Saturday, September 29, 2012

Sept 29 2012 - Rambling around St Petersburg

Today was probably the most fun so far in St Petersburg, and we didn't even have any beer! Olga's brother Kostya and his girlfriend Danya came in from Moscow on the train and we planned a whole day of unplanned events. Roaming around the city without an agenda was really fun. Even though Kostya lives in Moscow, he knows every new business that's about to open in St Petersburg, so we wandered around downtown, occasionally popping into a new bookstore or cafe or wandering down a street undergoing major hipster change.

ECTO-1 in St Petersburg?!

Kostya and Danya - cute couple!!
Having continuously protested revisiting the Hermitage museum since a torturous visit circa 2001, democracy won out and the group headed to the Hermitage, with the explicit promise that we visit only the special exhibition but none of the permanent collections.  The exhibit on the art and architecture of Santiago Calatrava was surprisingly good. Just because it's in the most daunting, stuffy, and bureaucratic of museums doesn't make its exhibits any less compelling (much to my surprise). The most interesting feature of his architecture is that he is inspired by the form of birds, so often some component of the building (roof, deck, etc) opens and closes based like the wings on a bird. Often though, his projects are *too amazing* and end up getting scaled back due to budgeting (such as the plan for the new WTC PATH train station with an opening roof) or cancelled entirely for being too controversial (such as the St. John the Divine cathedral in NYC).

Horsing around the Hermitage

Paying to cook our own dinner :)

The four of us ended up at Long Tail restaurant for dinner. With three of us being vegetarians, it wasn't a hard decision to order the five veggie items on the menu to share. After a long wait, they brought out raw ingredients, a hot stone, and we cooked the food ourselves - sort of a mini Mongolian bbq at the table. It's a cute concept, but the novelty wore off quickly when we had to wait, do the work ourselves, and pay a premium for the benefit.


As some of you know, a short story Olga wrote was made into a short film by director Vitaly Saltykov. Olga and Vitaly were interviewed by the main news/television station in St Petersburg (NTV), which was cool to watch. I'm super proud of her and glad to be involved! Olga held her own in the interview, she seemed really happy with how she handled it. We'll have to see how it comes together, the broadcast is scheduled for Wednesday night!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Sept 28 2012 - St Petersburg Culinary Tour!

Totally randomly we just happened upon the brewpub Yoksel on Marata Street. Despite being filled with cigarette smoke, I like the gritty real feel of this place. They don't brew on premises, but they assured us their beers are made exclusively for them. All the beers we sampled had heads that melt on your lips. Is this a sign of freshness? Or part of the fermentation process? I don't know, but it's a very pleasant surprise!

Svetlenky at Yoksel

We tried the Svetlenky, an effervescent white Belgian-style beer. Believe me when I say I liked this beer a lot, even though I would describe it as smelling a little of vomit - and tasting very citrusy. This was actually a step up from Metropole which we visited two days ago :)

We also tried Tyomnenkoe, described as a dark hoppy beer, I would probably label it as a dunkel lager. Bouquet is a good slice of toast, tastes like caramelized onion, aftertaste is kvas, which is a Russian fermented bread soda, not unlike a non-alcoholic beer.

Browsing the Kuznechniy market - we bought great pickles!!

With a visit to the Dostoyevsky Museum and Kuznechniy market in between, we then headed to Ukrop (Dill) restaurant. Having just opened for business yesterday, Ukrop is the only restaurant in St Petersburg serving raw food. Their raw specialties, combined with a variety of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free fare, along with their fun hipster atmosphere, makes for a great new culinary hotspot.

Even Aunt Maya found something she liked at Ukrop!

The asparagus soup is layered in such a way that first you experience the rich thick asparagus purée, then deeper you discover a layer of tiny cubed beets. You must try the cucumber salad, perked up with sesame oil and lemon juice. The mushroom pancake is a savory raw veggie patty crusted in sesame seeds. It's so fresh, you could eat it with a spoon! The desserts might be gluten free as their crusts are made with finely chopped almonds and dates. Everything, straight from the garden, is prepared in such a creative, healthy, and fun way that hasn't been tried before, even in Eden.

