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Dubrovnik, Croatia, September 2021 (and trip summary)

Dubrovnik was, as you might expect, pretty amazing. Walking the 1.5 mile city wall (with 1080 steps) is incredible. But even with COVID, it was quite crowded.

We are very glad we came here before the cruise ship industry is back in force. We were told that before COVID there were on average 4 ships per day, for a total of 10,000 passengers, here every day July-September. This year it’s only 1 ship per day at 1/3 capacity. Every local we talked to said it was unbearable getting around due to the traffic jams and hoards of pedestrians 2015-2019 that time of year. But I think the drop in cruise ships has somewhat been replaced by the increase in Americans, as there are now 8 direct flights per week between the US and Dubrovnik. Most of the tourists we encountered in Dubrovnik were American, unlike in other parts of Croatia, where most were German.

It’s hard to imagine Dubrovnik under siege from Serbia in 1991, as it is so pristine today. I did a 1.5 hour hike up to Fort Imperial on top of Srd mountain just outside the city, which was where much of the shelling was happening. There is a museum in the fort with photos and videos showing the attack on Dubrovnik. Crazy shit.

The most interesting part of our time in Dubrovnik was a day trip to the city of Mostar in Herzegovina, which was almost completely destroyed during the war in the 1990s. The iconic Mostar bridge was completely destroyed (watch here), but has been rebuilt in the original style.

Officially the region has two official alphabets, Roman and Cyrillic, and road signs are in both. But depending on exactly where you are in Herzegovina, in some places the Roman is crossed out, and in other places the Cyrillic is crossed out. Clearly there are still some strong feelings about the war. I could try to summarize all the conflicting things we heard about the war, but that would be longer than you’d want to read, and would probably be wrong. Short summary: it’s complicated and fucked up.

We went to Ston area to visit an oyster farm, and for more wine tasting. Seeing how they harvest the oysters was quite interesting, and eating them right out of the sea was amazing. After trying more Croatian wines, we still prefer Californian wine.

We went on a sunset dinner cruise with an amazing sunset view and so-so dinner, but we had low expectations on the food, so were quite satisfied. The boat was a replica of a ship from the 1500s or so.

Did you know that Dubrovnik is a cat lovers paradise? There are 100s of well cared for ‘stray’ cats everywhere, and most are surprisingly friendly. We saw a lot of cats in Split and Sibenik too, but Dubrovnik takes it to a whole new level. Christine found she had to factor in petting time when planning to go out on the town.

View of Dubrovnik from nearby hill
Oyster Farm
Mostar Bridge

Croatia Summary

What’s up with all the 80s rock/pop, Croatia? I’ve heard more 80s rock in the past month than in the previous 20 years. And not just in touristy places, but in taxis, buses, shopping area, etc. There seems to also be a bit of 80s Croatian rock in the mix, but mostly American/British rock. The times we had a rental car, it seems like all the stations played the same 80’s Rock, When it wasn’t 80’s rock, it was modern loungy versions of 80s rock (have you heard this lounge version of “Should I stay or should I go” from the Clash?) Maybe someone can explain the obsession with 80s music here to me?

Croatia is a very comfortable/ easy place to travel. Avoid August if possible. Prices are similar to most of the US (and cheaper than most of Europe, San Francisco, New York, London, etc). Sibenik was our favorite spot, as we found it a nice balance of historical and tourist activities without feeling like the town is just for tourists.

I haven’t said anything about Croatian food yet, as I’m hoping Christine will do a posting on that. I’ll only say that everything we had was excellent and reasonably priced. The biggest surprise was that there was almost no alternatives to Croatian food. We saw 1 Chinese restaurant near Plitvice, and it closed down during COVID lock down and never reopened. We also saw 1 Indian and 1 middle eastern restaurant, both in Zagreb, and 1 Indian place in Dubrovik. We also went to a good/unique Asian fusion place on Korcula. I’m sure there are others somewhere, but not very many (and I’m not counting the scattering of MacDonalds). This is very different from the rest of Europe.

