Italy (& Croatia) 4: Zagreb (Part 1)

I Could Live Here. Yes I Could.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Beautiful Zagreb

I fell in love with Zagreb the minute we drove into the city. There are old sections and newer ones, an upper town and a lower one, and taken together it is a city with a vibrant and truly distinctive character that I could begin to appreciate even during a two-day visit.

Zagreb is the first city I’ve visited that has embodied my vision of what a “European city” ought to look like. The women are beautiful, the men are beautiful, the atmosphere is upbeat and classy. Everywhere there are cafes in the streets – all of them filled with people who are mostly talking animatedly to one another rather than looking at their cell phones. (Who works? Aside from the waiters, I don’t know. Everyone seemed to be outside enjoying the late spring sun on the Friday as well as the Saturday of our visit.)

And the perfect backdrop to all of this activity is the centre of the city itself – its lush vegetation and spectacular and beautifully maintained old buildings: from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque to art deco and beyond. (I am not normally so knowledgeable about building styles: Ksenija, our generous and enthusiastic host, grew up in Zagreb and studied architecture at the university there before moving to Toronto during one of Croatia’s many periods of political and economic unrest. She worked for the City of Toronto for many years, and continues to live in Toronto half the year, and in Zagreb for the balance. We met her through a mutual friend — thanks, Miro! — and she and I hit it off immediately. She is the person who insisted we visit Zagreb as her guests, or we might never have gone to Croatia, and while we were there she was not only a generous and most gracious host, but also a source of unending knowledge and amazing first-person stories from post-second-world war right up to the present day. )

For the benefit of those who are still a bit confused about the location of Croatia, I am including a more extensive map than the one I included in the last post. You can read the turbulent history of the country, part of the former Yugoslavia, in this Wiki, which also explains that today, Croatia is a sovereign state, “a republic with a parliamentary system, a developed country with a very high standard of living.” Two of its cities, Dubrovnik and Šibenik, both on the Adriatic Sea, have been filming locations for Game of Thrones (which I have not yet seen). The currency is the kuna, but since Croatia is a member of the European Union it seems likely that the euro will be adopted before too long.

Ksenija lives near the magnificent Zagreb Cathedral — the tallest building in the entire country, which makes it easy to orient yourself when you’re lost. You can see its spires in the photo of Zagreb’s rooftops at the top of this post. Originally completed in 1217, the Cathedral was rebuilt in the neo-Gothic style after it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1880. Some of the fortifications dating from the Renaissance remain. I can’t believe that I neglected to take a photo of such an important landmark from the front, but here are two open-domain photos showing the Cathedral pre-earthquake and after reconstruction.

The first full day we were in Zagreb, after a breakfast of strawberries straight from the market that must have been picked that morning and were the sweetest I have ever tasted, Ksenija took us on a tour of the “upper town,” and related the history of Zagreb dating from the days of the Romans. We walked the streets of this lovely part of Zagreb in the sunshine, past the Croatian Parliament Palace, St. Mark’s Church, and one of the city’s two statues (that I know of) of St. George slaying the dragon, this one near the “Stone Gate” (the only surviving medieval tower and gate to the Upper Town  built in 1266!), and admired many other of the city’s must-see edifices.

We took a break for coffee, after which Ksenija had to leave us to attend a class reunion. After checking out the very interesting Croatian Museum of Naive Art (Hrvatski muzej naivne umjetnosti) but bypassing the possibly equally interesting Museum of Broken Relationships (next time. Sigh), Arnie and I headed for the funicular. This public-transport option turned out to be closed, so instead we walked down to the lower town, where we had lunch and then meandered back to Ksenija’s apartment via a lovely series of downtown parks and various iterations of the hustle, bustle and unfurling of the last day of the work week.

After a rest, Ksenija, Arnie and I stepped out into the closing minutes of a downpour to attend a sabbath service at Zagreb’s Jewish community building. The service was preceded by a personal tour of Croatia’s newest Jewish museum, curated with careful attention to detail and obvious love by Ksenija’s friend Myra Wolf — who was herself our guide. (A graduate of the Sorbonne, Myra spoke only a bit of English and of course we speak no Croatian, but we managed fine, thanks to Ksenija’s able translation combined with the knowledge we shared with Myra of rudimentary French.)

