Monday, October 17, 2016

Discovering Croatia by Bike, 2016

(A reminder that you can click on any photo to enlarge it to full screen.  Enjoy the scenery.)
Church of St. Lawrence, Trogir
The Devout Man

On an early morning walk to the post office in Trogir, our first stop after our long flight, we walked through the nearly empty St. Lawrence Square before breakfast and meeting our cycling group.  The church was open and empty, morning mass still a half hour in the future.  We wandered in.  We are no longer religious people, but prayer and reflection are strong instincts.  We knelt and allowed the silence to surround us and our thoughts to roam free.

From our left, an old man appeared, carrying a thin glass vase with one flower.  He was thin, with close-cut gray hair.  Although he shuffled with some effort to the statue of the Virgin and Child just a few feet in front of us, I sensed physical strength.  Military, I thought.  Perhaps an officer.  A veteran of the war of the nineties?  Old before his time?  He placed the flower by the statue, knelt before the statue and lowered his head.  I turned away and surveyed the apse of the sixteenth century church, the columns, the altar, the art.

A loud smacking sound drew my attention back to the old man, who was now standing and kissing the statue.  He kissed Mary's robes, her feet, the Infant Jesus repeatedly.  Loud smooches.  His placed his hands with great tenderness on the Infant and on the Virgin's breast.  Over and over he kissed them and touched them, as if he were saying goodbye and would never see them again.

Finally, he shuffled off to the right and out of the church to face his day.

Church of St. Lawrence in Trogir, our first stop off the plane
We had arrived the day before, checked into our hotel and walked off the effects of the long flight.  We wandered the streets of the old city in a chilly rain.  We found a bocce court, empty, and washed down pizza with local draught pivo - beer.

Bathroom with a view, Trogir
A back alley in Split

Hmmm.  Choose carefully.

Promoting the local soccer team.  I thought he was an evangelist.

Ups and Downs

wild descent endless
wind symphony filling ears
shouting unheard YES

The VBT brochure rates the Croatia trip "easy-moderate."  Carol commented at one point that we must have slept through the easy day.  We worked hard on this trip.  As legs churned on uphill grinds, there were muttered epithets and promises to ourselves (unkept for the most part) that tomorrow we'd ride in the van.  The rewards, however, were great.  The uphill grinds eventually became accomplishments to savor.  And the downhills!  The downhill glides, wind whistling in our ears, pure joy!  

Uphill or down, the countryside of the Dalmatian Islands is stunning.  We had the roads to ourselves for the most part.  We could count the cars that passed us on one hand.  This beautiful part of Croatia had the air of a place not yet discovered by tourists.
Residence, Pucisca
Roadside Rest
The Harbor Town of Pucisca, one of many rewards

Hanging out in Pucisca
Another reward:  The mainland, seen from a bike on the island of Brac
A Good Day for Biking!  That's Vanja, one of our guides, catching up to me.
The sleepy hamlet of Skrip
Shed, Skrip
 The Island of Brac

Brac (pronounced Brach), as you can see, is lovely.  Olive trees dot the hilly countryside, along with grapevines.  Everywhere we saw neatly stacked piles of rock, so neat that they might have been art installations.  What I learned is that every olive tree and every vine was planted at the expense of great labor.  The artistic rock piles are the rocks that had to be moved to allow for the plantings.

Piles of rock moved to make room for olive trees
Olives, almost ready for picking
 Our hotel in the town of Postira was modern and comfortable.  Our group was large (twenty cyclists, the most ever of all our cycling trips).  We met for our orientation and warm-up ride Monday before dinner.  Marko and Vanja, our guides, got us fitted to our bikes, gave us our first map and sent us out for our warm-up ride before dinner.  They noted that our written directions often stated that at stops we should lock our bikes, but that we needn't bother.  Everyone on the island, they said, knows the VBT bikes, and everyone on the island knows the combination, 1-2-3-4.  Nobody wants our stinkin' bikes.  With all the challenging hills, the locals will stick to their cars, thank you very much.

