Postcard from Sarajevo: In Parts

Bosnia and Herzegovina is one country made up of two geographic regions: Bosnia in the north and east, roughly; Herzegovina in the south and west.

But since the Dayton Accord that ended the Bosnian War in 1995, the country is also made up of three autonomous regions: the Republika Srpska — two swaths ringing three sides of the country which are the largely ethnic Serbian parts; the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the rest of the country consisting of the ethnically Croat and Muslim Bosniak parts; and the city and district of Brčko, which was unable to be negotiated at Dayton and was placed under an international supervisor.

Sarajevo, as the national capital, was always a multi-cultural city. However, since the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the wars of independence, it has become majority-Muslim or Bosniak.  The greatest reduction was in the Serbian population, which as a percentage of the city’s total population went down by almost two-thirds — presumably people leaving or forced to leave for Republika Srpska.

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Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Serbian Orthodox Church, Sarajevo

Nonetheless everything seems to get done in three parts representing the three historic ethnicities and religions — Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks.  The national government even has three presidents.

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Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral, Sarajevo

Our hotel, the Hotel President, is nearest the old Ottoman part of town; in the closet, along with the extra pillows and blankets, there is a prayer rug. I kept meaning to use it for my morning yoga stretches but kept forgetting it was there. My window looked out on the Abu Dhabi Hookah Lounge, which is popular with young people here — young men in black leather jackets and jeans and young women in tight jeans and heavy make-up.

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Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, Sarajevo

Asked by one of our group about her ethnicity, our young local guide demurred — she is a native of Bosnia and Herzegovina, she said. Later, when asked about ethnic tensions today, she minimized them — everyone gets along.  Our tour guide said they have to: they fought each other to the death, and nobody won, everybody lost.

Reminders of the 1,425-day Siege of Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serbs are all around. Many buildings are pocked from shells shot from the Serb tanks surrounding the city. Where there is a spot in the pavement where a shell hit and killed at least three people, the shell marks have been preserved and outlined in red — they call them Sarajevo Roses.

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Sarajevo Rose in Old Town

On our free day in Sarajevo, many of us visit the City Hall, which was formerly the National Library. Built by the Austro-Hungarians in the late 1890’s, it was destroyed by shelling in 1992, most of the national collection of historic manuscripts and texts lost. It was rebuilt to its former glory — and eclectic mix of fin-de-siecle Vienna and faux-Moorish Orientalism — and re-opened as the City Hall in 2014.

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City Hall, Sarajevo

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City Hall Interior

The Siege of Sarajevo was made very real to us when we visited the site of a tunnel that was dug from inside the besieged city, underneath the airport, which had been placed under the supervision of the United Nations to allow humanitarian flights such as medical evacuations. The other end of the tunnel was in territory just beyond the airport that was in the hands of the Bosnian National government that was fighting the Serbs.

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The house behind which the Sarajevo side of the tunnel was dug.

Of course, no visit to Sarajevo would be complete without a visit to a spot that was one block from our hotel — the corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie were assassinated by a 19-year old Bosnian Serb in 1914, who was part of a group advocating the unification of Bosnia with the Kingdom of Serbia. That assassination, and Austria-Hungary’s subsequent declaration of war on Serbia, is considered to be the start of the first World War.

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Corner at the foot of the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo where Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated (with a passing local boy giving me the thumbs-up.)

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Marble plaque at the spot of the assassination

We started our trip with bad weather in Belgrade in Serbia, and we ended it with rain and a plunge to near-freezing temperatures in Sarajevo.  On our last day, we had a wonderful lunch of filet mignon at an old house in a fashionable neighborhood in the foothills above the old town. As we were eating, it began to snow: big, wet flakes that stuck to the evergreens and the shrubbery, but disappeared the moment they hit the ground.

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Snow Falling in Sarajevo

 

 

Postcard from Bosnia and Herzogovina: Bridges

The very name of this country is made up of two parts bridged by a conjunction. Coming together and coming apart seem to be what this part of the world is all about.

Our entry into the country from Croatia was in parts. Driving up the Adriatic coast we left Croatia and passed into the Bosnian city of Neum. There was a passport check at the border.

But Neum only exists to give Bosnia access to the Adriatic Sea — for a stretch of 12 miles, to be exact. Then we exited Bosnia, and passed back into Croatia. There was a second passport check. Turning inland, we headed toward Bosnia and Herzogovina proper, crossing the border a third time. There was a final passport check.

