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Bulgaria’s Plovdiv – Villa Yustina Winery – Bachkovo Monastery

This morning after a delicious breakfast buffet, Daniel our guide toured us throughout the historic Old Town of Plovdiv.  We were SO impressed with this beautiful place.  One could spend a number of hours exploring.

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Our time at Villa Ustina Winery will definitely be a tour highlight for everyone.  When we arrived a talented Bulgarian Piper welcomed and entertained us as we sipped on a Welcome Glass of Wine.

A knowledgeable and very bubbly tour hostess toured us through their impressive cellars where we learned how they manufacture state-of-the-art stainless steel vats which they ship all over the world (even to wineries in Niagara, ON).

Villa Ustina’s  founder is quite the entrepreneur.

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Later in their tasting room we enjoyed a homemade 3 course luncheon that many of my passengers felt, “was our best meal yet”.  The founders son and his mother-in-law were the superb cooks in the kitchen.  This operation is very much a family affair complimented by an excellent staff who told us how much they love their jobs.

We started with a fresh salad followed by pork loin stuffed with plums.  Dessert was a luscious torte-like cake that SO good!

We are the first large Canadian group that they have welcomed.  Their entire team worked so hard to impress us – they succeeded – we so appreciated their hospitality.

My passengers loved this experience so much many of them are bringing home, “MANY” bottles of their premium wines.

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I was fascinated as we drove passed a Bulgarian Gypsy community.  We were told that the Gypsies often start building homes without permission after they decide to settle in an area.  Gypsies often travel using horse and wagon.  This morning when we toured beautiful Plovdiv we saw a number of Gypsies working to keep the streets clean – they were doing a stellar job!

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The scenery we took in today was spectacular once again.

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Mid-afternoon we arrived at the 2nd largest Monastery in Bulgaria – Bachkovo Monastery.  This is the first one where we were allowed to snap some pictures in the unique and very  beautiful Orthodox Church.  A monk was very quick to collect our group admission money.

My passenger walked up the RED CARPET in order to enter tonight’s dinner restaurant.  The restaurant interior was trendy and our entree was a little lighter and definitely the healthiest one yet.  We enjoyed it.

Another terrific day in Bulgaria – the weather was wonderful too – 22C with blue skies.

Bulgaria’s Rhodope Narrow Gauge Railroad

Railway Buffs will be jealous of us  – this morning we rode the Rhodope Narrow Gauge Railway – to the highest elevation station in the Balkan Avramova at 1267 meters above sea level.

The train arrived “on-time” for our departure from Bansko Station.  This is a public train that was originally built to help connect the mountain communities.  Eventually it was used as a way to transport limber.

This is a holiday “May Day – Labour Day” so other than my group,  a couple backpackers and handful of local ladies – we were the only ones who boarded the train.  We took over one of the cars and cracked open Wine bottles at 1030am!  What a party!

Our journey took us through a very authentic part of the country – beautiful.

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When our train journey came to a close we were hungry so we boarded the coach and continued to a touristy Hot Springs Town where we enjoyed a 3 course veal luncheon at a very popular local restaurant.  Very little English was spoken by the staff but the chef really did an exceptional job cooking for us and homemade creme caramel was a perfect finale.

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We continued for a couple hours to Plovdiv where we are staying at the Best – Hotel Imperial for 2 nights.

We were scheduled for a 90 minute walking tour before check-in but I changed the itinerary and we will explore Plovdiv tomorrow morning – the fresh Mountain air tired us out so relaxing time before dinner was my NEW plan and it was appreciated by all.

Dinner was held in a chandelier filled dining room with a beautiful view.  The cuisine was excellent and the service right on the mark.

 

Rila Monastery – Bulgaria’s Famous Attraction

This morning we shared the dining room during breakfast with a fellow Canadian from Kitchener, ON – what a small world.  Breakfast was exceptional – huge variety with many regional specialities.

