Category Archives: Europe

Woman walks on the Stradun, main street, Dubrovnik.

Pearls of the Adriatic

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A little back-story. Road trips. This goes back to my kids being 7 and 11 and visiting every national park west of the Mississippi. There is a romance, an abandon being on a road trip. Calories don’t count and it is fine to feather your floating nest with carbohydrates.  When my newly married daughter suggested we all go on a road trip for two weeks in the middle of their 10-month honeymoon, I was all over that one. But where to go? Where was it we had all never been that would be enough of an adventure for me, a vacation for my wife and a journey for the four of us? 

Croatia? Why not? The name rolls off the tongue as exotic, like Constantinople. Part of the former Yugoslavia (Southern Slavs), it is a perfect mix of familiar and not quite. Think of a perfect vacation in Italy–then cross the Adriatic and meet a similar period and half the cost. Croatia is a bit of a necklace, start at the nape and work your way down. The jewels get more impressive as you work your way south. The journey begins in Zagreb, a city of one million small, affordable, slightly exotic and a portion of Croatia that has not quite caught up with the world. Here the Kunar goes a long way as the EU and the Euro is still in the future. The square is punctuated with a bronze rider on horseback, sword outstretched in the gray drizzle of Southern central Europe Spring. On the periphery of the square is a daily farmers’ market with two floors offering a cornucopia of produce, cheeses, breads, pastas and hams of every description. From the simplest to the most complex. It is hard to find fault with the freshest of ingredients. Up the street, next to the Astoria hotel is Ivan’s hat shop (8-12 and 4-7) with hand made hats spew forth from a treadle sewing machine. Berets and a semi-authoritarian/flight attendant caps are a must. Great and about $17 each. Boy feeds pidgeons in front of Church of St. Blaise, Dubrovnik.

Croatia doesn’t have the museums that are so prevalent across the way, but what they have is nothing shabby.  And the crowds of Florence? – Forget it!  Zagreb’s museum of Contemporary Art opened at the beginning of the 2010 with a collection of Croatian and global artists in an eye-popping modern internationalist style building.  The work is decent, serviceable contemporary, nothing to overwhelm nor equally nothing to dismiss. The new structure is lined with LEDs that play videos and inundate the vehicular traffic with conceptual narratives as they drive by…perhaps more distracting than talking on a mobile while mobile.

The Modern Art Museum is an exploration of Croatian Artists that ran parallel to the masters of early 20th century French, German and Austrian names.  It leaves a viewer unsure as to who came first the Croatian chickens or the western European eggs….The artists of Western Europe obviously had better press machines. The style of display is to pack as many objects into a gallery as can be conceived and then add a few more. This beyond salon style is more evident in the modern museum. Here the collection, which mirrors the style of the larger cities of Europe in the period from 1890-1930s, presents a more attractive destination. It is also walking distance from the main square.  Gas lit streetlights still in use from the turn of the last century are still lit and dampened each evening. This should be emphasized as the idea of spending a few days in Zagreb can be well full with an in depth look at the city center and you never really need get in your car…..Unless you start driving to Opatija, Split, Hvar and South.Nuns walking through the city square, Dubrovnik.

All the cities of Croatia are walk-able, or Zagreb is easy to get around with a trolley.

Start the road trip in Zagreb, getting a rental on your way out of town. As with any modern European city, there is not reason to have a car with a great public transportation network and being a pedestrian in Europe is a gift rather than a chore. But outside Zagreb, the transportation system is far from great. There is one train (overnight from Zagreb to Venice) daily. Something has gotten lost in the infrastructure and the country remains a bit isolated. Although there is a decent highway in portions of the country, other parts define the expression “hair-pin” curves. Think of driving US1 near Big Sur. Yes the coast line can be beautiful in parts, but for the driver it is all work and lots of it. But With Isteria and Opatija just a few hours west on good roads, it is well worth the visit. The food is Southern Slav mixed with Eastern Italian. While Zagreb has the meats-lamb, duck, pork—the coast moves into a seafood palette.  The waterfront at Opatija has a 12 km stone walkway with the Adriatic and small boats on one side and small restaurants and shops on the landside. Walking to a restaurant to build an appetite, and walking back to a hotel after barbeques cuttle-fish (squid) Scampi (a form of shrimp/small lobster) with local olive oil and wine is like discovering the flip side of the Eastern Italian Coast.

In Optija you have lovely hotels and a beautiful seafront stone walk way to harbor, ocean and restaurants. The best of which is Le Mandrac. This is a must. Four or five perfect courses. Perfect. From the aerated black truffles to the lime enhanced crème fresh over chocolate molten cake.  If you are in need of further adventure, you are an hour from Trieste or Slovenia. Drive a few hours down the coast and stop at Zadar. Here on the quay of the island town are marble steps and the Sea Organ of Zadar.  This is the coolest name of any public monument or sculpture and a fabulous understated installation waiting for your enjoyment. Its constant deep throated tonal range is energized when any ferry goes by. Visit on a windy/choppy day and it sounds like a magical circus is in town. Oldest continuously working pharmacy in Europe, Dubrovnik.

Split is home of an enormous Diocylineatian palace that still dominates and defines the walls of the old city. Here shops and businesses are embraced in the architecture and keep it breathing. Split is the largest city on the Dalmatian Coast and worth a few days visit. As beautiful as the city is during the day, it is perfect at night. The Venetians controlled the coast to the north and the history of this 3,000 year old city is marked with architecture and events that well pre-date the modern era. Split is history with a significant bump due to the influence of the Venetian empire and the power emanating into the Adriatic. The history of the entire coast is written into the walls—the city walls that surround all this habitations. The landscape is rocky and roads CAN be tricky.  As you drive down the coast on four or two lane, remember the difficulty it would be for any aggressive force to move over these mountains and around these rocks. The far more obvious path is the sea, so every city is a walled fortress with protection aimed to repel a sea-born invader.  This has evolved to a series of smaller, limited populations living within world monument class cities and evolving organically with them. Although every conservationist I know would disagree, the idea of “monumentalizing” a city and protecting it from further interaction with a living public is the goal of preservation, but it doesn’t describe how a city forms, grows and evolves. The beauty of the Dalmatian Coast is the living organisms these cities remain. On moving farther south there is more to discover. Cities such as Utica in Tunisia, Pompeii in Italy, Bagan in Myanmar hold well deserved spots on the World Monument and UNESCO historic list, but the cities of Hvar, Zadar, Split are living cities. This is the type of situation that would make a historian cringe. Imagine, someone hanging out laundry, cooking or putting up a satellite dish in a zone targeted for preservation. But these cities of Croatia are organic. They breathe, hold families where people live, die, cook and make noise. They are limited by building codes and more importantly city walls, but they are alive. These are not ruins.

