DUBROVNIK: JEWEL OF THE ADRIATIC

ITALY-CROATIA BLOG 08

Monday September 25, 2017

“Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” said beauty-queen Mae West. And, at any point during the past three-and-a-half weeks as our Italy & Croatia Tour’s been unfolding, we would’ve happily agreed! But, regrettably, it has come to an end.

We said goodbye – dovi-denja” – to Croatia on Saturday afternoon and flew to Frankfurt, then on through the night (backwards across the time-zones) to Singapore, then the final leg of our long journey home to Godzone. And the last thing needed to wrap up this blog is a comment or two (plus some pix) about Dubrovnik, the Croatian jewel where we spent our final on-tour hours.

Nestled between rocky cliffs and the deep blue sea, Dubrovnik is simply magnificent – and, if it’s not on your bucket-list, it should be. Girded in 9th-century walls that drop sheer to the water’s edge, it’s one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe – and, miraculously, while it took a severe beating from Serbian guns, it escaped total destruction in the violent 1991 ‘Homeland War’ that clobbered this region (part of what used to be called Yugoslavia).

Known in earlier centuries as Ragusa, Dubrovnik grew through the Middle Ages and beyond to become a thriving city-state with a merchant navy second only to Venice in that region. The old city, laid out within the ancient fortifications, is compact and easily walkable – which is exactly what the eager-beavers in our group did last Friday!

Earlier in the day, the Agape Rosefollowed a scenic route through the beautiful Elaphite Islands. Then we bused into Dubrovnik’s Old Town and chased crowds through the huge Pilé Gate, carved more than 1000 years ago into the six-metre-thick walls. We walked with our guide down the Stradun (the broad limestone street that bisects the town), spotting places of interest: Onofriou’s Fountain, an ornate Franciscan monastery (where Napoleon’s troops were once billeted), a striking Renaissance palace, charming shops and a labyrinth of narrow alleyways.

Finally, we were free to route-march around the city’s encircling walls … or take a cable-car to the top of the looming hill behind the Old Town for some fabulous photo ops … or sit in an outdoor tavern, licking a yummy gelato and watching the world go by.

A magic day? You’d better believe it! And, as the setting sun turned the Adriatic to liquid gold, we sat down to a slap-up Midlife Madness Farewell Feast back onboard the Agape Rose.

Next morning came far too quickly, with us checking out of cabins, and saying heartfelt thank-yous/we’ll-miss-yous to the oh-so-friendly crew. Four of our number departed for France at an earlier hour, while the rest of us took a short coach-ride down the coast to a classy, picturesque resort – Cavtat (Tzavtat) – founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BC, and enjoyed today by swarms of jet-setting Croatians and touring Europeans.

As jet-setting touring Kiwis, we fitted right in, of course, managing some last-minute shopping, wandering and snacking, before heading for Dubrovnik’s Cilipi Airport.

Phew! We’ve travelled so far … packed so much in … seen more than we can possibly remember! And we’re returning to New Zealand with untold stories to tell – plus a million photographs to bore you to death with!

Is everybody happy? You bet your life we are!

PEOPLE-NEWS: Two lucky-last Quacky Yellow Ducks have fled the nest and been embraced by new owners …

  • TRISH B received a well-deserved ‘Slopped Her Dripper’ Award – for spilling spaghetti-carbonara all over her placemat, the table, the floor, the ceiling and several people sitting near her last night during dinner. (Okay, slight exaggeration – but she DID make a mess!)
  • BARRY B (her husband) received the ‘Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better’ Award – for doing exactly the same thing five minutes later! (Must be genetic – runs in the family, maybe?)

Yours over’n’outly – JOHN

P.S. Our next MAD MIDLIFE ADVENTURE (and our next travel blog) will feature an exquisitely colourful 17-day CHERRY-BLOSSOM TOUR OF JAPAN … in March 2018!

There’s still room for you – why don’t you join us?

For more details and our free 20-page Japan InfoPack, phone Glen (our booking agent at House of Travel Ellerslie) on 0800 323 333 … or email midlifemadness@hot.co.nz.

HVAR, PUCISCA, OMIS & KORCULA

ITALY-CROATIA BLOG 07

Friday September 22, 2017

Croatia’s coast, stretching 2000 kilometres down the right-hand side of the Adriatic Sea, is simply stunning. At least, the bits we’ve seen are. And, from the few that we’ve sampled, its 1200 verdant islands are something else as well: bare karst-rock islands, tiny dots of islands with nothing on them but a lighthouse, islands populated by just deer and nudists (or so I’m told), islands with cocktail bars attracting locals and tourists alike, islands so remote they’re nearer to Italy, islands of age-old fishing traditions, islands famous for their wine or cheese or olives or lavender or anchovy pasties.

