Dubrovnik: Dragons and Castles

Our first glimpse of Dubrovnik caught us by surprise as we rounded a curve on Croatia’s RT 8. Its thick limestone walls and brilliant red tile roofs, saturated with color, reflected brilliantly on cobalt blue Adriatic Sea.  Its nickname “pearl of the Adriatic” rightly earned.

Fortunately, mid-October was considered off-season and we were able to find a wonderful apartment, Old Town Sunrise Apartments just steps away from the Babic’ Bakery and the 14th century Vrata od Ploča or East Gate with its ancient drawbridge.  The agony of lugging our bags up three flights of stairs was rewarded with gorgeous views from our roof windows, since the studio apartment was directly across the harbor from Fort St. Ivana. 

We couldn’t have asked for a better location. The sunrises and sunsets were spectacular over the Adriatic and the citadel.  A brilliant Hunters’ Moon one night was an added bonus, as was watching a group of elderly friends take an early morning swim, their daily ritual.

Fort St. Ivana today houses an interesting maritime museum and aquarium, but when it was built in the 16th century its canons protected the city-state’s merchant fleet from the Venetians and Ottomans.  Over the centuries Dubrovnik’s maritime merchants rivaled Venice’s with trade representatives in Goa, India and the Cape Verde Islands off Africa’s Atlantic coast.  Its merchant fleet even traded during the Middle Ages with the English court of Elizabeth the First.

Blame it on Drogon! Since the medieval fantasy Game of Thrones was filmed in Dubrovnik the city has lost its previous reputation as an under-visited and affordable destination on the sunny shores of the Adriatic.  Ever since the TV show’s premiere in 2011 the city has become a mecca, big time, for fans eager to visit the show’s filming locations.  Thankfully, it hasn’t risen to placards of “Jon Snow slept here” or “Rhaegal roasted a nobleman on our roof” level yet.

We had been on our journey fifteen months now and aside from a brief stay in London, Dubrovnik was by far the most expensive destination.  I think this explains why we saw so many people walking down Stradun, the city’s main pedestrian boulevard, eating slices of pizza.  The impact of these high prices was especially acute since the affordability of Kotor, Montenegro (only a short drive away) was still fresh in our minds.  It was actually easier to find an affordable restaurant in London.  It was captive pricing for sure within the fortress walls that encircle Old Town and the only reprieve was to eat in the new town portion of Dubrovnik, outside the citadel. 

Stradum, aka Placa (Stradone or Corso) is the city’s pedestrian-only main boulevard, running 300 yards east to west, connecting both ancient gates and harbors on either side of town.  For us it was too pristine.  An unfair comment, as this resulted when Dubrovnik was rebuilt after the 1991 Balkans War, when the city was shelled for seven months from the top of the mountain above town. Two hundred eighty civilians and soldiers were killed during that prolonged bombardment. Today an aerial tram takes you there for panoramic views. Shrapnel scars, signs of the conflict, remain etched into the stone walls on some buildings.  But the newness of the polished limestone boulevard running past upscale shopping reminded us of an amusement park.

We were drawn into the narrow, arched alleys with steep stairs that climbed the hills and weaved through older neighborhoods on either side of Stradum. The farther away from Stradum we got, the more the crowds diminished. 

Our other alternative was to walk along the fortress walls that encircle the city for slightly over a mile.  Thirteen to twenty feet thick and towering eighty feet high in some sections, the walls once held 120 cannons to protect the city from land or sea attack.  This walk is a popular activity with fast moving tour groups, but we found if we just let them pass there would be a tranquil void until the next group which allowed us to linger in one spot for a while. 

Standing above the West Gate and looking down the Stradum was a prime view that included the circular Large Onofrio’s Fountain built in 1438 and which still supplies fresh spring water, from mountains miles away, to carved faces that spurt water. Farther down the Franciscan Church and Monastery houses the oldest continuously operating pharmacy in the world dating to 1317 in its muraled cloister. Farther along the wall there were several small cafes and stairs that lead to roped off swimming areas at the sea’s edge.

At the far end of Stradum the city’s 100 ft tall clock and belltower zooms skyward over an area that was once the city market in the 1400s. Famously the belltower has two bronze figures named Maro and Baro, zelenci (green) twins that strike the bell on the quarter, half and full hour.  Interestingly, several generations of the same family have maintained the clockworks for over 100 years. Next door the 14th-century Gothic-Renaissance style Rector’s Palace exhibits vestiges of Dubrovnik’s history. Especially noteworthy were the intricately carved exterior columns.

Across the street the statue of golden statue of Saint Blaise cradling a model Dubrovnik on his arm crowns his church.

The city’s 16th century granary and mill has undergone a beautiful and innovative renovation and now houses the Etnografic Museum Rupe. It has a prominent collection of Croatian Cultural items, particularly traditional attire from the regions surrounding Dubrovnik.

Weddings are a boisterous affair in Dubrovnik, with the bride and groom following a flag waving entourage parading through the pedestrian-only streets on the way to their church ceremony.

Walking east one morning away from the city, along Ul Frana Supila, a quiet road that hugs the water, a small village ambiance prevailed with colorful homes, flowering plants and wild pomegranate trees set into the hillside. 

Villas for the well to do, many built on the ruins of previous civilizations, line the road, beautiful none the less. Bored? There was a rainbow-colored selection of wheels for rent at the exotic car dealer to satisfy that zoom, zoom craving. 

Eventually the road narrowed and a chain across it prevented cars from going farther along a treacherous, serpentine stretch that hugs the cliff face.  The road used to connect back to the highway near one of the scenic overlooks.  But it was determined to be too dangerous when its guardrails tumbled down the cliff into the sea.  Now only walkers and bicyclists use it to traverse a dramatic section of the coast. 

A memorial, Spomen ploča žrtvama komunističkog terora, to victims of the communist terror, stands on a curve in the road. It commemorates the lives of five young Yugoslavian partisans thrown from the cliff to their deaths by communist “liberation forces” loyal to Marshal Tito at the end of WWII.

Across from Dubrovnik’s West Gate and harbor, the 11th century Fort Lovrijenac, the “Gibraltar of the Adriatic,” sits atop a towering rock monolith 121 feet above the sea. Climbing to the top of the citadel along well-worn footpaths and stairs satisfied us with great views back across the harbor of walled Dubrovnik and kayakers paddling along in the cove below.

Many kayaking tours leave from West Harbor. Today Lovrijenac’s walls, some reaching a thickness of 39 feet, support theater and music productions during the summer months.  The dramatic setting is also the backdrop for Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series and Knightfall, a historical fiction TV drama about the Knights Templar. 


Behind the fortress, wandering the narrow lanes along the water’s edge felt like we were in a quaint seaside village.

We thought the Three-Day Dubrovnik Card was a good value for us, since it offered free entrance to six museums, two galleries and the city walls, as well as six free rides on the local buses. Staying just outside the fortress walls permitted us to avoid a premium room rate yet allowed us easy entry into the citadel early in the mornings and to find those quiet vignettes and ancient architectural details hidden amidst dramatic shadows.

 For moments we felt like we had this beautiful medieval city all to ourselves.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Kotor Part 4: The Ladder of Kotor, Camel Tracks and Pirates

The water barely ripples on the inner reaches of Boka Bay when a storm rages across the Adriatic Sea. The steep walls of the fjord created the perfect harbor to shelter ancient fleets of merchant sailing vessels. Three-thousand years ago starting with Greek triremes and later Roman galleys, the vessels carrying goods through the Adriatic to ports along the Mediterranean were mainly rowed.  The ancient Greeks mostly relied on free men as paid rowers while the Romans used slave labor to expand their empire and propel their merchant fleets.

The city of Kotor was essentially a land locked island until an ancient foot path was widened by the Romans in the 1st century into a cobbled road, six to eight feet wide in many places, with stone retaining walls that zigzagged up the mountain four miles and climbed 3100 ft in altitude, about a five- hour trek.  Going downhill was much faster and more difficult for the camel trains. The danger here was if the camels were going too fast and couldn’t round the tight switchbacks, lost their balance and fell off the trail to their deaths.  The camel wranglers definitely had a difficult task on this route. The caravan trail remained the only land route into Kotor until 1897, when the Austrians built the road that now leads from Kotor to Cetinje.

This early example of infrastructure improvement resulted from Rome’s war against the Illyrian Kingdom after it refused to stop their piracy of Roman merchant ships. The empire determined that an overland trade route connecting to Constantinople/Istanbul and the Silk Road from China was needed as a safe alternative.  Eventually a spiderweb of caravan trails and Roman roads spread across the Balkans. Cilician pirates in the eastern Mediterranean were also creating havoc, at one point kidnapping a young Julius Caesar on a voyage to Rhodes. Piracy continued to be a problem for the Venetians with Omis pirates in the 11th to 13th centuries and later Uskok buccaneers from Croatia pillaged along the Adriatic until the 1600s.  Barbarossa, the notorious Ottoman pirate, commanded a fleet of swashbucklers that were the scourge of the Mediterranean at this time, raiding Spanish and Venetians merchant vessels and selling Christians into slavery. European empires also tolerated and endorsed pirates as long as they were “our pirates.”  Piracy persisted on the waters of the Adriatic and Mediterranean for so long because the rugged coastline had many small islands and hidden inlets to shelter the pirates.

