Sunday, September 30, 2012

holidays 2012 - day 07: a venerable tree, two lakes, two silly travellers, and a chaotic city

when we wake up, it's dry! and the sun comes out pretty soon! almost suspicious ... breakfast is from 9 o'clock, how sleep- & holiday-friendly is that! homemade bread with pršut (local ham) and local cheese, yummy! 35 euros for the room and breakfast for two is very reasonable. so: a recommendation, if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of bar: apartmani i konoba KULA. friendly staff, good english, fabulous food.

so we hit the road again, first we stay in the neighbourhood: mirovica, a small place, famous for one of its, um, inhabitants, so to speak: an olive tree estimated to be over 2000 years old, stara maslina (old olive). very impressive, i must say. mind-boggling to imagine what has happened since this tree was just a little seedling! empires have fallen, generations have come and gone, its village has been under the rule of various empires. i wonder who planted it, if anyone. i wonder about the twists and turns of fate that helped it survive. there are many olive trees in this area that are 500, 700, over a 1000 years old, but this is clearly the oldest, and actually one of the oldest trees in europe. quite awesome. i love olive trees, their trunks tell whole stories, sometimes it's as if the knots and gnarls and holes make up faces or entire strange creatures.

2000 years of tree: stara maslina, mirovica

and then we're off into the wilderness, deciding to take the hinterland road to world-famous (not!) vladimir, gateway to - tadaaa! - šas (shasi in albanian). now, i must explain this to my friends who don't speak austrian german: this place is pronounced like an austrian word for "fart", which is often used to express something that is crap or just not what you want. we thought we simply had to pay a visit to this place. all the better that the guidebook recommends this area for some real off-the-beaten-track exploring.

we park the car and walk up the hill to ruins of the once-great zetan city svač, of which only a few ruins are left.

ruins, land & sky

all along the way there are burnt bushes, it's very quiet, and apart from thistles and a few tough little flowers, a few birds and a lizard are the only signs of life. from the top of the hill we have a nice view of lake šas (šasko jezero) that lies amid a belt of lush green at our feet.

lake, green, burnt bushes

the lakeside restaurant "shasi" is closed, an abandoned house next to it is not ... so we poke our noses into that place.

back in vladimir it's time to prepare our coup: we write / draw extensions for the word šas, in order to enhance the local signpost. again, this is really only funny for german speakers. here are the results (click to enlarge):

montenegrin-austrian signpost :)

actually, this is a weird area altogether - there is a mountain called "shit" not too far away, and everywhere you see signs reading "shitet" (which is albanian for "sell") ...

and now it's onward - new territory awaiting: albania! we cross the border nearby, at sukobin. and it IS different once we're across. at first, the houses are actually very pretty and mostly in good condition, but still - there are donkeys waiting patiently by the roadside, and there are some tiny shops that barely seem to deserve that name. the closer we get to shkodra (shkodër), the more foreign our surroundings seem. and the city itself ... well ... let's say: different. interesting. crazy. imagine a huge roundabout, two or three lanes. and then imagine foot passengers, cyclists, motorbikers and car drivers all doing pretty much as they please. it's insane. cyclists cross the roundabout, people weave between cars, motorbikes go in every possible direction ... and somehow, miraculously, it works! if you did that in austria, there'd be five accidents within a minute, because we are so used to playing by the rules. we drive down a broad street, four lanes in all, and scooters come towards us in the middle of the street! cyclists seem to drive without looking left of right. people on foot seem to fear nothing and no-one. and the street itself is lined with all sorts of buildings, some of them rather neat, others ramshackle, with peeling paint. there are shops selling just about everything, frequently goods are hanging from the ceiling, or arranged on mats in front of the actual shops. it looks more like some market, actually!

signposts, as we are to discover, seem to be a rarity in this part of the world, so we get lost. heinz gets out of the car to ask a policeman, who is just chatting to a driver he knows. the driver tells him to just follow him, as he's going in that direction. and that's what we do. when the guy finally stops and gets out of his car, he explains which road to take and - unnecessarily - apologises for his bad english about three times. so friendly! the road out of town ... well. another little adventure. the road itself is - at least in parts - in abysmal condition, and occasionally entire manhole covers are missing, as if that didn't matter at all. buildings in this part of the city are not only ugly, they don't seem quite safe either.