Pilgramage to the John Lennon Temple in St Petersburg

On the way home, we stopped by the famous John Lennon Temple of Love, which was run by the consummate Russian Beatles fanatic Kolya Vasin, starting as a fan club in 1970, then becoming a full-fledged shrine in 1990. The Temple itself wasn’t open for visitors at the time, but the scene outside is really chill, with good vibes all around!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sept 26 2012 - Metropole brewpub and bakery

Metropole: Remarkable Soviet-style bakery, Mediocre brewpub
Come for the pivo, stay for the profiteroles

Now that we're in St Petersburg, we decided to continue the brewpub tour here with cousin Paul and Annita...

The Brasserie Metropole, located in the central Nevskii district of St. Petersburg, is in the same building as the business hotel and the Soviet-era cafe of the same name. The business-casual atmosphere - with a mix of couches, chairs, and tvs showing mostly music videos - is pleasant and professional. The service is very slow by American standards, though fairly average by Russian ones.

We sampled 3 beers:
Blanche: Of the three, this was the most drinkable. An unfiltered white wheat Hefeweizen, this craft Belgian-style beer can go head-to-head against Blue Moon, although it doesn't have a chance against Chimay.
Kriek: Unlike most Belgian Krieks, this sour cherry beer was more rotten than sour, and watery to boot.
LambicThis was overly sweet and lacked most characteristics of good taste. Olga found it the least offensive.

Our salad and soups were pretty good (maybe 8 out of 10), but the cream puffs and cabbage pierog we brought home were off the charts!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sept 25 2012 - Croatia in review!

Tasty and beautifully artistic octopus salad everywhere!
Unofficial Popeye's restaurant?
as seen from bus in Split Croatia
We had been warned, in particular by our guidebook, that the Croatian definition of service can be very curt. With his firmly implanted in the backs I our minds, I would say we had as many negative or mediocre service experiences as we did above-and-beyond exceptional experiences. I want to highlight those exceptional ones here:
• An instructor at Blue Planet Diving in Dubrovnik drove me back to my hotel and bought me a drink after an evening dive.
• The staff at the Hotel Astoria in Zagreb acted like old friends when we returned to Zagreb towards the end of the trip.
• A purveyor of fine chocolate in Zagreb snuck some out of the stockroom so I could sample it before making a purchase decision, all the while protesting "it is impossible" and "this didn't happen."
• The staff of the Technicki Museum in Zagreb let us into the museum as it was about to close - for free - so we could have a quick look around.
• A taxi driver from Zagreb to the airport - on our way out of the country - emphatically insisted we take a map of the city with us, at one point chasing us through the airport after we "forgot" to take our map and receipt.

OLGA graffiti in Ljubljana

Nice cars, but houses about to collapse

Back in the 7th century or so, when the Slav tribes were migrating to Eastern Europe, some of them settled in Croatia. It was a beautiful region with fertile soil, abundant edible aquatic life, and moderate climate. Others made it to what would become Russia, home of dark skies and abundant... beets. Who got the better deal? :)

We encountered a staggering amount of ice cream and gelato - particularly in Dubrovnik. The amount of ice cream sold per capita and per square kilometer must break all European records.

Urinal so I high had to
stand on my tippy toes
We watched the orange moonset
from Buza 2 in Dubrovnik

We ran across several products manufactured in USA, perhaps more than we might realize on a daily basis. The glow stick (used during my night dive), plastic net at the bottom of the urinal, Zagreb-brand lip balm, and Tabasco sauce were all made proudly in the USA. It's nice to know we still have an export market for some (quirky) products!

One of the few surviving pre-war roofs in Dubrovnik
The building in Zagreb where everyone
gets married is named Palača Dverce

Croatia is systematically trying to grow its tourism industry, which currently encompasses 20% of GDP. This was their biggest summer in recent memory, they are pleased to have extended the tourist season from 3 to 6 months, yet they really want to stretch it out to an all-year-long tourist flow like many other countries. I hope more people have a chance to visit this special place!

Lots and lots of parklets in Zagreb!
Magazine shop on a
pedestrian street in Zagreb

The necktie was invented in Croatia. Apparently a unit of the Croatian army, serving Louis XIII in France, tied their scarves in such a way that attracted French fascination. The French named it the Cravat, a corruption of Croat or Hrvat (what Croats call themselves), and it evolved from there into the staple of business attire we know today!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sept 23 2012 - Zbogom Zagreb

Dolac street market (Olga not for sale!!)
Cute old fire engine

This morning started with a quick visit to the Dolac street market, one square city block filled with vendors selling everything from produce and honey to fresh fish and flowers to wooden handicrafts.
We were looking for a specific souvenir though - some famous Croatian hard liquors and some (infamous?) Croatian wines - so we had to search around a bit. Croatian wine doesn't have a particularly good reputation in The States, but we fell in love with it here, so these bottles of Plavac Mali (cousin of Zinfandel) we're bringing back will be our little secret.