Romanticized views of pirates persist today with the popular adventure movie franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, featuring a beguiling Captain Jack Sparrow, and the TV series Black Sails.  Interestingly there is a Japanese anime film about fictitious air piracy on the Adriatic Sea called Porco Rosso which is based on a 1992 short graphic novel called Hikōtei Jidai (飛行艇時代, The Age of the Flying Boat). It’s entertaining and worth checking the Porco Rosso film trailer.

The afternoons in mid-October were still quite hot so we planned for an early start from our apartment in the center the historic district.  This coincided with the young parents of old town escorting their children through the still shadowed alleys to the Vrata od Škurde, the River Gate, which was constructed in 1539 to celebrate a naval victory over Barbarossa, now an Ottoman admiral. We found ourselves behind an orthodox priest holding the hand of his daughter as we crossed the first and then second bridge that spanned the Scurda.  The Scurda is a wide, shallow stream that bubbles to the surface from beneath the tall rock escarpment that the Ladder of Kotor climbs and flows into Boka Bay. This area on the far side of the bridge was for centuries the market for all the goods brought down the trail from afar or from farms in the mountains to be sold or bartered for.

The old caravan trail starts behind the waterworks where the underground spring emerges and zigzags often in the tight confining space at the bottom of the gorge. The trail continued in the shadow of once towering fortress walls now humbled by earthquakes before the ravine widened out and the distance between the switchbacks increased.  There are seventy switchbacks in total if you chose to trek all the way to Krstac pass where the trail ends near Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana. Here you can zipline over part of the trail you just hiked up, or catch a taxi or local bus back to Kotor or onto Cetinje.  Hiking back to Kotor is also an option for the hardy.

Our plans were more modest, just wanting to hike to a vantage point above the Castle of San Giovanni, Kotor Fortress, for views over the bay.  The cobbled road and retaining walls have seen better days having been damaged in the 1979 earthquake.  While the fortress has been repaired, maintenance of the caravan trail has been forgotten.  Though many sections of it are in better shape than the stairs to the Castle of San Giovanni and not as bad as some city sidewalks across Europe. Still you need to be aware of your footing and wear sturdy shoes.

It was a gentle hike through a rock-strewn hillside dotted with grasses, small shrubs, occasional pomegranate trees and wild thyme.  Off in the distance unseen donkeys could be heard braying. The pomegranates were just ripening, but were all teasingly just inches out of reach, too far from the trail’s edge.  The views were fantastic from many spots and there were two rustic taverns to stop at along the way to rest.  The lower one was closed for the season, but the higher one referred to as the Cheese Shop, on Google maps, is located where the trail veers off towards the deserted village of Spiljari, which is located under the back ramparts of San Giovanni Fortress. 

I think we were the innkeeper’s first customers of the day, and we ordered two espressos while we rested on the shaded porch.  After serving us he crossed to a refrigerator on the other side of the room to get himself a shot of chilled rakija. Being a good host, he offered us some. It was ten in the morning.  We politely declined. Though I’m sure it would have had wonderful medicinal qualities in case of any mishaps.

The village of Spiljari is over 1,000 years old and was abandoned when its water source went dry. Now trees grow between the half walls of a dozen buildings and the ruins of the Church of St John remain standing.  The ruins of the church alone are worth the detour. 

Slowly decaying, colorful remnants of what one only could imagine were beautiful frescoes remain on walls open to the weather. 

From here you can see a ladder to a small portal in the side wall of the fortress. The Ladder of Kotor? We are not sure if the name refers specifically to this or to the climb in general.  Years ago, this was an alternative entrance into the fortress.  Now it is strictly an exit point for those who have paid the €8 entrance fee to the fortress and walked up the stairs from old town and wish to return to Kotor by the caravan trail.  Though you might be able to purchase a cold drink from an ice cooler manned by the ladder attendant.  

The sun was high in the sky when we made it above the castle and the view was spectacular. We sat for a while and imagined the history of the trail: how it conveyed ideas, merchandise, pilgrims and invaders over the centuries. 

Notably in the 1830s a team of fifty men carried an Italian billiard table up this track to the rightfully named Biljarda House, home to the beloved prince bishop and poet Petar II Petrovic. (Just imagine the amount of cursing involved in that endeavor.)  Years later when Petar II Petrovic was on his deathbed a procession carried him up this same track to the historic old capital, Cetinje.  A few months later Montenegrins would carry his successor and nephew Danilo II Petrović-Njegoš to Cetinje to rule.

And although we took many photographs on the trek up, we took even more of the ever changing view as we descended back into town.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Kotor Part 3: Herceg Novi – Serenading the Ghosts

The days were noticeably cooler now, with a morning mist hanging on the water as we sped around Kotor Bay on the local bus to Herceg-Novi (€3 one way) for the day. The narrow two-lane road hugged the coastline and in spots jutted out over the water to circumvent a sheer rock face.  When the landscape widened enough, houses were built on every patch of useable land in small clusters or standing alone.  At the farthest end of the bay we watched oyster farmers raft between their rows of buoys that marked the submerged delicacy growing in the depths below.

Further along the Lepetani – Kamenari Ferry (€4.50 per car, €1 for a bicycle, people free) offered a shorter and faster route that bypassed Kotor for travelers wanting to stay along the highway that hugged the Adriatic coast from Albania to Croatia.

Unlike Kotor and Budva, which were both built on flat coastal terrain, Herceg-Novi was built on a steep slope that runs many miles inland to the summit of Mount Orjen. The mountain, part of the coastal Dinaric Alps, is Montenegro’s tallest peak, which at 6210 ft is 500 ft taller than the more famous Mount Lovćen (5738 ft).  The town existed as a small fishing village for several hundred years until its first defensive walls were raised in 1382, making it one of the youngest and most fought-over fortified cities along the Adriatic coast. 

The old town is long and narrow, climbing up the hill from the water’s edge like an index finger poking out of the sea, making it a much harder city for the Omis pirates to attack.  Let’s face it, Mediterranean diet or not, it’s much more difficult to properly sack, pillage and plunder a city when you are exhausted from running up steep flights of stairs.  Though it wasn’t always the pirates that folks worried about.

The Turks built Kanli Tower on the highest point in the city after they defeated the Byzantines in 1482, only to be ousted by the Spanish for a brief stint of gentrification in 1538 when they quickly constructed Hispaniola Fortress higher up the mountain, to no avail; the keys of the city were returned to the Turks two years later.  The Venetians had their turn also, strengthening walls and building towers that survived until the devastating 1979 earthquake.  Its turbulent history also included the Austrian, Russian, French and Germans, all battling for beach chairs along the Herceg-Novi riviera.  Fortunately, the communists didn’t see the need to impose their minimalistic architecture on such a beautiful swath of earth and left it alone.  The people of the communist block were not as fortunate.

We were only an hour from Kotor when the bus pulled into the station above old town Herceg Novi, the last stop before the border with Croatia.  Walking downhill, we came upon the daily market, Gradska Pijaca Herceg Novi, and took the opportunity to purchase the makings for a picnic lunch. Bread, cheese, figs and a huge pomegranate filled our knapsack.  Old Town is of course surrounded by the apartment buildings of the new town, a pretty gentrification which has sprawled horizontally between the sea and the highway above town, hugging the hill for views of the bay.

The lane ended in Nikole Đurkovića Square in front of the ancient Sahat-Kul clock tower and gate, built by the Ottomans in 1667, that leads into the historic district.  Once through the gate, the dark passage opened onto palm-treed Belavista Square lined with cafes and umbrella tables. St. Michael Archangel Church anchored its center.  The style of this relatively modern church, built in 1911, is defined as Eclecticism, after its incorporation of architectural influences that reflected Herceg Novi’s diverse history.  Byzantine, Gothic, Romanesque, Islamic and Serbian Orthodox inspirations all blend seamlessly together. 

The old town was very quiet, and we had the narrow alleys and stairs to the Sea Fortress, the first fortification in Herceg Novi, practically to ourselves.  At the old town’s southernmost point, the massive stone wall of the fortress protrudes several stories high from the sea, like the bow of a cruise ship.  Its canons are quiet now, but during the summer tourist season it hosts citadel-top concerts and a film series from the spot where the guns once guarded the bay. 

We chose not to walk down to the harbor, saving our strength instead for the longer one-mile walk to the Savina Monastery. The monks sure did know how to pick locations for inspiration. The first stones of one of three churches were laid in 1030, and the setting above Kotor Bay is glorious. 

