Split Day/Night 4 – Walk Like a Splitian

After waking up shockingly hangover free given the previous night’s festivities, I walked down in the drizzle to the marina for lunch at a Split institution called Buffet Fife. Located directly across from the fish market, the restaurant consisted of a series of long communal tables, where I was assigned a spot at random.

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I knew I wanted some type of seafood but when I was informed there were already out of the catch of the day suddenly my choices were limited. I asked my server what a typical Splitian Sunday lunch would be on a cool rainy day and he smiled “The salt cod with mashed potatoes, no question sir.”

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Now I’ve had that dish many times in the form of bacalo – typically as a croquette but I was surprised when the dish arrived as a mound of mashed potatoes. Still, once I took a bite, it was that familiar bacalo taste. The potatoes were ultra smooth and creamy, contrasted by the occasional chewy bites of the salt cold with some nice freshly chopped parley scattered on top.

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In keeping with this working class meal, I selected a local Croatian dark lager, which was met by approval by my seat mates.

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After somehow eating the entire massive plate, I paid up and continued my walk down the marina. There was a nice cement walkway with various bars along the way. I noticed there were some sort of plaques embedded in the path and soon discovered they were honoring all of the Croatian Olympic champions. Very cool.

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At the end of the marina, the road started heading upwards towards lovely park which was filled with the sounds of chirping birds. My ultimate destination was about a mile up this road – the Mestrovic Gallery.

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Mestrovic was Croatian most famous sculptor, including the fantastic sculpture of the 9th century priest Nin at the entryway to the Palace in Split. The gallery was the house that he had built for his family but after living there for 2 years, he was arrested by the Nazis for refusing to support Hitler. He later immigrated to the United States after Tito took power and taught at Syracuse and later Notre Dame.

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The trek up the hill wasn’t too strenuous and soon I arrived at the front of the museum with 2 large set of stairs to get to the top. I paused after the first set to walk around the sculpture garden which had several of his bronze works on display.
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I then climbed the much larger set, catching my breath at the top. I started to walk inside only to be stopped by a man asking me for my ticket. When I said I didn’t have one, he pointed to the bottom of stairs – crap. Fortunately, after I explained I had just walked from the Palace, he said he would allow me to buy a ticket there. Whew.
The views from the entrance of the gallery were stunning. I could hear the faint sound of the surf crashing the rocks below and understood why he must have cherished this place so much and how hard it must have been to abandon it because of his nationalistic pride.

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There weren’t a ton of pieces but what was there had been nicely curated, representing the different mediums he used – marble and bronze. The curator told me my ticket also included entry t a chapel down the road where his wooden masterwork resides.

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I was especially drawn to this piece of a family, which was very different than his other religious iconography works.
I walked down the stairs and back to the road, where I was told to head about a half mile and the chapel would be on my right. I didn’t see any signs after what I guessed was about the right amount of distance so I asked this old man sitting on a bench. He first replied in Croatian and after that proved fruitless he asked “Spreckenzie Deutsch?”  Since I at least knew a few German words I replied “Jarvol” and he proceeded to give me directions in German. Fortunately that also included some hand gestures so I was able to figure out where to go.

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It was eerily quiet when I walked down the pebbled road to the chapel entrance. I appeared to be the only one there. Built originally in the 16th century on a bluff overlooking the Adriatic, Mestrovich had bought it and restored the chapel as best he could. The courtyard contained a large marble statue called “Signaling the Apocalypse.”  Given it was made in 1945 it was pretty obvious why he chose that subject.

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The waves crashing below were much more pronounced now and a calm serenity overcame me. Suddenly a man emerged from a small side office and asked if I had a ticket. I showed it to him and he pointed over to the entrance for the chapel.

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I walked inside to the beautifully restored room and was greeted by a massive wood Jesus on the cross. On each of the side walls were wooden triptychs, each one depicting scenes from Bible. I stood in the middle, taking it all in for a few minutes and then walked back up the hill. A truly special moment.

