Author Archives: DonniT
We came, we saw, we ate.
I gained 3 pounds.
It was totally worth it.
Every year we look forward to the Minnesota State Fair. The Great Minnesota Get Together, as it is affectionately known, ranks consistently in the top state fairs of the country. Attendance is second only to the Texas State Fair — which runs twice as long in a state with almost five times as many people. The rides, the music, the animals, the exhibits: they all rock. Where else can you see piglets born, see no fewer than five Donald Trump versions in the scarecrow competition, haggle with smiling toothless carnies, listen to the Beach Boys and En Vogue on the same afternoon, watch dogs being spayed, or buy a hot tub?
And did I mention the food?
We kind of go there to eat.
It has become big business for the fair, and every year, months in advance, the fair starts touting the new food options. This year there were no less than 44 new foods. We did NOT try them all. But we would’ve if we could’ve!
I did my research, consulting various different news sources for their recommendations (big thank you’s to Rick Nelson of the Star Tribune and Stephanie March of MSPMag for always being the first reviews I read!) . Quite honestly, I weigh all the recommendations against one another, take in my personal preferences, and then compile my top 10 must try options (full disclosure: I won’t eat seafood of any kind, and I hate sweet beers and any kind of ciders, so those things will ever be on my list).
Then I get my handy dandy Minnesota State Fair app (if you do not have this, you need it. You can place stars on the interactive map of food/entertainment/merchandise you want to see. As you wander the fair, you see what is close to you. Game changer. Also: buy your tickets in advance at Cub — and pick up the Blue Ribbon coupon book and any ride ticket sheets. The fair can be pricey. These things help!)
So after my research, my list looked like this:
We go every year with another family, the Meldahls. Their kids are besties with ours, and their dog Monte was married to our late great Penny. They like the food as much as we do. Mike shares my love of all things spicy, Erika is a scoville scale wimp like HWSNBN (but both are up for almost anything). This year only two of their kids, Joey and Lucy, were able to come. We had no kids for the first time since we moved to Minnesota 21 years ago, It was tough. We missed tem — and having a few extra mouths with which to share the grub!
That’s how we do this: we buy one of something, and everyone gets a bite, It helps lessen the caloric load — somewhat. By the edn of the night all restraints is thrwn t othe wind, and we all start furtively darting glances around, as our personal cravings start whispering to our inner food addicts. We may end the night going rogue, but we always start off united, with a plan.
I start the day on the bus (we don’t drive. Take a shuttle. You’ll thank me), discussing my plan. Then I ask what they really want to eat, and add it to the app map. Since they revamped the west end, we always start at the Blue Barn — geographically it is the first place you reach getting off the bus. It also never disappoints.
First up: bacon and Cheese Stuffed Tots, and the Swedish Meatball Smorgas (with beers). Both were amazing, for different reasons. I have never met a potato I didn’t like. I still remember discovering the glory of potato skins at my friend’s dorm back at UC Davis in 1986. Sometimes I think she feared I hung out with her just to be close to their starchy goodness. These are like that, but fried. And the tangy smoky goodness of the bacon fat infused sour cream? Gurrl. The Smorgas were also great. Think Swedish meatballs with white gravy, sweet lingonberry sauce and tart pickle bits. I chose not to eat the bread, quite honestly. I was told it was like a Hawaiian bread. We were split on which we liked better. I went the more pedestrian route, but others moaned over the Smorgas. I recommend both!
Also eaten in the West End:
On the left you have the All-Day Breakfast Waffle from Nordic Waffles. On the right are the always good chicken tenders from Lulu’s Public House (not new, but a must have for some in the party). I only tasted the corner of the waffle, as I don’t do eggs. But it was sweet and savory at the same time, with the perfect soft and crunchy ratio. Those who ate the whole thing said it was exactly right. This is one of those things I can totally see someone trying at home. Great on-the-go meal with eggs, bacon and cheddar in a waffle sandwich! By the way: look for the goat on the roof. No idea its significance, but any goat wearing headphones is ok in my book!
The path then takes us by two oldies but goodies, on opposite sides of the spectrum: Preferred Pickle and Cream Puffs.
Hard to mess with a big ass dill pickle on a stick. I mean, it can be done, but this is a family show. And the cream puffs? Well, not my thing, but they are a fave of my better half.
We also picked up deep fried cajun pickle slices. They were amazing, but don’t go because you like spice. We had to add hot sauce to the mix to get the kick we needed.
None of these items are new, but you don’t have to be new to be a favorite. We hit up Preferred Pickle again late at night for another round of fried pickles. But since it was during the time of night when we devolved and scattered according to our own base needs, I have no photo.
We headed towards the area of the fair where there are no new foods usually on my list: the animal barns. But along the way we couldn’t resist a stop at our favorite fry place: Fresh French Fries. We shared a small cup, with sides of both ketchup and malt vinegar (my favorite). This place is the bomb dot com. There are lots of places to get french c=fries (in fact 46 fair vendors sell them), but this place will always have a warm spot in my tummy. In fact, we ate there twice. Later in the night we got the giant bucket with a handle, and we ate them down like Charles Dickens street urchins. Mind you, this was after about 6 hours of conspicuous consumption. I think we ate so furtively fast in half-assed-shame (who am I kidding? At this point we were all full moons. Nothing half about it). Or maybe we thought that if we scarfed fast enough it would count as an aerobic activity?
