Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Balkan Maze

Heading for a break on a boat similar to these ... if we can get there!
Last month when we were in Prague, Michael was travel planning for Montenegro and came across a week-long boat excursion along the coast of Montenegro and Croatia. After two years on the road, a week on the water sounded like a perfect break from our land-locked travels. We booked a seven day cruise and looked forward to going wherever the wind blew us.

From Kosovo we had to work our way down to the coast of Montenegro to the city of Kotor to board our Turkish-style boat called a "gulet" a 65 foot boat that lookes a bit like a whaling schooner.
In an idle moment, have you ever fiddled with one of those little plastic maze toys? You know, the tilt-the-thing-back-and-forth until the little silver ball rolls from the start to the finish without hitting any dead-ends thing?  Not as easy as it looks, right? That was our experience in trying to find transportation from Pristina, the capitol of Kosovo to Podgorica, the capitol of neighboring Montenegro. It was just one country away as the marble rolls but still not easy. Fly? Twenty-three hours with a 20 hour lay-over in Istanbul. Train? No service. Bus? Kind of...once-a-day leaving at 7:00 pm and arriving at 3:00 am (not a favorite check-in time for even the most accommodating Airbnb host). Rent a car? Not available for one-way, besides we were warned driving through Albanian mountains is harrowing. All this to go less than 200 miles. So, for the first time, The Senior Nomads were at a dead end.

It took an international village from the Sirius Hotel to help organize our travel.
Here's the map to our destination that Michael created to keep our family updated on our travels!
The only option left to us was to make the trip in a taxi! Our apartment in Pristina was just around the corner from a boutique hotel where Michael, at his most charming self, made friends with the young manager. Before you knew it, we had a driver who spoke some English and a shiny black Mercedes lined-up for the next morning. And it cost less than we'd anticipated - $220. door to door! We saw some beautiful parts of Kosovo heading south through Albania - also beautiful, and finally through the black mountains that give Montenegro it's name. And we felt like rock stars!

From left to right Michael, our driver, the hotel manager and yours truly!
On the road in style. I hope we get stuck somewhere else and can do this again!
Just one of the vistas on the road. This is in Albania.
We descended into the capital city of Podgorica in pouring rain and our driver became hopelessly lost. His cell phone didn't work in Montenegro, and neither did ours but eventually with help from strangers with Montenegrin cellphones we connected with our hosts. They drove to meet us at a petrol station so we could follow them to the apartment. Our dutiful driver waved good bye and began his long, four-hour drive back home.

Our little attic Airbnb in Podgorica.
Our little Airbnb apartment was on the 4th floor with no elevator. Not the first time we've hauled our heavy bags up 5 flights of stairs - but it is one of the reasons we are ready for a break! https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/188858 Our host drove us around the city for a quick tour and a stop at the grocery store. We were only be there for two nights, so we hardly unpacked. There wasn't much to do in Podgorica, but we wanted to see the capital of this recently minted country.

Trying on various "Harem" Pants  in a make-shift dressing room in the bazaar.
We did some shopping in a crazy maze of a indoor market. The first floor was all local produce - and you know how much I love a good fresh market, but this one had sort of an overall sadness about it. Maybe it was the dim, fluorescent lighting inside this former communist gymnasium coupled with  the oppressive heat, but everything just looked wilted, including the vendors. Once you got past that, the food and produce was incredibly cheap. A pint of rich red local strawberries for 50 cents, A glorious watermelon for $1.00 and a whole, plump roasted chicken for $2.00! Upstairs, the Bazaar was a rabbit warren of hundreds of tightly packed stalls selling anything and everything you can imagine.  I bought a pair of "Harem Pants", Michael splurged on a pair of $5.00 swim trunks and a $4 pair of guaranteed fake "Ray Ban" sunglasses.

The final touch! A wide brimmed hat for many hot, sunny days ahead at an outdoor market in Budva.
Our next destination was Budva, a resort town on the Montenegrin coast about an hour away from our final destination of Kotor. We had a comfortable bus trip through the mountains and then took what seemed like a straight shot down to the sea. Our apartment for this two night stay was also small, but close to the beach https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1308391. We were happy to be in the sun, on the water, and in a beautiful city. The only spoiler was the constant exposure to over tanned, middle-aged men with large tummies draped in gold jewelry and wearing speedos.

