Frequent travelers like to seek out places that are more off the beaten path and less expensive than their well-known counterparts, places they can claim as their own well before their fellow globetrotters have even heard of them.  Twenty years ago or so, these travelers discovered Prague, in the Czech Republic, and they fell in love with it for its grand architecture, its interesting history and its manageable prices.  Unfortunately (for them), word of their discovery got out.  Prague is now full of souvenir stands and tour groups, and those travelers have been left to try to discover the “next Prague.”  Well, intrepid travelers, look no further.  We’ve seen some amazing places during the last month, and I’m certain that one of these European destinations deserves the honor of being the next in line to inherit Prague’s tourism throne:
Wawel Castle and Cathedral
1.     Krakow, Poland – Considering it was the royal capital of Poland until 1596 and was left largely unscathed during World War II, Krakow’s old town has to be one of the greatest in Europe.  Hundreds of ancient buildings once occupied by noblemen and dignitaries are now home to a dizzying array of restaurants, cafes, bars and art galleries.  The gem, though, of this immaculate town is its main square, a square that’s the size of some small towns.  Two hundred meters (that’s two football fields!) wide and two hundred meters long, the square seems to have a life of its own.  And if you’re into history, Krakow gives you the enormous Wawel Castle, the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, a nearby Jewish ghetto made famous in the movie Schindler’s List and, less than an hour away, the gruesome death camp at Auschwitz.
next_prague2
2.     Ljubljana, Slovenia – The fact that Ljubljana (and, for that matter, all of Slovenia) is not world-famous is an outrage.  Pronounced “Lyoo-bli-yana”, the city name means “beloved” in Slovene…and for good reason.  Crammed between a massive hill (which is, of course, crowned by a huge castle) and the Ljubljanica River, the Romans, the Austrian Habsburgs and Napolean all took advantage of this city’s strategic setting.  This brought great wealth to the city, which produced some remarkable architecture, much of which was destroyed in a 1895 earthquake.  Fortunately, Ljubljana called upon the services of Joze Plecnik, a young architect who had learned his trade while working on Prague’s marvelous Hradcany Castle, to return the city to its former glory.  His training paid off, leading him to build some of the grandest and most interesting buildings, bridges and sculptures (many of which are of dragons, since legend has it that the city was build on the spot where Jason, of Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame, slew a dragon) found anywhere. Our mostly tourist-free time spent walking along the river, admiring the colorful buildings and shopping at the daily market is one of our greatest memories of Europe.
Scenes from streets of Bratislava
3.     Bratislava, Slovakia – During forty-five years of Communist rule, the largest Communist-era housing complex was built in Bratislava – scores of identical and soulless buildings marring the landscape.  Luckily, the Communists didn’t go near the old town of Bratislava, leaving unscathed a town that is the very definition of quaint.  With cobblestone, traffic-free streets, maze-like alleys and tiny, cafe-filled plazas, all you’ll want to do is walk around the tiny town and sit unhurried in a cafe soaking up the romantic atmosphere.  Luckily, you can!  Even though Bratislava is over 1,100 years old, it is blissfully free of any must-see destinations, enabling you to relax guilt-free without worrying about missing that umpteenth castle or cathedral.  My suggestion for the Bratislava Tourism Board’s new slogan is “Come to Bratislava…and Do Nothing.”
statue in main square of Lviv
4.     Lviv, Ukraine – Even though its Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, Lviv sees precious few Western tourists.  As I explored the city’s charming streets and public squares, though, I got a feeling that that’s about to change.  The hotels are nice, the restaurants are diverse and the churches and medieval buildings are as grand as any we’ve seen. This, combined with a culture and people that is drastically different from much of Eastern and Central Europe, is just too irresistible for tourists to ignore for much longer.

Amazing Castle of Kamyanets-Podilsky
5.     Kamyanets-Podilsky, Ukraine – The greatest military strategists couldn’t design a more secure location for this town.  Situated on a large rock island, surrounded by a river that acts as a natural moat, Kamyanets-Podislky has been inhabited for thousands of years by people seeking protection.  To bolster their security, a wooden castle was built here in the 10th century and reconstructed with stone 500 years later.  Our initial view of the castle as we walked across the bridge into the Old Town was, to us, one of the greatest visual spectacles this world has to offer.  And since the city is well off the tourist track (even its residents were puzzling over why we took the time to visit…), you’ll probably have the unforgettable view to yourself.

So there you have it.  If you’re bound for Europe any time soon, make sure you see some of these amazing places now.  Before everyone else does.