On the grounds of our hotel in Postira, on the island of Brac

A lot of the rock on Brac is limestone, so it's not so surprising that the town of Pucisca is home to a stone cutters' school, one of many Croatian trades high schools.  We got to tour the school.  Fine white dust hung in the air, and I kept my camera in its case except for when I took it out for a quick photo.  I wondered what working here day in and day out must do the the lungs of the young men learning a trade here.  (We didn't see any young women at the school.)

Stone Cutters' School, Pucisca
Carol mugs for the camera with our guides, Marko and Vanja
The Best Day of Cycling Ever

On Wednesday, we all piled into a shuttle van for a ride up Vidova Gora, the highest point on the island.  We needed all our layers of clothing at the top.  After checking out the view and taking photos, we were eager to get to the bikes and descend to warmer temperatures.

Vidova Gura, 2,200 feet above the sea
Our morning ride to Milna covered eighteen miles.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that approximately seventeen of those miles were downhill!  When we arrived in the village for a delicious lunch at an outdoor café, I said, "We've just gone eighteen miles without pedaling!"  What a rush!  (The lunch, two salads with fresh, local ingredients, featured the most delicious tuna I've ever had.)

Lozisce, with its lovely bell tower, a stop on our long downhill.
We paid the fiddler after lunch, with twelve more miles of cycling, most of it uphill.  At the port town of Supetar, we rewarded ourselves with pretty good gelato. (You've got to go to Italy, in my opinion, for great gelato.)  There was still more ground to cover, which Carol and I alone chose to do in the van.  Kudos to all the sturdy cyclists who kept pedaling.

Gelato at the end of a hard day!
The next day we cycled in a gentle rain to the port town of Bol, where we would be ferried to the island of Hvar.  The rain robbed us of a chance to swim at Zlatni Rat Beach, one of Croatia's most popular beaches.  Most of the group headed for cafés for a bite to eat and a hot beverage before the ferry ride.  I wandered in the rain and discovered a tiny but delightful art gallery, Gallerja Branislav Deskovic.   The main floor featured the whimsical works of Vasko Lipovac, which brightened the rainy day for me.

The whimsy of Vasko Lipovac
Gallerija Branislav Deskovic in coastal town of Bol, a rainy day treat
(The island of Hvar, our next destination is seen through the window.)

On to the Island of Hvar

Hvar is a tad more upscale that Brac.  The port of Hvar is a major vacation destination, not only for Croatians but for the very wealthy of the world.  The glamorous yachts of the rich and famous lay at anchor in the port for all to admire.

Our hotel was just steps from St. Steven's Square, a gathering place for locals and tourists.

The Medieval Fortress Looming over Hvar
Sunday Stroll on the Riva, Hvar
St. Steven's Square, Hvar
View from our hotel window in the city of Hvar
The next morning, the rain was still with us and the first leg of our ride for the day was a 4.5 mile uphill climb.  A handful of our group opted for taking a break from cycling for some reason.  Carol was among them, choosing a long morning nap.  I wanted to ride because on the route was a vendor who sells bicycling jerseys.  Marko wore one of her jerseys that I really admired, and I wanted to purchase one.  Not thrilled with the prospect of a long, hard, wet climb, I chose to catch a lift in the van with several others.

The uphill seemed unending, even from the comfort of a dry seat in the van.  At the top, I got out and pedaled the rest of the way.  The jersey vendor had nothing I wanted in my size (end-of-the-tourist-season blues), so I settled on a leisurely cycle to Stari Grad, where we had lunch.

A place to rest, Stari Grad
Country cemetery near Selca
The sun returned in all its glory for our last day of cycling, which turned out to be the easiest day of the trip, lots of flat terrain which we did not think existed in the Dalmatian Islands. 

At one point I was cycling alone and I noted one of our cyclists (I thought), a woman in a bright red jersey, gaining on me.  It was on a gentle uphill stretch, a kind of cycling I really enjoy.  As she drew beside me, I said something about how much I enjoyed the easy grade.  She responded in a soft Croatian accent, "I don't think you meant to be talking to me, but I agree with you."  She was a local woman, who leads bike tours for a local tour company.  This was her day off, and I commented that she was on a bus man's holiday.  I explained the term to her, and she smiled and agreed.  We fell into easy conversation as we cycled together for a few kilometers.  At a split in the road in a small village, we said good-bye, she going right and I, left.

