COPENHAGEN IN CALIFORNIA?

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

While my brother was taking you on his magnificent cruise we were spending some time over on the Central Coast of California, as we do most summers.  This week we decided to venture down to Solvang, the quaint little town that is known for its Danish heritage and bakeries.  Bakeries?  Shoot, I’ve never been known to turn down a good bakery visit.

“Solvang” is a Danish word meaning “sunny field”, a distinction that will become important in a moment.  The town was founded in 1911 on about 9,000 acres by a group of Danish-American educators who traveled west to establish a Danish community far from the midwestern winters.  So, unlike the rest of the Scandahoovians who stayed up in Minnesota, the Danes sought out sunny fields.  The Swedes and the Norwegians can argue all day about who is smarter but I think we can all agree that the Danes take the pastry on this one.

Obviously the Danes were not the first to discover this beautiful area.  The original settlers were the Chumash tribe, whose members still live there today and, among other things, run one of the most successful casinos in California.  Solvang was also home to one of the original California missions, Santa Ines, which was built in 1804 and stood until an earthquake in 1812 destroyed much of the mission and the bell tower.  Over the years it was rebuilt and today is an important tourist attraction.

In 1914 the Danes established a “folk” school in Solvang, one of the few that existed in the US at the time.  The curriculum was designed to teach Danish-speaking students in their late teens how to lead more meaningful lives with an emphasis on lectures, singing, gymnastics, fellowship and folk dancing.  Sounds like a lot more fun than calculus and 4th year Latin.  But with the onset of WWI, Danish immigration to the US dropped and it became harder to support a Danish-speaking school.  In 1921 the building was sold to the Lutheran church and continued to host a wide variety of community functions until its demolition in 1970.

Solvang is now primarily a tourist destination – a million of them visit the town every year.  I think most of them were there the same week we were.  I heard accents from every part of the world and huge bus tours blighted the view of the picturesque buildings.  Most people come to Solvang to see what is advertised as an authentic Danish village reproduced in California – a miniaturized version of the Little Mermaid, a statue of Hans Christian Andersen and four windmills dot the main road through town.  Most of the businesses and homes in town are inspired by the Danish half-timbered architecture, which is what makes it such a unique attraction.  The center of town also features a Christmas shop and when we visited the outside of it was a mash-up of Christmas and the 4th of July.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Solvang also garnered much attention after the movie “Sideways” was released.  Many of the critical scenes were filmed in Solvang, including those at the Hitching Post restaurant which is just three miles outside of town.  The movie bought unprecedented interest to Solvang and the wines that are produced in the region.  Seriously, can you even look at a bottle of merlot and not think of “Sideways”?

But of course, I wasn’t there for the wine…I was there for the bakeries!  I sat outside Mortensen’s Bakery with Dash the Wonder Dog while my husband went to buy us one pastry to share.  After all, even Solvang isn’t worth totally blowing my diet.  A few minutes later out he came out with two HUGE chocolate-almond pastries.  And, well, not wanting to be impolite to the local Danish bakers, we devoured them both.  I don’t know what they do in Denmark to make the pastry so flaky and delicious – I’m sure it has to do with lots of butter or lard or something I just don’t want to know about.

All in all, it was a fun time, somewhat educational and definitely worth the trip.  I think I need to do more research next week and just might accidentally stumble into another chocolate-almond pastry.

Croatia, Slovenia, Venice & Home

by Bob Sparrow

“Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik and find it”      George Bernard Shaw

Dubrovnik from the top of the cable car

I read the above quote with some skepticism – could this ancient city really be more like paradise than say, Bakersfield? But after being totally amazed by Montenegro, I was open to believe anything about this scenic Dalmatian Coast. I became a believer – Dubrovnik is beautiful. We had a tour guide here, but it was not a private tour (as we had become accustom to), rather there were about 18 of us in a ‘Cable Car/Walking Tour’ of the city. It was actually a fairly good walk just to get to the bottom of the cable car, but we managed to get ourselves into a gondola and up to the top of the mountain. The view was spectacular, as we took in the entire walled city of Dubrovnik as well as miles of beautiful coastline both north and south. We took the requisite photos, visited the gift shop and headed back down for a guided tour through the walled city.  After visiting a number of historical sites, we were left on our own to either ‘walk the wall’ or not.  As a group we decided that it was too hot and the wall provided no shade, so each couple went their own way.  The Wall kept calling me – it is the second longest wall in the world (behind China’s), so I decided that I wanted to at least walk a little part of the wall.  I paid 8 Euros and took the steep stairs to the top of the wall.  I decided I’d just walk out to the the part of the wall that was on the coast.  It was spectacular!  I continued around and by the time I was half way around I figured I’d complete the circuit around the entire city.  It was 3.4 miles, which felt like 13.4 on this hot, humid day, but I’m glad I did it . . . although I’m not sure why.  It’s hard to believe that this country just had its ‘War of Independence’ with Serbia in the 90s, yes the 1990s!

Game of Thrones King’s Cove

And yes, this is the location for much of the filming of Game of Thrones.

Dubrovnik, Split and Koper, Slovenia are only a few hours drive apart, but our ship took all night to get between them – I think we took a wrong turn.  In Split we took a golf cart tour of the city and surroundings, finding it to be a hip city with great beaches.  Koper, Slovenia, the home of our first lady, is another smaller, ancient city with old buildings that, at this point, we probably had our fill.

Our next and final stop on the cruise was due west across the Adriatic Sea to Venice.  We had arranged another walking tour of the city, where we had a very knowledgeable guide describing the many aspects of the city as we wound our way through the narrow cobblestone sidewalks.  The tour ended with a gondola ride and afterwards we found a great restaurant and enjoy a true Italian lunch of some of the best pasta we’d ever tasted along with a nice glass of Chianti.

