Affordable Kaiseki and friendly service: Kyo-ryori Kaji

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Picture-perfect appetizer course

I’d been wanting to try a kaiseki dinner, a traditional Japanese haute cuisine that’s as much art as food. With its extensive courses, seasonal ingredients, and careful attention to detail and beauty, these meals can be exceedingly expensive. When our AirBnB host, Eoghan, suggested Kyo-ryori Kaji (“Kaji”) as an affordable kaiseki restaurant, we had to go.

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Our friendly chef prepared much of the food right in front of us

We got off to a hectic start, by running late across town at Kiyomizudera at sunset, then hopping the wrong bus, so that we ended up catching a taxi and getting Eoghan to call the restaurant for us to explain the situation. (We could WhatsApp with Eoghan with my data SIM, but couldn’t make phone calls easily and didn’t have the number for Kaji anyway.) All this left us with no time to change out of the very casual clothes we’d been wearing all day in, periodically in the rain. I felt terrible showing up bedraggled and underdressed (David in shorts and me in cropped pants and a t-shirt), but the delightful people at Kyo-ryori Kaji welcomed us as honored guests and could not have been friendlier the whole night.

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First soup course

Dinner consisted of a number of set courses and three price options. Each price option contains the same number of courses of the same general description, but each option offers an increasingly augmented version of the course. Kaji doesn’t accept credit cards. Since we’d made our mad dash to get here on time and didn’t have time to get more cash, our decision was easy: it was the 3900 yen/pp (appx. $38.61 at the time) dinner for us. [Other options were 6000 yen ($$59.40) and 8100 ($80.19) yen.] This turned out to be an excellent meal, and although David would have tried a different version just to compare, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about our dinner.

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Menu page listing the courses offered and the price options

I took pictures of all but the opening “aperitif” which was nothing but a small splash in a saucer of a “September flower” liqueur that tasted not-so-appealingly of perfume. The least successful “course” of the evening.

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Sashimi course
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By way of comparison: This is the sashimi course for a neighbor’s 8100 yen dinner.
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Tempura was substituted for the grilled course.

Our chef did his best to explain each dish to us. His English was limited, but he did his best and was cheerful, friendly and engaged throughout the meal with us and with those dining at the counter beside us. A couple of times, he pulled out a map to show us his favorite area sites. We already planned to go to Fushimi Inari, but he also suggested Tofukuji Temple not far from Fushimi Inari. He also encouraged us to visit a shrine near the restaurant (and our hotel) that he explained had something to do with “god and money.” Sure enough, a later trip to the small shrine revealed a golden torii gate and people praying for financial fortune…and a children’s party with a cowboy making balloon figures. Japan is often mystifying to us!

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Palette freshening course

Kaji also offers a simple, but classy atmosphere. It’s not elaborate or fancy, but certainly not a casual diner either. I found its understated decor warm and relaxing.

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Steamed course: minimally-seasoned steamed vegetables plus a squash stuffed with steamed seafood paste
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Pickles, miso soup and rice with green tea

Cold sake was our drink of choice. We tried two, but most enjoyed the Jyun mai daiginzzyou at 1200 yen which is smooth and dry. The Hon-jyozou (700 yen) was also good, but with a heavier rice-y taste that I associate with sakes more often found at home in the States.

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Sake and Shochu menu

We were given a choice of three desserts: 2 sorbets and an ice cream dish. We both chose the ice cream, mostly because we were intrigued by the sake gelée that came with it.

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Dessert: sake gelée, walnut ice cream with a large black bean and blueberry
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Drink menu
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Restaurant details

You can find Kyo-yori Kaji at www.kyoto-kaji.jp and at the address and number shown in the photo above.

 

 

Villa Spiza Restaurant, featured on “Bizarre Foods”

My foodie husband, David, read great things about a restaurant called Villa Spiza in Split, so we headed there our first night in town. We found a tiny little hole-in-the-wall, with no tables available, but two stools at a bar that faced a cooking range-top. I had to squeeze into the cornermost stool, my back practically against the side of the woman behind me. Learning they only accept cash, David headed out again leaving me to nurse a white wine while he searched for an ATM machine. The place was bustling, with only two cooks/servers, a man and a woman behind the L-shaped bar. People waited outside for larger tables to free up.

When David returned, we ordered a light dinner of wild asparagus pasta for me and lionfish for David. We had fun visiting with the male chef while we waited for the lady chef to prepare our dinner. He informed us that Andrew Zimmern (of “Bizarre Foods”) had filmed in his restaurant. We discovered later, when we looked up the episode back home, that we’d sat exactly where Zimmern had. Fun! We didn’t find the food to be bizarre at all; just good. I do have to confess to being a little underwhelmed by the wild asparagus, which we found throughout the Balkans. It reminds me of the long, spindly asparagus rejects in our own garden. Oh well, clearly a lapse in my culinary class…and the cooking technique and quality of ingredients got no complaints.

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Pasta with wild asparagus
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Yummy cherry cake…now if only I’d snapped a pic of that lionfish
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Blurry shot of David at our bar seating–Think of it as “artsy”!

The food was delicious, the atmosphere fun. If you’re in Split, this one is a winner!

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Split 21000 (not far from the main square, Narodni Trg)

and on Facebook

[No reservations.]

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