The Traveling Teacher: My Summer Adventures in Croatia and Madrid

Traveling is my passion. I had the privilege to study abroad in college and during that year I explored France, Italy, Austria and Prague. Since then I have returned to France a few times but it is only recently, now that my children are older and spend weeks at a time in the summer with their dad, that I am able to return to Europe. What does this have to do with teaching? Well, I include this post here because this summer has been about renewal. In my last post, I put out a call for teachers to get quiet this summer and explore or rediscover their passions and sources of joy. After 2 plus years of this pandemic, I had the good fortune to connect with the part of myself that loves to explore new places.

My partner, Stu, and I set out for Croatia and because he had to return to work and I didn’t, I continued on to Madrid for a few days on my own. I carried my notebook with me and wrote everyday, multiple times a day. Here is a collection of my thoughts with photos in case you are considering a trip to Croatia and Madrid.

Croatia

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Visiting Croatia forced me to address my FOMO (fear of missing out). There is so much to see and explore and I wanted to do it all but that would have meant endless hours in the rental car and honestly, exhaustion. So, we had to pick and choose and set places aside for future trips. Here is what we did for this one.

Dubrovnik

View of the beach near our Air B and B.
View of the beach near our Air B and B.

We arrived at our Air B and B and a wonderful host named, Luksa, greeted us. Not only did he show us around the apartment, he took out a map of Dubronik and recommended places to visit besides the old city. We visited two of the towns, Ston and Cavtat, later in the week. The temptation after a red eye and jet lag is to sleep but since it was only 12:00 pm, we wanted to acclimate ourselves to the time zone. Rather than start exploring the old town, we walked 5 minutes down many steps to the beach and jumped into the Adriatic sea. I don’t think I have ever felt more refreshed in my life! The water is a stunning turquoise and though it was chilly, it was clean, crisp and sweet. It is rare to find sandy beaches here but I found that I preferred them over the mess of sand. We stayed for a few hours, chatted with a couple from Austria and then headed back to the apartment. I was in a daze and knew that if I did not take a short nap, the rest of the day would be a blur.

Old town, the walled section of a city, is as magical as I imagined. Locals built the wall surrounding it in the 1400s to protect the town from attacks from the Ottoman Turks. Cars are not allowed so pedestrians can freely roam the cobblestone streets. There is a main street (the Stradun) that was once a canal separating the city. From there you can explore hilly paths leading up to the wall.

I had heard wonderful things about Croatian wine so we took Rick Steeves' recommendation and went to D’Vino where you can order a flight and try different types. Since it is summer, I stuck with whites and discovered the grapes: Malvazuja and Posip. We had dinner at Dalmatino where I ordered the catch of the day. The fish came in its full form which the waiter expertly deboned and prepared it for me.

Before dinner out in the old town Dubrovnik.
Stu walking up a set of the many stairs leading to the walls of the old town.
Stu walking up a set of the many stairs leading to the walls of the old town.

A note about summer crowds...

Dubrovnik has been discovered and cruise ships doc here daily. Due to the crowds and the summer heat, we stuck to a routine of waking early and seeing the sights before the ships arrived. We then headed back to our apartment for some swimming and down time. At around 6 or 7pm, we took the 15 minute walk into the old town for dinner. Another thing to note: Uber is there and very affordable! The walk to Old Town is downhill so we walked there and took an Uber uphill to home. One day when Stu opted to go back to the apartment early and I stayed in Old Town to explore, I walked the trek home. It was a hike in the 90 degree heat!

Beating the heat with an afternoon swim!
Beating the heat with an afternoon swim!

The Walls of Dubrovnik

Stu and I on the walking the wall that surrounds the old city.
Stu and I on the walking the wall that surrounds the old city.

The walls are about a mile and a quarter in length with stunning views of the sea and town. It gets hot there as the heat reflects off the stone so we went as soon as it opened. We bonded with other tourists as we took water breaks and huddled in the little shade available. One of my favorite parts of traveling is the people we meet who share our passions and often recommend other places to visit. One group of Americans had just come from Montenegro (Croatia's neighbor to the south). They described it as stunning and quiet (not yet discovered and probably the way Croatia was 10-15 years ago). I added that to my “to be visited” list.

We left Old Town and spent the afternoon at the Coral Beach Club in another neighborhood of Dubrovnik. That was probably our priciest day- from renting the beach chairs and ordering food but it was beautiful and great swimming.

Back to Old Town for dinner. We ate at a restaurant called Lucin Kantun. The waiter set down two cushions on the steps outside the restaurant so that we would be comfortable as we waited for a table.