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As a reward for my pilgrimage, the path back to the Palace was blissfully all downhill and I made it back to the riva in about 30 minutes. I first stopped a wine store I had noticed next to Fife and was pleasantly surprised that their curated collection pretty much matched what I had had so far in Split. I purchased up a bottle of the Bibich R6 Riserva, which was a blend of 6 different Croatian grapes and made the quick walk back into the Palace.

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Since I wasn’t able to actually try any wine at the store, I decided to walk over to a place that had caught my eye earlier in the week. Uje Oil Bar was tucked away on a narrow alleyway and since it was just past 4pm, I was the only customer.
It was a combination bar, restaurant and store since they made and sold their own olive oil. I was immediately drawn to an item on the menu called “Olive Oil Experience” which my server explained. consisted of their olive oil, an olive oil butter and olive oil foam along with some homemade bread.

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The server told me the story of their family business. How it had started very small and then was seized during the communist takeover. The upside of this came when that collapsed and they were not only able to claim their original land but also purchase the communal land around it giving them over 1000 tress to harvest now.
I saw the wine list included 2 Bibich whites so I asked which he preferred. He said they were very different and offered to give me a taste of each. The first called R5 was like the R6 a blend of local grapes. I didn’t quite know what to make of it as the various grapes were competing with each other. We both agreed it wouldn’t be a good match. The other Debit was a single varietal but again didn’t seem to quite fit with what I was going to have. I finally decided on a different white from Brac, which is also where they make their olive oil.
The olive oil when dipped with the bread was exceptional as was the olive oil foam. However, the real winner was the butter, which with the olive oil added into the churn made it smooth to spread and just an amazingly rich taste. Probably the best butter I’ve ever had. So good that I happily ate it with cold bread, which usually prefer to be toasted.

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After a quick siesta and updating this here blog, I made a final nighttime walk down my main pathway to a restaurant I walked past as I entered Dosud. Figa Bar was apparently a local favorite and as soon as I saw the wine list exclusively Bibich, I knew I had chosen wisely for my last supper in Split.

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I was pleased to find the R6 was on the list by the glass but it looked like most of them were by the bottle, including the highly coveted SanGreal Merlot. I thought perhaps I could persuade them to let me have a glass but after failed attempts first with my server and the GM, I opted for the R6, which was quite good.

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Since Croatia is the land of white truffles, it only made sense to have their homemade bucatini with prosciutto and white truffles. The pasta was a perfect al dente and the rich earthy white truffles went very well with the salty prosciutto. A nice way to end my meals in Split.
As I walked back to my place, I detoured over to Bokeria for a final glass of wine. To my delight, they had the Bibich Grenache but sadly I was soon told they had just run out – d’oh!  When I asked about another wine, I got what had become a common phrase with Croatians when telling me that would be a choice “For me, it’s not so good.”
He recommended a Cabernet Sauvignon from nearby Istra which while not my favorite I had tried was still quite tasty. I said my goodbyes and walked back up the alley to my place. Tomorrow would start far too early as I made my way across the high seas to my next destination, Dubrovnik.

Split Day/Night 3 – A Croatian History Lesson

While I had been enjoying my time exploring Split, my Airbnb host had insisted I make the short trip to the medieval town of Trogir.  It looked to be another sunny day so I walked down to the port to catch one of the buses out of town.  As I left Split, I could now get a better sense of the surrounding areas, which were much more in line of a typical mid-sized city, including some large apartment buildings on the edge of the city.  Not everyone can live in the ruins of a Roman palace apparently.

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After about 40 minutes and a quick walk across a small bridge, I arrived at the entrance of the old part of Trogir.  Established in the 14th century by the Venetians, Trogir served as a main entryway to the Croatian islands.  The entire old part of the city is UNESCO protected and as such was stunningly preserved.

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First though, I was in dire need of food and winded by way to a restaurant that had been recommended for great seafood. Nestled in the middle of one of the stone alleys, Tragos looked to be the perfect spot for lunch.

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I asked my server which of the many inviting dishes was her favorite, and she eagerly said the grilled squid.  While that can certainly be a tricky item, I trusted her judgement and was soon awarded with this plate of goodness.

