Friday, May 31, 2013

The old Slovakian mining town of Banská Štiavnica

The past whispers of grandeur have faded on the streets of Banska Stiavnica.  Heavily mined since the 3rd century BC, the Slovakian town of was once a hotbed for innovation and mineral wealth.  A massive source of gold and silver for Europe in the middle ages, the mining town was home to  a number of firsts.  It was the first mine to use gunpowder and the town housed the first technical school in the world.  Today, the old town is mined out and exists simply as a perfectly preserved medieval town, left as it was in its heyday.

Granted Unesco status in the early 90's, the old city square surrounds a gigantic plague column that looks like a strange art deco version of the eye of Sauron.  So what to do in such a place?  Wander.  Aimlessly.

We loved exploring this strange town and its surroundings, and, we had some bad pizza while watching 30 seconds to Mars videos in a little pastry/pizza shop.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cumil the watcher, the missing paparazzi, and other weird statues in Bratislava

Bratislava has a number of strange statues.  There is this guy peeking out a manhole.  Another is a French soldier resembling Napoleon on a park bench.  There is also a guy tipping his hat commemorating an old Bratislava resident.  One of the most famous statues - The Paparazzi - was missing when we visited.  After looking for about an hour, we found some evidence of where he once stood, but we never figured out where he went.

The path to Njegos Mausoleum atop Mt. Lovcen

The road was too wet, the winds too strong, and the rains too hard.  As we ascended Mt. Lovcen in a beat down Skoda with our great driver "John" aka Cizmovik aka Clutchmaster Supreme, we decided to head back down, failing to reach our summit where the old prince bishop of Montenegro was put to rest - Petar II Petrovic-Njegos aka the Shakespeare of Montenegro.  We gave up halfway up the mountain.

As we went around the mountain, our driver stewed, feeling more guilty with each km.  He wanted us to see the top sight in Montenegro, so he made another run at the mountain from the other side.  He assured us that we would not miss our flight later that day and tossed the taxi meter out the window.

Budva, Montenegro from above

 Budva held like a cup by the Montenegros

Climbing the mountains behind Kotor

 After waiting small eternities for the skies to clear so we could climb the fortifications behind teh ancient city of Kotor, we found a few hour window to make the climb amidst cloudy skies and a tough beginning to the day.  While I did my morning routine just fine, Kristin was really dragging.  She managed to spill Cheerios all over our sink and accidentally put her pants on backwards.  I remember thinking, "yup, that's my climbing partner."

Of course, it was more of a pace up a few thousand steps than a true climb.  The weather was less than ideal, but the views were dizzying.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Kotor at Night

 The Kotor waterfront with the black mountains behind it - the black walls mark the sea gate wall

Dining at Galion in Montenegro

Galion is the best restaurant in Kotor, so we had to eat there.  The main dining room is built over the bay of Kotor surrounded by Mediterranean fjords (above).  It is dramatic and the food is absolutely perfect.   The meal blew our minds.

We liked it so much that we asked for a reservation the following night, and they declined us because we were dressed like slobs.  Our server was gracious the entire night, but we were dressed like we had been exploring in the rain all day, which we had been.  He said in broken English, tomorrow is very busy., maybe not come. 

That said, I would eat there again - it was that good.

 Rolls the size of donut holes


 Fresh catch 


 The best, I mean the best, risotto ever 

 Montenegro steak

 The Saint Pierre fish in truffle with polenta and pesto = heaven


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The greatest sandwich ever

Tarifa, Spain 2008.  I ate the best sandwich ever much to the ire of my brother.  It had traveled to two continents prior to being consumed.  It was a foot long and about 1 inch wide.  It was a weird little sub, long on flavor and perfect in its simplicity.  I think it was filled with egg and cheese, but who really knows for sure.

