London

So it was up at the crack of dawn the next morning to do our 3 hour drive back to Venice. It was rainy and cold and there was nearly no one on the road.

I was a touch anxious about returning the rental car because we had gotten our requisite European Dent. Plus, the daily rate was so low I was certain it was a mistake.

But the return went off without a hitch! The flight to London was another story.

We waited and waited at the gate, when there was a bit of ruckus beside us. One man called another man a wanker. Then man accused of wankerdom turned out to be Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. We witnessed an almost altercation and ended up chatting with the band and their roadies until the plane was boarded and we took off.

Our trips to London are a good excuse to stay in our favorite neighborhood, South Ken, at our favorite hotel, The Ampersand, and eat a luxurious meal (like we needed one more on this trip!). I really wanted to eat at The Five Fields, but of course they were closed the one day we would be in London. So we chose Kitchen W8. It was so delicious!

It was so hard to head home after such an amazing trip.


Skyrace

After a simply luxurious brunch at the hotel, we hit the road for our 3 hour drive to Canazei, where John was about to bravely run the Dolomites Skyrace. As we were driving up and down the numbered switchbacks, I just couldn’t help thinking how glad I was that I was too lazy to train for the race so that I didn’t have to do it! I have never seen such hills as these! I didn’t even like driving them much less running them!

But the views were stellar. We rolled into town, picked up John’s packet, and then grabbed some delicious pasta. Our stay at La Cacciatore was worth it just for the unbelievable dinner. We spent most of the afternoon resting, then headed into town for the “race orientation,” which did not do much to ease John’s anxiety!

Then next morning we got up early–too early for breakfast–but they arranged a snack and some coffee. Based on our dinner the night before, I sure wish we would have been able to eat the proper breakfast that came with the room. But no matter. We were headed out and saw someone who looked like he was going to race too. We asked if he wanted a ride and he said sure. Xavi is from Spain and we had a nice chat while heading to the start of the race. He and John talked strategy. It was nice to commiserate!

Watching the line-up was interesting. Everyone was SO FIT. We were looking forward to seeing Kilian Jornet and his girlfriend Emelie Forsberg. There they were! Lined up right in front. The air was electric with excitement, and we could hear the helicopter overhead. Finally the gun sounded and the racers were off. My strategy was to follow the race course as far as I felt like it. I could not even run a step it was so steep. But the hiking was beautiful. I hoofed up 3 miles before I turned around and ran back down. I got a good view of the course peak and man was I glad I didn’t have to go up there!

Waiting for the finishers was worrisome. I have waited for John at the end of lots of races, but this one was not like any other race. I was so afraid he was going to fall and break his head. I waited for an hour at the finish, and I saw people trip, fall, cramp, and cry like babies. Finally John came across the line! I was so relieved! He was okay! Tired, cramping, and a little delirious. But okay! We headed back to the hotel, found some juice, and rested. Then had one more delicious meal at the hotel before sleep.


Lienz, Austria

After a ljovely day in Ljubljana (that joke never gets old) we hit the road for a “day of two hikes.” How exciting! Our first stop, Lake Bled. This hike was recommended to me by one of my favorite students ever (am I allowed to say that? I’ve been teaching 22 years. I do have favorites!) We had thought about running the 3 mile route around the lake, but I was carrying the Nikon so we decided to stroll instead. And I’m glad we did. So many views to take in, and each one more beautiful than the next! We loved our walk, and we also loved the Lake Bled cake we ate before leaving town.

We had an easy driving day. Only an hour and a half to get to our hotel in Lienz, Austria. So on the way there we stopped in the town of Flattach to hike the Raggaschlucht. The good folks at our Austrian hotel had recommended this little stop, otherwise we would have missed it and blown right into town. I’ve never seen anything like Raggaschlucht. We had such a wonderful time climbing up the narrow gorge, listening to the water rush through, and taking pictures of the beautiful landscape. I’m so glad I found out about this place because it’s easy to whiz by while looking at the rest of the landscape. Please don’t miss this hike. So beautiful.

