AN UNKNOWN WILD FRUIT: CORNELIAN CHERRIES (CORNUS MAS)

d1 d3Have you ever seen or tasted cornelian cherries? In Montenegro they are called “drenjine”. Many foreigners probably do not know these wild berries that usually ripen in September, as they are consumed in Eastern Europe and Iran only. In Western Europe the tree is also grown as an ornamental plant for its late winter flowers, which appear well before the leaves (photo 1). For me it is a real pleasure to see the tiny yellow flowers of the wild Cornus trees in Montenegro, as they are the first sign that the winter is over, even when the mountains are still covered with snow (photo 2).

Cornelian cherries (also called cornels) are not really cherries. They look like deep red olives (photo 3). In ancient Greek literature, they were primarily considered food for pigs, but the Armenians, Greeks, Romans and Persians must have liked them in spite of this, because the cherries are often mentioned as edible fruits in their manuscripts.

d2The Cornus tree was also used for other purposes. Its berries have a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, and its wood was used from the 7th century BC onward by Greek craftsmen to construct spears and bows. Red dye for clothes was produced from its bark and tannin from its leaves.

But also today, cornelian cherries are used in several ways. In Armenia, the fruit is used for distilling vodka and in Albania it serves for making raki. In Turkey and Iran it is eaten with salt as a snack in summer, and traditionally drunk in a cold drink called kizicik serbeti. As the berries are very high in vitamin C, they are also used to fight colds and flues.

Cornels are highly appreciated in the villages of central Montenegro. That is why I was very glad to get a bucket full of “drenjine” from our friend Mladen. Of course, I did not know how to prepare them, but his instructions for making delicious syrup were simple enough. And the result was excellent!

d4That is why I want to share this experience with you and give you his recipe:

Ingredients: 5 kg Cornelian cherries, 4 kg sugar, 4 Limuntus

Wash and drain the berries (photo 4); Add enough water to cover the berries; Boil for about 40 minutes; Strain through a small-mesh strainer or a cheesecloth, mashing the cooked berries; Discard the solids and wait until the juice has cooled to room temperature; Add the sugar and stir to dissolve it; Boil the syrup 30-40 minutes at medium heat; Pour into sterile jars or plastic bottles (you can store the syrup in the refrigerator for up to one week). For use: just add water or sparkling mineral water to the syrup to suit your taste.

Maybe it’s difficult to get the berries, but sometimes you can find them on the market, in September. Give it a try: it is a really refreshing and, above all, healthy drink! (photo 5)

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REVISITING KUČKA KORITA: A LESSON IN HOSPITALITY

kk1kk2 I don’t know why I am so fond of Kučka Krajina. Is it the extraordinary karst landscape, the picturesque road, the immense space of the rocky pastures or the magnificent view of the Cijevna canyon? Or is it just the feeling that you are far away from the crowds in Podgorica, alone with nature and life in its purest form?

We wanted to show this beautiful region to our friends from the Netherlands and so we climbed along the winding road (see my blog post: Grlo Sokolovo) to the vast plateau of Kučka Korita. Once a „katun“ with summer pastures, today this is more of a weekend resort. It is almost impossible to see the difference between the low stone walls, made by men, and the karst rocks scattered all over the plateau (photo 1).

kk3Most cottages were abandoned, only some of them were surrounded by flocks of sheep with a lonely shepherd. We followed the former patrol path of the border guard, which appeared to be well-marked now. That was a pleasant surprise! After half an hour of hiking, following the trail across meadows and through the woods (photo 2), we arrived at Grlo Sokolovo (Falcon’s Throat), one of the most beautiful viewpoints in Montenegro. Through a bluish haze, we saw the mighty Cijevna canyon and the endless mountain peaks of the Albanian Alps (photo 3).

