I am very happy to finally be in Ireland! This trip was scheduled in May of 2020 but canceled due to Covid.
My first few days are spent in Belfast where two highlights are a Black Taxi tour of the neighborhoods involved in the Troubles, and a visit to the Titanic Museum.
The Troubles between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Republicans began in 1968 and lasted thirty years. The Unionists wanted Northern Island to remain part of the United Kingdom; the Republicans wanted Northern Ireland to leave the UK and reunite with the Republic of Ireland, and as a minority, they wanted the Protestant Unionist majority to stop discriminating against them. Republicans carried out a bombing campaign against British forces who then retaliated. There were numerous riots, mass protests, and acts of civil disobedience which led to increased segregation of Catholics and Protestants. More than 3,500 people were killed. The peace process that eventually ensued led to cease-fires and talks between the political parties resulting in the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998. The 25th anniversary of that Agreement was just celebrated but the division between Protestants and Catholics remains.
Our guide takes us to the segregated communities, separated by locked gates and a very high “peace wall.” Catholics don’t patronize Protestant establishments and vice versa. The conflict is passed down through generations. Many murals depict the martyrs. Some of those murdered were young children. Even though issues around religion, politics, and class remain, Catholics and Protestants mix in the workplace downtown and in the universities.
In dramatic contrast, yet also sad, is the story of the Titantic, built in Belfast harbor starting in 1908. It was the largest ship in the world at the time, elegantly and luxuriously designed and fitted with the finest materials. The Harland and Wolff shipyard employed 14,000 men to build Titanic and her sister ship, Olympic. It took more than three million rivets to hold the steel plates to the frame of the ship.
Titanic was thought to be “virtually unsinkable” due to its watertight bulkheads. However, the bulkheads only reached ten feet above the waterline, allowing water to get from one compartment into the next. This turned out to be a fatal design flaw. On April 10, 1912, the ship set sail from Southampton England. Just five days later on April 15, she hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic near Newfoundland and within two hours had completely sunk. There were 2240 passengers and crew on board. More than 1500 died.
The architecturally stunning museum beautifully commemorates Titanic, covers her history from the drawing board, through construction, launching, and fateful end, and includes oceanographer Robert Ballard’s search for and ultimate location of the ship in 1985 at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Bonus! Walking by Belfast City Hall, I notice a large crowd watching King Charles’ coronation on a Jumbotron set up on the lawn. There’s a small “throne” on which a “gold crown” sits for onlookers to take turns pretending to be King. The crowd seems to be enjoying the pomp and circumstance while the King looks extremely glum.
By the time we drop the car in Inverness, Juliet has driven one thousand seventy miles. I think she is very happy to leave the driving to someone else going forward. We meet our fellow hikers and guides on a brilliantly warm and sunny day and set off for two weeks of adventure in Scotland. I have yet to figure out how much hiking I will or should do.
Scotland has more than six million inhabitants of whom the vast majority live in the central part of the country between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Outside of the mainland, there are seven hundred ninety islands of which ninety-four have a permanent population. There are few trees anywhere because, as in Iceland, the Vikings cut them down and used the wood to build boats and houses. In the western Highlands where we are spending most of our time, the average annual rainfall is one hundred eighty inches, one of the wettest places in Europe. It’s no wonder everything is so green! There are thousands of sheep that keep the grasslands under control. The landscape is stark and rugged.
Soon enough, the gorgeous weather is replaced by heavy rain, cold temperatures and howling wind. We are told this is normal. After doing a five mile hike one day, carefully watching the placement of my right foot with every step, I take the next day off. This turns out to be a very wise decision when the group returns seven hours later, soaking wet and reporting gale force winds and terrible footing. Meanwhile, I have spent the day reading in the great room of our lodge sitting by a roaring fire!
We take a ferry across the Hebridean Sea from the mainland to the Outer Hebrides and, on the Isle of Lewis, walk along the coastal cliffs high above the sea to the Butt of Lewis (no kidding). The grass is soft beneath my feet. The wind blows fierce, the sun sparkles despite a gloomy forecast. The water crashes violently against the giant rock formations spraying foam all around us.
Our able guides tell us about the long and sometimes brutal history of Scotland as we visit the remains of important historical sites.
Another day, on the Isle of Harris (home of Harris Tweed woolens) we hike a short but steep mountain called Toehead that is smothered in heather—purple, pink, orange, yellow.
Going up is manageable, going down not so much, the poor toe twisting and turning in my boot. In addition to being mindful about where I put my right foot, I have mud and sheep poop to negotiate. All of this takes a lot of energy. So I skip the following day reputed to be the hardest hike on the trip and instead meander around the tiny town of Tarbert where we are staying.
Then the weather takes a turn for the worse. We take a ferry to the Isle of Skye and hike all day in a downpour through moody and misty volcanic scenery. Thankfully afterwards, we stop at a picturesque hotel and drink local whisky at the art-filled bar.