With just a little bit of drive left, we headed on to Grand Hotel Lienz. This would be a bit of a rest, since there’s not much to do in this town and our goal was really to enjoy the luxury of this hotel on the river. And boy did we enjoy it. John immediately had a much-needed nap while I explored the spa, swam in the pool, and sunned by the river. If you happen to be in this part of Austria, don’t miss this luxurious place!


Ljubljana, Slovenia

We were in for a treat today. First, July 17th was my Daddy’s birthday so I vowed to make it a great day in his honor. Second, we were going to meet Jessica, a student in my ASU Online Travel Writing class in Summer A. I was really excited!

The day started out perfectly. We woke up and had a really delicious breakfast at the hotel with the best coffee of the entire trip. I wanted 30 cups. Then we did a farmer’s market tour and bought All. The. Cherries. I know some of you have witnessed this. Me V. Cherries. The cherries never win.

Our drive to Ljubljana was short and so reasonable. Slovenia, compared to Montenegro, Bosnia, and Croatia, seemed immediately affluent. I could almost sense the Euros sorting their way down from the Austrian border.

Entering the town proper of Ljubljana (and okay, it’s pronounced lyoo-BLYAH-nah) was a little like rolling in to Boise Idaho or Anchorage Alaska. As of 2011, 272,220 people lived in the capitol of Slovenia and the downtown was so small you’d miss it if you sneezed. It was perfect and quaint and walkable and I wanted to stay.

John and I checked in to Lesar Hotel Angel, where Jovan was an absolute dream. He led us to our beautiful upgraded room and then left us to tour the grounds and have a snack. We did, and then John was itching to hit the cobbled streets. We had a nice walk about before it was time to meet Jessica. When she was my student, I was so impressed with Jessica’s beautiful and thoughtful writing. When the session started she was in Italy and as it progressed she moved to Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro! I emailed and told her I was headed her way, and she told me she would be spending the month of July in Slovenia. I asked if we could meet and she said yes! She was staying just outside Ljubljana with a family she found at workaway.info, a site that offers room and board in exchange for small jobs. Jessica would be helping the family’s two kids with their English skills while spending a month in their home.

We went to a delicious restaurant, Julija, and Jessica was a little late so John and I ordered lunch. When she arrived, Jessica and I caught up, then the three of us toured the castle together. It was such a treat to spend time with her!

When Jessica needed to get home, John and I walked to the Metelkova area, and I’m glad we went in the daylight. It’s a little like Christiana in Denmark–lots of “artists” (druggies?) hanging around waiting for nighttime. I was ready to hit the road. On the walk back to the hotel we wandered into a proper art gallery and saw some beautiful work by some local Slovenian artists. I found a painting I loved, and we were on our way back to the hotel.

Dinner was at Valvasor, and we had a delicious meal.


Raspberries

Zagreb, Croatia

We woke in Zadar early enough that we could grab the car, roll the bags out of the walled city, and hit the road for Plitvice. Today would be a long one:  four hours in the car, enough time to explore Plitvice National Park, and checking in to our hotel and exploring Zagreb before dark. Breakfast at the hotel was nice, though I was seated near the kitchen and could hear a baby crying the whole time–seemed odd to have a baby in the kitchen. John asked for “Orange Juice” and the gal brought him “Olive Oil.” She was so embarrassed until we managed to communicate how impressed we were with the English she had.

The road to Plitvice was beautiful. It reminded me a bit of the Mogollon Rim. I was reading from the guide book about the best way to tour the falls, and we quickly parked the car and ran down to catch a shuttle to the top. We arrived just as a tram was leaving, so we ended up wasting 20 minutes waiting for the next one to leave. Once we were dropped off, we followed the raised wooden pathways. The park includes a series of 16 lakes that cascade down an area of 8 km and are separated by natural dams of travertine (the same material that gives Havasupai Falls its brilliant shade). The stunning pools looked so inviting that we would have loved to take a dip, but this is a UNESCO World Heritage site so no swimming allowed.

