Lithuania’s island castle of Trakai

One of Lithuania’s most famous and picturesque sites, Trakai Castle, lies an easy 40-minute drive from Vilnius. Like most historic sites in Lithuania, the castle has been rebuilt. The restoration was well-executed and visitors are free to wander throughout most of the castle where museum displays tell the story of the castle and preserve artifacts relating to its history.

Inside Trakai Castle ward
This type of coin/medallion decoration was very popular
The museum is spread out over many rooms on various floors of the castle keep and in the outer ward of the reconstructed castle

Trakai was once a major power hub, but the city dwindled to a small town and island castle fell into ruins. Old paintings in the museum show the castle ruins looking like a romanticists fantasy. Wars and economics halted the reconstruction many times, but it’s now complete and worth the visit.

Old paintings depict Trakai Castle in ruins

The town around the castle is charming with pastel-painted wooden houses. Stalls and shops line the lake front around the foot bridge that leads to the castle island. In warm weather, row boats and paddle boats are available to rent and there’s a larger tour boat that goes out to the island.

We had lunch in a pretty Italian restaurant with big picture windows facing the lake and castle. In warmer weather, we’d have enjoyed the outdoor seating.

Entry to the castle and museum is €3 per adult. Pay for parking on the street around the castle using the meters. Insert coins and put the timed ticket on your dashboard where it is visible through the windshield. Parking is vigorously enforced and the fine is €80 so be warned. In off season, we had no problem finding convenient parking, but I’ve read it can be trickier in the summer high season.

Houses, shops and parking along the street leading to Trakai Castle: Be sure to feed the parking meter and display your timed ticket or risk a hefty fine!

Highways around Vilnius are in good condition and well-marked and GPS worked perfectly for us.

Good highways between Vilnius and Trakai make for an easy drive

Fushimi Inari and Nijo Castle, Kyoto

 

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Fushimi Inari

With its 10,000 red torii gates flanking pathways through mountain woods, Fushimi Inari has to be one of the most spectacular, unique sights in the Kyoto area…and it’s close, free and always open. Awesome!

For 200 yen one-way (appx. $1.96pp), we caught the frequent local San-in train from Nijo Station (near our apartment) 2 stops to Kyoto Station and then connected on the Nara Line for a 5-minute ride to Inari Station, just across the street from the entrance to Fushimi Inari. (From Kyoto, the one-way fare is 140 yen.) The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be his messengers, so fox statues and votive offerings abound.

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Fox statue outside Inari shrine

Walking uphill from the main shrine past many smaller shrines, we were directed to the first of many virtual tunnels of torii gates framing the paths on the mountain. A split in the paths made a one-way loop and the mobs of people funneled into this area made us wonder if Fushimi Inari was going to be a huge disappointment. Thankfully, the crowds thinned (and the tour groups disappeared) as we walked further up the mountain. The gates also be came larger than those at the early one-way section.

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Early on, crowds are funneled into one-way lines through narrow torii gates…fortunately, this dissipates as you climb higher. [Note the lack of writing on gates while on the uphill climb.]
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Yet another mountain shrine
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Leaving the crowds behind. Looking back through the torii gates (writing visible)
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Fox-shaped votive offerings

As we hiked ever higher, we walked past streams, waterfalls and small ponds. The forest air was cool and fresh, but heavy with humidity. We came upon several tea rooms with beautiful views and many vendors selling fortunes and votive offerings along with snacks. The mountain rewards the climb with sweeping views over Kyoto at Yotsutsuji intersection, high on the mountain, but still a ways from the summit. We stopped at a nearby stall and teahouse for mixed soft-serve ice cream: vanilla and “soy flour”. Delicious. We could have hiked even higher, making the loop past the summit, but with diminishing gates and a sense that not much was changing, we opted to turn back. We’d spent a couple of hours wandering the mountain. It would have taken maybe another hour to make the final loop.

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Tea room beside path on Mt. Inari
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View of Kyoto from Mt. Inari

Don’t miss Fushimi Inari if your travels take you to Kyoto! (Day trips are also possible from Nara and Osaka.)