Our final hike on a mountain called Cairngorm, located in a large National Park of the same name, involves a very steep uphill climb in incredible wind with gusts of sixty miles an hour. I wear four layers of clothing and can barely stand up straight. In fact, the last bit has us clinging to a rope while we traverse ice-covered stones and try to remain upright. At which point, I turn around and go back to avoid what surely will be a calamity for my battered toe. I then make a very slow descent over the precipitous rocky terrain to safety. What a relief!
I am happy I decided to come to Scotland in spite of my fractured toe. It became a different trip than I expected and my experiences were different from those I would have had had I not been hobbled. It proves true for me yet again that the unanticipated often makes the more memorable adventure.
Things aren’t quite turning out as planned. While packing to leave the home of our friends, I trip on my massively heavy, bulky duffel and immediately feel searing pain in my right pinky toe. Unlike after similar incidents, the pain doesn’t subside. The following day, I go to Urgent Care in a small Yorkshire village hospital and learn I have fractured the toe. I am strongly advised not to go on the hiking trip in the Scottish Highlands.
Terribly disappointed and in need of something cheery, Juliet and I decide the only logical thing to do is engage in some garden therapy. So we go to Castle Howard where I hobble around the spectacularly beautiful gardens at this massive estate fifteen miles north of York, owned and occupied by the Howard family for three hundred years. The “house”
is situated amidst thousands of acres planned with the utmost aesthetic care. Towering trees frame tranquil lakes. Formal gardens encircle fabulous fountains. A walled garden, while formal in style, is filled with a riot of flowers of every imaginable color.
Emerald lawns gently slope towards forests and waterways. Grand statues stand sentinel. Oh, to have such space!
The next day we go to Helmsley Walled Garden, another revelation. Entirely different from Castle Howard, it feels more like a garden a non-noble would have. It is much more manageable in size and less formal. In addition to the variety of plants, colors, and textures, there is a wildness, a denseness, a kind of unruliness that I love.
And the fruit trees, laden with red and green apples and the most perfect pears!
Before leaving, we have a chat with a volunteer gardener who tells us about a gem of a garden in a village on our way to the Lake District that is a must-see. And so we stop at Millgate House and explore an enchanting cloistered hillside garden crowded with small trees, flowering shrubs, and potted plants, rangy and untamed, covering every spot of earth.
Oh, what can be accomplished in little space!
After spending several delightful hours being inspired, we make the slow and scenic drive to the Lake District, arriving in the golden hour when the softening light makes the landscape radiant.
The hillsides are luscious and green, the trees perfectly shaped, the gardens immaculate, the sky punctuated by dramatic grey and white clouds.
After a day witnessing such beauty and grace, the broken toe seems of less consequence. And we have many new ideas to bring to our garden at home!
London England (August 2018)
So Juliet and I arrive at Gatwick Airport near London. We’re planning to drive around the countryside in England for nine days before dropping the car off in Inverness, northern Scotland, where we will meet up with a group and hike for fifteen days.
We get to the rental desk where I expect to pick up the midsize car with automatic transmission that I had reserved. The first surprise is when Kareem, the very personable agent, announces that I had not arranged to drop the car in Inverness, but rather, to return it to Gatwick. I’m told the drop-off fee is an additional 30 pounds. I’m not happy but I can deal with that. The second surprise is when Kareem states I had arranged for a car with manual transmission! How could this be? Juliet had volunteered to drive because I hadn’t ever driven on the left side of the road and wasn’t keen to do so. But she hadn’t either AND she hardly knows how to drive a car with a stick shift!
This is a horrifying development. Kareem then declares there are no cars available with automatic transmission unless I want a premium car that costs an extra 50 pounds per day! This is ridiculous and, to make matters worse, Juliet repeats over and over again a kind of mantra “this will be fine. I can do this.”
At this point, Kareem’s eyebrows elevate quite a bit, his eyes grow very wide. Is it disbelief? amusement? I say I need some water and he returns with three cups, apparently needing one as well. I am thinking I need something much stronger than water! Being such a kind man (or simply out of his mind), he offers to drive around the lot with Juliet while she “practices.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Kareem then disappears again and comes back with a set of keys in his hand saying he “found” an automatic for us. I think he’s kidding. Where this car suddenly materializes from, I haven’t a clue. Maybe from some unfortunate tourist who hasn’t yet arrived and will be in for the shock of her life when she finds out the only car available is one with a stick shift!
We get in the car, an enormous SUV, a further complication. The last thing Kareem warns us about is the pole that stands extremely close to the front of the car. After several maneuvers back and forth, Juliet is able to extricate the vehicle from its tiny space in the under-size parking lot, wend her way around the many tightly packed-in autos and pull into the travel way. She merges into one round-about after another, slightly on edge as round-abouts are always a challenge especially when seeming to drive the wrong way.
