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Croatia Croatia in time of COVID 2020


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The trip to Italy and Croatia that we had planned for spring 2020 needed to be cancelled. There is the advice out there that all leisure travel should be avoided until there’s a vaccine against COVID-19, and that’s certainly something that should be considered, but the news came out that Croatia was open to Americans under certain conditions. Could we make the trip this summer, and take advantage of the Slow Europe prize stay in Hvar that we got? As much as I liked the thought, and Margaret was certainly pushing for it, I had my doubts, and we’d need to see if certain circumstances came into place.

After a first essentially complete opening, the rule came into place that travelers should have a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours before arrival in Croatia. I joined the Viber discussion group for Total Croatia News where many people reported details about currently getting into Croatia. As I understand it, without any test results one would be required to self-isolate for a week before being tested in Croatia; travelers with test results that were too old could get tested there and wait for the results. When the opportunity for the trip came up, we weren’t sure if we could get tests and results in the proper time. We knew of people in the Boston area who had quick results, but didn’t know if that testing would be available to us even if we went to Boston early before departing from there; we also considered testing in and departing from New York, but that would have its own complications.

I talked to contacts in Croatia: Andro, who had offered the prize of the apartment stay, and Shannon, who arranged for the apartment to be in the prize offerings, and who had wound up in Croatia when the COVID situation turned critical. They encouraged us to confirm the trip: that we were o.k. as Americans who hadn’t been in high-risk situations, and Andro bent the rules that excluded prize stays in August, but we should start the stay in late August.

When I contacted our small-town health care provider, they said they were taking a long time for test results, but they were working on an arrangement with nearby hospitals for fast results. We would also arrange for a test at a pop-up site in Vermont that would be too soon before the trip, but would be good enough to avoid a full quarantine. We were able to arrange a test with our provider for the day before departure.

And to arrange the flights: I wanted to use the awards we planned to use for our previously planned spring dates to Italy and Croatia, going over on Iberia and returning with United awards on Croatia and Lufthansa. The Iberia Avios points, for the trip cancelled in March, didn’t repost until late July. That was one element to make it possible to give the trip serious consideration. We could convert them to Aer Lingus Avios to book a trip to Split via Dublin, but they stopped showing as a bookable connection, and eventually the Split service was cancelled for most days. So I could use Iberia’s points directly for flights on British Airways via London. Then, thinking of what a pain it could be to reinstate the Iberia points in case we cancelled, I decided to use American Airlines miles. We had a balance that would allow the two of us to go to Italy when it’s possible, but I used this and hope that, when we go to Italy, we can use the Iberia points one way and American the other. In either case, there was a high amount in money to pay to take a “free” trip on BA.

For the return, I looked to use United miles from Dubrovnik to fly Lufthansa on the transatlantic segment. Conveniently as COVID hit, they discontinued having a fixed number of miles for partner awards, and I needed to convert some Chase points to reach the new needed number of miles. I booked the trip for the date that seemed right with a good connection to a Frankfurt-Boston flight, when it was reported that Lufthansa would be sticking to that schedule.

I rechecked the bookings regularly, and before long I found a change: they’d taken that Frankfurt-Boston flight off the schedule for that day and kept the original first flight, meaning we’d have over 24 hours in Frankfurt airport where we wouldn’t be able to clear border control at the airport. At best, we could pay a lot for a small room at a hotel in the international transit area. It didn’t work to delay it all by a day, because the Dubrovnik-Frankfurt flight didn’t operate the next day. What seemed to work was to fly United Frankfurt-Washington Dulles-Boston.

I booked that, but wasn’t that pleased with the extra exposure we’d have in the U.S., and how late we’d complete the day. I looked over the schedule again for the later day with the Frankfurt-Boston non-stop: I’m sure that when I looked first, the one option for completing the trip that day gave 30 minutes to connect in Zagreb including exit passport control, which I didn’t want to risk. Now I looked and found the schedule allowing two hours to connect in Zagreb, and I booked to that feeling better, although needing to convert still more Chase points: we’d be back on the Lufthansa flight to Boston.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

We got the PCR test done at our small-town provider’s office on Monday, understanding we’d be lucky to get results in their portal by our Croatia entry time Wednesday. In fact we got an alert of the results before we left home Tuesday, and were able to print them.

Although the Dartmouth Coach bus service between our area and Boston had recently resumed after being suspended in March, we’d decided to avoid that area of exposure and drive to Boston, parking at the Hilton Garden Inn where the Park & Fly deal, with the hotel stay after the return flight, looked like a better deal than even in other programs where we had an annual free night to use.

