Driving from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi

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Suburban Bangkok traffic

We took our final AirAsia fight of this trip from Krabi to Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok. Don Muang is Bangkok’s old international airport, now replaced by Suvarnabhumi as the city’s main international airport. Don Muang–the oldest operating airport in Asia and one of the oldest in the world, for that matter–is now primarily a regional and low-cost carrier hub. Most flights from Krabi go to Don Muang and that suited our purposes perfectly, given the airport’s location on the north side of the city. Our next destination was Kanchanaburi of Bridge on the River Kwai fame, WNW of Bangkok. I researched various ways to get to Kanchanaburi and decided a rental car would be ideal…if David was willing to do the driving.

I’ve done my share of driving in foreign countries, on both sides of the road, but one of the luxuries of my late-in-life marriage to David is leaving the driving to him. He actually loves challenging driving (and is fine with wrong-side stick shifts) and I’m a pretty darn good navigator, so we make a great team.

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Nerves of steel!

Bangkok, though, has a reputation of being a driving nightmare and there’s that always-present worry about accidents or police shakedowns in a third world country. Still, a car would be ideal and online research led me to believe it wouldn’t be that bad given the location of Don Muang. (Had we flown into Suvarnabhumi Airport to the south of the city, we’d have had to drive across Bangkok to get to Kanchanaburi. No way!) I showed David what I’d found and he was game for the drive, so I booked a rent car with Sixt…but made it cancelable in case on-the-ground experience in Thailand changed our minds. After two weeks in Thailand, David felt more confident than ever, so we made the drive.

Sixt provided us with a nice mid-size sedan with automatic transmission(!), Google Maps was up and working on my phone via my Thai SIM card, so all was good as we pulled away. Don Muang is a long airport whose length runs along a major highway. To get out of the airport, we had to drive through parking lots and drop-off lanes to reach a U-turn bridge to get us going north on the highway; no big deal.

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Yes, I know. The sign spells “Don Muang” differently. The airport spells it the way I have. Mostly. Thai spelling is a very changeable thing.

Traffic, as expected, was heavy on the highway with scooters and motorbikes weaving in and out among cars and trucks. We encountered our first problem when we tried to make our first exit. Massive construction of an overhead road was going on along the length of the highway and the exit was blocked. Thank God for Google Maps! We just kept trying to head west and after a series of Google re-routes that resulted in a lot of backtracking as we made long parallel straightaways and squared-off U-turns, we finally got onto the right road. Google Maps predicted 2h25 to go 142 kilometers (88 miles).

Traffic was insane in the early part of the drive as we made our way through Bangkok suburbs. [See lead pic.] Cars and passenger trucks mixed with tuk tuks, songtaews, motorbikes and brightly-painted big rigs. Major town signs usually had English, but not always. Most road signs were in indecipherable Thai squiggles and swirls. Worse yet, Google Maps would often show road signs and directions in Thai, not English. The robot lady still talked in English, but her “turn right’s” and “turn left’s” often came at the wrong time and I’d have to zoom into our little moving icon then tell David, “No! Not here!” more often than I would have liked. It required a lot of attention on both of our parts. Meanwhile, cars and motorbikes cut in and out around us. Traffic would occasionally come to a stop on a major median-divided road, to allow a stream of cars from the other side to U-turn. We could figure no pattern to that, and when I got the chance to research it, I found an expat message board where someone attributed it to “telepathy,” like us finding no rhyme nor reason to when cars would yield.

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Trucks sported all sorts of decoration.

Things got better as we moved into the countryside. The roads, all along, were in good shape, not much different from what we’d see at home (if you don’t count the temples, rice fields, loose cows and other signs that we weren’t in Kansas any more).

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Not unlike home, except for the Buddha

Thais protect themselves from the sun and it’s common to see people, especially on motorbikes, with their heads fully covered by cloth with only eye holes. It’s vaguely alarming-looking, like a bunch of bank robbers on the loose.

