Sunday, May 13, 2012

Aside: BrewDog's IPA is Dead

Having recently read about the Cicerone Certification Program State-side, and with the BrewDog four-pack IPA is Dead sitting in the fridge, I figured a lazy Sunday might be a good time to see what the ole palate's capable of. Keep in mind that, until today, I'd have been hard-pressed to name more than a few varieties of hops -- the famous Saaz, and maybe one or two from Arbor Ales' awesome Single Hop Series. And, believe me, I'd enjoyed many a hop-tastic beer in relative ignorance. Still, for what it's worth, my fledgling notes on BrewDog's excellent pack -- in the order I drank them -- follow. I'll reflect on what I've read since afterwards.
  • Motueka: full-on; what I love about Punk.
  • HBC: of grass/greens initially; more bitter/acidic later. Less power than Motueka.
  • Galaxy: more like Motueka, but again, less power; and brighter, with a citrus tang in the finish.
  • Challenger: English, like a bitter, in the nose especially; tons stronger, though, with heavy citrus in the finish.
To be honest, I had some serious, cheeks-puffed-out, arms-raised moments of relief as I read the following on Wikipedia, BrewDog's site, etc.:
  • Motueka: Punk is indeed made with New Zealand hops. I couldn't pick out the lemon or lime that BrewDog reference, though.
  • HBC: I can see what BrewDog are on about with the sweet potato, but only in retrospect.
  • Galaxy: really happy with this one as well, 'cause "citrus tang" should've read "grapefruit" -- hindsight again, yes, but you have to understand: my palate is notoriously muddled; getting that much is an accomplishment in my books.
  • Challenger: another big win for me: not only pegging the locale, but also the lemon.
On the strength of this result, I think I'll move on to the aforementioned Single Hop Series from Arbor Ales; I know I like their Nelson Sauvin, but Favourite Beers has many shelves of others I've never tried.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dubrovnik: our last day

Lokrum, off the coast, has peacocks!
Just back from our second round of kayaking -- if you book three tours with Adventure Dubrovnik, the third one is free, and while they offer many different ones, kayaking was calling us: we really enjoyed it, and the sea was much calmer today. Therefore we got to go all the way around Lokrum this time, and get more time in the boat overall.

Luckily, Marko was working again, so we got to chat with him a bit more during our snack break on the beach. We exchanged e-mail addresses at the end of the excursion. I really hope we can meet up with him again when we're in the region (or he's in the UK or Canada).

The view from Lokrum
I'm now sipping the orahovac we bought yesterday -- so much currant, it's like fruit cake in a glass; delish! -- while Tea grabs a shower. The plan for the afternoon is to picnic on Lokrum, away from the crowds; lots of cruise ships in today, it seems.

Oh, I almost forgot: oddly, we've been passing our next-door neighbour, Buffet Škola, by each day, despite its many awards. Running low on breakfast food, we'd made the plan to grab a sandwich there before our 10 a.m. tour. So glad we did. They make their own bread, and my smoked ham sandwich was amazing. Great coffee too. The perfect start to the day.

Well, looks like I'm up next for the shower.

Amazing scenery on the island -- firefighters are the only residents, to preserve this.
Lokrum monastery

Update 7:40 p.m.: We missed the ferry to Lokrum by five minutes, and so, with an hour to wait, decided against the picnic in favour of a quick treat of fried smelts and calamari; amazing! And then we still had almost two hours on the island. Finally, get this: we stop at the most remote bar of the trip, a few minutes before the last ferry back, and get two bottles of Tomislav! I wouldn't've dreamed of it, but Tea asked. It reminded me of a nice ruby mild (even though it's a lager); the beer of the trip, as I predicted, and an awesome way to finish it.

Check out our album for more pictures from the island.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Biking around Konavle

We woke to another absolute scorcher. Marko, one of our guides from yesterday's kayaking, met us outside the Pile Gate for our biking and wine tasting tour. Once the other Scottish couple arrived, we hopped in the Adventure Dubrovnik van, for Gruda, the muncipal capital of the Konavle region.