I don't even remember.  I trudged back to my time capsule of a myspace page to read the old blog about this sandwich.  Information is scarce and I could only find a few lines.  How good was that sandwich?  I may never know again.  If I ever invent a time machine, then I will investigate this before I tell my old self to stay in college for a few more years.  Oh wait, I already did that.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Rain in Kotor, Montenegro

Some places you can just look at on a map, and by some combination of location and name, you know they will probably be really cool.  Such is the case with Kotor.  Cradled by the black mountain fjords of Montenegro and sitting at the end of a long and dramatic Mediterranean bay, it is a place of fiction come alive.  It is also a place of rain.  Of our 4 days in Kotor, it rained for 4 days.  During our visit, Kotor had the highest rainfall in Europe. Yay.

Still, we loved our time with this strange old city.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The story of Sveti Stefan

Beginning as a Muslim fishing village in the 15th century known as Divic, Sveti Stefan has undergone a series of peculiar makeovers in the last 500 years.  It was built to defend against invaders, similar to Dubrovnik.  It housed Adriatic pirates for a number of years, while also protecting against them.

Budva - The Russian Riviera of Montenegro

Heading south along the coast of Montenegro, we came upon the strange city of Budva.  For some reason, wealthy Russians have built Budva into a home away from home, and it is a strange and in parts beautiful place.  We saw totally chrome Audis, Lambo Aventadors, and all manner of other luxury brands - most driven by Russian looking men.  

The harbor is filled with yachts.  There is no shortage of upscale restaurants. But, the place is sort of this weird dicothomy of run down 80's Yugoslavia and nouveau riche Russia shipped in morsels into Budva.  So while some buildings decay, others are built up unchecked.  It is a weird place, especially around the beach outskirts.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Stormy Perast in Montenegro

Too often we travel by plane.  It is fast, but we miss the transitions that connect one place to another.  The ride from Dubrovnik to Montenegro was all about transition.  We began in decent weather and passed into storms as we drove through "no mans land" - and area spanning the border between Croatia and Montenegro.

The coast line changes in Montenegro to the largest Mediterranean fjords in the world.  The black mountains rise out of the dark emerald waters, and small villages and roads delicately hug the coastline.  It is incredible that this is coastline at all.  With the storms and lack of open water, it is an easy point to forget.

Leaving Dubrovnik, Croatia

Leaving Dubrovnik was like leaving a friend's house too early.  But at least we were able to leave.  Croatia's national airline was on strike, stranding many in town.  We left by car, hugging the cliffs, piloted by Olga heading south for Montenegro - Black Mountains.

We left behind Croatia and its 4m Croatians, 1200 islands, and perfect water for a country we knew little about.  Here are some final pictures of Croatia.

Visiting Lokrum Island in Croatia

Lokrum Island is just a 20 minute ferry from the old harbor of Dubrovnik.  The island has great rocky beaches and supposedly the cleanest, clearest water in the Mediterranean.  Also, a lot of the Qarth scenes were filmed on Lokrum, so there was a lot of, "Hey I recognize that."

Scene from Qarth...I mean Lokrum

Friday, May 24, 2013

The small coves just outside old Dubrovnik

Just outside old Dubrovnik are small coves, beaches, and relative peace.  We found a small empty bar perched on the rocks, a Croatian boy and girl playing some kind of one on one water polo, and even accidentally stumbled into someones private courtyard house entrance.  In Dubrovnik, it is impossible to get lost,but you never really know where you are going.  That is what makes it so charming.

The charms of Dubrovnik do not end with the gorgeous old town.  This is a city built around water, so to the water we must go.  The cool Adriatic sea glimmers like a jewel up and down the coast.  Sometimes it is blue.  Sometimes it is green.  It is always beautiful.

Duborvnik's harbor on a summer day

Here are some shots from the grand Dubrovnik harbor, which is lined with boats, great restaurants, and plenty of spots to stop and chill.  It is a tough place to translate to photos, especially on a nice day.

