Friday, September 14, 2018

Spirit In The Sky

The flexibility of this 2nd leg of the road trip has been good and bad. The freedom is nice but the decisions become tougher without obvious things to do and long winding roads. We have been researching, choosing routes, and booking accommodations at the last minute. So far, it has worked out fairly well. 

After Dubrovnik, our next destination of Montenegro was an easy choice. The country, as you would imagine, is very mountainous and we like mountains. We based ourselves on the bay, in the town of Kotor for 3 nights, and arrived early to our Airbnb that first morning. Our room wasn't ready yet, so the host family invited us onto their patio and served us Turkish coffee and shots of the local brandy known as Rakija. We were feeling good as we strolled down to the walled old town. Thanks to Facebook, we met up with a former teacher of mine (Donn Maier) and his wife who have lived and worked there for the past 2 years. They treated us to lunch and drinks, but more importantly gave us some good advice about hiking and exploring the area. We ate in one of the quaint old town squares and tried to talk over the band that occasionally marched by. Later, a bride and groom slowly walked arm-in-arm toward the church as the bells rang. All together, a great first impression of Montenegro. 

That afternoon, we used a local path that we had been told about, known as the Ladder of Cattaro, to walk up to the Castle Of San Giovanni on a hill above the town for sunset views. The local route took us up switchbacks that were reportedly built long ago so that some important family could move a piano across the mountains. It is now lined with pomegranate trees that weren't quite ripe enough, and took us through an unprotected ruined village with a small church. From there you enter the castle through a window and join all the other tourists who paid an entry fee and walked up the stairs from Old Town. At the top, tourists climb all over the ruins that are barely held together with metal joints, trying for that perfect selfie. We didn't linger long and slowly made our way down the main stairs, stopping often for Julia to pet the local cats. 

Down in the Old Town, we strolled the maze of alleys, then picked up some bureks from a bakery and burek toppings from a market to be enjoyed back at the apartment. 

We don't really like waking up early, so we got a late start the next day. Hiking Mrtvica Canyon was our goal, with the bonus of driving there along some scenic roads. We took the switchbacks up to Lovćen National Park, letting our app lead us up a dirt road, adding some time to the already long trip. Other highlights of the 3hr drive were weaving the road through the Morača river canyon and seeing the massive concrete pillars for the new highway being built through the mountains, dubbed the "highway to nowhere" as they will soon run out of money. 

When we finally arrived to Medjurecje for the start of the hike, we followed the signs to the private field where we expected to pay a few Euro to park, but never encountered anyone asking for money. From there we followed red markings that I assumed were leading us to the canyon but we discovered they were put there by a local leading people to his campground. He gave us directions from there but the rarely used small trail was washed out and not safe to pass. We backtracked to the parking lot, used our GPS map, and found the correct trail. This setback, along with our late start and long drive, put us in a race with the setting sun. We set a turn around time and made it a good ways into the impressive canyon before hustling back to the car. We stuck to the main roads for the drive home and had another burek dinner at the apartment. 

Regular readers of H3J2Wander may remember that one of our fondest memories from our Central America trip was the day we spent at the Xocomil Waterpark in Guatemala. We have driven by a few parks here in Europe but never had the time. So, for our final day in Montenegro, we took advantage of our flexible schedule and enjoyed an afternoon at Aquapark Budva, about 25 min away from Kotor, on a hill overlooking the Adriatic Sea. We went on a Monday in the offseason and the wave pool was closed, so the place was almost empty and we never had to wait in line. The views were amazing, the slides were okay, the staff was friendly, the stairs were tiring, and the rash pain was minimal. There were only 6 different adult slides open, which didn't bother us too much, but one more would have been nice. The biggest thrill was the ride called the Big Kamikaze, with a descent of 26 meters. That night, we treated ourselves to local seafood in a square we stumbled upon in the Old Town. 

We could have spent more than 3 nights in Montenegro, but alas, this honeymoon is running out of days. Based on the most efficient routing, we departed Kotor hugging the coast and covered a lot of ground south to get to Lake Ohrid, Macedonia. The drive took us through much of Albania and we saw why we were warned about driving there. Skirting the capitol of Tirana, the traffic was thick and unapologetic. It reminded us of Central America, where drivers just try to get a nose in and assume you won't hit them as they merge suddenly. It was stressful but I must admit a little fun.