The museum is called “The European Day of Jewish Culture,” and it displays “ritual objects, textiles, documents and other material related to the 210-year history of the Jewish community in Zagreb.” Zagreb’s synagogue -– built in 1867 – was blown up in 1941 by the fascists who were then in charge of the city, and prayer services now take place on the second floor of the community building. The Friday service was followed by the sharing of a meal and a lively conversation (some in Croatian, some in English) concerning such matters as why some vegetables are kosher and others are not, and who decides the status of converts to Judaism in Israel.

(Later on our trip, we visited synagogues and Jewish museums in Florence and Venice, and I intend to share with you what I gained from those experiences in a separate blog post later in this series.)

We walked back through the wet, post-storm streets of night-time Zagreb still deep in conversation, which is exactly the way one ought to finish off such a perfect day.

Italy (& Croatia) 3: Poreč to Zagreb

We Reach the Capital of Croatia

Thursday, May 9, 2019

We had a truly outstanding lunch, including salads and an unforgettable chocolate mousse with deep, rich espresso, at Ristorante Casa Tua on the waterfront in Opatija, 80 km from Poreč.

The rain continued to fall while we ate, but as we left the restaurant, the sun broke out briefly, making the streets turn gold, and afterwards, high above the town at a gas station, we were treated to a most magnificent view of the Adriatic Sea. Then we headed inland toward Zagreb.

Our drive was mainly through downpours and clouds that impended our views of… – well of what, I cannot tell you. But once in a while the veils lifted, and we were treated to spectacular scenes of the Adriatic Sea, low tree-covered mountains, and villages showing off their mediaeval buildings.

While we drove through the rain, I read an article aloud to Arnie about the Istrian Peninsula that I had found in Air Canada’s En Route Magazine. It was fun to be driving through the peninsula and reading about three of its most valuable and distinctive exports: olive oil, wine and truffles. These days, Croatia is busy pointing out to the world how its particular climate contributes to the unique taste of all three products. and that purchasing Croatian is not the same as purchasing Italian.

Ksenija, our host in Zagreb, later told us that Croatians are not used to marketing themselves – historically they are a country of mainly farmers – but with fabulous holiday areas, clear clear water, and wonderful indigenous cuisine, they are sure to be successful in their self-promotion efforts. Of course, lots of people already know about the wonders of Croatia, but it is well worth consideration by those who haven’t thought of it before. And we didn’t even see several of the best parts – including Split, on the the Dalmatian Coast, and the country’s national parks. Next time. (Sigh.)

Our friend Ksenija welcomed us to Croatia with a warm hug and a drink, and we were happy to be finished with trying to find our way around the streets with the dubitable assistance of Google Maps. (A friend has recommended we try another maps program which works well off line and when I have an hour to sit down and figure out how to use it, I will!)

We went out for a short stroll around the neighbourhood, which is in the picturesque old part of Zagreb, and then enjoyed a dinner of sea bass, fresh out of the water that morning, with watercress and potatoes. Falling asleep after all of that was easy.

Italy (& Croatia) 2: From Trieste into Croatia

Wrangling with GPS in a New Country: A Cautionary Tale

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Waterfront at Poreč

On Wednesday we rented a car and drove from Venice to Poreč in Croatia, a distance of 250k.

We went through Trieste, where we had a tasty pizza in the city’s piazza, which is on the waterfront, and considered the fact that James Joyce and Nora Barnacle had lived in this city from 1905 to 1915. Since I had not known this until we were approaching Trieste, when I finally got around to checking out the city in my Lonely Planet Guide, we didn’t have time to do much more than consider our newly acquired knowledge, but if I ever come back to Trieste I will drop in on Joyce’s “scenic home on the grand canal” and also maybe visit Castello di Miramare, home of “the hapless Archduke Maximilian of Austria” (“hapless,” because he got himself shot by a firing squad in Mexico in 1867. Go figure).

