Introduction to Cuba
Cuba: the country that has attracted, vexed, and frustrated generations of Americans, from Hemingway to Ted Cruz. It's been on our shortlist of destination goals for a while, so close to home and yet so far ideologically, politically, and culturally. ...
Adventuring in Beautiful Yosemite National Park
Given all the international travel we've done and every country that's still on our list, sometimes it's easy to forget the incredible places that can be found within the enormous and varied country we live in. Our National Park system ...
Umbria and Tuscany: New Family and Old Friends
We've been to Italy three times in the last three years, and it always feels like a bit of a homecoming. Claudia's aunt Valeria splits her time between Milan and Città di Castello in Umbria, where she and Claudia's dad were ...
Finding My Roots in Trani
My father's father passed away a few years before I was born, so I never knew him, nor have I ever met any member of the extended Fabiano family--all the Italian relatives I knew growing up were on my grandmother's ...
Cuba: the country that has attracted, vexed, and frustrated generations of Americans, from Hemingway to Ted Cruz. It's been on our shortlist of destination goals for a while, so close to home and yet so far ideologically, politically, and culturally. With the US regulations limiting travel there opening up slightly in 2015, and an invitation to a wedding in Cancun (just an hour's flight from Havana) this January, we saw the stars aligning and an opportunity we couldn't pass up, so we set to planning.
One of the strongest and most frequent reactions I had after nearly two weeks in Cuba was surprise that such a place can (still) exist. It was a pleasant sense of surprise, but surprise all the same that this singular island could maintain so much of its unique culture, pride, and individualism, when the rest of the Caribbean (if not the rest of the world) feels so homogeneous, bland, and Americanized. It seems like such a strange accident of history that has led to where Cuba is today. For those that need it, here's a quick history lesson on how this island came to be what it is: a fiercely independent, strong-willed, and proud society less than 100 miles off American shores.
Cuba's first known inhabitants were an agricultural society known as the Taino, of which not much remains: they were a peaceful people who put up little to no resistance when the Spanish came to conquer the New World in the 1500s. The next few centuries saw the fortunes of the largest island in the Caribbean rise as a major trading post for gold, silver, slaves, and the other spoils of colonialism, before falling amidst rampant piracy, proxy wars between Spain and other European nations, and general disregard and exploitation from the colonial power. As the wave of self-determination led by Simon Bolivar swept Latin America in the 19th century, Cuba (as well as Puerto Rico) was left out until their own war of independence late in that century, led by the poet, leader-in-exile, and eventual martyr José Martí.
The 1898 sinking of the USS Maine provided the US a reason (some might say pretext) for entering into the conflict and beginning the Spanish-American war. The American side won, and the war ended with a treaty granting Washington significant powers over the island, including control of the infamous Guantánamo Bay naval base. What followed was a period of Cuban "independence" which in reality was controlled socially, politically, and economically by Washington. During this period, while the US invested heavily in the country's infrastructure and social system, its industry and trade were making close ties to the new colonial ruler to the north. Money, resources, and ownership of land continued to leave the country, now to American organizations (both legitimate and not, as fans of The Godfather II can attest), leading to the populist revolution led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos.
In 1959, the revolution succeeded in exiling and wresting control from Jose Batista, the last in what was seen as a line of American-controlled presidents, and the current government was founded with Castro at the helm. Over the next few years he would enact laws and edicts forming the current Socialist system. Because these actions were (at least publicly) aimed at empowering the populace and providing self-determination and land ownership to the working class, they necessarily alienated the upper classes, foreign expatriates, and social minorities, and tens of thousands of doctors, teachers, intellectuals, land owners, businesspeople, and gays and lesbians fled.
The Cold War saw Cuba as a Soviet-allied craw in the side of the US, leading to the Bay of Pigs debacle, and Cuban missile crisis, after which things were fairly stable and prosperous (into the 1980s, Cuba had some of the best education and medical systems, and they completely eliminated hunger). The fall of the Soviet Union, however, kicked off Cuba's "special period", during which, lacking fuel and food imports from the Eastern Bloc, thousands died from starvation, disease, and suicide.
This crisis sowed the seeds of the changes that continue to this day, a tension between the values of the Revolution (still very important to the Cuban people), the desire of the government for absolute and authoritarian control of the people, and the allure and perhaps necessity of the financial support provided by tourism and private industry.
A few final recent events, to underscore how much and how rapidly the country is changing:
On the Cuba side:
- Farmers were allowed to sell surplus produce for the first time in October 1994
- Mobile phones were legalized in 2008
- In 2011 a suite of reforms were put into place allowing Cubans to have a variety of non-State jobs (including taxi driver, construction worker, shopkeeper, mule driver, palm tree trimmer, well-digger, and "dandy", a dapper gentleman who wears fashionable suits and hats), as well as the right to run restaurants and other shops, and own homes and cars.
- A Revolution-era requirement that Cubans get an expensive and difficult-to-obtain government permit to travel abroad was lifted in January 2013, though the passport fees still leave travel out of reach for most Cubans.
And on the US side:
- In October 2000, Bill Clinton signed a bill into law that allowed the sale of agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba for humanitarian reasons.
