Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Party like it's 1993 (Ljubljana and Istria)

On Sunday, after pulling our two 50lb suitcases 200m down a grassy hill to the bus stop, we took a very pleasant if local and slow bus from Bled to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Almost immediately we crossed its famous three bridges and headed to its lovely old town -- empty not so much because the place is a bit off the beaten track (which it is) but because even the few people not away on holiday would have to be crazy to be outside at 2 p.m. when the temperature was over 100 degrees. We had Gujzina, the fantastic restaurant we shamelessly learned about in the New York Times, completely to ourselves. The traditional Prekmurje bograc stew was excellent. I can't blog from Europe for months and not include a picture in the alma mater shirt.

This is all I'll say about Ljubljana: go. My friend Matt says it lacks a soul, and I agree to a certain degree, but it you combine the cafes of Rome, the buildings of Vienna, the delicious but less known white wines of Virginia, the beer of the Czech Republic, the foodie culture of Brooklyn (after 7 months searching, it took me all of three businesses to find one that sells Sierra Nevada), and the walk-ability of Tubingen, then subtract out all of the tourists of most European capitols, you're left with Ljubljana. But go when the air is not coming directly from Africa.


True, even the New York Times-recommended wine bar was a little cheesy, as if it were frozen in time in the mid-1990s. Some of the decor was shockingly close to what I remember from Prague in 1993 (think red chairs, too bright, overly large ads with scantily clad women, lots of basketball on outside televisions). Still, the city was magical after dark, when the temperature plummeted to the mid-80s.

Even better, the city offers free shoes to tourists. 

 The next morning we learned an important lesson. Istria (the western peninsula of Croatia)

may be fairly uncrowded, but there is a ton of traffic on the Slovenian side driving across the border. 

Our first stop was Poreč, where we learned another lesson. Drop-dead gorgeous towns on the coast with sixth-century basilicas with original mosaics and historic old towns have a surprising amount of tourists in them. Ah, so THAT's why everyone complains about Germans overwhelming beaches in Europe. 

From there we turned inland, driving through olive trees and small vineyards and old stone walls, the ruins of what we are not sure. The hotel and the medieval, basically Italian town (Croatia was ruled by Venice for centuries) where we spent the night are simply too cool to name on the interweb. Shoot me an email if you want to learn more ... it's sad that it took communism and war to freeze this town in time -- and it's incredible Hollywood hasn't come in -- but there it is. 

World Cup anyone?
The dinner setting was magazine-worthy. 

Sam, I highly recommend the local prosciutto and sausage. By far the best moment of the meal was when the Germans behind us ordered the roast pork -- when they could have had my dorade or J's homemade ravioli with the local Istrian ox meat. Classic. Our meal with three glasses of wine, the aforementioned dishes, an ambitious if odd truffle ice cream and coffee was $50. Get there now before Gourmet puts this place on the wine touring map. 

Tuesday, after a quick detour to our first rocky Croatian beach, we checked out the Roman Amphitheater ruins in Pula (complete with a good collection of Roman ship-friendly pots). Otherwise, too hot and too many vacationing Europeans.

For lunch we we found the 1993-priced (sub-$1 espresso finally!) and 1993-decorated Q Lime Cafe. Of course, perhaps I should write 1995, sadly, as that's when the war ended. J says the country's aesthetic has been frozen since the war ended.

Our last stop in Istria was Labin, amazing medieval town #2. 

The rest of the day was marked by yours truly pretending to not be in a state of sheer terror driving being driven along ocean cliffs via narrow, windy mountain roads with decidedly uninspired barriers.

And that was before we got to the ferry to Cres Island. A stressful drive and a long wait for the car ferry to load seemed the perfect moment for a flavorless adjunct European lager in a can. Thankfully, they sold Ožujsko pilsner zum mit nehmen in the harbor.

Once on Cres, the anxiety turned into a full-blown panic attack. I've always been afraid of heights, and I've especially always hated driving along cliff roads -- ask Sean about a drive through Lassen National Park -- but the condition is definitely getting worse with age (great question for a study...). The road on Cres from Porozina to Cres Town is two lanes in reality only -- not width -- and it's on a sheer cliff-bed. I would have taken a picture, but I didn't want to risk death. I assure you that this picture is not representative ... this is one of the few places with a middle line. And this is by far the best barrier. Most of the barriers seemed to be those Roman rock ruins. Keep in mind J was driving.

 The pay-off was the view from dinner. 

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