Cheers to You, Croatia!

I’m ending this month long adventure the way I started it, with a Donna Summer dance party. She has definitely perked up the mood from a little mellow to downright upbeat.  I’m dancing around and finishing packing up my things.  It’s a little weird seeing my life shoved into four suitcases.

I took care of the essentials today; worked out, sipped some coffee while doing a little people watching and I got a manicure.  Mirna killed it this afternoon with my nails; I’m absolutely in love with them.  With my new paint job and Donna singing Bad Girls, I’m feeling a little sassy.

I’ve realized that I’ve done everything that I wanted this month and very little I planned.  Pre-Croatia Nikki probably would have freaked out over this; but it actually feels good.   I’ve had the trip of a lifetime and experienced more than I ever imagined I could in a month.  For whatever reason, I thought I would come out of this experience feeling more settled down but if anything I’m left with an even greater appetite to explore and discover.  Thankfully, David and I are on the same page.  We’ve got dinner tonight to toast to this opportunity and to our future.  I’m happy, we’re happy, life is good.

So, what’s next? That’s what I’ve been asking myself. Quite honestly, I’m not sure yet.  I know in the immediate future I have a flight out to Frankfurt that is obscenely early and this weekend is homecoming, so there will be football, family and friends.  This should definitely lighten the harsh blow of reality.  As far as my next international adventure, I’m sure I’ll stumble into something, but that doesn’t mean everything will go dark.  Now that I’ve discovered the pleasures of blogging, I don’t plan on stopping. I’ve got a lot to say.  There are untold Croatia stories that I need to share and I know I’ll have plenty of tales to tell from the trouble I get into back home.

Like I told my friends here, I’m not saying any goodbyes.  So, I’ll see you soon.

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Life’s Balancing Act

I went to bed last night in a bad mood, I felt anxiety creeping up from my stomach and into my throat.  My days in Croatia are few and I was starting to freak out.  I thought I would wake up this morning and write a long, dramatic entry of how I wasn’t ready to leave, but I’ll save myself the embarrassment. I do feel like I’m not ready to go yet;  there’s so much still to explore and many relationships that I would like to continue to cultivate.  But honestly, who would be ready to leave behind an adventure.   Longing to stay is almost the best way to go.  It gives me more of a reason to come back.  I would hate to be the exact opposite, pissed off at a country and damning it to anyone who would listen.

My biggest fear or the thing that has been hiding in the shadows of my mind, ready to pounce when I was the most vulnerable, was not that this amazingly wonderful opportunity would be ending but that when I return, I will revert back to being the person that I was before I left.  Pre Croatia,  I was a woman  who was crazy stressed-out, anxious and unhappy the majority of the time.  Think of any character Katherine Heigl has played, and that was me.  I hated the way I was leading my life and the person who I had become because I knew that wasn’t me.  Being able to come here  was an opportunity for me to reset and come out refreshed with a clear mind.   And my time here has been just that.  There is a noticeable difference in who I am today and what I was then.  And as cheesy as it sounds, Croatia has led me to remember what it was to enjoy life and how to be happy.  The last thing I want to do is to lose that feeling and be that neurotic lady again.

My bible study this morning was titled “It’s OK to Enjoy Your Life”.  I think the title alone is a lesson in itself.  With everything that most people have going on, we do sometimes need to be reminded that life was meant to be enjoyed.  It went on to say that there is a time for accomplishment and there is a time for enjoyment. We can’t lead a life worth living if we have one without the other.  Life is a constant balancing act between two.   Today’s lesson, which I think is probably the major lesson of my journey, has dramatically changed my outlook on my impending return.   It’s time to tip the balance back towards the middle.  As I start one of my final mornings in Varaždin (at least for the time being), I refuse to be sad. I’ve got a 12 hour trip home for that.  Besides, there’s far too much life to enjoy today.

Croatian Football Feast

I woke up this morning stuffed from last night’s feast.  I was a little dehydrated but no headache; I would call that a victory.  Yesterday evening, we drove over to the neighboring town of Novi Marof to visit friends.  You may recall my last visit to Novi Marof was for the Croatian Barbeque.  This evening had a similar spirit but with a slight twist. Instead of going to the family compound, we headed to the hills to their cabin where we had gemišt, delicious food and we watched a little football Americano.

