Thursday, August 25, 2011

Italy: Rome

By Melissa at 11:49 AM
August 1 - August 24

When we mapped out the trip we decided to include four extended stays in one city to give ourselves a break from the constant traveling and Rome was our first break. Over the three and a half weeks we spent in Rome we definitely accomplished our goal of resting. Most of our free time over the past two years has been spent planning our wedding, honeymoon or this trip, so it was quite delightful for us to literally have nothing to do.

We've visited Rome three times before so we didn't feel pressured to check any sights off of our list and mostly spent our days visiting internet cafes, trying out new flavors of gelato and people watching on the streets. It was even more restful because August is also the month when most Italians go on vacation, so aside from the tourists, the city is in some ways sleepier than when we've visited in the past. Many stores and restaurants close for at least the two weeks and the ones that are open are not very crowded. The tourist attractions are of course packed, but we were staying outside of the central area and were glad to have some peace and quiet.

Our hood
From Rome, Italy
Melissa and gelato from Giolitti's
From Rome, Italy

We did do one special thing--celebrate our one year anniversary.  It was August 21st of last year that Brian and I exchanged vows on a chilly San Francisco afternoon in front of our closest family and friends.  In some ways it's fitting that we spent our first anniversary in Rome.  Rome was the first big trip we took together 10 years ago.  It's also one of the places Brian took me on his clandestine engagement trip.

We spent our anniversary getting brunch (which is incredibly hard to find in Rome), eating Grom gelato (twice!), having a terrific Italian dinner at a romantic outdoor taverna, and strolling from the Pantheon, to the Trevi Fountain, and over to the Spanish Steps after dark.
Old Bear, our anniversary restaurant
From Rome, Italy
Old Bear, our anniversary restaurant
From Rome, Italy
A woman eagerly awaiting her Grom gelato
From Rome, Italy

I don't really have much else to write about other than to say that we thoroughly enjoyed our first break, so I'll let Brian's pictures do most of the talking.  Next stop Istanbul, Turkey!

Brian and Melissa in front of the Colosseum
From Rome, Italy
The top of the Colosseum
From Rome, Italy
The Spanish Steps
From Rome, Italy
Smoked Buffalo Mozzarella
From Rome, Italy
The top of the Pantheon at night
From Rome, Italy
St. Peter's and the Tiber at night
From Rome, Italy
Piazza del Popolo
From Rome, Italy
Courtyard in the Vatican Museum
From Rome, Italy
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
From Rome, Italy
God creating Man in the Sistine Chapel
From Rome, Italy
Roman Forum
From Rome, Italy
More pictures from Rome.      

Monday, August 22, 2011

Montenegro: Budva, Kotor Bay, and Cavtat (in Croatia)

By Melissa at 10:31 AM
July 25 - August 1

From the inland city of Sarajevo in Bosnia, we traveled by bus to the seaside town of Budva, Montenegro. The nine-hour journey took us through the plains of the Republika Srbska and over the mountains adjacent to Durmitor National Park in Montenegro. Thankfully we had a very nice and careful minibus driver who safely navigated through the windy mountain roads, most of which were just wide enough for two cars to squeeze past each other.

We didn't know quite what to expect from Budva, despite the fact that everyone we talked to in the former Yugoslav countries had given us exactly the same warning. "Oh Budva has wonderful beaches, but it is very busy during the summer and there are a lot of Russians there so you know...". No one would ever finish that sentence and we didn't really want to get into a conversation about negative stereotypes, so we just nodded politely, smiled and decided we would wait and see what all the fuss was about. We thought maybe we would witness some unique cultural differences and have something interesting to write about, but we did not, and so the story ends anticlimactically. To us, the Russian tourists were indistinguishable from the other Slavic tourists in Budva, who as far as we could tell from the license plates of cars parked in front of the guest houses, were mostly Serbian, Montenegrin or Croatian. Then of course there was your usual smattering of Australians, French and Germans, but those groups are easily distinguished from those speaking Slavic languages. I guess perhaps it is interesting in the sense that some cultural differences so pronounced to one group are invisible to another. I'm sure many people scratch their heads in confusion when we Americans talk about how different Canadian or British people are.

Budva Beach
From Budva, Montenegro
Street in old town Budva
From Budva, Montenegro
Budva itself is nothing special and the beaches are indeed very crowded, but it was a cheap base from which we could explore towns in the surrounding coastal areas. We rented a car for a day and drove first to the town of Kotor on the spectacularly beautiful Bay of Kotor. The town of Kotor, is an old walled city at the base of Mt. Lovcen. Similar to Dubrovnik and Split, the town is a series of cute alleyways and charming plazas filled with restaurants and gift shops.

