Romanian Rhapsody in Blue

Through futuristic sunflower fields sown thickly with sleek New Age wind mills we slipped into Romania. On small country roads, only occasionally passing a horse and cart loaded to the brim with fresh hay, we sped towards a tiny village of Plopul on Sfante Gheorghe arm of Danube. There we had arranged for a private boat tour and a stay at a restored traditional house. The house was absolutely charming in its authenticity and simplicity except for a crucial detail: it did not have the promised air conditioner. With mosquitos descending with the evening we hightailed it out of there. “No worries, there are plenty of other accommodations on Booking.com,” I said as we turned towards the bigger village of Murighiol. “I am not booking anything until I see it,” my husband was adamant.

Well, let me tell you, only at the height of Sakura season in Japan did we have such a hard time finding a decent bed. I will spare you the crazy details of being turned away from guest houses that showed availability online to people not calling us back with directions to their place. The first night we ended up in a ridiculously overpriced old communist resort where an International conference of Fisheries was in its final stages with a “traditional” music group performing. With the secure knowledge of the air conditioner humming away in our drab room and an introduction to excellent Romanian dark beer I was able to join in the festivities with a few rounds of kolo circle dance. Afterwards I transferred my enthusiasm to killing some nearly frozen mosquitos on the ceiling of our room. Do you know what is the most effective way of their extermination? You take a bed pillow and you throw it up at them with all your might. Compared to a hand or actowel, the large thick pillow surface prevents their escape.

The next morning our search for accommodations continued. It was only through an accountant at a very fancy resort kindly calling her friend that we got a cute apartment at a place that was actually sold out. Our disappointment continued with surly slow services, and mediocre food, including the boniest fish in the world. When we recounted our frustrating experiences to traveling Romanians, they had no good explanation.

“It is the Delta,” said a young chap on vacation with his family. “We don’t get treated any better. Please do not let this spoil your Romanian experience. You will find it much more developed and tourist friendly anywhere else. ” And he was right. At the end Romania was our favorite Balkan country and the Delta, too, redeemed itself at the end.

I absolutely fell in love with the sweet little white and blue thatch covered village houses, many dating back centuries and some beautifully restored. Folk architecture of perfect proportions with lovely hand carved details. In our wanderings through the countryside we came across white and blue churches, too, with gleaming cupolas and golden altars.They were quite a richly adorned apparition in otherwise poor Delta villages.Turns out the blue communities are the descendants of Russian-Ukrainian Lipoveni, the dissenters (Old Believers) from the Russian Orthodox Church, who in the 18th century wanted to escape the persecution of their sect.

But it was the early morning boat trip to the Delta that sealed the deal. To avoid the tourist trail and explore the smaller channels we first drove a good way on the banks past old homesteads and haystacks to the edge of the water. As we climbed into our small floating boat all the troubles were forgotten and our hearts expanded reveling in Nature’s beauty. We soon turned into smaller and smaller channels Some were so narrow we had to watch for reeds and grasses hitting our faces. We saw water snakes and otters, but it was the abundance of bird life that Delta is famous for that had us transfixed. We were in good hands with our naturalist guide Alma, who seemed as excited for every even small encounter as us. The Danube Delta is where river Danube after flowing through nine European countries ends its journey and flows to the Black Sea. It has the third largest biodiversity in the world (over 5,500 flora & fauna species) spreading over 5,050 square km offering a sanctuary for birds, fish, and animals. Even for non binocular clad non birders the bird encounters are easy and frequent. From small colorful bee eaters to large white tailed eagles birds abound in the quiet of the morning. There are around 300 bird species – and among those, we saw flocks of pelicans, cormorants, wild ducks, geese, storks, herons, ibises, and swans. The Delta is a pleasant resting stop for the migratory birds.  It was especially joyous to observe proud papa swans protecting their young by puffing up and patrolling the waters. Did you know nearly 30 bird species mate for life, amongst them three kinds of swans? Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site 60% of the Delta is protected from human development and indeed we encountered nary a human being except for a few fishermen. After an exciting day in the Delta appetites are sated by all fish specialties: sliced, diced, smoked, pickled, fried and rolled into phyllo dough. How lucky we have been with the weather! Looks like some rain is coming in. Leaving the Delta it catches up with us just before the Moldova border in the town of Braila on the Danube River. We watch the bride and bridesmaids quickly ushered into a limo and are left with the umbrellas just (singing and) dancing in the rain…

Breezing Through Bulgaria

In the chain of lesser known Balkan countries of the Other Europe, as we like to call it, our knowledge of Bulgaria was rather spotty at best. What do you know about it? If you are a tennis fan, like me, you may know Grigor Dimitrov, quite gifted, but not very accomplished Bulgarian tennis player. He was better known in the media for being a short term boyfriendof the very accomplished Maria Sharapova. Which clearly is not enough to ensure huge crowds of tourists pouring into his country even at the top of the summer season. But the latter is exactly the right reason for us to visit. We love the road and the country less travelled. My personal history with Bulgaria goes far back into my youth with a few memorable trips to Bulgaria’s mountain ranges I “conquered” with my college drinking buddies. 
But while I longingly (and perhaps too frequently) rehashed those memories (ah, to be young again with a big backpack on your back) this trip is not about mountains. With the help of my art historian spouse acting also as a wine connoisseur I was looking forward to upgrading my image of Bulgaria, through cultural historical experiences.
Just as we crossed the Bulgarian border we had to make an unscheduled stop as the brown tourist sign for historical fortress flashed by on the side of the road. We crossed from (Northern) Macedonia, which is considered by many in Bulgaria a rightful part of Bulgaria (as it is the case in Greece). Alas in general, it is a common feature of national identities of many Europeans to feel that some part of their country was at some point stollen by their neighbors, and this transgression could never be forgiven, (while the parts we stole are rightfully ours)!!!.

So right across the border we found an ancient grove of gnarled trees and across a small Strumica river a very moving Memorial to the Bulgarian King Samuil still holding on to his regalia at a place of 1014AD Battle of Kleidion where the Byzantine army finished off the First Bulgarian Empire. If you look closer you can see the blindfolds on the two flanking solders. They are not blindfolds but bandages, because when Vasilius II defeated the Bulgarian army, he captured 14,000 soldiers and had them blinded with only every 100th soldier left with one eye to lead them home. Instead of killing your prisoners you use them to put burden on the state’s (=Veteran’s administration) coffers and families since they will now have to be taken care for the rest of their lives. It is said that at the sight of his returning soldiers Samuel had a heart attack and died. Lest you may feel overly sympathetic to the poor king, let me inform you that he had his brother and his whole family butchered for alleged treason. Well, not all, his son asked him to spare his favorite cousin, which Samuel did. Big mistake! After Samuel’s death a year into his son‘s reign as the new king, the very same cousin murdered him on a hunt. Nice people!

You may remember from our previous blog that this is the same king who built his summer palace on one island of Lake Prespa (now Northern Macedonia), and has his grave on another island of the same lake (now Greece) and was most probably of Armenian parents and certainly had an Armenian wife and an Armenian son in law. (Who by the way was Samuil’s Byzantine prisoner until his daughter fell in love with him. He let her marry him. Big mistake! At first opportunity they ran off to the other side in the process giving access of Samuil’s biggest sea port to the enemy.) Ah, history is full of such back stabbing, deceit and treachery, nowhere more so than on the Balkans.

The Balkans and with extension the Middle East is unfortunately far from a gently simmering melting pot of nationalities, but instead was and is a powder keg, ready to explode at the slightest provocation. No wonder there is a mess when everybody wants to claim that whatever was “accomplished” in his neighborhood in the last few thousand years was done in the name of God (preferably my God) and as such is only a byproduct to support ideology of whatever (preferably our) government. The others with their God and ideology have done them wrong.

So it comes even more as a surprise how often the battles lost are remembered, marked, and celebrated over those we
won (way too few, maybe?). I find that we, Slavs, in particular have such lamenting tendencies. We compose many popular crying folk songs wailed loudly after a certain alcohol level in our veins is reached. There are national heroes and national myths created, only remotely reminding of historical reality. They spread over years and centuries from one to the next generation until they become FACTS. This game never stops as long as it serves the political purpose and expediency and can easily be misused as a call for revenge. This lost battle was one of many followed by others on: Kosovo 1389AD (Serbs against Turks), Mohács 1526AD (Hungarians against Turks), and White Mountain 1620AD (Czechs against Austrian Habsburgs). We Czechs have been crying and whining over this defeat now for almost 400 years and those grievances, for at least some, have not been settled yet and may still deserve blood to be sprinkled over patriotic soil. Let us hope against hope we learn our lessons and we start celebrating our histories and composing more upbeat songs, keeping blood on all sides cool enough as we move forward.

