Monday, July 25, 2011

Pink Palace

Pink boozey summer camp
Our original plan was to camp on the Greek Island of Corfu. When staying in Berat, however, we heard that the Pink Palace was an awesome hostel in Corfu and the place to be. We looked at the website, and sure enough, it looked great. Free breakfast and dinner, free pickup, and activities most days of the week. In Sarande, we ran into some guys who were just at the Palace and they had some horror stories; they described it almost like a drunken prison. We were worried that the place was going to be really isolated, and that we could only leave the hostel at the once-a-day six in the morning bus. In actuality, it was really cool. Aside from the mess hall.
Upon arrival, they gave us shots of uzo and then ushered us to dinner. Saturday night is toga night, so we dressed up. With a six-hour long happy hour, we ended up getting a little tipsy, and when combined with all the plates that were smashed on our heads (it was Greek night) we woke up pretty hungover. We'll be at the Pink Palace for three nights, but I can see how people end up staying longer.



Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sarande and Butrint National Park

We got on the three o'clock bus to Sarande and six hours later arrived to the coastal town. In Western Europe, this drive would have maybe taken two hours, but the roads were bad, and the driver never drove over 30 mph. Our view from the Hairy Lemon hostel, however, were fantastic.
You can see Corfu Island in the distance
Sarande is not a very beautiful city, and is just full of half-finished hotels. Development of the Ionian coast is huge right now, but Katy pointed out that only a few buildings were actually being actively constructed. Projects seemed to have started, but didn't look like they would be finished anytime soon. What can you do with a bunch of skeletal buildings? Although Sarande wasn't beautiful, it is a great point to reach Butrint National Park. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Butrint was first a Greek and later Roman city. Exploring the old ruins was fascinating, especially the 6th century baptistery.

 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Berat, Albania

Berat was a great stop after disappointing Tirana. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Berat's old town is charming, with rows of houses built on a steep incline looking over the river Osum.
The town of a thousand windows
Even though it was hot, BH and I climbed up the hills on both side of the city. One gave us a good view of the town, while the other side had the Berat castle. The fortress, rebuilt in the 6th century, has been damaged mightily throughout the years, but still had some interesting sights—especially the churches. Definitely not the cistern though... I'm pretty sure it was full of rats.

The most interesting part of our day, however, had to be the xhiro. Every evening, Albanians dress up and hit the streets at around 7:30. They then walk up and down the main promenade. I'm not certain what the reason is, but one other traveler told me it started under Hoxha, when there was a curfew in Albania. Before the sun went down, people went out to meet, chat, socialize, what have you. If this happened once a week, it might not be that exciting. But when the whole town comes out to do their evening stroll every evening, well, that is pretty cool.
video

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Getting off the beaten path in Tirana


While we have been seeing a LOT of tourists so far, it seems that nobody but the most seasoned of travelers head on to Albania. The second-poorest country in Europe, after Moldova, is not well connected to Montenegro. In order to get from Budva to Tirana, a person would need to take a bus to Bar, transfer to Ulcinj, take a twice-daily bus to Shkodra and then transfer again to Albania. Yikes. In order to save time and sanity, we did a second tour organized by the Hotel Montegro and got a mini-bus to take us to Tirana with a stop in Stari Bar and a quick photo of the oldest olive tree in Europe (scraping the bottom of the tourist bowl, don’t you think?)
Something like 2000 years old