- In April 2009, Barack Obama allowed Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba for the first time in a generation, and in January 2011, he expanded the allowed reasons to include educational, religious, and several other purposes.
- In 2014, the Obama administration announced its intention to re-establish relations with Cuba. In January 2015, the Administration lightened restrictions on U.S. citizen travel to Cuba. Travelers are still required to have one of the valid reasons for travel, but the determination of compliance shifted to the traveler.
- In July 2015, the US Embassy in Havana re-opened, after having been closed since 1961 (there was a small "Interests Section" that had been open since 1977).
- In December 2015, the US and Cuba agreed to reinstate direct flights between the countries. Flights may start this year.
- As of March 2016, it's still impossible to use a US debit or credit card, and there's a 10% fee levied on converting US Dollars.
- President Obama has been working throughout his presidency to close the Guantánamo Bay naval base and release the captives held there. As of March 2016, less than 100 inmates remain.
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Given all the international travel we've done and every country that's still on our list, sometimes it's easy to forget the incredible places that can be found within the enormous and varied country we live in. Our National Park system is the envy of the rest of the world, and there may be no more impressive park than Yosemite. The massive park in Northern California has held intrigue for both of us for many years, so when my parents suggested a family trip to celebrate their 35th anniversary and my father's 65th birthday, we eagerly booked our second trip of the summer, only a few weeks after our grand Italy tour.
The park is as vast as it is beautiful, and while the valley floor is accessible by car, bringing you up close to the massive rock formations and waterfalls the park is famous for, the much more dramatic and impressive way to experience the park is by trekking throughout the endless hills, lakes, and meadows of the "high country". Our itinerary included a three-day backpacking adventure off Tioga Road in the northern part of the park through some lovely lakes and meadows surrounded by impressive granite peaks, so our first view of the park's iconic fixtures was from from afar, and I must say that viewing them from a few miles away and from different vantages gave a sense of the scale and beauty of the place that's a bit lost on the crowds just viewing the sights from their cars on the valley floor. The Park only gives out a limited number of backpacking permits, which means more planning for the visitor up front but we were rewarded with a prime camping spot on the shore of a lake that we had entirely to ourselves, with the exception of some marmots and many birds. The remainder of our trip was spent with family in a beautiful house just outside the park, taking day hikes, swimming, climbing up waterfalls, and relaxing with late afternoon gin and tonics.
Words can only do so much to explain this dramatic and singular piece of land, and pictures are only slightly better, but they're the best we can provide.
We've been to Italy three times in the last three years, and it always feels like a bit of a homecoming. Claudia's aunt Valeria splits her time between Milan and Città di Castello in Umbria, where she and Claudia's dad were born and lived for many years. My connection is a bit more strained: when my great-grandfather was a small child, he left a town in Calabria to emigrate to Pennsylvania and later New York, but I've always felt connected to the country, probably because that's the branch of my ancestors where my last name comes from.
This year, for some reason, we both felt inclined do some more research into our roots. When we first started planning this trip, we thought we would swing through both Calabria and Puglia, to do some digging into both of our family trees. Claudia wrote about our day in her paternal grandfather's town of birth, Trani, in the last post, but unfortunately we couldn't find a way to make all that travel time work (we were wary about feeling rushed after agreeing that we tried to pack a little too much into last year's Eastern Europe trip), so we'll have to save the visit to my ancestral town, Platí, for the next trip. But, we found something even better!
My dad has a cousin who ran an Italian restaurant in the small New York town they grew up in, and he makes trips to Italy to buy wine for the restaurant and take other Italian-Americans on tours of the homeland. I knew that he had some connections to some distant cousins, whom I thought still lived in Calabria, so I called him to ask for their contact information. Much to my surprise he said that they had all left the small Southern town for Tuscany many years ago. He passed along their names--Pompilia and her husband Michele--as well as their phone numbers and the name of the town they live in. We pulled up a map and realized that their town was just a few minutes' detour off our itinerary. The coincidences didn't stop there...
When we arrived in Italy and called Pompilia, she welcomed us exuberantly, as if we had been close our entire lives. Originally, it had not been completely clear to us exactly how we were related, but we eventually understood that her great-grandmother Mary (Maria) Violi and my great-grandfather Joseph (Giuseppe) were siblings. Mary was the oldest of the four siblings, and was married when the rest of the family came to the US, so she was the only one that stayed behind. Pompilia was excited that we would be nearby and invited us to stay as long as we wanted; unfortunately our itinerary only left us with a day to spend with them. And she had one more surprise in store: a sister--Pina--who lives in Città di Castello!
Fast forward about a week and a few more phone calls and we found ourselves and Valeria walking into the store that my fourth cousin Pina and her husband Luca run in the town that Claudia had always considered her Italian home. As it turns out, because it really is a small world, Claudia's aunt shops in that store, and she and my cousin knew each other by sight. That night we three went to Pina and Luca's house for a pizza dinner, where we met two of their lovely children, and Pompilia joined us as well. Once again we were made to feel right at home, and completely comfortable with this newfound family. We had some appetizers, a few glasses of wine, and a ton of delicious pizza, and talked about our lives and our families. Just like that, we now had two sides of family in Città di Castello!
