Monday, September 30, 2013

Bosnia & Herzegovina: "Don't tell your mother until you're home"

"Stari Most", Old Bridge in Mostar
We moved on to Bosnia &  Herzegovina (BiH), yet another piece of the former Yugoslavia. Knowing that this is quite rugged territory we realized in advance that we would want someone else driving these roads. Additionally the tourism infrastructure is less developed here (a plus because there are fewer tourists, a minus because there is less advice/info available). So we contacted Miran of iHouse Travel in Mostar who responded with an amazing personal tour which in reality way exceeded our expectation. If anyone plans on visiting BiH (which you should if you can, we highly recommend him. See: Miran is from BiH but grew up in Italy and then returned to BiH after the conflict. His English, commitment to going above & beyond service-wise, knowledge of the country etc are all great. 

Note: The title of this comes from a BiH ad campaign featuring "adventurism".  See more in section titled "Outdoor Fun" and, if interested in more also see:

BiH consists of "the federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina" (somehow two separate countries but part of one larger one) plus the Republic of Srpska and the district of Brčko; The Ottomans occupied the area for 400 years. The Austro Hungarians for 40 but the Austro Hungarians left a much greater impact on the infrastructure building many public & private buildings…many with a new ottoman design rather than a typical European design so the buildings would be more appreciated by the locals who had developed a taste for Ottoman architecture over the centuries. It's really quite amazing in Mostar and in Sarajevo to see the mix of architectures.  

The red roof in front marks the end of the Ottoman market.
Note the European architecture of the newer buildings beyond. 
Note a lot of buildings have been rebuilt or restored since the "conflict" but there are still a significant number of empty shells of buildings, as well as walls showing the results of being shelled. While the "conflict" is a fact of life or an accepted part of history, the people seem focused on the future.  Below are photos of the restored Sarajevo Library, the shell of a building in Mostar waiting to be restored and the shelled wall of another building.


Our tour started in Trebinje, a city roughly 30 miles from Dubrovnik. It is a pleasant and relatively affluent town with a leafy main square. On a market tour we encountered many familiar vegetables and fruit and some cheese that was quite foreign to us. Actually taste-wise, it was clearly cheese.  But it becomes cheese by being poured in a sheep's intestine and aging there.  We enjoyed seeing the herb vendors (the local "pharmacists"). 

Cheeses in the "skins"
Herbalist at the Market
Overlooking Trebinje is the striking Orthodox Church of Nova Gračanica "dedicated to the Virgin Mary" and "built to resemble Gračanica Monastery in Kosovo", which must be quite lovely as well.
Interior of Nova Gračanica
We moved on to Mostar a conveniently located town for touring the Herzegovina part of BiH. Mostar is most known for the 16C Stari Most (Old Bridge) built by the Ottomans over the Neretva River. Surrounding the bridge is the Ottoman Old Town. Next is the newer Austro Hungarian newer town and the usual urban sprawl after that. We stayed in the heart of the Old Town (surrounded by vendors), a short walk from the newer town.

Konjic is between Mostar and Sarajevo and serves as the center for outdoor activities. It is also heavily Muslim, but you would hardly know it unless you are there during a Muslim event.

Sarajevo is yet another city with a distinct Ottoman Old Town surrounded by a newer European town. While there are pseudo Ottoman buildings in the European area, there seemed to be fewer than in Mostar. Sarajevo is, of course, where Archiduke Ferdinand was killed thus precipitating WWI.  Ervin of Toorico Tours welcomed us here like an old friend. We weren't really up for serious touring so he just helped us enjoy the town while we picked up a few facts along the way. 

Sign on street corner commemorating assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.
Scenery & Outdoor Fun
We immersed us in the dramatic scenery (including the Neretva River Canyon which felt like an endless Yosemite). There were moments on our white water rafting tour when this felt almost too literal, but we did in fact remain in the raft. The water was that gorgeous aquamarine and in places surround by massive canyon walls that went on and on. On the more difficult rapids, we had to force ourselves to ignore the beauty and paddle as directed. Sorry, we have few photos of this. It's very hard to capture electronically, but we still have the visions in our heads. 

Neretva River at our rest point.
We continued experiencing the dramatic landscape on a day hike. Actually it was a 2 hour drive on a logging road (with steep drop-offs), followed by 2+ hours of hiking and another 2 hour drive back that same logging road. 

Crossing a recent washout...  Edo stopped to
evaluate this one closely before
continuing. To the right is a shot
showing the drop off a few inches from
the vehicle.