shkodra street scene

it's not hard to guess that albania is not exactly a rich country. but it all seems very lively and colourful. we'd originally considered spending our holiday in albania, and it looks like this could be an interesting trip some time soon. other travellers we met this summer told us about their impressions - friendly people, beautiful areas, but a very poor country, with a rather unhappy population.

so, we are on our way out of town, towards liqeni i shkodrës (lake skadar). there is one road, obviously brand-new, and not quite finished. occasionally the black of asphalt gives way to the dusty brown of a dirt road. the speed limit indicated is 30. everyone goes at 100 km/h minimum, except perhaps the odd horse and cart or the sheep crossing at their own preferred leisurely pace.

slightly more horse power

there are plenty of roundabouts, but there is not one signpost in sight. the map in my lap is useless. the plan is to access the lake from some small town, but we have no idea where we are. fortunately we can soon at least see the lake, which means that we are basically going in the right direction! the only signpost between shkodra and the border advertises a place that isn't featured on my map, ha! near the border at hani i hotit we stop to take some pictures of the beautiful lake and a few birds, but we can't get really close.

lake skadar as a mirror of clouds

crossing the border here is no big deal. we are asked if we are driving straight home to austria, and when we say no, we are staying in montenegro for another week, the montenegrin guy smiles and says "have a nice journey!" obviously that was the right answer. no searching of our car or any such thing, which we observed at the sukobin crossing (germans and swiss entering the country).

we stop in tuzi, to feed hungry heinz. delicious food in such a nondescript little place! and then we drive on along part of the montenegrin share of lake skadar. beautiful, just beautiful. we stop at the national park centre, for some info and some photos. such a gorgeous area!

lake skadar, late afternoon

a winding road takes us across the mountains between the lake and the sea - what views!

distant lake, lengthening shadows

and since we began the day with maslina (the old olive tree), we end it with maslina: that's the name of the camp in buljarica, where we stop for the night. it's too late for a swim, but we enjoy a simple dinner under old olive trees in front of our (dry!) tent.

photos of day 07

Saturday, September 29, 2012

holidays 2012 - day 06: some serious mountains, some serious rain, some seriously old place

when we get up at 7, it actually isn't raining. once again our timing is spot-on: the moment we're done packing, cleaning the tent as best we can, and are about to get in the car, guess what? yep. the sky has more of that wet stuff, and we might not know it yet, but there is way, way more to come.

freshly showered citrus fruit

we drive along the road to kotor again, but then on to new territory. despite the dismal weather, we have our hopes up that this will stop some time soon. we are not sure we'll be back this way and therefore decide to take the spectacular road to mt lovćen, the black mountain that gave montenegro its name. it's a winding road with some challenging hairpin bends, and due to the weather there is lots of gravel and even rocks on the road. we are lucky in that the fog clears occasionally, and the rain even ceases a few times, so we stop and get out to enjoy breath-taking views of the bay of kotor and its surroundings, as far as the open sea. stunning, and made all the more dramatic by wisps of white and grey clouds floating around both above and below us, by thick curtains of fog being lifted for glimpses of mountains opposite us, by the grim sky never allowing the sun to break through clouds completely.

dramatic landscape, dramatic weather: bay of kotor

after a while heavy rain sets in again, and we decide to wait out the worst. parked at one of the many passing places/vista points, we play a couple of games of settlers of catan, rolling dice and eagerly building roads, towns, and cities in an imaginary country where it doesn't quite rain so much.

eventually we drive on to the pass and decide to turn right onto the even narrower road to the famous and popular njegoš mausoleum. the closer we get, the more it rains. but - true explorers cannot be detained by mere rain and wind, right? right. but maybe they should sometimes be. or maybe a rain dance before getting out of the car might have proved helpful. anyway: we are not quite sure how far it is from the carpark to the actual mausoleum. more information would have made us stay in the car and turn around, no doubt.