There is much traffic going up to Northamptonshire, a three-hour journey, where we will be staying with friends the first few nights. But Juliet gets us there without a hitch: on time, without getting lost, and in one piece, a heroic accomplishment. Mercifully, we weren’t subjected to the prospect of her driving a car with a stick shift!
Water, water everywhere. Glaciers, waterfalls, rivers, fjords, lakes, and the Atlantic Ocean. We encounter all of them and are awed by their power and beauty.
First and foremost for me are the waterfalls. In my pre-Iceland life, more often than not, my reaction to them was generally meh (with the notable exception of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe). But in Iceland, I see them as exuberant, muscular, deafening, formidable. Here are a few examples:
Then there are the glaciers. They are ubiquitous, winding around mountains, peaking through clouds, tongues ending in rivers, moraines of boulders or icebergs strewn in their receding paths. Can you imagine the largest glacier is the size of Holland? We touch the toes of two of them. Here is some of what we saw:
And then there is the lake full of icebergs rushing to the Atlantic, simply jaw-dropping:
So, Juliet’s thirtieth birthday is on August 19. I decided to surprise her with a trip, somewhere neither of us had been before and wanted to visit, a place that would be easy to reach by air from Boston after our stay in New Hampshire. Iceland met all of these criteria, just a five-hour flight away. Of course, Juliet had to know there was going to be a trip so she could arrange for time off from work. The challenge was to keep the destination a secret from when I hatched the plan in December 2016. There were an assortment of near-giveaways, such as my announcing in conversations Juliet overheard that there would be internet, thereby eliminating a number of less-developed countries; or my naming destinations I hoped to explore, from which Juliet deduced “well, I guess we’re not going there for my birthday!” I also made the mistake of telling a lot of my friends about it, and then I couldn’t remember whom I told, and I had to remind everyone who might come into contact with Juliet anytime over the seven months beforehand not to spill the beans.
But I managed to keep it from her until I had to share too much information the day before we left New Hampshire for Reykjavik. I planned to send a box home with unnecessary items of clothing. I had been watching the weather forecast for a week before our departure and knew we wouldn’t need shorts or tank tops, the maximum daily high in Reykjavik being 53 degrees. So I told Juliet to put all of that stuff in the box, and when we arrived at the IcelandAir terminal at Logan Airport the next day, her suspicions were confirmed. I asked her what her thoughts had been over the course of the many months she had known about the mystery trip and she said she had concluded we were going to go to Portugal—a baffling conclusion from my viewpoint!
Iceland is a country about the size of Kentucky but with a population of only 330,000 people. It is a stable democracy, and the politics are largely progressive with little or no gender gap. The drivers of the economy are tourism and fishing.
Iceland has approximately 130 volcanos, thirty of which are active. Earthquakes are common occurrences. Twelve percent of the land is covered in ice caps and glaciers, 63 percent in lava and otherworldly terrain. The rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates is several feet wide and stretches from one end of the country to the other.
Summer is like a Bay Area winter. Rains a lot; temperatures in the forties and fifties; and when there is occasional sunshine, fog crawls over the mountains as it does in San Francisco. And boy, is it windy!
We hike over vast expanses of lava
in a multitude of formations during downpours or pea-soup fog (sometimes both), and occasionally in brilliant sunshine. We go whale-watching in the chilly North Atlantic, see pods of humpback whales close to the boat, and fish for cod. (Juliet catches a fish; she names it Harold and releases it, saying at least he will live to die another day!)
We bathe in hot springs. We drive over teeth-rattling dirt roads to remote parts of Iceland as well as on freshly-surfaced roads through rural farming and fishing communities. We shop for local clothing made from Icelandic wool. We eat herring and salmon and cod. And we enjoy the warmth and welcoming spirit of the Icelandic people.
*Featured image by Juliet Nellis
The Dolomites, Italy
Here’s a bit of historical background before I tell my story: The Dolomites are in the Italian Alps. Prior to World War I, they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Italy waged a fierce battle for the region during three years of war in which thousands on both sides died. The fighting ended in a stalemate. By treaty, this mountainous area became part of the South Tyrol region in Italy. Much of the population is culturally Austrian and speaks German.
The Dolomites were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009 because of their natural beauty and unique formations. There are nine different areas of note and all have distinct and dramatic shapes and colors. On each of our hikes, we saw stunning and extraordinary landscapes. And on the day of our fifth hike, we experienced the unexpected.
For the first two hikes, the weather was splendid, sunny, and warm, the scenery unsurpassed, the trails challenging.
The second two hikes were all of the above except rather than sunny and warm, the weather was cool, overcast, misty and moody.
The night before our fifth hike, we stayed at a hotel located in a pass 7,345 feet in elevation. Rain had threatened all day but we finished our hike without a drop falling. While having dinner, it started to pour, the temperature turning very cold with snow threatening. The plan for the following day was to hike to the highest point on the trip, a summit of 10,334 feet. Since there was a very real possibility of snow overnight, the group came up with a few alternative ideas just in case. Jokingly, I suggested bowling, and was told that indeed, there was a bowling alley in the next village. Bowling in the Alps-who knew? But I digress.