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Roadside vendor avoiding the sun

Getting hungry, we started looking for somewhere to grab a quick lunch. By now, we were used to and fond of Thai street food, so a local open-air market looked promising and we pulled in. A songtaew overloaded with locals pulled in beside us. This crowd headed to tables and vendors at the front of the market, but David bee-lined for a cloud of smoke emanating from the very rear of the big space, far from the other vendors. An old lady with a bandaged food greeted us eagerly while a man tended skewers on the grill. When we asked the price, she replied “5 baht,” about 14 cents. Sure we must have misheard, David asked her again, but got the same answer. Um. OK. She got out a plastic bag and quickly added several skewers. When we asked if it was chicken, “gai,” she nodded and repeated “gai.” Inspecting the skewers, I spotted a heart and some other odd bits. We asked her what part of the chicken those were. She waved her hand around her stomach. Intestines. That’s what I thought. The skewers were split down the middle then wired shut around the meat. Some of the skewers held flattened, unidentifiable meat with small bones visible. It looked like chicken back. Maybe. David tried pointing to his leg and chest, asking for more familiar cuts, but she just nodded and added another skewer, bringing our total to five. When she mentioned sticky rice, for 3 baht, we happily bought 2 plastic pouches for a grand total of 30 baht or about 86 cents. She’d moved her crutch aside for us to sit down, but I told David we should eat in the car, both for a/c and so we could spit out anything we wanted without offending her.

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Inedible barbecue with strange beaky bit on the right

Back in the car, we inspected our lunch. We tried nibbling on the flattened, bony meat, but could only get the tiniest bit of food. Were you supposed to just crunch through bone?! Giving up, we moved on to the tripe. Curling my lips back, I tried a bite…but couldn’t get through. An odd beaky looking bit was equally impervious to my teeth. Hmm. The barbecue sauce wasn’t bad, though. We quickly wolfed down our sticky rice and tossed the rest of our “lunch,” afraid to feed it to the two dogs wandering the front of the market for fear of choking them. Oh well, back on the road.

We arrived at our Kanchanaburi hotel without incident. The drive, while a little frazzling in some places (for me anyway–David has nerves of steel), wasn’t bad. It was nice to have the car, for privacy, comfort and just to be free to follow our own whims and timetable or lack thereof. For about $30/day, it wasn’t a bad deal either. It also turned out to be a great way to escape the myriad tours being touted in Kanchanaburi. More on that later.

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Great roads in the countryside (This is between Kanchanaburi and Tha Kilen the day we did the Death Railroad.)

Road Trip to Spectacular Ostrog Monastery, Montenegro

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A beautiful day in Montenegro is a great time for another road trip! This time we had our sights set on the locally-renowned Ostrog Monastery, a 2+ hour drive away. Once again our AirBnB host, Bojan, proved worth his weight in gold. When I asked about possible road closures in light of all the road work we’d seen on the way to Albania, he called the local traffic authority and got back to me with invaluable information: a major bridge and sole access to the monastery from Kotor would be closed for two 2-hour stints, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The bridge was an hour and twenty minutes into our journey. Armed with that knowledge, we timed our drive to arrive a scant 5-10 minutes before the bridge reopened after the morning closure. Thank God we didn’t get up early just to sit in a line of cars and semi-trucks for two hours wondering what the heck was going on!

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Construction near the Moštanica Bridge. Bojan’s data was right on.

We drove out of Kotor in the opposite direction from our previous trips to Lovcen Park and Albania, this time heading north and then west along the water through the beautiful little town of Perast with its two small islands sitting just off-shore. One with a church and the other with a monastery. We vowed to try to come back and take a boat out to the church. At the far reaches of the inner bay of Kotor, we turned north onto the P11 and into the mountains. The highway is new and in great shape, offering a beautiful look back at the bay:

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View from the P11

Soon, we were out of sight of water and speeding along the sparsely-trafficked highways through the mountains until we came to the road closure just before the bridge. With that minor delay behind us, we drove over the bridge being treated to the magnificent vista of Slansko Jezero (Slansko Lake) with snow-capped mountains beyond.