The next day, we were again invited to a lunch with our new family, this time at Pompilia's house about an hour away near Siena. We met her husband, Michele, one of her daughters, Angelica, and her aunt Maria who remembers hearing stories and reading letters from the family members who had made their lives in Pennsylvania and New York. Together we looked at old photos of the people who connected us as family.
We left their house full and happy to have been so lucky to expand our Italian family with such wonderful, warm and lovely people. They say you can't choose your family but we absolutely could not have chosen any better than Pina and Pompilia and their families!
Now it was time for the final event of our trip, the whole reason we had even planned to go to Italy in the first place: the wedding of Claudia's long-time friend Kris and his Tuscan fiancee Laura. The wedding functioned as a reunion of sorts, as Claudia had not seen some of the other wedding guests who were classmates in over a decade.
The wedding itself was incredibly beautiful and one of the most fun we've ever been to. We instantly caught up with Claudia's high school friends, and it was as if no time had passed. Between the lovely ceremony performed in three languages, the reception, aperitivo (which included multiple trips to the castle's meat cave), dinner, digestif, dessert, and dancing, we had smiles on our faces and laughed endlessly until 5 in the morning.
Italy never disappoints, but this was one of our best trips yet, and now we have even more reason to visit in the future. More family discoveries surely await, and we can't wait to happen upon them!
My father's father passed away a few years before I was born, so I never knew him, nor have I ever met any member of the extended Fabiano family--all the Italian relatives I knew growing up were on my grandmother's side. I've spoken with my aunt several times to gather as much information as I could about the Fabianos, but alas, she has only ever met a small handful of them, and that was many decades ago. As I learned, Francesco Fabiano, my paternal grandfather, was the 10th of 12 children (if you don't count his supposed twin brother who doesn't show up in any records and I believe died when he was hours old) who were born in the last 20 years of the 19th century in Trani, a trading port on the Puglian coast. The Fabianos had been shipping merchants, trading goods with Venice and former Yugoslavia across the Adriatic, and were apparently quite successful in their business. However, according to my aunt, one of my grandfather's uncles apparently made a few bad deals, or some poor gambling decisions, and my great-grandparents had to sell all their property (including, apparently, a nice chunk of land on beautiful peninsula on the edge of town) and relocate the entire family up north near Milan when my grandfather was just a little boy. I'm guessing they had pissed off the wrong people and staying in Trani was simply not a safe option for the family.
This family history, as told by my aunt and corroborated with some photocopied pages from my great grandmother's diary, piqued my interest and I developed the desire to just "go see". I wasn't looking for anything in particular; I knew that I probably wouldn't find close relatives living there, but I just had to go see this place where the Fabianos had been for centuries. In fact, this curiosity was one of the main reasons we decided to visit Puglia, so we made sure to plan a quick 24-hour stop in Trani. While I'm pretty sure none of our Fabianos ever moved back to Trani in the decades/century after relocating north, there are still a ton of Fabianos there, with many businesses and Palazzos bearing my last name.
We had only been walking through Trani for a few minutes when we saw "Fabiano" on a buzzer outside an apartment building. Having done some research, we took a look at the Palazzo Fabiano (no longer a residence but turned into commercial space) and we checked into our B&B, which was located in a larger palazzo that was still today owned by some Fabianos (which was the main reason I booked us a room there!). Hey, when your grandfather was one of twelve, and his father one of ten, you can see how much of the town could still bear my last name.
In the months leading up to our visit, I did some research online, fueled by the few photocopied pages from my great grandmother's journal that my aunt had dug up and sent me. These pages outlined important birth and death dates of her father, husband, and children, along with the date during which she was indicted into a Christian confraternita (a brotherhood), which I found to be an interesting tidbit and perhaps evidence that she was well-respected and important in her community. I inquired about their records, but they don't keep anything that old.
I was still curious and wanted to see what else I could dig up, so I called the Comune (city hall), and asked if they kept birth and marriage records. In under a minute I was directed to a gentleman who asked what I wanted to know, quickly scribbled down the names and birth dates that I could tell him, and told me to stop by his office around noon in two days, when we would be there. I hung up the phone and thought to myself, when the hell did Italy get this efficient?!
The Comune was unlocked when we arrived and its hallways spoke volumes of the state of local government in Italy (someone please give that place a coat of paint!). We wandered a bit before finding his large but bare and outdated office, and when we walked in, he was sitting behind his desk, lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth, ash on the desk and floor. He had hand-written notes on his desk, and when I squinted I saw the names of many of my deceased relatives. He seemed disgruntled, but I could tell that behind that government employee facade was a man who was truly interested in geneaological research. He scolded me for only having given him two days to research my ancestors, reminding me that some people wait months for this information. He did not particularly want to share his discoveries, and belabored the point that he had to painstakingly go through handwritten birth, marriage and death records kept in yellowing notebooks in handwritten script from another era. He also went off about how he doesn't share his research with the city, and that what he does he keeps to himself, motioning to the USB drive that he keeps all his files on. However, after some back and forth, he revealed the fruits of his research, which were the names of my great grandfather's parents, their parents, and so on, all the way back to my great great great great great great grandfather, born in 1690! I could tell he had found more than what he was willing to share, but I felt lucky enough to have gotten this much information without really lifting a finger. Armed with printed pages containing a piece of my family history, I left feeling what I can only describe as a sense of accomplishment, as if having uncovered a small clue in some giant mystery that didn't really need solving, but was fun to discover anyway.
