First, a comment from a good friend in Trieste to put context (other than COVID) to our times:
I am back at the (Italian/Slovenia) border handing out necessities to the ladies and goodies to the kids with my group from the International School. The bus loads of women and children never stop. I really believed it would end quickly. …
I thought you might want to know that the Ukrainian refugees have been arriving since the first of March.
First we were sending supplies to the camps in Poland but we (Red Cross, Ex pats, International School, Save the Children, our National Guard…and others)have been on the border pretty much 24/7. They are now spreading them out between Trieste, Tarvisio and Gorizia.
The biggest difference between these refugees and the Syrian refugees is that we see only women and children and an occasional elderly man.
The Syrian refugees (that we saw here) were almost exclusively young men. Not sure if they weren’t letting the women and children out or what. Only rarely was there a family. This was confirmed by the shelter that I brought supplies to.
The usual style writeups on Istanbul and Athens have been eliminated in the interest of brevity
Istanbul is one of the world’s most interesting cities. In my humble opinion, each country has a capital and some of those combine with it having a feeling that, given the opportunity, anything is possible. Paris is an example of such a city. In other cases, there is an artificial creation of a monumental city full of bureaucrats and a second city which serves as the country’s financial and business engine where anything is possible. These pairs include Washington DC/New York, Brasilia/Rio, Beijing/Shanghai and Ankara/Istanbul. Istanbul is an anthill of energy and motion and I always look forward to a visit there.
The newfound religious freedom recently introduced has nearly half of the women wearing headscarves. As far as COVID is concerned, roughly 20% were wearing masks in the street, but nearly 100% on public transportation (KN95, N95 or equivalent required) and nearly all shopkeepers wore masks. The Spice Market has been renovated and looks great, but the vendors there are less differentiated than in the past and most are selling some combination of baklava/pastries, teas and a handful of spices. The Grand Bazaar is getting a bit of a facelift as well (I guess a new pain job is due every 500 years or so), but seems pretty empty of tourists.
The gold jewelry styling has morphed to designs more I n line with what customers from the Gulf would wear than European sensibilities, though there are still a handful of Grand Bazaar shops who specialized in serious European style bling. Tourism looks like it is slow to return.
Lesbos is pronounced Lesvos as the Greek letter B (beta) is pronounced like an English “V” (and its name as if it were spelled “veta”). Anyhow, the major changes in its pretty limited options from last time was the dog which followed us around and that the archeological museum was unlocked. OK, that was mean – it has a pretty cool collection of mosaic floors, some marble statue pieces and some assorted knickknacks. All in all, worth seeing if you are there, but not worth traveling to see unless floors are your thing. Lesbos is also the place where, for the first time in over 100 days, we were touched by rain. OK, only a few minutes of drizzle, but it counts. Still, not a bad run of great weather.
Athens was a bit of a surprise. Well, not in the physical sense as it was little changed from the last time we visited (except everyone was masked on public transportation, as were waiters and our vaccination paperwork was checked when we entered museums). It was April 18th when we visited which (apparently) is International Monument and Sites Day and all the museums (including the pretty expensive Acropolis) were free.
Frankly, we took a “sea day” when the ship called at Santorini. After our last “adventure” there (which included walking down the donkey path because the line for the cable car was too long), its siren song has been squelched. The view of the towns from our ship, anchored in the middle of the ancient caldera explosion which might have been the nexus of the Atlantis story, is of cliffs which look like they are capped with snow – the white walls of the buildings.
Dubrovnik was another wet day. The mask mandate was lifted a short while ago and there were none to be seen (other than the two of us). There was a large cruise ship docked next to us and it will be interesting to see if our ship maintains its 100% negative record.
Ancona, in the Marche region of Italy is a refreshingly pleasant place (though geographically designed for mountain goats more than people ?). It probably has a more festive feeling during the summer tourist season than on a wet cloudy day. While relatively few in the street are masked against COVID, all shop-keepers and restaurant employees were and proof of vaccination was required to enter restaurants. The Italian QR code COVID passports we had to apply for didn’t work, but restaurants accepted our US CDC pieces of paper.
Today is devoted to Kotor, Montenegro, a wonderful wall-surrounded town. We’ve done “the climb” in the past and once is enough. There was little or no masking or vaccination checking here.
