Monday, November 25, 2019

One Night at Hisa Franko

Trip date: May 2019

I was watching the Netflix show Chef's Table and couldn't even figure out where Chef Ana Roš' restaurant was. But it looked lovely. And delicious.

Then I told my friend Aaron that I was going to explore Slovenia before meeting him in Croatia, and he asked if I was booking a table at Hisa Franko. When I googled the location and realized it was about 2 ½ hours from Lake Bled I emailed for a reservation. Originally they could get me in for dinner on the date I wanted but they didn't have a room for me to stay. The restaurant and inn are actually in the countryside of the settlement of Kobarid, there isn't anything close by so I asked for alternate dates for staying over and altered my plans.

I left Lake Bled after a full day of exploring and hiking and followed Google maps to Kobarid, which Hemingway wrote about in his novel A Farewell to Arms, as it was the Italian retreat during the 1917 Battle of Caporetto. I probably should have inspected the route Google had chosen more closely, as all of a sudden I was driving on basically a one-lane road, thru a mountain pass, that was extremely windy. At one point there was a lumber truck, taking down huge trees on the side of the road, and I had to drive under the tree hanging from the crane right above my car. Unnerving!

I wasn't happy with the drive, but I was thrilled when I arrived in the beautiful Soča Valley and pulled into Hisa Franko's parking lot. The woman at the front desk greeted me warmly and helped me with my bag up to my room (no lift). She showed me the room I had booked as well as another much larger one that there had been a cancelation on, which I happily took. I mean, I am not going to turn down a huge jetted bathtub and a king size bed!

After a soak and a nap I headed downstairs for a walk around before sitting for dinner. It's very secluded and quiet, and for anyone who has watched the tv episode, you'll recognize the creek with the rare Soča trout cutting right thru the property.

I was seated in a beautiful, if someone sparse dining room. The tables are very far apart, no chatting with the neighbors here. I ordered a martini (much needed after that drive!) and was brought a selection of amuse before the menu was delivered to my table. There was a little stool for my purse; bonus points!

Hisa Franko is currently #38 on the World's 50th Best Restaurants and there is no doubt in my mind that she will have a Michelin star before long. The courses were absolutely beautiful (21 of them!)

A few of my favorite bites were smoked tolmin cheese, lamb brains with berry preserved served inside a "donut", cuttlefish lardo with asparagus milk, and mountain veal.

I was so impressed when Chef Roš came around during service and introduced herself to each table. I was too shy to ask for a photo but I had a lovely chat with her. Near the end of the meal, diners were invited on a tour of the kitchen, wine cellar, and cheese cave. The restaurant is known to be the first in the region to age the locally made Tolmin cheese, referred to as pit cheese.
I thought dinner was a fantastic experience. And at €150 for dinner and €75 for wine pairings, I thought it was very fairly priced. I really look forward to seeing how Chef Ana continues to climb the ranks.

The next morning I came downstairs for breakfast and was blown away by how beautiful the breakfast room was! Large slider doors were open to the beautiful spring day. The trout brook could be heard babbling away. And my table was fully overflowing with the most delicious assortment of goods.

There was a basket of fresh fruit, a basket of fresh baked bread, a bowl of dried apples, various musli and granola toppings for yogurt, jams, butters, and a breakfast cookie. I also ordered scrambled eggs with herbs off the menu, all from their farm. It was such a lovely way to start my day. And when the waiter I was chatting with told me he'd grab my suitcase for me while I checked out, it was the cherry on top!

I'd highly recommend a visit to this little slice of heaven!

I had a 3 ½ hour drive to Zagreb, I was finally heading to Croatia and I was very excited! I looked more carefully at the Google maps and chose to take a direct highway this time. It actually sent me west into the Friuli region of Italy before looping east. I love driving through vineyards so it was the perfect route for me. Bonus that the land was also covered in poppies. So pretty!

Right before crossing into Croatia I stopped for lunch at Grad Otočec, an old castle taken over by the Relais & Chateau group and turned into a hotel and restaurant that sits on a small island in the middle of the Krka River. What's not to like?!

The food and service were both just ok, but the setting was gorgeous.

Slovenia had turned on the charm and I was under its spell.

All photos from Hisa Franko and Otočec here.