Being a Saturday, it was wedding day and we arrived just in time to watch a flag-waving crowd and brass band escort the bride and groom to their get-away car.  Moments later another wedding party arrived to celebratory horns. 

Next to the cathedral where the weddings were being held, the smallest and oldest church, Sveto Uspenje Bogorodice (St. Falling into Sleep of Holy Mother of God) has fascinating, ancient frescoes depicting the life of Christ.  Stairs in the hillside led to a cemetery above the monastery with beautiful views. 

The route back was relatively flat and took us through a pretty neighborhood filled with flowering shrubs to a smaller gateway into the old town, nearer the stairs to the Kanli Kula Fortress or Bloody Tower.

Built by the Turks in the 1500s, it was also believed “that the door to the castle opens only one way – to leave it alive was impossible.” Even with walls sixty feet wide in some places, the fortress was damaged in the 1979 earthquake that ravaged Montenegro.  During reconstruction, its courtyard was converted into an amphitheater with 1,000 seats for concerts and theater productions; perhaps the music soothes the restless souls of the ghosts still wandering the dungeon. Name and reputation aside, the views from the fortress walls were beautiful.

Walk a little, café, walk a little more. Today a long climb back to the bus station awaited us after that last sip of espresso.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Kotor Part 2: Road Tripping Through Montenegro – Mountains, Icons, and the Sea

With the assistance of our host, we rented a car and planned a four-day road trip heading up into the mountains before ending along the Adriatic coast, then returning to Kotor.  A great distance wasn’t covered, but the variety of scenery was amazing and the driving challenging in places.

Since our first cars as kids, Donna and I have been stick-shift/manual transmission aficionados, with fond memories of the rust bucket Fiats we both drove. We’ve also driven regular sedans up and down rutted, rock strewn dirt roads normally traversed by 4×4 SUVs while being told “you won’t make it in that.” 

“Where are you heading to?” “Lovcen National Park will be our first stop.” “Be careful the roads are narrow and there are twenty-one switchback curves on the way.  You might want to consider the longer route, it’s more relaxing,” the rental agent cautioned as he assessed our age and abilities. “We understand the views are dramatic along the way,” I responded as he handed over the keys while Donna playfully poked at me for them.  Of course, I stalled the car backing out of the parking space, much to the attendant’s secret delight, I think.  With a zoom zoom in mind and the windows down, we waved our thank you, only to stall again as we drove away. Hey, it was a high clutch! Some days just start that way.

Whether it’s from the bell tower in Perast or from the top of St. John’s Fortress, it’s impossible to escape glorious views of Kotor Bay once you gain any elevation.  Only minutes from old town our route along Montenegro P1, also called the Kotor Serpentine Road, did not disappoint.  The question was, how many times would we stop to take photos?  Fortunately, there were few other cars on the road that day and we were able to pull over at the switchbacks that had room to park.  Harrowing though was encountering large construction trucks and buses barreling downhill towards us, which often required pulling over as far as we could on the already narrow one lane road or reversing downhill to a wider section of paving.  To say that guardrails were lacking in many places is an understatement. For centuries, the only overland route into Kotor was the old caravan trail which dates to Roman times. It wasn’t until the 1880s, when Montenegro was part of the Austrian Empire, that an easier wagon route between the seaport of Kotor and mountainous towns of Njeguši and Cetinje was carved from the mountainside. Paved now, that old wagon track was essentially the same route we drove.  Eventually we came to a stop behind a local bus which was offloading hikers at Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana which is the starting point for hiking the old caravan trail downhill into Kotor. 

If you are a hairpin-turn fanatic click on this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DD5u7WKHiYQ for an interesting video of this thrilling drive. And to our surprise it’s on a “most dangerous roads” list!

Warrior, poet, Prince-Bishop and ruler of Montenegro from 1830 to 1851, Petar II Petrovic Njegos captured the essence of Serbian culture and life in several epic poems that put Serbian folk tales and history to verse. “What Shakespeare is to England, Njegos is to Montenegro,” gives a clue to his influence on Serbian culture.  In his will he requested Montenegrins bury him in the church on the summit of Mount Lovcen, from which “all the lands of Montenegro can be seen.”  On his last days the people lovingly carried him from Kotor to Cetinje, the old capital, along the ancient caravan trail that climbed from Kotor. Interestingly, this act of devotion didn’t seem to be enough, and, perhaps insecure of his legacy, he threatened to curse and haunt them if his last wish was not fulfilled.  Ascending the steep stairs to his mausoleum atop the mountain, we understood why he was so insistent in his demand. The 360-degree panoramic view was in so many ways breathtaking.  A warm day bayside in Kotor can be extremely chilly on the peak of Mount Lovcen with its 5738 ft elevation, so layer up accordingly.  Descending the stairs, we stopped at the appropriately named Lookout Restaurant, which offered delicious local cuisine, very reasonably priced.

Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro, would be our destination at the end of the day, but before heading that way we detoured over to Lake Skadar National Park. Specifically, to see the beautiful horseshoe bend of Rijeka Crnojevića, the river of Crnojevića, from the Pavlova Strana Viewpoint which from Mount Lovcen is accessed by turning onto a dirt road off the M2.3. (Why the decimal point, really? There’s no 2.1 or 2.9 road that I can see on the map, but I digress.) This was a narrow track that had us wondering if we made the right decision. Our logic seriously questioned again when we reached a stalemate with an oncoming car traveling uphill. The road was so tight I was hesitant to reverse, fearing scraping the car paint and the other driver refused to budge. Somehow the locals know if you are not from around those parts! I blinked first and cautiously backed up until the road was barely wide enough for two cars to squeeze by.  Continuing to descend toward the lake, several of the switchback curves were so tight they required 3 point turns to maneuver around the corner. Our persistence though was eventually rewarded with a great view of the river. 

Relieved to hit a larger paved road, we continued towards the small village of Crnojevića. The weather was brilliant, and we spontaneously decided to opt for a short boat tour along the river.  It was mid-week and near the end of the season, and we were pleased that we had the boat all to ourselves. 

It was a relaxing reprieve, silently traveling upon the water, passing under old stone bridges and watching the birds and swans along the water’s edge.  Next to the boat launch, Restaurant Mostina offered shaded outdoor dining and a beautiful view of the river.  We lingered as long as time allowed, wanting to reach Podgorica well before dark. Fortunately, it was only forty minutes away.

We arrived late in the afternoon and followed our GPS directions into the city and were totally surprised when our route turned into a pedestrian only boulevard after 5 PM, with families pushing strollers down the center of the avenue and waving frantically to make us aware of our mistake. Without difficulty we quickly corrected our error. Having the freedom to roam is wonderful with a rental car, the only drawback really is parking. And finding an affordable, convenient hotel in a city with free parking is a challenge.  The three-star, business class Hotel Kerber fit the bill, though finding the parking lot required that the receptionist walk us out the back door and point to the parking entrance under a building on the block behind the hotel. 

Exploring the city early the next morning, we walked over the Morača River via the Milenium Bridge, one of the city’s most prominent landmarks.  Its futuristic cable-stayed bridge design is so strikingly different from the architecture in the rest of the country.

In the park across the river we found the statue of Vladimir Vysotsky, a beloved Russian poet and songwriter whose verses were deemed subversive by communist authorities and barred from publication. The Bob Dylan of Montenegro, he gained fame by distributing illegal homemade recordings of his songs and performing in clubs across the communist block during the Cold War. Montenegrins loved his music and he loved them. “I regret in this life that I don′t have two roots, and I can′t name Montenegro as my second homeland.” – Vladimir Vysotsky.

The big draw for us to Podgorica was Саборни храм Христовог Васкрсења, the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ for us non-Serbian speakers.  It’s an inspiring new Serbian Orthodox church that was consecrated on October 7th, 2013, the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milanin 313 AD, which was an agreement between the Western Roman Emperor Constantine I and the Byzantine Emperor Licinius that decriminalized Christian worship.

Every interior surface of basilica is covered with brilliant Orthodox iconography on gold backgrounds or has controversial murals that reflect history.  The one depicting Tito, Marx, and Engels burning in hell is poignant commentary on communism’s oppression and anti-religion stance that affected millions in eastern Europe.  There are other contemporary political frescoes interwoven throughout the traditional iconography that are difficult to spot, but that’s part of the thrill of discovery.

To this day, the artist has chosen to remain anonymous. The architect, Dr. Predrag Ristic, is credited with building 100 orthodox churches, and took inspiration for the exterior of the church from the medieval design of the Cathedral of St. Tryphon in Kotor, with its prominent arched entry way and twin towers. 

Our destination lunch spot for the day was Restoran Nijagara, located only a short distance before the Vodopad Nijagara waterfall on the Cemi River.  The waterfall was beautiful and easily accessible from the shaded, riverside dining on the restaurant’s deck. Ducks floated lazily by while children playfully splashed in the crystal-clear water.