kk4The path led us through dense forests and over a steep hill – all the marks were freshly painted in red and white – and finally we got back to the plateau where we sat down for a rest. After a while, an old shepherd came to see us. He explained us that he and his wife had just come back from the high mountains near Rikavačko jezero, where they had spent the summer with their sheep, manufacturing “Kučki sir”, the famous cheese from the Kuči region. He invited us for a cup of coffee with his family, in his cottage nearby.

kk5We followed him, admired his flock of sheep (photo 4) – the first lamb was already born – and entered the home of the Malissore family Nikprelević (photo 5). It was nice and cosy, a fire was lighted in the fire place and the family members – two sons and a daughter with their families – were really glad to see us. The table was immediately covered with all sorts of beverages. “Priganice” were served, followed by different kinds of delicious home-made cheese, bread and tomatoes. Gradually, more and more people entered the house: neighbors, relatives and other guests, who came to see the “foreign tourists”, as a visit of foreigners to their village is an absolute rarity! It appeared to be impossible to leave … as grandmother wanted to make a specialty for us: “vareni sir” or a kind of cooked cheese – rather heavy for our Western stomachs, but incredibly tasty (photo 6).

kk6It was obvious that these people are very proud of their land, their tribe and family, but also of their achievements. It reminded me of the books of Edith Durham, who described this region in her book “High Albania” in 1909, writing about the warm welcome she was accorded by Malissores and Montenegrins. The same hospitality and openness, the same old customs and traditions … The oldest son, Deda, a successful businessman, told me a lot about their way of living, the beauties of the Kučke Planine mountains and his wish to show all this to nature lovers and to develop tourism. I promised him to promote Kučka Korita and to give his address to all people who want to explore this region – by jeep or hiking.

Impressed by this lesson in hospitality, we finally succeeded in leaving this cordial family and continuing our hiking tour over the rocky pastures – back to our starting point near the old military barracks.

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PODGORICA WALKING TOUR II: TRANSFORMERS DEFENDING PODGORICA

 p1a p1Some people say that Podgorica is boring and unattractive. I don’t agree! But it‘s true: Podgorica got a new face last summer, which makes it much more interesting, not only for tourists but also for local inhabitants! In July, an environmental exhibition of sculptures made by Danilo Baletić (22)​ was set up, within the “Podgorica Summer 2014” event. The sculptor calls it “Transformers Defending Podgorica”.

Over the past two years, Danilo has created seven realistic sculptures of Transformers, using scrap metal out of the scrap yard owned by his father. The idea to create these characters was born in his childhood. Like many other children, he grew up with the popular cartoon series from the 1980s. With the exhibition, he wants to catch people’s attention and send a message that waste can be “transformed” and used for better purposes!

p1cDanilo’s fearsome robots can now be found on seven different locations around the center of Podgorica. They have been placed on street corners, in parks, pedestrian zones and on the city’s main square where you can find his biggest Transformer: a 25-ton Megatron, around 14 meters high. No need to say that the exhibition has also been covered by the international press. Many foreign tourists are now interested in seeing these monsters. But how can they find them? That is the reason why I have designed another Podgorica Walking Tour, which enables you to see all seven Transformers and also make a walk in the beautiful forest park “Gorica”. Follow the red line on the map: the Transformers are marked with a purple circle (photo 1). The tour can be made in one hour and a half or less, but you can also use the opportunity to walk to the top of the Gorica hill (130 m), from where you have a magnificent view of Montenegro’s capital (yellow line).

p1bThe walking tour starts in front of the old Crna Gora Hotel (red cross), once a symbol of the city, which was unfortunately dismantled to make space for the new Hilton Hotel (now under construction). The first Transformer is proudly standing opposite to the hotel, at the entrance of the shady King’s Park, renewed by the government of Azerbaijan.