We traveled most of the day on secondary roads where we really admired the countryside views.  Farmers were working up their fields for planting and we saw many horse pulled wagons.

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Our travels took us to one of the most famous attractions in Bulgaria – Rila Monastery.  This is one of those places where a picture just doesn’t do it justice.  When you enter the Monastery grounds its beauty take your breath away.  Unfortunately no pictures can be taken inside the Church and that is too bad – its so unique and beautiful.  Quite seriously it should be on your “Must See” Travel List!  There are currently 10 monks living in this Monastery which in comparison to neighboring Romania is few – in Romania their Monasteries often have hundreds of monks.  At one time the Monastery was very important – if someone wanted an eduction it was often the monks who did the teaching and they had a major say in political affairs.

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We enjoyed lunch at a spotless restaurant close to the Monastery.  The home cooked meal was exceptional.  The starter was piping hot, navy bean soup.  The  local speciality is trout and it was especially tasty because it was fresh and chargrilled.  Dessert was homemade yogurt with jam – very satisfying.

This time of year Storks nest in a few of the towns that we traveled through.  Look at the size of their nests.  They yearly return to the same nest to have their young.

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We made a stop in Bansko a town that has grown into a major ski resort area.  Here we toured another very unique Orthodox Church – not at all like Rila’s Monastery  but just as beautiful.  Easter displays still dot the town.  There were many shops selling locally produced goods – especially ceramics.  Vendors were selling sweet corn at little stands – smelled so delicious as we walked by.

We are very much enjoying our overnight stay at “Hot Springs Resort Hotel” where the views of the mountains are stunning,  This is a newly built property that has quickly become exceptionally popular,  Easter holidays just finished and tomorrow is Labor Day so many have this time off so are vacationing and this hotel is at capacity.   They reserved a special seating area for us so we could enjoy their bountiful dinner buffet.

Another terrific day in Bulgaria!

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Bulgaria – Here We Come!

I met my passengers yesterday afternoon at Toronto Pearson.  Everyone was so excited about our Journey to Bulgaria!  This is a new destination for them AND me.

Check-in at the Lufthansa counters was pretty quick – line ups at security were long – but eventually we all ended up in the Plaza Premium Lounge for dinner and beverages before boarding a 747-400 series jet for the 7hr flight to Frankfurt.

The plane was filled to capacity.  Service was very good.  The on-flight meal  was a choice of beef or pasta and a hearty snack was served prior to landing.

Surprisingly there wasn’t a gate assigned to the plane in Frankfurt so we walked down stairs and boarded buses that took us to the terminal – surprised they would do that with a mega size jet like a 747 – I’ve had it happen many times when traveling on smaller jets.

It was a fun adventure going up and down stairs in the terminal in order to board another bus that took us to a different part of the terminal where our connecting gate was located.  I think everyone appreciated my guidance to get them there.  We were just glad that we didn’t have a quick connection.

The stores in the airport concourse were all designer brands with prices to match – no bargains to be found.

Our connecting flight to Sofia was also with Lufthansa and this time we flew on an Airbus.  The connecting  flight was a short 90 minutes but that didn’t stop the friendly  flight crew from giving us a choice of sandwich with beverage choice.

Its Orthodox Easter Monday so Sofia is like a ghost town.  The streets that are typically clogged with traffic are empty.  Many locals leave the city and head to the Black Sea or Greek resorts to celebrate the holiday.

After we landed at Sophia, we quickly cleared customs and our luggage already appeared on a conveyor belt.

We met our knowledgeable  guide, Daniel and our motor coach driver,

We were soon on our way to lunch.

The restaurant was an authentic one with great atmosphere.  It’s highly regarded – Putin, has eaten here a few times.

Our 3 course meal was delicious – hearty potato soup, a yummy chicken dish (similar to a stew topped with an egg – so much flavor) and a traditional pastry thin layer cake (I’m sure a labor of love to prepare).