Just one of the Russian Sun Gods on view in Budva.
It was pedicure time! It had been long time since I'd been good to my toes, and in keeping with the low cost of living here, $10 got me an hour of tender loving care. However, the salon was about a half a mile from our apartment. I couldn't put my shoes on for fear of the dreaded pedi-smudge, so I tried to walk in those flimsy free flip-flops. That lasted for about five minutes - but being the clever girl I am, I made toe carriers out of my daily walking shoes and flapped my way home.

Wearing my shoes in a new way to avoid Pedi-smudge!
 Michael got a haircut for about the same price. The last thing we needed to do before we disconnected for a week was to fill-out and sign the paperwork to put our house in Seattle on the market! (more on that as the tale unfolds).

The two cheesy plaid bags held what we needed for the boat.The rest was stored on-shore. 
Our next stop was Kotor, a designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site lauded for it's well preserved Medieval walled city. There we would climb aboard our Gulet - and set sail.

We'll see you there!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Friday, July 17, 2015

Do You Know the Way to Kosovo?

Prague and Budapest were perfect stepping stones on our journey to the less traveled parts of Eastern Europe that include Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. 

As we left Budapest for Belgrade, the capital of Serbia I wondered if this time we would begin to leave creature comforts behind. Serbia certainly isn't a third world country, but it is definitely off the  tourist path and has some unique challenges as it tries to balance a historical attachment to Russia and the present-day desire to be a part of the West and the EU. Serbia earned its reputation of being the neighborhood bully while Yugoslavia fell apart after the death of their founder Josip Tito in 1980. We wanted to visit Serbia, the supposed instigator behind the conflict in two recent wars, as well as visit the "breakaway" republic of Kosovo.

Last year we spent time in three of the former Yugoslavian republics of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina so we were familiar with this part of Europe and it's past. WWI and WWII took place before we were born but the Bosnian War (1992-95) and the Kosovo War (1998-99) are painfully recent. Last year while in Sarajevo we learned in-depth about what happened during the Srebrenica massacre and the Siege of Sarajevo. We wanted to learn more by visiting "the other side" and the home of the infamous war criminal, Slobodan Milošević. We both were moved by the book The Cellist of Serajevo.

Belgrade is a beautiful city full of surprises
But first we had to get there. We arrived at Prague's faded beauty of a train station an hour early. We were feeling good about the extra time and found a comfortable bench just a short walk to platform 3 where we would catch our train to Belgrade. I left Michael happily reading a rare copy of the International Herald New York Times while I gathered a few travel snacks, and enjoyed a slice of pizza for breakfast.
Just off the train in Belgrade.
We strolled over to our train with about ten minutes to go only to discover our departure platform had changed from 3 to 12. That would be 9 platforms on the complete opposite side of the station from where we were! Nomads on the run! We sprinted the width of the station with our heavy bags and barely got on board before the departing whistle. In less than five minutes we had drained every ounce from our previous Zen like state.

We had an eight hour ride ahead of us, so we certainly had time to recover. And at least three of those hours were spent chugging along at about 15 miles an hour because apparently train tracks in Serbia cannot handle fast speeds. There wasn't a dining car on this journey which seemed crazy for such a long distance - there wasn't even a tea trolley. Thankfully, I had a few snacks and water tucked away for situations like this. Once a mom, always a  mom. 

Gummy Bears and peanuts continue to be staples in our emergency snack bag.
Choose your taxi drivers carefully in Belgrade. These fellows assured us this was non-alcoholic beer. Really?
The historic city of Belgrade has the unfortunate distinction of having been leveled and rebuilt 40 times. As we traversed the city on our walking tours, and did some further exploring on our own, the destruction from intense bombing by the Allied Forces in the late 90's and a general purveyance of  hard times became obvious. There is yet another rebuilding in the city's future, but it will be a long time before this tattered country has the resources to replace and repair the damage.

The destruction from bombing in the nineties was widespread in both residential and commercial areas.
I wasn't sure what to expect from Belgrade as a city or as a place where Americans might be welcomed. I was pleasantly surprised to find a vibrant, cosmopolitan city full of very welcoming citizens.
These very welcoming utility boxes sat outside our front door.
Our balcony facing the park.
 Our Airbnb also exceeded expectation! The apartment was modern and clean and the location was perfect. We were just across the street from Kalemegdan, the city's largest park. This forest refuge rambled for almost a mile along the edge of the Danube to where it meets the Sava River. The imposing Belgrade Fortress sits in the center of the park on a bluff overlooking the river and beyond. There has been a working fortification on the site since Roman times.