And, if you feel like joining us, there’s plenty of room, because more than 80% of Croatia’s islands have no people on them at all.

We’ve seen several of the biggest and best islands during the week we’ve been cruising these warm, translucent waters. We’ve walked the gangplank and gone ashore at every opportunity. And life aboard the Agape Rosehas been so lovely and laid-back that we really don’t want to come home.

We’re cruising right now, as I write these words. Half an hour ago, we stopped for a swim, and most of our mad Kiwi Midlifers are sprawled out on the sun-deck soaking up the rays. Later today we’ll reach Dubrovnik. And tomorrow we’ll bid Croatia goodbye – dovi-denja” – and head to the airport. So I’d better bring my cruise-report up to date …

HVAR (kVar): Sometime on Tuesday (I can’t remember when) we motored into what locals reckon is the sunniest island on the Dalmatian Riviera. Hvar (with an almost-silent ‘k’ replacing the ‘h’) is popular for its drop-dead-gorgeous shoreline, its panoramic views, its 17th-century fortified arsenal, plus its atmospheric Old Town. And, once again, we wandered at leisure, soaking up the ambience and feeling terribly homesick. (Not!)

Then we hopped aboard a local bus and drove up-up-up through stony-terraced hills to a lavender farm, where we snacked on the local fare (wine, cheese, prosciutto, and homemade bread) while a nice lady explained how they’ve farmed the aromatic purple herb here for yonks.

PUCISCA (pu-CHISH-cha): With the weather turning a bit mean we overnighted in this beautiful bay, nestled away on the island of Brac (bratch) and surrounded by stone quarries that yield some of the nicest, whitest limestone on the planet. Believe it or not, pillars of this dazzling snowy stone decorate the façade of the White House in the U.S. – plus other landmarks all over the world. Anyway, we visited a stonemasonry school the next morning, where students still use the same unconventional tools that were used by stonemasons in the ancient Roman Empire.

How ‘bout dat?

OMIS (pronounced Omish): Sailing into this gorgeous town after a leisurely breakfast-time cruise, we were blown away by its backdrop of massive limestone mountains. We roamed the narrow streets and engaged in some shop-shop-shopping. (Our group, collectively, must’ve purchased at least 17 MILLION fridge-magnets over the past three weeks! Guess what you’re getting when we arrive home?)

That afternoon, we rode a smallish boat upriver into the Cetina Canyon (a stunning nature reserve) where more local wine, cheese, prosciutto, and homemade bread waited us). And we fell asleep that night dreaming of the much-feared pirates that once haunted these regions, hiding their stolen loot in the cliff-top forts we’d seen way above the town.

KORCULA: The medieval Old Town (after which this lovely island is named) is tucked out on a small hilly peninsula behind round, defensive towers. Like much of this region, it was controlled by Venice from the 14th to the 18th centuries (the Venetian-lion coat-of-arms still adorn the official buildings) … and has long been known for its dessert wines, made from the large white grk grape that’s grown around Lumbarda. (Hey – more tasting!) When we were here two years ago, torrential rain stopped play for most of our stopover in Korcula – but not this time. The sun was brightly shining, our local guide was hilarious, and we had plenty of time to hear about Korcula’s famous merchant-explorer, Marco Polo, who (prior to leaving in 1271) spent his childhood playing in these very streets.

Last night after dinner, we toddled back into the Old Town for a dramatic outdoor presentation (with music and song) of Moreska Sword Dancing. This traditional dance has been performed for 400 years on this island, and follows the legend of the Red King’s squabble with the Black King after the Black King tried to run off with the Red King’s beautiful fiancée.

Earlier in the evening, true to form, Korcula turned on a glorious sunset just for us Kiwis …

COMING UP: For our Grand Croatian-Cruise Finale, we launch a Kiwi invasion of spectacular Dubrovnik – which means one more blog to come!