COVID rates doubled in Croatia during the time we were here, but still way lower than in the US. Mask use dropped too, but not sure if that was due to city differences in the south or mask fatigue. Many people seem to wear the mask below their nose, especially younger people. But no one seems to be worried about Delta, and hospitalizations are low (or so we were told.)

Full set of photos for the final week of the trip are here.

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Split and Korčula, Croatia, September 2021

We decided to spend 2 nights in Split on the way to the island of Korčula, and are really glad we did. Split is built around an amazing Roman palace built by the emperor Diocletian. The combination of architecture (mainly from the 1st, 14th, and 17th centuries) makes for a really interesting mix.

Split is definitely a party town, and many bars were packed in the evenings, mostly with drunk, unmasked Germans, so we avoided those places. Nightclubs were still closed due to COVID tho.

Another highlight of Split is FroggyLand, a collection of over 500 anthropomorphic amphibians arranged in 21 cases. These dioramas were created by a Hungarian taxidermist, who devoted 10 years (1910-1920) to stuffing and meticulously arranging the frogs. There is a pithy commentary on each of the scenes, such as students in a classroom annoying each other. I’m not sure how this collection ended up in Split, but it is a must see if you are in the area.

After Split, we took a 2.5 hour very comfortable ferry to Korčula Island, where we had booked a great 2 bedroom (and 2 balcony) apartment with a view 10 minutes from the Korcula old town.

We rented a car for a day to explore the island. Its only a 45 minute drive from one end of the island to the other. We visited a couple wineries, but were pretty unimpressed with the local wines. The next day I rented an EBike to explore the northern shore of the island, which has several cute small towns along the shore.

Full set of photos is here. Next stop (and last stop) is Dubrovnik.

Split Palace
Froggyland
Korcula

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Zadar and Šibenik, August 2021

Our next stop was Zadar, our first town in the Dalmatia region of Croatia, and a very pleasant 4 hr ferry ride from Pula. Our apartment was a 15 minute walk from the old town. Zadar was heavily damaged in WWII (and again in the ‘homeland’ war in the 1990s), and is an odd mix of old and new, where new is mostly really ugly/basic buildings from the 50s/60s.

Speaking of the ‘homeland’ war: that’s the current politically correct term for that war that occurred here in the 1990s, according to one of our tour guides. Previously known as the “War of Independence”, it’s all pretty confusing to the outside world. I also asked many of our various tour guides what Croatians think about Tito, and all seemed to like him, but also said ‘it’s complicated’, and it depends on what region you are from. It sounds like he did a lot of good things for Yugoslavia, and some bad things too.

Besides wandering around the old town, activities in Zadar included a great sunset sail, a bike ride around Ugljan island (a short ferry ride from Zadar), and Christine making an amazing dinner with the fresh truffles we bought in Istria.

One of the ‘must do’ places to go in Croatia is Plitvice Lakes National Park. I agree it’s pretty special, but it was REALLY crowded. Just like many national parks in the USA, August is the wrong time of the year to go. But what can you do. We should have spent the night outside the park and gone early in the morning before all the tour groups arrive.

Next stop is was Šibenik, normally a 1.5 hour bus ride from Zadar, but 2.5 hours due to peak season traffic. Šibenik was the most picturesque town so far, and we had the best AirBNB of the trip (so far). We loved being right in the heart of a 500 year old city.

Other activities in Šibenik included a fantastic 60km guided eBike ride all around the region, and we took a ferry to Zlarin island to swim/snorkel. Speaking of snorkeling: there are no reefs in Croatia, so the snorkeling is not great, but the water is so amazingly clear that you can see everything there is to see very well. We saw tons of sea cucumbers, urchins, and lots of small fish at Zlarin.

Full set of photos is here. Next stop: 2hr bus ride to Split.

Helping out on the sunset sail.
Our apartment in Sibenik.

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Pula / Istria, Croatia, August 15-21

After our time in Zagreb we took a bus to Pula, the largest town in the Istria region of Croatia. Istria has a lot of Italian influences, especially in the food, and everyone must study Italian in school.

We stayed 1 block from Pula’s 2000 year old Roman Arena. It was really cool to walk past it every day. They even do gladiator shows there twice a week. We had a number of great meals in Istria, the best being at a tiny place called Backyard, which is literally the chefs backyard, and has about 7 small tables.

