7 THINGS YOU SHOULD NOT MISS IN BOLIVIA

1 Bolivia 2 Bolivia Salar Uyuni1As Bolivia is one of the highest and most isolated countries in the world, it is still completely authentic and mostly untouched. This country offers great cultural experiences, fantastic natural beauties and extreme adventures. You certainly should not miss the following experiences:

  • Explore Salar de Uyuni  

Meet an Indian family that earns a living from salt exploitation. Enjoy the view from the top of Isla de Pescadores (Fishermen’s Island) that is completely covered by giant centuries-old cactuses. During the day you need suntan cream and sunglasses, at night you need gloves and thick coats, as it can be very cold, especially in July and August. And don’t miss the spectacular sunset above the lake with its shining salt crystals: it is a top experience!

3 Bolivia Salar Uyuni2Salar de Uyuni (3,650 m above sea level) is one of the highlights of a trip to Bolivia. It covers 10 km sq. and is the world’s largest salt flat. It is an extraordinary experience to explore this lake by 4WD. Visiting Uyuni, formed by one billion tons of salt, you will see flocks of flamingos, while llamas and vicuňas are grazing at the edges of barren volcanic desertscapes. You can even spend the night in a hotel made of salt.

  • Make a mining tour in the man-eating silver mines of Potosi  

4 Bolivia Potosi1Despite the risks, half of Potosi’s population works in the mining industry. Many as young as 13 must endure for up to 10 hours a day. As there are dozens of deaths each year inside the mountain it is also called: the Mountain that Eats Men. There is no lighting, no safety regulations, no modern rail cars. Don’t make the mining tour when you suffer from claustrophobia, asthma or respiratory problems! And when you go, you should buy alcohol, water, cigarettes and dynamite for the miners. And coca leaf. As the miners, who earn 14 dollars a day, can only survive by chewing wads of coca.

5 Bolivia Potosi2Potosi’s Cerro Rico or Rich Hill is a mountain so heavily laced with silver that it has become a legend. In the 16th century, this silver made Potosi – now a UNESCO World Heritage site – the wealthiest city in the world. Over 250 years, the Spanish put to work around 33 million Indians in the mines. Most of them died within a very short time. You can make a two-hour mine tour, joining the thousands of miners who enter the labyrinth of tunnels every day. Equipped with protective gear, you will maneuver through narrow tunnels and passageways.

  • Eat guinea pig and drink coca tea 

6 Bolivia guinea pigCoca tea or “mate de coca” is a herbal tea made using the raw leaves of the coca plant. The taste is similar to green tea. As it is perfectly legal in Bolivia, it is recommended for travelers in the Andes to prevent altitude sickness. Traditional medical uses of coca are foremost as a stimulant to overcome fatigue, hunger and thirst. That is why it is often used by the miners in Potosi. The cultivation of coca dates back 4,000 years in the Andes and it is also interesting to see the plantations of coca plants!

Originally domesticated for its meat in the Andes “cuy” or guinea pig continues to be a major part of the diet in Bolivia. Guinea pigs are sold at the markets. Their meat is high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol, and the taste is similar to rabbit and chicken. “Cuy” may be served fried (frito), broilec (asado) or roasted (al horno). Give it a try, it is really tasty!

  • Visit the Witches’ Market in La Paz  

7 Bolivia La Paz witches marketThe Mercado de las Brujas or Witches’ Market is a unique site of La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Here you can see Aymara women with their bowler hats and colorful costumes, selling dried llama fetuses, herbs, and soapstone figurines of the goddess Pachamama. On the market you can also find hand-made carpets, dried frogs and coca leaves! The llama fetuses are fairly large and look horrible. As a matter of fact, Bolivians don’t kill baby llamas, instead they use fetuses that have come from miscarriages. They are always buried in the constructions of businesses and homes as an offering to Pachamama for protection, health, happiness and good luck. It is an unforgettable experience to visit the Market and to learn more about the culture and religion of the Aymaras!

  • Hike the Takesi Trail

8 Bolivia Takesi trail1The Takesi trail is a pre-Columbian trail, built over 5000 years ago. The trek begins at an altitude of 3,600 m and then weaves up over the Cordillera Real to 4,650 m, before dropping down into the Yungas. The 45 kilometer hike (two or three days) ends at an altitude of 2,080 meters, in the pleasant village of Yanacachi. Yes, it is a big effort, but also a great adventure! You will sleep in little tents in the barren wilderness of the Takesi village, where the temperature can drop until far below zero.

9 Bolivia Takesi trail2You will be accompanied by Bolivian guides and llamas will carry your luggage. You will be delighted with the magnificent views. And moreover, as most of the trek goes downhill – you will slowly make your way into the semi-tropics, where you can enjoy beautiful greenery and flowers (and the higher temperatures!).

  • Attend the car blessing ceremony in Copacabana 

10 Bolivia CopacabanaCopacabana is situated on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. It has a large 16th-century shrine, the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia. People come to this place from all over the region to take part in a car blessing ceremony on the shores of the Lake. Each day, cars jam the streets in front of the Basilica, patiently waiting for the blessing. The sidewalks are lined with stalls selling flowers, confetti, toy cars, candies and beverages – everything that is necessary for the ritual. The blessings take place everyday upon the appearance of a priest who walks around sprinkling holy water on the vehicles dispensed from a bucket. It is a weird ritual, something you would expect in a surrealistic movie – don’t miss this experience!

