Girls Getaway: Near Nature, Near Perfect

Anyplace makes a good getaway if you’re with the right people.  A good place with the right people is even better.  And, having a friend in a great getaway location is the best yet.  So, my friend, Lori, and I reserved a time to visit our friend, Lu, who lives in Spokane, Washington, and has a cabin in the panhandle of Idaho close to the Canada border.

After an evening flight and a night in Spokane, we headed out to our first stop in Spokane, the Arbor Crest Winery.  This lovely venue, located atop a 450 foot cliff, is open for events of all kinds but we were there for wine tasting.  Washington State wines are actually very tasty and they certainly rival California wines.  In fact, Washington is second only to California in premium wine production in the United States with over 800 wineries (http://www.washingtonwine.org/wine-101/state-facts/).  The wines we tasted were very good so we bought several.

We were soon back on the road to Priest Lake, called Idaho’s Crown Jewel, where Lu and her husband have their cabin.  Unfortunately, some of the incredible views of Priest Lake were somewhat obscured by smoke.  We later learned that wildfires caused by lightning in central Washington destroyed 100 homes and there were some 50 separate fires burning in Washington causing the acrid smell and hazy conditions we experienced.  In spite of the smoke that drifted in, northern Idaho is incredibly beautiful and Lu’s cabin is as welcoming and comfortable as she is.  We enjoyed seeing wildlife –rabbits, deer, and hummingbirds, and we were just as happy not to have encountered any bears, coyotes, or wolves on our walks.  I would have liked to see a moose, however.

Priest Lake has about 500 year round residents but in summer  the population swells to around 2500.  Development on the lake is controlled and very limited which helps to maintain a remote, uninhabited flavor.  There are several resorts on the lake with great views and amenities, good restaurants, and a scenic golf course is nearby.  We ate at Elkin’s Resort one day and Hill’s Resort the next, enjoying local huckleberry drinks at both.  We observed the popular game of pickle ball, a combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong without learning the rules; walked the #48 Beach Trail; and visited the Priest Lake Museum and Visitor Center.  The log cabin that houses the museum with exhibits of local historical significance, was a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project built in 1935.

I would be remiss not to mention a little more about huckleberries, the official state fruit of Idaho. This luscious berry grows wild around these parts and they are truly delicious. They look like a smallish blueberry but the taste is sweeter. My research tells me that domesticated growing and mechanized picking haven’t been very successful (www.huckleberry.xenite.org) which of course keeps the cost high (currently $42 per gallon) but if you’re in the area, you must try them.

Huckleberry bush

Huckleberry bush

Leaving Priest Lake, we headed south to Sandpoint, an attractive small city on Lake Pend Oreille, in time for the local farmer’s market.  For a town with a population barely over 7,000, it was quite an impressive event with produce, local handicrafts, and music.  We sampled and bought some jalapeno goat cheese for later consumption and considering I normally don’t care for goat cheese, when I say it was excellent, you can believe me.

The town of Sandpoint is separated from the lake by a narrow isthmus occupied by Interstate 95 and Amtrak.  A well camouflaged walking trail below the road and railroad gives walkers access to the beach by way of an underpass.  This trail is part of the larger trail system of Lake Pend Oreille Walks and Trails that surrounds the lake and offers many opportunities to explore the pristine shoreline.

After our stop in Sandpoint, we had just an hour’s drive to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, arguably the best known summer lake resort area in Idaho.  Because it’s better known, it’s also bigger and busier.  Or maybe because it’s bigger, it’s better known.  Without a doubt, however, its proximity to Spokane, Washington, has certainly stimulated growth.  The population is around 40,000 but located just 34 miles from Spokane, it’s essentially part of the Spokane metro area corridor.

The longest floating boardwalk in the world at 12 feet wide and 3300 feet long was a brand new experience for me and quite an impressive one at that.  The views were outstanding in spite of a little lingering smoke.   After a light lunch, we dipped our feet into the lake, tried not to stare at a guy sunbathing in a thong Speedo (major fashion mistake) and then headed back to Spokane where Darrell cooked a delicious, healthy dinner for us.

Spokane, a Native American word for Children of the Sun, was first inhabited by the Spokane Indians.  It became the first white settlement in what is now the state of Washington when a trading post was established in 1810 (www.spokanecity.org).  Today, it is the second largest city in Washington and the largest city between Seattle and Minneapolis.  The city’s motto is, “Near nature, near perfect.”  I like the motto although I heard it’s been the object of some ridicule.

The Spokane River Centennial Trail is a 37 mile long paved recreational trail that starts at Sontag Park in Nine Mile Falls and runs all the way to the Idaho border.  We walked just a mile of it but it was time well spent.

The Centennial Trail also passes through Riverfront Park in the heart of downtown Spokane.  Riverfront Park was built around the Spokane Falls on the river for Expo ’74 (the World’s Fair) by cleaning up the river area and tearing down the old rail yards and depot.  It comprises 100 acres of green space, walking trails, views of the river and falls, flowers, sculptures, and wildlife.  The Expo ’74 Pavillion, the 1902 Clocktower from the old train depot, the 1909 Looff Carrousel, the Rotary Fountain, and an IMAX theater are also on the grounds.  Among the sculptures, the Garbage Eating Goat is not to be missed.

The thing about a getaway is it’s temporary so, of course, you have to go home until the next time.  It’s always good to get together with friends and old friends are best.  This was a great girls getaway that I would call near nature, near perfect.