Later, I was telling this story to some of our group.  One of the guys, more serious than I about biking and biking gear, asked me what kind of bike she had.  I laughed and said, "She had a red jersey and a nice smile.  That's all I saw."

The goal this day was a picnic in a park on the rocky shore of the Adriatic near the town of Jelsa.  Most of the group stopped at a café for refreshment in the town of Vrboska on the way.  With limited time, Carol and I had other priorities.  I was determined to swim in the Adriatic Sea.  We cycled on to find a private swimming spot along the road, where we got in a good swim and a bit of sunbathing before heading on to the picnic.  (There were several of these hideaways along the coast.  Vanja informed us later that when locals seeking a place to swim come upon a private site that is occupied, they will move on, leaving its occupants to their privacy.)

Canal in Vrboska

A welcoming spot for a swim in our own private cove
A lovely spot for a picnic
Picnic fare - anchovies!
After the picnic, we cycled for our last time, some of us back to a shuttle to the hotel and some all the way to the hotel.  Guess what Carol and I did.

At last!  A level stretch of road!


Remnants of Diocletian's Palace, Split
When the ferry from Hvar deposited us in Split on Sunday afternoon, Carol, Amy and I made a bee line for the taxi stand.  We wanted to get to the Mestrovic Gallery before it closed at two p.m.  We didn't need to worry; the gallery was open until seven.  The beautiful gallery was once the home of Ivan Mestrovic,  the most famous Croatian sculptor.

Prometheus, by Ivan Mestrovic
Gardens of Gallerja Mestrovic
Woman, by Ivan Mestrovic
Milkshake Break at Gallerja Mestrovic on the outskirts of Split
One Final Adventure

Teraca Vidilica (their slogan:  Veni.  Vidi.  Vidilica) is an outdoor café that sits high on a hill in the Marjan Park, overlooking all of the city of Split and its harbor.  It's the place to go for the best view in town.  Since it lies between the Mestrovic Gallery and our hotel, we decided to walk to it for a drink.  We knew there were well-marked signs at the base of the hill, but we would have to walk quite a way to that point.  We decided on a short cut.  We were at the bottom of the hill.  There was a road going up.  Follow the road.  How could we not find it?

After a bit of climbing, however, we hit a dead end in a residential area.  The hill still rose before us, but the street ended.  Out came the city map.  As the three of us pored over it, a woman entering her apartment asked if she could help.  We explained where we were going.  She looked down and studied our shoes for a moment and asked, "Are you sportif?"

"Yes," we replied.  She pointed across the street to an alley with a trash dumpster set at the base of a steep and rather scraggly section of the hill.  She directed us to the dumpster, telling us there was a path behind it that would lead us up to Teraca Vidilica.  A little skeptical, we headed for the dumpster.  What did we have to lose?

There was indeed a rugged path, and for the next ten minutes we climbed steeply, scaling small boulders as we clung to tree roots.  We finally came to another street where there were several people strolling through the park.  "You're almost right there," a man with a family told us as he pointed the way.  Five minutes later, we were ordering our farewell drinks and soaking up a stunning view of Split.

The most beautiful spot for a refreshing drink in Split, Croatia

A Note on Bicycling Vacations

If you have a specific interest in our other tours with Vermont Bike Tours (, you can check out my past Travel Journals:

La Belle Provence, October 2014
Cycling in Tuscany, October 2013
Tuscany, 2005  (This was my first Travel Journal.  No text, only five photos.)

And finally...

Carol and I have taken several bicycle vacations together, but this one was special.  One year ago, we did not know if we'd have another such adventure.  In the fall of 2015, as many of you know, Carol underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy to shrink a tumor on her pancreas.  In January, she had Whipple surgery to remove the tumor.  Her recovery from that major surgery was long and difficult.  On June 30, one year to the day after receiving her cancer diagnosis, a CT scan showed that Carol was free of cancer.  Although she still was on the road to regaining her strength, she decided that she wanted to get back on the bike, so to speak, to get back to living her life the way she wanted to.