  • 11 Bolivia Lake TiticacaEnjoy a walk around Isla del Sol

From Copacabana you can take a boat to Sun Island, Isla del Sol, the sacred Inca island in Lake Titicaca. The Aymara people were the first inhabitants of the island, and most structures credited to the Inca were built by them, including the Inca Staircase and the Inca Fountain. According to Inca mythology, Isla Del Sol was the place were Viracocha, the sun god, created the first Inca man and woman. Enjoy the great picture opportunities and learn more about history and legends. There are no cars on the island, so that everything is quiet and peaceful. The views of the high snow-covered tops of the mountains on the other side of the Lake are magnificent and the Inca ruins that can be visited at different places contribute to the mystic atmosphere.

12 Bolivia Isla del Sol

MACHU PICCHU, THE LOST CITY OF THE INCAS

machu picchu1.1winay wayna1One of the most impressive hiking tours I have ever made was the short Inca Trail or Camino Real in Peru that leads to the famous city of Machu Picchu (photo 1).

Six years ago I traveled through Bolivia and Peru with a small group of nature lovers. It was one of our wishes to hike the world-famous Inca Trail. However, the traditional 4-day Inca Trail, 45 km long, would certainly be too heavy and that is why we decided to book the Camino Real that joins the classical route at “Kilometer 104”. Maybe this is an “easy tour” by Andean standards, but I think that most European hikers consider it at least “moderate”, due to the steep climbing and the altitude of the trail (between 2400 and 2700 meters above sea level). You should really be fairly fit for this trek and don’t even think about it, when you suffer of fear of heights!

winay wayna3Very early in the morning, we were transferred from our hotel in Cusco to the Ollantaytambo train station. It was a picturesque train ride that lasted around three hours until we arrived at the start of our trail – Kilometer 104, where we crossed the bridge over Rio Urubamba. The hike went upwards and further upwards for around four hours – and there were many, many steep stairs to climb (photo 2). The abysses were yawning, but the views were absolutely breathtaking. (photo 3).

After our climb, we arrived at the Inca site of Wiñay Wayna, which means: Forever Young (photo 4). Many people consider this set of ruins as one of the most impressive sites on the trail. I though it amazing that people once lived here, worked here on the numerous agricultural terraces.

winay wayna2One and a half hour later we passed the Inti Punku (Sun Gate) at an altitude of 2730 m. There we had the first dramatic, panoramic view of Machu Picchu – an unforgettable sight! Walking down the last part of the trail towards the ancient city itself was surrealistic and impressive. Yes, after a hike of almost seven hours and a difference in altitude of 600 meters upwards, I was finally in Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas! But it was late and the last bus took us down to Agua Calientas, where we spent the night in a hotel.

Machu Picchu1Next day we took the early morning bus, at 6 AM, up to Machu Picchu. We were just in time to enjoy the sun rising over the mountains, although it was rather foggy. Together with a guide, we made a walking tour through this mysterious city, after which we had time to explore the site by ourselves. Unfortunately, after an hour or so the place was already overcrowded with foreign tourists and this somehow spoiled the impression I had the day before.

From the guide we learned that Machu Picchu was declared UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 and the Peruvians consider it a sacred place. We visited the primary buildings, built in Inca style with polished dry-stone walls: Intihuatana (Sun Dial), the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows, located in the Sacred District. Llamas were walking over the steep terraces (photo 5) that obviously served to keep the soil together, or maybe also for agricultural purposes (photo 6). Can it be true that Machu Picchu had a population of 750 people only? It looks much bigger! But one thing is sure, it was extremely well-hidden.

machu picchu2Anyhow, I was fascinated by the question why is Machu Picchu – built 600 years ago – called “The lost city of the Incas?” Well, this was the name of Hiram Bingham’s book on Machu Picchu. He named it as lost city, as even the Spaniards could not find it when they conquered the Inca area! Nobody knows why this city was built and why it was abandoned by the Incas. Bingham, who discovered it, thought that it was Vilicamba, the last Incan capital. But this was not true. Maybe it was a retreat for elite Incas or a religious place, maybe an ancient fortress. Nobody knows. And that is why Machu Picchu is so mysterious…

On the same day we left Agua Calientas (photo 7) and returned to Cusco. Now, six years later, when I look at the photos, my visit of Machu Picchu seems a dream… But one thing is sure: I will never forget this surrealistic experience and I am very proud of the stamp in my passport: Inca Trail / Macchu Picchu!

agua calientas

7 THINGS TO DO IN AND AROUND OHRID

Ohrid1 old townOhrid2 private chapelHave you ever thought about visiting Ohrid, the famous UNESCO World Heritage site in Macedonia? Don’t hesitate to go and explore the Old Town with its oriental architecture, the wonderful Orthodox monasteries and the impressive archeological sites. And first of all, enjoy a boat trip on Lake Ohrid, one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes!

