Friday, May 30, 2014

How to Spend Nine Weeks Living and Traveling in Turkey, Greece and Croatia

9 weeks, 13 cities, 2 carry-on bags and 0 guidebooks. Traveling "EmilyStyle" means exploring the world with little planning, small budgets, lots of cooking and a focus on living like a local. Here's how we did it!
Our Mediterranean Route
I don't enjoy working on all the logistics that come with travel. So, we didn't plan much further than a week at a time. Rob and I knew we wanted to go to Croatia, but it was too cold there in March. So we booked our flight in to Istanbul and worked our way northwest through Greece to fly out of Croatia. I thought we would take a lot of ferries, but inexpensive and fast plane tickets turned out to be a better choice for us. Here's our full 9-week itinerary, with links to my lists of where to stay and what to see in each place.
  1. Istanbul, Turkey - A dynamic mix of European, Mediterranean and Middle-eastern cultures with so much to explore. 
  2. Bodrum, Turkey - The Turkish riviera was immensely relaxing, stylish and affordable. Next time, I want to charter one of the big wood sailboats. 
  3. Kos, Greece - An unanticipated gem. Despite a slew of touristy resorts, the island charmed us with delicious food, so much ancient history and friendly locals. 
  4. Athens, Greece - Much improved from when I visited back in 2001. A bustling, modernizing metropolis that was likable and livable, it helped that we had amazing airbnb hosts! 
  5. Corfu, Greece - Breathtaking scenery and bright blue water. I loved exploring abandoned villages up in the hills. A once-in-a-lifetime experience at Easter. 
  6. Molunat, Croatia - Our smallest town of the trip, very scenic and quiet. Even Croatians sometimes didn't recognize the place when we mentioned it. Better for travelers with a car or camper. 
  7. Bay of Kotor, Montenegro - I had no idea Montenegro would be so incredibly pretty. Would love to return for more than just a day trip. 
  8. Dubrovnik, Croatia - Packed with throngs of tourists for a reason. It's super lovely. Escape the crowds in the breezy Lapad neighborhood to the north. 
  9. Split, Croatia - A surprise full of nautical culture, outdoor sports and Roman history. 
  10. Korcula, Croatia - My favorite place in Croatia with super-friendly people and beautiful scenery.
  11. Zagreb, Croatia - Museums, theaters and architecture galore in the bohemian capital.
  12. Plitvice National Park, Croatia - The most impressive collection of waterfalls I've ever seen. 
  13. Zadar, Croatia - A relaxed Croatian riviera town, a bit off the beaten track. 
The website Rome2Rio was a big help with transit options. We didn't often use them but Lonely Planet online had the best restaurant advice and TripAdvisor had decent recommendations on what to see in the more popular tourist areas. Since it was off-season, we had most places almost to ourselves as tourists. 
Our Travel Routine 
It was just Rob and me for most of the trip and we developed a routine for regular life abroad. We would usually travel to a new city on Saturday or Sunday, check in to our apartment, pick up a map and stock up on grocery basics for the week ahead. By Monday or Tuesday, we'd have our travel and apartment booked for the following week.  We started each workday with breakfast of coffee and plain yogurt with fruit, muesli and honey. Worked from home for a few hours before setting out for the day's adventure: a museum, historical sight, bike ride, picnic, hike or beach. We ate lunch out most days before returning home in the afternoon to work and relax before I cooked dinner.  We sometimes went out in the evening to work from a cafe. I loved this schedule for traveling. Each day had its own adventure, but the pressure was off to do and see everything. 
How We Afford to Travel Like This
You don't need to win the lottery, this trip was affordable. If we could have sublet or given up our apartment in San Francisco, we would have actually saved money by being abroad.  Rob is lucky to be able to work full-time while traveling with his software engineering job and I worked about 20 hours a week doing communications consulting. 

