David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ten days in Croatia, November 2006

We flew from Nice to Frankfurt, there being no direct flights to Split or Dubrovnik. The 1 ½ hour flight was wonderful with beautiful scenery – mountains, rivers, and forests in their fall colors. Then the 1 ½ flight to Dubrovnik. They fed us on both legs of the journey, quite a surprise! With heavy luggage we opted for a taxi to the hotel, the Hilton Imperial, where we upgraded our room to one with a balcony with a view of the Old Town and the Adriatic. We loved this pink hotel, in an old,
refurbished1897 building, just a minute or two from the Old Town. We

We had planned our trip with the help of our good friend, Jeanne Oliver, a fellow American, who lives near us in Nice and writes the Croatia volume of The Lonely Planet series. Jeanne also has a site, http://www.croatiatraveller.com/, which is essential if you are planning a trip!

We immediately headed out for a walk around the magnificent Old Town, with its more than 500 year-old walls (almost 2 kilometers), glistening white marble streets, little alleyways and steep stairs. There’s a lovely feeling to the 1000 year-old marble Placa, the main street, where we sat outside on this warm evening, having a “Welcome to Dubrovnik” drink. Dubrovnik, named after the local oak tree, was known as Ragusium in Roman times and by the 12th century was an important trading stop and seafaring state. It came under Venetian authority in 1205 and there are many Venetian influences to be seen.

The next day, really our only full day in Dubrovnik, sadly was rainy and very windy. We headed for the Cathedral, with its amazing collection of reliquaries in the Treasury. The huge, heavy wooden Treasury doors had to be unlocked with foot long iron keys! Then we spent an hour in the Rector’s Palace, where the ruler of Dubrovnik lived. The building itself was very interesting and the collection of inlaid furniture was gorgeous. One desk, all inlaid with beautiful woods, had a mother-of-pearl butterfly and a bird watching it with its mother-of-pearl eye. But my favorite piece was a waistcoat, 18th century French, that was hand embroidered with colorful flowers; the buttons, each about the size of ½ my pinky nail, were individually hand-painted with portraits!

The Dominican Monastery, with its 15th century cloisters and large collection of paintings from the Dubrovnik School, was lovely. The hand-painted altars in the church were very sweet. The Church of St. Blaise, the patron saint of Dubrovnik, was next. There are statues to St. Blaise everywhere in town - at the city gates, in niches, and so on. He keeps Dubrovnik safe from evil and hardship. In the bell tower opposite his church, two figures strike the bell to ring out the hour. The Sponsa Palace, one of the few buildings not destroyed in the devastating 1667 earthquake, is beautiful – very Venetian-looking. There is a sad room with pictures of the young men who died in the Yugoslavian wars.

For lunch we stopped at Dundo Maroje where they started us off with a tuna pate bouche amuse. We shared a salad and David had the sea bass while I had a wonderful seafood risotto. Afterwards we explored the Franciscan Monastery. In the evening we attended a violin and guitar concert at the St. Saviour Church, built in 1520. The only lighting in the church was the candlelight which danced on the vaulted Gothic ceiling.

On Saturday, we left by bus for Split. It was a 4 ½ hour ride and we enjoyed the spectacular scenery, with the mountains on the right and the Adriatic on the left, with islands all along the way. In places the mountains were pleated like an accordion by ancient seismic forces. We passed fish farms and orange groves and arrived with perfect timing to catch a ferry to Supetar where we would spend the next week. We checked in to our apartment with a terrace facing the sea, and quickly went out for a pizza supper. The pizza was great, made with a local gouda (!) and ham and mushrooms. We shared the restaurant with a group of twelve 9-year-olds, and a couple of parents, celebrating a birthday party.

Sunday morning we caught the early ferry to Split. It was rainy again and we walked around Diocletian’s palace. This is a huge area with churches, the main one built as Diocletian’s mausoleum, shops, cafes, housing. There are still about 300 people who live there and there is lots of shopping. Amazing to walk in this area which has been there for over 1800 years! For lunch, we asked a couple of young local women for a suggestion and they directed us to Varos Konoba (Konoba is a quaint little eating spot) which we very much enjoyed. It has dark wooden ceilings and red drapery and wine-colored linens. We shared grilled vegetables as a starter; David had lamb chops while I had the pasticada, a local specialty of larded beef cooked in heavy red wine and spices, served with gnocchi. It all went down very well with a bottle of the local Opol rose.

