The capital caught me by surprise this time, however. The first few bad dining experiences, I felt had to be flukes. But when things didn't improve, I started questioning my fundamentals. Could Rome really be a culinary desert? The only redeeming experience was lunch in a little pizzeria in a quiet alley, offering an impressive collection of craft beers, reaffirming the old rule of thumb that the best spots often lie off the beaten path. Restaurants in touristy areas are guaranteed a solid stream of (mostly non-repeat) customers, and so they just don't have to compete on quality to stay in business. My friends from Rome agreed—the city is just too touristy to offer good food.
We chose Rome because Allison's birthday wish was to celebrate her special day in the Catholic capital of the world. I hadn't visited since my college days and was eager to come back as an adult. I remember trudging around St. Peter's square sick as a puppy in the blistering July heat all those years ago and being denied entry into the Vatican for wearing shorts. I'm still bitter about that. This time around, after picking up our papal mass tickets, it was Allison who was turned away for wearing an open-shoulder dress. Who cares about bare shoulders? The Vatican, that's who.
Fortunately, a good soul nearby saw us retreat in defeat and offered his extra hoodie to prevent us from having to wait in the security line another mind-numbing time. Bare shoulders may be no bueno, but, apparently, bad fashion sense is perfectly cosher. That's my proposed new word for the Catholic version of kosher.
Inside, the church is dizzyingly huge. It is easy to get lost in the ornate grandness of it all. Our ogling was limited by the pace of our Good Samaritan for fear of not being able to return his hoodie, so that kept us on track.
After some morning birthday celebrations, we came back to our hotel room to find that all our luggage had disappeared. There was no trace of us ever having been in the room. Even our dirty laundry was gone. After a few moments of panic as we tried to find our host's phone number, she suddenly appeared all frazzled and informed us that our stuff was safe, in another room, and that she was awaiting an imminent inspection from the city.
It turns out we were illegal B&B guests. For a hotel to be considered a bed-and-breakfast, the host has to live on the premises. Our host, however, had rented out every single room and was trying to cover up for the fact, in the process violating our privacy. In all my years of travel, this was a first.
Trying to put this nightmare behind us and not let it ruin Allison's birthday, we went out for more sightseeing. I was a bit surprised how walkable Rome is. It may not have been built in a day, but its sights can easily be explored on foot without having to solve a complex traveling salesman problem. We checked off the Pantheon, the Trevi fountain, and Spanish steps in an afternoon, all while casually strolling and stepping into shops and cafes. At the Colosseum we joked with the entrepreneurs trying to help us score tickets inside. “What's that,” we'd ask, snickering, pointing at the iconic Roman ruin.
CroatiaAllison is a pretty impressive swimmer. She has a connection with the ocean unlike anyone I know. Yes, mermaids are real. She signed up for a SwimTrek vacation in Croatia this summer, which is basically an organized camp for amphibians wanting to spend the majority of the day in the open water, island hopping for a week. I was delighted to be able to tag along, anchored on dry land.
We had a couple of days before the SwimTrek, so we chose to rent a car and visit Plitvice Lakes and the Makarska Rivijera. After a long line at Enterprise, we followed our agent to a spot where he was to pull up the rental for our inspection. Many minutes later we noticed a giant, bus-sized Fiat approaching and hoped to God that wasn't intended for us. Our hopes were dashed. The compact we had reserved had very unfortunately been involved in a crash the day before.
We were stuck with this monstrosity. The enterprise agent was only able to offer a change of color, which was little consolation for such hideousness. Fortunately, it would be ours for just two days. We joked about picking up a few hitchhikers along the way to help pay for the rental cost.
Our Airbnb in Plitvice was a couple dozen miles downstream from the lakes, in a town called Slunj. We serendipitously noticed that the town was built around a mini Plitvice-like series of streams. We ate dinner at the Petro restaurant, whose serene setting and delicious food made us supremely happy.