The island of Hvar is an example of a quiet Adriatic Island accessible by ferry for an evening or two by heartbreakingly beautiful harbor. The day’s entertainment could well be sitting in a coffee shop on the square, overlooking the harbor, watching children on three and two wheelers scoot by and sipping a Maciado. There is no museum, no movie—here it is not about what you do, rather the act of being here is the goal in itself. Rarely did our rolling thunder road trip relax to this extent. No one wanted to move. After two days of bliss, the designated driver (myself) drove to the East end of the island Sucuraj 80 km of switchbacks and rough road. Sometimes two lanes, on occasion less. To catch the ferry to Drvenik—This is an hour ferry ride and a pleasant lounge to indulge in more coffee, a newspaper and dominoes, or watch the truck drivers play a seemingly continuous game of cards. It might be easier to take the longer ferry to Dubrovnik as the road from Drvenik to Dubrovnik is another tough drive. Farmers Market in City Square, Dubrovnik.

In California tourists describe US1 and the road through Big Sur as breathtaking. It is beautiful if it is not jammed with tourists with, of course—breathless tourists. If you are driving it–different story. The road is a bitch and the driver is sweating and it is the least enjoyable drive on the planet. This stretch into Dubrovnik is tough and not as heroic in vista. The ferry from Sucuraj to Dubrovnik might be a better bet.

The father south you go, the more beautiful the jewels on this necklace….until Dubrovnik, which moves the metaphor from semiprecious to diamond. This is the centerpiece of a medieval city. The city (as is Split) is pure pedestrian. Limestone fortifications are double walled and form the limits of the city in arguably the most beautiful walled city in the world. The streets are unusual in their regularity of grid, which diverts from the normal chaos of a medieval plan.  The main drag is a marble walkway bordered by luxury shops, cafes and restaurants. But still there are children playing soccer and local teenagers making too much noise on the way home from orchestra practice. Dinner at Pisrecki, at the harbor next to the former slave market, a two-hour walk on the periphery of the city walls makes a perfect day. But, as part of this history, one should also allow a visit to the museum that commemorates Europe’s most recent acts of barbarism and madness. In the museum to the fallen, the wall of 1991-1995 is presented in portrait and video. Although the entire city is on the historic monument site of every cultural organization it was still bombed by Serbians and Montenegrins and the population is very conscious of the privations and hardships that are part of their recent memory. 

And finally, Dubrovnik.  First, get your accommodations in order and make sure you stay at the Excelsior . This is THE hotel and the perfect cherry on the whipped cream. Dubrovnik is the star of the show and the excelsior is the five-star. Crammed within its city walls are parallel streets of tradesmen and history. The oldest continuously function Sephardic Synagogue is here, the lentils and posts of the doorway tear with their stories of battles that continued until the most recent destruction that came with the Serbia-Croatian War that lasted from 1991-1995.

Dubrovnik has a small museum—a room with plaques, video, mementos and a periphery of faces of young men killed in the war, looking like a Christian Bultanski installation. Maps of the damage done by the shelling adorn many of the public streets. The population does want the 250,000 killed in this war forgotten. The wounds here are fresh and the resentment toward Serbia is overt. There is an air of superiority here and the distinct feeling that Croatia was the victim of Serbian aggression and attempt to conquer or retain was is rightfully Croat. This is a complex political world and the citizens are both anxious and hesitant to discuss it. The wounds are fresh. People remember the privation of an anxious world not more than 16 years past. Rooftops have been too recently rebuilt from aerial and naval bombardments. That a city this small and precious could be the target of such violence has to be one of the mysteries of the world. One resident quoted a Serbian as saying “If we had leveled Dubrovnik we would have rebuilt it newer, older and better.” Who can argue with that logic? For all the adventures you must have in this perfection of pedestrian passages…it is lovely to return to the sheer quality of the Excelsior hotel.  Open the window overlooking the Adriatic, view the walls of the city and listen to the lapping of the tide below. It doesn’t hurt that you are sitting in a 20-pound terry cloth bathrobe and sipping on Russian Standard Vodka, sold in the convenience stores. Yum. The excelsior has it all with an enclosed heated lap pool, saunas and spas. Perfection indeed.

Two weeks on a road trip through Croatia. My daughter and her new husband still had months to go as we boarded the plane for Zagreb to go on to home, while they deplaned there and continued their odyssey for months. (I think the rule of thumb is your honeymoon has to end by your first anniversary.)The Interior of the Franciscan Church, Dubrovnik

In truth, it could have been anywhere. When you are invited to travel with your adult children, and their spouses, should they exist, you can go anywhere. I can be in a cheap motel in the middle of a ghetto and I would be fine to crack a bud lite rather than a two olive martini. It is about the people more than the places.

Croatia is more that “that will do.” It is a discovery, a vacation and an adventure. Too frequently left to German tourists as the closest access to the Adriatic beaches and days drive from the homeland…..Croatia is becoming discovered and it’s not to late to join in. But I would suggest haste. Go in the shoulder or slightly off-season, before the press of tourism. These are small towns and cities that become consumed by those that are there to appreciate them. This is the basic paradox of tourism. It is great because it is under visited, undervalued and under appreciated. As soon as it is “discovered”…it consumes itself. The lovely “Sea organ of Zadar” is actually a quay for a cruise ship. As the ship comes it, the site it uses to create the safe have, so beautify in its voice and solitude, goes silent with the protection of the ship and obscured by the gangplanks disgorging the passengers who are coming to enjoy it. Tourists eat their young…..so hurry.

If you go.croatia_dubrovnik-2

***Time to go is Very late March…before tourism starts. Weather may be a bit sharp, but to have the streets empty, and the cities to yourselves is a joy.

Summer and you are battling German tourists in Wall-to Wall dysfunction and you loose track of what these cities are.

Hotels, Astoria, Excelsior. A note on this hotel and spa. My colleague asked the meaning of the word, and rather than reach for a dictionary I thought, plush robes, a steam room, sauna, 180 degree views of the Adriatic, a six floor sitting room, the lights of a ship cruising in the distance across placid waters, the lit walls of the city as I sit on the patio of my suite with a chilled martini. This is excelsior in my dictionary.

IF YOU GO

The Excelsior, Dubrovnik

www.hotel-excelsior.hr

Le Mandrac. This is a separate article and a destination on its own.

Each element of a dish grown, caught, picked or selected, each dish conceived and blended of a multitude of taste and texture, four dishes put together in a symphonic fashion to create a meal that is a destination in its own right. Four courses with a bottle of wine are about $65/person. Not a meal, but a memory. Black truffle that could only be described as eating angel pussy.

www.lemandrac.com

Obala F. Supila 10, Volosko

Opatija, Croatia

051 701 357

The Park Hotel Split.

Staff with all the warmth and charm of cold war era border crossing guards.  Breakfast with cold refrigerated croissants.  A must to avoid.

