Going Home: 24-25 June

I did not leave the Balkans eagerly. I miss my friends, my cats, my woodworking, and a few amenities such as clean clothes every day and cotton underwear, but I could start again and do the whole trip over. When I get home, I will read my blog.

One thought sustained us as we prepared to leave Cetinje: After a drought of more than three weeks, this night we would have milk. Fresh. Pasteurized. Homogenized. Cold. Milk.

We spent the 32-km ride to Podgorica standing in the front aisle of the bus. Views across the mountains were spectacular, but we had to bend over to see. As we entered Podgorica, we saw one last symbolic horse and wagon. It will be a while before we see another.

Then poof, we were in Vienna. Seat belts. Fire Codes. The 21st century. When we were here in 2008, we visited Hunterwasser’s architectural whimsy and the Vienna Woods. Nothing else demanded our attention, so this time we just found dinner, some outstanding gelato, and Fresh. Pasteurized. Homogenized. Milk.

Now as we fly to the US, some observations:

On this trip, I have slept in about 40 inexpensive beds. All were immaculately clean. Almost none had the sheet(s) tucked in.

Only three were uncomfortable: Thessaloniki, Kotor and Vienna. In each case, it was a matter of trying too hard with squishy soft stuff instead on an ordinary mattress.

It will be a while before I eat another piece of bread with butter and jelly. Continental breakfast sucks. I will, however, sorely miss Shopska Salad–tomato, cucumber, onion, olives and a creamy, mild cheese.

We had to be careful when discussing foods with the locals. When someone said, “This is a traditional dish made only here. You won’t find it anywhere else in the world, not even in other parts of our country,” we didn’t say we’d already had the same dish half a dozen places already.

Ethnic pride and identity were evident everywhere we went and irrespective of arbitrary borders imposed by governments. Some people, including border agents, seemed to just ignore the border. We are lacking several stamps in our passports.

Imagine traveling where there are no postcards for sale. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the lack of tourist infrastructure sometimes made getting around easier. Buses may run at odd times from odd places, or there may not even be a bus, but just say where you want to go and the locals will make sure you get there.

Our monetary goal was $100/day for the two of us on location. In other words, all expenses from landing in Athens to departing Vienna, not including airfare or expenses in the US.

The entire trip was cash from ATM’s. The credit card never left the money belt. I have a separate travel account, so calculation is easy. $8,164 over 80 days is $102 per day.

Accommodations averaged very close to €30 ($40) per night. Most were €30, a few under, a few over. All but a few were private room with bath: some had kitchen or kitchen privileges. Most of the time, it would have been possible to go cheaper, but we didn’t feel the need to. I never negotiated a price.

The hostel room in Vienna was by far the most expensive at €50 and the bathroom was down the hall. I could have avoided this overnight layover, but that would have meant a very early departure coupled with the time change. At our age, we don’t handle 30-hour days very well.

Budgeting food was seldom an issue, though the Euro exchange rate really sucked. The worst part for me was when we needed to share entrees and Roger’s tastes are more limited than mine. The best part was that most of the time we had excellent meals in surroundings more elegant than we ever have at home.

Greece was by far the most expensive country, and we would consider it expensive even were we not comparing it with the other countries on this trip. In particular, transportation in Greece was a killer. It was not unusual to spend €30-40 ($40-55) on a pair of bus tickets, and then there was the €112 ($150) queasy ferry ride from Santorini to Crete. That put a big dent in our $100 budget. Fortunately, the other countries smoothed it out.

My favorite moment: approaching the village of Limar in Albania. I cried with joy. It had been a longtime goal to hike to an isolated village like this, and somehow my first glimpse of Limar fit the mental image I had carried for years.

According to Roger’s GPS records, we hiked more than 200 miles on this trip and ascended more than 30,000 feet, mostly with full pack. This doesn’t count the wandering around that wasn’t actual hiking. Neither of us suffered from this level of activity. My mild knee twist when I fell on the Valbona pass resolved quickly.

Our travels for the year are just beginning–several trips within the US are on the calendar, including backpacking with family in Wyoming. My woodworking is getting terribly behind schedule.

We have not begun to contemplate our next foreign trip, which we assume will be next spring or fall. One day, one of us will say, “How about …?” The other will say, “Yeah. That sounds good.” That’s how our adventures begin.

Categories: Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Cetinje: 23 June

Cetinje crept into our itinerary because it is small and relatively convenient to the Podgorica airport. I didn’t expect it to be so delightful. It was the royal capital of Montenegro, so it is sprinkled with palaces, gardens and former embassies, yet it is a small city with a scarce few buildings taller than two stories. It is a good place for sauntering on this last night in the Balkans.

Some photos:

The back yard of our accommodation

Street scenes

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The Blue Palace

The English Embassy

The Court of King Nikola (Last King’s Residence)

I’m not sure what this was, but the exterior trim is stunning.