The first true Bulgarian I met who expressed clearly more than lukewarm feelings towards me was this stray buddy abandoned by his rightful local owner. I offered him some food and made a selfie on his behalf. One good deed a day always feels good. Let us be positive from now on.

Easy to accomplish with the prospect of entering the town
of Melnik, home of famous Melnik wine. You might have never heard of it, but Mr. Winston Churchill did, and I understand was in the habit of ordering a large amount every year throughout his life.

I visited this town some 45 years ago while finishing a grueling 7 day North to South Pirin Mountain trek. My archive photo from autumn 1974 can give you a good feel for this snow and miserable weather filled experience.

I vividly remember exhaustedly stumbling into town, looking for nothing more than some decent non canned food, and some famous Melnik wine. After a week of exclusive male companionship (7 wet and stinky guys) I was not necessarily adverse to female participation in social activities such as drinking and singing, to be clear. This time waltzing in on four wheels we were fresh and eager to discover art, architecture, history and culture. We found it invariably intertwined with wine. There was a big Wine Museum in an underground stone wine cellar, a rich merchant’s beautifully restored traditional house with an active wine cellar and Rozhen monastery with old grape trellises. We wondered if the angels imbibed some as they naughtily snatched crowns away from royalty. An attractive and pretty town on its own, Melnik has a decent development of the tourist facilities. Unfortunately the roads are not among them yet, even the one leading to the Zornitza Family estate (of the Relais & Chateau fame), surrounded by a large vineyard. We were personally welcomed and guided by the Director of Marketing, and I can assure you, our and his time was not wasted as we descended into the vineyard cellars, went through a quick review of operation’s history, plans for the future, and were even introduced to the Bulgarian information industry tycoon, who invested some of his fortune into this luxury venture.

The best part, as always, was my wife tasting and discussing a wide array of wines and me taking photos. The knife in my spouse’s hand may look like she is ready to slice a piece of local cheese, but it also adds heavily to the strength of her arguments. Exhausted by the alcohol and culinary intake we more than happily withdrew to recuperate by the pool of another (much more affordable) winery Boutique hotel Sintica in the town of Sandanski. We could enjoy the company of young Bacchus and just around the corner from the hotel we discovered a large if lonely also half naked statue of Spartacus. Huh? In Bulgaria? I always thought Spartacus was Greek, didn’t you? Turns out he was actually Thracian, a Roman mercenary who defected and was then caught and sold at a place called Sklave (meaning Slave) which was a big slave market in Roman times, now a tiny village just around the corner. Some say he was born there too, and his wife, who was a Thracian prophetess, was enslaved with him. It makes sense to me that he would have run back to his birthplace and family.

We came across Thracians when we stumbled upon a cool ancient tomb and cult building. Thracians were a collection of many ferocious Indo-European tribes, sometimes described as red haired barbarians, living in the territory of modern Bulgaria and beyond. Their women were heavily tattooed and were formidable queens. They had some interesting habits: some had their husbands killed and some killed themselves when their husband died.

Of course, it would not be me if I would not have tried to rehash my past glory of mountaineering. Hence I forced this expedition’s Culture Director to go as far as the paved road allowed, then walked as far as I could until the parking lot could not be seen on the photo. After she took my snap shot I was running back to the car as the heavy rain started providing us with a great excuse to back off, avoiding following example of some idiotic tourists walking in the mountains in inappropriate shoes, especially sandals!!! For the good deed of the day we gave a lift to two young German girls, caught in the storm.

So we traded sports for culture and drove to the famous Rila Monastery to admire the striking architecture and richly painted walls. In the rain the capital Sophia was even less attractive, so after the obligatory one night we pushed on towards Plovdiv in the middle of Thracian Plains.

There is a superbly and sensitively restored old Roman Amphitheater worthy of visit even if you are hurrying in the middle of unbearable heat towards what you expect would be soothing cold waters of the Black Sea Coast. Plovdiv turned out to be our favorite Bulgarian city, full of beautifully restored historical 
buildings converted into boutique hotels, cozy restaurants and bars. How refreshing, when left behind by my hyperactive young companion, was to have the option of staying in a cool shaded place, dreaming of a cold drink coming immediately after hitting comfortable sitting arrangement, but well before my treasurer would show up with a wave of magic wand called valet in her hand, asking me to hit the next cultural highlight.

When we reached the Black Sea coast at Sozopol (ancient Apollonia) I realized yet again how unreliable youthful memories are. The beaches and the sea were much less attractive than I remembered and the coast was now, like in Albania, overdeveloped by ugly hotels and apartment buildings, frequented by dense crowds of families with children, happily buying overpriced blue ice cream and kitschy refrigerator magnets for sale on every corner. Thankfully the incoming storm cleared the crowd and provided for a refreshing evening walk and a nice photo opportunity. We passed through bigger cities of Burgas and Varna quickly and hoped for a nicer experience in the small Nessebar with remnants of charming old churches. A decent cappuccino always improves the cultural experience .At the end, upon a recommendation of a Romanian friend we found a small stretch of attractive coast still not totally overrun. Then we left the country for Romania, what we thought was for good. Well, never say never. As we reached, after a few weeks of travel, the Romanian capital of Bucharest, we suddenly realized we were not too far from River Danube again and a place on Bulgarian side we missed on the first go. So feeling a bit guilty over our lack of enthusiasm for Bulgaria, we decided to give it another chance. We crossed the border and the river for the second time and drove to
Veliko Tarnovo, once known as the City of the Tzars. It was the former capital of the Second (much longer) Bulgarian Kingdom between the 12-14th century. Just like the First it crumbled under pressure from its bigger, stronger neighbor, this time the Ottoman Turks. Located in a beautiful canyon cut mercilessly by the river Yantra it is an architectural jewel. What a spectacular and secure setting. No wonder art and culture flourished. In the ruins of Tsarevetz we found a reconstructed Patriarchal cathedral with fascinating contemporary frescoes from the key moments of Bulgarian history, that were a wonderful surprise and a highlight of the trip. I am happy we dedicated a day to it even if it meant extra hours of driving. Another joy of traveling independently! You can change your plans and sidetrack or even double back and maybe right some preferential wrongs.

Blue Lakes of (Northern) Macedonia

As a young penniless student of art history nearly 40 years ago, I came to see firsthand the beautiful medieval frescoes in the Lake Ohrid monasteries. I dragged along a boyfriend and as he was just as penniless as me, we often hunkered down for the night in our sleeping bags by “cultural monuments”, hoping to get sanctuary and protection. If we were lucky and the monasteries were inhabited, despite the communist crack down on religion, the kindly nuns in age old tradition, utterly surprised and delighted by young visitors, would offer a bed and some home made bread and cheese.

This time not as young, alas, but also not as penniless, with husband in tow, I had more comfort in a wonderful apartment overlooking the vast blue Ohrid lake from our balcony. In fact there were some spectacular sunsets to revel in. The two new tourist apartment buildings in a village close by old Ohrid town were built and ran by two kick ass Macedonian women. They became fast friends and offered suggestions and advice as well as the services of their hairdresser and on top of it, did our couple weeks worth of laundry. We rarely stayed in one place for more than a day or two on our Balkans trip, and thus we mostly stayed in hotels, that were of very high standard and incredibly affordable. But not having a very precise plan we were doing our reservations on the fly. Be it on Booking.com or Airbnb, after awhile it can be a bit tiresome and stressful to have to keep looking for accomodations night after night. Sometimes we would make a reservation 20 minutes before arrival to a hotel on the iPhone app and the hotel receptionist would be mighty surprised when we showed up. You do get better at using filters on the booking systems and reading the descriptions and reviews that give you a more accurate picture of a place.

Yet not having an advance reservation gives you additional traveling freedom to change plans or stop for the night earlier, or later, than planned. Thinking back to our young travel days we are feeling grateful that the days of youth hostels and worse are behind us and we can now choose nice, solid 3* – 4 * accomodations(in this neck of the woods, anyhow).