Friends Forever

Friends Forever

 

References:

Washington State Wine. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonstatewine.org

Huckleberry Wild, Where to Find Huckleberry Products.  Retrieved from http://huckleberry.xenite.org

City of Spokane.  Retrieved from http://www.spokanecity.org

 

 

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Deadwood to Devils Tower

We made a quick stop in Deadwood then drove the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway on our way to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.  Although the comprehensive website, www.deadwood.org, invites visitors to come see what’s new in historic Deadwood, I only wanted to see what’s old.  Having been there before, I remembered that Deadwood sprang up when gold was discovered in 1874 and that Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed there in 1876 while playing poker.  What I’d forgotten is that the town was destroyed several times due to fire, the first time in 1879.  Consequently, historic buildings burned down and weren’t necessarily rebuilt where they stood previously.  Such is the case with the saloon where Wild Bill was shot.  Saloon No. 10 is now located across the street so there are signs to show where Wild Bill was actually shot and where his killer, Jack McCall, was captured.

Although Saloon No. 10 is not in its original location, the main attraction in the new site is still the shooting of Wild Bill.  Well, maybe the main attractions are drinking and gambling but this historical event does get attention.  The chair where Wild Bill sat with his back to the door, against his better judgement, is encased here along with a display of the cards he held at the time of his death, forever dubbed the Dead Man’s Hand.  There is agreement that he held black aces and eights but the fifth card is in question.  Although the display case in Saloon No. 10 contains a nine of diamonds, other accounts list the fifth card as a jack of diamonds or an unknown card.

There are lots of great things to see and do in the Black Hills but we selected just a few this time because of time constraints.  In previous trips we visited Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, and Mammoth Site.  My husband and younger son did a father son bonding trip several years ago and went trail riding at Country Charm Cabins and Corrals.  I highly recommend all of these places.

The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is a beautiful drive with several worthwhile stops along the way.

It’s just 2o miles long but it packs some great scenery into a short drive.  We were intent on finding the campsite in the canyon where we camped in our youth and we actually found it quite easily along with a film site from the final scene of the movie, Dances With Wolves.  We also stopped at Roughlock Falls and Bridal Falls before ending the scenic drive at the town of Spearfish, S.D. just 60 miles from our next stop at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.

By chance, however, traveling along Interstate 90 we spotted a sign announcing Vore Buffalo Jump just off the freeway, so a short side trip was in order.  Vore Buffalo Jump is a natural sinkhole used by the Plains Indians to trap bison.  The Indians would stampede the bison in the direction of the hole and the bison tumbled to their death.  The bison were then used for food, shelter, clothing, tools and even medicine for the Plains Indians.

Although the visitor’s center was closed for the season, we were able to walk around the area and read the signs.  The site was discovered in the early 1970′s when Interstate 90 was constructed.  Sinkholes are inherently incompatible with roads because of their tendency to settle further and swallow up cars, so the route for the road was altered.  Soon thereafter, archeologists from the University of Wyoming began excavating the area.  In 1989, the Vore family donated the area to the University of Wyoming and in 2001, the Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation was created (vorebuffalojump.org).

Devils Tower was the first national monument in the United States, established in 1906 by proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt.  Called Bear Lodge by Native Americans, the igneous intrusion was named Devils Tower by Colonel Richard Dodge in 1875 when he led a military expedition to investigate claims of gold in the Black Hills.  The first ascent of the column occurred in 1893 and if you look closely, you can still see remnants of the wooden ladder on the side of the Tower.  Today, around 5,000 rock climbers come from all over the world each year to climb the monolith (Devils Tower Official Map and Guide).   Several trails of varying length offer outstanding views of the landmark and surrounding landscape, as well as the abundant wildlife.  You’ll also notice Native American prayer bundles around the area with signs directing that they not be disturbed.  The prairie dog town just outside the monument entrance is a fun stop for kids of all ages.

By the way, did you wonder if Devils should have an apostrophe?  The official proclamation in 1906 mistakenly omitted the apostrophe so they kept it that way.  If you haven’t been to Devils Tower, add it to your list.  Even if you’re not a rock climber, it’s a great place to visit.

 

References:

Vore Buffalo Jump,  retrieved from http://www.vorebuffalojump.org

Devil’s Tower Official Map and Guide, brochure, (n.d.) National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

Based on events of September, 2013

 

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Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore

For the past several years, my husband and I have celebrated our anniversary while traveling.  In September, 2013, we were in the Black Hills for the occasion. For me, the main attraction in the Black Hills is still Mt. Rushmore and, although this was my fifth visit since childhood, it never fails to impress and inspire me.

The idea for a monument in the Black Hills originated with South Dakota State Historian, Doane Robinson, to attract visitors to the state but his idea was to carve sculptures of western personalities. The sculptor he contacted in 1925, Gutzon Borglum, preferred instead to include four significant U.S. presidents, each representing an important period of American history. President George Washington embodies the birth of the nation; Thomas Jefferson symbolizes expansion with the Louisiana Purchase that more than doubled the size of the U.S.; Abraham Lincoln stands for preservation of our union through the Civil War; and Theodore Roosevelt represents our nation’s development with construction of the Panama Canal.

I would be remiss not to add a caveat here and mention that Native Americans, particularly the Lakota Sioux, opposed this project as a desecration of sacred Indian lands and Mt. Rushmore was known to the Sioux as the Six Grandfathers.  For more information on the Native American viewpoint, check out this link.

Borglum and four hundred workers earning $8 per day, blasting the mountain with dynamite and carving into Harney Peak granite, completed the project in 1941, after 14 years including weather and funding delays for a total cost of just under $1 million.  The resulting colossal memorial is 185 feet across and 150 feet tall; the faces are 60 feet from the top of the head to chin; each eye is 11 feet across; the noses are 20 feet long and the mouths are 18 feet across.

