It’s a Long Way to Tipperary

(Cashel, Co. Tipperary, Ireland)

I’m sure that a hundred other travel bloggers have announced their arrival in County Tipperary with such a title.  But it really is a long trip from Kingston to Tipperary and I’m going to keep the cliché in the title.  After all, music is a theme of this trip and that song is probably in your head right now!

Why am I here?  The simple (rather than existential) answer is that there are simply too many places in the world to see…even with an entire year to explore.  Accepting the fact that I’ll have to miss out on a few things, no matter how many trips I cram into my schedule, I decided to let fate dictate where I would go.  Upon returning from Italy a couple of months ago, I took my “short list” (really a rather long list) of places I want to visit and vowed to visit the next one that had a worthwhile seat sale for late May.  Sure enough, Aer Lingus was promoting its direct Toronto-Dublin service and quoted a fare that I could not refuse.  Ireland it is!

Two blocks from downtown Cashel, Co. Tipperary
Two blocks from downtown Cashel, Co. Tipperary

My selection of Cashel was similarly whimsical.  Yes, there is a top-flight sight here, but I’m really here because my flight was scheduled to arrive at 5:20 a.m. in Dublin and that’s far too early to stick around (especially with luggage).  Since I would be jetlagged anyway, I chose an initial destination that had relatively mundane scenery en route and still got me close to the highly desirable west coast of Ireland.  All signs pointed to Cashel and I think it was a good choice.  Quiet, yet not totally off the beaten path, it allowed me to make up for the 30 minutes of sleep I had on the overnight flight to Ireland while also letting me see one of Ireland’s most famous attractions.  My next blog entry will undoubtedly feature some content from tomorrow’s visit to the famous Rock of Cashel.

A pub in Ireland - and it sells Guinness!  (Cashel, Co. Tipperary)
A pub in Ireland – and it sells Guinness! (Cashel, Co. Tipperary)

With a mid-day nap obliterating any hope of lunch, I decided to go for a 4-course prix fixe dinner.  I was so hungry by then that I chose the heaviest possible options:  Buffalo chicken wings (yes, in Ireland!), Chicken Roulade with lots of whipped potatoes, and hot apple pie for dessert.  The fourth course was tea, but it too was served in industrial quantities.   I’m now quite ready to sleep, as you can imagine.

A nice light main course (chicken stuffed with ham and cheese, and then wrapped in bacon), after a Buffalo wings appetizer.  Bring on the apple pie!
A nice light main course (chicken stuffed with ham and cheese, and then wrapped in bacon), after a Buffalo wings appetizer. Bring on the apple pie!

During my two weeks here, I will be spending every night in a Bed & Breakfast (B&B).  While some B&Bs are run by offsite owners, I believe that the owners actually live at every B&B that I’ve chosen.  I booked ahead, as this is a bank holiday weekend and early June is also an increasingly popular time to visit Ireland.   As I am relying on public transportation, I also thought it was important to ensure I had a place to stay in each town I visit.  If I had a car, it would be easier to drive on to the next town if there were no vacancies.  Public transportation in Ireland radiates out from Dublin like spokes:  it’s relatively easy to get to/from the capital, but not so easy to travel between different spokes.

My B&B in Cashel, Ireland
My B&B in Cashel, Ireland

I’ve already noticed that there is a lot more interaction between guests at a B&B than at hotels.  Just like in youth hostels, guests are more likely to talk to each other and to exchange tips on places to go and things to do.  I’ve already picked up some new ideas for my next destination after Cashel.   This trip should be a lot of fun!

Discovering New Music on the Road

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Today’s blog entry is a little different.   I’ve decided to share some music that I’ve encountered while travelling in Europe.   No photos and no detailed commentary…just some YouTube links that you can check out if you are interested in some fun music from other countries.

While it is tempting to sightsee as much as possible while travelling, some down time is inevitable.  Whether it is on account of bad weather or simply because I need to take a break, I occasionally take it easy by watching the local music video channel.  As a former radio broadcaster, I’m intrigued by seeing how things work in other countries (the cover” photo for this post is from a museum in Rome – it is a recreation of a vintage television studio at RAI, the state broadcaster).   However, watching local music video channels is also a great way to hear music that I haven’t encountered at home.