PrvićThe SwimTrek Allison had chosen was based out of the tiny island of Prvić, a few miles off the coastal town of Šibenik. The island is historically significant, having served as a defense station during World War II. There are quite a few monuments and ruins throughout, some from medieval times.
The island is tiny. There are no cars—the blissful peace and quiet is only disturbed by the occasional tractor, and the silence punctured by the much too frequent church bell chimes. A chime marks every half hour and there are dings announcing the passing of each hour, even at 3 o'clock in the morning. For an island that couldn't care less about what time it is, these church bells are hugely ironic.
I had hoped to keep up my ultra running training on land while Allison was in the water, but Prvić has just 6 miles of coastline, and the majority is not exactly runnable. After one symbolic tour of the seashore, I took to doing loops around the main peninsula, whose trails were fairly technical. I received puzzled looks from the locals on each pass, which rather amused me. If I could make a humble suggestion to the people of Prvić, it would be to develop a trail that traces the island shore. Tourists would love it. And it could even turn into a famous running race: the Prvić 10k.
Besides olives, figs, and grapes, the island does not have much in the way of natural resources so almost everything is brought in on a boat. Nevertheless, the food is excellent and inexpensive. Our hotel, the Hotel Maestral, is the only one on the island and serves culinary masterpieces. A nearby pizzeria had better pizza than its Italian chef likely ever ate in his homeland. And on one of the nights, the SwimTrek group was treated to a gourmet dinner at a family house on a neighboring island. The only trouble was the sheer concentration of carbohydrates.
Trying to counterbalance the carbs by ordering fish got me in trouble a couple of times. Sea bass is served whole: head, torso, and tail, which I find tasteless, moderately repulsive, and absolutely appetite-squashing. When the fish option at the family house turned out to be whole sea bass, I tried to pretend the tray of fish corpses served in front of me didn't exist by hiding it behind the wine carafe. Inevitably, someone always asks: “how long have you been a vegetarian?” As if one couldn't possibly be raised that way or that that's supposed to explain somehow why someone wouldn't want to touch a dish that is looking back at you.
Krka National ParkOn the second day of swimming, the weather turned a tiny bit sour, and since Allison's friend Martha was fighting a cold, these minor misfortunes presented an opportunity for the three of us to tour nearby Krka National Park, just a twenty-minute drive from Šibenik.
Much less crowded than Plitvice, the cascading lakes were no less spectacular and were even open for swimming. Note: the water is substantially cooler than the inviting Adriatic.
HvarIn America, cutting in line is one of the worst social crimes one can commit. In Croatia, there's not even a concept of a line. There's just a vague mass of crowds that forms and pushes though whatever bottleneck exists. Such was the method of boarding the ferry to Hvar. Once onboard, however, the ride to Hvar was quite comfortable.
Unlike Prvić, Hvar is sizable. Forty miles long, the island is far too big to explore in a single day, but we still felt fortunate to get a taste of it before heading home. The old town of Stari Grad (literally translates to “Old Town”) has over 2,400 years of history, making it the oldest town in Croatia. Trading the churches, monasteries, and castles for a wining and dining experience, we took things slowly on our last day.
Sitting at a cafe waiting for our check, I noticed that every kuna coin was marked kuna except for the 2—which was inexplicably labeled kune. I asked the waiter why, and he was just as stumped.
This conundrum aside, the Croatian language is remarkably close to Bulgarian. I was able to understand most signs and restaurant menus, and even pick out a few words and phrases in conversation. Some differences are pretty amusing, though. Many of the spring water bottles carried cute quotes, such as, “moje srce kuca u ritmu ljubavi / my heart beats to the rhythm of love.” In Bulgarian, however, kuca actually means limp, which completely undermines the message, almost negating it.
We really enjoyed our brief sample of Hvar and knew we had to return for a
more thorough visit. Once again, Croatia did not disappoint, only revealing
more character and natural beauty.