SKADAR LAKE: BOAT TOUR TO BEŠKA AND STARČEVO ISLANDS

Skadar Lake1 BeskaSkadar Lake2 little grebeIt was a pleasure to accept the invitation of our friend Jelena from Skadar Lake Boat Milica to join her at a boat trip to the islands of Beška and Starčevo. This was one of the few boat tours we had not made so far and we were very curious to see the western and southern shores of the Lake from the water (photo 1).

This relaxing boat ride lasts around 6 hours and takes you through a magnificent and still relatively unknown part of Skadar Lake. It is a fascinating experience with spectacular panoramas of the surrounding mountains, solitary islands, authentic villages and picturesque monasteries. And let’s not forget the abundant flora and diverse fauna!

Skadar Lake3 GrmozurStarting early in the morning from Virpazar, we spotted a lot of different birds. Great crested grebes were swimming around, carrying their “babies” on their back. Little grebes were moving quickly through the reed (photo 2), while grey herons stood immovably on the rocks in search of a pray. Further away, a squacco heron was wading through the shallow water, looking for frogs and insects. Yellow irises and white water-lilies decorated the wetlands with the abundant colors of spring, the most beautiful season in and around Skadar Lake.

Skadar Lake4 RadusSoon we approached the abandoned island of Grmožur. This island is known as the “Montenegrin Alcatraz”, as King Nikola of Montenegro used it as a prison for his political opponents. Nowadays, it is left to the ravages of time and its only inhabitants are seagulls, cormorants, lizards and snakes (photo 3).

Moving further along the steep and mountainous shoreline, we passed by several old fishing villages and abandoned houses. Soon we reached the bay of Raduš (photo 4), in which the so-called “Eye of Raduš” is located (see: http://montenegro-for.me/2015/03/skadar-lake-between-godinje-and-radus/). Although the average depth of the Lake is around 6 meters, this “eye” is the deepest spot of the Lake. Divers have come to the conclusion that the Lake is at least 60 meters deep here, and maybe even deeper, as the “eye” has the form of a funnel, which makes diving very scary… Due to the constant temperature of underground water springs, this is an ideal place for the spawning of bleak (Alburnus alburnus), a small fish that is smoked and served as a specialty of this area.

Skadar Lake5 Aesculapian snakeSuddenly we saw something crawling on the water surface: it appeared to be a giant Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus – photo 5). We succeeded in approaching it and were surprised with its length of at least 2 meters, which was said to be exceptional. These snakes are non-venomous, but honestly speaking, I would not be happy to meet such a monster when swimming in the Lake!

Admiring the panorama of the Prokletije mountains on the Albanian side of the Lake, we spotted the first islands that are characteristic for this part of the shoreline: the Starčevo islands consisting of Starčevo Rock, Veliko Starčevo and Malo Starčevo (photo 6).

Skadar Lake6 Malo StarcevoOur skipper Petar “parked” the boat at the foot of rocky stairs that led to the monastery gate (photo 7). There is only one monk, Father Gligorije, living on this island and to our disappointment, he was not “at home”, so that we could not visit the oldest church on the Lake, founded in 1377 by Father Makarije and devoted to the Mother of Jesus Christ. What a pity! But the smell of medicinal herbs, the fig and pomegranate trees with their bright red flowers, gave us an overall impression of the beauty of this island.

Skadar Lake7 Boat MilicaFortunately, it was much easier to visit the island of Beška, opposite to the village of Murići. The beautiful environment of the monastery that is run by 13 nuns shows their great efforts; they do not only cultivate vegetables and fruit, but also medicinal herbs, like marigold, sage and lavender.

One of the nuns showed us the two old churches (photo 8). The bigger one, the Church of St. George, was built at the end of the 14th century by Đurađ II Balšić, Lord of Zeta. Totally dilapidated, it was renovated in 2002. I was not impressed by the new frescoes, but understood that the old ones had been totally destroyed and washed away. The smaller Church of the Holy Mother was built in 1440 as a legacy of his widow, Jelena Balšić, who died in this monastery.

Skadar Lake8 Beska monasteryAfter climbing to a beautiful viewpoint with a big cross, on the top of the island, we were invited to rest a bit and drink a glass of sage juice. It you ever have the opportunity, taste it! It is said to be a good medicine for thyroid diseases.

Our next stop was in the village of Murići (photo 9) with its sandy beach, the only one in this area. As it has become popular as a tourist destination with a restaurant, bungalows and a campsite, this village is rather crowded in the summer and some visitors even like to swim to Beška, although the distance is much farther than you would think (see: http://montenegro-for.me/2015/03/exploring-the-western-shore-of-skadar-lake/.