Other posts from this trip:

Something About Slovenia
Beautiful Lake Bled


Thursday, October 31, 2019

Beautiful Lake Bled

Trip date: May 2019

I arranged with my hotel in Ljubljana to have a car pick me up and take me to the airport after breakfast and check-out for €9. I was picking up a rental car and driving out to Lake Bled for an overnight.

I arrived at the airport rental office at 9am, an hour ahead of my reservation time, and found it closed. I called and the office manager told me she was running some errands and would be in as soon as possible. Gotta love small countries!

It was a beautiful day to drive around the country and the highway was super easy with minimal traffic. I did accidently take the exit before I meant to, but was rewarded with the cute village and interesting church of Brezje, a pilgrimage site of Slovenians.
Next up was the adorable town of Radovljica which a friend had suggested for my lunch stop. At Restaurant Lectar I had a plate of the traditional Slovenian dumplings, Idrijski žlikrofi. These cute little pasta hats are made from dough stuffed with potato; mine then had a delicious meat sauce. Very filling and very good.
After lunch I checked out the inn's Gingerbread Museum (Lectar means gingerbread) which is in the 500 year old building's basement. Gingerbread baking has been a tradition in Slovenia since 1766. Elaborately decorated hearts were a common gift and still are, along with many other shapes and characters.
Radovljica is a great stop, the town is incredibly cute, and they are very proud of their traditions. This was a nice suggestion (thanks Rachel!) and I'd make the same suggestion to you.

From here it was an easy 15 minute drive to Lake Bled and the castle. The castle was ok, nothing out of the ordinary as far as castles go, but the views of the lake were incredible! So I did a quick tour around, then grabbed a glass of wine, and sat admiring the stunning blue waters of the lake.
Later, I checked into Hotel Triglav, which sits at the northwest side of the lake, very near the train station. The hotel originally opened in 1906 by the then mayor of Bled, and is currently owned by his grandson.

My room had a balcony with a picture-perfect view of the lake, famous island, and the surrounding mountains. It was so stunning I decided to get a bottle of wine from the restaurant, and spent the rest of my day reading and enjoying the views.

I had dinner that night at Restaurant 1906, the hotel's very nice eatery. My 3-course meal included potato soup with truffle oil, saddle of veal with struklji (another traditional Slovenian dumpling made from dough, stuffed with cheese and herbs, rolled up and baked), and chocolate mousse. Dinner started out rough when I requested a martini made with a local gin and it arrived very sweet. The evening righted itself as all the food was great, and the Slovenian Pinot Noir I had was excellent. And the dining room looks out directly to the lake for brilliant views all evening.
Still being jet lagged, I was up at sunrise the next morning but the breakfast room wasn't open until 7:30. The coffee station was set up though so I grabbed a cup and took it back to my room, choosing to read in bed before heading down to the buffet. Excellent buffet when I came down later, and my table came with another stellar view.
After breakfast, I hiked down to the lake in order to take one of the pletna row boat trips out to the island. But they didn't start until 11am so I grabbed a radler and wrote some postcards. It was an absolutely stunning day and I was happy to sit out in the sun.

For €13 each, the captain rows his boat with about 8 passengers out to the island and gives you 30 minutes to explore. This is more than enough time to check out the church, ring the church bell (and make a wish), climb up the tower, and walk around the tiny island. Tickets into the church are not included in your boat price.
This is honestly one of the prettiest places I have been. And it's small enough to do in a night or two. The scenery is just unreal, and I snapped a lot of photos on my 5-mile hike around the lake after I returned from the island.

The hotel had recommended I stop at Sova for lunch during my hike, and it was fantastic! This truffle pasta and a glass of wine set me back €17!
I continued my hike to the east side of the lake, my next stop at the Hotel Park for a piece of the local specialty cream cake on their terrace. It was a decadent hike!
I finished my hike around the lake and back up to the hotel. My bags were packed and in the trunk, I was on my way to the very west part of Slovenia for a very special dinner! It had been a wonderful day and I was excited for the next part!

I can't recommend Slovenia enough! Go now before it is on everyone's list!
All photos from Lake Bled here.