We made our way up the winding hillside and found ourselves surrounded by darkness.  Željko flagged us down and then guided us inside to the chilly one room cabin.  In it, there was a small bed, a table with a few chairs, a sink and a wood burning  oven.  Nikola was bringing in firewood to get the fire going and Željko pulled out small bottles of homemade liquors and glasses to help warm us up a little more quickly.  It was lovely.

Nikola tending the wood burning oven

Nikola tending the wood burning oven

Nikola and Željko started preparing the food, you got to love men that can cook.  To get us started, Nikola served up sausages (dried and cured by the Croatian wind), smoked bacon, onions picked from their fields, which he sprinkled with salt and bread.

Sausage, bacon and onions

Sausage, bacon and onions

As we were noshing, Željko began to heat a pot full of food over the oven and started peeling a bowl of potatoes.  We were in for a traditional peasant meal.

 Željko man handling those spuds.

Željko man handling those spuds.

Once thoroughly heated, Nikola sat the pot before us and revealed what was inside…stuffed cabbage.  I’m not really a cabbage kind of girl but it smelled so tasty.  It was generously stuffed with pork, rice and spices and then delicately rolled and cooked in some sort of broth.  I’m guessing there was probably some  wine in it.  Last night was the night that I became a cabbage loving kind of girl. This dish was so good!

We watched the Denver vs. San Diego game from the night before while we drank gemišt and Željko finished up with the potatoes and started to prepared the mulled wine.  The potatoes were laid out on the baking sheet and he was adding in the “love”,  meaning,  a pad of butter on each potato topped off with a slice of bacon.  Paula Dean would be proud.

Potatoes with "love"

Potatoes with “love”

Denver continued to lead over San Diego and we all sat around enjoying the mulled wine  and gemišt.  Nikola tended the oven, making sure the fire was fed, while Željko prepared the special sauce for the potatoes as the baked.  Once ready, the crispy potatoes were set before us with the sauce by its side.  We learned that the sauce would make Paula Dean even more proud,  it was browned onions in butter!  And of course, they were amazing.

Until the early morning, we enjoyed the warmth of the cabin and the taste of wine.  We built toilets, witnessed the durability of a Nokia phone and got a little weird with the camera. I learned that just like a true southern kitchen, pork and butter are the Croatian ingredients used to add little “love” to a dish.

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Thank you again to the friendliest family around, it was another night well spent.

Here we are feasting

Here we are feasting

Klipići | A Varaždin Tradition

Yesterday was a cold, rainy day in Varaždin, one where you don’t want to step outside, not even to get food. Fall has definitely arrived.  It seems that after weeks of the people willing it to be cold by wearing coats and scarves in about 70 degree weather, the season finally caught up with their mindset. I for one am so happy that cooler weather is here because that means I can finally wear the other half of my wardrobe. Oh, sweater weather.  On a nasty day like this, Iva and I could only think of one thing to do…bake! Iva and her mother have been telling me about Klipići (kleepeechee), a Varaždin tradition, and how they had to show me how to make it before I return home.

Iva knows the recipe by heart or I guess I should say, Iva knows how to make Klipićis so well that she doesn’t need a recipe. I quickly learned that Klipići is one of those things that almost everyone in the town knows how to make. A doughy treat that has been passed down from mother to child for years.

She starts preparing everything and I start asking questions. I know I’ve seen people eating them in the streets but I found out that a lot of cafés pair Klipići with coffee in the morning. I also learned that the main hotel in Varaždin, Hotel Turist, is the unofficial keeper of the recipe and of the traditional technique for preparing the bread.

As she continues to pull the ingredients together, I realize that not only is she cooking without a recipe but she’s not really measuring either. Klipići is the third thing she learned how to prepare as a child. First she mastered potatoes, then a meat dish, followed up by Klipići.