Enter the main street, Slobode, which is closed for traffic from 5 PM to 5 AM, as it is used as a promenade by the inhabitants of Podgorica. You will soon reach the vast central square, Trg Republike, which is dominated by a 14 m high Transformer (photo 2). Continue in the direction of the city stadium: on the first big intersection you will see the third Transformer on the right side, in front of a new office building.

p2Cross the street, keep the stadium on your left side and you will soon arrive in the green zone of Forest Park “Gorica” (Podgorica means “under Gorica”). Don’t miss the little Orthodox church of St. George on your right side! This old church dates back to the 10th century and is hidden behind castle-like walls. Inside are the remains of centuries-old frescoes with very interesting scenes (photo 3). There is also a creepy overgrown cemetery behind the enclosure of the church. Spooky!

Pass the stone gate and you will enter the forest park. Uphill is Podgorica’s most impressive war memorial that is certainly worth a visit. It is an impressive white mausoleum flanked by fierce-looking Partizan fighters and it was made in 1957 (photo 4).

p5Walk then back to the intersection and turn right in the direction of the Millennium Bridge, the new symbol of Podgorica. Take the first street left, called Njegoševa, where a red Transformer is watching the passers-by. Turn then right into the pedestrian shopping zone, called Hercegovačka, which is also defended by a yellow transformer (photo 5). Cross the street – on your right is the new UN eco-building – and cross the pedestrian Moscow Bridge over the Morača river that was built in 2009 as a present of the city of Moscow. Turn left on the other side of the river and walk back over the Gazela Hanging Bridge, another pedestrian bridge that leads through the shady Podgorica parks (you can also avoid the bridges by turning left when you leave Hercegovačka, walking directly to the National Theatre – follow the yellow line on the map). Opposite to the National Theatre, on the corner of the park, is Transformer no. 6.

When you come from the park, continue your walk through Vučedolska, turn a few meters left and in front of the town hall you will see the last robot (photo 6). Walk back through Njegoševa and don’t forget to drink a cup of coffee in one of the nice pubs. Being Dutch, I like the Rembrandt café, decorated with paintings of the famous painter. You will now arrive in the main Boulevard Sveti Petar Cetinjski – turn left and walk through the shady avenue (photo 7) along the Central Bank to the starting point. I hope you enjoyed the tour!

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ALBANIA, SHKODRA: A BIKING TOUR TO URA E MESIT (MES BRIDGE)

um1 um2Enjoying the Indian summer, we spent a relaxed weekend in Lake Shkodra Resort (a perfect place to spend a few days and only 55 km or one hour driving from Podgorica!) with our friends from the Netherlands. The weather was sunny and it was a good opportunity to hire bicycles and make a biking tour to the famous Ottoman bridge Ura e Mesit, which is situated eight kilometers northeast from Shkodra – or 15 km from the Resort (photo 1).

At the reception we got a map and so we took off along the main road to Shkodra, passed the bridge and at the first roundabout, around 7 km north from Shkodra, we turned left (leaving the new Catholic church on our right side) in the direction of Gruemirë. The narrow asphalt road led us through small villages scattered in a fertile plain. After a while, we turned left and crossed the dry river bed of the Kir river (photo 2).There were no signposts at all, but passers-by were happy to show us the right direction. Many of them spoke a few words English and a young woman really touched us by her kind words: „Thank you for visiting our country!“

um3Although it was the first day of Kurban Bajram, some women were working on the land, collecting corn cobs. Sheep and goats were roaming around, which contributed to the picturesque atmosphere of the landscape. Accompanied by the voice of the imam from the village mosque uphill, we enjoyed the ride, encountering many people, women and children in festive clothing, who greeted us cordially. They were obviously in a good mood and happy to see foreign tourists in their village. Motorbikes were packed with complete families on it – in many cases two adults and two children – everybody was going somewhere to celebrate the Feast of Sacrifice.

um4After a biking tour of 15 km we reached the village of Mes. The famous Ottoman bridge – Ura e Mesit means „bridge in the middle“ – spans the Kir river and was built in around 1770 by Kara Mahmud Bushati, the local Ottoman pasha. Ura e Mesit is 108 m long, 3 m wide and it has 13 arches, of which the main span measures 22 m. It represents one of the longest and best preserved Ottoman bridges in the region. Ura e Mesit was built along the ancient trade road from Shkodra to Kosovo, which dates back to pre-Roman times. Much of the original route disappeared below the waters of the Drini valley dams, but here in Mes you can still see how important this bridge has been, although the route was only a few meters wide (photo 3).