Our first driver dropped us off in Shkodra, which is the old Albanian capital and definite border town. The atmosphere in Albania immediately felt different: dusty streets, grand mosques, crazy traffic, and guys picking at their belly buttons Chinese style. Our driver than passed us on to a new guy to make the last leg to our hostel in Tirana for ten euro a person. Not too shabby!
Cevapcici!
We stayed at a nice hostel near the center and spent the first evening just relaxing and chatting with other travelers. While a lot of people in Croatia were traveling for two or three weeks, the people we met in Tirana were all on gap-years or around the world trips. It was exciting to hear their stories and wonder if I could do the same myself- after two weeks of traveling, I tend to get homesick. I like living abroad, but I don't know how much I like nonstop traveling. Dinner was a disappointment. We were told to go to this traditional restaurant, but they definitely microwaved all of our food. At least it was cheap. If you are in Tirana, definitely stick to the street food. Roasted chickens, sausages, fresh bread. Mmmm... We got cevapcici the next day for lunch. How can you not like hot bbq, with fresh bread and raw onions? Did I mention it was only a dollar a portion?
Tirana was kind of a disappointment. It was a big city, with a lot of blocs. Unlike other architecturally unfortunate cities, Tirana decided to do something and painted many of the buildings with bright colors and interesting designs. However, there still wasn't much to do. We went to the art museum, walked around the fashion district, drank coffee, and saw the hideous pyramid. This building was originally a mausoleum for Enver Hoxha, who was the dictator in the late 20th century. Designed by his daughter and son-in-law, it is a real eyesore. 
Gross gross gross
Ugly building rebooted!


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Budva, Montenegro: a mini-Dubrovnik exploding with development


Our third night in Montenegro was spent thirty kilometers south of Kotor in Budva. When compared to the charm of Kotor, Budva was not very pleasant. New hotels were springing up everywhere, and at night the city looked like a casino. Nevertheless, the old town is quaint and the beachfront is quite impressive. In the afternoon, we took a twenty-euro water taxi to explore Sveti Stefan some more, which is about ten kilometers south of Budva. We were planning on hitting up the beach at the resort, but it had an entrance fee of fifty euros! Even more surprisin, there were actually people that had paid. I guess when you are really rich it’s worth it to be on the most picturesque beach in Montenegro. As we walked back north toward Budva, the beaches became more and more plebian. Restaurants transformed from having marble-columned pillars with grape vines to having lawn chairs and canned beer. Hilarious.
We finally stopped at one of the middle-class beaches and got in for a swim. The geological features of the beach were beautiful, with slate cliffs dipping into the water. BH has becoming a better and better swimmer, and even jumped from a low cliff into the water. Unfortunately, he also stepped on a sea urchin. Ouch!
Water taxi to Sveti Stefan

Sveti Stefan

Chilling on the beach

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Big Montenegro Tour Review


Our hostel, Montenegro Hostel: Kotor, arranged a huge tour around the country for those who didn’t have many days in Montenegro. Since we fit the criteria, BH and I decided to do the tour while Katy and her friend Melissa went whitewater rafting. For just 35 euro, the hostel takes you to some of the main sites in Montenegro, fills you in on the history, and leaves plenty of opportunities for some stunning pictures.
The tour started with some more jaw-dropping views over Kotor’s fjord, a breakfast of Montenegrin style ham and goat cheese, and then a tour of Lovcen Mausoleum.  Prince Bishop Petrovic-Njegos is interned here-he was a poet king who transformed Montenegro from a theocracy to a secular state. Visit to the mausoleum is apparently a must for Montenegrins, and the view at the top is worth the 500 stairs.




Our next stop was Cetinje, which is the old capital of Montenegro. In the heat of noon in mid-July, we decided to just sip on some ice coffee and soak in the town’s atmosphere—faded glory, quaint houses, and distant mountains.
We jumped back in our car and drove through twisting mountains through the interior. Although our driver was obviously experienced, it was still hard to not be nervous as he made hairpin turns on one-lane roads with long drops to our right. We finally arrived to Rijeka Crnojevica, a tiny village with a beautiful bridge spanning its small river.  I got a picture with Val after she tried shoving me into the river. For a sixty-year old, she has got a lot of energy!
Oh Val...

To stay on schedule, we needed to get back in the car and make our way further north. The twisty roads brought us to an overlook of Tara river that looked like something you would see in China, not Europe. With lily pads crowding both banks, idling away hours on a river cruise sounded like a great idea.

