Balkan Road Trip: Part 1

It’s been a busy few weeks here in Moscow. Just before I flew back, I learned that I would be taking on the high school art position full time, giving me five new classes to plan and students I hadn’t seen since their Grade 7 year. We’re two weeks in and I’m really enjoying being back at the high school level. The kids are really dedicated and it’s just fun seeing them take to new techniques and medium so quickly. It’s also a trip to see how they’ve changed (or haven’t) three years on…

I wanted to share the beginning of my road trip story, the portion from Split, Croatia to Mostar, Bosnia. The natural beauty of the region and the warmth of the people is what sits at the forefront of my memories. I can’t wait to go back.

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It’s been nearly a year since my friends Sarah and Ryan first suggested this road trip, as they were headed to a wedding in Sarajavo. I was curious what Split had to offer and have always wanted to see Sarajevo. So when school let out at the end of June, I hopped a flight from Moscow to Split. For the better part of a decade, Croatia has been Europe’s hotspot for international tourists. Separated from Italy by the relatively small Adriatic Sea, the country is known for it’s seafood, cliffside vineyards, and as a filming destination for many episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

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Our first stop was Diocletian’s Palace, the 4th century retirement home of the Roman emperor. He only lived in the completed palace for a handful of years but the walls and ruins are still very much the center of Old Town Split. We visited the site during the day but also at night, looking to escape the scorching heatwave moving across Europe.

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The warm light on the walls glows against the blue suede night sky.
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An oculus inside the compound. Archers would rain arrows down upon invaders trapped in this atrium.
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Night markets abound, featuring both groceries and souvenirs. Gelato was a staple of our wanderings!

Croatia’s seashore is famous the world over for it’s gorgeous turquoise water. Not far from our rented apartment was a nature reserve with a public beach open to all.

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Sarah and I beating the heat – the water really is that turquoise!

We toured the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, stopping for gelato both morning and night.

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This little one, only two, held up extremely well despite the heat and change of pace! She was a champ from start to finish.

The boardwalk in Split has a French Riviera look to it. While Diocletian’s Palace (seen in the background) once marked the waterline, the shore is now a large marina, serving both yachts and ferries, the latter of which take off for a number of coastal islands nearly every hour.

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We hopped one of those ferries for a day trip to Hvar, a popular tourist town with a fort to climb and delicious seafood to enjoy. We swam off the rocks in the harbor, again attempting to beat the heat. Hvar had some quaint side streets and, once you escaped the tourist paths, proved charming and picturesque.

Renting a car, we headed out to Mostar, planning to take our time along the way. My friend Sarah had done a wonderful job breaking up the journey to keep everyone, including the two year old, ocupado.

Klis was our first stop, just 8km outside of Split itself. Perched among the cliffs, this lookout castle dates back to the 10th century, with vertical drops enough to make your knees weak.

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A massive highlight of the trip for me were the Kravice Waterfalls, just over the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Stunningly beautiful and super refreshing as the temps were over 100 degrees that day. As we walked down the stone path to the falls, we could feel the mist cooling our legs.

 

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We rolled into Mostar in the late afternoon and it was immediately evident that we were in a different country. From the minarets dotting the skyline to the guy we paid to watch our car, it was clear we were not in Croatia anymore.

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Our guesthouse was just to the right of this yellow building, giving us an ace breakfast perch to watch the traffic on the famed Ottoman bridge.
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Parts of Mostar seemed right out of the 1980s; browns and dusty marigolds dotted the streets.
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Beautiful family ❤ Ryan, Isabella, and Sarah in Mostar, June 2019.
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Old Town Mostar was charming but slightly challenging to navigate thanks to the smooth stone walkways, well-trodden by the many visitors who had come before.

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Neither the food nor the view could be beat at our restaurant along the river. The cool of the water through the ravine was also a plus, granting us reprieve from the heat as the shadows grew long.

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This sign in English reminds visitors of the terrible atrocities suffered by the people of Mostar during the war. Mostar’s facades are also pockmarked by bullet holes and many buildings lie in relative ruin, with plants and trees sprouting where walls once stood.