We spent about 3 hours touring the falls then found out we were hungry! So we stopped at a roadside hotel/restaurant called Restoran Degenija where we had a filling meal and prepared for our drive into Zagreb.

Once in Zagreb, we found our hotel, Hotel President Pantovcak, which I had really been looking forward to since it looked so pretty online and was highly rated on TripAdvisor. The staff was so friendly and our room was super nice. We enjoyed a welcome drink on the house, then walked down into Zagreb old town to see what was going on. It is really a beautiful city. It reminded me of Prague with its narrow curving streets and street car tracks. One thing I noticed was that all of the women were so smartly dressed with great shoes, purses, and “outfits.” But the men. Oh boy. Let’s just say they clearly are not trying. Lots of T-shirts and cargo shorts and flip flops. John and I had so much fun at a cafe watching the couples go by.

For dinner, we wanted to try Trilogija but we didn’t have reservations. Lucky for us we were early enough to get a table. What a fun dinner! We were feeling indecisive so we let the waiter bring us whatever he liked. It was a yummy meal.

We were tired, but made sure to stop at the Museum of Broken Relationships. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect, and were pleasantly surprised by the exhibits: art and narratives describing how relationships ended. I was especially moved by the “Parents” room, where people described losing their parents to suicide or death.

Okay. That’s about a day. We were done. Se we wandered back up the hill to the hotel and fell fast asleep.


Zadar, Croatia

We started our morning with a light breakfast at the hotel–it was perhaps the most difficult one we had of the stay so I won’t name the hotel. But there was only a small amount and variety of food tucked into a corner and we had to beg a grumpy person to make us a spot of coffee (no I don’t mean pot I mean spot). Anyway, we were ready to get on the road.

And I’m so happy we did, because our visit to Krka National Park was truly amazing. What a beautiful location and a very special natural wonder. We got there around 10 am and I’m glad we weren’t any later because soon after we hiked down the steep path to the viewing area, the tour buses started coming. We did have to do some serious elbowing to get our best pics.

When I posted a few pictures to social media, Facebook told me that my former student Sydni had just been at Krka the day before! She was studying in Florence and was in Croatia for the weekend. I was sorry to miss her, but we typed back and forth a bit about the falls before both moving on with our travels.

From Krka we took a very scenic drive to the town of Zadar, another coastal walled city. I was kind of getting walled citied out, since this was our fourth on the trip. But Zadar was really spectacular and had some features I adored. First, we checked into our hotel which was BANGING. Art Hotel Kalelarga was one of our most expensive on the trip so I had high expectations, and they were met. What a beautiful room with muted and high design touches. Comfortable bed, lots of space, and a huge fruit bowl greeting us.

From there we went to lunch at Pet Bunara–it was a really lovely and delicious meal and that’s good because we worked up an appetite hiking those falls. After lunch we took a well-needed nap, then we toured around Zadar. My favorite spot was right along the coast–we enjoyed a lovely stroll along the Paseo Maritimo, and the best part was listening to the Sea Organ singing. What a fanciful design–a series of steps down to the water. I’ll let Wikipedia say it for me because it’s hard to describe: “Concealed under these steps, which both protect and invite, is a system of polyethylene tubes and a resonating cavity that turns the site into a large musical instrument, played by the wind and the sea.” It was so relaxing and refreshing to sit and listen to the music. Brilliant idea and I’m so glad I saw it. There is also a display that uses solar panels to collect sunlight during the day, that then turns into kind of a disco ball at night. We didn’t figure out what it was until later, and we didn’t get to see the disco ball effect.

We continued our stroll towards the restaurant when we passed a really cute bar that stretched out across the front of the harbor. It turned out to be The Garden Zadar, and we decided to enter to have a sundowner. The garden was full of lounger beds and chairs and we enjoyed watching the sun go down while enjoying a drink.