Herzegovina is the southern part of the country, and sometime during the Middle Ages it was a duchy in its own right before being absorbed into Bosnia. Its regional borders are somewhat undefined, but Mostar, its regional capital, was our destination.

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Mostar on the Neretva

Mostar is on the Neretva River and was an important trading center back to the 15th century. From 1468 to 1878, Mostar was ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Their influence is to be found all over Mostar in architecture and culture. We visited an old home in the Turkish style that had belonged to a local family.

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Courtyard of the Old Turkish-Style Home

Coming out of the old home, we encountered what is unfortunately another common aspect of Mostar – residual damage from the Bosnian War of 1992-95.

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Building with Damage from Shelling, Mostar Old Town

Most means “bridge” in Serbo-Croatian, and the town’s name comes from mostari, meaning “bridge-keepers,” referring to those who guarded a bridge built over the Neretva by the Ottomans around 1557. It stood and was in use, joining the two sides of the town, until 1993 when Croat forces destroyed it during the war. They admitted it was done intentionally, claiming the bridge was of strategic importance. Others disagree about its strategic importance and claim it was purely an act of cultural destruction.

The bridge was reconstructed in 2004 and re-opened by Prince Charles of Great Britain, representing the international community that provided the funding. In late July, a tradition that dates back to the Ottoman era takes place in which young men jump from the bridge into the river below.

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Stari Most, the reconstructed Old Ottoman Bridge

There is another famous bridge over the Neretva, or rather “in” it. In a famous battle in World War II, when Tito was fighting the Axis powers with the local partisans, he blew up a rail bridge over the Neretva near Jablonica to make the enemy think the partisans were retreating.  For a 1969 Yugoslav film commemorating the battle (which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film), the bridge was reconstructed and then blown up in the filming. The wreck of the film bridge was left as a memorial to the battle and is an attraction today for tourists like us.

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The Wrecked Film Bridge in the Neretva

In the late afternoon, we pressed on toward Sarajevo, where we would hear and see a lot more about the falling apart of “bridges” that had been connecting peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina for centuries.

Postcard from Cavtat: Boats, Buses, Pizza and Prostitution

Our second day in Dubrovnik was at our leisure. Three options were suggested: a half-day boat trip to the nearby island of Lokrum, where there are ruins of a monastery and a nature preserve; a full-day boat trip to three other populated islands; or to ride a cable car to the peak above the city for a bird’s-eye view.

There was considerable weighing of pros and cons, perusing of weather apps, and waffling of decisions as to who would do what. In the end, I was the unofficial leader of the half-day boat trip. We bussed with the others down to the old port, which was the departure point for both boat trips. Our boat was moored at the dock. I was told someone would arrive in ten minutes to sell tickets.

Ten minutes later, someone arrived to say the morning boat trips were cancelled due to high winds and rough seas, and unlikely to resume for the rest of the day. The full-day three-island trip was still going; then it wasn’t; then it was, but with another outfit, leaving from a different port. One of our group, Carlos, had already chosen to go on his own by bus to the nearby town of Cavtat (pron. TZAHV-taht), and nine of us decided to join him where he was waiting for the Cavtat bus.

It wasn’t exactly clear where that was; something was said about a stop near the cable car. But logically, we made our way to the bus station just outside the city walls in Pile. Gil, who is extremely tall and likes to take charge of things, ascertained we should take a bus from the old city to the new port in Gruž, and get the #10 bus for Cavtat there.

We did, but no sign of Carlos. On the #10, we passed a stop at the foot of the cable car closer to the old port where we’d been, obviously where Carlos had also been. The confusion  notwithstanding, thirty minutes later we arrived at the small town of Cavtat, where Carlos was sitting in a café having a coffee.

 

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Cavtat on the Adriatic

 

After the requisite toilet stop, the ten of us split into two smaller groups. Gil, Ken, Ty, Norman and I walked along the waterfront, scouting restaurants for lunch later. We stopped in at the little church of Saint Nicholas.

 

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Church of Saint Nicholas, Cavtat

 

Back in Dubrovnik, we’d been told a story about Saint Nicholas that I’d never heard before. The man who became Saint Nicholas was a wealthy man. He had a neighbor with three daughters who was poor and couldn’t afford a dowry to marry them off, and who had forced the girls into prostitution as a means of supporting them. Nicholas took pity on them and wanted to help them anonymously. So one at a time, he tossed three gold balls down their chimney, which fell into the stockings they’d hung to dry by the fireplace. With the gold from the three balls, each was able to offer a dowry for marriage.