Krakow:

Ljubljana:

Bratislava:

Lviv and Kamyanets-Podilsky:

National Parliament buidling in Budapest
The twentieth century was a tough one for Hungary.  Until then, the nation had been one half of Austria-Hungary, one of the most powerful empires on earth.  World War I brought widespread destruction to the land, both during and after the actual conflict.  Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians were killed in battle, and under a post-war settlement known as the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary’s territory was reduced to 40% of its historical size.  It’s said that, even today, “Trianon” remains a dirty word within Hungarian borders.
Streets of Budapest
During the years between the world wars, Hungary trained its focus on reclaiming its lost land.  It couldn’t turn to the U.S., Britain or France for help in this matter (as the WWI victors, they were the ones who’d taken it away in the first place), so it looked instead to the fascist governments of Italy and Germany, joining them in their fight for territorial domination.  Bad idea.  World War II decimated Hungary even further, opening the door to 40 years of harsh communist rule.
Central Market in Budapest
All of this strife seems to have left Hungarians in a bad mood.  Their national anthem speaks of them as “a people torn by fate,” and their prevailing sentiment is said to be one of “patriotic sorrow.”  Unfortunately, they take their sorrow quite seriously: their suicide rate is one of the highest in the world.  But perhaps things are turning around for this nation of goulash and paprika.  Democracy arrived in 1991, and Hungary was admitted to the EU in 2004.  Those are always good signs, right?  We spent about a week there, and it seems to us that Hungarians have quite a lot to be happy about.  (Of course it does.  As we’ve learned on this trip, Americans are known throughout the world as being impossibly optimistic.)
Plaza in front of St. Stephen's Basilica
Budapest alone should be enough to change someone’s outlook on life.  Divided in half by the Danube,1 both sides of the city are beautiful.  Spectacular architecture and fine arts abound, as do world-class museums and delectable restaurants, many of which don’t seem to be entirely on the tourist map yet.  That, of course, makes them even better.
Thermal Baths at Szechenyi Baths in Budapest
As it turns out, though, one of our favorite parts of the city was one of its most well known.  Budapest lies on a geographical fault line, from which 30 million liters of hot mineral water gush every day.  These waters are funneled into the many thermal bath houses that dot the city.  “Taking the waters” at one of these baths is said to be one of the ultimate Budapest experiences.  And it was.  One afternoon, we joined throngs of locals and tourists at the bright yellow Szechenyi baths.  We immersed ourselves in pools of all shapes, sizes and temperatures.  Some were tiny and scalding; others were clouded with minerals; still others were chlorinated and felt kind of like the wave pools I used to love as a kid.  We left feeling refreshed and–I’m not kidding–just a little bit healthier.
St. Stephen's Basilica
If the baths aren’t enough of an escape from the hustle and bustle of big-city Budapest, Hungarians can always head a couple hours outside of town to Villany, a village of vineyards that feels like Napa Valley probably did about 100 years ago. The bulk of the small hamlet is situated around a single road, which is referred to by everyone in town as, simply, “the cellar street.”  And for good reason.  Every second building or so is a little, family-run wine cellar, complete with a tasting room and, perhaps, a small restaurant. As we sampled the local wares, we watched locals stop by with big, plastic jugs, loading up on a week’s supply of the celebrated reds that have made their hometown famous.  Good vino… That ought to improve their mood.

Google Video

  1. Did you know that Budapest is actually made up of two parts? Buda lies on one side of the river, Pest on the other. []

Scenes from Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Auschwitz.  Even the name of the infamous Nazi death camp sends a chill down my spine.  Although the camp and its neighbor, Auschwitz II (also called Birkenau), are both in Poland, they were the setting for a living nightmare experienced not only by Poles, but by people throughout Europe.  From places as far away as Greece, Jews and other people designated for extermination by the Nazis1 were forced to board trains bound for Auschwitz.  Many of them were made to pay for their own passage on the vehicles that would carry most of them to their deaths.