We rented a car for two days to explore the rest of Istria, and visited the coastal towns of Rovinj and Porec, the medieval towns of Groznjan and Motovun, and the ruins of Pietrapelosa Castle and Dvigrad. The rental car was a bright orange Renault Clio, a great little car, but crazy expensive ($215/day) this summer due to the COVID-induced rental car shortages.

We went truffle hunting in Buzet with the cutest truffle dogs (no one uses pigs here), and only found 1 truffle. It has been a very dry August, so not a great season for truffles.

While Christine did a pasta making class, I did a mountain bike tour of the area, and it turned out my tour guide is one of the gladiators! He swears that the fights are not rigged, and that they do sometimes get hurt. Here is a clip from YouTube. We also did a kayaking trip to a nearby island that is part of Brijuni National Park.

Full set of photos are here.

Next stop, Zadar.

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Zagreb, Croatia, August 2021

We decided to book a trip to Croatia to escape California fire season. Unfortunately we booked it 3 days too late, as 3 days before we were scheduled to fly out a 2000 acre fire broke out about 5 miles from our house, and we almost had to evacuate. Also, the Dixie fire, the largest fire in California history, is about 90 miles north of our place, and will likely be smoking out most of northern California for the next couple months.

Our first week in Croatia was spent in a nice AirBNB ten minute walk east of the city center ($55/night). (Map). As Croatia has only 4 million people (about the same as the state of Oklahoma), they do not expect anyone to speak their language, and its easy to get around with English (or German).

My biggest surprise about Zagreb was that there was a big earthquake here in 2020, and many historic buildings and museums are still closed and under construction. We had no clue! The earthquake happened 3 days after the world went into COVID lockdown, and only 1 person died, so maybe its not surprising that that it did not get much news coverage in the US. But unfortunately several of the top sites like the main cathedral, art gallery, and opera house are all still closed for repairs.

Zagreb must be one of the cleanest capital cities in the world. Absolutely no trash or homeless anywhere to be seen (at least in the city center). Quite a bit of graffiti, but thats all. Fantastic, cheap, clean public transit that goes everywhere, and very little noise or traffic (at least in August, when apparently much of the city heads for the coast). The city is also very green, with tons of well maintained flower beds everywhere, including a nice city maintained rose garden right in front of our apartment building,

Zagreb has an amazing cafe culture, and it seems like there is a cafe on almost every block. They are mostly open from 7am till 11pm, and serve mainly coffee in the morning, and mainly beer from 11am till 11pm, tho all types of beverages/spirits are available. Local beers typically cost $2.50-$3 dollars for a .5 liter bottle. My favorite local beer is Karlovačko, a Czech style Pilsner. Most cafes do not sell any food at all (not even pastries!), as apparently that requires a special license that most cafes do not have.

It was quite hot while we were here, with a high of 90-96F everyday. Our AirBNB had AC, but none of the museums, cafes, or restaurants did. But the restaurants and cafes all have 90% of their tables outside in the summer anyway (true before COVID too), so AC would not matter. There were very few tourists here, though it was not clear to me if that was due to COVID, or due to people avoid Zagreb in August due to the heat.

Due to the heat and jet lag, we had a slow, relaxed first week. I typically did a bit of exploring in the morning, hung around the apartment and read/napped in the afternoon, and then went out in the evening for a hot, sweaty dinner.

My favorite museums included the Museum of Broken Relationships, The Croatian Museum of Naive Art, and the Modern Gallery. Our favorite Restaurant was Restoran Uspinjaca at the foot of the world’s shortest funicular (only 66 meters long). The best bar we found was called Alcatraz, an actual dive bar on the inside (but inside of bars are still closed).

Speaking of COVID, luckily there is no Delta variant spike here (yet), so the spike of COVID stress at home is not here. But they are also still more locked down than in most of the US. Indoor bars / nightclubs are still closed, and no indoor gatherings of more than 50 people are allowed. Masks are still required indoors and on public transit, and I’d say about 80% of the locals seem to be following the rules in Zagreb. But, every local we talked to claimed the government was lying to them and that they did not need the mitigation measures.