As night fell, we heard the muezzin call echo across the banks of the river. Sitting out on the guesthouse balcony, we watched the lights pop on like fireflies dancing on the riverside.

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Our one night in Mostar was plenty of time to enjoy a delicious meal, peruse the market stalls, and break up the journey. After a good night’s sleep, we packed up and made tracks for Sarajevo along the most beautiful stretch of highway I can recall…

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To finish the story of this journey, find Part 2 here.

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Balkan Road Trip: Part 2

When I was a little girl, I read a book written by a 10 year old girl from Sarajevo. Her name was Zlata and her diary painted an incredible picture of the lead up to and the majority of the Bosnian conflict, as the US has come to call it. Zlata’s astute observations shocked me, tore me out of my comfortable life in a Boston suburb and placed me directly in the middle of the siege of Sarajevo. She could have been my pen pal (remember when pen pals were a thing?) – only 5 years older and horribly wiser.

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Streets of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

While in Aberdeen in April, I reread Zlata’s Diary, diving back into the siege. Zlata – incredulous at the start, watching as her land of country homes and ski vacations devolved into madness – a weathered veteran by the time a French reporter managed to extricate her family only three years later.

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As a result, Sarajevo has always been somewhere I knew I needed to see. I’d follow news reports, many emphasizing the damage to the 1984 Olympic stadium, defunct and damaged less than a decade later. So when my good friends from home mentioned they had a wedding to attend in Sarajevo, we hatched a plan to travel there together.

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A few years back I had heard tell of a thriving music and arts scene from two educators I had met in Helsinki. Sarajevo natives, they implored me to visit and see just how far the city had come. When we first spoke, I assumed they had escaped the city during the siege but this was not the case.

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Nearly 14,000 people lost their lives during the Siege of Sarajevo. Notable for the insane amount of time it lasted (1,425 days), the siege was nearly a year longer than Russia’s horrendous Siege of Leningrad (today St. Petersburg). The break up of Yugoslavia was bloody and violent, pitting neighbor against neighbor. Half a million people were living in Sarajevo alone at the start of the war. Today the population is half that.

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Ottoman ruins among the shopping plazas in Old Town Sarajevo

Driving into town, I expected to see a town still ravaged by war. The physical evidence of the conflict was still visible in parts of the town – seemingly random bullet holes pockmarked nearly every historic facade. I later discovered the main street we’d taken in from Mostar lead us in through Sniper Alley.

Sarajevo, a once glorious city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, has a tumultuous past. I stood on the Latin Bridge, the site of Arch Duke Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914, the event that ignited World War I. The tiny Ottoman bridge hardly belies its reputation.

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Likewise, the eternal flame downtown denotes not the 1984 Olympics but the victims of the Second World War, during which saw Sarajevo occupied by the Nazis and the fascist Independent State of Croatia.

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Beauty and softness are often found in places who have seen such terrible tragedy. Roses adorn the tree-lined streets. The unique architecture of Sarajevo – a place where Moorish (Spain) meets Islamic – is feast for the eyes. Unlike the Socialist industrial style apartment buildings which circle the town, the Old Town consists of one-story wooden buildings and dotted with mosques.

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Bosnia and Herzegovina is a melting pot of religions. The people of Sarajevo are predominantly Muslim (85%) but mosques sit elbow to elbow with Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic churches. Bosniaks are generally associated with Islam, Bosnian Croats with the Roman Catholic Church, and Bosnian Serbs with the Serbian Orthodox Church (source). There is also a Jewish population. From this population, the Sarajevo Haggadah came to national recognition.

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The haggadah and the story behind it are both stunning.

A Jewish book of illuminated manuscripts – think the Book of Kells for the Old Testament – the haggadah was created in Spain and brought to Sarajevo sometime after the 1600s. Featuring pigments of lapiz and gold leaf, the text is absolutely gorgeous. I had the opportunity to visit the haggadah at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina on a tour organized by the bride’s mother. Incredibly, it survived the Nazi occupation, protected by the quick thinking of the museum’s librarian, who gave it to a peasant family living on his land outside of town who hid it under their floorboards.

