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Croatia- Part 1: Opatija


Recently, the hubby & I embarked on another trip- this time for our one year anniversary! I'm constantly browsing the getaways on Groupon & Living Social.  You can find some really excellent deals on there.  We've used these sites several times & I've been thoroughly pleased with every one of the trips.  We've done everything from a weekend in New Orleans to snow skiing in Colorado to white water rafting in Tennessee.  We also used it for our recent trip to Nicaragua.  The accommodations have always been excellent & the customer service is wonderful.  Several months ago I found an 11 day excursion to Croatia & Slovenia. 
Now I have a mile long list of places to visit, but neither of these countries had every registered on it.  In fact, I never really thought much about either one.  After seeing the trip listed, I was intrigued & read the itinerary.  It sounded enjoyable & stirred my curiosity.  I did a little research into both countries & was instantly impressed at all the sights they had to offer.  I think it's safe to say that these two small countries are a well kept secret (as I learned from the questioning faces of all our family & friends when I told them about the trip).  After Brad & I researched the listed sights on the itinerary, we both agreed we'd take a gamble & go for the Groupon deal. 

Before we knew it, a year of marriage had snuck up on us & it was time to depart for our trip! The morning of our departure came early & we were up & off to the airport long before the sun.  We knew it was going to be a long journey to Croatia but we were excited none the less.  We departed Birmingham at 0530 & began our lengthy pilgrimage through countless airports & countries.

Birmingham > Atlanta > New York > Istanbul > Venice

We had to book our flights to JFK separately as the Groupon deal included airfare from JFK.  We took trusty old Delta & had to switch over after we arrived in New York.  The purchased deal included airfare using Turkish Airlines.  Neither Brad or I had ever flown with this company but after boarding our red eye at JFK we were fairly impressed.  The large aircraft seemed slightly roomier than most American based companies (although we were still crammed in like sardines in a can).  They also provided us with pillows, blankets, & toiletry kits containing: slippers, toothbrushes, toothpaste, earplugs, lip balm, & other goodies.  The airline also provides all the food & drinks one can handle- although my preference was sleeping.  One thing we quickly learned this trip about Turkish Airlines- they are not fans of air conditioning.  We were rather toasty for our first flight which made for a somewhat uncomfortable nine hours.  Aside from the temperature difference, the flight went over smoothly.  It also went by rather quickly as Turkish Airlines provides each seat with personal screens with everything from free in flight Wi-Fi to games to numerous blockbuster movies. 

Goodbye, NYC - Hello, Istanbul!
We arrived in Istanbul with just enough time to make it to our next flight to Venice.  Once we arrived in Venice, we met one of the tour company guides & boarded a bus bound for Croatia.  This was our first (& I think its safe to say- last) guided tour.  Most of the trip was spent on these buses shuffling across countries with 40 other people.  It was quite a different experience & something neither of us care to experience again.  The tour was arranged with Gate 1 Travel & consisted of two buses carrying a total of 80-some odd people.  The majority of the guests were post-retirement age & clearly uncomfortable with traveling outside the comforts of home.  There were a few younger individuals on the tour- all of which had purchased the same Groupon deal.  While the tour was informative & allowed us to economically travel to several different sights, it just wasn't our cup of tea.  Having been blessed with the opportunity to travel, I much prefer independent excursions & flexible time schedules.  Gate 1 would be excellent for solo travelers that may not be comfortable exploring a country on their own.  Neither Brad or I enjoyed the 'pack experience' & sadly, traveling with large groups such as this really shows you the selfishness & arrogance of many people.  *Warning: Soap Box ahead!* No wonder so many people hate Americans!  I've always traveled with the mindset that you're outside your comfort zone (um...hello! One of the best things about travel!) & you should enjoy it.  Don't expect everyone to speak English- & most definitely don't get angry when they don't.  You're a visitor to THEIR country- learn some of THEIR language.  It's best to keep your head down, your mouth closed, & your eyes open to take in the incredible experience.  Unfortunately, many of our travel mates are unaware of this unwritten rule.  But I digress...

After boarding the bus in Venice, we headed straight to the border.  We did get the opportunity to see some of the beautiful Italian countryside.  It only fed my desire to see this incredibly gorgeous country!  We crossed the border into Slovenia briefly before making our way to Croatia.  The bus ride took a little over two hours but allowed us to see the beautiful countryside- one advantage to traveling by car that you can't get from a plane.  We arrived in the picturesque seaside town of Opatija shortly after lunchtime.  The tour guide on the bus informed us that Opatija has been known as a seaside escape for some of Europe's rich & elite throughout time.  It was immediately apparent why.  The coastal town was small but definitely stunning.  The gentle rolling hills seem to gradually disappear into the endless Adriatic Sea & the coastline was dotted with charming homes, buildings, & parks that one can spend hours wandering through. 

The bus dropped us off in front of our hotel for the next two nights, Hotel Bristol.  We were immediately impressed with the beautiful hotel's architecture & marble covered lobby.  Throughout this trip, Gate 1 spoiled us with four & five star hotels- something Brad & I don't spring for, but it was definitely a treat this go round.  Several of our tour mates had balconies overlooking the engaging streets.  We only had a window but it suited us fine, as we had no desire to sit on the balcony in the gloomy weather.
We had a free afternoon to explore the town before a welcome dinner that evening.   After settling in, we decided to get out & wander- airplane/bus grunge & all.  Unfortunately for us, this free afternoon consisted of a lot of rain- little did we know this would be a common occurrence throughout our trip.  We did manage to get out & snap some photos for a bit before the bottom really fell out.  We managed to make it back to the hotel just in time.  We still had a few hours before dinner & before we knew it, we succumbed to the jet lag while the rain fell outside the window.  We managed to pry ourselves from bed in order to head downstairs to the hotel restaurant for the tour's provided welcome dinner.  We consumed a rather lack luster buffet dinner of generic foods with some of other younger individuals on the tour.  I was disappointed to see that we weren't treated to any local food but hey- a free meal's a free meal I suppose...