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Slansko Jezero

We arrived in the valley below the monastery pretty much in the time expected. Past a small village, we began yet another switchback road leading up to the monastery. The road was in good shape, but once again there were those intentional gaps with a sheer drop off just inches from the pavement. It wasn’t as much of a drop as on the Kotor-Cetinje road, but just as deadly. At least there weren’t any car-caused gaps.

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Starting up the road to the monastery

 

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An early glimpse of Ostrog Monastery built into the sheer wall of the mountain

We reached a larger, more touristy village as the road narrowed. There’s a church and parking there, but we continued up the mountain and were happy to find plenty of parking just outside the monastery. [There are also public toilets at the far end of the parking from the monastery entrance.]

Just to the left as we approached the arches leading to the monastery plaza, we saw Lourdes-like fountains of holy water where people filled flasks or dabbed themselves with healing waters.

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Fonts of holy water
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Mosaic-decorated interior of the entrance arch

Of course, we couldn’t visit the monk’s quarters, but we could visit the church and the balcony above it which boasts several beautiful mosaics as well as a grapevine said to have sprung from the spot where Sveti Vasilije (St. Basil) died in 1671. The grapevine is considered miraculous as appears to grow from stone devoid of any soil.

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View over the valley from the church balcony
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Miraculous grapevine at the place of St. Basil’s death

 

Several yards to the right of the doors of the church is the chapel housing the tomb of St. Basil. Goran, who drove us to Albania, was from Ostrog and had told us how the body of St. Basil is said to be perfectly preserved, that we could see his face, and that people came to his tomb to receive miraculous cures. A monk stands guard over the body of St. Basil, but we were disappointed to see that the saint’s face is covered with a cloth and his hands are encased in gloves. Hmm. Not to be disrespectful, but it’s hard to say whether St. Basil has escaped decomposition or not…or even whether that was his body or just an elaborately-dressed scarecrow.

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There’s a fair-sized gift shop off the main monastery plaza offering religious objects, books, jarred foods and beauty/health products. There’s also a ticket window for busier times, but we were blessed by few other tourists. In fact, the only “admission” was an honor-system minimal payment for small photo calendars set out on a table at the church entrance. There was no one to pay nor anyone to ask questions of, so I hope we did right there…but other visitors seemed to be doing the same thing.

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Monks on the monastery plaza with the entrance arches beyond leading to the parking area

A short way back down the mountain, we stopped to eat at Koliba, a restaurant recommended by Goran. Taking advantage of the glorious weather, we ate outside. The food was excellent and it was a perfect way to spend a little time while we waited for the afternoon bridge/road closing to end.

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Fresh fish, local cheese and grilled vegetables at Koliba (plus favorite local beer Nikšićki)
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Koliba terrace on a slow afternoon

Despite our lazy meal, we still had a little time to kill before the road reopened, so on whim we detoured through farmland at lambing season to follow a small sign indicating a roman bridge nearby. Fun!

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About halfway back to Kotor, an intriguing monument on a large mound near the highway enticed us into another detour to the near-deserted hamlet of Grahovo.

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The monument that lured us to Grahovo
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Abandoned buildings in Grahovo
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Untended memorial blocks on the approach to the monument

The memorial park and monument are/were beautiful, but they’ve fallen into such disrepair. Most of the buildings in town are derelict, but there were a few old men in a run-down café that seemed to be the only functioning business in town. A few older school children went into the park as we left although we did not see their school. It was an odd and moving place even though we could only guess as to what had happened there until we got back to our apartment and wi-fi.

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It turns out that although the town suffered much destruction during World War II, it did survive to create the once-lovely memorial park. Apparently, an earthquake in 1979 dealt the near-fatal blow to the town from which it has never recovered.

