Tag Archives: balkans

a winter wander in plitvice, croatia

it was dark, and we hadn’t seen a street sign, a building, even a streetlamp in over an hour. we had seen nary a clue that we were even traveling in the right direction, but had seen no other roads headed in this direction on the map, so we pressed on faithfully into the night, expecting any minute to find a sign.  

the roads toward the interior of croatia were much smaller and more narrow than the decidedly more oft-traveled corridor of the adriatic coastline, thusly making it more difficult for me to progress toward my destinations at the breakneck (and slightly illegal) pace that i had grown accustomed to in rural europe.  despite my frustration, i found a silver lining in the intricacies of the winding country roads, and the fun that came with the need to test my maneuvering skills at a high degree of mastery. dave, on the other hand, didn’t share my navigational enthusiasm.  

whitewalkereventually we found the turnoff we had been looking for and made our way through a tiny town with few amenities or notable attractions.  a light snow was now falling and the ground had accumulated a sheer white layer, making it almost difficult to look directly at with the bright headlights of the car beaming directly onto it.  i approached each turn with a degree of caution, conscious of the fact that i had turned down the rental company on their offer of all-weather tires only a week ago.  

dave guided us to a house, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that he had found on airbnb.  as we pulled into the designated parking space, i humorously remarked,
“…and this is how it ends.  in the pit of some croatian farmer’s barn, never to be seen again.”  dave laughed and exited the vehicle, walking into the house of the property owner to handle the check-in duties while i gathered the bags.  a few minutes later we were claiming beds in our apartment for the night and unwinding from a long day of driving.

@davegurley can't figure out how to use his bed at this B&B… #YoureDoingItWrong

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it was a homely little apartment, but it was just what we needed. it was quaint and quiet, and removed from any hustle or bustle of a normal city.  very different from the place we had stayed the night before in the oceanside town of zadar.  a self-proclaimed “design hostel,” it was clean and minimalist with eccentric aesthetics.  we were the only ones staying in a place that had capacity for at least 80, and our shared-bunk dorm felt like a sick mix between a hospital and a room from charlie’s chocolate factory.  tall ceilings, narrow spaces, the walls were candy-striped with disturbingly contrasted orange and white and the bunks had stiff shutters that could close off from the outside world, allowing the sleeper to create a cocoon.  i wondered if i had missed the part where they assigned me a straightjacket before locking me in the room.  

zadar, croatia
zadar at night

zadar had actually been a pleasant surprise, and i had found myself wishing that i’d been able to stay there longer than the twelve hours i gave it, especially if i could come back some day in the summer.  that

sea organ zadar, croatia
the sea organ

evening, as i walked along the harbor admiring the sunset, i stumbled upon the Morske orgulje, or “sea organ,” an architectural object and experimental musical instrument that produces sound through a series of pipes inset the marble ground i walked upon, powered by the waves of the ocean that brushed up against the side of the marble and into the pipes, pushing air out and producing the unpredictable chorus.  it was truly one of the most uniquely creative things that i had seen on my travels, and also one of the most unexpected.

after a few minutes of unwinding, a knock at the door sounded.  it was the daughter of the property owner with a gift:  homemade rakija.  dave and i both expressed our deep gratitude and accepted the gift, but when we closed the door, we exchanged more knowing glances.

“oh man.  good thing they only gave us these small glasses, this stuff smells stronger than the cherry stuff we had the other night,” dave warned cautiously.