We planned on being along the Adriatic coast for sunset, but still had plenty of time for a stop in the lakeside village of Virpazar, which is a popular point for boat tours of Skadar Lake National Park. The small town had a wonderful ambience with umbrellaed restaurants, streets full of people, colorful boats tied up along its quay. A dramatic memorial to the liberation partisans of WWII anchored the waterfront, with Besac Castle rising above it in the distance.  The castle is a short distance from town and has splendid views of Lake Skadar.

We continued along the lake road towards the small historic village of Godinje with its ancient, cojoined stone houses set on the mountainside.  The village is unique because each home has an underground passage connecting it to its neighbors.  This was developed to defend the village from Ottoman raiders.  The tunneling system was so extensive that townspeople could go from one end of the village to the other without being seen by their enemy.  There are many small vineyards in this region, featuring wines vinted from the native-to-Montenegro Vranac grape varietal. Some wineries offer tastings along with food.  Reservations are highly recommended, especially on the weekends. Unfortunately, we did not have time to linger longer, but we did purchase homemade grape brandy from a woman selling it from a small roadside stand in front of her home.

The views of the Adriatic coastline as we drove north along the E80 were incredible, though there weren’t nearly enough pullover spots for photographs.

We arrived at the Hotel Adrovic in Sveti Stefan with plenty of time to get settled before watching the sunset, with classic Aperol spritzes from their rooftop restaurant. 

We put a lot of research into selecting this hotel, primarily for its view of Peninsula Sveti Stefan and it did not disappoint.  We enjoyed an incredible ocean view room with a balcony, including breakfast and free parking, for a very reasonable $80.00 per night.  Later that night a lively wedding party danced to Montenegrin hits in the restaurant’s banquet room until the early hours of morning.  

Budva was an easy twenty-minute drive the next morning.  The walled town is one of the oldest cities on the Adriatic coast, dating to the 5th century BC with Illyrian tribes settling the area and later colonization by the Greeks as an important trading port.  Its history mirrors Kotor’s with conquest by the Roman empire in the 2nd century BC, followed by the Byzantines, Venetians, Ottoman and Austrian empires all ruling for various lengths of time. And let’s not forget the French, Germans and Russians who settled in for short stays.

The historic, walled old town is much smaller that Kotor, but still fascinating. The town’s fortified walls sit right on the edge of the Adriatic with the tall walls of the citadel rising directly from the sea. The views over church spires of the old town and the coastline were beautiful. It’s from this vantage point that we decided to check out the colorful umbrellas of Mogren Beach across the water. There are actually two pebbled beaches set under towering cliffs separated by a protruding cliff face.  Connecting them is a rough tunnel through the rock called the “Door in Stone.”

It was an easy walk along the ocean edge on a paved path with railings, past the Ballet Dancer Statue set on a rock in the water. There is some debate about whether the female figure, sculpted by Gradimir Aleksich, is a dancer or gymnast as she is not clothed, leading some to have nicknamed the bronze statue, “The Girl Who Lost the Swimsuit.” Idealistically he based his graceful creation on the legend of a local young woman who danced on the rocks every day waiting for her fiancé, a sailor, to return from the sea.  Years passed, yet she continued to hope for his return, and she danced every day until her death. For the people of Budva the statue represents love, loyalty and fidelity, attributes that have served Montenegrins well through their turbulent history.

Back at our hotel, the sparkling blue waters of the beach below us called.  This part of Montenegro’s coast is very steep, but stairs from the hotel weaved down to the ocean far below.  Walking down would have been easy.  Returning – forget it!  The parking lot by the beach was outrageously expensive for a short visit, so we opted to park like the locals, which took some creativity, and found a spot under a heavily laden olive tree.  It was the last weekend in October, and the water was still warm enough to swim in.

The tall mountains along the coastline here cast a long shadow over the water at sunrise. We sat quietly on the balcony with the morning’s first cup of coffee and watched the sunlight slowly reveal the red roofs, then warm stone colors of what was once a 15th century island fortress – Sveti Stefan.  The small, private islet today is an upscale resort that is connected to the mainland by a small peninsular. It’s an exclusive and dramatic setting, but we had the better view. 

On the beach, workers were digging the umbrella anchors out of the sand as others rowed into the ocean to retrieve the string buoys that defined the swimming area.  Offshore the crew of a sailboat was pulling anchor in preperation to set sail. It was officially the end of the summer season and time for us to be moving on.  We got our swim in just in time.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Kotor Part 1 – Water and Mountains, Ancient and Enchanting

Twenty-four hours out of Africa we were finally unloading our bags from the taxi, under tall palm trees across from a beautiful harbor. In front of us stood the Sea Gate, the 16th century arched entrance through ancient stone fortifications and the winged lion of St. Mark.  Both were constructed in 1555 when this port city was under Venetian rule.

With little difficulty we found our host and followed her through the ancient portal under a relief sculpture of the Madonna and Child, flanked by St. Bernard and St. Tryphon, the town’s patron saints.  There was a small rectangular slit underneath the stone carving where prayers were once placed. “Now it’s used as a complaint box by local residents!” our host joked. 

The archway perfectly framed a quaint plaza, The Square of the Arms, lined with shops and restaurants set dramatically under the backdrop of St. John’s Castle, Kotor Fortress, which towers protectively over the city.  Within the walled city it’s a wonderful pedestrian-only maze of narrowing alleys that weave about.  Our second-floor apartment was at the intersection of several of them and overlooked a view of the restaurants on Plaza Tripuna. 

After six weeks of continuous travel we were looking forward to being rooted for a while in an apartment, returning to our immersive travel philosophy. With a spacious living room, kitchen, hot water, and live saxophone music six nights a week, we were ready for this month of R&R in Kotor.  Though by the third night the saxophonist had played the identical repertoire each appearance, without changing its sequence. We were doomed to a Bill Murray-like Groundhog Day scenario, until he took three days off and was temporarily replaced by a young violinist.  She was a breath of fresh air.

But, with any new destination there is the urge to explore.  Outdoor dining was still in full swing and perfect, since the hottest days of summer were long gone by mid-September.  After lunch our first mission was to find a grocery store to get some basic essentials – wine, coffee and some breakfast items for the next day before we crashed from a long travel day.  Through the North Gate and across the Scurda River we found Voli and Aroma grocery stores.

The second, lone mission, was to find the laundry service as our cloths were about to walk away on their own in protest.  Before our host departed, she confirmed there was a laundry service, but wasn’t sure exactly where, as she didn’t use it, only that it was outside the city walls somewhere along the road that followed the bay. She waved vaguely in the general direction of the South Gate. It was a pleasant walk past the vegetable vendors in the daily market, outside the city walls, laden with fresh fruits and vegetables and FIGS!! (Our decision to call Kotor home for a month was instantly reinforced by this discovery.) Further on there was an Idea supermarket and the Sladoja mesara meat shop and grill restaurant. I walked all the way to the bus station and back tracked without spotting the laundry. Not one to accept surrender,  I asked a woman exiting an apartment building with my laughable Serbian, praonica? (laundromat in Serbian.) I also showed her a slip of paper with it spelled out, just in case. Saint Jude must have been watching. She not only spoke English, but happened to work there and was returning from her lunch break. Nearing home, I found the only bakery within the old town just around the corner from our apartment and was able to pick up some wonderful fresh breads and baked goods at very reasonable prices. This became a regular stop during our stay.

Instead of ticking off destinations and sights within a short period of time, it was good to be back on track with our slow travel approach to seeing the world.  Yes, we still want to see everything a locale has to offer, but at a reasonable pace with a walk a little, then café style repeated throughout the day. This approach allowed us to enjoy the Adriatic lifestyle by immersing ourselves into the ambience of Old Town Kotor for a month.

Surrounded by its ancient walls, the village really was the perfect size, impossible to get lost within and full of interesting finds and eateries.  If we started our day early enough, we caught pleasant glimpses of parents walking their children through the ancient gates to school, and vendors delivering the day’s supplies by pushcart down the tight, cobbled lanes, hard work for sure.

Exploring the alleyways that twisted through the town, we found unique architectural details, remnants from past empires and seafaring wealth.

The alleys led to small intimate plazas with umbrellaed tables and entertaining street musicians. Caffe bar Perper on Pjaca od Salate made very good cappuccinos and every morning two singers sang a medley of Balkan folk songs with a sprinkling of western tunes thrown in.  Across the plaza Konoba Scala Santa, the oldest restaurant (1931) in Kotor offered regional specialties and a rustic interior with a fireplace on those rainy fall nights that chased us inside. 

After coffee one morning we followed the steep stairs off Pjaca od Salate past old stone homes (wondering how folks do it when we saw a baby stroller on a landing) built into the hill to the entrance of Kotor Fortress.  1350 steps to the top –  we could do it! Fortunately, we chose a cool day. It was a challenging trek over a rough stone path and stairs still in need of repair from the 1979 earthquake that struck the city. 

