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Aisling I
Welcome to Croatia! (First Stop, Lastovo Nature Park)
Bonnie and Rick

When we poked our heads out of the hatch the morning after our arrival in the Lastovo Nature Park, we could almost have believed we were in the Bras d'Or lakes of Cape Breton, or perhaps Wall Bay in Turkey's Skopea Limani. After over six years of talking about it, planning for it, deciding not to go, then deciding that we really couldn't miss it, we had finally arrived in the cruisers paradise that had beckoned us to the Mediterranean in the first place. Croatia!

Following the advice of our friends Fred and Nancy on Frisco, we had checked in at Ubli on Lastovo island the previous afternoon. After Rick had dressed in his best shirt and paid visits to customs, immigration and the harbourmaster's office, he returned with a one-year cruising permit, a receipt for three months of sojourn tax, tourist passes for each of us and a wallet that was now about $450 lighter. We had known what to expect, but the total was still a bit shocking.

"I dropped in at the grocery store" Rick says. "They're out of bread, but they'll have some tomorrow morning. And we can get a SIM card for internet at the post office if we come back at 6 p.m.". With the ferry due to arrive any minute, we have to get away in a hurry. We head across Velji Lago, motoring past beautiful pine-covered hills and a well-hidden submarine pen to a small cove on the northwest side. Until recently, Lastovo was a military base and off limits to the public, but in 2006 the entire archipelago was declared a nature park.

By 6 p.m., Aisling is securely anchored. Not feeling any deep urgency about setting up internet access, we decide that our trip to the Ubli post office can wait until the next day. The wasps are too interested in our dinners to allow us to eat on deck, but we enjoy some star gazing after the sun goes down, listening to Abba tunes from the skippered charter boat "Barbara" that is tied to the wall nearby.

The next morning, we take the dinghy back to Ubli. As we walk up the road of the tiny hamlet, the perfume of linden trees fills the air. There is no one else in sight. Without a doubt, we are off the beaten track here. We find the post office closed, and realize that it opens only in the evenings, from 6-8 p.m. Darn. The grocery store has no bread today either. "Tomorrow morning" the woman behind the counter tells us, and she teaches us the Croatian words for hello (dobodan) and thank you (hvala). By the time we get back to the boat, Rick has convinced me that we should go around to Zaklopatika on the north side of the island, which supposedly has a fish market and is within walking distance of Lastovo town. It's less than 5 miles away, so we arrive shortly after noon and anchor in the small cove. On shore, there are a few restaurants, houses with pretty gardens, and not much else.

It will be a hot two-kilometer walk to Lastovo town (including a 300 foot vertical climb), so we clip large water bottles to our knapsacks before setting off. Rick wonders if we can hitch a ride, but few cars pass us on the narrow, winding road. The ones that do are driving like Grand Prix competitors. We zigzag between the small patches of shade and dive for the side of the road whenever we hear cars approaching. About halfway to the town we are rewarded with a view of the old port in the distance, and finally the charming town of Lastovo (population 100), with its unique chimneys, appears in the valley below us.

It is not difficult to find the Lastovo post office, but it is only open in the mornings and has already closed for the day. There is nowhere else where we can buy a SIM card, and the next day (Friday) will be a national holiday. Unless we go back to Ubli, we will likely not have internet access until the following Monday. "At least we had a nice walk and saw the town" I say. Rick looks unconvinced. The small grocery store here doesn't have bread either "Tomorrow," the clerk tells us, but they do have chocolate covered ice cream bars, so Rick buys one and I help him eat it as we walk out of town. Back in Zaklopatika, we get into the dinghy and are immediately waved over by a young Italian man who is having trouble with the motor on his dinghy. We tow him to a large yacht, moored in front of the restaurant, but decline his offer of coffee.

Now we have to decide whether to stay in Zaklopatika for the night or go back to Velji Lago. The thought of a swim in the clear waters of the cove and the knowledge that we still have time to pick up a SIM card at the post office in the evening lures us back to Velji Lago. By late afternoon, we're re-anchored in the same place we'd left that morning. The police drop by and check our cruising permit, and later we have a visit from the park police, who tell us that we must pay them an additional 50 kuna for park entry fees (25 kuna per person or the equivalent of about 5 dollars each).They are very well organized here.