Hotel Palace in Hvar, still has a key, not a plastic card swipe– modest but lovely.

Zagreb

Archeological museum, highlight of the collection is the “Zagreb mummy” and its bandages, which are actually a linen book inscribed with Etruscan script. http://www.amz.hr/home.aspx

- Modern gallery for Denis Matia, www.mdc.hr

-Ethnographic museum www.etnografski-muzej.hr

Samobor

Visit to Morton Museum www.muzej-marton.hr

-Art Pavilion, www.umjetnicki-paviljon.hr

-Museum of Contemporary art, www.msu.hr

-Zagreb city Museum www.mgz.hr

-The Strossmayer Old masters gallery www.hazu.hr

Sea Organ of Zadar

http://www.croatia.org/crown/articles/9359/1/Nikola-Baiae-author-of-the-Zadar-Sea-Organ.html

http://www.croatia.org/crown/music/SoundoftheZadarSeaOrgan.wav


 

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The Thin World of Saint Kilda

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The Scots call this the “Thin World” where the membrane that separates the secular from the spiritual is drawn tight. This is the part of the world where the sea churns and mists into vapor, joining the fog, which solidifies and becomes the roiling green and white foam ocean. These physical states merge. Viewed from the deck of the ship as it rolls, sways, rocks, pitches and yaws, all motions seem simultaneous. This is the introduction to the archipelago of St Kilda, the remotest part of the British Isles, lying 41 miles west of Benbecula, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.

Thirty people left this tiny island in 1936. Mid-ocean, in the thin world, where the sun just clips below the horizon and the twilight seems perpetual; I look for the boat of refugees approaching from the island with its eccentric passenger list. It must be hallucinations, a side effect of the seasickness medication. What makes an island depopulate after a thousand years of habitation? How do people remain for untold generations eating sea birds in a completely insulated world; and how do they leave?

Seven hundred miles North West of London. It is chilly in mid-July. No one would ever think of checking a forecast. Last year a visitor was sun burnt in five minutes of intense northern latitude sun; an hour later it was snowing—in July. St. Kilda is so far north that the sun dips slightly below the horizon from about 11pm to 3am–with a constant glow on the horizon during the four hours the sun is hidden.

We are on the MV CUMA, a fishing research vessel with 12 bunks and an equal number of adventurous explorers. We leave the port of Miavaig, 60 miles west of Stornoway somewhat anxious, under dark billowing skies. First we weigh options then we weigh anchor and away we go. An hour later we are in the middle of a force eight gale and we are “running before the storm”…seeking shelter in the relative safety of an inlet. Eleven thirty, a mere three hours after departure and we are stopped, dragging anchor most of the night–waiting out the storm. This is a less than auspicious start.

The next morning it clears somewhat and we head west for our five-hour journey on the 67-foot MV CUMA. As I look out the window there is a repetitious movie of gray cumulonimbus clouds and gray-green ocean. The horizon scrolls up and down through the cabin windows…with all too much regularity. I am unsure if it is the pitch or the roll that is making people queasy and beyond. We are in the middle of the “Imperfect Storm.” The weather is insistent. After five never-ending hours, we are carving a path through two vertical rock walls filled with 250,000 gannets, large white birds. The stones look like folded sheets of rock iced with pulsating birds that launch and land in endless relocation. The wings, the waves of the ocean, the persistent wind and the drizzle seem like a symphony of nature. I have somehow, accidentally, entered the Discover Channel. This is an infusion of a grand picture of the environment and the place of humans within it. We are an hour from St. Kilda. The MV CUMA coped better with the weather than her passengers. Most are green. The theme song from “Gilligan’s Island” loops in my mind as I search my fellow travelers in the hopes of finding Ginger or Mary Anne hidden under their rubberized all-weather hoods.stkilda2

Finally, St. Kilda looms, the highest point in the British Isles at 1400+ feet, capped by a heavy mist that obscures any sight of its cap. The severity of one side of the island seems as if Racquel Welsh is atop with Pterodactyls and T Rexes. This is Jurassic land, King-Kong’s habitat, a location any horror movie on the planet would kill for. As we turn the corner, the morning mist leaves to reveal a parenthesis of green embracing a dark green lagoon. The sky becomes brilliant blue, the grass verdant. When we enter the sanctuary of a gentle horseshoe shaped harbor we encounter the true monstrosity.At the edge of the beach, amid the abandoned village is a 30-foot-high, aluminum-sided power plant, with a constant low rumble. As one reflects on the beauty and isolation of the village in this pastoral setting, the out-of-place industrial power plant and its attendant buildings assault one. The charming, nostalgic village is made up of about fifteen homes many in ruins, some simply in disrepair, a church with attached school room, the factors (governor’s) house, and a large cinder-block complex housing an assortment of quasi-military personnel that track missile trajectories. Physically placed in this almost sacred location by the necessity of the cold war, the juxtaposition of these disparate architectural bedfellows seems offensive by any standard.

There are approximately 1,000 visitors per year work, many working with Scottish National Trust in restoration and archeological work parties. They intermingle with the dozen-crew members from QuintiQ, a privatized defense-research organization. Each evening they unwind at the Puffin, where the drinks are doubles and served during an abbreviated evening from 10:30 to 11:30 PM.

The landscape, green and spongy, is dotted with stones placed in corals and huts called “cleiteans” where the harvested birds were stored. Wild sheep wander among stacked stone structures are everywhere in a 19th century Lego-land. This charm stands in sharp contrast and conflict with the modern support structures for the radar dishes. Yet, the problems seems minimized at best, ignored at worst…the power plant greets the visitor at the harbor entrance like a lump of dirt in a plate of milk.

It is a gentle walk to any part of the island. The trek is punctuated with birds protecting their ground nests (there are no trees on the island.) The aerial acts include a variety of theatrical injuries to lead you away or a series of endless winged dive-bombers flaring wings and diverting inches from your face.

Stand on the edge of the Atlantic and you are momentarily deceiving yourself into believing man’s dominance over nature. Stand on lip of the island, disregard the assaulting birds and look 1,400 feet below to the space filled with thousands of white check marks dancing against the palette of ocean. Solitary as you are, you can never measure the weight of isolation and privation of the last 36 inhabitants. This is far from the industry of Glasgow, the culture of Edinburgh or the bustle of London. St. Kilda is a time warp–a 19th century life bisected by a 21st century defense installation. The question reoccurs. How can people live here under such conditions? How can they abandon a life so defined by the architecture of the landscape?