A walk atop the old Dubrovnik walls

No trip to Dubrovnik is complete without circling Old Dubrovnik atop the majestic city walls that surround her.  These walls are considered the greatest medieval fortifications in history and kept the city safe for hundreds of years.  

The current walls date from between the 12th and 17th centuries, though the first walls were built around the 8th century.  The walls run for about 2km, encircling the old town atop these gorgeous cliffs above the Adriatic. There are only 4 entrances into Old Dubrovnik through the walls, so the city is still very fortified even today.  Still, over 500 of the 800 or so buildings in Old Dubrovnik were damaged in the siege of Dubrovnik in 1991-1992.  During the war, the walls proved effective at protecting against even modern weaponry. It is said that the Serb forces wanted to detach Dubrovnik from Croatia and make it part of Montenegro.  

Over the years, the city has been attacked in over 7 wars.  The city has been tacked by Russians, Arabs, and Venetians, though never fell.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

D'Vino Wine Bar in Dubrovnik is absolutely perfect

On Palmoticeva Street in Old Dubrovnik, D'Vino wine bar exists, simply being great.  We dropped in after some friends in Mostar recommended it. 

They specialize in Croatian wine and education.  Their manager or owner or whatever (pictured above standing) lectures the occupants of this small enoteca on the finer points of Croatian wine and his views on wine in general.  He is funny, charismatic, smart, and tough to figure out.  I attempted to understand how an Aussie ends up running Dubrovnik's best wine bar, and so I asked him how he got there.  He said "Lots of flights - Melbourne, Singapore, Frankfurt, Zagreb, and finally Dubrovnik."

Peacock on Lokrum

We ran into a lot of peacocks peacocking during our visit to Lokrum island just offshore of Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik's Buza Bar

Just outside the Dubrovnik city wall is a bar perched on some rocks - Buza Bar.  There is just one way in and one way out, and its existence seems to hang precariously between sea and wall.  The steps come down from the wall all the way to the crashing waves, exposing a perfect view of the Adriatic and Lokrum Island just offshore.  It goes perfectly with cold beverages and relaxing after a long day cruising duBro.

Furmonster of the day - Dubrovnik aka The Bro

What you talkin bout Willis

This guy

This guy was hanging around Dubrovnik harbor, throwing stuff around and letting out loud primal noises, all while a cigarette dangled gently at the tip of his lips

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dining in Dubrovnik

 Dalmatian coast squid light battered = the best calamari ever

Arriving in Dubrovnik, Croatia and beating the crowds

We finally arrived in Dubrovnik, Croatia.  It is absolutely beautiful, maybe even the prettiest in Europe.  It is whimsical and strong, fortified against both time and the sea with its huge old city walls.

Con los touristas
George Bernard Shaw once said "Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik."  Over 2 million people seek this paradise each year - over half of which are from cruise ships.  This means it is crowded, but we found plenty of ways to beat them.  Early and late, the town is peaceful and quiet.  Also, just outside the city walls is a different world, such as the one pictured above.  You can make out the city wall in the background.  This cove is quiet and peaceful, and it is also where many scenes are filmed in Game of Thrones.

Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina has a ton of character

Mostar does not hide its character.  It is an Ottoman jewel with its history written in bullet holes, old cobbled streets, and the creases on the faces of old Mostarians.  It is the rare place that is easier to picture 400 years ago than 20 years ago, when the Croat-Bosniak war tore the town to shreds, taking with it every bridge and several buildings as well as lives, but all the while, making the character of Mostar that much stronger.  

Even the perfect Stari Most bridge that connects the city above the emerald Neretva river was destroyed, but it took an estimated 60 shells of tank fire to take down the 400 year old masterpiece. 

In the early nineties, CNN called Mostar a permanent shooting gallery with 50 casualties per day.  Every graveyard was full, so bodies were buried in parks.  It was a war so complicated that after researching it for a couple days, I am even more confused than when I began.  There is an old video at the end of this post if you want to see what Mostar was like 20 years ago.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Dervish Monastary of Blagaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Surrounded by a waterfall and built into a cliff, this Tekija, or Dervish Monastery is incredibly gorgeous tucked in a little corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina called Blagaj.

Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque of Mostar

One of Bosnia and Herzgovina's most picturesque mosques sits quietly perched on a bank of the Neretva river.  It is not extraordinary, but just looks perfect next to the flowing green river. Open since 1617, the mosque has been around since Ottoman times and flanks one of the oldest markets in Mostar, where travelers can buy local fruits, pomegranates, and honey.

The Bosnia and Herzegovina countryside

 Bombed out building outside of Mostar 

 A winding road 

Stari Most - the old bridge of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Stari Most is considered to be one of the most gorgeous bridges in the world.  First built in the 16th century in the Ottoman style, the bridge stood for over 400 years until being needlessly destroyed in the Croat-Bosniak War in 1993.  The bridge was rebuilt using the old methods eleven years later in 2003. 

The bridge connects both banks of Mostar and is flanked by two towers known as Mostari.  Also, young men hurl themselves off of the river for thrills and have since as early as 1616.  It is an over 75 foot drop.

Furmonster of the day - Mostar part !!

 Dog on roof?

Dog on roof!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Mostar's incredible divers

Diving off of Mostar's famous bridge is not for the faint at heart.  At almost 80 feet tall, it is about as extreme as pouring red bulls in your eyes while riding shotgun in Sebastien Loeb's WRC Citroen.  It is a long fall into the rushing emerald river below, and yet Mostar's divers make the jump daily.

One of the best things about traveling is when you run into amazing people doing amazing things.  Theses divers fulfill that daringly romantic side of travel.  When they jump, the people of Mostar watch, and have been watching for hundreds of years. 

The divers make a huge drama prior to jumping.  They will come out, take donations, act as though they are about to make the plunge, and then disappear into their strange dive castle.  They will return in different gear, tip toe the edges of the bridge over 75 feet up, stretch out over the bridge, cock their head from side to side while ignoring the masses huddled waiting for a plunge, and maybe head back again, to check email or eat gelato.

I saw one guy make the trip back and forth numerous times before finally emerging in a wet suit and hurling himself over the edge (above).

The food of Bosnia & Hercegovina


We did not know what to expect from Bosnian food.  To properly acquaint ourselves, we ordered a massive platter of local specialties (pictured above) at an outdoor cafe just steps from the famous Stari Most bridge.  From right, we had local onions, some kind of red sauce, sausages of lamb and veal which were incredible, Bosnian bread which tasted like the best parts of a grill, locally sourced sour cream and potatoes, some kind of extremely delicate beef brisket, spinach leaves stuffed with beef and rice, and cabbages stuffed with red pepper, meat, and other vegetables.  Lastly, some incredible little patties of goodness which we have no idea as to the origination.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Furmonster of the day - Helsinki edition

Chinese crested in a hooded rugby sweater, cold chillin'

Furmonster of the Day - Mostar day one

This little guy with the underbite was a sort of greeter outside of an Apothecary.  He just sat and watched people go in and out.  Good old fashioned friendly street dog of Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina. 

Road Trip: Dubrovnik to Mostar

We landed in Dubrovnik after missing our initial approach to the airport and being told that we could not land because of technical issues.  Not the words you want to hear above the Adriatic heading for the coast of Italy from Croatia.  It was very quiet and tense on Norwegian Air flight crappants.  We landed safely, and here is our trip from Dubrovnik to Mostar by car, which was very beautiful and simple, except for the part where the GPS took us up into the mountains to some "locals only" border crossing.  the guard held us for a little while and told us in broken English to go back to the shore.

The road trip was in my top 10 for sure, right up there with Toulouse to Andorra and Pokhara to Chitwan.  If you are considering renting a car and doing this journey -- Just do it.   It is an easy drive and dangerously breathtaking at points.