The Belgrade Fortress with stones dating back to the 2nd century.
My favorite spot in the morning - bench in the park overlooking the river.
Around the corner in the opposite direction from the park was a wide pedestrian-only shopping street. On our first night we headed out to find a grocery store for a quick dinner, and instead, lingered to enjoy the scene. Even though it was almost midnight, there were families out eating ice cream (ourselves included), drinking coffee or beer, crowding around the street entertainers or enjoying live music that flowed from one place to the next.

Street art abounded in Belgrade. These red umbrellas danced across a little side street.
Grilled meat is a staple of the Serbian diet. Here's just one of many fast food kiosks.
Just one of a dozen robots made from salvage that stood tall on the main street.
Our free walking tour was as always, informative and fun. There is a lot to cover here and our guide did a great job of blending current history with the city's colorful past. Michael took the Communist Belgrade tour the next day that included a stop at Tito's tomb.

Our walking tour guide Jovana. She was so proud of her city and very knowledgeable.
Final resting place for Tito. Love him or hate him.
A short walk to the Skandanska neighborhood made for a truly Serbian experience. The cobbled streets were lined with small restaurants and brew-pubs where enthusiastic musicians strolled from table to table under twinkling lights. They take their work seriously - the more you enjoyed their serenade the more they'd play, and the harder they'd work. The traditional way to offer appreciation is to slap a 500 dinar bill ($5.00) onto their sweaty foreheads! Speaking of Serbian money - at one point during hyper-inflation in 1993-94 you could easily have a 500 BILLION dinar bill in your wallet!

The lovely neighborhood of Skandanska.
I had a haircut that cost 15,000 dinar (about 17 US dollars) It could have easily cost billion dinar a few years ago!
Our next stop was Kosovo, the newest country in Europe, but first we had to get there. That turned out to be not so easy since Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country and because Serbians have little or no interest in visiting this breakaway republic. Here's how it all unfolded.

Earlier in the week we trekked through some grimy parts of Belgrade to the equally grimy bus station to buy tickets to Pristina, Kosovo's capital city. We'd learned our lesson about Serbian trains and there wasn't any straight forward service to Kosovo, so it bus by default. In the past we have enjoyed bus travel, so we thought it would be okay. The weather was hot and sticky and nothing was coming easy to us Nomads (including my MacBook Air deciding it would no longer provide sound). We'd meant to scope out the buses before buying tickets, but we'd spend a good deal of time with an Apple tech with no results other than a good cleaning and reboot of my system. We were tired and grumpy.  There were challenges to buying tickets and after a lot of hard work, we discovered we'd bought them for the wrong day, so we had to get back in line and replace them. Should have noted that the journey was now longer (a grueling 8 hours) and had a dozen stops along the way.

The rattling city buses were in very poor condition.
Two days later we arrived at the Belgrade Bus Station with our bags and found our bus. Well, not exactly a bus. I guess the demand for travel to Kosovo from Belgrade is limited. Certainly low enough to not warrant using a large, comfortable air conditioned bus when a 15 passenger van that had seen better days would suffice.

The two most startled faces on the scene were mine when I realized we would be traveling in this rattle-trap and the driver's when he saw the size of our suitcases. Somehow the bags were crammed in the back and we were crammed in the last two remaining seats.

People got on and got off regularly along the way. Sometimes we picked up passengers from the side of the road (seemed to be the polite thing to do) and they stood in the aisle for a ride to the next stop.
There were three children in the van that were so well behaved, you wouldn't have known they were the winding roads made one of them sick. Lovely!

Our ride to Kosovo. I wish you could see the 80's carpeting that lined the interior.
On the road. Every seat full and every disco song you've ever loved on the radio.
Pit stop in the rain about half-way to Pristina.
Since Kosovo is considered by the majority of Serbs to still be part of Serbia, the northern part of Kosovo was festooned with Serbian flags hung from most every light pole. It wasn't until we were further into interior that we started to see Kosovo flags. But when we reached the capital city of Pristina we began to see Albanian flags, because 90% of Kosovars are Albanian. Confusing? Kosovo gained its independence from Serbia in 2008 but is not recognized by Serbia, Russia and lots of other countries. Having said that, it is recognized by 108 of the 193 United Nation countries and they are hopeful that someday Kosovo will become a member of the UN itself. And we met the president.