Back in Kyoto from Fushimi  Inari in time for a quick lunch at the apartment, we decided to spend our last afternoon at Nijo Castle. We’d been admiring one of its watchtowers from our balcony since we arrived, and knew we didn’t want to miss it.

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Beautiful interior entrance gate to Nijo Palace

Unlike other Japanese castles, Nijo was always meant to be a palace castle, not a fortified castle that happened to serve as a palace. Consequently there is something more delicate and beautiful about it. Original wall paintings have been removed to the nearby gallery, but reproductions let you see the palace has it must have been when used as a shogun residence. I loved the idea of being able to finally get inside a building, and this one in particular. Most exciting of all for me, Nijo Castle boasts a “nightingale floor,” something I’d read about for years, but never experienced. It was nothing like I’d imagined!

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Nijo Castle interior

We decided to get an audio guide at 500 yen apiece, something I usually skip, but really enjoyed on this trip. Entry to Nijo Castle is another 600 yen. The walk through the sprawling castle was fun, but the absolute highlight for me was the experiencing the nightingale floor. Designed to make noise on purpose to alert the shogun to assassination attempts, the sound was not the squeak I expected, but high-pitched and truly something almost musical. David and I both first wondered if it was a soundtrack, so stopped and spent much time listening to the noise, trying to match it to our footsteps and those of the people around is. The chirping had a weirdly disjointed quality, seemingly removed from actual footsteps, but nonetheless resulting from them.

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Nijo Castle
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Nijo Castle garden

The Nijo Castle grounds actually encompass two palaces. The main palace with the nightingale floor and another castle within yet another moat in the center. This castle, built entirely of cedar, is not open to the public, although you can cross the interior moat and walk through the gardens and up to the raised foundation of a long-destroyed tower.

 

Daytrip to Albania

I think nearly every traveler feels the urge of The Place Just Beyond. I try not to succumb to the temptation to waste my time in Place A running over to Place B, just because it’s further or–my personal peeve–just to “say” you’ve been there. I always wonder who exactly I’m supposed to “say” that to, and who the heck would care. Still, I can be as weak as the next person and ever since we’d planned this trip to Montenegro and I’d realized how close Albania was, I’d been tempted to make a dreaded “toe touch” run. I know, I know: Shame on me!

But wait, hear me out: I did have some rational reasons for going to Albania for the day beyond curiosity, which IMHO, is a perfectly good reason for most travel. First…well, first, there was curiosity. I’d started reading about Albania and I wanted to see for myself if the difference between Albania and Montenegro would really be as noticeable as some people claimed. Albania sounded like kind of a mess, and maybe a little bit dangerous, but also beautiful and remote, and Muslim, unlike the other Balkan countries we’d seen and would see on this trip and…Like I said, I was curious. Secondly, weather was now making this trip look more appealing. It had been cloudy and threatening rain since we arrived in Montenegro and the forecast for our second day there was calling for heavy rains. The rains were coming from Africa to the south and looked to push through Kotor by the following day. So, I reasoned, it might be a gamble worth taking to try to drive through the rains. Maybe, just maybe, we would luck out and end up in Albania with a little sunshine. David was game, so I emailed our AirBnB host, Bojan.

Months ago when I booked our apartment, Bojan had said he could arrange any tours, rent cars, etc. we might have in mind and reviews on AirBnB gave him high marks. He was a little surprised when I said I wanted to go to Rosafa Castle in Shkodër, Albania, in the pouring rain, but he said he’d make some calls. We decided we wanted a driver for this excursion since I’d read of problems at the border and thought a local who could speak the language would be a help. We also had some concerns that migrants moving through from Syria might also create complications at the border. Bojan got back to me promptly saying he’d found a driver who would take us for €150, and that others he’d asked were €250 to €300. A little worryingly, he did not answer my question about whether the driver spoke English nor how we’d recognize him, only assuring me that the driver would be downstairs at 10am the following morning. Oh well, we’d have an adventure!

Sure enough, promptly at 10am we spotted a large new car parked below our balcony by the canal. Suited up and with umbrellas at the ready, we dashed through the pouring rain and hopped in the stranger’s vehicle. Our driver, Goran, turned out to be a charming young man who spoke very good English. He was the married father of a little girl about whom he loved to talk. Goran was a native of Kotor and son of a prosperous local businessman. He was a font of knowledge and local perspective and a fun companion on what would turn out to be a longer day than any of us had anticipated.

