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

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  


Omo Valley Part 5: The Devil’s Doorstep and Whipping Scars

Below us, down an extremely steep embankment, a dugout canoe waited to take us across the Omo River to visit the Dassanech tribe.  “If we trip, we are going for a swim,” I mentioned to our guide. “Don’t worry, the crocodiles are further downstream, closer to the delta,” he replied with his dry sense of humor, as several people helped us down to the water. 

Sitting low in the water, the dugout canoe was stable like a kayak and large enough for three of us. Standing on the stern, a tribesman poled us upstream for a distance before letting the current take us across the river to the equally steep, opposite bank. 

At the top of the riverbank freshly tilled fields, bordered with narrow irrigation canals, gave way to a flat dry landscape that extended to the horizon. The Dassanech are the southernmost tribe in the Omo valley, and their territory extends south to the Kenyan border at Lake Turkana and west to South Sudan.  Even with the river and lake nearby it’s a dry inhospitable terrain that has suffered from years of extended drought and climate change.  The temperature often exceeds 110°F. Consequently, as cross border tensions over diminishing grazing lands have increased, the Ethiopian government has discouraged the nomadic ways of the Dassanech.  In exchange for reducing the size of their cattle herds the government is helping them farm along the banks of the Omo River by providing resources and irrigation pumps.

We entered the village through an opening in the corral that encircled it. Roughly made of tree branches, it serves to keep cattle in and hyenas out at night. Low dome-shaped huts called miede constructed from foraged branches, twigs, river reeds and leaves used to be covered in cowhide for protection from dust storms and infrequent rains.  Now corrugated tin is used instead as there are fewer cattle to slaughter.

The huts must be roasting hot inside! Children hoop rolled an old bicycle tire along the irrigation canal while others played with empty water bottles tied to sticks as tribeswomen sat in the meager shade provided by huts.

The more plentiful shade of the few large, ancient trees still standing by the river is reserved for the men of the village and is off-limits to women and children.

This unforgiving environment created the atmosphere of a desolate refugee camp whose tribespeople were awaiting an unknown future.  To borrow a phrase, it felt like “the doorstep to hell.” I don’t say this to be derogatory, but to describe the intensely harsh environment. It’s remarkable that roughly 20,000 Dassanech can survive in such brutal, extreme conditions.  In such an environment, people wear very little clothing except when going to town. 

Visiting the Dassanech gave us a new understanding of the effects of climate change and the desire to migrate as a consequence of it. As we left the village, some of the tribeswomen had gathered to display their crafts. There is a social contract that, aside from paying for photos, tourists should purchase handcrafts from the villagers. It’s an additional way to help.

Back across the river, we stopped for a late lunch at a small place along the road, before heading to a Hamar village near Turmi. Outside the restaurant was a small collection box for the local church. 

Just a little aside: we had no intestinal issues with the food during our time in Ethiopia. The pit toilets, on the other hand, were truly frightening and we are convinced that they could only be mastered if you grew up with them. The privacy of a “bush toilet” behind a large termite mound was the more sanitary alternative.  And bring hand sanitizer!  (Surprisingly, after a year on the road, we only succumbed to food poisoning when we were back in Europe.)

A brief torrential rain dampened the dust and cleaned the air as we headed for the afternoon’s destination.

The golden hour was quickly descending when we arrived in the Hamar village and we only had a short time to work our way around the village before the sun disappeared behind a cloud bank. 

We were supposed to camp overnight in the village, an activity my adventuresome, good sport of a wife reluctantly agreed to when we planned this portion of our tour. “It will be fun!” I reassured her at the time. But seeing our pup tent set up in a small corral surrounded by dried cow dung and imagining how we would deal with a bush toilet in the darkness of the savanna, I had my doubts. I had imagined more of a glamping experience. Thinking of our aching backs in the morning from sleeping on the ground without any kind of padding, we asked our guide for plan B. 

Since the guides would have been participating in this camping adventure with us, they didn’t put up much argument about changing plans. This brought us to a comfortable room at the Buska Lodge, an eco-inn isolated in the thorn tree-studded savanna outside Turmi.  It was an oasis after a long and hot day. By the time we arrived the generator and water had been turned on.  At dinner we discussed returning to the Hamar village the next day, but early enough in the afternoon to give us enough time to enjoy the tribe and their village.

Early the next afternoon, before we entered Turmi, we crossed a dry riverbed where several teams of men were digging deep into the sand to find water. Towns without any water infrastructure rely on these hardworking and enterprising men to fill the ubiquitous yellow jerry cans with water and deliver them by donkey cart to people’s homes. It was another sign of climate change that reinforced its dire consequences.