Relaxing at the Coral Beach Club
Relaxing at the Coral Beach Club

Le Syd: Views of the city

Stunning views of Dubrovnik!
Stunning views of Dubrovnik!

The next morning, we woke early again and took an Uber to Le Syd. A cable car transported us up the mountain offering stunning views of the city. On the ride up, we stood near a tour guide who shared that she was a refugee in the 90s. Being so close to Montenegro and Serbia made Dubrovnik vulnerable. She explained that locals looked to see which flag was flying in order to learn who had control of the city at any given time. We definitely saw and felt the impact of this region's traumatic history. The bright orange roof tiles next to faded ones indicate repairs from bombings. We saw abandoned and destroyed structures outside of the city.

Plan B: When plan A is too crowded, wander and discover.

I had read about Buza Bar in a few places. You crawl through a large opening in the wall surrounding old town to discover this bar set on the rocks overlooking the sea. Stu and I tried going one night but it was packed. I decided to try again the following afternoon only to find that it was still crowded and cash only (Kuna is their currency which I did not have on me at the time). So I left, continued my wandering and followed a few people walking to another spot in the wall. This one led to a beach that offered seating and a bar that took plastic. It was quieter, less crowded and offered a more varied menu. This was a reminder that while guidebooks are a great starting point, it is worth exploring on your own and maybe finding something that suits you even more.

Dinner Cruise

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For our last evening in Dubrovnik we took a dinner cruise around the islands and up the coast a bit past the part of the city where we stayed. The crew passed out a glass of prosecco when we boarded and we found a nice spot on the deck where we could sit and relax. The views and sunset were amazing. Dinner was good: white fish, delicious cold bean salad with mussels and the garlic mashed root vegetable dish that is often served as a side here. There was a meat option for Stu, who is allergic to shellfish, but he was not satisfied so we headed to Olivia’s Pizza in the old town afterwards. I enjoyed a glass of local cabernet served chilled. I always ask for recommendations and insist on local wines when I travel.

On Summer Travel in Europe

The teaching calendar can be tricky for European travel. While the summer months are ideal in terms of length of time, the heat can make wandering through a city uncomfortable. Due to energy prices and local sensibility, air conditioning is limited. I dream about spending September in Europe when I retire but until then I have found ways to make travel enjoyable in the heat of the summer. After a trip to Paris in July 2018, I swore that we would not do Europe in the summer without opportunities to cool off. Hence one of the reasons we chose Croatia. We fell into a nice routine in Dubrovnik:

Sight see early in the morning before the cruise ships docked.

Swim/ nap in the afternoon

Back out for more exploring in the evening often after 7:00 when the sun was less intense. You will find restaurants empty any time before 9:00 pm. We decided to lean into it and adjust our sleep schedules accordingly.

Brela

On the promenade that follows the coast of Brela. Behind me is the famous Rock of Brela.
On the promenade that follows the coast of Brela. Behind me is the famous Rock of Brela.

The beachside town of Brela is located on the Makarska Riviera. It is not a place that you will find featured in Rick Steeves or other guidebooks but a dear friend recommended it as a good launching point to see other areas north of Dubrovnik. We had planned to spend a few days lounging on the beach. In fact, Brela’s Punta Rata beach has been named one of the best in the world and it is gorgeous.

The journey from Dubrovnik to Brela is worth noting. We rented a car and drove the winding 3.5 hour trip north. Due to the narrow, windy roads, it took us at least an hour longer than predicted to make our way anywhere in Croatia. Still, it was a beautiful way to experience the countryside.

Luksa recommended we follow the coast up on route 8 rather than take the highway (A1). We were amazed by the countryside’s striking mountains that roll into the turquoise bays. We went up and down mountains on narrow, windy roads through little towns. At one point, due to a GPS mixup, we ended up on a one lane dirt road through a vineyard! Thankfully, we did not come across another car because there would have been no place to pull over. It felt like we were intruding on someone’s land but we followed the road and it eventually led to the highway. Needless to say, driving here is not for the faint of heart. It was pretty exhausting.

Back to Brela. After miles of driving on the highway going through a mountain, we entered a chaotic scene of parents carting kids carrying beach balls, boogie boards, and towels. It reminded me of Old Orchard Beach, Maine. I vaguely remember my friend mentioning this part of the town. As we continued north along the coast, we discovered a calmer beach scene. Our Air B and B was located there. Something to look out for… steps! Croatia, and I expect much of the Mediterranean is hilly! Walking to the beach involved 122 steps! It was a workout each time! The water was so much warmer in Brela than in Dubrovnik. There is a stunning walk along the coast from Brela all the way to the next town on the riviera. I started each morning with a walk and stopped for a double espresso and some writing time at a cafe along the path.

