Monday, May 28, 2012

Slap-happy at Pltivice Lakes

This weekend we splurged on a tour of  Plitvice Lakes, one of Croatia's finest national parks. The tour set us back $94 each for transportation, park admission, a guided tour, breakfast, and lunch.

A shuttle picked us up at our apartment at 8:20am (ouch!) and we were on our way! Our crew consisted of 13 tourists from Spain, France, India, England, Croatia, and Ukraine. Djana, our marvelous tour guide, repeated all of her commentary in Croatian, English, French, and Spanish -- we were impressed!

Since we normally wake up around noon (10:30 on a good day), most of the 90-mile bus ride was spent napping. But, I did manage to capture a shot of the bucolic Croatian countryside:

Does anyone else see this and think Windows XP?
As we entered the park, Djana made sure to point out all of the signage regarding rules and regulations. No fishing, no campfires, and no dance parties?

Dance parties are strictly prohibited.
Plitvice Lakes consists of a series of 16 lakes (jezera), interconnected by waterfalls (slap). It was declared a national park in 1949 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The park is nothing short of spectacular. Here are some of our favorite pictures of the lakes and waterfalls.

Jim at Veliki Slap, the biggest waterfall.
Part of the fun is wandering along the wooden walkways, which meander across the lakes, above the falls, and into the forest. I can't imagine trying to navigate these paths during the high season -- dozens of people must fall into the lakes!

One big disadvantage of tour groups is that you're forced to stick to a schedule. Our guide kept us walking for 5 hours straight, with only a stop for breakfast. Unfortunately, this meant that we were forced to snap a mad flurry of pictures as we went along. My favorite shot was taken as we were exiting the park:

Can you see the trail of people heading down the walkway?
On our way back to Zadar, we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch and a hard-earned beer. Little did we know that the biggest surprise of the day was waiting for us just outside the restaurant...

Our new Croatian friends... meet Med and Vjed!
Djana told us that the restaurant owner was an avid hunter who'd "found" the bear cubs abandoned in the wild. Being a kind, animal-loving man, he adopted the cubs and put them on display outside of his restaurant. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Bus-ted in Nin

Today, Natalie and I decided to take a bus up the coast to a town called Nin ("Neen"). We haven't used the buses around Zadar very much because we like to walk everywhere, we're cheap, and the bus company's website sucks. We knew that there was a bus to Nin, so we just showed up at the station and bought 2 tickets for the next departure ($2.82 each).

We got on the bus without a problem and headed out of town. As we rode along, the bus stopped at seemingly random places along the road. The stops were nothing much to speak of, just a couple houses here and there along country roads. We started to see signs pointing to Nin. The bus stopped a couple more times, and some people got off, but nothing looked like an actual town. At one of the stops Natalie made an observation:
Natalie: "Those people that just got off looked like tourists."
Jim: "Why would tourists want to get off here? I'm sure they were locals."
We continued to ride along, but there were no signs for Nin until Natalie looked back and noticed that the signs were pointing in the opposite direction.
Natalie: "That sign back there said that Nin is in the other direction."
Jim: "Don't worry, honey, I looked at a map before we left. I'm sure the bus loops around on the peninsula and then comes back. Nin is a big town, so we couldn't have missed it."
The bus continued on, and more people got off. We knew that Nin was supposed to be 10 minutes away by car and at this point we had been on the bus for almost 45 minutes.
Jim: "Look, honey, now we're going over the bridge that goes out to that island. There's only one way off the island, which just proves that he's going to turn around. I'm sure he'll head toward Nin right after he drops off the islanders."
So we continued on, and the road got narrower. And then turned to dirt. And then ended in a field. Natalie was convinced that the bus driver was a serial killer, taking us down a backcountry road to chop us up into tiny pieces. However, she thinks this about most drivers and I'm reasonably certain that serial killers do not have a rosary and a SpongeBob SquarePants hanging from their rear view mirror.
Is this really the bus route?
Natalie: "Jim, I think this is the last stop."
Jim: (Looking around the bus) "It shouldn't be, although we are the last ones on the bus and the driver appears to be staring at us."
At this point we made our way to the front of the bus to make an inquiry (English translation in parentheses):
Us: "Nin?" (Nin?)
Driver: "Ne." (No.)
Sheep outside the bus: "Baaaah." (Tourists!)
That was about the extent of our conversation in the absence of a common language. We sat back down and hung out with the driver while he filled out his logs and switched his destination sign back to Zadar. After a few minutes, we started heading back the way we had come. As it turns out, the route wasn't a loop at all, but rather an out-and-back. How about that?