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It bears saying that during the Bosnian War, the museum staff worked nearly four years without pay, making their way across Sniper Alley almost daily to preserve the treasures of their culture.
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Svrzo’s House, Sarajevo

On the same tour, we had the chance to visit Svrzo’s House, an Ottoman era home in Sarajevo owned by a Muslim family. The home featured areas known as haremlik (private area) and selamlik (public area), prevalent in upper-class family homes of the time. Stunningly beautiful textiles and rugs covered the rooms. I spotted a stove very similar to those in the Catherine Palace of St. Petersburg. The concave bowls provide more surface area with which to heat the room.

Possibly the coolest thing I did in Sarajevo was book a street art and graffiti tour through Sarajevo Funky Tours. I ended up with a private guide and driver who showed me around town for nearly four hours! Vanja, an art student turned illustrator, took me to all her favorite murals. Hearing the history from her point of view was fantastically interesting.

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As a child, she experienced the war from an industrial town nearly an hour outside of Sarajevo. Very few people she grew up with are able to make a living in Sarajevo. In fact, she told me that there is an extremely high rate (80%!) of unemployed college graduates under the age of 30. College may be affordable but intellectual employment is hard to find. For a population whose parents worked the same Socialist-provided jobs their entire lives, the options are not satisfying.

We capped off the tour at the Olympic bobsled park, high in the hills atop the town. A beautiful canvas for graffiti artists, the hills once provided shelter for snipers who carried out their reign of terror upon the town below. We even got to spray on the wall at the end.

My time in Sarajevo was far too brief. With wedding activities (ie. delicious local meals in gorgeous locations) and a plane back to Boston I couldn’t see as much of the cultural underground as I’d hoped. But the trip has left me wanting more and resigned to return soon. This jewel of the Balkans has it’s hooks in me.

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Moscow Visitors

I feel so lucky to have had visitors during my three years in Moscow. There’s nothing better than showing people you love around your new town. I continue to explore Moscow and having visitors is an awesome excuse to get to all those places I’ve put off or haven’t seen in a while.

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In March, my good friend Katie came for a visit. I’m sure her vacation destination was a bit of surprise to her fellow teachers but she made an amazing effort of it, traveling all the way from Minnesota on her spring break. A strong solo traveler, she took in Moscow while I worked and even trekked to St. Petersburg on her own. For those wondering, seeing both cities is definitely doable within a week.

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A Moscow Metro rite of passage for good luck at Площадь Революции (Ploshchad Revolyutsii)

Highlights of Katie’s visit included a brunch at the Metropol Hotel, touring the Kremlin Armory, and a Georgian feast (see below).

Just a few weeks ago, I hosted my aunt Susan for her first ever visit to Russia. Suz is a wonderful person to travel with and we planned her visit over the Victory Day holidays to get in a little extra time together.

When I was living in Korea, Suz gamely hopped a plane and visited me in Seoul. We went to China together, putting in thousands of steps all over Beijing and Xian. There really is nothing like sharing an incredible trip with someone you love and I’m so thankful to have family who are up for it!

Suz and I on a canal in St. Petersburg

We hopped the SapSan fast train up to St. Petersburg for what’s become a bit of a May tradition for me. We traveled on Victory Day which brought a few road closures but no major issues. The coolest, most powerful sight upon arrival was the Parade of the Immortals, commemorating the over 27 million (MILLION) Soviet soldiers and citizens lost in the Great War (World War II). St. Petersburg itself (as Leningrad) was under siege for over 900 days, the horrendous losses reverberating through the crowd carrying photographs of their loved ones lost. This is not a nation that will ever forget.

The Parade of the Immortals. Participants themselves number in the millions.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg
Suz in the Winter Palace, Hermitage Museum

One of the highlights of our trip was seeing my first ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg’s famed ballet stage. Only slightly smaller in size than the Bolshoi, the venue was stunningly gorgeous with supremely gifted dancers and magnificent stage sets. Made for the perfect birthday present – all thanks to my dad.