Adventures with Technology

We had several maps to ensure that we would get from Trieste to Poreč without becoming “hapless” ourselves, by which I mean “lost” – e.g., by going astray in Slovenia (where Melania Trump is from), a country we needed to pass through briefly on the way to Croatia. Our reference materials included a printed map from the CAA that we noticed too late had the word “Croatia” printed in large caps right over the names and numbers of the highways we would need to take, obscuring them from view, and a GPS in our rental car that showed nothing but a blank screen beyond Italy and turned out to have a mind of her own.

The Italian-speaking Voice of the GPS happily accepted our request for directions to Poreč but she was devious: As soon as we got out of Trieste, she started giving us wrong directions until we ended up back in the city, in a rather sketchy part of town, where she announced that we had “arrived at our destination, on the right.”

We revised our destination parameters in an effort to trick the GPS into letting us get out of Italy, and set off onto the four-lane divided highway once more – only to have the Italian Voice try to turn us around again ten minutes later. But we were smarter now, and we ignored her advice. Unfortunately, our cleverness meant that now we had no idea where we were or where to go next. (These detours did confirm that we know the Italian words for “left” and “right,” sinistra and destra respectively, which will be handy when we get back to Italy on Sunday and attempt a reconciliation with our GPS.)

We’d bought a data-roaming plan before we left Toronto, but I had inadvertently used up way too much of the data in the previous few days so I was afraid to access the Google map of the region online. So we tried the offline map which we had downloaded ahead of time on the excellent advice of my elder son. However, we discovered that the flexibility of offline maps is limited — they find it hard to readjust if you accidentally go off course, and this one didn’t include all of the highway markers that we needed. It also didn’t, of course, speak Italian, Slovenian, or Croatian, the way the signage did as we proceeded out of, through and into the countries where those languages are spoken, one after the other. At last we gave up, turned on Google Maps’s GPS roaming, and got to our destination that way. I expect to have my roaming ability cut off by Bell at any moment now.

Pouring in Poreč

Poreč is a resort town on the Istrian Peninsula and our hotel – the Palazzo! – was vast and spacious, and reminded me of stories I have read of visitors staying at European hotels in the off-season, when the hotels are quiet and nearly empty, but elegant with staff in their white shirts and bow ties standing at the ready to fulfil visitors’ every need (fluent in German, Italian, Croatian and English and possibly other languages as well). After checking in, we wandered the stone-slab streets and ended the day with a chicken scallopini several blocks from our hotel.

Breakfast at the Palazzo the following morning was as elegant as the staff: fresh fruit, croissants, home-made sausages, eggs to order on demand, olives, cutlets, fresh bread, and several kinds of juices, and coffees or hot chocolate. They’d even carved the image of the hotel into a watermelon to decorate the buffet.

It started sprinkling soon after we arrived in Poreč (pronounced “Por-etch”) and by morning it was pouring, but we loved it anyway.

When the Lights Go Out, It’s Time to Leave

We have been impressed by the hotels where we have stayed so far in Europe for their power-saving techniques. The lights won’t go on unless you insert your room key/card into a slot that activates the power, which means that as soon as you leave the room with your key, the lights go out. We were not thrilled with the system the first time we encountered it, especially since we’d been planning to charge a phone and a laptop while we were downstairs for breakfast, but once we realized the reason, we adapted quickly.

In Poreč the hotel extended this method to let us know when check-out time had arrived: at exactly 11 a.m., all the lights in our room went out. Fortunately, we weren’t still in the shower when that happened.

Speaking of Languages

I have no idea whether the Croatians speak Croatian as well as the Italians speak Italian (just a joke, folks), but almost all of them speak English, which is a big help. And unlike Google Maps, Google Translate works very well off-line as well as on-. Which is nice.

In fact, Google Translate is amazing. You can speak into it and it will translate what you said into any language you want. You can type into it, you can scrawl something onto the screen and you can also take a photo of the words you don’t understand and poof! There it is in English! It’s great!

Italy 1: Venice

Footweary, But in a Good Way

May 6 to 8, 2019

Canaletto's Doge's Palace
Canaletto’s Veduto del Palazzo Ducale

The best thing about Venice is that it bears a striking resemblance to the way I have always imagined it. Of course, like most people, I have had a lot of help in forming my mental image of this city – from literary and dramatic sources (e.g., Mann’s Death in Venice, various iterations of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice), through paintings by Monet, Manet, Kinkade and especially Giovanni Antonio Canal (aka Canaletto. With a name like that, what other city was he going to paint?), to movies that include The Italian Job, The Tourist, and Moonraker. It’s even been featured in cartoons (See “O Sole Minnie.“) Venice looks exactly the way it is supposed to, which was a huge relief to me: I feared I might be disappointed. I definitely am not.