Trying to hijack the train
Looks like a Croatian TARDIS. Sign
translates to "They will kill you if you touch"

We finally wandered a bit out of the old city into "New Zagreb", passing through the Green Horseshoe (several parks in a |_| shape), under the main train station, to the Techniki museum. This museum doesn't seem to be covered in any guidebooks, but it's a great find due to the depth and breadth of old gear they have. They let us in for free (although I was prepared to pay the $3 entrance fee) because they would be closing in half an hour. The place shows the evolution of old fire engines (starting from an old barrel on wheels), wine presses, planes, trains, computers, and even some replica space-age vehicles (replicas of a Soviet automated moon rover and NASA Mercury capsule). The main hall with a steam engine, train, tank, and submarine - with airplanes overhead - is the centerpiece and worth visiting just to experience that room. Wish we had more time!

Chin Chin

Goofing off at Pivnica Zlatni Medo

Right down the street is the other brewpub in Zagreb, Pivnica Zlatni Medo. The brewpub we visited Friday translates to Bear City and this one is Golden Bear Pub. Purgers (people from Zagreb) clearly like to equate Bears with Beer :) This pub - and generally all of Zagreb - is alarmingly inexpensive, especially compared with the tourist route on the coast. Lunch of two beers, 2 salad bars, mushroom soup, dessert, and bread totaled less than 100 Kuna ($17) including tax and tip. For dessert we had Kuhani zagorski strukli, described as "Strukli from Zagorje-Boiled" - these are basically cheese blintzes with breadcrumb topping. Hardly sweet yet so delicious!

That hit the spot
Flying over the Eastern Alps of Austria

The brick wall and tile floor sprawling space had the feel of an abandoned TGI Friday's. It felt a little more comfortable as the space started filling up with the lunch crowd around 2pm. Three types of beer were offered: "light", "dark", and "half-dark", which might be just a mix of the other two. I asked if they had any Hefeweizen or Wheat beer, but he waiter, whose English was otherwise good, just blinked and replied "uh... no" and walked away. The dark was a pretty tasty unfiltered beer, making the experience worth the trip.

The flight from Zagreb - Munich - St Petersburg was sleep-inducing and uneventful. Wine was flowing on all flights, although it seems the only Croatian wine we'll have for awhile is from the bottles we're bringing back.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Croatia in review!!


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sept 22 2012 - Zagreb by foot, inside and out

If you're coming to Croatia and love museums, you'll LOVE Zagreb. Today we visited three of them, starting with the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art. I was completely naïve about Naïve Art before I walked in, so you don't need to know anything about it beforehand to thoroughly enjoy the experience. Essentially it's art created by untrained Croatian peasants with amazing talent. They are predominantly village scenes during the winter (this is when the peasant farmers had time to paint), started with a pencil sketch on paper. Then they would take a pane of glass, lay it over the paper, and paint amazing details (eg: fur on pigs, branches on trees, etc), and then when that dried, they'd paint the general form of the scene on top of that. Turn it around backwards and you have a really unique painting. Here are some great examples.

Olga riding the super-short-and-cute funicular

Next we hit up the Ivan Meštrović sculpture gallery. He had sculptures of his first and second wives - hopefully the second didn't get jealous of the first! Unless you are a huge fan of his work, I would suggest skipping it.  Although if you like creaky staircases and artwork with zero signage, this might be the place for you!

Bike tour passed through our walking tour

After lunch, we hired a guide for a walking tour of the historical section of the city. Samia was super knowledgeable and accomodated our group by speaking in both English and Russian. It was a bit of a history overload though - too many museums and walking tours in too little time. Next time, make more time! :)

Sample piece from the Museum of Broken Relationships: Intimate Shampoo

The Museum of Broken Relationships is super cute. Visitors are encouraged to donate an item and leave an explanation about a past break-up, which can provide closure for them and insight to the museum-goer. The best thing might be that the museum is located between three big churches, city hall, and a scenic overlook. Wedding processions and wedding photo-taking were happening constantly while we were in the museum and lingering in the area. Do they know or care about the irony? :)