Despite the rain, we made decent time along the coast past the town of Budva where the old town looked pretty in the distance. The rest of the city seemed an uncharming sprawl to me, though, and I was glad we’d chosen pretty little Kotor as our base. Goran assured me he felt the same way and said Budva had become a party town for tourists. Not what I’m looking for, but to each their own.

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Sveti Stefan, Montenegro, just beyond Budva

Water rushed over the road in Budva and other spots along the way, but Goran had no problem getting through and soon we were leaving the coast and driving up into the mountains. Our plan was to take the highway through Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and continue on to the new border crossing point north of huge Lake Shkodër. We’d gone only about 30 minutes, however, when we came to a line of cars backed up behind work trucks and heavy machinery. After we’d sat for 10 minutes or so, Goran got out to talk to people ahead and came back with news that there had been a rock slide and we’d need to retrace our steps back to the coast and continue on to Albania that way to cross the border at the small, rural checkpoint south of the lake. A delay, but not a threat to our outing.

When we arrived at the border, it turned out to be unremarkable in appearance and not nearly as bad as the impression we’d got from Goran. Goran had a low opinion of all things Albanian and had warned us to expect Albanians to yell at us because “they always yell.”  He claimed Albanians were the worst drivers in the world and we should keep an eye on them because they’d try to cheat us and they weren’t friendly. Frankly, I’d read some similar posts along with advice not to drive a rent car into Albania because car thieves were rampant. Hmm. I don’t know about all that and certainly had no experiences along that line. No one yelled at us, but it did take a long time to cross the border. (We discovered that Goran spoke no Albanian, so he wasn’t much help there although his familiarity with the process and local car and driver’s license no doubt made things more routine. In any event, details weren’t our problem and that was nice.). The worst part about the delay was that the break in the rain we’d had as we approached the checkpoint gave way as we waited to cross. It seemed to rain harder with each passing minute. It looked like our gamble might be a big failure.

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Montenegro/Albania border south of Lake Shkodër
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Goran at the helm in rural Albania

We arrived in the city of Shkodër in a heavy downpour, Rosafa Castle visible across the river. Goran asked if we wanted to go straight there, but since it was lunchtime, I suggested we eat first in one last bid for better weather. Having come this far, we were willing to explore the castle ruins in the rain, but we had to eat sometime, so why not now?

We chose a riverside restaurant at random and ran for the door in the deluge, umbrellas up and dodging puddles. The restaurant, Vellezerit Vataksi, turned out to be a delightful refuge. The food was good, the atmosphere lovely, prices wonderfully cheap, and the waiter–despite Goran’s misgivings–was courteous. He spoke a little English, so that turned out to be the common language for ordering. We lunched on fish soup, grilled shrimp (large and excellently prepared, large portion, shell-on), grilled sea bream with tomato sauce, and shrimp risotto (with small, bay-style shrimp). The huge window by our table overlooked a riverside terrace and the castle on a hill beyond the far bank. Miracle of miracles, the rain gave way as we ate and visited with Goran. By the time we left, the sun was shining!

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Our Albanian refuge in a storm
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Goran and David
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After the rain: view of Rosafa Castle from the restaurant Vellezerit Vataksi

Rosafa Castle was only a short, 5-minute or so drive from the restaurant. Goran opted to wait with the car–still wary of thieves and reckless drivers, so David and I walked up the rest of the way up the castle’s hill via a cobblestone pedestrian road. We paid a modest fee to a man perched at the entrance and made our way through the dark castle gate that enticed with a glimpse of blue sky and wildflowers beyond.