Then we moved on to the restaurant we had chosen Restaurant Kastel. We had a delicious dinner then headed back to get another good sleep.


Trogir, Croatia

We had such a wonderful night’s sleep–we could hear the waves lapping the shore and feel the cool breeze off the water. We went to have our breakfast on the patio and I was just so sad to have to leave the hotel! I really loved staying at Hotel Bellevue and I can’t recommend it highly enough. But soon it was time to hit the road. We decided we’d head into Split for lunch then make our way over to our hotel in Trogir, another walled city along the coast.

There is a small section of coast that belongs to Bosnia, and this time when we passed through Neum we stopped and had a beer. It’s a really beautiful town with great views of water and islands. Neum cuts Croatia into two non-contiguous parts, a boundary I was surprised to learn dates back to a treaty in 1699. The Croatian government would like to build a bridge to by-pass the area to avoid the double border crossing, though for us the entry and re-entry was easy enough.

The not-so-easy part was still to come. Getting into Split was tough. It’s a big port city and the traffic was snarly. Then we couldn’t find parking. So by the time we did finally settle in for lunch at Konoba Marjan, John was so tired of driving. Then, what was supposed to be a half hour drive to Trogir took 2 hours due to construction. Add to that our location of the hotel in the walled city with no parking in sight, by the time we were checked in and ready to tour John was really over it. We made the best of it though and found an amazing restaurant, Konoba TRS, that featured John’s favorite meal of the trip.

I have to admit that I really, really wanted to go to Korcula, which was also on the list of European gems that we consulted in making our decision to go to Kotor. But we had a tight itinerary and so decided to stay on the mainland. Reflecting on that decision, I would have skipped Split and Trogir and headed to Korcula. Also, since we were driving a lot I would have chosen a hotel with parking outside the city walls (I was so spoiled by Hotel Bellevue.) Lessons learned.

We still had a wonderful day, and went to sleep looking forward to our hike the next day.

 


Soup

Kotor, Montenegro

John and I went back and forth about what we wanted to do on our second day in Dubrovnik. One idea was to stay in town and do a hike up to the overlook. Another was to take a ferry out to Miljet National Park. Another was to drive down to Kotor in Montenegro. The decision was easy once my friend Janna sent me this great article:  “European Gems that Tourists Haven’t Discovered.

The first place listed in the article is one of my favorites on earth: Carcassonne, France. And the second place on the list is Trier, Germany, where my college roommate Bridget and I went shoe shopping on the weekends when we lived in Dijon, France. So I was already trusting this list! Kotor was number 6, so John and I decided it would be best to head there for the day.

The drive south from Dubrovnik was stunning. Craggy coast and sweeping views of the city. We got to the border and waited in line to get our passports stamped. I was intrigued by how instantly different Montenegro was from Croatia. The infrastructure was years behind: the roads were full of holes, the signage was poor, and so many buildings were half finished or falling apart.

Driving was slow as we wound our way all around the bay in the rain, until we finally got to the town of Kotor. It was pouring when we parked. So we did a quick TripAdvisor search and found a restaurant for lunch. We chose Bastion, which was really delicious. We ordered soup right away so we could get warmed up. Then we shared octopus and mussels. Really yum.

We toured around the walled city as the rain slowed and finally stopped. There was a whimsical art project in town with 10 installations by artists all over the world. My two favorites were the larger than life laundry, and also a net full of gloves that looked like wings. We rounded out our tour with a walk along the harbor to look at all the luxury yachts lined up in a row. Soon it was time to leave, so we waved goodbye and started our way around the bay.

Back in Dubrovnik we went to the beach then soaked in the hot tub then had a rest. We walked back into old town for a pre-dinner drink. We found THE Croatian microbrew that we would later encounter at restaurants all over the country. It was very flavorful. We were pretty tired, so we decided to have a light, easy dinner near the hotel. We grabbed salad and pizza at El Toro, then headed back to enjoy our beautiful view of the Adriatic.