The press conference for the joint efforts between Kosovo and the U.N. to register their diaspora.
There wasn't much to do in Pristina - not a tourist office in sight nor a city map to be found anywhere. But we set out to observe what we could of life in this conflicted country. As we were walking down the main pedestrian street we saw what looked like the start of a fun run. There were clusters of people in colorful hats and printed tee-shirts standing around a few tents. As we got closer we saw several media photographers along with reporters from local radio and television stations setting- up. We worked our way to the front of the crowd and started asking questions. Never shy, Michael marched up to a group of official looking types with clip boards and found out that the Kosovo Ministry of Culture, in partnership with the United Nations Development Program was launching a program to locate the country's diaspora. By finding Kosovars that left the country during the recent conflicts, they hope to encourage them to return, and or support their fledgling homeland through investments. Turns out, we had stumbled upon the press conference to announce the program.

Michael having a great conversation with Kosovo's President Atifete Jahjaga
The Senior Nomads with the president and the Minister of Culture, who is obviously wondering "who are these people?"
We stayed to watch. Much of the program was in the local language (Albanian) but an official representative from the U.N. spoke in English with a translator. He was followed by Atifete Jahjaga Kosovo's female president. Before long, we had worked our way so close to the podium that before you knew it we were embraced and joined the official party. Michael asked to meet the president since she was about 5 feet away sipping cider.  She was lovely and happy to have American tourists (very rare) visiting and interested in her country. Then we met Andrew Russell, the UN official that spoke. He lives in Pristina and a few days later, we had a really fascinating lunch with him at the UN Development Program offices. Learning more about this part of the world has been a priority for us so chance meetings with the leaders who are working to build a new democracy was all we could have asked for. A special Senior moment!

The flags of nations flying in front of the hotel near our apartment.
Next up is Podgorica the capital city of Montenegro. From there we head to the coastal towns of Budva and Kotor for a much anticipated seven day cruise along the picturesque Montenegrin and Croatian coasts. People are saying that Montenegro is the "next Croatia". We'll see.

Thanks for following along!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Bewitched by Budapest

My list of favorite cities has shifted to make room for Budapest. I loved the confluence of cultures that exude mystery and dark secrets, but also puts a brave face on centuries of turmoil and takeovers. It’s like Istanbul married Vienna and they had an only child.

We arrived here by train from Prague. At the station we met a gaggle of 60 somethings who unfortunately fit the American tourist stereotype. They were over-packed, over-bearing and definitely over-shared. They were on a two week Vienna/Prague/Budapest trip and could tell us ANYTHING we needed to know about those cities - especially all about the weird food, the heat, the stairs, the lack of air conditioning, the prices, and a serious lack of people who spoke decent English. Of course that was after we learned everyone’s relationship to the others in the group - who's sister-in-law shouldn’t put up with her husband one more minute, who’d been neighbors for thirty years, etc. … you get the picture. This all happened in less than twenty minutes! Finally we made a break for it before and found a spot much further down the platform.

The American Tourist is alive and well in Europe.
And there the pendulum swung in the other direction and we met Stephanie Danforth - also American. She was well-traveled without being boastful, friendly without immediately sharing her life story, curious about the world, confident and didn’t shy away from things that were different. And of course, she was very well put together.

We learned she had traveled extensively in Africa and South East Asia. She had been on her way to Nepal when we met her, but the earthquake there made for a change of plans and she was heading to Budapest for a week with an eye towards re-visiting Morocco. She lives on Martha’s Vineyard and is an accomplished artist. Through sales of here paintings she supports a school in Sambaru, a tribal community in northwest Kenya. You will love her paintings! Here’s a link to a recent article: http://www.eisenhauergallery.com/download/danforth.pdf.e7cc34984dbe3de2ef07bab2967b9857

Enjoying one of the worst meals of our trip with one of the best friends we've made.
The train journey took seven long, hot hours and the train itself had seen better days, but the passing scenery was interesting and we were both deep into our books. Our cabin was fairly comfortable until it filled to capacity with six passengers and their luggage. We brought our lunch and enjoyed a cramped picnic. One seat mate also brought his lunch, although I wish he hadn’t. His was a plastic container of pickled cabbage and sausage to be savored slowly with a liter of warm beer. Sadly, the windows didn’t open. I bolted to find Stephanie (carefully avoiding the other Americans). She was in the car ahead of us with just one seat mate so it was to my advantage to spend time getting to know her better.