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Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg

Another highlight from our St. Petersburg was a trip to Catherine Palace, a spot about 30 km outside of town. A summer palace for the tsars, the place is dripping in gold and excess. Each room is more stunning than the last – there is even a grand ballroom which evokes vibes of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

With the solstice quickly approaching, white nights are coming to St. Pete’s

Back in Moscow, we toured around as much as my school schedule would allow. Something new in the travelsphere is Airbnb Experiences. Many of you may use Airbnb rentals in cities around the world. The website now offers additional experiences at a fraction of the cost of private tours. I found Suz a walking tour of the Kremlin area of Moscow and she had a really nice time with her local Russian guide, Sveta. They traded stories and questions about culture, both in the States and here. I really can’t recommend a chance like this enough, especially for the opportunity to meet someone local. Call it next-level traveling but it truly enriches the experience.

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Suz picked the perfect time of year to be in Moscow – not too hot but no more snow!

As I look forward to two more years here in Moscow, consider this an open invitation! This city is constantly evolving and updating, and certainly has a past worthy of any history buff’s time. You never know – you might wake up to find this goober waiting to greet you 😉

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NuArt Aberdeen

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A couple of weeks ago I jetted off to Scotland for some professional development. My school is incredibly supportive when it comes to continuing our learning and I couldn’t appreciate it more. In the fall, I joined a ragtag bunch of a dozen art teachers stationed throughout Europe. When we met up in Luxembourg, we traded lesson ideas and did some place-based learning, taking in the city and making it our studio. Rubbings, painting sessions, and street sticker grabs fill my journal from that weekend.

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Jeane (Norway) and Nicolina (Aberdeen)

This time, the group met up in Aberdeen, Scotland, for the kick-off weekend of the NuArt Aberdeen Festival. In the weeks prior, street artists the world over had descended upon this industrial northern Scottish town to make their mark. Throughout the weekend, I had the chance to see many of them speak on a number of topics from elderly engagement in the arts to tagging to contemporary outdoor museums.

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The glorious Easter weather was well worth the travel. The granite architecture in Aberdeen means the town is spared the dusted look of Edinburgh, where softer stone is prolific. But this graveyard was straight up as mossy as the picture turned out.

Only three years young, NuArt Aberdeen blossomed out of the annual NuArt Festival in Stavanger, Norway. Another industrial city on the sea, Stavanger has been host to this street art festival since 2001. Aberdeen invests substantial funds to entice top name street artists to their city by the sea. The festival has made Aberdeen a bit of a street art Mecca. The official map of murals and paintings number just over 30 but there must be dozens more by lesser known artists.

Another art teacher and I set out to visit the works like a scavenger hunt and it took nearly two days and I still missed quite a few. I got to know the work of HUSH, Dotmaster, Jan Vormann, and Evol, to name a few. To hear more about these murals and the artists who created them, check this out.

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This mural, perhaps my favorite, was created by Portuguese artist Add Fuel, a name I found pretty apropos considering Aberdeen’s place in the oil industry.
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In front of the work of Helen Bur on Greyfriars House, Gallowgate

On the day I was departing Moscow, I was eating breakfast in the cafeteria with a number of Scottish colleagues. Upon mentioning I was flying to Aberdeen that evening, one of them mentioned the new V&A outpost which had opened in Dundee (if you’re not familiar, the Victoria & Albert Museum is an extremely revered museum in London). Excited not to waste such an opportunity, I hopped a train my first morning in Aberdeen and rode it an hour south to Dundee.

The ride itself was gorgeous, beginning alongside the frigid waters of the North Sea and bobbing in and out of farmland dressed with stone walls. The museum proved impressive in range, hosting a “best of Scottish design” show alongside a show on video games and digital literacy in the age of e-sports (a term I’ve only encountered recently from my students).

Back in Aberdeen, our group spent time at the International School Aberdeen, a lush campus about 15 minutes from downtown featuring modern architecture and top rate educational tools. I can understand why the overseas faculty never leave!

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One of the coolest things about my time in Aberdeen was the chance to see one of the huge murals come to life. SMUG’s mural on The Green was sweet enough but thanks to our local chapter member, we had dinner in a cabin in the middle of it all, watching the whole process go down.

Aberdeen proved a charming little town. A little rough around the edges, it’s burgeoning art scene is boosted by start ups like Peacock Visual Arts, a small gallery and extensive print studio. With spots like Books and Beans (which I frequented daily for breakfast), there’s a lot to love about downtown.