“To many people holidays are not voyages of discovery, but a ritual of reassurance.” – Philip Andrew Adams
The main tourist office, as you enter the Old Town, provides a detailed free map outlining four walking tours.
In the very south of Croatia, on a separate enclave is separated from the balance of the country by a Bosnian salient, but a new bridge is supposed to be opened soon which will solve the issue of having to cross two borders to get to the Croatian mainland. Dubrovnik’s encircling 13th century ramparts (15 miles in circumference) give the city an ambiance worthy of “The Game of Thrones” medieval TV series which has used it as a backdrop. Once a city/state which competed with Venice for dominance of the Adriatic, the city’s power went into decline, but its walls were never breached by siege. The old city was severely damaged (now repaired) in an attack by the Serbs and Montenegrins in the fall of 1991.
The old city of Dubrovnik, and the walls that surround it, have been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Portions of the wall date back to the 13th century. The ramparts are intact and encircle the old city with a circumference of more than 15 miles. The walls can be walked (for a fee), but since, when we’ve visited, it’s either been too hot or too rainy, we’ve, so far, elected to omit this activity. For information about driving from Dubrovnik to Bosnia, read the section on Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina.
The city still supplies many cruise ships (as well as other vessels’) with captains/officers and seafood is the specialty of the restaurants. That said, there are, on some days, dozens of stands in the plaza near the end of the Placa offering local liqueurs, candied citrus rinds, sugared almonds, fruits jams and the like for sale.
The ship provided a free shuttle bus for the 4km drive from the port to the Pile (main) gate. During the summer months, we’ve wandered the streets at random, but the lower levels of the town are packed with tourists (there are some mega-ships in port and there may be as many as 10,000 elderly boat people wandering around) and the streets are lined with restaurants and tourist traps of all descriptions. The town was built up the side of a slope with a flight of stairs between each level – and each successive level seems to be lined with restaurants – certainly enough to feed the multiple cruise ships in port.
On our latest trip, we tried a couple of new (for us) restaurants.
Just inside the Pile gate where the ship’s shuttle drops you, to the left, just after the Franciscan Museum, you’ll find an ally named “Sigurate”. The Lucin Kantun restaurant is located about 50m into the ally on the right side (just past a hotel) at Sugurate, 7 (Tel: +38520321003). This relatively small, family run restaurant, under the expert eye of Chef Ante Matovic, serves a broad assortment of local tapas and main dishes. We had tapas including baked brie cheese, sardine tempura on a yogurt sauce (OK, they called it something else, but they were panko covered crispy sardines, so that’s how I thought of them) and a flavored tuna tartar. We shared a main course of baked octopus on a bed of chickpeas, cherry tomatoes and tomato sauce. The service was pleasant and prompt, the dishes attractive, well prepared and tasty and the restaurant is one to seek out if looking for an informal place for lunch. This restaurant is one of the few in town which is open year around, rather than just for the tourist season.
On the other end of the elegance spectrum, at the Michelin rated Restoran Dubrovnik (Marojice Kaboge 5, Tel.: +385 (0) 20 324 810) Chef Dalibor Vidovic creates culinary magic. The street this establishment is located on is to the right side of Stradun (the main street of the old city), one block before you reach Orlandov Stup (Orlando’s Column). We dropped in for dessert and coffee. We tried three of them:
A puff pastry filled with figs cooked in Prošek (domestic dessert wine) / Vanilla cream / Cinnamon / Almond
A deconstructed “Tiramisu“ - Truffle of Coffee, Chocolate, Dehydrated raspberry and Meringues from egg white
A blue poppy seed mousse / Caramel / Anise / Almond
All were fantastic. The restaurant has a broad international wine list as well as an imaginative menu which gives us a goal next time we are in Dubrovnik. This restaurant closes in October and reopens in March each year.
On a previous trip, one of the seafood restaurants we saw that seemed to be patronized primarily by locals and served attractive looking fish was “Konoba Moby Dick”, located at Prijeko 20/a (that is up one level from Placa/Stradun, the main street leading from the gate.
