Island Hopping in Dalmatia – Korcula, Hvar, Palmizana

Strolling through the old town, we stumbled upon a lovely little restaurant hidden amongst the stone walls. It was a tiny restaurant, cozy, inside a courtyard with open skies to the stars above. Once seated, we were presented with several fresh catches of the day, fish on ice, and we chose one, it was cooked fresh for us. We feasted and felt like we were a part of that old place.

The next morning we boarded a ferry to Hvar Island and were picked up by my muz’s old friend from middle school and her husband. They met us at the ferry with their 3 prized poodles and after a quick coffee stop in the main square, they showed us to their home, which is also a guest house. They have a popular business there and we were lucky to get a room there for 2 nights. The three days we spent in Hvar were heavenly. If I were to come back to this region again, I would spend more time in Hvar, and a little less time everywhere else. Hvar Town is similar to Korcula Town, except more modern, bigger, busier, more lively. It feels like a real city, whereas Korcula Town has more of that old village feel. The main square in Hvar is much wider and more open than Korcula, and feels more free. Its tourism scene is booming. Luckily we were there at the tail end of it. Dubrovnik felt far away at this point, and comparing it with Hvar, it was no contest, Hvar all the way. Dubrovnik felt so commercialized, so touristy, so crowded. you could see there was beauty there, but it was hard to appreciate, because it was covered up by all the glare of tourism. Hvar in comparison felt authentic, it felt fresh, and it was amazing.
Our hosts treated us to an amazing breakfast complete with all major homemade dishes – pastries from a bakery, olive oil, honey, cheeses, peppers, even wine and rakija. After the feast, we explored the old town, pausing the peruse the lavender on sale at the kiosks, a local speciality. We saw all the main points of the town, stopping to take in the history, the old wells, churches, etc. After another coffee, we stopped at the beach, my muz swam while I explored the island a little on my own. That night we ate at Posteni Djordje (Honest Georges), a great Italian restaurant on the main square. Conversation flowed freely like the wine, and we chatted for hours in the open courtyard, happy to be on Hvar.

The next day we took a little boat excursion to Palmizana Island, a small island among a group of little islands off the coast. A 20 minute boat ride took to you a paradise I only imagined existed. White pebbly beaches, a few lounge bars and restaurants, a handful of boats, were scattered before a backdrop of island jungle foilage. We lounged on the beach, we swam in the water, we let go of lifes stresses and sunk into the island life, if only for that day. We found the best lounge there, Laganini, where all the chairs were stuffed feed sacks, like bean bags, and all the tables were made of tree trunks. There was even a little treehouse lounge fixed into a large fig tree, and this is where we perched, sipping our drinks and watching the sun sink into the sea. It was perfect.

I swam in the water and finally connected with the water for the first time. This water really was special, it really was magic. It was pure, warm, calm, clear, clean, and so so soft. It was so clear I could see moss growing on rocks 30 feet away, I could see the gooose bumps on my knees it was so clear. I swam and swam and twirled and sank and floated and played like a baby dolphin. It was magic water. It was incredible.I felt how valuable it was, like the most rare resource, like the finest perfume, like expensive oil, like wars must have been fought over this water. It was soft to the touch, and felt almost alive. It was incredible.

After our perfect day, we returned to Hvar and had dinner by the marina before exploring the nightlife scene a bit. Tourists travel from all over the world to Party on Hvar Island and we weren’t ready to leave before at least seeing what the fuss was all about. We walked through pubs and bars and clubs, but it was nothing we hadn’t seen before. We shared a cocktail a “Karpe Diem” bar before returning our room.

The next day we hiked up to the top of the Fortress wall, taking in a great view of Hvar. We then found a great little cafe on the water complete with hammocks and lanterns, and great cocktails, Falko. It felt separate from Hvar, less European, more Jamaican, and so we took a moment there. Our hosts drove us away from Hvar Town to a great little fisherman’s village on the backside of the island called Milina where we sat 2 meters from the magic water and ate fish that was caught especially for us, ordered the night before by our host. We took in one last seaside view, one last fish meal, wine with friends, it was perfect.