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Entrance to royal park

Tomorrow, bus to Podgorica, then the airport. We sadly say goodbye to the Balkans.

Categories: Montenegro | 2 Comments

Kotor 3: 21-22 June

Kotor has a decidedly Venetian flavor for good reason. Imagine mini-Venice with no flooding, Dubrovnik surrounded by mountains instead of the sea, though the Bay of Kotor is at its gate.

Roger did not venture out Saturday, so I took his camera for a few photos.
I considered it my duty to contribute to the socialization of all kittens I met.

Impromptu dancing to street music

Every day is wash day.

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Some buildings are just shells

With his camera, I could use telephoto.

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Sunday, Roger was feeling well enough to go to the Venetian fortress above Kotor. We ascended by the Ladder of Cattaro, the ancient mule path that was for centuries the only access over the monte negro–black mountain–into the interior of what is now Montenegro. This path goes over the top of the mountain and on to Cetinje.

A piece of ancient track

Were Roger not under the weather, we would have at least gone over the top, but we crawled through a hole in the fortress wall

and came down the modern steps to town.

Some of the fortress walls are in amazingly good shape, and in general the Venetians were quite serious about defenses here.

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Chapel on the way up

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Inside the fortress

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The view of the bay was good, but not as good at sunrise as it would be at sunset.

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Old town from above. It is a small part of greater Kotor.

Church on the way down

Tomorrow Cetinje, our last destination before the flight home.

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Kotor 2: 20 June

Kotor is a walled city with the bay on one side and a respectable mountain on the other. With four nights, theoretically we would explore the area. Today, we walked outside the walls to the bay. After only a few minutes, I was ready to retreat to the walled city and not venture outside again except to climb the mountain when Roger recovers.

Outside, the only sight is roasting human flesh. One woman in particular who had already roasted to the medium rare stage had numerous large black moles. I hope she survives her vanity.

Inside the walls, we learned that mid-day is best spent in the air-conditioned room. Besides the heat, the streets are packed with day trippers. Later, I ventured out for some pictures while Roger rested.

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And the steps to our first room that were slicker’n sn*t when wet.

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Tomorrow, probably more of the same.

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Kotor: 19 June

Today confirmed that our itinerary for this trip was wise. You may have noticed that we generally avoid tourist meccas.

Our journey was straightforward: bus across the border to Ulcinjë, then a slow bus to Kotor. The route could have been beautiful, except that the coast is so built up–to us, that is. I suspect many would not agree, but we are spoiled to the unspoiled.

It rained much of the way and was raining when we arrived in Kotor. Our first choice hostel had only a room with a skylight which cannot be used in the rain. We were referred to a second hostel which put us in a 4-person room to ourselves. We will move back to the first hostel tomorrow.

Roger is not feeling well, so we did no more than eat and go to bed. It is a mild malaise, so no real concern.

Kotor is quite photogenic. Hopefully some good pictures tomorrow. We will stay 4 nights in Kotor.

Categories: Montenegro | 1 Comment

Komani Ferry to Shkoder: 18 June

The bus came so suddenly while Catherine was busy in the kitchen that I didn’t say goodbye. As the bus door closed, a hand reached in and gave me a package of her macaroons. Now that is service! I had said goodbye to my grandkitty, who has already put the resident mice on high alert. Her name is now officially Princess Carolyn, shortened to PC, spoken as Peesy. I love it. Only a true cat lover would consider a cat a princess–I have a Princess at home–so I know my grandkitty is in good hands.

We were passengers 21 and 22 on this 12-passenger bus to Bajram Curri, so we stood in back. I could have worse problems than being hugged for 10 km by a young handsome Albanian. I was also glad I didn’t have a good view of the road’s edge as we dodged the rocks dislodged by the rain.

We then took a taxi to Fierza. We waited several hours at a small cafe watching rain even heavier than yesterday. The “street cows” didn’t seem to mind. Catherine says they will even steal bananas.

We contemplated that after 10 weeks of adventure, we were wowed out. We were wrong.

About 10:30, the sun peeked out and the rain stopped. Mother Nature was kind.

Lake Komani is a dammed river in a steep mountain valley. The dam supplies about half of Albania’s power. Guidebooks liken it to a Norwegian fjord. I’ve seen Norwegian fjords, so I wasn’t wild about this. Roger wanted to see the geology. Sometimes scratching his geology itch is quite rewarding.

This lake is no fjord. It has its own spectacular beauty which Roger nobly attempted to capture with hundreds of photos, but it truly must be experienced.

This is not just a tourist boat. Before the highway was built a few years ago, this was a major transport route with car ferries as well as people ferries. The ferry is still critical to the people who live along the river. Several times, the ferry put people off with their groceries where there was no sign of habitation. These people disappeared up steep paths into the woods. The attendant says they live over the mountain and can get there twice as fast as experienced hikers, even with their bundles.

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The boat does have a tourist component, though. The attendant explained some of what we were seeing and we detoured to the pilot’s house for sugared pancakes.

