Driving South to Sicily: Part One – Herculaneum to Sorrento, or “They Have You by the Coglioni!”

The car rental agent across from the Naples train station enthusiastically informed us that we were the first drivers of a brand-new Peugeot. Leading us to a shiny set of wheels, parked on busy street in front of the office, he offered a rudimentary description of the car’s technological features, a collision avoidance system and satellite navigation that would show every radar speed camera on the Italian highways.

With our luggage in the trunk and a friendly wave we were off, or so we thought.  Just barely moving forward, the collision avoidance system screeched alive with alarms and red blinking threats on the dashboard display.  It happened frequently as we worked our way through heavy Neapolitan traffic. Scooters, cars, trucks and pedestrians getting close to our bumpers set the system into a frenzy of piercing alarms and flashing lights.  Nerve wracking – it felt like I was Luke Skywalker thundering along in an X-wing fighter while R2D2 whizzed with anxiety, as we tried to evade the Empire’s eradication. In reality we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Fortunately, the congestion eased, and Herculaneum was only a twenty-minute drive from Naples.

We had visited Pompei years earlier, one June when Italy was having an early heat wave and the temperature was over 100F.  As interesting as Pompei was, the size of the site and the heat dampened our enthusiasm for it. This day was quite a different experience, as the weather in November was very agreeable for visiting Herculaneum.

We descended into its excavated ruins, which were destroyed and covered with 53ft of ash on the same fateful night as Pompeii in 79AD.  The towering black walls of solidified ash surrounding the site reinforced the magnitude of the catastrophe. The coastal town was popular with wealthy Romans who built Domus style homes which were richly decorated with frescoes and mosaics.  Arched workshops of boatbuilders lined the shore and were the last refuge of citizens trying to flee, their agony now eternally preserved in casts of their bodies.  The massive amount of ash and volcanic rock that fell created a new shoreline on the Bay of Naples, 2000ft farther west. 

Only a fraction of the size of Pompeii, the Herculaneum archeological area doesn’t draw the immense crowds of the larger site, but is just as interesting and in some ways more so. Unlike Pompeii, which was engulfed in a scorching lava flow which destroyed most of the wood and decorative elements of the homes there, the cooler ash and poisonous gases that killed the populace of Herculaneum preserved the homes to a greater degree, leaving the wooden internal structure of buildings and their interior décors intact.  This combined with an earlier visit to the Naples National Archaeological Museum to see the finest examples of relics recovered from the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii provided us with deeper insight into the opulent lifestyle of the 1st century AD Roman Empire.  Herculaneum was easily explored in a half day and enabled us to continue to Sorrento in a timely manner.

With fond memories of the serpentine Amalfi Coast from a trip a fifteen years earlier, we decided to base our new weeklong exploration of the Sorrentine Peninsula in Sorrento.  The route into town along SS145 didn’t disappoint us when rounding a cliff-hugging bend of the road revealed a view all the way out to the Isle of Capri. By staying in the largest town of the region we didn’t have to worry about seasonal closures, which unfortunately were beginning to happen in mid-November.  Only a short walk from the center of town and the waterfront with Mount Vesuvius commanding the horizon across the Bay of Naples, the lovely Villa Rosa Sorrento with its modest off-season pricing and free parking was a terrific value and perfect for us.

With our attempts at immersive travel, we avoid scratching off a list of designated tourist highlights; rather,  we explore a place seeking how to experience how folks live, the everydayness of a place, and whether we would enjoy living there. “Walk a little, then café,” is our slow travel approach as we soak up the ambience of a locale.

La Tana Del Vino on Via Parsano was a delightful find. This small enoteca features regionally produced wines that they decant for you from large stainless-steel vats into your own glass or plastic bottles.  A variety of red, white and rose’ wines were available, most between 3-4€ per liter.  Samples were freely poured and we very pleased with our selection of these table wines. 

Sorrento with its ferry service to Capri gears itself to the high season.  There were still tourists out and about, but the large tour buses and groups were absent in November, the beginning of the rainy season.  We ran between rain drops the best we could on several occasions. 

With the port as our destination for lunch, it was a pleasant stroll along near empty sidewalks to Chiostro di San Francesco, a 14th century convent with a lush, greenery-filled cloister that now hosted other activities and concerts.  On the top floor Raffaele Celentano’s photography school and gallery had a marvelous patio shaded by the canopy of stately tree. A wooden swing hanging from its branches brought smiles to the faces of many gallery visitors as they playfully took a turn.

The panoramic balcony in the public garden across from the convent is a magnet for sunset worshippers.  In the garden the city operates the Sorrento Lift, two elevators that take tourists and residents down to the harbor level where hydrofoils and ferry service is available to Capri, Ischia, Positano and Naples, along with access to the beach clubs and the city’s public beach. 

After washing our clothes in various sinks for two weeks it was time for a thorough laundering, and we lugged our bundle to a laundromat in town. It was a very clean facility. We were amused to notice that the vending machine that dispensed soap products also offered a very broad selection of marijuana products as well, presumably to allay the tedium of the task.  The selections weren’t inexpensive, with many items costing over twenty euros.  This was something unique that we had never come across before in our travels.  The world is changing so quickly, but we can’t imagine dropping a twenty euro note into a vending machine for anything.

With our clothes in the dryer, we decided to head to lunch, and immediately got drenched to the bone in a sudden downpour.  Looking like water rats, we sought shelter under the awning of a pizzeria. Seeing us, the proprietor of Master Hosts (not a very atmospheric name) ushered us inside and kindly insisted we warm ourselves in front of the pizza oven.  Even if we hadn’t been so extremely grateful for his hospitality, this was some of the best pizza and wine we had in Italy, while our fingers de-wrinkled. His graciousness turned a gloomy day into a wonderful afternoon. 

Another rainy night we made our way early to La Cantinaccia del Popolo, a rustic neighborhood restaurant that stays open all year to cater to its loyal following.  Part deli, part gourmet restaurant, the open kitchen is fronted by a glass charcuterie case with an exotic display of dried meats, cheeses, pates, terrines, and olives. The gastronomic delights from the kitchen are plated in their signature deep dish pans.  Packed and noisy, with a friendly staff, delicious food, and a good house wine, this was a cozy place to enjoy the evening. Fortified with a great meal and drink, we faced a cold November rain as we walked back to our inn.  If you prefer to dine later in the evening, reservations are suggested after 8 PM.

