Kalymnos: A Limestone Paradise–Oct. 16-Nov. 4

One of the main reasons we chose to come to Europe was to climb on a small island most people have never heard of before; Kalymnos is well-known for sponges and diving among Greek people, but it isn’t exactly on the international tourist map…unless you are a rock climber. In that case, this little gem is known to be home to some of the best sport climbing in the world. We were lucky enough to spend nearly three weeks here (we liked it so much, we stayed nearly a week longer than we’d planned), and it still wasn’t nearly enough. If you are a rock climber reading this, put it on your short list of dream vacations…but don’t tell anyone else…in late October and early November, Kalymnos is a peaceful limestone paradise!

Getting there is not easy; our path was a little different because we’d started from Santorini (two boats away) instead of Athens (one long boat ride away), which is probably the more common route. For us, it meant staying up until midnight to board a night ferry, and then catching a second short ferry ride from the island of Kos. Sarah, ever the great researcher, had booked a cabin for us on the ferry; we expected a sort of glorified locker with a couple of bunks, but it ended up being a comfortable dorm-like room with twin beds and a bathroom complete with shower. Our hours were all messed up, but it was a great way to travel!

Kos was an inadvertent history lesson for us, although we didn’t realize it until getting on the next boat. We got in so early that nothing was really open near the harbor except for a café that seemed really popular with Greek business people. There was a giant tree right in front of the café, and some ruins behind the building. We saw a couple of signs with the name Hippocrates written on them but had limited curiosity at 6:00 AM. After a couple of strong Americanos and some delicious Greek yogurt with honey, we found our way back to the harbor to await the ticket booth’s opening; later we learned that the tree we were sitting under was actually the “teaching tree” Hippocrates, who grew up in Kos, used for shade while sharing his theories of medicine!

It wasn’t long before we found ourselves racing with a dude named Taxi Thomas through the seriously narrow one-way streets of Pothia, the capital of Kalymnos, towards Masouri and Mirtes, two small beachside towns near the climbing. Our first view included both a massive limestone mountain and deep blue water; not a terrible introduction to the island!We needed a day to get set up because we actually had a home for the next two weeks (we had to switch homes for the last 4 days); Sophie’s Boutique House was perfect for us—it was up a steep private driveway in a really quiet neighborhood…away from the all the scooter traffic in town. We called them skeeter scooters because they sounded like mosquitoes. Anyway, our place was great—comfy, cute, and clean. Our landlady had many cats, so we ended up making plenty of friends at our outdoor dining room—me a bit more grudgingly than Sarah, who was quite enamored with the 3 kittens (one-eyed Patch, tiny Squeak, and the mysterious Dr. Evil) who showed up the last few days of our stay.

While we had to rent a car instead of skeeter scooters (to our dismay, the guy looked up Oregon law to see what type of endorsement we’d need), we got such a good deal for the world’s oldest rental that it was just fine. It did have a hole in the tire, but we got used to the bi-daily trip to the air pump at the gas station on our side of the island; the rental dude patched it, but it only worked for a bit. Approximately 100,000,000,000,000 goats live on this island, so you can’t park underneath trees because they will use the car roof for a stepladder!

Anyway, we did have a different skeeter problem—it was unseasonably hot and humid our first few days, so the mosquitoes were terrible! Nothing like waking up to the world’s most annoying sound (like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber) emitted from a tiny vampire hovering a few inches from your ear. Sarah figured out they were coming from the shower drain, and I got good at assassination via a war whip (okay, it was a t-shirt I coiled up before swinging). As always, she was the engineer and I was the executioner.

So, you’d probably like to hear about the actual climbing, I suppose. Man, I could go on and on (most of you already know this) about all the places and routes we climbed—there are over 3,500 climbs on this small island! Instead, I’ll cover the basics—in short, the rock is awesome! Some of the limestone is gray and slabby with beautiful crimpy holds—we spent a good deal of time on this near the start and end of our time here since we weren’t really in climbing shape anymore. Other routes were vertical with crimps and pockets and maybe a fun bulge or two to negotiate (often the crux). Some were really overhung on orange rock with large jugs and pockets. Caves with these crazy stalagmite “tufas” were usually really difficult, so we mostly watched the really good climbers on these, but we did encounter a few small tufas on other routes. Many of the routes are a full 30 meters, so it was easy to enjoy the trademark amazing flows. The best routes—and there were many—combined stretches of slabs, bulges, pockets, and overhanging jugs.

Kalymnos is known for having vacation grades, easier ratings than other places, but we thought they were fairly true to other limestone we’d climbed in Ten Sleep and in the Balkans. Some were definitely soft for the grades, but with so many different people bolting the routes, we also found some to be surprisingly stiff. Nearly all the climbing, however, does feature super close bolting; with the likelihood of a big fall greatly decreased by this, it is a great place to push. Sometimes, this worked against us, as I found a sharp pocket to leave most of two fingerprints on, and Sarah ended up needing a new pair of shoes to keep up with her swollen feet! Sarah and I both found ourselves leading at and beyond the normal limits of our climbing within a few days; that is, until the final few days when we started to feel the fatigue from all our fun!

Basically, our daily routine was to climb a few hours, swim in the ocean if it wasn’t too windy (Nov. 2 was the last day we swam…not too shabby!), stop at the water station to refill our supply, then relax or plan well into the next months of our sojourn. We occasionally went out to dinner, which meant fish for me and often moussaka (sort of a Greek shepherd’s pie) for Sarah, although we could always agree on Greek salad and kalamari/octopus balls (not what you think) as starters. One particularly charming aspect of Greek dining is the small complimentary dessert you often receive—little Greek doughnuts and canoli-shaped pastries filled with ice cream were our favorites. On rest days, we found a coffee shop with good iced coffees—another Greek specialty…their coffee is actually great, so I think they ice it with plenty of sugar; apparently, Sasha Deguillan (one of Sarah’s favorite pro climbers) has the same taste because we saw her there twice!

On our ManyMoons tour eight years ago, I spent my 34th birthday in a small town in India; I actually really liked the town, but you may recall that India was not my thing. So, I was particularly excited to spend my birthday (you can do the math; I’m too old to do anything beyond round numbers) here the day before we left. We actually found my favorite place of the whole trip to climb—Arginonta Valley—which is the place I’d tell people to visit here. It had endless awesome 6A (like a 10A or B) routes with perfect pockets on mostly vertical rock—perfect for my beat up, age-worn muscles to make one last stand (Sarah of course managed to climb 3 more routes than me in high wind and sporadic rain the next day) before leaving the next day. We’d had big celebratory plans for the afternoon but ended up climbing nearly until dinner instead! Sarah also made a new friend before leaving.

We celebrated my birthday by taking a small boat across to the island of Telendos, which used to be part of the larger island before an earthquake separated the two. The views back to the rocks and the towns of the main island were great, and we managed to find the perfect spot to celebrate our three favorites things while watching the sunset with a cocktail and dinner!

With our Still Moonin’ adventure less than halfway finished, I know we have many great places to see and exciting experiences ahead. I won’t be surprised, however, if our three weeks here in Kalymnos ends up being the one place in our hearts after all of this is finished. We were only here a couple of days before I started checking the temperatures for future trips here in June…school usually gets out around the 15th! For now, though, we will have to keep floating on the memories of a peaceful island with all the amazing limestone we could handle.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Greece | Leave a comment

Fancy Pants in Santorini, Greece: October 12-15, 2019

I didn’t give Mike a choice on Santorini when we were planning our Europe itinerary.  I just told him I really wanted to go, and he was okay with it.  However, when he started to research hotel rooms, he had sticker shock!  So, we agreed to change our normal budget mindset and let go for 3 days.  We would spend a little of our surplus from the Balkans to live it up.