um5If you want to make photos, cross the modern bridge that bypasses Ura e Mesit, so that you can admire the old bridge from all sides. The Kir river has always been clean, blue and transparent, but unfortunately, the solid waste problem is causing a lot of harm to the tourism value of this area. There is rubbish everywhere along the road, even near the bridge (photo 4).

If you are not a biking fan, you can also easily reach the Mes bridge from Shkodra. Although there are no regular furgons, you can rent a taxi for an hour or so, which will be sufficient to visit the bridge. But I believe that a biking tour is much more interesting, as it enables you to learn more about this part of  Albania, where you can still admire beautiful traditional costumes (photo 5), especially on holidays. And the fact that you are welcomed and greeted in such a cordial way by the population of this area will certainly compensate the piles of litter you can not avoid seeing along the route… Biking is so good for you! (photo 6)

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POMEGRANATE: SYMBOL OF ABUNDANCE AND FERTILITY

 p1 p2When I visited Montenegro for the first time, I had never seen a pomegranate. Montenegrin friends wanted to make fun of me and explained that I had to eat it as an apple. I took a bite … wow, what an unpleasant experience: the rind was very bitter!  But soon I learned to appreciate this healthy fruit and especially the juice that is often made in the rural area of the country.

It is interesting to know that pomegranate (photo 1) is one of the oldest fruits mentioned in history, literature and folklore. It is native to Iran, from where it was actually brought to  India and China more than 2000 years ago. It made its way to Italy via Carthago or „Punic“ as this city was called by the ancient Romans. Therein lies the root of its Latin name, Punica granatum. Ancient Romans did not only enjoy the succulent flesh of this fruit, they also tanned and used the rinds as a form of leather. Nowadays, the pomegranate continues to be a popular ingredient in the Mediterranean cuisine.

p3It was the Moors who brought the fruit to Spain around 800 A.D. The city of Granada was named for it and the fruit appears in its shield. The fruit is also praised in the Qu’ran, the Bible and the Talmud. Moreover, the pomegranate is one of the old semitic symbols meaning a life of abundance and wealth, and in the Babylonian empire the fruit was served at weddings and represented the symbol of love and fertility.

In Montenegro, wild pomegranate thrives in the calcareous karst areas along the Adriatic Coast, around Skadar Lake and in other sunny places in the central and southern part of the country. It grows as an attractive shrub or tree from 2 to 6 meters high. It has many branches, more or less spiny, with glossy and oblong leaves. The showy flowers at the branch tips are bright red (photo 2) and the fruit is yellow overlaid with red, with a leathery rind (photo 3).

p4The fruit of cultivated pomegranates is larger and sweeter than the wild species, in particular „Pomegranates from Bar“, which are grown on plantings round this town on the foothill of Mount Rumija. It seeds are very sweet and juicy and they are mostly eaten out of hand or at the table: the pomegranate is deeply scored several times vertically and than broken apart. Then the seeds can be shaken out of the rind and eaten. Montenegrins consider this not a laborious handicap but a social or family activity, prolonging the pleasure of dining or being together (photo 4).

p5Wild pomegranates contain a lot of citamine C. The fruits start to ripen from October and remain on the branch tips during the winter, if not picked (photo 5). The seeds are tangy and are used for making juice, which is usually sweetened for beverage purposes. This juice is very popular in Montenegro, not only as a refreshing beverage, but also for its medical characteristics: it prevents colds, is used for treating diarrhea and dysentery and is also a tonic recommended to heart patients.