We rode our bikes all summer  to build Carol's endurance, culminating with a twenty-five mile fund-raising ride for pancreatic cancer research in September.  Carol continued to get stronger, but we had no idea how she'd do day in and day out on the hills of Croatia.  Carol did great.  She was on the bike from beginning to end (except for nap day).  She took every hill.  She was a star.

Pancreatic cancer is a stubborn and vicious foe.  From the day she received her cancer diagnosis, Carol has faced cancer her way, head-on, with intelligence, courage, determination, strength and grace.  Cycling the hills of Croatia was Carol telling everyone (including herself) that she will continue fighting and living her life her way.  It was her way of telling us all that she's back!

After the ride, with Ellen, Wesley (8) and Julien (5)
Me and My Hero in the Hill Towns of Tuscany

Friday, March 25, 2016

Arizona Desert Respite

Sunset in The Superstition Mountains
 (Click on any photo to enlarge it for better viewing.)

Wednesday, March 16    Carol lies on the chaise lounge, asleep, the patio umbrella shielding her from the desert heat.  It must be near ninety degrees, but who knows?  Who needs to measure?  I stand in mountain pose in full sun, facing north to the nearby Superstitions Mountains.  We are just where we want to be.  A respite from lingering winter.  And from cancer, which nevertheless has followed us, shadowing us, muted for the moment.

Plank pose.  Downward dog.  Three beach towels provide an almost adequate replacement for my yoga mat, although my feet slip on the towels.  I'm grateful for the heat pressing into my back.  The pool awaits for when I finish my yoga.

Our first full day in the desert.  Pat and Bill have gone off to Scottsdale to visit friends.  We have the house to ourselves.  Quiet surrounds us.  Close by, songbirds perch atop saguaro cactus and hide in cholla, startling us with beautiful melodies that are foreign to our city dwellers' ears.  They sound happy to pass the day in the desert.  And why not?

Closer still, wind chimes the size of small organ pipes hum bass notes that hint of timelessness.  I think of monks at prayer.

Past Its Prime, With Mid-Day Moon
It's not our usual style of travel.  By now, we'd have logged our first long hike into some canyon in the Superstitions, signed up for a horseback trail ride, found bicycles to use and planned our next hike, early in the morning or evening to avoid the heat of the day.  Carol doesn't have the strength yet for all that.  Still, we are happy to be here, grateful for this day.

Last Days of Winter
Thursday Morning Early    I'm the only one up.  I have the patio to myself for Tai Chi.  The sky is freshly blue, the Superstitions still in shadow, silent and bold.  Later in the day, when the sun is high overhead, it will wash the drama from both.  As I begin, my hands feel the morning chill.  The rising sun paints an east-facing cliff before my eyes, then another and another.   As the sun peeks over the roof of the neighbor's house, its rays touch the side of my face and my hands, warming them.  Birds flit from saguaro to a bare tree and back, calling to one another.  A terrier on a walk with its human  runs to the fence of our property and stares at me, head tilted.  Who are you, his look says.  Do you want to play?

Night Approaches
Friday Morning    Carol and I take a drive to the Boyce Canyon Arboretum, twenty miles down the Superstition Highway.  We arrive before the crowds.  It's a lovely place.  Carol and I get separated right away when I stop to take photos.  We don't meet up until later, after I've walked the mile and a quarter perimeter loop alone.  I expected to catch up to her and don't know how I missed her.  I worry a bit, something I never do because she's so independent.  That's her illness, working on my mind.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum.  The photo that separated Carol and me.

Man-made pond, Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Cactus Flower, Arboretum
At the far end of the property, I spot a suspension foot bridge over a dried up stream bed with a few stubborn pools of water.  I check my map and see that it leads to an off-the-beaten-track "high trail."  Another time Carol and I would have taken this trail without a second thought.  I walk onto the bridge, feeling it undulate beneath my feet.  I stop for a moment's reflection, then return to the main loop, eager to reunite with Carol.