The men of the village were still out with the cattle herds, but we were greeted by a throng of women and children.  The Hamar are known for their tradition of “bull jumping” or “bullah,” a purification and rite of passage ceremony for young tribesmen to prove their worthiness for marriage. It’s a complex ritual that culminates with the young man jumping over the backs of 10 bulls, which are smeared with dung to be slippery, four times without falling. If he falls he will have to wait a year until he’s allowed to try again.

We did not witness a bullah; what we did see were the results of the whipping ceremonies that precede the bull jumping. Displayed on the bare backs of the women of the village were large raised scars, which were inflicted by the men; the women receive the beatings as a show of loyalty.  Before the bull jumping, the sisters and other female relatives of the initiates from the surrounding villages gather, and with sorghum beer brewed for the occasion dance, sing and blow horns.  As the dancing intensifies the women are said to ask, beg, or provoke the maza, young men who bull jumped but haven’t married yet, to whip them with long birch branches called miceres.  This act of scarification is a visual reminder of the women’s loyalty to the young man about to bull jump and earns them the right to his help in the future should they ever need it.  “If your sisters, female cousins, or aunties need your assistance in the future your debt to them is sealed. You can’t ignore their requests, period. After all, they nearly died for you!” 

By western morals this is a brutal practice, but with the Hamar it’s an ancient ritual that has been performed for centuries. They have a saying, “Women with scars are as strong as lions!”

The Hamar tribeswomen are also very distinctive with their dress, wearing long goatskin garments adorned with cowry shells and beads.  The first wife of a tribesman wears an iron neck ring with a protruding knob on the front, called a binyere, that visually distinguishes her status as the first wife, above two esente, simple iron collars, that she has worn since her engagement.  The collars are permanently placed on the woman by the village blacksmith and only removed by her husband upon her death. Additional wives only wear simple metal necklaces to indicate their lower status.

We stayed late into the day, wandering through the village watching children play atop the cattle corrals while waiting for the herds to return and the sky slowly deepen to darkness.

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

 

 

 

Two Hundred Fifty-Three Days on the Road

cropped-img_4837The good news is we haven’t killed each other, though there have been times that I’ve dreamt a pillow was hovering over my head. Just kidding.  We have gone from the two of us working six days a week while living in an eight-room house, to being together 24/7 with only a suitcase each.  Boy did we downsize! It was challenging: what not to bring, considering all the seasonal changes we have encountered.  Don’t laugh, but I have thermals, wool hats and gloves packed, just on the off chance we get snowed in on a mountain pass in the French Alps, this July.  Yes, there’s also a flask of medicinal whisky packed in the bags for emergencies.  And to my wife’s amusement, a cheap plastic fly swatter.  Tragically the backup swatter was left behind in Antigua.  In Lisbon I finally caved in and bought a pair of slippers because the floors of the stone buildings just don’t retain any heat in the winter.  The comfort of a pair of slippers in the evening, after a long day of walking, can’t be underestimated.IMG_8406It’s been a huge but surprisingly easy transition for us. 253 days ago (I thought I was writing this at around day 200, it’s easy to lose track of time on the road) we slammed the door shut on our storage pod, locked it, and popped open a bottle of champagne to celebrate our impending journey. We haven’t looked back.  Ecuador, Guatemala, Cuba and now Portugal; I can’t imagine undertaking this adventure with anyone else.

The Airbnb revolution has greatly contributed to our concept of slow travel, allowing us to immerse ourselves in a location for an extended period of time and to enjoy a community to its fullest. Experiencing a festive Christmas season and an explosive New Year’s celebration in Antigua, Guatemala, was extraordinary and something we wouldn’t have appreciated as much if we were just passing through.

We felt a little blue being away from our kids and their families during Christmas. The irony that we, and not the children, broke with the family tradition first was not lost on us.  A three week visit back to the States in mid-January to see everyone helped tremendously.img_0864 This visit also gave us an opportunity to jettison the wonderful textiles and ceramics we had purchased along the way for a home we don’t have yet.  Imagine this scene from our last stop in San Pedro – the backseat of a tuk-tuk overflowing with Donna and all our suitcases, while I’m sharing the driver’s seat with the driver, one cheek on, one cheek off and a foot dangling outside the cab as we speedily snaked through the steep narrow alleys of the village. 