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Daniel then showed us some landmarks in this very clean city that has a population of 1 Million in the core and 1.3 Million including the suburbs.

We made a stop so we could exchange some money at a GREAT rate.

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We are staying in the finest and most highly regarded 5 star hotel in the city.  They might as well refer to their rooms as suites because they are suite size.  Some of my passengers commented that they are larger than many apartments in Toronto.  Green is the decorating colour of choice but it nicely compliments the rooms dark woods.

Our welcome dinner was in the Red Room – very elegant – a few of my passengers said the pork was the BEST they EVER tasted – so tender.

The Prime Minister of Bulgaria was dining in the room next to us so there was a great deal of security around.  Some of my passengers saw the Prime Minister giving a press conference in the lobby of our hotel – I missed it by a couple minutes.

This hotel has attracted a huge list celebrities and they proudly post their pictures in their beautiful coffee cafe.  “Travel With Bradley” passengers stay at the best!

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Temperatures were in the 20C range today and it was such a warm evening almost everyone went for a stroll after dinner to admire this beautifully lit up city.

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In honor of Orthodox Easter in the hotel lobby I purchased a hand made Easter Egg Nest – made of wool – a charity project for needy children.

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My passengers are tired after a day of travel but we are having a great time and are so impressed with our first day in Bulgaria.  Looking forward to what we are going to experience in the upcoming days.

Day 4 – American Barn Stories – Ft. Atkinson, WI

We woke to cooler temperatures and some rain but by early afternoon temperatures were in the 70’s and the sun was shining.  Locals had their car windows down so they could enjoy the warm fresh air.

We stopped at an unique store in the “middle of nowhere” – down a dirt road, on a family farm.  I had asked them a number of months ago, to open early for us.  The owner is a lovely lady who was thrilled that a group of Canadians had invaded her large store which is filled with Amish products. Wisconsin products and even some antique.

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This is the first “Travel With Bradley” group to visit to the “Fireside Dinner Theatre” in Ft. Atkinson, WI.  Fireside Theatre has been on my radar for a few decades SO I am very pleased that I FINALLY fit this attraction into a “Travel With Bradley” itinerary.  The complex accommodates 700 ticket holders – 2 separate areas for dining and theatre.  The facility also features a massive gift shop plus a bustling bakery counter.  If you arrive on a motor coach they assign plastic bins which holds the baking that the passengers on each coach purchases.  These bins are then delivered to the coaches before show end.  Their dining area has undergone a recent renovation and it shows – very classy.  The servers are extremely friendly (the lady looking after the table where I was sitting at has worked at Fireside for 14 years).  The 3 course plated meal received rave reviews.  The theatre space looks a little dated but the theatre seats have recovered.  The ceilings are low but that didn’t effect the production of “Menopause – the Musical” which was excellent.  This hilarious show ran for 90 minutes without an intermission.  I look forward to bringing more groups to Fireside Dinner Theatre.

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After the show finished  it took 2 hours to reach our overnight hotel which was located in an affluent Chicago suburb.  We enjoyed plenty of room in our suite accommodations.  Many of my passengers were so impressed they wished we could spend a few extra nights enjoying this property.

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Dinner was a plentiful Italian affair – the “Pope” overlooked our banquet.  The multi-courses of Italian specialties arrived on platters so we could help ourselves with as much or little as we wished.

Day 3 – American Barn Stories – Lake Geneva

We enjoyed another wonderful day in the Lake Geneva, WI area.

After breakfast we traveled 30 minutes to a rural town of “East Troy”.  I chartered a historic electric train for our excursion to the “Elegant Farmer”.  The “Elegant Farmer” is proudly known for their “Apple Pie Baked in a Bag”.  Many food critics claim its the BEST pie in America.

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The owner of the “Dancing Horses” Show is a real character.  She helped served our early “Easter Turkey” luncheon – very delicious.

