THE ADRIATIC – October 2011

The Ten Euro Tip

It’s remarkable where good looks will get you.

Regrettably, I am talking not about myself but of the aesthetically pleasing, female driver who transferred us from Venice’s Marco Polo Airport to the cruise terminal adjacent to the Grand Canal.

With wild brunette hair which cascaded across her shoulders, Ray Ban Aviator sunglasses, a healthy tan and pearl white teeth – not to mention shapely legs beneath her denim jeans and upon her stiletto heels – our driver cut a striking figure.  Heads were seen to turn as she walked on by…

By contrast to the lazy, disheveled reprobate who drove us to Istanbul Airport earlier in the day, the goddess who met us in Venice was a true delight.

We begrudgingly gave our Turkish bandit the extra five Turkish Lire (around A$3) he demanded for making him place some of our luggage in the front seat of his slovenly vehicle. I was, therefore, taken by considerable surprise when Huckleberry B instructed me to give our Italian supermodel a tip of ten Euros!

As I said, it’s remarkable where good looks will get you in this world!

Onboard Seabourn Spirit

Our home for the forthcoming week would be suite 108 of the Seabourn Spirit. Whilst much smaller than some of the vessels upon which we have sailed, the Spirit was one of the most gratifying.

We have joined the throng on a number of cruise ships carrying well over 1,000 passengers. The Diamond Princess, for example, was home to over 2,000. By contrast, Seabourn Spirit’s maximum capacity was a mere 200 guests.

The reduced passenger list corresponded with an increased level of service from the ever-attentive staff. We were astounded to be continually addressed by name moments after we stepped onboard.

The eating venues were, of course, more limited than what would be expected on a larger vessel. However, the loss of venue options was more than compensated for by quality. The food was outstanding and easily the best we have experienced at sea.

After the mandatory lifeboat drill – remarkably tedious regardless of the cruise line – Seabourn Spirit pulled away from its berth, performed an elegant u-turn and headed down a broad waterway to the south of the Grand Canal. The sunset views of Venice, as they drifted slowly by, were stunning and will long live in our memories. Before long we were sailing by famed San Marco, where a lively horde of tourists swarmed about, some of them waving to us as we headed out into the Adriatic Sea.

It was wonderful way to commence a week-long voyage.

The Pearls of the Adriatic

Our journey would take us to six ports along the Eastern coast of the Adriatic; one in Slovenia and five in Croatia.

The week we spent in Jordan and Turkey had been particularly draining given the constant travel, long periods in the back seat of a car and frequent highlights; this on the back of a seven day working week at home and a long journey to the Middle East.

We, therefore, jointly agreed that our week in the Adriatic would be more leisurely. We did not feel compelled to examine every corner of the ports we visited or learn every aspect of the site’s history. We relished the chance to relax and even take an afternoon nap.

It was a good plan and we stuck to it.

Each day onboard Seabourn Spirit adopted a similar slovenly pattern. We would sleep until 8am before enjoying an unhurried breakfast after most had already gone ashore on their organised tours. After breakfast we would head out for a seldom rushed stroll around the town – savouring the main attractions but banishing any road which appeared uninteresting – before returning to our vessel for lunch. In the afternoon, we relaxed with no fixed plans.

It was a great week!

In order, we visited the Slovenian town of Koper, followed by the Croatian ports of Zadar, Dubrovnik, Split, Hvar and Rovinj.

The Choral Singers of Koper

Like each of the sites we toured in our week onboard Seabourn Spirit, Koper was a sleepy – but picturesque – seaside town.

Despite its tranquil exterior, Koper is Slovenia’s largest commercial port. The city also boasts the main road route from which rental cars, stolen from Italy, can be driven to a safe haven in the Balkans.

For us, however, there were two highlights in Koper, both completely unexpected.

First, we stumbled on what appeared to be a local radio station hosting a charity event by the marina on the far side of the Old Town area. For reasons which were not totally apparent to us, the event featured pairs of runners competing in a one hundred metre dash along the paved shoreline. The runners came in all shapes and ages; some barely possessing the motor skills to run and others with well-coached running styles. The scene was completed by loud music – most of it (strangely) from the 80’s – being pumped out from loudspeakers adjacent to a tent featuring the radio station’s logo. Strangely, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were also in attendance, dancing in a disturbingly provocative manner in time (sort of) to the music.

The second highlight of Koper, was Tito Square and the adjacent St Mary’s of the Assumption Cathedral. We assumed that the Square was named after the famous World War II Yugoslav partisan. However, what made our visit memorable was that we happened to visit the Cathedral whilst a clearly professional choir and orchestra were rehearsing for a performance. As soon as we entered the Cathedral we heard the sublime music and knew that the performers were not mere amateurs. We were treated to a wonderful free concert which we enjoyed immensely.