That evening we had a delicious seafood feast, then took our passeggiata around the lively port, still full of functioning fishing boats, men selling their day's catch, families pushing strollers, and young men and women socializing and having drinks to kick off the weekend. I took it all in with a huge smile on my face, picturing my ancestors having their evening passeggiata around this same exact port, standing perhaps only meters from where their shipping boats had been anchored and where I was standing at that moment.
Our stay in Trani was short and sweet--only one night--and in the morning we stopped by the town's cemetery, where we practically walked into a Fabiano crypt upon entry, and then wandered, seeing countless Fabiano and Carbone (my great-grandmother's name) crypts. I left Trani feeling satisfied that we had discovered a little more about where my family came from and who my ancestors were. I felt just a little more whole than I was before.
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Our next stop found us crossing from Basilicata into Puglia (the heel of Italy's boot) and the sleepy and charming Valley of Itria. The most famous thing about this region is probably its trulli, traditional conical dwellings. We picked out a comfortable bed and breakfast where we could stay in one of these unusual buildings (and the hammock and pool were nice bonuses) and spent our days journeying around the small hamlets in the region.
Each town felt similar: the whitewashed buildings, the blooming flowers in window boxes, the cafes with tables spilling out onto the public square. And yet each had a slightly different vibe: different topography, its own culinary specialties, and a different view over the countryside dotted with olive trees as far as the eye can see. Puglia is where the majority of Italy's wine and olive oil is produced, and while the interior of the region is mostly dry and flat and agricultural, it also boasts tons of beaches and coastal towns that in some ways are more reminiscent of Greece than Italy.
We had heard great things about Puglia -- it is even referred to as "the next Tuscany" (i.e., get there while you can!) -- and we both found it to be lovely and unassuming in its offerings. It didn't try to be anything it's not, and while Puglia has lots to offer, it hasn't let its appeal get to its head; it's still welcoming without begging for your tourism. It felt more real to me than many parts of the popular Tuscan countryside; sure, tourists have been visiting for decades, it's not some kind of well-kept secret that backpackers just discovered or anything, but it didn't seem like Puglia had inconvenienced itself or undergone any major transformations just because people are increasingly discovering what's on offer. Would you like to taste some of the local wine? Great, come on over, but we're not going to pour you a fancy flight and give you a cheese & meat board to go along with it; in fact, we'd prefer if you just bought a plastic jug of it and enjoyed it at your leisure!
This region also contained the culinary (and perhaps overall) high-point of the trip, an eight-course dinner at Masseria Il Frantoio. Upon driving up the estate's gravel driveway, we felt like we were traveling back in time (our first hint may have been the ancient Fiat parked outside the gate). Before dinner, the owner led us on a short tour of the property, telling us about the dozens of different strains of heirloom olives they grow -- each one produces a unique olive oil which brings a unique flavor to the dish it's used in -- the 24 herbs they grow in the herb garden, and the Arabian garden growing oranges and even bananas. His speech was quite boastful, but anyone in his position and with his lifestyle would be proud. We got a clear sense of the region's and the property's history, and he seemed eminently aware of his place in the world.
After the tour, we were seated for dinner, and as Luciano and his family brought out course after course of simple, fresh, and delicious food, we were awakened again and again to "how food is supposed to taste". We always have this feeling many times in Italy; maybe it's the pace of life, the agriculture methods, or something in the air, but so much Italian produce is so bright, flavorful, and always served at the peak of ripeness that the corresponding food we get here in the U.S. often pales in comparison. Italian cooking is very simple; most dishes have only a handful of ingredients, but when the ingredients are so wonderful, you don't need to do a lot to them.
Our bellies full and our bodies rested, we headed a few hours north to Trani, a charming port town on the Adriatic that doesn't attract many tourists. Indeed, the thing that brought us there was not the restaurants, sights, or the beach, but the fact that my grandfather was born there. You'll have to wait, because this story will be told in the next post.
The last stop (after Trani) on our all-too-quick tour of Puglia was the Gargano peninsula, where we rented the last apartment on an outcrop of land over the Adriatic Sea. The Gargano Peninsula juts out like a spur on the boot of Italy, and feels more like an island than a peninsula. It boasts a dramatic coastline and the interior contains the only remaining part of an ancient forest, the hilly Foresta Umbra. We woke each morning to have coffee on our small patio with commanding views of the sea, then packed the rental car to explore just a few of the peninsula's many beaches. Although it was a bit windy and not quite high-season, we were shocked to find a beautiful and rugged beach completely to ourselves. We spent all morning in the little cove pictured below with only seagulls for neighbors. We laughed at how many people would be crammed into this beach if it were on the Amalfi coast.