Our cabin mate on the train to Budapest.
So, beyond truly enjoying our stay in Budapest we came away with a new friend. Well, actually I made two new friends, if you count Misha the cat that lived next door to our apartment. Once again our Airbnb location was prime real estate. The apartment building was built in 1737 and our apartment was still owned by the family that lived there for over 200 years. Here's the link: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1126755

The front door to our Airbnb and my new friend Misha.
We were on a quiet street just two blocks from the Danube River, and one block from the mile-long pedestrian street that bisects the city. The fairy castle Parliament building was at one end, and the famous Market Hall sat at our end - but you had to run a gauntlet of restaurant hawkers and tourist traps in between.

The entrance to the Parliament Building.
Inside the massive Market Hall just two blocks from our apartment. Heaven!
For the first time we took three free walking tours in one city! And they were all excellent. I know I’ve said this before, but wherever you travel if a walking tour is available, take it. Our first tour was an overview of the city and it’s history. There was a lot to pack in and it took over three hours! Our guide, Andrew was really good and he would be guiding the Jewish Budapest tour a few days later so we booked that. In-between we took the Communist Budapest tour, and that was fascinating, too.

A moving memorial to the Jews shot at the bank of the Danube.
Michael took a tour of the Parliament building and he also trekked to a park filled with discarded statues and monuments from the Soviet era. To top it off, we spend a rainy afternoon at the House of Terror, a memorial to the victims of the dictatorial regimes in 20th-century Hungary who detained, interrogated, tortured or killed thousands of citizens in the building.

Just one of the many Communist era statues in Memento Park.
Dear Comrade Lenin, I'd like a new Porsche for Christmas,  please!Oh wait. There is no Christmas!
It was very hot during our stay and we were fortunate that our apartment faced a shady courtyard. So while Michael was boning-up on Hungarian history, I spent some quality time with the cat in the garden, scoured the food hall from top to bottom, and did some shoe shopping! It’s been a long time since I’ve done that, but after 700 days two of my three pairs were ready for retirement.

It was hard to leave this handsome, green-eyed lover. I mean cat.
During our first walking tour we explored a part of the city filled with what are known as “Ruin Bars”. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many apartment buildings were abandoned and became derelict. About a dozen years ago, some young entrepreneurs began to use the large spaces as impromptu bars and clubs - and a culture was born. You could not recreate one of these with any of the authenticity that comes from scavenging for the furniture, bar ware, and found art. Most Ruin Bars covered multiple floor of an apartment building with an open courtyard. Many had different themes on each level with their own music and intimate spaces. One bar we visited held 400 people at any one time, and often 4,000 people would cycle in and out until the wee hours of the morning. Some also offered hostel rooms on the upper floors. Good idea. Here's a link to the best Ruin bars as of 2014: http://welovebudapest.com/clubs.and.nightlife.1/the.best.ruin.pubs.in.budapest.2014.edition

The IKEA of Ruins Bars. This was on the bi-annual junk collection day.
Oddly, these bars were really clean! It only looked like you'd stick to the chairs.
Michael checking out one of the upper floors of the Szimpla Kert Ruin bar.
Patrons are encouraged to add their own personal touches to the decor.
Budapest is known for elaborate bath houses and pools where locals and tourists alike while away a few hours soaking in mineral rich waters. The famous Gellet Spa was just across the bridge from our Airbnb. The labyrinth of elaborately tiled hallways led from one pool to another. Each one offered dips in a range of temperatures, the hottest ones followed by nearby cold showers and then a stint in  the steam room. Once inside, I couldn't see Michael across the room - but something about this heavy, hot fog saps you of the energy you might spend thinking about much of anything other than the relief that toxins are pouring out of your body like rats leaving the ship.

One of the few times it is okay to be in hot water!
The outdoor pool was a great escape from a hot afternoon.
On our last Sunday, we attended service at a Calvinist church that was hosting a 160 member choir from Holland called “Holland Zings”. It was one of those great Senior Nomad moments that come from living like locals. We saw the flyer posted on the door of the church during a walk, and the experience was a five star experience. The service was in Dutch as well as Hungarian - a priest from each country presided. The average age of the group looked to be fifty plus. The group loves to travel together and perform abroad once a year.

Inspiring choral singing in a simple setting made for a perfect Sunday morning.
The soloist was a talented younger woman with a soaring voice that suited the acoustics of this simple, elegant setting in a 150 year old church. Most of the songs performed were in Dutch, but a few were in Hungarian, Latin and English. As a finale the choir sang both the Dutch and Hungarian national anthems. It was very moving.

Farewell from the land of goulash and paprika. Lots of paprika!
Our next journey takes us to Belgrade in Serbia. We're looking forward to learning more about about that much-maligned country first-hand. 

Thanks for following along!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads