20 December 2013

CRF: The Best of Croatia

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." It's been almost a year since we returned from Europe, and we've started to get seriously nostalgic.  To give us all an extra travel fix, we're posting some of our favorite photos that never made it onto the blog.  Here are our favorite unpublished memories and pictures of Croatia.
More than any other country, we associate Croatia with hedonism, sun and the scent of saltwater.  Our trip never felt like a vacation, but Croatia is a vacation by definition.  Everyone there was on holiday in one way or another - it was the same for the naked Germans and drunk Russians and sunburned Brits that joined us on those rocky shores.  It was July.  The sun never seemed to go down.
For a few happy days, we stayed at a huge campsite on Cres Island.  There was squid to eat in town and beer to sip on the long oceanside promenade.  When we swam, we were stung by tiny jellyfish.  When we walked in the balmy evenings, we listened to cicadas and waves.  Nearby, in a pine forest, a rusty amusement park spun its blinking, neon magic.
At home in the US, not long after the trip, someone told us that Croatia sounded "scary and Russian."  It's true that in some places, like Zadar, one can find bomb-scarred buildings from the Balkan wars - but you have to look hard.  The scariest thing about Croatia today? Probably the spiny sea-urchins that lurk in the shallow water.
The Dalmatian coast is mostly rock, and some salt-scoured islands feel almost entirely dead.  Real, comfortable, sandy beaches are rare.  Most people sunbathe on concrete slabs.
In Opatija, a city where seafood approaches perfection, we had a barbecue of squid and blitva.  The market where we shopped for our supper was made of Tito-era cement and seemed like the only cool place in the sun-baked city.
The heart of the summer - no rain, mild air, a sense that nothing bad can possibly happen - is best spent in a tent.  We soaked up the sun and got into our sleeping bag coated with salt.  We never went inside.  We ate by the ocean, we napped in the shade, we swam and walked and came home to a crowded camping city that smelled always of grilling sausage and suntan oil.
This was the semi-permanent home of one of our neighbors there at Camping Kovačine - grandparents, small children and at least two couples used this one camper as a base.  Did they all sleep inside?  Hard to tell.
Late one night - well past midnight - we were returning to our campsite in Ičići and came across this streetlight game of volleyball.
These scales always remind us of communism.  Every market from Minsk to Budapest to Sarajevo is full of them.
We spent a lot of time near the Mediterranean on the trip, but almost always during the colder months.  The summer seashores are too crowded in Malta or Greece or Provence.  At least, they're too crowded for serious travel.
But there we were, in Croatia during the high season.  We succumbed because there was no other choice.  It's Croatia that we think of first when our minds turn to sunny saltwater.  It was unavoidably perfect.  It was a vacation.
To see all our posts from Croatia, just click here.
To see all the Cutting Room Floor posts, with great pictures from the other 49 countries, just click here.

CRF: The Best Of Slovakia

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." It's been almost a year since we returned from Europe, and we've started to get seriously nostalgic.  To give us all an extra travel fix, we're posting some of our favorite photos that never made it onto the blog.  Here are our favorite unpublished memories and pictures of Slovakia.
There are lots of Slovak trucks on the roads of Europe, and it's well known as the "other half" of Czechoslovakia, but it's still a little-known, hidden away country.  Crossing from the Czech Republic, we descended into a rougher land, spiked with tall pines and criss-crossed with big rivers - Slovakia smells first of wet woods and coarse paprika.
But there are also elegant promenades and beautiful towns, great museums and copper steeples.  One of our favorite towns was our last, the charming Banská Štiavnica in the south-west of the country.  This intriguing "plague tower" shone brightly in the middle of Trojičné námestie square.
At the technical museum, in Košice, we got lost in the dark, wonderful rooms.  Outside, the city was full of music and weddings, but the world contained in those dusty hallways was a silent one.  Displays of prickling antennae, bare wires, worn typewriter keys, dull lenses, remote controls - and what seemed like a hundred gramophone speakers.
Slovakia was a prickle of peaks and forests in the western part of the country.  At first, as we climbed in from the Czech Republic, the whole landscape was made of wood and stone.  It was wild.  We passed a shepherd once, standing in the mist by his flock, who wore brown robes of sheepskin that reached all the way to the ground.  He stared at us in the alpine cloud, leaning on his crook.  At that moment, Slovakia felt like part of the untamed past.
On the other hand, the middle of the country is flat and hot.  The land there is a continuation of the great Hungarian puszta, and the roads stretch out simple, flat and dusty.  We ate oil-slicked, paprika chicken soup at this restaurant, in the heart of the plain.  A thin, aproned Roma woman served us.  Across the road, a shanty village glowered.  Kids kicked at trash, the streets were full of brown water.  We stopped for not much more than an hour. The food was delicious and hearty, as it tended to be in Slovakia.
At "Theatur" bar, in Košice (not the gambling den pictured here), we had a long discussion about martinis.  Mainly, we talked about how good Theatur's martinis were - the young, blond bartender shrugged when we complimented her work.  "I didn't even try," she said. We agreed, after much discussion, that they were the best drinks we'd had in months, and were probably the best to be found within two hundred miles.
Košice is full of good food and exciting things.  It's also has - like so many regional hubs in ex-communist backwaters - its share of red neon and bleak-faced vagrants.
When we stayed in the forested hamlet of Podlesok, there wasn't much light at night save for the moon and stars.   In Slovenský Raj Národný Park (home to the slippery, scary Suchá Belá waterfall course) we saw men logging with horses and clearing weeds with scythes.  This was the edge of modernity, where tradition and machinery were meeting each other in the forest.
Ovčí syr (Slovak sheep cheese) can be so dry and thready that it almost feels like fiber on the tongue.  The tendrils squeak in your teeth. The texture is both bouncy and melting. Forget bryndzové halušky, this is Slovakia's real national flavor.
(Actually, bryndzové halušky is just potato dumplings with bryndza - one type of ovčí syr.  So, really...)
It was June when we visited Slovakia, so our memories are of summer heat, the sound of bugs, the intense green of early wheat and the yellow of rapeseed.  The days were long.  We ate picnics beside country roads, smelling pollen on the wind.
We spent one hot afternoon walking around Levoča, a pretty village with an imposing town wall and almost no people in the streets.  Slovakia evokes as much central-European grandeur as any of its neighbors (see Bojnice castle, the incredible ceilings inside or the ancient edifice of Spišský Hrad), but has many fewer tourists than the Czech Republic or Hungary.
Levoča has medieval history, UNESCO listed carvings and dark little cafes set in crumbling stone buildings - but, at the time, it was all ours.
To see all of our posts from Slovakia, just click here.
To see other Cutting Room Floor posts, with lots of other great pictures, just click here.