One day after working up an appetite sitting on the beach, we walked a few minutes up the coast to have lunch at a trabucco, a style of seafood restaurant completely unique to this region. My understanding of the fishing method is that every night they just drop a huge net off a corner of the structure with a few long poles leaning out over the water, then in the morning the pull the ropes at the end of the poles to haul in the day's catch without ever leaving land or casting a line! The informal atmosphere reminded us of lobster shacks in Maine or crab dives in Maryland. The fish was juicy and fresh as can be, accented with a simple tomato salad and even a delicious pale ale--Italy's craft beer industry has made great strides in the last few years!
The main town in the Gargano Peninsula is Vieste, which we spent a couple hours exploring one afternoon. It is famous for its dramatic white monolith, Pizzomunno, jutting up from the town's beach about 80 feet high.
We loved the beautiful coastline, plethora of beaches, and windy coastal roads and wish we had had a bit longer to journey into the peninsula's mountainous center. At least we've left something to explore for the next time!
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Ah, Italy. Even with the long list of places we haven't been, when an old friend announced he was getting married in Italy, it didn't take us long to decide we'd make the trip.
And if we're going to go all the way over to our favorite country, it wouldn't just be for a weekend. So we pulled out the maps and books and put together a 2 1/2 week gran giro mostly focusing on the South, but also building in some time for family and the wedding in the central region.
Because we've been lucky enough to visit Italy three times in the last three years (and Claudia has been many more times in her life) we've checked off many of the popular tourist attractions so we focused this year's itinerary on food, relaxation, and a bit of an exploration of our roots.
We arrived into Naples and somehow our bags did too. After hopping into the rental car and stopping for our first pizza in Scafati, a town that we chose to stop in partly because of its position off the highway and partly because we remembered our great friend Matt has family ties there, we made our way south along the coast on increasingly windy, cliff-side roads. A couple hours later we arrived in a small town outside Maratea in Basilicata, an often overlooked region nestled in the south of Italy with a short but sweet coastline. This area of the Tyrrhenian coast boasts small, rocky coves with turquoise water that are often only reachable by boat or foot. We were lucky enough to be staying a ten minute walk from a beautiful beach made of black pebbles in the home of the engaging and warm Sonia and Biagio. For three nights, we fought off our jet lag with daily trips by foot to the beach, relaxing in hammocks, and eating fresh tomatoes off the vine. Our hosts could not have been kinder, constantly feeding us homemade goodies, fresh fruits off their trees, and family-made limoncello and wine.
We did make the short drive one afternoon to the actual town of Maratea, a few miles uphill and inland from the coast, and found ourselves enchanted by the way its streets wound with the hills' topography, the lively public squares, and the breathtaking view from the Cristo Redentor statue a bit further up the mountain.
Having recovered from jet lag and gotten into the vacation groove, we headed to the ancient town of Matera for a history lesson on the region. The city is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the Paleolithic age, with houses carved out of the region's pliant stone. People lived in these cave-houses ("sassi"), in extremely close and overcrowded quarters, and without any running water, until the government declared them unsanitary in the 1950s and relocated the entire city. However, in the late 80s, the Italian government, with the help of UNESCO, began to rehabilitate the sassi, and now the town is one of the most visited in the South, and one of the European Union's "Capitals of Culture" in 2019. Many of the sassi have been turned into boutique hotels and fancy restaurants and the town has a very unique and stylish feel. Several movies have been filmed there, including Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (in case you're into self-torture...). Although it was swelteringly hot, we greatly enjoyed wandering around to take in the dramatic views around every corner, watching the locals go about their daily lives, and we even managed to stop in a few museums that depicted how life was in the sassi in the first half of the 20th century.
Having gotten a taste of the slow pace, rugged scenery, wonderful hospitality, and delicious food in Southern Italy, we made our way further southeast toward Puglia, where the next chapter of our trip would unfold.
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We had heard such nice things about Macedonia -- and in particular a guest house outside the southern town of Bitola -- from our friend Chip that we had to go see it for ourselves. We had no idea what to expect in Macedonia; perhaps our only faint reference point besides Chip's endorsement was the Macedonian Salad, a mixed fruit salad that we've often eaten in Italy whose name supposedly refers to the mish-mash of people and cultures in Macedonia. That's as good an introduction as any to Macedonia: it packs a lot of variety into a small area.
We headed straight for Villa Dihovo, which is a guest house run by a family in the foothills of Mt Pelister. The guest house is run by a former professional soccer player, and the approach is simple: you pay for the homemade wine, beer, and rakiya (a strong schnapps-like firewater) at set prices. They feed you two delicious home-cooked meals per day, you sleep in their traditionally-decorated guest rooms, and pay what you think is fair. We loved this approach, and looked forward to every meal; our only complaint is that we wished Petar had been around more often for us to talk to about the area (his parents did not speak a word of English). We used this as our base to explore Heraclea Lyncestis, the nearby Roman archaeological site on the famous Via Egnatia, where we found some beautiful mosaics, and the laid back town of Bitola itself, which-- like many other cities in this part of the world-- felt half Mediterranean and half Balkan, with its open air cafes, churches, mosques, and bazaar selling everything under the sun.
We knew that we might regret leaving visiting Macedonia without visiting their pride and joy: Lake Ohrid, one of Europe's oldest and deepest lakes. Petar organized a "guide" to take us there (we were decidedly sick of sitting on buses) who turned out to be a journalist and expert on Freemasons in Macedonia (apparently there are a lot of them). Ohrid sits along the Via Egnatia and connected Constantinople with the Adriatic, making it a popular trade center. These days it is full of tourists, so we added ourselves to the mix and explored the many famous churches and the city's fort, stopping to lunch overlooking a Roman amphitheater.