Lemons, lemons everywhere!  Regional seafood, pasta, rice, chicken, pastry, and gelato recipes all use this tart fruit in delectable ways. And remember limoncello! The cool breezes of the Mediterranean that blow against the steep mountains of the Amalfi coast create a unique microclimate where lemons flourish and are harvested multiple times of the year, though the most desirable crop is picked between March and July.  This is a strenuous labor-intensive activity as the steep terrain requires all the fruit to be picked by hand and the heavy grates are carried out of the orchards on the backs of men. 

A morning drive along the sinuous coast and a turn into the mountains brought us to Ravello in time for lunch at a small restaurant with only six indoor tables.  Fifteen years ago, as a wedding present to each other, we splurged and purchased a dinnerware set of ceramics featuring the iconic Amalfi lemons, set against a rich blue background.  Over the years everyday use had taken its toll on our plates.  Fortunately, Pascal Ceramiche d’Arte was still painting our pattern and they ship internationally, so we were able to fill in a few gaps in our service.

After coffee we wandered the town’s narrow, high walled lanes down the hill towards the Monastero Di S. Chiara.  Along the way we encountered a construction worker leading a team of donkeys with rigid saddlebags full of sand to a worksite, the ancient alley too tight for any vehicle to maneuver through.

There’s no way around it, “they have you by the coglioni!” when you are trying to find a parking garage in Positano.  In this most beautiful village on the Amalfi Coast we paid through the nose for the privilege of parking.  Water, café, food and parking, even in the off season, are exorbitantly priced.  But on a sunny day, when the sky clears after a morning storm, the dramatic setting of the terraced village is at its best. Positano rises steeply into the mountains from the sea sparkling like a spectacular Byzantine mosaic, radiating light and color.  It’s well worth the splurge even if you have to eat Ramen noodles for the next three days to get back on budget.

To our delight we found a wonderful, affordable spot for a late lunch in Agerola called Jerla as we navigated our way across the mountaintop on the way back to Sorrento.

Getting there required a breathtaking drive through the numerous switchbacks of Strada Statale 366, also referred to as the Via Panoramica, that climbed through the terraced vineyards of San Michele and had incredible views of the Amalfi Coast below.

We each wanted to be in control on this treacherous road. We argued about who got to drive as we sped around the curves, and who was relegated to digging their fingernails into the dashboard.

Til next time, Craig & Donna

Puglia: Alberobello – Trulli, Troglodytes and the Sea

One of the characteristics we most appreciated about traveling through Europe was the ready availability of a cup of delicious coffee, even in the most unexpected of places. The bar on the ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari came through with two tasty cappuccinos the morning after our overnight passage in a windowless cabin. As a hazy sunrise dawned over the Adriatic Sea, we sipped our revitalizing espresso and milk while the ship docked in Bari, capping an otherwise uneventful crossing to the Puglia region – “the heel of Italy” or the “spur of the boot.” 

Behind the wheel of our rental car, we passed through verdant olive groves in the Valle d’Itria, alternately known as the Valle d’Trulli or the Valley of Ancient Olive Trees. Olives trees are celebrated for their age in the region, and several top two thousand years old.  One ancient millennarian called the Elephant is 3,000 years old. The orchards on either side of the road were busy with workers covering the ground under the trees with collection nets in preparation for the olive harvest.

A little aside – we are olive aficionados. All things olive we enjoy. We have even brined our own, ordering California olives, then scoring and soaking them for three months in salt water to remove the extremely bitter oleuropein.  As tasty as they are after this process, they are downright vile beforehand, which has always made me wonder how it was determined that they were edible.  Did a starving hunter-gatherer pluck a floating olive from a salt marsh and make the discovery of a lifetime?

Farther along we sped past a farmer selling yellow melons from the back of his three-wheeled Piaggio Ape, a small truck that is ubiquitous throughout the farmlands of Italy. We did a quick U-turn to buy two from him, and they were delicious.  Our progress slowed through another small town as a brass band led funeral mourners across the road ahead of us.

Our destination was Alberobello, to meet up with three of our sons and especially to live in a trullo for a week.  This was the culmination of a decades-long desire ever since becoming aware of these enchanting, whitewashed dwellings capped with conical-shaped stone roofs with a pinnacle at the top.

Trullo comes from the Greek word for circular domed construction, tholos.  But it is thought the “a secco” style, without mortar construction technique, was brought to Puglia by North African invaders when Sicily was under Arab rule in the mid-800s or even earlier. As the Valle d’Itria surrounding Alberobello was deforested (albero bello translates as “beautiful tree”) to make way for cultivated crops and olive orchards, the building material of choice was the abundant limestone rocks removed from the fields or the wells dug beneath their homes.  The flat stones, called chiancarelle, are precisely pitched so that rainwater runs off the roof and the interior remains dry.  Their local design was firmly entrenched in the 14th century when the King of Naples granted the desolate Alberobello region to the first Count of Conversano as reward for service during a crusade. 

In a ploy to recruit tenant farmers from neighboring regions the feudal landlord offered trulli with the caveat that when the king’s tax collector visited the area, homes would be destroyed by the count’s horsemen using a rope to pull the pinnacle, a key stone, from the roof, collapsing it.  The homes could then only be rebuilt when the tax collector was safely far away.

This miserliness inflicted upon the already hard lives of the peasant farmers was to avoid payment of “new settlement” taxes by the feudal lord.  No wonder there were constant peasant uprisings. This threat literally of “the roof coming down on your head” was used to intimidate or evict rabble rousers and farmers who didn’t pay their crop share to the landowner.  As peasants’ rights changed over the centuries the homes became more permanent, though tenant farming was common in Italy until the end of WWll.

Our Airbnb trullo was located on one of the narrow, steep lanes of the Monti district not far from the Church of Sant’Antonio with its steeples mimicking the stone roofs of the surrounding homes. It was a compact space with two small bedrooms and combo kitchen/living room area.  When the front door was closed it felt like a snug cave, but fortunately the entry had a classic beaded curtain over it as a privacy screen that let in plenty of light and air when the door was open. 