St. Kilda is a World Heritage Site as an environmental location for more nesting sea- birds than anywhere in Europe. The Scottish government hopes to be granted the rare dual cultural/environmental status by UNESCO as well. There is a certain oddness on the part of Scottish National Heritage. They are extremely proud of this site, yet the powers that be seem to be willing to sign a 25-year lease with QuintQ without mention of architectural review. There are conditions that demand a return to the natural state at the end of the lease term, but this does not make the cold war era architecture any more compatible with the more historic structures. The QuitiQ director floats a trial balloon—the possibility that the support structures are significant as cold-war era architecture. This seems more than far-fetched when one looks at this recently completely abomination of architecture. To bastardize an Eisenhower quote, “Beware the Military-Cultural conspiracy.”

Why go to an island at the end of the world, with this sad and poignant history? Seventy years later this scene repeats itself on a regular basis. The vast American plains, Island America hosts many desiccated towns, small crossroads villages that are no longer sustainable. Rather than by sea, the population climbs into pick-up trucks with less glamour and heroics and heads for Chicago and Dallas for new opportunities. The colony dies, but the individuals survive in relocation–cultural Darwinism.

As I leave St. Kilda, I take a last look in the Free Presbyterian Church. Below the pulpit a family bible sits open on a podium. The family history is recorded for posterity.

Husband John Mathie, born 29 October 1843, wed wife Catherine Marshall, born 13 May 1844 on August 16th 1869. Their seven children are recorded dutifully and optimistically-

James Mathie b 17 August 1870; John Marshall Mathie b. 17 August 1970; Samuel Mathie b. 13 March 1874; Margaret Mathie b. 16 September 1875; Catherine Mathie 5 August 1877; Agnes Mathie b. 17 April 1879; John Mathie 12 October 1884 and Thomas Mathie 12 June 1886.

The births are marked with corresponding deaths. John 10 months later, Samuel at 12 months 26 days, Margaret at 12 months 18 days, little Thomas at 3 months and 18 days, and Agnes at a ripe old 29 years and six months.

These are people with the same hopes and aspirations for the success of their families, their children…but this was not to be. There is a limit to how long you can live with a community of 36 people and all the petrels and puffins you can eat. Amid this difficult existence, the village imported wood to build caskets for their dead. There are no trees, no wood on the island; only the moss, birds, stones, sheep wind and fog left.

And so they voluntarily evacuated in 1930 and disseminated into Glasgow population, not with a bang, nor even with a whimper. Are these the tales of hope, or the reports of failures? For decades the island remained a ghost town, undisturbed. There is no possibility of development. St. Kilda will never be a metropolis nor seaside resort but it is a place where a traveler can see an isle from the uninterrupted perspective of himself or herself on a cliff-side overlooking an uninterrupted horizon—completely and totally alone. It is worth the trip.

IF YOU GO:

MV CUMA–www.island-cruising.com there are no hotels on the island, you sleep on the ship, or as a cultural or archeological volunteer, you may sleep with a group in one of the cottages. Ship is about $750 per person per week with a full compliment of 12 people.

Cook (Scottish Cooking), Mate and Captain. E-mail Cuma@sol.co.uk

Scotland Preview website–www.toscotland.com or www.visitscotland.com

St. Kilda Preview website–http://www.kilda.org.uk/

Berlin, Germany

Germany: First Person Singular

Germany

Magic is the intersection of time and place.Events are measured in terms of personal history. Everyone does. If they tell you they don’t, they are just being polite. Time and space nexus and revolve around my axis. This is how I view the space in which I travel.Egotistically, but realistically, I travel first person singular.

Hamburg is the second largest port in the EU and gateway to the Baltic and North Sea. One Hundred years to the day that I arrived in the city, my Grandmother, stepped onto the Red Star Line’s “Lapland” and embarked for America. She was 22, traveling with her 18 year old sister. A century later, I am look over the massive port and witness my first live football (soccer, of course) game. These events—my grandmother’s journey and mine—are two of the reasons I am here in the winter snow.

In the time between my two cosmic events, the Beatles played Hamburg. My life is parenthetical for the Fab Four. They were forged here on a street that spawned legendary Rock and Roll and spectacular prostitutes. The British band was, ironically, forged in Germany—at the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s legendary red light district. The Indra club was their first venue. They were the fourth choice as the first three Liverpool bands were unavailable. Pete Best played with George, Paul and John. Ringo wasn’t in the picture yet and Paul was“Just 17, you know what I mean.”Berlin, Germany

Stephanie Hempel guides me around pushing her newborn baby in the pram geared with snow tires. She stops at the Star club and describes the year, cast of characters, song list and brandishes black and white pictures of early Beatles in vinyl sleeves.Each stop is highlighted with a few songs that she plays on a steel stringed ukulele, and her powerful voice. The German accented English disappears into a Liverpool lilt with each refrain. Back and forth the accents seesaw and songs are contextualized with time and place.The last stop is the Indra club. Suddenly it is August of 1960 once more, the drinks flow and everyone is singing. The past becomes the present. Black and white becomes colorized and they love you, yeah, yeah, yeah. Depressing as it is, the Beatles broke up when John was 32 years younger than my present age.

Transportation is easy in Germany, although I am on the first German train that is actually late.Two minutes, but everyone notices.The train is clean, dependable and only 90 minutes into Berlin where the journey takes on a more demanding and ominous flavor.Berlin, Germany

My simplicity is profound. Deep down I am completely superficial–My lifetime, my geography, my chronology, and my topography—It’s all about me.This contrasts with the Germany I encounter. I brandish my myopia and simplicity with pride, but it is assailed by the complexity of Berlin. Here is a city of staggering contemporary architecture, intimate histories of cultural accomplishment and the stigma of an unimaginable legacy of inhumanity.Berlin is pure attraction/repulsion. Literally it is written on the walls.Portions of the east-west border remain with sanctioned graffiti masking its historical purpose. The epoch of the wall, the grey block icon of the failure of the Communist society masquerades as a colorful palette contrasting against a bleak winter morning. I am glad it is snowing. It is easy to be seduced inside the warm bargain priced exclusive restaurants and five star hotels. Costs are moderate. Unemployment is high and the Berlin economy is reeling as jobs move 40 kilometers east to Poland.

I masochistically enjoy being slapped in the face by the wet snow.It reminds me, demands of me to remember German history. Why not simply savor the schnitzel,wurst mit curry and drink the nuanced white German wines?It is easy to forget Germany’s brutal war history and disappear in hedonism of the current elegance of the capital. Visit Germany in the winter and history reprimands you while the weather assails you.

