Making memories on a bus tour

bus.jpg

We had nicknames for some of the people on the bus. There was Charlie Sheen and Mr. Magoo, the dad from “The Goldbergs,” the Vegas Ladies, the Park Ranger from Portland and The Millennials.

flower market.jpg

I’m not sure what they called us.

On our bus tour of Eastern Europe, my mom, two aunts and I were a family pack on a girls’ trip. Our acquaintances probably called me “the blogger” and my mom “the retired English teacher.” One of my aunts picked up the handle “Delta” (where she worked before she retired). We had to call my other aunt “Mary” in public, instead of her nickname since childhood, “Beaner.” It wasn’t until later in life that she and the rest of my family realized some people took offense to her name as derogatory slang, and it wouldn’t be cool to yell, “Hey, Beaner!” across a crowded airport. Now, only her closest friends are allowed to call her that.

zagreb mural.jpg

If it hadn’t been for my mom and aunts, I probably wouldn’t have considered taking a bus tour through Croatia and Slovenia with stops along the way in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. I’ve always been more of a do-it-yourself kind of traveler who prefers taking in the sights with a group of four rather than 40.

cobblestones.jpg

But it came down to price. For less than $150 per day (not much more than airfare alone would have cost my family to come and see me in Croatia), they got a package deal from Gate 1 Travel that included airfare from New York, nine nights of accommodations at nice hotels, more than a dozen meals and breakfasts, an English-speaking tour manager and local guides.

pula.jpg

What I learned on my first bus tour is that it’s an efficient way to explore foreign cities. You don’t have to do all of the research yourself, and you can’t beat the hotel buying power of a tour company.

gate1map.png

We started off in Venice, where my mom and one of my aunts flew in. They spent the week visiting with my family. Then in Croatia, we spent two nights in Opatija, one night in Split, three nights in Dubrovnik and one night in Zagreb. In Slovenia, we spent two nights in Bled. We also took some side trips to places such as Rovinj, Pula and Montenegro. It would have been tough to cover that much territory and stay in resorts for that price on our own.

tourist trap.jpg

The cons of bus tours? Sitting next to Mr. Magoo at dinner, getting trapped in a couple of authentic tourist traps, being rushed through some cities and not being able to shake the feeling of being on a school field trip.

gate 1 group.jpg

We traveled with a group of mainly retired Americans. That changed the experience from the rest of my stay here – full of months when I barely heard any other American voices. On weekend trips with my husband and kids, we have been able to see a little more of the charm of small towns here and the way people live. We’ve also tried to communicate with the locals in at least a little bit of their own language. You lose that traveling with a big group that already speaks your language.

market.jpg

For much of the trip, my mom was disappointed with the food. For months, I’d been talking up the seafood of the Adriatic, the Mediterranean and Italian dishes and the fruit stands and vegetable markets. I’m not sure a bus tour makes for the best dining experiences. Judging a country’s food by bus tour buffets is kind of like judging American cuisine by only the restaurants that can handle being bombarded by a bus crowd.

dubrovnik.jpg

Overall, Gate 1 delivered on its tagline to show us “more of the world for less.” We saw the highlights of multiple cities without having to worry about the details.

boat in bled.jpg

Even though I had been to some of the cities before, local guides stood out in places like Pula, which has one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world, and in Split, where a guide took us underground to see the cellars of Diocletian’s Palace. We also walked the ancient city walls above Dubrovnik on a fall day when most of the tourists had already left, and the rooftop views were fantastic.

beach bar.jpg

We made memories we’ll talk about for years to come.

I woke up this morning to see a Facebook message from my Aunt Beaner with a mesmerizing little video about ways to fold napkins. I had to laugh because it made me think of the fancy folded napkin she wore like a paper cap when we were joking around during one of our dinner outings.

Maybe at some holiday gathering years from now, there will be napkin caps all around and we’ll play that hat game we learned at a bus tour dinner. Just like that time in Slovenia.

A taste of the Balkans in Ljubljana

chef W.jpg

Some of our best memories of Slovenia have to do with food. We even took home a tall, starched chef hat for 10-year-old “W,” our aspiring chief cook.

The boys tried a little of everything on the culinary spectrum on this trip: American-style burgers that reminded them of home, sugar-toasted almonds that smelled so good we had to buy them from a street vendor, and sushi for lunch at a restaurant where plates came by on a conveyor belt.

sushi.jpg

All of that was before our official excursion on the Ljubljana Food Tour.

The food tour is how we met Mirzeta, a Bosnian-born woman who married a local, lived for a while in Malaysia and returned to Slovenia to follow her dream to give tourists a taste of the Balkans. We met her on a Sunday beside three birch trees in front of Prešeren’s Monument, a landmark on the city’s main square. Mirzeta wanted to show us the city and its traditions. She wove stories of art and architecture throughout her food tour.