The next morning we awoke to another gloomy day.  I (stupidly) relied on my iphone weather app when packing for the trip.  It informed me I should prepare for sunny days with temps in the high 60s to low 70s.  Boy was I in for a surprise!  Throughout the trip, we mainly had temps in the 40s with constant rainfall.  My ill prepared wardrobe didn't make for a toasty Julie!  None the less, we ventured downstairs to the complimentary breakfast & met another couple on our tour, Mike & Kathleen.  Kathleen had noticed the patches I collect on my backpack whenever I travel the previous evening & struck up a conversation about all the places we'd been.  This couple was one of the few we genuinely enjoyed talking with- as they had traveled extensively outside the US & easily adapt to unfamiliar places.  Mike was a retired Border Patrol Agent so we immediately bonded over the common LEO trait between us.  He had also served some time with his job in Croatia after the Bosnian War & loved this country so much that he later brought Kathleen back with him.  They both were familiar with several of the places we visited throughout the trip & were able to offer great tips for places to see- without being obnoxious about it!  

After breakfast, there was an optional all day excursion that many of our tour mates departed for.  We decided to save the extra money & spend the day exploring Opatija.  It was definitely a good decision as this quaint town has so much to offer.  I only wish we had more time to check out a few more things in the area. 

We first walked down the hill toward the harbor & through beautiful Park Angolina.  Inside the park is the lovely Villa Angolina- built in 1844 by Iginio Scarpa (now a museum).  The park has flora & fauna from all over the world.  I imagine it is really quite breathtaking in the spring when everything is in bloom. 

 After we walked through the park, we made our way around the coastline via the waterfront walkway.  This gave us the opportunity to see the entire town of Opatija- spectacular!  We also visited the "Maiden with the seagull" statue.  It is one of the main symbols of Opatija.  There were several other statues along the river walk, unfortunately most of the descriptions were in Croatian so we weren't too sure of the symbolism of them. 

We spent a few hours wandering around the water front & through the art pavilion before the rain returned & we high tailed it back to the hotel.  Once again, the rain managed to lull our jet lagged bodies to sleep for a bit.  After the rain stopped we ventured back out on the town to a cute little pizza place (Pizzeria Roko) we'd seen earlier that morning.  We managed to arrive just in time as we grabbed the last table & before we knew it, hungry patrons were lined up awaiting our departure.  Brad decided he wanted a creamy pasta dish consisting of zucchini, shrimp, & scallions.  I opted for a small pizza.  I covered my bases by asking our waiter how small small was to Roko & he described a pie about the size of a personal pizza back home.  I decided this would do as I wasn't famished.  I opted for a pie topped with red chicory, proscuitto, & salami.  While it wasn't the best pizza I've ever had, it was good.  I think I would've enjoyed it more had I gone with different toppings.  One thing's for sure- it was no personal pizza.  It was about the size of a typical large pizza so of course the majority of it went to waste.  Brad was very pleased with his meal & we both enjoyed people watching as we sat on the covered front patio. 
Since the rain had let up & our bellies were full, we decided to walk off our lunch by exploring the rest of the town that we hadn't seen earlier that morning.  I had spotted a beautiful cathedral on the hillside when snapping photos at the water front.  We managed to make our way through the residential area & winding hills to the church.  Fortunately it was open to the public & we were immediately awe struck by its beauty.  Little did we know this would be one of the most 'modest' cathedrals we would encounter on our trip. 

After making our way back down the hill, we ventured a little farther down the main area of the water front.  We browsed a few shops & were force fed samples by a sweet little shop employee.  Croatia is covered with vineyards & olive farms.  As a result, the Croats boast their wines & olive oils.  I was determined to take home a bottle of olive oil & made the mistake of asking questions about the different flavors.  The kind employee was clearly anxious to practice her English (or make a sale!) & continuously offered us samples of every product in the store.  We promised to return (lie) before heading home.  I felt bad turning her down, but there was no way I was going to carry a glass bottle in my backpack for the next 10 days.  Her eagerness demonstrated just how friendly the Croats are & how proud they are of their country.  We hastily left the store before she could offer us another sample & made our way back down to the park at the waterfront plaza.  We found a large map detailing the sights in the area & I noticed a historic town that was at the very top of the mountain.  Considering we had a few hours to kill, I forced Brad into schlepping up the mountain to check it out.  We marched our fannies high up the hill through more winding roads & rain before finally surrendering (little did we know) right before reaching the summit. 
The darkness was quickly approaching & Brad's sugar had bottomed out so we high tailed it back down the mountain where we rewarded ourselves with an ice cream (this would become a common theme throughout the trip).  We decided we'd walk along the waterfront path to the next village over (Volosko) for dinner. 

 We made it to Volosko just as dark hit, only to find that apparently everything shuts down in this small fishing village well before dark.  The quaint little village had countless shops & restaurants but not a one was open.  We didn't encounter a single soul on any of the streets.  After a second failed trip of the day, we surrendered & decided to sprint back to Opatija & gorge on our snacks.  Clearly our lunches weighed us down, as the sky bottomed out right as we entered Opatija.  We ran the last few blocks in the icy rain & made it back to the hotel, drenched & cold.  We settled in for the night & packed up our belongings as we prepared to bid adieu to Opatija. 

Stay tuned for Part 2- Split...

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