1. Discover the Old Town of Ohrid with its typical architecture and little chapels 

The Old Town of Ohrid is a wonderful experience. Being compact, it is easily walkable and all the major sites can be seen in a relatively short time. But you can also just wander around the cobbled streets, winding up and down the hillside along the lake shore. From above, the view is spectacular! If you want to avoid the crowds, explore the back streets; they are surprisingly empty and walking around is peaceful and relaxing. And keep your eyes open! Admire the beautiful old Macedonian houses, take a rest in the park in front of the St. Sophia Church and walk down the Antique Theatre. And don’t forget to enter the nice little chapels scattered around. They are maintained by the surrounding neighborhoods and they are full of icon pictures, flowers and candles. It is the custom to leave a small amount of money when you visit such a chapel. Just light a candle and place your donation in front of the icon of your choice. And when you are tired of walking: find a cozy café or a traditional restaurant and enjoy the delicious Macedonian cuisine!

Ohrid3 boat tour2. Make a boat trip on Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid is one of the most beautiful lakes of the Balkans. The water is crystal clear and full of fish. The mountainous surroundings are of an exceptional beauty. At sunrise, the lake looks mysterious with fog floating above the surface; sunset, with its vibrant orange colors, is a moment of quietness and meditation. Of course, it comes as no surprise that many people like to take a boat ride out onto the lake. Don’t miss it! Just walk along the lake front in Ohrid and barter with the captains waiting to take you for a trip. You can choose a small boat, e.g. to the St. John Kaneo monastery, which offers you splendid views of the Old Town and the Samuil’s Fortress. Or you can make a trip all the way to the St. Naum Monastery, passing by a series of picturesque fishing villages. There are plenty of possibilities!

Ohrid4 Robevski house3. Visit the Robevski House (Ohrid National Museum) 

One of the most interesting buildings in Ohrid is the Robevski House. It is considered to be a masterpiece of old Macedonian architecture. Built in the 19th century for the rich merchant family Robevski, it is nowadays a National Museum that is certainly worth a visit! You can see wonderful old furniture, carpets and wood-carved ceilings. Maybe you also like Macedonian costumes, ancient coins and old manuscripts!? Anyhow, you will get a good idea how 19th-century life in a well-off family was like. By the way, on the ground floor you can also see marble objects, Roman tomb stones and other archeological finds. And from the top floor you will have a beautiful view of the lake!

Ohrid5 Plaošnik St. Clement4. Explore the Plaošnik hill with the St. Clement Church and ancient mosaics

Down a wooded path, you will reach Plaošnik, a hill above the Old Town of Ohrid that includes an important archaeological excavation, but – what is even more important – also a church from 893 that was built by the first Orthodox bishop in Macedonia, St. Clement, who constructed a monastery dedicated to St. Panteleimon and established the first Macedonian University in the same area. The typical Byzantine church contains beautiful medieval frescoes. And nearby are 4th-century church foundations, with wonderful Early-Christian mosaics. Walk around, enjoy the amazing view from the top of the hill and soak up the atmosphere of this ancient historical place.

Ohrid6 St. Jovan Kaneo5. Say a prayer in the church of St. John Kaneo

This stunning 13th-century church is located on a cliff over Ohrid Lake and contains wonderful medieval frescoes. When you stand in front of the church and see the blue waters of the lake, you will certainly understand why medieval monks found spiritual inspiration here; it is a quiet and peaceful oasis. Enter the little church, you will be impressed by the mystic atmosphere. Light a candle for the sake of family or friends and take a rest in the garden overlooking the lake and the Kaneo district.

Ohrid7 Sv. Naum6. Don’t miss the St. Naum Monastery 

Did you know that St. Naum Monastery is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Macedonia? It is a stunning place on Lake Ohrid (29 km south of Ohrid), situated on a high rock over the lake and surrounded by deep forests. The springs of the Crni Drim River keep the place cool, even in summer. The complex was originally built in the 10th century, but most frescoes in the church date from the 16th and 17th century. When you walk through the gardens, you will see multi-colored peacocks strutting through the grass. Roses are flowering around the park and the view from the courtyard walls is amazing. By the way: Macedonians believe you can still hear the saint’s heartbeat by pressing an ear to his stone coffin inside the church. Give it a try! Maybe you will hear it, too! And don’t get disappointed, when you see the “souvenir market” outside. Many Orthodox people buy something to remember their visit of the monastery, although most products come from China or Taiwan. For a visit to St. Naum, you can take the bus from Ohrid, but you can also take one of the boats leaving from the harbor of Ohrid.

Ohrid7 Water museum7. A nice surprise: the Water Museum in the Bay of Bones

Did you know that Ohrid has a splendid museum on water? It is situated on the southern coast of Gradište Peninsula in the Bay of Bones (15 km south of Ohrid). As a matter of fact, it is not only a museum; it also covers the authentic reconstruction of a part of a pile-dwelling settlement, dating back between 1200 and 700 BC. Walk around and imagine how people lived here. The settlement is connected with a reconstructed Roman military fortification (Gradište) on the hill above the Bay. All this will give you an extraordinary opportunity for a time travel from prehistoric to ancient times and vice-versa.