The Cultural History Museum, filling the City Hall building has a mixed bag of exhibits, the most interesting of which (to me at least) was a large room full of black and white photos of the damage and people during the 1991 war with Serbia upon the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Shops selling items such as jewelry frequently offered discounts of 10% using a credit card or 20% for cash in Croatian Kuna, Euros or US dollars. While it would be silly to be stuck with Kuna when you leave, if the exchange rate offered by the shop is lousy, there are plenty of Kuna-based ATM’s around for the bulk of the funds and Euros/USD can be used to top-off the amount.
Much of the jewelry designs shown in shops are based on the traditional filigreed silver buttons used on woman’s clothing or alternatively on jewelry thought to be in the style of that worn on the “GFame of Thrones TV series. An alternative can be found at “V”, Od Puca 23 who makes some interesting earrings out of folded sheet silver.
On a lower level of the town, the Arte jewelry store, Od Puca 31 (of the Roberto-Studio group of shops scattered around the town) offers up wonderful designs of silver and gem stone jewelry (at a high price, but fun to look at).
While we did not re-visit it on this trip, the synagogue of the former Jewish community (almost all of whom were exterminated by the Nazi’s during World War II) can be found on Zudioska (Jewish Street) between Placa and Prijeko.
The town contains close to four dozen churches and monasteries. At the Porporela port you can hire glass bottom and sightseeing boats, some of which will take you to other Croatian islands.
If it wasn’t for the fact that the walls are far too close to house so many tourists, this is a delightful town to wander in.
Trying to find the city’s historical context we visited the large Onofrio Fountain, the Franciscan Monastery, and the Rectors’ Palace, once the seat of Dubrovnik’s Republic government. The elected Rector was not permitted to leave this building during his one-month term without permission from the Senate. Today, the palace is a museum with furnished rooms, Baroque paintings, and historical exhibits that will give you a taste of how the ruling class and the aristocracy used to live in Dubrovnik.
We then headed out to enjoy a cable car ride to Srd Hill for spectacular views of Dubrovnik Old Town and its entire Riviera.
Again, after some time in an internet café, we visited the local synagogue. This too, has no congregation, with most of the indigenous Jews sent to the German extermination camps during the World War. The more recent “ethnic cleansing” of a decade ago is spoken about if the topic comes up, but is not dwelled upon by the local population.
Umbria (Ancona), Italy
Ancona is capital of the Marches region and has been an important trade center since Roman times, when the Emperors Caesar and Trajan fortified and developed it into a naval base.
The city tourist office, located in Piazza Roma, supplies free maps and a “City Guide” which has walking tours as well as great information on each site.
The city is on Italy’s Adriatic coast and the capital of the Marche region. It’s known for beaches, such as Passetto Beach, and the hilltop Cathedral of San Ciriaco. In the city center, the Fontana del Calamo is a fountain with bronze masks of mythic figures. In the port are the ancient Arch of Trajan and the Lazzaretto, or Mole Vanvitelliana, an 18th-century pentagonal quarantine station on its own island – which is now contains a Tactile Museum (Museo Tattile Statale Omero) with full size casts of famous sculptures (Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, Pieta, etc.) and miniatures of famous buildings to allow those with impaired sight (and others) to enjoy by feel as well as other museums. It’s best to check the opening times and days as each museum has its own schedule.
They say, Ancona benefits from superb weather, but today in late April it is chilly and raining on and off. It brags about its long string of beaches serviced by some world class hotels.
The hub of Ancona’s traffic—both land and sea—is Piazza della Repubblica. On its west side is the harbor, a large oval basin that has been in use since Roman times. At the north end of the breakwater is the Roman triumphal arch, Arco di Traiano, with an inscription recording that it was erected in AD 115 in honor of the Emperor Trajan and his wife and sister.
This area was the Roman Lungomare Vanvitelli, and a large archaeological dig has uncovered the remains of the port structure and stretches of the wall built in the second century BC to protect the port. You can tour the area on raised walkways. The Arco Clementino to the west is from the 18th century.
On the road to the Cathedral, keep your eyes peeled for a sign pointing to an Ascensore (meaning “Elevator). Take this to the 4th floor to save a bunch of walking – never fear, you are far from finished. There is a sign to a Roman Terme (ancient bath) which leads up a flight of stairs to an empty back yard (so ignore it). Further on, you will see a fork in the road with one path leading to the Cathedral and the other to an Amphitheatre. Take the left fork to the Cathedral as the Amphitheatre is at its level and there is no need to return to the fork to see it (and, to be honest, it is barely worth the effort as it is just the outline of the base).