The charm here was a vertical ladder that led to a hatch which opened to a rooftop patio with a grapevine, chairs, a table, and a clothesline. It was delightful and we made daily use of it, bringing coffee up the ladder in the morning and then wine to enjoy while watching the sunset. Immersing ourselves totally in the local lifestyle, we flew our laundry from the clothesline, like a proud flag symbolizing our occupation. 

It took the better part of a day to coordinate the arrival of our tribe; Craig and Gary stayed with us, while Jack and his partner Brian stayed near Matera. The plan was to tour Alberobello, visit Matera in the neighboring Basilicata region together and then spend a day in Lecce with our friend Giulia, whom we met at the very beginning of our journey, fourteen months earlier in Ecuador.

Many visitors savor all of Alberobello’s magic in one day, but if you don’t like changing hotels frequently, like us, it was also the perfect spot to base further exploration of Puglia, which is what we intended to do.

There are over one thousand trulli in the Monti district spread across seven narrow streets that twist and turn in an enchantingly confusing way, yet the area was small enough that we were never really lost.  Early in the mornings or late in the day the neighborhood had a unique ambience, with its cobbled lanes, whitewashed walls and pointed stone roofs painted with various religious, astrological, or folkloric  symbols. The latter were meant to ward off evil or ensure a bountiful harvest. Similarly, there are different thoughts about the meaning of the various shapes of the pinnacles atop the roofs. I prefer the theory that they represent the ancient stone mason’s calling card. Most of the trulli have now been converted to shops, restaurants, small inns, and rental properties. 

Across the main road at the bottom of the hill we climbed a shallow slope to a second, smaller borghi, or neighborhood, equally charming but with a more residential flavor than the Monti. The Aja Piccola is comprised of about four hundred trulli.

Farther afield on the outskirts of town we walked through Alberbello’s central cemetery.  Spanning centuries with classic tombs and modern mausoleums, the graveyard architecture presented a strikingly distinct dichotomy to the rustic trulli.

It was backroads through farmland most of the way to Matera, past larger trullo with multiple rooms, each represented by its conical roof. Some along the way were abandoned or used as barns, while others were pristinely refurbished and doubled as the farmer’s home or agrotourism business.

Matera sprang to notoriety in 1945, at the end of WWII, with the publication of Carlo Levi’s novel about his political exile to the region, Christ Stopped at Eboli, when Mussolini was in power.  He described the squalid conditions in which peasants lived together their farm animals: they inhabited caves, without electricity or running water, and diseases ran rampant.  The Italian government was internationally embarrassed by the neglect the sassi of Matera received, and in a restitution effort, relocated the entire population of some 16,000 cave dwellers from 1,500 sassi, small caverns, to a new town built on the plateau above the honeycomb of caves.

Archaeologists have determined through excavations that Matera grew from a series of water-eroded caves along the walls of the Gravina River canyon, which were first inhabited sporadically 9,000 years ago during the Stone Age.  Permanent populations have existed here since 3,000 BC, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe. 

The Romans declared Matera a town in 251 BC. Centuries later the safety of cave dwellings appealed to many during the turbulent dark ages and the populace grew as folks expanded the natural caves and randomly dug new sassi, above and below their neighbors, from the soft rock of the canyon walls.  During the Middle Ages the prosperity of the city supported many churches and convents.

In the 1200s the Cathedral of Saint Mary ‘della Bruna,’ Saint Eustace, and the Church of Saint John the Baptist were built on opposite sides of the ravine.  Prosperity continued in this area into the early renaissance.  The exterior of the some of the sassi were squared off and ornately carved with columns, while others were expanded with additional rooms and vaulted ceilings.   

Political intrigue over the centuries put Matera on the losing side of several rebellions against the various Kings of Naples. The coup de grace came in 1860 after unification with the Kingdom of Italy, when many of the lands and properties owned by the church in the Basilicata region were confiscated and sold off to wealthy aristocratic families. With support from the church, peasant opposition to the broken promises of the new Italian government grew and soon the countryside was controlled by roaming bands of brigands.  The province was too dangerous to travel through, further isolating Matera even though it was the capital of Basilicata.  Many decades of governmental neglect followed and pushed Matera into major decline.

For three decades the sassi were an abandoned no-man’s-land, the caves used as drug dens and warehouses for smugglers until the first gentrifications began with several small boutique hotels in the 1980s.  During years of renovation and exploration, 150 cave churches, 90 wine cellars and numerous cisterns have been rediscovered after the removal of debris and muck from their last use as barns and stables.

The uniqueness of Matera’s “spontaneous architecture” as it is officially called was recognized in 1993 when UNESCO named it a World Heritage site.  Further interest followed, after Matera was used as a film location to double for ancient Jerusalem in several movies: The Passion of the Christ (2004), King David (2005), and The Nativity Story (2006.) Even some scenes from the 2017 Wonder Woman were filmed there. In 2019 Matera received distinction as a European City Capital of Culture.  Today sixty percent of the sassi of Matera have been restored into small hotels, shops, galleries, and digital workspaces.  

When we arrived in Matera the historic area was hidden from our view by the buildings of the new town on the plateau above the Sassi district. We made our way to Piazza Vittorio Veneto while searching for stairs down into the ancient district. There was a tremendous WOW! factor when we emerged from a narrow alley onto a scenic panorama above the old town, the city’s silhouette frozen in time.

Around the city large surrealist sculptures by Salvador Dali stood in wonderful, whimsical juxtaposition to the surrounding monochromatic walls of the city. One day was not enough to uncover all the mystery that Matera had to offer. Hopefully, we will return in the future. 

A day at the beach, more like a day on the cliff above the beach, drew us to Polignano a Mare on Puglia’s Adriatic coast.  It’s a picturesque town known for its dramatic buildings balanced on a cliff edge that follows the sea, thirty feet below. 

The rock face is incredibly soft and over time sections have fallen into the sea creating grottos, under the homes above, that can be toured by boat.  White-pebbled Lama Monachile is a classic, small Italian beach nestled between cliffs, from which the brave dive into the calm turquoise waters of the cove. 

The quaint historic district is relatively small, and homes are painted in cooling colors which echo the sea. Alleys meander to small piazzas above the water, each with a unique view of the cliff and just large enough to support a small café with a few outside tables.  It was a brilliant sunny day, pleasantly uncrowded, and the weather was gentle enough that we could dine outside in a sunny spot during our November visit. 

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

Omo Valley Part 6 – The Arbore, Grasslands & Flamingos

Leaving the Buska Lodge, we turned east to cross the rugged Humu Range. Our eventual destination in three days’ time was Addis Ababa, but today we had one last tribe to visit: the Arbore tribe, whose ancestral homeland extends to the Weito River and Lake Chew Bahir.

Not far from the lodge, the compacted dirt road deteriorated into a rock-strewn obstacle course, the result of a recent rockslide caused by torrential rains earlier in August.  We coined the phrase “rattled tourist syndrome” here – after a couple of hours on this road, we felt like we had suffered brain damage!  Rounding a bend, we got our first glimpse of Lake Chew in the distance, before the road descended to a dry riverbed which we followed out of a canyon to the flood plain along the western shore of the lake.

When the shallow lake is full, its water covers an area 40 miles long by 15 miles wide and extends into northern Kenya.  It’s been drying up slowly for more than a century, and today it is mostly a papyrus-filled marshland. Its fertile shoreland is now farmed, and the papyrus reeds are cut from it by the Arbore to construct their huts.  Plots of land along the lake are redistributed yearly by the elders of the tribe, so no one family always has the best parcel.  

A short while later, under a threatening gray sky, we entered a small village. Here and there, women were involved in daily chores. Off to the side some children were tasked with rounding up a few young goats scampering about, while the married women of the village were attending to various chores in front of their huts.

The young, unmarried women of the clan were recognizable by the black cloth, a symbol of virginity, they draped over their shaven heads to protect themselves from the sun. Cattle-centric like most of the Omo Valley tribes the Arbore, which means land of the bulls, add a new dimension to it with the men joining the names of their favorite cows to their wives’ names. 

The Arbore are well respected by the surrounding tribes, the result of an ancient enduring legend in which the tribe defeated the devil in a battle.  Consequently, they have a centuries’ old “don’t mess with us” reputation that ensures a peaceful coexistence with their neighbors and fosters inter-tribal marriages and sharing of grazing lands when there are droughts.  

With the onslaught of the expected rain we were invited into a tribeswoman’s hut.  It was larger than some made by other tribes, with a second room where two small children were asleep on goat skins.  The front was roomy enough to shelter three of us and five villagers, sitting and standing, from the downpour outside.  It was a dark but dry enclosure. The colorful beads the women wore were illuminated by the only light source, the short entryway to the hut.

There are not any convenient alternate routes between points in the Omo Valley which meant we backtracked on roads previously driven as we worked our way towards Konso and Arba Minch.  We arrived late in the day to the Paradise Lodge, and the view from their terrace was spectacular as the sunny sky brightened the verdant jungle that separated Lake Abaya from Lake Chamo in the distance.

“The next time you come, we will go to the Bridge of God. It’s on the peak of that mountain that separates the two lakes.  There is a wonderful track through the jungle that takes you there,” our guide promised.

In the morning we set north to Lake Awassa, and the route was humming with activity. Folks walking, charcoal and dried chili vendors, tuk-tuks, donkey carts, herds of cattle and buses all jostled peacefully for space on this artery of commerce.

Before spending the night in Awassa, we detoured into the Senkele Wildlife Sanctuary, a 13,000-acre reserve established to protect a herd of 700 Swayne’s hartebeests, an endangered antelope. 

At the ranger station we parked our truck next to a large acacia tree, where to our delight a colony of weaver birds were frantically darting to and fro, constructing their intricate hanging nests. 

The guide drove us deep into the surrounding grasslands until he spotted a herd, and then encouraged us to walk across the plain with him.  Just exiting the vehicle made a huge difference in our appreciation of this gently rolling, beautiful landscape. 

The air was fresh, and an earthy aroma rose from the ground.  Farther down the track the ranger turned a blind eye to a young herder quickly moving some cattle through the reserve.  And to everyone’s surprise we spotted a rare Ethiopian wolf, which was stealthily shadowing a dik-dik.

Our destination the next morning was the Hawassa fish market, next to Amora Gedel, the smallest national park in Ethiopia. The market is a daily open-air event where fishermen paddle anything that floats, in order to eke out a living from the over-fished lake and its dwindling stock of tilapia, catfish, and Nile perch.

It was a colorful, chaotic affair as the fishermen gutted and filleted the freshly caught fish on the ground as soon as the nets were emptied.  It attracted a huge number of birds ready to swoop in to scavenge the scraps when the activity died down. 

There were a large number of ugly marabou storks, with their peculiar scaly heads, but we also saw hamerkop, ibis, pelicans and cormorants waiting patiently.   Ringing the parking lot, there were food shacks that prepared fried fish and a fish soup that is popular locally for breakfast.

Afterwards we headed to Abidjatta-Shalla National Park, which is known for its two large alkaline lakes surrounded by hot springs and flocks of flamingos, as well as a vast variety of bird life that favors the encompassing savanna.  We hired a ranger at the main gate and followed him along an unmarked path through the open woodland.

Soon we spotted a go away bird, warthogs and our favorite blue-eared glossy starlings.  Farther on we crept slowly up to a dominant male ostrich watching over a small flock. Our guide wanted us to go home with spectacular photos, so he instructed my wife to give him her camera, and to approach the large ostrich.

“It will be good photo,” he said in his broken English. “Closer, closer, closer.” My wife eyed the massive claws and muscular legs of the beast, and uncomfortably crept closer to the ostrich than she thought wise to do, the guide motioning her on all the while. “Stop!” the guide suddenly whisper-screeched and began snapping. He was right – they were pretty dramatic photos. Seconds later the ostriches were spooked by an unexpected antelope bounding through, and trotted off.

Back in the truck, our ranger guided us across the park to the shore of Shala Lake where we observed lesser flamingos feeding on cyanobacteria, abundant in the lakes’ alkaline water. 

After cresting a small ridge, we were overlooking a hot spring that bubbled up through the earth in a gully several hundred yards from the lake shore.  Surprisingly, there was a good size makeshift camp around it, supporting folks doing laundry and cooking food in the hot water.  Farther downstream people were bathing in ever cooler pools before the water emptied into the lake.

