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Welcome to Croatia!

The road from Venice to the Istrian Peninsula winds through tiny Slovenia, and during a coffee break Livio pointed out where First Lady Melania comes from. Jama, aka Vanna, helpfully shows us.JuXs5eyqRfK9gkn7ntNHcQ

But enough about politics. Once through the border checkpoint (Slovenia is part of the EU, Croatia is not a full member yet — complicated), a short drive took us to the Kozlovic Winery for a grand tasting of Valle, Malvasia, Teran and Muskat on a terrace overlooking the vineyards and a castle ruin.

 

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Malvasia became my new favorite white wine, and the Teran was a delicious red.

A short walk took us to the restaurant Stari Podrum, snuggled amid olive trees, where we had amazing pasta with white truffles for lunch — the first of many truffle dishes we would have during our time in Istria. I can still smell its unmistakable earthiness, and the flavor lingers in my memory.

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Today’s history lesson came at Poreč, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its Euphrasius Basilica. The original parts of the building date from the 6th century, but additions and modifications were made up through the 18th. The mosaics are stunning, especially at the entrance.

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Inside there are well-preserved remnants of mosaics, and the apse in the church is a stunning masterpiece depicting the Annunciation and the Visitation.

 

 

 

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I always have a hard time getting my head around 1500 year-old pieces of art, regardless of the medium.

In the old town there are ancient Roman ruins and the remains of the city wall.

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By late afternoon we had reached Rovinj and the marvelous Hotel Lone, our base for the next three nights. We’ve immediately taken to Livio, who is from Istria himself and is eager to reveal his country to us. We arranged this walking trip through Classic Journeys, and learned a couple of months before we left that, despite there usually being 12-14 people on this itinerary, Jama and I would be the only travelers. So we essentially have a private guide and driver (the wonderful Ivana) for the next six days!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

We walked into old town Rovinj to enjoy dinner overlooking the busy harbor.fullsizeoutput_262f

After walking a total of 24 miles in the three days before we started our walking trip, today’s 5 miles seemed like a stroll.

 

 

Last Images of Venice

On Sunday we met up with Livio, our guide for our walking tour of the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia. But before we say goodbye to Venice, here are a few images from our walks through the city.

San Giorgio Maggiore on its own island… A gigantic pizza in a shop window

 

 

A mask shop…

And rush hour at the Bridge of Sighs…

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More Bridges…

Our second day in Venice began with a hearty breakfast outdoors in a little campo near our apartment, then back we went to San Marco. A little tip for anyone wanting to tour the Doges Palace: your ticket also admits you to the Correr Museum on the other side of the piazza, so if you buy your ticket there you can skip the long line at the Doges.

The Correr was having an interesting exhibition on the evolution of printing from the 16th century onward, and it was fascinating to see just how much information was circulating in the known world at that time. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOther permanent exhibits include 15th and 16th century armaments, as well as the usual paintings and sculpture.

As planned, we bypassed the long line and began our self-guided tour of the Doges Palace, with the very helpful Rick Steves’ Pocket Venice. The palace, adjacent and connected to the basilica, served as the residence of each doge and the center of Venetian government. A doge was a noble elected by other nobles to serve as the highest office-holder of the Republic of Venice, and the basilica was actually designated the doge’s chapel. As you enter the courtyard, you see the long ceremonial staircase, flanked at the top by statues of Mars and Jupiter (Photo below is Mars from the rear; I don’t seem to have one from the front, hmmm.) Visitors would have to climb the steps to greet the doge.


The Mouth of Truth served as a sort of mailbox for busybodies wanting to report on their neighbors. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInside, the magnificent 24-karat Golden Staircase led to the doge’s apartments and government function rooms, all adorned with paintings by nearly every Renaissance artist you could name: Tiepolo, Veronese, and  most notably Tintoretto, whose Il Paradiso is the largest oil painting in the world. The sheer volume of art is staggering. The last doge abdicated in 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice.

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After wandering through the grandiose halls of state, we were sobered by a walk through the stark prison section of the palace, with bare stone dungeons for torturing political prisoners. On their way to be executed, prisoners crossed the small canal via the Bridge of Sighs, so named because supposedly one could hear the sad sighs of the doomed as they caught their last glimpse of the beautiful city.

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This afternoon we hopped on a ferry to the islands of Murano, Torcello and Burano. Murano, of course, is where the famed glass is made, and we watched a demonstration before being ushered into the large store with its vast array of decorative as well as functional glassware (all tours end at the gift shop). There’s really nothing else to see or do here.