We finally returned to Korcula for one more day before we started the drive back South. This day we met another couple of my muz’s friends. This one had been a local island girl that my muz and his brother had been friends with way back in the day when he spent his summers there. They were, as all of the people we had met so far, very warm and welcoming, and more than hospitable. They too, owned a guest house that let out rooms during the tourist season. They told us about a hidden little beach, off the beaten patch, and we drove to it, stopping to pick up some Canadian hitchhikers along the way who were lost and needed a ride to our same beach. We spent a few hours there, and I was glad to get some time to say goodbye to the Magic Water. That night, they treated us to a perfect Korculan dinner, in old town, they laughed and reminisced about old times, and I felt like I was one of them. It was great to be in touch with my muz’s childhood and past on this level.

Finally we boarded the ferry back to Orebic, back to our car, and we started the trip back down the coast to Rafailovic, where we would meet up with my muz’s parents. What a journey we had.






Exploring Korčula


After wondering whether I would feel the magic of Korčula, we decided to get in the car and explore the island. We had already wandered through Korčula’s Old Town, an old 14th and 15th century town with marble streets and old churches and red roofs and alleyway cafes. Now we went to discover the wild Korčula. The Korčula of my muz’s childhood. They had built an old stone house perched on the water’s edge a few miles outside town, and it was here that he spent his summers. We drove closer and closer to his home and closer to my vision of what Korčula was. His home had long ago been vandalized during the war and they were subsequently forced to sell it. It was a simple concrete structure with no electricity and a water tank fitted with live eels to keep it clean. A campground was located behind the house where campers from all around the world would come to set up a base from which to spend weeks windsurfing and swimming. As we approached the house, my muz suddenly pulled over on the side of the road, excitedly. “Do you smell it?” He asked. “The pine trees, the salt water, it’s just as it was!” He pointed to a hole in the brush and led me down a rocky nearly invisible path towards the water and it opened up onto a group of white boulders. We scampered down over the roots and brush and up onto the rocky ledge. “This is where I would jump from”, he said. “This is where it all happened.” This is where the magic of Korčula crept into his heart. This is where all the memories were. We were finally here.

We drove on towards his home and as we approached, we noticed a couple sunning themselves on the dock, the girl was topless. He excitedly pointed to the campgrounds and the olive trees, and told me all about the home. The home was under new ownership, they were building a modern addition and had added a real roof, new doors, and were clearly trying to make it a proper modern summer home. I was glad it wasn’t finished, because I could still see what it had looked like in his youth: primitive, yet lovely. We climbed up behind the house where we came upon a tiny stone dwelling made of hand carved stone. He told me about the man who worked here, this was his workshop, and he hand carved the stone from a quarry behind his stone house. He literally took dynamite and blasted the rock, then cut it, then chipped it, then carved it into perfect rectangular blocks which would be sold to be used as building materials in the town. He had made stone benches and tables on which my muz would sit as a boy, eating feasts of fresh fish with his family, guests of the stone mason on that hill. We descended back to the road, and he pointed out olive groves and blackberry bushes and pine trees, and the spot where the fig tree once grew in front of the home. It was just as I had imagined. It was beautiful.

We then drove around the island, visiting all the little fisherman’s towns, each more ancient and more removed than the last.  We passed vineyards and graveyards, and abandoned stone houses with angry political graffiti staining them. We drove by a bent old lady working in a garden, a tired man carrying a wheel barrel, and tourists on red shiny bicycles. We visited one of the only sand beaches (as opposed to the classic pebbly beach) on the opposite side of the island, and stopped for a beer and a sunset view, and to let all the sights we had just seen sink into our memories. This was the Korčula I had hoped to see, and I loved it.