Skadar Lake9 Murici beachIt was time to go back, but as all visitors of Skadar Lake are eager to spot pelicans, Jelena decided to expand the tour towards Manastirska Kapija and the Morača delta, where these birds can often be seen. And indeed, we spotted a big one (photo 10) and also saw several others floating among the water-lilies. Of course, that was the icing on the cake for all of us.

Along the Morača river – with its fabulous willow woods – and passing underneath the Vranjina monastery (see: http://montenegro-for.me/2015/04/skadar-lake-vranjina-monastery-and-pelican-spotting/, we finally arrived back in Virpazar, full of impressions.

Although this trip is rather long, it offers such a variety of experiences that you simply get the feeling that those six hours have passed in a moment or that time has stopped altogether. Thank you, Jelena and Petar, for this fantastic day!

Skadar Lake10 Dalmatian pelican

 

 

ORCHID TOURS TO MONTENEGRO

Anacamptis morio green-winged orchidDino ZelenikaAs a nature lover, I have always been fond of wild orchids. From late April to June, you can find these flowers everywhere in Montenegro, provided that the soil is calcareous – on meadows and fields, along country roads and hiking trails, among rocks and under bushes. Many of them are amongst the most beautiful of all wild flowers.

The most common orchids in Montenegro are the early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) and the green-winged orchid (Anacamptis mori – photo 1). In April and May, these purple – sometimes also pink or white – flowers cover many fields in the central part of  the country. Other orchids, from the Ophrys family, grow more individually and can be recognized by their typical form. They look like a bee, a mosquito, a wasp or a spider; altogether, they are fascinating mimics of insects.

Orchis pauciflora sparse-flowered orchidAttracted by my earlier posting about orchids (see: http://montenegro-for.me/2014/04/looking-for-wild-orchids-in-montenegro/), Dino Zelenika, orchid expert and owner of the newly-established travel agency Real Earth Travel in Bristol, Great Britain, visited Montenegro in late April (photo 2). It was a pleasure for us to accompany him in his search for orchids, as he intends to organize orchid tours to Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro in the future, starting from spring 2017.

Ophrys scolopax woodcock bee orchidAlthough it was rather early in the season, we spotted many different orchids. One of them was the yellow sparse-flowered orchid (Orchis pauciflora – photo 3), a rare flower that is recorded in eastern Mediterranean countries only.

By the way, did you know that Orchis means “testicle”? Instead of roots, these flowers have a pair of tubers that resemble testicles. These tubers contain a nutritious, starchy polysaccharide called glucomannan. The flour made from the tubers of Orchis mascula and other species is called salep. It is consumed in beverages and desserts, especially in countries that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, e.g. Macedonia, Greece and Turkey.

Ophrys bertolonii Bertoloni's bee orchidPersonally, I find the Ophrys family especially spectacular. Ophrys means “eyebrow”, as this flower provided a brown dye which the Romans used to day their eyebrows and hair. It was already mentioned in the manuscript “Natural History” by Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD).

Most ophrys orchids are found in the Mediterranean region. They are protected and should never be removed from their habitat, as they are dependent on symbiotic fungi, so that it is almost impossible to transplant then.

Together with Dino, we discovered several ophrys orchids, e.g. the woodcock bee orchid (Ophrys scolopax – photo 4) that really looks like a female bumblebee visiting a flower. Maybe you can imagine it: an attracted male bee thus tries to mate with the flower, the bee is covered in pollen and then proceeds to spread it around. During the last few years I have seen such orchids at several places along dirt roads and trails, in the mountains and forests of Montenegro.

Serapias vomeracea long-lipped serapiasA variant is Bertoloni’s bee orchid (Ophrys bertolonii – photo 5). Although it is usually rare (so far, I had seen it only once), this year we discovered quite a lot of them. A nice surprise!

Long-lipped Serapias (Serapias vomeracea – photo 6) is another orchid that could hardly be spotted so far. Now we even saw groups of these orchids in different variants. The name Serapias derives from the Greek Sarapis, the Graeco-Egyptian god, and was already used in ancient times to name some orchids.

These days we have also seen many other attractive orchids, e.g. the butterfly orchid (Anacamptis papilionacea – photo 7) and the attractive three-toothed orchid (Orchis tridentata).

Anacamptis papilionacea butterfly orchidBut don’t think that you can identify all orchids you see in Montenegro. An example is the Dactylorhiza on photo 8, which is obviously a strange variety that could not be recognized so far.

Montenegro is a very interesting country for lovers of wild flowers and orchids. If you are interested in participating in an orchid tour from Great Britain next year, contact for further information Dino Zelenika (e-mail: dinoh@blueyonder.co.uk).