On the way back, the driver dropped us off at the bus stop for Nin, which coincidentally was exactly the stop at which Natalie had made her earlier observation regarding the tourists. In the end, it all worked out as we had the opportunity to see much, much more of the area and the driver didn't charge us an extra nickel for the tour.

As for Nin, it was much smaller than we had anticipated. In fact, it only took us about a half hour to see the whole place before we were back on the bus to Zadar. We leave you with the few photos that weren't taken out the window of a bus.

Behold! We've found Nin! Or is that Non? Or Nan?

The 9th century Chuch St. Cross, fondly known as "the smallest cathedral in the world."

The ancient city of Nin was developed on a small islet over 3,000 years ago.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Happy Hour Gone Sour

Why did a local man scold us for drinking beer on the beach?
(a) It's illegal to drink beer in public in Croatia.
(b) He didn't approve of the brand of beer we were drinking.
(c) He was just a cranky old man.

Impromptu happy hour for only 67 cents.
Unfortunately, since the man only spoke Hvartski, we couldn't really understand what he was trying to tell us. He was clearly pointing at our empty beer cans (which were sitting on the ground, beside our daypack) and he kept saying "Croatia."

Here's our best guess at what happened.

(a) It's illegal to drink beer in public in Croatia.
According to the receptionist at our youth hostel, you're "allowed" to drink beer in public here. (Whether it's actually legal or nobody cares remains to be seen.) We weren't the first people to do this, as evidenced by the extensive collection of bottle caps at our recent picnic spot:

100 bottles of beer on the wall, 100 bottle caps on the ground.
This leads me to believe that he probably wasn't scolding us for drinking in public. And littering? Not a chance! We don't roll like that!

(b) He didn't approve of the brand of beer we were drinking.
At first, we thought that he might be upset because we were drinking non-Croatian beer. More specifically, we feared that we were drinking Serbian beer, which could be considered culturally insensitive. (Turns out, Konig beer is from Hungary, not Serbia. *Phew!*) Still, was he upset that we weren't spending our tourist dollars on the local brew? Perhaps.

(c) He was just a cranky old man.
Maybe the man was having a bad day. Or perhaps that's just his personality.

It can be hard (and frustrating) to get told off in another language when you have no idea what you did to offend someone. Maybe we were doing something wrong, maybe we weren't. I guess we'll never know.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fast Food Knock-offs

We haven't seen a single American fast food chain since we've arrived in Croatia, but there have been some interesting knock-offs...

The other day, on our way to the grocery store, we saw a familiar sign up ahead. Was it? Could it be? Look, honey, it's the Golden Arches!

Licking kebab juice out of the ol' flavor saver.
Nope. That's just the neighborhood Mc Kebab. Sadly, they weren't open, or I would've gone in and ordered myself a Chicken McShish.

Then, while wandering the streets of Old Town, we stumbled across another familiar sight. Wow! Is it really an In-&-Out Burger? No way! I can't believe they have that here! I'll take a double-double, extra messy.

That's what copyright infringement's all about.
Wait a second, isn't it In-N-Out? Fooled again.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that Zadar doesn't have any American fast food joints. But it's kind of surprising that a city of this size (population 70,000) doesn't even have a McDonalds.

Hold the phone, maybe McDonalds does have a small foothold in the Croatian economy. What do you think, friends? Is this ketchup really made by Mickey D's or is it another impostor?

Not sure if it's authentic, but it's totally funtastic!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Hitchcock Sunset in Zadar

Our time here in Zadar feels precious and fleeting; in the back of our minds, we know that we'll be leaving in a few weeks.

The beauty of travelling is that we make an effort to get out and appreciate our surroundings each and every day. Tonight, we grabbed our flip flops and went for a stroll along the beach.