With nearly 3 million visitors per year, there have been necessary improvements and changes over the years to the facilities.  The Avenue of Flags, with the flags from all 50 states and 6 territories, was added in 1976 as part of the American Bicentennial celebration and an outdoor amphitheater that holds 2,000 people opened in 1997.  Today, there is a parking ramp that charges a fee (currently $11), but entrance to the national memorial itself is free.

Each time we visit, I learn something new.  I don’t know why I never wondered how Mt. Rushmore got its name, but it was interesting to find out it was named for Charles E. Rushmore, a New York attorney who visited the area in 1885 regarding some mining claims.  When he asked the name of the granite mountain, he was told it had no name but it would be called Mt. Rushmore thereafter.  When the mountain bearing his name was chosen as the most suitable location for the project and work commenced in 1927, Rushmore became a large contributor.

After hearing this information and more at the History of the Carving Talk conducted by the park rangers in the Sculptor’s Studio, we walked the new Presidential Trail.  It’s just a pleasant half mile loop among the pines with beautiful views of the monument.

Upon leaving the memorial, we drove to nearby Hill City for a totally different activity.  We visited three wineries and enjoyed a wine tasting at each.  This was obviously a concession on my husband’s part in honor of our anniversary because wine tasting is not something he would ordinarily enjoy.

After a highly recommended but unremarkable anniversary dinner at a restaurant that shall remain nameless, we returned to Mt. Rushmore for the evening lighting ceremony.  Along the way, we spied a group of mountain goats, a common sight climbing the hills around here.  Mountain goats are not actually native to the Black Hills.  The original six were a gift by Canada in 1924 to Custer State Park but they escaped their pen and today there are about 200 in the area.

Mountain goat

Mountain goat

Soon after seeing the mountain goats, we observed another kind of climbers– rock climbers of the human variety.  Although climbing is prohibited on the sculptures at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial  (understandably), other areas of the memorial allow rock climbing.  The Black Hills are very popular for this sport and there are many granite walls and pinnacles available for climbs.  This is not on my bucket list.

Rock Climbers in the Black Hills

We arrived early at the memorial and had our choice of seats in the amphitheater but it soon began to fill in.  Beginning at 9 p.m., rangers conduct a program with music, video, and a lighting ceremony.  The program, entitled Freedom: America’s Lasting Legacy, includes participation of military and veterans that is especially moving.

Mt. Rushmore

Mt. Rushmore at night

 

Do you spend your wedding anniversary somewhere special? Leave a comment to tell us about it.

References:

Mount Rushmore National Memorial (U.S. National Park Service), Retrieved from http://www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm

Based on events of 9/18/13

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My Bad. Badlands.

My Bad.  I’m guilty of giving short shrift to this incredible natural wonder located in South Dakota just 560 miles from my home, a relatively short drive in the U.S.  I admit I haven’t really gone TO the Badlands as much as I’ve gone THROUGH the Badlands on my way to somewhere else, namely Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills.  So, in an effort to rectify my travel transgression, I wanted to spend the night in this national park and take some time exploring the area.  That’s easier said than done because accommodations in the park are few and far between and normally booked WAY in advance.  Within the park, there’s Cedar Pass Lodge and that’s it.  Seriously.  Cedar Pass Lodge is the only place to stay in the park.  OK, you can camp but we’re past that stage of life so I’m talking about places with real beds.  As I write this, I checked the website for Cedar Pass Lodge and currently there is limited availability in July and August, but September is still wide open.  That was not the case, however, in September, 2013, when we visited.

There were no available rooms at Cedar Pass Lodge but they kindly referred me to a bed and breakfast, the Circle View Guest Ranch.  (You can check it out by clicking on it.)  Luckily, they had a room available.  Although the ranch isn’t technically in Badlands National Park, it’s within several miles so you have essentially the same views.  The room was comfortable and we even had extra bunk beds which would be great for a family.  The views from Circle View were 360 degrees as promised and the friendly burros were a nice addition, too.  I admit we didn’t take advantage of any of the other working aspects of the ranch because we stayed just one night and we were anxious to get on our way.  We had a generous breakfast, served in the kitchen at long communal tables, where we visited with our neighbors while we chowed down on eggs, bacon, pancakes, potatoes, fruit, juice, and coffee, then off we went to explore Badlands National Park.

 

The Badlands are the product of erosion at its best.  It’s hard to believe this remarkable 60 mile swath of sedimentary ridges, buttes, and pinnacles, called the wall, was carved by erosion that began 500,000 years ago and continues to this day at about one inch per year.  At this rate, the Badlands are projected to erode away completely in another 500,000 years.  There are also mammal fossil beds found here, among the world’s richest, that are 26 to 37 million years old.  The Badlands, established as a national monument in 1939 and designated a national park in 1978, receive 1 million visitors per year.  A seven-day pass per vehicle costs only $15, but if you’re at least 62 years old, you can get a lifetime pass for only $10 that gets you into all U.S. national parks.  Now that’s a deal!

We stopped at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and saw the award-winning video about the Badlands, then viewed the exhibits within the center and learned that there are big horn sheep, American bison, mule deer, coyote, swift fox, and black-footed ferret within the 244,00 acres of the park. After leaving the visitor center, we did see big horn sheep on the hills but none of the other animals.  We pulled over at several of the numerous viewing stops along the Highway 240 Loop Road to take some photos and enjoy the views and ended at Wall Drug, the iconic retail outlet that still offers free ice water.

Welcome to Wall Drug

Welcome to Wall Drug

So, in the final analysis, did I give the Badlands its due attention?  In all honesty, for me it’s still a stop along the way to points further west but at least I feel that I gave it a fair share of my attention this time around.