But since I’m sure that those of you who haven’t been to Venice yet have exactly the same images in your heads as I did/do, I decided that in this post I would share things I didn’t know about Venice until I got here, rather than things I did. So here goes.

Biennalle Arte 2019

Every two years (or so) the entire city celebrates the Biennale Arte de Venezia, featuring art and artists from around the world. In 2019, the 58th edition will open on May 11, and run to November 24. So we missed the opening, but that was okay because the areas of Venice where the shows are held (primarily in Arsenale and Giardini, which are east of the main tourist area) will be crowded once the opening has happened, and we got to walk around those areas while they were almost deserted. We saw workers installing an art display and heard people rehearsing for performances, but mainly the area was so quiet it was almost ghostly. Today, the Biennale includes dance, architecture, performance art, cinema, and educational initiatives as well as the visual art exhibitions that have formed the core since its inauguration in 1893. This year’s theme is “May You Live in Interesting Times.” We do.

Speaking of workers, it hadn’t occurred to me that absolutely everything has to be delivered by boat to every store, restaurant and hotel in the city until I read this article in The National Post. One afternoon after we’d worn our feet out, we sat down for a rest near the gondola stations and a vaporetto stop on the waterfront. There we watched the world float by, and in addition to the various water-based human transportation systems (including massive private yachts), we saw all kinds of other boats dropping off supplies – massive crates and cartons — delivering them to the closest wharf to their destinations, and then carrying them the rest of the way. Those guys work their asses off.

So do the gondola drivers. What I enjoyed most was watching them move so lightly on their feet as they use their long oars to manoeuvre around each other and all the other water traffic (of which there is a truly significant amount!). I didn’t see a single boat bump into any other boat, which is astounding when you consider how many of them are out there – going, it seems, in all directions.

Tourism has actually become a huge problem for Venice: the city is sinking and the waters are rising, and instead of only the wealthy being able to visit this massive historical site, almost every Tom, Dick and Mary is able to afford the trip. The cruise ships are a huge problem – not only because of the pollution, but because of the crowds (we saw several of the huge floating hotels while we were there) and there is a movement afoot to have them banned from the region. The BBC reports that more than 26 million people visited Venice in 2017, and that nearly half of the actual population has left in the past 50 years.

We stayed on the island of Lido, rather than on the main islands in the Venice Lagoon, so we spent a lot of time on the vaporettos and on buses, and we felt as though we were on Toronto Island rather than in the big city. It was lovely to get away from all of those people at the end of the day. On Lido, there are roads as well as a few canals. There are thousands of bicycles parked near the boat docks, and people ride them, and walk and use the bus. I was astounded to find that the buses have USB charging outlets on them!

By the way, after studying the language on Duolingo for several months, I am happy to report that Italians speak spectacular Italian. But most of the people we met in Venice were also almost fluent in English, for which I give them huge credit because I can also report that I am certainly not anywhere close to fluent in their language. I hope to improve at least a bit before we leave. It is a beautiful language.

We’re Going to Italy!

Andiamo Italia!

To those who have previously accompanied me on my adventures in India and Cuba, welcome back, and a very warm “Benvenuto!” to those who are visiting my travel blog for the first time.

From May 5 to 27 of this year (!), Arnie and I are going to Italy, with a few days in Croatia. I am beside myself with excitement because – unlike almost everyone I know, including my own children – I have never been to Europe. A few days ago, I finished booking hotels for the trip, and I am beginning to believe this is really going to happen.

Aside from reserving rooms and a few tickets to museums that we might not have been able to get into if we’d left it to chance, I have been doing the usual things in order to prepare myself for our journey: reading a few books, including The Lonely Planet Guide to Italy, and learning to speak some Italian with the help of Duolingo (Como sta?).