Korčula Island

Some nights at home in Los Angeles, he would wake up having been dreaming of diving into the waters of Korčula. We were surrounded by traffic and construction and the constant sounds of cars driving by, but at night he would escape to Korčula Island, where he had spent many childhood summers. . I’ve never known a place to hold such a strong grip on someone. He talked about these summers like it was where his heart discovered joy. Mostly he talked about the water: the calm, clear, warm water. The water that was clean and refreshing and seemed to almost have healing powers. The water that he learned how to windsurf on as a boy, feeling the wind and racing through the waves, his boyish frame growing stronger every year as he learned this skill. He told stories of this place, laughing and reminiscing, and almost crying with homesickness of this island. And he always told me we would make it here someday. And finally here we are.

We were standing at the water’s edge and he was looking at the water, and I watched him delicately step closer to its edge. He kept looking at it but not getting in. It was like the water was a wild animal and he was afraid to get close as he might scare it away. He needed to romance it, needed to know that he meant it no harm. I think he needed it to recognize him first, to invite him. It was as if his soul was saying, “It’s me, remember? I came back for you”. Finally the sea and he were ready. He dove in head down and swam. He kept swimming and swimming and I thought he might never turn and stop. I could almost feel his soul being released to fly free. Finally he stopped and turned over and floated on his back, the water so clear around him, the tiny ripples creating the perfect bed. The sound of the water must bring back so many memories, the smell of the salt and the trees, and the sound of the church bell in the distance. This was his home.

Meanwhile, I sat on the shore, which was more of a rocky slope that artfully descended into the sea. Though I tried to capture the feeling that he had, I was at a loss.  He sang cheerfully in Italian as I rearranged myself on the rocky ground, trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable, jagged edges poking me. He swam the backstroke like a native while I spit out salty water and shivered from the chill. He was at home, and I was …along for the ride. I will probably never connect with this place like he will. Possibly because I was never here as a child. There is something about childhood experiences that take root in you, that become a part of your story and hold charm and energy and a sliver of your youth. You just can’t see a place the same way if you see it first through adult eyes. I can try, and I am, and I can appreciate, and I do, and I can see him revel in this happiness, and that will have to be enough for me now.


Road Tripping in Dalmatia

The next morning, we boarded one of the last Yugoslav airline flights to Tivat, Montenegro. Soon the airline will be re-named “Air Serbia”. My in laws were coincidentally also booked on this flight, and we sat across the aisle from them during this short trip. Once we landed, we said goodbye as they went south for their vacation, and we rented a car and started our drive North, up the coast of Montenegro and over the border into Croatia.

Our first stop was Old Town Kotor, an ancient village on the sea built within massive stone walls all around it. As we entered the city gate, I was in awe. I had read about it, seen pictures, but to see it in person was something else. The streets were white marble and the churches towered in every square. This was one place where Catholic and Orthodox churches shared a courtyard, recording a time where many different peoples lived amongst each other in peace. We strolled through the town, stopped to enjoy some street musicians, and take in some history from the many guided tours. This would be the first of many cities we would visit that had a similar feel o them. A fortress, massive stone walls, marble streets, ancient history mixed with modern pizzarias and ice cream shops, and lots and lots of tourists. Still, the beauty was astounding, and we lingered enough time to appreciate it.

Soon, we moved on and continued our drive to the bay of Kotor. We stopped in Perast before pressing on to Risan for the evening. Perast is quite possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I’ve been many places in the world, seen a million views, but this is one of the most unique seascapes I have ever seen. Set in a deep inlet, the views from the land are of tall hills that dominate the sky. Technically it is not a fjord, but it looks like one. Both Perast and Risan are tiny coastal towns with ancient stone buildings, churches, and clock towers, and seaside restaurants and cafes along the main stretch. There are a handful of rooms for rent, and seafood is the local specialty. The tranquilty along these stretches is otherworldly. We sat at a restaurant on a dock and breathed in and out the salty sea air, and this was the first time on this trip that I let finally let go of the burden of my stress and surrendered to the peace around me.

