Split, Croatia – Gateway to Dalmatia, Home of Black Risotto

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Diocletian’s Palace and the waterfront at night.

Croatia is a country we have really looked forward to visiting. We’ll be making a total of 4 stops in the country, all in the southern Dalmatia region. Split is the second largest city in the coastal country and features everything a traveller could want. Bustling markets and streets, 3rd century roman ruins and a vibrant food scene. If you’ve never been to Croatia, or the Adriatic sea, its hard to describe the beauty of the crystal clear water and stunning islands, you really need to see it for yourself.

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View of Split old city from the park near our apartment.

It is also the home of one of Dan’s favorite dishes. Black risotto. Black risotto really is black. It is a seafood dish made with rice, garlic, cuttlefish and cuttlefish ink.The ink ads no flavor, just color. It’s very strange to see on your plate, but it’s fantastic!  Buttery, creamy with garlic and wine. Think shrimp scampi on steroids, mixed into soft luscious rice.black risottoDiocletians palace is Split’s most famous monument and a UNESCO world heritage site. One of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world, Diocletian’s Palace was built as a retirement home for the emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century. For better or worse, the palace never went out of use, and it is the heart of the old city. The Croatian people have been living within the walls for 1800 years. It’s amazing to wonder the streets and see the juxtaposition of a almost 2000 year old building filled with tredy new boutiques and gorgeous modern cafes.

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The worse, is that over the years, the buildings inside the palace have been repurposed many times, so much of the old above ground palace (other than the walls and gates) hasn’t existed for hundreds of years.

The only remaining original part of the palace is the formerly flooded basement.
The only remaining original part of the palace is the formerly flooded basement.

We spent a couple days in Split, just hanging out relaxing. There was a great running trail near our apartment, so we spent a few mornings jogging along the shore. One of the highlights of our time in Split was the evening that we packed a picnic and headed out to the end of the peninsula to watch the sunset. Gorgeous to watch the sun set over the islands off the coast, while blue and orange shimmers off the sea.

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Right at sunset this kayaking crew cruised through our view.

Our last day in Split, we took an all-day boat cruise to the island across the bay, Brac. The boat cruise, was a little hit or miss. It started raining right before we reached the feature attraction, Brac’s Golden Horn Beach. The entire time we were at this beach it was pouring rain.

One of the most famous beaches in Croatia. It's not sand, but marbles sized pebbles..
One of the most famous beaches in Croatia. It’s not sand, but marbles sized pebbles..

Although Kristin and I are getting to do all this fun stuff, we are on a very tight budget, and haven’t payed for many tours. We we’re very excited for this trip and thought the entire tour was going to be spoiled by rain! The wind and rain were freezing, and we had no choice but to swim, as the water was warmer than sitting on the beach.

Hiding from the freezing rain, the 76 degree water was warmer than being outside.
Croatia’s water is crazy clear. You can see forever bringing out tons of colors in photos.

Soon after leaving the city of Bol, the sun broke and we sailed into blue skies. As we pulled into a little cove for our afternoon swim, the weather was perfect.

Once the rain finally cleared, we had a great afternoon swim.
Once the rain finally cleared, we had a great afternoon swim.

A long awaited swim was great for our spirits and our day. We really enjoyed it and finally got a chance to meet some of the other guests on the boat. It was like the united nations, with every group from seemingly a different country. Sweden, South Africa, Canada (French), Netherlands, France, Belgium, Australia, Italy. We represented hard as the only group from the ‘merica!

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As we cruised, home we relished a beautiful sunset. As it was during the wedding. The rain ended up throwing a wrench into the plans, but made for a more memorable experience in the end!

Switzerland, only 2 days and we could barely afford it

Our Switzerland trip was a quick one, and thankfully so because this place is pricey! Peter and the Moiron crew were headed to Geneva to pick up a few more friends and we decided to tag along.

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The first day, we headed to the countryside to visit Gruyere castle and Maison Caille chocolate factory. Built in 1270 Gruyere castle was built to protect a valley that would go on to become famous for a cheese of the same name.

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After visiting the castle we stopped for the quintessential Swiss Fondue lunch, okay so we knew this was a tourist trap, but they actually have some of the best fondue around. Fondue, a glass of wine and a small meat platter for 2, $100, ouch.

wpid-wp-1439762419490.jpgMaison Caille bills itself as the first chocolate factory. Before they got in the business, people only drank chocolate. They were the first to combine it with milk and sugar, creating the chocolate bar we know today. During the great depression, times got tough for Maison Caille and they were forced to merge with another upstart local company called Nestle, the candy giant was born.

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Dan was really amused by the carved chocolate Ibex in the gift shop.

Day two of our Swiss adventure took us swimming in Lake Geneva and wine tasting on the surrounding hills. Lake Geneva is one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen. Like Lake Tahoe but surrounded by vineyards, it is stunning.

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Does anyone else hear Celine Dion singing?