The prisoners were told that they were being sent to a labor camp and that they could carry with them only one suitcase full of all of the goods they would need to live for the unforeseen future.  And so they did as they were forced to do.  Unable to cram everything they owned into just one suitcase, many of them wore nearly all of their clothing at once, which only made the heat on the crowded trains more unbearable.  But that was nothing compared to what they would face once they arrived at their final destination.
Selection Process at Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
At Auschwitz, the prisoners filing off of the trains were separated into two groups–those the Nazis thought fit for hard labor (this group consisted mostly of young and middle-aged men) and everyone else (this group was made up of nearly all of the women, the children and the elderly).  People in this second group were told that they needed to be sprayed with a sort of delousing agent before they got settled into their barracks.  They headed into the showers, unsuspecting. There was no precedent in their minds for this kind of evil, and thus they had no way of predicting what was going to happen.  But you know the rest.  The “showers” were gas chambers.  All of those layers of clothes, all of those suitcases packed with the goods needed to begin a new life–worthless.  The Nazis kept meticulous records of all of the prisoners who lived at Auschwitz.  But the names of those killed immediately upon their arrival never even made it into their records.
Work Brings Freedom sign at entrance to Auschwitz I
The “lucky” people in the group selected for labor were housed either at Auschwitz I in old army barracks (although surely the soldiers who once lived there were not made to sleep three or even more to a twin-sized bed) or in what were formerly horse stables at Birkenau (buildings that once housed 52 horses now held 400 people).  Their prisoner numbers were tattooed onto their forearms and they were put to work.  (Once in awhile, you see a Holocaust survivor with such a tattoo. It’s a sure sign that he or she was imprisoned at Auschwitz; it was the only camp that tattooed its captives.)  Forced to endure inhospitable temperatures, psychotically inhumane medical experiments and near starvation, most of these prisoners died after only a few weeks.
Auschwitz I
The Soviets liberated Auschwitz I and Birkenau on January 27, 1945–nearly 5 years after Auschwitz I was established and more than three years after Birkenau opened its creepy doors.  Tragically, the Germans had been forewarned about the Soviets’ arrival.  Just days before the Soviets arrived, some 60,000 prisoners were forced to undertake a death march to a concentration camp in Germany.  The 20,000 of them who made it to the camp weren’t liberated until months later. When the Soviets finally did get to Auschwitz, only 7,500 prisoners remained.  Most of them were weak and near death, but they were alive.  All in all, about 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, about 90 percent of whom were Jews from nearly every country in Europe.
Scenes from Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
The day we spent touring Auschwitz was, of course, terribly upsetting and emotionally exhausting.  Thanks to a great guide, however, it was also informative.  Evidence of the Nazis’ atrocities was everywhere.  40,000 pairs of the victims’ shoes filled one room.  Their toothbrushes and shaving kits were piled in another.  Human hair took up a massive space along one wall.  (The Germans shaved their victims’ heads and, unbelievably enough, used their hair to make fabric.  When they liberated the camps, the Soviets found bags of the stuff waiting to be shipped.)  Still another room–the saddest of all–was filled with the suitcases the prisoners brought with them on the trains from their homelands.  Each was marked with its owner’s name and birthday.  With tears in my eyes, I noticed that one of the suitcases belonged to a child who, at the time, was less than a year old.

  1. Among this group were the oft-oppressed Roma, a people without a homeland who are discriminated against throughout what seems to be most of the world.  Half of Europe’s Roma population was decimated by the Nazis during World War II.  Given such tragic numbers, it’s hard to believe that few people know about these invisible victims of the Holocaust. []

Town of Miklosvar and surrounding area
To many, “Eastern Europe” signifies the old Communist bloc – an area of the world continuously grey and bleak, with long lines filled with desperate people waiting hours to score a loaf of bread or a piece of meat. Fortunately, these stereotypes are mostly a thing of the past. Since the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 80s/early 90s and the communist strongholds of Eastern Europe have changed their political and economic bent, Eastern European countries have undergone a slow, but significant, change in their way of life. As many of the countries have entered the European Union and their economies have expanded rapidly in the past few years, many places in Eastern Europe seem as much, or even more, “Western” as their geographical neighbors. Selfishly, we’ve been a little disappointed, hoping to witness some of the old school ways of the Communist era. Well, we finally got our wish…
Sights on drive through rural Romania
As we were waiting in line to cross the border between Romania and Ukraine, a uniformed border guard looked down at the French license plates (a novelty in this part of Europe) on our Peugeot rental car and knew we were ripe for some harassment. He approached us and asked us for the receipt for our payment of the Romanian road tax. We correctly informed him that we were unaware of such a tax, had never been asked to pay such a tax and had found no mention of a road tax in either of the Romanian guidebooks we had consulted. Brilliantly feigning surprise at our lack of knowledge, he informed us that the penalty for not paying the tax was $200 and that, after finishing the border-crossing formalities, I should park the car and come see him in his office.

