Saturday, September 26, 2009

Update

This is a picture of the bear behind our house. Yes, that's right. This big black bear was about 50 feet from our back fence. Here's a closer view.

Here she is lounging under a tree, waiting until the opportune moment to grab the trash out of someone's can in the very populated neighbohood 50 feet away. Whoa. And I say "she" because there are cubs! We haven't seen them yet, but our friends almost hit them when they ran across the road in front of their car! The military is giving us all "bear cans" with latches that you need thumbs to open.

We are home. I'm learning how relative "home" really is. We are living in base housing (the new ones now!) Our old house is fenced off and should be getting knocked down any day now. This is the second house I've lived in to be demolished after I've lived in it. Weird.

We've been surprisingly busy these past few weeks yet doing nothing in particular. I went to a weekend yoga workshop with Baxter Bell here in Panama City and it was great! I loved learning more about the yoga that I enjoy so much! And a whole weekend of yoga was awesome!


In earthier news, I got this produce box from Off the Vine Produce, like a CSA, that gathers food from nearby farms and sells it to subscribers. It's neat because it gives me things that aren't necessarily available in my farmers' market (it's closed for the season so I have to search for roadside stands now) and things that I wouldn't necessarily buy - like rainbow chard, broccoli, and potatoes. This is a picture of what was in my box: spinach, cherry tomatoes, carrots, yellow tomatoes, rainbow chard, zucchini, grapefruit, corn, grapes, potatoes, onions, and plums... oh my!

We've also been sailing at least twice a week now with the boat beached at a friend's house. Today, we went test driving cars. I drove a used Mini Cooper, used Subaru Outback, new Outback, Impreza, STI, Pontiac Vibe, new Mitsubishi Lancer, and Rob drove the new Hyundai Genesis Coupe (speedy). We haven't made any decisions yet.


I'm itching to "settle" after almost 5 months of temporary living. We were in temporary housing for a month, house-sitting for 2-ish months, backpacking Europe for 1-ish months, and now in base housing with our stuff boxed in the garage for almost a month. We're keeping most of it boxed to make it easier to do a DITY move to Abilene when the time comes. But, I'm getting really tired of not seeing my own stuff on the walls and living like it's "mine."

Awesome things:
Sleeping in our own bed!!!! Ahhhh. SOOO wonderful!! We have been sleeping SO well!

Having my favorite kitchen appliances! I can't live without my kitchen aid mixer, a coffee-making apparatus (french press or grind and brew), and my blender/food processor... oh and good knives!


The counter space in the new base housing. It's a lot! A lot.



Sailboat on the beach! We have it all set up and ready anytime we want to go sailing! Rob gets home from work and we go sailing! It's so fun! And the discord that inevitably resulted from raising and lowering the mast is no more!



Not-so-awesome-things


Looking for a new car for me when all I really want is my old Miata back. Poo. It makes finding a new car so bittersweet.



Having one car. You don't realize how much freedom two cars gives you until it's gone.



Our stuff in boxes. It's no fun when you realize you need something that's in a box, you don't know which one, and you don't want to look for it, so you go along with your course slightly more frustrated than if you had the thing you needed.



The Florida heat. I still MUCH prefer it to cold, but like a long winter in a northern climate, Florida's long summer has me asking "when is the weather going to change?"



People asking us what our next plans are. We don't know. We never will "know." Why do people ask us what we're doing next ALL THE TIME?



The most awesome-est thing:



Spending every day with my amazing and wonderful husband!! When I'm near him, I feel happy, content, loved, and at "home." Ahhhh.

Monday, September 14, 2009

And the End

Rob:
From Bled we hopped a train continuing our journey back into Austria. We stopped in a little town on the banks of Lake Worthersee for our last meal, which was to be at a very nice place famous for its creative menu and their use of the local wild life on the menu. It turns out that they don't open until 7PM and we had to be back on the train at 7:15, so we had coffee at the cafe and found dinner elsewhere. We walked about and enjoyed Austria's lake scene and a game of giant chess in the park. We got on the train to Klagenfurt where our plane departed for Frankfurt Hahn airport. Like our other Ryanair airport, it was in the middle of nowhere with the smell of cow pasture all around (we have a hunch that's a requirement for Ryanair...)
We were also reunited with Tina. She filled us in on her adventures in Klagenfurt where she stayed in a very fancy hotel with a bath tub in her room. She was returning to her home in Luxembourg after 3 weeks of holiday.

Lake Worthersee


Rob won at chess in the park



McKay:
Nearing the end of our trip, we then took the last bus from Frankfurt Hahn the couple of hours to Frankfurt Main (how it can be called Frankfurt, I don't know). As we arrived around 1am to Frankfurt airport and our plane checked in at 6, we decided to save the money for 4 hours of sleep and made our beds in the airport with a surprisingly large number of other travelers.