Traveling by car gives you the freedom of staying away from bigger cities in cheaper and quieter accomodations, but when you are in the cities it is a pain in the neck to deal with traffic and even worse – to find parking. So far we only know of one parking ticket we earned on our trip! Generally we did avoid cities, but I insisted we had to spend one night in each capital. And there definitely isn’t a more psychedelically memorable capital than Skopje. Especially at night. Being squeezed between three bigger nations, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria, who at times all held chunks of Macedonian territory as part of their own kingdoms, claiming Macedonian Slavs are really just Serbs/Bulgarians/Greeks is not an easy position to be in. Macedonians only got their defined nationhood and home after World War II and only as one of the Yugoslav SFRs (Socialist Federal Republics). After the disintegration of Tito’s Yugoslavia they have for the first time achieved statehood under the name of Macedonia, and as recently as 2018, under pressure from Greece, changed it to Republic of Northern Macedonia. (The other Macedonia being south of Northern Macedonia in the North of Greece. Confused much?). Having constantly to prove your existence, your nationhood and statehood must make you want to go big with flags, statues and fountains. And big they go. Giant new classical columned buildings of parliaments and History Museums abound. Generating enough electricity to keep them lit the whole night must set the government back a pretty penny. (Hence not much money is left for sidewalks and public transport, practically non existent.)Hero sculptures loom everyone. Sometimes they even borrow their neighbors heroes as their own. Conspicuously missing (read removed) Alexander Macedonski aka Alexander the Great, after Greeks threw a hissy fit. But here is Bulgarian Tsar Samuil, the emperor of the 1st Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 10th century. He himself was actually of Armenian parents, so here you have it.Well, at least we know Sam was a fan. So much so that he moved his capital to Ohrid and built his summer palace on an island in Prespa Lake nearby.

We tried to get to the overgrown remnants of his palace, but by the time we found our way on the badly posted and badly maintained road, the wind had picked up and the fishermen pulled their boats to shore. But chatting with the guys, watching the gathering of the clouds over the blue lake, seeing cormorants and pelicans and water snakes without another tourist in sight was worth it. To this day one can find the sturdy walls of Samuil’s Fort on the hill at the top of Ohrid town. As we climbed through old Ohrid cobblestones streets, we enjoyed peeking into the courtyards of distinct black and white houses.and admiring the views of the blue green water of the lake replete with white swans. But of course I had to check on the old frescoes in the early Christian churches. Ohrid once had 365 churches, one for each day of the year, and has been referred to as “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. Some of the 365 churches are still standing in quite the original shape and form. The frescoes are still there, and nicely cleaned and restored, too. As usual I was on the lookout for the angels and found a full procession of them bowing to Virgin Mary. They do so in the beautiful Church of Sv. Sophia. You all will probably know a much more famous church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. I always imagine a young woman under the name of Saint Sophia. A wise one, of course, as Sophia in Greek means Wisdom. Wisdom is always associated with the Greek goddess Athena. But we are in Christian mythology waters here and there is a story of an early Christian mother named Sophia who dies of a broken heart after her three daughters: Faith, Hope, and Charity are killed for their Christian beliefs. Rings a bell?

But as much as we all like stories, the Saint Sophia churches around the world are really dedicated simply to Holy Wisdom.

When it comes to illuminating wisdom I was particularly taken by a wise choice of public lighting in Ohrid, where the lamps are in the shape of traditional black and white Ohrid houses and have LED bulbs. Quite befitting for a town that originally was known under the Greek name Lychnidos, meaning “the city of light“.

There was another source of illuminating light and wisdom centered in Ohrid. It was the first Slavic University or Literary School established in the 9th century by St. Clement and St. Naum, the prominent disciples of Cyril and Methodius, who did much to spread Christianity amongst the Slavs. St. Clement is associated with creation of Cyrillic alphabet.

Today 250 million people in Eurasia use it as the official alphabet, most notably Russians. I wonder how many are aware their alphabet was created by a Bulgarian, born in Greece and buried in Macedonia.

With kingdoms coming and going, conquests and defeats, borders were fluid on the Balkans to say the least and many different tribes happily lived together or killed each other with vengeance. They inevitably influenced each other in language, dress and of course, food. Even so far north as Slovenia, the country of my youth, we have a strong mixture of Central European dumpling and potato dishes with Balkan meat feast of čevapčiči and Shish kebab. Green salads are interspersed with tomato and cucumber salad, sometimes with onions and crumbly cheese on top. You will find this delicious salty summer salad everywhere in slight variations under different names: Greek Salad, Bulgarian Salad, Shopski salad or in Turkey . . . no, not Turkish, but simply – Shepherd’s salad. I do find it in part comical and in part infuriating when people start arguing over what a certain dish should be called or who invented it. Probably some poor shepherd’s wife trying to stretch her food budget.

I am a big fan of burek/börek in any shape and form. This cheap and filling flaky pastry and salty cheese dish had spread with Ottoman Turks throughout the Balkans and when devoured fresh out of the oven is particularly satisfying. This one was one of the better ones I had on our trip. I devoured it at the House of the Miyak’s which is part of ancient Macedonian Sv. Jovan Bigorski monastery on the way to another blue Macedonian lake-Lake Mavrovo. Though the monastery had a number of high profile relics (they kinda gross me out), I was more interested in the cultural lore of the mountain tribe of Miyaks. Their biggest village Galichnik never fell to the Turks and to this day they are proudly keeping alive their traditions. I am sad to see that we have come too early to witness the yearly traditional wedding with a day of dancing and feasting. I have to make do with a beautiful collection of traditional costumes. I could spend hours and days admiring the intricate hand made items but we need to head towards the border. But first we will have our last Macedonian feast at the tiny Lebedevo lake. We can easily imagine it is a wedding feast.

Mysterious Albania Unveiled

When my travel partner put on the table the next big trip idea – the Big Balkan Loop, to her big surprise, my feelings were rather lukewarm. But when I heard our itinerary would include Albania, the one country in Europe I have always wanted to visit, my decision was easy. Albania, or Shqipëria, as the Albanians call it has been on my bucket list since my first trip to the region in 1968. I barely brushed the border of Albania then, as I passed through Kosovo, and under Enver Hoxa Albania was hermetically closed to the outside world for many years to come. When they finally opened their doors we were tempted to go, but we put it off because of its Wild West reputation.

The reputation persists even 30 years in. As we were asking people close to the border in Montenegro, what were the conditions in Albania they all warned us not to go.

“You shouldn’t drive alone in Albania. The roads are bad and it is too dangerous.”

“How do you know?” was our retort. “Have you been there?”

“No…”

And so it went in some other areas, too. When we asked on the Romanian – Moldovan border about the price of gas and the road conditions on the Moldovan side, no one could tell us. But they had plenty of bad stuff to share about their neighbor.

“Have you been there?” was our retort.

“No, but we hear from the relatives on the other side.”

Those who don’t have relatives on the other side, get their information from the TV. And as we know the one principle of the news agencies is: If it bleeds, it leads. So the sensationalistic news of the day about murders and crime gets repeated until everyone is convinced their neighbors are just waiting to pounce on them, if they ever dare cross the border.

As we crossed the border into the last European “hermit kingdom”, our expectations were running very high. Not that we didn’t read plenty of enthusiastic blogs of people traveling through the country, still, there were questions swimming around in our head:

Is the country ready to accept individual travelers; is the basic infrastructure in the places of our interest ready?(Um, yes, the hotels were quite lovely and up to snuff.) With the recent history of unrest and wars in religiously diverse Balkan places like Bosnia and Kosovo, I was especially curious how this country passed through transition from communist dictatorship to some sort of civil society.

How will we communicate? We have done very well so far with Ksenija’s old school Serbo-Croatian to the extent that often the parking and boat touts would yell to their brethren, “They’re our people! Let them be!”

But Albanian language is unrelated to any other and we will have to rely on people knowing some English. Answer: The young people spoke English and were open and eager to talk.

After the morning boat tour on the Montenegro side of Lake Skoder we crossed to the Albanian side of Lake Shkodër and well, we are happy to report that the water in the lake is still the same on both sides of the invisible border. Not only that; the fish in the water, plentiful birds and fowl and blooming water lilies are the same as well. Nature finds its own sensible ways!

On the solid ground of the border our first impressions were pretty good! The road was certainly better than in Montenegro! The post communist new government’s first act was to allow Albanians to own cars. And the fight for hearts and souls had begun in earnest the same day! And the winner is…….. Mercedes-Benz! Albanians love their cars, but not just any car. It must be a Mercedes Benz! And the newer (latest models apply only, please) and bigger, the better! Even if I do not know what was their starting point in 1989 when the regimes of Eastern Europe crumbled, the most significant item needed for a satisfying way of life of any Albanian was ultimately the right to own THE CAR. And everybody had to own the car the very next day. As our guide in Tirana told us: “I had no idea that my grandpa could even drive a car, but the morning after government issued a decree that people could own cars, I saw him happyily driving without the driver license through my hometown in the car of unknown origin!”