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First slow boiled to make them tender, then quickly thrown on a wood fired grill, the squids were probably the best I’ve ever had – tender, perfectly seasoned and bursting with flavor. That plus a local red wine cost me $15, not too shabby.

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I made my way through the winding alleyways to the main part of the port, which was full arriving ships that were there for a quick sojourn.  I heard at least 10 different languages being spoken as I strolled down the promenade making it clear this was definitely a popular tourist spot.

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What caught my eye though was an imposing looking fortress at the end of the walkway.  This had been built in the 15th century to protect the Croatian islands from intruders and had been largely destroyed by the Ottomans once they came into power in the region.  However, the outer shell had survived and was able to be explored for a mere $5.

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The turret was also intact, which I assume probably had some pretty amazing panoramic views so I braved the very steep and narrow steps to make my way to the top.

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The climb soon proved to be well worth it.

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So much so, I even broke my usual rule and let someone take a picture of me.  When in Trogir…

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I very carefully climbed down the stairs and soon was back on the promenade.  Since I still had about an hour to kill before the bus home, I thought I’d join the fellow travelers enjoying the weather on the inviting couches spread around and have a cold glass of Croatian beer.

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I walked back toward the bus station, taking a different along a small waterway, which featured slightly more modest boats than the mega yachts parked in the main harbor.

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It was a good thing that decided to get to the bus station a bit early as the quick coach got there about 5 minutes ahead of schedule and since it was coming from Zagreb, I almost missed it as the driver apparently thought no one was there to pick up.  Another quick trip back to the harbor at Split and an hour later I was back in my room – very easy.

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A couple of hours later, I walked down the main alleyway to a restaurant I had tried to go to the previous night but had been booked, Zinfandel.  This time I had made a reservation so I was all set.  There was a nice acoustic guitar/singer duo in mid-set when I sat down, which added to the convivial atmosphere.  I started with a glass of the same superb Stina Mali Plavic barrique I had at Bokeria.  Interestingly enough, I noticed that my pour was the equivalent of about 4.5 fl oz versus the traditional 6 fl oz but at $7 USD, it was still quite a bargain.

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Continuing my seafood jag, I ordered the local sea bass en papillote with vegetables.  In a welcome wrinkle to the classic preparation, they had used Posip as the cooking wine.  The fish was as tender as it gets and the Posip added a nice depth of flavor to the vegetables underneath.  Simple but delicious. With this, it only made sense to pair with a glass of Stina Posip.

After a nice chat with the owner, I headed down the street in search of the Dosud drinking area.  Google Maps seemed to have no idea where this was but after about 20 minutes of stumbling around, I found it.

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The alley featured a series of small bars with accompanying tables and seating along the steps.  It was now midnight so steps were full of people enjoying a nice Saturday night.  I walked up to the top to the most famous of the bars – Ghetto Bar, which was bursting at the seams.

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Not wanting to deal with the hassle, I walked back down the alley and was lured in by the familiar sounds of deep house booming from one of the smaller establishments.  This turned out to be Fluid Bar.

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As I was debating what to order, a large man who looked like something out of central casting for a Croatian hitman, slapped me on the back and said “drink!”  In front of me, he presented me with a shot of the Croatian liquor of choice – rajika – a grappa based liquor that is usually infused with other flavors.  In this case, it was herbs, which gave it a very nice aftertaste.

I started to say thank you when he directed me to his friend who he said spoke much better English.  This guy turned out to be my main guide for the evening.  First welcoming me with another shot of the rajika.  I asked him what proof it was and he said “Ohh, you don’t want to know that.  Let’s just say as long as you have less than 4, you’ll be fine.”  So noted.

He was a recently retired seaman and the large guy was his godfather.  They had been celebrating all day a recent victory for their soccer team, including the bartender.  He gave me a fascinating overview of the history of Split – his family dated back to the Venetians and told me how during the Yugoslav War the navy had been stationed off of Split to shell the Serbians hiding in the hill above the city.  I asked him if anyone considered themselves to be “Yugoslavian” during Tito’s regime and he said that everyone still maintained their regional heritage, which of course was part of the reason the war started in the first place.