PEOPLE-NEWS: Another Quacky Yellow Duck has swum across the pool and climbed out the other side to begin a new life …

  • ALISON picked up our ‘Nothing to Wear’ Award several days ago day in Ljubljana. Let me explain. Most of the men in our group have, on numerous occasions, been told by their wives, “I’ve got nothing to wear!” – which is, of course, a white lie, designed to justify the purchase of a new outfit. But in Alison’s case, it was the truth! Turns out she’d left half her clothes behind in her hotel wardrobe, and has been wearing Ted’s clothes ever since!
  • JENNY earned herself our ‘I’m not Stupid’ Award – for confidently telling the Duck-Awarder, “I’ll never get an award because I never do anything stupid!” Sorry Jenny, you just did! Prepare to welcome your duck!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Keep it brief – and be sure to say who it’s for and who it’s from.)

SPLIT, SKRADIN, SIBERNIK & VIS

ITALY-CROATIA BLOG 06

Monday September 18, 2017

There’s something extra exciting about arriving at a port or cruise terminal and seeing, for the first time, the ship that’ll be your hotel-on-water for the next week or whatever. And seeing the sleek white-&-grey Agape Rosealongside the dock in Split was no exception. Our long-awaited Croatian Cruise was about to start – yeehaa!

The intimate, well-appointed Agape Roseis pretty much brand spanking new, having left the ship-builder’s yard in May this year. She is rated 5-star, and is perfect for showcasing the historic, scenic splendour of the Adriatic – an easy choice for our Mad Midlife cruise. She’s small enough (48.5 metres long x 8.5 metres wide) to get into bays, inlets and ports that bigger ships can’t approach … fully air-conditioned, with sun-decks, shaded lounge areas, restaurant and bar, free WiFi … plus 18 tastefully-designed ensuite cabins (queen-size or twin) spread over three decks.

Anyway, she’s our home for the next eight days … chartered exclusively for our Kiwi group! (Bet you feel sorry for us – right?)

We wasted no time on Saturday, going aboard, looking around, and unpacking in our cabins. And we’ve been spoilt rotten ever since with gourmet meals, sunshine (most of the time), and several stunning stopovers. Like what? Well, like these …

SPLIT: We overnighted aboard the Agape Rosein this attractive seaside city (largest on the Adriatic Coast). Roman Emperor Diocletian had his palace-cum-fortress built here 1700 years ago, and that still dominates the surrounding Old Town area, with its maze of cobblestone streets. Pre-Romanesque churches stand proudly alongside Gothic chapels and art galleries … and delicious-smelling cafés beckon from every corner.

SKRADIN: Sunday morning saw us out on deck after a yummy breakfast, enjoying the breeze and the watching the coastal landscapes pass slowly by as we cruised to Skradin – a charming small town on the River Krka (something like ker-r-kaa). From there we caught a smaller-boat-ride up that river and hiked to the Krka Waterfalls Skradinski buk – a natural wonderland, famous for its endless series of amazing cascades.

SIBERNIK: Back on board the Agape Rose, we continued our lazy, leisurely cruise to Sibenik, one of many pearls awaiting us along the Croatian coast. It boasts a magnificent, gleaming-white medieval heart, Renaissance architecture, a UNESCO-protected cathedral, a tree-lined corniche, quaint red roofs, excellent food, impressive shopping and eye-popping views. Ahh, yes … what more could one ask for?

After overnighting here, we had ourselves a morning wander through Sibernik’s narrow, twisty-turny lanes … getting an eyeful of Really Old Stuff from centuries long past … learning a little more about the history (ancient and modern) of this fascinating region … and enjoying a classy a-Capella performance within some well-preserved stone walls.

VIS: Later this morning, we stopped for a swim in the warm, crystal-clear sea off the back of the boat – accompanied (as you can probably imagine) by lots of hooting, laughter and general rudeness. Vis, where we finally docked for the night, is truly beautiful little island – reputedly ‘the Mediterranean as it once was’ – its sun-drenched waterfront crammed with posh yachts and launches and relaxing holiday-makers.

Across the bay we could see early signs of movie-making: apparently a sequel to Momma Mia, is being shot in the same place as the original film (starring Meryl Streep and other celebs). Watch this space – we might yet be in it!

