Tuesday, December 31, 2013

SPLIT, CROATIA: DIOCLETIAN'S PALACE

Built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in about 300 AD as his retirement home, what is known as "Diocletian's Palace" in Split, Croatia, is actually a walled city that once housed as many as 9,000 people. The Romans abandoned the city in about the 7th century, and thereafter it was gradually filled with Christians.
Photo from here


Sunday, December 15, 2013

SPLIT, CROATIA: A CIRCUITOUS JOURNEY AND AN AMAZING FARMERS MARKET

From Mostar we head back to the coast of Croatia to the city of Split, the largest city on the Dalmatian coast (the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea) and the second largest city in Croatia. Between our map and our now working GPS, we felt pretty confident about this leg of the journey.

We began on what appeared to be a brand new freeway, but the GPS unit didn't recognize it. There is a difference of opinion about what happened next. Bob thinks the new road ended and we went the way we were supposed to and only felt lost (he subscribes to Tolkien's theory that "Not all those who wander are lost"), but I think the GPS unit, confused by the new freeway and not up-to-date on its maps, led us completely astray. Where we ended up on our printed map was far from any main road. It took several stops to ask directions of non-English-speaking Croats who gesticulated, spoke loudly, and repeated the same unintelligible words multiple times, but somehow got us back to where we needed to be. Note: If you are planning a driving trip in Southern Croatia, make sure your GPS has the latest maps uploaded, or that you are using navigation on an updated cell phone. Talk to your hotel people before you leave about how much of the new freeway is done, and carrying an old-fashioned map is always a good idea.

When we got to Split, we headed straight for our hotel, the Guesthouse Vrlic.
It is just a block from Diocletian's Palace, an absolutely fabulous location. It is nothing fancy, but it is very clean and charming in its simplicity. Our room had a fridge, which came in handy as I will show later. My only complaint is that the "wi-fi in every room" was really "wi-fi in the hallways."  It was a minor inconvenience compared to the awesomeness of the location.
The smallest tub I have ever bathed in.

Friday, December 13, 2013

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: DETOUR TO MOSTAR PART II, THE SAD AND TRIUMPHANT TALE OF THE OLD BRIDGE

The Neretva River, one of the largest rivers in the eastern Adriatic Basin, runs through the center of Mostar like a ribbon of liquid jade,

and it is crossed by the longest single span stone bridge in the world, the Stari Most, or Old Bridge. According to Rick Steves, this is the "granddaddy" of Venice's Rialto Bridge. The Mostar Bridge was completed in 1566, only 25 years before the Rialto Bridge, so it's technically not old enough to be a granddaddy, but you get the idea.
Mostar's Old Bridge
Venice's Rialto Bridge, photo taken from here

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: DETOUR TO MOSTAR, PART I

Our original plan was to drive from Dubrovnik to Split, but when we learned that we could take a one-hour detour on good roads to Mostar, a famous little town in the Herzegovina region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we decided to take a detour. As shown on the map below, Dubrovnik is actually separated from the rest of Croatia by a finger of Bosnia and Herzegovina that reaches out to the Adriatic and gives the country a seaport. We had to go through four customs stops to go through that finger: 1) out of Croatia, 2) into Bosnia, 3) out of Bosnia, and 4) back into Croatia.
Not too far northwest of there we went through two more border crossings to get into Bosnia: 1) out of Croatia and 2) into Bosnia. Crazy. As reported, the highway to Mostar was very nice, with a crumbling castle or two perched atop the hills along the way.
 Miraculously, we only made one wrong turn (due to roadwork), and we quickly got back on track.

The drive was much easier than our previous Bosnia experience driving to Sarajevo. I can see now why most tour companies go to Sarajevo via Mostar. However, while the road was much better and much more direct, it wasn't nearly as exciting as our drive into Sarajevo from the north. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

CROATIA: DUBROVNIK SMILES

While the walk along the undulating city walls and the pilgrimage through Old Town's churches certainly dominated our visit to Croatia, there were quite a few other odds and ends that we enjoyed along the way. The first thing that caught my eye as we entered the city walls was a citrus tree that looked strangely familiar, although it was taller and had a lot more trunk than its cousins in my yard:
Note that all the fruit from the lower branches has been picked, but there are still oranges to be had for someone who is willing to lean really really really far over the wall to pick them from above.
The Croatian flag's patchwork center is very unique, and we have to admire their choice of colors:
I adore this statue of Marin Drzic (1508-1567), considered Croatia's finest Renaissance poet, playwright, and prose writer. He seems so pensive, doesn't he?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

CROATIA: DUBROVNIK CHURCHES

The main street of Dubrovnik is known as either the Stradun or Placa, depending on whom you ask. It basically bisects the city, and lends itself to a leisurely stroll. Stores and restaurants entice both weary wall-walkers like ourselves and freshly-landed cruisers to stop in for a minute to rest, but more importantly to shop.