(this pic is from our baby helping)
A couple more side steps along the way to the next new foods: A corn dog (NEVER a Pronto pup). an ooey gooey caramel roll with a side of frosting madness, and poutine.
We split up at this point, some heading to the Miracle of Birth Center, others heading to get some Ghost Pepper concoction. I am a sucker for the animal babies, so I was torn. But my heat- loving cohorts saved me a bite.
We did not allow our spouses to try. They would have suffered. These were awesome. I only had one — and it was enough. Not for the weak of palate. One slightly injured party requested a trip to the all you can drink milk booth — a place we stop every year. This time we had three glasses before moving on, both chocolate and regular.
We made it up to the next new food on my list.
These are the General’s Tso’s Chicken Tacos at Midtown Global Market’s Taco Cat. I’ll be honest: this one wasn’t rated unanimously by all the critics, and I get it. It was yummy Chinese food in a flour tortilla. I could’ve done without the tortilla. Put it in a crisp lettuce wrap and it would’ve been better!
This. This apple. Oh my.
Go to Minnesota Apples in the Ag building. Buy this. Eat it. Swoon over the combo of sweet and tart. Start stalking your local produce aisle. This one will be BIG.
Ok: back to the unhealthy.
Sausage Sister and Me in the Food Building never disappoints. I mean NEVER. If they have a new food, we are there. We will also pick up an old favorite. The new? The Up North Puff Pastry, seen here on the left. It is a flaky concoction of pastry dough (which I would eat solo — the stretch factor is to die for) stuffed with porketta, cheese curds, dill pickle pieces and just the right amount of coarse mustard. This would be an AWESOME cold weather thing. On the right is the classic fave: the Twisted Sister on a Stick. Every year baby!
This was the only beverage on my list to try: a strawberry-basil lemonade. Granted, I wanted to add vodka, but it was a good mix of flavors. Too tart for some in the group, but I thought it was as good palate cleanser!
Onward to Thanksgiving:
This is a terrible picture of the Turducken Sausage at Giggles Campfire Grill. It tastes like a turkey had carnal relations with a bratwurst. That is a good thing, by the way. Impressive pop on the skin! Leaner than you expect from a sausage, but that’s ok. I was still glowing with greasy goodness from Sausage Sister and Me!
Detour for some old faves:
Mini Donuts. Big Fat Bacon. Foot Long Hotdog. All traditional. All must be consumed at some point.
One old, one new, from a perennial new food place: Tejas Grill. On the left you have the Beergarita, which I love. On the right, the elote, which I now covet. And which I vowed to try to replicate this weekend on the Island (blog to come). The elote is grilled corn on the cob slathered in a mixture of chile powder-spiced mayo, lime juice, cotija cheese and cilantro. Your brain tells your stomach it’s a vegetable. Your heart tells you it’s actually crack. And you will eat it until it is gone, then look like an addict, gnawing the ends of the cob and sucking on your fingers. Danger, Will Robinson.
Lots of “healthy” items on the list this year. Sort of. This one was consistently at the top of every foodies list this year. It’s the grilled peaches from the produce exchange (even if you don’t buy this, just buy one of their baby-head sized peaches. Glorious). Drizzled with honey and topped with goat cheese and mint, I turned into Gollum and called it my precious. But not everyone shared my enthusiasm, especially those who don’t like got cheese. That’s ok. HWSNBN and I decided we can totally try this at home. And we will.
We next had a very sad moment. On the top of the I wanna try it list for Mike was the Bananas Foster French Toast at the Hamline Church Dining Hall. Alas, it was only served at breakfast, and we are not morning people. I am sure it was delicious…
Mike helped me search for the next food item, which was a wild card. In the meantime, others hit Juanita’s Fajitas:
So. The one item on the list that I was most uncertain about was the Rainbow Cloud Roll from Rainbow Ice Cream, located upstairs in the Grand Stand. I’d never even been up there before, which added to the dubiousness of this dish. First they take cotton candy, and roll it out. Then you add three scoops of Superman Ice cream, and a sprinkling of Fruity Pebbles, then roll it up like a unicorn’s burrito. Then it’s rolled in more Fruity Pebbles. I was sure I would hate it I was sure it would be a sugar bomb. It was THE BOMB.
They gave me a spork, at which I scoffed. I picked that bad boy up in my hands and bit down. Holy mother of Tooth Decay. I am not sure how, but I managed to polish that sucker off with really only the help of one other person (thanks Lucy!). The others tried it, warily, and liked it, but not enough to go all in like we did. Seriously worth the weirdness.
It was now the time of night to hit the midway for rides and games of chance (I came home with an aqua dinosaur, thank you very much. We all wanted a llama though. I was gonna name mine Dolly. Think about it).
We soon hit that time I told you about: we were at capacity, but we were feral now, and baser instincts took over. There were more fries and pickles. More beer (I really didn’t count that stuff, btw. We did try the watermelon frose — frozen rose– at one point which was ok — if you liked watermelon and rose. Which I do not). A few bottles of water.