At Borik beach.
It was about 8pm, and the sun was gently slipping below the horizon. There's something magical about a sunset on the sea.

We aren't the first visitors to appreciate a Zadar sunset. In 1964, Alfred Hitchcock wrote:
"Zadar has the most beautiful sunset in the world, more beautiful than the one in Key West, Florida, applauded at every evening."
I've never been to Key West, but I do know an amazing sunset when I see one!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ugljan, aka Extra Virgin Island

Today we decided to hit the seas and explore Ugljan, the closest island in the Zadar archipelago. The ferry ride was quick and easy -- it only costs $2.50 and takes about 25 minutes each way.

Our ship has come in.
The name Ugljan (we think it's pronounced "oo-glan") originates from ulje, the Croatian word for oil. That's because the island produces some of Croatia's best olive oil. Ugljan is covered with family-run olive groves and a few low-key fishing villages.

Olive you.
Our tummies were grumbling, so we stopped by a local market for pecivo, sir, kobasica (sandwich fixin's) and pivo (beer). Here's a shot of the view from our picnic spot. We're on the east side of the island, directly across from Zadar.

Jaz beach at Uglian. Can you see Zadar and the mountains in the distance?
After we refueled, we were ready for the 2.6 mile walk up to Fortress St. Michael. It's located at the highest point on the island, at an elevation of about 750 ft.

See those TV antennas at the top of the hill? That's where we're headed!
The Fortress was constructed in 1203. While most of the fortress lies in ruin (it was heavy shelled in 1991), that didn't detract from the spectacular views of the surrounding islands.

The remaining walls of Fortress St. Michael.
Views of Dugi Otok to the west.
Inside the Fortress St. Michael.
A little piece of heaven. You can't put a price on this view!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How to Boil Lingerie

After a week of traveling it was finally time to do some laundry. It's moments like these that you realize even the simplest things can become major undertakings when you're completely illiterate! First problem, the washing machine was made in Germany. I took German for 2 years in high school, and I can sing "Oh Christmas Tree" auf Deutsch, but we never learned the settings on a washing machine. So with the help of, I set about to make sense of this:

Here were some of the results from Google:

Ok, the translation was a little rough, but I was getting the idea. Then I looked up the last setting:

I decided to stay away from that last one and settled instead for the "colorful lingerie" setting. Good. Now for some detergent:

The pictogram in the top left corner seemed to indicate the soap was for use in washing machines that weighed 4-5kg, which this one decidedly was not. The bigger problem was that all the words were in Croatian. After about 15 minutes with Google, I worked out that the left column was for water hardness and the top row was an indication of filth level. Judging by the scale in our coffee pot, I guessed we had very hard water and my clothes were about medium stinky, so I selected 200ml as the correct amount of detergent. At this point I realized I had nothing with which to measure out the detergent and proceeded to dump in what I best estimated was equal to 200ml. Having grown up in a nation that snubs its nose at the metric system my estimate was based on absolutely nothing.

Ok, good. Setting selected, detergent added....and go...and go! It didn't turn on. I pushed the knobs, I pulled the knobs, I pushed and pulled things that slightly resembled knobs. Nothing happened. Then I noticed a little trap door near the bottom of the machine. What was behind that door? I opened it and saw this:

On/Off Switch???
If you're at all familiar with industrial equipment (much like myself), then you know that this kind of looks like a main power switch. Why the Germans would hide the on/off switch behind an unmarked trap door at the bottom of the machine was beyond me, but I was sure I'd found the secret. I turned it about 90 degrees and fowl smelling drain water went all over the floor.

Not the power switch.

Ok, enough. It was time to look up the user manual. After another 15 minutes spent scouring the internet, I came to the distinct conclusion that the manual did not exist. At least not in English. Not very considerate if you ask me.

At this point Natalie noticed the washing machine still wasn't running after I'd been messing with it for about a half hour.
Natalie: What's wrong?
Jim: I can't get the washing machine to run. I pushed the knobs. I pulled the knobs. I drained the stinky water. I put in detergent. The stupid thing won't run! I'm looking up the manual.
Natalie: Is it plugged in?