So if you see a picture of a bearded guy holding three gold balls in a Catholic church, you will know it’s Saint Nicholas. And now I know that those stocking stuffers I get at Christmas – lip balm, a thumb drive, an airplane bottle of Maker’s Mark – are saving me from a life of prostitution.

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Easter flowers on the altar, Saint Nicholas Church, Cavtat

There was a panoramic walkway around a wooded peninsula. After crowded Dubrovnik, Cavtat was quiet and peaceful. The sun had come out, and at every turn there was a terrific view. By the bent trunks along the shoreline, you could tell that the winds were always strong here.

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A tree bent from the wind, Cavtat

 

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Shore walk, Cavtat

 

We circled back to town and had a nice pizza lunch in front of the harbor. After a stop for gelato, we returned to the bus stop and caught the #10 back to Dubrovnik. This time we got off near the cable car, walked down to Pile, and caught a #3A bus that dropped us off right at our hotel.

 

Postcard from Dubrovnik: Within Walls

The Old City of Dubrovnik sits on a peninsula, some of it reclaimed from the sea centuries ago, which creates a natural harbor on the Adriatic. It’s the southern tip of a narrow strip of coastline that belongs to Croatia. The modern part of the city surrounds the peninsula and climbs the steep surrounding hills, as does the eastern edge of the Old City itself.

 

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Old City, Dubrovnik

 

 

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Sidestreet, Old City, Dubrovnik

 

We began our tour as most tourists do, passing through the Pile Gate. Lovrijenac Fort perches dramatically above the sea just outside the gate.

 

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Fort Lovrijenac, Old City, Dubrovnik

 

Many have called Dubrovnik “The Jewel of the Adriatic,” because it is a gem of a city. Long part of the Venetian empire, it’s reminiscent of Venice – minus the canals and with more space. But like Venice, the Old City is an open-air museum and tourist attraction: only about a thousand local people still live within the city walls.

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Placa, the main street in the Old City, Dubrovnik

 

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Tourists on Placa, Old City, Dubrovnik

That said, it’s a beautiful city and delightful to explore despite the crowds. We began our tour at Big Onofrio’s Fountain, built in the 15th century and still a source of fresh water, now mostly for tourists refilling their water bottles from one of the many taps.

 

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Big Onofrio’s Fountain, Old City, Dubrovnik

After a thorough orientation by a local guide, we were given free time to wander on our own. In the Roman Catholic Assumption Cathedral, I peeked inside the priests’ vestry, where two nuns were folding altar cloths.

 

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Vestry of Assumption Cathedral, Old City, Dubrovnik

 

Outside, at Little Onofrio’s Fountain, a blind cat napped at the fountain’s edge.

 

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Blind cat at Little Onofrio’s Fountain, Old City, Dubrovnik

 

Our local guide Timea gave a moving description of three years’ spent living within the Old City as a child during the siege of Dubrovnik by the Serb-controlled Yugoslav army during the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early ‘90s. At the entrance to the city, there’s a map pinpointing the places hit by shells and bombs and indicating the extent of the damage at each place; there are probably a couple hundred marks. In the Franciscan Monastery we saw where a shell passed through a wall and struck the wall opposite. The shell holes are preserved behind lucite. There’s a small museum and memorial to “The Defenders of Dubrovnik” – those who lost their lives during the siege.

 

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Some of the “Defenders of Dubrovnik” with Croatian flag

 

Following our free time, we had a seafood lunch in the old port, after which Gil and Ken and I decided to climb the Old City walls, which you can do for a fee of about $20 in local currency. The sun came out, and we made a complete circuit of the city, catching fantastic views out to the sea and over the old city itself, including a voyeur’s view of everyday life going on within the walls.

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City Walls, Old City, Dubrovnik

 

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Fort Lovrijenac from the city walls, Old City, Dubrovnik

 

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Boys showing off their Michael Jordan moves, Old City, Dubrovnik

 

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The Old City and Lokrum Island beyond, from atop the City Walls

 

 

 

Postcard from Montenegro: On the Rocks

My plot to seize control of the Toto Tours empire was foiled by Dan Ware’s complete recovery from his fall. He emerged at breakfast in the pink, if still slightly bruised, and bursting with energy. Next time, I will have to push him harder.