Fortifications have loomed over Kotor since Illyrian times, 4th century BC until 167 BC, with additions made by Roman emperor Justinian I in the 6th century.  The Venetian Empire expanded the fortifications further in the 16th century.  It’s their stones that we were tripping over.  Our effort was rewarded with spectacular views of the city, bay and old caravan trail from the serpentine path that twisted all the way to the top. 

As formidable and imposing as the fortress looked, it has been seized several times during conflicts with the Ottoman, French and English. Good walking shoes and water are a must for this going.  650 steps up the Church of Our Lady of Remedy marks the halfway point and is a good place to rest and enjoy the view for a while.  The small chapel was built by survivors of the 1518 plague to honor the Holy Mother.

In 1979 an extremely destructive magnitude 7.0 earthquake devasted old town Kotor and many similar towns along the Montenegro and Albanian coastline which was then part of Yugoslavia, leaving 100,000 people homeless. All the stone buildings suffered some form of damage and the city was closed to the public for ten years during its restoration. Some signs of the earthquake damage are still visible, most noticeably block-long 19th century Austrian Prison that has large cracks in its exterior walls and the sky visible through its roof. 

The churches in the historic center also suffered extensive damage. Their facades have been fully restored, but their ornate interiors were destroyed beyond repair. The interiors are noticeably less ornate than similar era churches in Europe, with only fragments of relief carvings and frescoes remaining, hinting at their former beauty. Priče o Potresu / The Earthquake Stories is a 2020 documentary by Montenegro director Dusan Vulekovic about that destructive natural disaster. Severe earthquakes also struck Kotor in 1563 and 1608.

The one drawback of Kotor is that it’s a busy cruise port with four or five large cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers between 10am and 3pm every day until the end of the cruising season. But they followed a limited circuit and if we planned around them, they were barely noticeable. By October first only one or two cruise ships were anchoring in the bay each week.

Often referred to as Europe’s southernmost fjord, the walls of Kotor bay are so high and steep that they cast shadows late into the morning and early in the afternoon over the city. This is a tremendous help in moderating the heat of the Adriatic summers.  Its unique geography makes it the most naturally protected harbor along the Adriatic coast, providing safe anchorage for sailors since the beginning of boat building, several millennia ago. 

There were a variety of water tours available and we opted for one that took us to Our Lady of the Rocks and Perast.  The legend of Our Lady of the Rocks starts in the 15th century when two brothers, fishermen from Perast, found an icon of the Virgin on a rock protruding from the center of the bay. Fulfilling the Virgin’s request of them to build a church in the bay, they began transporting stones by boat from the shore and dropping them in the bay. Soon others followed. Today there is a small Catholic church on the island and a festive boat procession every July called Fasinada that keeps the tradition alive.

The views from the bell tower of St. Nikola Church over the quaint village of Perast and the open expanse of Boka (Kotor) Bay were tremendous.  It was a wonderful, beautiful day on the water that ended hours later in agony, as we both succumbed to food poisoning from lunch.  Fortunately, Donna found a visiting Doctor service that provided an English-speaking physician who made house calls.  After a midnight knock on the door and a short consultation we were advised to hop in his ambulance for an intravenous treatment at the local clinic.  It turns out that we had visited this clinic ten days earlier for treatment of a sinus infection and pinkeye that Donna caught before we left Ethiopia. After our hour and half treatment, we felt one hundred percent better and were discharged at 1:30AM onto a deserted sidewalk with no assistance offered to get us back to town.  It was too far out of town to consider walking and considering we were still recovering, we waited patiently as the occasional car sped past Finally a taxi zoomed by and, hearing my booming shout of “TAXI!” the driver hit the brakes and did a U-turn.

Our travel insurance covered the hospital visits, though the claims were cumbersome to file. (Keep your airline tickets for proof of travel.) Amazingly, the hospital treatment, including transport by ambulance, was only €50 each – extremely affordable compared to medical care in the United States.  Likewise, the prescriptions we filled the next day were easily paid for out-of-pocket.  It is worthwhile to compare the cost of drugs that you regularly purchase in the United States with what they cost overseas when traveling. There is an outstanding difference, with foreign prices being much lower and many not requiring a doctor’s prescription.  Just check Google for the correct name of the drug for the country you are in.

The old town is also famous for its colony of “Kotor Cats,” descendants of ratters taken to sea by sailors to control rodents on board their ships.  As we walked around town, we noticed small trays of cat food placed about for them.  Kotor Kitties is a non-profit organization started by an American visitor to Kotor several years ago that provides food, veterinarian care and neutering for the famous felines.  

Our wanderings expanded to include longer treks along the picturesque roads that followed the shoreline of the bay. Walking only minutes from old town along Put I Bokeljske Brigade on the bay’s eastern shore put us in a more relaxed world with pebbled beaches, small marinas, waterfront restaurants, private homes and small boutique hotels along the water.  Though the bay water was still warm enough for swimming, the area was very quiet at the end of September, with most of the small hotels posting “rooms available” signs in their windows. Many of the beach facilities pulled in their cabanas and rental kayaks with the end of the cruise boat season, which coincides with the beginning of the rainy fall season.  Fortunately, the restaurants were still open along this route and several of them enticed us enough to revisit this seven-mile roundtrip walk to the village of Dobrota weekly. 

The western shoreline along the bay was equally enticing with its small coves that sheltered yachts at anchor, and the historic churches of Crkva Sv. Ilije in Gornji Stoliv and the parish church of Prcanj, Bogorodicin Hram, offered wonderful views of the bay from the top of its monumental stairs leading to the church.  There were also some nice quirky finds along this route: props that looked like they were once used in a local carnival.

Montenegro is a small country; besides being known for its fabulous Adriatic coast, it has an equally impressive mountainous interior only a short distance inland from Kotor that can be visited on day trips.  There were numerous tour operators around town that all offered basically the same excursions. We chose one to Durmitor National Park that included stops at the dramatic Most na Đurđevića Tari bridge that spans the turquoise waters of the Tara River. Visits to Black Lake, Lake Slano and the cliffside Ostrog Monastery would round out the day. 

It was late September now and the chill of fall was in the morning air. Optimistically I wore sandals, anticipating a warm and sunny afternoon as it was the day before. As we drove into the mountains, the clouds thickened and the temperature dropped to the point were when we stopped at a small shopping center for a rest break I ran into a shoe store to buy a pair of heavy socks, much to Donna’s amusement. 

The mountain vistas along the drive to Djurdjevica Tara bridge were fantastic and we arrived in time for some in our group to zip-line across Europe’s deepest canyon (4300 ft) and the turquoise waters of the River Tara – the “tear of Europe,” below.

An easy hike through old growth forests around Black Lake followed lunch at a waterside restaurant.

The last stop of the day was at Ostrog Monastery which expanded around a cave church that was built high into the mountains in the 1600s by Vasilije, the Bishop of Herzegovina and later known as St. Vasilije, to escape Ottoman raiders.  Upon his death his body was entombed in the church and legend says his mortal remains have miraculous healing powers.  Over the centuries, the monastery has become a pilgrimage site for Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Muslims, drawing 100,000 visitors annually. Additionally, the monastery is also known for its unigue religious frescoes, which were painted directly onto to the surface of the cave, following their natural curvature.  Our guide had timed our visit perfectly to coincide with the 5:00 PM mass. It was a moving experience to hear the liturgy sung and projected from loudspeakers out over the valley as the sun was setting. 

The last stop of the day was at a scenic overlook above Kotor Bay. Montenegro packs a magnificent amount of beauty into a small country and should be on everyone’s radar for an affordable, budget friendly destination.

A week later we rented a car to explore parts of Montenegro on our own.

Till next time, Craig & Donna  


Bulgaria: UFO’s, Rustic Villages, and a Dragon’s Tail

Discussing our plans at breakfast, our host suggested we stop at the Alba Grups Rose Plantation, a rose oil distillery near Kazanluk.  “It’s interesting and it’s on your way to that monstrosity on the mountain,” he said, referring to the Buzludzha Monument, the abandoned Soviet era conference center built to celebrate the achievements of communism.  It was too early for roses to be in bloom, but we had visited the Alba Grups store in Sofia and the idea of everything roses was tempting, so we added it to our itinerary.  At the end of the day we would spend the night in the historic village of Tryavna.IMG_1128Heading north on Routes 64 and 6 we drove past fallow farmlands waiting for their Spring tilling, and forgotten industrial sites as we worked our way north towards Stara Planina, the Balkans Mountain range that runs east to west for 348 miles and divides Bulgarian into northern and southern regions.