At 6 p.m. we head to Ubli and join the line-up at the post office. Fortunately, the postwoman speaks some English, throwing in a smattering of Italian when her English fails her. She sells us two T Mobile starter packs for 20 kuna (about $4) each, then helps Rick activate one of the cards on his Smartphone, while a line-up of impatient customers accumulates behind us. As for the internet stick, she tells us that we will just need to insert the SIM card, put the stick into our laptop, and the directions will pop up.

Back at the boat, I fire up my computer and plug in the internet stick. It connects, but immediately directs me to a home page that is entirely in Croatian. Since we only know two words of Croatian, neither of which are any use to us in this situation, I am out of luck. Rick has a bright idea and sets up wireless tethering on his smartphone, but after I have downloaded about half of my work email it stops working too. It seems that we have already used up our entire quota, because it is asking us to "recarg". ARGH!!! We have more time left on the second SIM card, but can't figure out how to activate it.

By the next morning, we've decided that a little time without internet will probably do us good. We do a few chores and relax with our books. Rick is beginning to think he really is in paradise, since the norm in this cove seems to be topless or "naturalist" bathing. A young beauty relaxes on a swim platform, chest thrust out, hair flipped back. Later, I observe that Rick is taking a sudden interest in tanning his chest, which rarely sees the light of day.

Late that afternoon, we walk along the water to a cluster of small hotels near the bridge at Mali Lago. A boatload of charterers strikes up a rousing chorus of "In Vino Veritas" as we pass, and the sound of their singing follows us along the path. Miraculously, we discover that the large hotel has WiFi in its terrace bar. We order two "pivo" (now we are up to three Croatian words) and the beer arrives in large mugs, cold and good. We nurse our beer for over an hour while Rick answers email on his Smartphone and I occupy myself with shooing away houseflies and bemoaning the fact that I had forgotten to put my Blackberry in my bag. Oh well, a little more time without internet will probably do me good.

Things are quieter in the cove that night, and I could happily stay for a few more days, but Rick wants to move on to Korcula. We pull up the anchor at 9 a.m. and by 1 o'clock we are approaching the fairy-tale skyline of Korcula town. If the rest of Croatia is anything like this, I think we're going to be glad we came!

Cruising notes:

Port police and customs are located in the small shed on the starboard (west) side as you enter the small harbour of Ubli. After visiting them you will need to see the tourist/park person (who takes all the money) located on the east side of the harbour, near the restaurant. While checking in, you can tie up right in front of the port police on the west side or on the ferry wharf on the east if space is available. There is a banking machine near the restaurant to get the many kuna you will require. We paid 1756 kuna in navigation fees (good for one year) plus a 750 kuna vessel sojourn tax (good for three months).

A reasonably well- stocked supermarket (bread only at 9:00am) is near the ferry dock. Fuel is available at the end of the harbour.

We anchored in a small unnamed cove on the northwest side of Luka Velji Lago in about 30 feet in sand and weed; good holding. The water is crystal clear and warm (28 degrees on June 22) for good swimming.There is also a possibility of tying side-to a wall on the south side.

Zaklopatika had depths of 30-60' sand and weed. It is also possible to moor bow-to on a restaurant jetty for free (presumably you have to eat at the restaurant).

Croatia and Montenegro 2012
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Vieste and a tour of the Gargano
Bonnie and Rick

All is quiet in the harbour and the setting sun leaves red tendrils in the sky. We slip off the dock lines, pass the entrance and are on our way. The overnight sail from Bari to Vieste is as easy as it gets, with Martha keeping Rick company on his watch and Wally joining me on my mine. The hours fly by and before we know it, we are dropping our anchor in the small cove behind the lighthouse on Isola Santa Eufemia. We hope to stay in a spot where we can swim from the boat, but it is not to be. After catching a few hours of sleep, we decide the anchorage is too rolly for comfort and make a quick phone call to Caterina, a Canadian (Torontonian!) who operates the Centro Ormeggi in Vieste. The price of 35 euros a night sounds pretty reasonable for this part of the world, so we head for the marina.