On our last full day in Macedonia, we decided to do a "short, easy hike" in Pelister National Park. Because we are generally incapable of taking it easy when it comes to day hikes, we ended up on a beautiful ascent through tall pines, over streams and waterfalls, and up a boulder-strewn face to an expansive overlook, where we met a friendly Macedonian-Canadian family (who happened to be friends with Petar) and took photos. Almost immediately after we bid them a safe descent, the skies turned black and a crazy thunderstorm erupted, making our descent somewhat miserable in pouring rain and dropping temps. We were soaked to the bone when we got back to the starting point, but thankfully, the friendly family we had met at the top had just gotten to their car (they took a different route down), and gave us a ride back to Villa Dihovo.
Our final country of this Eastern European jaunt was tiny, unlucky Kosovo, Europe's newest country. Kosovo went through years of struggle and war regarding its autonomy, which Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević fiercely rejected. Ethnic cleansing and war horrors lead to to US-backed NATO intervention in 1999. Ethnically, Kosovo is mostly Albanian, and there are still clashes between the majority and the Serbs. Like in most postwar cities we visited on this trip, the scars still felt fresh, but the people themselves were looking forward. We found Kosovans to be incredibly friendly, and their eyes lit up when they found out we live in the land of Bill Clinton, who enjoys somewhat of a celebrity status in Kosovo, for his part in their liberation.
We spent most of our time in Pristina, the capital. After visiting the very well-tfkept and insightful Ethnographic Museum, we checked out several of the many post-Soviet, concrete, brutalist buildings and monuments dotted around the city. We found these to be incredibly interesting, especially the ones that had since been left to their own devices-- monuments of a distant time that present-day Pristina no longer pays attention to.
Not to be forgotten was Pristina's delicious food. Similar to Albania, we dined on fresh white cheese, warm bread, cured meats, fresh vegetables, and olives. We were so pleasantly surprised at how much we liked Kosovo, and we hope more people make an effort to come here: you will be welcomed with huge smiles, an enthusiastic hope for the future, and no shortage of cultural heritage to soak in.
The hands-down highlight of our trip is a country that we knew next to nothing about before looking at a map and seeing a blurb in a NYT list of 52 places to visit in 2014, so we should probably give you some quick background before diving into the fun stuff. This New Jersey-sized country lies on the Adriatic Sea, sandwiched between tiny Montenegro and Greece. It was conquered by Italy (from which it is less than 45 miles across the water) in 1939 and taken over by communist partisans five years later. So began Enver Hoxha's 40-year dictatorship, which severely curtailed freedom and religious worship, but rapidly grew the economy and practically eliminated illiteracy. Albania was left with no friends at all after shunning both the Soviets and the Chinese for being 'revisionist' to the ideals of Stalinism. Hoxha even oversaw the construction of 750,000 bunkers in case of an invasion-- many of which can still be seen crumbling in the countryside-- for a country of 3 million inhabitants! Once one of the world's most closed off countries, in 1991 the Communism Party dissolved, democracy began to take shape, and borders were opened. Albania has caught up to the Western world extremely rapidly in the last two decades, but remnants of its past can still be seen everywhere.
We arrived in Albania a bit wearier than we expected, after a rickety and slow bus ride (we're pretty sure the bus' top gear wasn't working!). However, as not-enough-time-in-a-city was quickly becoming the theme of the trip, we rallied as best we could to make the most of the 18 hours we had in Shkodra, a culture-rich city in the country's North.
We first tried to find the Marubi photography collection. For some reason the South Balkans took to photography extremely early, many cities in the region boasting a photography business dating back to the mid-19th century. The Marubi family began documenting everyday life in the town in 1859 in a practice that spanned three generations and amassed over a half million photos. Unfortunately by the time we located (what we believe to be) the correct unmarked door down an unmarked alley, it was about 20 minutes before closing time, and apparently the attendant had decided on an early happy hour and locked the door. The good news, on the other hand, is that the collection has taken to the streets, with semi-permanent displays of many of the most famous photos mounted on colorful placards all over the city, concentrated on the city's lively pedestrian street, so we got to see many of them after all.
After strolling up and down the street and taking in the pictures and nightlife, we made our way to a well-regarded restaurant in a hotel. We sat in the peaceful courtyard and ordered a selection of local dishes. Upon starting in on the spread, we were immediately struck by the difference in cuisine only a few short miles makes. While the food in Croatia and Montenegro had had a strong Mediterranean influence, we had now crossed into the Greek realm: grilled meats replaced fish, feta-like cheeses replaced mozzarella, and yogurt-stewed vegetables were served alongside fresh salads. With six dishes and two glasses of wine for under $15, we were looking forward to this new cuisine!