Saint Tryphon Cathedral in Kotor
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro
Water pump in the walled town of Kotor
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro
Moat outside of Kotor city wall
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro
Kotor from above
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro
Next we made a quick stop in the one-road town of Perast, which was the site of one of the best naval academies in Europe in the 17th century. In the bay are two small islands with churches located on them. There are no beaches to speak of, just stone platforms with steps leading into the water, but the clear, turquoise water is incredibly inviting and the backdrop of the fjords all around is lovely.

Brian on Kotor Bay near Perast
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro
Perast and its marina
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro
Perast
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro
After leaving Perast we drove up the winding road that leads to the top of Mt. Lovcen, traversing 30 or so switchbacks on the way up. The car we rented this time was a Fiat and we quickly developed a new appreciation for even the worst American car brands. We miraculously made it up the mountain so I can't completely bash it, but I probably could have done a better job of shifting at the right time than the Fiat's "automatic" transmission even though I have only driven a stick shift about four times in my life.
Our Fiat Punto
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro
Kotor bay from the road on Mt. Lovcen
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro
Kotor bay from the road on Mt. Lovcen
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro

Shortly after reaching the peak of the mountain we entered a mountain-top valley with the intriguing town of Njeguški. They have what has got to be one of the best tourist attractions I have ever seen--Njeguški is the home of "ham trails". You follow little signs with pictures of a ham legs on them to different farms that make pršute (pronounced pruh-shoot), the Balkan version of prosciutto, in the traditional way. The town's climate is supposedly perfect for the drying and curing process.  They also smoke the ham before drying it and I have to say, it's even better than Italian prosciutto. The farms and roadside stands also have delicious farmers cheese and the very friendly locals ply you with large samples of everything. Our final stop in Montenegro was the town of Centinje, which has definitely seen better days, but it had a few interesting old embassies, each built in the style of the country it represented.
Njeguški Ham Trail Map
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro
Cured ham from Njeguški
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro
Njeguški
From Kotor Bay, Montenegro

Montenegro was yet another location we were sad to be leaving, but we were looking forward to heading to Rome where we are spending three weeks relaxing and recuperating from all of our travels. The closest airport to costal Montenegro is actually the Dubrovnik airport in Croatia, so we took a bus back to Croatia and spent two nights in Cavtat, a town south of Dubrovnik and only a few miles from the airport.

Cavtat is one of our favorite cities that we've visited so far. Had we known it was so charming, we would have stayed here instead of Dubrovnik and just taken day trips. It is a little town on a rocky outcropping and despite the limited sandy beaches, the water is just amazing and it's quite fun climbing up and down the rocks. I also discovered that lying on the rocks is actually just as comfortable as lying in a beach chair. It seems to be a popular destination for very wealthy individuals as there were several huge yachts docked in the harbor, including Lakshmi Mittal's 262-foot Amevi yacht. Next time we come to Croatia, Cavtat will definitely be on the itinerary. But we're in Rome now and loving it, so stay tuned for our next post on our lazy weeks in Rome. It will probably just consist of a lot of pictures of gelato.
Melissa relaxing on the "beach" in Cavtat
From Cavtat, Croatia
The "beach" in Cavtat
From Cavtat, Croatia
Cavtat Marina
From Cavtat, Croatia
Sunset in Cavtat
From Cavtat, Croatia

More photos of Budva, Kotor Bay, and Cavtat.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Mostar and Sarajevo

By Melissa at 5:02 AM
July 19 - 26

From Croatia we took a bus to Bosnia and Herzegovina (two names, one country). For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to just refer to the country as Bosnia for the rest of the post. We spent six days there and it was quite a contrast to our travels in Croatia and Slovenia. As I've mentioned in previous posts, the break up of Yugoslavia played out in a complicated series of wars over a period of five years in the 1990s, but the impact on each country was vastly different. For example, less than 20 Slovenians died in their 10-day war with the Yugoslav army, but more than 100,000 people were killed in Bosnia during their three-year war.