 


Dubrovnik, Croatia

Here is another part of the trip that went off without a hitch. I use Expedia a lot–I just graduated to an Expedia+ account. But when I booked the Enterprise rental car through Expedia for 11 days for $487.09 I was pretty sure there was going to be some problem. In March we rented a car for 10 days in Hawaii and it was a true beater and cost $751.15. So really, Europe, I thought–how are you going to give me a better car and a better deal?

We arrived at the airport and had a short wait in line, then walked out to pick up the vehicle. Oh my gosh. What an adorable, clean, brand new, 4-door Audi A1. Color me surprised. The only small problem was that the hatch was just a touch too tiny for our two 22″ rollers and small back packs. We had hoped to be able to put everything away out of sight. We threw our backpacks into the back seat instead. We got in, set the GPS to the ferry dock in Ancona, and hit the road.

The drive from Venice to Bologna looked like Ohio. Maybe I always think that. Rows of corn, farmhouses. The only thing missing, said John, were the evangelical “Jesus Saves” billboards. Perhaps in the land of the Pope there’s no need to advertise. We were making great time so we decided to stop for lunch by the sea.

Before leaving the states I pre-ordered an 800 MB data plan on AT&T for my iPhone (it was worth every penny of the $120), so I hopped onto my TripAdvisor app and found a restaurant I wanted to try, Ristorante Guido, and we headed into a town. While we navigated into a parking spot, I was salivating over the delicious looking photos of innovative dishes. But when we walked up, the restaurant was closed. We never found out why, since it said they were usually open for lunch. We wandered in through the town and found a sidewalk cafe off the grid. At first I was disappointed we weren’t getting our fancy gourmet seaside meal. However, I’m so glad we had the experience of eating at a little local joint. And when I reflect, this yummy meal was one of the most delicious of the trip. It confirmed my suspicion that it is hard to find a bad meal in Italy.

We arrived at the ferry dock and this was the part John was most nervous about. I had booked our passage on directferry.com. Would the line, SNAV, really have our reservation? Would we get a hassle over passports? Or about bringing a rental car on board? The answer was yes, no, no. It was efficient, easy, exciting, fun, and gorgeous! I really loved the ferry ride and spent much of it on deck taking pictures. We had a great night’s sleep and woke up in view of land. Finally! After so many years, I was finally in Croatia!

We first commented on how rugged the landscape was. How would we possibly get down the coast from Split to Dubrovnik? It was all steep mountains and craggy bays. We started out on the coastal road, found an ATM to get some Kuna, (the second of three currencies for the trip), and finally we stopped in the little seaside town of Omis for some breakfast. We parked along a river where about 50 cars were lined up.

What an adorable town! We wandered around, looked at the market, then had a delicious coffee and a cheese and cherry pastry. By the time we got back, only one other car was left and an officer was giving it a ticket! We started running towards our car to move it before he got to it, but he screamed at us so we got out our International Driver’s Licenses and he wrote us up for $100, which he said would be only $50 if we paid him right now in cash. This happens routinely when we travel in Mexico but we didn’t expect it to happen in Europe. I was disappointed that our first interaction was a bribe from a grumpy police officer.

We shook it off and found the freeway and headed south. This drive took about 4 hours. Finally we got straight to Hotel Bellevue, which I had chosen because it had a forward design, free parking, and gorgeous views. Our room was not ready, so we walked into the Old Town and had a fun lunch at Dalmatino Konoba. We really enjoyed all of our food. We had the octopus salad, the mussels, and the squid ink risotto. Perfect amount for two people and we enjoyed sharing the flavors. This was our first experience with a phenomenon we had been warned about–the harried Croatian waiter. Ours was flying solo but really moved fast! The slow service had nothing to do with attitude, as I had read it might. The waiter was friendly and kind, just terribly over-worked. Later we found it to be common to keep restaurants under-staffed.