We woke up early the next morning for one of the most-anticipated legs of our journey: a three-hour ferry ride up a dammed river (the Komani Lake). After a bumpy ride through the countryside, passing donkey carts vegetable fields, we arrived to the pier. After some excellent espresso shared with a one-armed fisherman and a polyglot soldier, we were off! Boarding late, all the seats were taken, so we were shown to the flat roof, which turned out to be the perfect place to take in the panoramic river views. Dense forest occasionally gave way to small farms where we spied a handful of people working the land or taking the hours-long journey to their neighbors or to the riverbank to exchange goods. Eventually the trees and fields were replaced by dramatic views of sheer rock faces in every direction: we had entered the blessed mountains (so-called by their inhabitants in the belief that the mountains protected them from invaders--the repelled armies referred to them as the accursed mountains).
Another bumpy van ride (Albanian roads are pretty basic) brought us deeper into the mountains and to our destination for the next two nights: the Rilindja guest house in Valbona National Park. We walked into the idyllic mountain setting and immediately felt right at home. The guest house, run by a warm and helpful Albanian-American couple, immediately reminded us of our favorite hostels from our year abroad. After another fantastic country meal, we planned our hiking route for the next day over a bottle of wine on our balcony with another stunning mountain view, and called it a night.
After getting a slightly later-than-expected start, our hike was nearly a complete loss when an errant trail marking a half-mile into the hike derailed us. We retraced our steps over and over for more than an hour until Claudia correctly determined the mistake we had made and our location on the map. Then we bushwhacked for about 15 minutes in the direction we thought we needed to head, and eventually stumbled upon another marked trail. Once back on the path, it was much easier to find the way, but the physical challenge was just beginning. Remember two paragraphs back when I mentioned sheer and impenetrable rock faces? Well the range we were walking in was no exception. After two hours of relentless climbing, exhausted and nearly out of water, we made it to a shepherd's small shack where several onward paths split. We relaxed in the shade, drank the cold water piped in from an underground spring, and treated ourselves to a lemon soda the shepherd sold us. He and his ten year old son were unbelievably kind and humble, and we're still in awe that the arduous climb we took to get there is a commute they must take every few days in order to graze their cattle in the surrounding mountain pastures (and haul Italian lemon sodas up there for passing hikers!).
Refreshed by the break, we decided we had the time and energy left for one additional hour to a mountain pass from which we could peek into Montenegro. The mountains we could see over the pass were otherworldly and dramatic, and the valley we had risen out of, along with the mountains that surrounded it, just kept getting more and more breathtaking. The views we saw between the shack and the mountain pass were every bit as impressive as those afforded by our three-day hike in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, and probably more beautiful than those afforded by the five-day ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro (I don't mean to sell that experience short though, it was unlike anything we've ever undertaken and I would do it again in a second; it's just that that mountain was freestanding so the surrounding landscape was relatively flat). The Himalayas may still have it beat, though the exposure available in this single-day hike is truly unique.
All in all, it was an incredible hike, and a day we won't soon forget.
On our last day in Albania, we were privileged to participate in a very special experience. The company I work for, GlobalGiving, works with thousands of nonprofits all over the world, so when we were planning a trip to this part of the world, I researched projects we could visit, and was excited to learn that we partner with a project that runs a mobile library in Northern Albania. We spent the morning riding around the countryside until we pulled off on a dirt road that we followed for about a half hour to an extremely remote town (it's not even on Google Maps!). We stopped at a small crossroads in sight of only about three or four houses and got a look inside the van while the librarian set up a table and umbrella. The organization, Partnerë për Fëmijët, painstakingly converted the van into a fully functional library that they take around to 45 small communities, visiting each one only once a month. The walls of the van are lined on the inside with books for kids from 5 to 18, many about public safety, leadership, and reproductive issues, but we also spotted Steven King, Shakespeare, and of course the entire Harry Potter series. They also have posters, coloring materials and activities, toys, and hula hoops.
At first we weren't sure if many kids would come to participate because the area was so sparsely populated (we were also warned that many families leave their homes in the summer to go to a sort of mountaintop camp). But sure enough, after only a few minutes of waiting, first one, then a few more kids started to join us, books in hand and huge smiles on their faces. A few minutes later, about 15 children had joined us and began eagerly trading their books for new ones. We were struck by how polite the children were, waiting quietly for their turn in the van and sharing a few coloring book pages between them. After they had all exchanged their books, the librarian took out the hula hoops and led them through a few games and activities.
Perhaps it wasn't until we began pulling out of the town and our hosts pointed out the shabby one room school building that we truly understood the necessity of the program. The kids in this community really have almost nothing, so we can only imagine the joy that the library brings every month with its bright sides and wealth of resources inside. But with this understanding came a touch of sadness, too, as we pictured all the days between visits when the van doesn't come. We were floored by the humility and generosity of the staff we spent the day with, and I was so proud to contribute in any small way to the success of such a vital and positive program in this underserved community.
We left Albania with full hearts and huge grins, having barely scratched the surface but already plotting how we could come back to see the rest of this incredibly friendly and beautiful country.
Our time being tight as it was, we limited our stay in Montenegro to 36 quick hours. With unlimited time, we would have loved to explore the canyons and mountains of the interior, but in order to make our way south, we opted for just a quick stop in the country's undisputed highlight: the Bay of Kotor, a convenient stopover between the Croatian coast and Albanian highlands.