But our journey didn't end there. We woke up early, checked in, flew to Dallas, flew to Atlanta, slept in Atlanta, then drove back to Panama City the next day! In Florida, we got our house, got our stuff, moved in, and lived happily ever after.

How did you get here?

So, this question became a common theme in our travels.

At Plitvice:

We had been waiting at the gate to the parking area for quite some time before it was open. When Rob saw the exit gate open he went in the wrong way. The parking attendant showed up late and followed him and parked. Even though Rob and the attendant made eye contact getting out of the car, when Rob approached him to get a ticket, he was asked in beautiful Croatian (like Russian) accent, "How did you get down there?"

Rob explained what he did. In appropriate power-defining bureaucracy, the guard continued about his business while Rob waited unsure what to do next. Eventually, (it's way funnier if you hear it in Croatian-accented English), "Okay, I give you. You wait."

In Piran:

At the seafood restaurant, we were sitting next to a couple speaking German. We shared a few brief moments of conversation periodically until it seemed that the guy in the couple couldn't bear it anymore...

"You are American, obviously."
"Well, yes."
"From Oklahoma?"
"No..Texas."
"Oh, Howdy, you just don't sound like George Bush. How did you get here?"
"Umm, by car."
"No, I mean, how did you even know about this place?"

Nice! Hooray for traveling where few Americans have travelled before!!

SO... in case YOU were wondering "How did you get there?", here's a map of our route.


Slovenia

Rob:
After leaving Opatjia we arrived in Rijeka to return the car, we hit a small snag. Even though we told the store where we picked it up that the reservation was to return it at noon on Sunday, we arrived at the store and it was closed. It had a number to call (great we have no phone). The guys at Avis were nice enough to call our guy and he said he was running late. When he did show he said he was going to charge us a $50 fee because he doesn't normally work on Sunday. McKay pulled the Jedi mind trick on the dude and said, "We will pay the agreed-on price and nothing more." His eyes glazed over and after a quick call to his "supervisor" he made an exception. It was amazing. She said she learned it from living in Africa. We made it on the train to Slovenia.

About 20 min into our train ride a woman plops down next to us and just starts chattering away about some crazy monk throwing stuff at the front of the train. It turns out that she entered the wrong car and thought we were the same people she had been talking to before she went to the bathroom (she didn't actually figure that out until the Slovenian border when she realized that her bag was missing). Her name was Tina and she was a very nice lady. Her father was Danish and her mother was from Atlanta, Georgia, which gave her a very nice European accent with a little southern twang (like the word "yes" being 3 syllables). She said we didn't look American because our clothes were wrinkled and our hair wasn't perfect.

Slovenia

McKay:


Llubljana

Pronounced loob-lee-AH-nah is the capital of Slovenia. We stopped here on our way from Rovinj to Lake Bled. Also worth a stay, we contented ourselves with taking a brief look at the notable architecture, buying a beehive cover as a souvenir (will hang on my wall later), filling our water bottles at the common fountains, and eating yet more gelato.

Lake Bled

You should always confirm your reservations in Lake Bled. We, thinking our email before we left the US was sufficient to confirm, arrived apparently 5 minutes too late to stay in what was to be one of our better rooms. Tired and disheartened and a little disgruntled (no, we do not have a mobile phone here in Europe!) we were grateful the proprietor found us accommodations, although they did not have the beautiful view of the lake that she had. Sigh.

We spent the evening walking around the lake and enjoying the cooler weather and a horse burger from the hockey game (tasty. We didn't know it was horse at the time).

Rob:
Lake Bled is the place where Slovenia brings people they want to impress. It is the most beautiful town/lake I have ever seen. It is like living in a Disney movie.

The water is perfect for swimming, there are no motor boats allowed on the lake, they have a family of swans protected by law, a castle on a hill, a beautiful church on an island in the middle of the Lake, and the back drop of the Alps. Wow! I half expected there to be singing mice in our room.

The next morning we were early to rise, surprised our host and had a wonderful walk around the lake all to ourselves. It was just what we needed to relax. Unlike Plitvice, you can fish Bled and we saw a guy land the biggest freshwater fish I have ever seen (not counting sturgeon). But we couldn't stay forever so we said good bye to our last European bed/shower and got on the bus.

Piran and Istria

McKay:

Piran

We were headed at my request to the small beach town of Piran. As read-about, it was touristy, but only with Slovenes, Italians, and Germans. We took at lovely dip in the Adriatic from the “beach” of concrete and rocks. Trade-off: no sand in your face or bathing suit! Piran was hot like Florida and we quickly found why swimming was the favored activity. Nice. For dinner, we made reservations at a recommended fish restaurant and enjoyed some more fruits of the sea and lovely Slovenian hospitality (which is like Italian, with maybe a little Russian thrown in).