We parked and got the airport shuttle. There was a pretty empty international terminal. We were three hours early. I knew that there is often an argument at airline check-in about Americans being admissible to Croatia, but this British Airways agent seemed to be familiar with the rules and was satisfied with our test results. She asked if we’d completed the United Kingdom locator form, I said we’d only be transiting, but she said we should still complete the online form before boarding. When we got to the gate area, I looked at the site and understood there was an exception for people transiting, but completed the form. The questions included our seat numbers, and I understood they wanted our information for contact tracing in case someone on the flight tested positive. There were very few passengers around, with a few more showing as boarding time got close.

The flight boarded. With BA’s system of free seat assignments opening 24 hours before departure, I was concerned that all seats from row 30 (the start of Economy) through about 46 showed as occupied, with us getting seats in row 33. Would all these seats in fact be occupied? No, the flight remained very sparse. They gave out cold boxed meals of some kind of pasta salad with beans; a request of wine brought two of the small bottles to make it more tolerable. With no one behind us, we could recline without guilt; going Boston-London, one of the shorter transatlantic trips, I got a decent amount of deep sleep.
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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Arrival at London Heathrow airport, early as usual on this flight, with over four hours until the flight to Split. (If this were not COVID time, it may well have called for a transfer to Gatwick, and it would be more doubtful we’d have gone this way.) There was a maze to take between concourses, and we had something to eat at the Fortnum & Mason counter (a concession open while many were closed).

The flight to Split had a light enough load that they didn’t board by rows, just asked people to distance when boarding. It was still fuller than the first flight, but I expect that many cancelled when the rule came into effect that Britons would need to quarantine on their return, with Croatia being added to the red list in previous days. Cases had increased in the days before the trip, giving us concern, but we would do our best to be careful.

We landed at Split airport and at passport control they were satisfied with our test results, keeping the printout if we didn’t mind. (They didn’t ask for the
Enter Croatia confirmations we’d entered online, but they may have been in their system based on our passport numbers.) We got our bags (large open space in an airport serving a beach resort area in August) and did withdrawals on both our ATM cards, because of big cash expenses coming up. Croatia is an EU country both not in Schengen (I subscribed to Google News alerts about Croatia and Schengen mainly to see if our logistics would change before our original spring travel dates, and now not being in Schengen helped Croatia set its independent rules for entry of Americans) or in the euro, so we got Croatian kuna.

To keep it easier under the circumstances and using money that Margaret had set aside for travel splurges, we had booked a private speedboat transfer from the landing near the airport to Hvar. First there was a car driver with a card with our name to take us the short distance to the landing for 150 kuna or 20 euros. For my 200 kuna note, he could only give 10 euros in change. For the speedboat, the price was €360. I’d paid a €60 deposit, and the balance translated to 2250 kuna to be paid in cash. We had our private ride to Hvar taking a little over an hour, fortunate that the sea was relatively calm, but with rough patches.

This skipper had coordinated our arrival with our host Andro, who was there to meet us at the landing. He took us to the apartment he’d offered, very nice. Shortly afterwards, Shannon showed up: she’d prepared a meal for us including a stuffed pepper dish and moussaka variation. Moped sounds were an indication that we were in Europe. We had a great view of the sunset. We’d seen fireworks supplies at the port, and they were set off at night. We were settled in, and eventually slept well.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

We had some walks around the pleasant town, and kept supplied through the nearby supermarket. There was practically no mask wearing outside, but some effort to wear them inside. Having covered most of the practicalities, for a few days I’ll mostly report through pictures. With pictures with Shannon, we reported to Facebook friends where we were, which we’d mostly kept secret. Also we had Shannon’s stories of how she wound up in Croatia, needing to make the decision on flying from London just as worldwide COVID shutdowns were coming into place, and having an earthquake during her self-isolation in Zagreb. The wine tours that she leads around Europe were cancelled, and she wound up based in Hvar at this time, fortunately for us. Many food and drink venues were already looking to close for the season in a short time.

Friday, August 28, 2020

In the old town, lunch at the quirky restaurant Fig, and dinner at Dalmatino, Shannon’s top recommendation, where we had steaks, although they also have good fish dishes. We had all our restaurant meals outdoors.

Cash for payment is most liked here, with restaurants that take credit cards giving a discount for cash. When I’ve used credit cards, their handheld devices work well with cards with the contactless symbol. For frequent stops at ATMs, I know to decline their offers of dynamic currency conversion, and the green OTP machines seemed best to me, although they have a limit of 2000 kuna, with no bank charge such as the Zagrebačka banka machines have.