Ohrid8 Lake

 

THE GREEN ISLAND OF MLJET

Mljet1 Požurska lukaMljet2 ferryEnjoying our traditional summer holiday at Camp Rogač in Slano, we thought it a good idea to visit Mljet that is considered to be one of the most beautiful islands of Croatia. We were told that this unspoiled island, covered with dense Mediterranean forests, is a paradise for anyone looking to get away from the crowds, as there are just a few villages (photo 1) and one major road – the remaining part is pure nature! Two days should be enough to explore Mljet National Park with its natural beauties and to visit some cultural attractions, as the island is associated with many stories and legends.

Mljet3 Polace castleWe took the ferry (€26 one way for a car and two adults) from Prapratno on the peninsula of Pelješac, to Sobra (photo 2), which took us around 45 minutes. In the quiet fishing village of Sobra we had already booked a private room with a splendid sea view.

Mljet is only 60 km long and it was easy enough to explore every corner of the island in two days. Our first trip was to the western part of the island. Driving through forests of Aleppo pine and holm oak with breathtaking views of the clear blue sea, we passed through the village of Babino Polje, where interested tourists can visit the Ulysses Cave. According to the legend, Ulysses was trapped here for seven years, in company of the lovely nymph Calypso.

Mljet4 St. Mary's islandSeveral yachts and sailboats were anchored in the transparent bay of Polače, a village with one hundred inhabitants only. What a surprise to discover the remnants of a huge Roman palace dating back to the 2th century (photo 3) in such a tiny village! In the surroundings, we found the ruins of St. Paul’s church; by the way, many historians claim that St. Paul, the apostle, landed here in the year 61 AD, after his boat had shipwrecked.

Accompanied by loud chirping of the crickets, we continued to Pomena, where we parked the car and bought tickets for Mljet National Park at the kiosk (100 kunas or €15 p.p.). Many people rented bikes here, but when we saw their efforts of riding on the hilly path, we decided to let it go and take the narrow footpath through the forests – a walk of 20 minutes – to Mali Most, the small bridge between two salty lakes, Veliko Jezero and Malo Jezero. This is the place where the Large Lake and the Small Lake are connected and tourists are transported with a small boat to the Isle of St. Mary (photo 4) with its ancient Benedictine monastery from the 12th century. The monastery’s restaurant offered delicious mussels and we had a great time on the shady terrace. After lunch, we explored the small island on foot, walking between olive trees and ancient ruins.

Mljet5 lizardBack on the shore, we made a walk along the lakes. Swimmers were enjoying the refreshing shade and the sandy beaches, but did not disturb the tranquil atmosphere. A blue lizard was relaxing on a stone wall (photo 5) and the water was so transparent that we could clearly see some fishes swimming around.

After a quiet evening and a good night rest in Sobra, we headed towards Saplunara, a hamlet on the eastern tip of Mljet. The name Saplunara has roots in the Latin word for sand – “sabulum”, as the village has two sandy beaches, surrounded by rocks and dense pine forests.

Mljet6a Saplunara beachThe small beach (photo 6) was a wonderful place to take a swim. Due to the secluded position, the sea water was warm and transparent and the bay was completely protected from the wind. What a miracle that such beaches are not overcrowded, even in the middle of July!

We had lunch in a small village on the coast, Okuklje (photo 7). Can you imagine that we were the only tourists in the open-air restaurant overlooking the secluded cove? The sea food spaghetti was delicious and so was the local white wine. A wonderful place!

Mljet7 OkukljeThe last village we visited was Prožurska Luka, located on the northern coast of the island with less than fifty permanent residents (photo 8). Local sailors and fisherman from the village are using this bay as their marina and anchorage point, but there are also beautiful sandy beaches around. And last but not least, it seems to be a great place to relax!

In the late afternoon we took the ferry back to Prapratno. No queues, no crowds. So, if you are looking to spend a few days on a Croatian island, far away from the swarms of tourists, if you want to get the feeling as if you got lost in a photoshopped tourist brochure – then Mljet is really the place to be!

Mljet7a Požurska luka

 

SUMMER IN KOTOR

View of the Bay of KotorKotor summer1The world’s leading travel guide, Lonely Planet, awarded Montenegrin tourism a significant recognition, by ranking Kotor first on the list of top ten cities to visit in 2016. And indeed, this beautiful old town has become an outstanding tourist attraction.

We visited Kotor last weekend and we were surprised to see so many foreigners exploring the town. Two cruisers had arrived early that morning (photo 1) and many groups were visiting the historical and cultural sights, individually or with tour guides.

Kotor summer2A lot of tourists bought tickets for the hop-on hop-off bus “Kotor Open Tour” (photo 2). This is a good way to visit Kotor and its surroundings. Buying a voucher you can travel from Kotor to Risan on the open bus, with stops in Perast and at the beach of Bajova Kula. The price (20.00 €) includes coupons for the Roman Mosaics in Risan, the Museum of Perast and for a walking tour with guide through the old town of Kotor. If compared with other cities like Rome or Madrid, the price is rather high, but for one-day visitors this is certainly a nice way to get acquainted with the Bay of Kotor.