In Brela, we enjoyed some down time on the beach. For about $10.00 you can rent a beach chair and an umbrella. We got into a rhythm of having large, late lunches as our main meal of the day. One restaurant worth noting is called Obird. We arrived just as they were opening and enjoyed a delicious gourmet meal of seared tuna and the daily catch. The two waiters were wonderful, making recommendations and chatting with us about the area. I found it interesting that the portions were so large, American size not European. One waiter even asked if we wanted to take the food to go, again, not typical of Europe. Maybe things have changed to accommodate tourists?

Day Boat Trip: Islands of Vis and Hvar and the Blue Lagoon

En route to Vis
En route to Vis

We left Brela at 5:45 am in order to catch the boat leaving Split at 7:30 am. It was cool and comfortable (and light) at that hour.

Note about day trips: when I searched for boat trips from Brela on Trip Advisor and Air B and B, they all listed Split as the launching point. A search of local boat companies may have been helpful as we could have easily boarded a boat right in Brela to visit popular islands Hvar and Brac. Lesson learned. Still, the island of Vis and the Blue Cave are further north closer to Split so we felt the trip was worth it.

Stu had already researched parking in Split ( he is good at taking care of these details). I had just enough time to grab an espresso before we boarded the speedboat with 12 other people including our guide, a pharmacy student named Maya and the boat driver who looked like a Croatian Prince William. The boat was very comfortable with a large section in the back for sunbathing and napping.

This was our itinerary:

Split to Vis ( 1. 5 hour boat trip)

Vis to Bisevo (where the Blue Cave is located)

Bisevo to Hvar (30 minutes or so)

Hvar to Split (1.25 hours)

Vis: This is an island I would return to for a stay. We enjoyed espresso and pastry at a cafe right along the small shoreline and had just enough time to wander on the streets beyond. Like most Croatian islands, Vis is made of hills, beach and cobblestone streets to explore. Historically it is significant as a former Yogoslav military base and the furthest island from mainland Croatia.

Bisevo beach: Beautiful sandy beach (the only sandy beach we visited in Croatia). Our hosts set down the boat’s anchor and we swam to shore. The water is quite deep right up to the shore so swimming was a bit of a feat. We did it and relaxed on the beach a bit.

View from a cafe in Vis.
View from a cafe in Vis.

The Blue Cave : Since the cave is close to Vis and on the other side of the beach on Bisevo, our guides stopped there first to purchase our tickets to enter. This prevented us from having to wait hours for our turn to catch the small boat into the cave. Fortunately, we waited only 30 minutes because our guides kept tabs on our place in line and took us to other locations in the meantime. If you are going to visit the cave, I recommend doing it with a group tour.

The cave itself was magnificent. Sunlight enters the enclosed area filling the cave with a brilliant, fluorescent blue light. The pictures do not do it justice but you’ll get the idea. We had to duck to enter the cave through the low entrance.

Inside the Blue Cave
Inside the Blue Cave

Hvar: Finally, we left the Blue Cave for Hvar. We were a bit behind schedule and starving! Our tour guides arranged for lunch reservations. The restaurant was fine, I would have preferred something different but honestly did not have the energy to think about where to eat. After lunch, Stu opted to stay and relax with a beer while I wandered through hilly neighborhoods and discovered stunning views of the island.

View of Hvar from a hill leading up from the sea.
View of Hvar from a hill leading up from the sea.

Morning solo trip: town of Pucisca on the Island of Brac

The town of Pucisca on the Island of Brac
The town of Pucisca on the Island of Brac

By our last day in Brela, Stu had had enough sun so I ventured alone to the town of Pucisca on the Island of Brac. I had intended to take an afternoon trip to Bol but since that was full, I decided to join the morning trip to Pucisca. I ran up to our apartment, grabbed what I needed and made my way down to the dock to catch the speed boat that would take passengers on the 30 minute ride to the island. I didn’t even really know where I was going, just that the boat would drop us off in the town where we’d have time to explore and then take us back a few hours later.

While waiting for the boat, I met a lovely family from Denmark. My favorite part of travel is the people I meet. We boarded the boat together and went down the coast to another spot in Brela to pick up more families. I realized that I was the only native English speaker on the boat. All the other passengers were from Eastern Europe and from what I could tell, spoke Croatian, Polish or another Slavic language. Unlike in Dubrovnik, there were few speakers of Romance languages in Brela. I speak some French so I can discern what people say in Spanish and Italian but here I relied on facial expressions, body language and intonation to guess what they were saying. I enjoyed observing other families interact with one another and realized how similar we are despite language and cultural differences.

