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Wednesday, April 10, 2019
We returned from Europe at the end of September and immediately ventured out to Baltimore for a wedding between some good friends of ours. It was a fun few days and a lovely ceremony.
We settled back in Portland, taking advantage of my Dad's kindness and unoccupied basement. Julia had already lined up work covering a maternity leave for a clinic in the SE part of town and we knew we would be around at least through the holidays. I began to look for seasonal jobs to fill the time and bank account. When Julia was offered more work that could last into March, I got a seasonal job at Danner, a footwear company about a mile from my Dad's house, that wanted someone to help process returns until April. Things were lining up nicely; Julia could easily drop me off at work and I could walk home or call my Dad for a ride.
So we both worked. Things were kinda normal for those 6 months; pottery classes, hiking, disc golf, Julia running her Rodan + Fields side business like a boss. We took short weekend trips when we could and got to attend multiple family and friend gatherings. One notable change was Julia's sister, Angie and family, moving back to the United States from Nicaragua in the fall. The political unrest of 2018 severely hurt the tourist industry and their business, so they decided this was a good time to try life where the Pacific waters are a little colder. The counter weight to that joyous arrival, was that we both lost some dear relatives to cancer during those months, something that is becoming all too common.
Sunday, April 7, 2019
A few brief notes to help you consume the data below. About 60% of our travel was during the high tourist season. Prices for lodging and car rental dropped significantly once the calendar turned to September. The other major factor in the numbers is that we covered a lot of ground and spent few nights most places. The country most affected by this was Kosovo, where we only spent 1 night but drove through on 3 separate days, thus an extremely high "average cost per day" when calculating by # of nights slept. Same could be said for Macedonia, where we slept 2 nights and drove through on 4 separate days. Both of these country's "overall average cost per day" would fall more in line with Albania and Serbia, if we spent more time there.
# of free nights thanks to credit card points = 6
Most expensive lodging = $93.80 (Levanto, Italy)
Cheapest lodging = $23.80 (Banja Luka, Bosnia)
Average spent on food per day = $31.75
Most expensive dinner out = $71.49 (Marseille, France)
Cheapest dinner out = $9.23 (Banja Luka, Bosnia)
# of Gyros/Schwarma consumed = 16
# of Gelato servings = 23
Free breakfasts with lodging = 11
Servings of alcohol given to us by hosts = 7
... money spent on Trains = $223.23
... money spent on Ferries = $181.59
... money spent on local public transport/taxis = $215.63
Days with rental car = 39
... transportation cost per day with rental car = $51.39
Total kilometers driven = 6,517
... average kilometers per day = 167.10
... average daily cost of gas = $14.68
Money spent on tolls = $99.14
Money spent on parking = $33.21
Money spent on parking tickets = $7.80
Total spent on Souvenirs = $287.99
Average price per magnet = $2.74
# of tattoos = 1
Time spent on tattoo table = 7 minutes
Overall average cost per day = $132.47
Total European Honeymoon Cost = $8,854.27
(including plane tickets)
Monday, October 1, 2018
After Meteora, our destination was the Tikves wine region which coincided nicely with the upcoming anniversary of Julia's birth. She likes wine, for those of you who don't know her. Using the birthday as an excuse, we booked a room at the Popova Kula Winery. Upon checking in, Julia got her first and only "Smetana" star treatment of the trip. The receptionist inquired about her last name, and when told of the connection, she was overjoyed and shook Julia's hand as if it was famous. Julia had hoped the name would get her a reaction while in Eastern Europe, but did not expect it to be in southern Macedonia.
The day was spent wine tasting at the nearby Royal Winery Queen Maria, before returning to Popova Kula to gaze at our vineyard view and to enjoy a multi-course dinner with wine pairings. It was nice using the birthday to splurge a little in a country with affordable luxury. The breakfast buffet in the morning was amazing as well.
Before leaving Macedonia, we spent an hour walking around the Roman and Byzantine ruins in the Stobi archeological site. There were some cool things to see, especially the intricate frescoes (floor and wall paintings), and there was just 1 tour group to avoid.