Driving Side Note: For the past few weeks, as we have moved further south and the roads have become less 4-lane highway, we have seen many police checkpoints. They stand on the side of the road, sometimes with a radar gun, and have a tiny stop sign they hold up if they want you to pull over. Oncoming cars will always warn you with a flash of the headlights, so we have never been pulled over, but they do seem to randomly target vans and trucks for inspection. Once, while slowly cruising through a small town, we were passed by an anxious local, and sure enough there was a police officer just ahead who waved the driver over. We were allowed to pass through, but the car behind was waved over as well. We have no idea what would happen if we did get pulled over and we don't care to find out. 

Once in Ohrid, our host offered us Turkish coffee and chai tea served on an elegant tray out on our patio. We strolled the lakefront as the sun went down and enjoyed seeing the locals out in their public living room. Dinner was eaten at a recommended restaurant where live traditional music was played and a few of the boisterous tables sang and danced. The service was slow (as is the custom in Europe) but the meals were $4 and $6 and my 1/2 Liter of beer cost $1.70. We immediately liked Macedonia.  

Just one night in Ohrid was all we could spare, so the next day, after more Turkish coffee and chai tea, we used the morning to wander the city market streets and visit a church on the lake. Then we hit the road to make our way down to the recent addition to our itinerary, Meteora in Greece. 

At this point, our first car issue presented itself. A warning light had come on during the long drive the previous day. We did research before leaving Ohrid and realized it was telling us we had a tire issue. After close examination, I found what appeared to be a nail in our right rear tire, but little to no air was escaping. We planned to drive on it to the last gas station in Macedonia (gas is very expensive in Greece), where we would check the pressure in all tires and make a decision from there. Upon inquiring with the gas attendant about our issue, he referred us to another man who told us a tire shop was just down the road and they were good people. We like good people, so decided this would be the safest thing to do before driving for 3 more hours. 

After rolling up to the shop, a lady translated a mechanic who said it would cost about 2€ to fix and take maybe 10 minutes. Yada yada yada, the suspected nail turned out to be just an imbedded rock and no leak was found in any tire. They told us we were safe to go, that the warning light was false, didn't accept any payment, and wished us safe travels. More points for Macedonia. 

We arrived to the town of Kalambaka in the early evening, and it felt good to be back in Greece. Gyros were an obvious choice for the first dinner and we made a plan for our visit to Meteora. Brief history; during the 11th century, hermet monks lived in small caves along the rock walls in the area. In the 14th century, Turkish incursion started happening, so more monks sought refuge in the area. They built monasteries on top of rock pillars that were only accessible via removable rope ladders, or for those whose couldn't climb, large nets that were hoisted up. The story goes that whenever a visitor would ask how often the ropes were changed, the monks stock reply was "When the lord let them break". At one point there were 24 monasteries but now only 6 remain fully intact (2 of which are nunneries). A paved road and stone bridges now provide access for us sinners to view and explore theses impressive structures. 

After filling ourselves with free breakfast at the hotel, we drove to the closest monastery (Agios Stefanos) and worked our way down the road, stopping at viewpoints and jostling with tour buses to find parking. We ended up visiting 3 monasteries (Stefanos, Varlaam, and Nikolaos Anapafsas), each costing 3€ a person to enter. They all had elaboratly decorated chapels (no pictures allowed) and spectacular views down the valley below. We started the walk up the stairs to visit the oldest and largest monastery (Grand Meteora), but were stuck behind a large tour group in a line that wasn't moving, and decided to turn around. The smallest and least visited (Nikolaos) was the most peaceful, and gave us the best idea of what life was like for the monks. 

Back in town, we ate a good local dinner with the friendliest and most efficient wait staff we have seen all trip. They all wore ear buds to communicate and were quick. The only negative was the reemergence of the traditional Greek post-dinner watermelon. Luckily the bakery next door had baklava. 

We overindulged in the free hotel breakfast one last time, paid a few highway tolls, and departed Greece for Macedonia. The end seems very close now as we are moving north toward Sarajevo, with just 4 short stops along the way. Умот не е во џебот, туку во главата.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Change of Time

We may have touched on this topic previously, but we chose to rent our car from Sarajevo, Bosnia, to ease our border crossings. During our research we read multiple forums (and a friend experienced this) that stated when they rented a car from, say, Croatia, the rental agreement cited that they were not allowed to enter Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia. We don't like it when people tell us what to do, especially when it's to not visit a country that's a bit off the beaten track, so we didn't want to be limited. I found ONE blogger who said they rented a car from Sixt in Sarajevo and since it was one of the restricted countries he rented from, he was able to travel wherever he pleased. That was enough convincing for me! I confirmed that the airport was reasonable for international flight costs and we had the second portion of our trip planned. 