Jim: Hey, I got it to work!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Name that Mystery Meat!

As we mentioned in our last post, food supplies were running dangerously low back at the homestead. Once we ran out of beer, we decided it was time to get out and do some serious grocery shopping.

We have a small market just down the street, but wanted to venture out and find a bigger megamart with more selection and better prices.

Going off some local intelligence posted at 2 Bags and a Pack, we headed out to Kaufland supermarket. It's only a 5-mile walk round trip... not that far, unless you're the one carrying the groceries (thank you, Jim!)

Who needs carts when you have baskets on wheels?
Grocery shopping in a foreign country can be mentally exhausting. We couldn't read most of the signs (our Spanish didn't seem to help with the translations!), so had to rely on pictures. We're also less-than-competent at the metric system. Do we buy anything in metric units in the US? The only thing I can think of is 2 L bottles of soda.
I'll take 0.734 kg of paprika crvena, please.
Overall, the prices were pretty reasonable. We got the best deals on pasta, cheese, and wine. That covers all of the major food groups, right?

Instant coffee (200 g) 27.99 $4.78 Bell pepper (3 large) 8.07 $1.38
Olive oil (0.25 L) 25.99 $4.43 Rice (1 kg) 7.99 $1.36
Gouda (400 g) 24.78 $4.23 Margarine (250 g) 7.49 $1.28
Cornflakes (1 kg) 15.99 $2.73 Dish detergent (500 mL) 7.49 $1.28
Beer (2 L) 15.99 $2.73 Coca-Cola (0.5 L) 5.79 $0.99
Eggs (10) 12.19 $2.08 Chocolate croissant (1) 4.99 $0.85
Red wine (1 L) 11.99 $2.05 Tomato sauce (500 g) 3.99 $0.68
Shampoo (300 mL) 9.99 $1.70 Oregano (15 g) 3.99 $0.68
Apples (6) 9.99 $1.70 Skim milk (0.5 L) 3.99 $0.68
Rolls (320 g) 8.19 $1.40 Spaghetti (500 g) 2.89 $0.49

Our trip to the grocery store inspired yet another challenge for you, friends. This one's called Name that Mystery Meat. Can you identify the meat in the photo below? Bonus points if you can find a recipe for it, too, as I'd love to cook some up for Jim as a special treat.

Name that mystery meat!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Pizza, Toilets, and Booties -- Oh My!

Yesterday was a rainy day here in Zadar, so we stayed close to home and watched a lot of television in Hrvatski (Croatian). Since it was pretty chilly in the apartment, Natalie crocheted herself a pair of booties to keep her feet warm.
When life gives you cold floors, make slippers!
Meanwhile, I passed the time by documenting all of the nifty features of our Croatian apartment. Here's my short list of things that we don't have in the US, but probably should.
  1. A door that flips open 2 different ways. Not sure why you would need your door to do this, but the mechanism is cool enough to warrant having one.

  2. Normal Mode. "Please come in."
    Weird Mode. "What do you want?"
  3. A heated towel rack. It warms your towels, dries your wet towels, and heats a cold bathroom all at the same time. It also works great for drying your clothes after doing a load of sink laundry.

  4. Leaves grill marks on your towel.
  5. Adjust-a-flush toilets. To save water, the commodes here in Croatia let you stop the flush whenever the mess is gone. That makes sense.

  6. Zaustaviti!!!! The toilet speaks English.
  7. Electric kettle. This thing can boil 2 litres of water in 2 minutes! That's faster than a microwave. 
Insert 1 depleted uranium fuel rod and voila! Hot water!
Has anyone found these things in the US? Why can't I buy these modern marvels at Walmart? These technologies are a true testament to engineering ingenuity.

Later that night

Since we were down to only cornflakes and beer in our apartment, we decided to brave the storm and seek out some good eats for dinner. Much to our delight, we stumbled across Mamma Mia pizzeria. We've found a lot of excellent Italian food here in Croatia and this pizza was no exception!

Mmmm... tomato and prosciutto pizza.
With full bellies, we settled in to a nice, relaxing Netflix night. The storms should be clearing up over the next couple of days. We can't wait to get out and explore some islands!