The Cobbled Streets of Zadar

Zadar, we were told, is the fifth largest city in Croatia. Whilst populated since pre-historic times, the city gained its urban structure whilst part of the Roman Empire. The city wall which the Romans built is still partly in evidence, as are some of the important civic buildings.

Much like Koper, the old town of Zadar is quaint, sleepy and picturesque. The buildings, painted in pale pastel colours, are separated by narrow streets of cobbled stone. Church spires peak over the tops of the buildings whilst fishing vessels bob in the adjacent harbour.

Indeed, Zadar is so tranquil that visiting tourists feel like taking a nap; which is precisely what Huck B and I mutually agreed to do.

The Walled City of Dubrovnik

For many of the passengers on Seabourn Spirit, one of the reasons they chose the cruise was to allow them a visit to Dubrovnik; probably the most celebrated town on Croatia’s Adriatic coast.

The Old Town – enclosed by a very high city wall – became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

Dubrovnik, we were informed, was an independent merchant republic for 700 years until captured by Napoleon in 1806. It had diplomatic relations with Queen Elizabeth I. Even the denizens of Venice was jealous of Dubrovnik’s status.

After Napoleon’s fall, Dubrovnik became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War II, it became part of Yugoslavia. Most recently, in 1991 and 1992, Dubrovnik was subjected to a seven month siege at the hands of the Serbs. The constant shelling caused considerable damage, but has since been restored.

Against this history, it was a thrill to board our tender boat and approach the walled Old Town by sea. Once inside the city we explored its narrow streets before climbing a steep stair case in order to walk along the top of the city wall. Much like the Great Wall of China, the Dubrovnik city wall is sufficiently broad to accommodate a path on its apex. In most places, the path is wide enough to allow two people to walk side by side. I would estimate that it took us an hour to circumnavigate the Old Town from atop the city wall.

The view from the top of the wall was spectacular. Looking across the city, we could see the red tiled roofs of the town, punctuated by church spires and the occasional town square. On the western side of the city, we could turn around and gaze across the sparkling Adriatic Sea, whilst sailing boats drifted by and seagulls squawked.

We decided that Dubrovnik’s reputation is well deserved.

Looking for Fish in Split

Prior to this journey, the only reasons I had heard of Split were (a) because it has a somewhat silly name, and (b) because I remember seeing a news item of Goran Ivanisevic returning to a hero’s welcome in this, his home town, after winning Wimbledon. I think I remember seeing the adoring crowd go wild when Goran took his shirt off and posed like a body builder.

From this day forward, however, I will remember Split for a fun visit to the fish market with Seabourn Spirit’s chef, Graeme.

When we heard to it was possible to go shopping with the chef, we immediately signed-up to register our interest.

Thankfully – after tactfully checking the progress of our polite enquiry twice per day for three days – we were selected to join Graeme on his quest for fresh seafood and vegetables. I should make it clear that our ship was not short of food. The purpose of the exercise was to obtain some speciality items to add to the existing menu.

And so it was that we set out on foot with Graeme – the charming Scot with the cheeky smile – and half a dozen other passengers to walk along the seafront, from where Seabourn Spirit was berthed, to Split’s fish market. Huckleberry B and I have, of course, been to our local fish market many times. So we are accustomed to seeing recently dead fish staring at us through bulging eyes. However, it was fun to make the visit with an expert.

Graeme taught us that the freshest fish are still curled up whilst waiting to be purchased. It’s only when rigor mortis sets in that the fish flatten out. So if you happen to see a fish in your local store which continues to boast a graceful curve; snap it up!

The other tip Graeme gave us was that fresh fish have clear eyes. They become murky with time.

After poking and prodding the produce, Graeme decided to purchase some calamari, white bait and sea bass. However, the biggest talking point was a 26 kilo king fish. I immediately remarked to B that the fish weighed more than twice as much as an adult Cavalier King Charles.

The king fish was unceremoniously strapped to a trolley and Graeme’s helper wheeled him back to our vessel. It was fun watching tourist and local alike look casually towards the trolley as they passed only to suffer whiplash when they snapped their heads back to make sure their eyes were not deceiving them.

Whilst the king fish trundled back to our vessel, Graeme and the rest of the party visited a vegetable market where some aragula leaves were purchased and some bread.

The following day, we duly saw the fruits of our labour appearing on the daily menu onboard Seabourn Spirit. The calamari was stuffed with lobster mousse, which I ordered and found delicious. The king fish was grilled in individual portions.

Unfortunately, Chef Graeme’s plans did not go completely to plan. His intention was to cook the king fish whole. However, before he could stop him, a dutiful assistant chef, with a misguided sense of initiative, filleted the fish and cut it into portions. We heard that otherwise amiable Chef Graeme was irate when he returned to the galley and saw what had befallen his pride and joy.

Cooling our Heels in Hvar

Another day; another quaint fishing village on the Adriatic Sea.