Once our passports had been stamped, I quickly found myself in the guard’s tiny office. Brashly, the young officer announced, “I just told you the legal process for handling your lack of payment of the road tax. Why don’t you suggest an alternative solution?” Acting perplexed, I asked him what he meant. “The fine is $200. How much do you think is a fair payment?” Resisting my innate urge to punch the corrupt guard in the jaw, I started a negotiation that resulted in an agreement of $40 for the mythological “road tax”. As I began to hand over the bribe money, the guard spotted his superior officer coming towards his office and began freaking out, saying “Put the money away! Hide! Oh, %!@&! Don’t say anything!” Fortunately for the guard but unfortunately for me, his boss reversed course and went away to handle another matter. Wiping sweat from his brow, the guard quickly grabbed the $40 from my hand, and I ran for my car as quickly as possible.
Flooded roads in northern Romania/southern Ukraine
It was a rainy day (in fact, it had been raining for days), and just a mile after crossing the border, we spotted pools of water on the road. As we continued to drive, the water started getting higher along the side of the road and under the bridges we crossed. Cautiously, we made our way through sections of the road that were partially flooded. We saw rivers that had escaped their banks and flooded several villages. Luckily, we made it past the flooded area fairly quickly and without incident, only to find out a couple of days later that the floodwaters had risen to produce Ukraine’s worst flood in 200 years, killing 22 people, affecting over 40,000 homes and causing over $800 million in damage (unbelievably, the country’s special disaster fund only has $57 million in it).
Flooded roads in northern Romania/southern Ukraine
As we continued our drive, we were pulled over by a police officer. This stop brought our trip total to five – South Africa (speeding – no payment), The Netherlands (driving across a bridge reserved for buses and taxis because we couldn’t read the sign that, in Dutch, told us not to – $60 hit), Croatia (passing a car in a no-passing zone – no payment), Romania (speeding – no payment) and now Ukraine. When behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle, I drive faster than the speed limit at almost every chance I get. This is especially true in Eastern Europe, where the speed limits typically hover around 30 or 40 mph–even on the highway. When I got pulled over this time, however, I was definitely not speeding because I had been stuck for several minutes behind a huge truck that was barely moving. When the cop pulled out his radar gun, though, it registered 50 mph – 20 mph over the speed limit. I told him, in English, that his radar gun was incorrect, but my English was as comprehendable to him as his Ukrainian was to me. He quickly cut to the chase and started ask for money. Immediately, we began a caveman-esque process of negotiation, flashing numbers with our fingers, accompanied by grunts and head movements. Eventually, our negotiations ended with the cop pocketing only about 10 euros (about $16). A paltry sum for a story I’ll have for the rest of my life.

Sights on drive to Sighisoara
When you think about Romania, one of three things probably comes to mind: (1) Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 in the ’76 Olympics; (2) the draconian rule of Nicolae Ceausescu1 ; or (3) Dracula himself.  (After all, the count who was the inspiration for the evil character is said to hail from Transylvania, an area in central Romania.  His name was Vlad Tepes, or “Vlad the Impaler,” a name bestowed on him in recognition of his preferred method of punishing his enemies.)
Sights of Sighisoara, a Saxon village
We spent some time in Transylvania during our visit to Romania, and while we can’t testify to any close encounters with a blood-sucking monster, we did stay in what used to be a serf’s cottage on the grounds of a true Romanian Count’s former residence.  Located at the edge of a village called Miklosvar, which is so small that it didn’t even make our map, the cottage made a great base for exploring the area.  One day, we drove to the medieval town of Sighisoara, where we saw Vlad’s supposed childhood home, as well as the charming, cobblestoned Old Town, a bustling local market and a lovely Gothic church wherein lies a fresco of the Holy Trinity in which the Holy Spirit is depicted as a woman.
Cows coming home!
We also spent time exploring the countryside near the Count’s residence.  The area is peppered with tiny villages that seem to have remained largely unchanged over the last few centuries.  The progress of our Peugeot on the single, dirt road that led through each town was often hampered by slow-moving, horse-drawn carriages carrying hay and a couple of weather-beaten farmers.  Old women gossiped in front of what was often the only store in town.  Kids rode their bikes nearby and cast suspicious glances at the strange car with foreign plates.
Incredible Voronet Monastery in Guru Humorului
No matter what we did during the day, we always tried to make it back to Miklosvar by the time the cows came home.  And I mean this literally.  In that village and, as far as we could tell, in most of the surrounding ones as well, the cows come home at 7:50 on the dot.  That is to say, just a few minutes before the magic hour, the resident cowherd rounds them up from the pasture just outside of town and parades them slowly down the street.  Each cow seems to know where he or she lives and so, with no prompting from anyone, will turn off upon approaching the right house.  I think it’s one of those things that you have to see to believe.
Beautiful Humor Monastery
The painted monasteries of Romania’s Southern Bucovina region also fit into the so-much-more-amazing-when-seen-firsthand category.  Listed among the greatest artistic monuments of Europe, the monastic churches are covered inside and out with colorful, biblical-themed frescoes that were rendered in the 1500s. They are located inside fortified monastic complexes designed to stave off the attacks of Turkish invaders that were all too common in those days. During the attacks, the complexes sheltered both armies and peasants, many of whom were illiterate.  The frescoes were intended to educate and entertain this audience and, centuries later, they certainly delighted us.