From Stobi, it was a long drive north and west to the mountains of Albania. The route took us through Kosovo and we had our first minor hassle at a border. Apparently our car insurance isn't good there so they required us to buy 2 week Kosovo insurance for 15€. A little annoying. We based ourselves at Aste Guesthouse in Tropoje, an affordable and well reviewed place about an hour away from the heart of the Albanian Alps. They offered free breakfasts and home cooked dinners for 5€ a person, along with great views of the mountains.
As you might guess, we came out this way to do some hiking. The most popular route is a trek between the villages of Valbone and Theth that takes you over a stunning mountain pass. Most people hike across with loaded packs, stay the night, and find transport onward. We had limited time so we parked at the trailhead in Valbone, hiked to the top of the pass, and then returned back to the car. Some interesting things happened during the hike, so I will give you some more details along with pictures.
The first 3 kms of the trail follows a road along a dry riverbed. We walked about 1km before a truck rolled up, honking it's horn. It stopped and a young couple in the back told us to hop in, so we did. We braced ourselves for the bumpy 2 km ride to the end of the road and thanked our driver who told us to buy the young couple a beer. They had stayed at the driver's house the night before and he offered them a ride.
The young couple were on holiday for a few weeks in Albania. She was from Israel and he was a German living in Switzerland. They had interesting stories and were fun to hike and talk with. We made good on buying them a drink with coffees at a cafe along the trail. It was a popular stop for hikers and one of the guides from another group had a coke bottle full of rakia (a local fruit brandy). He offered us shots and looked disappointed that we didn't take it all down in one sip so he could refill. Feeling the buzz from coffee and the rakia, the last stretch of the hike to the top of the pass went quick. We ate salami, crackers, and fruit for lunch with awesome views from the top down multiple valleys.
The young couple were continuing on to Theth, so we exchanged contact info and said auf wiedersehen. On the hike back, we encountered a herd of sheep grazing across the trail. No ride for us along the riverbed this time but we did see some local transport trucks full of people bumping music as they bounced by. I don't remember how long the hike ended up taking us, but I can tell you that the total distance out and back was about 10 miles, the elevation gain was about 2,600 ft, and it was very enjoyable.
We had a couple more home cooked meals at our guesthouse before driving the 10 kms back into Kosovo the following morning. There aren't any major tourists draws in the area so we tried our best to get a taste of Europe's newest country during our short visit. Along our route was a medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery founded in the 14th century called Visoki Dečani. The site is guarded by KFOR troops (peacekeeping group called Kosovo Force led by NATO) due to numerous somewhat recent attacks by Kosovo Albanian insurgents who dislike the monasteries association with Serbia. The Kosovo War is still on people's minds and Serbia continues to not recognize the independence of their neighbor. We had a peaceful visit and were very impressed with the elaborate wall paintings on the inside of the church. We also bought some of their cherry wine.
We spent the night in the mid sized town of Peja, and had to drive down a walking street to get to our hotel. We also enjoyed walking on the walking street and wandering the market streets that seemed to only offer jewelry and clothes. That night we found a highly rated restaurant and got some great food at a bargain price. Instead of complimentary bread to start, it was complimentary flatbread pizza with dipping sauce. We were happy.
The next day, on our way out of town, we visited another guarded Serbian Orthodox monastery called Gračanica. This one was equally as impressive as the other, sitting in a beautiful river valley just a few kilometers outside of Peja.
With our departure quickly approaching, our stops have been based on convenience. We needed to return our rental car the next day in Sarajevo, so Mokra Gora, Serbia (just 3 hrs away) made sense. To get there from Kosovo, our route took us on a scenic drive through the mountainous eastern Montenegro. Crossing into Serbia was easy and we followed rivers the whole way north past rolling green hills. In Mokra Gora, we stayed on the top floor of a farmhouse down a gravel road and enjoyed the peaceful views and complimentary beers on our deck. Besides hiking, the only tourist draw in the area is a fake traditional village built in the early 2000's by director Emir Kusturica for his film Life Is a Miracle. It is now home to a resort and shops, and hosts an annual film and music festival. We strolled the site as the sun was going down and ate dinner there (mostly because it seemed to be the only place open within miles). Overall, a nice quiet little taste of Serbia, which is most known for assassinating Archduke Ferdinand and starting WWI, it's electronic dance party scene in Belgrade, and it's tall men.