Arnie and I also recently watched a fun movie called The Trip to Italy, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Despite the pair’s tour around the Italy of Byron and Shelley, two poets I’ve loved since university, the film primarily made me hungry. The hotels they stayed in (such as the Villa Cimbrone, “a medieval palazzo perched above the gulf of Salerno” @ $700/night €460) bear no resemblance to the ones I’ve booked.

Our departure date is about six weeks away at this point. I invite you to join me in the anticipation. In the next few weeks I’ll be posting about our preparations, and welcoming your ideas of what not to miss while we are there.

One Senior Running (3)

Da Doo Run Run, or What’s in Your Headphones?

running-music

Sometimes I listen to podcasts when I run, but I find it hard to concentrate on a single subject when I’m out there. My mind likes to drift and become distracted, and I like to let it do that. Sometimes the drift leads me to solutions to problems in my writing or my real life, and sometimes the distraction draws me to ideas I’d never otherwise have had. Sometimes nothing much happens: my mind just drifts. Time passes. The run starts… the run continues… the run ends.

I find music to be a better accompaniment to running than a podcast[1]. It gives me something to focus on without requiring that I sustain that focus. I often listen to the words to songs for a stanza or so, for example, and then realize a couple of other songs have gone by and I haven’t paid any attention to the words for several minutes. Or sometimes I’ll try to get my feet to hit the pavement[2] coincidentally with the beat of the music, but I quickly get distracted from that as well. I find that the availability of such diversions is particularly useful when I first set out, before I hit my pace (when the going can be tough) and at the end, when I’m tired but still have several blocks to run (when the going can be tough).

Music also reinforces the runner’s high that I hope for every time I head out there (but don’t always find. More on that in another post). But when I am fortunate enough to start feeling like I’m floating above the ground, like I am strong, free and half my age, the pounding of “Go West” (Village People) or “Beat It” (Michael Jackson) or “Grace Kelly” (Mika) in my headphones is the icing on the cake. It makes a great run perfect.

Running music needs to be chosen in advance, of course. You don’t want to suddenly find your library has shuffled  you into Renee Fleming’s “Ave Maria” or Kris Kristofferson singing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” when you are trying to improve your speed.

When I first started running, back in the 1990s, my listening device was a tape inserted into a Sony Walkman, and the tapes used to take me hours to create: I’d put a record on the record player, press the “record” button on the system’s tape recorder, press “pause” on the recorder when the song was over, find the next song I wanted on another record, and so on. In those days, my lists included “Let’s Get Physical,” “Bette Davis Eyes,” Rita MacNeil, MC Hammer, ELO: a wide range. The Walkman wasn’t too steady so the music sounded like it was rolling around in an empty drum half the time, but it worked for me.

As the years progressed, I moved from the Walkman through the Discman to the iPod to the iPhone, which is where I am now. The music I listen to has moved through the decades, too – today, the latest Beyoncé and Adele are as likely to be out there with me as Gwen Stefani or the Black-Eyed Peas. I also listen to songs that I loved in my teens and twenties, and a few that were released even before that. But what has changed the most is the ease of creating a running list. Now I can just drag and drop.

In fact, I don’t even have to do that. Instead I can download a workout list that someone else has created on Spotify, or buy an album like Running Hits (image above. Not a bad anthology) from iTunes. If I were so inclined, I believe I could even figure out how to get my iPhone to play songs from my library that echo the beat I want to run to. Or keep time with the beat of my heart. The possibilities are limitless.

I wonder what the Crystals would have thought if they had known that “Da Doo Run Run” might one day find itself on in the wireless headphones of people who were running, and accessing the song on a phone they were wearing on their wrists.

Probably thanks to recent movies, I went through an ABBA/Queen phase when I started running again in August, but I’m ready to move on. In fact, am considering creating my own running list on Spotify specifically for baby boomers who still want to run.

What songs would you put on it?

[1] Many people think that runners should forego the music and just enjoy the sounds of nature. Not me. I get enough silence when I’m working, so being able to listen to music is a welcome part of the break. In addition I tend to run in busy areas where it’s safer, rather than in the river valley. Not too many sounds of nature out there on Sheppard Ave.