I’ve always seen the pictures of the white churches with blue roofs with the sunset views.  So, I wanted to see them for myself.   It might be super touristy, but the views lived up to the hype.

We arrived in Santorini from Dubrovnik in the dark.  Our hotel sent a car to pick us up from the airport.  The driver offered to carry my backpack, plus our climbing gear duffel to our hotel.  I don’t think the poor guy realized their weight!  He got his workout as it was quite the hike up and down many steps to our hotel room.  He earned his tip and dinner!

In the morning, I threw open the shades and was greeted with an amazing view of the caldera.  We splurged for the caldera view, and since we were there in “off-season” we ended up getting an okay deal.  I was so excited about the day to explore and soak in these views!  However, first we enjoyed breakfast on our terrace overlooking the old port and watched the donkeys descend the 588 steps to pick up cruise passengers who wanted a ride up.

Our objective for the day was to hike from Fira, the town in which we were staying, to Oia at the tip of the island.  It is a 9km walk mostly on pedestrian, cobblestone streets with a few rocky trails towards the end.  The walk had lots of ups and downs, so we got quite a workout.  We also got a late start, so it was quite hot!  I can’t imagine hiking this in the summer!  However, the views were incredible.  The whitewashed houses popped against the sparking blue sea below us.

By the time we got to Oia, all I wanted was shade, food and a drink!  We lucked into a cliffside table at a good restaurant.  It refreshed us enough to explore Oia.  It was a nice town with a different view of the Caldera.  I enjoyed finding the blue domes and getting lost in the windy streets. 

The sunsets in Santorini are supposed to be legendary.  Most people reserve restaurant tables or squish into the streets for the best views.  However, since we had our own balcony, we enjoyed watching the stunning sunset in peace with our own happy hour drinks.

Our big splurge was taking a catamaran cruise around the caldera.  We opted for a semi-private (only 10 other people) daytime cruise to maximize our swimming time.  It was pure luxury!  I loved sitting on the front of the boat on a sun bed enjoying the views and the sea breeze.  It was cool to sail across the entire caldera and around to the other side of the island.

The boat stopped at 3 different swimming holes along the way.  The first stop was hot water beach.  The water was heated by fumaroles from the volcano.  It wasn’t very hot, more like lukewarm.  Our next 2 stops were at Red Beach and Black Beach.  They were aptly named for the color of the cliffs overlooking the beaches. 

I loved jumping off the side of the boat into the water!  It was pure joy, and I even got almost everyone on the boat to jump in too.  The water was a perfect temperature and so salty that you could pretty much float without doing anything.  It was the perfect way to spend the day in the sun, and I felt quite fancy!  It was nice to splurge.

Our final day in Santorini was long as our overnight ferry to Kos did not depart until 1AM!  If you know Mike and I, we are usually in bed by 10, so this was going to be a push.  We decided to maximize our hotel room, by enjoying the balcony until the 11AM checkout time.  It was nice to enjoy a few cups of coffee and read with this view.

The island has several wineries and is well known for its white and dessert wines.  We love wine, and what better way to spend the afternoon than wine taste.  We tasted at 3 wineries.  Our first stop was Santos.  It was the biggest of the 3 and ended up being our favorite which is unusual for us to like the “big” guy.  We decided to split the sample of 10 wines with snacks.  I really enjoyed the whites especially the sparkling.  We also had a killer view from our table to enjoy the wines!

As we drove around, I kept looking for the grape vines.  All I could see were what looked like scrub brush growing on the ground. Well, that turned out to be the vines.  They have developed a method to train the vines to grow in a basket shape close to the ground.  This protects the grapes from the sun and wind and captures the morning dew.  They do not irrigate after the vines are 4 years old, so this growing method was essential.

Santorini has a micro micro-brewery called Santorini Brewery.  We had tried a few of their beers in town and decided to stop in at the brewery for a taste. The beer reminded us of home as they use hops grown in Washington!  My favorite was the Yellow Donkey, a pale ale.

After a full day of wine and beer, we opted for a final sunset view from the parking lot of Santos winery.  We had spent enough that day so opted for the cheap seats.  We were not the only cheapskates taking in the sunset either!

We returned the car at 8 and still had 4 more hours until our bus left for the port!  We aimlessly wandered around town, going up and down stairs for a workout.  Then found a little café on the square to play rummy and people watch.  Finally, it was time to roll.  I smartly booked us a cabin, and we quickly collapsed into bed to dream about rock climbing in Kalymnos!

Santorini lived up to its hype.  The sunsets were gorgeous, the caldera is stunning and there were steps everywhere!  It was the perfect place to vacation for a few days before heading to the low-key climbing island of Kalymnos!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Greece | 4 Comments

Mostar: Mosques, Mosts, and Meats! Oct. 8-11

Our last stop in the Balkans before returning to Dubrovnik before flying to Greece was a city called Mostar. While there is no noticeable difference to a casual tourist, Mostar is actually in Herzegovina, the part of the country closer to Croatia. Mostar is made up of both ethnic Croats who practice Catholicism and Bosniak Muslims. Like Sarajevo, the city saw heavy fighting during the war, and outside of the Old Town, you can see many of the same scars I described in the last blog.

Mostar is actually a pretty small city, and after seeing the Ottoman quarter and learning enough about the Yugoslav war in Sarajevo to want a respite, we found ourselves a little out of gas here. It is an important spot, though, for Western tourists because of its proximity to Dubrovnik; in a fairly manageable day trip, western tourists can get a glimpse of Muslim culture and get a little different perspective (not just Croatian) on the Yugoslav War. Mostar, unlike Sarajevo is totally touristy, so it is possible to get just a taste of things instead of jumping into the deep end of the pool.

Rather than give a play-by-play of our time here, I will just offer a few experiences that we enjoyed. First and foremost, the symbol of Mostar is the Stari Most (Old Bridge). More than 400 years old, the bridge is the face of the city. The polished stone bridge rises steeply as it spans both sides of the rapid deep Neretva River. Tourists sort of stutter-step or shuffle their way across while members of the “Diving Club” actually jump off this thing (for tourist tips); during official competitions (Go ahead and Youtube it!), kayakers wait below to reel in divers. The bridge was virtually destroyed during the war and then rebuilt using similar materials and construction techniques as the original. Throughout the day, it is incredibly packed with tourists, but if you go after the buses leave town, you can ponder the lively river, beautiful mountains, and abundant mosques (as well as a giant Catholic cross and large church tower) throughout town.

The old town feels mostly Ottoman, surrounded by more modern western feeling neighborhoods. As I said, it is one of the most touristy places we’ve been, but it was also fun to see the oldest mosque in Mostar. Unlike other mosques we’ve visited, we were able to climb the minaret. The views of the city were great, especially of the Stari Most. From up high, you could really get a sense of it as the true center of life in the old town.

One other highlight was touring a traditional Turkish house. Built over a peaceful shady courtyard, its open design was full of rugs, cool old furniture with ornate carvings, and a grand view of the river. It would have been a great place to socialize with family and friends but also a peaceful place to pray in a spot next to nature. Plus, I got to wear a fez.

Then, there was…THE MEAT!! We ate twice at a place called Tima Irma’s; Irma is aptly described as a one-woman show by Uncle Ricky—Bosnians are normally more hands-off at restaurants, but she isn’t satisfied unless she knows you are enjoying every bite of the mounds of grilled meat, vegetables, local kajmac cheese, pita, and sauces that come out of her kitchen. In addition to cevapi and grilled chicken, there were at least three other types of patties, links, and cutlets on my platter. It was one of those times when I knew I should stop but plunged right on ahead with the artery clogging goodness instead.