The equipment -- really nice stuff, too -- was stored in a shipping container on the grounds of the nearby Dubrovački Podrumi winery. The 8 km circuit would bring us back there for the tasting. We enjoyed their award-winning Ragusa white so much, we decided to buy a bottle; only then did we find out that you can buy it there for 30 kn! (That's about £3!)

Beside a war-damaged house -- why are we smiling again?

Our route took us through Ljuta and Lovorno, to a Franciscan monastery near Pridvorje -- where we stopped for a quick lunch under an ancient oak. Once rested, it was time for a bit of off-roading: at one point a lady in a vineyard beside the knee-high grass we were plowing through gestured and shouted something. Tea, who was farther back than me, said she seemed angry, but Marko assured us she simply thought we were lost. (U'm, I know I don't understand Croatian, but... O.K.) On the way back, we stopped near Ljuta to see an old watermill, and replenish our water in the river of the same name. We also picked up a bottle of orahovac, a home-made walnut brandy that the region is famous for, from a small stand outside a restaurant.

Didn't quite make it across -- clearly the bike's fault.
Marko was a fantastic guide: really down-to-earth, with a great sense of humour. You can tell he loves his job, and who wouldn't, out amongst such beautiful landscapes every day. He also dropped tidbits throughout the day; one that stuck with me was passed on from a woman who'd spent time with Australian Aborigines, according to him: when water is in short supply, place a small stone under your tongue; the salivation will keep your mouth moist, easing discomfort and slowing your heart rate. Thankfully, we didn't have need of this today.

And now, for a kip.

Update 9:51 p.m.: We decided to have supper at Lady Pi Pi again. Excellent choice!

Octopus salad appetizer
Seafood platter for two

For more on this trip, check out our album and the dubrovnik label.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Dubrovnik: kayaking and Mexican

We took it easy this morning, packing down plenty of carbs for our kayaking excursion with Adventure Dubrovnik early in the afternoon. Tea and I had a two-person boat, and, happily, got on much better than on that unmentionable canoe trip of yore. Over three hours or so, our guides, Dario and Marko, took us out near Lokrum, to a secluded beach for lunch and snorkeling, and then back to the Old Town. We enjoyed it so much that we booked a cycling and wine tasting tour with them tomorrow.

Once refreshed, we made our way to a Steve McCurry -- of "Afghan Girl" fame -- exhibit at the Dubrovnik Art Gallery; they'd devoted the whole building to it; some really moving pieces, covering his work from the early '80s to the present. Tea particularly liked his Tibet stuff, and I was impressed with what he's done in Afghanistan over thirty years.

Chihuahua Cantina Mexicana
Since we were already outside the wall, we decided to take another stab at that Mexican restaurant. Luckily, Chihuahua Cantina Mexicana was open, and only moderately busy. This place had soul; clearly a labour of love. I'm talkin' the works: funky tunes at just the right volume; walls covered with intriguing art and collages of previous customers havin' a barrel of laughs; and competent, no-nonsense staff. The food, you ask? PHENOM. Seriously, regular readers will know that we've been spoiled on this trip, and, no word of a lie, this meal ranks top shelf; maybe even tops. I'd put the salsa and margaritas against the best back home any day of the week. Bizarre, I know, but there it is.

Check out our album for more pictures from the trip. The dubrovnik label should bring up all the posts, in case you haven't been following along.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Montenegro, and the back of the Walloon bus

The Bay of Kotor
We were up nice 'n' early for our tour; it was neat to walk against the stream of commuters to Dubrovnik's Old Town at that hour. There was a bit of a mix-up with the tour, such that we ended up on a bus with thirty or so French-speaking Belgians. Luckily there were two guides, so the half dozen English speakers were segregated to the back of the bus for translations in the silences. As both Tea and I understand French reasonably well -- particularly the guide's perfectly enunciated Montenegrin-school French -- we got the best of both worlds, with quick questions to our guide where we faltered. (Incidentally, we both agreed that what I'm assuming was Walloon French is very difficult to understand. Before I discovered they were Belgians, I seriously suspected that their native language wasn't French, and that they'd simply booked said tour for its accessibility, etc.)

The Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, in Kotor
Let there be no doubt: the Belgians know how to vacation. After clearing the two border crossings -- Croatia's and Montenegro's -- the agenda called for a quick stop at a petrol station to pick up our local guide; 15 minutes for the toilet, a stretch, etc. I blink, and the station patio bar is full of Belgian couples raising glasses of the local Nik Gold. (Obligatory review: I tried Nikšićko pivo in Budva later that day; unpleasantly metallic at the outset, with no finish -- the latter being a selling point, according to the warped reality of beer advertisers.) And this continued at each of the stops! Živjeli!

Montenegro is, simply, beautiful. Driving around the Bay of Kotor was incredible. Cypress trees darken the awesome Dinarides -- hence the country's name, "black mountains" -- leading down to the mirror-like, deep blue bay; it actually resembles a fjord, blocking all wind from the Adriatic. With towns and villages at the water's edge -- the best defence against the main threat of the time: invading Ottomans from the mountains -- it really reminded me of a lush Lake Como; indeed, the Dinarides (is it just me, or does that word conjure up this epic mix of Easy Rider and dinosaurs?) are properly called the Dinaric Alps.

You can just make out the city wall above
The city of Kotor was our first significant stop. Words fail me. That wall 'round the old port, rising up the mountains in the most imposing fashion, was the highlight of the tour. Unfortunately, given the lushness of the terrain, I feel my pictures too have failed to capture it. (This will probably sound simple and odd, but, staring up at that wall, I felt like the greatest of cities from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms video game were alive before me; ah, a childhood bowed before Nintendo.)

This trip has really illuminated how paths diverged following the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and on a spectrum of Croatia to Bosnia, a good example of mixed blessings is Montenegro generally, and the route to our other stop, Budva, specifically.

Relaxing in Budva
The division of the South Slavic language known as Serbo-Croatian was largely a political construct, and while Montenegrins understand Croatian, officially they use a Cyrillic alphabet, whereas the latter use a Latin one. (Incidentally, our guide admitted that she struggles with official, largely government-related, correspondence, as the reality of Montenegro's reliance on tourism means that a Latin alphabet carries the day.) I raise this because our guide pointed out that, on said road to Budva, and throughout the town itself, it's the Russian alphabet, not the Serbian one, on the road signs and shop fronts. This, the large mansions (outside UNESCO protected areas, at least), and (abandoned, in many cases) factories blighting the greenery, reflect Russian exploitation of a newly-independent (since 2006), but poor, country. (For example, unable to afford a currency of their own, Montenegro requested, and received, permission to use the euro, even though they aren't part of the Union.)

I've always had difficulty putting news from this region (e.g., Kosovo's declaration of years past) in context, so it was particularly fascinating and rewarding for me to learn about its history in such beautiful surroundings. Tour guides are no different from any of us, of course, burdened with a set of biases; still, for me, it's tough to beat a few hours with a good storyteller.

The small islet and hotel resort of Sveti Stefan (Saint Stephen)

Check out our album for more pictures from the tour.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Dubrovnik: up amongst the swifts

We woke to rain in the wee hours this morning. It had cleared by the time we'd stirred, and there was barely a cloud in the sky until mid afternoon. We're about to head to supper now, and it's still lovely, if a little cool.

We booked a tour to Montenegro tomorrow; we'll be up early for that two-hour bus ride. Hopefully the good weather will continue. The other significant event of the day was walking the walls of Old Town. Unsurprisingly, it's a popular attraction, but they've done a great job, keeping the foot traffic one-way. I'd also recommend going later in the afternoon; they're closed at 6 p.m., but they don't chase you off once you're up and, today at least, the lighting was superb as it got on for 7 p.m.

Cafe Buza: just outside the walls
As the title suggests, the highlight for me was the swifts: for sheer numbers, as well as their proximity. They're such agile creatures, dipping and diving in and out of the narrowest of alleys, and then coming mere feet from you. When we were staying in Varenna, I had trouble distinguishing them from bats once dusk came on; here, the shape of their beaks, colouration, etc. were all immediately obvious. What I wasn't able to determine is where they were nesting; I kept trying to follow their 'flicking', wondering whether they'd ever get tired. (Having very short legs, swifts won't voluntary land on the ground or perch.)