Kotor summer3Since last year, many things have changed in Kotor. The town is clean and well-maintained, the open air terraces are attractive and the service is good.

It was very crowded in front of the entrance gate and many people were pushing each other to get through, so we decided to take a rest on the new giant bench in front of the entrance (photo 3). Nice!

Finally, we succeeded in entering the town (photo 4) and we found a place at San Giovanni’s pub where we enjoyed a good cup of coffee, watching hundreds of people passing by. Asian ladies with fancy hats and shawls making selfies (photo 5), fat British girls in extremely short “hot pants”, Italian dandies and Dutch tourists with their typical sandals and white socks …. The whole world meeting in Kotor!

Kotor summer4But in spite of the overcrowded squares and streets, we could still discover authentic narrow back streets and romantic corners (photo 6); the atmosphere was quite cozy. All kinds of souvenirs (photo 7) were exhibited in shop windows, most of them pure kitsch, but why should we give our opinion about it? If people like them, let them buy!

A folklore group was dancing and singing on the main square. An old man played the saxophone in front of the Orthodox church and on another street corner, a young student played Mozart on his flute. All pubs and terraces in the open air were full of people and everybody was in a good mood. Of course, you could eat fresh fish and grilled meat, but there were plenty of other possibilities: pizza, pasta and other light lunches were obviously more popular. We had an excellent chicken burger in a pub called “The Square” in front of the St. Triphun’s cathedral for 5.50 Euro (photo 8).

Kotor summer5A Dutch couple at a neighboring table told us how impressed they had been when they entered the Bay in the early morning. “I have never seen something more beautiful in my life”, said the middle-aged man, his arms full of tatoos. Of course, we were really glad to hear that. But then his wife asked: “Are we still in Croatia or is this already Serbia?” Hmmm, we tried to explain that Kotor is situated in Montenegro, but obviously, this was too difficult to understand for these tourists who traveled by cruiser all around the Mediterranean….

I must say: Kotor is wonderful, not only off-season, but also in July and August, even when it is overcrowded with tourists. In some way, this town is alive, it is real. It does not look like a theatre scene, it is relaxing and offers a lot of different experiences.

Kotor summer6If you ignore the beggars and young men offering “Ray Ban” sunglasses on the streets and terraces, you can have a wonderful time here.

And if you want to avoid the crowds – come to Kotor in the months before or after the high season!

 

 

Kotor summer7

 

 

DURMITOR: SUMMER IN MALA CRNA GORA

Mala Crna Gora1Mala Crna Gora2 Sušica CanyonOne of the most popular excursions in Durmitor National Park is the jeep safari called “Ring around Durmitor”. From late May, when the snow on Štuoc is finally cleared away, adventurous tourists start to explore the spectacular natural beauties of Durmitor. As a rule, they make a stop at the Tara Canyon panorama point and enjoy the breathtaking view, they pass by the junction where a narrow asphalt road turns off to the village of Mala Crna Gora (photo 1 and 2), and then continue to the Sušica Canyon and the village of Nedajno. A great tour indeed!

Mala Crna Gora3This month, we have accompanied two Dutch groups on such a jeep safari, without entering Mala Crna Gora. So last weekend we decided to also explore this authentic “Little Montenegro”, whose natural position between Sušica Canyon, Tara Canyon and the high mountain pass of Štuoc is the reason that it is almost inaccessible during the winter. We did not expect to see anything special, but the fact that this village is so isolated and totally cut off during six long winter months made us quite curious.

Mala Crna Gora4Mala Crna Gora is situated around 25 km from Žabljak at an altitude of 1,800 meters. The inhabitants practice sheep and cow farming, as the mountain plateau mainly consists of pastures surrounded by beech and pine forests. Piles of stones collected from the grassland are scattered everywhere and are characteristic for this impressive landscape.

Out of around 100 inhabitants, only 30 stay in the village during the winter and this number is decreasing each year. Their life is hard in those lonely months. Sometimes they can only dig a small path through the snow connecting their house with the stable, where they keep their cows and sheep. It may happen that even visiting a neighbor becomes impossible, as does seeing a doctor. Each year, TV teams visit the village after the winter isolation and each year they ask the same questions: “How did you spend the winter? Was it hard? Are you happy you can see your grandchildren again?”

Mala Crna Gora5The summer is short in this area, but wildflowers are abundant. We followed the narrow winding road through the village, edged by beautiful wild roses (photo 3), while the pastures were covered with yellow wildflowers (photo 4). But what impressed me most was the authentic atmosphere. I could not see a single house that spoiled the quiet rural atmosphere by brightly colored walls or shiny corrugated sheet roofs. Many houses and cottages were made of wood in old Durmitor style (photo 5).

Mala Crna Gora6We made a stop and got out of the car. The silence was complete. A dry breeze made the air cool and transparent and the clouds playing above the canyon were a pleasure for the eye. Small wooden shepherd’s cottages, built who knows when (photo 6), were scattered throughout the landscape. A young woman was collecting hay, putting it on traditional haystacks (photo 7). Everything was neat and tidy, there was no garbage around, the wooden fences were well-maintained.

