Friday, October 14, 2016

Mediterranean Travels: Montenegro

Fifteen years ago this month (June) I visited Croatia and Bosnia and fell in love with the Balkans and the Adriatic coast. I've been trying to get back ever since, and I finally got there for a few hours at least today. One of the reasons I chose this particular cruise itinerary was the stop in Kotor, Montenegro. I'd wanted to go there in 2001, but we decided to head to Bosnia from Dubrovnik instead. My most vivid memory of that trip - aside from the stunning scenery - is the mussels. Every night my unlikely travel partners and I headed into the old city of Dubrovnik from our hillside guest house and choose a taverna with a view and devour bowl after bowl of fresh mussels. Sadly I did not get to repeat that today given our very short stop in the morning, but it was a reminder that I need to come back.

By 6:30 this morning I was waiting for my group to be called to board the tender boat. It was pouring rain outside, and the view was cloudy and dismal. I considered going back to bed. The tender was not entirely waterproof, and by the time I got on the bus in the port my backside and feet were sopping wet. I again thought about throwing in the towel. But I'd come this far, and at least I could enjoy the scenery.

I was again in a multilingual group, but this one was much better organized with two guides. Somewhat ironically, the English-speaking guide was actually German and had moved to Montenegro with his wife, while the German-speaking guide was from Montenegro and spoke slowly and deliberately enough that I could get the gist of what she was saying, even when she spoke before the English guide. 

We headed towards Budva, one of the oldest towns on the Adriatic coast dating to at least the fifth century BC. I'd heard from several friends that it's a lovely town and nicer than Kotor, and I was looking forward to. And, amazingly, as we emerged from one of several tunnels through the mountains, so too did the sun emerge from behind the clouds. Much rejoicing followed. 

We left the bus and walked to the entrance of the old city, surrounded in typical Adriatic Balkan fashion with fortress walls. The two language guides split up, and we took advantage of the early hour to take photographs without tourists in the way (except ourselves). We visited three Catholic and one Orthodox church and several squares before setting out for free time. This part of Montenegro is split 50/50 between Catholic and Orthodox while the country's population is 70% Orthodox and 30% Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish. Interesting. 

I had a hard time finding a cafe willing to acknowledge my presence (I'd heard ahead of time that smiling service was not the norm here), but I finally got a table and ordered some caffeine and eggs. And when the waiter brought, instead of regular Coke, some hybrid sugar-sweetener version and opened and poured it before I had a chance to protest, he very kindly corrected the mistake and didn't charge me for the opened container when I explained about allergies. So that was nice. 

After buying my magnets and wandering around a bit, I took advantage of a busy hotel's lobby bathroom before walking back to the bus station just as the rain started up again. It wasn't a heavy rain this time, and there were still pockets of sun. Clouds and drizzle seemed to follow us most of the way back to Kotor, but by the time we reached a traffic jam en route to the port it was sunny and bright yet again. 

I'd hoped for enough time to go find a bowl of mussels for an early lunch, but the traffic put an end to that dream. Our guide took us into the old city for a quick tour, but it was getting late and was insanely crowded. I had just enough time to buy even more magnets before catching a tender back to the ship. This time I thankfully didn't have to wait long in any lines.

The only other ship in port today was Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas, the only other cruise ship I've been on! Fascinating coincidence. I took some photos of her as we pulled out of port and nostalgically wrote to one of the friends I'd gone on that cruise with. Lovely memories. 

The afternoon was for napping and a hair treatment and cut followed by packing and getting ready for the journey back to Beirut. This has been fun, if not as luxurious and pampering as I'd hoped, but I'm ready to see my cats and get back to work and my routine. And my bed. But first, to buy all the mozzarella, burrata, and prosciutto the Rome airport has to offer!

Budva old city walls

Cozy narrow streets

Glimpse of the sea

Orthodox church

Catholic church

Another church

Standoffish Budva tomcat

Gorgeous mountains

So many people in Kotor

Kotor old city clock tower

Church part way up the mountain

Leaving Montenegro

Worlds colliding. The first cruise ship I ever sailed on, viewed from my current cruise ship.