After soaking our feet in a suitable pool, it was time to return to Addis Ababa for our own day of laundry and rest before the next part of our Ethiopian journey, the rock churches of Lalibela.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lalibela Part 3: Sacred Bees and Holy Beer

IMG_3424Walking, walking, walking! The countryside is full of folks out and about on their feet. There is a rural minibus network connecting larger villages once a day, and Lalibela has tuk-tuks, of course. But mostly, whether it’s due to lack of affordability or availability, people walk to and from everywhere. Sometimes it is necessary to travel great distances to accomplish simple, everyday tasks like gathering water, heading out to tend a remote field, going to market, or even farther to visit a doctor. IMG_5294In the rugged agrarian highlands surrounding Lalibela, all the fields are tilled by farmers walking behind teams of oxen, as it has been done for centuries, on farmland passed down through a communal hereditary system called rist.  IMG_5277

The land does not belong to an individual but to the descendants who can never sell, keeping the land in the family for perpetuity.  Without mechanization, planting, weeding and harvesting are done communally.  If the rains are good excess crops make it to a local market; if not, it’s subsistence farming until the drought ends.  Some NGOs are having an impact by drilling community wells for fresh water and remote irrigation.

We passed many individuals and groups walking as we made our way into the beautiful highlands surrounding Lalibela to visit St. Yemrehana Krestos Church, named for the king that commissioned its construction around 1100 AD.

It’s only 12 miles from Lalibela as the crow flies, and until the road was put in not too long ago, a two-day trek from town.  Now, twenty-six miles of dirt road and an hour and half later we were there, a world away from Lalibela.

The path to the church took us across a footbridge spanning a boulder-strewn stream where women were washing clothes in the rushing water below. They agilely jumped from rock to rock as they spread their laundry out to dry.  As we headed uphill, we stopped at the bottom of a set of stairs to wait for a group of church elders to cautiously descend.

Situated at 8500 ft above sea level, the altitude was catching up to us and we were glad to sit for a while in front of the church to admire its setting. St. Yemrehana Krestos is not a legendary rock church, but a cave church built at the mouth of a deep cavern, behind a tall slender waterfall.

It’s constructed in a distinctive pattern of horizontal stone block, followed by a recessed layer of timber in an architectural style copied from the Aksumite Kingdom that flourished from 400 BC until the 10th century AD. 

The cave is very spacious and actually contains two buildings. The second directly across from the church is thought to have been the king’s humble palace or treasury, according to our guide.  The door to it was open, but it appeared to be used mostly for storage now. The floor between the buildings is covered with reed mats that hide a substructure of large olive wood beams built over a shallow spring-fed pool that can be reached by a trapdoor in front of the church.

Behind the church are two tombs draped in fine cloth, to indicate their royal significance.  The larger tomb is thought to be the grave of King Yemrehana Krestos and the smaller one that of his slave, Ebna. Deeper into the cave there is a mass grave of several hundred now mummified bodies, which have been piled on top of each other for centuries, the corpses of pilgrims and monks who could go no further. 

It took our eyes awhile to adjust to the dim interior of the church as we worked our way through a columned interior, the tops crowned with wood and stone carved capitals.  Never restored, centuries of accumulated candle soot partially obscured an inlaid wooden ceiling with geometric designs and, on the walls, what are thought to be the oldest examples of mural paintings in Ethiopia.

Outside a local teenager was selling small clay figurines of animals. His rendering of a Walia ibex, native to the Ethiopian Semien Mountains, caught our eye and we made his day with a purchase.

Heading back, we passed Bilbala St. George Church, a rock church built in the 5th or 6th century AD by King Kaleb. It is legendary for its sacred bees that have lived in hives in the courtyard since its founding. Their honey is renowned for its healing properties, especially for the treatment of skin problems and psychological disorders.  We were crazy not to stop; in retrospect, we regret our decision.

Walking, walking, walking. Coming or going, people carrying umbrellas for shade traveling along with goats or chickens, for sale or for dinner – the road was crowded with activity as we drove through the village of Bilibala on its market day.

With no semblance of trying to attract tourists, we had a better chance of coming home with a donkey from the pre-owned animal auction lot than a souvenir.

Outside the village at the turn to our next stop, a magnificent ancient fig tree provided shade under its graceful canopy.

After walking briefly through a shady forest and crossing a narrow stream rock to rock we could see a large, what was once a turtle-shaped, monolithic rock rising from the ground before us, its front curve altered a millennium ago. The façade was chiseled smooth to be a high flat wall with an entry door centered in it.  This was the wall to the courtyard that surrounded the church; from the outside only a small section of the upper part of Bilbala Kirkos Church peaked above the wall.

Hearing us approach, the caretaker emerged from behind his home, swishing away pests with a cow tail fly-swatter as he approached, and told us that the church was locked because the priest was away in another village to attend a funeral, but we could go into the courtyard.

Shoes off, we crossed through an ancient threshold hewn in the 6th century AD into a spongy moss-lined trench that encircled the church on three sides and served as its courtyard. The eastern wall or back of the church was still attached to the living rock.  High arched windows were piled with stones to keep out birds and other critters.

Worn entry steps testified to centuries of use.  As we were getting ready to leave, the caretaker offered us tella, an Ethiopian home-brewed beer made from teff and sorghum grain and fermented with buckthorn. Out of concern for maintaining our good health, we passed on the offer, but our guide enjoyed it and shared that “tella is used for religious purposes when holy wine is not available.” Sacred bees and holy beer – we’re on to something here.

Cheers. Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lalibela Part 1: A Twisting Tale of Time, Pilgrims and Shoe Guards

IMG_1969Often overshadowed in recent decades by its East African neighbors recognized for their safaris, Ethiopia has been known to Western culture for millennia. It was first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, around 1000 BC (3,000 years ago!), when the Queen of Sheba, hearing of “Solomon’s great wisdom and the glory of his kingdom,” journeyed from Ethiopia with a caravan of treasure as tribute.  Unbeknownst to Solomon their union produced a son, Menilek, (meaning son of the wise man).  Years later, wearing a signet ring given to him by his mother, Menilek visited Jerusalem to meet Solomon and stayed for several years to study Hebrew. When his son desired to return home, Solomon gifted the Ark of the Covenant to Menilek for safe keeping in Ethiopia, and to this day it is said to reside in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in Aksum, where only a select few of the Ethiopian Orthodox church can see it.IMG_1662The story of the lost tribe of Israel or the Beta Israel (meaning House of Israel) begins with the 12,000 Israelites that Solomon sent to Ethiopia to help Menilek rule following biblical laws. According to legend, Menelik I founded the Solomonic dynasty that ruled Ethiopia with few interruptions for close to three thousand years. This ended 225 generations later, with the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.IMG_1754 Blasphemy, I know, but let’s not forget the Hollywood legend with Indiana Jones rescuing the arc from the Nazis, only to have it unceremoniously stored in an underground warehouse in the Nevada desert. That is an aside, but as the writer I’m allowed to digress.IMG_2177Around the same time that Ethiopia appears in the Hebrew Bible, the Greek writer Homer mentioned “Aethiopia” five times in the The Iliad and The Odyssey.  In the Histories written by Herodotus (440 BC,) the author describes traveling up the Nile River to the territory of “Aethiopia” which began at Elephantine, modern Aswan.