Shopping in the central markets and street markets of each city has been wonderful as cooking is essential to keeping within our budget, though the size of some of our kitchens have tested our creative culinary abilities.  The exotic fruits available to us in Ecuador were amazing and we tried many that we were unfamiliar with.

In Olon we bought the catch of the day from the fish monger as be pushed his cart through town. Guatemala yielded remarkably flavorful vegetables.  We had a memorable culinary carrot experience there, go figure. This from a home gardener is quite a statement. Like our neighbors in the Alfama district, we are hanging our laundry out the windows to dry in the Lisbon fresh air. Our stays in each place have ranged from four to ten weeks.  I favor the longer stays whereas Donna prefers a shorter visit. 

There have been challenges negotiating the medical systems in Ecuador and Portugal only because we haven’t known the protocol of the local doctors.  We have been extremely impressed by the care we have received from the medical professionals in these countries for altitude sickness and a persistent upper respiratory infection.  The out of pocket costs have been remarkably inexpensive in comparison to the U.S. medical system.IMG_8692 Not everything has gone smoothly.  A rental car agency did not honor a reservation and we had to scramble to find another one late one night in the airport.  We have felt very safe during our travels, but there are unfortunately some extremely talented pickpockets out there. May the curse of arthritis shorten their careers!  Filing a stolen property report in Lisbon with the tourist police turned out to be an enjoyable experience due to the officer assigned to us.  Luckily, within 24-hours they called us with the good news that our wallet had been recovered, minus the cash of course, but that our passport and credit cards were all there.  Honestly, we weren’t following our own advice: only carry in your pockets what you are willing to lose.  Everything else of value needs to be carried under your clothing.IMG_8596After Lisbon it’s a two-week road trip through Portugal. Then we are off to, of all places, Sofia, Bulgaria for a month, (the Beatles song “Back in the USSR” keeps coming to mind) in order to reset our Schengen union days for later in the summer.  After that, two dog sits in England and two Workaway experiences in France at a 14th century chateau await us before we resume our life of leisure in Kotor, Montenegro, in September.img_0669We have shared meals and stories with so many wonderful and interesting people along the way.  These friends have made this journey what it is – fantastic! 

Kindness and a smile go a long way in this world.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

 

Antigua – Snow Birds in Paradise

img_0920Paradise is such a subjective feeling and if you don’t require a turquoise blue sea and white sand beaches, Antigua, Guatemala just might fit the bill.  This charming colonial city with its ever spring-like weather was perfect for our two-month stay. img_6117We arrived in Antigua at the end of October so that we could attend the Sumpango Giant Kite Festival held every year on November 1st, All Saints Day.  That spectacularly colorful event and a religious procession that burst forward from La Merced Church on October 28th would prove to be representative of the people and life in Guatemala we experienced.

Settling into our spacious two-bedroom Airbnb on Alameda Santa Lucia, with views of the three volcanos surrounding Antigua, was a breeze after living in two studio apartments and a boat cabin in Ecuador. At first, we thought the cost of living in Guatemala was going to be considerably higher than that of Ecuador, but that was due to eating dinner out the first couple of days before we got fully settled.  The dinner restaurants in Ecuador are considerably less expensive than those in Guatemala, but once we started shopping in the central market our food expenses dropped dramatically. We were delighted with the freshness and quality of the local produce. img_9629On Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays the market tripled in size when the outdoor portion was open, and farmers brought in truckloads of fruits and vegetables from the surrounding villages. There we experienced one of the best markets going, set in a bustling, dusty lot with Volcans Agua, Fuego and Acatenango touching the sky in the background.  Most produce was sold in quantities of 5 quetzals (60 cents) so bring lots of small bills, as vendors didn’t usually have change for anything larger than 10Q.  The flavor of the locally grown vegetables was amazing. Being backyard gardeners ourselves, we were duly impressed.  Twenty quetzals would buy enough vegetables for a week.

On Sundays we would walk to Caoba Farm, just on the outskirts of town, for their organic produce and stay for their brunch, which featured live music in a beautiful outdoor setting.  They have mastered the farm-to-table restaurant concept.img_8874Shopping at the local supermarket, La Bodegona, was a wonderfully hectic experience.  At times it could feel like you were shopping from a conga line, weaving up and down aisles, afraid to leave the line for fear of not being able to enter it again and being stuck in dairy for eternity.  Numerous store employees lined the aisles offering samples of cookies, deli meats, drinks and other temptations to keep the energy level of the beast alive. It was a hoot! We had to psych ourselves up, like players before the big game, to shop there because it was so hectic and required a certain mental and physical stamina.  I will confess though to dancing in the checkout line to blaring Latino Christmas music – the mood was contagious. img_0714 On the same block D&C Cremas, a Walmart affiliate, offered a more sedate shopping experience. Both supermarkets had excellent poultry, which was more tender and tastier than back in Pennsylvania.  We were also fortunate that a pork butcher opened a new shop a half block away and offered fresh meat and sausage daily.  We enjoyed all the different varieties of Guatemalan sausage he made and found them to be very flavorful and lean, with almost no fat.