The next day we decided to just explore the island of Brac. We rented a car and drove to Skrip, a tiny town where you feel that you have stepped back at least 1000 years. The tiny church of St. Duh (Holy Spirit) was built in the 4th century! Houses are roofed with heavy stone plates looking like an armadillo’s back. Then we drove over rocky hills to Bol, passing pomegranate trees and olive trees. There were bags of newly picked olives everywhere, waiting to be picked up. We walked around Bol on this gorgeous day, sunny and warm, and enjoyed this fishing village and tourist spot. The Adriatic water is clear and inviting. We had a delicious lunch on the terrace of Restaurant Jadranka, opened in 1967. They served David an insalata caprese for 4 and me grilled vegetables for 2. David followed up with salmon with pasta while I had grilled scampi. Too much food, but we did our best, washing it all down with a local white wine. All the furniture on the terrace was made of tree branches, each seat different; we were shaded by the red and green leaves of the overhead vines.

Tuesday, we again took the ferry to Split. We came to really enjoy these ferry rides, about 1 hour each way, time to relax, read, write postcards, and so on. There is very comfortable seating, nice bathrooms, a bar, non-smoking areas, and big-screen TV’s where they showed tennis, Sunday Mass, and other events. Dubrovnik, which we had heard much of, is a small town of about 60,000; we expected Split to be smaller since we had never heard of it, but actually its population is almost 300,000. Split is not pretty, with unattractive high-rises everywhere, but Diocletian’s Palace makes up the center behind a palm-lined promenade along the sea, and the view from the ferry is impressive with the grey rocky mountains behind the city.

We didn’t stay in Split this day, but took another bus to Solin where we walked for miles around the Roman ruins. They are very spread out and not as impressive as we expected; I think we are spoiled by the many extremely impressive sites that we have visited. Then we took another bus on to Trogir, a tiny walled-city on the sea. The town was celebrating its Saint’s Day and there was a band playing in the main square and girls in local costumes passing out apple doughnuts to everyone, including us. The town (pop. 1600) is a bit like a smaller Dubrovnik, with a maze of medieval marble streets. We wandered about, stopping for a lunch at Rest. Fontana, along the promenade lining the seafront. We enjoyed the Dalmatian ham, seafood salad, and a plate of mixed hors d’oeuvres with a local white wine. Prosek and jam pancakes were our delicious dessert.

The next day, we slept in, explored Supetar, visiting the charming Church of the Annunciation with its ceiling in peach, lime, blue, and rose. There aren’t many shops in town, but we did visit a nice antique/art shop with a charming owner, so involved with each piece. She spoke of the homes where the antiques were found, the local artists, and the heritage and culture of the island. She recommended a restaurant in the next town, Restaurant Gumonca, in Mirca. We headed over there and found a lovely place on the sea, with a vine covered terrace. We of course ate outside and had learned our lesson about ordering too much food! We started with small mixed salads – everything seemed so fresh and the olive oil especially good. David had grilled chicken and Ginna ordered the small portion of veal cutlet with vegetables. It seemed like a HUGE portion to me! But we finished it all with a delicious bottle of rose. We didn’t want to leave this idyllic spot.
We drove to Lozisca where we walked around the little village and admired the church and bell tower. Many of the bell towers on the island have onion-shaped domes. We wondered who lives in these tiny, seemingly forgotten towns and if the towns will exist in 50 years?

The island of Brac is very rocky and the marble for Diocletian’s Palace was cut from the quarries here by Roman slaves. There are huge piles of rocks, not out-croppings, but sized rocks everywhere, some with openings like doors and some with funnels at the top, as if for smoke to escape. Perhaps they were places for shepherds or homes for people thousands of years ago. No one knows. We drove back “home” singing “Far Away Places” and “Slow Boat to China”.

Thursday we again headed to Split, to see more of Diocletian’s Palace, checking out the shops and more of the alleyways. Then we headed to the Archeological Museum, housed in a beautiful old stone building. The exhibits were wonderful – glass containers in the shape of women’s heads, jewelry, belts, marvelous mosaic floors. Most of these treasures were found in Solin. There was a group of American students there, part of the 600 on Semester at Sea, docked in Dubrovnik, on their trip around the world. What an amazing experience that must be!

We walked back to the main part of town and discovered Narodni Square, one of the loveliest squares with a very Venetian feel to it. We decided we would have to have lunch here. In Restaurant Kavana we ordered grilled vegetables followed by seabass for David and lasagna with shrimp and Dalmatian ham for Ginna. Then it was back on the ferry and a drink while we watched the sunset from the dock in Supetar.