COMING UP: More balmy, sunshiny Adriatic days … more luxury cruising … more coastal highlights … more Croatian delights … and more Yellow Ducky awards. It’s awful, I tell you, and it just goes on and on …

PEOPLE-NEWS: The Duck-stampede has slowed temporarily, but two more have managed to flap their way into new hands …

  • LESLEY scored our ‘Knock Three Times’ Award the other afternoon when asking our barman, Ranko, for a sparkling wine. Going around behind the bar to have her photo taken with him while he poured it, she posed with her arm around him, and said coyly, “By the way, my cabin number is three …” (so he could put the charge on her tab). Then realising what she’d said, she blushed with embarrassment (while everyone roared with laughter). “Oh, I’ve already got a roommate!” she added … but that didn’t really help!
  • ALLAN romped home with our ‘Kreuzfahrten’ Award for his behaviour yesterday. Kreuzfahrten is a German word we’ve seen several times on the side of other boats, and I’m not exactly sure what it means. But Allan gets this award for dropping a noisy one out on the top deck yesterday within the hearing of other Mad Midlifers. Nice one Allan!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Keep it brief – and be sure to say who it’s for and who it’s from.)

POSTOJNA, LJUBLJANA, PLITVICE & OTHER HARD-TO-PRONOUNCE PLACES

ITALY-CROATIA BLOG 05

Saturday September 15, 2017

The past couple of weeks have been packed with delightful surprises. And one very special surprise was the oh-so-luverly route we took on Thursday through a tiny country to the north of Italy. You’ve probably heard of Slovenia – right? But, like us, you probably know next to nothing about it – right? Well, next time you get the chance, go and visit!

We sang Venice a fond “Arrivederci!” (goodbye) on Thursday morning … crossed the Italian border (eventually) … then drove for ages through the neat-as-a-pin Slovenian countryside, passing untold patchwork-perfect farms and picture-perfect villages, before stopping en route at some fantastic subterranean caves in Postojna (pos-TOY-nyah) – where we rode an electric train and eyeballed stalactites, stalagmites and amazing 22-million-year-old rock formations.Later, we reached Ljubljana (loo-bil-LEE-arna), where we shared a short walking tour with one of the funniest, most entertaining old guys you can imagine (“I don’t understand why the Romans built so many ruins!”) … visiting the medieval city centre, a picturesque open-air market, the famous Three Bridges, the Baroque Town Hall and several other things I’ve already forgotten. With a population of just 300,000 Ljubljana is small, as capital cities go. But it has an impressive hilltop castle, the winding green Ljubljanica River, and café tables spilling into narrow streets.

We all agreed we wanna go back …

Come Friday morning, we covered more serious kilometres in the rain (check out the map), crossing eventually into Croatia and detouring to some must-see turquoise lakes at Plitvice (pleet-weet-cha – come on, try it). This wilderness area is a World Heritage Site that features thickly wooded hills, tumbling streams, silvery falls, and a network of trails and wooden walkways.

Finally, we hit the road again, overnighting in the ancient seaside town of Zadar, which boasts a history that goes back 3000 years, with Roman ruins, a city wall and moat, plus a Very Old Church (St Donat, built on top of Roman rubble).

Following an all-too-short night in a fantastic new resort/hotel, we did a quick walk-thru in the old town, and listened to a fascinating ‘sea-organ’ (underground pipes along the waterfront, played tunefully by the wind and waves). But we couldn’t stay long. You see, we had a rendezvous in Split we didn’t want to miss. Waiting for us in that busy Croatian port was our floating hotel, the Agape Rose – and, although it meant saying a sad goodbye to Elisabetta (our much-loved Italian Tour Guide), we were itching to get onboard.

05-43 Elisabetta-Mother Duck Award (769x1024)

COMING UP: Our long-awaited Croatian Cruise is finally underway, so stay tuned for more pix, info, blah-blah-blah, and awards …

PEOPLE-NEWS: There’s been a rush on Quacky Yellow Ducks, with women taking home more than their fair share …

  • JEANETTE won our ‘Road Less Travelled’ Award – for being easily led, following the wrong crowd, and getting herself somewhat lost at the Plitvice Lakes. She found us again, but not before the ever-watchful Duck-Spotter had duly noted her misdemeanor.
  • JANICE won our ‘Chocolate Extravaganza’ Award at dinner last night. She asked the restaurant staff if any more cheesecake was coming out, and the answer was, no, sorry. However, five minutes later, they bought Janice a large plate with wall-to-wall chocolate cakes on it … and Janice ate the lot! (Well, with a little bit of help …)
  • TRISHA won our Truly, I Haven’t Been Drinking’ Award – for asking the tour leader, over dinner last night: “Do we order our glass by the wine?”
  • ELISABETTA won our ‘One of those Nights’ Award – for, firstly, wrecking the curtain in her Ljubljana hotel room, pulling the entire arrangement off the wall when trying to shut them … then, second, for losing her cell-phone. She went to sleep, too tired to look for it, then woke in the night, searching in vain for a couple of hours, finally discovering it next morning in her bed! Elisabetta was also honoured with our farewell ‘Mother Duck’ Premium Award – for taking such good care of all her Kiwi ‘ducklings’ (that’s us) over the past fortnight.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Keep it brief – and be sure to say who it’s for and who it’s from.)