Soon the 7,795 ft summit of snowcapped Botev Peak was visible behind the quiet villages we passed.  The region seemed to be sparsely populated.  On an isolated backroad we stopped across from a rusted Mig jet set high on a plinth in front of what appeared to be an abandoned military site.  I was only able to take one photo before a lone guard emerged from a derelict watch post and waved us away.  Further on there were many larger than life sculptures championing the communal worker.

The area around Kazanluk, south of the Balkan Mountains, is considered Bulgaria’s rose valley and Rosa Damascena, chosen for the quality of oil and high yield, have been planted in Bulgaria for oil distillation since the 1400’s, when the Ottomans introduced the plant to the region from Syria.  Today Bulgaria is the largest producer of rose oils in the world.IMG_1157Turning down the long driveway of the Alba plantation, we spotted the silhouette of what looked like the Statue of Liberty.  This is great we thought, new entrepreneurs celebrating a free market economy, that was long denied them under communism.  But first impressions can be deceiving; more detail was revealed the closer we got.  We were dismayed to see that it was indeed Lady Liberty with a dragon tail, standing atop a sphere of the world covered with chains and pierced by arrows.  We asked one of the guides the significance of this and he offered that it was the owner’s interpretation of the negative influences of Western/American culture on the rest of the world.  Ironically, the young restaurant staff was loudly playing a soundtrack of American music from the 90’s. We smiled.  World vision aside, they make wonderful products that are very reasonably priced. IMG_1232On a wintry, cloudy afternoon the silhouette of Buzludzha Monument loomed like an inter-stellar space craft wrecked on an inhospitable planet, as threatening clouds built behind it.  Its deteriorating hulk was majestic in its isolation on the 4700 ft mountain ridge. We’ve known about Buzludzha Monument for years, having seen it mentioned in various media as a fascinating abandoned place, but never thought we would get to see it up close.

In 1891 a group of radicals met on the peak of Buzludzha Mountain, where the monument now stands, and formed the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers Party.  In 1971 the Bulgarian Communist Party wanted to pat itself on the back and celebrate the success of communism.  Others who drank the Kool-Aid hoped it would be a “monument of the people.” Not wanting to put a financial strain on the country’s budget, Bulgarians were encouraged to “willingly donate” money and labor to the project. Georgi Stoilov, a young partisan in WWII, who received his degree from the Moscow Architectural Institute, was chosen to design a timeless memorial.  He cites the Roman Pantheon, 1950’s science fiction movies and the works of western architects Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe as inspiration for Buzludzha.  It was completed in 1981 after seven years of construction by crews working around the clock in shifts, from May to September every year to avoid the sub-zero temperatures and    fierce winter winds of the mountaintop. Inside the sphere, glass and stone mosaics lining the walls celebrated the communal worker and communist party leaders.  The communist red stars in the 230-foot-tall tower were reported to be the largest in the world at 39 feet across and were visible from the Romanian border in the north and the border with Greece in the south.IMG_1219At the opening ceremony in 1981, tribute was paid to those who had gathered there ninety years earlier. “Let the work of sacred and pure love that was started by those before us never fall into disrepair.”  Buzludzha was a huge success and a point of national pride for eight years, hosting communist party congresses and educational events.  Schools and businesses booked tours for their students and employees.  Foreign delegations were paraded through to witness socialism’s success.  But then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and communism collapsed like a fighter jet breaking through the sound barrier.  The monument to socialism was suddenly ironic, irrelevant and abandoned.  In 1999 the security guards protecting it were removed and the building was left open to the public and it was looted. Anything of value quickly disappeared, and the rest was left to vandals and frustrated citizens who were known to take their anger out on the building with sledgehammers or spray paint.  The red stars in the tower were shattered by gun shots.  Soon the glass skylights broke and water damage from rain and the winter elements hastened its structural decline, and the building was eventually shut tight to protect folks from injury.  The day we visited there was a lone security guard, suffering as he made his rounds in the bitter wind, protecting this crumbling modern ruin from a handful of visitors.

The Balkan Mountains, naturally dividing the country into northern and southern regions, have been pivotal throughout Bulgaria’s history.  Not far from Buzludzha during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) a combined Russian/Bulgarian force seized control of Shipka Pass from the Ottomans.  This victory was a significant milestone towards liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule and monuments attesting to that triumph now mark the battlefield.IMG_1385As we continued our journey north through the mountains on Route E85, the picturesque Etar Ethnographic Outdoor Museum and Sokolski Monastery called for brief detours.  Set along the banks of the Yantra River, the ethnographic museum recreated a working mountain village from the mid-1800s with water-powered workshops and colorful timber and stone homes in the Bulgarian Revival style of the time.IMG_1567 Woodcarvers, weavers and other craftspeople dressed in period outfits helped further to transport us to a simpler era at the beginning of the Bulgarian industrial revolution.  We visited on a quiet day, but the museum has an extensive twelve-month calendar of events with many festivals listed that would have been nice to observe. IMG_1457Traveling along an isolated background road we worked our way towards Sokolski Monastery, known for its cliffside chapel overlooking the northern slope of the Balkan Mountain range.  We weren’t disappointed; the church is stunning with its colorful exterior frescoes contrasting with the natural environment surrounding it.IMG_1405 Built in 1833, the monastery has played an important role in Bulgarian history.  During the April Uprising of 1876 eight freedom fighters took sanctuary there.  Later captured by the Ottoman army, they were thrown to their deaths from the cliff behind the chapel.  The short-lived April Rebellion was brutally repressed, but a year later Russia would help the Bulgarian rebels defeat the Turks at Shipka Pass and begin the march towards freedom.  In the courtyard of the monastery an octagon-shaped water fountain was built with eight spouts to commemorate those fallen heroes.  Legend states the fountain has never run dry and its cool water holds healing powers. IMG_1437We made it to Tryavna just in time to have dinner at the restaurant next to our hotel. Enjoying a hot meal after a long chilly day, we were entertained by the waitress trying to keep a determined stray cat from entering the restaurant every time the front door was opened.IMG_1744Generations of skilled woodworkers have lived in the Tryavna River Valley, turning trees harvested from the deciduous forests on the slopes of the Balkan Mountains into furniture and ornate wood carvings.

Abundant sheep farms provided wool to the water-powered textile mills along the banks of the river at the beginning of the industrial age.  While other villages in rural Bulgaria have suffered a population exodus, Tryavna has embraced tourism, providing employment for the town.  As one of Bulgaria’s prettiest villages, it is a picturesque escape from city life, with shops, museums and outdoor recreational opportunities nearby. History is literally underfoot in the area, since part of a trail leading to the mountain village of Bozhentsi follows the remnants of an old Roman road.IMG_1522Crossing the footbridge over the Tryavna River at the clock-tower, the pleasant whiff of wood smoke came to us on a chilly Spring morning.  Large woodpiles are essential in this region and we saw plenty of homes with the winter’s firewood neatly stacked, as we wandered around the village, with its parks filled with sculpture and tulips in bloom.

People have inhabited Tryavna since millennia past, but the first record of it dates to the 12th century when Saint Archangel Michael Church was built by in the village by Bulgarian Tzar Asen in tribute to his victory over Byzantine Emperor Isaac II at Tryavna pass. At the battle of Tryavna Pass, Bulgarian troops ambushed and routed the Byzantines, capturing Imperial treasure that included the golden helmet of the Byzantine Emperors, the crown and the Imperial Cross which was the most valuable possession of the Byzantine rulers – containing a piece of the Holy Cross.IMG_1710Over the centuries Saint Archangel Michael Church has been reconstructed several times. Its most recent incarnation dates from 1853 when the tall wooden belfry was added. Inside, the interior is richly ornamented with elaborate 19th century woodcarvings and iconography created by members of the Vitan family, famous throughout Bulgaria for generations of skilled artisans.  The carved bishop’s throne is an exquisite masterpiece.IMG_1712The safest way to order your cup of java in parts of Bulgaria is to ask for a traditional coffee, not wanting to offend anyone by calling it Turkish.  The fact is Greek, Albanian, Bosnian, Persian, Turkish andthe same, plus or minus cardamom or a local spice.  But here in Tryavna at the Renaissance Café the coffee was brewed on a very traditional sand stove.  A shallow pan filled with sand was heated over an open flame, and a long handled, brass cezve was filled with coffee and water, then partially buried in the hot sand to brew.  With diligent attendance our coffee was brought to a frothy boil three times before being moved to the top of the sand where it stayed warm while the grounds settled.  The ritual of the event definitely enhanced our enjoyment of the brew.IMG_1656We only just scratched the surface of this lovely country.  There’s so much to see here, especially in its vast countryside.  Hopefully one day we’ll get a chance to return.

Till next time, Craig & DonnaUF

Bulgaria: Plovdiv – Minarets and Roman Ruins

The fertile, rolling hills between Sofia and Plovdiv have been traversed by migrating populations and numerous invading armies over the millennia. Today the A1 highway whisks an ever-increasing number of tourists between these historic cities, only two hours apart.  We were heading to Plovdiv, voted a 2019 European Capital of Culture, at the suggestion of one of our Instagram followers to “go see more of Bulgaria.”  It is the oldest city in Europe, having been continuously inhabited since 6000 BCE, three-thousand years older than Athens.  Two nights in Plovdiv then a drive over Stara Planina, the Balkan Mountains range that runs east to west for 348 miles and divides Bulgarian into northern and southern regions, to the beautiful village of Tryavna.IMG_0331Just outside Old Town Plovdiv, Roots Hotel and Wine Bar was ideally located to explore the heights of the historic district and the newer, yet still old, city built below it.  Our host Mitko, an expat who returned from Canada, was an enthusiastic promoter of all things Bulgarian, especially its undiscovered wines.  Under his tutelage we enjoyed some excellent wines.  “We have a wine making tradition in Bulgaria that goes back thousands of years, but because of our recent history no-one knows of it. All the wine was sent to Russia to balance our trade deficit with them. Folks in Sofia only drink Italian wine, thinking it’s better. But ages ago even the Roman Emperors preferred wine from Bulgaria.”

Remnants of Plovdiv’s glorious past are clearly visible in the magnificent ruins of the Ancient Theater of Philippopolis which sits high on the slope of Nebet Tepe and overlooks the newer part of the city below.  Built in the first century, this Roman Amphitheatre could hold 6,000 people.  Today it is still used to host concerts and other cultural events.

Strolling uphill to the summit of Nebet Tepe, we saw fine examples of Bulgarian Revival Architecture lining both sides of the cobbled lanes.  Sometimes the upper floors of the homes jutted out so far, they almost kissed the dwellings across the street.

Just shy of the summit, the Regional Ethnographic Museum and Saints Konstantin and Elena Church offered windows into a past way of life.IMG_0676

The ruins on the summit date to the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th century CE, but traces of earlier civilizations have also been found that date back to 6000 BCE.  The site offered a great panoramic view of Plovdiv.  Returning from the summit we were able to enjoy a late lunch outside, on the terrace, at Rahat Tepe, and sample some traditional Bulgarian dishes and cold drafts as reward for our steep hike on a warm Spring day. IMG_0543At just over a mile long the pedestrian mall in the center of Plovdiv is the longest in Europe, running from the Stefan Stambolov Square along Knyaz Alexander I, and Rayko Daskalov Street before ending at the footbridge lined with shopping stalls that crosses the Maritza River.

History erupted along its length, and at times, it felt as if we were traveling back through antiquity.  At the south end of the mall near the Garden of Tsar Simeon park the ruins of a Roman Forum and Odeon from the second century CE can be observed.  Discovered in 1988, its been determined that this central shopping and administrative area of ancient Plovdiv covered a vast twenty acres.IMG_0749 But the jewel of the mall area was the curved ruins of the Ancient Stadium of Philipopolis, with its fourteen tier seating area, unearthed in 1923. Situated below street level and surrounded by modern buildings at Dzhumaya Square, the ruins provided a dramatic juxtaposition of the ancient and contemporary, where you can actually see the layering of history and how the city was built over earlier civilizations.  From this excavated section, archeologists have determined that the stadium was a huge 790 feet long and 165 feet wide and could seat nearly 30,000 spectators.IMG_0758Across the square the Dzhumaya Mosque is the main Friday Mosque for Muslims in Plovdiv.  Constructed in 1421, it replaced an earlier mosque built in 1363 on the foundations of a Bulgarian Church destroyed during the Ottoman conquest.  It is one of the oldest and largest Muslim religious buildings in the Balkans. At the café in front of it we enjoyed some sweet Turkish tea and pastries in the warm afternoon sun.

Veering off Rayko Daskalov Street we wandered through the Kapana Creative District.  The area had fallen on hard times and was almost demolished to become a modern trade zone before local architects and historians lobbied to protect its Bulgarian Revival architecture.  Now it’s a destination “go to place.”  The whole neighborhood has been pedestrianized with cafes, hip shops, artist galleries, wine bars, craft beer brewers and small restaurants now filling once vacant storefronts.

The distinctive twisted minaret of the Imaret Mosque towered above the treelined streets on the north side of the Kapana  District as we wandered back to the pedestrian mall and the Maritza River. The unplastered, red brick building and minaret were constructed in 1444 during the Ottoman reign.  Many fine gravestones with Islamic inscriptions were scattered around the yard which once served as a Muslim cemetery.

Under the peaked arches of the mosque’s portico hundreds of chairs were stacked high, waiting to be used for a future event.  The mosque took its name Imaret from the Turkish word used for soup kitchens. For four hundred years, every day hot meals and bread were handed out there for the poor people, regardless of their faith.

The pedestrian only shopping bridge over the Maritsa River will take you to the Karshiaka district, a newer neighborhood on the northern bank of the river.  The bridge itself was disappointing, being a totally enclosed, elevated tunnel with no views of the river, but the bike path along the riverfront offered a nice shady stroll along the water’s edge.

Heading back to our hotel we took our host’s advice and stopped to sample wines at his friend’s shop called Vino Culture.  It’s an intimate gastropub and wine bar with a knowledgeable staff dedicated to promoting small Bulgarian wineries from different regions of the country.  Since we like red wine, Boris, our viniculture expert for the evening, suggested we try a wine made with the Mavrud grape.  It’s an ancient grape that has been cultivated in Bulgaria thousands of years.  Late ripening with a thick and almost black colored skin, the grape produces a strong, full of character wine that is a deep ruby shade.  We loved it.

Tomorrow we look for a UFO.  Really – that’s not the wine talking.

Till later, Craig & Donna

Bulgaria: Living in Sofia

When we departed the states nine months prior, Bulgaria was not part of our travel plans, not even a bleep on our radar. But what a wonderful spontaneous decision it turned out to be.  IMG_2496From Portugal we were to go to England for three months of pet sitting in various locales to save some funds for our push into Africa later in the year.  But just short of heading to the U.K. our first pet sit canceled!  Even though the dollar exchange rate against the pound was the best in decades, it wasn’t favorable enough for an extended stay.  So, we needed a plan B immediately.  It was just the beginning of Spring and we had been spoiled by the pleasant weather in Portugal, so that eliminated going North.  After a couple of quick online searches for weather conditions in various cities and inexpensive flights out of Lisbon, bang – we chose Sofia!IMG_2015 The city was a magnificent surprise with its cosmopolitan vibe and café scene along pedestrian only Vitosha Boulevard.  And hundreds of thousands of yellow tulips, planted in the city parks, were blossoming!IMG_2106Sunny days meant coffee on our balcony and a direct line of sight into the baklava bakery on the corner, across the street. The calories accrued from the sweet creations purchased from that den of temptation were only kept in check by long walks throughout the city.  IMG_8013.jpgExploring the neighborhoods surrounding our apartment, we quickly found delightful, small restaurants like Colibri Kitchen, Edgy Veggy, and Made in Home, which offered new interpretations of Bulgarian classics, while Moma Bulgarian served authentic dinners.  Several gourmet food shops, like Bread and Cheese for Friends and Sun Moon Store, specializing in Bulgarian made products, were also nearby as was a butcher’s shop and innumerable bakeries, each with different offerings.  (But for the whole week before Orthodox Easter all they baked was Kozunak, an incredibly delicious, rich and fragrant type of Stollen.)

At the Chili Hills Farm Store we found a line of Balkan Hot Sauces created from fifty different types of chili peppers collected from around the world, but locally grown in the Vitosha Mountains. Farther afield we’d walk across town to Sofia’s Central Market Hall for prepared foods to take-away or to the Lidl supermarket for basics.  Sofia as it turned out was a foodie’s haven!

In the mornings we would arbitrarily wander about the city, continuing our tradition of “walk a bit then café – walk a little more….” or pick a destination in a far-off area, determined to immerse ourselves into Sofia’s life and explore every quadrant of the city.  These walks revealed off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods, reminiscent of Paris or London, full of architectural gems built during the Bulgarian Renaissance.

Bulgarian culture re-asserted itself and blossomed during this short-lived renaissance which coincided with the country’s sixty-seven-years of freedom between the end of Ottoman occupation in 1878 and the beginning of communist rule in 1945.

Many other neighborhoods reflected the brutal designs of communist block housing which were brightened only by some colorful street art.  Knowledge of the city’s layout often led to frustrating experiences with taxi drivers who were intent on building their fares by taking us on roundabout routes. IMG_2334Weekends were especially rewarding when it was more likely we’d come across a street market or dance class in a park.

Intense chess matches were played out on park benches and always drew an audience of curious onlookers. Pensioners playing cards was also a daily ritual in the parks.

Most afternoons we headed over to Vitosha Boulevard to sit at a café and people-watch, or walked along the rows of fountains, surrounded by yellow tulips, in front of the National Palace of Culture, with a still snowcapped Vitosha Mountain rising behind it.