Saturday Morning, Temperature Seventy-Six and Rising    Mary Jo, our house/dog sitter, texts us daily with an update.  Rowdie and the house are doing well.  This morning she reports a coating of white outside and icy sidewalks.

Other Times, Other Thoughts    The massive, dramatic and stark Superstitions loom over the desert in the moonlight.  Coyotes howl. 

Strike It Rich Drive, Strong Box Lane, Desert Dawn Drive, Louis L'amour Lane, Gold Canyon Way, Mountain Vista Road, Apache Way, Pony Rider Lane, Tomahawk Trail.  Talk about a sense of place.

Carol and I walk each morning after breakfast, as far as she can handle, which is a little farther each day.  The air temperature is still in the 70's, but the sun's heat is fierce.  The dial is turned to high.

I don't think I've ever been to a movie theater with twenty-five screens.  Twenty-five!  The Harkin Superstition Springs 25 is my first.  Every staff person is not only unfailingly polite but also engages us in brief conversation - the ticket seller, the ticket taker, the concession worker who sold me my popcorn.  At the end of the movie as we exit the theater, a young man with a large trash barrel and a broom waits at the door for the theater to empty.  "Thank you for attending," he says.  "I hope you enjoyed the movie."

We see "The Lady in the Van."  Carol and I always end our movie discussions with the question, would you recommend it?  Carol:  to someone who just loves movies or is a Maggie Smith fan.  Marc:  to any one who likes a good story well-told.

Past Its Prime, Sunset
Pat and Bill's cat is a genial sort.  She's not allowed out of the house.  The yard is fenced, but there are breaches in the defenses through which rabbits and roadrunners can hop in and, presumably, kitty cats can scamper out.  She often sits motionless, watching, tail flicking.  Is it a quail?  A vole?  A bunny?  She stares so long and so intently that I want to open the screen door for her and say, "Go!  Run!  Be free!"  In reality, if she got out all she would eventually be is dinner for some coyote.

Other times, when the cat isn't asleep on a favorite chair, she sits patiently by the side of the sliding screen door, waiting for one of us to drop our guard as we enter or exit.  The call of the wild is strong.

Each evening as the sun sets, we walk the perimeter track of the golf course, which lies just beyond a small patch of desert outside our patio.  Each night we walk, until Carol gets tired, toward King's Ranch Road, a few hundred yards away and a small fraction of the perimeter.  Last night we set out in the opposite direction and kept walking until we had circled the perimeter.  A small victory on the road to recovery.

I've laughed out loud a lot this week.  Something to savor.

Evening Walk
Ocotillo Under A Full Moon
On Our Evening Walk
On one of our evening walks, I say to Carol that I am trying to conjure a coyote, or maybe a javelina, walking in the desert scrub nearby.  I badly want to see these creatures.  She replies that she is trying to conjure no wild animals.

Our Last Day in the Desert    Carol and I are up early for a drive to Tortilla Flat (not the Tortilla Flat that John Steinbeck wrote about, which later became a motion picture).  We stop early  for a mini-hike in Lost Dutchman State Park, on the other side of the Superstitions.

The Superstitions in Lost Dutchman State Park

The Superstitions in the Morning, Lost Dutchman S.P.
Brittle Bush
The drive from Lost Dutchman to Tortilla Flat is a beautiful and slow meander through the mountains over twisty, curvy roads.  We negotiate a switchback and round a curve and are startled to see below us the brilliant blue waters of Canyon Lake, created when a dam was built between 1915 and 1925.  Oversized pick-ups hauling boats are road companions now.  Such an incongruous sight after a week in the desert.

Tortilla Flat can't be much different than it was when it was founded in 1889.  In short, not much there.  It's a turn-around point for us.  Beyond Tortilla Flat the road narrows, becomes gravel and, according to an article in the March 12 Star Tribune, Arizona's Wildest Ride.

We are back at Pat and Bill's, after a stop at the Apache Junction Library to print our boarding passes, in time to loll away our remaining hours by the pool.

Little Church in the Desert
Bill and Pat Proulx, Good Friends, Crafty Card Players