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Scenic Serbia

Few countries exist entirely in their capital cities and Serbia doesn’t exist solely in Belgrade.  Touring the Serbian countryside with its natural beauty and unique historical sites expanded our overall understanding of the country.  The towns, villages, and surrounding countryside helped round out our impressions and fill in the details for a more complete cultural picture. Traveling to the north, east, and southeast along the Danube, we barely scratched the surface of rural Serbia but it gave us a taste for more in the future.

Topola

Topola, the birthplace and home of Serbian hero, Karađorđe Petrović (Black George), lies just 80 km south of Belgrade.  We took a bus to Topola with our son, Michael, who is knowledgeable about all things Karađorđe, and all things Serbia, for that matter.  Karađorđe was elected to lead Serbia in the First Serbian Uprising (1804-13), fighting for Serbian freedom from the Ottoman Empire. A tower, the only remaining section of the fortress that once dominated the town, houses displays of Karađorđe’s personal effects, including a painting that depicts his beheading by order of Prince Miloš Obrenavić in 1817. Attached to the tower is the Church of the Holy Mother, Karađorđe’s home church.  The mausoleum of the Karađorđe family in St. George’s Church is found at the end of a lovely shady walk up Oplenec Hill.  Karađorđe Petrović and others of the family are entombed in this beautifully ornate church filled with mosaic frescoes.  After our explorations, we enjoyed a memorable moment in this picturesque, historic town when we stopped for refreshment and a wandering cat climbed uninvited onto Jim’s lap and made herself at home.

Golubac Fortress

Golubac Fortress is a 14th century castle built into the precipitous cliffs along the Danube River where it narrows at the entrance to the Iron Gates.  The fortress is deteriorating today because the hydroelectric dam that was constructed in 1967 has raised the water level sufficiently to creep up the castle walls.  The electricity generated at the hydroelectric plant, however, has been shared equally between Serbia and Romania across the river, to the benefit of both nations.  Previously, damage to the castle occurred when a single lane tunnel was cut to allow traffic through it.  Fortunately, today there is a reconstruction project underway to restore the fortress.  When we were there in 2011, we were fascinated to watch as a truck got stuck in the tunnel then tried to back out causing a traffic jam for at least an hour.

Lepenski Vir

150 km east of Belgrade along the Danube River is the important mesolithic (middle stone age) archeological site of Lepenski Vir.  This remarkable discovery uncovered a settlement that existed for hundreds, if not a thousand or more years, somewhere between 6500-5500 B.C. It shows evidence of city planning, use of cement for foundations, and carved stone sculptures (Wernick, 1975) millennia before these developments occurred in other areas.  This site may be Serbia’s best kept secret because we encountered very few visitors the day we were there.

 

Silver Lake

A popular recreation area, Silver Lake, is only 120 km from Belgrade.  You’ll find sand beaches, a campground, picnic areas, resorts, vendors selling food and souvenirs, a paved boardwalk along the lake, and swimming, boating and fishing in crystal clear water with views of the Carpathian Mountains in the background.  We visited on a pleasant day in October which is off-season but we enjoyed a walk along the lake, nevertheless.

Lagniappe (a French word meaning a little extra)

Here are a few additional pictures of lovely and interesting views in the countryside of Serbia.

Next time we travel to Serbia, I’d like to head west from Belgrade.  Do you know Serbia is the number one exporter of raspberries in the world?  Actually, this distinction varies from year to year based on production but suffice it to say, it’s in the top five.  Raspberries are my favorite fruit and I’d like to visit the town of Arilje in western Serbia, called the raspberry capital of the world.

References: Wernick, Robert, (1975). Lepenski Vir: A Mesolithic Paradise.  Retrieved from http://www.robertwernick.com/articles/LepenskiVir.htm

 

 

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Zašto Srbija? (translation: Why Serbia?)

The first time we visited Serbia in September, 2010, my husband remarked that Serbia is not a third world country but it’s about a 2 1/2.  Since then, it’s changed and so have we.  After visiting three times, we’ve noticed increased construction and better cars on the road, indicating an improved economy.  According to World Bank data, the average income in 2012 was $5380 per capita per year and the unemployment rate is still around 20% (world bank.org) but both indicators have shown improvement.  The nation is currently seeking entry into the European Union.

To place the country in geographic context, Serbia is located in southeastern Europe in the Balkans, the crossroads of Europe and Asia and the scene of many conflicts throughout history.  It’s one of six republics that made up the old Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia from 1945 until 1991 which was ruled by Marshal Josip Broz Tito until his death in 1980.  The other 5 republics of the old Yugoslavia are Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro.  Notice on the map that Serbia is landlocked, thus lacking access to the beautiful Adriatic Sea that attracts so many tourists to the region.

350px-Balkans_regions_map

We traveled to Serbia to visit our son, Michael, who lives in Belgrade. As an undergraduate, Michael studied abroad at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and returned to Krakow to complete a Master’s Degree in Eastern European Studies and International Relations.  The focus of his master’s thesis was Serbia which led him to conduct research in the country and he moved to Belgrade after completing his degree.  So far, we’ve visited three times–in 2010, 2011 and most recently in October, 2013.  Most of our time has been spent in the capital city of Belgrade (pop. approx. 1.7 million) but we’ve also traveled outside the city which I’ll cover in another post.

To be honest, my first impression of Belgrade was somewhat negative.  It seemed dreary and dirty to me, a typical Communist-era large city with lots of gray concrete buildings erected in the 1950′s and 60′s which led my husband, Jim, to dub it Bel-gray.  Then to further “cement” my unfavorable impression, we were required to register with the police within 24 hours of our arrival, a bureaucratic vestige of the old Communist state which troubled me.

Today, my impression is significantly different.  We were soon persuaded by warm and friendly Serbs to change our perceptions.  Then Michael gave us a book of humorous essays, A Guide to the Serbian Mentality, by Momo Kapor, which, upon reading, completed our conversion.  Yes, the concrete is still there and some of those buildings still strike me as depressing, but now I see the old architecture interspersed among the modern buildings and I observe preservation and restoration efforts occurring as well.  There is a lot of beauty just waiting to be discovered in both people and place.

One of the most attractive features of Belgrade is that it is likely the single most affordable city I’ve visited in Europe.  We rented an apartment in a different area each time but centrally located in Belgrade at a rate of $50-$70 per day.  All three were clean, recently renovated, nicely furnished, and had internet connection.  I’ve used FlipKey (click on it to see apartments and prices) to find accommodations with consistently satisfactory results.

Here are some of the sights and activities we’ve enjoyed in Belgrade.  (Hover to see captions or click to enlarge the photo.)

Belgrade Fortress in Kalemegdan Park

The fortress, overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, was built during the 2nd century AD by the Romans, razed by invaders, and subsequently rebuilt numerous times until the 14th century (www.serbia.travel).   Today, there is a military museum with weaponry from medieval times through WW2 on the grounds that is worth seeing but the description of the exhibits was in Serbian without English translation.  The zoo is also part of Kalemegdan Park and although I have not visited, your nose will tell you when you’re getting close.

Cathedral of St. Sava

The Cathedral of St. Sava, named for the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world.  It’s been under construction for over 100 years and each time we’ve visited, scaffolding has been present inside the structure.

The Danube and Sava Rivers

The Danube and Sava Rivers offer several opportunities to tourists visiting Belgrade.  Stroll along the Danube and spend some time just sitting on a bench to read, relax, and enjoy the view.  You can also cruise the rivers by boat.  A 90 minute boat cruise costs less than $5 or you can rent a boat for the entire day.  We paid just over $100 through a private party for a half day rental including the captain who piloted the yacht.  We were fascinated by the miniature vacation homes floating on the Sava and disturbed to discover that their human waste goes directly into the river.  We also rented bikes at the Sportcenter on the Sava River for about $2 per hour or $6 for the day.  We rode along the bike trail next to the Sava River and crossed the bridge to the island of Ada Ciganlija, where an artificial lake has been created by connecting the island to the riverbank. Ada offers beaches, treated water in the lake for swimming, water skiing, and restaurants.

Republic Square and Knez Mihailova Street with a stop for a coffee.

Republic Square is a popular meeting place in the center of Belgrade and the location of the statue of Prince Mihailo (Michael), erected in 1882.  Prince Mihailo, an enlightened reformer, convinced the Ottomans to remove their garrison from Serbia and enacted various governmental reforms until his reign was cut short by his assassination in 1868.  Knez Mihailova (Prince Michael) Street, a pedestrian zone filled with shops and restaurants in beautiful 19th century buildings, is nearby.  When stopping for a coffee, however, whether on Knez Mihailova or elsewhere, be sure you don’t inadvertently order Turkish which has the grounds in the bottom of the cup.  I learned that lesson the hard way as I picked coffee grounds out of my teeth.

The National Museum, Nikola Tesla Museum, and Tito Memorial

I admit it.  I like museums and Belgrade has some gems. The first is the National Museum which has been closed due to reconstruction each time we were in Belgrade.  This last time, however, there were a couple of special exhibits that were open so we jumped on the opportunity to get inside.  We look forward to seeing the Prehistoric, Ancient, Middle Ages, and Modern Collections when the museum finally reopens.  Second, the Nikola Tesla Museum showcases his many inventions and his Serbian origins.  Tesla, not as well-known as his rival, Thomas Edison, was the inventor of alternating current, which is used today to produce and distribute electricity rather than Edison’s invention of direct current.  Finally, the Museum of Yugoslav History is a memorial to Josip Broz Tito, long-time President of Yugoslavia.  His mausoleum, the House of Flowers, is located there along with thousands of artifacts and documents from his rule of Yugoslavia.          

6.  Skadarlija

The bohemian area of Skadarlija is found on cobblestone Skadarska Street.  It is restricted to pedestrian traffic only and is lined with cafes, bakeries, and restaurants featuring authentic Serbian food and music.

7. Prijatno! (Bon Appetit!)

The food in Belgrade is inexpensive, plentiful and tasty. Some of our favorites are kajmak, a cross between clotted cream and butter; ajvar, a roasted red bell pepper spread; soups, known as “spoon food”; shopska salad made of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and cheese; ćevapčići, rolls of minced meat; and pljeskavica, similar to a hamburger.  A cautionary tale regarding food is in order, however.  My husband ate a pljeskavica from a street stand and even though we claim to have cast iron stomachs, he got sick from it.  It’s good to be a little discriminating in your choice of eateries in any country.

There are many more sights and activities that we discover each time we visit Belgrade.  When I asked Michael to review my post for accuracy (because he lives there and is fluent in Serbian), he reminded me of so many details that could or should be included and pointed out that I should at least mention that the cyrillic alphabet is the official script in Serbia.  Fortunately, in almost all instances the Latin equivalent is included.  To have a look at the cyrillic alphabet and Latin equivalents, click here.

Finally, unlike Prague in the Czech Republic which my son calls the Walt Disney World of Europe due to continuous hordes of tourists, Belgrade is still relatively undiscovered.  Visit Belgrade before it becomes the next Prague.

So, to answer the title question “Why Serbia?”—Zašto da ne?  Why not?

 

Categories: Serbia, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Cinque Terre—Hiking Shoes Required

 

CHEEN-kweh TEH-ray

Learn to say Cinque Terre the Italian way by clicking on the YouTube link below.

