Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Pula, Croatia

This Memorial Day weekend, our family flew to Pula, Croatia. This was our very first big trip outside of Germany. I have to say, I was a little weary of going to Croatia. The name itself conjures up memories of... really bad stuff (Um... Bosnia?!). But, through research we were assured that modern Croatia is not a war torn country. In fact, for the last several years, this place has taken its place once again as a fantastic holiday/vacation spot. So, we took the chance and booked tickets. We had heard about Ryanair's great rates. We booked last minute and our tickets cost us about 41 Euro per person for the round trip. Ryanair utilizes some serious fees and nickle & dime stuff. Altogether, I want to say it was about 360 Euro for everyone when the grand total came up. However, after checking with other "major" airlines, we would have paid about twice that for the same trip. Still a FANTASTIC deal!

There were things that we did on our "virgin" Ryanair trip that we might do a little differently. For example, they charge a lot for check-in baggage. If we can help it, we are going to really try to have all carry-ons next time. One thing that was totally worth the extra charge was priority seating. This means we get a head start on boarding the aircraft. Ryanair is set up similarly to Southwest Airlines in the States. Seats are on a "first come, first serve" basis. Western Europeans generally seem to be just a little more... ahem... "assertive". In other words, people sometimes aren't very courteous around small children or slow pokes. They WILL push folks out of the way. Having the priority seating ensured that we wouldn't get this treatment and that we would all be able to sit together as a family. With small children, this is especially important to us.

Our flight was short, just about an hour and a half each way. The Pula Airport was fairly small, similar to a local small town type of airport. The people here are very kind. 90% of the population is Roman Catholic and it shows. They are very mindful of small children (we even had a man coast down the road in neutral on his scooter to avoid startling the kids with his engine). The society itself seems family-oriented. Many Croatians can speak multiple languages; primarily Italian, German and a little English.

The weather was warm. The end of May is still considered off-season, so we got a good deal for our hotel. We stayed at the Splendid Resort. The pictures on the web give it a lot of justice. The outside of the hotel was not so pretty. Concrete was the order of the day and most complexes had not been painted in quite a while. Reception held on to our passports until we checked out... apparently this is common practice, but being American, this royally freaked us out. We didn't have a car, so the walk to our room was a little bit of a hike with luggage, car seat and kids; but it was totally doable. The room itself was very nice. We had 2 bedrooms; one with a queen size bed and the other a queen size bed and twin size bed. There was also a futon in the living area. We had 2 bathrooms with showers, toilets, and bidets. In the kitchen there was a freezer, refrigerator, sink, and double burner stove. The kitchen was also stocked with basic kitchen items (pots, pans, plates, utensils, cups, etc.) The colors of the rooms decor reminded me of a hotel we'd stay in had we been in Mexico (lots of orange, lime green, and sky blue). They had AC but, we had to buy a 5 Euro card to turn it on...so, we went without. It wasn't the warm. Mike had to smile and say I was being very European in this decision! :)

We were starving when we arrived, but because it was around 8:00PM, just about everything was closed except for a restaurant on the hotel grounds. We simply did not have the energy to be adventurous so we ordered pizza from the hotel restaurant. It was really good. I haven't been to Italy (yet), but the pizza was probably the best I've ever had. After reading the tour book, I found out that, in general, Croatian food is really yummy. Many places are bringing back traditional Croatian dishes while creating other mixes with Italian influence. A popular item is the truffle - as truffle are used in various items on the menu. Also, their sheep's cheese is delicious (similar to Parmesan but milder) and ham (again a milder version of prosciutto). It's more common when going out to eat to see Croatian, Italian and German languages on the menu. Thankfully, I took Spanish and have been in Germany long enough to decipher many of the things on the menus. One thing I wish that I had done was picked up the tour book before going. There were a couple of key phrases that would have helped. The Croatian language sounds very similar to Russian to me. Although in reality, Croatians can probably understand Russian just about as much as English speakers could understand German. We always left a restaurant feeling "Vegas" full. In other words... we could have just rolled on back to the hotel we were so full.