Other posts from this trip:

Something About Slovenia
One Night at Hisa Franko

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Something About Slovenia

Trip date: May 2019

Why Slovenia? Why not! While researching for my trip to Croatia (more on that later) I started reading about this small country, once part of former Yugoslavia, and not to be confused with Slovakia (been there, done that), and thought it would be great for a little solo exploration.

So I cashed in some miles and flew Seattle to Las Vegas on Alaska Air. I killed a couple of hours in the Business class lounge and also on the Wheel of Fortune slot machines. I mean if I'm going to have a layover, Vegas is the spot for me!

From here I flew non stop to Frankfurt on Condor Air, which was my first time with them. Business class was solid, it was a brand new plane but in general not as posh as some other airlines. The service was friendly, the food was good, there was plenty of champagne, and my lay flat seat was comfy but didn't actually completely lay flat. But all good and I'd fly Condor again.
From Frankfurt I purchased a quick flight on Adria Air, another first for me. My 3 hour layover gave me time to collect my bag, go thru passport control, check in for Adria, and have a drink in the pre-security lounge (thanks to my Priority Pass that I just started using!).

FINALLY I landed in Ljubljana. Well, I landed in a field in Slovenia as that is where the airport is!  I had arranged an airport pickup thru my hotel for €9 and he was waiting with my name on a sign when I walked out of baggage. Easy peasy.

I spent 2 nights in the capital city at the City Hotel, which was fantastically situated. My room was great with a big comfy bed, and a huge breakfast buffet. I'd absolutely recommend this spot, even though it feels a bit business-y.

That evening I walked along the Ljubljanica River, taking in the gorgeous buildings lining either side. This city is seriously pretty! I sat outside at Suklje Wine Bar and had my first glasses of both white and red Slovenia wines along with a salad that had prosciutto quiche and dried figs on it.

The next morning I was up early and looking forward to exploring. Ljubljana is pretty small and very easy to walk around, so seeing the entire city in a day is perfectly doable. I crossed the Dragon Bridge on my way to the TI to pick up a tourist card. You'll see dragons all over as they are one of the mascots of the city.
I spent the morning walking around the old town, browsing the market vendor's selection of sausages, olive oil, and black truffles. Slovenia has a lot of the same gourmet foods of northern Italy, so black truffles and pasta are everywhere! SWOON!

It literally takes about an hour to walk around the entire old town. It's super cute and dotted with interesting art, mainly sculptures. I made my way down to the river and used my tourist card to take a wooden boat tour. As the weather was a bit drizzly, there were only 4 other people on board. I bought a glass of sparkling wine for €2.50 and enjoyed the sightseeing!
After the tour I walked back to the castle on the other side of the river. My card got me a ticket for the funicular and entry. The castle isn't a must-do in my opinion, but views from the top of tower were great, if a bit grey.
All this before lunch! I had reservations at Monstera Bistro, which serves a choice of 2, 3, or 4-course menu. I chose a starter sushi roll of local trout, braised beef cheeks with truffle oil, and strawberry pavlova with red peppercorn ice cream for €20. And of course glasses of local wines. I'd highly recommend this cute restaurant.

After a much needed nap I set back out for the cathedral. It wasn't yet open when I passed it in the morning, and then was closed for cleaning when I went at noon. It's a beautiful church with brightly painted murals, and a lot of gold! I was happy it was open on my 3rd try.

Not far from the church is the Movia Wine Bar where I sat for a tasting. Movia is one of the largest producers of Slovenian wine and has been around for quite a long time. I chose to do their line up of 5 wines, including Gredič (which is also called Furlanski Tokaj, but not the same as Hungarian Tokaj), Veliko belo (a white blend), Sivi Pinot Ambra (a natural, orange pinot grigio), Cab Sauv, and Veliko Rdeče (a red blend). 
The bar also carries other producers and offers other wine tastings, along with a lot of information on the grapes and varietals of Slovenia. It's a great stop if you are interested in learning more about wines from this country.

I was lucky enough to come across Kolibri Bar when researching cocktails in the capital city and as soon as I walked up I knew this was the spot for me. Gorgeous jewel box style bar, with a menu of classic cocktails each with a slight twist, and Eva, the passionate and friendly bartender. 
She introduced me to Broken Bones Gin, a local gin that I couldn't find for purchase anywhere. She made me a few delicious cocktails, and even politely asked a (woman) patron, who was quite drunk and openly hitting on me, to leave. I ended up staying longer than I intended and by 10pm when I reached the restaurant I was planning on having dinner at they had closed the kitchen. Go to Kolibri!