Tickets for our round-trip flights from the US were $1,100 each, with one stop in Germany each way. Our apartments were $40-$70 a night (we pay way more than that in rent at home) booked through airbnb or With groceries, coffee, gelato and tickets to sights, we spent around $30 each per day on average. We rented bikes (~$10/day), scooters (~$20/day) and cars (~$45/day) a couple times, most places were fine to explore on foot.  Flights and ferries between cities were usually less than $120, sometimes just a $20 bus ticket. We didn't buy much in the way of souvenirs and wouldn't have wanted to carry anything extra around with us anyway. Capital One credit cards with no foreign transaction fees are helpful to have. 
What I Packed
My original guide to packing for the Mediterranean turned out to be spot on. I managed the whole trip with a small North Face duffle carry-on bag and didn't start to get sick of my clothes until we were in Chicago on our way home. The addition of a black maxi dress and a light black trench coat were key. Versatile high-quality dresses that could be layered with a sweater, belt and tights when it was cold and worn alone when it was hot were my favorite. My beloved flat black boots were definitely the MVP, perfect for walking and looking semi-fashionable. I was crushed when a zipper broke and I had to leave them in Zagreb. Because we were doing strictly carry-on, it was slightly annoying to have to buy and then throw away things like shampoo and olive oil each time we flew. Neutrogena's Ultra Sheer SPF 70 sunblock is the best - it's small enough to go in your carry-on, lasts all day and one bottle can go 10 weeks even when generously applied daily. Oh, and don't forget the travel art supplies! 
Internet and Mobile Access
We had decent internet access in most of our apartments. Only a couple had rocky connections where we needed to call the landlord or go sit in wifi cafe in order to work on our laptops.  Every single cafe we visited had fast, free wifi, even way out in the country. Rob and I both did video calls online back home a few times a week. With T-Mobile's international plan, we had full use of our smartphones with no issue in Turkey and Greece. In Croatia, we had to buy local SIM cards to make the phones work, for only about $18 each. We used Hola to access any US websites that were blocked internationally. It's amazing how connected you can be while traveling these days! 
The Language Barrier
Almost everyone we met in Croatia spoke a ton of English and was so excited to give us advice on where to go. Greece was nearly the same, but with the added complexity of the Greek alphabet making us functionally illiterate. Turkey had the least amount of English spoken, but we were able to get around just fine with pointing, shrugging and smiling. 
Bad Experiences?
I can't think of a place we went that we wouldn't want to go back to any day. Everyone was so helpful and kind to us, especially in Croatia. We had one "rip-off" in Istanbul - a gimmick where a shoeshiner drops his brush and when you return it to him, starts polishing your shoes in what seems like a thank-you but then wants you to pay. I think we gave him $7 to go away, so not that big of a deal. No issues with pickpockets or any other scams. No food poisoning, no sunburns. Since it was early spring, we did have some rainy and colder days. More than fair trade for the peaceful, uncrowded offseason.

Best Experiences?
So many! The buzzing pace of Istanbul. Braving an authentic Turkish bath experience. Riding with Rob on a scooter in the hills of Greece.  Exploring ruins that we had completely to ourselves. Discovering the best foods and produce in each city. Road trips through Croatia. Escaping the rainstorm in Zagreb. Meeting amazing people. Having our friends come out to join us for the last week.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

What to See, Eat and Swim for a Day in Zadar, Croatia.

Zadar was the perfect place to end our stay in Croatia. It's a beach-front town smaller than Split and less touristy than Dubrovnik. Seemed like the Santa Barbara equivalent. The big storm was finally clearing out and we had one last sunny day. 
We arrived at night after our drive from Zagreb. The walk down from our apartment at Villa Vanilla to town took about 20 minutes. There's a modern bridge that connects the peninsula of the old walled city to the north part of town.
It was Saturday night, so we went out for dinner and drinks with the locals. Big plates of seafood risotto, grilled fish and polenta. Had a great time listening to a traditional Croatian klapa (a capella) group singing in an open courtyard.
The next morning, we set out to explore. The old walled town has a distinctly Italian feel.
Lots of small green parks tucked away.
We spent the lazy Sunday walking through the town and then strolling the embarcadero and its impressive wave organ.
Stopped in at the Archeology Museum in town next to the Roman ruins.
Casual lunch of a cevapi from a grill stand. The traditional Croatian "burger"  is made with grilled sausage, tomato, pickle, onion, lettuce and a herbed sour cream sauce.
Hiked around the city wall and down to a tiny beach called Kolvare.
All kinds of seaweed and shells had washed up from the big storm. Great for beach-combing. I took a short video of my toes in the waves.
Then back home with cones of gelato.  We needed to pack, run errands and get a minute by the pool.
In the evening, we took our rental car out to get drinks on the beach at Pla┼ża Borik just north of town.
Big bottle of nice Croatian white wine in an ice bucket while we watched the sunset over the Adriatic.
Finally, our last (and best!) meal of our trip to Croatia at the Niko Restaurant and Hotel in Puntamika. This is one of those 1960's seaside restaurants that I just love. Amazing waiter, incredible meal full of smoked tuna carpaccio, brined anchovies, octopus salad, grilled sea bass, mussels and risotto, all delivered on a silver cart. After our dessert and espressos, the waiter put on a show for us by feeding the resident four foot long moray eel pieces of squid in her tank. We headed home with full bellies and sad hearts to be leaving Croatia.