Dactylorhiza

 

 

 

THE FORGOTTEN PREHISTORIC DRAWINGS OF LIPCI

Lipci1Lipci2I am sure that almost all tourists traveling around the Bay of Kotor have seen the tourist signpost for “Lipci” on the round-about, where the new road from Žabljak/Nikšić joins the coastal road (south of Risan). And I am also sure that hardly anybody has made efforts to find this archeological treasure, as there are no other signposts or markings at all.

What is it all about? Well, Lipci Rock contains prehistoric drawings showing deer hunting scenes, a symbolic sign of the rising Sun and some other symbols. These drawings represent the most complete ensemble of prehistoric Balkan art. They were created in the 8th century BC, being the second oldest on the Adriatic coast.

The paintings show two hunters on horses in movement, throwing a spear on five stags and one doe (photo 1). There are also geometric patterns. The pictures were engraved with flintstone into the limestone rock.

Lipci3How can you get there? Park your car along the main road. Take the narrow single-lane road uphill. It looks like a private parking drive, but you can follow it until the end of the asphalt. There you will see an old reddish signpost with an arrow (photo 2). Now walk along the narrow, overgrown (!) and rocky path that leads further towards the rock face. After 10 minutes, you will see a kind of cave on the right side with a protective stone wall (someone has obviously been barbecuing in there…). Continue a bit further and you will find yourself on a wider patch of stones. Look up the cliff face (photo 3) and you will be able to see the hunting scene and some other geometric designs.

Lipci4Trip Advisor reviews show the disappointment of foreign tourists, who were unable to discover the paintings, through their low ratings (“poor”) of this tourist attraction. What a pity that the Municipality and/or Tourism Organization of Kotor do not pay more attention to the importance of these archeological findings! Putting some good signposts and clearing the path would not be too expensive. And maybe it would also be possible to place an information board at the entrance…

I can assure you, a visit of Lipci is worth the effort. It is just a small detour when you are traveling around Boka Kotorska. And it is really incredible to find yourself looking at pictures that were created almost 3,000 years ago (photo 4 and 5)!

Lipci5

 

 

KAPETANOVO JEZERO OFF-SEASON

Kapetanovo jezero1

Kapetanovo jezero2Early in May I finally had the opportunity to visit Kapetanovo Jezero (Captain’s Lake – photo 1). Unfortunately, the weather was cold and rainy, and at the altitude of around 1700 m above sea level spring had hardly begun. But maybe it was exactly the barrenness and lonelyness of this area that gave us a surrealistic feeling. Driving and walking through a kind of moon landscape without meeting anybody, we asked ourselves: are we in Europe or in another world?

Kapetanovo jezero3Kapetanovo Jezero (1673 m above sea level) is a 37 m deep glacial lake, situated at a distance of around 45 km from Nikšić. The road leads along the “Zagrad” mine and turns into a dirt road at Bare Bojovića near Mount Mali Žurim, from where it continues to the lake. The last macadam stretch (8.5 km) is suitable for 4×4 only, but you can also continue on foot (or by bike). This is an easy walk along a country road, without climbing, with a duration of about 2-2.5 hours.

Kapetanovo jezero4 grape hyacinthThe rough summits of the surrounding mountains called Moračke Planine were still covered with snow (photo 2). A lonely shepherd was on his way with a flock of sheep (photo 3), shivering from the cold wind, but the pastures were already covered with flowers. Thousands of grape hyacinths (photo 4), cowslips (Primula veris) and marsh marigolds offered a colorful contrast to the threatening dark mountains.  Fields of sweet violets and wild daffodils (Narcis poeticus – photo 5) could be spotted everywhere.

Kapetanovo Jezero4a wild daffodilA Common Rock Thrush (Monticola saxatilis), rarely seen in Northern Europe, was quietly sitting on a rock, waiting to be photographed (photo 6). We also spotted a Seebohm’s Wheatear (Oenanthe seebohmi), hardly visible against the black-and-white rocks.

Kapetanovo Jezero itself was totally abandoned. Unless many other lakes in Montenegro, there are no trees around the lake, but the view of the surrounding mountains gives the lake a special beauty. Although a new church and several houses were built around the lake, there are also old traditional mountain huts (photo 7) for the shepherds, who spend the hot summer months – with their cattle – in this grassy area.