When Iva travels to other regions of Croatia and requests Klipici, they don’t know what she’s referring to. This pastry doesn’t really exist outside of the Varaždin region. There are similar pastries, like Kiflice, but they are often sweet and shaped differently.

Klipići Dough

I’m watching her mix and add milk and oil to the dough.   She knows just how much to add and of what. Using feeling alone, she’s able to get the right consistency. Then she begins the kneading process.

Kneading

The elders in Varaždin say you have to knead the dough like you’re mad at someone. I asked her if there was a fear of overworking the dough. For certain types of pastries and breads, yes but for Klipićii the more you knead it, the softer it will be once it’s baked. Ideally, the dough is kneaded for 15 minutes but she claims to not have the arm strength for that. Once the dough was well kneaded, Iva floured a bowl and placed the ball of dough inside for it to warm up and rise. For an extra boost of warmth, she placed the bowl on the radiator.

As we waited, Iva shared some Klipići history with me.   Klipići dates back to when Varaždin was the capital of Croatia, that was way back in the 18th century. I love that this bread has been a staple in this town for so long. It’s believed that Klipići may have stemmed from Vienna when present-day Croatia was under Habsburg Monarchy rule. They also suspect that it’s a simpler version of the Viennese Kiflice.

IMG_1410

We began pinching off pieces of the risen dough and forming small balls. Then I got my first lesson in the proper dough rolling technique. The trick is to spread or stretch the dough as you roll it up. I wasn’t too bad. Then we added a level of complexity by spreading cream cheese on the sheets of dough prior to rolling them up. That proved to be a bit more challenging and my dough babies were a little fat and ugly. We let them rise again, then brushed them with egg wash and added seeds.  We used pumpkin and cumin.  Often times, sesame is used but any type of seed will work.

We placed them in the oven and then came the hard part, waiting for them to be done. Soon, the yummy smells of freshly baked bread starting fill up the house and I rushed to the oven to check on my babies. They had started to turn a lovely shade of brown, but still not quite done.   The smell was becoming so intoxicating it was making me crazy. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too much longer for them to be ready.

Klipići

Once they had cooled down, I grabbed one straight from the cookie sheet. The roll was so soft to the touch and my first bite was warm and heavenly. As I continued to eat, that’s when I discovered the cream cheese, which took these Klipićis to another level. Those warm doughy bites were more than what I expected and they were so easy to make. This is definitely a recipe I’m taking home with me and one Iva is willing to share with you all.

Klipići

Klipići Recipe

Ingredients:

500 mL of Milk

300 mL of Oil

900g of Flour

2 (literal) teaspoons of Salt

40g of Fresh Active Yeast

2 (literal) teaspoons of Sugar

1 (literal) teaspoon of Flour

2 Egg Yolks

Pinch of Salt

Directions:

Preparing the Yeast

      1. Warm 100mL of the 500mL of Milk until it’s warm to the touch
      2. While warming the milk, place 1 (literal) teaspoon of Flour in a small bowl. Add the 2 (literal) teaspoons of sugar to the flour. Take the 40g of Fresh Active Yeast and crumble into the Flour Sugar mixture
      3. Add 100mL of warm Milk to the Flour, Sugar and Yeast mixture and set aside for it to rise

Preparing the Dough

      1. Pour 900g of Flour into a large mixing bowl.
      2. Add 2 (literal) teaspoons of Salt to the Flour and mix the two together
      3. Once Yeast has risen enough, gently fold the Yeast into the Flour and Salt mixture
      4. Once Yeast is folded in, begin to add a little milk and oil to the mixture and blend with your hands. Continue to add milk and oil (little by little) and mixing with your hands until the dough no longer sticks to your fingers. You may have milk and oil left over
      5. Form the dough into a ball and begin to knead “like you hate it” for a few minutes
      6. After kneading, lightly flour a bowl and add the dough. Cover with a damp cloth and let rest in a warm place until it doubles in size