Of course Mercedeses, especially new ones, would be too expensive for most Albanians. But they creatively introduced an innovative business model as we were told by a 4-wheel car driver we hired for a ride into the mountains. The vast majority of cars you see in Albania were actually stollen in Western Europe and openly smuggled across the border. If you have had a car for a year and have one thousand euros you can get it legally registered.

No matter how we felt about the state of law in Albania, this information had quite a positive impact on our state of mind as we were, before arriving to Albania, quite concerned that our borrowed old, small BMW (model 100) would be stollen the first night after we crossed the Albanian border. Thankfully, we were assured by people in the travel industry that there is only a limited interest in BMWs, and especially not small and old. Nevertheless we deliberately kept our car very dirty to further lessen the appeal. Of course, if you have a car you have to ride on the roads and, it was a pleasant surprise, the roads were not only empty (of car traffic), but were much better than expected.  I would dare to say they are in much better shape than in the country of our car’s registration, (Czechia), where the roads are under permanent state of repair, and definitely better than in the town of our own permanent residency, (Orinda, California) where the roads are left in a state of permanent disrepair.

The only road we could not drive was the famed road to Theth in the Albanian Accursed Mountains, also known as Albanian Alps. Indeed there was a certain amount of cursing going on driving on that dangerous road and certainly more by the British chaps we came across, who punctured their tire. But in true fashion of travelers helping travelers they had help changing the tire and our driver right off the bat offered to take it back with him and send it to them on the first bus next morning. Proving what people have noticed in their blogs that Albanians are helpful and generous people. Of course if they are not part of the Albanian mafia, which is successfully taking over the world’s underworld.

It is worth mentioning here that during the WWII Albanians were a bright shining exception to one rule. While their Balkan neighbors happily handed over their Jewish population or exterminated it themselves, Albanians not only protected their 200 Jewish neighbors, but also accepted Jewish refugees from Europe, hid them in their homes and helped them leave for safety. Albania was the only country where after the war the Jewish population was bigger than before the war.

Mountain villages were a good place to hide the refuges. And what mountains these are! The mountains remained surprisingly Catholic for centuries of Ottoman rule as they were too remote and the people too fierce for occupying Turks and they left them largely in peace. With intrepid travelers just discovering Albanian mountains and shores, there is a sense of camaraderie that we so fondly remember from our early days of travel. Looking into your smart phone for information is simply not enough and travelers do talk to each other, comparing notes, asking questions and sharing tips.

Let’s just pray the Albanian mountain beauty will stay protected from plastic and architectural garbage that we could see in our short visit to other places.

As we didn’t want to undertake the hike across the mountains we took Lake Koman ferry to reach the other side. At the other end an additional hour drive on a new road brought us to Valbonë, the beginning (or end) of the hiking trail. The mountains on this side were majestic as well and the rivers ran clear. But with a good road, the development was quicker and some larger, uglier hotels started creeping up. So were the first mosques. Nevertheless there seemed no issues about the coexistence of different religions in the mountains or in Albania overall. As a matter of fact Albanians we talked to emphasized this fact and they were clearly proud of it. Just as the American ambassador in 1934 exclaimed that there were no religious problems in Albania, the same has been assessed today. I only wish their neighbors and others further around the world who can’t help but claim their religion is the only right one and can not help but keep killing each other, could learn from Albanians. 

Just a short walking tour through Tirana downtown with a great young Albanian guide gave us the sense of how all major religious groups live peacefully next to each other. Here is a newly built mosque funded by Turkish President Erdogan not far from the Catholic Church of Mother Teresa’s fame (she was Albanian born in North Macedonian capital Skopje) serving as a counterpoint to a beautiful Orthodox Church on the other side of Tirana’s Main square.

The population of Albania is made of a little less than 60% Muslims, 20% Christians (half Catholics, the other half orthodox) and 20% atheist. All of them clearly live in a very peaceful coexistence. Of those Muslims mentioned before more than half are Sunni and the smaller half is Bektashi (a Sufi dervish order) whose members can drink alcohol and eat pork. We were told that because every religion needs some restrictions this sect forbids consumption of rabits.

Research could not verify the latter statement, but in solidarity with the rest of the country we decided to order in the cozy restaurant in the beautiful town of Berat an exquisite roasted rabbit to fight increased population of this animal in Albania. We were happy to help. As always!

Berat by all means looks very Muslim, with the typical stone houses of Turkish Ottoman design and slim minarets. But at the Berat Castle there are churches galore and a Museum of Ikons.

Beer and wine is flowing freely and people are friendly. Here just leaving our Residenca Desaret hotel for a cobblestone stroll, I was stopped by a local chap and invited home for a morning shot of raki. I apologized for the hour was too early for drinking, but I did ask him how he enjoyed last night’s women World Cup soccer game in France.

As we drove through the countryside we marveled at the huge new houses in every village. No doubt they were built by the remittances from the 3 millions of Albanians working in the West. We found those left behind also hard working and eager to serve with a smile. We now regret not having stayed longer in Albania and not continuing down south to the Albanian riviera.

Undoubtedly the southern beaches have more appeal, but we got a bit put off by the overdevelopment in the first sea destination in Dürres. It was still a pre season calm, but thousands upon thousands of lounge chairs told a story, we did not want to be part of.

A Photo Essay of Kotor Bay

Known simply as Boka (The Bay) Boka Kotorska is simply stunning in all its reiterations. No surprise it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Surprises abound around every curve of the very narrow road above the Bay. And there are many tight hairpin curves, a delight for a seasoned driver and a thrill for the motorcycle riders. For some passengers – not so much. An experienced friend said to us, “The only way to really see Kotor Bay is from the water!” And he was right. It is especially thrilling on a speed boat. In a few hours you can explore the whole bay and see things you might not even notice from the shore. Like secret tunnels used to hide partisan boats and submarines. Talk about history coming alive when you enter one of those. For a special treat you can swim in a Blue Cave. In the Bay there are islands with churches and cemeteries. When you return to the port, you need to go past the impressive old fortifications to explore the old streets of Kotor town. Early in the day and early in the season is best as they can easily get clogged by eager tour groups. It must have been laundry day when we visited. Have you ever wondered how the fancy clothes were laundered in the old ages when there was no dry cleaners? I asked this guy but he didn’t have a clue. In more comfortable attire he enthusiastically explored the Kotor cathedral From top to bottom no details escaped the avid photographer

and no sacrifice was too big when he worshiped at the altar of his art.

If you will go a bit beyond the edges of boka, any transport will do, you will discover more hidden treasures, like prehistoric rock art, mini chapels, newly thriving nunneries and more great views, like the Sveti Stefan bellow.

We old farts on the road advise you to find your way to Montenegro. You will surely be welcomed in with open arms!

Back to the Balkans

There is travel baggage and then there is travel baggage. We both bring our own very old Balkans travel baggage, mine going back 40 and my husband’s 50 years, when we were both here for the first time.

We both explored parts of the Balkans before we met. Seeing that I am originally from Slovenia, the Balkans were practically on my doorstep. Depending how you define the Balkans, they were my doorstep! I have spent many childhood summers on Croatian coast, have been to Bosnia when it didn’t have the notoriety of a war torn country and as a teen backpacked through Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

For Mirek, seeing that he had grown up behind the iron curtain of Czechoslovakia, the Balkans were the few allowed places visit outside the fence called Iron Curtain. As a young man he had done a lot of hiking (and drinking with his buddies) in the Balkan mountains. But it was a trip through Yugoslavia that brings the heaviest travel baggage. It was in a way a defining moment of his life. If he had stayed just a day or two longer on the Balkans, his life might have turned out very differently.

You see it was year 1968 and Prague Spring was in full bloom with liberalization of the communist regime. As an engineering student 19 years of age he went on a summer adventure. Hitchhiking through Romania and Bulgaria on his return trip, he arrived to Yugoslavia. First to Macedonia and Kosovo and then along the beautiful Adriatic Coast. Hitchhiking was then a great way to meet and talk to many people and as the tough regime at home started to melt down many warned him that the big Russian brother will not look kindly on the weakening of the communist grip. As he reached the north he had to make a decision: go left and move to the West or to turn right and stay home. Having the last dinner with a professor from the University in Zagreb he declined his kind offer to stay and took a train to Prague.