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Entrance to Rosafa Castle

I’d chosen Rosafa Castle as our destination pretty randomly. Shkodër was the nearest Albanian city, the castle was one of its big tourist draws and our kind of thing; that was pretty much it. It turned out to be a great choice. The weather had turned nice–partly sunny and comfortably warm. The rocky terrain quickly absorbed the previous rainfall yet left everything fresh and clean with the smell of wildflowers permeating the air. We had a wonderful ramble through ruins that sprawled across the hilltop with only a few other local visitors, a goatherd and some goats. There’s a tiny military museum in the back keep. The ticket taker kindly let us peek in and told us there was no English. Not at all tempted, we opted to continue our time enjoying the beautiful day outside and the 360° views of Shkodër and surrounding valley. Had the nearby open air café been open yet for the season, we might have been more enticed by that.

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Wildflowers and goats in Rosafa Castle grounds

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Mosque in the valley below Rosafa Castle
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View towards town and Lake Shkodër from the castle
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Rosafa Castle Museum

After we finished exploring the castle, Goran drove us into downtown Shkodër. We only had time for a quick view and then we were on our way back to Montenegro. This time, we drove north of the lake, crossed the border at the newly expanded checkpoint and headed on to Podgorica. Goran offered to stop to let us explore, but we declined. We were tired, already way behind schedule, and Goran had to drive us to Kotor, then turn around and come back to Podgorica to pick up his daughter. Roads all over Montenegro were torn up with repairs in a mad rush to be ready for the upcoming tourist season. We expected delays getting back to Kotor–we were right–and Goran was going to have to do it twice. We felt bad for his long day, but he was cheerful and matter-of-fact about it.

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Shkodër, Albania

Visitor SIM: get connected in Slovenia [also Predjama Castle & Piran]

SIM cards are always on my list of things to look into when I’m going to spend any time in a country. Overpriced roaming charges on my American AT&T account are out-of-the-question except for the occasional first text to a landlord, etc. (I absolutely detest being gouged.) I try to keep a French and a Belgian SIM card active, but with no non-roaming EU-wide SIM (yet), I often need a new SIM card when I’m in Europe. Options vary widely from country to country, but Eastern Europe can offer some great deals. Unfortunately, those great deals are often hard to take advantage of if you don’t know the language.

Slovenia has solved that problem with Visitor SIM. For a price, sure, but it’s not an unreasonable price, IMHO, given the convenience. https://www.visitorsim.si/default.aspx There are 3 options, and we chose the €20 for 15 days, 10GB data+ €5 of voice. You can use the data to make VoIP calls, Skype, etc., but we wanted a little easy talk time for local calls and it came in handy when we needed to rendezvous with our AirBnB landlord. The Visitor SIM cannot be mailed outside of Slovenia, so you need an address with someone present to receive the package. We weren’t sure we’d have that option with our AirBnB digs, so I opted for to have the card sent to the Ljubljana airport. I was told the card was would be waiting for us at Café Avioncek in the Arrivals area. While David checked out our Sixt rent car, I walked the 30 yards are so to the café, gave my name to someone behind the counter, and was back in no time with the SIM card. (You’re supposed  to provide ID, but no one asked.) The card installed, without problem, on my Android phone and we were up and running, Google Maps and all.

We spent the next days exploring Slovenia and found Internet coverage to be good in most places, if a little spotty in some very rural areas. I can’t say enough good things about Slovenia. I’d been wanting to visit for many years, and we found it to be beautiful, amazingly clean (Ljubljana has been named Green Capital of Europe for 2016), and very accessible. Lots of people spoke excellent English in Ljubljana and we found good English most places save for near the Eastern border with Croatia. I’d go back in a heartbeat!

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Lovely Ljubljana
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Riverside café in Ljubljana. Slovenians love their cured meats!

One of the great advantages of a small country. You can visit a castle built into a mountain in the morning and be eating super-fresh seafood on the coast by lunch:

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Predjama Castle
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Piran, on Slovenia’s small coastline on the Gulf of Trieste
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Piran bounty

On the drive back from Piran to Ljubljana, we made a quick detour out to see the salt-pans at Sečovlje Salina Nature Park. It’s only a short drive out of town and worth a look even if, like us, you don’t have the time or inclination to take a tour or visit the Lepa Vida thalasso spa located in the park. http://www.portoroz.si/en/experience/natural-attractions/secovlje-salt-pans Salt has been harvested from here since at least the Middle Ages.

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Sečovlje salt-pans beyond the canal

March 30- April 1, 2016