Mala Crna Gora7I asked myself why the first inhabitants of this village settled down here three centuries ago. Why did they decide to start a new life on this cold, high and isolated plateau without any water springs? It is a fact that village was so remote that Ottoman forces allegedly never managed to enter it, so that could be a reason. But even fifty years ago, Mala Crna Gora had still 400 inhabitants, sixty oxes and 3,000 sheep. Now there are hardly 300 sheep left. People are leaving the village in search of a new and better life.

Mala Crna Gora8 butterflyFinally we reached the end of the road, just above the Sušica Canyon, in front of the Memorial House of Radoje Dakić. This national hero-partisan from World War II was born here in 1911 and died in Russia when he was only 35 years old. Many personal items and also the urn with his ashes are kept in this house.

It was time to get back to the modern world, leaving Mala Crna Gora as one of the few really authentic villages in Montenegro. It is important to understand that this authenticity has a special charm for many Western tourists who are always willing to explore the untouched and unexposed and to avoid areas and activities in presence of other foreigners, surrounded by typical flora and fauna (photo 8 and 9).

Mala Crna Gora10Many travelers are desperately searching for authentic local experiences. The regular tourist destinations have become boring for them, they have already visited many churches and museums, popular beach resorts and perfectly renovated “old towns”. They want to live the local life, to get familiar with local culture and traditions, and to discover the pristine beauty of nature. For them, holidays have become more than just periods of rest and relaxation – they are now opportunities for learning and self-development as well.

Maybe the promotion of “authentic tourism” could be a new chance for this beautiful village? Even if the summer is short, it might be an interesting source of additional income for the decreasing population. Of course, it would be a big mistake to build a hotel or fancy restaurant here. But I believe that there are people who would love to spend a few summer weeks in this typical Durmitor village, helping the farmers with their daily activities or hiking/biking in these spectacular surroundings… (photo 10).

As far as we are concerned, we will certainly spend a weekend over there with our camper!

Mala Crna Gora9 Susica Canyon

 

CAMPER TOURISM – A PROMISING CHANCE FOR MONTENEGRO

campers1 Albanian bordercampers2 Cathedral PodgoricaA few years ago, I wrote some articles about camper tourism as a missed chance for Montenegro (see:http://montenegro-for.me/2012/10/camper-tourism-a-missed-chance-for-montenegro/). But if the Ministry of Tourism and the National Tourism Organization would be aware of the possibilities offered by camper tourism nowadays, I still believe that there is a good chance to develop this type of tourism.

Traveling by camper is getting more and more popular, not only in the US, Canada and Australia, but also in Western Europe. Can you imagine that there are around 100,000 campers in the Netherlands (population less than 18 million)? Many of these tourists travel to well-known destinations, like France, Spain and Italy. Just an example: 5.6 million camper tourists per year, both Italians and foreigners, spend their holidays in Italy.

campers3 Zabljak Camping Kod BoceSome surrounding countries – in particular Croatia – have already taken advantage of this opportunity. More than a quarter of tourists visiting Croatia stay in campsites and campers are always eagerly received as guests on the coast.

But the number of those camper fans who want to travel to less known, adventurous destinations is constantly growing. Albania is getting more and more popular, as it offers authentic experiences, pure nature and good campgrounds, often also suitable for groups – one of the best examples is Lake Shkodra Resort (see:  http://montenegro-for.me/2013/08/albania-lake-shkodra-resort-a-place-to-be).

campers4 StuocIt is interesting to see that Montenegro is experiencing an invasion of Dutch camper/caravan tourists this year (photo 1). Several clubs from the Netherlands organize group tours – with up to 20 campers/40 people – through the Balkans. In former times, they just passed along the Montenegrin coast on their way to Albania and further on, but the situation is quite different this summer. Several Dutch camper clubs organize a longer stay in Montenegro, also visiting the northern part of the country, eg. Durmitor, Biogradska Gora and Bijelo Polje, before spending a few days on the Montenegrin Coast.

campers5 Susica canyonWe had the opportunity to accompany a group from Shkodra and the North Albanian Alps to Durmitor National Park on their one-month round trip called “Off the Beaten Track”, organized by the Dutch camper club NKC. A second group will follow this week. In Montenegro we visited the Orthodox cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Podgorica (photo 2), the Morača Monastery and the Tara Bridge. The group found accommodation at campsite “Kod Boče” in Žabljak (photo 3), from where they made a spectacular jeep tour called “Ring around Durmitor” (photo 4, 5 and 6) that included a delicious lunch in Trsa (photo 7). Although the weather could have been better, there is no need to say that all participants were astonished with the natural beauties of Montenegro and many of them promised to come back, even before they had visited the Bay of Kotor, where they will stay at campsite Naluka in Morinj (see: http://montenegro-for.me/2014/07/boka-kotorska-the-charm-of-morinj-2/).

campers6 Susicko lakeWho are these camper enthusiasts? Well, most participants are retired and their average age is above 65! Surprised? Why should you, when you know that most of these tourists are in perfect health and their income/pension enables them to travel as much as they want. Some of them even sell their house to buy a camper (the price for comfortable camper vans – homes on wheels -can be up to 100,000 €): they spend 4-5 winter months in Spain or Portugal and travel around Europe and beyond for the rest of the year.