Seems no restaurants stay open past 10pm on a weeknight anyway, so I grabbed a slice of pizza, which is very unlike me. And being so close to Italy I have to stay this was one of many fantastic slices I would have on this trip. 

People always ask me what my favorite countries are, which is a really hard question to answer! But I'd say Slovenia is absolutely in the top 5 and I'd highly suggest visiting before tourism escalates, which it is sure to do!

All photos of Ljubljana here.

Other posts from this trip:
Beautiful Lake Bled
One Night at Hisa Franko

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Ever Expanding Sayulita

Trip date: October 2018

Girl's trip to Sayulita!

We were also down to experience Dia de los Muertos which you can read about here. The girls and I had a 4-hour direct flight on Alaska Airlines in Premium class where we enjoyed complimentary drinks. As it was a morning flight, I ordered my prosecco two at time when the flight attendant told me she only had 6 mini bottles for the entire flight! Lackluster inventory skills! Angela was the lucky recipient of a complimentary First Class upgrade so at least Gail and I didn't have to compete with her for prosecco! ha!

Our Airbnb offered to send a car to pick us up from the airport, which we happily accepted. Somehow we missed that they were charging us $150. That is entirely too much! We pulled cash from the ATM at the airport and had our driver stop at the big Mega shop to load up on groceries for the week.

When we got to our house, Casa Kukana, they were having problems with the electricity and nothing was working. The manager went about trying to get everything fixed and lent us flashlights as it was getting dark. The house was beautiful; a very large 3 bedroom/ 3 bathroom home with an amazing garden area, balcony, and a nice, albeit small, pool. It sits high on the hill that looks out over the bay so there are views in a few directions. Also being up high on the hill and on a dirt road which was very dark and muddy, we ended up taking a taxi home from town most nights.

The big thing that was different on this trip, from our trip the year before, was all of the construction going on around town. Sayulita is going through big, loud, growing pains. The Amor Hotel, which our house looked at the back of across the road, was adding more rooms and the construction noise was non stop. Gail even went and spoke with the crew to see if they could start later and wrap up sooner.
There was also a lot of construction going on all the way down the hill into town, sometimes creating traffic jams as the road was being congested with heavy equipment. And we found the same in the main part of town, roads being dug up for what I could only hope was new sewage lines to deal with the additional constraints of tourism.

In the mornings I worked with a coffee, a mimosa, and the pretty views from the big deck. In the afternoon we would swim in our pool or escape the noise of the construction at the beach. Coco's is still the best place to rent a lounger with an umbrella, listen to music, order Micheladas or beers, and swim in the ocean.
Of course we went back to the Turtle Rescue! We went at sunset as we had done in the past, and Erick was working at his fab little margarita bar, as he had in the past. The only difference is that the turtles are released at night now, giving them a better chance against the diving hungry seabirds.

So we sat and had a few drinks, chatted about turtles, and kept the resident cat company. The drinks are great and the sunset was gorgeous! And we still got to watch the squirrely newly hatched turtles as they collected them into the release bins.
We had dinner at Mary's Traditional Mexican twice this time, stopped for street tacos at Ivan's, which is doing roasted mushroom options for vegetarians now, and had the delicious fried cheese taco at El Itacate.

We went back to Barracuda once for lunch and once for dinner, happy to see the place that had just opened when we were there last still going strong and the fish tacos still great. We also had an ok lunch at Don Pancho's and a good dinner at Yeikame one night. Sadly our beloved empanada lady's spot is now a French themed cafe. I heard she sometimes sells at the Friday market but we didn't get there.

One day we took a taxi to Puerto Vallarta for about $40. We headed to the big pretty church but had to be satisfied with views from the outside as there was a wedding going on. We popped into a few art galleries but many more were closed for siesta.

We then wandered down the maleçon and checked out the large sculptures left over from Dia de los Muertos. It was super hot and muggy so we finally decided to grab a seat in some shade and get cool drinks. La Palapa had been recommended and we were very happy to have a table with a view of the beach and a little breeze.

Unfortunately that was the only thing we were happy with. The drinks were ok and the atmosphere was fun, but the food was actively bad and expensive.