Smile String Quartet

Meanwhile back on the ship: The best entertainment on board , in my opinion, was a group called Smile String Quarteta group of attractive Ukraine women who played violin, viola and cello.

Our travels home provided the longest 4th of July I’ve ever experienced.  We disembarked in Venice at 8:00 a.m. on July 4th and got to LAX at 8:00 p.m. – on paper it looks like 12 hours, but add the time change and it was a 21 hour trip home.  We were surprised that everyone here seemed very excited to see us – we were greeted with a fireworks welcome.

As those who read our blog know, I love travel; seeing new places and understanding how different people live is always interesting and educational, but I have to admit that one of the great aspects of travel for me is gaining an appreciation for our own country – it is always great to get home.

Thanks to Jack & JJ Budd and Chuck & Linda Sager for being great travel companions and making the trip that much more fun.  Thank you to wife, Linda who mostly puts up with my antics.  And thank YOU for coming along, especially thanks to those who made comments to let me know I didn’t leave you behind.

Get rested up as we have another trip planned with another group at the end of the summer – hope you can join us.

 

Malta, Greece & Ohhhh Montenegro

by Bob Sparrow

Malta

Malta – looks interesting . . . it’s not!

Malta’s history dates back to around 5900 B.C. – don’t worry we’re not going to start there. Because of its location, in the middle of the Mediterranean, it was a strategic island to have control of and was thus taken over in turn by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Aragoneze, French and British. During World War II the Germans wanted to add their name to the list, but despite the Luftwaffe leveling some of the oldest buildings in the world, they were turned back by Allied forces and now Malta remains as an independent country.

In Malta – just shoot me!

I think the day our ship arrived in Malta’s port city of Valletta, all of the above-mentioned nationalities were represented there, plus tourists from four cruise ships – it was wall-to-wall in this walled city. So a 10-minute walk to the ‘lift’ that took us up the walled city’s façade and a walk down the crowded main street filled with tee shirt and trinket shops was all the Malta we wanted to see. I’ll admit that I felt a bit like a shallow tourist, not really appreciating the history or the present culture of this historic country, but it was crowded and hot. I didn’t even stop to have a local beer!

Katakolon, Greece

Katakolon – yes, that’s it – really!

If you were looking to visit a Greek island and have imagined those stark white building stacked along a pristine coastline over azure waters; or if you were looking to stroll amongst the antiquities of ancient Greece’s structures like the Acropolis or Parthenon, don’t go to Katakolon. Its claim to fame is that it was the location of the very first Olympic games. We did not take the 30-minute drive to the original Olympic site, as we assumed most of the athletes had already gone back home. We did wander the main street of town (there was only one), which was about three short blocks long, and were subjected to old Greek men sitting outside their store like carnival barkers, trying to get us to walk in and buy something. The tour of the town was quick and uneventful, but Jack and I did stay long enough to enjoyed a famous Greek Gyro sandwich and a Mythos beer at a beachside café, which was quite good.  But I’m not checking Greece off my bucket list based on this visit.

A Day at Seas

Here’s what I discovered during our ‘Day at Sea’

  • The Budds and Chuck and I nearly flunked out of our ‘Pasta Cooking Class’

    JJ, Jack, Chuck & I just before we got thrown out

  • I couldn’t concentrate during the Zen ‘doodle art’ class
  • Two-piece bathing suits are not necessarily worn by thin, young women
  • After five days on board, I still had difficulty finding the way back to my room
  • Bingo is boring

Kotor, Montenegro

OK, this is more like it! Just getting to the historic, old city of Kotor was spectacular, as it requires the ship to traverse 17 miles of magnificent bay with high mountains on each side creating the ‘Montenegro fjords’. We docked and were greeted by our guide, Rajan (pronounced Ryan).  We wondered, Is he another Alfonzo or another Cammie? The big smile and warm welcome assuaged our fears immediately. We discovered that one of the keys to being a really good guide is to have been born and raised in the area you are guiding in – Rajan was. He was not only personable with a good sense of humor, but could speak intelligently on any subjects, from the politics of the country to cheese varieties in the farmer’s market.

Above Kotor with our ship behind us in port

Our tour had two parts, first a stroll through the fairly small walled city where Rajan pointed out some of the more interesting/historical sites, as he knew our ship was going to be in port until 11:00 p.m. and thus we had time later to explore the city on our own. The second part of the tour was a visit to the olive-producing region of the country, which was about a 45 minute drive from the port. We hopped in our van and headed up the mountains surrounding Kotor’s cove, providing us some amazing views.

When we arrived at the olive orchard, the owner, whose family had owned the business for over six generations, greeted us with a smile and brought us inside an old olive press room and served us a lunch of cheese, prosciutto, tomatoes, bread and, of course, olive oil, but first, a shot of brandy.  Yes, it’s a custom here and we certainly didn’t want to piss off the locals. We learned all about olive growing, pressing and tasting – we now know what ‘Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ means – to my surprise virgins have nothing to do with it!

We returned to Kotor for a stroll through the city as the lights came up allowing this city to show off yet another side of its beauty. Great city + great guide = great experience!

 Travel tip: Skip Malta and Katakolo and go directly from Sicily to Montenegro . . . and don’t play bingo!

Meanwhile back at the ship: A group of about 100 plastic surgeons were having a conference on this cruise and they brought along their ‘significant others’. Since the significant others looked significantly younger than the surgeons, we played a game trying to figure out if the doctors had performed surgery on their wives or just brought their secretaries to the conference.