Two days later the Russian tanks rolled into Prague, and shortly after the Iron Curtain shut down again!

Balkans has a lot of heavy historical baggage with much warring from the beginning of time as tribes and kingdoms and empires and political systems clashed on its territory. But to make your summer blog reading lighter we will concentrate instead on showing you the beauty and hospitality of this still somewhat undiscovered and exotic area.

So what can you expect to find on the Balkans?

A lot of old stone fortresses like this one in Belgrade, the Capital of Serbia. Defended by all kinds of heavy canons. You will also find a lot of new, not necessarily always charming or tasteful. The capitals of newly minted countries want to show off with palatial new buildings, lighted up brightly all night. Macedonian capital Skopje is particularly insane in this aspect. Did you know that it just recently changed its name to North Macedonia? It was the Greeks who insisted on the name change. They also forced the renaming of the Skopje airport. It is not called Alexander the Great anymore. Alexander III of Macedon certainly wasn’t Slavic from Northern Macedonia (the Slavs came in much later) but he also wasn’t Greek Greek. He was of a Macedon tribe with its own language. He studied under the Greek philosopher Aristotle in classic Greek. Oops, I said no history lessons!

Everywhere, be it in a big capital or a small town you will find a lot of al fresco restaurants and coffee shops on cobble stone streets, where friends, lovers, families, and tourists sit after the temps drop somewhat in the evenings.

Certainly you won’t go hungry, but it won’t be that easy if you are a vegetarian as meat of all sorts is the main ingredient do most Balkan meals.Besides your typical pork, beef and lamb, you will also find on the menus specialties like tripe, calve’s liver, rabbits, and sheep’s brain. Expect your plate to be overflowing and the your wallet only slightly diminished. Food and alcohol is extremely affordable and generally of great quality. We especially appreciated the ripe, red, juicy tomatoes and the early summer fruits of cherries, apricots and peaches. Much appreciated by all guests!

After food and any other time coffee is taken seriously on the Balkans. But coffee is more than coffee, it is a ritual and an offering of hospitality and friendship. In some places it is also a way of life, especially for older men, who meet in coffee houses killing time until lunch or dinner, prepared at home by their wives, who certainly had invited a neighbor or two for a cup of their own. Interestingly, for the longest time Turkish coffee (thick, mud on the bottom concoction with lots of sugar) was the poison of choice. Nowadays the cappuccinos and the like have become very trendy, especially amongst the younger crowd. In some former Yugoslavian republics you might be surprised to find a certain amount of Yugonostalgia. Compared to Stalin and most other Communist leaders, Tito was seen much more as a benevolent dictator and many people still remember him fondly and come to visit his quite modest marble grave in Belgrade’s House of Flowers . So let’s stay with the former Yugoslavian republics. We skipped a few like Bosnia and Kosovo. (Our car insurance wasn’t valid there, besides there were clashes with Serbs reported yet again). At the beginning of our 6 week trip around the Balkans we drove on the freeways from Ljubljana via Zagreb straight to Belgrade and in quick six hours we were there. That’s were in my mind the Western (Austro Hungarian) and Eastern (Serbian Orthodox and Turkish) worlds come together.

Enormous, new, but still unfinished Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Sava.

We have heard enthusiastic reports about Belgrade from friends, but we found it gray, dilapidated and under construction. It is considered the Party Capital of Europe, but being old farts that go to bed early, we did not check out the famous river venues. After a brief and very hot day in Belgrade we hightailed it straight down towards the sea.

We only stopped in a small side valley at the Mileševa Monastery to say a quick hello to a famous White AngelThis beautiful angel fresco has been recognized as a universal symbol of peace. It has been sent as a first ever satellite message from Europe to North America. It has also travelled into space a few times, hoping to convey the peace message to any possible interceptors.

We crossed into Montenegro (=Crna gora=Black mountain) and everything became green! There was an extraordinary wet May and Nature exploded in a riot of leaves, grasses, and flowers. It was particularly spectacular from the high point of the bridge on Tara River.

The bridge saw heavy fighting during WWII, when partisans blew up the middle span to halt the Italian occupying forces. As a kid I remember watching a movie about it and crying over the execution of the bridge engineer who helped the partisans.

Finally we stood at the view point overlooking the Kotor Bay. I remember arriving at the very same spot on the old narrow road for the first time on a local bus with a crazy driver who cut the curves and screeched down the hills with half the bus hanging over the unprotected edges. I was sure I was gonna die.

Today in the comfort of my own car with my most excellent driver, my thought was only that the view was really to die for. No wonder James Bond’s Casino Royal was placed in Montenegro (though, sorry, not a single scene was shot there).

We crossed with the ferry as the sun came down and pulled into the little town of Donje Lastovo, where our home away from home was waiting for us.

We quickly and easily slipped from the Balkan into the Mediterranean mode.

Brief Encounters of a Japanese Kind

A big part of why I love to travel is meeting diverse people (and robots!) I would never ever had a chance to meet otherwise. Sometimes they are interesting travelers, sharing tips and excitement of the road, but mostly they are locals sharing insights into their culture and way of life.

“Isn’t it impossible to travel on your own to Japan?” asked some friends, who travel often and far. “We heard Japanese speak no English.”

No English is a gross exaggeration, but yes, communication in Japan is a bit of a challenge, to say it mildly. Japanese all learn English in school, but in a very old fashioned way, without a chance to practice and speak English. So, surprisingly, even young people with college education often are not able to put a sentence together, though they probably do understand quite a lot of what you are saying.

Still, since our first visit 35 years ago, when there was no English anywhere, the tourist infrastructure is vastly improved with excellent English signs everywhere. Occasionally the translations are too literal and afford great opportunities for some laughter. The tourist information centers are well stocked with English brochures and timetables even if sometimes you have to and people manning them have a very limited spoken English capability.

Luckily for us we had a chance to communicate with a few excellent English speakers so we could have quite in depth conversations and ask some pressing questions. Important, because Japanese culture is not always easy to understand for an outsider.

For example: What is it with grown women walking around dressed like live dolls? I still do not have a full answer. It has something to do with Japanese obsession with cuteness called Kawaii, that can refer to things, people or toy characters that are charming, shy and childlike. Think Hello Kitty!

What is it with Japanese obsessed with plush animals, that continues far into adulthood? A friend told me she once spent a night at a Japanese family’s house where she was offered their grown daughter’s bedroom . She said it was literally hard to find the bed for the whole room was full of large and small stuffed animals. Here’s a couple taking their wedding portraits sporting their favorite plush animals. Huh? It would only make sense if they then ceremoniously flushed them down the toilet as a symbol of leaving all childish things behind. Didn’t happen.

My husband, who always pays (too?!) close attention to ladies, was the first to notice that most Japanese women wear shoes at least one size too big. I still don’t have a satisfactory answer, but a variety of responses from people like: shoes are a relatively new idea for us Japanese….we take off shoes more often than the westerners, so they need to be bigger…the fancy western shoes are sold here in Japan in small, medium and large sizes only, so everyone goes for the bigger size. Didn’t have a chance to confirm this. Looking for shoe shops was not very high on my priority list.

Just as you can’t help but notice the inordinate amount of passionate kissing and hugging in (romantic) European cities, you also can’t help noticing the total lack of any public affection in Japan. The closest you will come is seeing a young couple holding hands while on a walk in the park. It is simply not acceptable to show any more and very impolite to “burden” others with having to watch you. What’s wrong with that? Well, the problem seems to be that this dispassionate approach to love does not diminish at the doorsteps of Japanese bedrooms. Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the whole world.

On the other hand most visitors to Japan will tell you how extremely helpful and warm the Japanese people are towards Western visitors. People will go out of their way to help you and are very concerned if you are a woman alone. If I happened to stray from my husband, someone would invariably ask if I was traveling alone. With crime rates the lowest in the world I figured it would be a perfect country for a woman to travel alone. I asked a young black woman from England traveling solo on the same ferry, if she felt safe in Japan. I expected her to nod enthusiastically, but she looked at me gravely and said thoughtfully, “Yes, the Japanese are helpful, but let me just say they have not seen a lot of black people.”

Ah, another good thing about traveling – it teaches you to not make assumptions one way or another.