“it is!” i spat out as i coughed down my first sip.  “way stronger!  i think this is peach flavor too.”  we did our best to finish the drink (which i estimate to have been about 2.5 shots worth of alcohol), but neither of us could make it all the way through.  apparently this was the old man’s special recipe, and he distilled it right there on property.  impressive, but not for the faint of heart.

the next morning we arose early and set out to find plitvice lakes national park.  after a 20 minute drive, the windy snow-covered road led us to a parking lot that seemed out of place with the rest of landscape that we had grown accustomed to seeing.  we deduced that this must be the place.

following an oddly unnecessary footbridge over to what appeared to be an empty visitor center,  a tourist bus pulled into the lot and parked while we attempted to figure out where to go and how to pay for whatever it was we were supposed to be seeing.  i laughed as 5 people got off the bus that could hold probably 50.  eventually we found a walking path and assumed that if there was a pay booth somewhere, clearly no one cared if we paid or it would have been more obviously located.  we started down the path perplexedly defiant.

bird's eyethree minutes later we were staring down a cliff surveying a wintery panorama of emerald blue rivers and lakes fed by icy white waterfalls.  i had never seen anything like it.  like a croatian iguazu, we had found a legitimate natural gem in the harsh balkan cold, and there was no one around to spoil our enjoyment of it.  dave and i excitedly bound down the switchbacks until we were at the water’s edge, walking on man-made wooden planked walkways across the water and staring up at the looming waterfalls.

the ice and frigidity of winter had obviously restricted the water flow, somewhat muting the normally powerful display of water in nature in this protected croatian landmark. but we knew we were getting to see a very different side of an oft-photographed sight, and the narnia-like effect that the white winter had on the place gave the atmosphere an eery yet striking touch that made me forget about the bitter cold and enjoy the moment.

dave and i separated for a while, wandering toward different parts of the park and periodically meeting back up in different areas to make sure we weren’t lost.  during that time, i tried to focus on being present, enjoying the moment and not worrying about the future or plitvice walking on waterthe past, or letting my mind wander too far along pointless reveries.  i was getting better at this.  i remembered back to the beginning of my journey, being a total mental mess, roundaboutworried about where i was going in my future, sad and victimized by my past, and always paranoid and conscious of the strangers around me and what they plitvice down in the valleythought of me.  rarely did i have these concerns any longer. occasionally i might be aware that i was out of place in a situation, or i might want to impress someone appropriately, but seldom did i have any social anxiety about my foreign status or my ragged appearance.  i just didn’t care anymore, and i felt liberated.  and nowhere more did that carefree comfort truly reveal itself than when i was
away from congested society and out into the raw of nature.  the worries of life and society seemed to fall by the wayside whenever i wandered a dirt trail among the trees and the rushing water and an unending sky. a light snow and fair breeze coerced the water gently from its course atop the cliff to the basin below, transforming a calm stream into a drifting cascade.  it was peaceful here, and i never wanted to leave.

dave and i reconvened aboard a ferry that carried us across the main lake and to a new section of the park for us to explore for a few more hours.  eventually the cold won out, however, and dave and i decided it best to seek warmer temperatures.

A duck relaxes comfortably in the frigid Croatian winter in Plitvice National Park.

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The next day we were on the road again, and before long we were slipping and sliding our way through the streets of zagreb, the capital city of croatia.  a heavy, wet snow had been falling for hours before we arrived, and still fell, as we searched for parking near our hostel.  we checked into yet another modern “design hostel,” impressively marked with comfortable yet minimalist furniture, modern decorative art, and clean lines throughout the architecture.  croatia knew how to put together a solid hostel.

we spent another pair of days exploring the old and new in a city that dates back at least a thousand years.  exploring old churches and cemeteries, and a few bars in between, zagreb seemed to be a large city without much of the draw that tourists journeyed to the adriatic coast for.  but there was charm in that.  it was a different side of croatia, more business-like, more straight to the point, and the unassuming nature of it put one at ease.  it was easy to go about your day and take the city in without feeling the pressure to make sure you had checked off all the necessary boxes to prove to yourself it had been worthwhile.

colorful rooftopsour time came to an end however, and dave and i said our goodbyes to croatia.  we rose early before the sun and city, and sped hurriedly to the airport.  in our early morning haze, we pulled up to the front gate of the departures section and began preparing to offload our luggage.  we both sat uncomfortably for a moment, not sure what was wrong.  suddenly, it hit me.