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As a way of thanks for the entertainment, I bought the group a round.  It was now about 1AM so I meant that to be my exit but then my new friend insisted that he buy me a drink too.  I decided to go easy with some vodka soda and after waving off another drink from the group, I escaped down the stone stairs and headed home.  Tomorrow would be my final day in Split and with a lot of planned walking ahead, I knew it was time for bed.

 

Split Day/Night 2 – Weather Fit for An Emperor

The next day the weather had indeed improved. In fact, it was pretty much perfect – sunny 71 degrees with a nice sea breeze. Given that, I decided to walk to a seaside restaurant had been highly recommended – Dvor.

It was about a 30 minute walk out of the old city and I enjoyed seeing Split from a different vantage point. Along the way, I passed by the famous Bacivice Beach which was already teeming with sunworshippers eager to take advantage of the great weather.

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From there, I diverged through a lovely wooded pathway and soon found myself in front of Dvor and made my way down the stone pathway to the garden seating area.

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The wind had picked up considerably but I decided the view plus the sound of the water sloshing against the rocks below was worth being a bit cold. My server explained that their dishes were traditional Dalmatian but with a modern twist. I decided to start with the first sea bass tartar I had ever tried and paired it with glass of Posip – a crisp Croatian white wine.

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The tartar soon arrived and was simply outstanding. Perfectly diced and super fresh, the meaty sea bass had been reduced to a melt in the mouth smoothness. It was nicely complemented with a compressed lemon sauce and crispy toast points to scoop it all up.

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The main courses had several intriguing options but I decided to stick with my seafood kick, selecting “Interpretations of Octopus Under Glass”  I’m still not entirely sure what in the Hell that meant but I’m a sucker for a good octopus dish.

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I was surprised how traditional the presentation was after that frou frou name but it was outstanding as well.  The octopus had first been boiled for several hours, then a quick sear on the grill and finally finished in a pan with a Court-Bouillon sauce that also used octopus with roasted potatoes.  To accompany this, I very excitedly chose a Syrah from the famous Bibich Winery, which had been heavily featured on a Anthony Bourdain episode about Croatia.  It lived up to the hype with bold, rich flavors and a nose to die for.  Life was good.The wind had picked up even more so I cut my post-lunch stupor short and decided to take a different path back, this time over to the marina to watch the giant cruise ships and ferries dock.

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From the marina, I made my way towards the seafront, called The Riva, which was a hive of activity from all of the tourists unloading from the various ships pulling into port.

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Since the weather was still pretty much perfect, it was now time to really explore the old part of the city.  In the late 400s, the Roman emperor Diocletian had decided, for good reason, to make Split his home and built a massive palace.  Over time and through many wars, the majority of the palace has been reduced to ruins but what ruins they are!

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I purchased a combo ticket that allowed me onto the palace grounds along with access to the 14th century chapel and crypt that had been built on top of the palace in typical new conquering empire, in this case the Venetians.

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Across from the chapel was actually my favorite part of the area – the temple of Jupiter, which once I entered made me feel like I was truly in ancient times.

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By this point, the old city was packed with tourists and I decided that was my cue to get some rest.  A couple of hours later, I staggered out of my apartment and ventured once again into the narrow alleys of the old city.  I had initially planned to go to a restaurant called Zinfandel but upon arrival, I was told they were booked for the rest of the evening.  Undeterred, I headed to another option, Apetit, a few blocks away which thankfully had a table for me.image

Since I was solo, I was given a high table that gave me a great vantage point, including the massive group of 15-16 year old girls who kept looking over and giggling at me, to the chagrin of the chaperone at the far end of the table.  My waiter was very pleased to hear about my new love of Croatian wine and insisted I get a glass of Plavac Malli, but this time not a barrique.  I think I still prefer the barrique style but this was quite tasty.image
One of the specials was freshly caught hake steaks with roasted vegetables so that became a no-brainer pick for me.  Simply grilled with salt, pepper and olive oil, the fish was perfectly cooked and the vegetables were quite tasty as well.  Since I was having fish, I opted for a glass of Posip, which was fantastic.  I paid up and headed back over to the Riva, which was now brightly lit

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I meandered for awhile but soon started craving a night cap of one more glass of Croatian wine.  I had been wanting to check out a wine bar called Paradox near the Riva, which was closing in about 30 minutes.  Given that, it was hardly surprising that the room was fairly empty.