Unfortunately, our Big Montenegro Tour had no time for breaks! We snapped our pictures and got back in the car. For the next hour, I was able to have a very nice conversation with our driver, who was very levelheaded, open-minded and willing to discuss the recent history in southeastern Europe. He helped clear up some of the questions I had about the Bosnian story and was willing to expose his own beliefs, prejudices and hopes.  Unfortunately, this was followed by the most disappointing part of our tour: lunch. My fish soup was watery and BH’s sea bass was not very fresh. Luckily, lunch was quickly put out of mind when we visited my favorite destination of the day: Ostrog Monastery. Built in 1665 by Saint Vasilije Jovanovic, the monastery acted as a symbol of defiance under the Ottoman rule. The monastery is built in the side of the mountain, and legend has it that Jovanovic climbed up to the site to work on the monastery every day— barefoot. His bones are still displayed as relics in the monastery, and BH was blessed by a priest as he peered at the holy remains. 
Next on the list was Lake Skadar, which is the largest lake in the Balkans. If we had more time, it could have been nice to rent a boat, but we zipped out as the sun was setting and arrived at our last destination, Sveti Stefan, with barely enough light to take pictures. Once a fishing village, a smart investor transformed it into a resort. Apparently, it was very famous in the 1980s, but it lost its appeal with the collapse of Yugoslavia. It looks like its popularity may be coming back with recent development projects and the regrowth of the tourism business in Montenegro.
I haven’t been on an organized tour in ages, but this tour was great. We only had three nights in Montenegro, and this gave us the chance to see a lot of the small country without having to schedule buses or spending money on a ton of guest houses. About half of the thirteen hours were spent in the car, but I would recommend it as an option for those in Montenegro without the luxury to explore the country slowly. Just make sure your guide speaks English! While our car was full of jokes, history, and insight, apparently, the second car’s driver never spoke and the passengers lacked the enthusiasm of our car. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Kotor: the must see in Montenegro


Our first stop in the tiny country of Montenegro was Kotor. Located right in the largest (false) fjord in southern Europe, the old town was idyllic. Narrow streets, stonewalls, and pedestrian area zones: what’s not to like? After checking into our hotel, BH and I made our way up the fortress the looks out onto the triangular old town. The views during the climb were remarkable, but so was the amount we sweated. Although we were climbing in the evening, the sun was still pounding on our backs as we made our way past the old church. At this point, we were only a third of the way up yet had probably lost a couple of kilograms of water weight.
Continuing up our climb, many people encouraged us / warned us that there would not be any water at the top. Luckily we had brought a couple of water bottles. We finally reached the top, but were panting like crazy. We have been carrying around these backpacks for three weeks­— you’d think by now we’d be in better shape. The ascent was worth it though. From the top of the fortress, you could see all of the old town, the fjords, and the mountains to the east. Beautiful. I was really excited to see fjords for the first time in my life, but apparently they were not made glacially so they don’t fill all the criteria. As you can see, that doesn’t take away any of their natural beauty. 
Seriously, at least two pounds of sweat

Labyrinthine stairs

Magnificent Kotor

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Beware this man

To get from Dubrovnik to Montenegro, we needed to grab the 10:30 bus. Unsurprisingly, the bus was an hour late. This guy jumped out to get our baggage into the van. Note: When traveling in the former Yugoslavia, a lot of these buses will charge you about a euro to check your bag. It really isn’t that big of a deal, but this guy went loco when people didn’t give him the fare quickly enough. He would throw their bags out of the trunk and wait until they give him the right amount. Ridiculous. BH handed the guy a euro in coins and he was pissed. I ended up giving him a twenty-euro, and for a while I thought he was going to just pocket the extra eighteen. While he may have been taking a couple of extra cents here and there, he did end up giving me my change. He kept shouting at EVERYONE though, and yelled at us all to hurry up even though he was the one that was an hour late. Not cool.
His anger did prove to be an asset later when we got to the Croatia-Macedonia border. Instead of waiting politely in a line that looked to be about an hour long, he burst to the front.
Near the front of the border, some of the people wouldn’t budge, but he finally wedged his way in. Every once in a while, he would hop out of the bus and freak out at the other cars even though he was definitely in the wrong. At least he got us to Kotor safely!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dubrovnik, Croatia


Dubrovnik is the biggest tourist destination in Croatia so we had to visit. Like Venice, it was teeming with tourists, but of course it was popular for a reason. 
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town is gorgeous. Street after street of pearl-white walls and red-tiled roofs made the Stari Grad the most beautiful old town we have seen on our trip so far.
The only thing we missed out on was a walk around the city walls because of the heat: around 100 degrees. To cool off, we made a quick fifteen-minute boat trip to tiny Lokrum Island. After some small cliff jumping into the locals’ favorite lake, BH and I made our way to an FKK beach on the southern shore. Beaches in Croatia tend to be rocky, but they make up for it with the crystalline water and breath-taking scenery.  
We made our way back to Dubrovnik after our swim and explored the streets again. As dinner approached, we searched for a restaurant that our campground had recommended. If you are in Dubrovnik, you must try Nishta. Located on Prijeko Street, this vegetarian restaurant is perfect after eating Balkan meat everyday. The serve-yourself salad is especially delicious, but they also have Thai curries, Chinese egg rolls, and falafel. Delicious.
On the boat to Lokrum Island

The lake on Locrum Island


Food without meat!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Mostar


Mostar is located in the latter geographical area of Bosnia & Herzegovina and its old bridge is one of the symbols of the country.  The original twenty-one meter high bridge had been built in the 16th century, but during the war in the 1990s, the Croat army destroyed this beautiful monument of cultural integration. Although it was a strategic attack, its collapse represented the breach between the three main religions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Luckily, it was rebuilt in 2004 and hopefully can work toward re-integrating Bosnian society. 
Our time in Mostar was brief, but of course we saw the old bridge. We contemplated jumping into the water from the bridge, but the view from the top was quite high. We put our toes in the water, and it was ice cold. In late July, there is a festival and Mostarians jump from the bridge... some even dive! 





Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tour of the Siege of Sarajevo


As I was saying earlier, everyone in Sarajevo seems to have a story. We were lucky enough to be staying at a hostel with a war survivor, Yasmin, that was willing to tell us his story. For fifteen euros, he drove us through the mountains into the Republika Srpska, one of the larger political divisions of Bosnia & Herzegovina, and brought us to the frontline of the siege on Sarajevo.
Our first stop was at the ice luge from the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics. What had once been part of a symbol for international cooperation had been destroyed during the destructive war. We continued on to what had once been a cable car going from the center up to the mountains. During the war, it was used as a bunker.

We then picked our way through the woods as Jasmin told us of his personal experiences. Several times during the tour he would stop and talk of the death of one of his friends or areas that had seen particularly hard fighting. It was really moving. Near the end, he showed us this mortar that landed in his neighbor's garden. Luckily, it did not detonate.
Byeong Hun with a mortar

One of the concerns of the mountains surrounding Sarajevo is landmines. Although the city government has said that the area is clean of mines, people have still been injured in recent years. There are yellow flags up that warn about areas or specific spots that may have landmines. At one point, we were walking single-file behind Yasmin in order to avoid mines that may have still been between the Serbian front line and Sarejevo's.
A great experience, and if you are ever in Sarajevo, you should take the Yasmin tour. 
Caution: Mines
Bullet holes in the observatory

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sarajevo: City of Stories


Since we got in late on Monday, we spent Tuesday wandering around the city and seeing a couple of the sights. The old Turkish neighborhood is a maze of small streets with vendors selling handicrafts that look straight out of Istanbul. 
The well in the old city

The old town

The new town had Austro-Hungarian architecture with popular European brands and even a great mall where BH and I tried, and failed, to find short shorts. These two areas of town and the mix of mosques, Orthodox, and Catholic churches really gave the city a nice eclectic feeling. 
Detail of the mosque