A close-up of the bell tower that can be seen in the distance in the picture above. This area reminded me a lot of St. Mark's Square in Venice:

Monday, November 25, 2013

CROATIA: DRIVING TO DUBROVNIK AND CLIMBING THE CITY WALLS

After our morning hike up to the Kotor Fortress, we set out for our next destination: Dubrovnik, Croatia. On the map it looked pretty straightforward--just hang tight to the coastline. Our research told us it should take us about 1 hour and 35 minutes.  Ha. Try three or four hours.
Good thing I still had some morning Happy Pills given to me in the States by my friend Kathy as travel nourishment. She knows me well. I was proud of myself for having stretched out the bag this long.
At first, it seemed that things were going our way. At some point, a miracle occurred.  After not having had GPS for nine days (and through Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, and Kotor), maps and directions suddenly appeared on our device near the Croatian border.

But alas, we would have done better on this stretch on our own. The GPS led us astray. Bob and I differ on how badly we were lost, but I had the printed map unfolded on my lap, and we were not on any roads marked on the map. After asking directions from non-English-speaking Croats two or three times and doing our best to understand their energetic pointing, waving, and shouting, we finally found our way to charted roads.

It was not the last time we got lost, unfortunately.

The approach to Dubrovnik from the south is exquisite. The road drops down from the hills above the coast, presenting a stunning view of the coastline. The brilliant cerulean sea, bright white buildings with red tile roofs, and verdant vegetation make the scene look like it is photoshopped.

If you look closely at the promontory below, you can see the old city walls that form a jagged circle around Dubrovnik's Old Town.


MONTENEGRO: SIX CHURCHES

If you've been to Italy, you know how every time you turn a corner, you are in a courtyard presided over by a church. About 100 miles east of Italy, just across the Adriatic Sea, you can have the same experience, but with a bit more diversity of religion.  One of the distinguishing features of the walled city of Kotor is its many churches. Of the six we saw within the walls of the city, we were able to enter only three, although all seem to be in use.

CHURCH #1
The Romanesque St. Tryphon's Cathedral is the largest building in Kotor, and one of two Catholic cathedrals in the walled city. It was built on the site of an older church and was consecrated in 1166.  It honors St. Tryphon, the patron saint of the city. A massive earthquake in 1667 completely destroyed almost two-thirds of the town and partially destroyed the cathedral's two towers, and money for the restoration was hard to come by, resulting in towers that don't match.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

MONTENEGRO: KOTOR'S FORTRESS

One of my favorite places of our entire jaunt through the Balkans, the Kotor Fortress on top of the Mountain of St. John in Montenegro, deserves a post of its own. 

These walls and buildings have a history that would tie anyone's brain in knots. The original fortification was built by the ancient Illyrians, perhaps as early as 100 B.C. Then the Byzantine Emperor Justinian reconstructed the fortress in the 6th century. Venetians took over in the 15th century for the next 377 years and added many of the present-day fortifications, but during their rule the Ottomans managed to steal it twice for short periods of time. In 1797 the area passed to the Habsburgs as part of a treaty, was assigned to the Napoleonic State of Italy for governance, and was occupied by Russian troops until it became part of the French Illyrian Provinces in 1807. Britain conquered Kotor in 1814 and returned the region to the Austrian Empire in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna. After their defeat in World War I, Austria withdrew from the fortress and it was left unmanned until Axis forces moved in during World War II. Finally, the fortress was liberated on November 21, 1944, and has been controlled by its own people since that time.
The date of liberation is inscribed above the Sea Gate, the main entrance into the walled city. A quote from Marshal Tito is chiseled into the stone above the lintel: "We do not need other people's things, and we do not give our own." Photo from here.
As a result of changing hands so many times, the fortifications are a delightfully jumbled mishmash of building styles--no master plan here--and recent improvements to the path up the mountain have made all of it accessible.
View from below. Photo taken with a telephoto lens.
The zig-zagging walls creep back and forth along the craggy mountain spine for almost three miles.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF KOTOR, MONTENEGRO

Montenegro was another one of the countries on our grand tour of the Balkans that I knew almost nothing about. Slightly smaller than Connecticut, it is a tiny country, even by Balkan standards, but it is full of personality and chutzpah. In spite of the wars and break up of the Yugoslavian Union in the early 1990s, Montenegro elected to stay attached to Serbia in a loose union, but ten years later they became increasingly upset about Slobodan Milosovic's policies in Kosovo. Finally, in 2006, Montenegrins narrowly voted for independence, and, unlike many of the other Yugoslavian defectors, had a peaceful separation from Serbia.
Once we finally got across the Albanian-Montenegro border, we had a beautiful drive to Kotor, Montenegro's prime tourist city.
We immediately came into contact with local residents on their way to (or home from?) work:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

SLEEPING IN TIRANA AND LEAVING ALBANIA

Our hotel was not exactly in Tirana, the capital, for which we were really grateful. We had had enough of trying to navigate Albanian cities.  Bob had found a hotel for us right next to the Tirana International Airport Nene Tereza (Mother Theresa), which is about seven miles northwest of Tirana.  The recently expanded airport has traffic of about 1.5 million passengers per year.  (Compare that to LAX, with 64 million passengers per year).