On our way out of Mostar, we made one last quick stop in the small town of Blagaj to check out a 15th century monastery for whirling dervishes, who valued poverty and humility but are also probably better known as “those spinning dancer guys you see in Turkey.” Unlike the Turkish home we saw in Mostar, this one must have stayed true to the humble personalities of the dervishes because the interior was quite plain, but oh, what a view they enjoyed! I must admit, though, we were both really hoping to see some spinning monks! Oh well.

By the time we got back to Dubrovnik, I think we both felt physically and emotionally tired—these last four blogs covered 11 days of travel. We had less than 24 hours before getting on a plane, and we basically just did some laundry in our apartment, using the world’s smallest washing machine, ate a couple of meals, drank a little wine, and read about Greece (nothing like planning ahead!). Oh, for all of you Game of Thrones fans, we also made our way up the “Shame, Shame Steps” outside the Cathedral.

After about five weeks in the Balkans, we were excited to transition to Greece—new people, new stories, and new adventures. I think we’ve had a very rich experience here; at first, I was worried that we were just on a run-of-the-mill, straight tourist trail summer vacation. When we travelled last time, we spent most of our time in places that didn’t have many people who looked or talked like we did—that has not been the case for most of our European travels this summer.  We love y’all, and our British mates too, but a little diversity wouldn’t hurt. That’s not to complain—Slovenia and Croatia offered beaches, tourist farms, mountains, rocks, lakes, walled cities, dancing horses, and even some sadness. Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina pushed us a little (okay, Sarajevo pushed us a lot!) and added a very different perspective on the Balkans. Now, we move on, as I hope the people in these beautiful countries will continue to do.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Bosnia and Herzegovina | Leave a comment

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovinia: Where Do I Begin? Oct. 7-9.

Of all the names I heard when I was in middle and high school watching Channel One News each morning, only two have stuck with me: Sarajevo and Kosovo. I really didn’t understand where those places were, and I probably didn’t have much insight on the concept of a “siege” or “ethnic cleansing.” Today, we hear about these things in Syria, Africa, or Malaysia. We teach students about the Holocaust; hopefully, not as if it were an isolated event in the past so much as an opportunity to connect awareness with atrocities that continue to occur. I’m here to tell you that a week in Bosnia-Herzegovina will make it obvious that 30 years after the Yugoslav Wars, this region is still trying to recover. Sarajevo, if you are not familiar, was the site of the longest siege in modern history; for over 3 years, the Serbian army cut civilians off from the world, bombing the city mercilessly.

Before I describe anything else, I have to say that we learned just enough to be more confused about the war. It’s probably never a good idea to trust me as an expert on anything except for sarcasm, and I won’t pretend that I have anything but a basic understanding of the things I share with you here. Many of the pieces that started this war were put into place centuries ago when groups were relocated by larger empires or culturally important land (Kosovo) was transferred in redrawn borders. Around both World Wars, loose alliances kept relative peace, but different groups took opposing sides during each war. Croats, for example, sided with the Ustazi puppet government in WWII, persecuting Serbs to the point of genocide in hopes that the Nazis would reward them with independence after winning the war. Yugoslavian President for life Tito united the Slavs after WWII and kept them together for decades before old grudges and power struggles exploded again after his death as Yugoslavia dissolved. That’s a long way of saying, “It was really complicated, hate-filled, and pointless.” In order to really understand, I think we would have needed to go to Serbia as well (from what I’ve read, they truly viewed themselves as long suffering victims at the hands of other Slavs, and some of their grievances were legit), but our experience in Sarajevo was really the story of its civilians—of both infuriating suffering and incredible resilience—than the politics behind the war.

We crossed the border from Montenegro after travelling through some of the same amazing country that Sarah described in the last blog. While this is going to be a blog with a different tone, I can’t resist posting a picture of these awesome haystacks that we saw in both Montenegro and Bosnia. Our first hour in Bosnia was spent going through farmlands that could easily have been in any of the Balkan countries, although it was a change to see so many signs written in Cyrillic. Every broken house along the way makes you wonder if it was bombed during the war (in some cases, it is actually a sort of savings plan for people who distrust banks and build very slowly over the years with any excess money that they have; other times, it really was war damage).

As we pulled into Sarajevo via what was known as Sniper Alley, however, there was no mistaking that we had arrived in a town that had been under siege for over three years. One of the first things you see is a large bombed-out student center that has never been rebuilt. High-rise, low-income apartment complexes still bear the pock marks of the daily shellings that rained on them; at the same time, new fancy government buildings and a ritzy shopping center have gone up in virtually the same area. The Holiday Hotel, originally the Holiday Inn, provides a reminder of Sarajevo’s proudest moment: the 1984 Olympics. The hotel was built to house guests for those games but served instead as a safe house for war journalists less than a decade later.

Not all of Sarajevo is the war hitting you in the face. In fact, touring the Old Town gives you a better sense of the diversity and respect that has often been a trademark of the people of this city (We visited houses of worship for four different religions). With both an Ottoman area that makes you feel as if you’re visiting Istanbul and a more modern Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Quarter only a couple of blocks away, it’s literally like East meets West at a single street corner.

Speaking of street corners, our hotel was just a few meters from a very infamous spot—the corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, igniting the proverbial powder keg that started World War I. There was a very good small museum explaining the events of that day, as well as a history of the past century in Sarajevo. This blog will be long enough without going into detail here, but the occurrences of that day are pretty interesting if you like history—it was a series of mishaps with huge consequences. The gunman was an ethnic Serb who was treated as a hero; the Latin Bridge in the photo below was named after him until after the Yugoslav War.

The Ottoman side of Old Town is full of mosques, narrow lanes of copper shops (complete with artists pinging away with hammers), a small indoor bazaar, and fountains everywhere. It was a reminder of the way Ottoman cities were organized: mosque in the center, residential section away from trade sections—which were organized by craft—men running businesses, while women and children were limited to shaded courtyards. Those courtyards are now pizza places, hookah lounges, and Bosnian coffee (like Turkish coffee) cafes. Many Sarajevan Muslims dressed modernly, but we saw more hijabs and also heard the calls to prayer.

Both Sarah and I enjoyed Istanbul when we visited years ago, and it was fun to get a little refresher course in an easily approachable Muslim community. We visited the mosque when it was nearly empty, and so we had plenty of time to observe the pretty tile, calligraphy (in place of icons), and the pulpit-like staircase that leads to nowhere (it represents Allah’s need to climb higher to see the people as Islam grew). Outside the mosque is a giant fountain, in addition to a more modern facility, for ablution before prayer. Even here, though, the war is not far from the forefront of one’s mind—pictures of rebuilding the minaret are posted near the front of the courtyard; Serbian Chetniks—mostly Eastern Orthodox Catholics—used the minaret as a favorite target practice while under the orders to pummel Sarajevo to “the point of madness.”

As I mentioned earlier, Sarajevo’s Old Town is like two cities in one; just like that, you find yourself whisked away from Istanbul and walking into Vienna. While the Ottomans did much to develop necessities like running water, the Habsburgs modernized much of the city. Suddenly, we were walking along a busy street full of modern, tall structures without minarets. If buildings had been restored since 1995, they featured Vienna-like facades. Modern cafes replaced Bosnian coffee nooks. Within several blocks, we visited a synagogue, Catholic church (which had a statue of John Paul II, who visited after the war), and an Eastern Orthodox church. Near all of these, however, we could see another symbol—the Sarajevo rose (artillery damage painted in red to create something more beautiful than destruction).