A couple of years ago, Italy’s RTL station played a soulful and unabashedly retro song called “Moneygrabber”.   I never thought I would discover an American group (“Fitz and the Tantrums”) on Italian television, but that’s exactly what happened.  Here’s the video:

Italy has been a good source of new music for me.  Last year, RTL played a fun Italian-language track by a singer named Max Gazzè.  See if you can figure out what “Sotto Casa” is all about by watching this video:

An English-language single that I never encountered in Canada is “Jungle Drum” by Emiliana Torrini.  She’s from Iceland but I first saw the quirky video when a Swiss friend shared it on Facebook:

You may remember that I picked up a Croatian new music compilation when I visited Split.   I wasn’t expecting to find a ska-influenced song that was punctuated with some interesting passing chords.  Here’s “Savršen Film” by the unusually-named “Justin’s Johnson”:

Reggae seemed to be lurking in the background of a few Croatian songs this year.  Is Dalmatian Reggae the next big thing?   Perhaps in anticipation of such a craze, here’s a baffling (a donkey and a seagull?) video by Jasmin Stavros called “Reggae Dalmatino”:

All of this music flows nicely into the final hints about my next destination.  I will be visiting a very musical island that has produced an impressive number of traditional and popular musicians.  I also have high hopes for music shopping while there.  Find out this weekend when I publish my next post!

Some Final Words on the Balkans

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

I had originally intended to say goodbye to the Balkans with a lengthy post about food.  However, I’m going to pre-empt that discussion for a moment with some late-breaking news about the region.

"Living Room" of my hotel in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
“Living Room” of my hotel in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

As you have probably heard by now, torrential flooding has created massive devastation in Serbia, Bosnia and, to a lesser degree, Croatia.  Many people have died and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.  Landmines are now once again a concern, as they have been disturbed by landslides and flooding.  Reconstruction will be a long and difficult process, once the immediate health and safety threats are overcome.

In my previous blog, I expressed the hope that the upcoming World Cup would be helpful in the Bosnian reconciliation process.  It seems that the flooding and an unexpected gesture from a tennis player may accelerate the process before that (and on an international level).

Novak Djokovic of Serbia is currently ranked as the 2nd best tennis player in the world.   Last weekend, he won the Rome Masters tennis tournament and a $500,000.00 paycheque…and donated all of it to the victims of the floods.   Most notably, the money (along with another $600,000.00 raised through his charitable foundation) was to be shared by the countries affected by the flooding.  This cross-border gesture has in turn prompted the Bosnian national soccer team to support Djokovic on the court and for Djokovic to declare his support for Bosnia & Herzegovina at the upcoming World Cup.  There also has been unprecedented cooperation between Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina in dealing with the aftermath of the flood.

I don’t think anybody expected events to unfold this way.  Let’s hope that others show similar leadership so that the old “divisions” may finally be put to rest.

Now, a few words about food…

Meat stuffed with meat (prosciutto) and cheese, with a Shopska Salad, in Žabljak, Montenegro
Meat stuffed with meat (prosciutto) and cheese, with a Shopska Salad, in Žabljak, Montenegro

Any discussion about food in the Balkans needs to begin with the omnipresent ćevapčići – a sausage-shaped minced meat.   I ate this in both Sarajevo (on a platter with other “real” sausages and pickled cabbage) and Split (in a warm pita with raw onions and ajvar sauce).  However, the dish I ate most was Wienerschnitzel…or bečka šnicla, as it usually appeared on menus (see my earlier post on “A Crazy Road Trip” for a photo).   The name bečka šnicla puzzled me at first, until I realized that many of the Slavic languages refer to Wien (Vienna) as “Beč“.   It was always excellent – the Austro-Hungarians certainly left their culinary mark in this part of Europe.  Anyone who has travelled here will not be surprised to read that I also enjoyed burek (filled pastry) and dolma (stuffed vegetables) on more than one occasion.