The previous day we lost an encounter with a logging truck on one of these roads. Miran had to back-up for maybe one half mile and then turn around (in what felt like too small of a space) to find an alternate route to our rafting departure point.  (Note: You don't really need to take the logging roads to get to the rafting area, we just thought it was an appropriate way to experience the drama of the area.)
Logging crew attempting to pull huge log onto the road. Note left front tire is actually bending
and is positioned at the edge of the road.  (Miran our guide & driver is in the grey sweater
taking photos.)
The next obstacle in the road...a bull. Following this
we came across the huge truck coming to get this bull.
We can't help but wonder how the truck turned around.
There is just one more thing adding to the adventure. Apparently not all land mines have been removed. For instance, near the peak of our hike there was a warning sign and a former road totally blocked off because after the war they found 24 land mines to remove but couldn't quite remember if there were actually 25.  Hmmm.  Fortunately our guide was ahead of us in this area.  Of course one wonders how the heck we could have gotten back to the base without him. ;-)  Truthfully they are very careful about these warnings. We saw no reason for concern as long as one heeds the advice.

Traditional "Mine" warning sign.  And in the photo
to the right, the logs across the old road
enhance the warning.

We really enjoyed our wine tasting and light lunch at Podrum Berak winery. Everything there was home-grown/home-made, including the bread, prosciutto, cheese, and of course the wine. This was our first Bosnia Herzegovina wine tasting and we again discovered new grapes. Their Zilavka (white) and Blatina (red) are both very fine.

Photos from Podrum Berak Winery.  Note that is Prosciutto aging there with the wine.

We visited two other outstanding wineries in Citluk (near Mostar): Andrija and Carska. These are all family run.  But to our surprise, one of the family members was from Pittsburg.  She met her husband in school there.  They recently moved to BiH to be with his family.  Two of the children are in school and find it odd that they need to study English as if it is a second language.

Hard at work...
Most Muslims in BiH wear western clothes so it is easy to be unaware that BiH is roughly 45% Muslim. You only notice it in the call to prayer, the prevalence of beef products over pork products and the fact that Muslim run establishments such as a fine shopping center in Sarajevo don't allow serving alcoholic drinks.

Our intro to Orthodox Religion
The monks at the Trvdos winery make some fine wine, but not our favorites. This winery is more "known" and, being near Trebinje and therefore near Dubrovnik, it gets more visitors than the others. As part of the tasting experience at Trvdos, you get an introduction to the Orthodox Christian religion (BiH is roughly 30% Orthodox). Orthodox churches tend to have amazing paintings conveying their religious stories (but no statues which they seem to believe can become the focus of ones faith, in place of God.).

There is also a renowned Catholic pilgrimage site, "Our Lady of Medjugorje".  We were near but didn't investigate.

Pat found a little time for shopping ...lovely large Pashmina scarves are only 4€ or about $5 in Mostar, pottery is a good buy as well…but living in Mexico we really don't need to spend much time shopping for either. Actually her most surprising purchase was a jar of honey. She claims to dislike honey but has recently found that there are a couple she likes and, in this case, loved.  Unfortunately we forgot to find out what the bees were fertilizing at the time...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Dubrovnik (Crotia)

Dubrovnik as viewed from Mount Srd 

We got off to an early start for a day that combined wine touring with a move to Dubrovnik.

Backing up for a moment, initially we had expected to have a car only for a couple days on Hvar and then to take a passenger ferry from Hvar to Dubrovnik. It turns out renting a car on Hvar was so expensive that keeping the car that we picked up in Dubrovnik for the full two weeks (including 3 ferry crossings with the car) was significantly less expensive and gave us a chance to visit the wine country in between.

The trip from Hvar to Dubrovnik encompassed a 30 mile drive from Vrboska to Scuraj along narrow serpentine roads. (Fortunately Pat must have been asleep because she managed not to notice the steep drop-offs along the way.) There is frequent (maybe 7 trips per day) ferry service from Scuraj to the Drvenjic on the mainland.  Easy.

But it turns out that the wine country is on the skinny, mountainous 55-mile-long Pelješac (PEHL-yeh-shahts) Peninsula, that parallels Hvar Island. There are two options for getting there. One is to drive down through Bosnia Herzegovina. Yep, Dubrovnik is on the mainland but it is not contiguous to the rest of Croatia. In order to drive to Dubrovnik you need to cross the coast of Bosnia Herzegovina, requiring dealing with two border crossings. To visit wine country enroute, you then need to drive out the Peninsula and back again. Or you can choose option #2: take a ferry to midway out the peninsula and then drive back through wine country…much more practical, especially if you want to taste a few wines enroute. Hence we needed to coordinate two ferry schedules and allow for the 25 km drive between the ports.