Kapetanovo jezero5 common rock thrushBy the way, do you know why the lake is called Captain’s Lake? There is an interesting story about it. During the Ottoman occupation of Montenegro, a certain Captain Mušović, head of the Nikšić district, was very fond of his beautiful summer pastures and house that stood at the place of today’s lake. In the rocks above this point was a spring that bubbled up from the cliffs. The keys to the spring were kept by the mountain fairies. Every night, the fairies would come to the spring to unlock it and bathe in its transparent waters. But one night, the last fairy to leave forgot to lock the spring and its waters flooded the valley below. The next evening, when the fairies returned and saw the flooded valley, they were enchanted by the striking beauty of the scenery and decided to move the spring into the depths of the emerald-green floodwaters to source this newly-created lake forever. This is how – by the negligence of a fairy (or the magic of nature) Kapetanovo Jezero was created – and Captain Mušović lost his mountain pastures.

Kapetanovo jezero6On our way back we admired the vast Lukavica plateau that is crossed by numerous – even 380 – springs and water streams (photo 8) (see my blogpost http://montenegro-for.me/2014/05/zupa-niksicka-roaming-around-the-lukavica-plateau/). With the impressive mountain tops of Veliki Žurim (2036 m above sea level) and Mali Žurim (1984 m above sea level), it is one of the most beautiful parts of Župa Nikšićka. Together with Kapetanovo Jezero, this area is a paradise for nature lovers, bikers and hikers!

Kapetanovo jezero8 Lukavica

 

LEPUSHË: HIKING IN KELMEND

Lepusha1Lepusha2aThe last Saturday of April was a perfect day for a hiking tour in the mountains. It was not easy to decide where to go, as there is still snow at altitudes above 1500 m. We had heard a lot about the hiking possibilities and wonderful nature in Lepushë, a village situated in the Kelmend region in Northern Albania at an altitude of 1200 m. At a distance of around 80 km from Podgorica, it really seems close and indeed, the first (reconstructed) part of the Kelmend road from the Albanian border in Hani i Hotit to the village of Tamarë is excellent (see my blogpost: http://montenegro-for.me/2014/11/albania-tamare-new-kelmend-road/ ). But believe me, the remaining stretch – 23 km – from Tamarë to Lepushë is a disaster for your car. Don’t even think about going there without a 4×4!

Tamarë is the place where the new asphalt road stops. You will need more than an hour or so to pass the dirt road that leads further to the north. No wonder, intensive reconstruction works are going on along this mountainous and winding road: hundreds of workers are building stone support walls and earth-moving machines are preparing the land for a new asphalt layer, but they will immediately get out of the way when they see a passenger car approaching.

Lepusha2Honestly speaking, we didn’t even notice the bad and bumpy – sometimes also muddy – road, as nature in this area is absolutely awesome (see my blogpost: http://montenegro-for.me/2012/09/discover-kelmend-valley-in-albania/).

In Lepushë we were expected at the Alpini guesthouse of Luigj Cekaj, where we were cordially received with coffee and home-made raki on the balcony, from where the view of the quiet valley and the snow-covered mountains was spectacular (photo 1).

Lepusha4aWe got a good hiking map with numerous trails in the Kelmend region, but as our company was not experienced, we asked Luigj (photo 2) to guide us on an easy/moderate hiking tour in the surroundings. Walking through the valley, we met shepherds with their flocks of sheep (photo 3), jumped over brooks and climbed over wooden fences. The meadows were covered with a delicate carpet of spring flowers that contrasted sharply against the snow-covered mountains around the valley.

Lepiusha4 Paradise gardenAfter a 20-minutes walk, the valley ended and a steep, narrow and well-marked trail took us uphill, along a mountain stream, through impressive beech forests and further to a small rocky saddle (photo 4). It was a real surprise to discover a small forest clearing, surrounded by rocks and snow patches. A mountain stream crossed the glade, edged by yellow marsh-marigolds (photo 5). This flowery clearing, named Gropa e Ujit (“water pits”), is also called Paradise Garden. What a beautiful spot!

Lepusha6 PajaWe passed the snow patches and continued our hike to the pastures at the foot of Mount Paja (photo 6). Grassland, snow, strange-looking huge rocks and silence all around us… pure nature! Luigj told us that the Montenegrin Cursed Mountains (Prokletije) – Mount Valušnica – are just at the other side of this mountain.

Abandoned mountain huts were waiting for the flocks to come to the summer pastures and sheep pens, built in the shadow of huge rocks. It was time to go back to the valley, downhill, through grassy pastures, small snowfields (photos 7, 8 and 9) and beech forests.

Lepusha7Altogether, for us it was quite an effort, but – thanks to our professional and patient guide Luigj – we made it!

Hospitality is a sacred law in Kelmend and we enjoyed the copious meal that was prepared by Luigj’s wife. The night was very cold, but we were exhausted and enjoyed sleeping in the warm bed. Breakfast was served with a variety of home-made products: different types of marmalade (I adored the blueberry jam), cheese, yoghurt …. Delicious!