 

 

Lovćen Park and a drive of a lifetime: a vertical mile of switchbacks

One place in Montenegro I was absolutely sure we wanted to see was Lovćen Park. Now that we had good weather, we grabbed the opportunity. Bojan had secured us a rent car, delivered to our apartment and at a small discount to anything I’d been able to find. Bojan was turning out to be an AirBnB host extraordinaire.

There are two routes to Lovćen Park from Kotor: the longer route via Budva and new roads and the shorter route via an older narrow, switch-back filled road up the face of the mountain at the end of Kotor bay. The road leads to the community of Cetinje. We’d heard rumors that the older Cetinje road was closed, but Goran had assured us that was not the case and we were dying to try it. Actually, David was definitely eager to try it and I thought I was, too, but with some reservations. While the views were said to be breathtaking, I had some concerns about the condition and safety of the road.

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Google gives us an idea of what to expect: lots and lots of switchbacks

The quality of the road turned out to be pretty good. It was well paved and reasonably maintained, if a bit narrow in spots and with some truly alarming gaps in the stone safety wall. Some of the gaps were intentional, some clearly the result of impacts. As we climbed higher and higher, eventually well above many of the surrounding mountains, I tried hard not to think of what had happened to the people in vehicles that had crashed into those walls. It was impossible not to think of them, and of the sheer drop just feet away. I rolled down my window for a better (more terrifying view) and the sound added a whole new dimension; the abyss seemed to roar from each gap in the stone wall. While David enjoyed driving a stick shift up this mountain, I was not nearly as sanguine and maintained a nervous monologue. Sometimes, its scarier to be the passenger (as anyone who’s taught a teenager to drive can attest)!

Often, the road was not wide enough for two cars and I cringed at the thought of passing. When we did meet another car, David flashed lights to signal the other driver to proceed as we’d seeen Goran do. Fortunately, there was not much traffic.

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Oh, joy. Cows and a blind curve!
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No shoulder, a gap in the wall, and a sheer drop
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Above other mountains: View from the roadside of Kotor and the bay
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Narrow tunnel requires one-way traffic at a time

As we neared the top, we left the beautiful day below and drove into the clouds and the temperature dropped dramatically.

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Driving into the clouds

Reaching Cetinje, we found few buildings: a closed roadside restaurant and a zip line, both presumably set to reopen with tourist season. The way to Lovćen Park was well-marked and we had no problems finding the entrance to the park. At a gate, we paid €2pp to enter.

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The narrow road through the park traversed a rugged and often barren landscape and was not nearly as good as the switchback road. At one point it narrowed to a 1-lane raised stretch with no rails and a drop-off on either side. Thankfully, we didn’t meet another car there as maneuvering would have been a tricky business. The weather, too, was completely different and not nearly as good as below. The temperature had dropped, clouds filled the sky; there was even snow banked along the shadier sides of the road.

At the center of the park, we reached our ultimate destination, the tomb of Montenegro’s hero poet, Njegoš. Climbing 461 steps brought us to the imposing modern mausoleum. The mausoleum has been a source of some controversy, but Njegoš himself remains a popular source of pride. We paid a few euros apiece to enter the mausoleum in part to escape a sudden cold rain shower. The ticket seller kindly offered to loan us an old Yugoslavian-era guidebook with English.

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Steps to the tomb of Njegoš, with many more to go inside the mountain
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Courtyard of Njegoš’ Mausoleum

Beyond the somber mausoleum is a spectacular mirador with a sweeping 360° view.

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New management had just taken over the restaurant space at the base  of the mausoleum steps and so we escaped the increasingly bad weather for the dry, but cold and cave-like interior of Restoran Vidikovac Lovćen. I mean “cave-like” in the most literal sense, the restaurant having been carved into the mountain. The location is fascinating and would have really spectacular views from its terrace on a sunny day. Today, however was not that day and we were happy to be inside. The manager (or maybe owner) greeted us warmly, eager to fill the empty space. Soon another group arrived and ordered drinks so things were not quite so desolate. Available menu items were limited, so we ordered what they had. An older woman behind the counter made the ubiquitous Montenegran pork cutlet to order. We’d quickly learned that despite our expectations of great seafood fresh from the Adriatic, other than squid, this country ate pork. And cheese. And pork with cheese, wrapped in ham. And ham and cheese sandwiches. According to Goran, a Montenegran’s idea of seafood is “pig that’s fallen in the sea.” Oh well, it was way too short on vegetables for us, but tasty nonetheless and very filling.