In the villages of South and Central Montenegro you can still find primitive, but very functional hand-made wooden presses, which are used for straining out pomegranates (photo 6). The extracted fresh juice is consumed after pressing or may be frozen for future use. Well-known is the Grenadine syrup that is prepared by boiling the juice with sugar.

p6Finally I would like to give you some recipes:

For Grenadine syrup you need 1 liter of pomegranate juice and 1 kg of sugar. Boil equal parts of juice with sugar until slightly thickened. Store in the fridge and drink cool, mixed with water. Can also be used for sauces.

For Pomegranate juice you need 1 liter of pomegranate juice, sugar or honey as needed. After pressing, freeze the filtered juice in plastic bottles in the freezer. Before use, unfreeze and mix with water, add honey or sugar as needed. Can also be used for various cocktails, etc.

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BACK TO MY ROOTS: BUNSCHOTEN-SPAKENBURG

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b2 Each time when I am in the Netherlands, I visit Bunschoten, the village where my father was born. The history of this village, situated in the central part of Holland, dates back to the 12th century. Bunschoten was a village of well-off farmers, while the nearby village of Spakenburg flourished by fishing and trading. Its rather isolated position on an inland saltwater sea connected to the North Sea was ideal for a wind-powered fishing fleet. But things radically changed by the construction of the dike between the North Sea and the former Zuiderzee.

b3As a child, I loved to spend my school holidays at my grandfather’s cow farm. My father’s family was ultra-religious and very conservative. Women were dressed in their traditional costumes and my grandmother and aunt spent a lot of time each morning in putting on these complicated historical clothes, using a lot of safety pins, hooks and bars. The most iconic part of this costume was the ”kraplap”. A kraplap is a starched rectangle of fabric with a hole in the middle, which is put over the head. It is worn together with two pieces of checkered fabric, white stripes on red. (photo 1). In Bunschoten, women used to roll up their hair over a hair-rat and then wear it in a bun underneath a starched white lace cap (photo 7) – a very complicated procedure!

b4My grandfather was very proud of his 17th-century family Bible – each day he read (aloud) a complete bible chapter after dinner. I remember how hard it was for me to stay quiet for those twenty minutes or even more… Sundays were strictly observed as days of obligation to the Lord. All people went to church two or three times, all establishments were closed and even the local football games were held on Saturdays.

I still cherish a lot of beautiful memories from those times. Unfortunately, the old farm was demolished, as the land was needed for the construction of a new factory. From the whole family, only my aunt Jannetje is still alive (photo 2) and I regularly visit her in the old age home in Spakenburg, where she has been living for the last five years. She is 95 years old, completely blind and physically very weak, but she is still in a good mood. She never complains and she is grateful to God for the good life she had.

b5Bunschoten and Spakenburg have now developed into one community, with a present population of 20,000, which still clings to age-old traditions. Many elder women (around 500) still wear their traditional costumes on a daily basis; however, it is estimated that the costume will disappear from daily life within the next 10 years.

That is the reason why I was glad to have the opportunity to attend the Spakenburg Fishery Day this year, which is organized each first Saturday of September. This is a day when the community „goes back in time“. Many inhabitants – also young people and children – are dressed in traditional costumes and the wooden fishing boats („botters“) moor in the harbour, with their sails hoisted (photo 3). The inhabitants are glad to show every aspect of their traditional life: handicrafts like manufacturing of fishing nets, smoking herring, mackrel and eel (photo 4), preparing special brandy with raisins or apple puree (photo 5) – everything is on display for the numerous visitors and tourists. The products are often paid by a „donation“ to the church or a charity organization.

b6Walking around, I had the feeling as if I could travel through time and be a child again, helping my aunt to hang the traditional clothes on the clothesline in the courtyard. She used a twisted rope, simply tucked the edges of the clothes between the strands and let tension, created by a wooden rod, hold it in place (photo 6). I tasted the local butter cake, called “Spakenburgs’ hart” (Spakenburg’s Heart), which was (and still is) always served at birthday parties. And of course, I enjoyed the salted herring and smoked eel!