Later we drove on to Risan, where we stopped to ask a toothless woman with a baby walking on the side of a road if she knew where “Lorena Rooms” was. She did indeed, in fact she was related to Lorena, and pointed us in the right directions. I had carefully selected this guest house after many hours of online research, but now I began to doubt myself. Minutes after we pulled into the driveway, my doubts vanished however, as we met Branko and Lorena, who greeted us and immediately offered us a drink of their homemade wine. We sat on their balcony overlooking the view, and they talked and talked and talked like they hadn’t had any visitors in quite awhile. Luckily, my muz speaks the language, and I was able to sit back and listen. Above us stretched a canopy of grapevines, the grape clusters swollen and begging to be picked. Even kiwi fruit hung ready from the vines above us.

They showed us to our room, which was simple but clean and fairly modern, and we had our own bathroom and refrigerator, and the view was simply stunning. They had even included a bottle of wine.

The next morning they greeted us with “local tea from the mountain, domestic honey and lemon grown from their garden” It was divine. We sat and talked and talked and talked, and the glistening in their eyes gave away their sweet spirits, even though I could not really understand most of what they were saying. Lorena was saying how I looked cold, and she went into the house to get something for me. To appease them, I dug into my bag and put on a sweater, and soon she emerged, satisfied that I was now warm enough. A few minutes later I noticed she was discreetly putting back on the simple crocheted vest that she had been wearing previously. Suddenly I realized what had just happened. She had literally gone in and realizing she had nothing else, had simply taken the shirt off her own back to give to me. I have heard about his, but never witnessed such behavior. These were good people. When we left, we waved and waved as we drove away. I almost felt like they had become family.

We drove on the Herceg Novi, not to be confused with Hercegovina. Herceg Novi was yet another variation of the ancient city set alongside a gorgeous sea view. This city was a little more developed, a little more touristy, but still, simply breathtaking. We walked along the seafront, settled for coffee and a view, taking the time to smell the salt air before returning to our car and driving up north again.

Soon we reached Dubrovnik, which of course is the most well-known town of this region. As much as I enjoyed Dubrovnik, I have to say, if I came here again, this is the one city I would not visit. After seeing a few lesser known, but still ancient and beautiful coastal towns, this one left me a little unimpressed. Maybe because it’s so popular and therefore overcrowded. Or perhaps, if I stayed longer, I would discover more of it to love. It is the quintessential Dalmation coastal town, completely encircled in a stone wall, which at times, is 6 meter thick. We walked along the top of the wall and the view from above – the vast expanse of orange clay roofs was indeed incredible. The marble streets and stone churches were gorgeous, but the tourists from the many cruise ships crowded the city like ants. We finally found a perfect spot of peace amongst the crowded streets. We discovered an isolated little bar outside the city wall, clinging onto the side rocks, where the view was amazing, and dropped steeply into the sea. Here we had cold Pepsi, hot sun, an ancient fortress behind us, nothing but sea view in front of us, it was divine.

Soon we were back on the road, and much to my surprise, my muz turned off the road before reaching our ferry point at a little town called Ston. There were two towns, Ston, and mali Ston (little Ston) and we pulled over and explored the town a little, which really did feel like a hidden gem. This town was once famous for is salt production, and because of its proximity to bigger, more important Dubronik, and the fact that Dubrovnik depended on it economically, a foreboding long stone wall was built around the city to protect it against the many invaders, mostly the Ottoman Empire. Apparently, in Ston, you can volunteer for a day or two to work at the still functioning salt flats. It is also a culinary treasure of the region, famous for its fresh seafood and olive oils and of course, local sea salt.