As money savers, we probably should have purchased more groceries at the store for breakfast. The kids got up so early that just about nothing was open. Most establishments opened around 10:00AM. There was a cafe open, but they didn't serve breakfast items (we did get a ham and cheese omelet and fries). Right next to the cafe was a small market that sold grocery items, but we could have planned ahead a bit better to utilize it.

We decided to rent a car the first full day. We could have probably taken a bus, but Samuel is at that weird age where he's heavy in a backpack, a stroller is cumbersome, and if he walks... EVERYTHING is interesting and amazing... so it takes forever to get anywhere. For about 40 Euro, we were able to get a compact car to drive down to town. The ruins in Pula are absolutely phenomenal. They even have a Roman coliseum. The outer wall is fully intact. Other points of interest include the Temple of Roma and Augustus and many Catholic Churches overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The beautiful rocky white coast and aqua colored waters definitely got me thinking of Roman and Greek myths and legends.

When we got back to the hotel, we took the kids down to the pool. The pool was awesome and there was a children's camp program for older children. Because of the holiday weekend, there were other American families.

The second day we just enjoyed the hotel, pool and sunshine. We walked to Red Wings restaurant and ate grilled fish plate (scallop, squid, some sort of whole fish, and shrimp), typical meat plate (ground beef patties, meatballs, red pepper sauce, sausage, and chicken cutlet). So good! The Istrian area of Croatia (where we were) is also the wine region, so many homes had archways over their driveways with grapevines. Also, honey, almonds, olive oil, and sea salt are popular things to take home. The second day we really started to see the charm and magic that so many other vacationing Europeans had already found. At the end of every meal, a small shot of brandy is served for the adults and lollipops are given to the children. When we got back from our lunch excursion, Mike and Sam took a nap and Joshua and I explored the tide pools. The jellyfish were out but apparently the big ones don't sting... so we were safe. We saw all kinds of crabs and collected several shells. On our walk back we spotted a topless sun bather and I swiftly guided Joshua to a different route. We went to the pool again and enjoyed another great dinner at the hotel "village" cafe.

Although it was still off season, the weather was great. I could imagine this hotel totally overcrowded with families during July and August, the peak season. The hotel was set up as a village in the sense that it was pretty much all inclusive. If we wanted to we could have easily spent our whole time there. There were many German and Italian tourists, who made their way to Croatia by motorcycle. I could very much picture kids riding their bikes up and down the pathways during the peak season.

The third day, our flight was at 2:00PM, so we had a leisurely breakfast and headed to the airport. Samuel was so tired that he was a menace the whole way back, but we lived through it and had a fabulous time. It just so happened upon our landing into Germany, the temperature was 15 Celsius (about 59F) and raining... as we walked down the stairs off the plane in our short sleeves and sandals we took a big sigh and smiled, 'We are home'.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Ever since Mike received his tourist passport, he's been chomping at the bit to get out of the country. France was at the top of his list. After doing some research, I found out that Strasbourg would be a fun day trip. For one reason or another, we get a little caught in the trap of procrastination during the weekend. We say we are going to go somewhere, but we end up sleeping in on the weekend, slowly sipping our coffee and goofing off, until it's around 12:00 in the afternoon and we have nothing packed and planned. This Friday was different though. I got our picnic packed, complete with a Chardonnay for the grown-ups, juice for the kids, salami, cheese, veggies and creamy yogurt dip and fruit salad. I also went on the computer and wrote down the addresses and read the commentary from previous tourists to get an idea of what to expect. I was very proud of myself. It's very rare that I plan this well.

We were armed with our international GPS that guided us to the French border. Unlike the Mexican border, this border was fairly uneventful, with an EU sign for Frankreich on the German side and an EU sign for France on the French side. It was about another hour drive before we reached Strasbourg. All in all, it was about a 2-hour drive. The autobahn is dotted every 20 kilometers or so with stops for a picnic, garbage, and toilets. Upon entering France, we had to pay tolls. Total cost was inexpensive; about 20 Euro total for the whole day trip (including tolls, parking and snacks; though not including gas). One thing I was unaware of with the Euro is that each country has its own coins. Although they can be spent anywhere within the European Union, each EU coin has representatives of it's own country... if that makes any sense. So, a French one Euro would have a French leader or famous person on it.