Checking out the chocolate scene in Zagreb

In the evening, we popped into Claire's Chocolaterie on Tkalčićeva as it was right across from the restaurant (Agava) where we had a reservation. We picked out a good assortment of super-tasty artisan chocolates made by Lucifer Chocolates in Slovenia. The cashier apologized for some minor confusion with the cash register, saying it was her first day, actually it was everyone's first day as they just opened for business this morning. I got all excited and explained the American tradition of hanging up the first dollar bill they receive, and since nobody today had (or probably ever will) bought anything with American money, I gave her a $1 bill to hang up. You can't believe how excited she was, she told us to pick any chocolates we wanted from the counter, far and away more than a dollar's worth. This is a great store with super high quality chocolate I hope will be around for a long long time. Next time you're in Zagreb, see if they have my dollar bill hanging by the register!!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Sept 21 2012 - From Dubrovnik to Zagreb

The fort on old Dubrovnik

The day today started with a walk on the famous ancient city wall surrounding old Dubrovnik. Overlooking the entire old city, we saw a few more examples of locals living within the old city - clothes dying on a line - two football/basketball fields - a school - backyard gardens - and also some ruins left behind from the 1667 earthquake that completely destroyed the town.

View of Dubrovnik through the old city wall

We all agreed that, as we won't have time to visit Bosnia, we should at least have lunch in the one Bosnian restaurant in town. Taj Mahal is a really terrific restaurant, we all had fun tasting the various little dishes and trying the tiny 0.2 liter beers (this region of the world is great about selling teeny tiny beers so you can just have a taste). The baked apple dessert and the Bosnian coffee (think Greek) are delightful!! It just so happens that this restaurant was located next door to an elementary school and we started chatting with a father waiting to pick up his daughter Hannah. He said he grew up in old town and went to this school, but recently it's become to crowded with tourists and he had to move out of town, but the school is still very good, so he takes his daughter there.

It's really hard to pick the best photo of Dubrovnik... they are all the best!

On the way out of Dubrovnik, we tried to drop by the wine-tasting cave recently unearthed under the runway, but just like the guidebook says, actual open hours may vary wildly. The flight to Zagreb was short - so short I easily slept through takeoff to landing. Our cabbie on our way to the hotel was an honest guy with good sightseeing advice and honest pricing (we got ripped off a little when we initially flew in a week ago), but he suddenly and irrevocably diverted into conspiracy theories about American Freemasons controlling the media, economy, and commerce - and we were glad to arrive at the hotel.

Why did the Skycellar Đurovića špilja have to be closed :(

Fairly often we plan a circular route where we end up in the same city where we started - in this case because we booked the flights before we researched the country and made any plans. It's always nice to return to a city, even if due to a slight oversight in planning. The hotel staff know us, they had our luggage waiting (we left a few items behind that we wouldn't need for the first week), we already have a slight sense of the streets and parks, we know what a taxicab ride should cost in Kuna. It's all good!

Mali Medo Medvedgrad Pivo!!

Before and after dinner, we roamed around Tkalčićeva Street , formerly a creek that separated the two towns of Kaptol and Gradec. Since the towns merged to form Zagreb in 1851 - and the creek was filled in 1898 - it has become a lively pedestrian street with 200 to 300 year-old buildings, bars, street musicians, cafes, and good-natured folks strolling about. Here we sampled three of the beers at brewpub Pivnica Medvedgrad, and we were all in agreement that the wheat beer (named Dva Klasa or Two Ears) was outstanding. Out of the 3 largest towns in Croatia (Zagreb, Dubrovnik, and Split), only Zagreb has any brewpubs. We're hoping to visit more tomorrow!

Tkalčićeva Ulica's lively music scene with talented artists

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sept 20 2012 - Becoming locals in Dubrovnik

View of Dubrovnik port and Lokrum island where I dove
Cable car ride up Mt. Srd

We've been in Dubrovnik for over two days now, but we've been so busy with excursions that I haven't had a chance to describe the town. The old town of Dubrovnik was originally built in the 8th century (or possibly in BC as some new theories suggest) but the present city was built in the 16th century after a major earthquake. It was also partially rebuilt - although the city walls mostly held up - after the war with Serbia in 1991-1992.