We returned to the car and pressed on to Orebic, where we would catch the ferry to Korcula. The drive from Ston to Korcula was a steep winding road hugging the mountain side so tight, I don’t know it 2 American size SUVs could pass each other without one falling off the cliff and into the sea below. Most places there were no guard rails, and the blind curves were relentless. We stopped to take a minute at a war memorial off the side of the road, furthering, if only by an inch,  my understanding of this region’s complex history.  We arrived in Orebic and boarded the ferry to Korcula. Since it was dark, I couldn’t see the island much as we approached, but I knew we were finally here. The excitement rose up inside me as we met his old family friend at the ferry dock and she drove us through the old town to our home base for the night. My muz had asked her to help us find a place for the night on the island, much to my protests. Even though this was his stomping ground, I felt I had a better idea of what we were looking for in an overnight stay, and I, being the control freak that I am, hated to surrender this important decision to someone else.  I wanted a place with character, a room with a view, a place where we could meet other travelers and share stories and ideas. I knew that these places were available here, but I also knew that this may not be where we were going.

It had rained recently, and we drove through the dark, wet, streets of Old Town Korcula making our way to what I hoped would be a perfect resting spot from which to enjoy the Island. As we approached the building where we would be staying, something didn’t seem right. We opened the door and walked down the hall, each side covered in old paintings of hills and seas with huge crosses on them. We opened the door to our room which was all white. White walls, white floor, white bedding, a tiny window in one upper corner which opened up to the grey street above, and a single gold crucifix hanging above our bed. I suddenly realized where we were. This was no charming guest house, we were in a convent! My heart sank as I realized we would be staying here. No view, no character, no island feel. We did have access to a patio, we were told, but to be careful when we went up there, no late night talking or coffee and conversation, as the nuns might be using it for their daily prayers. So much for the relaxing romantic setting I was hoping for. So far, Korcula was nothing like I expected.


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Out and about in Belgrade

IMG_0414 IMG_0403 IMG_0409 IMG_0413So far we are off to a running start! Yesterday after we arrived, we were picked up by a few lovely relatives and dropped off at a little family apartment which is modern, clean, and comfortable. We are so lucky and grateful to have this. We went to the in laws house for dinner, which was started off shot of rakija and ended with me playing Tata LJ’s ancient violin.  This is the first time my muz and I have been here together as I was on my own last time. It definitely helps having him here as a social lubricant, shall we say. Especially since his parents don’t really speak English.

The old house shows its age, but you can tell how grand it must have been back in its prime. It reminds me of my grandparents’ house in a way. It hasn’t been updated in decades, and it seems so ancient and foreign, like an abandoned, crumbling, museum in a faraway place, except two people actually live there. After dinner we returned home and woke up early this morning to orient ourselves in the city. How much nicer it feels to be here not as a brand new solo traveler, but a return visitor. I even found several cafes I discovered last time I was here, and we visited them together. He showed me his old elementary school, his old high school, and his music school. We even met a really nice man at the music school who gave us a little tour and a brochure and they played the name game until they happened upon a connection. It still amazes me that there is a public run free music school, available to talented children who choose to learn music. What a gift this city gives to its young. At his high school, an aviation high school, we entered the grounds and saw the airplanes mounted outside, and I could imagine him there as a teenager, joking around with his friends, eating lunch at the nearby pekara, studying the basics of aviation. We visited Kalemegdan Park and the fortress, and ran into an old friend of his who is works there, an architect who works on restoration of historical monuments. We walked Knez Mihailova and went by the parliament buildings and The Horse, and saw many familiar sights. Strolling through Kalemegdan, I realized how it was a microcosm of Serbia. In Kalemegdan, everything is there. The old and the new, Their you can find history, remnants of war, museums, churches, cafes, souvenir kiosks, and even a nightclub nestled in its stony walls. You will see old men playing chess and young couples kissing on benches. You will see tour groups and families and a beautiful view of the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, an extremely important geographical feature that has made Belgrade both prosperous and a victim. Yes, Kalemegdan is an amazing piece of the Serbian pie, and you can taste almost everything here.
I hope we can go back before I leave.