I have been overwhelmed with the flora in Europe this time of year! There are gardens EVERYWHERE! Everyone grows something. And there are flowers EVERYWHERE!! Every house has window boxes absolutely overflowing with brightly colored annuals – and not in the structured kind of landscaping way, but in a way that seems like the flowers just couldn’t help but be copious and brilliant because they don’t know how not to. It’s inspiring. I’ve been making a list of things I want to grow one day. And because of the lovely garden where we stayed in Piran, I have added kiwi to the list. She had two gorgeous kiwi trees growing in an arc over the seating area giving shade, beauty, and fruit all at once. I was wowed. Other things on the list include: sunflowers, figs, apples, and colorful flowers in my vegetable garden. Gorgeous.

Rovinj

Piran was lovely and relaxing, but we had to move on as we were not on a beach vacation, but a “seeing and experiencing” one. We left the next day for Rovinj (roh-VEEN). In Rovinj, we stayed a little farther outside of town at another sobe that was more on the side of family hotel. It was near the campside on the coast of the Adriatic. Very nice camping in Rovinj! The beach was lovely! We bathed again in the salty Adriatic and basked in the sun on the rocks while people-watching all the non-English speaking tourists. We were certainly rare English speakers in most of the places we went. After a wardrobe change, we took the boat taxi into Rovinj old town to enjoy its few but pleasant sights and scope out the festival it was celebrating. We picnicked at the top of the town and people-watched while licking gelato in the square until the famous Bora wind brought in some, shall we say, CHILLY weather. Tired and ill-equipped in our wardrobe to enjoy the rest of the small festival, we took the boat taxi back an hour earlier than planned and became extremely glad we did so because the next one would have left us rain-drenched and freezing. We win at boat ferry.

Opatija

The Istrian peninsula is very nice, but more suitable to a beach vacation mentality. Our speed, so recently in places like Vienna, was slow to change pace, although thankful for the less taxing wear on our bodies. In retrospect, I would have liked to plan more food tasting here as it’s a region known for gastronomy. But, maybe next time.

On the way to return the rental car, we stopped in Opatjia, former playground of the Hapsburgs. Like the German language realization, if I’d comprehended there would be so much Austro-Hungarian empire on our tour, I would have brushed up. Opatjia was very nice. It was filled with a wealthier crowd and nicer cement beaches with umbrellas to rent and pools shaped into the concrete coastline. We had coffee at a cafĂ© and watched the waves crash and break Little Mermaid-style on the coast.

One fun interaction happened when I got change for the parking meter at a hotel and the concierge got so excited when he found out I was from Texas. It turns out he was a horse jockey and travelled much of the US… and remembers that Texas was where the local boys wanted to fight him for dancing with the prettiest local lady. Cute.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Split, Zagreb, and Plitvice

McKay:
Because we lacked a good internet conection in Croatia and then again in Florida, the remainder of our travels have not been updated yet. Here we go:

Split

For those of you who would like a little taste of Croatia – I found Dubrovnik and the Adriatic to be similar to Austin and Lake Travis – hilly terrain, rocky coastline, and clear water.
Every guidebook says that Dubrovnik is a “must-see” in Croatia. While it was beautiful and unique, I would venture to say that Spilt is putting up a great show for top town in Croatia. The old town is built into the Roman ruins of Diocletan’s Palace. Beautiful! It’s like walking through the Forum in Rome but people live and work there! I loved it! Plus, Split is still on the water and has one of the very best pedestrian promenades I’ve ever been on (and people-watching is one of my favorite activities). Plus, the “vibe” was simply great in Split – it said, “Hey, I’m cool. You’re cool. Let’s all sit around and be cool together.” So Split ranks as my favorite Croatian town so far. Score for Split.

Arriving in Split was easy, as the train station, bus station, and ferry terminal are within eyesight and a short walk of the Old Town. The sobe we booked online was actually in the wall (we’re pretty sure, the twisty streets make it hard to tell), but locked when we arrived! Oh no! After a little confusion and help from some kind neighbors, we found she left us a key and we dropped our bags and headed out. The weirdest stay experience we’ve had so far - we never actually saw our hostess (we’re hoping the papers we left covered our pre-paid reservation). The room was nice though, and just what we needed (a shower and an actual queen bed!).
We had dinner off the beaten path (at Rick’s suggestion) and enjoyed some Italian-style Dalmation food – spaghetti, meatballs, and bruschetta. The owner of the restaurant was a grandpa and reminded me of Mr. G in College Station – classic happy Italian grandfather visits your table with joviality and a candle for the romantic young people. Sweet.
Gelato for dessert was again wonderful and Rick directed us to another off-the-beaten-path place (they always turn out to be good) and I enjoyed a wonderful lemon scoop and a new-to-me flavor: iced tea. Very tasty!! We strolled the pedestrian promenade and enjoyed some stellar people-watching and romantic gazing at the orange waxing crescent moon. Split wins my vote.