The most human face we had of the brutality that occurred in Bosnia was the Srebenica Exhibition. During the war, over 8,000 people (nearly all men over age 12—anyone who could conceivably father a child) were slaughtered and buried in mass graves. They had sought refuge from the UN-appointed Dutch soldiers, who were severely outnumbered and hamstrung by the UN policy to avoid retaliation under any circumstances. Either scared, angry, or maybe even racist (we saw some pretty horrible graffiti left by Dutch soldiers), they sent all but a small number of pregnant women and small children away—knowing that the Serbian general had announced on television that it was time for the Serbs to take their revenge on the citizens of Srebenica. Many men who had gone north in search of refuge were executed in mass fashion upon their return. Women were bused away, forcibly raped and impregnated by Serb soldiers, or just forced to watch their family torn apart. In short terms, this was genocide.

The museum is excellent, and that made it even more difficult to experience. Photos of known victims, mass funerals, and women waiting for human remains to be de-mined so that they could be claimed, were accompanied by haunting audio commentary in the photographer’s own words. Several videos also depicted the siege of Sarajevo. In one, a tourist waits 10 minutes (somewhat impatiently) for a souvenir photo to be developed in Rome; at the same time, a boy in Sarajevo leaves to fetch water, narrowly avoids a sniper attack, but returns to find his apartment bombed and his family dead. Another film consists of a slideshow with many of the photos from the exhibit flashing to ghostlike music from Requiem for a Dream. The half-hour documentary with real footage from the events of Srbenica and interviews with family members—sometimes lone survivors—left almost everyone in the theater in tears. I will tell you that neither Sarah nor I had any emotional energy left to continue our planned tour of the nearby Sniper Alley, and I couldn’t help but wonder: if we were done in only a few hours of second-hand experience, how in the world could anyone survive three years?

Sarajevo today is not simply a story of tragedy. More than anywhere we’d visited on this trip, we were among Bosnians in this city. Even the Ottoman quarter is full of local Muslims heading to worship or devouring cevapi (more on that later) or burek (the real kind that is cooked “under the pot”) at the tables next to us. Both the traditional Bosnian coffee bars in the Ottoman quarter and the coffee shops lining the Austro-Hungarian quarter are full of locals taking a break or catching up with friends. Right when we needed levity the most, we encountered a large group of men cheering and jeering while two good-natured rivals played a game of life-sized chess in the park. While the scars of the war remain evident in the Sarajevo roses, grave markers in the parks, and disabled bodies, this city is alive.

One of our favorite memories was the first night; we were really tired, and the sky had been really dark and gloomy. We went out for cevapi, which are kind of like spicy hamburger meat formed into sausages and served in pita bread with grilled onions. Cevapi is basically the national fast food here—when McDonalds opened a few years ago, local restaurant owners protested and delayed it for months, but after it had been open for a couple of weeks, Bosnians went back to cevapi. Anyway, we got our food and started using our forks and knives when we heard, “Hey….hey…no” while the guy next to us good naturedly imitated our ways. He and his wife were with another couple, and they showed us that most people tear the pita and eat it with their hands while using their forks for the sausages. The guy then showed us a picture of him guarding Bill Clinton during the president’s visit after the war. Before we left, they insisted on taking a photo for us. This dinner made our night.

On our way out of Sarajevo, we visited the Tunnel of Hope, one of the coolest things we saw here. As the siege grew worse and people were running out of basic necessities in 1993 (year two), coal mining engineers dug the Tunnel of Hope over a half mile stretch under the airport in a period just under four months. Beginning and ending at private residences, this tunnel allowed a way out of town for people to resupply. Serbs knew about it, but couldn’t figure out exactly where to bomb, although they relentlessly bombed the houses around the airport. The UN had cut a deal to take control of the airport but had not yet intervened in the siege itself. Ironically, we had trouble finding it ourselves; a nice local guy on a motorcycle showed us the way!

We walked through a portion of the tunnel—at only five feet tall and about three feet wide, it hardly fit me even when I crouched. Men carried as much as 120 lbs. while women carried 60 lbs. over the half-mile in order to keep their families alive—a UN ration meant to last a family of four for 10 days would barely feed a hungry climber for one. While much of the recent history around Sarajevo reflects on the worst that humans can do to one another, the Tunnel of Hope offers the best.

I’m really glad that we made time for Sarajevo. It was difficult but also pushed us in ways that other places this summer had not. It’s no accident that many exhibits here mention the ’84 Olympics and the siege in the same sentence—a subtle message that the world was content to watch—rather than act—both times. Travelling is about trying to understand the ways of others, which also helps us understand ourselves. I just read a Basque proverb that said, “A land of strangers is a land of wolves.” I don’t want to live in a land of wolves.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Bosnia and Herzegovina | Leave a comment

Montenegro: A Mountain Haven: October 4-6, 2019

It was time to leave Croatia for Montenegro.  Our friends Sam and Lindsey highly recommended a visit as they raved about their time here during their 6-month Europe trip.  Mike and I were both ready to leave the tourist mobs behind and get off the beaten path.  This trip has felt easy compared to the last one in terms of comfort zone and logistics.  It is not a bad thing, just different.  However, we were ready for a bit more of a challenge.

The first challenge was getting across the border into Montenegro.  After a gorgeous 45-minute drive following the coastline from Dubrovnik, we were diverted off the main highway to take a backroad to the smaller border crossing.  Luckily, we were prepared for this possibility and just enjoyed the views.  The Croatia passport control was quick.  Then as we came around a curve, we encountered a line of cars all with the engines off.  We couldn’t even see the Montenegro border buildings!  We patiently waited and every 10 minutes, we moved the car forward 30 feet.  1.5 hours later, we finally made it into Montenegro!

We had a long day planned, so the 1.5-hour delay bit into our Bay of Kotor tour time, and we had to be efficient.  The drive along the bay is stunning.  The water is brilliant blue, and the mountains towered above us.  We stopped at the narrowest spot, Verige Strait, where the bay was defended throughout history using various techniques.  It was a great natural defensive position!

Finally, we arrived in Kotor.  We were disappointed to see a giant cruise ship in the port as the tiny walled city was overrun.  However, we made the best of it by eating some of the best Burek of the trip and losing the crowds in the back alleys of the town.  The two Orthodox churches were the highlight within the town itself. 

Kotor is not only famous for its gorgeous bay, but also for its massive city defensive walls.  They are not as well preserved as Dubrovnik’s walls, but with a little imagination you could see how well protected little Kotor was from its enemies!  The bay on one side and the giant walls on the other.

1,355 steps get you to the top fort with a pretty church halfway up.  It felt great to ditch the cruise folks and get a little mountain training.  The views were incredible and awesome to take in the bay from above.

We quickly descended and got out of town, as we still had a 3-hour drive to Zabljak.  I’m glad we side tripped to Kotor, but I was okay with a quick tour of the town.  We did get some more killer views on our way up into the mountains which was a nice surprise.

We arrived in Zabljak later than expected due to road construction.  It was pitch black outside, and we didn’t have good directions to our apartment, so we had trouble finding it.  We eventually found it, but we didn’t think our landlord was home.  Since we do not have a working phone, I was starting to feel a little panic of what we would do.  We headed to the grocery store to stalk out someone to borrow their phone.  Two nice Germans, let us use theirs and our landlord, Srecko quickly drove to the store to pick us up.  He was very welcoming and spoke minimal English.  His son Darko translated for us.  Our little apartment was toasty warm and lovely.  It was quite the change from the 80-degree day at Kotor to 35 degrees in Zabljak.  We were happy to be “home” for the next 3 nights.

Zabljak is the main town outside Durmitor National Park.  The park is known for its craggy limestone mountain peaks and crystal-clear blue lakes.  In the morning, we got our first glimpses of the mountains from our little balcony.  What a view!

The weather was so-so our first day, so we explored the area close to town.  Our first destination was Black Lake (Crno Jezero).  It was Saturday, so lots of locals, kids and puppies were out enjoying the trails which was fun to see.  We walked around the lake enjoying the views of imposing mountains.  It felt great to get fresh air and enjoy a little quiet space.