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After 45 km and 4 hours of wow, we landed at Komani. We thought we would immediately board the minivan for Shkoder, but there were two other people on the river and our van was the only way out, so we waited more than an hour.

The only way out goes through a crude 1.5 km tunnel.

When traveling, never assume and never trust maps. We thought the ride to Shkodër would be bland. It was 57 km of mostly bad cliff-hanging road with fantastic views over the mountains and a lower lake. We had the luxuries of a newer vehicle with seat belts and a careful driver, but no photos.

The van took us directly to our hostel, the only place we have shared a room with others the whole trip. It was not a problem.

Shkoder has a significant Italian influence, but Albanian prices. For less than €5 total, we had fantastic veal Parmesan, salad, and water with ice. We finished the evening with gelato.

Now a hastily selected sample of the day’s >500 photos:

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Tomorrow: Kotor

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Rain: 17 June

There’s not really much to say than rain and more rain. We spent the day doing essentially nothing except reading, playing with the kitten and chatting with the handful of other guests.

Forecasts are conflicting for tomorrow, but we plan to take the ferry down Lake Komen, then bus to Shkoder. Our one last “destination” is Kotor Bay in Montenegro before flying home from Podgorica on Tuesday.

Categories: Albania | Leave a comment

Rainy Day in Valbona: 16 June

There is no escaping the rain. It has settled in. It is photogenic in its own right:

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We have spent the day reading, so there’s not much to report except

Catherine got a kitten today. Last time we were here, she said she was getting one, but didn’t know when. As we were talking about it this morning, the boy brought her in. The kittens were in the top of a barn and hard to catch, except for this one lying quietly with her mother. Catherine says her name is Carolyn.

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She shivered at first with fear, but never fought or cried. Pretty soon, she drank some milk and settled into her box. When we visited her after her nap, she turned her belly up for some loving and purred, and she has advanced to playing with string. She is going to be fine.

Tomorrow also has rain forecast. So far, Wednesday is looking good.

Categories: Albania | 1 Comment

Return to Valbona: 15 June

The schedule said there was a bus every 15 minutes to Gjakovë. When we arrived at the bus station at 8:30, we learned the next bus would be at 9:45. So much for schedules.

Our luck got better. Catherine in Valbona says that transport in Albania is chaotic and unpredictable, but it usually works. Without much effort, we arrived in Valbone before we had thought we would.

We returned to Valbona for several reasons. First, we have to retrieve stuff we left here. Second, this positions us to take the Lake Komen ferry to Shkoder. Third, this is a good place to wait out the rain which is pretty general the next few days–so much for June being a dry month. This morning, the plan was to leave tomorrow, but now it looks like we will leave Wednesday. We certainly didn’t expect to be pulling out warm clothes this late in the trip.

My only photos are a few I took in passing through Bajram Çurri:

The kitchen store

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The plastics store

A market

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Tomorrow, we will veg here. Rain is expected all day.

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Peja: 14 June

Today was a transit day. It started with a fantastic breakfast that was not a Continental breakfast. We like real food for breakfast like this:

Note there appears to be a huge napkin on the table. In Greece, Albania and Kosovo, and sometimes in Montenegro, even at the cheapest venues, they cover the table with a fresh one for each sitting. Pretty neat.

The mountains were hidden by ominous clouds. We are super glad we did our hike yesterday.

There are no busses from Gusingë, so we took a €5 taxi to the Plav bus station. As we got out of the taxi, a man came up and offered to take us to Berane for €6. We knew this would be cheaper than the bus, so we agreed. The ride would have been more comfortable had he driven on the right side of the road, but we made it OK.

In Berane, we went in to buy our tickets for Peja and a man said the bus was leaving in 2 minutes. Sure enough, it left immediately after we got on. If we had not taken the man’s offer, we would have missed the bus.

From Berane to Peja, the bus went through lush forested mountains, probably more impressive when not shrouded in clouds.

Peja is in Kosovo, so we were a wee bit anxious to see it work to exit Montenegro when we had entered without a border check. I showed the permit on the iPhone, but he couldn’t read it. Another passenger explained that we had entered on foot. It didn’t seem to be the least bit of a problem.

Peja is not a particularly attractive place, but it is interesting. Albanian and Kosovo flags and banners are flying together.

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Albanian is spoken frequently and many signs are in Albanian. In Montenegro, where Serbian is apparently the language of choice, Peja is called Peć. So when transiting, we had to be careful what to call it.

We did not expect to see this written in the cement of a sidewalk patch:

We spent some time today studying the weather. We shouldn’t complain, as we’ve had an overwhelming abundance of good weather on this trip, but for the next 10 days, most everywhere we’d like to go is either raining or hot. It rained here today, but the mountains were still pretty.

We do have a plan, though, and tomorrow we go back to Valbona.

Categories: Kosovo | 1 Comment

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