It’s a fact: Traveling by camper has become a lifestyle. It means escaping from the usual itineraries of mass tourism and, instead of that, discovering the magic of pristine nature, thrilling landscapes and ancient traditions in a completely flexible way. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity!

campers7 TrsaIn January 2016, the National Tourism Organization hired a booth on the Utrecht Holiday Fair – for the first time in five years. And it was a success! The daily presentations of Paul Wennekes, author of the first travel book about Montenegro in Dutch, were attended by many people who were interested in traveling to Montenegro. And of course, most of them were camper tourists…

The fact that the Croatian booth had available tons of brochures about camping possibilities might be a good lesson for Montenegro, if they intend to participate in the Utrecht Fair next year.

campers8 village guest houseMoreover, it would be absolutely necessary to provide more and better campsites. At the moment, there are only a few campsites that can accommodate a group of 15-20 campers. Let’s be clear: it is not necessary to provide luxury – camper tourists just require clean sanitary facilities, electricity, water and a flat pitch. And don’t think that they are not willing to spend money in the country: most of them have lunch or dinner in a restaurant, they visit museums and national parks, buy souvenirs and other articles – and if excursions would be organized to private guest houses in authentic villages (photo 8), this would also open economic possibilities for the population of Northern Montenegro.

The project “Panoramic Routes” that has started with signposting of the “Circuit around Korita” represents a real boost for the promotion of camper tourism. I really hope that this type of tourism will be promoted much more intensely, as it also offers a good chance for development of the northern part of Montenegro (photo 9).

campers9 Durmitor

 

THE AMAZING METEORA MONASTERIES

Meteora1 AnapafsasMeteora2 VarlaamOne of the highlights of our last trip through Albania and Greece was a visit to Meteora, a collection of Greek-Orthodox monasteries perched on gigantic 400 meters high rock pillars above the town of Kalambaka. It is no wonder that six (out of the initial number of 24) historical monasteries have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List and that they are visited by numerous tourists from all over the world.

Approaching the Meteora after a long drive, we got aware that this is really one of the most spectacular places to visit in Greece: a unique experience of nature’s grandeur in conjunction with history, architecture and the Orthodox religion.

Meteora3 VarlaamGood hotels and campsites can be found everywhere: we found accommodation at camping Vrachos Kastraki, where we enjoyed a delicious Greek moussaka, while watching the sunset behind the rock pillars.

But let me tell you something about the history of Meteora. Between the 14th and 16th century, the monasteries were built by monks who had lived there as hermits in caves from the 11th century. It took months and years to carry the building material to the top of rocks. The monks used ropes, long ladders, nets and baskets. They liked the isolation and difficulty of access, as this allowed for quiet contemplation and prayer. Of course, the monasteries were also suitable for fending off invading hordes of Turks.

Nowadays, six monasteries are open to visitors (entrance fee: € 3.00). You don’t have to get hoisted up in a basket any more, but getting there is still not so easy, as you have to pass many steps and bridges that were added subsequently. A strict dress code is enforced: shoulders must be covered, men must wear long trousers and women long skirts. Although I was wearing long pants, I had to lend a skirt to cover myself!

Meteora4 Great MeteoronAfter a quiet night, we got up early to make a round tour of the monasteries on the basis of a good map that was provided by the campsite. But of course, it was necessary to make a choice, as it would have been impossible to visit all monasteries in one day.

The first monastery we saw from the road was Agios Nikolaos Anapfasas (photo 1) – in translation: Saint Nicholas the one who rests you. It was founded at the end of the 14th century and has an extraordinary position on the top of a rock pillar.

Meteora5 Great MeteoronWe decided to pay our first visit to Varlaam, the second biggest monastery, located opposite to the Great Meteoron Monastery. It was founded in the 14th century by Hosios Varlaam (photo 2).

In this monastery we visited the tower from where a net was used by the first monks for their ascent and descent from the rock, until it was “God’s will to have it replaced”! Nowadays, the tower is still used: it was very interesting to see how workers lowered a steel basket for bringing up building materials for the reconstruction works (photo 3).

Meteora6 RoussanouBut of course, the most important monastery to visit was the Great Meteoron Monastery or Metamorphosis, which is also the highest and the oldest. Platys Lithos, the gigantic rock on which the monastery stands, rises 615 meters above sea level. That is why it was called the monastery that was “suspended in the air” (meteoro).

It was not easy to reach the core of the monastery: we had to pass many narrow steps, first down over a bridge and then up through a stone tower and beside high walls, but finally we were awarded with a fantastic experience. The main cathedral in the central courtyard (photo 4) contained beautiful 16th-century frescoes (unfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos). After visiting the museum with its wonderful medieval icons, we were shocked to see the skulls of former residents, lined up on shelves in the sacristy (photo 5). The spacious courtyard, full of flowers, offered a divine experience and a rewarding view of the surroundings awaited us on the upper terrace.