The “Dancing Horses” 90 minute performance  that followed was excellent.

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We then watched their 30 minute parrot show – also excellent!

There was a bit of time at the resort so everyone could get freshened up for dinner.

We then strolled down the store lined Main Street in beautiful downtown Lake Geneva.  What a beautiful day to explore.

Dinner was at Sprecher’s German restaurant.  We had a choice of many entrees.  Portions were huge and delicious!

Day 2 – American Barn Stories – Lake Geneva

This mornings breakfast buffet was excellent.  The views from the dining room were wonderful as we overlooked a large pond highlighted with a large fountain.

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We admired the beautiful day – the sun was beaming, the sky a bright blue and the blanket of snow that covered the ground was gleaming.  

Soon after departure we crossed into the State of Wisconsin.  A big “cheese” sign greeted us so I asked Paul to stop at that cheese shop and many of my passengers made purchases – they offered many Wisconsin cheese varieties including a 15 year old cheddar!

When we arrived in the tourist area of Lake Geneva we were joined by a wonderful host who toured us through this rural community.  We saw a number of painted barn quilts and visited a dairy farm where they milk 1600 – 24 hours a day!  The farmers were very friendly and my passengers loved this personal experience.  We are the first Canadian group they have welcomed so our arrival has caused a great deal of “buzz” in the community.  

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Lunch was at a wedding banquet hall – the staff did a terrific job looking after us – their broasted chicken was a big hit.

After a full day of touring we enjoyed a bit of time before dinner in our luxurious hotel rooms at the Grand Geneva Resort – years ago the resort was the former Playboy Club.  This 4 diamond property is definitely upscale but extremely comfortable at the same time.  My passengers are enthused with the embedded large mirror television that is found in the hotel room bathrooms.  We are here for a two night stay.

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The resort gift shop sells Joanna Gaines Magnolia Products so that reminded some of my passengers of the journey to Waco, TX they enjoyed with me earlier this year.

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As a surprise for my passengers we enjoyed a fleet of wine at a local award winning winery (took advantage of a group picture beside the snowman) before dining in a traditional Wisconsin Supper Club where we had a choice of prime rib, bbq ribs, salmon or duck.  The portions were mega size.  Everything from the cheese on the table to dessert was delicious and the ladies who served us did a fantastic job.  This restaurant at one time was a Speakeasy.  

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We arrived back at the resort around 830pm so many grabbed a nightcap in the impressive lobby lounge.

My passengers are already hoping this tour is going to be offered again – they are loving this unique rural experience!

Day 1 – American Barn Story – CHICAGO

Last night my excited passengers gathered for a pre-tour hotel stay and beef dinner.   What a wonderful way to meet their fellow travelers.  There are a handful of new travelers but the majority have been joining my getaways for years and know many of their fellow passengers well.

This morning after breakfast we started our journey.  I asked everyone to be ready for departure 15 minutes earlier than I had originally scheduled because believe it or not there was a nasty “winter” storm moving across a good portion of the USA so I had no idea what we were going to encounter.

My passengers were happy to see that Paul, my regular coach driver was looking after us on this journey.

Border crossing was quick.

Lunch was in Marshall Michigan at a restaurant I’ve been dining at since I was a young boy.  As we entered the restaurant we noticed a number of dressed-up children who were leaving a “Breakfast with the Easter Bunny” event.  We enjoyed a 3 course meal – the pork loin was excellent.

I kept my gang moving and was glad I did as the highway conditions started to deteriorate the closer we got to Chicago.  The snow was pelting down and there were a number of vehicle accidents to prove it.  After getting through winter I think one would be pretty upset to end up in a highway accident in the middle of APRIL caused by a freak snowstorm.

Some Chicago suburbs ended up with 8 inches of snow!  There were over 1000 flight cancellations at Chicago’s Ohare Airport.  There were also problems getting luggage off planes that were able to land – passengers reported 3 hour waits!