Lepusha8We left Lepushë with unforgettable memories. It took us a few hours to get back to Podgorica, but we were told that the road will be finished in September. With a good asphalt road, I am sure that Lepushë will become a popular mountain resort, also for the inhabitants of Montenegro.

Nature in Kelmend is astonishing. Hiking possibilities (best hiking season: June 1st-September 1st) are numerous. The hospitality of the people is amazing. The cuisine is delicious. So far, the area has not been spoilt by modern hotels and other tourist facilities. I hope that Kelmend will succeed in keeping all of its beauty and authenticity.

Lepusha9

 

IS PODGORICA REALLY UGLY AND BORING?

Podgorica1Podgorica2I have been living in Podgorica for almost 40 years. If you have ever thought about visiting this city (or living in it), you will probably be surprised to hear that I really love living here, as many travel guides, web sites and blogs will give you the advice to avoid Podgorica, as it is “ugly and boring“, or in other words “nothing special“.

I must say that “Lonely Planet” has changed its former negative opinion about the capital city of Montenegro. Its website now says: “Podgorica is relaxed and unpretentious. If you can get past the sweltering summer temperatures and concrete apartment blocks, you’ll find a pleasant little city with lots of green space (photo 1) and some excellent galleries and bars.

Podgorica3Daniel Hamilton, a British blogger, also finds Podgorica a pleasant place, although he admits that “nobody would claim Podgorica was in line to win prizes for either its architecture or range of tourist facilities…“. But he likes the setting and the green parks, and he also mentions the trees that line the well-maintained roads and mask some bad examples of communist architecture. He is impressed by its calm and relaxed atmosphere, charming and friendly people and the good bars, restaurants and shops in Hercegovačka and Njegoševa Street.

Podgorica4By far the most negative blog post ever, with the title “Podgorica is a hole!”, was written in 2013 by the well-known Australian travel writer Michael Turtle. He visited Podgorica in August and illustrated his text with depressing pictures showing abandoned houses, overflowing trash bins, graffiti and grey apartment blocks (photo 2) “where each window looks the same and each appears a hollow dead eye that has given up life because there is nothing worth looking at it…”. In his text he describes the deserted streets (no wonder in the holiday period!) and concludes “that even the citizens have lost faith and given up on a city they show no pride in”. The posting got many angry comments, only a few people agreed with his opinion.

Podgorica5 VektraI would invite Mr. Turtle to visit Podgorica on a sunny day in spring, when the surrounding mountains are still covered with snow, while the bars with their open-air terraces are full of charming and relaxed young people; I would recommend him to spend an evening in one of the excellent restaurants in the pedestrian zone downtown and then visit a nightclub with good live music; and I would take him for a walk along the Morača River and explain him that a good travel writer MUST write in a reliable and objective way!

Podgorica6It’s true, we should not close our eyes for the fact that the townscape of Podgorica is characterized by hulking concrete residential blocks that certainly don’t contribute to the attractiveness of the city. By the way, if you are interested in Brutalist architecture, characteristic for communist regimes between the mid-1960s and the late-1980s, you can find astonishing hideous examples in the city: for instance, the building of Radio Television Montenegro (photo 3), the catholic Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus (built in 1969) and the University building (photo 4). Fortunately, things change, and nowadays many new and modern buildings try to give the city a different, more attractive look (photo 5).

But let me give you a few reasons why I love living in Podgorica.

Podgorica6a pedestrian bridgeGEOGRAPHIC POSITION: First of all, Podgorica is a good basis from where you can make trips all over the country. When you want to enjoy nature and silence, you need just half an hour to drive to Piperi, Kučke Planine or Skadar Lake; when it’s too hot in town, you can find refreshment in the mountains of Durmitor or Prokletije; on a sunny day in spring or autumn, it will take you less than one hour to drive to the coast and have a swim and a delicious fish meal or a cup of coffee on the beach. And by the way, the distant mountains and forest-covered hills surrounding the city provide a wonderful backdrop; just lift your eyes above the grey concrete buildings towards the sky …

Podgorica7MEDITERRANEAN ATMOSPHERE: Although situated in the continental part of Montenegro, the atmosphere in Podgorica rather reminds you of a Mediterranean than a Slavic country. Like in other Mediterranean countries, Montenegrins spend most of their leisure time out of their homes, walking along the “corso” or drinking an espresso in the pub. When the weather is nice, they adore basking and chatting on open-air terraces (photo 6). Young people – many of them students – are handsome, well-dressed and always in a good mood.

Podgorica8 Capital PlazaGREEN VEGETATION: The emerald Morača River that runs through the middle of the city is flanked by lush parks, and several bridges (of which three pedestrian) offer a beautiful view of the river and its green banks (photo 7) . Strolling through Podgorica, you come across a public park every few hundred meters. The wide sidewalks along the main boulevards are shaded by tall leafy trees and decorated by flower beds, inviting for a relaxing walk (photo 8).

RESTAURANTS, BARS AND SHOPS: Podgorica is a nice place for eating, drinking and shopping. Most good restaurants and bars can be found in the city center, but the new business quarter on the other side of the Morača River offers a great variety of fancy establishments. Podgorica is the place where you can eat a fantastic pizza or excellent seafood, and have the best espresso and cappuccino. Apart from shopping in downtown, you can also visit the shopping malls of Delta City, Mall of Montenegro and Capital Plaza (photo 9 and 10) – good for a rainy day… Or go to the big market and enjoy the huge offer of fruit, vegetables and all kinds of Montenegrin specialties!

Podgorica9 Capital Plaza2MISCELLANEOUS: When you live in Podgorica, it is good to be in a place where you can find everything you need, all-year round – an interesting cultural life (concerts, exhibitions, theatre), an extensive international community, good medical care, different state institutions, banks, embassies, sports clubs, and even cycle paths (photo 11)….

I am aware that Podgorica will never be an outstanding tourist attraction or an example of architectural beauty. But in my opinion, for foreigners it is a pleasant and quiet place to live in. What do you think?

Podgorica10

THE “HOUSE OF PEACE” IN ŠĆIT-RAMA LAKE (BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA)

Rama Lake1Rama Lake Scit2One of the places we always return to when traveling the Balkans is the village of Šćit (difficult to pronounce, isn’t it?) on Rama Lake in Bosnia & Herzegovina. It is a hidden gem in a country that is still characterized by a large number of destroyed and abandoned houses – consequence of the last war -, alternated with brand-new big churches and mosques in every settlement.

After the artificial Rama Lake was created by the Rama dam in 1968, Šćit found itself on a small peninsula in the new lake, with its Franciscan monastery and church (photo 1).

Rama Lake Scit3aWhat makes this village so special, apart from the wonderful landscape? Well, so far it has hardly been visited by tourists. The core of the village is the Franciscan Monastery that was probably built in the 15th century, before the arrival of the Turks. During its turbulent history, the monastery was burned down and rebuilt many times. Nowadays, the refurbished monastery accommodates the “House of Peace”, an institution that welcomes all those who seek peace, tranquillity, guidance…

Rama Lake Scit4aWe arrived in Šćit on a sunny day, with the intention to visit our old friends from Konoba “Gaj”. Apart from an nice restaurant and excellent home-made šljivovica, they also offer camping facilities and we were glad to find a place for our camper on their lot, with a fantastic view on the lake and the surrounding green hills.

For us, a walk around the cloister courtyard is always one of the highlights of Šćit, as it houses several beautiful art sculptures, e.g. the Rama Cross made by the sculptor Mile Blažević (photo 2), and the Last Supper by Divo Grabovčev (photo 3).

Scit Rama lake4bThe Church of the Assumption is simple (photo 4), but decorated with an impressive painting, made by Albert de Rhoden, which depicts the angels returning the Our Lady of Sinj to Rama (photo 5). Behind the church is an interesting ethnographic museum that illustrates the life of the local people.

The House of Peace (Kuća mira), part of the monastery, is a place of retreat. It offers all forms of prayer, counseling and meditation, thus helping people in need to find their inner harmony. Honestly speaking, the whole monastery complex and its surroundings always make me happy and calm, as Šćit is an oasis of peace indeed (photo 6)!

But some changes are happening in the village. Walking around, we saw the construction site of a huge building… a hotel? No, fortunately not, it is going to be a nursing home for elderly people, funded by the monastery and the state of Croatia. Another good initiative is the implementation of the “Our Lady of Sinj Route” project.

Rama Lake5Originally, this route is a pilgrimage trail, used for thousands of years from several directions, to walk towards the Marian shrine in Sinj (Croatia) that contains the miraculous painting of Our Miraculous Lady of Sinj. Franciscan monks from Rama took this painting to Sinj, while fleeing from the Ottomans in 1687.

But the newly marked trail is not only meant for pilgrims, as it leads you through picturesque areas full of medieval tombstones, ancient villages, remains of old paths and bridges, lookouts and cafes, all representing checkpoints where you can get a stamp as a memory of this unforgettable hiking tour. Certainly a good idea for all hikers, tourists and nature/culture lovers!

Next morning, we woke up by the sounds of nature and the tapping of a woodpecker. The lake had a deep emerald green color in the morning light (photo 7). Full of new energy, we arrived in Podgorica the same day.