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HERZEGOVINA HIGHLIGHTS: POČITELJ, KRAVICE WATERFALLS AND MEDJUGORJE

 p1 Tourists who spend their holidays on the Dalmatian Coast or Dubrovnik Riviera, and even those who plan a longer stay in Mostar, have the opportunity to make an interesting day trip to three special highlights in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These tourist attractions can be found close to each other, 30-40 km southwest of Mostar and at a short distance from Metković, i.e. the Bosnian-Croatian border.

p2We started the trip with a visit of Počitelj, a unique medieval settlement in Ottoman style, built on a hill that dominates the riverbed of the Neretva River. It was recently reconstructed and is now listed as a UNESCO heritage site. The most important sites of Počitelj are the Hadži-Alija Mosque, a medresa, hamam and a silo-shaped fortress on the top of the hill (photo 1). The well-preserved old stone houses (photo 2) certainly contribute to the unique Oriental atmosphere of the town.

While we were walking down the narrow cobbled streets, the inhabitants offered us souvenirs, but also fruit and other home-made products. Climbing the steep stone stairs, we visited the beautiful mosque and finally also explored the mysterious fortress, from which we had a magnificent view of the surroundings.

p3The spectacular Kravice Waterfalls are situated 7 km south of Ljubuški (follow the road from Čapljina to Ljubuški and you can’t miss the signpost). I was really surprised to see these stunning falls (photo 3), as I had never heard or read about them before. They are absolutely amazing! This is the place where the Trebižat River, with its limestone deposits, is divided into separate currents, which cascade over a drop of more than 30 meters in a semi-circle of rocks that is 140 m wide. The cold and clear water is emerald green; grass, moss and lichen grow on the tuff deposits and create a unique ambiance (photo 4).

After walking down from the parking lot, we found a place on the terrace of a small restaurant, where we could enjoy the view and relax by listening to the rumbling from the waterfalls. It was nice and fresh in the shade, as vaporized water particles created a cool mist in the valley. Many people enjoyed a swim in the cold water and local teenagers climbed the rocks and jumped down. We did not see or hear a single foreign tourist, which means that these waterfalls have not been discovered yet. I think they are gorgeous! Don’t miss them when you travel around this region!

p4The third highlight we visited was, of course, the famous Catholic pilgrimage site Medjugorje. Its story is well-known: in 1981 six teenagers were playing together in the hills near Medjugorje, where Mother Mary appeared and spoke to them. The apparitions did not cease: Mother Mary appeared again and again to them with special messages for the believers. It is estimated that over 15 million people have visited this sleepy village in Herzegovina, so that it has become the second largest Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. However, there has been much controversy over the legitimacy of the visions and apparitions, so that the Pope has not recognized Medjugorje as an official pilgrimage site. But nevertheless, millions of faithful Catholics from all over the world visit the place and its sacred spots and many amazing testimonies suggest that miracles are a regular occurrence here.

p5I must admit: I was not impressed… Of course, it is true, I am not a Catholic. But as far as I can see, Medjugorje has become a commercial center with countless shops and restaurants. Ugly souvenirs, huge and tiny sculptures of Mary, pillows with Mary’s picture, T-shirts with Mary’s portrait, calendars, necklaces, wooden crosses, Catholic books and DVD’s, candles – everything is for sale. The place is crowded and the prices are high. We also entered the central church, which is simple and not particularly attractive (photo 6). The mass was held in Croatian; there are dozens of  “cabins” for people, who want to make a confession in all possible languages…

But I admit, I also saw people who were deeply touched and obviously found consolation in their prayers (photo 5). I just don’t understand …