The sights that should not be missed are on every tourism itinerary, but all have paradoxes. The Reichstag is the historical heart of the German government. Architect Sir Norman Foster won the commission to embellish the structure. He popped a dome that sits light-glistening–visual frosting on the stone edifice. The front elevation slips seamlessly into the steel gray night. It is virtually invisible during the day but dramatic in nightfall. It is tempting, but like a diamond tassel on a cheap stripper, it seems like so much unnecessary pretense, as it tries to divert attention from the chambers that allowed Hitler to come to power beneath it’s twinkling dome. The Reichstag, plenary home of the German state is little changed from the symbol of the mid 20thc. horrors.Berlin, Germany

It is midnight and I am photographing from the field where Hitler’s favorite cinematographer, Leni Riefenstahl filmed “The Triumph of Will.” Don’t get me wrong. I am quite sure the present parliament bears no vestige of fascism. Once decorated with goose-stepping figures, this empty hectare is silent as the snow covers the weed-bound field. Intellectually, I know there are three generations that separate the present from the past Nazi horrors. But again, it is me, insufferable, egotistical and myopic. More than the snow in the air chills me. Maybe it takes one more generation.

Sony’s Center is the heart of the resurgent Postdammaplatz- a symbol of the 21st century.Here the geographic center of Berlin is reconstructed with contemporary architects and corporations showing all flash and technology. Glass and steel are punctuated with a façade of enormous, soulless video screens. The Center presents an overwhelming volume rather than quality or economy. This is a concept that may better reflect the 19% unemployment of Berlin—economic smoke and mirrors. This Oz-like building complex seems more to reflect the Ishtar Gates, imposing symbols of the power of Babylon, made to impress with scale rather than subtly. The economy staggers as glitzy edifices rise.

From the architecture of the future, it is both a pleasure and necessity to remember the glories of the past. A visit to Museum Island redefines treasure.The Pergamon Museum bears the name of the locale where German archeologists deconstructed the western Turkishfrom where the fragments and ruins were taken.Here the famous Alter of Zeus is reincarnated in the former East Berlin, heart of Europe. The collection is subtly defined when you realize the magnificent Ishtar gates gets only second billing. The Pergamon, built on thousands of piers in the middle of the river is sinking under the weight of its treasure.GermanyBerlin0228060033BrandenburgGateatNight

Travel east a few hundred meters and you are in the Egyptian museum where you can come face-to-face with the Golden Nefertiti—the perfect female. Here the architecture and artifacts speak of the triumph of culture and forces you to keep the current wave of architectural conversation in the perspective of the centuries.

The monument to the murdered Jews of Europe is a sprawling field of 2,700 stone slabs near the Brandenburg gate. Described by former Prime Minister Schroeder as a monument to “That most terrible crime,” it creates a maze of hard stone surface that is difficult to escape, literally and metaphorically. Architect Peter Eisenman’s creation sits opposite the site of the new American Embassy under construction. As a security concern, US officials requested having the monument surrounded by a fence. Ghettoizing a monument to a decimated population–The irony is overwhelming.

Being an American in Germany leads to questions of accountability and responsibility. The past slips easily into the present and the conversations in the bars, the pubs and cafes of Germany are informed and multilayered. Berlin is complex. It is not the cotton candy of Miami, Rio or Los Angeles. There are no easy solutions here.This is a city that takes work. Tourism is not an easy business.Berlin, Germany; Lux 11 Restaurant

IF YOU GO:

Guides:

Stefanie Hempel gives an inspired tour of Beatle’s Hamburg stefaniehempel@web.de

$35/person—three –hour-tour.

Henrik Tidefjard offers a wonderful personalized tour of the dining, café and nightlife of Berlin www.berlinagenten.com.

The rates are $140-$300 per person for anywhere from a three hour four course “food-rally” to an insiders view of Berlin, food and nightlife-Mini Van included.

Dr Richard Campbell is a knowledgeable Berliner who boasts two Phds and a 50 year residency. He gives an encyclopedic walking tour of the history, politics and architecture.

Kirgam2@t-online.de

Restaurants:

Berlin:

FACIL www.facil-berlin.de

QIU (ww.themandala.de/qiu.htm Both Facil and QIU are in the Mandala Hotel,

QIU is more the bar, snacks $50 is a reasonable fare fortwo with cocktails, or you can have just drinks here; FACIL is more high end, arguably the best in Berlin Dinner is $100-$125 for two.Potsdamer Platz Strasse 3.

Lutter & Wegnerwww.l-w-berlin.dePotsdamer Platz (Sony Plaza)A very decent meal for two is $50 with their home made delicious wines served.

Kadima (Jewish) next to the Berlin Synagoguewww. kadima-restaurant.comLunch is an easy $30 for twolocated on Oranienburger Strasse in the very hip Berlin-Mitte area.

Hotel-Modern Beautiful and convenient,wonderful spa Grand Hyatt

www.berlin-grand.hyatt.comPotsdamer Platz

Shiro i Shiro “castle style” diningwww.shiroishiro.comPart of designer Hotel Lux 11

Hamburg:

River Kasemattenwww.river-kasematten.deRiverkasematten is the hotspot at the Hamburg Harbour Dinner for two w/wine and dessert is under $100.-Under $50 if frugal.

Altonaer Fischmarkt Breakfast buffet on Sunday morning at the fish-market is pure heaven.


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3pf

Paris and Kisses

France

“Yes, the encounter of lips is the most perfect, the most divine sensation that can be afforded to human beings, the ultimate and furthest limit of happiness…” Guy de Maupassant, Stories and Novella, “The Kiss,” 1882

“Paris in the springtime—“ there is a reason Maurice Chevalier begins with that season–not fall, winter, nor summer.

But it’s not summer, it’s spring–the season when it sizzles. Paris blooms early with tulips, later with Iris, soon to welcome roses. Paris is the perfect walking city and spring is the season to promenade. With a decent pair of sneakers (“trainers” if you are on the continent) you can walk from Champ de Mars (Eiffel Tower) to Gare du Nord and spend eight hours as if it were no time at all. Left Bank or Right, North or South. The choice is yours.1

By the fountain of Place Vendome, a teenage boy gazes into the eyes of his young girlfriend, lying on the grass, schoolbooks remain unopened as she looks up into his face and a sly smile appears. Their faces move closer with gentleness and humor in their eyes. Closer, their lips join for a moment’s touch. Her hand moves behind his head to pull him even closer and their embrace explodes in intensity. DNA is singing to accompany the birds on the wing. The young suitors disappear from the public sun into a private space the entire their own as the world around vanishes and all that remains is embrace. Ahhhh — All the world must love Paris, and aspire to be young lovers within its fold.

From the terrace at Sacre Coeur as tourists behold the late sunset, a woman turns and would rather view her lover than the mansard roofs and turrets of the city below. Her hands circle the waist of her partner and the panorama of Paris disappears as eyes close.