Bosnia and Herzegovina:
The car had to be returned by 11 AM at the airport (we didn't fly out until the next day), so we woke up early to hit the road. The drive through eastern Bosnia left a lasting impression and further fueled the idea that we need to return to this area someday. From the town of Višegrad, you drive though the Drina river canyon and it's green waters. Many times we wanted to stop but we were on a tight schedule.
In Sarajevo, we quickly checked in to our apartment for the night and dropped off our bags, before driving the few kilometers to the airport to return the car. It was a nice sense of accomplishment when we handed the keys over, knowing we had a smooth 6 weeks of driving in Eastern Europe. It also felt good to be back on our feet for that last day of exploring. From the airport, we inquired with a taxi driver about the cost of a ride back to our apartment and when he said it would be about $20 for the short trip, we were shocked. So we decided to see what we could do while walking.
After listening to Rick Steve's podcasts, we had one more sight we wanted to check out in Sarajevo, the tunnel museum. During the Siege of Sarajevo in the midst of the Bosnian war in 1993, Serbian forces had surrounded the city and the United Nations had taken control of the airport. A tunnel was secretly constructed under the airport to connect Bosnian-held territory with the capital city in order for supplies and weapons to enter and civilians to escape. The tunnel is mostly collapsed now, but the museum has a refurbished section and some interesting maps and videos from the war. It was an easy 4 km walk from the airport, plus it was on the way back to our apartment. During the walk, we passed by the small cemetery seen below in the middle of a neighborhood. The slender white headstones are a common site around Bosnia and these small cemeteries are a result of the high death toll during the war. Locals were forced to bury the dead where ever they could and give them a simple marker.
One last note about the Bosnian War; the picture below shows a Sarajevo Rose, which is a concrete scar caused by a mortar shell's explosion. A local artist began filling the numerous scars around the city with red resin to make them a more pleasant sight. Most of the roses around the city have now been removed due to construction but a few still remain. This one was at the tunnel museum.
Back at our apartment, we briefly contemplated taking public transportation to the downtown area, but the 1 hour transit time seemed like too much to tackle on the final afternoon of our trip. We instead walked to a nearby park area where we found a great little restaurant to get our last fill of traditional Bosnian food, which we have grown to love. Below; I am eating Ćevapi and a drinking a local beer.
Our flight the next day departed shortly after 9 AM, so we were up early to catch a previously arranged ride with our host, or so we thought. Out on the curb with our bags at 7 AM, we waited and waited. Julia tried sending our host a text message and email, but no response. At 7:30, we decided we couldn't wait any longer and walked toward the main road to try and catch a cab. The airport was 5.6 kms away, which would take us just over an hour to walk to. With no cabs in sight, we walked toward the airport with our thumbs out and heavy packs weighing us down. For 35 minutes and 3 kms, we wondered if we would miss our flight, but we approached a busy intersection and felt optimistic. As we contemplated the best place to catch a cab, I noticed a car flipping a u-turn ahead of us by driving up on the sidewalk. I laughed a little and continued to look around, when I heard a man yell something. I turn back to see him waving and initially think someone noticed our need and was offering to give us a ride. It turned out to be our host who was very apologetic and hurried us into his car. As he sped the last 5 minutes to the airport, he explained that he had to take his daughter to school and for some reason he didn't mention this the day before. At the airport, he parked in the middle of the road and grabbed Julia's bag and ran it into the airport. We followed and laughed a little, knowing it was unnecessary. We had made it with just under 1 hour till take off. The small airport made check-in and security a breeze and we had 20 minutes to spend the last of our local currency and sit around until boarding started.
It was a nerve racking end to our trip that we can now look back on and smile about. Our flights were all well timed and comfortable, traveling through Zurich, Washington DC, and finally to Portland. We watched movies, did puzzles, and totaled up our travel expenses which we meticulously kept records of. There will eventually be a blog post outlining all of our travel costs, but I wont make any promises of when that will be. Up next for H3J2; a wedding in Baltimore and 3 months of work in Portland for Julia. After that is unknown, but another international trip may be in our future. Što možeš danas, ne ostavljaj za sutra.
Friday, September 14, 2018
Spirit In The Sky
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 Maps.me 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.