The Unexpectedly Wonderful Drive from Zagreb to Zadar, Croatia

I could hardly find any information on driving from Zagreb to Zadar when were researching the last-minute detour. No idea why not, it's an amazing route and gave me such a different perspective on Croatia.

We first left Zagreb at 10:30 am on the A1 autobahn, before turning South on to the D1 at Karlovac near the Slovenian border.  The A1 is super fast, with the speed limit around 100 mph. Really fun to drive! There are tolls each time you exit so bring Kuna with you. The D1 is very slow and winding. It seems to be a favorite with motorcycle touring groups. We visited the mill town of Rastoke for lunch before spending a few hours at the incredible waterfalls of Plivice Lakes National Park. The trip from Zagreb to the national park took about three and a half hours of driving despite Google Maps reporting it would take one and a half.

After our hikes at Plivice Lakes, we headed south on the D1 again.  The terrain here was a surprise. Large empty valleys, with lakes and rolling hills in front of snow-capped peaks in the distance. Almost reminded us of Wyoming or Bishop, on the east side of the Sierras in California.
You're looking at the Bosnian border to the East here. There are a few small hotels, restaurants and campgrounds along the road - but not much. Next time, I would love to build in some extra time to hike along here.
Eventually, the D1 connects back to the fast A1. Several miles of impressive tunnels take you underneath those snowy mountains. It was nearly sunset by the time we popped out on the coast.
The drive from Plitvice Lakes to Zadar took about two and a half hours, bringing the total for the day to around six hours of driving with two stops. I think we spent about $15 on tolls for the A1. If you take the A1 straight from Zagreb, you can make it to Zadar in three hours, but it is very worth it to detour in to see the lakes and waterfalls on the longer road south.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Waterfall Overdose at Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

When life hands you rain...go find some waterfalls!  The highlight of our drive from Zagreb to Zadar in Croatia was a stop at Plitvice Lakes National Park. The $15 entrance fee includes access to the entire park as well as free tram and boat rides. With about four hours to explore, we were suggested to take two trams to the end and then hike back.
The park is composed of 16 lakes, with dramatic waterfalls connecting each one.
Wood boardwalks, sometimes barely above the rushing water, wind around the entire park.
The fancier paths have a railing - often on the side where it is least helpful.
Largely, the trail looks like something built by a very industrious, and not-terribly-safety-minded band of hobbits.
It is incredibly, unbelievably pretty.
The tallest waterfalls are about 250 feet high.
The rivers and waterfalls criss-cross and run through the forest for miles.
We took a boat across one of the larger lakes as a "shortcut" where the main path was flooded out.
Most of the tourists were Japanese the day we visited, with a handful of Eastern Europeans too.
The sun even came out as we were on the final hike back.
All kinds of fancy moss and ferns grow on the travertine rock.
There are special birds and orchids only found in the park as well - you could easily spend a full day exploring the area.
I'm so glad we got to see Plitvice Lakes as part of our Croatian adventure!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Road Trip from Zagreb: Mills and Waterfalls of Rastoke, Croatia

Thanks to the storm, we threw together an inland itinerary for our last few days in Croatia on the fly.  Instead of sunning on a sailboat, we flew to the Capital city of Zagreb and spent a lovely day full of museum hopping there. From Zagreb, I hatched a plan to rent a car and drive back to Zadar on the coast where we would eventually fly home.
The one-way car rental for three days cost us about $200, and included a thoroughly enjoyable free tourist map written in the most floral and hyperbolic language imaginable. We hit the main highway south with me as navigator. First stop, Rastoke!