MAGICAL ROMANTIC VENICE

ITALY-CROATIA BLOG 04

Wednesday September 13, 2017

You may or may not be interested, but I can tell you for a fact: there ain’t nuttin’ quite like Venice!

It all started in 421AD, when the people of Veneto fled their mainland homes ahead of the invading Goths. They founded this extraordinary city on flat, flooded, marshy islands, using wooden pilings for foundations (millions of them, eventually, which are still quietly petrifying in the oxygen-free mud) – an astonishing feat of engineering. By the 13th century Venice was the third most populated city in the world (after London and Paris). The wealthy merchants of Venice were making fortunes in salt and spices – and spending fortunes on their mansions (which still line the canals today). The formidable Venetian navy was turning out a wooden warship a day. And for some 1000 years it was home to big names – like Casanova, Vivaldi, Monteverdi, the sculptor Canova, and the explorer Marco Polo.

We celebrated our first night on the town with a lovely, leisurely Gondola Serenade … drifting along the canals of Venice as the darkening waters lapped against the sides of our boats. Stripey-shirted gondoliers leaned and pulled on their poles … musicians with piano-accordions, guitars and magnificent voices serenaded us in traditional fashion … and we Kiwis sang along at the top of our lungs: “Volare … oh, oh …!”

Afterwards, before heading to bed in our hotel, we lost ourselves in the narrow streets, crowded squares and countless bridges, sampling the food, and making unforgettable memories in this romantic setting.

The heart of Venice is St Mark’s Square – with its looming, onion-domed Basilica di San Marco (crammed with incredible marble mosaics and colourful frescos) … its magnificent pink-and-lacy Doges’ Palace (Palazzo Ducale, rich with gold-encrusted ceilings and priceless Renaissance art) … its 15th century clock-tower … its colourful carnevale masks … its ever-present pigeons … its ever-threatening flood-waters … and its wall-to-wall tourists. Yesterday morning, we explored all this on foot, crossing the lagoon via the Bridge of Sighs, and watching gondolas bobbing at their moorings along Venice’s world-famous waterfront.

It’s a crime to hurry through Venice – this is one place in the world that should never be rushed. So we spent that afternoon doing what the Venetians seem to do: wandering, meandering, strolling, sauntering and soaking up the ambience on our own – eventually sitting down to a yummy dinner together at the Taverna la Fenice.

We did pretty much the same thing this afternoon – but not before we rode a private boat out through the main Venetian Lagoon to two fascinating islands. Murano has been the region’s glass-blowing centre since 1291, and tradesmen still practice their jealously-guarded craft today. We visited one of the famous glass-blowing factories and did some ogling-plus-shopping in a showroom filled with gorgeous glassy creations.

The equally famous island of Burano has a well-earned reputation for exquisite lace-making – and those who were interested admired this handwork, while those who weren’t roamed streets and canals lined with quaint multi-coloured houses, or sat under umbrellas drinking coffee and eating some of the freshest, tastiest pastries on the planet.

COMING UP: Following an early breakfast tomorrow, we leave Italy (sob) and embark on a detour through tiny Slovenia – which most of you have never heard of, right? Or, if you have, you know next to nothing about, right? Well, brace yourselves, because you’re in for a surprise …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Just one Quacky Yellow Duck has taken wing since we last spoke …

  • ALLAN took away our ‘Shoe-Shine’ Award – and, according to those who watched this unfold, it was hilarious! A group of Kiwis were out and about yesterday when they came across one of those automatic shoe-shine machines – you know, you shove your shoe into the guts of the thing, and those wildly spinning brushes apply a clean-and-polish in no time at all. Well, Allan decided to try it with his jandals. He shoved his foot in, and the machine promptly grabbed his jandal and swallowed it, leaving Allan down on his hands and knees trying to retrieve his precious jandal as it flew round and round in vicious circles.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Keep it brief – and be sure to say who it’s for and who it’s from.)