Five captivating, remote fishing villages along the rugged Italian Riviera comprise the Cinque Terre, Italian for the 5 Lands.  If you want to see soaring Mediterranean views with quaint and colorful villages built onto steep mountain slopes, and you’re willing to travel light in order to climb LOTS of stairs, Cinque Terre is for you.   The villages are best accessible by train although I understand the truly dauntless may attempt to drive the steep and narrow winding roads only to find they have to park their cars outside of town at exorbitant rates once they arrive.

We stayed at Elisabetta Carro’s Rooms (a click will take you to her website) in Vernazza, seeking the best views at the best price and we were not disappointed.  The strenuous climb up endless stairs along narrow, uneven walkways carrying our “rolling” backpacks from the train station was absolutely worth the effort.  The views were exactly what we had hoped to find. Our room was tiny but very clean and Elisabetta was delightful.  When we returned muddy from hiking, she even helped Jim clean his shoes over my protests.  One evening when we returned, a man stood looking wistfully at the stairs to our place behind the gate and asked if we were staying there.  He told us he tried to book a room but the last one was rented just before his call.  When he asked if the views were as good as he envisioned, we invited him and his companion up to the terrace to share the wine we brought back with us.  It turned out he was a priest, Father Frank, from the U.S., traveling with his sister.  We had a great visit, enjoying the view while he bemoaned his missed opportunity.

Views from Elisabetta Carro Rooms

(Hover over the photo to see captions or click on the photo for a slide show.)

Getting Around

The train from the southeast at La Spezia takes you first to Riomaggiore in about 10 minutes, then 2 minutes more to Manarola, 3 additional minutes to Corniglia, 4 more minutes to Vernazza, and finally 3 minutes more to Monterosso.   There are few views from the train, however, because most of the trip is through tunnels.  Tickets are inexpensive; from town to town costs less than 2 euro and the ticket is good for several hours from the time you validate it, or you can purchase a Cinque Terre Pass that covers unlimited train travel and use of the trails for varied periods of time.  You can also travel by ferry with stops in Monterosso, Vernazza, and Riomaggiore.  Make a plan for each day then calculate whether a pass or individual ticket is more cost-effective.  We actually found that individual tickets were right for us.

Each village has its own charms.

Food and Restaurants

Food is such an important part of travel and the Cinque Terre is known for its seafood, olive oil, and mushrooms, among other culinary delights. In high tourist areas like this, it’s often difficult to find good food at reasonable prices. Indeed, it’s sometimes difficult to find good food at any price. The number 1 rated restaurant in Vernazza on TripAdvisor is Il Pirata–The Pirate.  I was VERY skeptical about a place with such a kitschy name but the food was excellent and the owner took special care to recommend gluten-free dishes for me. The reviews were varied on some of the places where we ate, but fortunately, we enjoyed good food and good service everywhere.

Hiking the Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre was designated a national park in 1999, with a fee to hike the trails between villages.  The ravaging floods and mudslides of 2011, however, destroyed many of the paths.  In October, 2013, when we visited, the easy trails connecting Riomaggiore and Manarola, and Manarola to Corniglia were still closed.  We hiked the more difficult trails from Vernazza to Monterosso and from Corniglia to Vernazza.  Had the easier trails been open, we may have missed the more arduous but rewarding hikes that we experienced.  Things usually work out for the best, don’t you think?

We hiked Trail #2 from Vernazza to Monterosso, then from Corniglia to Vernazza.  The first segment at 1.8 miles, is reputed to be the most difficult section, and takes around 2 hours to complete.  There are many uneven stairs, up and down; steep grades; narrow passageways; and the path surface varies from stone to gravel to dirt to mud.  On this section we encountered a young couple geocaching, which is “the real world treasure hunt, that’s happening right now, all around you.  There are 2,412,846 geocaches and over 6 million geocachers worldwide”(geocaching.com).   I’d actually never heard of it before.  Jim told them he thought the cache would be at the rest stop with the bench and all the cats.  When we saw them again later, they confirmed his guess had been correct.

The 2 mile section from Corniglia to Vernazza is somewhat less difficult.  It begins with views of grape vines growing in verdant fields followed by lush olive trees and stunning views of the Ligurian Sea.  There are still plenty of uneven stairs and narrow passages, however.  Wear comfortable hiking shoes, layer your clothing, and bring water.  Stop and rest when needed along the way and enjoy. the. view.

Views from the Trail

Based on events from October, 2013

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Renaissance Ramparts in Lucca

In my opinion, Lucca is one of the most charming cities in Italy.  Off the beaten path, Lucca, with a population of around 87,000, is often missed while most tourists visit Florence, Pisa, and the Cinque Terre instead.  When I read that the intact Renaissance-era ramparts in this city are among the best preserved in Italy, I knew I had to see it.  Ramparts are more than city walls; they are defensive walls that have a broad top forming a walkway.  The walls in Lucca are 40′ high with a 60′ wide tree lined walkway on the top that encircles the entire historic center for 2 1/2 miles.  Most cities dismantled walls like these in the name of progress long ago.  Any serious history nerd would want to see this.

I booked a night at B&B Il Duomo for 80 Euro ($110) in the historic area within the city walls.  We arrived at the train station directly outside the wall and we immediately headed to the center.  I have no sense of direction so I rely on my husband to get me where I’m going but I always bring a map with our destination marked for him to use.  With no trouble, we soon located our delightful bed and breakfast.  Although the owner’s mother who greeted us didn’t speak much English, we got by and I wholeheartedly recommend this B&B.  The accommodations were lovely, the breakfast was good, and the price was right.  We were in the heart of the historic area within walking distance of everything we wanted to see.  Click on the link above to go to their website.