Should this statue at the Scuraj Ferry Terminal and the view of our destination (mountains rising directly out of the sea), have warned us of dangers beyond?
All went well and by 11:30 am we were ready to find a winery. Some of the best red wines in Croatia are from Plavic grapes (genetically related to Zinfandel). The best of these wines are  produced in the Postup and Dingac regions of the peninsula  We had good notes from our web research and after negotiating the climb to 3000 feet (or so), we homed right in on Matusko Winery. Interestingly, the tasting experience felt quite "American", i.e. you could arrive unscheduled, you could explore the winery if you wanted, and you could taste from a range of wines with no fee. Actually the no-fee part seems to be less common these days in the US but we are OK with harking back to the "old" days if it means "no fees".  Other European tasting experiences have entailed having yet another tour of a winery, having a long discussion (or lecture) about the winery and finally tasting the wine. This takes about 2 hours (minimum) and means you can only do 2 or 3 such tastings in a day.  We are all for tasting as many wines as possible (and we even manage not to drink all they will pour for us so that we can taste more), so we prefer efficient in-and-out tastings. Glad to see this is possible in Europe (or at least in Croatia.).

Tasting room number one. Easy access.
You can taste any of about a dozen wines. Off to a good start.
What happened next? Pat had learned about a one-lane tunnel (through a mountain) that connected the two wine regions. And Grgic was on the other side of the mountain.  So off we went through the tunnel. After all in Croatia Grgic is renowned, even more renowned than Michael's Girgich Winery in Napa (the extra "h" on the end is to help we English speaking folk get the pronunciation correct).  His Croatian wines are certainly excellent…but we get ahead of ourselves.

Once you go through the tunnel you are suddenly on two-way roads that are barely wide enough for one car. And you are now driving steep mountainous roads. Think serpentine. Think steep drop-offs on one side, if not both.  Think how terrified Pat was.  Then think about Bill having to drive this. We don't have photos. We didn't have the courage to stop. But it was beautiful..when we could look.  Anyway, we finally reached the winery and enjoyed the wines immensely. Phew! As we continued on we almost immediately reached the highway. Only then did we realize that all the terror could have been avoided (if some writeup, somewhere had shared the information.) Oh what we wine lovers will do for a fine wine...

See the point of land on the top left of this photo?  Imagine driving that hillside road on through the cute little town in that bay in the center and out to the next point (highlighted with a yellow pointer). Then imagine driving on to that highway in the righthand side of the photo. Live & learn. (Photo is a copy of a postcard from the Grgic Winery.)

Following the wine tasting we continued on to Ston. Ston & neighboring Mali Ston are famous since the Middle Ages for their local saltworks and the tall walls that connect the towns and protect the saltworks (approx 3.5 miles of wall remain). They continue to produce salt in Mali but today they are more known for the oysters & mussels that they produce.  Pat found the oysters to be small and sweet.  She later had equally fine mussels.

The Saltworks

The City Walls of Ston

Sign in 10 languages.  Later we saw a menu in 15 languages! We usually abhor translated menus, 
but: 1. we have no idea how to read the Croatian menu and 2. we found the translations unusually clear and accurate.

After lunch and a brief tour of Mali Ston, we continued on to Dubrovnik. The origins of Dubrovnik are still unclear. There was a thriving settlement in the area in Roman times (but maybe not in Dubrovnik per se). Since 8C AD, the Republic of Ragusa, centered in Dubrovnik has been under the rule of or allied with: the Byzantine Empire (until after the Crusades), Venetian Empire (for about 150 years), the Kingdom of Hungary (briefly), the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire for roughly 400 years.  Over time the Republic of Ragusa apparently rivaled Venice.

During the walking tour of Dubrovnik we were told the long history of the area  including that the Ragusan Empire made its fortune using the salt from Ston. They retained the fortune through diplomacy, always focusing on building good relations with countries large & small. An earthquake in the 17th century destroyed much of the city. It was rebuilt over the ages but was again destroyed in the early 90's.  It was rebuilt once more and may or may not be as glorious, but it certainly is lovely.

Whatever the history, the facts are:
- the walls extend 6,360 feet around the Old Town and reach a maximum height of 82 feet.
- were constructed during the Middle Ages and have been reinforced & extended over time as needed to protect against the Turks & the Venetians.
- the walls more or less withstood the 1667 earthquake that devastated the town within.
- the walls and the Old Town are very impressive today. They attract thousands of visitors each day during the summer. During midday, crowds from Cruise ships make negotiating the narrow streets challenging but touring early or late in the day is quite enjoyable. The town is basically dead from January through March.

We were up early and out for photos before the crowds on our second day and got some views with fewer people, After the photo shoot we walked the walls for about 2 hours.They surround the city and provide views over the city, water and rugged mountains.

View of the 12-sided fountain - fountains in Europe typically still work and deliver fine, safe water.

The brightest roof tiles are ones replaced in the recent reconstruction of the city.
The darker tiles are roofs that survived... 

The many narrow walks & stairways make it wise to start the wall tour early and
make one grateful that they maintain a one-way traffic rule. No need to meet someone.
This is especially good on the narrowest, steepest walls where many people do best
to remain in the very center and avoid looking down...

We enjoyed an impressive one day small-group tour to the nearby country of Montenegro. We had considered making the tour by car with Bill driving. We were both thrilled that we opted to let someone else drive, let alone figure out how to best hit the highlights. The main highlights of the tour were:
- the impressive views of the bays and rugged mountains during the drive around the bay
- the city of Kotor with the fortress walls and narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants
- the views over Kotor and the bay from the highway above the city
Shot of Bay on approach to Kotor

Kotor Bay & surrounding mountains
- the city of Budva with its beaches and harbor (it seems there is a lot of wealth in Budva, especially from Russian and Mid-eastern interests.
- the return trip was shortened by about 1 hour by taking a 15 min ferry across the neck of the bay

Map of Kotor Bay showing heights/depths in meters
It was in Budva that we saw the menu in 15 languages. It was alo on this little tour that we saw a telescope that accepted 3 different currencies (HR-Croatian, Euros-Montenegran, km-Bosnia Herzegovinan ) 
Ready to accept whatever currency you have to offer...

Dubrovnik is a city for wandering.  The walls with views over the city, islands, and bays and the alleyways, shops and local markets. Actually even after exploring the city over the course of a few days we were still finding new areas just by deciding to enter what seemed like a minor, unused alley. In fact that's when we came upon the local "beach" hangout pictured below.
The "Beach" in Dubrovnik

There are many islands that are a short boat ride away. We chose to visit Lokrum where we walked to the fort and old port (both with views of Dubrovnik), explored the botanic garden, checked out the "beaches" ...never quite finding the famous nudist beach there.  We also enjoyed the families of peacocks that freely wander the island.  

We woke up on our last day in Dubrovnik worried that we had made a strategic error.  We had not yet taken the cable car up nearby Mount Srd for the sunset view of the city mountain.  There had been major rain overnight and the sky was grey. We wondered how two experienced travelers could have failed to realize the risk in leaving any highlight activity to the last minute, especially if it were weather dependent and if you had so much free time earlier in the visit. Anyway, phew. We learned our lesson and were rewarded by a lovely sunny evening with a fine sunset.

And to end on a food note...

Pat anticipating the mussels (at Gusta Me Restaurant)
Cevapcici - a slavic treat.

A devine antipasto at De Vino Wine Bar.  Those garlic are amazing.
The semi-dried tomatoes were a treat as well.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Villa Jelka and The Island of Hvar (Croatia)

We arrived at Hvar Island and mapped our way to Vrboska and Villa Jelka (pronounce the J like a Y). It would have been easier if Pat hadn't kept entering Vbroska rather than Vrboska (ie putting the "r" after the "b", not before) into Garmin. In any event, Vrboska is a small quaint village on a picturesque inlet with a fortified church and a popular yacht harbor. Our balcony at Villa Jelka has a gorgeous view of Vrboska and the many sailboats.

View of Villa Jelka from Vrboska Harbor
For some background on how we happened to travel to Hvar (and to Croatia at all)… It was probably 12 years ago that Petsa, our hairdresser in California, told us that she planned to retire to Hvar. We had no idea where it was or why she might do that. She assured us that it was an idyllic Island in Croatia (and patiently explained that Croatia was one of the countries that used to be part of Yugoslavia.) We later promised her that we would visit her there. In the meantime, as most of you know, we made many wonderful trips (to Spain, Italy, Australia, Africa, SE Asia...) and moved to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Last year we visited Tioman Island (in Malaysia, where South Pacific was filmed) and we delighted in laying on the beach drinking in the view (actually drinking would have been nice, but really we just spent hours relaxing on the beach reading, pausing to enjoy the view and reading some more.)

We are finally on Hvar visiting Petsa. Sitting on the balcony looking over the inlet to the local fortified church (it looks like a castle), the question that comes to mind is: "Which could be more beautiful? Our little beach in Malaysia or the balcony at Villa Jelka?" (Jelka is Petsa's daughter). No need to decide. Just know this is idyllic. 

View from Villa Jelka

View of the Fortified Church from the Balcony of Villa Jelka...using Bill's 36x zoom lens

The front of the fortified church

The view is simply unbeatable. The decor is as perfect as expected (having seen what Jelka did with her spa in California). There is an amazing arbor at the entry. It appears to be of 30+ year old grape vines. In fact, Petsa being as creative as her daughter, has collected pieces of old vines and woven them into an arbor complete with a living vine. The effect is perfect. It was confusing at first because we know they only built the place in recent years. How could there be such a vine? Then we realized what she had done.

The confusing vine at Villa Jelka
On Friday we roused ourselves and drove over the mountains and through a tunnel to Hvar City. The first thing to catch our attention was the requisite fortress overlooks the city. This one has a lovely crenelated wall reaching up the hillside. Being September most of the glitzy set and their yachts had left for the season. There were a few swimmers in the otherwise quiet harbor. Strolling around the narrow streets we discovered the usual selection of shops (Pat bought a blouse), cafes, restaurants and churches. 

The Castle at Hvar City

Panorama of Hvar City & Harbor
Next day we took the 30-40 minute walk along the inlet from Vrboska to Jelsa (again pronounce the J like a Y). Jelsa has many more accommodations, restaurants, cafes, gelato shops, and wine tasting rooms than Vrboska (but it is not nearly as cute). Along the inlet were a few people taking advantage of the sun and sea. We continued our exploration beyond the village where we found a church and an appealing camping area, For a change of pace from our fish diet, lunch was veal stuffed with cheese and ham for Pat and pork kabebs for Bill. These were accompanied by a bottle of very local red wine (Tomic winery is a few minutes from the center of Jelsa).

After we returned, Petsa delivered some jam filled crepes with walnuts. Delicious. There were plenty. In fact, enough for breakfast for the next two days.  They were still delicious with each tasting.

The interesting thing is that on all the local menus, crepes are translated as pancakes. It is not clear to us if that is what the Brits call them or if it is just another overly generic menu translation.  

Speaking of menus, the one at the nearest restaurant (Restoran Luka) is in 9 languages. In addition to the typical Croatian, Italian, English, German and French, there is Hungarian, Norwegian, Turkish and maybe Czech. We can't quite remember…  Talking to the staff at Restoran Luka we learned that the local schools are now taught in English.  We knew there was plenty of English spoken but had no idea that it was the primary language in schools (or at least in schools in Vrboska.)
A nice white wine.  It is literally one of the house wines at Restoran Luka.
We've only encountered this grape (bogdanusa) on Hvar.
We think the bird must be a "Gardelin"
Sunday we went to nearby Stari Grad, the second largest town on the island. And yes, it has narrow winding streets, restaurants, cafes, and shops. For lunch Bill had seabass and Pat has grilled calamari…much as she loves fried calamari, she is becoming addicted to grilled ones… as long as they are not too large (and tough). Lunch was accompanied by a wine made by the owner/waiter/...  The food and wine were quite good. 

A street in Stari Grad...notice how meticulous it is.  It seems to be typical of the island.
In fact, almost no graffiti anywhere. Probably because everyone know everyone on a small island.
Grilled Calmari. Not too big. Not too small. Yum!
We drove back by the most direct route, an unpaved road that went through the rock-walled vineyards.

Each little vineyard has it's own stone hut / shed(?)

An interesting side note.  We had planned to rent a car to get from Zagreb to Split and then rent another for a couple days on Hvar.  It turns out that we literally saved $100's by instead renting the car in Zagreb and keeping it for the trip to Dubrovnik (14 days). This included paying the fare for a car on the ferries. The strange thing is that other than the price for rental cars, prices here have been quite reasonable.

Another side note: Here's another shot of one of the little "trucks".  This one shows the front better than the photo of the one in Split.