Taxis from the bus station area, the closest area to the old town and waterfront with vehicular access, were overpriced, generally asking 100 kuna. There’s also the PickApp, an app specific to taxis in Hvar, which generally quoted a fare around 75 kuna to Andro’s place.
Saturday, August 29, 2020

We decided to rent a car for the weekend. Shannon directs us to use Dino’s booth at the port where, for cash, we could rent an automatic Toyota Yaris for 550 kuna a day, versus a manual Fiat 500 for 500 a day, then getting a discount for being in Shannon and Andro’s circle. Shannon and I first did a run to the bigger supermarket in Stari Grad, then returned home and got Margaret to see a few more places on the island. Shannon drove the older pre-tunnel route to Stari Grad: we stopped at the quiet village of Svirce and the seaside town of Jelsa before stopping at Vrboska, with Venice-like canals, for a wine tasting.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Another full day taking advantage of the car with Shannon driving. We saw the town of Stari Grad, which I’d just learned of as the place to board the car ferry, but was an interesting enough old town different from Hvar town. We visited Tvrdalj Castle, home of the 16th-century poet Petar Kektovović, with a pleasant courtyard with a fish pond. Then there was the impressive drive through the one-lane Pitve tunnel, controlled by alternating traffic signals. We had a look at the coastal town Ivan Dolac before returning to the Jelsa area and another wine tasting.

After one seafood restaurant was fully booked, we went back to the apartment and decided on a meal at the Junior seafood restaurant in town. Unfortunately, it was my turn to drive and, leaving our designated bay at the apartment, I didn’t consider that there was a low stone wall (these often turn up in these situations) that I hit as I turned while backing out, leaving a scrape on the fender. The thought of this was hanging over me while we had the pleasant meal.

Monday, August 31, 2020

I returned the car, reporting the damage, and it went through with me paying 800 kuna or around $130 U.S. That’s better than with similar damage in the U.S. or, I expect much of more Western Europe. This was a rental paid in cash, and there was no trying to get a credit card’s insurance coverage, which is often a drawn-out matter to deal with anyway. Otherwise it was a muggy day and we took it easy. The end of our stay in Hvar is getting close, and I bought our catamaran tickets to Dubrovnik for Wednesday. We had good pršut (prosciutto) from the town’s central market, and some contributions from Shannon.

In the evening, a thunderstorm to cool things down.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

A final day in Hvar: some wandering through the old town, and a final dinner at Dalmatino. We much appreciated Andro’s hospitality and the time that Shannon gave us.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

It was the day to relocate to Dubrovnik. Andro drove us to the parking lot where we need to traverse the old town to get to the waterfront. Being in the inside space of the catamaran was an area of concern, such that we considered other ways such as hiring a driver or renting a car. There were early reports of not too many bookings on the catamaran, but finally we boarded and were closer to others than we’d prefer, and it was overall a comfortable ride with stops at other islands on the way.

Shannon had linked us to a driver she knew; after we had some struggle getting our luggage down the plank, we found the colleague of our contact, and had a ride to our booked place, at Shannon’s recommendation, the Villa Adriatica. It’s a small lodging with antique furniture and a terrace right on the sea at Ploče Gate. Although the terrace is shared with another room, that room was apparently unoccupied, and we had the terrace to ourselves. It’s a place with a great view, but in the sun throughout the day. I took some starting looks through the old town, with dramatic turns to enter before seeing the central street, the Stradun, and the climbing streets to the side, with much aimed at tourists, who were around in smaller numbers but still there. I sit outside on the terrace hearing resort seaside sounds as it goes to darkness as I write this.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

We did a little wandering in the old town. Having a bit of feel for the place and shopping for souvenirs. On one visit of my own in the area I looked at the war photography museum, seeing a temporary exhibit on the Rohingya in addition to pictures around the conflict of the breakup of Yugoslavia: interesting to see pictures of Old Town Dubrovnik in that time and others, affecting me since my childhood best friend died as a journalist covering the conflict.

We’d talked about having a meal of peka, a large dish of some kind prepared in a baking pan with advance notice. The place I’d located was Konoba Dubrava, out of town, reachable by using Croatian Uber (actually operated by a regular taxi). We did that, getting up in the hills by one-lane roads, and had a meal that satisfied us.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Our final day in Dubrovnik. While we were at dinner last night, it was the 36-hour mark to check in for our flights. It was confusing what showed on my phone at dinner, and I tried to do it better when we were back at our lodging. Online check-in for flights out of Dubrovnik and some other Croatian airports for all IATA airlines redirects to the niko.hr site. When I completed check-in through that site, they emailed boarding passes for all three flights for me, but not to Margaret who was on the same reservation. When I tried to enter her name, even with her own ticket number, the Niko site said booking not found. In the morning, the sites of the operating airlines (Croatia and Lufthansa) and the ticket issuer (United) all showed only the Frankfurt-Boston flight, not the Croatia flights. I emailed Croatia Airlines (I’d gotten a prompt reply from them on another matter earlier) and they said they weren’t finding the other segments: I’d need to call United, who issued the tickets. I called United’s Germany number using Google Hangouts. After they weren’t hearing me on devices where I was new to Hangouts, I used the iPad, which I’d used before, and the first agent’s system crashed, so she advised me to call back.
This agent got the flights reinstated. I decided I’d better not try checking in again; we’d worry about seat assignments at the airport.