We are instantly charmed by Vieste, which sits high on a promontory of white chalk cliffs. As in many of these coastal towns, the new town is a jumble of concrete structures, while the haphazard streets of the old village on the hill are filled with quaint tiny shops and homes. Many of the marble streets are so narrow that only carts and people can make passage.

Wally and Martha are delighted when Caterina immediately takes on the task of investigating options for their transport to Florence, where they are hoping to visit the Uffize gallery before flying back to Halifax on Tuesday. With everything left in good hands, they head out to explore the town, taking my Italian cellphone with them so that we can track them down later. Just as we are walking up the hill from the marina, they call us from a little café. We join them for a drink, then visit a nearby specialty shop where we splurge on a few delicacies. Back onboard, we open a bottle of prosecco, taste some of our purchases and cook a simple meal of chicken, couscous and salad.

Katerina recommends that Wally and Martha should take the overnight train from Foggia to Florence on Sunday evening. We will rent a car, explore the Gargano and drop Wally and Martha off at the station. This means that they can spend another day with us, but we hope they are not too disappointed about missing the Uffizi, which is closed on Mondays.

Part of the charm of Vieste is that there are few historic sites to make us feel obliged to get out and tour. We all relax and pursue our own amusements: Rick and I visit the market, Wally goes off to a beach and Martha does a little shopping. When we all convene back onboard Aisling, Wally and Martha invite us to dinner in the town. The Lonely Planet's description of the Enoteca Vesta ("If your wine is as important as your food, this is the place for you") certainly makes it sound like the perfect restaurant for Wally!

Our happy anticipation is somewhat dimmed when Wally begins to pack up his belongings and discovers that a box with three bottles of very special wine that he had purchased in Tuscany is nowhere to be found. We search everywhere and it is clearly not onboard. The box must have been left behind on the train from Rome to Brindisi, or in the taxi to the train station. It's a huge disappointment, but he cheers up a bit when we suggest that he may be able to find replacements in Florence.

We all dress up and head out, pausing for Wally and Martha to say goodbye to Caterina.

On the way up the hill, we pause to look at the merchandise being displayed by a young man, Roberto. We ask the prices of his sea shells and he hands me a few small ones. "Un regalo" (a gift) he says, "Capisce?" (Understand?) At first I think he is suggesting that I buy them as gifts, but then I realize he is giving them to me as a gift. Ah, a smart young entrepreneur! He has us eating out of his hand now. Wally and I hand over a few euros and come away with a larger shell and a red painted starfish.

Enoteca Vesta is set in a small grotto (previously the site of a furniture-making shop) with a wine cellar that is truly a cave. Wally climbs into the cave and views the wine selection with all the passion of a fashionista gazing at the latest haute couture collection. He strikes up an immediate rapport with the restaurant's owner, Bruno, and together they chose a lovely falanghina to accompany a spectacular parade of antipasti that seems to go on and on.

It is far too much food, but Bruno insists that we try at least half-portions of their two traditional pastas- troccoli with chick peas and orecchiette with anchovies and rape (to be accompanied by a wonderful Gioia del Colle). And surely we cannot refuse the desserts....a ricotta cake and an orange tart, with just a taste of a Trani muscato...At the end of the evening, the behind-the-scenes maestro (Bruno's wife Dorotea, the chef) comes out to take a bow. She says that she needs a rest, and based on the size of our bill she can probably afford to take one! But it has truly been a meal and an evening to remember.

The next morning, we are all up early. Martha attends Mass while Rick picks up our Fiat Panda rental car and by mid-morning we are on the way to the Gargano National Park. Our drive to Monte St. Angelo takes us through the Foresta Umbra, said to be a remnant of Italy's ancient forest. We drive under a canopy of oak, beech and pine

Near the visitor's centre, a few small Gargano deer are mooching for food. It looks like a wonderful place for hiking, or to have a picnic, but we have much to see and little time.