Shaping the Dough and Baking

      1. After the dough has risen, pinch off small pieces and form balls (18-20 balls of dough)
      2. Roll out individual dough balls until they are thin sheets
      3. Optional- Spread cream cheese and/or add meats on top of the thin sheet of dough
      4. At the smallest end on the bottom of the sheet begin to roll the dough upwards. Try to stretch the dough while rolling upwards to create length. Continue with remaining balls of dough
      5. Place finished rolled dough on the baking sheet and cover with a cloth and let it rise for about 30 minutes.
      6. Heat oven to 220°C or 450° F
      7. Create yolk egg wash by separating two yolks from egg whites. Add a pinch of salt to the yolks and gently beat
      8. After the rolls have risen, brush egg wash on each roll.
      9. Add seeds on top of each roll. We used Pumpkin and Cumin but any kind will work
      10. Place Klipići in the oven for 10-12 minutes or until beautifully browned
      11. Let cool and then enjoy!

The Sweet Coastal Town of Pula

For Andrea’s last full day, I really wanted her to see the Croatian coast. She has seen pictures of the crazy blue water from my earlier trips but I really wanted her to experience it first hand. For some, this day trip was a bit too aggressive but we were two determined women, running on adrenaline and pure excitement. So, we packed up our bags and started our drive to the city of Pula.

We were almost out of Varaždin when I made a wrong turn in the roundabout. I slowed to make a left turn to turn around and then heard a loud thud. I immediately stopped the car and we both wondered out loud what that noise was. I looked in the rearview mirror and couldn’t see anything. I then opened my door and saw a man picking up his motorcycle of the road. My first thought was, “Oh dear God, did I injure this man?” Fortunately, he started telling me he was fine before I could even ask him and then he was up and gone. The two of us sat in the car for a good minute without moving, still in shock of what had happened. I would like to stress that we were hit by a motorcycle, we are the true victims and that the remainder of our journey was accident free.

Our drive to the coast was itself an experience, filled with plenty of oohhs and aahhs. We were climbing, descending and going through mountains. Twisting and curving around bends and valleys and then we finally saw the coast for the first time. Though it was a little cloudy, you could still see the small rays of sun reflecting off of the water; so gorgeous! Within an hour of our first sea spotting, we made it to the town of Pula and we pulled up to the Amphitheatre.

View of the Pula Amphitheatre

View of the Pula Amphitheatre

Honestly, this was our highlight of Pula. We were absolutely blown away at how well preserved it was and that we basically had the place to ourselves.

 

An almost empty amphitheater for us to enjoy.

An almost empty amphitheater for us to enjoy.

Throughout the rest of the city, you could see the Roman influences from the Roman Theatre to the Temple of Augustus.

This charming coastal town was the perfect place to go for a day trip while in Croatia. With the beautiful sea views, rich culture, fresh seafood and of course, gelato, the two of us were in heaven. And they said it couldn’t be done in a day!

Me enjoying the almost sunset in Pula.

Me enjoying the almost sunset in Pula.

Croatian Barbeque

This evening, we were invited to join a few of David’s friends for a Croatian Barbeque filled with family and fun.  We finally crossed the Croatian border and arrived in the town of Novi Morov close to 8. We walked into a room full of people, with a fantastic spread laid out for everyone to enjoy. We were greeted with warm smiles, handshakes and shots of homemade brandy from the matriarch of the family. When the mother of the house is laying down some shots as you walk through the door, its pretty clear how the night is going to be.

We approached the table like we hadn’t eaten in days; we served ourselves heaping helpings of meats, pastas, potatoes and bread. All so delicious but yet not filling enough, so we kept coming back for seconds and thirds. Man was that good; everything was homemade from the sausage to the wine.  Dražen, our gracious host, poured us our first gemišt. Gemišt is vino plus sparkling water. For whatever reason, I thought mixing wine and water would make a hydrating alcoholic beverage but as I continued to consume more, I began to question my original thought. Tomorrow’s trip to the coast may end up being a more painful drive than I expected, fingers crossed we’ll be hangover free. We continued on with noshing, drinking and laughing and then noshing and drinking more. We found out that on top of being extremely friendly, our new Croatian friends are expert instigators. Dražen kept our glasses full with gemišt even when we tried to hide them. Soon, our southern drawls came out and we had filmed a “Wish You Were Here” video for Andrea’s husband. Between cheers, or živjelis, we shared stories about Croatian History, American customs and our slight perplexity of the coldness we experienced in Austria.  It was well beyond time to get home, but we drank on.