so we find out that 1560 m above sea level combined with a very chilly, very strong wind and pouring rain makes for some not-so-pleasant outdoor experiences. instead of the expected 2 or 3 staircases up, there are countless stone steps, some in the open, some in a freezing, draughty tunnel. within about half a minute i am soaked to the skin anyway - at least from the hips down. the rain stings my face like needles. i run so fast that after about 2/3 of the way breathing becomes painful and i feel on the verge of a panic attack. i am too hot from running upstairs to feel cold, which seems weird.

eventually we reach the top, where they explain that there is no electricity - and no panorama, ha ha - and hand us a tiny flashlight. we are in no mood for long exploring anyway, so we just take a couple of photos of the mausoleum - a couple of dark, solemn statues in national costume and the grave and statue of montenegro's national hero, petar II petrović njegoš - and turn around for the way back, which is somehow even worse than the way up. it is so dark in the tunnel, and our glasses are so wet, that we have to be really careful with the slippery steps, which slows us down.

couple standing guard over petar II petrović njegoš

we grab some dry clothes from the car and rush into the restaurant. there is no light except a tiny little lamp in the ladies' restroom, and by that light i towel myself dry and change into dry clothes. quite an interesting pastime, if you ever get bored. some hot tea and bowls of delicious, steaming soup warm us up. and we do our best to imagine the panorama that is hidden behind walls of rain and clouds.

sad substitute for a panorama

thank goodness for heating in cars, too, as we drive down the other side of the mountain towards cetinje. more rain. on to the coast near budva. more rain. sveti stefan, the famous picture-postcard montenegrin island just off the coast, looks a lot less alluring in this kind of weather than under a brilliant blue sky, so one picture of it set against a grey sky and grey-green sea is all we take home. every time we think the sun might finally win the battle against the clouds - nah, more rain.

sveti stefan in the wind and rain

in bar (that's the name of a town, not a place to go for drinks!) i drop in at the tourist info, but contrary to what the lonely planet guidebook promises, the guy there barely speaks english and isn't very helpful. i pick up a small brochure of private accommodation in/around bar, and heinz and i find something that looks promising, in stari bar (old bar), where we want to go for sightseeing anyway. by the time we arrive there, the miracle has happened: the rain has stopped and the much-longed-for sun is out! what a difference that makes! the room we get is very communist era, but spacious, with a big, firm bed, a nice bathroom and a mini balcony - and: it's DRY! very soon, however, many surfaces inside and outside are also covered with damp clothes ...

our hotel is situated right beside a simple mosque as well as next to the old city wall and the entrance to the once big town that lies in ruins a few kilometres inland from modern-day bar. so off we go exploring - and there is lots of that to do: ruins of houses, churches, turkish baths, walls, streets, and a miraculously intact aqueduct await us.

ottoman aqueduct, outlasting even disastrous earthquakes

vines strangle many walls, intact or broken, grass and wildflowers grow in abundance. what a project they've got on their hands there, trying to reconstruct this place! a few places have already been done, but this is something that will take immense amounts of time and money. i love such places - imagining the lives of the many people who lived there, under slavic, venetian or ottoman rule, how elders might have met in the bath house, young girls whispered behind the church after mass, watchmen run up and down steep staircases bearing good or disastrous news.

the ruins of stari bar

i also find a church dedicated to sv veneranda - which is interesting as my father's grandmother's name was veneranda, the only veneranda i've ever heard of. to one side of the old town, olive groves cover the hills, many trees old enough to have seen the rise and fall of this place. it only drizzles for about five minutes, although dark clouds hang threateningly over the hills just behind this place lost in time. this makes for rather gorgeous light though, and the sky to the east attracts attention with ever-changing cloud formations that stir the imagination.

bird or dolphin?

dinner at our hotel's restaurant turns out to be a marvellous affair: grilled calamari for me, and about 5 tons of food for heinz (ražniči and peppers stuffed with cheese), and just when we think we're finally done, they serve figs and watermelon, on the house. a little walk around the block, so to speak, is perfect before retiring to our room.

and just when i'm about to turn off the light ... thunder, na na na nah na! just in case, i move some of our stuff from the balcony to the room. and just when i'm falling asleep ... rain! even heinz wakes up, and for about two minutes there is crazy hail, really big hailstones! after that, it rains for another 15 minutes, and that's that. at least we've got a real roof over our heads!

photos of day 06

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

holidays 2012 - day 05: montenegro/monteregno

uncanny timing: we wake up just before 5 am to go to the bathroom - there is a little thunder in the distance, so we take the washing off the line. as soon as we're back in the tent, the first drops of rain fall. and that's how it starts. five hours later, massive thunderstorms are still raging. and it's lightning and thunder, lightning and thunder, in incredibly quick succession, and practically without a break. and the rain? well, let's just say that all the rain that didn't fall between may and mid-september is pouring down now. it's as if the rain gods are on duracell batteries. seriously impressive, and seriously wet. after 10 am it does occasionally get a little brighter, the rain nearly ceases. but that's just the sky drawing a deep breath, before it's full steam ahead once again. camping at its best, not.

shelter from the rain

we doze / sleep away most of the morning, but it gets a little uncomfortable, as the walls are getting slightly damp, and of course we need to leave our little shelter from time to time. outside it's messy. only the plants appear to be thoroughly happy. thank goodness we bought delicious pastry for breakfast in kotor the night before, so eating is not quite as impossible a task as it might have been. when i go to brush my teeth, i can actually see the top of one mountain, and it stops raining for about a minute! however, while i'm on the toilet - wham! big, big drops start falling, and i'm half wet by the time i reach the tent about 15 m away. time to rename the country "monteREGNO" (german: regen = rain).

around 12.45 we decide to venture out into the world for some hot drinks and to prevent cabin fever. we drive to nearby risan, where the rain actually stops for a little while, and we can take some pictures of the grim-looking bay and some palm trees lining the freshly washed road.

waterfront palms, risan

we find a little restaurant and grab a table next to four british folks. i get a delicious hot chocolate, and we both have some cheap and very tasty omelet. the lights go out, when the thunderstorms come back, so we have a very romantic impromptu candlelight lunch! :) we play a couple of games of "settlers of catan" (the dice game), welcome some indian brits, and chat with the other guests.

warmed up and bellies full, we are ready to do some sightseeing. just around the corner there are remains of a roman home with some stunning mosaics. the friendly guide tells us how the villa was found by chance, and how it is suspected that a lot more were destroyed when a road was built years ago, and people just didn't care much. also, it is assumed that many locals found artefacts and ruins on their land when building houses, but they didn't report any findings, because it would have caused such a hassle, and they just wanted to get on with their lives. until relatively recently the mosaics at risan were not even sheltered from the elements, and many people came and took valuable objects away - almost all amphorae and pots are gone, and some of the mosaics are badly damaged. there's one particularly beautiful mosaic of hypnos (somnus), in what is supposed to have been the master bedroom.

sweet dreams: hypnos decorating the bedroom floor

the dining room mosaics feature pretty patterns including suns and octopuses, geometrical shapes. our timing is just perfect, too, because we are almost done when a big group arrives.

the rain seems to take a longer break, so we move on to perast, one of the next villages down the road, a lovely, romantic-looking little spot, chock-full of venetian palazzos and churches. the wind's rather strong, but it's actually not cold, so we enjoy walking around, taking in old buildings in various stages of decay, the lovely building housing the museum, the cosy-looking waterfront restaurants.

venetian echoes, perast

we pass boats that are filled with rain water, watch the clouds rushing across the sky, the fog lifting, then hiding the mountains once more behind thick grey veils.

still, we venture on to budva - it doesn't look so bad, but when we leave the tunnel past kotor: almost coal black clouds await us, and the rain is back. we park near the old town of budva, and believe it or not, the sun actually comes out for some glorious moments. nevertheless, waves crash against strong walls, everything in the beach bars is bundled up and safely tucked away.

heinz at budva beach

we take a walk, glad it's dry and brighter. but when heinz decides to go visit the citadel, and i stay outside to take some pictures of the surroundings, well ... lightning, thunder, rain. hooray! heinz enjoys the citadel and its fabulous library that boasts many valuable books and old maps. i don't enjoy waiting for him quite as much ...

brooding budva, from the citadel

we decide to drive back towards morinj - it's slow, what with flooded roads, and more water coming down from above. all my prayers to rain gods and goddesses clearly were in vain. at least the car is clean! ;)

we have dinner at the same place where we had lunch in risan, but this time there is no need for candlelight. we get a drink on the house though, which is nice. and i so totally get a kick out of the adventurous spelling of international drinks on the menu!

džek, džoni & their friends

back in morinj, it's a miracle that our tent is not completely flooded, though parts of the bedclothes are really wet. still, it's a relatively dry place, and there isn't another option now anyway.

photos of day 05

Monday, September 24, 2012

holidays 2012- day 04: Dobrodošli u Crnu Goru

while i am up early and follow the cat walk of fame

cat(-)walk of fame, plat, croatia

to the beach in order to wake up properly, heinz turns over and sleeps some more. we're off towards the border around a quarter to nine, and along the way the scenery changes - more hills, mountains in view, cypresses stand like neatly folded dark green umbrellas. just like the guide books said, the croatians seem reluctant to let anybody go. why the procedures of checking passports for about 15 cars takes about an hour, is anyone's guess. a little further down the road, entering montenegro takes mere minutes.

our first stop is herceg novi, gateway to the bay of kotor. it's hot and sunny, and we park the car at the foot of some serious stone steps. think dubrovnik has many of them? think again! there simply isn't much space between the sea and the ubiquitous mountains, so it's up and down steps practically all the time. good and cheap workout! no wonder montenegrins can eat all those huge portions of food and still stay slim.

we wander around the old town, have a drink in the shade on trg herceg stjepana, opposite archangel michael's church, then head down to the sea for a walk along the beach.

njegoševa, herceg novi

eventually we find kayak montenegro, where we want to book a kayak tour for the next day. but - the friendly guy informs us that the weather forecast for the next day or even the next two days is bad, and we'd better come back or call after that. valuable information, though not quite what we wanted to hear.

so we drive on along the terribly beautiful road that runs along the fiord-like bay of kotor, stopping now and again to take a few pictures.

boka kotorska

due to the way it was formed, the bay is not a fiord, but it does remind me of both norway and new zealand, with the dark water and the mountains rising from it wherever you look.

we find a neat camp in a tiny place called morinj and set up our tent beneath mandarin trees. the awful weather forecast is confirmed by the owner, who urges us to look for a sheltered spot. the camp is situated next to a creek that serves as a natural fridge - it's a rather chilly 10 degrees! the small local beach is barely 5 minutes away, and while heinz spends most of the time there resting, i go for a long swim, while overhead clouds move in and darken the already grim-looking peaks even more. i even spot a perfectly duck-shaped cloud!

later that afternoon, we drive further along the bay to kotor. lovely views of the tiny islands just off perast and the bay itself.
our lady of the rock, off perast

kotor, proud of its UNESCO heritage listing, boasts an old town that is a maze of narrow lanes with tucked-away piazzas and plenty of old buildings, which remind me of parts of venice. the place is also full of stray cats, and a little ginger one seems to have adopted me, as it begins to follow me around.

my little feline friend, kotor

all this exploring makes us hungry, so we have a fabulous dinner of risotto with saffron and shrimps (me) and fish with potatoes (heinz). afterwards, we take another stroll to make some room for delicious ice cream, before taking some more pictures of nighttime kotor

square of arms, kotor

and the yachts of the super-rich down by the sea.

seriously big boat, kotor

photos of day 04

Sunday, September 23, 2012

holidays 2012 - day 03: laundry, rooftops, city walls

we wake early after a good night's sleep and head to dubrovnik after a quick breakfast. once again we leave the car outside the centre and walk down the dozens of stairs.

we climb the steps up the city wall shortly after the ticket booth has opened, so it's still rather quiet. i'm grateful it's not all blue sky and merciless sun, but hazy and cloudy for most of our long walk around the old town.

heinz & i on the city walls

built between the 13th and 16th centuries - and certainly built to last - the city walls are dubrovnik's main claim to fame. all in all, they're over 2 km long and up to 25 m high - quite impressive. of course they offer great views of the old town they encircle and have protected for so long.