After our walk, we drove to the Tara Bridge spanning 365m across the Tara Gorge, which is the 2nd deepest in the world.  The bridge was pretty awesome, and the Tara River below was a beautiful color!  The area was a bit chaotic with tourists ziplining across the gorge and walking on the narrow bridge.  Plus, there was an ironman triathlon taking place and the bikers were zipping across the bridge. 

The food in Zabljak was awesome and cheap!  I enjoyed stuffed peppers and the local favorite, Kacamak which is a mixture of cornmeal, cheese and potato.  Perfect comfort food in the mountains!

The weather forecast for our last day looked promising for a climb of Babotov Kuk, the tallest mountain in Durmitor and the 4th tallest mountain in Montenegro (8,278’).  However, when we woke up, the entire town was covered in a heavy mist.  Our hopes were dashed, but we decided to still give it a go and at least get some exercise.

We drove out of town toward Sedlo Pass and were delighted to see hints of blue skies.  The mountains were still shrouded in clouds, but at least there was hope we wouldn’t hike in the rain with zero views!  The drive to the pass reminded me a little of Iceland with its green hillocks.  The trees were starting to change, so the pops of red and orange added to the views.

As we hiked, the skies continued to clear, and we enjoyed the craggy mountains that surrounded us.  Eventually, we even got a view of Bobotov Kuk and were a little surprised to see some snow!  Luckily, we passed most of the people on the hike due to Mike’s quick pace!  The last 200’ to the summit was fairly technical 4th class climbing.  Thankfully there was a metal cable to use as a handline as the rocks were quite slick due to the snow! 

Our first full view of Bobotov Kuk!

We arrived at the summit encased in clouds.  But after a few minutes, it cleared, and we enjoyed 360-degree views!  Absolutely stunning and our 8th summit of 2019! 

Whiteout, but summit number 8!
But wait, it cleared! Woohoo!

It was too cold to hang out, and we were worried about getting through the somewhat sketchy section with 2-way traffic.  So down we went to find a more sheltered spot for our lunch of Burek!  Back at the trailhead, we paid it forward by giving 2 Aussies a ride back to town.  It was fun to chat with them about traveling.

After another amazing dinner, we arrived back at our apartment to find Srecko outside with his friend.  They were reviewing plans for the house.  Screko also wanted to make sure we were enjoying our stay.  He shared some of his moonshine with us and ensured me that it was fruity.  Well after one sip, I can assure you it wasn’t fruity as it burned down my throat.  It was tasty in its own way.  We chatted using Google translate and enjoyed learning about him and the area.  After 2 shots, we called it a night as I already had a little buzz!  It was a special evening and always a nice treat to really talk with a local!

Montenegro was just what we were looking for at this point in our travels.  It added a little spice and adventure.  It was nice to be off the beaten path and explore a gorgeous mountain area with no other Americans and very few Western Europeans!  I would love to come back here during better weather to explore the Accursed Mountains on the other side of the country.  It is a really beautiful place.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Montenegro | 8 Comments

Shimmering Dubrovnik: September 30 – October 2, 2019

Dubrovnik, called the Jewel of the Adriatic, was the last stop on the Raffs’ Croatia itinerary.  Tourism in this town has skyrocketed in the last few years primarily fueled by Game of Thrones, as it was a major filming site and inspiration for King’s Landing.  It is famous for its city walls which are the best preserved in all of Europe and kept the city independent for centuries.

We felt a bit of crowd shock upon our arrival after leaving tiny, slow-paced Korcula.  Hopping off the local bus, we were welcomed at the gate by what felt like hordes of tourists.  It made me thankful that we were here in “off-season” with no cruise boats, well at least today.  I can’t imagine what it would be like in peak season!  However, we soon discovered that it was possible to lose the crowds and find a few empty lanes in the old city.  One of my favorite things about exploring these old walled towns is just getting lost.  Walk around, seek out the tiny courtyards, and find the small restaurants and shops! 

Where is Mike?

I was most excited about walking the city walls.  In fact, I was so excited, I barely slept that night in anticipation and worry to not oversleep!  The best time to walk the walls is first thing in the morning to avoid tour groups and cruise ship crowds.  We were among the first few people of the morning and had a beautiful sunny day to enjoy the 2 km walk.  They smartly have the walls set up as a one-way walk with 3 entrances to help with crowd control.  We took our time enjoying the views over 2 hours and really lucked out with the cool day and lack of people!

We started at the Pile gate which gave us a grand view down the Stradum.  This is the main boulevard in town with shops lining both sides and is paved with marble.  The shops are uniform and not fancy from the outside.  This was to keep their riches secret from Venice.  Usually, the Stradum is packed with tourists, but our view this morning allowed us to enjoy its beauty.

Most of the city was destroyed during an earthquake in 1667.  It was rebuilt into what we see today with the Stradum as the main street and small lanes on each side heading uphill towards the sea (the richer people lived here) or towards the mountains (the working people).  We could really appreciate the city layout from above. 

We continued to walk toward the sea enjoying spectacular views of St. Lawrence Fort across a small, rocky bay.  Putting on our GOT hat, the bay was the inspiration for Blackwater Bay, and St. Lawrence was the Red Keep.  I enjoyed the views and looking down the wall into the sea just imagining how intimidating it must have been to arrive at this city via sea and look up at these walls!

To get to the wall section facing the mountains is a steep uphill hike past the old port.  This portion gave us the best views of the city itself.  The buildings all had orange tiled roofs, most bright, but a few were faded.  This city saw heavy fighting in the 1990’s, so most of the roofs are new.  A few of the buildings were not harmed, so they have the faded roofs.

This portion of the wall was heavily fortified with different lookouts to protect the hillside.  What a strategic place to build this city and its fortifications!  It sure was impressive and beautiful. 

After our hike, we decided we needed a refreshment. Since we had our tourist hat on, we headed to Buza bar to enjoy a drink while clinging to the cliffside outside the wall.  Buza in Croatian means hole.  To get to the bar, you literally had to crawl through a hole in the wall.  It was a gorgeous view!

A siesta is a must in Dubrovnik to avoid the heat of the day and the brunt of the crowds.  We enjoyed some downtime and even a nap for me (a highly unusual event) before heading back out to explore.  In the afternoon, we toured St. Lawrence Fort and enjoyed views of the city wall that we had just walked that morning!  Nice to have a different perspective. 

We also went up to the top of Mt. Srd, the towering mountain above town to get a good perspective of the whole city.  There was also an interesting war museum highlighting the siege of Dubrovnik from 1991-1992.  The city defended itself and again did not fall.  The exhibit had pictures showing retrofitted fishing boats with machine guns and what city life was like during the siege.

The next day, we decided to escape the old town for Lokrum Island via a 10-minute ferry ride from the old port.  During our wall walk, we enjoyed great views of the island, so we were looking forward to seeing the city from a different perspective. The island is a great little getaway to enjoy a botanical garden, nature trails, peacocks and beaches.  No swimming for the Raffs, as the weather was looking ominous.  Instead, we just wandered around enjoying the views.  We did happen upon a GOT exhibit and just had to sit in the iron throne!

Our last day in Dubrovnik had a terrible weather forecast… 100% chance of rain all day long.  What do the Raffs do on a rainy day… we go wine tasting!  Luckily for us, the Peljesac peninsula is a quick 1.5-hour drive to one of the best wine regions in Croatia!  Off we went in our little rental car into the down pour which at one point was so heavy, I had to pull over because I couldn’t see!  By the time we arrived at the first winery, the weather cleared up, and I needed some wine!