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Tonight was the kind of night that you can’t plan but just happens, where the wine and company are so on point that it’s hard to believe it was real. Andrea and I were drunkenly standing at a sink slurring these very words. In the few days that she’s been here, we’ve been in three countries, shared some incredible experiences and still have one more day to go. It’s sad to think that my partner in crime will be leaving soon. I’m laying in bed now, still glowing in the pleasure of this evening and I’m so happy that I got to spend it with my favorite girl. To this night that we shared, živjeli!

We Heart Zagreb

It’s pitch black and we’re zipping through one small town to the next. Outside of our headlamps, orange glowing churches scattered across the countryside are the only other sources of light. Another couple hundred kilometers and we’ll be in Vienna.

I woke up this morning cold free, chip free and excited. Yes, those magical Croatian drugs have healed my body. Fueled by eggs and a leftover slice of pizza, I was ready to get this day started.  My best friend, Andrea, took the worst imaginable flight path to meet me in Croatia. She went through 24 hours of travel, which included stops in both Newark and Charles de Gaulle, true flying torture, to arrive in Zagreb at 12:45 today. Clearly she really loves me and I love her too.

We had a few hours to tour the city, so with Iva in tow, acting as an unofficial guide, we kicked off our afternoon with lunch at Sofra!  Of course, it was delicious and just as good as I remembered. We ordered cevapi, stuffed cevapi in a creamy sauce, wine, Turkish coffee and finished it off with baked apples stuffed with nuts and whipped cream. Oh, and there may have been a salad. We stuffed ourselves past the point of being full and had no regrets. At least I didn’t; I convinced myself that all the walking we would do later would cancel out some of the damage.

With only a few hours to do Zagreb, we really had to keep moving in order to see the major highlights. This is something that we (meaning Andrea and I) struggled with. Between the two of us we were constantly taking pictures, selfies and asking Iva to take photos of us while we posed. From this, you can hopefully gather that there are so many picture perfect places in Zagreb, especially if you are treated to an abnormally warm, sunny day in October. You couldn’t blame two photo obsessed girls for wanting to take advantage of it- “Oh, look, a gnome in the window!” or “Lets make a hand heart with the city in the background!”

Luckily, Iva was able to wrangle us in and we made the most of our time. She was the real adult today. We chose to tour The Upper Town. Our first stop was Ban Jelacic Square, a major focus point in the city.

Ban Jelacic Square with Iva and Andrea

Ban Jelacic Square with Iva and Andrea

Next we took a hike up the hill to get to what I believe is the most beautiful cathedral I’ve ever seen.  Currently they are doing construction on the outside but it’s still impressive.  What really takes my breath away is the inside. We entered the cathedral just as Friday mass started and were quickly pushed out, no tourists allowed.

It was too late to see an active market but we walked passed the area anyways.

By the time we arrived, the market was being cleaned up.

By the time we arrived, the market was being cleaned up.  Normally, there are so many tents and people selling lots of fresh produce.

The stone gate was our next stop and there we saw the miraculous painting of the Virgin Mary.  Miraculous because it was saved from a devastating fire in 1731.

We quickly swung by St. Mark’s Square, the Croatian History Museum and then on to St. Catherine’s Square. Followed by what was by far my favorite part of the city, The Strossmayer Promenade.  

The peaceful Strossmayer Promenade

The peaceful Strossmayer Promenade

This place was so serene and peaceful, that is, until we arrived and turned it into the backdrop for our ridiculous photo shoot.

After receiving enough uncomfortable stares from onlookers, we went to see the view from Gradec.  While there, I noticed locks with lovers names or initials on them. Iva called it a copy from Paris. Whatever, I still liked them.

Just a few of the lovers locks in Zagreb.

Just a few of the lovers locks in Zagreb.