Our favorite AirBNB experience was a food tour with Luka. We were able to try the local specialty, Strukli, which is a phyllo-like pastry stuffed with creamy cheese and sweet or savory fillings. We also did a day trip to a couple castles and wine tasting with ‘Ned’ which was so-so, but Ned introduced us to a wide variety of 70’s-80s Croatia Rock on the drive back.

Typical Zagreb street scenes are below. You can see the streets were pretty empty.

City center
Large photo in the City History Museum.

Full Set of photos are here. Next taking a bus to Pula.

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Summer 2020 COVID Escape Trip Summary

While not the 5 month Alaska adventure we had hoped for this summer, we had a great trip. And it was way better than staying home and being frustrated about everything being closed or cancelled.

We ended up driving 5200 miles, across parts of California, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and Oregon. We stayed in the following places over a total of 72 nights:

  • National Forest free dispersed camping: 51
  • AirBNB: 8 (6 in ID, 2 in WA)
  • RV parks: 7
  • BLM dispersed camping / wide spot in road: 3
  • City Parks with free camping: 1
  • Public parking lots that allow overnight: 1
  • Truck Stops: 1

Our goal was to mostly avoid any town of more than 10,000 people, and stay in an RV park or AirBNB about every 10 days to do laundry and get a proper shower (rather than quick showers in back of the van or bathing in lakes / creeks). We mostly cooked all our own meals, but did eat at restaurants with outdoor seating about 10 times over the 10 week trip.

My favorite spot of the trip was the Sawtooth Wilderness near Stanley, ID. Some summer I’d love to go back there for a month. But everywhere we went was great.

If you are feeling cooped up from staying home due to COVID-19, I highly recommend buying or renting a camper van or small RV and hitting the road for a few weeks. There are tons of great free places to camp, and gas is cheap at the moment. If you are lucky you can buy a camper and sell it next year for about the same price you paid for it.

One of the most interesting aspects of traveling around this part of the country at the time was observing the huge differences in the response to COVID. Wyoming and South Dakota had few people wearing masks, and few signs asking people to wear them. Montana had signs on the door to every business declaring a mandate by the governor to wear a mask, but outside of Bozeman, many people ignored this. Idaho varied a lot from county to county, and several places were still holding outdoor events like rodeos and county fairs. Restaurants were open with reduced seating in Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and Idaho. Washington was very strict, with no indoor dining anywhere. South Dakota was the most open, to the point of holding the Sturgis motorcycle rally, which around 440,000 people attended, and is being called a ‘super spreader’ event that is already linked to at least 1 COVID death as of Sept 1.

What next? We plan to avoid air travel until there is a vaccine that seems trustworthy and readily available. Will this happen in time for next summer? Who knows? We still want to go to Alaska, but maybe not until 2022?

In the meantime I’m going to go back to work at LBL for 10 hrs/week for 6 months. I figure working will help avoid the frustration of not being able to do the things I planned during retirement.

Here is a google map link to the full route.

Favorite photos from the entire trip will eventually be here.

full route

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Back to Grass Valley: Yakima Valley and Crane Prairie Reservoir (August 2020)

We decided we were ready to leave Idaho and start working our way back home. The plan was to spend one night in Prosser, WA on the way to Oregon. But it was forecast to be 106 that day, which is way to hot for #vanlife, so we booked an air conditioned AirBNB for two nights. I’m glad we did, as we got a chance to explore Yakima Valley a bit.

This part of Washington seemed to be 1/3 apples, 1/3 grapes, and 1/3 hops. Huge farms everywhere. We were pretty unimpressed by the wines at the two wineries we went to in Prosser, but liked the beers at Snipes Mountain Brewery.

We got to check out “Gravity Hill”, which was fun. It really works (well, the illusion does). We also stopped at the Stonehenge WWI memorial on the Columbia river, which was surprisingly interesting.

One of our favorite spots from our trip to Oregon in 2024 was Crane Prairie Reservoir, about 1 hour from Bend. It was basically our route home, so we decided to spend a week there next. We stayed in the same camping area we did then, and even had the same bald eagle in camp as we did then (we think). We also met up with some friends from Eugene on Lava Lake.