The main grape grown in this region is the Plavic Mali which means little blue.  It is a distant relative to zinfandel.  The peninsula has 2 different climates separated by a tiny mountain range.  The seaside of the mountains is called Dingac.  It is very steep, rocky, windy and sunny.  The grapes have a hard existence which means good wine.  On the other side of the mountains is a fertile valley, so the grapes grow big and happy.  These are used primarily for every-day wines.  There is a 400m tunnel that goes through the mountain separating the 2 regions.  It was very interesting to taste the same grape from each region – totally different!

I really enjoyed the two small family wineries that we visited. The wines were excellent, and we bought enough wine to last us through our remaining time in the Balkans!  However, my favorite part was meeting the winemakers and learning about life on the peninsula in their tiny village.  The population is very small so for high school, the kids either board in Dubrovnik or take a ferry to a nearby island daily to attend classes!  We learned about a special wine that they make when their children are born to drink at their weddings.  It was fascinating and such an incredible experience to sit down and have a one-on-one conversation.  They could learn about us, and we learned about them.  It was really, really special.

For some reason, we didn’t take any pictures on the peninsula. So as proof, we only have Mike and a bottle purchased:)

Dubrovnik earns its name as the Jewel in the Adriatic.  The walls glimmered in the brilliant sunlight and the sea sparkled below.  I really enjoyed its fairy tale walls, wandering its tiny lanes and enjoying delicious food and wine.  It was a great capstone to our Croatia travels.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Croatia | 2 Comments

Split and Korcula: Wait, There Aren’t Any Dalmatians in Dalmatia?–Sept. 25-29.

Well, maybe there are some Dalmatians somewhere, but we didn’t go near any fire stations that I can recall; although we did several times run into a particularly mean old lady who might beat Cruella Deville in a fight. I guess when it comes to relevancy, however, these points are neither here nor there. The Dalmatian Coast is one of four regions that traditionally makes up Croatia; because it includes both Split and Dubrovnik, it is probably the area most identifiable to Americans—especially if they watch Game of Thrones.

I think most people who visit Croatia spend more time in Split, but we were taking the name quite literally because we had only half a day to see it before we had to split for the island of Korcula (pronounced Korchula). Split is most famous as the approximate birthplace and retirement home for one of Rome’s final emperors, Diocletian. He ruled the Roman Empire for 20 years from AD 284-305 but may have also unwittingly played a large role in its downfall by splitting it among 4 emperors before returning to his childhood home to hang out in his palace (this has nothing to do with the city’s name).

The palace took only 11 years to finish, much to the suffering of slave laborers—2,000 of whom died during the construction. Most of the structures we saw came much later—medieval houses, mid-2000’s gift stands, etc., but it actually made for an interesting mix. One of the best parts, though, was also one of the oldest—the cellars. Most of this was actually only excavated during the 1950’s after being discovered about 100 years ago. It is also the filming site where Daenerys chained her dragons in GOT (we never got super in to this part of touring Croatia, but it was still fun to try to identify familiar spots). My favorite part was the Roman pipe on display—square with a round hole…they could interconnect to form a sort of ancient Lego.

The other really cool part of the palace was the vestibule to Diocletian’s living quarters. Situated over the steps to the main square, he used it as a greeting spot for important visitors and to make a grand entrance once a season to remind his subjects (who viewed him as a god) that he was the stud duck. It once was capped by an ornate dome, but the open-air round top was actually pretty impressive as well.

We spent most of the day just sort of wandering around the circular narrow lanes both in his palace and the rest of the old town. This was actually quite fun; it was full of shops, restaurants, and all types of people. Like all the old towns we’ve visited, all the streets were cobblestones, and some of the squares were quite slick. Eventually, we found a place with surprisingly good local microbrews to sit in a quiet side street before having dinner in the busy, lively square and then doing the walk along the main boardwalk—a favorite pastime of both locals and tourists. Strangely, we saw some version of Chinese paparazzi filming three young Chinese people standing in a crosswalk—apparently, they are celebrities…possibly reality television stars, professional gamers or maybe just really good at not jaywalking.

Split was a fun place to hang out for a day, but I was in fact, ready to split for Korcula the next day; I love me some island time. Korcula is an island that requires about a 2-hour ferry from either Split or Dubrovnik. It was discovered by the Greeks, ruled by the Romans, and later developed by the Venetians. It was the birthplace of Marco Polo, and also the only island I’ve seen so far with a walled city.

We were also lucky to arrive on a Thursday because we could see the Moreska, the island’s traditional dance, performed that night. The dance tells the story of two Dalmatian kings who are fighting over a lovely lady; the bad king has decided to go ahead and kidnap the lady, and so the good king must take his army and save her. The performance began with a lovely acoustic harmony of four beautiful songs of love and, I presume, loss. Then the bad king comes out with his kidnapped lady and army; once the good king and soldiers enter, a little trash talking ensues before the battle. All of this is set to the music of a small local orchestra of both kids and adults. The dance portrays the battle through a series of short fights; it is athletic and exciting—soldiers spin in two circles, carrying two short swords, striking left and right. Several dancers lost multiple swords in the violent striking as the fight went on, and you could even see sparks coming off the blades. No spoilers as to who wins the lovely lady, but Sarah and I were blown away by how good this dance was, considering Korcula is a pretty small island, and only locals from traditional families could perform.

Oh, also, the celebrity crosswalkers had made their way to the island and apparently eaten dinner next to our condo that night because the paparazzi was standing outside our door below our drying laundry; I asked one if he’d photographed my underwear, but I don’t think he knew I was joking.

Our plan for the next day was to rent a scooter to go to a couple of wineries and the beach; this was jeopardized, however, by a rental dude with a very large chip on his shoulder. I must look like a real gumby because he grilled me pretty hard about whether I knew how to ride a scooter; I assured him I would not be a crazy tourist, but he assured me that people who say they know how to ride scooters rarely really do. He even made me take a test, which I passed and was rewarded with the world’s most gutless hog. The area we went to was on a hill, and Sarah was sure she would have to get off and walk; we made it but probably looked just like Dumb and Dumber.

Korcula may be small, but it actually produces a really good wine that is not grown anywhere else in the world. The white wine is made from the Grk varietal, which is commonly thought to be named for the Greeks, who brought it to the island. The girl at the second winery we visited contested this, pointing out that the Greeks were actually on the island before they were known as Greeks and the term Grk could also derive from a word that loosely meant agriculture or soil. I have to admit, I had wondered why Grk doesn’t grow in Greece if it was from there. Anyway, both Sarah and I really liked this light, minerally crisp wine and were sad that we would probably never have it again. Not too sad, however, to prevent us from spending the rest of the day at a beautiful sandy beach and swimming all afternoon; we both love to swim in the ocean and had been waiting for a chance to get after it a little. The water was too cold to simply float, but it was great for swimming!

After two days spent on the beach (we rented bikes the next day, not wanting to go through the rigorous scooter test again), we decided to kayak to a couple of nearby islands. We rented a double kayak, or “divorce boat” as it is known in Sarah’s family. While we didn’t ever actually say the D-word, it did take a bipartisan effort to figure out a system for cohesive paddling. We must have done okay, though, because we got out to the main island before anyone else—we actually thought we were in the wrong place and kept paddling for the next island. By the time we’d figured out our mistake—about a mile according to the map, the sea was getting markedly deeper, darker, and swifter, so we turned around. On our way back, the water taxis were pulling into the one we’d passed, so we stopped for lunch and a swim. Before returning to Korcula, we simply floated in front of the walled fortress for a few minutes, enjoying a view you couldn’t get anywhere but on the water.

Korcula is probably not most people’s idea of how to spend four memorable days in Croatia, but it was exactly the type of place we’d been hoping for—somewhere to unwind but also stay active. While the island was not exactly deserted, for the most part you could avoid the crowds (if not the Chinese paparazzi). Split had also offered an interesting bit of history and great people watching. So far, the Dalmatian Coast, while not the canine spectacle I had imagined, was proving to be a pretty cool place to visit.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Croatia | Leave a comment

September 21 – 24, 2019: A Sample of Croatia’s National Parks

After eating and drinking our way through Istria, the Raff’s needed exercise and nature.  A few days in two of Croatia’s National Parks was just the ticket.  We headed inland and south to Plitvice Lakes. 