Luckily when we arrived at our resort,  the entrance into the lobby was covered so there was no need to tramp through any snow or slush.  We did not pack winter boots…..

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The hotel is beautiful.  They just went through a 25 million dollar renovation and it nicely slows.

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We got settled in our lovely rooms and then strolled to the attached theatre to see a superb production of FOOTLOOSE.  The young cast was so talented, their harmonies were terrific and could they ever dance!  The story was fun and lively.

After the show finished at 730pm it was time for dinner.  We gathered in a perfect size banquet space that overlooked the main dining room below.  It only took 2 gentleman to serve our large group.  They were pros.  One has been working at this resort for over 30 years.  Dinner was so delicious and the moist cheesecake dessert pleased everyone.

After a full day of traveling we retired to our rooms and appreciated our comfy “cloud like” beds.

The Prime Minister of CHINA to arrive at our luxurious hotel!

Breakfast at the 5 star Esplanade Hotel, Zagreb, Croatia is exceptional in every way.  They offer a large, very high quality buffet which is adjacent to the elegant dining room.  Patrons can also choose something extra from a “hard to decide list” on the al la carte menu.  There is more than enough very professional staff working so service is top notch too.  The dining room was filled to capacity – the hotel is very busy.  The cliental including my passengers arrived nicely dressed for breakfast.

Zagreb is really an outstanding city.  One could easily spend a few days roaming around the Old City which is an interesting mix of Modern and Old.   Gentleman that don’t enjoying wearing a neck tie will scold this city because its where the neck tie was invented.  The city is filled with interesting museums – the famous and most visited is  “Museum of Broken Relationships”.  Tourists fly in from all over the world in order to visit that one museum.  There are also a number of performance theatres to be found.  Hundreds of students passed us with tickets in hand – they were attending a student performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” – this is the 50th year anniversary for that production.

Today was filled with special surprises.  When we arrived at the massive indoor and outdoor farmers market we were met by 3 professional chefs.  We were given a red tie with our new Croatian name along with a list of Croatian language ingredients that we needed to find.  My passengers were then told they would be cooking their lunch – they were excited about their task.  We felt like we were competing on the “Amazing Race” television show!  We did our best to communicate with a number of farmers market sellers but only some could speak English.  One ingredient that my team had to find ended up being a thin, flaky pasta that had the texture of a cracker – we had a hard time believing that it was a pasta but were assured we had the correct ingredient – it ended up tasting amazing,

Just a few steps from the farmers market we found the cooking school.  There were a number of cooking stations set up and we soon were put to work.  We had a blast.  I especially applaud my male passengers who got right in there and ended up cooking as good as the pros. Their wives were proud of them!   The results were superb – we thoroughly enjoyed sitting down and devouring what we prepared.  This experience was a big hit with everyone.

After our luncheon we headed west to our next destination which was close to the Slovenian border,  This rural area is filled with winding country roads and such stunning scenery it rivals Italy’s Tuscany.

We were guests at a castle owned by an older widow.  This is not a tourist attraction, we were invited.  Her mansion is filled with art that is worth millions.  In fact she has 2 of the very first paintings that include both humans and animals – they are worth over 1 million each.  She had initially been promised government money to help with the mansion restoration but that didn’t happen.  Slowly she is doing what she can to restore it.  Of course if she sold one of the many valuable works of art that would give her the funds that are needed but I know she doesn’t want to sell anything.  She is an accomplished piano player and she proudly played for us.  She was a professor during her career and her knowledge of this country should be written in a book.  My passengers were thrilled with this surprise visit.

Our dinner destination was located at the top of a large hill.  The coach driver did not complain when he had to drive the coach up very steep roads to reach this scenic destination.

They produce wine in this region.  The area is excellent for grape growing because of ample snow in the winter and wide fluctuations of temperatures from day and night all throughout the year.  We enjoyed an entertaining and tasty wine tasting presentation in their underground wine cellar.