Dolma with pickled salad and a limunada (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Dolma with pickled salad and a limunada (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

However, I also enjoyed some interesting beverages in the Balkans, primarily due to lemons!  In Bosnia, I drank limunada on several occasions.  This is roughly equivalent to “lemonade”, but it is so sour that they bring out a jar of sugar for you when serving the drink.  Later, in Croatia, I rediscovered pivo s limunom.  The exact name and formulation changes from country to country, but I had previously enjoyed it in German-speaking countries as Panache or Radler…where it is one-half beer and one-half lemon/lime soda.  It tasted good after a long day of skiing in the Alps and I now discovered that it also fit the bill after a long day of walking under the Adriatic sun. 

View from my dinner table in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
View from my dinner table in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

I think today’s ultimately hopeful post is a nice way to conclude my reporting on the Balkans.  On May 29, I’ll be heading out on another adventure to a place I have never visited before.  It wasn’t one that I had planned well in advance; after returning from Italy in March, I decided to let fate (in the guise of seat sales) dictate where I would visit in the spring.  It all happened very quickly and I am quite happy with how it turned out.  In fact, my next destination is logically connected to both Canada and the Balkans.  It will also be a great place to watch the opening matches of the World Cup.  Stay tuned for details!

Durmitor National Park, northern Montenegro
Durmitor National Park, northern Montenegro



Bosnia & Herzegovina, War and Soccer

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Looking back on my trip to the Balkans, it turns out that Bosnia & Herzegovina (“BiH”) has left the greatest impression on me.  Croatia and Montenegro are stunningly beautiful countries, but I mostly felt like I was on vacation while there.  For those countries, that is definitely a good thing.  By contrast, BiH was a real intellectual challenge…something that isn’t often associated with a vacation.

Second World War Monument (Trebinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Second World War Monument (Trebinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

The war in BiH officially ended in 1995 with the Dayton Accord.  I say “officially” because it is extremely difficult to suddenly end such a devastating war and then carry on with normal living as if nothing had happened.  Even now, 19 years later, the war is still in the face of almost everybody in BiH.  There are “war tourists” who want to know what happened.  The political boundaries are based on the front lines as they stood in 1995.  There are paralyzing disputes about which sites (if any) from the war should be developed for tourism.  There are still bombed-out carcasses of buildings throughout the country.  And, as I was to find out during my “Siege of Sarajevo” tour, people are still dying from landmines.

Bombed-out building on an otherwise rebuilt street (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Bombed-out building on an otherwise rebuilt street (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

I didn’t mention the landmines in my blog at the time.  Among other reasons, I didn’t want to overdramatize what had happened, given that it was only my first full day in BiH.  I wanted to believe that BiH had moved on from the war.  But after spending a week there, I realized that mentioning the fatality wasn’t overdramatizing .  It is simply the reality of today’s BiH.

Land mine warning - Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Land mine warning – Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina

As you will recall, I visited the crumbling bobsled run from the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.   High up in the mountains, about a one minute drive  away from where we parked to walk down the bobsled run, our tour leader pulled over on the side of the road.  There was a driveway and what appeared to be an abandoned (but still standing) house.  Cars occasionally passed us – this wasn’t downtown, but neither was it far from the hillside suburbs of Sarajevo.  Our guide explained that, less than 3 weeks ago, a man was killed near the edge of the driveway by a previously-undetected  landmine.  It happened about 12 metres from where we were parked.  It was an extremely sobering way to spend the first full day of my trip.

In another town, I was given an apparently comprehensive sightseeing map.  Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the largest (religious) building in town wasn’t on it.  The building had been there for many years – clearly, it was omitted because it belonged to a different religious group.  With such persistent reminders, in addition to ongoing landmine fatalities, the war is indeed still being fought.