“damn!  this is a rental car!  where’s the rental office?!”  i exclaimed, suddenly wide awake.  dave looked back at me blankly.  panic set in, we were already likely late for an international flight, and we had forgotten to return our rental car.  

dave turned on his iphone, hoping he could locate the rental office nearby, while i pressed the gas pedal, determined to find it the old-fashioned way.  

cemetery walls“i don’t get it.  google maps says we’re on top of it,” dave said, perplexed.  we both looked around.  nothing.  i drove to the end of the airport road.  nothing but office buildings, no rental lots.  i turned around and went back to the entrance of the airport loop. dave kept poking at his phone screen with futility, much like he had the entirety of our time in the balkans.  google maps didn’t have as high an adoption rate here as it did the rest of europe and the US thus far, hence the wild inaccuracies we had experienced almost everywhere we had gone.  

little yellow houseafter a few minutes of driving around in a panic and yelling obscenities at dave’s iphone, i hooked my head left and searched east, across an empty field and down what appeared to just be a service road.  i whipped the car illegally across traffic and sped down the road without saying a word.  dave, recognizing that i was in one of my zones, said nothing and held on for dear life, trusting that i knew what i was doing.  i barreled into a parking lot and up to the front door of the europcar rental office.  dave stared at me incredulously.

zagreb cemetery“how did you see this?!” he exclaimed as we walked briskly to the door.  i didn’t answer, frustrated as i realized that no one was at the office yet.  someone was late to work.  annoyed, i repeatedly rang the bell and pounded on the door, unconcerned that no one could hear it.  

a few minutes later another car entered the lot and 2 men in ties rushed in to open the office.  embarrassed, he was aware that i knew he was late. i said nothing and noticed that he was working at a pace faster than what he normally might.  he processed our paperwork and drove us back to the departure gate.  dave and i grabbed our bags and sprinted through check-in and security, barely making our flight.  
as the plane climbed into the morning sky, i exhaled deeply, relieved.  dave began laughing, unprovoked, and it was only a matter of seconds before i was laughing with him.  

“i don’t ever want to fly with you again” i said jokingly, and our laughter grew even louder.

i would miss croatia. and bosnia and montenegro as well, and the mysteries of what lay beyond the boundaries that dave and i had pushed haunted me.  i would be back someday, to explore sarajevo, and bucharest, and albania, and macedonia. to sail from the northern tip of croatia all the way down to the southern isles of greece, when the summer sun beats down upon the blue sea and is cooled by the mist on the skin and the tradewinds blowing through the hair.  i would most definitely be back someday.

but now i returned to amsterdam, to celebrate the new year with the dutch, at the party of a lifetime.
keeping warm by Brandon Miquelon
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today’s song has been out for a few months now, but the more i listen to it, the more it becomes a part of me.  it’s called “dark bird is home,” and it’s by the tallest man on earth.  it’s a song about separation, and learning to grow and cope with change and loss.  this song makes me feel so many emotions when i hear it, and it has earned a place on my eternal rotation.  tallest man will be performing in denver, co this summer and i plan on attending.  feel free to join me.

new footsteps in old montenegro

it was only about a two hour drive down the coast to reach kotor, montenegro, but dave and i had been so enraptured with dubrovnik that we had spent too much time wandering the walls and hadn’t left until sunset.  by the time we reached the border crossing, it was dark, and dave and i pulled into the passport inspection trepidatiously, unsure of how it worked or if we were proceeding correctly.  i had never driven across a border before, and most of europe’s borders are open, due to the schengen agreement (schengen is an agreement throughout a majority of european countries that states that all internal borders among countries are open and allow travelers to move unencumbered without having to produce documents to enter or exit countries.  the only enforced borders are external borders, or borders from the countries on the outer boundaries of the schengen zone.  when entering into through those ports -or airports, obviously- you go through a security zone where documents are checked, passports stamped, and then your countdown begins for allowable time spent in the zone starts – for americans this is a total of 90 days allowed spent in europe during a 6 month period.  once your 90 days are up, it’s time to leave the schengen zone), but montenegro’s border is secured entirely by the montenegro government, as they are not part of the schengen agreement.  as we approached the gate slowly in our vw golf rental

okay, this is checkpoint charlie in berlin. this is not what the montenegro border control looks like.