You certainly can count on the Japanese to help you if you ask to the extent that they would rather send you in the wrong direction than not helping you. Or is this the case of Asian “Not loosing face”, by admitting you don’t know.

One early morning after having spent a night at a youth hostel in Kanazawa, the only accommodation we could find, we were desperate to get some breakfast. The only person up and about was a lady struggling to put up a flag in front of the Samurai museum. So I lent her a hand and she in turn mobilized the staff of the museum to brainstorm on our breakfast options.

The Japanese are in general quite shy and will not be the ones to initiate a conversation. We found that we could always exchange at least a few words if we stopped and offered some lavish praise to the owners of pampered pets. My understanding is that isolation is a really big challenge in Japanese society, especially for young men. I wager that overuse of technology does have a role to play. Riding local trains we could frequently observe school kids on their way to school. While the girls would be engaged in some conversations and giggling together, the boys invariably just played (violent) video games on their smart phones. Indeed, it seems that in general girls are doing much better in Japanese society these days than boys. As they grow up they tend to be more confident, educated, enjoying their life, shopping and traveling. They are in no rush to get married. Because of the very traditional gender values and expectations, the pressure on men, especially first sons is exacerbated. Men are supposed to be responsible breadwinners, working extremely long hours, while women should stay home alone minding the house and kids. Very clearly depicted in this beer ad:Rejecting those norms has initiated a worrisome phenomenon called Hikikomori whereas adolescent boys and even middle aged men shut themselves in their rooms and refuse to come out for years. On the low end the estimate is that about 1 million Japanese are modern day hermits.

quite in the contrary our three Japanese Servas hosts very very outgoing. They were the ones answering lots of questions and giving us a real insight into the real Japanese life. First we visited a family of four in Sapporo. The dad was an elementary school teacher who had studied music in the States, so he could speak English. His wife was also a musician, but was now a stay home mom with two boys. We spent the day with them driving to the site of the Winter Olympic museum and ski jump.

They taught us how to eat Hokkaido noodles with just the right amount of appreciative slurping and arranged for free tickets to a grand concert of community wind orchestras. Who knew classical music was so popular in Japan? With the high level of professionalism and prevalence of young musicians classical music has a secure future there.

We even got to visit the wife’s mother and father for a demo of green tea ceremony and a real home made Japanese dinner feast with lots of kanpai (=cheers!) toasts. It is surprising how easily family secrets and complaints surface after a few drinks! Our second host was a divorced woman living with her elderly parents in a house they built after their 130 year old traditional home was totally destroyed in the 2016 earthquake, burying the parents underneath for many hours. What are the chances that the first morning of our stay a strong earthquake of 6.3 on the Richter scale magnitude shook and swayed the ground. If I wouldn’t have believed in PTSD before, I would have been convinced, as our new friend jumped into my arms crying hysterically. Luckily there was no damage but frayed nerves.

To get into a different frame of mind we drove to another friend’s house in a traditional village nearby where they prepared a wonderful lunch and showed us their old treasures. Upon departure they pressed upon us a few old lacquer bowls even though we protested we had no room in our luggage. The best part though was a peek into their thick green bamboo forest. The size of the trunks and especially of the fresh bamboo shoots was really impressive. As the friend was going through a divorce as well we had a chance to discuss this still rather taboo topic. Divorce continues to be very much frowned upon in Japanese society.

If in agreement, a couple can get easily divorced by mutual consent, simply filing a form with the local government office. But there are much less simple solutions for their children after a divorce. Or rather there is only one simple solution. As there is no joint custody of children, if the parents can’t agree, the court decides whom the children shall live with and it can be the mother, the father or even the relatives. The divorced father or mother then pretty much looses any right to see his or her children. And the children who are not seen as individuals with legal rights, but as belonging to a family, have no right to access their non custodial parent. This might be one of the major factors why the divorce rate in Japan is quite low.

Our third host was Tomoko, a 75 year old retired High school English teacher, who returned with her husband to her small home town of Sasebo, Kyushu, where they built a beautiful house made of fancy wood and filled it with books. She picked us up from the train station and immediately took us sightseeing. Her English was wonderful, so our conversations were the easiest and most enjoyable. You bet we had discussions about challenges of having retired husbands! If anywhere in the world it is in Japan that husbands literally live for their job and they are lost without it. She said that Japanese retired men simply refuse to learn anything new, like using a smart phone. But, she noted, at least her husband, contrary to many of her friend’s husbands, even though he does not want to travel, does not object to her going off on her own. So much so that we will reunite with Tomoko in September in Europe.

Her women network was a real boon. Whatever my wish, she could pick up her (smart) phone and within minutes she arranged for some really special Japanese experiences. I was tickled pink to have a private kimono lesson with her friend, a Japanese traditional dance teacher. Did I mention how much I adore any and all Japanese kimonos? I also love Ikebana – the art of Japanese flower arrangement. I have taken many classes and found much creative enjoyment with my limited artistic skills in Sogetsu Ikebana school. Turns out Tomoko’s cousin is an Ikebana Instructor, from a different, Ikenobo school. So of course we had to pay a visit and she gave me an introductory lesson! Her house and garden, too, were full of flowers – what a treat! While these were all well planned visits through Servas organisation, it is a chance encounter with a special 80 years young lady that we cherish even more. We came across the big traditional house of Ishikawa International Exchange Center on our stroll around Kanazawa. The Japanese garden was beautiful and the special exhibit of a rich collection of Japanese fabrics even more so, but the crowning glory was the woman runing the show. Seeing our interest, she took us to the off limits upstairs to show us some secret features of the old house. She was a big U.S. enthusiast, having sent both her daughters to the U.S. for high school and university studies. Her love for America was triggered when she was 5 years old and the American soldiers came to war torn Japan. “We couldn’t believe how nice the soldiers were; big, strapping guys, with pockets full of candy and chocolate. truth be told Japanese husbands don’t have a great track record, so I am really glad both my daughters have American husbands!”

On the way out the door she gave us a hand made Temari ball, which is a traditional gesture of friendship with the symbolic design of the crane, the bird of happiness.

We said goodbye to Japan, knowing that there are still many unexplored places beckoning, but also new friends that will welcome us back.

Inspired by Japanese Style

One of the few books that has escaped numerous moves and decluttering of our home is a 35 years old book called Japanese Style. It has influenced our aesthetics and inspired our home style, from the purchase of our first family size futon when we were a really broke young family to the attempt to design a Japanese inspired garden when we were a little less broke or at least the bank was willing to give us a home equity loan.

While we find things worth bickering about often, we are united in our love for most things Japanese. We can and do spend hours admiring the perfect patterns of raked gravel in Japanese dry gardens or the exquisite shapes and colors of Japanese pottery or lacquerware.

The Japanese have the unsurpassed sense of refinement, attention to detail, and the mastery of craft that extends from the gold leaf splattered imperial finery of an ink box to a humble toothpick or just a simple bamboo fence. A wooden door becomes an intriguing piece of art or a canvas for the rain to draw a masterpiece on. Nature is also coaxed to perfection in Japanese gardens. Initial garden inspiration came from China, but as in many other things the Japanese took an idea and developed and molded and mastered and perfected it to unreachable heights. It takes a great knowledge of Feng shui and care and skill to set up a Japanese garden and then it takes hard work, patience and attention to details to keep it growing well. Japanese gardeners are in my book the unsung heroes.

There are big castle park gardens with large bodies of water that are wonderful for strolling, especially in the evenings under romantic lighting. Where you have water, you must have bridges. They come in different shapes and colors, but my favorite is a cheerful red. Under the bridges giant black, golden, and orange koi fish are swimming happily.Sometimes the water is not water at all, but is represented by white pebbles that flow like a river. And the fish are a ceramic rendition. How fun! The reflection of the trees in the water is replaced by the black shadows on white gravel river.We first encountered this concept at the spectacular Adachi Museum of Art Garden, considered by many the best garden in all of Japan. It certainly is the best and the cleverest set up for six gardens in total, because they blend in perfectly with the surrounding hills and while you can’t walk through them at all, you can watch large landscape tableaux through the contemporary museum windows, changing through the seasons. A very different experience of a garden, indeed! We had a few quiet moments at Yuushien Garden coffee shop that employs a similar wall window garden view idea. For a short time in spring time you can watch thousands upon thousands of yellow and pink peony flowers floating on the water. Peony symbolizes good fortune, bravery, and honor.No wonder it was depicted in a very similar pattern on a samurai’s lacquer box.