Forget the burgers and sushi. This was the real cultural experience. And these are some of the foods that define the country:

salad.jpg

Seafood salad: I’ve tried this all over Croatia, and each restaurant puts its own spin on the taste and presentation. Sometimes, it’s octopus served cold like a potato salad with   olives, onions and capers. At Ribca, Ljubljana’s best-known seafood restaurant, fresh ingredients come from the fish market right next door.

sausage.jpg

Sausage and cabbage: Next, Mirzeta took us to Gostilna Sokol (the Eagle), a tavern in the city center with a rustic look and waiters dressed in traditional national costumes. We tried a local dish of kranjska klobasa (pork and bacon sausage) with sides that included buckwheat, cabbage and mashed potatoes. Here, the city’s Austrian influence comes through, and it goes down well with beer.

soup.jpg

Pickled turnip stew: One of my favorite tastes of the tour was something between a soup and a stew. I like to try dishes I normally wouldn’t make at home, and this fit the bill. It’s a pickled turnip stew with pork and tastes a little like Chinese hot-and-sour soup. In Slovenia, tradition has it that it was a way to use the abundance of pork meat at slaughtering time. They call it “bujta repa.”

choc.jpg

Chocolate, honey, salt flower and wine: Mirzeta made sure we tried a little of everything, so we also stopped at shops for a sample of chocolate, honey, salt flower and wine. “Chef W” liked the salt flower, salt that forms as a thin delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates. The shop owner told us to sprinkle it on finished food instead of table salt. We have since added a flower salt container to our dinner table.

dumplings.jpg

Mushroom dumplings: One of the most interesting restaurants in Ljubljana we visited was a place called Druga Violina (which means “Second Fiddle”). It serves Slovenian dishes and a season menu, but the most interesting thing about the restaurant is that it is accessible to the disabled, hires people with special needs and raises money to support local events. Knowing that made the already delicious food taste a little better. Here, one of the samples we tried was a ravioli-like pasta, kind of like a dumpling, with mushroom sauce. It tasted rich and filling. By then, we were stuffed, but we had to save room for dessert.

wheelchair.jpg

(Photo: The window at “Second Fiddle” restaurant)

layer cake.jpg

Layer cake: Our final food stop in Ljubljana was at Gostilna Šestica, the oldest restaurant in the city, which has been operating since 1776. We ended our tour with coffee and caramel apple layer cake that they call a “moving cake.” It’s a spiced  cake with layers of apple, poppy seeds, walnuts and ricotta cheese with a caramel sauce that tastes like everything that makes you think of autumn.

As the leaves began to fall in Ljubljana, we admired the scenery, got a taste of a new season and an appreciation for the Balkans. Comfort food here is different and familiar at the same time. I already know I will be coming back for another bite. My mom and aunts are in town, and we are heading back to Ljubljana next week. I may have to catch up with Mirzeta for a coffee.

‘Sretan rođendan!’ – A happy birthday in Croatia

cake.jpg

When I think back years from now about memorable birthdays, today’s will probably rank up there.

It’s not because I did anything grand. Well, I did treat myself to a seaside lunch and set up my laptop office for the afternoon in a spot with a nice view:

lunch view.jpg

My main mark for the year is living abroad and truly feeling alive. I think it took shaking up my surroundings to appreciate my life and the people in it. The only thing missing from this birthday are the people I am missing back home. Their messages, texts and calls flooded in all day and made me feel loved.

kobona pece.jpg

Since Sarge is working nights, he and the boys took me out last weekend to Konoba Pece, in Vinjerac, a neat stone tavern on a hill for some Adriatic seafood. And this weekend, we will be traveling to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana – which sounds like “Lube-lee-ah-nah,” which is just plain fun to say – for a getaway.

My 47th birthday has been pretty low-key. I stopped in a new neighborhood grocery and finally picked up some local bell peppers, the color of which I have never seen in the United States. They’re light green and more mild than green bell peppers in America. And here, everyone calls them “paprika” (very confusing to me at first, since I associated paprika with the ground red spice).

bell peppers.jpg

Anyway, stuffed peppers are a traditional Croatian dish, so that’s what I made for dinner – “paprika” stuffed with seasoned ground meat and rice. I’m not sure it was a hit with the boys, but it reminded me of stuffed peppers my mom used to make. She and my dad FaceTimed while I was cooking dinner. My mom and I share a birthday week. She said since we are 70 and 47, bookended by sevens, maybe it will bode for lucky days ahead. I’m already feeling like I’m having a lucky year. It’s been full of surprises.

Sometimes my surprises are on purpose, like when I’m at the store and buy something without fully translating the package. Today, I thought I was buying ice cream cake, and instead we had a chestnut and chocolate roll for dessert. It was more like a Christmas log, really, and so frozen it was hard to get a knife through. Definitely not the same as ice cream cake. But it held candles just the same.

candles.jpg

Part of me has felt a little somber this week, thinking about lives lost in the Las Vegas mass shooting a few days ago, and even the death of Tom Petty, part of the soundtrack of my youth.

In a year when I truly feel alive, it makes me want to savor the best parts a little more and embrace the journey. Happy birthday, indeed.