Antigua was a delight to explore on foot.  Charm, color and textures greeted us around every corner.  Every open doorway revealed something of interest.  Old colonial doorknockers featuring various faces, animals or hands graced many of the doors and we became intrigued by their artistry.  There are still several metalsmiths in town that cast and forge these works of art.

Most folks greeted us with a “Buena Dia” as they passed us on the sidewalk, though navigating the sidewalk hazards could be challenging at times.  Our early weeks were spent exploring the ruins of convents and cathedrals destroyed in a 1773 earthquake. This cataclysmic event led to Antigua being abandoned as Guatemala’s capital and left as a forgotten backwater to evolve unchanged into a charming UNESCO heritage site. Today Antigua is a very cosmopolitan, old colonial city with sophisticated dining and museums, yet still retains a quaint authenticity with its Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets which haven’t changed for centuries.  Many local women still wear traditional, locally woven blouses – guipils, created from the textiles for which Guatemala is renowned, which adds tremendously to the cultural atmosphere of the community.  Antigua had a genuine character that we hadn’t experienced to this extent before.

Finding our new favorite spots was a fun quest we eagerly embarked upon. There were many choices: our favorite coffee café is Fernando’s; a roof-top bar with the best view is Café Sky; there were five wonderful panaderias, bakeries, among which we rotated.  Six years ago, when we first visited Guatemala and Antigua, it was difficult to find a good cup of coffee. Instant coffee was served nearly everywhere, since the good beans were saved to be exported, and cappuccinos were unheard of.  Now the barista culture is firmly embraced, and cappuccinos have become a competitive art form.

Our calendar for November and December filled quickly with fun and interesting activities to attend.  The city sponsors many free events such as concerts on the central plaza; an annual Flower Festival, November 17th, which runs along the same street as the iconic arch; and the annual Waiters Race (Carrera de las Charolas) that starts early in the morning, so no one misses work. On November 14th. hundreds of waiters and waitresses filled the starting lines at the central plaza and, for cash prizes, zoomed around several city blocks to the cheers from a mostly local crowd.  Saturday afternoons found us heading to the Santa Catalina Arch to watch wedding parties pose for photographs amidst admiring spectators under the iconic symbol of Antigua.

December 1st brought the first music concert of the Christmas season. It was held in the ruins of Antigua’s first cathedral, behind Iglesia de la Escuela de Cristo, just off the central plaza. The musicians and audience sat under arches now open to the stars.  Christmas carols reverberated off the ancient walls which provided amazing acoustics.  The concert ended with fireworks bursting over the open domes. And then the spectacular and noisy religious festivals and processions of December began.  Guatemalans love their FIREWORKS!! And I swear every family has an arsenal of them at home, under the beds.  Some peaceful religious events resembled imagery seen on the nightly news, of war-torn streets filled with smoke and the sound of large explosions.  The smell of gunpowder was ever present and filled the air.  It was difficult to find a comprehensive list of local events, but InGuat, the Guatemalan tourism agency, compiles a list of events that changes every day and it is available on their Facebook page.  OkAntigua.com proved to be a good resource for upcoming events, also.  Around town shops and restaurants hung posters announcing activities too.

For a change of pace, we rented a car from Renta Autos de Guatemala, that went very well.  The cobblestoned streets of Antigua quickly changed to smooth pavement as we headed to Santa Maria de Jesus which is high up on the slope of Volcan Agua. In the evenings we could see the lights of this village from our rooftop.  They don’t get many visitors up there, so this village was a wonderful destination for a very authentic market day. After getting directions at the communal laundry basin we found everything you could imagine on sale in front of the church: hand crafted guipils, cooking utensils, fruit, fresh fish from the Pacific and Lake Atitlan, and rabbit hutches to name a few. Fried iguana was available for the willing.  Horses carried jugs of water for home delivery and hay for animals out in distant fields down the streets around the market.  And women carried those rabbit hutches home on top of their heads.