Erika craved chocolate. I wanted savory. We also needed cheese curds (no picture — but we got the jalapeno ones. It has taken me 20 years but I can finally enjoy one) to go for one who could not make the fair (hi Paige!). Erika and I found what we needed at French Meadow Bakery:
She had the chocolate mini sconuts (scones and donut holes married together) and I had the gluten-free risotto poppers with cheese and black beans. They were out of sauces for both, but we didn’t care. They were the perfect end of the fair bites.
We staggered to the buses, checking our fitbits and praying that all the steps mitigated the calories a tad. We were done, and frankly (I know, hard to believe) just feeling full. As we neared the gate, a gentleman was walking by with a bucket of the world-famous Sweet Martha’s Cookies. I don’t crave them — they are way too sweet for me. We had chatted about them on the bus ride in, and mentioned that all we needed was one bit of them to satisfy the need.
The food Gods were listening.
As we walked by the cookie man, Mike jokingly offered to take the bucket from him. We all chuckled, and we walked past him. The man called out: “Hey, want one?”
So Mike and I stepped out of the fair with one shared cookie. One last melty chocolate bite. We agreed: too sweet. But we all agreed we’d do it again — next year!
So: here’s some of what we ate — and drank — on our two weeks in Croatia and Greece! Enjoy!
Thank you to the amazing chefs! And thank you to all the steps we took — somehow I only gained three pounds (now stay tuned: in a few days, I will post my annual Minnesota State Fair food journey!
Today was the day we had planned the whole trip around.
It may seem crazy, but all the other amazing stuff we had done to this point was just filler. When Singer Girl chose this trip, it was all because of Athens. She had fallen in love as a preschooler with the Disney movie Hercules. It’s still her all time favorite. So the chance to visit the famed ruins of the Acropolis was a bucket list item (we’re saving Mount Olympus for the return trip!).
I booked a tour guide for this, as I knew we could never do it alone. Our wonderful guide with Athens Walking Tour (https://www.athenswalkingtours.gr/). I wanted to see not only the Acropolis, but the Agora as well. An argora is an ancient marketplace, and the ruins of this one in Athens are quite spectacular — and not on everyone’s list. But they should be.
I won’t bore you with too many details — but the pictures!!!
These shots below are of an amphitheater still being used; Sting performed here a few weeks prior. If you ever see a show advertised as “Live at the Acropolis,” this is where it happens:
It’s pretty cool to me how much marble is everywhere. Can you imagine the cost today to make all the streets and sidewalks marble?
Of course, thousands of years of feet trampling the ground makes for some slippery spots, so the boot was on high alert. But we made it!
Our group split up, and now our smaller (smarter) band of travellers headed to the Agora. On our way, we went back through the marketplace we were in the day before, stopping for a little snack…
and to visit with some locals…
The Agora includes a very small, but very charming and jam packed little museum of some of the treasures unearthed during excavation there (including the actual remains of an infant in hits burial urn!). The site offers beautiful views of the Acropolis from below, and another glimpse into ancient Greek life.
We went back home to relax, and changed for our last night in Europe. We found a beautiful, charming restaurant with incredible food — but we were done. We were so tired, and we just couldn’t eat another bite. It was symbolic of the trip. We had tasted all we could of Croatia and Greece, and we were full. We will give the restaurant another try in the future — and would love a second helping of these beautiful countries some day!
Our last day on Santorini left us with many hours before our flight. So I stayed back to pack, while my traveling companions decided to try the famed trail to Oia (not a boot-friendly experience). They knew they didn’t have time for the whole thing, but it was good for them to get out for a bit.
Afterwards, it was time for a last Santorini stroll — and a little souvenir shopping. Built on a hillside, the town is a warren of tiny, twisty, stair-ridden streets. Both of my travel companions were looking for some clothing — especially the flowy white cotton garments seen everywhere. While we meandered, we plotted — at least, the girl and I did. We plied HWSNBN with another donkey beer (the only way we would support the donkey trade here. Was not about to make one of those poor creatures carry me up the hillside). Then, through much pleading, teasing and cajoling, we got him where we never thought he’d go: to a fish pedicure.
I have always wanted to try one, and Singer Girl was all in. You may remember us discussing it in Dubrovnik, where HWSNBN declared the whole thing was a figment of our imagination. Nope! He cringed and giggled through the whole thing, but he did it. In the picture below, you will notice all the fishies on the left side of my left foot: that’s where the break was. It was like they KNEW!
We had a last lunch at Argo, our fave restaurant in town (http://www.argo-restaurant-santorini.com/menu), then it was time to jet. I had previously remarked how seamless the trip had been so far. Everything I had arranged had not only lived up to expectations, but surpassed them. Stupid woman. Should’ve known that I would curse things by saying that.
A shuttle van was supposed to pick us up — and it was late. We were a little panicky, and when we got to the airport the lines were forever long, and we couldn’t figure out where to go. After consulting with many different people, we finally were told to get our butts to the front of the line (as at this point we were pushing it timewise). We rushed frantically — only to realize: no planes were leaving. Don’t know why. But no planes were going anywhere. We stood in the increasingly crowded, unairconditioned airport. It was awful: I actually started worrying about some of the elderly people as the breathing room lessened.
Suddenly they announced our flight — so joined a long line, up and down a staircase, to get there. Then it was another line to get onto the little shuttle buses, all the while not sure if we were on the right one going to the correct plane. Finally boarded for the short, 40 minute flight to Athens. All this delay was worrying me especially, as we had surprise dinner reservations late that evening for which we could not be late!