There is no real city surrounding the airport, just a bunch of hotels.  Our favorite was this one, the Vila Aeroport Hotel. If we ever return to Albania, I want to stay here:

Saturday, October 19, 2013

LOST IN ALBANIA, REDUX

We left Berat late in the afternoon with the goal of getting to our hotel near Tirana, the capital city, before dark.  A distance of about 75 miles would normally be an easy two-hour drive, but we had learned not to "count our miles before we drove them" in Albania. Our companions on the road kept the drive interesting for me and required that Bob be ever vigilant:
The parts of Albania we saw were drier than other Balkan countries--not as green, rockier, and with red clay dirt in places.

Monday, October 14, 2013

ALBANIA: "LOWER" BERAT

After spending several hours in Berat's lonely castle (which really isn't a castle but more of an enclosed city), our guide Elton took us to other parts of the city.

But first we had to become acquainted with a few friendly local residents:



(I think these are the lawnmowers of Berat.)


Saturday, October 12, 2013

BERAT, ALBANIA: The Castle

Driving into Berat, Albania, was easy compared to the prior four hours of wandering around the rest of the country. Bob reminded me after my last post that we had printed out some driving directions for the drive from Ohrid to Berat that failed us because the directions tried to put us on new roads that had been under construction for a long time and certainly should have been done by now--but weren't, requiring detours down unknown roads.  Surprise, surprise.
Once in Berat, however, we were able to connect quickly with the tour guide our original tour guide had been kind enough to arrange for us, a very knowledgeable and interesting Albanian named Elton. He has degrees in archaeology and history, so he really knows his stuff. I felt almost guilty using him as a tour guide. This is a man who should be leading an excavation or restoration project, but unfortunately Albania does not have the money to pay him to do that.

We made our way from our parking spot up some very old stone pathways




towards the castle overlooking the city:

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

LOST IN ALBANIA

Disclaimer: I'm warning you now that almost all the photos in this post are taken through the car window. They aren't my finest photos. There's a good reason for that, which I'll get to in a bit.

We had outlined a whirlwind day for Albania. The plan was to drive west from Lake Ohrid towards the Adriatic, but then head southeast to Berat, the main attraction (at least for us) in Albania.  We had a guide planned for the morning and a trip to Kruje planned for the afternoon, and then we were going to drive north towards our hotel near Tirana, the capital of the country. It's about 85 miles from Ohrid to Berat, and we allowed a generous two hours for the drive.

Hah.

I think this was by far the most stressful driving day of the entire trip. Yes, even worse than approaching Sarajevo from the northern border of Bosnia rather than from the more common southern direction. Much worse.

Everything started off just fine. We had an easy border crossing and stopped to exchange money and get gas.  Gas, by the way, was $1.70/liter, or about $6.50/gallon. Yikes.  Who can afford that in a country where the average monthly income is about $335? Anyway, right away we could see that language was going to be a problem. No one, I mean NO ONE, spoke English. We had better luck speaking to these two cute bunnies at the gas station (probably destined for someone's dinner) than we did communicating with the Albanians.

No worries. The scenery, as usual in the Balkans, was lovely, and the distance wasn't that far.  We didn't have GPS, but we had a really good map.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

MACEDONIA: LAKE OHRID

As a reminder of our itinerary, we spent a day in Skopje, Macedonia, and then we took a little detour to Prizren, Kosovo. (See prior posts.) After spending another night in Skopje, we headed southwest for the incredibly lovely three-million-year-old Lake Ohrid (pronounced AWK-rid by locals), located on the border of Macedonia and Albania.

Our drive from Skopje to Ohrid, about 125 miles, was beautiful, full of sights like this family working what is either a very small farm or a very large garden. We saw scenes like this quite a few times as we drove around the Balkans. (Excuse the poor quality of the photo--I took it from the car window as we sped past.)

There were also a lot of campaign billboards. This guy seemed to be the front-runner, at least if the number of billboards was an indicator.  However, apparently at least one person didn't like him:

Lake Ohrid is about 20 miles long and almost 1,000 feet deep, one of the deepest lakes in Europe.

The town that lounges on its banks is full of Byzantine churches, a castle on the hill, and a wonderful old town shopping district (which, alas, we spent only 30 minutes exploring).

http://www.bloggersentral.com/2012/11/pinterest-pin-it-button-on-image-hover.html