Sunday, October 18, 2015

Travelogue: Adriatic Coast, August/September 2015

Dubrovnik, Zagreb, Opatija, Motovun, Ljubljana, Lake Bled. These are just some of the beautiful places we visited as part of a two week trip to the Adriatic. Dubrovnik may be most familiar to those of you who are Game of Thrones fans, as much of the smash HBO series is filmed there. And although I have yet to watch the series, I could definitely see how this would be the perfect backdrop, with its' ancient walled city and vast access to the sea.

With ethnicities as diverse as Bosnian, Italian, Croatian, and Slovenian, the region is rich in culture and food, which on any trip I take has to be front and center. Luckily, I had many, many wonderful food and cultural experiences during our trip. Here now, a few:

Anywhere we went, in all the cities we visited, everybody was eating ice cream! At all times of the day and night. This region is obsessed with ice cream and so I had to find the best! In Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, Vincek is touted as the best there is. It's on a busy main street very close to a huge square that locals use as a favorite meeting point. After our walking tour of Zagreb's "old city," which you reach by either trudging up very steep hills, or taking a little cable car up to the top, my next stop was Vincek's. It did not disappoint! Lusciously creamy with in-your-face flavor (I want my ice cream to taste like whatever flavor it's supposed to be; I don't want to have to guess -- hmmm, subtle nuances of roasted pistachio… no thanks), it rivaled some of the best gelato I've had in Italy.
Luscious Pistachio and Coconut Ice Cream

Also in Zagreb, we had a drink (or three) at the beautiful Hotel Esplanade. Full of gorgeous art deco touches, the hotel, which was built in 1925, was part of the fabulous storied chain of Orient Express hotels. We lingered one warm evening on their terrace, sipping lovely cocktails and nibbling on tasty bar snacks. 
The Bar at Hotel Esplanade

Another highlight of our itinerary was the wonderful day trip we took to Istria. Technically part of Croatia, Istria has a definite Italian vibe to it. You could easily mistake it for Tuscany. Our travels took us to the delightful hill town of Motovun, which I immediately fell in love with. Walking the cobblestone streets within the original 14th century walls, we wandered in and out of little shops selling tender prosciutto, fragrant cheeses, and the magnificent truffles for which this area is known. During the fall, our guide told us, there are some 12,000 truffle dogs working the forest with their masters, hunting the elusive and prized truffles. Must.Get.Back.Here.


 From here, we drove farther up into the hills for a lunch straight out of Food and Wine Magazine. Set among the vineyards at an agritourism farm, the farmer's wife served, what I believe, was the best meal of the trip. 

At a table laden with carafes of red and white local wine and homemade bread, we feasted on light-as-air gnocchi with braised chicken, fresh pasta ribbons tossed with cream, Parmesan, and heady black truffles, and for dessert, luscious panna cotta with stewed plums. After this incredible meal, we roamed their orchards and plucked fresh, sweet figs that we ate as sort of a digestivo. Does it get any better than this? I think not! This is what you travel for (or at least I do). To discover and enjoy the local foods and meet the people who make them. 

Gnocchi with Braised Chicken

Panna Cotta with Plums
Pasta with Truffles

Fresh Figs
Further on down the road, we visited Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzgovinia. This region was devastated during the war in the early 90s, and you can still see evidence of the destruction in many places. From the shells of bombed-out buildings to the depressed economy, it was clear that this country has miles to go before recovering (if ever). Due to the 70% tax structure, and lack of good jobs, most people don't work, choosing the "gray market" to a regular job. And those lucky enough to get a job, work many long hours just to make ends meet. We had dinner in the home of a lovely family, where the husband and wife work seven days a week in a supermarket. The husband's mother lives with them, helping out with the couple's two children. 

One of the highlights of dinner (and throughout the region) was the strong Turkish coffee served with delicious baklava. I loved the ritual of the coffee service. Served on a small tray, with a sweet, a couple of sugar cubes, and a glass of water, order a coffee and you can sit at one of the many cafes for hours people watching, talking politics, catching up with friends. People don't order coffee to go in these countries - no one is walking around with a paper cup of coffee!

Turkish Coffee in Sarajevo
The last stop of our trip was Slovenia. This, my friends, is the truly undiscovered jewel of Europe. A beautiful country, with a charming capital city (Ljubljana) that reminded me of Amsterdam with its many canals lined with cafes and stores. 

We took a day trip to the fairytale-like Lake Bled, set high in the Julian Alps. One of the main features of Lake Bled, is the stunning 17th century church set on an island in the middle of the lake, and an 800 year-old castle perched on a cliff. This setting was made all the more dramatic due to the rain and fog on the day we visited. 

The only way to get to the island is via row boat. Interestingly, the boats (called "pletnas") are manned by strong, young men from 23 families who have run the Lake Bled row boat business for many years. It's a proud tradition carried from generation to generation.
Darko, our boat rower
Later that day, a group of us found a wonderful wine bar in Ljubljuana, where we sampled the local Slovenian wine, and feasted on delicate prosciutto and delicious cheeses. Not a bad way to spend a rainy day!

There were so many wonderful experiences on this trip (too many to detail in a quick read). Croatia, Istria, and Slovenia are truly beautiful, and pretty much undiscovered. And the history of Bosnia-Herzgovinia is complicated, intriguing, and still evolving. This was not the trip we had originally planned to take, but it turned out to be the right trip. If you're thinking about a trip to this region, go.

All pictures copyright The Cook's Tour 2015

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