Next stop: home!

Hop farm
Stonehenge Memorial in Washington State
our camp site on Crane Prairie reservoir, with view of the ‘south sister’ mountain in the background

Full set of photos are here.

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Idaho Panhandle National Forest, August 2020

After 7 weeks of #vanlife, we felt it was time to rent a cabin and spread out for a few days. It was also time to give the van a good cleaning, so I found a great cabin on AirBNB near the Canadian border north of Bonner’s Ferry, ID. We spent 6 nights there. No nearby neighbors, no cell coverage, no internet. The cabin was straight out of mountain cabin decor magazine: taxidermy wildlife everywhere, and moose/bear/elk motif on everything, including sheets, towels, placemats, shower curtains, shower curtain hooks, drawer handles, door handles, gas grill, etc. Super cute. We loved it. We had an Elk in the yard one morning, and tons of turkeys and geese. Still no bear sightings on this trip yet. I find it interesting that I see WAY more bear scat on our road at home than anywhere I’ve been on this trip, yet I alway hike with pepper spray here, but not at home. I guess it might have something to do with the possibility of Grizzly Bears here….

Next on to Priest Lake, ID, stopping in Sandpoint for lunch on the way. Sandpoint is a very cute touristy town with some great galleries and restaurants, but as we were still avoiding towns, we only stayed a couple hours.

We really liked Priest Lake when we did our Idaho trip in 2012, so we decided to come back, and stay on the east side of the lake. (We stayed on the west side last time). We found a great spot along a creek 2 miles from the lake. Like many lakes, there is no dispersed camping along the lake: only very full campgrounds and private homes. But it was a quick bike ride or drive to a state park on the lake.

Full set of photos are here.

Playing our new favorite game, “Ticket to Ride” at the rented cabin
Always watching us
Even the utility room had stuffed dead animals
A very quiet day at the US/Canada Border

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Kootenai National Forest Area, August 2020

After leaving the Bitterroot Mountains, we first drove to see the Garden of 1000 Buddha’s, and then drove up to check out the historic town of Wallace ID, which is worth a couple hours if you are in the area. Don’t miss the mummified mermaid at the North Idaho Trading Company. Then we continued on to the town of Thompson Falls, which is nice enough to let folks overnight in their parking lot.

Then on to the ‘town’ of Yaak, MT, with a stop at Kootenai Falls along the way. The falls are quite impressive, and definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.

Since our original plan was to be in Alaska exploring small quirky towns all summer, we decided to check out Yaak, MT, a town of about 30 people and 2 bars. We stayed at very friendly ‘Hipcamp’ site, a 2 minute walk to both bars, and with a great swimming hole on the Yaak River. We had some really interesting conversations at the bar (outside patio, of course). The barmaid said it was their busiest summer ever (which was not really all that busy when we were there). Unfortunately we just missed their summer music festival.

This part of the world is definitely Trump country, but we just avoided talking politics, and found everyone very friendly. I would definitely come back.

Full set of photos are here.

Garden of 1000 Buddha’s
Kootenai Falls
Dirty Shame Saloon, Yaak, MT

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Bitterroot Mountains, July 2020

Next stop was the Bitterroot Range on the Idaho/Montana border, famous for Lolo Pass, which tormented Lewis and Clark. Tons of great hiking, and tons of huckleberries everywhere!!!

On the advice of a ranger at the Darby Ranger Station, we found an amazing campsite right on the creek along Lost Horse Rd. This road has a number of nice campsites along a 15 mile stretch of gravel road, but I think we got one of the best sites. We liked this spot so much we decided to stay for 9 nights. There were several trailheads within a 15 mile drive, so most days I rode my eBike to a trail, hiked 6-8 miles, and road back. Did I mention how much I love traveling with an eBike? My brother drove up from Idaho Falls to join us for a couple nights.

Part of most days included picking huckleberries. Christine made homemade huckleberry jalapeño jam. Yum!

Next heading north to Yaak, MT, in the middle of nowhere.

Full set of photos are here.

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