We had the luxury of a late departure and headed back to Kotor where we were to have lunch.  We drove above the city to get a panoramic view of the bay before descending to the restaurant in town.

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Beautiful Kotor Bay

After an exceptionally good meal of penne with a lamb ragù, we followed the coastline  until we reached the charming town of Perast, which occupies a tiny stretch of land at the water’s edge and climbs the steep hills behind it.

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Perast, Montenegro

Perast would have been a lovely place to sit in a café having a coffee in the afternoon sun, but that’s not the reason we stopped there.  There are two small islands just offshore.  One of them is the island of Saint George, where there is a 12th-century church.  But our destination was the other island — Our Lady of the Rocks.

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Our Lady of the Rocks in the Bay of Kotor off Perast

Music was playing on the small open boat that carried us to the island, the sun was out, and we were all in a festive mood. I caught the attention of our Mexican contingent when I snapped a photo of the group.

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Hector, Laura and Rafael on the boat to Our Lady of the Rocks

Our Lady of the Rocks is the only artificially-built island in the Adriatic. Legend has it that in 1452, when Perast was part of the Venetian Republic, two Venetian sailors found a picture of the Madonna and Child on a rock. Some say they were caught in a storm, but made it back to land after finding the picture. No one had any idea where the painting came from or how it had come to rest on this rock protruding from the water.

Either in thanks for the sailors’ safe landing, or having taken the finding of the painting as a sign of divine intention, the people of Perast began piling rocks around the original rocks and sinking old shipwrecks filled with rocks around it, until an island large enough to hold a church had been made. The painting that was found now sits on the altar of the church that was built.

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Altar of the Church of Our Lady of the Rocks with painting of Madonna and Child

There’s a small museum attached to the Church with ex-votos, gifts of thanks or supplications to the Virgin.  The most famous is a small embroidered tapestry of the image of the Madonna and Child made by Jacinta Kunić-Mijović from Perast over a period of twenty-five years.  Legend has it she embroidered it while waiting for her husband, who was a sailor, to return from a long journey. She used gold, silver and damask threads for the embroidery.  But for the hair of the Virgin and the Christ Child and that of the angels with which she surrounded them, she used her own hair — brown in the beginning, but gray toward the end of her task, from which she went blind.

No one knows whether her husband ever returned. Some say yes, and the embroidery was a gift of thanks; others say no, and the story is a tragedy. You can decide for yourself and have it end however you want. I’ll end with a picture of the modern-day sailor who accompanied us on the boat trip to and from the island, with the flag of Montenegro flying at the prow.

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Postcard from Montenegro: Conquering Kotor

Today we made an excursion to the coastal city of Kotor, about an hour’s drive from Budva.  Kotor sits at the head of Kotor Bay, a fjord-like indentation of the Adriatic.  It has been settled since ancient Roman times.  Given its significance as a protected port, it’s been alternately in the hands of Illyrians, the Roman empire, the Byzantine empire, the First Bulgarian empire, a Hungarian king, the Venetian Republic, the Habsburg monarchy, the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, a Russian squadron, the French, the British, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Yugoslavia, and today Montenegro. It probably makes more sense to list who hasn’t conquered Kotor. But the fortified old town that is Kotor’s main tourist attraction is largely the work of the Venetians.

Venetian Lion on the walls of Kotor

Dan, who was resting back in Budva after his fall, offered this trip as an optional excursion, citing spectacular views of the bay from the top of the fortifications, which one could climb by way of stairs.  With only one exception, we had all decided to go.  Rain was forecast for the afternoon, so our guide Branko and I decided it would be best to make the climb first, have a tour of the old city afterwards, and then go to our scheduled lunch in the modern part of town.

Main gate and entrance to the old walled city

We wended our way through the narrow twisting streets, which would suddenly open into a wide plaza with restaurants and boutiques and a view of the ramparts on the hill above us which we intended to climb.

A typical square in old Kotor

The hill which we would climb behind the old town

When we reached the beginning of the stairs, a number of us took one look and said, I think I’ll explore the lovely old town instead. I was among them. A few tried the first little bit, but only four chose to soldier on for as much as they could. We’ll return to them later.

The intrepid try the first few stairs up to the ramparts

The rest of us wandered around town following alleys, looking at the shops, hunting for souvenirs, and just enjoying the beautiful old city.