Safely in Athens, we found our prearranged taxi and headed to our cool but crazy rental. This was our first stop in a true city, so the high rises, graffiti and traffic were not a pleasant shock. I think when you travel to large cities you instinctively are a bit more wary than when in smaller towns. There is a faster pace, and more issues with getting places and concerns of rough neighborhoods. The first time I visited Europe, it was to Rome. It took awhile getting used to the trash and graffiti, but I have since realized that neither are necessarily an indication of a crime-ridden ghetto; it’s just different than what I am used to.
So while in the back of my mind I was nervous pulling into our rather industrial looking neighborhood, I was keeping an open mind. I am relentless in my research, and the reviews for our apartment were beyond reproach, but you never really know until you turn that doorknob. We were not disappointed. I had informed Singer Girl of the special highlight of our place, but not HWSNBN, so he was a bit amazed when we entered.
The apartment had a retractable roof.
There were trees in the living room, and so much room we could’ve slept a dozen or more people in the two bedroom, 2 bath place. But it was just us three, and we had places to go. Check out the listing at https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/16935208
Our dinner was walking distance away. We were staying in a newly hip neighborhood known as Ghazi, were an old gas works had been turned into an entertainment complex. Dinner was there — above it. 165 feet above it.
We were dining at Dinner in the Sky, Athens. We had time for a pre-dinner ouzo, a first for me and Singer Girl.
Both agreed we liked it very much! Then it was a mandatory potty break before getting strapped into our seats.
Yes, strapped in — like going on a roller coaster. Then a crane hoisted us up up up — the view of Athens and the Acropolis and the biggest moon ever was amazing. We had a prearranged dinner menu, and the many courses were prepared in the middle of our “table.” We had two servers supplying us with cocktails the whole time, with rock music blaring and so many different languages laughing around us.
Learn more at https://dinnerinthesky.gr/en/. I will totally be looking for more locations on future travels!
The next morning we were getting ready to go explore when the travel curse reared its ugly head again. Singer Girl realized she had lost her passport. While my travel companions searched frantically, I called our taxi. No dice. Then I called the airport. Somehow, amazingly, I reached the right person, and he told me they had found it in the airplane seat pocket (always check that before deplaning, folks). So we all ventured to the train station (which was conveniently just a couple of blocks away). But there we split up. They went to the airport while I went and did something I alone wanted to do: watch the changing of the guard at the Presidential mansion.
Unfortunately, I got there too late for the official big ceremony, but just getting to see them in their traditional garb, stylistically marching back and forth in a manner reminiscent of giant horses, was cool enough.
I wandered around a bit more while waiting for them to return.
We reconnected and headed to our original detaination, the Monastiraki flea market. Yes, there were plenty of touristy trinkets, but if we had lived there I would have bought so much. So many quirky, funky things, from cannons to charm bracelets.
HWSNBN wanted to cook dinner in the apartment, so we looked for food stores. Unfortunately, food markets are not open on Sundays, so we really struggled to find what we wanted. But a little pasta, some cheese, olive and wine, and we were just fine. We chilled on the couch watching a World Cup match before heading out for the main event(in our eyes): Croatia v Denmark. Next it was off to the apartment to shower and change for our last World Cup game. I had found a sports bar (aptly named the Athens Sports Bar, http://www.athenssportsbar.com/) and we headed towards the train in our Croatia garb!
I love these bars where there are so many different cultures and languages. The Denmark fans sat on one side, we sat on the other, and a gaggle of Canadians (it was Canada day sat in the middle. Singer Girl is fascinated with the idea of Canada, so she loved chatting with them. We had a great conversation with a couple Englishmen who now live in Athens about soccer in Europe vs the US. And, of course: Croatia won! One last nightcap, and we headed back home to get rest up for a day of sight seeing — and our last full day in Europe.
On our second full day in Santorini, we had a boat to catch.
I’d booked a day cruise through Sunset Oia (https://sailing-santorini.com/), and they picked up us and all the other passengers then dropped us off at the harbor. The group in the boat came from all over — the US, Germany, China, Australia and France. One of my favorite things about Europe is how many different voices you hear!
The winds were better than the day before, but they were still bad enough that they needed to come up with an alternate itinerary: no anchoring at the famed red and white beaches. Disappointed for sure, but we withheld judgement. Hard to complain on a catamaran, wine in hand, sailing around the Greek Isles.
Our first stop was the volcanic mud baths. I was thrilled to be able to get into the water! Jumped off the boat and did a three limbed swim (actually my broken foot tried to help. But it really flailed more than floated). When we reached the shallow area, I bobbed about on a pool noodle, while HWSNBN slathered my foot in the volcanic mud. Like the salt lake in Croatia, they were said to have healing properties. I was not turning down that opportunity!
Our little swim time was short lived: it was time to head to another destination. Once we dropped anchor, it was time to swim, or sun, or drink. Meanwhile, the crew grilled us up a beautiful lunch, which we enjoyed almost as much as the scenery.
Our last stop of the day was a chance for those who were brave — and not broken — to go cliff diving. HWSNBN and Singer Girl were all in. I was jealous! All I could do was take pictures.
