Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Upstairs, Downstairs (Hvar Island and Krka National Park)

No need to be ironic (well, at least not yet ...) about Hvar Town, on Hvar Island. And just for the record -- Dina and Gene, please take note -- Croatia is an absolute must-visit place. 

The island was stunning and worth the two-hour ferry ride on Saturday morning -- and the slightly unmapped nature of the place. We got a little lost finding our apartment. But luckily our GPS helped us out (see top of screen).

Hvar town is probably the most beautiful of all we've visited. Here are some shots from very near our apartment, which was shockingly close to both the center and the beach.

Old Town has the usual delightfully Dalmatian narrow cobblestone streets full of nooks and crannies.

The beach in Hvar looks out on a seriously schön set of islands. If you go to the beach in Croatia, here's a tip: it's worth paying for the chairs.

Hvar Island is the sunniest spot in a sunny nation, so needless to say a storm started to roll in after we'd been on the beach awhile. It didn't rain (it rained for all of one minute on the ferry over, our only rain of the entire trip), but the wind emptied out the beaches.

After the beach, it was time to party with everyone else on the island. High-end travel magazines and The New York Times describe Hvar Town as about the trendiest place on earth, full of not only royalty and generally fabulous people -- the super rich who read real books and practice serial start-up philanthropy -- but also Japanese teens testing new fashion ideas on the streets. Yachts Hvar has in abundance.

But hmmm, maybe high-end magazine writers aren't as good at defining trendy as I thought. Between the early twenty-somethings with turned up collars and the pulsing Euro-bars, Hvar Town reminded me of a Georgetown University frat at Beach Week in Myrtle circa 1986. And really, given the number of rich people here, we expected some serious food. A wonderful local bottle of white aside, however, the restaurants were pretty standard (and not as expensive as feared, in part because the backpackers balance out the yachters. Let's call it the Upstairs Downstairs effect). Perhaps the lack of interesting food reflects the cost of shipping ingredients to the island, but more likely it reflects the facts that a) people come here to party, not eat (up early the next morning for a ferry, the party below us in Old Town was still going strong) and b) Europe generally speaking, outside of some pockets, just doesn't have the food culture American does. My Tübingen office-mate Suzannah jokes that America has no cuisine, but what we do have is hundreds of years of a melting pot and chefs willing to try ingredients and combinations from all over the world. What European nations have, he oversimplifies to make a point, are national dishes and a tradition of eating local before it was cool. And man that was a bad beer selection for a high-end beach. Really -- the two worst Croatian macrobrews, plus Corona and Heineken? I'll take middle-class Punat and my Pilsner Urquell vom Fass.

The next day (God bless you European coffee culture while waiting for the ferry) the sabbatical/Humboldt express rolled north away from Split to Skradin, a surprising pretty town near Krka National Park. The hike into the best part of the park -- it's dramatic series of waterfalls -- is pretty long and rugged, so before we took the boat from Skradin into the park, to be safe, we rented a hydration backpack and bought some extra bars. I was actually impressed how many other people hiked to the falls. 

Ok I was kidding about the hike. This being Europe, the first thing one sees upon entering the Park is a beer garden.

And the park doesn't really offer a hike; it's a walk amidst throngs on a boardwalk. I wish more Americans would appreciate the fact that one of the best things about our country is the sheer acreage of our natural areas and their (ever-less) uncrowded-ness. Do you proponents of unceasing population growth toward a half billion Americans reading this blog really want the same in our national parks? But Malthusian moments aside, Krka National Park did not disappoint. We took a lot of pictures.

We missed the last boat to the 16th-century monastery on an island in one of the Park's lakes, so we went back to town, got the car, and then set out for another section of falls, stopping briefly when the road got close to the monastery island.

We soon discovered why most people take the boat. Er, you know the roads are bad when even the locals -- the receptionist was from a neighboring town -- tells you how dangerous they are. Look, narrow European roads can be quaint, but one-lane-wide roads through tiny towns with view-blocking high walls on either sides and multiple twists and turns are not fun, especially when there's a bus headed straight down the road at you at one point. A bus that REFUSES TO STOP as you (J) are backing up. Christ. Between these roads and the suicidal, pass-on-the-highway-with-two-feet-to-spare driving culture, I'm about ready for I-70.

I'm also ready for American-style, we-fear-lawsuits signage. When we pulled into the entrance for the second hike, the park employee told us that the hike was about 20 minutes, which was perfect for the end of day. And the hike started out very pleasantly.

What the employee didn't tell us that the staircase leading off from the trail at one point -- with a signboard describing the falls at its base, a signboard that surely seemed to suggest "this way for an extra good view of the falls -- actually turned out to be a 624-stair climb. Can you imagine an American park not mentioning 624 stairs? The carnage would be unreal. If I had wanted a workout, I would have opted for a sporty vacation in Utah, not Croatia. Anyway, we walked up the stairs for the view.

And then we walked down the stairs and made our way to the falls.

We took a different route home, which took us through a cool landscape of vineyards.

Back in Skradin we had one of the best meals of the trip, though the fish cooks right by our table were all business. 

 J got these enormous mussels called Noah's Arks (photo credit: secretdalmatia.wordpress)

As we enjoyed some homemade grappa, these made us think of Ricky Gervais on Noah's Ark -- one of the funniest comedy bits ever.

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