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ISLAND HOPPING IN CROATIA: THE ELAPHITI ISLANDS

e1 e2When you are spending your holidays on the Dubrovnik Riviera, a boat tour to the Elaphiti Islands – a small archipelago stretching northwest of Dubrovnik – is a “must”. We booked a day trip from Slano with a visit to Šipan and Lopud, two of the three permanently inhabited islands. Of course, it is easier to take one of the regular ferries leaving from Dubrovnik on a daily basis.The archipelago consists of thirteen islands with a total land area of around 30 square kilometers and a population of 850 inhabitants. The hilly islands have characteristic Mediterranean evergreen vegetation with dense forests. The name comes from the Ancient Greek word for deer (elaphos), which used to inhabit the islands in large numbers. The Roman author Pliny the Elder was the first to mention the Elaphiti Islands – or Deer Islands – in his work Naturalis Historia in the 1st century.

e3The boat took us through the Bay of Slano and soon we approached the beautiful green islands of Jakljan and Šipan. Šipan is also called “Golden Island”, as many aristocratic manor houses were built here in the time of the Dubrovnik Republic.

We had a break in Šipanska Luka, one of the two fishing ports on the island. The sleepy village consists of old crumbled stone houses, a church with a nice view (photo 2) and a picturesque harbor with several restaurants and pubs. A quiet place, probably because there are no sandy beaches. However, although we did not have time to go around, it was clear that the beautiful rocky coastline represents a special attraction for kayakers. Some of them were exploring a picturesque cave in the surroundings (photo 1). It was a pity that we could not take a walk on one of the well-marked trails on the island. Maybe another time!

e4The boat tour continued along the rocky cliffs on the back side of Šipan (photo 3) and the next stop was in Lopud (photo 4), the second island in size and best known for its sandy beaches. Although this is a car-free island, tourism appeared to be well-developed here, with a big hotel and many charming restaurants and pubs dotting the seafront and overlooking the small beaches. The harbor was full of yachts, motor boats and kayaks. After spending an hour or so on the beach and enjoying the clear sea water, we visited the Arboretum passing through an old gate flanked by stone lions (photo 5). It was nice and cool, quiet and perfectly maintained. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to visit the Šunj beach on the other side of the island and the fortress on the top of the hill.

e5Finally, we visited Suđurađ, on the other side of the Šipan island. This place is connected with Dubrovnik by a daily ferry and that it is why it is rather crowded. But anyhow, it is a charming fishing village with an old fortress and beautiful old houses around the harbor (photo 6).

Altogether, it was an interesting tour. First of all, I was surprised to see that sea kayaking has become a new active tourism trend in Croatia. Moreover, I discovered that much money is invested in the reconstruction of old manors, fortresses and churches in all villages we visited and this is certainly positive for tourism development, in particular as it is obviously prohibited to build “modern” houses or high-rise buildings. In my opinion, this is the right way to develop tourism!

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STON, CROATIA: MEDIEVAL WALLS, SALT PANS AND OYSTERS

 st1 st3Ston, a small fortified town on the Pelješac Peninsula, about 54 km north-west of Dubrovnik, is becoming more and more popular as a tourist attraction. The defensive walls that surround the town are absolutely unique, but Ston is also famous for its oyster production and the 2000-years old salt works in the vicinity that have produced sea salt for centuries.

Visitors of Ston have the possibility to take a walking tour of the 5.5 kilometers long Ston Walls that have been under reconstruction for many years (photo 1). The renovation was initiated by the Association for Preservation of Dubrovnik Historical Heritage, and it was mainly financed by Dubrovnik City Walls ticket sale.

st6The walls, fortified by around 40 towers and five citadels, spreading along the entire length of the peninsula, were built by the Dubrovnik Republic between 1333 and 1506. Two small towns – Ston and Mali Ston were established at the southern and north tip of the walls. The walls were meant to protect the precious salt pans that contributed to Dubrovnik’s wealth. At that time, a kilo of salt was worth the same as a kilo of gold, so whoever controlled the salt pans was rich (photo 2).