Ethiopian tradition credits the introduction of Christianity to an Ethiopian eunuch in 34 AD, who was baptized by Philip the Apostle. (Acts 8:26-39) He then preached near the palace in Aksum after returning from Israel.

Ethiopian ports on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden were important stops along the trade route that brought spices from India, along with ivory and exotic animals from Africa to the Roman Empire. In the 4th century AD, Ethiopia’s first Christian king, Ezana of Aksum, sent ambassadors to Constantinople, a newly Christian Byzantine Empire, setting the stage for debates about which country – Armenia, Ethiopia (330AD) or Byzantium – was the first Christian state. Archaeologists point to Ethiopian coins minted in the 4th century bearing a cross and Ezana’s profile as solid proof.

After Ezana’s declaration of Ethiopia as a Christian country, civil war broke out between the Christian and Jewish populations, resulting in the creation of a separate Beta Israel kingdom in the Semien Mountains around Gondar that lasted from the 4th century to 1632. IMG_1657 With the Ethiopian Orthodox Church having a site in Jerusalem since the sixth century, Ethiopian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which took six months, were common until the route was blocked by Muslim conquests in 1100s and the journey became too hazardous. As it became surrounded further by Muslim territories, the country sank into isolation from Europe.  Ethiopia’s early history and its connection to Judaism and Christianity is a twisting tale, like caravan tracks across the desert, meeting then disappearing behind sand dunes, the story buried by the blowing sands of time.IMG_4066Distraught by this, King Lalibela commissioned eleven architecturally perfect churches, to be hewn from solid rock, to serve as a New Jerusalem complete with a River Jordan for pilgrims to visit. He based the designs on memories of holy sites from his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a young man.IMG_4015Considering the limited availability of tools in the 1100s, I can’t imagine what a daunting task this must have been. I’m sure the chief architect said, “you have to be kidding.”  It’s believed that 40,000 men, assisted by angels at night, labored for 24 years to create this testament to their faith.  Masons outlined the shape of these churches on top of monolithic rocks, then excavated straight down forty feet to create a courtyard around this solid block.  Doors would then be chiseled into the block and the creation of the church would continue from the inside, often in near total darkness.

European contact with Ethiopia was sporadic over these centuries, until the Portuguese circumnavigated the African continent in the late 1400s and began to establish trading ports along the East African coast.  Early in the 1500s the first European to visit the churches of Lalibela was Francisco Alvares, a Portuguese priest assigned to the Ethiopian court as an emissary.  He declared them a “wonder of the world,” penning “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more… I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth.” It would be almost four hundred years before the next European, Gerhard Rohlfs, a German cartographer, laid eyes on them in the late 1860s.

The magnificence of this accomplishment didn’t reveal itself subtly, like a vision slowly rising from the horizon, but smacked us in the face with a WOW! as we emerged single file from a deep and narrow moss-covered trench dug from the reddish volcanic rock.

“The setting was intentionally designed to give the pilgrims a ‘spiritual journey’ of ascending to heaven as the sky and the 40 ft tall façade of Bete Medhane Alem (Church of the Savior of the World), burst forth before them after exiting the darkness,” our guide explained.  The largest rock church in Lalibela and in the world is also significant because it’s believed “The hand of God touched one of its columns in a dream King Lalibela had,” our guide Girma Derbi shared as he explained the church’s columned façade that looks like it was inspired by the Parthenon.

Pilgrims in long white robes made their way through three doors that in all Ethiopian Orthodox churches face west, north and south. The nave is always on the east side of the building.  “All visitors must remove their shoes before entering the church and leave them outside.  You don’t have to, but it’s good if you hire a shoe guard to watch them. Unattended shoes have been known to disappear,” our guide advised.

Fatima, an official shoe guard registered with the historic site, accompanied us for the next two days as we explored the churches and passages. This kind woman helped us numerous times as we navigated treacherous footing and steep steps.  Our wisdom in hiring her was reinforced when we encountered a tourist sitting shoeless, outside a church, contemplating an uncomfortable walk ahead.IMG_1535-2Women worshippers traditionally enter through a separate door and pray apart from the men. Inside, thirty-eight stone columns form four aisles and support a stone ceiling that soars overhead. After walking for days or weeks to reach Lalibela, often fasting the entire time, the journey ends here for many pilgrims, in hopes of receiving a blessing or cure from touching the Lalibela Cross and offering prayers.

We spent the rest of the day following Orthodox nuns in yellow robes, and pilgrims carrying prayer staffs along narrow interconnecting passages, through tunnels and then portals to the other Northern Churches (churches located north of a stream renamed the Jordan River.) In many churches there are stacks of prayer staffs by the entrance.  These are for congregants to lean on, as there are no chairs in the churches and everyone must stand during the long worship services.

Beta Maryam (Church of Mary), Beta Masqal (Church of the Cross), Beta Danagel (Church of the Virgins), Beta Mika’el (Church of Michael), and Beta Golgotha (Church of Golgotha) all share common elements, yet they are all fascinatingly different in their various carved windows, uneven floors covered with carpets, decorated columns, frescoed walls and religious paintings. The high-banked courtyards around the churches contain caves where monks and hermits slept, or became the final resting spot of pilgrims who could go no further, their mummified remains still visible in certain places. The footpaths between churches double as drainage canals in the rainy season to whisk away water to the Jordan River.Karta_LalibelaWe ended our day at Beta Giyorgis (Church of St. George). This stunning cross-shaped church was excavated over thirty feet deep into the top of a hill. It is the most widely recognized of the eleven rock churches and was easily viewed from a small bluff adjacent to it, its beautiful orange patina glowing in the afternoon sun.