Meteora7 Aga TriadaOn our way back, we took a look inside the old refectory of the monks and the old kitchen, still black with smoke, with the original bread oven and soup hearth.

Continuing our drive, we discovered the Monastery of Roussanou (photo 6) on a lower elevation. It was named after the first probable hermit who settled on the rock. We could not stop admiring the amazing environment, a wonder of nature and architecture. As we had to cross a small bridge from another peak to get to this monastery – we just passed by.

Meteora8 StefanosThe Agia Triada or Holy Trinity Monastery (photo 7) was founded in the 15th century. It was interesting to read that this monastery was used for the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only”. We also skipped the visit of this monastery, as it was very difficult to reach: we would have to walk up 140 steps cut into the rock.

The last monastery we saw on our round trip was Agios Stefanos (photo 8), the only convent in Meteora that has an unimpeded view of the plain towards the town of Kalambaka (the Turkish word for “pinnacle”). Unfortunately, we had spent too much time in the most impressive Great Meteoron monastery (photo 9), so that we were too late for a visit, but we got a good impression of the building from the parking lot.

After all these experiences, our evening was concluded with grilled meat from the campsite’s barbecue with fresh salad and potatoes. The restaurant was full of people who were deeply impressed by their visit of the Meteora. This is really a very special attraction in the northern part of Greece that can be easily reached, also from Montenegro!

Meteora9 Great Meteoron

 

ALONG THE COAST OF SOUTH ALBANIA

South Albanian coast1Traveling by car along the Albanian coast is an amazing experience. Many new tourist resorts are rising from the Adriatic Sea: in towns like Velipoja, Shengjin, Dürres and Vlora, hundreds of new apartment buildings and hotels are under construction. Infrastructure is developed in the form of palm-lined promenades, wide boulevards and sunny squares with pretty street cafés. New districts are constructed according to strict urban-planning standards.

South Albanian coast2 Himare beachMany tourists come from Kosovo and are interested in a beach holiday with good food and a vibrant nightlife, all according to the formula “sea, sun, sand”. But what about those foreigners, who visit Albania searching for adventure, pure nature and quiet beaches?

I would recommend them to follow the coastal road south of Vlora down to Saranda. At a distance of 125 km (at least three hours driving), this road offers one of the most scenic and spectacular views along the Adriatic and Ionian coasts (photo 1). Although we had visited this part of Albania before, we enjoyed our camper trip as if it were the first time.

South Albanian coast3 Ali Pasha's CastleFrom Vlora, we followed the rocky cliffs and transparent blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. South of Orikon, the road headed inland. Many small villages were scattered over the slopes of the mountains.

Gradually, the vegetation changed into pine forests: in Llogara National Park, typical flag pines could be seen, named for their flat tops. At the top of the Llogara pass, a large panorama point (1000 m above sea level) offered a breathtaking view of the Ionian Sea, with a steep slope lunging down to the water’s edge. A picturesque switchback road with lots of sharp bends brought us closer to the sea once more, passing authentic villages and deserted beaches.

South Albanian coast5We found accommodation at Camping Kranea in Himarë, a small campground with lots of shade in an old olive grove,  directly on the long sandy beach (photo 2). A wonderful place indeed, and obviously very popular – most of the pitches were occupied, although the season has not even started. Dinner – what else but fresh mussels, a specialty of this region – in the cozy open restaurant was delicious.

Next day we continued our trip. The first stop was at the Porto Palermo Castle, not far from Himarë (photo 3). It was built by Ali Pasha of Tepelena in the late 18th century, although some sources state that it was built much earlier, by the Venetians. Porto Palermo looks like a fairy tale: on a little peninsula in a closed bay, it is surrounded by abundant vegetation, a lovely beach and clear water. The slopes of the mountains opposite the castle are covered by huge agavas, their flowers tall as trees.

South Albanian coast6Yes, nature is spectacular along this part of the Albanian Riviera and it was strange to see the long and almost deserted sandy beaches, sometimes serving as a resting place for cattle only (photo 4).

There was hardly any traffic on the winding and rather dangerous road, at some streches full of potholes. Farmers were transporting their milk with horses and donkeys (photo 6). From time to time, shepherds with flocks of sheep and goats were blocking the traffic.

Approaching Saranda, the scenery changed again. Dozens of hills that looked like green pyramids appeared in front of us. A long time ago, the hillsides were terraced and planted with olives and citrus trees (photo 5). Their cultivation is still very important, but many olive groves and citrus terraces seem to be neglected and abandoned – is this way of fruit and olive growing too time-consuming and labor-intensive to be competitive with other countries?

South Albanian coast7The townscape of Saranda showed up as soon as we reached the coast (photo 7). Another beautiful, sunny city opposite to the Greek island of Corfu. Mass tourism has started here many years ago.

But honestly speaking, I hope that the remaining part of the South Albanian Riviera can be saved from mass tourism development. As the most important roads leading to Greece pass through the continental part of Albania (Gjirokastra) and good infrastructure along the coast is still missing, maybe this region will remain a hidden secret for adventurous nature lovers for another few years…

South Albanian Coast8 Sarande

 

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