When I awakened in the morning and looked out the window, this is what I saw.
Yes, a winter wonderland in mid-September! Clearly, an alternate plan for the day’s activities was in order. Some of us thought this would be a nice opportunity to curl up with a good book by a warm fire in the hotel, but our most able guides, Tomi and Claudia, had a more energetic solution: we would hike in the snow! So we bundled up in our warmest clothing and carefully exited the hotel on foot.
We started gradually going uphill in the wet slush. After visiting a war memorial to local soldiers who died in World War I, we crossed the road and walked single file on a very muddy, slippery trail. We saw a large herd of dirty, wet sheep vacate a patch of ground where they had spent the night and decided that would be the most direct path to our ultimate destination, a gondola that would take us down the mountain to the town of Araba where we were to have lunch. This trek entailed stepping in vast quantities of sheep poop which, along with the mud, made for some very messy boots.
Then it was onto a steep gravel path that seemed endless. When it looked as though we had finally arrived at the gondola, we were extremely dismayed to find out that this was not the correct one and that we had another 1500 feet of elevation to gain. By now we were hiking in deeper snow and the going was increasingly arduous.
We arrived breathless at the gondola station. The thing was that our dear guides had neglected to inform us in advance about the precipitous grade, likely out of fear we would resist such a plan given the weather conditions.
Meanwhile, on the bright side, the clouds had lifted somewhat. The views to the surrounding peaks, including Marmolada, the highest mountain and the only large glacier in the Dolomites, and also Piz Boe, the summit we were supposed to reach had it not snowed, were quite sensational.
And the entire experience, while demanding, was also so much fun. For me, this was the most unforgettable day of the trip because it was delightfully unexpected!
I decided to take the train. Perhaps not as efficient as flying, I nevertheless thought it would be a nice diversion to make the final leg of my journey by rail. As it turns out, the three and a half hour excursion from Zurich to Innsbruck was lovely.
For miles, the track runs alongside the Bodensee, a huge Swiss lake. (I know the name because I asked a rail employee in my rudimentary German. This pleased me immensely!) The weather is warm and there are plenty of sunbathers, swimmers, paddle boarders and boaters enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. The landscape surrounding the lake is vibrantly green, the hills dotted with tidy-looking homes and farms.
Further along, the train rushes by a more beautiful lake (or is it the same one-there is no one to ask) with tall mountains jutting straight up from the aquamarine water, the serrated summits getting lost in the clouds. This is definitely picture postcard country but the train is going too fast to take pictures. I had planned to continue reading my book but I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenes outside the window.
The train makes a number of stops. They are carefully documented on screens hung from the ceiling of the rail car at regular intervals. The times of arrival and departure at each station are noted and when the train is early or late to a stop, the expected time has a line drawn through it with the actual time listed underneath. I find this incredibly compulsive yet endearing.
I haven’t spent much time in Western Europe in recent years, preferring to visit more remote locales. Looking at these sublime vistas from the train, I am reminded how much I enjoyed long-ago trips to Switzerland and Austria and how little has changed here in the countryside in the intervening years.
The mountains become taller, craggier, more massive, seeming to confine the train. Villages, some large, others tiny, are tucked into crevices high up on the slopes. As the light fades, shafts of sun light up a single dwelling or a grove of trees on the steep hillsides.
The clouds thicken, darken, and it begins to rain. And all too soon this sweet sojourn ends in Innsbruck.
We left Taormino on a sunny, warm morning and arrived in Ragusa under a dark sky. In the afternoon, our guides gave us a dos-and-don’ts-while-riding lecture while the clouds got blacker, the thunder louder, and the temperature lower. Just as we began our warm-up ride, it began to pour. I soldiered on, sneakers turning into sponges, helmet dripping rain water into my eyes. You get the picture.
But it got worse, and I’m not only talking about the storm. I got lost. How this could happen on such a straightforward ride is hard to imagine. Except for the fact that I have a history in this regard. In any event, suffice it to say that I spent even more time than necessary in the downpour because of this. Not an auspicious beginning.
But with a new day come new possibilities! The next day, it did not rain. In fact, the weather was sunny and perfect for riding.
Of course I did spend many hours the night before with the hair dryer and my sneakers, bike shorts, gloves, etc, so they would be serviceable. And, then I rode 60 km and did not get lost, not once, while cycling through verdant countryside
and beside the sea.
Being so thrilled about all of this, I celebrated with a delicious scoop of gelato, my first in Sicily.