That night we strolled through the Vracar neighborhood looking for a place to eat. We stopped at a cool café, and as we were ordering, my muz noticed the man sitting behind our table, it was his old colleague – a friend who he had flown with when he was hired by Yugoslav airlines, before the sanctions, before the country fell apart. They embraced and we joined them for dinner. They talked about old times and what was happening now and how far they had both came. This guy was still flying, as was my muz, but it was amazing to see how far their life paths had diverged. This friend had stayed in Belgrade while my Muz immigrated to America. How instrumental this decision has been in changing the course of his life.

Friends, family, lots of beautiful Belgrade sights exploring the city, great language practice, and quality time seeing some of my husband’s childhood stomping ground. It couldn’t get much better than this. Tomorrow morning we will leave for Montenegro to visit the beautiful Adriatic coast. Yet another adventure begins!


Talking with Tata

Tonight, after dinner with my muz’s parents at his childhood home, he left me alone in the apartment while he went with his mom on an errand. Only his dad and I were there. This would be the first time I was alone with my father in law, and I was eager to practice my Serbian. He speaks only a few words in English. To my surprise – we spoke wonderfully. I spoke slowly and halted, but I somehow reached into the depths of my mind and pulled out vocabulary and grammar construction I hadn’t used since I was here last. We talked about many things, and we really understood each other! I was so encouraged by this conversation with him, that I am motivated to keep going with my Serbian. I really had an entire conversation with him. It was simple of course, but we communicated. We connected, without a translator. This is huge for me. This is the kind of moment that makes it all worth it. He is old and won’t be around forever, but now we have this connection, and that means so much.

Belgrade, You Can Do Better

After months of anticipation, we were finally on our big vacation. We were enroute to Belgrade, and after a day or so there, we would go down to the Adriatic coast for a road trip and some island hopping before returning to the white city for our last week. I remembered nearly every detail about my last Belgrade adventure, and I couldn’t wait to get to know the city a little better. Within minutes of touching down at the Nikola Tesla Airport, I had my first reality check. I visited the ladies room and realized realized the toilet wouldn’t flush. I was not surprised, but I was disappointed. I remembered all the bad experiences I had had with hygiene he last time I was here. This time around, I was equally annoyed. We had just paid thousands of dollars to get to this city from Los Angeles. We had carefully saved up vacation time and planned the trip and bought tickets, and when we arrived, what were we greeted with what? Facilities that were dingy, dirty, bleak, and non-functioning. Attention Belgrade: If you want to win the admiration, no, not even admiration, but the respect of other citizens of this world, you need to roll up your sleeves, and put a little elbow grease into its appearance, because unfortunately, most people Do judge a book by its cover.  Take some pride in this great city. It has so much potential. It has art and history and music and culture. It has beautiful rivers, and lovely green parks, and creative cafes and unique bars, and welcoming restaurants and good schools and buzzing pedestrian zones and even decent public transportation. It has so much to offer, but many visitors can’t see past the grime. They can’t see past the dirty bathrooms, the trash in the parks, the graffiti on ancient fortress walls.  Clean up the senseless graffiti (not all of it, not the art, or the political messages, but the scribbles), make sure your bathrooms are clean and well stocked, and get rid of the piles of cigarette butts drowning in the puddles in Kalemegdan fortress. Please, do yourself a favor. Everyone will love you for it. Or at least, they will begin to see you.

The airport toilet incident was a stark reminder of the problems that Belgrade faces. It, like many in Belgrade was dingy and barely functional. This is much like Belgrade itself. It has almost everything you need, but it’s a little worse for the wear. I knew that the beauty and charm of Belgrade would still be there waiting for me, just outside the airport doors, but this time, I’m a few years older, maybe a little less forgiving, a little more critical, a little less patient. This time I wanted to just say, “Come on Belgrade, get it together. You can do better than this.”

Nevertheless, I was determined not to let this less than welcoming first impression color my attitude for the trip. I am back to Belgrade and I can’t believe I am finally here. I had such a wonderful time last time, and I am hoping that this time, it will be as good.