This tiny village is composed of 65 residents, a handful of corn mills and dozens of waterfalls dramatically rushing between and under the homes to join the Korana River. It took us about 2 hours to reach the village with truck traffic on the winding rural road after we exited the autobahn in Karlovac.
My photos hardly do justice to all the rushing water. Especially after the week of heavy rain, it seemed impossible to me that the entire village wasn't washing away.
The locals were far from concerned and going about regular pre-tourist season business of construction, farming on small islands and washing clothes in the river.
We stopped for lunch at a lasagna restaurant in the village and then continued driving south, passing through Slunj and its historic castle on our way to Plitvice Lakes National Park.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What to See, Eat and Wear for a (Stormy!) Day in Zagreb, Croatia

With the storm bearing down on Croatia, we were nearly trapped out on the island of Korcula. There was just one ferry out, and it left at 6:00 am from Vela Luka, almost an hour on the other side of the island. We made it on to the crowded ship packed with other "refugees" and had a very rocky ride back to Split. At one point the locals started singing folk songs that I'm pretty sure roughly translated to "please let us not sink to the bottom of the ocean."

We had a quick break in Split for coffee and lunch before taking a taxi to the airport and a very harrowing $60 flight in a prop plane to touchdown - on one wheel! - in Zagreb, Croatia's capital city. Bus to the city center. We checked into our funky little apartment all feeling pretty queasy and not sure if our detour had been a good choice. Spent a quiet night watching Grand Budapest Hotel in the movie theater around the corner. In the morning when we stepped out to explore, it was clear our exodus was the right move. {Note: this storm turned out to be a record-breaking, massively-flooding cyclone.}
Zagreb is a lovely, cosmopolitan city full of parks, museums, theaters, shopping, restaurants and cafes. We stopped in the main square first thing to get the lay of the land.
The Museum of Broken Relationships was our next stop. A surprisingly uplifting collection of mementoes and stories.
We were so excited to see that it stopped raining when we wandered down to the Museum of Archeology after that.
The boys posed with hometown hero Nikola Tesla.

Then we ducked in to the National Theater to see about tickets to the play that evening. In their helpful way, the Croatians at the ticket desk told us the show was far too boring and we should skip it!
Shane and I bought tickets to the National Arts & Crafts Museum, which had a wide collection of sculptures, furniture and porcelain. Excellent special collection featuring a local surrealist print-maker as well.
Time for lunch! We ducked in to Cuspajz, a friendly local cafe that serves up hot fish, lentil and vegetable stew with herbed polenta and hearty bread. The perfect thing for a stormy day.
After lunch we wandered to the north part of the city through Hungarian-influenced beer gardens and the massive cathedral.
Beautiful view as the hillside starts to rise up to the mountains in the north.
Back to the center of town for a dessert and coffee break at Zagreb Slasticarnica. The meringue cake was filled with Italian custard, lemon curd and a gingerbread cookie crust. The chocolate cake had a citrus creme brule filling. The powered sugar covered truffles were filled with cinnamon chocolate ganache. YUM.
We left Rob to work in the cafe and set out to shop for dinner supplies in the artisan market in the main square. Bought a variety of sausages to sample as well as fig pie, lavender, gingerbread cookies and other goodies to take home.
On the walk home, we stopped to peek in at the Art Pavilion.
It would be easy to spend a full week in Zagreb just exploring all the museums.
I cooked dinner for us at home with potatoes, sauerkraut, the different kinds of sausages and asparagus.
Nicole turned in early with a book and the rest of headed out for some nightlife. Tkalciceva Street is the main drag and where we found our first bar, with live jazz music tucked away on a quiet alley.
The waitress there suggested we go to Alcatraz next, so we walked back through town.
On our way home from Alcatraz, we stopped in for late night hamburgers in a hipster cafe straight out of San Francisco across the street called Burgeraj.
I am so, so glad that we got to see Zagreb as part of our Croatian trip. Vastly different than our original plan to be sunning on the deck of a sailboat, sure. It is a creative, artsy city with so much to offer.