Our last stop on our tour was Tkalciceva. This street was fun with all of its colored buildings and the youth of Zagreb flocking to the cafe bars. There, we tried some local brew at Pivnica Mali Medo which was so refreshing after all that hustling we did.

All I can say is that we did it! In a few hours, we saw so much of Zagreb and had enough time to take a few silly photos and enjoy some damn good beer.

With significantly fewer kilometers remaining, David is navigating Drea and me through the Austrian mountains. After such a fun day with my bestie, I can’t wait for the three of us to be waking up in Vienna. 

Girl Talk in Varazdin

I’m sitting at a café, enjoying a cappuccino and switching between writing and reading Chelsea Handler’s Uganda Be Kidding Me.  Right now, Chelsea and friends have just finished their African safari and she is prepping us for her next adventure.  I know I should be reading something with a little more substance but I still feel like I’m on vacation, so I’m going to continue to read this trash. This is my first real moment to relax.  Since I’ve arrived, we’ve been going but I can’t complain.  I’m wired that way.  I love to be rushing from one activity to the next; it gets me excited about life.  However, this is not the purpose of this trip.  I’m finding myself making mental lists and scheduling one activity after another- first I’ll go to the gym, then I’ll shower and eat, after I’ll go explore this new city and have a coffee, etc.   Then I remind myself that I need to slow down and be in the moment; it’s perfectly fine if have absolutely no plans today or tomorrow.  I thought winding down would be easier but it’s proven to be more difficult than I expected, especially given the pleasure I get from scheduling my day down to the minute.  My gut is telling me that I’ll eventually adjust.

Waiting for my warm beverage with Chelsea.

Waiting for my warm beverage with Chelsea.

This morning, I gave myself a pass and scheduled an appointment.  A few days ago, I met the daughter of the apartment owner, Iva.  She’s  in her early twenties and has blown me away with her maturity and worldliness. And goodness, she is smart.  I can’t imagine being that composed at her age.  I have to step up my game when I’m with her; I don’t want to embarrass both my family and country.  She was so kind and took me around town to give me the lay of the land and shared some insights on Varazdin, which was incredibly helpful.  Being me, I was listening very intently but became somewhat distracted by her beautiful nails.  You could tell that they hadn’t been manicured recently, yet they were still so shiny, without any chips.  I was mesmerized.  I was a little ashamed to ask but the bourgie girl in me had to know where she got her nails done.  Not only did she tell me, she took me to the salon so I could schedule my very own appointment.  I was in beauty heaven.

So this morning, at 9:05, I was scrambling out of the apartment to get to my appointment by 9:15.  I hate feeling rushed to get anywhere, especially since I’m not supposed to be scheduling appointments this month, but I have a true weakness when it comes to nails.  I can only blame my mother for spoiling me as a child with regular mani/pedis.  I arrived at the Beauty Box on time and was greeted by Mirna, this tall, exotic Croatian woman, and I was in my element.  I was also greeted by the owner, Ines, who was busy working away with another client.  The four of us women began talking and they asked me questions about myself like “What’s your occupation? “, “Why would you visit our small town?” and questions about the States, like “What does Starbucks really taste like?”, it was fun.  We laughed and talked about getting married and ugly engagement rings. Ines described a ring with a gold band that had green leaves on it, leaves as green as grass on the engagement ring. I would say that it is probably one of the ugliest engagement rings I’ve ever heard described, that poor engaged girl.  Being there, chatting it up and joking with these women, felt like I was being welcomed into Varazdin.

And my nails! Oh, they look amazing.  I got to forgo those annoyingly work appropriate colors and did something a little bit wild; a blend of pinks and pale orange.  Or, as Ines called them, Skittle nails, which is a completely fair statement.  They do look like Skittles, but only the good flavors, like Strawberry Starfruit and Mango Tangelo.  The best part about this mani is probably the system that they use here.  Maybe I’ve been living under a rock but I’ve never seen a manicure like this.  Somebody please inform me if I’m behind in times.  Alessandro-International’s  Striplac  is the name of the system that she used, and I’m now obsessed with it.  The overall process is fairly simple and I’ve fallen in love with it so much so, that I’m researching purchasing this product to use at home.  From everything I’ve read, it last for forever, it doesn’t chip, your nails are crazy shiny, it comes in an insane amount of colors and you don’t have to use acetone to remove it, they simply peel off. God bless the German woman who invented it.  It’s almost too good to be true, hence the research and trial.  Fingers crossed that it goes well.