Sicily was conquered thirteen times by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Spanish, among many others. The influence of these various cultures is evidenced in the food, architecture and customs. In 1492 when Sicily was part of the Spanish empire, the Jews were expelled from Italy. All that remains of the Jewish quarter in cities such as Modica and Siracusa are the narrow winding alleys they called home. In 1693, there was a tremendous earthquake that leveled much of southeastern Sicily. Cities were rebuilt in grand Baroque style soon after and many of the ones we visited like Modica, Noto, Ragusa Ibla, and Siracusa, are now designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
As to the cycling, the brochures and the guides are adept in the practice of euphemism. They talk about gentle rolling hills. Well there was nothing gentle about them for this girl! I labored up the many hills (there seemed to be considerably fewer downs than ups), struggling for breath while using “granny gears.” One day, my butt hurt so much after pedaling 57 km, that I chose to walk the final 2 km to our hotel (out in the middle of nowhere). Meanwhile, my face was a human windshield for bugs.
The cycling was Interspersed with various cultural activities. These included visits to a chocolatier where we sampled many different flavors, an olive oil factory that smelled divine and a cooking demonstration that featured eggplant parmigiana and cannoli. I’ve eaten the freshest fish, luscious tomatoes, delicious cheeses, perfect pasta and imbibed some lovely wines.
All told, I pedaled 283 km (175 miles) in five days and managed not to fall off the bike or injure myself (other than a few bruises and scrapes).
And then it was on to Siracusa, specifically the island of Ortygia, where we had a tour highlighting historic ruins that were discovered serendipitously under modern structures. These buildings (now ruins) were often constructed by Greeks, modified by Romans, Arabs and Normans, converted from synagogues to churches to mosques and back to churches again depending upon the religious predilection of the conquerer.
One particularly interesting discovery in the Giudecca (Jewish) quarter involved a woman who bought a spacious home about twenty-five years ago. When she began to convert it into a hotel, she came upon steps buried in the basement. Over a two-year excavation period, she (and archeologists) were amazed to find a mikveh, a ritual bath in which Jews purified themselves. The mikveh, believed to be the oldest in Europe (fifth century), was carved into limestone more than twenty meters below ground level.
So, with just one last day in Sicily, I will visit the city of Piazza Armerina and its fourth century Roman Villa, known for its grand size and splendid mosaic floors.
And then, sadly, I must bid this fascinating place arrivederci.
Mt. Etna, Sicily
The plane approaches Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean. I see Mount Etna, the most active volcano in Europe, covered in snow, looming above the cloud cover.
The island is remarkably developed with urban pockets among the green tracts of farmland and vineyards.
The first stop is Taormina, a typical European city characterized by narrow streets, Greek and Roman ruins, and buildings inhabited since the fourteenth century. It is lovely. I hike up to Castelmola, a mountaintop town high above Taormina, offering panoramic views of the city and the sea.
But actually, I wasn’t going to send a postcard just yet. After all, I’ve been in Sicily just two days and the bike trip hasn’t even started! But today was so much fun that I wanted to tell you about it while the I am still feeling the excitement.
I hiked Mount Etna. What a very different experience from any I’ve ever had. I mean hiking to the top of an active volcano. Really? The mountain is huge: 1200 square kilometers. Until 1911, there was only one active crater. Since then, there have been four and hundreds of eruptions. The volcano erupts at least once a year and twice so far in 2015.
From the base of the mountain, a cable car takes me up to an altitude of 2,500 meters. From there, a special bus with oversized wheels transports me through black lava fields as far as the eye can see.
The bus leaves me in this desolate place from where I hike to an elevation of 3,300 meters (just under 11,000 feet) and close to the current “top” of the mountain (which changes as a result of every eruption).
I hike (in a group led by a volcanologist) up very steep slopes, almost all snow-covered, in the thin air.
As I reach the central crater, Bocca Nuova, my senses are assaulted by a sickly sulphur smell smacking me in the face courtesy of the gusting wind. I begin to cough and my eyes start to water. The crater is obscured by clouds but I hear the crack of the explosions nearby. This is a bit unnerving. I place my hand by a fumarole, hot and humid (not to mention smelly). It warms my very cold hand.
I am now wearing all the layers I’ve brought with me and stopping too long cools my sweat and makes me shiver.
The group leaves this active crater and hikes to other craters that are now quiet, sunken hundreds of meters into the mountain. We descend on even steeper terrain, slipping and sliding in the snow, at one point on my butt all the way down a pass.
I laugh at how silly I feel (and undoubtedly look) but it is a blast.
After four hours of hiking, knees very shaky, legs like pudding, I’m on the cable car again, back to where this day’s adventure began. What a unique and fascinating time I have had!
I hadn’t been to Santorini since 1978, a whopping 37 years ago. I remembered it being a sleepy place with not much going on: a few shops in Fira and Oia, a handful of hotels. Today, it is unrecognizable to me. These two towns are now jammed with tourists, shops, hotels and restaurants. It appears that the $5 rooms offered by homeowners to travelers just off the boat from Piraeus are long gone, replaced by all manner of fancier accommodations. And the traffic: unbelievable! The roads are a jumble of tiny streets, pedestrians darting out with no warning, ATVs moving slowly, buses traveling at breakneck speed, vehicles going in opposite directions eking by each other in order not to crash. Not to mention driving an unfamiliar car with standard transmission. And this was supposed to be the relaxing part of the trip!