Bird's Eye (heh) view from a minaret in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Bird’s Eye view from a minaret in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Next month, BiH will participate in soccer’s World Cup.  This is an incredible accomplishment and marks the first appearance of BiH at this prestigious competition.  I’d like to believe that this presents an opportunity for BiH to focus on what binds them, rather than on what divides them.  I recently watched the movie “Invictus”, which showed the unifying power of sport in the South African context.  Nelson Mandela saw South Africa’s rugby team as an opportunity for South Africa to move on from the miserable past of apartheid.

I’ll certainly be watching BiH closely in the World Cup.  I don’t know for certain whether the team roster includes players from each of the groups that make up BiH, but it would be wonderful for each of those groups to be cheering for the same team, just like South Africans eventually did in “Invictus”.

Another view of the Old Bridge (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Another view of the Old Bridge (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Vienna Calling

(Vienna, Austria and Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

My Vienna hotel was located just across the Schwedenplatz bridge from district 1.   It was an easy walk to get to the Stephansdom – the epicentre of Viennese tourism.   And the Stephansdom is just as big as I remember it as a young backpacker.

Revisiting my 1991 impressions, Vienna is still orderly and clean.  Perhaps not to the extreme extent I remembered, but the roads (just to pick a random example) were definitely much more orderly than what I had experienced further south.   In fact, I found Vienna much more orderly than Stuben, an Austrian ski resort I visited last year where there was more of an “outlaw culture”.

Near the Opera House, in Vienna, Austria
A quieter moment, one block away from the Kaertnerstrasse, (Vienna, Austria)

What struck me most about Vienna this time, however, is the obvious inspiration for many of the cities I had visited on this trip.  Being the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna’s 19th century buildings are a lot like those found in the former Yugoslavia…just bigger.

Saturday Evening in downtown Vienna
Saturday evening in downtown Vienna

I also don’t remember seeing so many people on the streets in 1991.  Maybe I wasn’t there on a Saturday night last time, but it was almost too busy on the touristy Kaertnerstrasse; after checking out some of the required downtown sights, I decided to return to my hotel’s neighbourhood for dinner.  I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to eat, but in the back of my mind I was hoping to find a place that had a unilingual menu.

View from my table at Café Tachles, Karmeliterplatz, Vienna 2, Austria
View from my table at Café Tachles, Karmeliterplatz, Vienna 2, Austria

Back in District 2, I passed a “shabby chic” café that had lots of streetfront seating.  I don’t often eat outside in Canada, so I certainly wasn’t opposed to continuing the al fresco dining I had enjoyed so much on this trip.  I took a look at the (happily German only) menu and saw that this place specialized in perogies.  I hadn’t anticipated eating Polish food on my last night in Europe but I went with the flow and grabbed a table.  I had the “Pierogi Max” plate, gefüllt mit Steinpilzen und Kraut, as well as a Polish draft beer.  With a fresh salad lightening the meal, it was a perfect way to end my culinary adventures.

"Pierogi Max" at the Café Tachles (Vienna, Austria)
“Pierogi Max” at the Café Tachles (Vienna, Austria)

After dinner, I went back to the downtown to do some final exploration.  Foregoing the main streets (still clogged with tourists), I wandered the side streets and found a fascinating assortment of unique stores and restaurants.  I don’t know whether the “Gulasch Museum” is a good place to eat, but what a great name!

Window-shopping in Vienna, Austria
Window-shopping for sweets in Vienna, Austria

There was a great energy on those side streets of downtown Vienna – yes, it is a big city, but it is not totally anonymous and taken over by international brands.  There was clearly wealth too, but not so much that I felt out of place with a backpack.  Although I hadn’t planned to visit Vienna at all on this trip, I found myself wishing that I had allocated some more time to it.  I even found the German spoken here easier to understand than in other parts of the German-speaking world.   Finally, I also thought that a further stopover here at some point later this year would be a good idea.

Alas, I was now out of time.  And so, just 14 hours after arriving at my hotel in Vienna, I was en route to the airport for my flight home.   Looking  back on the trip, there is still quite a bit that I’d like to share.  Accordingly, you’ll see a couple of related posts over the next couple of weeks, as I enjoy some time back in Kingston and prepare for my next adventure at the end of May.

Trogir and…Vienna!

(Split, Croatia and Vienna, Austria)

For my last full day in the former Yugoslavia, I went on an independent day trip from Split to Trogir.  Trogir is a UNESCO World Heritage site (one of several that I have visited on this trip) located about 45 minutes away from downtown Split.  The photo above shows the market along the waterfront in Trogir.

Had I gone nowhere else on this trip, I would have been amazed by Trogir.  However, after recently seeing Kotor and some other ancient towns with narrow, maze-like streets, it didn’t impact me in quite the same way.  It’s beautiful but it probably would have a greater impact on those who aren’t visiting too many different destinations in this fascinating part of Europe.

Yachters taking my advice and visiting Trogir, Croatia
Yachters taking my advice and visiting Trogir, Croatia

I returned to Split and went on an inspiring post-dinner “passeggiata” on the waterfront.  The cover photo for the previous post was taken on that walk.  Once again, it was nice to see so many local residents enjoying the pleasant evening.

Evening at Narodni Trg (Split, Croatia)
Evening at Narodni Trg (Split, Croatia)

Just before checking out of my room in Split this morning, I visited “Croatia Records” in Split.  This is a record label and retail concern that seems to play a very important role in keeping Croatian-language pop music alive, together with something called the “Croatian Music Channel”.  I watched a few videos on it yesterday and rather enjoyed it.  Maybe it’s because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of anger:  the music is fun and harkens back to a more innocent age of pop music.

Anyway, I took a chance at Croatia Records.  I asked the clerk to recommend a compilation CD that would be similar to what I watched on the Croatian Music Channel.  He did so…but I have no idea if his recommendation is a good one.  I’ll find out when I get back home and have access to a CD player!

I wonder if they're on the CD?  A vocal group performs on the Riva (Split, Croatia)
I wonder if they’re on the CD? A vocal group performs on the Riva (Split, Croatia)

I flew from Split to Vienna today.  I don’t usually fly much within Europe but this was the best way to round out my itinerary without spending too much time (or money) on land transportation.  My only previous visit to Vienna was in 1991 when I was on my post-university backpacking trip.  That was half a lifetime ago!  I remember thinking then that Vienna was the cleanest and most orderly major European  city that I had visited.  23 years later, how does it compare?

Alas, you’ll have to wait for the next post to find out.  Vienna made a lot of impressions on me and I would like to devote an entire entry to it.  I’ll  post that as soon as I can upon my return to Canada tomorrow – stay tuned!

This mysterious exhibit at the City Museum in Split was not labeled in English, so I am not entirely sure what it is about...
This mysterious exhibit (click to enlarge) at the City Museum in Split (Croatia) was not labeled in English, so I am not entirely sure what it is about…

Being in a real city

(Split, Croatia)

Split has a different feel from most of the other places I’ve visited on this trip.  It receives a large number of tourists (primarily day visitors on cruise ships), but the old city is not the exclusive domain of visitors.  The residents of Split still celebrate their downtown and their love for their city is apparent…particularly in the evening, when they completely reclaim it for themselves.

View of the Riva (Split, Croatia)
View of the Riva (Split, Croatia)

It’s fun to be in a real city again.   You can find record stores (always a plus for me!) and other hallmarks of a city that is not entirely given over to tourism.   There are also restaurants in the downtown area that locals can actually recommend.  You’d think this would be true anywhere, but the sobe operator in Dubrovnik had a very hard time coming up with recommendations for me.   Other travellers told the same story:  eating in Dubrovnik is a necessity but not necessarily a pleasure.

The Riva in the evening (Split, Croatia)
The Riva in the evening (Split, Croatia)

Now that I’ve entered the third week of this trip, I find the realness of Split appealing.  In a way, it’s like being back in Sarajevo.  There were some tourists there but at night the streets were filled with Sarajevans.  As I prepare for my return to Canada in a few days, I am craving that reality more than I did at the beginning of this trip.

Part of the "Green Market" in Split, Croatia
Part of the “Green Market” in Split, Croatia

Split does have a “wow” factor to attract all those day tourists, of course.  The core of the old city is the massive Diocletian’s Palace, which the former Roman Emperor had built as his retirement home.   While it used to be a stand-alone structure, it eventually began to crumble and local residents began to build over parts of it.  As a result, parts of the original structure still stand (especially the external walls) but other parts have been creatively adapted into new streetscapes.

St. Domnius Cathedral, which is built using parts of Diocletian’s Mausoleum (inside Diocletian’s Palace)

My soba is located within Diocletian’s Palace, although the upper floors of the building are obviously from a later era.  However, the foundation (and probably other parts as well) is Roman.  In some places, the city has different tiers:  streets go in different directions, depending on how high above the original palace you are.  It’s fascinating to see how nearly 2,000 years of history can collide in such a small space.

Donwtown Split - my sobe is down the alleyway in the centre left of the picture
In the middle of Diocletian’s Palace – my soba is just down the alleyway in the centre left of the picture (Split, Croatia)

Only two full days remain in this trip.  I hope to see the nearby town of Trogir…and then it’s time for a very quick tour of one of Europe’s great capital cities!

Taking a vacation…while on vacation?

(Split, Croatia)

After my far-too-exciting road trip to northern Montenegro, I decided that it was time for an important part of any extended trip:  a vacation from the vacation.  It’s important to recharge every once in a while, even though it is tempting to maximize the sightseeing every day.  With the sun shining in Kotor, I decided to enjoy the nice weather, stay close to my hotel, and take care of some more mundane matters.

My "hotel" in Kotor - my room is on the third floor (with open shutter)
My “hotel” in Kotor – my room is on the third floor (with open shutter)

I had fallen behind in my postcards, so I picked up a few of those and also found the appropriate stamps.  Instead of just asking “Engleski?”, I graduated to asking “Govorite li engleski?”  I probably butchered it quite badly but I still think it is important to make the effort and acknowledge that you are not in an English-speaking country.

Inside the walled town of Kotor, with some of fortifications visible above the city.
Inside the walled town of Kotor, with some of fortifications visible above the city.

One of the challenges with the language here is that the emphasis often falls on the first syllable of a word – it’s completely different from Italian, for example, where the emphasis is usually on the second-last syllable of a word. I also tried to communicate in the Montenegrin language at the bus station, where I figured out the schedule and bought a ticket for today’s bus trip to Dubrovnik and then Split.  The ticket seller appreciated my linguistic effort, but was much less appreciative of my use of a 100-Euro note to pay for a 14-Euro fare.   Unfortunately, bank machines here dispense very large denominations and it’s really overkill for most purchases.

View from my lunch table, overlooking the Bay of Kotor (Dobrota, Montenegro)
View from my lunch table, overlooking the Bay of Kotor (Dobrota, Montenegro)

I then decided to wander around both the old town of Kotor and the newer town of Dobrota.  No shocking discoveries, just a pleasant Mediterranean afternoon.  After catching up on some e-mail, I decided to return to my vacation and stopped by the hostel.  There is usually a special event of some kind at 8:30 each night:  there was a free dinner twice, while the other two nights featured free sangria and cocktails.  It was a chance to say goodbye to my fellow “road trippers” and to swap travel stories with some new hostel residents.  Several were from France, but there was one from Lithuania and one from New Jersey!  You never know who you are going to run into or where they have been.

View of the walls of Kotor and the fortifications above the town
View of the walls of Kotor and the fortifications above the town

I’m pleased to report that my two bus trips today were very much in control and I didn’t have any concerns about my safety.  Sadly, though, we were delayed for nearly two hours just past Dubrovnik because of a serious traffic accident.   We saw the ambulances racing to the scene and then saw them leave about half an hour later.  When they left, the ambulance lights were flashing but there was no siren and they weren’t going too fast.  A traveller on the bus from Colorado thought it meant that there had been fatalities.  Needless to say, I couldn’t help thinking about the dangerous road trip from a couple of days ago.

More than 5 hours after departure (and after passing through Bosnia & Herzegovina’s 10 km strip of Adriatic coastline – see photo of the resort of Neum at the top of this posting), I finally arrived in Split.