Water and modern architecture were also combined well in the D.T. Suzuki Museum, celebrating the life of the Japanese philosopher who introduced Zen Buddhism to the Western world. Fittingly it was very minimalist, inviting the visitors to quiet reflection or shall I call it Zen meditation?For us though, it was the smaller, more intimate garden settings, that we enjoyed most. We stumbled upon the Namura Residence garden in the old samurai district of Kanzawa, not knowing that it was no. 3 on the list of the best. It is a tiny garden, but fits in all essential Japenese garden elements:

Rocks and stepping stones and koi, and a cube shaped water feature beautifully reflecting the surrounding trees.Water features are probably my favorite element of Japanese gardens.Mirek really likes stone lanterns in all their shapes and forms. Especially if accompanied by beautiful women, or shapely trees,or vibrant leaves. Oh, the trees! What can be more Japanese than the flaming Japanese maples? Only flowering cherries, if you please! Yoo-hoo, what about bamboo?Of course. Green, black, variegated? Tall, for sure! What I like about Japanese garden approach is that even if you don’t have a castle or a house, you can still plan a tiny Japanese garden in a corner by your front door or at least a mini one on a tray. If all else fails, you can always hang a garden painting on your wall.

The Great Japanese Train Adventure

Please read carefully the following Customer warning:

If you never played with toy trains as a kid, STOP reading and spend your time more productively by looking through the window observing the clouds in the sky.

For the rest of you being irreversibly infected by the train fever:

Welcome to the world of TRAINS! Japanese trains! Just saying the word SHINKANSEN gives me a jolt of excitement and joy.

Originally we had a very simple plan. First and foremost we will go to Japan in the spring for Sakura. As it is difficult to predict where and when the cherries would bloom, we contrived a plan to outsmart them.

Let us fly to northernmost island of Japan, rent a car as we like to do, and move slowly against the blooming cherry line as it moves with warming weather north and….let fate bring us together.

Until, a few days before leaving Western Australia for Sapporo, as I read my car rental agreement, I found to my big surprise the fine print: “Driving in Japan is allowed with Japanese driving permit OR National driving license WITH the International Driving Permit (IDP) issued by the country of the driver’s origin ONLY!”

Damn! We have been renting cars year after year and we carried our IDPs, but nobody ever asked for them! So when the last one expired in January 2019 we did not bother to renew it. Well, great timing going to Japan, the only country that demands it!

In a few days we made an urgent inquiry with our families back in the States and in Europe, and the message was clear. If you want to get it, you better come home in person, show your valid National/State driver’s license, get the IDP issued and then you can drive around Japan for six months but not a day more!

Forget it! Instead we will have to opt for travel by trains. What can I tell you, I was in heaven!

Why?

For those of you who read our last year’s blog covering our overnight travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, it is a well known fact that I love trains – the marvels of engineering innovation since Locomotion No. 1 was put on rails by Mr.Stevenson and run some 200 years ago (1825 to be exact).

But you may remember that we did not do much train travel after Chiang Mai, not just because of the miserable and well refrigerated overnight Thai ride, but even more because of my wife’s well known dislike of trains. In her youth she once spent days and days on stinky Soviet trains, which left her with TPTSD (Train PTSD) and utterly diminished appreciation for the beauty of train travel.

With the IDP Japanese disaster my chances of getting on a train again were now looking very good, indeed!

Now let’s get those fabulous Japanese Rail Passes that let you ride the Bullet trains! According to our initial Google research the JR Rail Pass could only be issued to bona fide temporary foreign visitors of Japan and purchased outside of Japan. There were offers of ordering and paying for the 1, 2 or 3 week passes on line and then having a voucher sent to your home address. After arriving to Japan you then present the voucher and your passport stamped by Japanese immigration officer to the Japan Railways office and receive the real pass. Complicated? You bet! Especially if you are not at your home address, but half way around the world. There must be a different way! After further Internet digging we found out that one could also buy the Rail Pass from an overseas Japan tourist office and Hallelujah, there was on the list a convenient office in Perth, Western Australia, where we were heading next.

To sweeten the deal, I suggested we upgrade to the first class so called Green car. My wife agreed and with a 21-day Rail Pass voucher in hand I could start planing the optimal route. On this map

red lines mark Shinkansen High Speed (known in the West as Bullet) Train network. The yellow lines are Local and Limited Express Trains. Complementing the rail lines are also JR operated buses, and in addition, surprisingly, one ferry. All covered by the Japan Rail Pass issued either for different geographic regions or the whole National one.

Japan is a densely populated country of about 130 million people. But that number is very unevenly distributed over the main 4 islands to such an extent that 80 million people live in a relatively narrow belt on the southern coast of Japan biggest island of Honshu.

That is where Shinkansen concept came initially to life with its first section between Tokyo and Nagoya open to public for Tokyo 1964 Olympics (bravo, you guys, nice excuse to get funding). It is true that the costly overruns were alarming (about double of initial requested funding), costing the project champion his position and career but nobody dared to stop this project. The concept proved to be very successful and today Shinkansen is a sturdy skeleton of a very efficient and apparently profitable rail transportation system of the whole Japan. As for our travel plans the rails went where we wanted to go and not the other way around. We had to look for our accommodation to be as close to the rail stations as possible so we would not have to drag our luggage around or rely on expensive taxis. (No cheap Uber in Japan). Fortunately, in a country like Japan, where businessmen use fast train transport, there are always clusters of hotels in easy walking distance from the stations. With 3 weeks of unlimited rail travel we (read I) figured we could pretty much cover the whole of Japan from the North to the South, avoiding the most popular and tourist infested areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, where we have been before anyways.

We flew to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaidó, the northern most island and after getting our passports properly stamped we easily found the JR office at the Airport rail station and got our vouchers exchanged for the glorious real Rail Passes. With the skillful help of the lovely JR ladies we even got reserved seats for the first week of our train travel. We were ready to jump on our first train. Hurrah! Our Great Japanese Train Adventure had just begun! My excitement could not be significantly marred by the disappointing fact that the Shinkansen network has just one Hokkaidó station. It is in Hakodate, a temporary terminal in southernmost tip of this island. The further northern reach of Shinkansen is still under construction through mountains of Hokkaidó and will not be open till March 2030. While sad that my complete Shinkansen experience may have to wait beyond my useful life expectancy, I do hope in the improbable case of beating the odds, I will report to you on riding the newly open section if I am still able to hear, see and write.

We were forewarned that the learning curve on riding the Japanese trains was steep so let us share some tips we learned along the way. The frequency of trains run by JR is incredible, so you do not have to worry that you will miss your train. If you do, there certainly would be another one coming soon, probably within minutes. But you should be aware that majority of non-local trains have many cars assigned for reserved seating only and you CANNOT buy the reservation ON the train. In this case you will end up in non-reserved seats car(s). From our experience there is no reason NOT to reserve your seat. In each and every station in Japan we were able to get a seat reservation in a matter of minutes. It helps to install on your smart phone HyperDia application with JR schedule, so with a click or two you can get all possibilities of how to get from point A to B and hence can just show to the JR sales person the phone screen with the train you want. You could theoretically even master this activity on the station’s automatic machines but it involves a conversation with the JR person in the Central JR office in Tokyo and at least rudimentary knowledge of Japanese language.

After you have your reservation stubs you approach the station gates, Rail Passes in hand. The gates are mostly automatic, armed with sensors reading the tickets. They unfortunately do not work with Rail Pass and to enter the station you have to show your Pass to a live JR staff at the gates. They usually just glance at the pass and wave you through. Please note on this picture the essential differences between women of East and West. The petite Japanese girl is the epitome of the demure cuteness with her toes pointed inward while the Western sturdy feet are firmly planted in a outward conquering stride. The speculation and our unproven theory here is that after centuries of wearing a tight kimono and mincing her steps, the Japanese woman walks pigeon toed, and men find this attractive, while in the West the open feet ballet stance is more in vogue.

Any which way, let your feet carry you towards your train platform, most of the time on a different level, but serviced by escalators and/or elevators so you do not have to struggle with your luggage on any stairs.

On your reservation stub you have the name of the train and car and seat number so now you only have to look around the platform to find the exact spot where your car door will stop. Look down on the floor and up on the hanging signs and then line up at the marker. But before you embark on your train, do check carefully that you are indeed on the right platform.