Lower on the slope of Volcan Agua, San Juan del Obispo offered the colonial era Bishop’s Palace and a chance to taste some wine made from locally grown nispero fruit, for which the town is famous.  Knock loudly on the door so the nuns can hear you and usher you inside for a tour.  The plaza behind the former bishops’ residence has a beautiful church and a nice view of Antigua.  Just uphill and around a corner from the palace is Casa Museo Luis De Lion.  This is a small family-run museum dedicated to the Guatemalan poet who celebrated his country in verse.  Today it doubles as a child care center for children displaced from their homes by the frequent eruptions of Volcan Fuego.  Musicians travel from as far as Guatemala City to give these young children free music lessons. It’s a wonderful program run by dedicated staff.

Most of the beautiful textiles you see for purchase in Antigua are crafted in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, so we decided to check out the source.  At Mercado de la Artesanía, we watched women create intricate weavings on their back-strap looms as they sat on the floor in front of their stalls.  Upstairs the sales pressure was less intense, and we found Anna, a delightful weaver who pleasantly shared her life with us.  I turned away for moment only to find Donna fully clad in traditional clothing when I turned backed.

Pastores offered handmade leather boots and shoes, for unbelievable prices, in shops that lined both sides of the road.  A week later we returned, via Uber, to pick up our custom fitted boots. Cost $40.00 per pair. On our way back, we diverted to Finca Filadelfia, a quiet coffee plantation, to review our shopping expedition and plan further adventures with our wheels.img_1797The next day we a followed a serpentine mountain road, second gear all the way, up to Santo Domingo del Cerro, a beautiful sculpture and art park with museums, walking trails and a restaurant that overlooks Antigua.  Plan on spending at least a half day there, because it is a beautiful setting for a restful day or afternoon. Casa Santo Domingo offers a free hourly shuttle to the park from the hotel in town.

For the nine days before Christmas, Las Posadas de Navidads proceeded through the neighborhoods of Antigua. Each evening smaller processions, led by fireworks and accompanied by a band and carolers bearing torches, carried a small float of the Holy Family door to door to a different home, re-enacting their search for shelter as they traveled to Bethlehem. Arriving at the predetermined host for the night they sing, “In the name of God, we ask for shelter, for my beloved wife cannot walk.” (En el hombre del cielo, os pido posada, pues no puede andar mi esposa amada.)  It is considered a great honor and blessing to be a host, and the family provides the participants in the procession with traditional food and drink after the statues are brought into the home.  Home town Saint Hermano Pedro started this tradition in 1663.

On Christmas Eve we watched from our rooftop as the surrounding countryside exploded in a spectacular display of fireworks.  All around us our neighbors and families near and far, lit the night sky for at least two hours.  The night’s fireworks displays rivaled July 4th celebrations in the states.  Instead of our usual cold northeast weather and a large family gathering, our first Christmas away from home was celebrated with weather in the high 70’s, blue skies and shirtsleeves.  It was odd because we had broken a tradition and we were a little blue because of it.  Then again it was warm and sunny, Feliz Navidad!! I think we have quickly become snowbirds. img_2637Antigua filled early with people in all their finery on New Year’s. Vendors selling textiles the day before were now offering party hats and all sort of 2019 memorabilia. Concerts were held in Plaza Mayor and under El Arco.  Firework launchers were being setup amidst the crowds in the streets. Families were picnicking in the park and folks were staking their spots early to watch the fireworks later.  At midnight a loud and colorful display filled the night sky. We could hear the roar of an appreciative crowd from our rooftop.  We heard random explosions throughout the night to sunrise.  Guatemalans love their fireworks!

Two days later we boarded a tourist shuttle to San Pedro La Laguna for our last week in Guatemala.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

 

 

Vilcabamba – “My friend is really good at colonics, she’ll be here soon”

IMG_4211A vacation from vacation? Yes, its’s tiring work having fun every day!  Where to? Vilcabamba had been on our radar for a while, having read about its reputation as the “Valley of Longevity,” with mineral rich spring water and crisp mountain air.  That along with its location in Ecuador’s Southern Andes Mountains at an elevation of 5000ft, a setting which provides continuous spring-like conditions, has attracted a growing expat population of greying hippies, new agers, and backpackers seeking the fountain of youth and inexpensive housing.  We had to check it out!