[2] People tell me that I shouldn’t run on sidewalks because they are harder on my joints than roads, roads usually being made of tarmac rather than concrete. See Note 1. Plus, if I ran on the road, I couldn’t listen to music. Because of all the cars and cyclists. 😉

 

One Senior Running (2)

Starting Out with a Zero to 5K Running App

Couch to 5K RunnerWhen I began to run the first time, at about the age of 40, I took a “Learn to Run” course at the Running Room in Edmonton.  It was a great way to start, and I highly recommend taking a course like that if you haven’t run before and one is available nearby.

There are many good reasons for taking a course. One is the information you receive during the pre-run talks on such topics as nutrition, hydration, pacing, buying shoes, etc. Another (very important) benefit of running courses is the camaraderie. Running with other people is highly motivating. In addition, running-course instructors know how to manage groups so that newbies minimize their chances of getting injured, and how to raise the spirits of those at the back of the pack.

Group runs in learn-to-run courses typically start off with “one-minute run, one-minute walk, repeat 10 times,” and then gradually build up over 8 to 10 weeks until the group is doing one-minute walk, ten-minute run, repeat three times” (or something to that effect). You’re expected to do a couple of runs between each weekly class.

In the years following that first running course, I signed up for several other courses – each of which had a target race at the end of it. I took the 5k course, the 10k course and the half-marathon course. When I moved to Saskatoon, after a long layoff from running, I signed up for the 5k course at the Running Room there, and met a whole new group of runners. Most of the courses have the same classroom content, of course, so after the first one or two, the main value is the motivation of being in a group to get out there and run: to run longer and longer distances, to run faster, to run hills, etc. And every instructor puts their own spin on it, so you are always acquiring new tips.

When I moved to Toronto at the age of 60, I signed up for another 5k course but by this time enough years had passed since I’d done any serious running, and enough arthritis had set in, that I felt I was slowing down the group. Please note that the group did not make me feel this way, and neither did the instructor: it was all in my own head. But I quit after a few weeks, discouraged.

 I didn’t want to get discouraged by a group of younger runners and quit again. Most of all, I didn’t want to be embarrassed.

On reflection, I suppose I should have started again with the learn-to-run course rather than the 5k class. But I was also getting tired of spending money to get the same “chalk talk” I’d heard several times before. Another option would have been to simply join the drop-in run clubs that go out from most running stores each week (check local listings for run times) — no charge for those — but I was feeling heavy and slow and old, and I didn’t know anyone who I could run with (i.e., not anyone as slow as I was).

When I decided to start running again this past August, I was living too far away from a run club to make that option viable, and I was also quite certain that I was not going to be able to keep up with anyone else at all. There are many people who walk faster than I could run. I didn’t want to get discouraged by a group of younger runners and quit again. Most of all, I didn’t want to be embarrassed.

So I decided that this time I would use a “Couch-to-5k” app for guidance and motivation instead of an instructor-led group. There are several apps that offer different options depending on what you want from them as you build your endurance, most importantly at this stage being verbal reminders of when it is time to stop running and take a walk break. Most also offer motivational bits of chit-chat (“Good for you for getting out for a run today!” Fortunately you can usually turn this feature off if you don’t want it).

Running apps are also useful for keeping track of where you ran, how far you went, how long it took you, etc., but keep in mind with your first app that it is going to help you achieve a definite goal: running 5k, for example, or running for 30 minutes without a walk break. After this stage, you will want another app as you continue to run further and faster. So the long-term dashboard options are less important in the first app than they will be in the one to which you will graduate after the first ten weeks or so.

My First Running App

I started with the Couch to 5k Runner. It starts out with 25 to 30 minutes of exercise in total, starting and ending with a 5-minute warmup/cool-down walk. As you work through the eight-week program, you go from from 1.5-minute walks alternating with 1.5-minute runs until you reach 30 minutes of straight running, and then you increase your running time until you are (ideally) at 5k.

I wasn’t that fast. But it didn’t matter. I went as far as I could in the allotted time, and stuck with the program, which was the most important part. By the time I’d finished with this app, I was able to run 30 minutes without a break. I started with a two to three minute warm-up walk and a similar time for a cool-down walk.

It’s important to note that the couch to 5k app never presented me with more of a challenge than I could manage. The only hard part was getting out the door.