Believe it or not, Asia is not the only country with "hole in the ground" public bathrooms. I was unlucky enough to discover that one! Like the States, there are gas stations that also have small cafes and convenient markets with snacks and drinks. I was excited to see my Vittel water that I hadn't seen since Japan (It may be here and I didn't spot it). Unlike the States, there are not as many fast food joints. I'm curious if it's because the government limits this, or because the people just don't want it. Either way, I think the only golden arches we saw were right at the border. (and, no we didn't stop there!!! YEESH)

We found Parc de l'Orangerie fairly easily. Parking was "OK"; we parked on the street but were worried that we would get towed. We didn't quite understand the signs but it looked like a good place to park, and we followed the lead of other cars. I think we drove by the EU Parliament building and, on the way to the park, we drove through a neighborhood of very nice old homes, many with gold plaques (indications of an Ambassador residing there) and surrounded by large gates and cameras. I couldn't help but think of the children's book series "Madaline" and how she lived next door to the Spanish Ambassador and his family. This neighborhood was just too similar, lined with trees and large homes.

The park was the perfect spot for a picnic. With all the planning I did, it was inevitable for me to forget something. I forgot the blanket. Fortunately, the grass was dry so we planted ourselves down and had our picnic by the pond. Apparently, this time of year the storks come to town to nest. Joshua and I had just read the fairytale of The Marsh Kings Daughter and it was very appropriate to see all these storks walking and flying around. I think this is a tourist hot spot for that as well because just about everywhere were nicknacks of storks being sold. At the park there were vendors selling pretzels, waffles, ice cream and other treats as well as restaurants where one could sit outside and enjoy the park view while dining. I was happy we stopped at the park first. After a long drive, it was nice to see the kids able to run around. There is a playground there and also a ride where the kids can drive cars. Many of the locals brought their children there to ride their bikes or scooters. It's as stroller friendly as Europe can be.... meaning that there were wide open pathways but some stairs. The public bathroom is very well kept and there is a changing table on the ladies' side (Mike ran up to change Sam only to find out there was no changing table in the men's side. The cleaning lady was there and told him that he could go on the women's side). There are several places in town to rent a bicycle. If we didn't have small children, we would have definitely done it this way. I was a little envious of the young couples biking together through town, I must admit.

We didn't stay very long - just long enough for us to eat, feed the ducks, and walk the loop of the park. The clouds were looming and we wanted to be able to get to the Cathedral before the sky opened up and dumped on us. Parking downtown was difficult. The streets were small and skinny. We decided just to pay for parking in the garage. That was packed as well, but we were able to find a spot. The Cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg was quite phenomenal. I'm not sure how tall it actually is but it seems to be at least 13 stories high. With Mike's wide lens, it was still difficult to get the full tower. Inside there was a flurry of mostly French and German tourists. If there were Americans, they were busy making themselves unnoticeable. We, on the other hand, are hard to miss. With a 7 year old yapping away and a 2 year old climbing and yelling in unmistakable English, we can be a walking target at times. There was modern style instrumental music and dance happening in the middle of the Cathedral which gave it more of a spiritual feeling. There were vendors inside the Cathedral selling tourist items (which seemed odd to me... selling things inside a Church.). The other popular thing to see within the Cathedral is the Strasbourg Astronomical Clock. There are many rumors and stories surrounding this clock but for how old it is, it's truly amazing. We didn't see the clock in motion but, here is a youtube video: http://youtu.be/FAY0wnSD0BA . Our DIY tour was short and we made our way out the doors. The raindrops started to fall and I had not planned for rain. The whole family was in short sleeves, so we decided to cut our trip short and skip La Petite France. I know for sure we will return. It is just too close and too beautiful to only see once.