Bosnia was one of the worst hit during the Yugoslav wars because of the cultural mix inside of its borders. The main conflicts in the Balkans can basically be boiled down to people of three different religions fighting over the same land. You have Bosnian Muslims (called Bosniaks), Serbian Orthodox Christians and Croatian Catholics. As you go farther south you can also add ethnic Albanians living in what's now known as Kosovo, most of whom are Muslim and some are Catholic.

Bosnia was first attacked by the Serbian-led Yugoslav army because they felt the lands inside Bosnia where a large amount of Serbs were living should be part of Serbia instead of Bosnia. After the Bosniaks successfully fought the Serbians from the capital with the help of the Croatians, the Croatians decided they would attack the Bosniaks because they wanted to control some territory with large populations of Croatians. But the Serbians hadn't completely been expelled from all Bosnian territories and they continued their campaigns of ethnic cleansing and massacres under the nose of UN peacekeeping troupes until 1995. As part of the negotiated compromise, Serbia recognizes the previous borders of Bosnia, but they are given administrative control of the areas where large populations of Serbs are living. This area is called the Republika Serbska and they use the Cyrillic alphabet as they do in Serbia. Sadly, the fighting continues in other parts of the former Yugoslav republics like Kosovo.

Enough of the war history and on to our first destination, Mostar. Mostar is in southern Bosnia and is a popular spot for tourists, most of whom come to see the winding stone streets of the old town and Stari Most, or Old Bridge, which was originally built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. It was the longest single-span arched bridge at the time of construction and stood for over 400 years until it was bombed in 1993 by the Croatians. It was rebuilt in 2004, along with most of the old town by UNESCO and wiped clean of any traces of the war.

Stari Most from below
From Mostar, Bosnia
Stari Most at night
From Mostar, Bosnia
View of the Stari Most from the top of the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque minaret
From Mostar, Bosnia
North view from the top of Stari Most (old bridge)
From Mostar, Bosnia
We walked around the charming old town and enjoyed a lot of Ćevapčići (minced meat kebabs) and burek (baked dough, stuffed with meat, potatoes, or other veggies) . As we ventured just outside of the tourist-packed old town, the scars of the war reappear in many places. We saw many bombed out buildings and even occupied buildings scarred by shrapnel and bullet holes. After a few days in Mostar we boarded another bus to the capital of Sarajevo.

Potato Burek
From Mostar, Bosnia
Ćevapčići
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
Partially repaired apartment building on the front-line
From Mostar, Bosnia
Abandoned building on the front-line
From Mostar, Bosnia
Sarajevo, the home of the 1984 Winter Olympics, is a fairly small but, vibrant capital with lots of restaurants and people out on the street, day and night. Traces of the war here are harder to find, but definitely not gone. There are several war monuments, including one dedicated to the children that died in the war and several unofficial monuments known as Sarajevo Roses. With a happy sounding name, they are anything but. The "roses" are radial scars that form in the concrete when mortar shells explode. Where one or more deaths were caused by the explosion, they were filled in with red resin.

On the Latin Bridge, where Franz Ferdinand was killed
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
Scars from the war
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
Main shopping street
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
A Sarajevo Rose
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
The city's rich cultural heritage is evident in it's buildings. On our first day there we visited a Serbian Orthodox cathedral, Catholic cathedral, mosque and former synagogue. The synagogue also served as a museum and was one of the best Jewish heritage museums we've been to so far.

The Orthodox Cathedral
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
Street in the Baščaršija
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
Inside the Jewish Synagoge
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
Badges worn by the Jews in WWII
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
All in all, I can't say that Bosnia was one of my favorite destinations, but there are certainly places worth seeing if you're traveling to this area of the world. While on the surface the cities had a high level of vitality and nightlife in terms of restaurants and people out on the street at night, I didn't find the people we interacted with outside of the hotels to be particularly warm. And frankly, I haven't been treated this badly at restaurants since the last time I was in Paris where the waiters are notoriously mean. As a tourist you never know whether this is due to the language barrier or perhaps because there is still a pall over the city from the wars in the 90s, but it definitely put a dampener on this part of the trip. Luckily, both of the hotels we stayed in were run by extremely gracious and helpful owners so they were nice refuges at the end of the day.

If you're into the outdoors and sports, the Bosnian countryside is quite beautiful and is supposed to be a great place to go with skiing, mountain biking, kayaking and hiking. I think if I had to do it again I would have divided up our time differently, with more time in the mountains and national parks where we could go hiking.


Brian and Melissa at the bottom of the Stari Most
From Mostar, Bosnia

More pictures of Mostar and Sarajevo.