It has weathered the centuries better than many of the other churches which have had protective coverings suspended above them, to shield the stone structures from deterioration caused by the effects of weather and climate change.IMG_1696The next morning, we completed our tour of the cluster of the southern of the rock churches: Beta Emmanuel (Church of Emmanuel), Beta Abba Libanos (Church of Father Libanos), Beta Merkurios (Church of Mercurius) and Beta Gabriel and Beta Rafa’el (the twin churches of Gabriel and Raphael.)

We arrived at Beta Gabriel and Beta Rafa’el after passing through a wide tunnel that lead to a slender bridge across a deep chasm.  It was silent outside, but as we opened the door to enter, the sound of chanting male voices filled the air. We were graciously welcomed into a cavernous room filled with men leaning on prayer staffs or raising them in rhythm, as they sang a liturgical chant, or Zema, accompanied by a drumbeat and the clatter of sistrum rattles. This form of worship has been a tradition in the Ethiopian church since the sixth century.  To hear their Zema, click here.IMG_3889It’s important to remember that this is not a museum with ancient artifacts and manuscripts in glass cases, but an active holy site where the ancient manuscripts are still used daily, and it is home to a large community of priests and nuns. It has been a destination for Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims in the northern highlands (elevation 8,200’) for the last 900 years and continues to be visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims annually.IMG_3852Leaving the churches behind, we walked through an area of ancient two story, round houses called Lasta Tukuls, or bee huts, built from local, quarried red stone.  Abandoned now for preservation, they looked sturdy, their stone construction distinctive from the other homes in the area that use an adobe method.IMG_1802Today roughly 100,000 foreign tourists, in addition to Ethiopian pilgrims, visit Lalibela annually, a far cry from its near obscurity 140 years ago. Located four hundred miles from Addis Ababa, it is still far enough off the usual tourist circuits to make it a unique and inspiring destination.

Our visit to Lalibela was the fulfillment of a long-held wish to see these incredible churches, which are an amazing testament to the faith of the Ethiopian people. The altitude challenged us, and it wasn’t always easy to reach the churches themselves, navigating narrow alleys with uneven footing and eroded steps, but we are so glad we persevered. It was a once in a lifetime experience that we will never forget.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

 

 

Ethiopian Adventure Part 1 – Elephant Huts and Singing Wells

Background:

Why Ethiopia?  After 14 months of continuous, slow travel, spent mostly exploring cities, we were ready for a change of pace and a more raw or “authentic” experience, for lack of a better phrase. We had planned to visit Ethiopia originally just to see the hand-hewn rock churches of Lalibela.  But, with a tough spousal negotiation, we reached détente: three months in the land of her people, Italy, and for me, 12 days bouncing on backroads and possibly camping a night or two in a tribal village, and a cross country adventure through the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region which includes the Omo Valley. An exciting itinerary with Ephrem Girmachew of Southern Ethiopia Tours fit the bill and our budget.  I’m not sure who got the better deal, but somewhere along our journey we coined the phrase “shaken tourist syndrome” to reflect the road conditions we encountered for hours each day.  IMG_8498 The area in the northern part of the Greater Rift Valley, known today as the Omo Valley region of Ethiopia, has been at the crossroads of humankind for many millennia. In 1967 Dr. Leaky discovered fossil bone evidence, recently re-dated by scientists to be 195,000 years old, of early Homo sapiens near Kibish, Ethiopia, several miles west of the Omo River near where the borders of Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia meet.  The first migrations of early man out of Africa occurred 60,000 years ago as they followed the Omo River north through the Great Rift Valley to the Red Sea. At its narrowest point, where it meets the Gulf of Aden, they crossed to continue their migration through Arabia and eventually into Europe and Asia.  The region was once rich with African wildlife, and Arab towns along the northern East African coast of Somalia and Kenyan were sending hunting parties into the interior for elephant ivory, rhino horn and unfortunately slaves since around AD 1000.

It is thought that the Mursi and Suri tribes developed lip plates and scarification as a way to discourage Arab slavers from taking their women. The first European contact with the region is credited to Antonio Fernandes, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary, who was sent by Ethiopian Emperor Susenyos in 1613 to find an inland route, that avoided all Islamic territories, to Malindi, a Portuguese port at the time, on the Indian Ocean.  The next reported western explorers to the region were Antonio Cecchi in the 1870’s and Vittorio Bottego in 1897. Bottego was the first European to follow the Omo River all the way to Lake Turkana, at a time when Italy was trying to become a colonial power and expand its Italian Eritrea territory into Ethiopia.  By the early 1900’s teams of cultural anthropologists from various Europeans countries were viewing the area as the “last frontier” and beginning to study the “cultural crossroads” aspect of the tribes of the Omo Valley.

A harsh, vast territory, the semi-arid Omo Valley is home to 13 indigenous groups that are seminomadic pastoralist. These tribes also practice flood retreat cultivation along the banks of the Omo River, to produce crops mostly for subsistence or occasional trading in the local markets.  Very remote and undeveloped, the area resisted Ethiopian Orthodox influence from the north of the country for centuries.  It wasn’t until the 1990’s, when a fledgling tourist industry began to emerge, and violent cross-border conflicts with various nomadic tribes looking for better grazing or to rustle cattle, that the government began to exert influence over the area.  Some nomadic tribes along the border were encouraged to settle down and farm and fish along the Omo River for their livelihood. Government interest in the area was intensified again when the decision to build two dams on the Gibe River, a tributary of the Omo River, were built to supply hydroelectric power to Ethiopia.  Later, the massisve Gibe lll dam, completed in 2016, was built to supply irrigation water to foreign owned sugar cane and cotton plantations on lands that were seized by the Ethiopian government from the indigenous tribes of the Omo Valley. Consequently, as the natural cycle of the river flooding was stopped, the centuries old practice of flood retreat farming is failing as there is not enough rainfall in the area to support crops. This has increased tensions amongst tribes already competing for limited grazing and fertile farming lands due to climate change. IMG_6730Things change, but the proud peoples that live in the Omo Valley are trying to retain their way of life amidst external influences they can’t control, as tourists and construction crews course across their territory.  Tempers flare when trucks and buses carrying supplies and workers to the agricultural plantations strike and kill cattle.  Drivers are required to stop and immediately pay the herder for his loss, but many never do.  Consequently, the local tribe will block the road and demand payment until the issue is resolved.