Friday, our last day on the island, we did some more exploring, driving over to Milna, a little harbor on the western end of the island. In the summer it is bustling, but it was very quiet on this warm November day. We walked around but could find very little – the church was closed and there weren’t even any restaurants open. We finally found one across the inlet where we had a really average lunch. We also explored Nerezisca, an inland village which was once the center of the island.

Saturday we took our final ferry ride to Split where we caught the bus to Dubrovnik, along with a group of students from the Semester at Sea group. We got back to the Hilton, where they greeted us warmly for our return and went out for a final dinner. We chose Proto, a charming place, and ate upstairs but inside as the sun was going down. The beamed cathedral ceiling, stone walls, and beautiful blue linens give a very comfortable feeling. We both had soup to start – David a fish soup and a vegetable ragout for me. Then David had grilled salmon with mushrooms and pasta while I had a huge Greek salad, all washed down by another Opol rose. For dessert we enjoyed a last glass of prosek. After a last walk around the city, we headed back for an early night to be ready for our 6:30 AM flight to Frankfurt. A delightful trip.

A Short Week in the Vaucluse, October 2006

We arrived back in Nice from Chicago on October 17, 2006. The first few days back were a bit rainy and we slowly settled in. The next Sunday, the 22nd, we packed our bags and left for the Vaucluse, the area of France near Avignon and including the Cotes du Rhone. Assuming that it would be cooler there than in Nice, we packed a few sweaters and corduroys. It was a nice, easy drive up to Avignon along the tollroads ($25 in tolls each way!), about 2 ½ hours. Then we headed to Carpentras, through Beaumes de Venise, and to tiny Lefare where we had decided to have lunch at the Restaurant le Redortier. The entrance was up a dirt drive by the vineyards and the old building was attractive and welcoming. The new building housed the restaurant, with a glass wall looking out to a pleasant terrasse. We ordered the specialty of the house for an entrée – lamb terrine with eggplant and a fresh tomato sauce. David had cod with a white wine sauce for his main course while I had another specialty of the house, the duck leg daube with fresh tagliatelle. After a cheese course which included a delicious bleu, David had the fig flan and I had a chocolate cake. The menu was 24,50 euro each. Wines were extra and we chose a different glass for each course from their own vineyard.

After lunch, we drove up to Gigondas, about 15 minutes away. We felt as though we had arrived in the real France – all vineyards and tiny towns. Gigondas is a village of about 650 people, the town built on the north side of the hill. Our exchange is part of the ancient ramparts (16th century), near the 12th century church, with great views of the vineyards. There are old tiled floors and heavily beamed ceilings and it is furnished nicely with an antique armoire and comfortable furniture, and updated with a TV with satellite. The apartment had 2 bedrooms and bath, a kitchen/dining room upstairs and a sitting room downstairs. Our hosts live next door.

Monday we headed for Vaison-la-Romaine. We had visited this town 19 years before but didn’t remember it at all. We visited the archeological digs of the Roman town, including the theater (6,000 seats, one for every one in this Roman town), the baths, and several houses. There is a nice museum on the grounds. Later we walked to the Roman bridge which is still used for daily traffic. Apparently the upper part, added in modern times was washed away in a big flood, but the Roman part is still there!

We found a nice place for lunch, Le Clos St. Germain. Ginna had a salade with lardons while David started with a terrine of rougets (fish). We both had the filet St. Pierre roti in lemon butter, which was outstanding. Ginna had the profiteroles while David had the tarte de pommes. The whole menu was 11 euro each plus a carafe of wine for 6! After lunch we explored the church, Notre Dame de Nazareth Cathedral, and cloisters in the Provencal Romanesque style.

En route back to ‘our place’ we visited Seguret, one of the “prettiest villages of France”, and Sablet, another charming perched village. We’d had a bit of rain for just a few minutes, but most of the day was warm and nice.

Tuesday we headed back through Carpentras, with its delightful smells of plane trees, and on to Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, as the name tells, an island in the Sorgue river. This town is in the Luberon area of the Vaucluse. There are little canals everywhere and many waterwheels from the 1200s when they were used for grinding flour. Later they were used for the woolen mills, making this the center of Provence’s cloth-dying and textile industry. We visited the Cathedrale, Notre Dame des Anges, with its golden altar and enjoyed the beautiful buildings in the surrounding square. We chose a wonderful place for lunch – Lou Soloy (The Sun) and ate on a tiny bridge spanning the Sorgue with ducks clucking and diving beneath us. We each enjoyed the delicious quail and rabbit terrine, served with a sweet confiture and salad; then David had the pork and Ginna the faux filet. The desserts were fabulous, Ginna’s chocolate terrine and David’s raspberry filled Napoleon served with vanilla sauce. We had a nice rose, “cuvee speciale” de Luberon. The menu was 16 euro. We really enjoyed the meal, sitting in the warm sun, probably 75 degrees; quite idyllic.