Remains of an old bridge outside the Venetian walls

We all met after an hour and a half, climbers and wanderers both, for a guided tour by Branko.  One of the highlights was the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, a Roman Catholic church consecrated in 1166 and damaged but rebuilt after earthquakes and most recently a fire. While laid out in cruciform like most Christian cathedrals, it shows Orthodox influence in the frescoes inside the arches and the silver screen behind the altar.

Interior of Cathedral of Saint Tryphon

I thought of poor Dan with his bruised leg, when I saw this sculpture in a chapel of the cathedral.

A saint pointing out his wound

Upstairs a small museum of items from the cathedral’s treasury included the usual relics of saints, but also some of the art treasures damaged in the fire. While we were touring the museum, there was a surprise visit by a newly appointed prelate.

His Holiness Pope Norman I in the cathedral museum

After our tour of the city, we had the second most wonderful meal of the tour so far at the Caffe del Mare, although we were not served seafood as the name might suggest.  Instead we had a delicious beef soup, followed by a filet stuffed with prosciutto and cheese with roast potatoes, and a surprisingly light banana creme cake.  Just as we were finishing, the heavens opened up with the forecasted rain.  It came down in torrents, and the kind (not to mention handsome) owner of the Caffe drove us in turns in his van to the main street where our bus awaited us.

Some of our crew at the Caffe del Mare

I promised a return to the daring few who chose to climb the ramparts, and here is Rich Dalton, all the way at the top and only a little worse for the wear, posing triumphantly with the Montenegrin flag, overlooking the gorgeous Bay of Kotor. All hail to conquering heroes!

Triumphant above Kotor Bay
photo courtesy Rich Dalton and some tourist he got to snap it

Postcard from Montenegro: You Might Meet a Sailor

When we left Kolašin (COLA-shin), it was only 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but at least the sun was shining. We took a group photo on a lawn covered with snow, and Hector from Mexico made his very first snow angel.  More than one snowball was thrown.

The views were stunning coming down from the mountains to the Morača (MORE-ah-chah) River.

Morača River

Mountains above the Morača

We visited the Morača Monastery which was built in 1252. It had escaped the damage we saw at Sopoćani Monastery, where the frescoes had faded considerably from moisture and exposure. Here the colors were deep and rich. Photos forbidden, sorry. I would have liked to capture not only the frescoes, but the shriveled relic hand of some saint that was in a glass box just below the altar screen.  I have a morbid fascination for the relics of saints — a finger here, a splinter of bone there, a lock of hair or the occasional fingernail, but seldom a whole hand!

Morača Monastery

No one attacked us about bombarding their country.  Perhaps it was because there was no need to, as NATO didn’t bomb Montenegro. Even so, there was a spirit of tranquility and peacefulness about the place, evident even among the livestock.

Enemies lie down together in friendship at Morača Monastery

Driving west toward the Adriatic Coast, we had lunch at a little restaurant on the shore of Lake Skadar which borders Montenegro and Albania. We were served a delicious fish soup (and I don’t like fish all that much!) and fried carp fresh from the lake.

After lunch, it was a short drive to the Adriatic where we would spend the night in Budva.  We stopped for a photo op at Saint Stefan Island — an exclusive getaway catering to the rich and famous. On the first telling, we learned that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton honeymooned there.  The second time around it was also Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.  Later, the Kennedy’s were mentioned, Marilyn Monroe and maybe Reagan.  Credibility began to feel stretched.

Exclusive Saint Stefan Island in Budva (is that Jared and Ivanka I see?)

All joking aside, Toto’s fearless leader and celebrity tour host Dan Ware, tripped on something and fell backward, hitting his lower back and the back of his head on a guard rail. After a dazed moment or two, he was up and moving with no apparent serious injury. His camera was retrieved from the bushes below with a long-handled squeegee used to clean the bus. As of this writing, he’s been resting well at our hotel in Budva. Having hosted thirteen tours in Dan’s stead over the past eleven years, I’ve stepped in as acting tour host while he recovers.

We arrived in Budva late in the day and took a walk in the old town. It’s a charming seaside resort town. Many European students are on spring break still, and they were hanging out on the rocky beaches, although it was too chilly for sunning or a swim.

Beach in the Old Town at Budva

There is a strong Venetian influence along the Adriatic coast. The old town is very well-preserved with narrow winding streets opening onto plazas where people take coffee on the terraces of the restaurants.  Indeed, the town felt much like Venice without the canals, and a bit like any town oriented to the sea — the kind of place where if you’re lucky, you might meet a handsome sailor from a strange, faraway land.

Church of the Holy Trinity, Budva