Porta San Pietro--gate into the historic center

Porta San Pietro–gate into the historic center

B&B Il Duomo

B&B Il Duomo

Our delightful room at B&B Il Duomo

Our delightful room at B&B Il Duomo

Less than a block from our accommodations, we discovered Lucca’s cathedral, Duomo di Martino, dating back to the 13th century.  Although we did not visit, I understand it houses Lucca’s most precious relic, the Volto Santo, a crucifix with what is reputed to be the closest likeness to Jesus’ actual countenance.

Lucca's Cathedral, Duomo di Martino

Lucca’s Cathedral, Duomo di Martino

Undoubtedly, the most popular tourist attraction in Lucca is to tour the ramparts by bicycle.  You can rent a bike for 3 euro for a couple of hours at any of several bike rentals found near the wall and take a leisurely ride around the wide promenade.  Today, the wall is reserved for pedestrian, bicycle, and roller blade traffic only, but at one time it was actually used as a racetrack.

O'er the ramparts we rode.

O’er the ramparts we rode.

Touring Lucca

Touring Lucca

Lucca by bicycle

Lucca by bicycle

Once we’d worked up an appetite we decided it was time to get dinner.  We found an enoteca which is a wine bar, near our bed and breakfast.  I’ve read that they have good, reasonably priced food and great wine so we thought we’d give it a try.  Honestly, the food tasted like it was microwaved and we weren’t terribly impressed.  The wine, however, was very good!  Next time I’ll research the food quality a bit more before we try another enoteca.

Lucca’s other claim to fame is as the birthplace in 1858, of composer Giacomo Puccini.  His compositions include some of my favorite operas– La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, Tosca, and Turandot.   Listen to Luciano Pavarotti sing my all-time favorite selection, Nessun Dorma, from the opera Turandot.

Here are a few more photos of lovely Lucca before we board the train to Cinque Terre.

Lucca

Lucca

I love Lucca

I love Lucca

Charming scene in Lucca

Charming scene in Lucca

Based on events in October, 2013

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Pickpockets in Pisa

I have some experience with pickpockets.  I once caught a child thief unzipping my fanny pack on a crowded metro in Paris.  Yes, I know, nothing screams tourist like a fanny pack, so what did I expect?  I think (I hope) I look a little cooler today.  My husband, Jim, had his clip-on sunglasses lifted from the backpack in Barcelona.  I warn my adult children about the latest scams and danger areas whenever we travel together.  They just roll their eyes.  Suffice it to say, wherever there are tourists ripe for the picking, there are pickpockets ready to employ their skills and Pisa, Italy is loaded with opportunity.  Here’s what happened.

Walking from our hotel with our bags in tow, we had some difficulty finding the small, regional train station at San Rossore.  When we finally spotted it, the train station was across the tracks from us and signs announce it’s illegal to cross.  You have to take the passageway under the tracks to the station and then return to the platform where the train will arrive.

Pisa Train Station across the tracks

Pisa San Rossore Train Station across the tracks

As we discussed the situation, a group of tourists approached to validate their tickets at the yellow box nearby.  We thought maybe we could buy tickets there but the tour guide explained that we had to go to the station to purchase tickets, then return to validate them before boarding the train at the platform on this side of the tracks.  We were short of time and the next train would be hours later if we missed this one.  I asked the tour guide, “You don’t happen to have any extra tickets, do you?”  She said, “As a matter of fact, two people didn’t join us this morning so I do have two extra tickets.”  What luck!  Needless to say we bought them on the spot.  A word of caution is in order here.  Had someone appeared trying to sell us tickets, this may not be advisable.  This, however, was undoubtedly a tour group and the guide had an Australian accent so I felt certain we weren’t going to be ripped off.

The train arrived soon thereafter and we waited for passengers to disembark before pressing forward in a group to board.  As we boarded, a woman with a baby strapped to the front of her pushed through the crowd at the last minute to get off the train.  In the crush of people, confusion ensued.  Once the train got underway, one of the tour group realized someone had opened her fanny pack.  Luckily, only her glasses which were on top, had been taken.  Another in the group announced he’d lost his glasses as well.  The pick pocket clearly used the “baby” as a cover to get into the two bags on her way through the throng.  The tour guide used this as a teachable moment with her group as she pointed out that fortunately no one lost money or credit cards.  The victims felt violated by the experience, nevertheless.  We discussed and debriefed this upsetting episode during the 13 mile ride to Lucca.

5 simple travel tips to avoid being victimized:

  1. Keep in mind that popular tourist areas are inherently higher risk.

  2. Be particularly alert whenever you are in a crowd and keep your hand on your purse or backpack zipper as you move through a crowd.

  3. Be wary of people approaching with offers of help.  I hesitate to even mention this one because I have encountered many friendly people who have given us directions or even led us to places but caution is still advisable.

  4.  A commotion is often used to divert your attention so move away and guard your valuables.

  5.  Google the latest travel scams for an area before you visit.  You’ll be amazed by what you learn.

Enjoy your travels and stay safe.

 

Based on events in October, 2013

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Exploring Tuscany

After Florence, I wanted to visit Siena, San Gimignano, Pisa, and Lucca on our way to Cinque Terre.  I’d also read about Chianti Road in Tuscany’s wine region so I was keen to visit a local winery.  My first thought was to take the train, which I adore, so of course, I googled it.  To my surprise, I discovered it’s less efficient to take the train to Siena and you can’t get to San Gimignano by train at all.  You must either rent a car or take a bus.  That research led me to bus schedules, which led me to bus tours, which led me to Viator Tours, which led me to reviews of Viator, which led me to Rick Steves Travel Forum where I learned that Viator is a consolidator that buys from local operators with whom I could book directly at a lower cost.  That led me to Walkabout Florence where I booked The Best of Tuscany Tour.