After a short sightseeing of Ston with its beautiful old stone houses and churches, we started the tour at 8.30 AM (the cost of an entrance ticket is 40 kunas or € 5.50 per person and opening hours are from 8.30 AM to 7.30 PM during the summer).

st3aAttention: if you want to make the tour, you need a good physical condition (photo 3). The breathtaking views from the walls – 5-10 meters high – come with a price tag (photo 4). Although the ancient walls are safe and sturdy, with a guard rail on both sides, you are not advised to walk up when you have any fear of heights. The stairs are quite steep and the sun is burning very intensely. Anyhow, you should wear comfortable walking shoes, as the old stones can be slippery when coming down (photo 5). And don’t forget your camera: the panoramas are magnificent!

The walking tour from Ston to Mali Ston took us around one hour and a half (plus the walk back to Ston along the road – 10 minutes). Mali Ston is a nice village, dominated by the fortress of Koruna that is part of the city walls and the small port (photo 6).

st4Eating oysters or mussels in Mali Ston should be an essential part of your visit to this area. You can buy them in the street stalls along the port, but the best seafood restaurant is Kapetanova Kuća, situated on the waterfront.

For us, the walking tour around the Ston Walls was a very special experience and we will not easily forget it!

 

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DISCOVER VJETRENICA: THE “WIND CAVE” IN BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA

 v1 v2Most tourists traveling along the Adriatic Highway from the Montenegrin border in northern direction do not know anything about „Vjetrenica“, a cave in Herzegovina that is visible on a well-marked road sign along the Highway, around 30 km north from Dubrovnik near Slano. Strange enough, this is one of the most impressive caves in the Dinaric Alps mountain range!

We decided to satisfy our curiosity and take a look by ourselves. A narrow asphalt road led us to the newly-opened border crossing with Bosnia and Herzegovina and further through a rough and mountainous karst area to the village of Ravno, on the edge of Popovo Polje. The field of Popovo Polje (“Priest’s field”) stretched in front of us, covered by extensive vineyards and grassland (photo 2). The plain is famous for its karstic phenomena, and particularly for the Trebišnjica river, a typical “sinking river”.

v3At a distance of 27 km from the Highway we reached the village and Orthodox monastery of Zavala (photo 3), where we found the entrance of the “špilja” (cave). It was crowded: around thirty foreign tourists were waiting for the beginning of the guided tour (40-60 minutes), as such tours are organized each hour from 10 AM to 6 PM. We bought entrance tickets (€ 5.00 per person) and were provided with helmets and jackets (photo 4), as the constant temperature in the cave is around 11 degrees Centigrade. The guide gave us a lot of security instructions, which was really necessary, as the first part of the cave was very low and narrow, and we were surprised by a strong blast of cold wind!

The total length of the explored part of the cave is 6 km, but the trail for tourists (photo 5) – with protection rails and lighting – has a length of 550 meters (the depth of the cave is 25 m). In reality, geologists have predicted that Vjetrenica could stretch right to the Adriatic Sea and even up to the island of Šipan. The cave system is listed on the Tentative List of UNESCO protected areas.

v4It was not difficult to understand why we got a helmet: at the first 150 meters of the cave the ceiling was very low and we had to bend down our head all the time until reaching a spacious “hall”. It became clear why this cave is called “Wind Cave”: as soon as we entered, the wind was blowing very strongly through the corridor, but stopped when we entered the first hall. A magical experience!

We saw many breath-taking passages and small underground lakes with rare endemic types of shellfish. The amphibious cave salamander Proteus anguinus (called “Human Fish” because of its skin color) is very rare and is adapted to a life in complete darkness.

v5Archeological discoveries showed ancient cave bears and leopards, cave drawings that are estimated to be over 10,000 years old. Especially the “Golden Room” appeared to be very impressive (photo 1) and so was the “Turkish graveyard”, a group of stalagmites that reminded us of Turkish grave monuments. At the end of the trail is “Hajdučki stol”, a stone table and chairs made by the first inhabitants – “hajduk” means outlaw or freedom fighter – of this cave (photo 6).

After our cave tours we had a real “Herzegovinian” snack in the nearby restaurant called “Zavala”: excellent smoked ham, cheese and “kajmak” from the region. To be recommended!v6