Friday, December 31, 2010

Buon Natale!

I realize that technically this is a blog about Croatia, but the truth be known it is about our nearly year-long trip as a whole. So, I hope you don’t mind if I digress and talk about our trip to Italy. Lucia and I realized early on that we simply couldn’t go to the U.S. for Christmas. If we did, where to visit? Phoenix, Austin, and L.A. all have family that could not be ignored. The default solution? Italy!

We had originally thought about Rome for Christmas and Naples for the New Year, but my OLD friend Bob Thompson said forget about Naples for now; well, certainly for the New Year. A few years back, Lucia and I had traveled the north, starting with Lago di Como and then moved south. We had the fullest intentions of ending the trip in Rome, but Verona, Venice, Padua, Ferrara, Orvieto, Assisi, and Siena slowed us w-a-y down—as it should be—so we never made Rome. The household promise was to do so someday.

One assumption about our trip made it just that much more interesting—the bride doesn’t fly well, so somehow I ended up promising we’d take the train. To tell the truth it worked out reasonably well. We took the overnight train from Zagreb to Venice, which was maybe seven hours. It was goofy fun, because we decided to spend a few extra dollars (Kunas? Euros?) to get a sleeper. Check out the pics. We got into Venice about 7.30, took a vaporetto to our hotel and then camped out for a day. It was raining and we had been to Venice before, but…well, if you have a ‘bucket list’, I suggest you be sure that Venice is on it. We wandered for a day and, of course, had a wonderful dinner. The water from the canals was washing up into the streets. We all know the place is slowly sinking, but to see evidence in front of your face is impressive and a bit sad.

The next day it was off to Rome, where we stayed four nights, including Christmas eve, Christmas Day, and the Feast of St. Stephen (the 26th), which has special meaning for our family. We stayed in Trastevere (, which is somewhat less touristy than the heart of Rome and is full of local folk. We stayed near the church of Santa Maria, where we went to midnight Christmas Eve mass. The area is gorgeous. It is easy to get lost in the many twisting and turning little cobblestoned side streets, and we did so intentionally many times. It’s cool to stop at the local watering hole, partake of a Negroni, and figure out which way is which.

We walked Rome for four days, maybe six or seven hours a day. There was no giant agenda as to what we had to see, with one exception to be noted in a moment. At times we felt a bit like Chevy Chase looking at the Grand Canyon—with a wave of the hand: ‘Oh THAT’s the Coliseum’ without breaking stride. Of course the sights are important, but sometimes you just can’t stress and really, what is the most important thing? Food, of course. So we saw many of the sights we were supposed to see—of course, we did throw coins into Trevi—and missed others with aplomb. No worries. But we walked and walked some more and it took a bit to get back to our neighborhood. Oh, we DID go to the Vatican to receive Il Papa’s Christmas message and blessing. We couldn’t understand it all, but I am pretty sure I heard him say ‘thanks to Leo and Lucia for coming all the way from Austin, Texas just to see little ol’ me’.

The exception in terms of sights was the stairs of La Scala Santa, across from the Basilica of St. John Lateran—not to be confused with the Spanish Steps, which we also happened to visit. So, you enter a smaller church from the side and are greeted by steps that are a very modest spectacle to most. The ONLY way you are allowed to ascend the steps are on your knees. In the early 1920s Lucia’s grandmother, Eva Beghelli, went there with her young daughter, Gianinna (who eventually became Lucia’s mother). Eva was suffering from TB and most likely was there to offer prayers. After completing the steps and as she was leaving the church she collapsed and was taken to a nearby hospital. She died only a few months later. We had talked for many years of going there, and so the moment and place were very special.

We left Rome one morning around 8.30, taking the bus to the train station, and then bought tickets to Zagreb. We knew that there was a change in Venice and Villach, but we hadn’t realized that from Venice to Villach was by bus!!! At first it seemed like this was going to be a disaster, but trains and buses in Europe tend to run on time, so we arrived in Zagreb sixteen hours later and as scheduled.