I don’t typically choose a tour for several reasons.  First, I can usually book the components myself at a lower cost.  Second, I like flexibility to adjust my plan based on our enjoyment or additional discoveries along the way.  Finally, I get annoyed when others are inconsiderate and make us wait for them because they don’t follow the tour guide’s instructions to return on time.  This tour appealed to me, however, and for 90 euro ($124), it was a bargain.  Learn more about Walkabout Florence.

Leaving from Santa Maria Novella Station near our hotel at 8:30 am, we had a scenic ride through Tuscany in a comfortable air conditioned bus with a lively tour guide offering interesting commentary until we reached our first stop.

SIENA

Medieval Siena, with less than 60,000 inhabitants, is a walkable city built around Piazza del Campo, one of the most beautiful piazzas in all of Italy.

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo

Since the 1500′s, the famous Il Palio horse race has taken place in this piazza amid great excitement and pageantry.  Ten horses chosen from the 17 districts of the city engage in a wild and dangerous race that lasts no more than 90 seconds to win bragging rights until the next race.

The gothic Duomo (Cathedral) of Siena dates back to the 1200s.  It’s one of the few cathedrals I’ve visited that charges admission and fortunately it was included in the price of our tour because I would have been tempted to skip it, having seen many cathedrals throughout Europe.  This is a sight not to be missed.

Duomo di Siena

Duomo di Siena

Duomo di Siena interior

Duomo di Siena interior

Duomo Di Siena interior

Duomo Di Siena interior

Even more awe-inspiring than the beautiful frescoes by Pinturicchio and the impressive sculptures by Michelangelo and Donatello inside the cathedral, are the 56 etched and inlaid marble mosaics found on the floor.  Most of them are ordinarily kept covered to protect them from damage except for a few weeks in September and October, when we just happened to visit.

Marble floor mosaic in cathedral

Marble floor mosaic in cathedral

After a walking tour and the cathedral visit, we were allowed some free time in Siena.  Fortunately, everyone met at the appointed time to leave for lunch at the organic farm just outside the town of San Gimignano.  Was it the promise of food or wine?

Fattoria Poggio Alloro

Literally translated Farm Hill Laurel, this organic family farm grows or raises everything they served us for lunch except the cheese which came from a nearby farm.  After touring the farm, we enjoyed Tuscan dishes including homemade breads, pasta, salad, several cheeses, sausages, beef, cookies, and olive oil accompanied by locally produced wines.  They even accommodate dietary restrictions such as gluten-free.  The views of the Tuscan countryside are unbelievably lovely from the terrace where we ate communally at long tables while visiting with others on our tour.

Interestingly, the world’s most expensive spice, saffron, is painstakingly produced here from the crocus sativus flower grown on the farm. For more information about the farm and all their products, look at Fattoria Poggio Alloro.

Olives grown on the farm

Olives grown on the farm

Cattle raised on the farm

Cattle raised on the farm

Lunch at the farm with views of the countryside

Lunch at the farm with views of the countryside

Wine produced on the farm and enjoyed at lunch

Wine produced on the farm and enjoyed abundantly with lunch

Enjoying lunch at Fattoria Poggio Alloro

Enjoying wine produced at Fattoria Poggio Alloro

View of San Gimignano from Fattoria Poggio Alloro

View of San Gimignano from Fattoria Poggio Alloro

San Gimignano

After a leisurely meal and some time to shop, we commenced the short drive to San Gimignano.  Nicknamed the Medieval Manhattan for its towers, San Gimignano is one of the most charming and best preserved walled medieval towns in Tuscany.  In the Middle Ages, the tower was a symbol of wealth and power and this town originally contained 72 of them but today only 13 towers remain.  We were free to explore on our own for several hours and we enjoyed every minute of our walk through the Middle Ages.

Gate in the wall surrounding San Gimignano

Gate in the wall surrounding San Gimignano

View of the Tuscan countryside from San Gimignano

View of the Tuscan countryside from San Gimignano

Medieval street in San Gimignano

Medieval street in San Gimignano

Several towers in San Gimignano

Towers in San Gimignano

Pisa

Our final stop for the day was in Pisa.  One reason this tour suited us so well is that they offer the option to leave the tour wherever and whenever you want, with proper notification, of course.  We wanted to spend the night in Pisa and take the train to Lucca the following day before going to Cinque Terre so we brought our luggage with us on the bus in the morning and parted company after our tour of Pisa late in the day.  The tour group then returned to Florence and we took a taxi to our hotel.

Pisa is one of those places that gets mixed reviews.  Some love it, some not so much.  We had low expectations of the Leaning Tower of Pisa but we were pleasantly surprised.  The most famous bell tower in the world is located on the Field of Miracles which also contains a cathedral, a baptistry, and a cemetery, all situated close to the medieval city wall.  The tower has leaned since its construction began in 1173 due to its position on soft ground but recent stabilization efforts have ensured that it will stand for at least another 300 years.  You must reserve a time to climb the 294 steps to the top of the tower so we returned the next morning to experience the view and to visit the cathedral.  The walk from our hotel was reasonably short and enjoyable.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Duomo di Pisa

Duomo di Pisa

View from the top of the Tower of Pisa

View from the top of the Tower of Pisa

Cathedral of Pisa interior

Cathedral of Pisa interior

Cathedral of Pisa interior

Cathedral of Pisa interior

Once we’d enjoyed everything the Field of Miracles had to offer and the crowds started to arrive, it was time to take the train to Lucca.

 

 

 

 

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