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Typical Montenegran lunch: pork, pork, bread and cheese

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

Slovenia’s lesser-known wine country

Ever since a Venetian restaurateur had told us about Slovenian “orange wine,” David and I had been dying to try it. To our frustration, few people seemed to know what we were talking about and the ones who did had none on offer. We decided to venture into Slovenian wine country to find this elusive wine.

Slovenia has 3 wine districts. The most prestigious–and by all accounts very beautiful–is on the Italian border. Another lies to the north with the city of Maribor at its heart. Finally, there is the eastern wine region, Posavje, that borders Croatia. It’s less well-known, but boasts the award-winning Prus winery (“Vinska Klet Prus”) near the village of Metlika. Not only has the proprietor be repeatedly named best overall winemaker in Croatia, but the winery has begun making an orange wine that has been named best in class. We were intrigued. I called ahead, and with some language difficulties, determined that an English-speaking tasting would be available. http://www.vinaprus.si/en/

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Google maps said the vineyard was only about an hour and half away, nestled right up against the Croatian border. The drive through mostly small towns and countryside was pleasant and uneventful and till we we reached a police roadblock just beyond the small town of Donja Teska Voda, about 2/3 of the way into our trip. Along with all motorists heading our way, we were directed into the parking lot of some sort of water park. Puzzled and afraid our wine outing was being thwarted, we were relieved to find a policewoman who spoke English and who explained that the road closure was due to a bike race and would only last 30 minutes or so.

We were getting hungry anyway, so we turned around and drove a few miles back to a roadside pizza restaurant with a nice hillside deck where we could watch the expected bike race. The restaurant owner spoke no English, but we managed, the weather was perfect, the pizza delicious, and the race fun and soon over as promised. In no time, we were back on our way.

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View of the bike race from the pizzeria deck

As we neared the Prus winery and the Croatian border, we saw many small vineyards interspersed among homes.

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The area is rural, not a chateau or Tuscan-style villa in sight. In a small village, we stopped at a building with a Prus sign out front, but were told in very basic English that the tasting area was further down the road and someone who spoke good English would be there. Sure enough, we came to a large Prus bottle/sign pointing the way to a chalet-style wood and stone winery, very pretty and modern.

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Just before the Prus winery. The church in the distance is probably in Croatia.
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The tourist shot in front of the winery

The owner’s son welcomed us and he was enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about the family business. The winery is particularly known for its sweet white wines, which were very good, but we were most excited to try the “orange wine.” Orange wine derives its name from the color, not the flavor. It’s also know as “skin contact” or “contact” wine. The wine-making method is medieval in origin and is, basically, making white wine in the manner of red wine, leaving the skins of white grapes in contact with the wine for long periods of time. The result is a white wine that is high in tannins as well as orangish in color. Orange wines have become somewhat of a fad in the west in the last couple of years, getting write-ups in American newspapers and wine publications although not widely available in the U.S..

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Prus orange wine
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Glass-front barrel of orange wine shows the skins settled to the bottom.

April 3, 2016

 

Slovenia: Lake Bohinj and Lake Bled in a day

Lake Bled was on my absolute must-see list while in Slovenia. Photos showed something like a scene out of a fairy tale: a castle on a cliff overlooking a crystal clear lake in the middle of which sits a jewel of a little church on a tiny island accessible only by rowboats. But, as I did more research, nearby Lake Bohinj popped on my radar screen, begging to be visited as well.