IMG_1991The cost of living in Bulgaria was very favorable with most items in the bakeries costing just one dollar and a nice dinner for two with wine, dessert and coffee costing under $40.00.  A visit to a local dentist, recommended by our Airbnb host, to have a cavity filled cost $20.00.  The x-ray needed cost $5.00 from a different facility around the corner. IMG_4282[36950]-2Our lovely, large one-bedroom apartment with living room, dining table and small balcony, just two blocks away from the popular pedestrian mall, cost less than $800.00 for the month.  (We found it amusing that the two-burner electric cook top was kept in a drawer in the kitchen, but we made it work for us.)  A 90¢ USD subway fare got us to the airport for our $10.00 per day car rental, with unlimited miles, for our road trips.  There were some oddities though.

Cut flowers were extremely expensive, so much so, that they we sold by the individual stem.  In many grocery stores butter was so highly priced it had those plastic anti-theft tags attached to it.

We enjoyed our time in Sofia and found it to be a very interesting and diverse city, full of history. And it was a great low budget destination that kept us fully engaged for a month.  Bulgaria should be on everyone’s radar as a place to head for a fascinating experience.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Bulgarian: Back Roads, Monasteries and Junkyards

We hadn’t done much research on Bulgaria before we arrived, so we asked one of our Bulgarian Instagram followers for tips.  “The monasteries and small villages are a must; the countryside is beautiful,” and our first Bulgarian road trip was born.  Our three-day excursion would take us first to Rila Monastery, then further south near the border with Greece to visit several rustic villages in the mountains and other points of interest along the way. IMG_9484After you crouch to enter through a low door and then look up in this intimate space, the WOW element of Boyana Church Museum can’t be emphasized enough!  It was such a mesmerizing experience we wished we could have stayed longer. But, a maximum of eight people at a time are permitted to enter the church and stay for only ten minutes.

This small, unassuming medieval church, built in the 900s, preserves large fragments of the most amazing Christian frescoes from the 11th, 12th, 14th, and 16th centuries. The murals from 1259 are the most famous and are recognized for their skilled, realistic portrayal of the saints’ faces.  Though still within the city limits of Sofia, it’s located in an area far from the city center on the lower slope of Vitosha Mountain.  Fortunately, we arrived early before the bus tours of the day started.IMG_9625Our main destination was Rila Monastery, still seventy-one miles away.  We made good time on the A3, which had recently undergone improvements, before exiting onto Rt 1005 for a drive through pastoral countryside, shadowed by the snowcapped Musala Peak (9,596 ft) in the Rila mountain range.

Following the Rilska river, through a steep, heavily-treed gorge, Rt. 107 wove past blossoming fruit orchards, abandoned campsites, roadside shrines and rockslides the rest of the way to the monastery.

Rila was the first Orthodox monastery built in Bulgaria in the tenth century, by students of beloved St. Ivan of Rila who lived in solitude for twenty years, in a cave not far away. IMG_8586 This is the only monastery to survive during the centuries of Ottoman domination over Bulgaria, when it was rebuilt in defiance of the Turks.  The Bulgarian people have great affection for this monastery, as a symbol of their religion and culture during those turbulent centuries.IMG_8559-2The distinctive architectural style of the monastery, with its arched black and white portico filled with religious murals offset against red brick domes, dates to the 1830’s when it was rebuilt again after a fire destroyed the entire complex except for the stone bell tower.  It is considered to be the finest example of Bulgarian National Revival architecture.IMG_8539

It was a cold afternoon in the mountains, and we were happy to find a restaurant with a roaring fire in its fireplace to help warm our chilled bones before we started the drive back.IMG_8926Thirteen miles from the monastery, on a side street in the town of Rila, we spotted a church with three small cupolas, that called for a quick stop.  The church “St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Mirikliyski” was a surprising find with its cracked bell tower and muraled covered entrance porch, complete with woodpile.IMG_8851 The painter of these hell fire and brimstone murals might have gotten his inspiration from the tortured works of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.  Unfortunately, the church was closed and we haven’t been able to find any other information about this off-the beaten-path treasure.

With the Rila mountains in our rearview mirror, we set off again for Blagoevgrad, where we would spend the night.  Twilight was beginning to descend when we caught a glimpse of the Unofficial Junk Museum as we sped past.  It had cars piled high on its roof. “Let’s stop.” “It’s getting late.” “Just for a few quick photos.” Faster than a quick genuflect, the car was parked and we were inside.IMG_8967 The Unofficial Junk Museum is a vast, rusty and dusty collection of whatever the owner deemed representative of Bulgarian culture under communism. Radios, tv’s, typewriters, farming equipment, cars, motorcycles, household items and busts of Stalin are stacked everywhere.  It’s fascinating!  And of all the places to buy a bottle of homemade Rakia from – we did not go blind.

The Diva Hotel, for $22.00 a night was a tremendous bargain and very comfortable.  Always a good sign, its restaurant was lively with local families.IMG_9062In the morning we followed Rt. 1 south for a while as it hugged the Struma River, which would eventually reach the Aegean Sea, before we turned off and headed in to the Pirin Mountains.

Our destination the village of Melnik, known for its long history of winemaking.  We hadn’t expected the Bulgarian countryside to be as beautiful as it was, and it just kept getting better the farther south we went.  As we passed through a landscape of verdant rolling hills alive with sheep and cattle, distant snowcapped mountains occasionally broke the horizon.  Vineyards soon dominated the terrain.IMG_9144Melnik is situated in a wide gorge under striking sandstone rock formations, called hoodoos, that tower hundreds of feet high, created from millennia of erosion.  Locals refer to these geological phenomena as Melnik Earth Pyramids.  The village has been renown for making strong wine since 1346 from a regional red grape varietal, Shiroka Melnishka, and wine cellars still line its main street. IMG_9221 Once a thriving village with one thousand residents, today it is now home to fewer than three hundred.  The village was a delight to explore with its cobbled streets meandering between the whitewashed stone and timber homes built in the Bulgarian Revival style. Ninety-six of the village’s houses are historically protected.  Any new construction in town adhered to that aesthetic. IMG_9237From the ruins of Bolyarska kŭshta, high on a hill above the Church of St. Anthony, we spotted the dome of what looked like a hammam, a Turkish bath, nestled between the traditional homes below, and went to explore. IMG_9321 With the help of a kind woman, who somehow knew what we were looking for, we found the ruins of a small Roman era spa in a small side alley.  Its dome was fully intact and the substructure of its once heated floor remained.  There is also a single arched old roman bridge, near the parking lot, that you can still walk across. Before continuing to Kovachevitsa, we relaxed at one of the sunny cafes in the center of the village.IMG_9504Kovachevitsa, an isolated, rustic stone village in the Rhodope mountains, was only 52 miles away near the border with Greece. However, it took us the bulk of the afternoon to reach because “someone stops every hundred yards to take a photo.”  And stop we did as we were awed by the beauty of the border region as we drove through the mountains.  So close were we to the border that our phones binged with a “Welcome to Greece” message from our cell phone carrier.IMG_9544At one point we stopped to photograph a complete section of an iron truss bridge, just rusting away on the side of the road, only to have our car suddenly surrounded by a flock of bah-ing sheep.

It was slow going into Kovachevitsa as the guard rails along the sinuous route disappeared and the road deteriorated.  Night fell as we followed our GPS to the intersection of three dirt tracks in the village. Where to now? Not a soul was around, but smoke was rising from several chimneys. IMG_9769So, we knocked on the ancient door of the closest building only to be greeted by loud barking.  Retreating back to the car we pondered what to do when a voice behind us said “hello.” That was the only word of English our host spoke until he said “goodbye” two days later.  The barking dog turned out to be a gentle giant, who welcomed us to the inn. In fact, all the dogs of the village were St. Bernard-size, and they must all have been related, because they closely resembled one another. Fortunately, they were good-natured.

On our way into the village we had passed many homes with exceedingly large wood piles. We understood their importance as the heat from the crackling fire allowed us to take off our multiple outer layers and sit comfortably in the stone cellar of our inn, the Basoteva House, a renovated stone home, with huge wooden beams built in 1861.  In the past, this lower level served as the barn area for farm animals; now it’s the kitchen, bar, and dining area.  Rakia was offered and accepted. Cheers! IMG_9765Bulgarians fleeing religious persecution and the forced conversion policies of the Ottoman Empire sought refuge in the rugged Rhodope mountains and established Kovachevitsa in 1656.  Agriculture and stockbreeding in the area thrived during the 1800s and the homes still standing in the village date from that time.  The tall stone homes of Kovachevitsa are stunning and unique in an organic way.

The three- and four-story homes are built from locally quarried stone using no mortar.  Even, layered flat stones are used for the roofs.  The natural construction materials blended the village almost seamlessly into the mountainous surrounding environment.  With alleys so narrow and the homes so close together, it’s said you can walk the entire length of the village along the rooftops.