A flight of steps or a winding panoramic road leads to the top of Monte Guasco, to the Piazzale del Duomo, where Ancona’s Cattedrale di San Ciriaco was built on the site of a temple dedicated to Venus Euplea, the goddess who protected sailors.
You can see bases of the Roman temple’s columns through glass panels in the floor, as well as remains of an earlier paleo-Christian church from the sixth century in the crypt. The domed cruciform church in Byzantine-Romanesque style is from the 12th century, and the façade has a Gothic doorway, which is decorated with reliefs. From the top are spectacular views over the city and Adriatic coast.
On the way back down, we came to the 16th-century Palazzo Ferretti (Via Ferretti 6) which houses the National Archeological Museum, one of the most prestigious archaeological museums in Italy, with artifacts from digs throughout the region (dating from prehistoric to late classical) and one certainly worth spending time in.
The well-hidden Synagogue, on Via Astagno, (only external clue is a small Star of David in the wrought-iron embellishment over its door) was built in 1876. Its furnishings are those from the original synagogue built in 1597 and demolished in 1932 by the Fascist regime to clear space for a new road. While housing two congregations (Italian and Levantine rites), it is currently primarily used for weddings and high holiday services.
Walking northeast along the town’s major streets for about a mile will take you to the Parco Cardeto and a lovely beach with caves dug into the cliffs by local fishermen for protection from the weather.
South of Ancona, Monte Conero rises 572 meters above the sea, a rocky promontory that’s a regional park and a protected ecological area with more than a dozen hiking trails. A 20 km of coastline is bordered by lovely white beaches.
There are a number of local restaurants which are worth trying. We ate a moderately priced fish and pasta meal at Trattoria la Cantineta at Via Gramsci, 1-C a few blocks from the pier. Another inexpensive, but delicious, lunch can be had at Bonta delle Marche, Corso Giuseppe Mazzini, 96. Somewhat higher priced local cuisine can be tried at the traditional Ristorante Trattoria La Moretta dal 1897, Piazza del Plebiscito, 52.
Nearby towns in Umbria
Assisi, the legendary birthplace of St. Francis is the most visited destination in Umbria. The Basilica that houses his tomb was decorated with art by Cimabue, Giotto, Lorenzetti, and Martini and is visited both by pilgrims and art lovers from around the world.
Perugia’s old town sits perched atop a high cliff (reachable by an elevator) with steep slopes and breathtaking views medieval palaces and churches. Perugia hosts a variety of cultural events dedicated to music, literature, journalism, and food and wine throughout the year including the Eurochocolate Festival, inspired by the city’s historic Perugina chocolate factory.
Orvieto is one of the most ancient settlements in central Italy, built at the top of a towering cliff. Etruscans chose this spot because of its strategic defensive position. The city has an underground network of thousands of caves and tunnels to explore. The Orvieto Cathedral—one of the most visually stunning in all of Italy—has a rose window and intricate mosaic façade with Signorelli frescoes inside.
Gubbio is found in a secluded corner of northern Umbria bordering the Marche region. The almost vertical expansion of the old town along the steep slope of the Mount Ingino is an example of Middle Ages defensive design.
The tiny independent nation of San Marino is also within range if you are looking for an additional stamp on your passport.
“Adventure is worthwhile.” – Aristotle
The coastal seaside town of Kotor, located at the foot of mount Lovcen, is one of the oldest and most famous Montenegrin towns. The approach to Kotor is absolutely stellar from the standpoint of scenery. The entry is the only fjord in this part of Europe and is one of the loveliest in the world. While we watched the approach from our cabin in the morning, we have been invited to watch from the bow deck as the ship leaves the town this afternoon. Kotor is a typical Mediterranean town with old narrow streets, romantic bars and restaurants, small shops, antique monuments, churches and picturesque buildings. The people are friendly and the town is lovely. Listed as UNESCO World Natural and Historical Heritage Site, Kotor has become a famous yachting and sailing destination.