On station signs, which most of the time alternate between Japanese and English, you can, in a hurry, get confused looking only at numbers amongst the flashing Japanese signs. We once got misled by recognizing the time of our train departure and blindly followed to the wrong platform with our luggage in tow, only to discover there were two different trains leaving at the same time and our train was on the other side of the station. A feverish run ensued and we barely jumped into the last car of our train, totally out of breath, but with a big grin on our faces.

Of course whenever and wherever we could, we rode Shinkansens. They are physically separate from other trains and ride on mostly elevated tracks, never crossing the roads or other train lines. But we were happy to experience many other trains, too: local, commuter and so called Limited Express trains. We had fun on a local train with one and only car, where separation between the train engineer and traveling public is almost none existent and on this two car train in Kyushu where we were the only representatives of traveling public. Except for the busy Golden Week where it looked like all of Japan was traveling and on a few trains taking high school students to and from their very long days at school, the trains have been surprisingly empty. Perhaps not as surprisingly, for our Japanese friends complained about the high cost of train travel and were quite envious of our Rail Passes. It is indeed unfar to local residents that a similar Pass is not offered to them. Our running tally says we would have had to pay three times the cost of what we had to pay for all our train rides as individual tickets!

Still people do take trains in Japan, especially in highly populated areas where commuter lines are packed tight. On Tokaido Shinkansen line between Osaka and Tokyo the Bullet trains transport on average 22,000 people in an hour in each direction! In a year Shinkansen trains take 159 million passengers to their destinations. Standing on the platform observing those 16-car trains passing one another every 4-5 minutes is mind boggling! It is even more mind boggling that the trains run at the maximum speed of 320 km/hr (200 miles/hr). Not to say anything of my impression of the futuristic design of the train locomotive. It is like watching Formula One race but much safer! If I add to this the beautifully designed new Kanazawa Rail Station I am really feeling like in a sci-fi movie. The interior design is very cool, too. The seats can be easily configured so that families can sit face to face. Some private line sightseeing trains were built for scenic excursions into Japanese countryside. A train like this bird watching beauty runs three times a day and provides the bird lovers comfortable seating with plenty of opportunity to sharpen their eyesight with enough drinks, so no one would be sorry for binocular forgotten at home. What all of the Japanese trains have in common is their admirable accuracy, frequency and cleanliness. The bane of my wife’s (train) existence – toilets are modern and immaculate, much nicer and roomier than any airplane bathroom, which, of course, is not saying much. The service too, is much better. You can order some food and/or booze from lovely, young, smiling train attendants. When not chatting up the attendants, one can enjoy the fleeting images of Japan rushing past the window. From snow capped mountains of the Northto warm sea and shore line of the South, or most exciting engineer’s view of the tunnel.

And let’s not forget passing more than twice through Japanese Alps which gave us the sense of how much of Japan is still covered by the lush green forests, contradicting the notions of sprawling urban concrete jungles along the Shinkansen line.

It is the last day of our 21-day Rail Pass on our 2,000+miles long trip, and we are spending it on trains back to Tokyo airport. We reached our goal of riding trains from Northernmost to Southernmost Japanese Shinkansen station. For good measure we added the Western most rail station in Japan in the town of Sasebo. We are on Hikari 476 Shinkansen arriving just before expiration of our Passes at midnight. As I am browsing I discover the fresh news:

“Japan is pushing the limits of rail travel as it begins testing the fastest-ever Shinkansen bullet train, capable of speeds of as much as 400 kilometers (249 miles) per hour.

Called the Alfa-X, the train is scheduled to go into service in 2030. Rail company JR East plans to operate it at 360 kilometers per hour. That would make it 10 km/hr faster than China’s Fuxing Hao, which links Beijing and Shanghai and has the same top speed. Good! It looks when I come back in 2030 I will be riding a new faster Shinkansen to Sapporo and beyond.

In Search of Sakura

Waiting for the sun to tease open the tight pink buds sitting on bare brown branches like tiny baby birds crowding together for warmth, ready to burst open and sing the ode to long awaited spring, we wandered, dressed in all our warm clothes, over the island of Hokkaido in the far North of Japan. We had scoured the official Japanese meteorological webpages for historical data and this year’s predictions on cherry blossoms bloom. We emailed people in Japan. Everyone said because of the mild winter Sakura will bloom early. Afraid we will miss the last wave of cherry blossoms and the famous hanami (cherry viewing) parties sweeping up north through Japan, we decided to start our three week trip at the tail end of April in the very North and then turn down South.

Well, everyone was wrong. Waiting at the airport on a long layover from Bangkok to Sapporo we looked at the weather app and panicked.

Rain and snow was predicted for our arrival. We scrambled for a few hours trying to rearrange our itinerary and book new hotels further south, only to find there were no hotels available. Or there was one smoking(!) room left for 1 person for $8,975. No kidding.

Flummoxed I texted a friend who has recently been to Japan, and she had an easy explanation, “It is Golden Week and the coronation of the New Emperor coming up on top of it. It is 10 days when the whole Japan has time off and everyone is traveling.” Oh, another great timing on our part! Start doing your homework, people!

When I told her about the weather forecast she responded, “Maybe pink blossoms and white snow will make for a beautiful picture!”

What a blessing to have friends who always see the cup half full.

And so we went. On a search. On an adventure. Reminding ourselves that truly it is the road, not the destination that matters.

And on this, at first quite cold, road we found all we hoped for and then some. For nearly the whole first week we had Japan to ourselves. We climbed up to lonely little wooden temples, and trespassed (shhh!) into some still closed off parks, cherishing every brave new cherry blossom. We warmed up in museums and galleries and in the we drank copious amounts of hot tea and had fun signing the guest book.We searched for sakura in alternate places and found them everywhere: on big gilded screens, on small handkerchiefs, even on apples,and Coke bottles. Then the day arrived with blue sky and glorious sun and warmer temperatures and we discarded our winter clothes and jumped on a train (thanks to the unlimited Rail Pass) and rode five hours to the town of Hakodate on the southern tip of Hokkaido, where 1600 old cherry trees just opened at full bloom. Planted around a star shaped fortress Goryokaku, of which only a moat remains, all the cherry trees, like beautiful blushing brides, were covered with a heavy white veil. I don’t know if it was our relentless effort or our bated breath anticipation, but finally seeing the spectacular sight and walking, bah, practically floating, underneath the white canopy of endless blossoms was an unforgettable moment of awe and fulfillment of a dream. For once we did not mind sharing it with about a million other people who came to enjoy the Nature’s Spring spectacle. Except for a few rowdy groups of people with kegs of beer, most of the spectators were chatting amiably or sitting quietly on blue tarps under the white canopy, enjoying their picnic lunches. Of course, if they were not busy strolling around, finding the perfect spot for a selfie. I was disappointed to not see a single person with a book of poems, as in the olden times it was a tradition to compose or at least read a poem while drinking a cup of sake under the blossoming sakura. I have been an admirer of Japanese haiku poetry of the greats like Basho, Buson and Issa. They knew how to catch the fleeting moments of short lived cherry blossoms with a few words and impressions like this Buson’s haiku:

Petals falling

unable to resist

the moonlight.

I was glad to see that a few young women dressed in elegant traditional kimonos and styled their raven hair. It was a very romantic notion seeing the striking patterns of cloth amongst the patterns and shadows of the blooms and branches. We caught our falling petals just a few days later when we crossed from Hokkaido to Honshu island and arrived in the town of Hirosaki, where the rain has scattered the blossoms of the first blossoming variety (amongst 200 wild and domesticated cherry trees in Japan). In fact the banks and the water of the moat around the castle looked like covered with freshly fallen snow. Luckily there are 2600 cherry trees at Hirosaki Park with over 50 different types of cherry trees including the classic simple Somei Yoshino cherry blossoms, Shidarezakura (Weeping Cherry), and Yaezakura (Double Layer Cherry) and many were still blooming happily. The basic classification of cherry blossoms is simple, there are only two groups. If they have 5 petals they are called single and if more than 5, then they are called double, even if some have up to 50 petals forming one fluffy blossom. We crossed over a cheery red bridge to reach the big tower, the most substantial remnants of the castle. The cascading pink weeping cherriesenhanced the rather simple architecture. It was really the trees that stole the show. Some were very old and majestic. There is a special spot in the garden, forming a hearth in the canopy,  attracting couples, especially newlyweds, that come to take their traditional wedding portraits. May their love blossom beautifully like the lovely sakura of Japan!

As for us, the Great Sakura Search brought us Moments of Awe, Bliss, and Small Delights. All there is left to say is: