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Venice

(7/16) We had a relaxing morning and I enjoyed an entertaining “story telling” and slide show by Captain Sergej, who shared many of his tall ship experiences. His passion for the sea is evident and he has a wonderful sense of humor. He handles the crew well, and they all seem happy on the job. Around 11:00 we all gathered on the sundeck to watch the 2-hour entry into Kotor – with 3 bays, many towns, and the beautiful finale through the fjord. A delicious lunch was set up in the tropical bar so that we could watch while we ate. After anchoring, we took the tender to shore with June and Stuart (shipmates from England). On the advice of our Maitre D, who is a Kotor native, we negotiated a taxi to take us on a tour of the area. We enjoyed some beautiful views of the fjord and the Aegean Sea, as well as the tourist resort of Budva. Then we climbed to the town of Cetinje which apparently was a former capital. The cool shade was welcome, but basically the town was deserted. We walked around the old monastery and had a cold beer in a café, but chose to forgo the small museum. Because June was feeling queasy from the drive up the mountain to that point, we cancelled the planned stop farther up that would have required a switchback road to reach the spectacular vistas. Instead we returned to Budva and had a pleasant 30 minute stay in the charming walled Old Town on the sea. Paul discovered a small Irish pub where he was delighted to get an update on the British Open that was underway (not possible on the ship).

Montenegro means “black mountain” and is bordered by Croatia to the west, Bosnia and Herzegovinia to the northwest, Serbia to the northeast, Kosova to the east, and Albania to the southeast. It has an extremely complex history (available via google), but didn’t achieve independence until 2006. Back in Kotor, the charming old maritime center of Montenegro and under UNESCO protection, we wandered the narrow streets of that Old Town, met up with our four Australian friends (John & Janet and John and Lyn) and had a fabulous dinner in the “Bastion” restaurant near the corner of the wall. We shared some local appetizers – hand made cheese, delicious local prosciutto, and scrumptious mussels in a wonderful light fresh tomato sauce. The six of us emptied an entire basket of bread sopping up every last drop! I enjoyed the mixed fish plate that included fish fillets both baked and fried, calamari and shrimp, served with spinach and potatoes. I now regret that I didn’t swap the potatoes for another local specialty – black rice made with squid ink. After another city walk, we tendered back to the ship just in time to watch some of the local young people entertain with traditional costumes and dances. The sail-away at 11:30 PM was beautiful, with lights twinkling all along the shore of the fjord. Kotor is under UNESCO protection and is definitely worth a visit.

(7/17) Finally we are heading to the long-awaited Dalmatian coast of Croatia! After breakfast and the re-scheduled Part 2 of our Spanish lesson, we had a shore briefing as we anchored at Dubrovnik – only 48 nautical miles from Montenegro. The name Dubrovnik comes from the word “Dubrova”, which means “oaks.” This city of 50,000 (Croatia’s population is 4.5 million) has had a remarkable, but often troubled history. It was an independent merchant republic for 700 years and even had diplomatic relations with the English court in the Middle Ages. The main history of Dubrovnik cites a small settlement on an island called Laus, which was separated from the mainland by a marsh. There was also a Greek settlement nearby in what was called Epidauros (present-day Cavtat) . An invasion by Slavs in the 7th century destroyed Epidauros, causing inhabitants to flee to Laus. Laus eventually changed to Raus, which in turn became Ragusa – the historic name for Dubrovnik. The city developed, and the walls to fortify it were built from the 10th to the 13th centuries. A channel (marsh) divided the city until it was filled in during the 12th century and now is the main street and remains virtually unchanged. Ragusa and Dubrovnik merged when the marshland filled in. It was under Venice rule from 1205 to 1358, after which it became Croat-Hungarian. An earthquake in 1667 destroyed much of the city, but the walls remained standing. Napoleon took over the city from 1806 to 1815, then it became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After WWI it became part of Croatia – then was occupied by Germans and Italians during WWII and in 1945 became part of Yugoslavia. More recently, early in the Bosnia & Croatian Wars in 1991-92 Montenegrin police and military joined Serbian troops in attacks for seven months on Dubrovnik and surrounding towns, causing considerable damage. It was again liberated in 1992 and the city rebuilt.

After another delicious buffet lunch on board, we tendered to shore and began our excursion by bus through the countryside and numerous small villages. Our excellent tour guide “Nikki” provided a fascinating narration about the turbulent history and culture of this area, including personal accounts of the invasion, looting, and burning of the villages and Dubrovnik. Some remains were still visible – very sad. It was quite interesting to look over to the mountainous country of Bosnia at the point where Croatia narrows dramatically. Our first stop was at a large old home in the village of Polijca. It has been in the Glavic family for many centuries and the tour of the original old house with its massive olive press, primitive kitchen, and wine cellar was interesting. We then gathered in the newer part of the house (rebuilt after the 1991 invasion and burning) to sample the local brandy and dried figs – served by a local young woman in traditional costume. Because only 4 of the large family now live in this house, they no longer make their own olive oil or brandy. Instead they just have a few animals and a garden and must rely on income from tourist groups. Their large basement can accommodate several hundred for a traditional lunch or dinner. Our next stop was at the little town of Cavtat – a popular stop for tourists and boaters. It was very pretty and has an interesting history, but due to intense heat, we chose to just stroll the promenade, admire some amazing yachts, and have a cool drink in the shade.

Next we returned to Dubrovnik, where Nikki provided a 30-minute walking tour, pointing out some of the highlights of this fascinating walled city, designated a world heritage site by UNESCO. We entered through the Plie Gate and were amazed by the wide, beautiful “Stradun” (or Placa) – the main pedestrian thoroughfare through the city, with paving stones dating to 1468. We saw the Onofrio Fountain, built in 1438 and the Franciscan Monastery with one of the oldest functioning pharmacies in Europe, in operation since 1938. Continuing down the Stradun toward the eastern Ploce Gate, we saw the Orlando Column, Sponza Palace and the baroque churce of St. Blaise, the city patron. The Rector’s Palace nearby is now a city museum, and the Cathedral, which dates from 1673, sits atop the excavations of a Romanesque cathedral, and under that a church dating to the 6th century. Amazing. The walls were fortified in the 15th century fearing attack by the Ottomans and are 3 meters thick along the sea wall and 6 meters thick inland, with fortresses at all four corners. There is a walkway at the top of the rampart with excellent view of the city, but due to the heat, we decided to save that for a return trip. Since this was just a “taste” of Dubrovnik, there is much still to be explored.

Because Nikki now lives inside the walled city, she had some excellent advice regarding dining spots. After the tour, we had a cold beer in the shade along the water, then returned through the Ploce Gate to the city restaurant in the main square noted for its mussels and oysters – “Buffet Kamenice” – also a Rick Steves recommendation, we learned. At just 6:30 there was already a short wait for a table there and the surrounding cafes were empty! We were joined by Bob and Dolly from Philadelphia. Bob had oysters on the half shell and spaghetti Bolognese, Dolly enjoyed delicious scampi risotto, I shared my tiny fried fish (best to date), and Paul shared a huge bowl of delicious mussels – but the sauce was not as tasty as last night. We all also enjoyed the local dry white wine - Posip Suho 2008 from Korcula – excellent! After dinner we wandered down the narrow streets with an amazing array of shops and cafes. A city regulation prevents large garish signs, so all establishments just had a small tasteful sign or light above the door. Very nice. Since a large cruise ship had departed at 5:00, the evening was less crowded and quite pleasant. It is very clean and one feels safe here. We returned to the ship at 10:00 and struggled, but managed, to stay awake for the midnight sail-away, with shore lights twinkling good bye. Dubrovnik is definitely a place we ‘d like to re-visit – perhaps on a vacation just devoted to exploring Croatia.

(7/18) We arrived in Korcula this morning after breakfast. Since our excursion wasn’t until 1:00 we relaxed on board and had an early lunch. We then took the tender to shore and our group of 18 boarded a small boat for the beginning of our “Buggy Adventure.” After arriving at a small coastal village, we walked to the 2-seater buggies for orientation, including required helmets (thank goodness!). Our tour, single file, around the island began on paved roads, then transitioned to rocky dirt roads through farmlands and vineyards – bumpy, but fun. After a photo stop we continued to Seljacko Domacinstvo winery where we had a tour, then tasted their delicious and complex award-winning white wine (only 10,000 bottles produced each year), an ok red, and some local liqueurs (tangerine, lemon, sour cherry and an herbal grappa). Snacks were candied orange rinds and delicious raisins (“to prevent heartburn after farmers ate a large breakfast” per our guide). Next we headed to a nice local beach for an hour – a blessed relief to take a cool dip in the water since the temperature reached a record-setting 42 degrees C (107 F!). Our final leg of the buggy ride (Click for Video) took us through another part of the island with beautiful vineyards before returning to the buggy garage. We were surprised and delighted by the unexpected extension of our excursion – a boat cruise around the island, with huge platters of snacks provided by the captain's wife – bread, local goat cheese, local Dalmatian ham (delicious and similar to prosciutto), cucumbers, tomatoes, melons and nectarines. We also enjoyed homemade local wine – served from a 2 liter water bottle!

We got back to the ship at 7:00 (instead of 5:30), quickly showered and took the 7:30 tender to shore for a quick look at the walled city. Like most it this area, it has a fascinating history with fortifications to keep Turkish invaders and pirates at bay, as well as the house where it was thought Marco Polo was born. The town of Korcula has a lovely promenade along the water, a nice small marina, and some more quaint narrow stepped walkways throughout the old town. The main street zigzags, with the side streets feeding into it at an angle to both block the winter winds and temper the midday heat. We randomly chose a small restaurant advertising mussels, but alas they were “gone”, so we settled on sharing a grilled fish and a salad – neither remarkable. We returned to the ship at 9:30, relaxed on deck with friends until 11:00, then collapsed after an exhausting day.  Meanwhile... many on the ship partied on.