After the van dropped us back at our hotel, we napped for a few then it was time for our last night in Santorini. Singer Girl needed some phone time with Drummer Boy, so HWSNBN and I went to dinner, just the two of us. We had a wonderful time watching the sunset while gorging at Metropolis (http://metropolisstr.restaurant/)
Singer Girl joined us near the end of the meal (just in time for dessert!), and then we looked for some of that famed Santorini nightlife. I had heard of a bar that was supposed to be fun and had a great drink menu, but I swear we wandered around and around and couldn’t find it. GPS kept telling is we were RIGHT THERE (the next day, in broad daylight we realized it was above us, on the second story. So we felt stupid.). But we managed to find a really loud place that Singer Girl liked but HWSNBN hated it. One cocktail ad we moved on to a cute, quiet place that was showing the world cup highlights from past years, so we were happy. We also saw this dog:
The next day it would be goodbye to Santorini, and hello to Athens. A day filled with hungry fish and dinner 165 feet in the air…
We’ve all seen the pictures and posters and instagram shots: white buildings, skies, seas and roofs of bright blue. Touches of red and pink from doors and Bougainvillea. Santorini.
I’ve wanted to visit since my high school best friend Kelly went there during a summer abroad in college. Now, I may have been more enthralled at the time with tales of a sexy night life, but no matter. When Singer Girl said she wanted to go to Athens, I knew this detour would be on the agenda.
Visually this place does not disappoint.
This was the only time on our European Adventure that we stayed in a hotel. There simply were no VRBOs/AirbnBs that met my criteria: namely, a view and I had to feel like I was living in one of those postcards, walking distance to nightlife (even if this married 50-year-old with her 18-year-old daughter in tow didn’t harbor the same ambitions as her 20-year-old single, non role model self).
We stayed at the Aigialos hotel (http://www.aigialos.gr/). Again: transportation was arranged, and again we were grateful. Santorini was even harder for to navigate than anywhere we had been before. Wacky little streets that led to nowhere and everywhere at the same time, none of which went in straight lines, are charming when strolling in a sundress with a white wine afterglow — but suck when travel tired, dragging suitcases in a boot.
The staff was charming and gracious. They made sure we were settled, then had us pre-order our breakfast, which we chose to eat pool side (I was eager to try the traditional Greek yogurt with honey: yum!). Our room was a charming suite: one long room with a bedroom for HWSNBN and myself, 2 bathrooms, and two couches for Singer Girl to pick from. White washed, blue accents, heavy dark wood touches. Love! Great combo of old charm and new comforts. I highly recommend this place!
We woke up to a VERY windy day, which, when you are on the side of a massive hill overlooking the sea, is impressive. But it couldn’t compete with the view!
We had a few hours to explore before a winery tour in the afternoon, so off we went!
My only disappointment with Santorini was the crowds and the obvious catering to tourists (yes, I knew we were part of that crowd). I also know that there are other islands to try, but we will do that on a later trip. I love a city built for wandering — like Venice, Paris, Dubrovnik, Rome. Places where you can’t always see what’s coming up, so you are often delightfully startled by the unexpected. Throw in amazing architecture, wandering dogs, and brilliant color and I am all in!
We found an amazing gallery, where artist Eduart Gjopalaj’s turned natural woods into “paintings,” baskets, shapes and fantasies (he had carved wood that looked like volcanic rock hanging from the ceiling. Brilliant!). He was so friendly and helpful. He told us he stumbled into the field, that he had been working construction and slowly started realizing that he could create beautiful things from the wood. I would not be opposed to finding something from him under my Christmas tree (HWSNBN? Are you listening?).
You can see more about Eduart at this link: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g658914-d8116501-Reviews-Eduart_Gjopalaj-Kamari_Santorini_Cyclades_South_Aegean.html
After an amazing lunch, we went home to get ready for wine! I had insisted we have a solid meal in our bellies, as my experience with wine tastings is that food is not optional if you want to make it through. However: this wine tasting tour was unlike anything I had ever been on before.
Our wine tour was with Iliana of Santorini Wine Trails (www.santoriniwinetrails.gr). She picked us up and we headed out with a honeymooning young couple who, originally from Chicago, had relocated to Arkansas. A dry county in Arkansas, unbeknownst to them. They were especially excited about the tour!
There were many reasons I wanted to do a wine tour. Yes, I love wine. But HWSNBN and I know little about wines outside the US, so we like to be educated. And I wanted Singer Girl to learn about wine from us, not from some crappy cheap bottle of fortified fruity crap snuck into a dorm room. Plus: wine. In Greece. ‘Nuff said (but you know me: I gotta say more).
Our first stop was an actual vineyard. Santorini does it differently than most places in the world, Since the ground is arid and volcanic, and irrigation so expensive the vines aren’t staked up like I am used to seeing. Instead, they have this intricate method called “kouloura” (learn more about it here: http://www.newwinesofgreece.com/the_santorini_akoulouraa/en_the_santorini_akoulouraa.html). The vines are shaped into baskets, year after year, and vines can grow that way for a hundred years or more. We tried to take pictures, but they weren’t great:
The field looks like this:
Someone attempting to sneak a grape might look like this:
Then we were off to our first of three wineries, Gaia (http://www.gaiawines.gr/visits-santorini-eng/) . The first winery was my favorite in terms of setting. I mean, hard to not love a winery set basically on the beach.