The old city is so beautiful from the top of the mountain

While most of the old city feels super old, there's something about it that is entirely different from Split (where we visited a few days ago). Split feels chaotic yet more real: you can see clothes drying on lines, kids going to school, locals going to/from their homes. In Dubrovnik, in the old town anyway, hardly anybody lives here anymore - they rent their homes to travelers and live in some not-too-distant suburb.

We decided to hike down, crazy!!
In fact, it must not be too distant, because we keep running into our landlord. First he found us on the street the night we were checking in and somehow knew we were the weary tourists coming to his flat, then at lunch on Wednesday in a restaurant he had recommended, and finally heading into a bar on Thursday.

Trying a lemon Ozujsko at Buza 2

We have seen where locals live, but for the vast majority it's not within the old city walls as they do in Split. This gives Dubrovnik a less chaotic (everything is well organized for tourists' needs) but also less authentic feel. This feeling of inauthenticity is something that's hard to shake from the back of our minds as we enjoy all Dubrovnik has to offer.

We managed to find one family drying their clothes on the line

After dinner, we popped by a outdoor cliffside bar called Buža 2 where you can watch the sun (or in our case the moon) set over the Adriatic Sea. Such a unique and special place!

Stradun main street is so pretty at night
Look who I found on a well-lit side street

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sept 19 2012 - Diving in Dubrovnik

Anna, Hugo, and Mr Shades heading into our first dive
Smiling parasailing chute - right in front of old Dubrovnik

Scuba diving on vacation is such a great way to meet interesting people. We are all flung together in a boat, paired up to literally rely on each other for our lives. Today on the first (morning) dive, I was paired with Hugo, an Argentinian doctor who is traveling around Europe with his wife. They visited Germany, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest by cruise - and are now hitting Dubrovnik, Split, and Zagreb on his leg of the trip. I pitched the idea of Olga and I visiting Buenos Aires Argentina for New Years, at first he wondered why there and then? Argentines don't celebrate New Years, he said, and Buenos Aires is too European anyway (says the guy who is visiting half of Europe on one trip) - we'd have a much more interesting time in Rio Brazil... Something to consider :)

Heading to St. Andrea island for dive number two
Leonid and Maria seeing me off

There was an odd number of divers at my certification level (open water) so we were coupled with a third person, Anna from Sweden. On the first dive, she was a bit distant, quiet. I saw her afterwards and she said her friends were making other plans so she likely wouldn't be diving any more. She did seem a bit more lively though. Then when we were loading the boat for second (afternoon) dive, she joined in, but as a snorkeler. I saw her canoodling with the guy who ended up being our guide.

Going down...
One of many bomb shells around Lokrum Island

I was the only diver on the third (night) dive. My guide said most people don't like to dive at night, even though in Dubrovnik the water and air are the same temperature as they are during the day. He seemed a little perplexed that more people don't night dive, explaining that it's his favorite time to dive because the fish go to sleep and the nocturnal creatures (eg: the octopus and shrimp we would later see) come out to play. I asked him about Anna, apparently they had just met diving a couple of days ago, but already it seems love might be blossoming! There is definitely something about the diving culture, it's not 'free love' per se, but the necessity of a diving partner does make it easy to meet like-minded people.

Who loves diving?
Heading back from Lokrum island, in front of old Dubrovnik

The guide ended up driving me back to town because he was coming to meet Anna before she goes back to Sweden. He is an amazing guy: a farmer of organic olives and lavender, a devout consumer of organic, macrobiotic, and raw foods (not an easy feat in a small town), a commuting bicyclist who saves his car for camping trips to small towns and music festivals across Europe, a vegetarian who consumes fish once a month on doctor's orders to keep his omega acid levels up, a believer that the pain an animal produces as it's dying will transfer negative energy to the consumer - so he meticulously kills this one fish a month in the most quick and painless way. He is a guru in his own right, yet he was so tickled when I introduced him to the term 'pescetarian'.

Ton of fish swimming up and down the edge of St. Andrea
An eel hiding out in St. Andrea island

When I tell people I became pescetarian during a diving trip to Australia, they look at me like I'm crazy to gain so much respect for an animal - yet want to kill it - all at the same time. But talking with the guide, I understand it is not a unique outlook. When swimming and diving, the connection you make with the aquatic world is very strong - as form of mutual respect. I don't have this connection with a cow or a chicken, and can't bring myself to eat them.

Starfish at St. Andrea island
Beautiful sunset at dinner, heading into the night dive