To save a few extra dollars, we also researched our credit card company's policies, and found that they would fully insure our rental car but for no more than 31 consecutive days when traveling internationally. If we could avoid paying Sixt for renter's insurance, it would save us a couple hundred dollars over our 40 day rental. We opted to rent the car for 3 weeks under Micah's name and credit card, and then we had a second rental under my name, booked to start at the exact same time as our first drop off. This allowed us to stay within the 31 day limitation put forth by our credit cards so we could decline the CDW coverage from the rental company. And this worked with our itinerary, since we'd likely loop north of Bosnia for the first half of our road trip, and spend the second part in Southern Eastern Europe. As an added benefit, we saved $200 on the rental fees since the second half of our rental was during low season, which cut the price of the rental from $39.71 per day to $20.56 (includes extra driver and unlimited mile fees). And so you see, a quick car swap was why we were en route back to Sarajevo.

Three weeks ago when we picked up our rental and drove north of Sarajevo, we made note of Travnik, a small town with a castle perched in its hills. This time, this would be our stopover that would place us within 2 hours of Sarajevo for our swap the next morning. We booked an Airbnb and had been communicating with the Bosnian son, who had moved to Boise ID a year ago, since his parents who would host us didn't speak English. We drove by the driveway three times before figuring out where to turn, parked our car, and were greeted by the mom watering the plants on her deck. She grabbed a vase of fresh flowers and gave us a tour of the bottom floor of the house, our separate apartment. Dad shook my hand and then embraced Micah in a drawn out hug, as if they were friends who hadn't seen each other in years. Using Google Translator on her phone, Mom offered us coffee and Bureks, the traditional Bosnian pastry. Having missed home cooked treats, we smiled and nodded when we heard Bureks. The couple went upstairs and returned five minutes later with a serving platter full of Bureks, diced cucumbers and tomatoes, and yogurt for toppings. She used the translator to differentiate the meat from the potato Bureks, and that this was "a welcome to the bosom." Then she said she had just made Bosnian cake and brought back 3 pieces of cake for each of us. Gave me a hug, asked me to leave a good review, and left us alone to eat what became our dinner for the night. It did not go unnoticed that our two friendliest and favorite encounters were with Bosnian Moms.

For sunset, we paid to enter the castle grounds. We had the place to ourselves and this gave us 25 minutes to climb stairs for beautiful views of the city, listen to multiple Muslim's Call To Prayer, and manipulate our bodies to create large shadows on the towers of the castle. From the top of the castle, we could see five different Mosques and a Catholic Church. Earlier that day on our drive into Bosnia, we listened to Rick Steves interview a man of Muslim descent who was 19 years old during the Sarajevo Siege in 1992. It's incredible how much more you appreciate traveling and the diversity of another country when you know their history. Standing on top of the hill within the castle grounds and hearing the Call To Prayer will likely be one of my favorite visual and auditory memories of this trip.

On Saturday we drove into Sarajevo and thanked our small rental car for her service but happily upgraded to a model year younger and slightly stronger. When handing us the keys, the Sixt representative causally asked about our plans and upon mentioning countries south, he said "Just don't go to Albania. You can go anywhere in the world, just not Albania." We're not sure if his opinion was based on the rental car's best interest or ours, but we likely won't listen. Overall it was a seamless transition and we were on the road to Mostar. 

Following our map to our previously booked lodgings, we arrived at the dot and parked our car. We walked in circles around the main street for 20 minutes, unable to find the numbers that corresponded to the house or the words "Apartment Diana" on the side of a building. Finally, I asked a gal if she spoke English and she pointed to a house and told me a lady named Diana lived there, made a quick phone call, and told us to have a nice stay. Diana greeted us, used google translator to instruct us on where to leave the keys and to "let the air conditioner be nice to you", then walked upstairs to where she was likely spending the night. 

The afternoon in Mostar was sunny, so we made trips in and out of our air conditioned apartment. We took in views of the Old Bridge before crossing it and observing it from the water. There's a diving club with an office on the bridge and every 30 minutes, they attempt to excite the crowd and collect 25€ from onlookers before a diver steps off the 80 foot bridge, falling feet first into the water. It was interesting to me that they was nothing dive-y about his fall, and the different tactics the men took to try to collect money; while one started a chant, another tried to guilt a tourist with a camera into donating money and when the tourist refused and said "I don't care if you dive," the diver informed him that he'd be back to check his camera later.