We started our wine adventure by taking the wine train. This picture is nice but overall the wine train was pretty stupid. We wouldn’t recommend. Luckily, Peter knew somebody and we were able to get an invite to a patio of a local vineyard owner and producer who doesn’t usually give tours.

Wine Train= Rip Off
Wine Train= Rip Off

The vineyard owner came down to meet us with a huge smile on his face and his shirt unbuttoned about 3 notches. We got the feeling this guy didn’t make a ton of money, but he has the greatest views we had ever seen.

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What a patio!

In Switzerland, not a lot of money probably means his property is worth $10 million he still makes way more than you. Cheap Swiss wines go for $30 a bottle.

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That night we headed into Geneva for a night on the town, $25 hamburgers and $12 beers. Luckily, Peter spotted Kristin for a ride on this spinning contraption at the local carnival. “It was only 80 feet up” he said. Actual height over 200 feet.

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Moiron, France and The Chateau

Moiron, France

Moiron, France is a small village in the middle of the country, about 90 min north east of Lyon and 60 minutes south of the Burgundy wine region. It was until recently was the home of our friend Peter’s grandparents. Peter and his brother Chris were spending the summer in the home helping maintain and upkeep the house as it is no longer occupied year round. We were lucky enough to spend eight days staying with them at ‘the chateau.’

The French don't hate EVERYTHING American.
The French don’t hate EVERYTHING American.

The chateau was unreal, a French country home from your dreams. Set in a picturesque village in the heart of the wine and cheese region of France, it is an incredible property.

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The neighbors vineyard.

Peter’s grandparents purchased the chateau in the 70’s from an old WWI general. The general sketched out the property boundary on a napkin, asked them if they wanted the orchard and chapel (they did) and the deal was sealed over a glass of wine. Then the work began, we cannot imagine the hours it took to restore this place.

The side of the house and the chapel.
The side of the house and the chapel.

At probably 8,000 sq ft., it was originally built in the 1500’s, with additions by unknown owners throughout the years. The house they bought was dilapidated, neglected, they spent their first summer in a tent outside.

The grapevines above the outside table are over 50 years old.
The grapevines above the outside table are over 50 years old and were planted by the general.

Stone floors, 3,000 pound hand-hewn celling beams and all, the chateau is breathtaking featuring 10 bedrooms, a wood fired oven, an entire church and a hand dug wine cellar with over 400 bottles.

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Being over 500 years old and massive, there is a lot of upkeep, and we’re very lucky to get to enjoy the home with Peter, Chris and their friends Chuck and Michelle.

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All that eating makes Kristin sleepy. A view of the backyard and garden.

Peter is a professional chef, and was taking the summer off before opening a new restaurant in South Dakota. So we ate well, very, very well. We started each morning with a trip to the market for the day’s veggies, the bakery for bread and the butcher for our meat.

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Everything was local and fresh, the best of France. Here are a few of the dishes we enjoyed during our stay. Duck breast with a fig-wine reduction, sautéed fois gras, veal shank ossobuco, eggplant moussaka, and a classic French bouillabaisse.

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wpid-wp-1439747177883.jpgThe last night we were there, we added our contribution to the food extravaganza we had been enjoying. Authentic Paella made following the recipe we learned during our class in Valencia, including fresh Roman snails collected from the family garden. You cannot just eat snails from the wild, they need to be “cleaned.” First you feed them for a few days and then starve them. This cleans anything potentially harmful out of their system.

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For our snails, that meant 3 days of garden fresh rosemary, thyme and sage, then 3 days with water. Feeding them the herbs, gives them a sweet slightly herby flavor, awesome for in our traditional Valencian Paella.

In between meals we spent most of our days enjoying the chateau or hiking the surrounding countryside. One afternoon, we hit the links at the Moiron golf course. Playing as 5 some with two 8 club rental sets made for an interesting round, but the course was in great shape and we had a blast playing 9 holes.

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The next day, we were fortunate enough to make a trip to Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy, to meet the winemakers behind most of the delicious bottles in the chateau’s wine cellar. Peter’s grandparents found Domain Pavelot over 30 years ago and have been buying (and storing) cases of their wine ever since. Like most all of burgundy, they only grow 2 types of grapes, pinot noir and chardonnay.

View of the winery from across the vines.
View of the winery from across the vines.

The difference in Burgundy wines comes from the parcels of land growing the grapes. We tasted 4 different pinot noirs, grown in different parcels mere feet from one another, and surprisingly, you could actually taste difference. They only distribute to two states, but surprisingly, one of them is Colorado! Look for them at large wine retailers.

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Seville – Tapas, Moorish Castles, Bikes in the Park

After 3 days in Seville, we understand why this magical city has captivated the hearts and stories of people for over 100 years. This city has been the set and inspiration of many famous stories and plays including Shakespeare’s The Barber of Seville and Bizet’s Carmen. Seville has been conquered and reconquered many times over its history, with every culture leaving the best of their recipes and techniques behind. Seville is also the capital of the agriculturally productive Andalusia region. These two factors combine to make wonderful tapas, many think the best in Spain. One of the main attractions in Seville Cathedral and the Giralda Tower. We were able to see these at night sitting on a hotel rooftop bar near the square which gave awesome views.