Hvar was certainly picturesque and every photograph was worthy of a post card. Our visit was initially dominated by a steep climb up the hill towards a fort which commanded views across the town and out to sea. After leaving the buildings behind, we found ourselves in a forest environment. We half expected to see seven dwarfs marching by, spades and shovels slung across their shoulders.

However, once back to the dock, we decided it was time to return to our boat for lunch. Seeing that both of the available tender boats were bobbing in the water, and no other tourists in sight, we expected to be back on board within moments. We climbed onboard and took a seat and were thankful when the tender boat master headed out into the bay, rather than wait of more passengers to arrive.

Our good fortune, however, came to a sudden end.

We heard the words from Seabourn Spirit’s Captain over the walky-talky but hoped we misinterpreted his words. We head the tender master’s calls of `ma-am’ and `sir’, but chose to ignore him. It was to no avail. We were heading back to land.

The Captain had decided that the tender boats should remain on standby whilst Seabourn Spirit lifted anchor and looked for a new place to rest. The wind was high and the current was strong. Seabourn Spirit had been drifting across the bay and the Captain decided that there should be no more passenger movements from the shore until his vessel was secure.

And so we returned to land.

We stood at the dock for ten minutes, then twenty and then the half hour mark came and went. Meanwhile we could see our ship traipsing this way and that across the bay; weighing anchor several times and hoping that she’d hold; all to no avail. As time passed more passengers arrived and demanded a return to their vessel, only to be denied. Suddenly an hour had passed since we first returned to shore. We saw our fellow passengers jockeying for favourable positions in the informal queues which had been developing adjacent to each of the two tenders. Having been one quarter of the way back to our vessel, only to return to shore, we held our ground.

Finally, the call came that Seabourn Spirit’s anchor was, once more, secure. A Japanese lady stepped forward and said `Watashi wa ichiban des’. I whispered `Iye’ under my breath and stepped in front of her. We should have been back onboard over an hour ago and were in no mood for nonsense.

Roaming Rovinj

Our final port, for this cruise, was Rovinj.

This destination proved to be a delight. As had been the case all week, Rovinj presented as a picture perfect fishing village. However, it had an extra element of charm which appealed to us.

The Old Town was built on a headland adjacent to where we berthed. Some of the three storey dwellings were constructed right on the edge of the water so that they were reminiscent of Venice.

Not knowing which we to go we headed left and followed one of the narrow cobbled streets which meandered through the town to a headland which looked over the ocean. We then followed the headland around until we re-entered the town. Suddenly we rounded a corner and found ourselves in the commercial centre of the Old Town; complete with yachts and fishing vessels, a church and restaurants with outdoor seating. The town square was dominated by statue of a boy very proudly holding a large fish under his arm.

Our tour of Rovinj was a nice way to end our journey along Croatia’s Adriatic coast.

An Afternoon in Venice

The next morning Seabourn Spirit returned to Venice. Our plan was to explore Venice’s enchanting canals in the morning, have a pizza for lunch and rest in the afternoon.

Little did we know that nature would conspire against us.

I was just waking up when Huckleberry B opened the curtains of our stateroom to look outside. We had heard the anchor drop and assumed that we had docked already. However, all I heard was B saying, “Venice is gone…”

I looked outside – shortly afterwards – and agreed. All I could see was fog. I was amazed that I could not see the buildings on the other side of the broad canal. As it transpired, this was because we were not yet in the canal. Whilst having breakfast the Captain announced that the heavy fog sitting over Venice had prevented us from entering. We were sitting off the coast, waiting for a Pilot to guide us in.

Thankfully, our only plans were to re-acquaint ourselves with Venice. If we had a plane to catch, our anxiety levels would have been rising exponentially with the passing minutes. Looking around the dining room at breakfast, we could see from the tight lips and strained foreheads that some of our fellow passengers were already in that unhappy state. We could see brains reluctantly recalibrating travel plans.

B and I were supposed to leave Seabourn Spirit by 8.30 am. Incredibly, it was not until after twelve noon that we picked up our hand luggage and trundled of our vessel for the last time.

But Venice awaited…

Huckleberry B had booked us in for one night at the Molina Stucky Hilton which, we had discovered, was directly across the canal from where Seabourn Spirit was docked. This was a godsend. B and I still tell friends about our last visit to Venice when we booked a hotel near the railway station and got lost; not mention how difficult it was to wheel our heavy bags up and down the bridges which traversed the canals which lay in the way. On this visit, all that was required as a quick water taxi ride across the canal.

We adhered to our lunchtime pizza plans before heading off to explore the unique town. Whilst we had previously visited Venice in 2004, we never got to view the video we took during that visit because our house was robbed shortly after our return home and our video camera (and bag) was stolen. With this in mind, one of our tasks on this happy afternoon was to capture Venice’s highlights, once more, on video and photograph. It wasn’t difficult to become enthusiastic about this chore.

After several hours visiting the Academia Bridge, the Rialto Bridge and San Marco Square – together with countless alleys and gondola laden canals – we returned to our hotel for dinner and sleep.



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