Pucisca is peaceful and quiet with few tourists. It reminded me of Vis. It is a major producer of white stone, we saw the cliffs as we pulled into the harbor, and is said to have supplied the stone for the White House. After arriving, the boat captain took us to Josip Radic’s gallery featuring his white stone sculptures and models. Josip met us at the door of his gallery located in a tiny church. He spoke to us about his life and his art. He fought in the Balkin wars of the 1990s and just after was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and nearly died. This caused him to retire and turn to carving white stone. After explaining how people said it couldn't be done, he unveiled his impressive model of the Vatican. His sponsor is Dremel so he showed us how he used a tool and gave each of us a small piece of stone to keep.

Following the gallery visit, I ventured out alone. I roamed down a few small streets inland but mostly stuck to the half circle that hugs the coast. One of the many things I love about Croatian towns is that you can swim anywhere! I got in the habit of always wearing a bathing suit so that I could take a dip at any point. In addition to cooling off, swimming in a bay is a great way to see a town. You get a nice perspective of the layout and beauty from the water. Shortly afterwards I dried off and headed back to the boat. On the ride back, we stopped at the nature park Vruja for a swim.

The church that now serves as Josip Radic's gallery.
The church that now serves as Josip Radic's gallery.

Mali Ston

On the drive back south towards Dubrovnik, Stu and I stopped at the town of Mali Ston (little Ston) for lunch. Had it not been for the afternoon heat, I may have walked along the wall connecting Ston and Mali Ston. The wall was built to protect the area's salt pans (salt being a precious resource back in the day). Mali Ston is a small town known for its oysters! We ate at Bota Sare where I devoured oysters and black risotto (a regional dish made with squid ink). It was delicious and filling!

Standing near the end of the wall in Mali Ston.
Standing near the end of the wall in Mali Ston.

Cavat

Saint Stephens Church in Cavat.
Saint Stephens Church in Cavat.

After our drive from Dubrovnik to Brela, we decided against driving to the airport directly from Brela at the end of our stay. Instead we made the trip the day before and spent our last night in Cavat (a small town located 10 miles from the airport). I loved Cavat! Many people choose to stay there when lodging in Dubrovnik is booked or as we did, to accommodate an early fight, but I think it is worth spending time here regardless. We stayed at the Hotel Cavat. The receptionist was extremely helpful in arranging my taxi to the airport and figuring out my entry into Spain with Covid guidelines. Turns out it was quite easy because I entered Spain from an EU country and not from the US.

In Cavat, I wandered around town and walked along the harbor. I stopped off at Saint Nicholas Church walked over to Tig Tudmana (little square) to visit the Church of our Lady of the Snows (to commemorate a freak summer snowstorm from Roman times). Then I climbed up the steps leading to Croatian artist, Ivan Mestrovic’s, family mausoleum. While the mausoleum was closed on Sunday, it was worth visiting the cemetery outside it and taking in the views of the water and Cavat.

Stu had left that morning to head home and since my fight to Madrid was later in the day, I took the time to explore Cavat. While it was sad to see him go, I was filled with excitement for a new adventure; my first as a solo traveler in Europe or as Stu calls it “Eat, Pray, Krista”. I promised him that I would mindfully and safely wander.

Beautiful sunset in Cavat.
Beautiful sunset in Cavat.

Off to Madrid!

I was giddy with excitement as my taxi pulled into the center of the city. While I had been over the French border and visited the Spanish town of San Sebastian one afternoon many years ago, this was my first time truly experiencing Spain. I chose Madrid for my solo travel mostly for the museums but after a few days here, I discovered that it is an amazing city in its own right.

Walking into my Air B and B apartment felt like returning home. The western European appliances and set up reminded me so much of the Parisian apartment where I stayed in college. The place was impeccable and included every amenity I could think of- laundry (which I desperately needed to do at this point), espresso, air conditioning, fluffy towels (which is unheard of considering dryers are not readily available in Europe). It was lovely!

Stopped at the Plaza Mayor during an evening stroll in Madrid.
Stopped at the Plaza Mayor during an evening stroll in Madrid.

Walking

Madrid is so easy to get around. There really is no need to take taxis or the subway if you stay in the heart of town. My apartment was about a 15 minute walk to the Puerta del Sol, 30 minutes to the Palace, and 10 minutes to the Prado and Reina Sofia museums.

Tapas!