Rama lake6

 

THE ISLAND OF PAG, 1000 KM OF DRY STONE WALLS

Pag1Pag2aApril is always the month when we prepare our camper for new adventures. Exploring the countries of ex-Yugoslavia and other Balkan states, we try to discover hidden secrets, but we also like to return to places, where we have found peace and harmony in the past.

Last week we took advantage of the warm weather and we made a round trip through Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Especially along the Dalmatian Coast there are many places that are much more attractive when they are not overcrowded. And as we like traveling through unspoiled nature, we decided to visit the island of Pag. With 9,000 inhabitants only, Pag is the fifth-largest island of the Croatian coast, and the one with the longest coastline.

Pag3aExcept for the town of Novalja to the north of the island that is becoming famous as a party destination, Pag is not so popular among foreign tourists, as it has very little vegetation due to the strong Bura wind: one reason more for us to visit it.

We entered the island by the 300 m long bridge that connects the southern part of the island to the mainland. The rocky barren soil and the threatening thunderstorm clouds created a spooky and weird atmosphere (photo 1).

Pag4aVisiting the ornithological reserve of Malo Blato, a karst lake in the middle of a stone desert (photo 2), we saw white herons, seagulls and other water birds, obviously the only inhabitants of this abandoned landscape. Fields of asphodels, large plants with white flowers – in Greek mythology connected with the dead and the underworld – were separated by dry stone walls (photo 3).

It is interesting to know that the length of preserved dry stone walls on Pag is about 1000 kilometers! They were built by Pag farmers and shepherds, not for agricultural purposes, but to divide their territory and protect their sheep from the cold Bura wind that blows relentlessly over Pag during the winter. It was not easy to build them: the stones are sometimes 50 to 60 kg heavy and it is a difficult job to fit them together so effectively that they can stand for centuries without falling.

Pag5aAs Pag is most famous for its production of Paški sir, a distinctive cheese made from the milk of the island’s autochthonous breed of sheep, we were not surprised to see large flocks of sheep on the rocky fields (photo 4).

There was hardly any traffic on the road and soon we passed along huge salt pans (photo 5). Salt production in natural shallow coves within the closed bay called “Valle di Pago” has been practiced here for more than a thousand years and maybe even longer. Around two thirds of the Croatian salt are manufactured in these saltworks.

Pag6aThe origin of Pag Town is thus connected to salt manufacturing. This nice historical town is characterized by a beautiful stone bridge called Katina that was built in 2010 instead of an old bridge from the 15th century (photo 6). A good place for a rest and a cup of coffee, and also for a visit of the 15th-century Church of the Assumption, the Rector’s Palace on the main square and several other historical buildings.

We continued our trip farther north through the rocky fields that were covered, here and there, by Mediterranean shrub and medicinal herbs with a strong and sweetish smell (photo 7).

Pag7aThe vertical lines created by stone walls on the elongated rocky hills along the sea created a geometric pattern (photo 8). A strange landscape indeed!

As we were not interested in the party town of Novalja, we took the same lonely road back to the mainland, deeply impressed by the rough and barren landscape of Pag.

 

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BALI, ISLAND OF THE GODS

Bali1 Lovina beachBali2 Pura Ulun DanuWhen we started our round trip through Indonesia, I was particularly curious about visiting the island of Bali. Why has Bali, with its population of 4 million people, become a world tourism destination with 1,2 million tourists a year? Eighty percent of international visitors to Indonesia visit Bali and Bali alone: are they attracted by the blend of spectacular mountain scenery and beautiful beaches with warm and friendly people? Or is it the non-western Hindu culture combined with typical Balinese architecture?

Bali3And indeed, this relatively small island holds many surprises. After we arrived by ferry from Java, the first thing that struck us was the architecture: Bali is housing thousands of Hindu temples in every nook and cranny. Apart from 20,000 public temples, most homes have their own family temple that often takes more space (and probably more money) than the living quarters themselves.

Although we spent only a few days on Bali, it was enough to get an idea about the magical atmosphere of this “Island of the Gods”. Lovina Beach showed us the commercial part: nice resorts and sandy beaches, boat excursions to watch the dolphins, shady beach bars and picturesque markets (photo 1).

Bali4 paddy fieldsThe real beauty and harmony of the Hindu religion came to expression at the Pura Ulun Danu Bratan (photo 2), the most important temple complex for Balinese rice farmers. A part of it, a tower with an 11-roof pagoda, was built on an island and seemed to float on the lake. The gardens and temples were full of flowers and colorful sculptures representing different Hindu gods (photo 3).