The Beginning:

It was immediately apparent as we were landing that Ethiopia was different. Addis Ababa is a thriving city of almost 5 million people, with gleaming skyscrapers, a new sprawling economic development zone, and high-speed rail line connecting the city to Djibouti. With no suburban transitional zone, the city was an island surrounded by an ocean of farmland. IMG_8308A good night’s sleep at the Jupiter International Hotel Bole (they have the best front desk staff we’ve encountered) made an early start bearable. Meeting us punctually, an amiable Ephrem introduced us to Gee and his trusty Toyota Landcruiser.  We could tell from the beginning that they were friends and had worked together for years.  Even before leaving the city limits, we met our first of the ubiquitous cattle herds, donkey carts and tuk-tuks slowing our passage.

Our first day would be the longest with over eight hours of driving to Arba Minch, that included a stop at the archaeological site of Tiya Stelae. Here a large field of stelae were adorned with carvings of spears; the number of spear heads on a stone is thought to represent the number of enemy killed. Other stones that dotted the landscape contained symbols that were more difficult to interpret. Nothing is really known about the people that created these monuments and there are no other sites in the area to help archeologists explain their mystery.

Further along, we stopped at an explosion of color and activity that represents an Ethiopian local market, our first of many. Coming from our last stop in parched Zimbabwe, this landscape was unexpectantly and refreshingly green.  We passed farmers plowing theirs fields with oxen, the way it has been done for centuries.IMG_6410 The 2019 rainy season was good; unfortunately, this is often not the case. There was no water infrastructure in most of the small towns and villages we passed through, forcing folks to gather water from local streams and rivers.IMG_8299 It was a constant sight: women carrying yellow water jugs along the side of the road back to their homes, or if they could afford it, having it delivered by donkey cart.  The terrain varied tremendously, with full rivers on one side of a mountain range and dry on the other side. These conditions forced people to dig into the riverbed in search of water.

Closer to Arba Minch workers piled just-cut bananas onto trucks, from plantations that lined the road.IMG_8266Since Ethiopia is close to the equator, the daylight hours do not vary seasonally.  The sun rises quickly in the morning and seems to drop from the sky at the end of the day.  By the time we reached the Paradise Lodge  in Arba Minch darkness was falling.  It was a long walk to our room, and signs along the path warned of baboons and warthogs.  A mosquito netted bed welcomed us under a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling.  A dramatic dawn the next morning through clearing storm clouds revealed the hotel’s placement on a cliff edge above a lush, dense forest that was part of Národní Park Nechisar that surrounds the perpetually brown Abaya Lake and Chamo Lake off in the distance below. IMG_9584At breakfast we watched thick-billed ravens in aerial combat as they rode the thermals just off the restaurant’s terrace.  Nearby a staff member stood ready to chase away baboons if they got too close to the customers’ tables.

After breakfast we headed into the highlands northwest of Arba Minch to visit the Gamo tribe in the Dorze village.  The Dorze, Doko and Ochello are the three clans that comprise the Gamo people. Rising slowly to an elevation of 8200ft, we traveled through heavily forested slopes that opened to patches of verdant farmland, and occasionally passed small groups of children dancing to earn spending money from passing tourists.IMG_9440 As we entered the village, compounds ringed with woven rattan walls held back tall Enset plants, better known as false banana, also called the “tree against hunger.” This plant is an important staple that is drought resistant and can be harvested year-round. Starch from the plant is scraped from its fibers and fermented in the ground for three months or longer and used to make kocho, a type of flat bread. IMG_9478Fibers from the plant are used to make rope or coffee bean bags, and the leaves are fed to farm animals.  We arrived on market day, and an entire hillside about the size of three football fields was covered with activity. From a distance it looked like an animated impressionistic painting, with undulating dots of color dancing under a blue sky. IMG_8996Sellers of charcoal, sugarcane, vegetables, and a multitude of other goods all had their wares spread out on cloths covering the ground.  Men played foosball or ping-pong under the few shade trees that ringed the field.

The Dorze are known for the family structures they build, called elephant huts, and the fine weavings that they create from the cotton they grow.  Constructed of hardwood poles, bamboo, thatch and enset, the huts get their name from the symmetrical vents at the top create a silhouette that resembles an elephant’s head. These towering huts can last eighty years, and when the bottom of the main poles become termite-infested they are cut off and the hut is then lifted up and moved to a different spot in the family compound.IMG_9211Men of the Dorze tribe traditionally do the weaving, while the women are responsible for spinning the cotton that the family grows and uses.   The colorful textiles they create are highly prized all over the country.IMG_9504-2Back in Arba Minch we stopped at the Lemlem restaurant for a lunch of local lake fish before checking out the crocodiles on Chamo Lake.  The lightly fried fish were served whole, while the sides were scored into squares which we picked off with our fingers. It was delicious.  Another side of the restaurant served freshly butchered, grilled meat.

The road south of Arba Minch cut through farmland.  Stately fish eagles and traditional Ethiopian honeybee hives dotted some of the trees along the road.  The elongated beehives are made from hollowed out logs and wrapped with woven bamboo strips, and then suspended in the trees.

It’s a dangerous livelihood, fishing the muddy waters of Chamo Lake, as attested to by the size of the Nile crocodile that swam alongside our tour boat.  He was frightfully as large as our 18ft vessel.  Crocodile hunting hasn’t been allowed in the lake since 1973, so there are many big old crocs in its waters. Every year fishermen are killed while standing in the lake casting their nets.  Those who can afford to, buy boats to fish.  Full immersion baptisms are performed by some churches in Chamo and Abaya Lakes, and tragically, in 2018 a Protestant pastor was snatched by a crocodile and killed in front of his congregation during a baptismal celebration.

“Tomorrow we drive to Kenya,” Ephrem offered. Really? That wasn’t expected! “We will stop before we actually get to the border to see a Singing Well of the Borena tribe, and then head to Chew Bet, an extinct volcanic crater lake where the tribe takes black salt from its water.”IMG_8449“Sorry for the late pick-up, but the road was full of tuk-tuks carrying families to the university stadium up the street for a graduation ceremony,” Ephrem offered as he bundled us into the Land Cruiser and handed us large bottles of water. “It’s hot where we are going today.”