Google Video

  1. A communist who was president of Romania for more than 20 years, from 1965 to 1989, Ceausescu brought Romania to its knees with idiotic and often cruel policies.  In an attempt to eliminate foreign debt and look good in front of the world, he exported Romania’s food while his own people were forced to ration what little remained.  In hopes of increasing Romania’s birth rate, he instituted a tax on childless women and men over the age of 25 and gave significant benefits to mothers who had at least five children.  Finally overthrown by revolutionaries, he and his wife were executed, after a two-hour trial, on Christmas Day in 1989. []

Old Bridge (called Stari Most) in Mostar
Considering that Bosnia is most recently known for a gruesome war that ended just 13 years ago, I’m guessing that there aren’t many people out there who put Bosnia and Hercegovina (aka “Bosnia”) at the top of their list of vacation destinations.  In fact, it wasn’t on our radar screen until we looked at a map and realized that driving through Bosnia (and then Serbia) on our way from Croatia to Romania would save us at least a day of driving.  Of course, there was one catch – the terms of our car lease didn’t allow us to drive through Bosnia or Serbia because our car wasn’t insured there.  After discussing the risks of driving through war-torn countries without insurance for approximately 14 seconds, we hopped in the car and headed to the border.
Mosque in Mostar
Following the lead of Slovenia and Croatia, Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.  Unlike Slovenia (composed mostly of Slovenes) and Croatia (predominately Croats), Bosnia had a fairly mixed population of Croats (who are Roman Catholic), Serbs (who are Eastern Orthodox Christian) and Bosniak Muslims. 1  Accordingly, the declaration of independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia was not universally accepted in Bosnia; in fact, the Bosnian Serbs living in the country immediately declared their own independence from Bosnia.  The next four years were filled with massive bloodshed, with the Serbs and the Croats (who initially were on the side of the Bosniak Muslims) effectively trying to exterminate the Muslims from the country.  Evidence of their attempted genocide is still everywhere.
War-torn buildings of Mostar
After arriving in the city of Mostar and finding a place to stay, we walked around the town–one of the most famous in the country–in an attempt to get a feel for it.  We were amazed at the still-visible signs of the war; dozens of buildings, heavily damaged by direct hits of mortar shells and bombs, lined the streets. Unlike Croatia, where damage from the recent war has been mostly repaired, Bosnia has a long way to go.  The wreckage was most evident on a street named “the Boulevard.”  The Boulevard saw a great deal of fighting because one side of the street was occupied by the Croats and the other by Bosniak Muslims.  Evidently, the fighting became so bad that, when someone was killed on the Boulevard, the body would sometimes remain there for months; it was too dangerous to try and retrieve the body for burial.
Jumping off the Old Bridge in Mostar
Mostar has been famous for hundreds of years for its bridge, a stone arch masterpiece completed in 1557 (several years before the Rialto Bridge in Venice).  However, the magnificent bridge and pride of the Bosniak Muslims was not spared during the war; the Croats blew it up in 1993.  After the war ended in 1995, a decision was made to rebuild the bridge, leading to its triumphant re-opening in 2004 (interestingly, it took longer to build the bridge in the 20th century than it did in the 16th century).  Now, the bridge is the town’s centerpiece, attracting tourists from all over the world (including two from the USA…).  Keeping up a tradition that goes back centuries, young men donning speedos2 periodically jump from the top of the bridge into the icy river 75 feet below.  While this feat used to be done to impress girls, it’s now carried out to attract money from tourists (a jump usually brings in about $50).

After leaving Mostar, we drove through the rugged mountain terrain of Bosnia to the capital city of Sarajevo, host of the 1984 Winter Olympics.  During the Bosnia War, Sarajevo also incurred heavy damage.  Most notably, the Bosnian National Library was targeted by the Serbs in a wicked attempt to erase the history of the Bosniak Muslims by destroying the thousands of books and archives housed in the library.
Cemetery for those who lost their lives in the Bosnian War
We spent our short time in Sarajevo walking around the Turkish quarter of the city3 , visiting a cemetery where thousands of gravestones evidenced the widespread killings that occurred from 1991-95 and seeing the spot where a Bosnian Serb shot and killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife as they were driving in Sarajevo in 1914, sparking World War I.  We ended our one night in the city at an outdoor summer concert called Pop-Rock-Live. We had hopes of seeing some of the good live music that we so dearly miss from our lives in Nashville.  Instead, we heard a couple of terrifying heavy metal songs delivered at top volume by screaming teenagers.  While we couldn’t understand the angst-ridden lyrics, we had a pretty good feeling that the band was expressing their anger at the recent horrific events endured by the Bosnian people.  How could they not be?  They were singing right in front of the bombed-out library.

Mostar:

Sarajevo:

http://youtu.be/8_01arEtEkg

  1. The Muslim population in Bosnia is quite different than the Muslims generally associated with the Middle East.  With a few exceptions, the Muslims we saw during our short time in Bosnia practiced a sort of Islam-light, wearing Western-style clothing and partying in bars and clubs until the wee hours of the morning. []
  2. I fear the speedo.  It seems that if there’s any opportunity for a mainlaind European (as noted by one of our British readers, the Brits and Irish share my disdain for the speedo.  God bless ’em.) man to take off all of his clothes and walk around in a ridiculously small speedo, he’ll seize upon it.  In my opinion, speedos should be outlawed unless the person wearing it is participating at that very moment in an Ironman competition or an Olympic swimming or diving event.  If there are any mainland Europeans reading this blog, I ask you–no, I beg you–to do the world a favor and fight the visual injustice caused by the speedo. []
  3. The Turks controlled Bosnia for over 400 years, which explains the predominance of Islam in the country. []

Dubrovnik's Old Town
In 1776, the Republic of Dubrovnik became the first foreign state to recognize a small, upstart republic known as the United States of America.  The people of Dubrovnik had, for centuries, guarded their own freedom against incursions by larger, wealthier states.  It seems they were eager to support others who wanted to do the same.