Google Maps again suckered us into a “shortcut” which meant an extra hour of drive time on windy mountain roads!  When we arrived at our apartment, our host, Ivica, laughed when we told him how we came.  He asked us if we saw any bears as we were so far in the boonies! 

Ivica was quite the character and really made our stay in his home special.  He is a retired park ranger and loves this area.  The river that flows from the lakes runs through his front yard, so he has landscaped a sampler Plitvice for his guests to enjoy.  While we enjoyed our welcome beers, Ivica planned out our afternoon itinerary including hand drawing our map.  He really wanted to make sure we made the most of our time and enjoyed the area. So off we went exploring.

Plitvice Lakes is 16 terraced lakes connected by waterfalls in a forested valley.  The distance from the first lake to the last is 5 miles with a vertical drop of over 400’.  In between are numerous small waterfalls with lots of vivid green plant life.  The lakes themselves are primarily blue but change dramatically based on the sunlight. 

We had a full day planned to explore the lakes with tips from Ivica to avoid the crowds and get the best viewpoints.  We started at the Upper Lakes and decided to explore Raff style – we picked the longest walking loop that would see everything – 11.4 miles.  Since the park is so crowded, the walking trails are only 1 way.  There are plenty of shorter loops that incorporate buses and even electric boats, but we needed our exercise after all those truffles!

The lakes were gorgeous and ranged in size.  We enjoyed the peaceful walks in between the bursts of tour groups. Overall, we were able to avoid the groups which really increased our level of enjoyment.  We even found a quiet bench with a perfect view to enjoy our lunch – burek of course!

After our loop, we took out our handy map made by Ivica and drove to the top of the canyon for the overlook view.  These were some of the best views of the day as we gained an appreciation for the size and grandeur of the area.

That evening, we enjoyed a long chat with Ivica about living in this area of Croatia.  It was very interesting to learn about the challenges.  Tourism is the area’s primary source of income, but it is a double-edged sword for the locals with high food prices and crowds.  This area of Croatia saw heavy fighting during the homeland wars (1991 – 1995).  It actually was the location of the first shot fired and first casualty (a park ranger) of the war.  This was our first glimpse of the scars from the war.

The next day we said our goodbyes, crossed the rickety, single lane wooden bridge and headed south.  Today, we had all major roads – yippee!  Our destination was Paklencia National Park near Zadar right on the Adriatic Sea.  The weather forecast wasn’t great, but I kept hoping that it would be clear once we got there.  However, we were out of luck as it was downpouring with booming thunder.  So, we found an amazing café overlooking the sea for coffee, lunch and catching up on our journals.  There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

We lucked into an amazing apartment with a terrace overlooking the sea.  The owner offered us wine for our welcome drink. Instead of bringing 2 glasses, she gave us a whole bottle.  Her husband is a winemaker and she wanted to share.  It was amazing!  It was nice to slow down for the afternoon, relax in our own space and catch up on our “chores”.  Sometimes we find it challenging to keep up on our journals, blog (no surprise to you guys) and plan our logistics for the coming weeks.  This is especially true, as I tend to like to be always be on the go.  So, it was nice to have some forced downtime.

The next day, the weather cleared, and we were able to head into the park.  Paklencia National Park is known for its limestone canyons.  It is primarily a hiking and climbing destination and isn’t high on the radar for tourists – well, except for climbers!  Since we only had one day here due to rain, we cheaped out and didn’t buy the climbing guidebook.  Instead, we looked for the tags on the routes to show the grade or made friends with the other climbers to borrow their book.  There were climbers from everywhere… Brits, Germans, French and even a few Americans!

The popular climbs were all close together and basically right off the main hiking trail – so no approach.  The limestone was quite polished due to all the climbers and the bolts were fairly spaced out, so we climbed conservatively.  We ended up climbing 8 routes and had a full day of fun.  So nice to get a few bonus climbing days as we are lugging all our gear primarily for our 2.5 weeks of climbing in Greece in October!

We both felt so much better after spending several days exploring the parks, getting some exercise and meeting some new friends.  The downtime was much needed to get us in the right mindset to continue our exploration of Croatia’s Dalmatia coast.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Croatia | Leave a comment

Istria, Croatia: Wine, Dine, and Climb All Rhyme–Sept. 16-20

If you know us at all, you know that we love to wine, dine, and climb; luckily, the Istrian Peninsula, our introduction to Croatia, offered all three. After a short bus ride from Slovenia and one of the easiest border crossings ever, we enjoyed five days in what is best described as the Tuscany of Croatia—although, I think Croatians might bristle at that comparison because Istria is fast becoming its own big brand thanks to truffles—the delightful, aromatic tubers that grow underground and are very rare (and really expensive at home). We just happened to be here when they were in season, and we were happy to indulge.

Istria is a series of hill towns, mostly small, that can be seen from miles away as they loom above flat lowlands. Red tiled roofs and stone buildings are packed densely into tight areas that are sometimes walled from a few hundred years ago. Motovun, the town where we stayed, was a good example—actually having three layers of walled defense–and we never got tired of wandering the small, winding (and steep!) cobblestone lanes. Our B&B also featured a great balcony that gave us a spectacular view of the vineyards and farmlands below; in the morning, we enjoyed our breakfast on this balcony while taking in the view and listening to truffle-hunting dogs barking to announce their newly discovered treasures, I suppose.

We spent one day just sort of roaming around a series of these tiny towns–each with its own unique character. Two of our favorites offered very stark contrasts: Groznjan (grohzh-NYAHN…all so clear now, right?) is an up-and-coming town full of art galleries, truffle/wine/olive oils shops, and a couple of quiet squares with the occasional restaurant, while Zavrsje (ZAH-vur-shyeh…I got nothin’…) is a virtual ghost town—really cool looking from a mile away but in reality just a bunch of overgrown broken stone foundations and a few intact farm houses after nearly all of the town’s population left following WWII (this area was part of Italy but not after the war).

Istria is not without larger towns, however. We spent another day checking out two of the larger ones: Pula (POO—lah…I’m sure you could figure that out, but c’mon, when do I miss an opportunity to mention poo) and Rovinj (roh-VEEN, the only name that’s simpler than it looks). Pula is the industrial, working city and port of the peninsula, while Rovinj is kind of the tourist sweetheart of the region. I think both Sarah and I really enjoyed the smaller parts of Istria, but we had a fine day touring these two spots.

Pula has one really great historical site—a nearly intact Roman Amphitheater, sort of like the Colosseum in Rome. Built over several decades during Rome’s glory days, Pula’s amphitheater was completed around the same time (AD 80) as Rome’s…here I am probably blatantly plagiarizing…I mean citing…Uncle Ricky’s guidebook. It was nearly torn down to be sold and used as cheap materials for Venice several centuries ago, but thankfully a Venetian senator proved to be a convincing negotiator when it came to preserving the sixth largest Roman amphitheater in the world. It was fun to imagine the violent excitement that came with the gladiator battles and to note where Pula’s VIP’s occupied loge boxes in full view of the crowd yet far enough away to be free of the blood. While there weren’t many written explanations around the monument, it was cool that you could pretty much move freely throughout the whole thing. That is, until all the tour groups showed up; I tried to compete, but apparently, simply holding a guidebook high in the air while Sarah follows me does little to convince others to move out of your way…next time I will tie Uncle Ricky to an umbrella or flag.