Catholic church 
The orthodox church
 In the evening, BH and I went to the Deaf Association to meet some local Deafies. As we were leaving the Deaf Club, one of the guys told us that the street we were on had been a focus of sniper activity during the Serbian siege from 1992 to 1995. People had to sneak across the street to deliver supplies and food. I feel like a lot of the buildings and streets here can evoke memories from the not to distant war, and it seemed like everybody had stories of the war.
Our new Deaf friends showed us some of the buildings that we had missed, like the old synagogue, and then brought us to the spot where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. I have been reading this story of the spark that ignited World War I in history classes since middle school, and to stand in this spot was humbling. After our second tour, BH and I were left on our own.  We got a beer, and watched as crowds of people showed up at this random club. It was a Tuesday night, but these Sarajevans were dressed to the nines, and looked ready to party. We didn’t join them, but enjoyed watching the parade.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Arriving in Sarajevo


Monday morning we grabbed a bus from Dubrovnik headed to Sarajevo. While the internet said it would be a five-hour bus ride, in reality it was more like eight. Thirty minutes were stupidly tacked on when we stopped at a random restaurant featuring goats on the spit. No ATM, no convenience store, and no Bosnian Marks. We figured our bus driver must have just loved this restaurant and stopped every time he drove from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo.
Mmm goat

We did eventually arrive in the city, but, for some reason, we had lost our directions to the hostel. Guest House SA would pick us up at the train station, but we needed to give them a call. We ran back and forth between the train and bus stations searching for a phone, wifi, or an ATM. We finally found a computer in the information center that we could use for a couple of marks. We ran back to the bus station looking for the ATM and finally sat down at the computers. One problem: they didn’t have microphones. They were old desktops, so I got underneath the desk trying to plug in my microphone and sweating like crazy. We couldn’t get Skype to work, but eventually the guy at information gave our hostel a call.
I thanked him, and tried to hand him fifty marks to pay for our five-mark coffee and juice, but he couldn’t break the bill. I spent the next ten minutes running around the train station looking for change until finally the man told me I could pay in euros: thank God!
We were picked up by our hostel at the train station and arrived at our hostel, which was equipped with, wait for it, air-conditioning! We had been camping for the past six days, so it was heaven to just relax on couches, bask in the air-con, and surf the Internet. 
Nice view

Three hours later, and we are all still using the Internet when we realize it is getting late and need to head out to dinner. Our first meal was at the most traditional restaurant in Sarajevo. It was delicious, but way too meat heavy. When we aren’t in restaurants, we have been living on bread, cheese, and salami. We need more vegetables!
We finished the evening with big beers at the Sarajevo Brewery. Eight dollars for these one-liter beers. Delicious! 
 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Loving Hvar


Better than the city, Hvar is a must visit if you are in Split. Doable in a day-trip, we left in the morning and took the two-hour ferry to Stari Grad. Our goal, however, was Hvar town. We took a quick bus and then immediately headed for one of the many beaches. The water is crystal-clear and amazingly refreshing. These days are getting hotter and hotter, and hitting the beach is practically a necessity.
After a couple of hours of swimming, we explored Hvar town. Idyllic.

Hvar Town


Boy fishing

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Split, Croatia


Of all the towns on the Adriatic Coast, I was looking forward to Split the most. Sometimes, you look into these guidebooks and there is a great picture or a particularly well-written sentence and it makes you want to visit a specific place. The way Lonely Planet described Split, specifically Diocletian’s Palace, gave me pretty high expectations. Don’t get me wrong— Split is beautiful and the Diocletian’s Palace is gorgeous. It just didn’t live up to its hype. The city itself, outside the Roman palace, was pretty industrial, big, and lacking some of the Adriatic charm we saw in Zadar. However, it is definitely worth a day or two to see the old town and soak up some of the city’s character.
Diocletian's Palace


The money was pretty funny

Our campsite in Stobrich, however, was great. Although seven kilometers from the old town, it was right on the beach. The water wasn’t as clear as in Zadar, but there was a high dive and a big bouncy inflatable. Katy and I swam out to jump around, but some punk was charging a dollar to jump on the trampoline. Who swims with kuna in their pockets?!? Luckily, Katy and I are ninjas and we swam out late at night to silently and secretly jump around. BH even got a sweet shot of me diving into the Adriatic. 
You can see me smiling