Feeling Like A Fish Out Of Water – Take A Tasting Tour


The drive from Vienna to Dubrovnik was extremely romantic, misty mountains with little villages nestled into crooks and valleys or lovingly laid out in the sun like colorful laundry set out to dry. We reached the coast as the sun was beginning to set, so we were bathed in peach and tangerine skies with emerald hills and islands set in the turquoise Adriatic. We got to Dubrovnik as twinklings of stardust light up the hills surrounding the bay. However, as soon as I stepped off the bus, there is a disorientation. Although a tourist town, not everybody speaks English, and Croatian doesn’t sound like anything I’ve come across. Nobody seems to take credit cards around the port and I don’t have any of the local currency. None of the ATMs want to take my cards and quite frankly, the information desk wasn’t super helpful. It is also frustrating when you need to go to the bathroom and you don’t have the local coin to get into the WC. I didn’t have a traditional host for this town (more later about this in another post).  I needed a cultural crash course, stat. 

What do food tours do for you that regular tours don’t? Well, for one I am talking about local Tours with actual residents committed to the success of businesses owned by local families with pedigrees and commitments to the community, not generic, fly by night, corporate tours which go to the top five internet Yelp or Trip Advisor locations. In Dubrovnik, I was introduced by the DuMotion Dubrovnik Half Marathon to Hamo Ovcina, the owner of Dubrovnik Food Tours. Hamo was born and bred in Dubrovnik. He lived through the siege, he lived through earthquakes, and the local exodus. He is one of the only 750 actual residents living within the old city walls. Local food Tours don’t just give you a quick in and out, they give you living history and experience, they give you cultural connections that go back generations, they give you an insight to the people that live and thrive in this city you are trying to get to know. They give you traditions, secret handshakes and menus, and insider Lengua Franca. 

Hamo didn’t just take us around the city, he wove us intricately into some of the most intimate and outlandish cubbies and nooks and crannies.  He introduced us to artisans, artists, and neighbors.  Where ever we went there were handshakes and nods and winks as we were allowed down passages reserved for only those in the know (something that was confirmed the next day as I attempted to take a friend through the same passage only to be politely and firmly told no). There was an amazing feel of Scorsesee’s single shot of the best friends in Goodfellas’ coming through the service door, walking through the kitchen, greeting the service staff and maitre d’ behind the scenes before bursting into the restaurant and being shown the best table in the house – at multiple locations. Later in the week as I met new friends, I felt I was able to act as a defacto guide and Sherpa to this amazing city. Below is my Trip Advisor review. I urge you to reach out on your next vacation to a local food tour and if you visit Dubrovnik, give Hamo at Dubrovnik Food Tours a call. You will not regret it. 

Dubrovnik Food Tours

DubrovnikFoodTours.com

I love travel and I love food. Food Tours are the perfect combination of these passions when you find the right tour. Dubrovnik Food Tours left me satiated on both counts. 

We started the tour at the clock tower, a main attraction of the old town that is easy to find. Our guide Hamo, the owner of the company was on the watch for us to arrive. He made easy conversation with the guests who were waiting guiding us into introducing ourselves and sharing a little bit about ourselves. This was clearly meant to be a night on the town with new friends. After we were all gathered the fun began, with Hamo taking us on a tour of the inner wall and passing by his and his mothers house, showcasing that they are some of the 715 actual residents of what is becoming a Hollywood medieval town. Twisting passages and masked entries led us on a loop of the exterior cliffs and back to our first course in one of the exclusive hotels nestled into one of the homes previously owned my one of the ruling families of the city. The rich wood paneled bar offered us glasses of local wines paired with ample amounts of thinly sliced ham, bacon, sharp cheeses, olives and a balsamic jam that was out of this world. A small introduction by the house sommelier and then our guide launched into a small history of the grapes grown in Croatia. After eating a substantial amount of cured meats we were off and walking to some of the churches and landmark locations of the city used in the popular “Game of Thrones” series.

Next we were seated in an al fresco cafe dining on local tuna tartare and oyster so fresh, they may have just reached into the ocean before shucking them and bringing them to the table. No hot sauce or distracting accoutrements necessary – the oysters were perfect on their own. A little white wine spritzer to cleanse the palate and we’re off on another trek, this time through the front door of another restaurant, out the back door of the kitchen and into a private docking area that gave us access to a private walk on the OUTSIDE of the wall, the evening tide threatening to douse our feet as we were shown hidden entries into the city used by spies and smugglers.  Heading back into the center of town, Hamo stopped to show us a favorite wine bar with a wonderful sitting room carved into the rock of the city’s cliff side. 

Onto dinner with more wine, we were seated in a very small family restaurant with only 9 or 10 tiny tables and the kitchen with two chef’s handcrafting every dish not 5 feet away. We were given a menu with 10 amazing items on it and told to choose two. Cold and hot plates to choose from with beef and lamb and fish and vegetarian options, there was too much to choose from, a highlight being Black Rissotto made with cuttlefish and its ink which our host ordered as a separate bowl to share with the table to much acclaim.