We didn't get a good feel for the people or culture of this Connecticut-sized country that used to be part of Yugoslavia, especially because we were in probably the most touristy area. Montenegro has a close relationship with Russia, and many Russians spend their vacations on the seaside here, so at times we weren't sure if everyone around us was speaking Montenegrin or Russian!
Our one full day in this tiny but varied country happened to by my birthday, and we spent the day biking along the water, wandering around the city's historical streets, stopping in on a museum featuring an impressive collection of historical cat-themed postcards, and slogging up (and up and up and up) the city's protective walls and fortresses for an amazing panoramic view of the bay. We ate seafood for dinner, of course, and then wandered the piazzas with gelato before resting up for the trip over the border into Albania!
You just can't plan everything right. We went into our trip knowing that Croatia would be the country most firmly on the tourist circuit, with all the crowded streets, disintegrated local identities, and price-gouging that always comes with. We also knew the common wisdom of "the only way to see Croatia is by sailboat", but that just wasn't going to work with our itinerary, which included a music festival and meeting up with friends and family.
We planned our route determined to see as much of the fabled coast on public transportation as possible, and I believe we succeeded, but despite having seen some amazing beaches, eaten some delicious food, and experienced some untouched historical and cultural treasures, we left feeling we had missed out on some of the island-covered coast's hidden secrets, tied as we were to the main ports and roadways.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
We outraced a thunderstorm on the train/bus/train combo from Budapest to Zagreb, and arrived there late at night and under a low and foreboding sky. Having only a few hours in town the next morning before our bus to the coast, we decided to check out one of the quirkier attractions in the city's old town: the Museum of Broken Relationships. What started as a traveling exhibition of artifacts of failed relationships has grown into a full-fledged museum of carefully curated pieces, each of which was clearly too important for the owner to throw away, but too painful to keep. Alongside their stories, the broken toys, shoes, jewelry, and letters all speak volumes about their former owners and their former owners' lovers. They're meticulously chosen, displayed, preserved, and documented. As all museums should be, it was provocative, evocative, slightly unsettling, and strangely affirming.
The next week or so saw us working our way down the coast by bus, ferry, car, and foot. We ate our fill of fresh seafood, got lost in medieval alleys, swam in crystal-clear waters, and dodged tourists. We were accompanied for some of our time there by two of the most fun travel companions: Claudia's cousin Sara and our friend Chip, who embarked on his own round-the-world trip around the same time we did and who is always up for anything.
Some of the highlights of these few days were:
- Enjoying the two landscape art installations in Zadar. The first, called "Greeting to the Sun" is the visual one, made up of a few hundred square feet of solar tiles set into a large plaza. During the day they soak up the sun's energy, and then at dusk they pay it all back in a brilliant display of shifting colored lights. It's a popular gathering place where kids love running around and playing, and people of all ages gather to have their pictures taken (though the lighting conditions are quite a challenge!) The second installation is an auditory one, called the "Sea Organ". It consists of long subterranean tubes that run from near "Greeting to the Sun" into the ocean. As the sea's waves move in and out, they force air in and out of the long tubes, and across a thin slit to make a tone. Each is "tuned" to a unique tone by its length, making ghostly and beautiful music all day and night.
- Finding our way through some of the area's most ancient and untouched streets to climb up to a church and former leprosy sanitarium with expansive views on the island of Murter.
- Attending a music festival. The whole coast wakes up in the summer with festivals to suit all tastes. The Garden Festival came highly recommended by friends who had been in a past year, and offered the additional incentive of a boat party to take us to and from a "secret island". While the island wasn't as secret as we hoped (it turned out to be a point alongside a public beach where the locals gawked at the weirdos dancing under the shore trees), it was a great day and a unique experience.
- Meeting Claudia's cousin Sara's father and family, who had just finished their bi-annual sailing trip in the Adriatic. We had a wonderful dinner together and they even let us sleep on their sailboat one night in Trogir's harbor!
- Watching a crazy water spout make its way across the bay on a dark and stormy day from our cute balcony in Korčula.
- Walking out of the town of Korčula for 15 minutes to a country restaurant just in time for a tremendous thunderstorm to roll through. We ate one of our best meals in Croatia on a patio surrounded on all sides by sheets of water.
- Hiking through the national park on the island of Mljet and jumping into the crystal waters to swim to an island in a lake on an island, or to get across a straight with super fast-moving water so we could continue our hike. Mljet was the absolute highlight of Croatia, boasting many miles of well-kept trails around two "lakes" that are actually inlets with a very narrow straight connecting them to the sea. Perfect swimming and picnicking opportunities abound, and with little in the way of nightlife or touristy restaurants, the island is as laid back as we could find.
- Walking the city walls of Dubrovnik, where a significant chunk of Game of Thrones is filmed, and looking out over the sea of terra cotta tiles, and then learning about the region's recent violent past in the war photo museum.
Croatia's gorgeous coast line and endless sailing possibilities have certainly earned it a permanent spot on Europe's list of best summer vacations. We hope that we can come back to experience this Adriatic jewel by boat next time. Until then, we'll be dreaming of the salty air, crystal clear waters, thousands of miles of rocky shoreline, and all the hidden treasures that we have yet to discover there.