The dollar may be weak and the Euro strong or vice versa, but there are things to save for and life to savor. Get a window seat on the Bateaux Parisien as it takes you for a boat tour. The sky darkens and the lights sing the drama and joy of the Paris evening. Pont Neuf, the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, Musee d’Orsay…all are awash in color and movement as you dine and drink, accompanied by well-timed chanteuse songs made to swell your heart as it drains your wallet. The bill of 133 Euros ($170) seems almost reasonable when you add the delightful small, elegant, memorable dishes accompanied by abundant wine and desserts.2

If you are a fan of the best seller The Da Vinci Code, visit St. Sulpice and check out the brass line, one of the important architectural elements in the book?If you want to theme your tour around a page-turner, be cautious around the Ritz Hotel. The security guards are distinctly inhospitable if you don’t have a thousand dollar bill in your pocket for even the most modest room. Try and take a picture from the public plaza across the way and you will find your viewfinder filled with a distinctly unfriendly face. Thankfully, this is not the normal demeanor of most other French people these days.

In spite of political differences between the US and French governments, there is a diplomatic willingness among the French people to engage in discussing current affairs with visitors. Politically, the times seem as charged as the air. Iraq—“oui or non?” European Union? Sarcosy or Obama? Keep walking; keep talking to people. It springtime, Parisians are friendly and reasonable to engage over a cup of espresso.4

Head North toward Boulevard Poissoinere and drop in on the Rex, a classic deco theater that hosts the latest Star Wars. Two thousand seats and a screen to host a forty-foot Darth Vader made of light, breathing heavily in French.

Depending on how hungry you are, try cruising down Rue Montogueil, where the pedestrian street is parenthetically lined with tiers of outdoor round tables each embraced by two cane chairs.5

Or treat yourself to the indoor Auburge de Nicolas Flamel (Rue Montmorency). The chef here was lured from a two star Michelin restaurant. When I lamented that I don’t have the capacity to eat a classic French meal in earnest, he simply suggested, “Just order a dish or two.” Such simple logic. Hard to keep that philosophy in mind as dessert of chocolate garnished with gold leaf is offered. Leadeth me not into temptation. But, by remaining devoted to walking across the city, the calories seem at least a necessity—sort of…or at least justifiable—sort of…..

Keep walking, linger in the market at Saint Quentin (no relation to the California penal institution). Sample the cheeses, view the rabbits (dressed in the butcher stall), smell the cut flowers as you walk through to Boulevard Magenta.8

Then head for Gare du Nord.The visit to one of the classic rail station of Europe, expansive in its steel and glass, is not simply for the pleasure of visiting the architecture. It is also the terminal of Eurostar, the luxury train that offers Chunnel passage from Paris to Waterloo Station in London.

At Gare du Nord I wait for the arrival of my wife.It is springtime in Paris. I may be on assignment, working, photographing and writing but…..it is springtime and Gare du Nord has just been rated by this one author as the best place to kiss in Paris!

10

If you go….

Hotel Villa Beaumarchais

5, rue des Arquebusier, 3rd

33.1.40.29.14.00

Hotel St-Beuve

9, rue Sainte-Beuve, Paris, 6th

Metro Vavin

http://www.hotel-sainte-beuve.fr/

Rest:

L’Auberge Nicolas Flamel

51, rue de Montmorency, 3rd

Metro Rambuteau

www.nicholasflamel.parisbistro.net

tel: 01 42 71 77 78

Le Petite Bofinger

8 rue de la Bastille

01 42 72 87 82

across the street from the more formal Bofinger

Brasserie

Metro Bastille

Bateaux Parisiens

Port de la Bourdonnais, Paris 7th

M°: Bir Hakeim

Tel: 33.825.01.01.01


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coverf

Gardens of Normandy

France

Giverny and the classic gardens of Monet. At the southeast corner of Normandy, only a one-and-a-half hour trip from Paris, Giverny has always been the most visited, famous and accessible of contemporary French gardens. The casualness here stands in marked contrast to the bristling organization of Versailles. Giverny is the home of artists and Impressionism. Water-lilies, teal green Japanese bridges bracketed by willows, and the artist himself in a waistcoat and beard…all these images resonate in the paintings of Monet himself and souvenir calendars, note-cards and even umbrellas. Voila!—Giverny, a Mecca of 19th century art.2

There are three distinct seasons to visit– the gardens are quiet and inaccessible from October 31 through April.May 1 is opening day. and red, yellow, white and blue tulips greet the French sky. The exterior of Monet’s home is painted a distinct bubble gum pink, and many of the rooms are dedicated colors to bring the exterior floral palette into the rooms themselves. The brilliant yellow dining room and the blue kitchen, all have the natural wood of the furniture painted over to match the walls and ceiling. The effect is saturated and stunning.

But there’s a rub. The gardens are tended by flocks of gardeners who meticulously care for each individual plant. No spent rose is left to die on the stem; no iris lingers beyond its prime. Each flower inspires the appreciation of countless tourists, and then it is discretely whisked from the stage by the gardener’s deft fingers. No bloom overstays its welcome. There is a lavishness of attention for each bed of color; every cluster of cycads, every gaggle of geranium. This is the Yankees of gardens–a garden without a salary cap.

The spectacle of Giverny encourages the traveler to view some of the other gardens of Normandy. Get on the road. Hit the A13.3

First stop is the park and Rosary of Chateau de Mesnil Geoffroy in Ermenouville. Your hostess will be Princess Kayali. “Do I call you Princess?”I ask. “No, your Highness will do.” The wife of a Syrian Prince explains that she cannot compete with Giverny for scale: “Ours is a more modest affair. Our housekeeper is the one who must give out the tickets.” The highlight of the lovely garden is two modest wire chairs that allow viewers to await the onslaught of some 2.000 varieties of roses. Even though we are a little too early for the full rose parade, it is delightful to turn the chairs, view the chateau and dream about the “modest” residence. Seemingly on cue, the last of several Rolls Royces, a touring automotive cavalcade, crunch past the gravel drive as they exit.

Your next stop might be the bed and breakfast and personal gardens of Monsieur and Mme Leroyerin Longueville. Open the window of this 19th century home and look out onto the countryside and the single table and chair in the garden. This is a labor of love that is built from the ground up, literally. The 19th century home is adorned with the mistresses’ handiwork–pleated bedspreads, matching table clothes, and needlepoint samplers.5

Poor Monsieur Leroyer shrugs his shoulders as Madame chatters endlessly through a tour of their personal garden. Here visitors find fruit trees are espaliered against the garden walls, the present garden is viewed under the critical eye of people who can’t wait to get back to their serious work of gardening. “This side bed is well resolved in terms of color but the height is too even. Next year we shall plant with an eye toward more variety in dimension as well as organization of color.” At this lovely B&B (or is it “Li avec petite dejeuner?” Breakfast is jellies made from the garden’s apples, strawberry and fig. Perfect enough to make the croissant below the jelly jealous of the taste above!6

Drive over to the Jardins du Chateau de Brecy andview the gardens of Monsieur and Madame Wirth. You arrive in the traditional courtyard of the chateau and walk to the rear where you are met with a garden from the 17th century designed by Francois Mansart. Precise boxwoodthat embroiders the passage to the higher terraces greets you. As you walk up three levels in the gardens, a gate that opens to a meadow meets you. Here the meadow has been raised–with the help of some modern grading–some 30 feet to obscure the power lines in the distance. Soldiers of trees face each other and form a line of one-point perspective. It is a single vanishing point embracing the horizon and infinite blue sky of spring.A 15-foot lifeguard chair is hidden in the corner of an upper terrace to allow the discrete viewing of the gardens by their owners. A side garden away from the public’s view is where the owners’ grandchildren play. Even this garden is carefully arranged so the parent can view the children without having to view the nanny seated on the side. Every detail is taken into account to maximize the pleasure of the lords and ladies of privilege. As we leave, Monsieur Didier Wirth, dressed in snappy bright red pants and a striped shirt, master of the domain, lord of the manor, President of the Comite des Parcs et Jardins de France, bids us a gracious adieu. The world’s luckiest golden retriever returns to his post lounging on the marble entrance steps.8

On to the whimsical gardens of the Vendeuvre chateau. Built 1750-52. Here the count (his ownership of the chateau is seven generations and still counting), shows us around a garden full of water surprises. Pass through a gazebo and an overhead sprinkler triggered by a photoelectric eye douses you. Cross a Japanese bridge and metallic doves do their best to soak you. Move close to a tree and it branches explode in a shower. Jump from tile to tile in a pocket garden and five of the tiles erupt with streams from below. A sign offers a nude statue inviting you to touch a breast for the secret of love, and again you are tricked and drenched. Everywhere you turn, the garden is designed with liquid surprises. It is one of the largest gardens in Normandy and certainly one of the most curious.

Inside the chateau, you can view classic period furniture as well as more unusual objects, including one of the largest selection of ornate kennels (dog beds) in Europe an extensive collection of “automatique” mechanical toys. Each room has its share of eccentricities competing for space is a museum of heirloom furniture. The chaos of attractions inside compliments the whimsy and madness of the exterior.9

A visitor to Normandy might start with an interest in Monet and gardens but you are rewarded with much more. If you start with Giverny and enjoy walking, listening and smelling the garden, realize you are on the tip of the iceberg. Impressionism did not awake one morning as the brainchild of one person. Ideas evolve and respond to context and history. When looking at some of these gardens you can see the environment and context that gave birth to the gardens of Monet. A few days in Normandy, punctuated by charcuteries quiche, cheese and lovely wine. This is the kind of research that springtime in Normandy invites. Nice work if you can get it.15

If you go:

Chateau et Roseraie du Mesnil Geoffroy, Emenouville, M. et Mme Kayali

Tel: 02 35 57 12 77. www.chateaux-france.com/mesnilgeoffroy

Jardin de Brecy, Monsieur et Madame Wirth, Tel: 02 31 80 11 48 dwirth@wanadoo.fr

Museum et Jardin du chateau de Vendeuvre,Tel: 02 31 40 93 83. www.vendeuvre.com,chateau@vendeuvre.com

Lodging:

Longueville –West of Bayeaux: Chez Janine et Daniel Leroyer, 02 31 22 03 49—(Highly recommended). dan.leroyer@wanadoo.fr

Fontaine-sous-Jouy (near Vernon and Giverny): Chez Eliane et Michel Philippe Tel 02 32 36 89 05 emi.phillippe@worldonline.fr,www.chambre-fontaine.chez.tiscali.fr

Opatija-1

Le Mondrac

Croatia

There are meals – simple picnics, breakfast in bed, family dinners, lunch with a girlfriend –fun and nourishing   . . . and then there are gastronomic experiences.  Our dinner at Le Mondrac, in Opatija falls under the latter category.  It was the type of evening where my dining companions could only manage to speak in between courses and savored each morsel seriously with their eyes closed, so as to fully taste each artfully composed bite.  Le Mondrac is a destination restaurant – a place to base a trip to Istria around and enjoy an evening full of imagination, bright flavors and some of the best food of your life.

When I entered the restaurant and met the head chef, Dennis, I knew I was in for something special when I mentioned my being vegetarian, and a little twinkle lit in his eye as he responded, “ I love properly prepared vegetarian food.  For you, I’ll make a truffle foam with wild asparagus. And perhaps an unusual risotto, one made with nettles from on the hill.”  I could have died right there, just at the anticipation of such a grand gesture.  Sometimes, waiting for something divine is better than actually getting it  – remarkably, my meal blew my expectations far, far away . . .  But, I’ll get back to that part in a moment.

Le Mondrac’s smallish kitchen is brimming with activity – there are about 5 high school students deveining shrimp and plating appetizers, another young, dashing fellow guiding them, Ezio, the sous chef and Dennis, the visionary director of the whole operation.  Ezio and Dennis exude such passion and enthusiasm about the locally grown ingredients (“Just pick some fresh bay leaf and rosemary while out on a walk around the block!”), flavors and innovations on traditional coastal Croatian cuisine, it elicits huge grins from both my dad and I.  Dennis hosts culinary students from a local high-school, seemingly more trouble than it’s worth – but the students love being here – supposed to go home at 10pm, but they stay till midnight, the cooking bug has taken hold.  It’s obvious we are in tender, loving hands.  Once our cheeks come back to life from smiling so much, we get it together — in the kitchen, listening, laughing, learning and tasting.  The energy and creativity is still making us bonkers, but we contain our grins as we glide across the chic dining room into our seats, ready for the magic to happen.  Our dining pals don’t even know what their in for! HA!

The flow of the meal was perfect — impeccable service from a knockout waitress, appropriately -sized portions, a crisp local white wine, and each course trumping the last in sumptuousness and panache.   I should mention, we were all presented with three types of salt (volcanic, Himalayan, and Malden) as well as Indonesian and Szechuan pepper to season our meal to taste.  I love good salt and this detail was thoughtful as well as delicious. I started with a mushroom tempura puff, resting on a bed of roasted red pepper sauce, of course sprinkled with a variety of different salts – The Malden is still my favorite.  The puff was a nice, light, warm-up for things to come.  Next, a salad of cherry tomatoes, pesto and Burata cheese, locally made and very tasty – A cow’s milk cheese I’d describe as a cross between buffalo mozzarella and sheep’s milk ricotta.  This dish was a great play between the acid-sweetness of a vine-ripened tomato and mellow mood of a velvety, luxurious cheese.  It was superb.  Following the salad, the star of the show – something so devastatingly light yet flavorful, my father described it as “angel pussy.”  Roasted wild asparagus and mushrooms underneath a cloud of truffle-oil foamed potatoes with a poached yolk in the center and, in case you are still conscious (I had nearly passed out in awe at this point), a liberal shaving of local black truffles.  This dish, a play on local scrambled eggs, was an exercise in playful restraint (not too many flavors competing) and texture.  The potato–truffle “foam” was aerated in some manner to create a feeling of eating nothing but pure forest-meet-heaven- flavor.   I can still feel the whipped lightness in mouth – such a unique feeling.  When the foam combined with the earthy truffle, rich yolk and tender asparagus, the masterpiece was complete.  Like a Mattisse or Chagall, it was – the sum of each element was greater than each part.  It was incredible.  One of the most delicious and interesting dishes I’ve ever eaten.  I shall never be the same– now I want all my food transformed by Le Mondrac into fluffy foam!666

