother is Vilko’s son’s best friend!
And that’s a strange, small world moment…
Today we drove to Blagorodovac, the very small, but very well kept village my father grew up in. There isn’t even a  village store anymore — the building is for lease.
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 We found his grandparents in the cemetery… then drove down the road to find his house. It’s still there and the house plate still reads S1950M (Stefan Matzig built 1950). But sadly, the current owners are on vacation in the Adriatic, because after all this is Croatia in August and anyone with two kuna to rub together heads for the seaside. Dad’s impressed with the upgrades…they’ve added an indoor bathroom.
We caused quite a commotion in the village with our cameras and our English banter — Blagorodovac isn’t likely ever to end up on the tourist trail — so news of our presence spread like wildfire and drew curious neighbours to their gates.
The neighbours actually live in the house my father’s grandparents lived in, and the house my father was actually born in. Owner gentleman purchased the house from my Uncle Karl in 1965 and has lived there ever since. They invited us in and Dad took his first trip down memory lane… in Croatian of course, so we just sat and smiled… When we said we should leave and not take his whole day, his cheeky grandson piped up and said, “don’t worry, if you weren’t here, he’d just be sleeping anyway!”
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As we drove away, Dad looked back and said, “You know, I remember Blagorodovac being bigger…”

In the Fatherland with Father

Father's first selfie!
Father’s first selfie!

What a long, jet leggy kind of day it’s been.

My sister, my brother-in-law, father and I left Toronto on Saturday night, arrived in Frankfurt seven hours later, took a bus across the enormous airport, got on another, much smaller plane, and finally arrived in Croatia on Sunday afternoon. Several groggy time zones and one very strange airline sandwich later (mozzarella, eggplant and zucchini on white bread) we’re finally here!
Actually, if I’m being honest, it took more than just an airline ticket to get here.
 We’re in Croatia because this is where my father was born and where he vowed never to return. He spent his whole childhood dreaming of how he’d get out of the country… sneak out on a cattle passport like his uncle, join the circus then defect…(nobody defects any more, not even during an Olympics…) It’s unclear what circus skills he possesses — tight rope walking? elephant taming? general clown skills? But in 1958, my father, his parents and brother boarded a slow boat to Canada and never looked back.
It’s taken 60 years, the fall of communism, a civil war, the kind of progress that has turned dirt roads navigated by horse and buggy into modern super highways with flashy Mercs and BMWs, and a desire by his daughters to see where he grew up, to get him back. A LOT has changed… and Dad’s shocked.
Despite my personal rule of not driving in foreign countries, we’ve rented a small-ish car that barely contains the four of us (my brother-in-law is well over six feet tall) and our luggage — the guy at the rental agency looked at us, looked at our luggage, looked back at the car and said, “Is problem.” Jet lagged, I assured him, “is not problem”, and we were away, driving almost bleary-eyed into the Zagreb afternoon.
Tomorrow we drive to Blogorodovac, the tiny village in which my father was born. The plan is simple — knock on the front door of unassuming strangers, introduce ourselves and ask to be let in. I mean, what person would wouldn’t open their door to foreign language speaking strangers? We’ll either be let in… or the police will be called. In any case, it will be an adventure!