After the challenges of a days driving in Fira and Oia, my daughter and I decide to stick to more manageable places. We go to Red Beach, aptly named as the beach is dominated by a huge red lava wall (signs warn of the danger of falling rocks)
and the ground itself is comprised of various sized red gravel and what appears to be sawdust or mulch. Shortly after a swim in the Aegean (from which we emerge covered in bits of sawdust), we depart for Perissa. It is a very long beach of black volcanic rock worn to small round pebbles that exfoliate and massage your feet simultaneously, a delicious experience.
Here the Aegean Sea is sublime, a beautiful clear azure and perfectly temperate, my kind of swimming conditions!
On another day, we visit Akrotiri, a recently excavated ancient community that was destroyed by earthquake and volcanoes several times since its founding, finally being buried in ash and abandoned centuries ago. At its most populous, there were 30,000 inhabitants and it is historically unclear whether they fled before the last eruption or died as a result of it.
We go to the highest spot on the island, a monastery that is remote and quiet and is a fantastic viewpoint for sunset.
Travels to the villages of Pyrgos and Meligachori (where we stay) feel like the more authentic Greece with far fewer tourists and a much more leisurely pace.
And so a wonderful ending to this adventure.
Departing Sarajevo early in the morning, we enter Montenegro and begin driving on the road toward Durmitor National Park, our destination for the next four days.
Passing through 66 tunnels blasted out of limestone, we travel beside Lake Pivsko, an other-worldly sapphire.
Our first hike in the Unesco World Heritage site of Durmitor Park is around Black Lake, obviously a popular place. It seems like there are more people in this part of the park than we saw in all of Bosnia! Very different indeed.
Our second hike, to Savin Kuk (7,586 feet), is steep and full of scree. It takes five hours, and frankly, it is hard work and does not offer the beauty, the wild flowers, the variety of topography that Bosnia offers. Still, the view is panoramic, the weather perfect.
Our third hike to Prutas Peak and back is six hours across great rolling green and yellow hills punctuated by huge limestone massifs.
The trail is treeless, entirely exposed. There are few other hikers and the only sounds we hear are humming insects and the whispering wind. In some spots, the path is only about ten inches wide; in others, rock scrambling is required and the drop-offs appear to be straight down thousands of feet on either side. These test my tolerance for fear of falling, but I grit my teeth and soldier on! From the summit (7,851 feet), we have a 360-degree view including Mount Maglic in Bosnia (our hike three days earlier), Savin Kuk Peak (the previous day’s destination), and Bobotov Kuk (the upcoming hike).
Our fourth and final hike is to the aforementioned Bobotov Peak (8,277 feet), the highest mountain in Montenegro.
The climb takes seven and a half hours. The day is perfect, the hike arduous. Like several of the others, it is characterized by long, steep ascents and descents of scree as well as rock scrambling. This one has the scariest exposure yet, which requires me to face the rock wall as I try to find the safest footing on tiny rock ledges and avoid looking at the tremendous amount of air space between myself and the ground far below. The view at the top is breathtaking and makes the treacherous trip worthwhile!
It’s a very good thing our hikes are done, because my feet want nothing to do with hiking boots. For our last adventure, we go rafting on the Tara River. The rafts go in the water in Montenegro and we ford the rapids for twenty kilometers down the river back into Bosnia. The water is so clean that one can drink straight from it! It is so clear, that one can see many meters down to the bottom.
The depth of the canyon in which the Tara runs is 1,300 meters from the top of the mountains that line its sides to the water level.
It is a glorious day and such a lovely change from what has gone before.
And so now on to Santorini.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
I expected Bosnia to be interesting and beautiful, but a great gastronomic destination? Not really. So I was in for quite a surprise with our welcome dinner at a winery in Sarajevo!
At 7:00 pm, we traveled to a hillside high above the city. Our group of ten was greeted warmly by the owner of Hedona Wine Club, Arman Galicic. The architecture of the building looked as if it would fit right into Napa or Sonoma wine country. Arman ushered us into a glass-enclosed dining room with a stunning view of Sarajevo, all dressed up in evening light.
The table was elegantly set and we spent the next four hours over a seven-course meal paired with complementary wines. Now I don’t ordinarily write about such events; indeed, I don’t ordinarily experience them on my hiking trips. But this was something special. Delicious slow-cooked food; wonderful wine made from grapes grown right here in Bosnia; stimulating conversation and much good cheer. Definitely a night to remember.
And then early the next morning, my birthday in fact, we set out for our warm-up hike in the rocky mountains surrounding Sarajevo. We hiked for three and a half hours to the two-hundred-year-old village of Luka Mira, remote and picturesque.