For the main course, the nettle risotto.  After the previous revelation, I almost couldn’t take a bite – but of course I did, and nearly finished the entirety of the luxurious grains.  The real surprise in this dish was the nettles – a nice mustardy green flower to contrast the richness of the Camembert and butter, of which there was plenty.  The risotto truly tasted of early spring, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

Lastly, the swan song, exclamation mark, and elegant bow of the meal was dessert — a half-lava brownie with praline chip, accompanied by white chocolate and lime frappe (which was ladled onto the concoction at the table!  I love a dessert with presentation flair), topped with a lime sorbet and fresh flowers.  Wow.  It deserves it’s own article.  It was both unusual and sensational – the sinfully dark chocolate pastry co-mingling with the hint of lime, hit of caramel crunch and all making merry in a pool of heavenly creams.  If we thought dessert might be an afterthought, our savory items so divine, we were sorely wrong.  I proceeded to lick my plate when the pretty waitress wasn’t looking.  I’m only sad that they didn’t’ bring ten more servings of the exact same thing. 

Come to Croatia, let the Adriatic blues and romantic cliffs sweep you away – stroll along pristine pedestrian main squares, eat at the farmer’s markets for local fruits, breads and cheese, and dine like royalty at the Mondrac with your mother who finished the meal with “well, who died and made me Queen for a day?”

There are meals – simple picnics, breakfast in bed, family dinners, lunch with a girlfriend –fun and nourishing   . . . and then there are gastronomic experiences.  Our dinner at Le Mondrac, in Opatija falls under the latter category.  It was the type of evening where my dining companions could only manage to speak in between courses and savored each morsel seriously with their eyes closed, so as to fully taste each artfully composed bite.  Le Mondrac is a destination restaurant – a place to base a trip to Istria around and enjoy an evening full of imagination, bright flavors and some of the best food of your life.

When I entered the restaurant and met the head chef, Dennis, I knew I was in for something special when I mentioned my being vegetarian, and a little twinkle lit in his eye as he responded, “ I love properly prepared vegetarian food.  For you, I’ll make a truffle foam with wild asparagus. And perhaps an unusual risotto, one made with nettles from on the hill.”  I could have died right there, just at the anticipation of such a grand gesture.  Sometimes, waiting for something divine is better than actually getting it  – remarkably, my meal blew my expectations far, far away . . .  But, I’ll get back to that part in a moment.

Le Mondrac’s smallish kitchen is brimming with activity – there are about 5 high school students deveining shrimp and plating appetizers, another young, dashing fellow guiding them, Ezio, the sous chef and Dennis, the visionary director of the whole operation.  Ezio and Dennis exude such passion and enthusiasm about the locally grown ingredients (“Just pick some fresh bay leaf and rosemary while out on a walk around the block!”), flavors and innovations on traditional coastal Croatian cuisine, it elicits huge grins from both my dad and I.  Dennis hosts culinary students from a local high-school, seemingly more trouble than it’s worth – but the students love being here – supposed to go home at 10pm, but they stay till midnight, the cooking bug has taken hold.  It’s obvious we are in tender, loving hands.  Once our cheeks come back to life from smiling so much, we get it together — in the kitchen, listening, laughing, learning and tasting.  The energy and creativity is still making us bonkers, but we contain our grins as we glide across the chic dining room into our seats, ready for the magic to happen.  Our dining pals don’t even know what their in for! HA!

Opatija-3The flow of the meal was perfect — impeccable service from a knockout waitress, appropriately -sized portions, a crisp local white wine, and each course trumping the last in sumptuousness and panache.   I should mention, we were all presented with three types of salt (volcanic, Himalayan, and Malden) as well as Indonesian and Szechuan pepper to season our meal to taste.  I love good salt and this detail was thoughtful as well as delicious. I started with a mushroom tempura puff, resting on a bed of roasted red pepper sauce, of course sprinkled with a variety of different salts – The Malden is still my favorite.  The puff was a nice, light, warm-up for things to come.  Next, a salad of cherry tomatoes, pesto and Burata cheese, locally made and very tasty – A cow’s milk cheese I’d describe as a cross between buffalo mozzarella and sheep’s milk ricotta.  This dish was a great play between the acid-sweetness of a vine-ripened tomato and mellow mood of a velvety, luxurious cheese.  It was superb.  Following the salad, the star of the show – something so devastatingly light yet flavorful, my father described it as “angel pussy.”  Roasted wild asparagus and mushrooms underneath a cloud of truffle-oil foamed potatoes with a poached yolk in the center and, in case you are still conscious (I had nearly passed out in awe at this point), a liberal shaving of local black truffles.  This dish, a play on local scrambled eggs, was an exercise in playful restraint (not too many flavors competing) and texture.  The potato–truffle “foam” was aerated in some manner to create a feeling of eating nothing but pure forest-meet-heaven- flavor.   I can still feel the whipped lightness in mouth – such a unique feeling.  When the foam combined with the earthy truffle, rich yolk and tender asparagus, the masterpiece was complete.  Like a Mattisse or Chagall, it was – the sum of each element was greater than each part.  It was incredible.  One of the most delicious and interesting dishes I’ve ever eaten.  I shall never be the same– now I want all my food transformed by Le Mondrac into fluffy foam!

For the main course, the nettle risotto.  After the previous revelation, I almost couldn’t take a bite – but of course I did, and nearly finished the entirety of the luxurious grains.  The real surprise in this dish was the nettles – a nice mustardy green flower to contrast the richness of the Camembert and butter, of which there was plenty.  The risotto truly tasted of early spring, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

Lastly, the swan song, exclamation mark, and elegant bow of the meal was dessert — a half-lava brownie with praline chip, accompanied by white chocolate and lime frappe (which was ladled onto the concoction at the table!  I love a dessert with presentation flair), topped with a lime sorbet and fresh flowers.  Wow.  It deserves it’s own article.  It was both unusual and sensational – the sinfully dark chocolate pastry co-mingling with the hint of lime, hit of caramel crunch and all making merry in a pool of heavenly creams.  If we thought dessert might be an afterthought, our savory items so divine, we were sorely wrong.  I proceeded to lick my plate when the pretty waitress wasn’t looking.  I’m only sad that they didn’t’ bring ten more servings of the exact same thing.

www.lemandrac.com

Obala F. Supila 10, Volosko
Opatija, Croatia
051 701 357