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There is a huge park in the city, Maria Luisa Park, which is great for wandering through the gardens and seeing the Plaza de Espana. The Plaza de Espana was built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929.  The Plaza is still to this day the home of many government offices. The neat thing to do at the Plaza is to see the many tiled alcoves that each represent a different province of Spain. We made sure to take a picture by the Valencia alcove. The park is pretty big so you can either spend 45 Euros (45 minutes) to take a horse drawn carriage tour or rent a bike for 10 Euros (30 minutes) and peddle around the park. We are living the budget lifestyle so we opted for the bike.

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Visiting Seville, no trip is complete without a tapas bar crawl. As the locals do it, you hop from bar to bar sampling a drink and small plate of food, or two, at each one. Our crawl featured six locations and everything from smoked cod on toast to $100 a pound jamon and chicharrones. We won’t recount all of the stories so here is the list of some of the haunts we visited, one has been serving Tapas for almost 350 years (El Rinconcillo). Other locations we visited: Bodeguita Antonio Romero, Casa Morales, Taberna Coloniales, and La Fresquita.

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For one of our days in Seville, we visited the Real Alcazar of Seville located right in the current heart of the city, this palace was originally but by the Muslim Moors, who ruled the city from 712. Then in 1248 the city was captured by the Catholic Spanish and the Royal Alcazar was converted into the part time home of the Spanish Royal family.

There are two pieces to the palace. The indoor palace and the outdoor gardens. The indoors are spectacular. Every inch of the impressive structure is covered in hand laid tiles. These tiles are beautifully put together with ever evolving intricate patterns and it makes quite the impression. We really enjoyed strolling the halls of the palace, and escaping the oppressive heat of the midday Spanish sun. Seriously, it was 104 outside, and 96 degrees in the shade (as Third World put it.)

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The gardens of the Royal Alcazar are beautiful if only slightly less impressive than the palace itself. Built mostly by Christians, the gardens have a distinctly Arab feel with water at the heart of every area of the garden. Evolving over the 1000 years, the palace and the gardens have hosted countless dignitaries. We couldn’t help think that we were walking on the same grounds as Christopher Columbus when he returned to the King’s palace for the first time after discovering the New World.

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One of the other crazy sites in Seville is the parasol which is a huge piece of modern art in the center of the city. The people of seville are not super thrilled by this artwork and now refer to it as the mushroom. This is a good place to see the sunset in Seville and snap a few pictures. Its 3 Euros/Person but it includes a drink at a nearby participating bar.

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Here are the top things to do in Seville:

  1. Go on a tapas bar crawl. There are so many tapas spots so just do a little research and wing the rest!
  2. Have a drink at a hotel rooftop bar at night looking over the Giralda Tower
  3. Visit the Real Alcazar of Seville
  4. Take a bike ride or carriage ride in the Maria Luisa gardens and see the Plaza de Espana.

Barcelona, Beaches and Monserrat

PANO_20150619_134137_64Day 4 in Barcelona was our first chance to spend time on the beach. We started the with a walk down to the beautiful Bogatell beach. A soft white sand beach located close to the city and only 5 minutes from our apartment. The beach was packed even on a weekday morning. Apparently due to the recession, many women in Spain can only afford half of the 2 piece bathing suit. Wha wha wee wha! Our first dip in the Mediterranean brought some warm but very salty water. We enjoyed it a ton and headed to lunch near our place on the Poblenou Ramble. Set menu, 3 course lunch with an included bottle wine, sets you back about $25, that will work!

The next day, we had a chance to do something that we didn’t initially plan on but ended up being the highlight of Barcelona. After reading up on the city, we read Monserrat monastery was not to beIMG_20150619_124008_25 missed so we decided to take the hour train ride to the base of the Pyrenees mountains to check it out. To get to the monastery a couple thousand feet above, you can either take a funicular or a cable car. We elected to take the cable car from the train, which was awesome. It provides great views, if you can take the heights, suspended 250 feet up! Really makes you appreciate how hard it was to build the fortified masterpiece.

Kristin and Dan from the base of Monserrat cable car.

The monastery itself is pretty sweet, built into the side of the mountain it’s the holiest place in Catalonia, Northern Spain. This is a view of the monastery from the adjacent mountain.
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The grounds were excellently cared for with detail and a reverence for the surrounding mountains built into all aspects of the design.Our favorite part was that from the monastery there are a bunch of hikes all over the surrounding mountains. Because we are balling on a budget, we could’ve easily spent €24 to ride the funicular to get this view. Nope, we’re walking, 3 hrs roundtrip!

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IMG_20150619_202627At the end of the day, we stopped by the monastery store to see what they offered. There was a bunch of local products made by the monks, and the surrounding villages. We ended up with this awesome bottle of Cava (Monk/Local Winery collaboration) and a monk made chocolate bar.

A great way to end the day and our time in Barcalona. Tomorrow, were off to Valencia!