Pretty. Oh So Pretty: Croatia and England 2015

One of the reasons I love to travel is that it’s a feast for the senses, especially sight.  It’s not that I live somewhere ugly.  To the contrary.  Maryland is lovely – especially in the spring – and the Chesapeake Bay offers a beauty that is at turns calming and exhilarating.  But travel gives a change of scenery, and provides different kinds of pretty to gawk at.

And once we arrived in London on a Wednesday morning, it didn’t take us long to revive ourselves after quick naps to help ease the jet lag.  We were sharing a 2-bedroom apartment on Baker Street in the Marleybone section of London with Skip and Harriet, and were just a few blocks from Regent’s Park.  After a pub lunch, we lost ourselves in the park, among the acres and acres of flowers that comprised the Queen’s rose garden.

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There is indeed a benefit to those drizzly days in England, though we were lucky with weather during our stay.

During our stay in London, Rick and I and Skip and Harriet took a guided gastronomical walking tour.  We started at Fortnum and Mason, a department store holding royal warrants and known for its decadent food hall.  The lower floors, with their glass cases, formally dressed staff, and chandeliers looked like a jewelry store, but on offer were gemlike sweets and preserved fruit.

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After our walking tour, we came back to Fortnum & Mason to buy dinner supplies.  If dollars equaled pounds, it wouldn’t have been too expensive.

We walked all over London, sampling microbrews (our guide had a master’s degree in anthropology with a focus on beer!), drinking chocolate, and cheese.

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We immersed ourselves in the delectable smells of Chinatown and the funky offerings of Soho (one purveyor of services offered a “Back, Crack and Sack” wax on a huge sign in its window.  Ouch!)  We made it to Pall Mall and St. James Square, Jermyn Street and Covent Garden.  Once on our own, we walked along the Thames near Big Ben, Whitehall, Westminster and St. James Park.  The city showed off its splendor in the perfect weather.

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Croatia would not be outdone.  Never having spent any time in the Mediterranean before, I didn’t know what to expect.  But like every other place I’ve ever been, it has comparables.  At times, the bold craggy shores, deep icy waters, and pine trees made me think of the Maine coast.  At others, the red roofs and palm trees made me think of St. Barth.  Almost always, my point of reference is North America, because that’s where I come from.

The first village we wandered around was the petite port of Maslinica on the island of Šolta, surrounding a tiny fjord-like bay, and holding anything we might need until our next port.  White stone buildings with red-tile roofs, a café or two, a small hotel, marina, and a Studenac market (not much bigger than the stores in the Bahamas Out Islands, but much better stocked).

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Tiny Maslinica is home to fewer than 300 people.

No less pretty was the village of Bobovišća on the island of Brač.  If anything, it is smaller than Maslinica.

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By our second day of sailing, we were catching on to the fact that Croatia is NOT a beach destination – at least not as we know beaches.  Here, any slab of rock or shingle, or even poured cement, that is relatively flat and provides access to the water counts.  Some have showers installed.  Many have ladders, because the entry into the water is generally not gradual.

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These pass for beaches….

Where there is gradual access to the water, and/or the rocks are more pebbly (though far coarser than what we think of as sand) you have a bona fide tourist attraction.  And it is likely to be crowded with people, chair-to-chair.

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A crowded beach in the Pakleni islands.

Spoiled by the Caribbean, I didn’t expect much, so I wasn’t too disappointed.  As it turned out, on the 3 occasions when we stopped for lunch and swimming, the waters were too cold for much more than quick dips.  After all, we were somewhat north of 43 degrees – the equivalent of New Hampshire or Maine (or Oregon) – not exactly ideally balmy waters in June.

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Our first chilling swim was off this pristine shore.

After all of these tiny villages, it was time for the “big cities” on the island of Hvar.  Hvar town (pop. 3,672), across the channel from Palmižana, is easily one of the most popular destinations in the Dalmatian islands, judging by the number of nightclubs, restaurants and – for some reason – opticians’ shops (everyone needs designer prescription shades?).

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The waterfront promenade in Hvar has everything a visitor could want.

But more beguiling, by far, is Stari Grad (pop. 2,817) on the opposite side of the island.  The name “Stari Grad” means Old Town, and they weren’t kidding when they named it.  Its origins go back to at least 3500 BC.  Most of the buildings are constructed from an creamy white stone indigenous to the area, much of it worn so smooth over centuries of use that the streets and squares are dangerous to traverse when wet.  (Parts of the White House were built using Croatian stone, from the island of Brač.)

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Beautiful Stari Grad.

As if that wasn’t enough, from Stari Grad Roko took us to another local restaurant.  An open-air affair up in the mountains of Hvar, Konoba Vrisnik offers a classic Croatian dish – PEKA – to those who know to pre-order it.  It takes 2 hours to prepare in a metal pan on an open hearth, covered by a metal bell under hot ashes.  The slow-cooked lamb and octopus we’d ordered were perfection.

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Octopus peka.

Our last night before heading back to the Sunsail marina was in the village of Stomorska.  The pretty village has a full-time population of about 250 souls, but most of the houses here are vacation homes.

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Day and night in Stomorska.

The visitors – mostly European – give the cafés, bars and restaurants a lively vibe.  And though they stay up well past dark, the atmosphere is festive and convivial, not clubby.  We were delighted with the pizza we had for dinner (Croatia is known for it, being as close to Italy as it is, and making its own wonderful cheeses and other toppings).  One of the best (relatively speaking) beaches in the region is on the edge of town.

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The only reason this pebbly beach wasn’t mobbed was because it was early in the morning.

Having completed our limited circuit of these islands, we didn’t find a single spot that wasn’t gorgeous.

More to come.

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