To finish the night we wandered down some more alleys to 2 dessert places 1st gelato (which Croatians don’t really consider dessert, more of a palette cleanse) huge cones of fanciful flavored gelatos made on premise and then to another restaurant for almond orange cake with huge shots of the Croatian liqueur Rakia. I got the honey flavored Rakia. At the end, I was full, I was tired, and I was filled with a wealth of local knowledge. Bravo to Hamo bringing his lifetime passion for his city to us visitors.  He was the consomate host, keeping food, beverages, conversation, and information flowing. He showed us where to go, what to avoid, where the freshest food were, even how to take memorable “trick” photographs like using the railings as frames for photos of important landmarks. My days in Dubrovnik were much more enjoyable after a tour with this excellent guide. 

Hanging With The Cool Kids In Venice


Walking down the streets of Venice can be difficult at the best of times. Regular tourists, cruise ship passengers, vendors, beggars, school children, delivery men with hand carts piled twice their height all jostling for space on these crowded streets all seem to part way for the guy leading our pack. A cross between a WWF wrestler and ‘The Dude’, he clears a path not only with a loud “Ciao” and the occasional clasped hand but also his purposeful walk and intense stare. Following behind in her tattoo sleeves and Magenta hair is the better half of the dynamic duo, making sure the group sticks together, has time to take photos, pointing out occasional architectural oddities, making sure nobody is hitting the wine bottle too heavily. They are the masterminds behind Venice Bites Food Tours and if they are taking you on their #1 ranked food Tour in Venice, Italy, they are also your new best friends. 

Why am I writing about Adam and Maya Stonecastle when I’m in one of the most beautiful cities in the world? Because Adam and Maya are Venitians of the Heart. In the city of Love and Dreams, they are lovers and dreamers, both for themselves and for their city. Five years ago when they met online, Adam had a final line to his profile “I want to live in Europe.” Maya’s was much more specific “I want to live in Venice”. How many people put those sorts of comments in their profiles and then never move out of MiddleAmerica City, USA? However, these statements were deal breakers. After a quick trip when Maya introduced Venice to Adam (she has been coming to Venice for 20mmpmmm years), they returned for a month to see if this was possible – that two Americans (Maya does have Irish dual citizenship) could be accepted in this tight Italian, even more exclusive – Venetian, community. The resounding answer from all the locals they talked to was “YES!” 

The Venetians are excited to have people who are so enchanted and enamored with their city that they will drop everything and move there to be a part of it. Venice has a resident problem. The city loses 1500 people a year, the old and the young. One of the problems is that with it being such a huge tourist destination, it’s more lucrative to rent rooms on Air B&B per week than to residents on a lease for a month. Check out the 1000s of listings on Air B&B. Despite that challenge and still having two homes back in the states, Adam and Maya set a goal of moving to Venice in 8 months. Not just with some luggage. Oh no, they doubled down. They brought dogs. They shipped furniture. They ended careers. Just days before leaving they signed a lease, sight unseen, of their new apartment in Venice. With that, they’ve never looked back. 

Two and a half years and they are going strong. After a slow start, where they may have been second guessing their life choices, they finally accepted that they had a great product, that they were an amazing experience and started allowing reviews on sites like Trip Advisor. Things took off from there.  They now live a dream life in the City of Love, the envy of Expats everywhere. They are my new heroes and friends and if you are ever in Venice, take one of their tours your first day, so they can coach you on the finer points of the city they love. I took their tour and I’ve included  my review from Trip Advisor below. 

Venice Bites Food Tours

www.venicebitesfoodtours.com

818-303-9175


Trip Advisor Review

Where ever you go on this tour, you will see that all the locals know and treasure Maya and Adam. It’s the rare street you walk down without hearing “Ciao Adam!” or see a quick embrace with the kiss on each cheek for Maya. Your two tour guides are Venitians of the Heart, Americans still on their honeymoon with the city of their dreams – Venice. As such they take nothing for granted, showering you with beautiful views and local lore alike.


This is not a quick in and out, tagging only the biggest and most convenient. We visited 9 locations eating and drinking our way over two miles of the city in establishments stilled owned by families who have run these businesses for generations and continue to do so in a city being engulfed by corporate Disneyfication. A block a half from where you meet, you start off with “Coffee Corrected” with Grappa and a sweet Coronet, Italy’s answer to the Croissant. With this, and at every location, comes lessons in etiquette and cultural behavior which will serve you well at any of the establishments you visit during your stay. How to approach ordering, how to not get cursed out from the nonna’s for a lack of respect. A variety of establishments follow with an assortment of Venice’s little bites which define the drinking and eating community here. Most places have a variety of choices so even if you have allergies or foods you avoid, there is always something pleasing to the palate. All sourced local. All produced locally. A large sit down lunch which fortunately our group loved seafood because we had a phenomenal pasta with all the luxuries of the sea piled on top. Two dessert places – gelato (which locals consider more like a coffee break) and a pastry place. A final perfect people watching cafe on the grand canal with a “spritz” and a gorgeous view. 


Sure there are more generic, corporate tours that will hustle you in and out as a huge herd. Take this tour if you want to intimately have this city lovingly interpreted by two passionate Americans who have entwined their lives with the most romantic of cities.