On to quiet and less touristy Torcello, where the main attractions are mosaics in the church and simply walking around this quiet island of twenty inhabitants.

Approaching Burano, you notice the brightly colored houses, painted so the fishermen who lived here could quickly identify their own homes as they sailed home. The main street boasts many shops, most of them selling lace (some authentic, some made elsewhere, so buyer beware). At the best-known shop, we watched the lady purported to be the last hand lacemaker in the town. The craft, once handed down through the generations, is becoming a lost art, and competition with machine-made pieces dictates prices that don’t reflect the many hours of painstaking work required to fashion even small pieces (for example, ten hours to make a coaster that sells for €8).

The town’s leaning tower can be seen from the water even before the colorful houses and shops come into view.

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Dusk was coming on as we returned to Venice and found our way back to Cannaregio…

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Our Adventure Begins in Venice

My dear friend from college — we’re practically sisters, having known each other for nearly fifty years — is a great traveling companion, content to let me do the planning and taking delight in whatever adventures we might have. So it was that she agreed to accompany me on a walking trip to Croatia, a place neither of us had ever been. Since the trip started in Venice, we decided to spend a few days there before meeting up with our walking guide.

It took a long time to get there, so we arrived on a Thursday, just in time to settle in to our Airbnb flat in Cannaregio, take a refreshing shower, and find dinner nearby. Our perfect table on the Grand Canal on a soft September evening was the perfect introduction to Venice for Jama. And who can argue with a lovely Brunello? We can recommend Trattoria Povelado.

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Early the next morning we woke to the sound of rain, which persisted most of the day, though it didn’t stop us from setting off early to the Rialto Market before the crowds overwhelmed it. As my faithful readers can attest, I’m a sucker for wandering through markets. The fish market is huge, with glistening piles of branzino, swordfish, prawns, eel, octopus… anything you might wish to cook, and so fresh.

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Breakfasting under an umbrella, we lingered over lattes and cappuccinos while a drenching shower passed, watching the traffic on the canal.

Crossing Rialto Bridge we headed toward Ca’ d’Oro. This 15th century palace is most impressive from the canal side; though the gold leaf that gave it its name is long gone, the Venetian Gothic façade is still a remarkable work of art. The last owner of the palace bequeathed it to the state in the early 1900s and it is now an art museum. Highlights are the collection of tapestries, mosaic floors and Titian’s Venus.

As the skies cleared we wound our way toward Piazza San Marco. Taking wrong turns is part of the fun, and we stumbled on a terrific place for lunch that had an award-winning wine list (Ristoranti Antico Piccolo). Along the way we were rewarded with peeks of small canals lined by ancient palazzos with their feet in the water.

Piazza San Marco opens dazzlingly from the warren of small calle, its famous pigeons holding court among tourists and Venezianos alike. Basilica San Marco majestically anchors one side, with the Campanile thrusting over 300 feet into the air, commanding the best views of the expansive piazza and the laguna beyond.

The Basilica, originally built in the 9th century, was burned down in a riot a hundred years later; the current structure dates from the 11th century. It is a mad agglomeration of Byzantine and Venetian Gothic architecture, looking as if its designers tried to cram everything they could onto every façade, eave and tower.  A couple of days later we were told by our Venetian guide, Enrico, that the structure took only 31 years to build, but the tiny gold-leaf and colored mosaics on the façade and interior took over 400 years to complete. The golden winged lion, symbol of St. Mark (whose bones are reputed to be buried within the church), are everywhere.

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Taking the elevator to the top of the Campanile was totally worth the short wait in line, as the 360° views over the city and across the laguna are truly spectacular.

One of the really touristy things to do in Venice is to have a Bellini at Harry’s Bar, so we did. €21! With a vaporetto ride back to our apartment, so ended our first full day in Venice. Scouting a place to eat near our apartment, we found another excellent restaurant just down the street (Vini da Pinto). Three lucky finds so far!

Above the Sand Sea

Climbing Big Daddy, Big Mama or Dune 45 is the ultimate Namib experience for some tourists. Realizing how challenging it was just to navigate modest hills in the soft sand, I was grateful for an alternative way to experience the remarkable Namib Sand Sea, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of nearly 12,000 square miles.

Golden hour on our last full day found Cheri, Mary and me strapped into a helicopter for a doors-off flight. Headed into the strong afternoon wind, the copter seemed barely to move as we advanced — no worries about camera shake! At altitude it became apparent why this is called the Sand Sea, as the dune formations looked like waves on a choppy orange ocean. The long early evening shadows added drama to the landscape, and for the first time in nearly two weeks we actually saw clouds on the horizon beyond the mountains. I’ll let the photos tell the story… one I would never have been able to tell from the top of a dune.