Split is a vibrant city with thousands of people on the streets.  You couldn’t move!  I’ve never seen a city with so many people in the downtown core.  After eating at a restaurant near the fringes of the old city, I emerged to fireworks above the waterfront area.    Well, it turns out that today was probably the biggest civic celebration of the year for Split:  the Feast Day of St. Domnius.  While the intense crush of people was kind of intimidating when I first arrived, tomorrow should be much calmer in Split.  I can do some proper sightseeing then.

A Crazy Road Trip

(Kotor, Montenegro)

Eager to see some remote corners of this rugged and mountainous country, I signed up for a group tour of Durmitor National Park.  It is located quite some distance to the north of Kotor, but on the map it looked “do-able” in a day.

Overlooking the Tara River Canyon - northern Montenegro
Overlooking the Tara River Canyon – northern Montenegro

It is only appropriate that I cut to the chase:  it wasn’t a crazy road trip because of the extreme scenery (although there was plenty of that)…it was a crazy road trip because of the way we travelled.  Four of us, plus our driver, were crammed into a VW Golf.  As three out of the five were 6’3″ or taller, it was never going to be a comfortable ride.  But I certainly didn’t expect it to be such a terrifying ride.

Basically, the whole day was like a video game:  let’s see how recklessly and dangerously you can drive on narrow mountain roads!  Blind corners, doubling the speed limit, passing transport trucks, tailgating so closely that you could read the newspaper in the car in front of you, racing through unlit tunnels, making and taking phone calls and text messages while driving…bonus points for all!  I’ve never been so exhausted by a vacation day.  I honestly felt like kissing the ground when the tour ended 13 hours later.  It also seemed so unnecessary:  we took long coffee breaks in each direction and still arrived back in Kotor well ahead of schedule.

Further upstream the Tara River, as seen from a very high vantage point (northern Montenegro)
An upstream view of the Tara River, as seen from Curevac. (northern Montenegro)

When we were walking back to the hostel afterwards, I told the other guys (two from England, one from Hong Kong) that I might not quite be myself at dinner, as I was a little shaken up by what I thought was a scary ride.   After all, in addition to having a crazy driver, we had passed an awful lot of roadside memorials to car accident victims.  To my surprise, the other guys didn’t seem to think the day’s driving was particularly noteworthy.  One of them shrugged it off and said that “you get used to bad driving in Europe”.

This really made me think, as my reaction was so markedly different from theirs.  I suppose that it can be explained by personal factors as well as cultural ones.  Personally, I like to be in control of my own destiny.  I once lost control of my vehicle on a remote icy road and , as a lawyer, I’ve often dealt professionally with the aftermath of automobile accidents.  Lawyers are also trained to identify every possible negative outcome of an arrangement, so that risks can be identified and appropriate contracts can be negotiated.

Looking straight down at the Tara River (northern Montenegro)
Looking straight down at the Tara River (northern Montenegro)

From a cultural perspective, I think that Canadians are (perhaps excessively) polite and tend to follow rules more.  We’re also taught “defensive driving” when we learn how to drive a car:  you always need to be prepared for a mistake that the *other* driver might make.   By contrast, our driver seemed to assume that the car coming the other way would always get out of the way in time.  Canadian roads are also engineered for optimum safety, something that is made possible by (most of) our terrain and the relative abundance of space.  Other countries, especially very mountainous and/or densely populated ones, may not have that luxury.

Black Lake, Durmitor National Park (Montenegro)
Black Lake, Durmitor National Park (Montenegro)

Anyway, I survived the trip and managed to take some pictures as well.   The bottom line is that northern Montenegro is a beautiful riot of mountain scenery with a lot of sheer drop-offs.  The Tara River Canyon reaches a depth of 1300 metres at one point.

While many of the mountains were folded up and very close together, some of the mountains in Durmitor National Park reminded me somewhat of the Canadian Rockies – they were large, but they also had relatively more space around them than one normally sees in the Alps.  Black Lake felt like Lake Louise, Alberta from certain angles.

It never hurts to consider the cultural and personal factors that may impact your trip.  In this case, I don’t think I was fully prepared for what was going to happen…and my immediate enjoyment probably took a bit of a hit as a result.  But I do have fond memories of the mountains…and the Bečka šnicla at lunch was really good!

In this part of Europe, they call it " Bečka šnicla" rather than Wienerschnitzel. (Durmitor Restaurant, Žabljak, Montenegro)
In this part of Europe, they call it ” Bečka šnicla” rather than Wienerschnitzel. (Durmitor Restaurant, Žabljak, Montenegro)

Off the radar in Montenegro

(Kotor, Montenegro)

I’m not literally off the radar, as this place is quite wired.  But I think it is safe to say that I am off the Canadian tourist radar.  Part of that is probably because Montenegro has only been independent since 2006.  It also wasn’t in the headlines as much as Dubrovnik or Bosnia & Herzegovina during the war years, nor is it a very large country (in either size or population).   What it lacks in size and profile, however, it makes up for in natural beauty and history.

My base for the next few days is the town of Kotor.  It is almost as disorienting as Venice, although thankfully it is not as large and you can try to get some guidance from the surrounding mountains to help orient yourself.   Those mountains are ridiculously steep and rise out of the bay like shark fins.  While not technically a fjord, it looks and feels like one.

Like Dubrovnik, the old town it is also surrounded by a wall.  But, as a bonus, the wall also goes up the mountain to the Fortress of St. John which looms high above the town.  You can climb all 1500 steps – I suppose this is what the Great Wall of China would be like if it were built on the Norwegian coast.   It took a millennium to build, although work was often suspended for long periods of time.  I managed to climb it today, despite the misty and occasionally rainy weather.

Clouds and rain can't diminish the joy of being high up in the Montenegrin mountains
Clouds and rain can’t diminish the joy of being high up in the Montenegrin mountains

A personal injury lawyer might describe the walls above Kotor as “a lawsuit waiting to happen”.  All sorts of hazards and dangers lurk in the crumbling walls and buildings.  But what a thrill to climb it! The views over Kotor, the fjord and the mountains are fabulous as well.  The photo at the top is from about halfway up the wall – the old town of Kotor is on the left.

Climbing the walls above Kotor
Climbing the walls above Kotor

I also visited the nearby village of Perast today.  There are only 300 people living here now, but 16 churches and 17 palaces still remain.   It looks Venetian (minus the canals) and is good for wandering.  There are also a couple of small islands nearby that you can visit.  I took a boat to “Our Lady of the Rocks Island”, which is built on an island created by dumping rocks, shipwrecks, etc., where a picture of Mary was found hundreds of years ago.

Our Lady of the Rocks Island, Bay of Kotor
Our Lady of the Rocks Island, Bay of Kotor

As for being off the radar, I wonder if one reason might be the brutal border crossing on the main road between Croatia and Montenegro.  It took the bus 90 minutes to get through yesterday, as all passports needed to be checked at two separate places.  Montenegro wants to join the EU (Croatia is already a member) so hopefully this notoriously bad crossing becomes obsolete.

I wonder why it was necessary to post this sign (above Kotor, Montenegro)
I wonder why it was necessary to post this sign (above Kotor, Montenegro)

My accommodations are once again different.  I had reserved a place at the Kotor Old Town Hostel; a highly-regarded hostel housed in a 13th century palace.  However, I was “upgraded” to a private room with private bathroom in a nearby building (also called a “palazzo”) in the Old Town.  I’m still affiliated with the hostel (they served a free dinner last night for all guests) and I will be joining one of their tours tomorrow to see the even-more-rugged mountains of northern Montenegro.  After fairly solitary accommodation up to this point, it’s been good to meet more fellow travellers.  A fellow from England joined me on the wall climb and the trip to Perast today.  I’m not sure who will all be on the tour tomorrow but it promises to be a multicultural assortment of mountain-seeking people.

Perast, Montenegro (and its islands) on the Bay of Kotor
Perast, Montenegro (and its islands) on the Bay of Kotor