So for the day: potentially there were great sights to see: the panoramic viewpoint reachable by cable car or Uber, or the walk at the top of the Old Town walls (worth the high ticket price?). Finally we didn’t do either of these, which we may regret, nor did we eat at one of Shannon’s recommended restaurants. We just wandered the Old Town area some more and had an early dinner at the restaurant in prime marina-side space. Needed to get to bed early.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

We got up to catch the ride we’d booked with Shannon’s driver Niko at 4.30 a.m. We were at the airport a little before the check-in counters opened at 5. I first tried checking in at the self-service kiosks, which scanned our full passport information, including expiration dates, well, then gave us boarding passes for only the first segment to Zagreb. The counter opened, we checked our bags, and this agent couldn’t issue the next boarding passes: we’d need to stop at the transfer desk in Zagreb. She did reissue the first passes to seat us together. We got to the gate and could see the sun rise as we boarded the Q-400 turboprop, then had our short first flight.

At Zagreb airport, as promised we needed to stop at the transit desk, where the agent needed to start up her computer and it took some time to get our boarding passes squared away (glad we didn’t have the 30-minute connection). We had exit passport control and got to our gate. Nearby was a bar to take our coffee and croissants to the gate area on a tray; we spent kuna with just a few to spare.

With the later issued boarding passes, we were in row 25 for the flight to Frankfurt, an empty seat in our row although it was fairly crowded. As on the first flight, they gave out bottles of water, and there was a COVID form for Germany to complete even though we were only transiting. At disembarking, there was no call by rows or effort to social distance; this was one of the less comfortable parts in terms of risk.

At Frankfurt, staying in the non-Schengen transit area, the connecting gate for our Lufthansa flight to Boston was a short way down the hall. Before boarding, they called people to report for a document check and to have people enter the online COVID form for Massachusetts, which we had already done.

And then there was an invitation for people to buy upgrades. I was skeptical of all of it, Margaret was interested in a Business Class upgrade but, when understanding the full price, we went for an upgrade to Premium Economy. We completed one form that, I think, called for the upgrade charge to be put on the credit card used for the purchase, which ran into a problem because a charge from my card hadn’t gone to Lufthansa, only the taxes and fees had been charged on the award by United.

It was getting to be boarding time, and they said we could board and be shown the possible seats and have the charge collected onboard. We did that and were given good seats, but the upgrade fee quoted onboard was higher than quoted at the gate. We went ahead and lived with that, having the charge collected with the onboard credit card reader. There were more passengers than I would have expected, given the limited categories of people authorized to fly the route.

We had our flight, with a nicer meal than on the outbound, a warm chicken dish. There was a late snack with pastrami slices, which I had with sparkling wine, and a COVID form to fill out for the U.S. It was nice to arrive in Boston with an approach from over the sea.

We landed, they called to disembark one row at a time, and there was a brief stop at a health desk, but they didn’t take our temperature. Although we have Global Entry, we were directed to the regular passport control booths, which went quickly. We got our bags, and the shuttle to the Hilton Garden Inn, where I had checked in online and my phone gave us the room number and worked as a digital key; we didn’t need to stop at the desk.

We didn’t need dinner, had a comfortable night’s sleep and, following quarantine rules, I used Grubhub to deliver breakfast in the morning. Then we got the car to go home for a 14-day quarantine, which we knew would be part of the deal.

During the trip, the question hung over us of whether it was advisable to go on this trip at this time. With no bad symptoms having appeared a week after the return, I’m glad that we made the trip, and wish that we’d stayed longer. For our original dates, we looked forward to the trip to be part of our healing after my father died, and I felt numbness as the plans had to come undone. It was great to experience these places in good weather without the usual crowds. I’d like to thank Pauline for organizing the contest that made it possible, Andro for offering the stay, and Shannon for arranging for Andro’s place to be an option, with the bonus that she was there to be helpful to us.
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Andrew, I did not realize that your father passed away. I'm so sorry for your loss. If I remember correctly, you and your dad had a special link with Italy. I'm glad you were able to take this trip, even if it was not your originally planned trip. I enjoyed reading your trip report. Stay well!
Another terrific report, Andrew. I’m glad to hear your return left you wishing for more. Your navigating the logistics never ceases to amaze, and I hope to capitalize on the information you so generously provide.
Jen and I look forward to seeing you and Margaret in Umbrrtide someday in a more travel friendly future.
So interesting...thank you Andrew.
I'm sorry about the loss of your Father.

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