Small sailboats can be rented and there are hiking paths in the hills. There were also a handful of mega-yachts, the largest of which was flying a Russian flag. There is also diving available (but if I’m going to dive it will be in the Red Sea, the Pacific islands or the Caribbean – not the Adriatic). We head instead to the Old City of Kotor - Kotor Stari Grad (stari meaning “old” in most Slavic languages and “grad” meaning “city” – as in Stalingrad, for example) - one of the best preserved medieval towns in the Adriatic. The Old City is surrounded by an impressive city wall and moat, which was built by the Republic of Venice and which retains much of its Venetian architectural influence. As expected, there are a great number of monuments of medieval architecture: churches, cathedrals, palaces and museums. It is also home to a large number of barbershops and beauty salons allowing me to get clipped at 12 euros and she who must be obeyed got a paint touchup and blowout for 25 euros (which compared very favorably to the 147 euros the same cost us in Paris).
It is also sobering to realize that a few years ago, the wonderful people living in this town were killing the nice people living in the town we visited yesterday.
The cuisine in Kotor is mostly Mediterranean with menus crammed with fish specialties. While a traditional Montenegro meal would include smoked ham, cheese, olives and wine, we elected instead to try the local thick fish soup and satisfy our sweet tooth with a frustula (a crunchy, dry sweet cookie of rhombus shape – see geometry is useful after all?). The meal also included a potato bourake (the sort of thing that Abolafia’s in Yaffo or multiple places in Istanbul are famous for) and mug sized cups of Turkish coffee (which are usually the size of expresso’s elsewhere) which have enough caffeine to make your nose itch.
Inside the walls of the Old Kotor lie a number of shops and boutiques which sell a variety of local and Italian products. Our only purchase is of a hand painted seashell/refrigerator magnet bought for a Euro by an eleven year old local entrepreneur/magnet maker.
We exited the north gate, crossed the bridge near what seemed like the location of a previous water mill and walked to the Pekora AS bakery on Parhzahska Ulica for great (still hot from the oven) cheese (straight) (@ 1 Euro) and spinach/cheese (spiral) bourekas (@ 2 Euro) and baklava (@ 1.5 Euro). We then re-entered the gate and wandered to the Przun Restaurant & Pub at Stari grad 343 for local beers. The restaurant has free Wi-Fi.
There is a free Wi-Fi connection available from the tourist information office across the street from where our ship is docked and I made use of this from our cabin veranda as the ship pulled in (and before it was swarmed with other passengers and crew).
Montenegro is bordered on the southeast by Albania. On the south, it is separated from Italy by the Adriatic Sea. Its western neighbors are the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The old town of Kotor is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in this area of the Mediterranean and has succeeded in maintaining its 12th-14th century appearance. The bay is the deepest natural fjord in the Mediterranean area, and the scenery around it (including the steep mountains, with the fort’s walls meandering up and down their slopes, coming almost to the waterfront) is spectacular. Kotor is a typical Adriatic town with old narrow streets, bars and restaurants, small shops, antique monuments, churches and picturesque buildings.
We went wandering through the small walled city (which can be entered by any of its three gates) at random - everything is within walking distance. There are lots of staired entries to the top of segments of the city walls (they are not completely connected together and tend to wander through people’s back yards) and we walked some of the segments.
There is a festival going on and there are marching bands and groups dressed in traditional garb wandering. There are also various contests (such as life raft races in the castle’s moat) as well. . Outside the wall, to the right of the main gate, is a fabulous flower and fresh produce market. The vegetables look fresher than the produce served aboard the ship and the woven garlands of garlic are fresh picked, green and fresh. There are olives, cheese, cold cuts of meat and flowers of every vibrant color. And there are bottles of all sorts of fruit brandies (some of which look like they could have been syphoned from a gas tank).
Overall, it was just a pleasant day in the sun.
For those who are interested, there is a hop on/off tour which goes from Kotor to Bajova Kula, Perast,and Risan and includes a Kotor walking tour at 20 Euros. A taxi will cost about 60 € per hour. Make sure the driver speaks some English.
If you are up to it, there is a winding path up the mountain behind Kotor’s old town. It is an ancient stone pathway consisting of over 1,350 steps that take you to the old fortress at the top of the ridge behind the city. The hike is 4.5 km long, rises 260 meters and takes about 2 ½ hours. The views are spectacular. Wear good shoes!