car, i was reminded of all my favorite cold war era spy movies, where you drive into a cleared out area, approach a gate with heavily armed guards and official-looking military uniforms that command attention.  i started joking with dave about what his spy name was and then suddenly snapped to attention when we pulled up by the guard station.  i rolled down my window and held out our passports and rental car paperwork.  i was surprised when the guard emerged from the window, revealing herself to be a very attractive woman in her late 20s.  she smiled politely, said hello, and then sat back down in the booth, checking to make sure everything was in order.  i looked back at dave to make eye contact and silently mouth the word “HOT!” to him.  he smiled and nodded and we looked back.

without looking up from her work, the woman addressed us.  “why do you come to montenegro?”

expecting the question, i didn’t hesitate. “we want to see beautiful kotor!” i said cheerfully.

the woman glanced up and then held her gaze.  time froze for a second, just long enough to wonder if i had just said the wrong thing, and suddenly she burst into a cute, relaxed laughter.  confused, i smiled in relief and waited for some sort of explanation.

“guys, you can relax.” she said through a giggle.  i looked back at dave, who had the same confused smile i had.  we were both leaning forward and looking up at the guards with almost uncomfortable curiosity and intensity.  we had been so on edge and so intent on making sure we didn’t mess this up that we looked like a couple of overeager schoolboys on the first day of class.
“is only montenegro,” she said with a knowing smile, “welcome and enjoy.”  she returned our papers and the arm of the barricade lifted up.  we slowly pulled out of the border control zone, laughing at our own silliness.

we drove the winding roads in the dark for another 15 minutes before passing through the first major town, herceg novi.  it was dimly lit, with sparse street lighting that cast a shadowy atmosphere over the city.  it appeared to be more on the industrial side, with few things attracting passersby or tourists.  we passed by a few graffiti decorated buildings and a couple sections of roadside with broken up sidewalk with weeds growing up through the rubble, and people walking along, not too far from the road.

“yikes.  this seems a little shady.” dave expressed a little concern.  it was then that i realized that this was probably the closest to “unsafe” that dave had ever experienced while traveling.  we certainly hadn’t been anywhere in italy or dubrovnik that was off the beaten path.  i smiled, unconcerned with any potential danger.  i knew exactly what dave was feeling, but it had been awhile.  i actually missed the feeling a little.  the light fear of the unknown, the inexperience of a new culture, the insecurity of the new.  i had been traveling long enough now that this was my new norm.  suddenly i got excited.  i was going to get to watch the evolution of dave.  i would get to be front and center as dave interacted with new cultures and became exposed to different worldviews, and i would get to see how his thoughts would expand and change, just as mine had over the previous four months.

we finally reached kotor, after driving all the way around the bay.  everything was dark, so we hadn’t been able to see the giant body of water we had been driving alongside, but as we approached the city, we stared in awe at the dimly lit compound that loomed high in the mountains above the city.  it was the medieval fortifications of the city from ancient times, preserved now with rebuilt walkways and steps and leading all the way up to st. john’s castle at the top of the mountain.  the hazy, dull orange glow from the streetlamps illuminated the perimeter as it rose high above the city.  dave and i agreed we would hike to the top the next morning.

we found parking and located our hostel after entering the walled old town center and wandering around for 10 minutes trying to figure out how to get around when none of the avenues were labeled.  the old town was a small area, so it was easy to memorize if one was so inclined, but for a first time arrival, it confused us a little.  when we finally arrived at our hostel, the property manager, kokolo, greeted us cheerfully and took us on a tour of the city.