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The wines by the glass was vast and after some consultation, I decided to get a 2006 Placa Mali, this time from a different Croatian island and my server’s personal favorite.  Given the aging, the wine was very bold but also pretty supple with a long, lingering bouquet.  I sipped and enjoyed my wine until they made it clear it was time to close.  This turned out to be good timing as the wine started hitting me hard.  I woozily made my way out the door but stopped a few yards away due to an intriguing sign that said “Craft Beer Bar.”Although I was pretty much done imbibing anything fermented for the night, I did want to at least see what they had on tap.  It turned out one of the beers was an IPA from someone who used to work at the bar and happened to be there celebrating its release.  That didn’t sound too appealing at the moment, nor did the other few options.  Probably for the best anyway.  On the way out I noticed they also had a fridge of bottled Croatian craft beers.

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By the time I got back to my place, the wine was sending me off to slumberville.  I had a big day planned tomorrow, including a short bus ride, so instead of joining the boisterous crowd at the bar next door, I opted for sleep instead.

Split Day/Night 1 – Life Amongst the Ruins

The rainy weather that had met my arrival carried over to the next day, which was fine given my jetlag induced stupor.  My Airbnb host had been kind enough to lend me an umbrella so I dragged myself out of my room and made a quick walk around the corner to get some food.

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The small, quaint Villa Spiza had been suggested as a good spot by several people and seemed to be a great start for my Croatian culinary adventures.  Given the cool, rainy weather, a hearty bowl of pasta was just what I needed.

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I opted for the penne pasta with prawns and wild asparagus, which arrived only a few minutes after ordering.  The pasta was a perfect al dente, the shrimp were plentiful and wild asparagus added some nice earthiness to the dish – not bad for $10 USD.

In an effort to combat my jetlag, I finished my meal and decided to walk around the old part of Split for awhile.  The gloomy weather actually worked well with the ancient surroundings.

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After a bit over an hour, I succumbed to my tired body and crashed for awhile for a much needed nap.  A couple of hours later, semi-refreshed and hungry, I walked down the tight alleyways to one of the newer restaurants in the old city, Bokeria Wine & Restaurant.

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Located just off one of the main passes of the old city, Bokeria was lively and bustling by the time I arrived around 9PM.  I opted for a seat at the bar and was soon presented by an impressive list of Croatian wines by the glass.

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I asked my server for a recommendation, and he recommended I start with the Pinot Noir from the nearby Vetovo region.  It was delicious, reminding me a lot of the Russian River pinots.  A great start.

My server suggested the special of Zinfandel braised veal shanks with potato puree and roasted root vegetables, which sounded just about perfect for me.  He recommended pairing it with a 2010 local Zinfandel, which was his personal favorite – sold.  He brought it out a few minutes later, telling me to let it breathe for a bit.  In the meantime, he had me taste a new varietal to me – Barrique – which he described as Zinfandel’s “younger brother.”  It was indeed lighter but quite good.  I made a mental note to have more of that varietal tomorrow.

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The veal shank was indeed delicious, falling off the bone tender and the potato puree and accompanying vegetables were superb as well.  The Zinfandel was strong and bold – a bit over 15% ABV so robust but very tasty – a great pairing indeed.

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I wasn’t intending to have dessert but the description of the strawberry tiramisu was too good not to try.  Served in a glass jar, it substituted fresh strawberries (which had just gone into season) instead of the more traditional cocoa powder as the layers and the ladyfingers were soaked in rum but not with espresso.  Heavenly.