The concept of liberty has always been close to the hearts of the people of Dubrovnik.  This may help to explain the recent behavior of the contemporaries of those early Dubrovnik citizens.  In June 1991, Croatia (of which Dubrovnik was, by then, a part) declared independence from Yugoslavia.  Within weeks, the ragtag Croatian army was at war with the longstanding, Serbian-dominated Yugoslav one.   The war raged mostly on the Croatia’s interior, until the Serbs shocked the world by attacking seaside Dubrovnik, the gem in Croatia’s tourist crown.
Views from our walk along the city walls of Dubrovnik
The Serbs expected Dubrovnik residents to run for their lives.  Instead, they bunkered down in their cellars and waited.  Ordinary citizens grabbed their hunting rifles and set off into the hills in search of the would-be attackers of their beloved town.  The people of Dubrovnik withstood eight months of bombing, and then the Croatian army finally showed up to bail them out.  The defenders of liberty had prevailed, and their city was safe, if a bit battle-scarred.

We can testify to the fact that–largely due to the efforts of those same, brave Dubrovnikers–those battle scars are barely visible today.  During our recent stay in Dubrovnik, we saw not battle wounds but, instead, an incredible–and incredibly charming–town with countless offerings for the seemingly infinite number of tourists who flock there each year.
Views from our walk along the city walls of Dubrovnik
The heart of Dubrovnik is the Old Town, with its cobblestone streets and terracotta roofs, and the heart of the Old Town is the Stradun, a wide promenade that runs right through the center of things.  Along the Stradun itself and on the many narrow alleyways that connect to it are hundreds of pizzerias, ice cream stands and sidewalk cafes, where locals and tourists alike gather to people-watch and to admire the beauty of their surroundings.  The Dubrovnik Summer Festival was talking place when we were there, so all of this was done to the accompaniment of live classical music, which only added to the ambiance.
Views from our walk along the city walls of Dubrovnik
When we weren’t trying to beat the heat with a gelato and a cold drink, we spent some time learning more about the 1991 siege of Dubrovnik.  In the Memorial Room of Dubrovnik Defenders, we saw photos of dozens of the locals who lost their lives in the fight to protect their town.  In a photography museum called War Photo Limited, we found graphic, powerful documentation of the Croatia-Serbian conflict and the many others like it that sprung up when Yugoslavia began to dissolve.  Later, we walked the one-and-a-quarter-mile loop on top of Dubrovnik’s city walls.  75 feet high in some places, the walls were a great vantage point from which to see the whole of the Old Town and a perfect place to appreciate the efforts of all those who have sprung to the city’s defense over the years.

The gorgeous Bay of Kotor
Occasionally, our hotel room will have a television.  However, the selection of English-speaking programs is usually quite dim; in most cases, we’re stuck watching episodes of The Simpsons in German or Friends in Czech.  Sometimes, we strike gold and get CNN International.  During our months of watching CNN, we’ve been amazed by the continual advertisements sponsored by the Tourism Board of the tiny country of Montenegro.  It seems like a Come Visit Montenegro commercial is on every 10 minutes.  So, when our friends Todd & Heather Rolapp (who traveled with us in the Czech Republic and Croatia) said they’d like to visit Montenegro to track down some family history, we were overjoyed.

Montenegro became part of Yugoslavia in 1922.  When Slovenia, Croatia and then Bosnia declared independence in the early 1990s, Montenegro continued a loose union with Serbia until it achieved independence on June 28, 2006 – just two years ago.  Until Kosovo declared independence from Serbia just a few months ago, Montenegro was the newest country on the block (it will have to settle for second newest now).
capture_the_flag_2
From Dubrovnick, Croatia, it’s only a 45 minute drive to the Montenegro border.  Once you clear customs, you drive past some fairly unappealing towns and soon arrive in the dramatic Bay of Kotor.  Due to its geographic location,1 the Bay of Kotor has been a strategic area for thousands of years, with Greeks, Romans, Turks, Austrians and Slavs all fighting for control of the Bay.  Now, the only fights take place between Serbs and Montenegrins trying to find an empty area along the Bay on which to sunbathe.