Zagreb

From Split, we took the train to Zagreb which we still had to pay for (although not as much) even though we had the Eurail pass (NOT a good investment in Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia). It was a special train that leaned so it could go through the mountains a lot quicker. And it did. Lean. And go quicker. The regular trains take twice as long. Once in Zagreb, we stored our bags and toured the center a bit. Zagreb is the Capitol city of Croatia and another town I think is underrated. We found it to be a pleasant business center with pretty parks and real Croatians working and eating in cafes. Plus, WAY cheaper shopping! Tourist towns are so overpriced! Points for Zagreb. I certainly think it’s worth a stay (although we didn’t stay there). We went to the car rental place to pick up our car. Another Seat (cute, tiny European car). We were already familiar with its slightly larger model. Once out of Zagreb, we followed Rob’s pre-determined route (he spent a lot of time on google maps deciding where he wanted to go) and enjoyed Croatian scenery all the way to Plitvice (plit VEE chay) National Park. Plitvice Lakes is the Croatian equivalent of Yosemite mixed with Yellowstone dropped into the Grand Canyon.

For miles before arrival in Plitvice, one sees signs for “sobe” all along the road. These are prolific in Croatia and range from small family-run hotels to single rooms rented from a family home. We found our sobe stays to be great value – private bath and nice room accommodations, low price, and interaction with local people. These are the type of places you know you want to stay, but you still stay in hotels because it has a familiar word. If you’re in Croatia or Slovenia, stay in sobes; trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

We knew Plitvice would have lots of options for sobes, so we simply kept our eyes open for nice-looking homes with sobe signs as we neared the park. We reached the park and retraced to the nearest sobe we both liked, pulled into the driveway, spoke the word “sobe”, were shown the room and agreed on a price (THE cheapest price for a room on the whole trip and maybe second or third nicest!). It’s that easy. She also gave us recommendations for dinner and directions to the nearest market (to pick up snacks for a picnic tomorrow). See? Sobes are nice.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

The next morning, we knew we wanted to beat the crowds at the lakes to enjoy the peaceful scenery in peace. We got there at 6:45, ready for it to open at 7. Well… Croatian time is a little relaxed and the parking didn’t open until just past 7:30 and the ticket office didn’t open until just after 8. We PROBABLY could have just walked in, but I knew if we did, we’d be asked to show our non-existent tickets and then subsequently be kicked out of the National Park and asked never to return. Maybe. So we waited. And we still saw the beautiful lakes without the crowds that were everywhere by the time we left.
So, remember how I just couldn’t describe the beauty, scale, and scope of Iguazu Falls last spring? Well, Plitvice is like that. You can’t even come close to taking in all the beauty and colors. The large lakes are terraced as the limestone morphs and waterfalls connect the cascading terraces. It’s really striking.
We recommend starting your walk at the lower paths and working your way up so as to always be facing the beautiful waterfalls, even though it’s a little uphill (it’s not even close to climbing all the castle hills you would have climbed already). For the next 3 hours every corner brought a new surprise and an audible “ooooo” from Rob and I as we found each new view better than the last. Really. It takes a lot to get here, but GO here! It’s worth it!

Rob:

The water was clear enough to see 60ft down. There is no fishing or swimming allowed, but there are so many trout it is hard to imagine no one ever fishing. We also experienced a new color in nature; who knew water could be this color blue.
After a half day at Plitvice, we drove through some more Croatian countryside and saw first-hand some of the evidence of the scarily-recent war in the region (we just don’t see war evidence in our own lifetimes very often). We passed bullet holes in buildings and vacant and deteriorating Serbian homes.
This region was a front in the war (the first casualty of the war was a park policeman at Plitvice) and first the Croatians evacuated, then the Serbians as the land changed hands. Now the dynamited Serbian Orthodox church skeletons and homes still stand as a very present reminder of the conflict. Also, our rental car agreement specifically stated that it does not cover land mines, so no off-roading for us.
Most of Croatia is back to normal and it is hard to believe that not long ago such a bloody conflict had these people killing their neighbors.

Slovenia

Our route into Slovenia took us through a beautiful farm land, over the mountains, and our "highway" turned into a tiny dirt road which narrowly avoided 200ft chasms as it wound through the forest (just because Google maps takes you there does not mean that Slovenians think you should go). After several miles on the dirt we emerged back onto the pavement and make our way out to the scenic and famous, Predjamski Grad castle. You may have seen it in movies as a villain's hideout.
After seeing the castle (from the outside, the inside is drab) we got back on the highway to the coast and to Piran.