 

Water trails snaked toward the mountains in the distance, the all but full moon hung in the sky like a giant pearl, and the last of the sun’s rays cloaked the rugged hills in a violet aura. A perfect way to end the day, and the trip.

On Oryxes and Weaver Birds

“What’s an oryx?” is perhaps the second most common question I have gotten about my recent trip, the first being, “Where’s Namibia?” So here’s a bit about the oryx.

The species we saw in Namibia are common in the arid desert areas of southwest Africa and are a type of antelope, also sometimes called a gemsbok. These herbivores are about the size of a cow and are distinguished by slender pointed horns that are 2-3 feet long. Their markings also make them easy to identify: the grey variety have black and white markings on their faces.

They can go for as long as two weeks without water, and can smell rainfall up to 50 miles away. They’re popular as a game meat.

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But you don’t have to go all the way to Africa to see an oryx. The Arabian oryx was nearly extinct in the wild until a captive breeding program was introduced; you can see these animals in New Mexico and Texas on wild game ranches.

It’s a wonder their horns don’t get hung up in tree branches…

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In a previous post I mentioned the sociable weaver bird’s fascinating nest. These sweet little birds, endemic to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, construct permanent nests that are like condominiums.  At night the birds go deeper into the nest, and find cooler shade in the outer layers during the day. Special breeding chambers are located deep in the nest against predators (snakes, baboons).

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The nests can weigh as much as 500 pounds and house 4-500 birds. During the rainy season a drenched nest can grow to several thousand pounds and take down its host tree. While one would think the nest would smother the tree, it apparently does it no harm. The birds also like to build their compounds on power poles, though they can take out the power grid and catch fire in the dry season.

Into the Namib

As we moved north, the barren landscape gave way to one that, while not exactly lush, was measurably greener. The dead clumps of grass that had been tripping us up every time we walked in the desert were now green, swaying gracefully in the afternoon wind, and there was a carpet of yellow flowers called Little Devils adding color to the scene. Shortly we began to see the distinctive orange sands of the Namib, the oldest desert on the planet.

This desert ranges 1200 miles, from Angola in the north to South Africa, and comprises the entire coastline of Namibia. Its age is estimated to be between 50 and 80 million years old, and some of its dunes are over 1000 feet high, making them second only to a desert I never heard of in China.

After settling into Sossus Dunes Lodge, the only hotel located inside the Namib-Naukluft national park, we drove a couple of kilometers to Sesriem Canyon, according to Dayne smaller only than our Grand Canyon (I haven’t been able to verify this). From the top it doesn’t look very impressive, but those of us with the fortitude to descend the rock-strewn path and treacherous steps found ourselves in a fascinating geological formation created by flooding waters over millennia. Since Namibia has been in a seven-year drought that shows no signs of abating, it’s hard to imagine there being that much water here. It was a bit reminiscent of Petra, though Petra’s rock walls are much smoother.

The patterns on this dead tree were striking in the late-afternoon sun.

Sossus Dunes Lodge was a comfortable spot, each “hut” having a wall of windows looking westward across the desert to the dunes.

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Being inside the park meant that we could get to Deadvlei before the gate opened at 7 a.m., allowing us to set up before the sun rose over the enormous dunes (avoiding all the other tourists waiting in line). Dayne took us on Toad’s Wild Ride on a washboard road to be there before anyone else.

Deadvlei — literally dead pan — was once a lake or marsh snuggled among the dunes. Today the earth is so hard and cracked it resembles flagstones, and the camel thorn tree skeletons stand where they died 6-700 years ago, their trunks burnt black by the scorching sun.

As the sun rose over the dunes, it created a dreamy atmosphere in the vlei.

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The hike was about 1.5 km — just under a mile — each way, and it was fairly challenging, especially coming out, when the sun was fully up and blazing. Mostly uphill going in, through the soft sand, it was two steps forward, slide back a step. I knew I didn’t have it in me to climb Big Daddy, or even Big Mama, both over 1000 feet high, though one of our friends did, and he said it was extremely challenging. I was content to gaze on the gorgeous red dunes from below. (The bottom photo is not Big Daddy.)

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The larger area surrounding Deadvlei and encompassing the big dunes is Sossusvlei, and a leisurely drive-through rewarded us with dramatic landscapes and the occasional elusive springbok.

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One more day in the dunes, then we wind down. Stay tuned…