We continue our uphill climb to Monte Sant' Angelo, the town where in the 5th century AD, according to legend, the Archangel Michael visited the Bishop of Siponto in a grotto, leaving behind a red cloak and a footprint. Monte St. Angelo has been an important pilgrimage site for more than a millennium. St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope John Paul and St. Francis of Assisi all made pilgrimages here.

We won't get to see the footprint today, because it was covered by a statue of the archangel in the 16th century. In any case, when we arrive at the grotto, mass is underway and the room is crowded with pilgrims. No doubt there are many who, like us, have simply driven here for the day. For others, this journey may have great significance. The town itself is crowded with bars, restaurants and kiosks selling pasta and religious souvenirs. It's an interesting contrast to the sacred atmosphere in the grotto.

Now we need a shady spot to have lunch. We settle in at Le Clarisse, where the owner/chef, Guiseppe, comes out of the kitchen to explain the menu. Wally and Martha chose pasta al forno, which Wally says is just like baked macaroni. Rick and I decide to try troccoli with rape, a local seasonal speciality, and it is delicious.

Before we leave, Rick convinces Guiseppe to explain how to prepare the pasta. Obviously, troccoli and rape will be difficult to get in Canada, but we've already discovered that we can make a pretty good facsimile using arugula and spaghetti. (Write to us if you'd like the recipe.)

We seem to be on a pilgrimage today ourselves. Our next stop will be San Giovanni Rotondo, site of the tomb of St. Pio (Padre Pio). Padre Pio arrived in this tiny hamlet in 1916, as a capuchin friar. One of Padre Pio's great accomplishments was building a "Home for the Relief of Suffering", but even prior to this, pilgrims travelled to San Giovanni Rotondo to seek his spiritual guidance. His motto of "Pray, hope and don't worry" sounds just like something my grandmother would have said! We arrive in San Giovanni Rotondo exactly 10 years and one day after Padre Pio was canonized by Pope John Paul II (who also made a pilgrimage here).

I'm gasping for breath by the time we make our way up the steep flight of stairs to the courtyard of the church. When I wonder aloud what the altitude is, Rick whips out his smartphone and sits down on a wall, trying futilely to get his GPS to work. "Go ahead without me" he says. Truth be told, he has little interest in seeing the tomb of a 20th century saint. Martha, Wally and I continue inside.

We join the line-up of pilgrims filing past the tomb and gaze around at the glittering splendor of the sanctuary. "This is tacky!" mutters Wally, "Where's the shag rug?" Martha glares at him. Why hadn't we left him outside with Rick? "No really, think of how many mouths the money that went into building this church could have fed!" Someone calls out "Silenzio!" (we are not the only ones talking) and no more is said. It must be a bit of a trial for Martha to be visiting these holy sites in the company of two Protestants and an agnostic! But the mosaics are very beautiful, and Padre Pio's cell is touchingly simple. Martha helps me pick out a Padre Pio rosary for my mother's friend Dolly before we leave.

Our time together is drawing to a close. It's a quick ride to Foggia, where we have coffee and gelato at a café near the train station before waving goodbye to Wally and Martha. They will have a long wait for their train, but we want to get back to Vieste before dark. Driving back along the coast road, the car feels very empty. It is always more fun to explore these places with friends.

The first part of the return trip goes quickly, with a four lane highway and many tunnels straightening out the drive between Foggia and Manfredonia . From there on, travelling 12 nautical miles takes us about 40 minutes.The coast is steep-to and the road twists and turns around every cove, with hairpin after hairpin. Coming the other way are all the weekend visitors leaving Vieste and its beaches. We can tell this is Italy because almost every driver thinks he is in a race and driving a Ferrari, even though in reality he is probably in a Panda. Rick reminisces about his boyhood friend Smitty, who used to speed along in a hot car with a cigarette in his mouth, arm out the window, talking to the beautiful girl in the seat next to him rather than looking at the road.

Finally, the pinnacle rock of Vieste comes into view.

Vieste is starting to feel like home, but it is time to get moving again. Time to do the laundry, fill the water tanks and head for Croatia! Ciao!

Italy (Mainland) 2012
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