Rovinj, on the other hand, is really just a beautiful place that is fun to experience and explore. Just off a beautiful harbor, the city’s Old Town rises steeply up an appealing hill. Like most of the towns in Istria, Rovinj’s Old Town is basically car-free. That makes getting there a pain in the Pula (couldn’t resist) but touring much more pleasant. We passed a nice afternoon mostly just ambling narrow shopped-filled lanes on some majorly polished stone pathways, strolling along very blue waters of the Adriatic Sea, and stumbling onto surprisingly quiet simple neighborhood scenes just off the main streets and squares. Our afternoon wasn’t totally without excitement, though, as we climbed the 192 narrow rickity spiral-staircase steps up the cathedral’s bell tower for some awesome city views—the sign in the church disputed Uncle Ricky’s 192 figure; after seeing the staircase in person and noting the 189 step advertisement in the church, you’d want to know what happened to the other 3 steps, too!

So, I mentioned the wine—three wines dominate the region: a crisp light white called malvazija, a fairly medium-bodied smooth red called teran, and (to a lesser extent) semi-sweet to sweet muscat. We tasted at several different wineries; I would say that they are all boutique wineries, although it seems like they might be growing. Since Croatia seems to be a favorite destination of American Olds (I refuse to designate the age that makes you an Old, though most are significantly older than we), I will name three favorite spots—if you are not an American Old, now you will have something to share with the Olds with you are acquainted, thus breaking through the generation gap dividing our great nation—Kabola (best small, inexpensive winery), Kozlovic (sort of the big hitter, great wine, fabulous organized tasting and tour), and Clio (a little pricier, bigger wines, sort of neat that they only do “orange” wines instead of white—grapes spend a little more time in the skins during maceration).

As for the dine, we indulged in several lovely truffle-fueled meals. As I mentioned earlier, they have a heavenly aroma; places don’t just plop a whole tuber in your stew but instead shave very thin slivers of truffle over your entrée of choice—my favorite place, Mondo Konoba in Motovun was actually featured in The New York Times and, I think, a Dave Bourdain special; anyway, they actually shaved the truffles at your table, and it sent you into bliss even before tasting your meal. I think that one of the most interesting thing for me was that it didn’t matter how you tried them—steak, pork, chicken, eggs, tomato soup, even chocolate cake—their umami goodness enhanced whatever you ate. Lucky for us to be here now because we will probably never eat truffles quite like that again!

Of course, we rarely pass up a chance to climb; with all the wining and dining, I suppose we needed the exercise. Luckily, Istria has a ton of good limestone (similar to our climbing in Wyoming and South Dakota this summer), and Sarah found a fun crag just outside of our town. It was really small but nearly deserted, and the climbing was very fun and well-bolted. We’d heard that snakes are pretty good at slithering into the lower cracks, so we found ourselves tapping on many of the holds…not only to test the rock’s solidity but also to let the snakes know we’d rather not meet them unannounced. We were hoping to do some more climbing later in Croatia, so this was a great little introduction after a month away from sport climbing.

I can remember both Sarah and I doing a second round of research on Istria last spring after deciding to visit Croatia; we had only planned a day or two at first but decided to extend our time after that second round. We thought it sounded like a place that really fit us well…I guess sometimes those brains of ours work pretty okay, after all!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Croatia | 2 Comments

September 12 – 16, 2019: Slovenia – Logarska Dolina, Ljubliana, and Piran

“I don’t want to die, and I am going to drink a liter of wine” were the words that poured out of my mouth during our eventful drive to Logarska Dolina from Lake Bled.  What was supposed to be an easy drive per our Google Maps instructions snapshotted on the Ipad (we were too cheap to get a GPS, a working phone or a paper map) turned into an adventure on off-the-beaten-path mountain roads. 

The first problem was a mythical turn that Google Maps made up which didn’t exist. The second problem was we were pooped as we had just hiked 10 miles on day 3 of our Triglav climb.  We eventually made it to the top of a mountain pass and thankfully there was a comical tourist map which we used to navigate us to our farm stay. 

The third problem was the road that we drove to drop us into the valley was steep, had many blind curves and was just wide enough for two Geo Metros.  After a white-knuckle drive, we arrived at the serene farm just in time for dinner and a much-needed welcome drink of homemade blueberry schnapps!  I didn’t quite drink a full liter of wine by myself, but I sure enjoyed Rebula wine with generous pours from Mike!

The farm that we stayed at is a working dairy farm in a tranquil mountain valley surrounded by craggy peaks and only a few miles from Austria.  The family all works either on the farm or helping run the B&B.  We enjoyed all of their fresh dairy products: yogurt, butter, cheeses, and even cottage cheese (it is good when fresh with honey from their bee hive!).  We ate like kings and queens in their cozy dining room overlooking the farm. Their warm hospitality made it a great place to call home for two nights. 

Besides the farm stay, the other the main highlight of visiting this region was to enjoy the scenic views by a drive on the panoramic road.  The guidebook had warned us that this road could be scary to drive on, but after the prior evening’s adventure it felt like a piece of cake.  Well until I met a logging truck head on and had to reverse down the hill to a turn off!  We enjoyed the many scenic views, thankful for the bluebird day.  We even scooted over the border into Austria! 

As I was still recovering from Triglav and my scary drive, my favorite part of the day was drinking wine overlooking the waterfall!

The next day it was time to leave our peaceful valley and head to Slovenia’s capital: Ljubljana.  We had only time for a quick stopover on the way to the coast.  After a less eventful drive, due to our purchase of a paper map and Mike’s mad navigating, we easily found our way to city center.  We enjoyed the day walking around the car-free old town opting out of true sightseeing.  The area is very pretty with a river running through with nice bridges and plenty of narrow streets lined with Viennese style facades.  I really enjoyed the window shopping, gelato, and wine shop.  Mike liked the beer shop and lunch.

Piran and the Karst region were the last stops on the Raffs’ itinerary for Slovenia.  Piran is a tiny seaside village squished between Croatia and Italy.  Slovenia only has 29 km of shoreline on the Adriatic Sea.  We enjoyed a much-needed beach day.  I love to read in the sun and every hour or so cool off in the water.  Back and forth until the day is over. It is one of the few times that I feel carefree in life.  So, we found a great beach, lucked into some warm weather and relaxed.  The sea is super clear and very salty, so swimming and floating was very easy!

Burek is our new favorite food. It is a flakey philo type pastry filled with seasoned meat. Thanks Sam and Lindsey for the recommendation.

The Karst area is known for its limestone, caves, wine and Lipizzaner stud farm.  We skipped the caves as we have seen a few in our travels, and they are not really our thing.  We did go to the Lipizzaner stud farm in Lipca.  This is the original farm were the Lipizzaner breed was created way back in the 1700’s by the Habsburgs.  I very much enjoyed our tour of the farm including the fancy stud stalls with their lineage proudly displayed.

I even got to pet a few mares – I was a little nervous at first…

The highlight was watching a training session.  Lipizzaners are famous for their color (white), their intelligence and their ability to master dressage moves.  We watched several horses with their trainers work on their dressage steps.  We luckily had a guide who told us what they were doing as neither Mike nor I had a clue.  Once we got the hang of it, we were quite impressed with the horses’ balance, grace and strength.  My favorite was the flying change of leg move.  Basically, the horse has to change which leg is going first, and to do this they must quickly switch when all the legs are in the air.  It was impressive, and I recommend watching a video of it on You-Tube😊

Slovenia was a great first stop on the Raffs’ European tour.  It is small, easy to get around and one of the cleanest countries I have ever been to.  No litter anywhere, and the public bathrooms are all clean!  We also enjoyed their warm, welcoming hospitality and their extreme pride in their country.  We would highly recommend a visit.  Uncle Ricky was right – we wished we had more time here, but Croatia is calling, and we must go.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Slovenia | 2 Comments