After cooling off, our second outing was for dinner. We contemplated restaurants with views of the bridge but settled for a reasonably priced traditional place with an open table on a balcony hanging over the river. We took one last look at the bridge in the evening lights with many less tourists, walked through the vendors that lined the streets all the way to the bridge, and made our way home.

The following morning we had a ferry to catch in Croatia, but we had a few spare minutes to visit a Mosque in Mostar. We had attempted a tour the day before but it was during one of their five daily Prayer times and visitors weren't allowed. Once inside, we were able to see everything we were allowed to see without having to move our feet. We explored the grounds which including a 15th century cemetery behind the mosque before leaving Mostar.

As Micah mentioned in the last post, we had agreed that we needed to slow down our pace. Our travels don't typically consist of many big cities with attractions and historical sites to see, and we were missing days spent entirely at the beach doing nothing. Since our 1 year wedding Anniversary was on September 2nd, we opted to splurge and rent an apartment on the water. We chose Hvar Island, accessible from the mainland ferry port of Dvrenik or Split. The southern coastline of Hvar was reported to have some of the best snorkeling and swimming beaches in Croatia. Despite 1,104 miles of coastline, most of Croatia's beaches are pebble beaches or cliffs.

On our way out of Bosnia, we stopped at a grocery store and stocked up on meat, cheese, crackers, wine and juice (we were packing the champagne gifted to us from Slovenia). Got in line for the ferry, drove on, and found a sunny spot to enjoy the water for the 35 minute ride. We landed in Sućuraj which was almost 2 hours by car from the village where we were staying, but the ferry ticket was 1/3rd the price for this port compared to the trip from Split to Hvar town. The new rental car was tested as we winded around corners on very narrow streets, often wide enough for only one car. There were olive trees and vineyards lining the roads, and subsequently multiple wooden stands selling various types of oil and wine. We knew we picked the right island.

We turned down towards the water and our village of Sveta Nedjelja, and found Apartments Villa Ypsilon 150 meters above the water. An older man was walking down the street, yelled "hello- julia?" and let us into the apartment. He began the tour with opening the fridge, pulling out a beer, grabbing two glasses and filling them full, cheering us with the small amount left in the bottle and drinking that down. The apartment was much better than we anticipated. It was two stories with two balconies, including ocean views from the top, 2 bathrooms, and a full kitchen. And since we are now officially in low season, we were paying $40/night for our "splurge."

After walking the town the first evening, we were concerned that swimming off the dock may be our only option within walking distance. However, when we walked around the last cliff on the east side of town, we stumbled upon a small pebble beach tucked into a sheltered cove. We returned the following day; I, with an e-book in hand and Micah with his snorkel gear. The small pebbles weren't the most comfortable to lay on, but the clear waters more than made up for it. The amount of people fluctuated, and for a few minutes we were one of a few sun bathers. And minutes later, the Europeans were practically laying on top of us, popping open their bottle of wine and beach ball rolling everywhere. 

Our four nights on the island consisted of sleeping in, beaches, driving the coastline, and food. We'll continue on with the beaches and then move onto the other topics. Our second full day, we drove along the rocky cliffs on a very unpaved road towards Dubovica, a beach that is often rated in Europe's top ten beaches. Our map showed us that to access the beach, we would have to drive the main road to Stari Grad on the other side of the island and after 45 minutes, we would park the car and hike down to the water. Visible from our village was a dirt road that skirted the coast, but we were unsure if it was vehicle friendly. We inquired with our landlord and he said that he wouldn't take his car because of the dust but since we had a rental, we should. So we did! It was a beautiful drive and only a few times we questioned if we had the clearance to avoid rocks and potholes. We parked and hiked down to the moderately crowded beach that obviously others knew was top rated. Donned our snorkel gear for a short but uneventful underwater viewing, before we laid in the sun on the pebbles and then packed up.

The last beach, on our last full island day, was 3 km from our village on the coastline road. We had driven past it on our way to Dubovica and decided as soon as we saw it that it would be on our agenda for day 3. Lučišća Beach was our favorite of the three, as it was more secluded and therefore had less people, more protected cove which meant better snorkeling and boats weren't trying to throw down anchor in the bay, and the backdrop of sheer rock cliffs was gorgeous. We spent a few hours there, wary of the potential for thunderstorms, but stayed in the clearing with perfect weather. 