Once again, we enjoyed the benefits of a small country: Google Maps said Lake Bohinj was only a little over an hour from our apartment in Ljubljana Old Town, and only 30 minutes past Lake Bled. Since the weather forecast called for more sun in the afternoon, we opted to drive through Bled to visit Lake Bohinj first, saving my top destination for last.

It was tantalizing to drive right past magnificent Bled with only a quick pause to admire the view of the island church and snap a pic or two. It turned out to be a good move, though; we stopped in parking spaces claimed by a major hotel. The man selling spots quoted us a price below what we’d seen in big parking lots much farther from the lake and we resolved to try to score one of these spots upon our return.

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On the road between Bled and Lake Bohinj. We saw fly fishermen in the river, but no fish like this!

Lake Bohinj turned out to be pretty awesome for a second choice.  With water as clear as glass, it reflected the surrounding mountains like a mirror. The famous medieval church of St. John the Baptist dates back to the late-10th or early 11th century with frescoes dating back to 1300. On the opposite end of the lake, we hiked the equivalent of 65+ stories to reach the waterfall, Slap Savica. Crude stairs have been set in the mountain, but it’s a serious climb. There’s a gondola for those who’d rather skip the workout.

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Lake Bohinj view of the church of St. John the Baptist
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Fresco on St. John the Baptist church, Lake Bohinj
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Mirror-like Lake Bohinj on the way to Slap Savica (“slap” means “waterfall.”)

Having driven a good 20 minutes beyond the church end of the lake, it took us closer to an hour to get back to Lake Bled. Still, we arrived with much of the day left ahead of us. Unfortunately, all the good parking spots were gone, so we parked in public parking near the Tourist Info where we were limited to 2 hours. Walking back by the good, lakeside hotel parking, we saw a space just opening up. I asked the man we’d spoken to earlier if he’d hold the spot long enough for us to go fetch the car and he agreed, putting a barrier up to prevent any interlopers. We quickly made the switch and were back on a leisurely schedule!

There are two traditional boats on Lake Bled providing access to the small island church: individual wooden rowboats (rented at several locations around the lake) and pletna boats, larger, flat-bottomed wooden boats operated by traditional pletna oarsmen. The charge for the pletna boats was a pretty ridiculous €14pp for about a 5 minute boat ride from the pletna boat dock. David and I had already decided we’d rather row ourselves anyway. That turned out to be a good thing because the day we were there the pletna oarsmen were on strike. (A real shame for those not up to rowing themselves!) On the other hand, that meant that all rowboats we asked after were already rented with a waiting list to boot. After a warm hike around much of the lake, we sucked it up and paid the premium asked by the spa near our parking spot. I think it was €15/hour instead of €10. A tiny drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things, it just touched that I-hate-to-be gouged nerve of mine. 🙂 The other downside to renting at the spa was location. The spa is a lot farther away from the island church that the other rowboat rentals near the pletna boat dock. We had our work cut out for us.

In minutes, David was rowing away. Now, my husband is a pretty buff guy, but keeping that little boat on a straight line was giving him some trouble despite my awesome navigating. (The person rowing has to face backwards.) It turns out those boats are really susceptible to wind…as I discovered when I wanted to try the return row. My left arm was doing all the work trying to fight the wind and I was finally worn out. David and I eventually settled on a goofy-looking method whereby we faced each other, each of us using one oar while we tried to avoid banging the handles together with each stroke. Oh well, we made it back and the nice people at the spa spared us an overtime charge. All gouging forgiven!

There’s really not a lot to see once you’re on the island, but it’s fun to do. There’s a separate €6 charge to enter the little church where you can ring the “wishing bell.” There’s also a gift shop and an ice cream vendor with some pretty awesome gelato. 30-40 minutes max is plenty of time on the island.

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Lake Bled
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David, rowing our boat ashore
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Almost there. Keep rowing, David!
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Docked at Bled Island

We drove back to Ljubljana on the modern E61 and were easily home in time for dinner. What a great day!

April 2016

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