Rhapsody of the Seas

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Mediterranean Travels: Corfu

I'd been told ahead of time that Corfu is green. And it certainly is. With 4.5 million olive trees (or between 3-6 million depending on who you ask), a ton of wild-growing tall, thin cypress trees, and lots of fruit trees and wildflowers and bushes, it's a lovely view. I particularly enjoyed the jacaranda in bloom; I have a tree in my yard in Beirut as well that's gorgeous right now. Jacaranda is my strongest memory of Johannesburg and Pretoria in November - streets lined with gorgeous purple blooms on trees and sidewalks. That vibrant color is just unmatched. Oleander is also prevalent around Greece, mostly in whites and pinks. It's a lovely bush, doing much the same as bougainvillea to provide cover. The lemon trees were heavy with fruit today, and everywhere we went there were lush blooms of many different hues.

As we disembarked in Corfu Town, it started to sprinkle and then pour as our bus left the port. Our guide promised us that Corfu has a microclimate and that our next destination, Paleokastritsa, a beach town on the west coast. And, sure enough, it cleared as soon as we left the capital. Paleokastritsa is a picturesque little village at the foot of the mountains, clearly a popular tourist destination. Some folks opted for short boat rides out to the nearby caves during our free time; I meandered and marveled at the rich blue and green hues of the clear water, fed by underwater springs. 

Next our coach headed up the highest mountain to a panoramic viewpoint in the town of Lakones. The road was full of switchbacks, but it was amply wide enough for our bust to turn, and I thought the grade was relatively gradual (though many of the others on the bus disagreed). But once we got to Lakones, things got comical. The streets here narrowed considerably from comfortable two-lane mountain road to barely passable with only inches of room on either side separating us from houses and roofs. Since many of the houses and buildings were built into the cliff, I realized at times that I could have reached into their upper-story windows, had they been open. Just as the entire bus was marveling at this tight squeeze and our guide was joking about the town's spacious central square, we reached the central square. At the same time as five other cars coming from the opposite direction did. These were clearly rental cars driven by tourists, as the idea of backing up seemed anathema to them. No matter that behind us were two more buses and numerous cars, so backing up for us really wasn't an option. Our guide got off the bus to help explain the situation, and several locals helped as well. Four of the cars backed up and cleared the way, but the first one in line was just not going to do it. She seemed stressed and a bit overwhelmed, and she tried to maneuver her car enough so we could get around, which was spatially impossible. Finally somebody managed to convince her to reverse, and she did so slowly and hesitantly. We inched along. After a few hundred meters she decided she'd had enough and started to turn around. Which was not possible in the space she chose. A few people helped her maneuver enough off the road to allow us to pass, and I was not surprised to see her with her head in her arms as we drove by. Poor thing! Our guide got back on the bus and told us all the cars were occupied with Russians who spoke no English or Greek, which explained why it was so laborious. The whole thing took at least 20 minutes. He told us that, amazingly, he'd never encountered such a situation before. The Australians on the bus seemed to get quite a kick out of the entire thing, narrating the event and giving color commentary as it unfolded.

Finally we stopped at a well-placed restaurant, and the views really were quite amazing from there. After a short stop we made our way slowly back to Corfu Town and the port. The clouds had completely dissipated by this time, so we were treated to stunning views of outlying islands and the Greek and Albanian mainlands just a few kilometers away in places. Corfu Town has numerous architectural influences, including Venetian, French, English, Byzantine, and others, and I can imagine basing myself here for a week and exploring the island a bit more. 

Too soon it was time to re-embark our ship and say goodbye to Greece. As we sailed north through the Strait of Corfu, Albania was clearly visible about a mile away. So close and yet so far! One day. I opted for the buffet dinner and early bed tonight, not up for a 4-5 course meal with subpar food and service or the lackluster show promising "variety in Oriental style", especially not after last night's subtly racist Samurai tribute to Japanese culture.


The water was so alluring.

So clear!

Green Corfu

Vacation lodging in Paleokastritsa

View from Lakones

View from Corfu Town

Corfu Town

Goodbye Greece...