As was our intent, beach time was how we spent our days. We enjoyed lazy mornings at the apartment, generally made use of our kitchen to cook some eggs for breakfast, and usually were on our way to the beach by noon or one. Most evenings we snacked on our grocery purchases while watching the calm water with a glass of wine in hand. We did find the small, local bakery in town to restock our bread supply. We also went in search of the mini market that was advertised near the water, only to find that it was a 300 foot climb and poorly marked. Also, they clearly hadn't received a produce delivery in days since their stock was low and 90% of what they had was growing new parts.

Since the island time was our Anniversary celebration, we agreed to do one nice meal out. We made reservations for Wednesday night, our last evening, at a restaurant in the next village. Being back on the water, we hadn't had seafood since Greece so we indulged with a local fish, lamb, and the house white wine. The food was good, the sunset view was spectacular. We did have our first negative encounter with low season though; they were no longer baking cake because it would sit in their fridge for 10 days without anyone ordering it.

Our only other excursion was to Hvar town, just a few kms further west from Dubovica. It was a quick trip, but really fun to see the bustling port area and the narrow streets filled with parked cars and pedestrians. We stopped for a quick panoramic view from the castle, and then headed down to the waterfront. Stopped at a bakery and a grocery store to pick up some items to add to our fridge and then drove the dirt road back to our village. 

Thursday morning we drove onto the ferry and were back on the mainland before noon. We drove the gorgeous Croatian coastline- the roads that convinced us that we wanted to rent a car- south towards Dubrovnik. We briefly crossed borders with Bosnia, which was a breeze; the border patrol officer in Bosnia asked where we were headed and when we said Dubrovnik, he waved us through and let us drive the 9km of Bosnian coastline without a stamp. 

That evening in Dubrovnik, we boarded the bus to the old town and then started our uphill climb. There was a gondola that, for $20, would lift people to the lookout point, with panoramic views of the sea and allow glimpses of the city within the walls. Micah wanted to reach that viewpoint, but not for $20- so we walked. It was a relatively easy, steady uphill climb on switchbacks and the view was worth it; sunset was an added bonus.

In search of dinner, we walked over the bridge and through Pile City Gate, entering Old Town. Having no expectations and no concept of what this walled city would look like from the inside, I was mesmerized. The limestone walls that create the fortress protecting the old city can be as tall as 82 feet, and most of the buildings within the walls are a similar clean, white material that reflects the night lights making the entire area glow. To add to the mystic atmosphere, the narrow city lanes are bustling with people and there are musicians filling the streets with sounds at every corner. There were many opportunities to step off the main road and down a mysterious alley, or turn upwards and climb the stairs to find the residential areas, still scattered with fancy restaurants. The entire area felt like one large maze that had a lovely surprise around each turn, and of course, cats everywhere.

Looking at our map for food options, we came across a restaurant that a well traveled friend had recommended before we left Portland. We walked up to the quiet corner along the wall, but found a long line at the restaurant's entrance, so decided to move on. We settled for one of the cheapest meals we could find that had open seating, which happened to be a pizzeria. Total cost for our food was $26, no drinks. In previous towns, our bill was a similar amount but would have included drinks and was our "splurge" at a nicer restaurant. In Eastern Europe, there is no question that Dubrovnik is the most expensive town we've visited.

Our apartment was northwest of the Old town, which placed us close to Lapad Beach. Given the opportunity to have a beach day, 97% of the time we'll take it so we opted to spend Friday morning at the beach. It was your typical pebble beach and we were within two feet of other beach goers on each side, but it was nice to take one more dip. When the storm started to roll in, we threw our towels over our shoulders and enjoyed the view from a cafe with some coffee and treats.

After a relaxing afternoon in our apartment, we headed back to the walled city. We took in views of the Old Town from Fort Lovrijenac, across the bay. Then we entered the city walls and allowed ourselves to get lost walking through the narrow streets and turning blind corners. We did this for an hour or so before climbing back up the stairs to Lady Pi Pi, the restaurant that our friend had recommended. The reviews online were great, and it appeared if you arrived before 6:30 that there was a much more manageable line. We were standing outside the gate to their patio seating at 5:50, reading the menu to confirm we could afford it, when the waitress opened the gate and let us pick our seats. We had a wonderful meal- quite possibly the best we've had this trip- thanks to a beautiful setting underneath grape vines, a friendly staff, and delicious local food. 

Croatia was the last of our three honeymoon destinations that we had originally picked for our trip, and Dubrovnik was our last stop in Croatia. We don't really have an itinerary for our remaining time, but we know that we will continue to head south for at least another week or so before we need to head back to Bosnia to return our car. We have a few new countries that we hope to dip into, and have decided that there is a spot in Greece that's worth going back for. Upala Mi Je Sjekira U Med.