But the heart of Bali appeared to be Ubud, a small town in the middle of green rice terraces and valleys serving as backdrop to many art galleries, temples and palaces. We walked around the town center, visited the Monkey Forest, the art market and the beautiful Puri Lukisan Museum with its modern traditional Balinese paintings and wood carvings. Of course, I also used the opportunity to take a relaxing massage in one of the numerous spas.

Bali5 UbudThere were many things to do in and around Ubud… We took a long walk through the lush paddy fields (photo 4) and watched colorful processions of women gracefully balancing baskets with fruit offerings on their way to the temple (photo 5). We also attended a spectacular “Kecak” or “Monkey Dance” at Uluwatu Temple. What a fantastic experience!

Children were playing in the schoolyard, dressed in traditional Balinese dresses (photo 6) and local people were going about their daily offerings. We were astonished that they dedicate such a large part of their lives to rites and ceremonies. Is it true that this is the way to maintain love and harmony in this world?

Bali6 UbudI had the feeling that Balinese people have an extraordinary sense of community. They share their property and the differences between rich and poor are irrelevant. Cooperation seems to be above competition, which doesn’t fit with the Western ideals of individualism.That might be the reason why Bali became a hippie paradise in the 1970s …

What impressed me most were the tiny offerings (photo 7) found in front of every house, shop and restaurant. These leaf trays are made each day and can contain an enormous range of offering items: flowers, rice, cookies, salt, and even cigarettes and coffee! They are set out with burning incense sticks and sprinkled with holy water before every meal. I could not help stepping on such a tray, as the sidewalks were full of them, but a local told me not to worry about it, as at the end of the day they would be swept away anyway. However, as Balinese believe, stepping on an offering on purpose would give you bad luck!

We had to leave Bali and continue our trip to Lombok, but I will always remember the magic of this fairy-tale island. It is true, Bali is a wonderful destination with something for everyone, and it is still easy to find some peace and quiet here, of course, if you avoid the main tourist season.

Bali7 Ubud

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JAVA, INDONESIA: CLIMBING MOUNT BROMO

Bromo1Bromo2One of the highlights of our adventurous tour through Indonesia was certainly the climbing of Mount Bromo, a 2,392 m high volcano on the island of Java that has become one of the most iconic mountains in Indonesia for its picturesque, other-worldly beauty.

I was very excited to get the opportunity to see this famous tourist attraction, as Mount Bromo had shown signs of increasing activity since early November 2015, when the amount of smoke and ashes coming out of the crater intensified and an exclusion zone of 2.5 km radius was placed around the crater. It was thus a real surprise to hear that the area was reopened to the public exactly on the day when we arrived.

bromo 1aWe were accommodated in the mountain village of Cemoro Lawang; departure to the viewpoint on Mount Penanjakan (2770 m) – the place where visitors from around the world come to see the sunrise over Mount Bromo – was planned next morning at 03.30 AM. The trip in open 4×4 vehicles through the lush environment was an adventure, but a great disappointment expected us when we reached the top: dozens of jeeps were parked on both sides of the road, motor riders were crisscrossing the area offering a ride to lazy tourists and local people were selling souvenirs and drinks – while we were making our way through the dark to the overcrowded platform. Can you imagine it? Hundreds of people with cameras and smartphones waiting for the sunrise? It was a crazy experience, especially because the sunrise was far from spectacular, due to the clouds behind the mountains…

Bromo 3aBut fortunately, Mount Bromo had much more to offer. Jeeps transported us to an eerie moon-like landscape soaked in cotton clouds: the famous “Sea of Sand” around the Bromo crater. While we were walking through the spooky and misty landscape, the contours of a picturesque Hindu temple appeared in front of us. Instead of walking, many tourists accepted the offer of local horse riders who could be seen everywhere around us like ghost riders. It all seemed so unrealistic, so isolated – and so beautiful.

Bromo4No wonder that the Sea of Sand has particular significance for the local Tengger people who believe that this was the site where a brave prince sacrificed his life for his family. That is the reason why they throw, once a year, offerings of vegetables, chickens and money into the Bromo crater.

Once arrived at the base of the volcano, we made the last steep incline by horse. It was a fantastic experience. Fine dust (or was it smoke? fog?) was everywhere. The strong mountain horses took us to the stairs that led to the crater – 249 steps. It was not easy to master all those high steps, but we made it! The views were spectacular.

Bromo7Standing on the narrow edge of the crater, we could look down in the deep smoking hole. There was a kind of wooden fence on the side of the crater, but nothing to stop you from sliding off downhill on the outside, so we soon left this dangerous place and walked back through the eerie sand desert to the jeeps.

Was it a dream? When I see the photographs I made, I can hardly imagine that I really climbed Mount Bromo!

Bromo6