Hostal Izhcayluma was recommended as the place to stay. Their $15.00 per person shuttle from their sister hostal, La Cigale, which was only a block from our apartment, as well as a line from their website (Izhcayluma is NOT a place for perpetually grouchy people) cinched the deal.  Hostal Izhcayluma, promotes itself as a “luxury resort spa priced for backpackers” and truly has to be one of the best travel values in Ecuador or all of South America.IMG_4389With a bed in the dorm room going for $9.50 and luxury private cabins starting at just $39.00, the resort has a reputation as the place to go to “relax, enjoy, forget time and stay awhile.”  Free morning yoga classes, a wonderful restaurant with some German dishes, and super affordable spa treatments (90 minute, deep tissue massages for $24.00, we both indulged) definitely promoted well-being.  Bird calls filled the air and the distinctive face of 6,000ft high Cerro Mandango, god lying down, watched over the valley.  Three thousand feet lower in altitude and much farther south, Vilcabamba was about 10 degrees warmer, which was a much-needed reprieve from the chilly days and nights we were experiencing in Cuenca.

At the reception desk are numerous brochures for off-site activities in the valley.  For reasons unknown I’ve become attracted to horseback riding later in life. With naïve enthusiasm I was immediately drawn to the five-hour ride on “galloping horses” to Cascada El Palto high in the surrounding mountains.  I’ve been riding about a dozen times, mostly on mountain trails, and the horses walked, occasionally trotted short distances, but never galloped.  Thinking this was hyperbole from the corral, I was reassured by the sign-up sheet that asked for your riding experience.  A family of five marked inexperienced. I thought this was a good sign and that the group would saunter slowly through the countryside for the novices. They must have been a family of vacationing gauchos from Argentina, because as soon as our guide shouted VAMANOS! we galloped out of Vilcabamba, into the mountains, and back.  I walked liked a saddle-sore cowboy for a week after that.

A disc-jockey blasted “You can’t always get what you want” from loud-speakers setup on the steps of the church across from the plaza as we walked along vendors’ craft tables in the street.  Trophies were visible on the DJ’s table as were bags of dog food under it.  To our delight, Vilcabamba was having its Best Dressed Dog competition today and later in the afternoon a Paso Fino, fine step, horse show.  About twenty proud and good-humored dog owners entertained a large crowd through several rounds of judging.  Several dogs had cheering sections in the crowd.  One or two ran away out of embarrassment, I think.  Trophies and bags of dog food were presented to the winners by a tiara and sash wearing Miss Vilcabamba.

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Immediately after the awards were presented the crowd rushed to the other side of the plaza where the horse show was ready to start.  Horsemen with perfect posture, dressed in immaculate white shirts, pants and hats, paraded their mounts up and down the dusty street to the sound of lively Spanish music.

The restaurant porches around the plaza were full of aging gringos, drinking beer, sipping wine, observing from afar.  Occasional a whiff of pot floated down the street.  “My friend is really good at colonics, she’ll be here soon” was an odd conversation snippet we overheard.

We were glad we visited Vilbamba for a long weekend, but were relieved we hadn’t committed to spending more time there.  Thoroughly relaxed we headed back to Cuenca.

 

 

El Barranco – Cuenca’s Most Interesting Neighborhood in Ecuador’s Renaissance City

With a vibe and cultural scene reminiscent of Florence, Italy, Cuenca continues to reap tourism awards as a hot new destination in South America. The city is investing heavily in infrastructure with a new tram line opening soon, but with all this positive press the streets are still mostly filled with Cuencanos (people of Cuenca) going about their daily lives.  Masses of flag-led tour groups are unheard of, as are masses of tourists in general.  We have been in Cuenca for five weeks and have never felt the crush of tourist season descending upon us.Parque de San Sebastian_001The city does a wonderful job supporting its craftspeople who still use traditional, made by hand, methods to create exceptional pieces in jewelry, textile, ceramic, wrought-iron, tin and copper workshops located across the city.  Toquilla straw weavers in the villages around Cuenca who carry unfinished sacks of Panama Hats into the city’s sombrero (hat) factories also need to be included into this group.  There are also several traditional felt hat tallerias (workshops) that cater to the indigenous women who live in the rural areas around Cuenca. The fine arts scene is also well represented with galleries and artists’ studios often next to traditional crafts workshops. To get the broadest experience of this vibrant arts and crafts community a tour through Cuenca’s most interesting neighborhood, El Barranco (the cliffs), and along its busiest street Calle Larga, is a must.  The colonial buildings that front Calle Larga back onto the cliff which overlooks Rio Tomebamba and the newer southern part of Cuenca. Wide stairs in several parts lead down to Paseo 3 de Noviembre, a shaded pedestrian walkway and bike path that follows the river for several miles.