Rome is one of the most energetic cities we have ever experienced. The people, sights, sounds, and smells are rivaled by few, although Rio may come close. The place never stops and your senses are on constant alert. Ah, the food? Fantastico!! Lucia goes crazy for the rustico bread. As in Croatia, the bread has so little salt, and it usually has a hard crust and wonderfully subtle flavor. All rules Mommy taught me about not soaking up sauce with your bread were forgotten. There was some spontaneity in choosing places for dinner, but I cannot tell a lie, Velvet, sometimes we would peek at the tourist guides. But I remember one of the most amazing sandwiches I have ever tasted, which was made from focaccia bread, provolone, and porchetta (apologies for using W., but it tells the basic tale) and was bought at a corner spot, indistinguishable from hundreds of others.

By the way, I am a pasta geek and the one thing I run into on occasion is pasta al dente; to me pasta that is undercooked. When it is boiling, take out a piece (of course you burn your fingers), then bite off a bit. If you see a bright whiteness on the inside, you are looking at uncooked pasta; it is not done! I don’t like chewy pasta. I only experienced that once in Rome, but I had to vent. That said, the dish was still wonderful.

How do you describe good food? The textures, smells, and flavors of what we experienced were among the very best we have ever known, other than Lucia’s best, of course. A fav was Il Boom, which we only found out later is ranked #1 on Trip Advisor out of over 2100 restaurants. Everything was perfect, from the marinated octopus salad to the ‘seven sins’ pasta dish to the linguini del mare to the…rustico bread. Some of the other places are Osteria Ponte Sisto ( and Trattoria Lucia Other fav foods included carciofo (artichoke hearts) Roma style, marinated sardines (absolutely my fav), chicory with olive oil and garlic, and for dessert assorted cheese with honey (very Etruscan; we have had it in Orvieto).

Basta. I hear the fireworks out my window, so it’s time to head toward downtown Zagreb for the midnight show. And Monday it’s off to Vienna for a very different landscape, cultural, and culinary experience!

I would like to wish you all a Sretna Nova Godina. Let’s hope it’s a great year for all. And special best wishes to little Caroline, Nina, Peter and Becca, among several little ones…


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

St. Nicholas Day

Monday was St. Nicholas Day, and it seemed to be much more an event than in the ol’ U.S. of A. Of course, this is true throughout Europe, but I gather there are some nuances unique to Croatia. That said, I could never quite figure out what was from Croatia, the area around Zagreb, or even Zagorje, which is the area between here and the Slovenian border. My Croatian readers and friends could clarify much for me, I’m sure, but I ask that they let me plow ahead with the basics.

Most of you know that St. Nicholas was a real person, unlike Santa Claus, who was derived from the original solely for a Christmas fantasy (please don’t show this to our grandsons). But they are similar in that they are very cool guys who bring goodies for little kids.

As the tradition goes, on the evening before the 6th of December children clean their shoes and put them in the window to await a visit from St Nicholas. He brings treats and small presents for each child. But he is always accompanied by his 'devil' friend, Krampus, who leaves a silver or gold sprayed birch twig to remind them of what might happen if they are naughty children (whack!).

So, on Monday in the market place—and in the spirit and tradition of St. Nicholas Day—branches sprayed with gold were being sold. Attached here you will see pics of two babushkas who were selling them. I bought mine from the Croatian baba in the first pic. The second baba may have been more of the Italian persuasion (and thus nona), because I gather the tradition extends all the way to Northern Italy.

Another pic shows those little devils hiding in the branches.

Meanwhile, a day or two before St. Nicholas day and all day on the 6th, people were walking around holding the gold branches, some with red ribbons. And in the spirit of it all, we adorned our window sill that looks down to a cold and damp Deželića street with some of those very same gold branches.

Well, on the day of celebration, we were lucky enough to be around Trg bana Jelačića (our main square) when St. Nicolas made an appearance by the skating rink. Needless to say, the kids loved it, but then again, so did we.

Finally, when I went to give a late eve lecture (4.15 to 5.45) at Uni Zagreb, the students were there…munching candy brought to them by ‘you know who’. Apparently they had behaved well.

I hope you all had a wonderful Happy St Nicholas Day and will have many more to come.