Members of one of the two resident families made a lunch for us of potato and cheese pies from locally grown potatoes and cheese from sheep raised by the family, very different fare and atmosphere from the previous evening’s dinner, but just as satisfying.
The next two days involved hikes of five and ten hours each. Both hikes took place in Sutjeska National Park. The first was a loop taking us to Ugljesin Peak (6,095 feet), continuing on a high ridge trail with unobstructed views of the magnificent surrounding mountains and valleys.
The second, also a loop, was extremely strenuous featuring hand-over-hand rock scrambling, ridge hiking and a very steep descent on slippery scree. The highlights were summiting the tallest peak in Bosnia, Mount Maglic, (7,828 feet)
and viewing the glorious Trnovoacko Lake. It was a good thing we had great visibility during the first hike as Mount Maglic and the ridge were almost entirely enshrouded in clouds, shafts of sunlight occasionally shining through. Mist from the Lake rose ethereally, making the scenery magical.
What a wonderful place Bosnia is for hiking and without any crowds!
Next we are off to Montenegro.
Fairy chimneys. That’s what they’re called. Fascinating volcanic rock formations fashioned through centuries of wind, rain and river flow.
Cream colored, pink, yellow even. Many are caves that were lived in by hermits long ago, later by Christians who carved monasteries into the caves, painted beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceilings, often still perfectly intact today. Other caves were bedrooms, kitchens, wineries and granaries. Little covered ledges were carved into the sides of the rocks for pigeons to roost, the dung collected by farmers to fertilize their crops planted around and between the rock formations. Long, thin slits were cut into the stone for bees to nest, producing honey for the local people.
Elsewhere, vast underground cities connected by extensive tunnels, led to living quarters, stables, ventilation systems and wells, eight stories deep.
These housed as many as 60,000 Christians who sought refuge from invading Arabs for up to three months at a time.
This is Cappadocia, a magical place in central Turkey, an hour’s flight from Istanbul. Here, you can hike in the valleys, climbing onto the rocks and into the caves, imagining what life was like one thousand years ago.
You can go up in a hot-air balloon at sunrise and get yet another perspective of this whimsical-looking place, where you are aloft with dozens of other brightly colored balloons, rising up and then descending into the valleys on the air currents, so quiet and serene.
The hiking trip concluded in Krakow two days ago with a city tour. Alas, our last 2 hikes were not in sunshine. In fact, the last hike was in much rain and mud. I called the hike “Chutes and Ladders” after that famous childhood game most of us remember. It involved traversing waterfalls and gorges on chutes and vertical ladders.
It has rained so much that there was a great deal of water everywhere. This was another terrifying experience for your friend. Next time I contemplate a hiking trip, I’m going to have to inquire first about the fear factor. This hike also included some ridge and forest hiking and finally, some of the most sticky and disgusting mud I’ve ever hiked in.
We had a fine carnivorous feast for a farewell dinner here in Krakow and then we were on our own again. Yesterday, we went to a museum and saw the paintings of a fine Polish painter named Stanislaw Wyspianski. Then we walked over to Kazimierz, the former Jewish section of Krakow.
As you undoubtedly know, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe (3,500,000) prior to World War II with many of them living here. Now, there are only a few hundred Jews living in Krakow. However, because it was Rosh Hashonah, the synagogues and cemeteries were closed so we were unable to view them.
Today, we went to Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Actually, we somewhat dreaded going, fearful of the strong emotions this would stir up for us. Surprisingly, we were not touched as deeply as we expected, much less so than by some of the books we’ve read (e.g. Elie Wiesel’s “Night”, William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice”) and movies we’ve seen (e.g.”Schindler’s List”, “Playing For Time.”) Although the exhibitions were very interesting, it was like a museum, cleaned up and sanitized. Indeed, it was, for once, a beautiful sunny day. Perhaps had we gone on the bleakest of winter days without crowds, it would have felt more authentic. One deeply moving exhibit, though, was thousands of suitcases in a huge display case. Many of them had the names, countries of origin and dates of birth of their owners. Very, very sad.
It is hard to believe I have been in Europe for one week already. My journey across was relatively uneventful and I arrived in Freiburg Germany on 28 Aug. it was wonderful being reunited with Juliet after she had been in Germany for nearly 8 weeks. I stayed in her apartment, saw where she went to school, had meals with her and her friends and did her laundry (some things don’t change!).
We took an overnight train to Vienna on 30 Aug and someone from the University of Vienna came to the train station the following morning and collected Juliet’s gargantuan suitcases (I was so happy we were relieved of those) and we took another train to Budapest right away. We spent 2 full days and nights there and had a wonderful time. We walked for miles and saw, among other things, the ornate neoGothic Parliament,
the House of Terror (the building where both the Nazis and then the Communists conducted their oppressive and violent regimes against the Hungarians), Castle Hill (the elegant and lovely hill area of Buda that overlooks Pest and the surrounding areas), the Chain Bridge,
and the Great Synogogue (the largest in all of Europe, second only to the one in Manhattan). We went to the thermal Szechenyi Baths where the locals hang out
and also had some excellent meals and local Hungarian wines.
Yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, our Wilderness Travel group (6 others, 3 guides and us) left for Eger, a small town about 2 hours east of Budapest where today, we took our first hike. It was a relatively mild but enjoyable hike of 8 miles through the vineyards, forests and hills in the Eger area.
At the end of the hike when we were having a picnic lunch, Juliet was bitten by a horse! It was quite something. She was petting the horse and the horse seemed to be enjoying it when suddenly it bit her in the stomach. Quite a memorable experience; fortunately, we’ve been laughing about it all day!
Tomorrow, we will spend the morning hiking and wine tasting (not at the same time) at our last stop in Hungary in the village of Tokay and then we’ll be off to Slovakia.
High Tatras, Slovakia
The most remarkable thing about this trip is the weather. I chose early September because I was told that’s the best time to go : the weather is grand and the tourists are gone. What really happened: We have hiked the last 3 days, each day 9-10 miles, 6-7 hours, and it has snowed or rained every day, all day. At home, I would take one look at such weather and decide to do something cozy indoors. But here, this may be our only opportunity to hike in these dramatic mountains, so off we’ve gone every day.
Friday, we hiked on the Polish side of the High Tatras. Although we had been told the night before we wouldn’t be able to hike up because of the snow, we were able to do so. We hiked up to one of the wonderful huts often found in European mountains and then on to a lake through snowdrifts and slush.
The altitude was just under 5,000 feet. Saturday, we hiked through a mountain pass at about 5,400 feet and encountered 4 avalanches several feet deep and trails with snowpack of 2-3 feet. I wished I’d had snowshoes! And the most amazing thing is that we never saw where we were hiking. It was a winter wonderland in pea soup fog.
Today, just Juliet and I went with one of our guides to a hut at about 6,100 feet. It was a challenging, steep climb and the top third was in a driving snowstorm. The temperature was about 32 degrees. Juliet dressed smartly in shorts! Her legs were bright red from the biting cold and wind.
However, before encountering near white-out conditions, we did manage to see the jagged, stark, vertical high peaks of the Tatras.
So, you might ask “are you having fun?” It is a blast; totally memorable and significantly different from the warm weather hiking in tee-shirts I was expecting. Now that we’ve hiked in every weather condition, we’re wondering if either of our last 2 hikes will be in the one we’ve missed so far: sun.
Prague, Czech Republic
I have one word to describe Prague: WOW! I’d heard it was beautiful, but it is way beyond my expectations. It is a feast for the eyes; an architectural delight.
I have been constantly surprised by the magnificence of one building after another. On several occasions, I have turned a corner and gasped out loud at the wondrous sights. Prague is particularly known for Art Nouveau.
Tonight, we went to a concert in the amazing Municipal House said to be the “pearl of Czech Art Nouveau.” We have walked and walked through every quarter of the city and viewed it from as many angles as possible. We have been on Castle Hill,
in the Jewish quarter
and in the Old Town Square. It is a place in which I could spend days and would like very much to return.
High Tatras, Poland
Greetings from snowy Poland!
No, that isn’t a typo or mistake. We are in the high Tatras and the snow is 2-3 feet deep.
Our hike tomorrow was supposed to be one of the best but we can’t go because of the snow. We’ll have to hike down rather than up!
The last 2 days, we stayed in the walled city of Levoca Slovakia. The weather was cold and rainy but we had a marvelous hike in Slovensky Raj (Slovak Paradise). We hiked about 10 miles. This included terrifying sections where we were suspended from cliffs on what looked like oven shelves above a raging river.
When we got to the highest point, the temperature was in the 30’s with a howling wind. It was desirable to keep moving, as you might imagine.
Today, we visited Spissky Hrad, a castle built in the 15th century holding a commanding view atop a hillside overlooking the beautiful Slovakian countryside.
We then took a lovely hike from the castle to a town called Zehra, another picturesque village.
The adventure continues tomorrow. Who knows what that will bring? One thing I do know: travel is exciting and often involves the unexpected.
I am a cultural Jew. What that means to me is that I don’t adhere to the religious part but relate to other less well-defined but recognizable aspects of being Jewish. It’s really hard to explain.
In any event, I went to Israel for the first time in 1978. I came by boat from Piraeus in Greece. As the boat approached Haifa harbor, I saw many steel grey ships of varying sizes. While this did not seem particularly remarkable, there was one difference here. The writing emblazoned on the bows of these ships was in Hebrew.
I started to cry. For the first time in my life, it felt like I was part of the majority culture.
London England (August 2018)
The Dolomites, Italy
Mt. Etna, Sicily
Bosnia and Herzegovina
High Tatras, Slovakia
Prague, Czech Republic
High Tatras, Poland