After circling the bay, we headed up one of the mountain passes built by the Austrian Empire when it controlled this region.  Testing my nerves behind the wheel, the road has 25 switchbacks, which are liberally sprinkled with steep drop-offs.  As a payoff for all of that effort, it also affords amazing views of the Bay.  Once we summited the mountain, we wound our way through valleys and hills populated only by sheep and the occasional home selling cheese, smoked ham (basically, Montenegro versions of prosciutto), honey and homemade brandy.
capture_the_flag3
After a couple hours of driving, we reached the small town of Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro.  Based on information received from relatives of Todd, two important items could possibly be found in Cetinje: the birth certificate of his great-great-grandfather and a flag that his great-great grandfather rescued from the Turks during the Battle of Vučji Do in 1876.  After parking our car, we walked for a few minutes and went into the first building we saw, the National Museum of Cetinje.
capture_the_flag_4
As we approached the main desk of the museum, a woman who worked there asked if she could help us.  As Todd started to explain the story of the flag, the woman quickly interrupted, “Of course, the flag rescued from the Battle of Vučji Do.  It’s right around the corner.”  Flabbergasted, we went around the corner and, sure enough, we were standing in front of the bullet-hole-ridden flag (over 400 bullet holes) that Todd’s great-great-grandfather had saved from the Turks.  A surreal experience.

The same woman directed us toward the Cetinje Monastery; just a few minutes’ walk from the museum, it is where local archives (including old birth certificates) are stored.  Still stunned by the flag discovery, we entered into the ancient (circa 1484) Eastern Orthodox monastery.  After talking to a black-robed priest, Todd set off into the monastery’s archive in search of the birth certificate.
capture_the_flag_5
Meanwhile, we donned white robes (since we were wearing shorts) and went into the monastery’s small chapel.  The monastery’s prized possession is the supposed mummified right hand of St. John the Baptist.  Evidently, the hand is covered up and only showed on special occasions.  Luckily for us, the priests were showing the hand to some pilgrims when we arrived, allowing us a glimpse of the decayed and, frankly, somewhat disturbing relic.

Unfortunately for Todd, the priest at the monastery in charge of archives was away on vacation (who knew that Eastern Orthodox priests vacationed?).  Todd had to settle for the name and number of the priest-in-charge in hope of getting a copy of the birth certificate if and when it is found.  All in all, though, our trip was a success, and one that will be relived every time we see one of those Montenegro commercials during the evening news.

  1. The Bay of Kotor is surrounded by steep mountains.  The only feasible entrance to the Bay is via a narrow waterway, less than a quarter mile wide. []

Views of the town of Split, Croatia
Realizing that you’re in the midst of one of the best experiences of your life always feels pretty strange.  Although such a sensation is usually reserved for big, life-changing events–your wedding day, the birth of your child, etc.–I found it a little while ago aboard a yacht named Jolly.
Scenes from our tour of Diocletian's Palace, completed around 300 A.D.
Yup, I was on a yacht.  Here’s how it happened: Todd, Heather, Derek and I arrived in Split, Croatia and, after an amazing couple of hours spent exploring Diocletian’s Palace–which was built in 305 A.D. (!?!) by a Roman emperor who planned to use it as his retirement home–we found ourselves in need of a plan for the next few days.  Todd mentioned that he’d read that it was possible to charter a yacht for a few days and island-hop among Croatia’s gems in the Adriatic Sea.  Although each of us was certain that such a luxury was far beyond our budgetary reach, we set off to check it out anyway.  The day was sunny and hot, and the pull of the marina, with its turquoise water and its rows of sparkling boats, was irresistible.
The Jolly
Upon our arrival at the marina, we confirmed our earlier expectations that–no kidding–renting a yacht was expensive.  We set to work applying negotiating skills that would make our respective law schools proud, and we met with some success (mainly because it was a truly last-minute rental).  We researched all kinds of options.  We hemmed and hawed.  We vacillated.  And then we saw the Jolly.

We fell immediately in love.  A 47-footer she was, and only a couple of years old.  She offered all kinds of space in which to lounge and–we were all certain–to have the best time of our lives.  We couldn’t help ourselves; we hired a skipper named Damir and signed on the dotted line.
Scenes from our short stop on HvarAnd so there I was, book in hand, lying on the front of a yacht in the Adriatic.  When we got hot, we dropped anchor and swam in the sun-drenched sea.  Later, we docked at a small island named Vis and made our way, per Damir’s advice, to a small, family-run vineyard in the middle of the island.  We feasted on fresh fish and lamb and returned to the Jolly to be lulled to sleep by gentle waves.