We then took our seats outside overlooking a stunning view while a folklore group from a community 10 km away entertained us.  There were many more of them than us!  They have over 120 members in their troupe and rehearse weekly.  They consist of musicians, dancers and singers.  One of the young male band members was so happy, he smiled during the entire performance – we have noticed men in this country look serious most of the time so it was refreshing to see that smile.  Their show was lively and entertaining.  They are thrilled to be performing in France this year.  They have been fundraising for 3 years in order to afford the journey.  For many this will be their first time out of Croatia.

Dinner was delicious.  The local cottage cheese they served as one of the appetizers is unlike ours.  It is more like a whipped cheese and they top it with whipping cream – this is often a breakfast meal – of course no calories – tastes amazing!

The entertainers continued their performance during our dinner and my passengers were up dancing with them before dessert was served.  We hated to have to head back to our hotel – we were enjoying such a wonderful evening,

During the wine tasting I received word that tomorrows departure from our amazing Zagreb hotel is going to be a challenge.  My passengers are thrilled that we are staying at the most prestigious hotel in the city of Zagreb.  This is where celebrities, VIPS and “Travel With Bradley” passengers can be found.

Tomorrow morning the Prime Minister of CHINA, one of the worlds most powerful man and his entourage will be arriving at this hotel.  I expect that due to security reasons, they informed us last minute.  The hotel staff needs to collect our luggage much earlier than originally planned.  The coach cannot come close to the hotel but the hotel staff will look after delivering our luggage to the coach.  We now need to leave the hotel 30 minutes earlier than planned.  We realized this is the best plan because when we returned to the city, many roads were already closed as some of the Chinese entourage was already arriving.

When our coach driver finally arrived at the hotel there was also a steady stream of luxury vehicles dropping off some of the entourage.  A large number of Air China pilots arrived and they were ushered to their rooms without having to check-in.  Chinese co-ordinations were outside directing their guests – they even looked after quickly getting them into the elevators.  On our arrival night the hotel lounge was packed.  Last night there wasn’t a soul in the lounge.  The Chinese entourage will fill much of this hotel and those that arrived already seemed to stay put  in their rooms,.  Of course there is  a large number of security staff and police mulling around.

This is a “Travel With Bradley” FIRST – but it once again shows that I hand pick excellent hotels for my passengers to stay in throughout the world.

Zadar to Zagreb, Croatia

We enjoyed another terrific day visiting Croatia.

We first spent time in the community of Zadar.  It’s most famous for the “SEA ORGAN”.  I posted a video on Facebook of the Organ Sounds the sea was making – a very  unique attraction!

It was great fun exploring the town of Zadar – around every corner was another picture opportunity.

Lunch was at an excellent restaurant located at Croatia’s UNESCO National Park.  Here they cook using traditional methods (cast iron covers are put over the food – wood coals are placed around the covers).

We enjoyed views of the spectacular waterfalls and lakes of the National Park.

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We are staying in Zagreb for 2 nights.  Here the average wage is 500 Euro a month.  Most family’s need 1000 Euro a month to get by so they often struggle.

The current city mayor has spent funds making the city pretty and that is causing much controversy. We appreciated the beautiful gardens – the tulips are in bloom.

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We are staying in Zagreb’s highest rated 5 star hotel – the posh, ESPLANADE ZAGREB.  When celebrities and “Travel With Bradley” passengers come to town this is their hotel of choice  – its fabulous!

Dinner was held at a wonderful upscale restaurant just a stones throw from the city main square – the appetizer featured local truffles  – every course was delicious!

Pumpkin seed oil is produced in Croatia and is a delicacy.  I pre-ordered large bottles of this oil as gifts for my passengers.  I was pleased that the farmer was able to  private brand the bottles with a “Travel With Bradley” label.  I presented this gift to everyone when we returned from dinner.

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