I am used to bread, and maybe a little cheese, when wine tasting. This put that to shame. We were served a phenomenal platter of olives, cheese, meat, bread and more. In fact, all three wineries fed us so much I almost wish we had skipped lunch!
Next up was a much more modern place, Estate Argyros (http://estateargyros.com/home.html). The winery was lovely — it has been around for more than 100 years but they have recently renovated the tasting rooms. It’s stunning – all steel and glass and polished concrete — but not my personal taste. I prefer something that feels old. But the wine (and food!) were great!
Iliana piled us all into her van, and we headed back north towards Ios. We would be at this winery close to sunset, which is always my favorite time of day. Here, at Domaine Sigalas (https://www.sigalaswinetasting.com/), we were given course after course of food, glorious food! We sat under a grape arbor, in the glowing late afternoon sun, laughing with the vintner, Iliana and our newlywed friends. Delicious wine, knowledgable hosts, fun companions. What more could a girl want?
Iliana dropped us back off and we climbed the whitewashed hills to our hotel room. Singer Girl and HWSNBN decided to catch up on emails and stuff, and I went outside to grab a few photos as the day’s last light left us.
When I got back, it was time for a little reality check: while HWSNBN snored, Singer Girl and I spent the a few hours setting up her college schedule. It was a stark reminder that we needed to cherish these moments together, because every day she was closer to leaving us. We went to bed exhausted, determined to make the next day — and all the rest — count even more.
Fantasy Island was in our rear view: now it was time for futbol.
We limp-hustled to the apartment, switched out some last minute laundry (can I tell you how much fun it was to use that old school clothes line, watching our modern day duds flap in the breeze above that ancient wall?), and head to our recommended venue: an Irish Pub. I knew we were late, as usual. HWSNBN thought I was exagerating, as usual. We arrived to a SRO venue, and I resigned myself to stand for the next few hours. But the atmosphere was great: on the patio they were going to show the Argentina game, inside the main event (Croatia v Iceland). Drinks were flowing, and food looked fanatastic. But HWSNBN did not want to stand, so left and found ANOTHER Irish pub around the corner. We managed to squeeze into a table when some non-soccer fans scurried out. That was the good news. Bad news? No food would be served any longer, and the bar would only sell beer. Singer Girl was displeased. During halftime they had to wander off in search of sustenance!
We were cozy with another table — a couple from Norway. They were rooting for Iceland, but we liked them anyway.
Croatia won! It was fun, but not the same frenzied joy as when we were in the park in Split — but still awesome to be there.
The night was young, even if two-thirds of us weren’t. We wandered around the electric city, finding areas we hadn’t yet explored.
We found an odd little corner, nestled up against the southwestern edge of the wall. It was mostly residential, with so many cats it felt like a trap. Like the cats were in charge, as they lured my companions into a small square…
I stayed behind, just in case I needed to fetch help. but my surroundings were just as creepy:
Yes. That is a guillotine.
We decided to wander elsewhere, and hopefully find a little liquid courage.
We closed the place down, and headed back for our final Croatian sleep. In the morning, we had to be out of the apartment by 11, but we were allowed to leave our luggage there. Our wonderful hosts texted me in the morning and said that becasue it was raining, we could stay until we departed for the airport, which was more than generous. The rain wasn’t enough to keep us inside — we had shopping to do. So with the treachery of slippery steps in mind, we ventured forth.
We finally got a good, uncrowded shot of the infamous “Steps of Shame” from GOT fame. Did you know that was the single most expensive television scene ever shot, as they producers not only had to shut down several streets, they had to pay all the retailers on those streets. Worth it, though. The steps themselves? Go to the Jesuit high school one of our tour gides attended!
Every time we went up this staircase, HWSNBN suggested I reenact it (you know, nekkid). I politely declined, but if I had, I would’ve availed myself of the nearby bar’s tribute cocktails:
Another thing Dubrovnik is famous for is having the oldest working pharmacy in Europe. Originally part of a Fransciscan monastery, it was founded in 1317. They didn’t allow photos inside, but these are some shots of the surrounding grounds (with some more doors to feed my obsession):
I tried to google translate the Italian above the door, and it has something to do with beating an infernal enemy. Dante’s Inferno was published a few years after this place opened shop, so maybe it was kind of the in thing. You know, hell and purgatory and all that. Good times.
We were looking for a few different things. I was smitten with the traditional Dubrovnik jewelry — fillagree metal balls were in stores all over the city, and we searched street by street until I found the one shop I had seen the day before that looked more traditional than all the rest.
I wanted one for a Christmas ornament, but one of that size would’ve cost me a thousand dollars. So I hemmed and hawed and pondered and finally settled on one as a pendant. Singer Girl also found some fantastic keepsake jewelry. If you are in the area, go see the father-daughter team at Beni, od puca 25 (that’s the address). Singer Girl couldn’t decide what she wanted, so they created something on teh spot — took one bracelet, cut it down to her size, and made earrings out of the removed pieces. Very cool, very special.
Our last stop was to get a necktie for Drummer Boy. Why? Evidently the cravat was invented in Croatia. Who knew?