“you can leave the hostel?  but what if someone needs you?”  i asked earnestly.

“there is no one here!  there is only 4 japanese students staying here this week other than you two, and they don’t talk to me or anyone else.  they are kind of boring, so i don’t think they will need anything from me” he said with a laugh.  he was happy we had arrived.

as we walked around the old city, kokolo pointed out important historical buildings and the significance, happily teaching us about the history of his city and his country.  he stood about 5’8” and had a 10869887_10203450034919114_1000369602329276144_obig, toothy grin that always adorned his face, even when he was listening passively to someone else speak.  he had short black hair and thick eyebrows that sheltered his dark, honest eyes.  he had started to allow his beard to grow in thick, as the winter of december had begun to set in over the balkans, and he wore a hoodie sweatshirt and a jacket to combat the cold.

dave began to get more inquisitive and curious about this individual who had lived a wholly different life from him on the other side of the world, but was really very similar in interests and style of conversation.  i tailed from a distance, snapping off photos and listening attentively as dave and kokolo interacted.  neither dave nor i had known much about montenegro or its history, so it was really interesting not only to get a private tour of kotor, but to be able to get the local take on things without the tourguide spin.  kokolo was studying tourism in school, but he wasn’t practicing being a tourguide with us, he was genuinely interested in us and wanted to share his culture.  we asked him questions about managing the hostel, about life in montenegro, and eventually about the conflict in the 90s.  he shared with us freely, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

IMG_6217as we returned to the hostel, a young cat crossed our path casually (are cats ever not casual?) and kokolo excitedly scooped her up.  we had noticed quite a few cats throughout the old city, often picking through garbage bags left in back alleys, ready to be disposed of the next morning.  but this particular cat was one that kokolo was familiar with.  she affectionately cuddled up against him as he held her, and he enthusiastically informed us that he IMG_6218had been feeding her semi regularly until about a week ago she had
stopped coming by.  this was the first time he’d seen her since.

a little later, dave and i left the hostel to find some dinner.  we found a small local restaurant and had an unremarkable meal that filled us up and did its job.  after dinner i suggested we venture out again into the night and explore some of the areas that kokolo hadn’t taken us.  dave seemed unsure at first, but caved easily once i pressured him.

we wandered away from the well lit areas and explored into the darker alleys and walkways.  the further i pushed into the dark, the more uneasy we got, but it was fun and exciting to be extending into the unknown.  i found a steep staircase that i excitedly ran up, and found myself along one of the fortified walls.  i wanted to see what was on the other side, but there were no windows, only tall stone walls.  i found a small garden area with a small door in the corner where there clearly was a small apartment that someone must have lived in.
“dude i think we’re in someone’s front yard.  we should get out of here” dave suggested.

kotor at night“hah. cool.  okay we’ll get outta here, but let me just look down here first.”  i walked to the end of the walkway toward an archway that was in disrepair.  i poked my head in to find only darkness.  there was no roof, so the night sky hung low over the clearing i was now standing in, but i couldn’t see anything around me.  to my right, about 50 feet away, was the silhouette of a low portion of the wall.  on the ground below, a floodlight bathed the outside of the wall in illumination.  i turned to approach the edge and look out, but suddenly i heard a noise.  it was heavy breathing.  i froze.  i definitely should not be here.  i heard steps, growing louder and louder.  it was a faster pace than just casual walking.

DCIM100GOPRO“dude, let’s go!”  dave whispered violently.  i turned around and began to retreat when my eye caught the silhouette of an old man jogging near the floodlit wall.  he drew near to me as i made my way back the way i came, and suddenly i could see him better.  he muttered a phrase to me i couldn’t understand repeatedly and gestured for me to come in, come in, come in.  he passed by, not really caring to see if i actually would.  strange, i thought.  i turned back around and strode confidently into what appeared to be a courtyard area on the top of the wall.  i walked up to the edge of the wall and looked out.  a paved road ran underneath me, leading to i don’t know where, but the view was quite nice, if unspectacular, only due to the visibility as opposed to the darkness i’d been standing in.  i turned around as the strange old man lumbered by me, completing another lap of the courtyard.  in that moment, i felt a sudden comfort, and i wanted to stay and meet the old man, and explore more of this mystery area i’d discovered.  but the old man was getting his exercise in, and had merely detected that i was just a curious tourist and had wanted me to see this rather than retreat in fear.  i waved to the man, who didn’t see me, and returned to dave.  we retired for the night.

the next morning we awoke and consulted with kokolo about the best way to find the trailhead to climb the mountain to st. john’s castle.  he directed us accordingly and then asked us about our plans. IMG_6208 earlier on, before dave had arrived in italy, we had agreed to only focus our energies on croatia and montenegro, but i had been very eager to explore bosnia.  eventually i had ceded that we would be trying to squeeze too much in if we were going to make it to amsterdam for the new year.  we were up against a deadline, but i couldn’t help myself.  whenever i had found myself up against time constraints while traveling, instead of relaxing and focusing attention on one particular place like most people, it seemed to have an opposite effect on me.  i always tried to squeeze as many destinations and activities as humanly possible.

bay of kotor“do you think we have enough time to get to bosnia?”  i asked kokolo.  the tourguide in kokolo lit up, and he began telling us of the wonderful things to see in the country that a typical tourist might never even know about.  my eyes began to get big.  kokolo showed us a picture of an ancient arched bridge in the town of mostar that i immediately wanted to visit.  i looked at dave, pleadingly.  dave clearly wasn’t interested in bosnia.  he was looking forward to getting back to croatia.

“or should we stay here?  should we stay longer in kotor?”  i asked him, weighing options.

“well… you are here in offseason.  there is not much to do here now, and no people to hang out with.  i think you should go to mostar.  and then you will be halfway to sarajevo!  and this city is amazing!”  i was sold.  i wanted to go.  i pleaded with dave as we packed our bags and checked out.

“okay fine.  let’s go to mostar and if we don’t like it, we’ll just go back to croatia,”  dave compromised, “but first let’s do this hike.”   i was ecstatic.  we made it to the trailhead and ascended the stone switchbacks at a breakneck pace.  we now needed to get up and down and on the road quickly if we were going to get to mostar before dark.

out on the balconythere was no one else on the trail, almost as abandoned and forgotten as many of the thousand-year-old ramparts and fortifications that we passed alongside on the path.  by the time we reached the top, we were exhausted.  the view was incredible.  the bay of kotor reaching all the way down the channel with the hills stretching up to create a perfect green and brown contrast to the deep blue of the water.  the city below was small.  a light breeze drifted along the top of the ruins of st. john’s castle as we ate sandwiches and energy bars.  we had the place to ourselves.  it was a perfect place for a perfect curious observermoment.  a tiny swallow landed a few feet from me and stared curiously at me for a moment while i basked in the sun and allowed my pulse to return to normal.

after 30 minutes dave and i agreed it was time to get moving.  we stowed our garbage into the backpacks and began our descent.  we ran the entire way down, taking stairs two at a time.  i almost fell twice, but the adrenaline rush was coursing through my body as my blood pumped wildly, sweat escaping my pores.  we got to the bottom and reentered the city in a breathless, sweaty mess.  a few old women sitting nearby looked at us funny and then began giggling.

we made our way back to the hostel, collected our belongings, bid farewell to kokolo and thanked him for his advice, and then went on our way.  next stop, bosnia.
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this week’s musical magic comes from seattle electro pop quartet beat connection.  featuring fun little synth touches and a light dusting of guitar funk, the soft melodies of song “so good” will leave you swaying to the beat and relaxing in moments.  enjoy…

and for those following along on spotify…