stari grad, framed

i'm intrigued by the glimpses of people's lives in this rather public place: laundry hung out to dry, open windows, pillows left to air, chairs in narrow backyards, little pots of herbs on mini balconies, residents having a smoke out the window.

backstreet balcony

there are also plenty of cats in more or less unusual places, some making for rather picturesque or funny scenes.

doorway with black cat

there are schools, sports grounds tucked away between walls, not even big enough for regular games of football.

sports ground with a difference

there are rooftops reminding me of venice, pockmarked and looking out of place with big, white satellite dishes. there are odd chimneys and broken roof tiles. somewhere below a band is playing jazzy music. the sea glitters, and kayakers on a day trip disappear behind lokrum island.

we make our way around rather slowly, joined by more and more visitors to this spectacular place, and overtaken by most. afterwards, the sun's out for good, and we enjoy some palačinki (pancakes) with ice cream in a narrow side street, just off stradun. more sightseeing in the old town follows,

detail, church

but we long for the beach and a nice long swim. lovely, lovely water! at night, we have delicious barbecued chicken, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, and bread right in front of our tent, jealously watched by the campground cats and dogs.

photos of day 03

holidays 2012 - day 02: dubrovnik-bound

excellent sleep on the mattress, and we're up early (holidays, after all, are not for slackers!) to drive down to dubrovnik. there's still the highway till some place below split. i fall asleep very quickly and wake up somewhere in the middle of nowhere (and just in case you are wondering, no, it is heinz driving at the time, not me). off the highway, it's winding roads across the hinterland, at first dry and rocky, then a fertile plain opens up before us: the neretva delta, a paradise of orchards, fields, canals.

fertile lands

we stop at a fruit stand and sample just about everything there is, including honey-coated almonds and delicious peaches. a feast for our taste buds! with the shopping done, we move on to the magistrala, the coastal road - infinitely more beautiful than what you get to see along the highway. we enter bosnia & hercegovina around 01:30 pm. we stop in neum for petrol and a couple of pictures, leave BiH about 15 km down the road, and are back in croatia. very scenic road along the coast: cliffs, little villages built into rock, and always the deep blue sea. we drive past dubrovnik, stop for a few photos of the old town just south of the city.

first glimpses of the gorgeous city by the sea: dubrovnik

we find a campground ("laguna") in a small place called plat. with the tent set up and after a bite to eat, we are off down many stone steps to the beach in a small bay. nice swim! we decide to go into dubrovnik for dinner, where it's a walk down many steps to stari grad (the old town), pizza, and then a stroll along stradun in the heart of stari grad. strange to think i've been here before, many years ago, when things were very different in this part of the world. also intriguing to think how many pairs of feet / shoes have worn the cobbles so smooth.

stradun, looking liquid

it's a gorgeous, warm evening, i take photos of the old town, and on the way back to the campsite, also of dubrovnik, all lit up, from a distance.

the lights of stari grad, dubrovnik

photos of day 02

holidays 2012 - day 01: vienna to drage, croatia

early rise, and we're off around 07:40. on board are 2/3 of our boy group: otto, the crocodile & heinrich, the bear.

heinrich, the bear, safely tucked away in the food box

it's a day of driving, almost a shame on such a hot and sunny day: south towards the austrian-slovenian border at spielfeld, on to maribor (slovenia) and then zagreb (croatia). first glimpses of the sea near jasenice, a narrow strip between the mainland and pelješac.

the sea! the sea!

we leave the highway near zadar, find a campsite with the promising name "paradiso" in a small place called drage around 4.30 pm, and after setting up our tent, we go for a swim in the lovely water off the pebble beach. aaahhh! so nice after all those hours in the car!

late afternoon at drage

we have dinner at a local restaurant, apparently also frequented by locals. first taste of the local cuisine - meat, of course. bedtime at 10, first night on the brand-new mattress, which makes sleeping even more fun!

photos of day 01

reactivating my blog (again)

what better occasion to reactivate my old blog than sharing stories and pictures of our very recent trip to (mainly) montenegro? it's been way too long anyway.

montenegro for kittens

song of the day: love, you're a whore by regina spektor.