The kitchen at the front of this tapas bar features its specialty: garlic shrimp.
The kitchen at the front of this tapas bar features its specialty: garlic shrimp.

I ate Tapas for every meal. The first restaurant was on a side street close to the Prado. I enjoyed mussels, tostas with anchovies, empanada and big, beautiful green olives- all the foods my family would NEVER eat! I enjoyed eating alone with the buzz of conversation to keep me company. I wrote in my notebook and observed others deep in conversation.

On my last night in Madrid, I joined a Tapas and History tour. I learned about how the architecture told the story of the city and how to find an authentic and delicious tapas bar (specializes in a dish, kitchen is near the entrance to entice people to come in etc.). At each place we tasted the bar’s special dish (my favorite was the garlic shrimp) paired with a glass of something (wine or sweet vermouth). I enjoyed getting to know the American and Canadian tourists on the tour.

I enjoyed dinner one night at this wine and cheese shop/ restaurant.
I enjoyed dinner one night at this wine and cheese shop/ restaurant.

The Museums

Waiting for the doors of the Reina Sofia to open!
Waiting for the doors of the Reina Sofia to open!

Walking into the Museo del Reina Sofia and taking in Guernica by Pablo Picasso was a dream. “Taking in” is the best way to describe how I experienced this exquisite work of art. The painting tells the story of total anguish and devastation from the Nazi bombing (with Franco’s blessing) of the town of Guernica in 1937. To take it in is to bear witness to total despair and desperation. It brought up so much for me. After wandering through the museum, I made my way back to the painting for another look.

The Reina Sofia is a stunning museum. In addition to Guernica, it houses amazing works of modern art. A few I discovered were:

Juan Gris. “Portrait de Madame Josette Gris” - 1916
Olga Sacharff, “Woman Leaning on a Table” - 1915
Francisco ITurrino. “Still Life” (it reminded me of Matisse’s “Red Room” painting.

Following the Reina Sofia, I headed over to the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Two museums in one day is a lot, even for me, but I figured I’d take advantage of being in Madrid. I walked for 15 minutes in 100 degree heat, made my way into the lobby and with a hint of desperation in my voice, asked the ticket agent, “Where can I get a Diet Coke?” I beelined it to the cafeteria for a refreshing drink and ham sandwich. After refueling, I made my way upstairs to the Old Master paintings and worked my way down to modern art (the latest being into the 1960s). I was pretty spent at this point so I spent about an hour there and made my way back to my apartment for a siesta.

I spent 3 hours the next morning at the Prado. What a magnificent experience. When I first arrived, I walked straight back to the Goya wing so that I could experience it before the crowds gathered. Walking through rooms lined with Old Master masterpieces was a spiritual experience. I breathed in deeply and took it all in. I didn't fall in love with any particular paintings or sculptures at the Prado but learned about Spanish artists and history. I walked away with a greater appreciation of El Greco’s use of light, Diego Velaquez’s royal portraits and Goya’s ability to reveal a subject’s personality.

Postcards of "Madame Gris" and "Guernica" remind me of this magical morning.
Postcards of "Madame Gris" and "Guernica" remind me of this magical morning.

On Traveling Alone

I never felt alone with my notebook beside me. Here on my apartment balcony.
I never felt alone with my notebook beside me. Here on my apartment balcony.

I loved traveling alone… for 3 days! It was just enough time before loneliness set in. Perhaps I will gradually extend time alone over the next few years. Here is what I loved:

Wandering anywhere I pleased.

Doing things on my timeline- especially museums! I sometimes enjoy going with others but it is nice to go at my pace and not worry if someone else is ready to move on to another room.

Being with my thoughts.

Writing my heart out! I wrote every day, multiple times a day. I never felt alone at meals because I had my notebook with me.

Where to next?

Traveling fuels me like nothing else. It gives me the gift of insight and perspective that I will carry with me throughout the year. When things get tough this year, I will dream of next summer’s adventures and maybe even set my work aside to read a travel blog or do a quick search for a future destination. Greece? Sicily? Barcelona? Southern Spain? Montenegro? Northern Croatia? We’ll see. I am open to recommendations so feel free to write them below!

2 thoughts on “The Traveling Teacher: My Summer Adventures in Croatia and Madrid”

  1. Thanks for sharing your adventures. I’ve spent time in Rovinj and it was amazing. Croatia does not have a good rail system so renting a car is a must. I’ve never traveled alone aside from business travel. Sounds Ike you have embraced it well. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Keep explorering and sharing.

    1. Joanne! Thank you for your response! Rovinj is on my list for a future visit to Croatia. There is so much to see in this beautiful country. I can’t wait!

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