Purchases in hand, it was time to retrieve our luggage and head to the airport. It was not easy saying goodbye to Croatia. What had started as an afterthought, the second fiddle to our trip to Greece, ended up being so much more. But now we turned our eyes southward, to the land of gods. First stop: Santorini. I’ll save the details for the next entry, but I’ll tease you with these snaps of our hotel upon arrival:
I don’t know why this place captivated me so, but it surely did. The only thing that would’ve made it better were folks in immaculate white suits handing me a cocktail as we arrived. But maybe if we had come in on zee plane…
We had heard of Lokrum, just a 20 minute boat ride from Dubrovnik. We had seen it from afar. It didn’t look spectacular, but everyone said if you have the time, it’s a must. It’s also cursed.
The island was home to a Benedictine monastery, which founded in 1038. According to legend, Richard the Lion Hearted shipwrecked there, and vowed to build a church — which he did. Centuries later, the French decided they wanted it, so told the monks they had to leave. They fought it, but lost. So the night before they were evicted, they all lined up with candles, and walked the whole island three times, chanting and pouring wax. Thus came the curse: “Whosoever claims Lokrum for his own personal pleasure shall be damned!”
Three Dubrovnik aristocrats forced the move. One jumped out of a window, one drowned, and the third was killed by a servant.
Another shipwreck brought Archduke Maximilian to its stunning shores. Captivated, and more greedy than grateful, he decided to buy it. Max moved in, built a mansion, and thought all was great. Then he went to Mexico, to be Emperor. He was soon executed there. His wife Charlotte moved back to Lokrum. She went insane.
Over the successive centuries, people died, were financially and socially ruined, and on and on until finally, after the last owners were assassinated in an act that actually kicked off World War I, it became a park. And that is what we visited.
Our original goal was to find the salt lake, which was supposed to have healing properties due to the higher-than-the-ocean concentration of salt in the water. That took us awhile, so we made a detour to the botanical gardens. We met some English guy in a huff — he was unhappy with the state of the gardens. Not quite up to British snuff, evidently. Yeah, they weren’t manicured or lush (hello, desert environment…). But: they had wild peacocks and bunnies galore. That were tame. And ATE FROM your HAND!!!
I wonder if random peacock sightings aren’t unusual in this part of the world, like they are in the US. Some people just glanced and walked on. But us? We were like Australians on tour in the midwest, freaking out over every squirrel (hi Kim).
We were also fascinated by the cactus displays. Again: yeah, I knew it was more arid than tropical here (although palm trees were everywhere in Split and Dubrovnik), but I didn’t expect such a Wild West display of fauna. If the peacocks were the Croatian Road Runner, did that make the bunnies Wile E Coyote? I am so confused.
We wandered some more, and just couldn’t find the salt lake. I was getting tired, as the paths were very uneven. We were getting frustrated, and started backtracking. Eventually we figured out the not-so-helpful map system, and got pointed in the correct direction. On the way we passed a place to get massages (Fantasy Island! I’m tellin’ ya!) and fish pedicures, which we discussed, 2/3rds of us excitedly, one not so much (if I were still an English major, my highlighter would’ve marked this last sentence and written “foreshadoing”in teh margins…)
Before we reached the lake, we stumbled upon a big soccer field, flocked with our furry and feathered friends. So, naturally, we needed to detour yet again.
The following three pictures are indicative of the types of relationships the three of us had with the critters:
Finally we found the salt lake, and the girl was IN THE WATER. So was my foot, and, briefly, HWSNBN. I mostly took pictures, though!
After our respite, it was time to wander back to the boat launch. Of course, critter ADD set in when we saw a mama peahen and her babies. We assumed she would shuffle her babies away from us, but no. She basically pushed them aside to eat our proffered snacks.
Ok, ok. You get it. The critters were cool. Yawn.
Fine: the scenery, sans fauna, was amazing everywhere we went
We hopped back on the boat, and pointed towards our walled home town, Dubrovnik, eager to enjoy our last night there.
You may recall our decision to avail ourselves of tour guides for the rest of the trip while floundering about in Split. On our second full day in Dubrovnik, we took two.
First up: a walk-the-walls tour. As always, I was in charge. I don’t necessarily mind that, but being responsible for all the info all the time means I am not always on top of things. I knew roughly where we needed to meet, but I had negelected to get precise info. There were tons of tour groups, speaking so nay different languages. I was trying to hobble, leading my crabby crew up and down the stone staircases. I have no pride, or qualms, when it comes to asking for help, so I grabbed a tourist guide and asked: where does the Dubrovnik Walks (http://dubrovnikwalks.com/) tour meet? I was right: all the guides know each other. The gal rolled her eyes and gestured outside the city walls, so we scurried off. Found another large group — asked them — and they pointed me to a group that was already walking away. The guide said yes, this is the right group, but no, we couldn’t join without first checking in. We rushed to the proper place, checked in, attached our little headsets, then frantically (with the aide of a sub-guide) to catch up with our crew, about about 10 minutes late. Like every other person we met in this magical town, everyone was gracuious, kind and understanding of our touristic feebleness!
So: we started our tour hot, late, sweaty and grumpy wth one another. The hot and sweaty part never went away, but the grumpy part sure did.
There is no persepctive from which this city doesn’t captivate. Our tour guide was terrific: all of his speech was peppered with deferential references to his beloved speed metal, which of course endeared him to this rocker chick and her musical daughter. But he was appropriately sober when required, especially when telling us what it was like as a child fleeing from the under-siege city with his mom and living in a refugee camp.