Next we went on to trendy Roussillon, famous for its stunning ochre cliffs of red, yellow and orange. The whole town existed on ochre for 2000 years. After WWII, when the ochre market dried up, the town slept until it was rediscovered by tourists. This day it was filled with busloads of Americans. It’s always startling to hear Americans! But the town does have nice shops. We drove home over the mountains, the “route touristique” (meaning, no one in his right mind would take this route?), which was very windy but thankfully without a lot of traffic and gave tremendous views. By 6:30 PM we were home and sitting on our terrace, watching the sun go down, and sipping aperitifs. A really perfect day.

Wednesday we decided to stay fairly close to home, just exploring the route that circles the Dentelles de Montmirail. Our first stop was the Domaine les Girasols winery, suggested by Rick Steves. The tasting was hosted by Marie-Elizabeth Joyet, a beautiful and friendly woman. We went through aperitifs, main course, and dessert, all by 10:30 AM! But just the wines. Mme. Joyet’s daughter is married to a Californian who was studying wine-making in the Napa Valley and they now live here in this gorgeous place.

Our next stop was Le Crestet, a tiny place with fabulous views. Next came Malaucene where we shopped at the weekly market. We bought sausage with nuts, grapes, and then a terrific blue cheese and a sheep’s milk cheese from a darling cheeseman, wearing a cowboy hat, who proudly told us about his 600 sheep. As we drove over the mountains we saw orchards of almonds, figs, and cherries. The medieval castle of Le Barroux was in the distance. We stopped in Beaumes-de-la-Venise where we had another wonderful lunch under the trees at Le Relais des Dentelles. The starters were salade chevre chaud and terrine de campagne; we followed up with saumon with riz forestiere (with mushrooms) and rognons (kidneys!); then a pear charlotte and gateau with raspberries. We had a nice rose with the meal and a glass of the local Muscat with dessert. A 19,50 menu.

In the evening Ginna met an artist from Belgium, Hugo, who lives in nearby Sablet, while climbing back up to the house from the village. He joined us for an aperitif. Our hosts, the Vander Putts, were surprised to see us with a ‘friend’ and to learn that we had just met him. We all enjoyed an aperitif on the terrace, getting to know each other. Our hostess was raised in Belgium so there was a lot to talk about.

Thursday we spent in Avignon and visited the Palace of the Popes, a gigantic place covering 2 acres! The popes were in residence here for most of the 14th century, moved here by Clement V, a French pope, at the urging of the French king. By 1378 there were 2 popes, one in Avignon and one in Rome. The Palace itself is not overly interesting, as it is mostly empty of furnishings. We also visited the gardens and walked on the ramparts and had many views of the famous St. Benezet Bridge – “Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse …” - remember that childhood song? The Cathedral predates the Palace and is small.

Then the highlight of the whole week: we had lunch at the sumptuous Hotel La Mirande, eating on the lovely terrasse under a tree and surrounded by roses still in bloom, morning glories, and other beautiful flowers. In such a setting we had to start with a coupe de champagne! As we sat enjoying our lovely aperitifs, one of the chefs came out and picked fresh herbs from the garden. The bouche-amuse was cepe mushroom soup with foie gras, smooth and heavenly. The first course was marinated scallops with apple, sundried tomatoes, presented beautifully and tasting delicious. Then David had seabass while I had medallions of veal, both perfect. The breads were fabulous and the ½ bottle of white - delicious. For dessert we had chocolate terrine, which was out-of-this-world, accompanied by a local red dessert wine. The menu, available only at lunch, was 33 euro each plus all the drinks, but worth it. The service was impeccable (about 6 people taking good care of us!) and friendly. We could have stayed forever.

Then we went to the Fondation Angladon-Dubrujeaud Museum, a small but very nice place in the private home if the Angladon-Dubrujeauds. It contained work by Cezanne, van Gogh, Daumier, Degas, Modigliani, Picasso, and works by the patrons which were quite good. The house itself and the furnishings are very interesting.

The whole week could not have been better – whether weather-wise, food and wine-wise, or places visited. We loved our exchange place and hope to exchange with the Vander Putts again, maybe for a long weekend in the spring.