I'll included a few shots below, but don't forget to check out our album as well.

Update 10:50 p.m.: We'd spied and smelled the smoke from Lady Pi Pi's grill earlier, settling on that for supper. It did not disappoint. I'm stuffed to the gills still. I started with anchovies, and then went for grilled squid; such good choices -- the best squid of my life, hands down -- but I didn't stop there: when I saw Lady Pi Pi goulash, I had to try it. The waiter raised an eyebrow, but dutifully brought it. They'd listed it as a side dish, but it was a meal in itself. And, oh, so good. I put a good dent in the lot, anyway. Tea's steak, with sardines to start, was also excellent. I can see us back there for at least one more meal.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Dubrovnik, at war

After picking up a few groceries -- just before closing, luckily -- we stopped at Konoba Moskar for a spot of lunch. Tea had sea bass again -- deboning it like a champ -- and I had stewed beef in a traditional Dalmatian sauce, with gnocchi; both were fantastic. I also tried the other Croatian lager, Karlovacko, which was very good; I wasn't as impressed with my bottle of Ozujsko the other night. I'm still on the hunt for what I suspect will be my favourite: the strong, dark lager called Tomislav.

Sated, we then set out for the cable car to the Imperial Fortress, on Mount Srđ. We actually passed through some cloud near the top, so after spending some time in the Croatian Independence War Museum -- Dubrovnik wasn't spared, as you can see in the picture below -- we headed down the switchbacks to get a better view of Dubrovnik old and new.

Damage sustained during the Siege of Dubrovnik; the building housing our apartment is yellow -- i.e., the roof or walls damaged -- and circled

Now we're off on another adventure outside the walls, to a Mexican restaurant Tea wants to try.

Update 12:35 a.m.: That Mexican restaurant is closed on Sundays. Nevertheless, we found a nearby restaurant, Komarda, and enjoyed yet another beautifully cooked sea bass between us. (In addition to deboning it, Tea valiantly defended it against one particularly enterprising cat. In case you weren't aware, there are a lot of cats wandering around Dubrovnik.) Plus, the wine, a Kozlovic white... Oh, it was excellent. And then, drawn by the live acoustic music, we enjoyed another lovely, fruity bottle of white on the 'Stradun': Malvasija Dubrovacka.

Yet another (beautiful) sea bass, at Komarda
The Stradun
Us, at Cele

As noted earlier, I'll continue to update our Picasa album throughout the trip.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Dubrovnik, at last

Ah, Dubrovnik at last! Ever since I fell for the New Dubrovnik in Ottawa, I've dreamed of seeing (and tasting) it. Granted that cuisine is more prominent in the north of Croatia, but, after some outstanding sea bass this afternoon at Bistro Teatar, I'm not complaining! (The Greek and Italian influences are stronger in the south.) The waiter brought it out beforehand -- we even saw a guy delivering fresh catches during the meal! -- and it was prepared so beautifully with garlic and herbs; I'm salivating at the memory. A gentleman beside me was having oysters the likes of which I've only seen in Vigo, and these were even fleshier; apparently they're in season now. With only a dash of lemon, what a starter!

Getting off the bus outside the main gate of Dubrovnik's Old Town was a bit overwhelming -- according to a local paper, they're expecting 206 cruise ships this year, and it seemed really busy with the half dozen or so that were in today -- but, post-kip, with them set sail and the setting sun reflecting off the worn cobblestones, swifts crying and circling above... Well, it just brings you up, marvelling.

I know the reality of the Old Town isn't as romantic: while it's been recognized as a World Heritage Site since '79, I remember reading that the property market has recently rocketed (or maybe has again): as such, fewer folks actually live there, selling or renting their places -- just like the apartment we're in -- and moving outside the walls. [I just remembered that one of my sources was Boj's blog. She references incentives to keep locals living in the Old Town; I'll have to see whether there's data on how that's working, two years on from their visit.]

Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the trip; I'll be updating it throughout the week here.