I took tons of pictures, and they say more than I can. Here are some of my favorites, with periodic captions:
One of the funniest moments on the tour was also one of the most weirdly charming. While strolling about at ground level the previous day, Singer Girl notced what we thought was a tennis court, stashed behind a small alley entryway. But up on the wall we got a closer look.
Croatians love their sports — and especially basketball. But the city walls of Dubrovnik are not very forgiving when it comes to space. So when the city needed a public basketball court, they changed the court configuration. Our tour guide said he rememebred when this was a dirt area. He and his friends celebrated Croatia’s historic third place win in the World Cup 1998 by kicking up a storm in this spot. The court may be fancy and new, but nestled into the centuries old city walls, it retains its whimsical appeal.
We completed this tour, then went tograb some lunch and regroup before our next one. We had lots of time — I had selected a city tour for early evening, so it wouldn’t be so hot. So that meant two things: back to the beach, and then a nap. Our trek to the starting point of this tour was easier, since this time we knew where we were going (of course, we still had to DO the trek. By the end of our 3 1/2 days in Dubrovnik, we would walk about 37 miles, or 322 flights of stairs, or more than 90,000 steps. And yes. I was in das boot).
Our tour guide strolled us around Dubrovnik on street level, where we admired architecture, lamented war damage (this guide, too, was a war refugee), marvelled at history and folklore, and fell deeper in love with the city.
We saw so many cats — I have never seen so many stray cats so well loved. Everywhere you looked there were water and food dishes set out for them.
So much charm and color!
After asking for restaurant suggestioins, and what we should do on our last day, we said goodbye to the guide then went home to clean up to go eat. The next day was going to be good: a trip to fantasy island, and another Croatia World Cup game!
Let me just remind you I was in a boot.
We arrived in Dubrovnik late — like after midnight. It was rough on some folks, and another airport nap was in order.
Again, I had arranged transportation, so again we had someone waiting there to whisk us away. Again: we were immensely grateful. We each had carry-ons and checked bags, and Dubrovnik, like Split, is an ancient area with no cars allowed. We were dropped off at the Pile gate (pronounced pee-lah: the city is walled, which we will get to later), and basically walked across a drawbridge to enter the amazing city. If we hadn’t had our guide we would NEVER have found our way. Dubrovnik is a warren of alleys and stairwells. How many stairs? According to a study, there are 5,423 steps in Dubrovnik. On a daily basis we essentially SLAYED the Fitbit.
The city reminded me a bit of San Francisco, with steep staircases instead of streets. And the little shops and residences tucked into every square inch reminded me of that as well. Upon arrival, we wandered down the Stradun, an awe-inspiring marble main street, with centuries old buildings rising on either side (featured on lists worldwide as a street you have to walk before you die). It was about 1am, and people were celebrating life. In a weird way, it reminded me of Vegas — but like under the Venetian on the Strip, where it’s so cool but it’s fake. This was real. It was like everything Disneyland, Epcot and Vegas wish they could be.
Our VRBO host had a porter with him, who skillfully took all three of our checked pieces of luggage and disappeared into the night. Somehow he made it to the apartment before us — and our luggage was waiting. The apartment had two beds and one bath, like our last place, but oh my the terrace! And the windows and the steps we climbed hinted at what the view would be like in the morning. And oh. Oh wow. Take a peek at the VRBO listing here and see what I mean: https://www.vrbo.com/868272ha?unitId=1211599
When we woke, here were the views we saw out the windows:
Sunday, our first full day in Dubrovnik. We wandered a little bit, finding some pastries on which to nosh, and getting a general lay of the land.
Then Singer Girl wanted to hit the beach — of course. Again: no sandy beaches nearby, but this walled city is right on the Adriatic, and there are two famous “beaches” cut into the wall: Buza 1 and Buza 2. We wandered a few minutes from our apartment (which itself is built into the ancient wall) and climbed down precarious stairs to find a flat section of rock. I relaxed (and watched lizards cavort) while my travelling companions took to the water.
After a nap and a shower, it was off to the famed cable car of Dubrovnik. We sailed to the top, and the view was spectacular. How did we not know more aout this incredible place? The Adriatic was dotted with islands, and the orange roofed houses of the walled city below us just radiated charm.
We had another fun activity planned, but first it was time to absorb some more “recent” history.
Some background: the Soviet block dissoved in the late 80s, which was in the long run a good thing. But in the short term, it meant countries had to find ther way again. The communist country of Yugoslavia fell apart in 1990 when Croatia declared its independence. A new war broke out. In 1991, the Yugoslav army attacked Dubrovnik, which had been thought safe due to its coastal location. But it was an important seaport, and the city ended up being under attack and isolated for seven months until international peace talks settled things.
Beside the incredible view at the top of the mountain, there is a great museum about the war and the siege. It is hard to separate the breathtaking landscape from the bullet hole riddled fort at the top. During our time in Dubrovnik, we met many people wo lived through the siege, being evacuated to refugee camps as children. It was sobering.
After we were through with the museum, we made a radical shift: we were going to drive dune buggies. Actually, HWSNBN and Singer Girl drove: I was a passenger. It was so fun — and we were nice and mud splattered by the end. But along the way we got to see an amazing sunset!
Afterwards we went to dinner, then climbed up and down the many stairs to our apartment, ready to rest up for a full day of guided tours in the morning!