Pretending to read my book but I'm really just admiring my shiny nails.

Pretending to read my book but I’m really just admiring my shiny nails.

I realize that pink painted nails probably sound silly and frivolous, but hey, it made this girl happy.  And as I sit here now, admiring my hands and hunting down how I can get my hands on Alessandro-International products, I know that a manicure can sometimes be more than a manicure.  The practice of pampering yourself proved to be universal today; most women like to treat themselves every once in a while. Whether it’s because they have slight addiction, like myself, or they needed something that can make them feel a little more pretty that day.  The bond that comes from sharing in and acknowledging the importance of this practice crosses all language barriers.  As I have witnessed today, a manicure connected me to people that I may not have spoken to or who may not have spoken to me.  It gave all of us the opportunity to let our guards down, get to know each other and lay the ground work for a friendship.  That is the power of a manicure.

The Croatian Highlands

The saddest thing happened, okay, definitely not the saddest but certainly something that I wish wouldn’t have happened until maybe towards the end of this month.  I got sick.  Thankfully it’s just a cold but it’s never ideal to get sick while on vacation.  The only culprit I can blame is that disgusting airplane.  Outside of maybe a Greyhound bus, the airplane is the nastiest mode of transportation by which you can travel.  Thinking about them now makes me ill.  Hundreds of people, carrying all sorts of germs, squished together for hours upon hours in a cylindrical tube pumping re-filtered air through vents.  To that poor soul who has to clean those sorry excuses for bathrooms, I pray for you often.  Unfortunately, I picked up something and I’ve been nursing myself back to health for the past day, lots of tea with lemon and honey and plenty of Vitamin C.  The apartment owner is so sweet and took me to the pharmacy, which is a lot different from a drugstore, and translated my symptoms so I could get the correct medication.  Relief is on the horizon!  I’m determined to be better by Friday.  I have to be, because Friday is a very special day.

Yesterday, I picked out three places for us to visit, all within the Croatian borders and an easy drive away.  Our first stop was Lepoglava, which is known for hosting the main prison in Croatia.  I know, I know, why would you want to go to the prison yard?  And quite honestly, I’m still trying to figure out why it’s a tourist spot. I hear they kick ass at making lace but for me, the biggest draw is the restaurant in the prison city.  I was told that the prisoners work both in the kitchen and as servers and that the food is both cheap and delicious.  Unfortunately, I will never know.  When we arrived, it was like the whole village had shown up for lunch.  Families upon families arrived ready to eat and the prisoners, or shall I say staff, became overwhelmed.  As soon as I saw the high-ranking Croatian military officers gathering at a table, I knew we weren’t going to eat any time soon and we would have to abort the mission.  We were 0 for 1.

We pushed on to Krapina, home to the Neanderthal Museum.  Did you know that about 800 Neanderthal fossil remains were found near present-day Krapina, Croatia?  We didn’t either, so we thought this could be interesting to see and it was in the general vicinity. Let’s just say it didn’t work out and I didn’t get to learn the tales of the Neanderthals.  Plenty of people were walking around the grounds but the museum was closed despite what the internet hours said.  We were totally there before 5pm.  We were 0 for 2.

Our final stop was Trakošćan Castle, former residence of the aristocratic Drašković Family.  We rushed to get there before closing time and thankfully made it.  This place is truly a gem with its expansive grounds, private lake and well preserved interiors and furnishings.  Situated perfectly on a hill, this castled oozed with superiority, nobility and power.  Standing in its glory, I think we were able to capture some of its beauty.  We were 1 for 3, not good but not so bad.

Trackošćan Castle looking over the lake.

Trackošćan Castle looking over the lake.