The next morning, I went for a run (my favorite way to explore a new place) and realized that the town in which we’d docked, which was also called Vis, was even more idyllic than I’d previously imagined.  Inspired, I set off, camera in hand, to capture some of what I’d seen.  I happened upon a produce stand where fresh figs were sold (delicious! and impossible to find at home…) and returned to the boat to eat them alongside some incredible cheese that Derek had procured.  Soon thereafter, we set sail for another part of Vis, a small town called Komiza.  The whole thing felt like a scene from a movie.  It also felt like utopia.
Scenes from the town of Vis
From there, things went slightly downhill, primarily due to Damir’s abject laziness and to some rather uncooperative weather.  Seemingly deaf to our repeated requests to please use the sails (first of all, because we were on a sailboat and wanted to experience it in its full glory and, second, because gas is even more expensive in Europe than it is at home) and to drop anchor at some of the delightful-looking coves that we were whizzing past, he motored from one port to another without so much as a moment’s pause.  On our third day aboard the Jolly, he told us that it was too windy to move the boat at all.  What could we do?  We gave up our dreams of spending the evening in Hvar (a nearby island that is famous for its nightlife) and instead rented scooters and explored Vis.  Exhibiting brattiness befitting someone aboard a yacht, I whined to Derek that, “it’s not called island-hopping if we stay on the same island the whole time.”  It wasn’t my proudest moment.

As it turns out, we were able to spent a little time on Hvar on our fourth and final day at sea.  We wandered its cobblestone streets for a couple of hours and paused for a snack in a sidewalk cafe.  By the time we docked back in Split, we were sun-burned, exhausted and happy.

Google Video

For a country that has only been around since 1993, the Czech Republic has a fascinating history, and one that’s full of interesting phrases…
check_please
When Czechoslovakia turned Communist in 1948, scores of non-believers were violently oppressed and imprisoned.  Twenty years later, during a 1968 movement known as the Prague Spring, it adopted a milder version of communism, which it described as “socialism with a human face.”  Unhappy with this development, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia later that year, and the communist reins tightened, only to be dissolved entirely when democracy came to the country in 1989 after a non-violent uprising known as the Velvet Revolution.  Four years later, in 1993, Czechoslovakia split in two; one part became Slovakia, the other the Czech Republic.  For its part, the Czech Republic has managed to attract hordes of tourists from all over the world, and we can see why.
check_please_2
Our first stop in the Czech Republic was Karlovy Vary, a town famous both for its spas (the sulphurous springs that run beneath the city are said to have healing powers) and for its annual film festival.  We never made it to the spas, but we did arrive in Karlovy Vary just in time to check out the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.  We’d read that we didn’t need to purchase tickets to the various movies showing at the festival in advance but, instead, could procure them upon our arrival.  We’d read wrong.
check_please_3
We got to the box office in time to find out that every movie being shown that day (i.e., our only day in town) was completely sold out.  If we were to make it into any movie that day, explained the ticket guy, we’d have to camp out in front of the theater at least an hour before showtime and hope for the best.  So that’s what we did, joining the throngs of other would-be movie-goers who also had neglected to purchase tickets in advance.  We waited in line for three movies and made it into only one, and that was by the skin of our teeth.  The movie we did see was called Man on Wire (see trailer HERE), about a French tight-rope walker who, among other things, snuck into the World Trade Center in 1974, strung a rope between the twin towers and then walked between them, high above Manhattan, for 45 minutes.  It was so good that it made the wait entirely worthwhile.
check_please_4
Leaving Karlovy Vary, we made our way to Prague.  We’d heard great things about the city, and it appeared that millions of other travelers had, too–the city was jam-packed with tourists.  (How odd it feels to be someplace during the high season; that’s (intentionally) pretty rare for us.)  Happily, a few of those tourists were dear friends of ours from Nashville, Howard and Elizabeth Lamar and Heather and Todd Rolapp.  We had only one night with the Lamars, but the Rolapps would be with us for the next week or so.
check_please_5
Together, we wandered through Prague’s old town square.  The square is dominated by a clock tower from which, every hour on the hour, a parade of apostle figurines and a bell-ringing skeleton emerge, much to the delight of the hordes of onlookers.  We also met up with an opera-singer-turned-tour-guide named Josef.  Josef led us through Prague’s streets and shared with us stories of life under communism.  (“People had to wait in line for hours to buy meat,” he said.)  He told us of the glorious days when democracy finally came to his country: “Thousands of people took to the streets, shaking their keys; it was their way of ‘ringing the bell’ on communism.”
check_please7
Derek and I also wandered over the Charles Bridge (a must-do in Prague) and made our way up to the Prague Castle.  The biggest castle complex in the world, it is the seat of Czech power, playing home to both the president’s office and the ancient Bohemian crown jewels.  (A side note: The ancient land of Bohemia makes up the western two-thirds of today’s Czech Republic.  The term “bohemian” comes from the French, who thought that Roma gypsies, who actually have origins in India, came from Bohemia.  Today, the label “bohemian” is often applied to anyone living an unconventional lifestyle.)  While at the castle, we watched the changing of the guard, meandered through the astounding St. Vitus Cathedral, with its spectacular stained-glass windows, and explored the Old Royal Palace, which was full of elegantly vaulted ceilings and offered incredible views over Prague.  All too soon, it was time to say farewell to the Lamars and to Prague and to climb back into the Peugeot for the 12-hour drive to Split, Croatia.

« Previous PageNext Page »