(7/19) We arrived today in Hvar, considered to be the “most beautiful, sunniest and most luxurious” island in this area. Total population is 12,600 (Hvar city 4200) and it is just 42 miles long and 6.5 miles (150 square miles) at the widest point. They rely primarily on tourism for income (30,000 visitors a day!), but also produce lavender and rosemary, wine and olive oil. Like it’s neighbors, Hvar has a complex history. It was populated in pre-historic times by the Ilians, colonized by the Greeks in the 4th century BC, and gained glory and power during the Middle Ages as an important port in the Venetian naval empire. The old town of Starigrad (which we didn’t have a chance to visit) dates back to the 2nd century BC and is a still famous UNESCO site popular with artists and poets due to the beautiful large bay. From 1813-1918 Hvar island was part of Austria, then in 1921 was under the kingdom of Yugoslavia until its independence in 1992. The name Hvar was derived from the 7th century Greeks from Paros, who named it Pharos. It also has history as a pirate island, and in the 1860s tourism started there as a “health island.” The Hvar town harbor is protected by the surrounding Pakleni Islands, easily accessible by water taxi.

We took the 11:30 tender to shore to explore this lovely town on foot. The marina was extremely full and bustling with sailboats of all sizes, large yachts, small pleasure boats, and charter craft. You get a positive feeling entering this town – beautiful hotels, interesting architecture, and nice shops, restaurants and cafes. First we took a brief tour of the marbled main square (one of the largest in Dalmatia), the Cathedral of St. Stephen (Stjepan) built in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Renaissance Theater (the first in Croatia). Then we started climbing steps to explore the upper levels of the town and were encouraged by fellow shipmates from Belgium (on their way down) to “continue all the way to the castle”… So we took their advice, in spite of the killer heat, and climbed up hundreds of steps and a long switch-back path through trees, palms and cacti until we arrived at the castle/fortress. It was indeed worth it, as the views were spectacular! The fortress was built between the 12th and 16th centuries, and in 1571 saved the town from invasion by the Turks. It was later abandoned “to dance with the fairies” (??), but was refurbished in the 1970s. We had a welcome cold beer (pivo) at the comfortable bar/lounge before heading back on the easier and quicker descent. We were directed to a small restaurant by one of the locals and enjoyed a light late lunch at “Kod Kapetano” on the other side of the marina. We shared delicious mussels (again !) and slightly undercooked French fries. The local specialty is Gradada – fish in white wine sauce. Paul then chose to “park” at a café on the square advertising “30 Belgian Beers!” and immersed himself in a Rochefort 10 while I went window shopping. I didn’t find anything that suited my gift wish list, but the clothes and jewelry were beautiful.

Next we returned to the ship to relax and enjoy cocktail hour with snacks of delicious crispy calamari with a citrus sauce. Then it was time to shower and dress for the “Captain’s Dinner” – a special menu that included lobster and Chateaubriand (delicious!), cream of carrot soup, Caesar salad, and baked Alaska for dessert with a champagne toast.  We enjoyed a bottle of Hahn (Central Coast, CA) cabernet sauvignon with our meal. After dinner was a talent show – lots of fun watching both crew and passengers perform – followed by lively dancing until the wee hours.

 (7/20) It’s hard to believe that this is our last day and we have to face packing and saying goodbye to many new friends. We leave the ship early tomorrow morning to spend one day in Venice before heading home. Our final stop in Croatia is the small island of Mali Losinj – part of a chain of many small islands in the western Adriatic. The main town with a population of 6,000 is one of the largest, but it lacks the stunning beauty of Hvar. The marina was busy and there are shipyards nearby. This area is known as a popular health resort with lots of spas, sports, and nature activities. We walked along the waterfront and had a delicious lunch of mussels in tomato sauce (Have you figured out that mussels are Paul’s favorite?...), perfectly cooked pommes frites, and the local white wine at “Bistro Orhidija”. After a little gift shopping, we returned to the ship to face the packing.

Everyone seemed sad to see this adventure come to an end and cocktail hour was bittersweet. We joined our four Australian friends for our last dinner aboard... great fun, we will miss them. I had delicious tomato soup, salad, and pork medallions in pesto sauce and Paul had the sirloin steak. The six of us enjoyed Pouilly Fuisse with starters and Chateauneuf du Pape with our meals. The crew marched through the dining room carrying flags from the counties on board... while singing to the passengers. The evening ended with a slide show of the trip showcasing photos taken by both crew and passengers – many well done. We went to bed earlier than usual since we needed to be up by 6:00 AM to watch the entrance into Venice.

 

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