The First Saturday- Market Day and Hlebec

Every Saturday, near the castle, there’s an open market where the locals go to buy fresh produce, cheeses, meats and breads. I’ve been to open markets in Europe but this one had a different feel to it.  It seemed that the whole town went there to take their morning coffee and get the fresh stuff; none of that grocery store food for them today.  I was amazed at one of the women who sold chicken.  Her line stretched so far that it blocked shoppers from approaching the other stands.  Everything looked so incredible that I was ready to go on a grocery shopping spree.  Thankfully, David put me in check and made me realize that we don’t need three heads of cauliflower just because they were so beautiful.

Stacked up red peppers ready to be taken home by a girl like me.

Stacked up red peppers ready to be taken home by a girl like me.

Delicious nectarines and tomatoes, so juicy and ready to eat.

Delicious nectarines and tomatoes, so juicy and ready to eat.

Look how fresh everything is, and the amazing part is that it was grown maybe 10 minutes from the outdoor market.

Look how fresh everything is, and the amazing part is that it was grown maybe 10 minutes from the outdoor market.

For the afternoon, I really wanted to go wine tasting because I’ve read so many raving reviews about the region’s wine offerings.  We were advised to take a 40 minute drive across the border to Slovenia, to find a winery called Hlebec (the h is silent-ish) in the city of Kog.  Note to self, avoid Google map directions while traveling the Croatian countryside.

One of the many vineyards we passed along the wine.  This is wine country!

One of the many vineyards we passed along the way. This is wine country!

We’re about an hour into our trip and I see that we’re almost at the border but it doesn’t look very official, like the other border crossings we’ve been too.  Google tells us to turn down a narrow road surrounded by woods, so we reluctantly did. This narrow road turned into a twisty gravel road that somehow took us into a field behind an abandoned house where  the dead-end border crossing is.

The road or as I would call it, a field, in front of the closed border crossing to Slovenia.

The road or as I would call it, a field, in front of the closed border crossing to Slovenia.

After another hour and two additional dead-end border crossings, we finally found our way into Slovenia and in the city of Kog.

A crest from the city of Kog, Slovenia.

A crest from the city of Kog, Slovenia.

In a matter of minutes, we approached Hlebec Winery. I loved everything about Hlebec; the wine, the atmosphere, the owners, everything was wonderful.  We decided to go with a tasting which turned out to be more like full pours of wine, but let me get to the nibbles.  The owner’s son suggested we get the cold platter with meats and cheese and vegetables.  This platter was to die for!

Ham, Onion, Tomatoes, Cow Cheese with Pumpkin Seed Oil, Wild Garlic Spread, Red Pepper Sauce, Pickled Peppers, Lard Spread, and Sausage

Ham, Onion, Tomatoes, Cow Cheese with Pumpkin Seed Oil, Wild Garlic Spread, Red Pepper Sauce, Pickled Peppers, Lard Spread, and Sausage

Everything on the plate was made by his mother or grown in their garden.  My favorite part was the red pepper sauce; this sauce would be amazing just dipping with tortilla chips or adding it to bread with the cow cheese spread on top.  This stuff was so good, that I bought a jar of it.  I’m hiding it away from my husband so he won’t destroy the jar of goodness.  I was a little hesitant about the lard spread (lard from a pig with salt and other spices cooked down) but it was actually quite delicious.  The health-nut in me only allowed for a few tastes, but it was something special.

The wines ranged from the very dry to the very sweet.  My favorites were the Sauvignon and the Muškat, called Illuminati.  I wonder if Jay Z or Beyoncé have anything to do with it…  By the fourth pour, I began to wonder how we were going to get back home and that’s when he broke out the Cognac.  Oh, was it delicious.

From the beginning, David had been secretly pouring some of his wine into my glass while I wasn’t paying attention, so he was more than good to drive us home.  I love how sneaky he can be sometimes, especially when I get to reap the benefits!  With our bottle of Illuminati and jar of red pepper goodness, we made it back across the border and home to Varaždin in 35 minutes, with no border crossing problems to report.