We decided to hang out a bit until The Iguana bar at Casa Kimberly opened. We all wanted to check out the former residence of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and the now-hotel is beautiful. We had drinks in the gorgeous bar and watched as a HUGE rainstorm passed through forcing the waitstaff to hurriedly clear the outside tables and shut all the windows!

Sayulita still has its charms, and experiencing Dia de los Muertos there was amazing, but with the pull of tourism getting stronger, and the construction everywhere, I don't know if I'll be heading back again. Luckily the town sent us off with an amazing sunset on our last night.

And Gail and I were upgraded to First Class on our way home! Thanks Alaska Airlines!

All photos from Sayulita here.

Other posts from this trip:
Dia de los Muertos in Sayulita

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Dia de los Muertos in Sayulita

Trip date: October 2018

My friend Gail and I had such a great time in Sayulita the year before, we decided to go again! This time we also invited our friend Angela and booked the trip over Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. The festive Mexican holiday celebrates and honors the dead and is something I had wanted to witness for a long time. I was excited!

The first day of the celebration, October 31st, is also called All Hallows Eve. During the day we walked through the main square and saw all of the preparations going on. Families were building incredible alters, using dried beans, flowers, grains, etc to create intricate murals on the ground which reminded me of rangoli and are called tapete de arena. The square and surrounding streets had been decorated with hanging fiesta flags (called papel picado), fish caricature cutouts, and all sorts of sea creatures were fashioned out of plastic waste. Brilliant and a not so vague nod to the problems of plastic in our oceans!

That evening there was a parade through the streets. All Hallows Eve is a celebration for the spirits of dead children, or Angelitos. There was a large stage set up in front of the main square and song and dance performances went on late in the night. The spirits are believed to arrive at midnight so this was all to invite and welcome them.

It's not a mournful or scary event. It's quite upbeat, and a time for families to be together. Young and old had their faces painted, there were street food vendors, and constant music.

November 1st is All Saint's Day, when families invite the spirits of deceased adults to come visit. The main square was busy with families putting the finishing touches on their alters, or ofrendas. Children were painting and decorating pictures of the traditional skull, and the scent of marigolds was everywhere.
That night's festivities were on a much larger scale than the night before. As we walked from our Airbnb to the town center we noticed decorations on the beach, where the fishing boats are, completed tapete de arenas and ofrendas. There are a number of items that are considered to be required elements on the altars, so we were now seeing the full displays of photos of the deceased, candles, sugar skulls, marigolds, crosses, and offerings of bread, water, fruit, and salt.
There were a lot more people in costume (not to be confused with Halloween costumes), and the stage entertainment had more professional dancers, singers, and musicians. It seemed like the entire town was out!
At about 12:30am everyone formed a procession and a mariachi band led us through the streets of town. Many people held lit candles and sang along. Some people had torches to light the way and there were large paper maché puppets that were carried thru the streets (seemed dangerous!). As we walked more and more people joined.

At the beach where the fishing boats were, the progression stopped. The band kept playing and people danced and sang. It was quite a sight! After a bit we resumed along the path that leads to the cemetery and entered under the arch.
Inside, families had decorated the gravestones and tombs of their relatives and loved ones. Candles flickered from every grave. People had set up music, food, and drink and were celebrating with each other, and with the soul's of the departed as the belief is. It was an incredible sight and as one of the very few tourists witnessing it, I felt very lucky to be there.
The parties went on all night, literally until dawn!

The final day is All Souls Day and the celebration repeats itself. Back in the main square it was amazing to see all the altars completely undisturbed! Everything was still in place, although most of the sugar skulls were covered with bees!

We walked through the cemetery early to get a closer look at some of the decorated grave sites. Families were setting up for the last night of visiting with their deceased and each other. It was all very beautiful. We didn't attend the festivities and procession that night, but we could hear it all going on until dawn again!

Experiencing Dia de los Muertos in a small (but growing) fishing village was fantastic! It was awesome to witness such a traditional and local celebration without feeling like I was intruding. I highly recommend it!

All photos from Sayulita here.



One Night at Hisa Franko

Trip date: May 2019 I was watching the Netflix show  Chef's Table  and couldn't even figure out where Chef Ana Roš' restaurant...

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