After lunch we walked back to the hotel (about 1.5 K from the walled city) and got to our room, which had an amazing view and was large, perfectly appointed, and comfortable. We spent a little time at the private beach and in the hot tub. After a bit more rest it was time for dinner. John chose Otto Taverna, and I’m glad he did. It was a delicious meal, though again the staff was running around like mad. I had fun listening to the French family sitting next to us complaining about the service, the wine glasses (they brought white wine glasses to serve with red wine) and the medium-well steak (I like it bleu too!). We caught a cab back to the hotel and fell straight to sleep.

 


First Stop, Venice

I’m just going to put this out there. I think this might have been one of our most challenging trips yet. We knew it was going to be a stretch–we had several conversations about what could go wrong. Let’s face it–the loop we planned to cover would require every transfer to run perfectly. In fact I was so worried about the timing that I created a pdf trip guide that listed every single mode of transportation, reservation, and driving map. The document was 59 pages long. I memorized it, then I had John memorize it too.

How would we possibly cover seven countries, nine hotels, an overnight ferry, and 1300 miles of driving without a hitch? The answer is, delightfully! The entire trip ran smoothly. The hardest hardships were: John had a terrible chest cold, we got a 50 Euro parking ticket not an hour into our visit in Croatia (we called it the Gringo tax), and one of our 30-minute driving segments took two hours due to construction. But otherwise, we hit every mark, and best of all–we got along really well! Hardly an argument to speak of. And if the true test of a relationship is a long road trip, I think John and I have this thing covered.

Here’s how the whole thing went down: our friend Kyle dropped us at the Phoenix airport around 6 pm, and our direct flight from Phoenix to Heathrow was luxurious. We had a totally flat bed on British Airways–it’s a 9 hour flight so that makes all the difference. We transferred Heathrow-Gatwick on a coach I had pre-booked online. Super easy. Then we flew Gatwick-Venice, where we caught a water taxi to our hotel the Sant Antonin. I had written to them for a late check-in, and it all went well, except for the strange internet system that required us to click deep into a menu on the television, and then it never worked anyhow. More on the various internet systems we encountered later.

We were too tired to head out into the cobbles and canals, so we went to sleep to get ready for a lovely day of touring. But what a night we had! Thunder, lightning, rain. We managed to get a touch of rest before breakfast downstairs. I must say the Europeans get this right–they don’t send anyone off into the day without feeding them first. Every one of our nine hotels came with breakfast. This one was nice, though since it was raining they had to move the service from the garden to the tiny dining area, and it was cramped. But we got enough to eat, then headed out to beat the crowds.

We used an App called Triposo that offers walking tours at various distances. The App pointed us to all the right spots, and we hit all the must-see’s in about 2 hours. My favorite destination was the Peggy Guggenheim museum, where her personal residence has been transformed into a refuge for some of the most famous modern artists: think Ernst, Kandinsky, Picasso, Chagall; in short, all my favorites. It was such a treat to visit this museum, even though I felt a touch ethnocentric visiting an American’s home in Italy. We wandered back towards the hotel for lunch since we planned to nap after. At Bacarando Ai Corazzieri we accidentally ordered nearly all the food in the restaurant.

After a long nap, we wandered back out for a little wine at Cantinone Gia’Schiavi and a lovely dinner at Osteria Enoteca Ai Artist. We got a gelato for the walk back the hotel, which was a little touch and go there when the evening flooding crowded off several of our routes back.

What a magical place, Venice.Would we really have to leave? The following morning we enjoyed breakfast in the garden before taking our last stroll through the cobbles, where I stopped to salivate over some dresses in a window. Too bad the shop was closed. We caught a water taxi back to the airport to pick up our rental car so we could make our 4 hour drive to Ancona to catch the ferry to Croatia.