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A couple of hours after more wine and chatting with a nice fellow American in town from his second home in Rome, I said my goodbyes and headed back to my apartment.  Late night Thursday revelers were out in force and despite my initial inclination to join them, I decided it made more sense to get some rest.  The weather was supposed to be much better, and I looked forward to exploring this fascinating city more thoroughly.

The Long Road to Croatia – Planes, Planes and Automobiles

Over the past few years, a major target for my travels has been Croatia.  After I earned 100K points with my AmEx Platinum card, it seemed like it was finally time to make that a reality whilst being able to get there in style.  It turned out the easiest path both in terms of points and routes was to take a business class seat on Turkish Airlines, a new one for me.

When I arrived to the international terminal at LAX, it turned out to be a very good thing I had a business class ticket as the line for security was quite long.  Even with the separate first/business class line, it still took about 45 minutes.  I shuddered to think how long it would have been in the steerage line, which also seemed to have no separation for Pre Check.

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The first leg would take me from LAX to Istanbul, a 12 hour flight made much more palatable once I saw the sheer amount of leg room my business class seat had.  This did not suck.

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One of the heavily advertised features of Turkish Airlines’ business class is what they call “Sky Chefs” – which I’m fairly certain did not involve any actual cooking but they did look chic in the chef whites and matching toque.

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A couple of hours into the flight, it was time for dinner, which started with a trio of appetizers – a crab cake, tomato and mozzarella, and beef kabob.  Not bad.

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“A candlelight dinner high above the clouds” – inscribed on the electric candle holders.

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I chose the salmon with celery puree and grilled zucchini for my main course.  The salmon was a bit dry but tasty, and the sides paired nicely with it. Afterwards I had a very nice piece of apple hazelnut bread pudding of which I neglected to take a picture.

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The other big advantage of being in international business class are the lie-flat seats, a godsend when taking a 12 hour overnight flight. Turkish Airline’s version included this fancy brochure of bedding options.

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Unfortunately, my seat may have well been a trampoline thanks to the constant turbulence taking the Arctic route to Europe, as well as a seemingly endless parade back and forth by the Sky Chefs as well as flight attendants taking care of other business class passengers.  I was able to carve out maybe 3 hours of actual sleep so I wasn’t exactly refreshed when we landed in Istanbul exacerbated by the deadly combo of taking a 15 minute shuttle from the plane to the terminal and then arriving into this mess.

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3 shuttle buses pulled up at the same time and we all crammed into a tight hallway for the international transfers with no real sense where this line would end…

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which turned out to be another crammed hallway to an equally crammed security checkpoint with very disinterested guards waving people through with no rhyme or reason.  I was more than ready to get back on a plane after that clusterfuck.

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So much for my spacious seats.  The 2nd leg from Istanbul to Zagreb, Croatia featured, to put it mildly, much more Spartan accommodations.  This Turkish Airline plane’s “business class” seemed to be nothing more than the first 3 rows without any extra legroom.  Fortunately, probably realizing the scam, I was the only passenger so I was able to turn my first seat choice into this.

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Still, it was only a bit less that 2 hour flight, which was good given that it was yet another bumpy ride.  By this time I was really getting tired of turbulence and after another rough landing was glad I was getting a 3 hour break in Zagreb before the final flight.  This time I would be on Croatia Airlines for a quick puddle jumper to Split – a mere 35 minute flight.  I was once again all alone in “business class” but this time opted to just take the aisle of the first row.

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Once again, it was a pretty old plane, with a messed up monitor that made the crudely animated safety video look like an acid trip.

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I was picked up at the airport by a friendly old man who spoke very little English and made the rainy 30 minute drive to Split.  There I was met by my Airbnb host, who guided me into the old city since cars aren’t allowed.  The reviews weren’t kidding when they said it was centrally located as the famous Dioclientian Palace was literally next door.  By this time, it was past midnight and I quickly collapsed into a deep slumber.  The forecast for the next day indicated rain pretty much all day, which would be fine as jetlag would certainly be a factor.