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With local pubs like Ma Cameron’s (obvi partial) and BrewDog, there are pints for the taking.

 

Though the festival events weren’t overly attended, the seven of us ate it up. Reinvigorated, I returned to my classroom ready to take on our next printmaking unit – protest posters – and put the inspiration and stencil skills to good use. Up next, I’m awaiting my aunt’s arrival in Moscow tomorrow. A trip to St. Pete’s is planned as well as the promise of more local Moscow sights to share with all of you.

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This about sums up the weekend. Hoppy Easter! Great crew – Petr (Prague), Nicolina, and Ryan (Zurich).

The pearl by the sea

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Dubrovnik is a gem perched on the southern-most tip of Croatia. Known for its fortressed walls, delicious seafood, and charming stairways, the town quickly engulfed us with its charm and hospitality.

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The Old Town stone walls, built in the Middle Ages, tower up to 82 feet in some places and are a great point of pride for Croatians — no marauding outsiders have ever successfully invaded them. We spent a grey morning walking the walls, with the cloudy sky over the ocean only adding to the mystic.

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Katie shooting for her portfolio as a Target influencer
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A guard post along the walls

Dubrovnik’s rocky coastline is so stunning that is has been adopted by HBO’s Game of Thrones. For the CGI-heavy series, Dubrovnik’s beauty is truly the stuff of fairytales.

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We climbed up to the Lovrijenac Fortress, as seen here from the Old Town wall, taking stairs from Pile Beach in the cove below.
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A Game of Thrones filming location, as seen from the walls of Old Town

Dubrovnik falls within a region of Croatia known as Dalmatia, which also includes a portion of the Bay of Kotor, which you may remember from my Montenegro post. Fun fact: the Dalmatian dog originated here.

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The region was once under the control of France, greedy for its natural resources and ports along the Adriatic Sea. Croatia did not declare independence until 1991, making it fairly young country.

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Croatia saw terrible war throughout the 1990s as Yugoslavia unraveled. Croatia was one of 6 republics of Yugoslavia which included Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. The Siege of Dubrovnik was a particularly awful period, taking place over 7 months beginning in the fall of 1991. Residents of Old Town faced terrible conditions as there was a communication blackout and supplies were extremely scarce. By Dec 1991, 19,000 people had been evacuated from the port of Dubrovnik with the help of ships flying the UNICEF flag.

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As we walked the Old Town wall, it was truly inconceivable to think of 3000+ mortars raining down upon the terracotta roof tiles.

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You can see which buildings were damaged based on the age of the tiles.

Katie and I did a lot of research about the war while in Montenegro and Croatia. What seems clear is that the conflict was not black and white. ESPN’s 30 for 30 episode entitled  “Once Brothers” offers a heartbreaking take on the fallout of the war through the eyes of Vlade Divac, the former NBA player and Olympic medalist. As the episode points out, “war crimes were committed on both sides”. Many different interests with no clear winner.

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Our courtyard within the Old Town walls

Know as the Pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik has a lot to offer, especially in April before the cruise ships have begun to come into port. Highlights included a cathedral with a Titian triptych on the alter, hot burek from the bakery, and delicious Croatian wine.

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burek: spinach and cheese deliciousness
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A wine-tasting at Skaramuca

The rocky soil of the region, combined with the reflection off the rocks and water, mean the grapes get 3x the amount of sun as your average vineyard. With all the delicious seafood, I enjoyed the white posip.

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With many places to choose from in Old Town, the Pubo Dubrovnik proved our favorite.

We also took a day trip to Lokrum, known as the Emerald Island. Just a 10 minute ferry ride from Old Town, Lokrum is good for quick trip and a walk around the island. This was certainly a nice way to escape the tour bus crowd.

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A Lokrum Island resident

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For Game of Thrones fans, I snapped this epic pic at an exhibition about the filming of the series in the region

Travel Tips:

If you take the bus from Tivat or Kotor to Dubrovnik, anticipate nearly an hour extra for border control. Croatia being an EU country only exacerbates the wait. On the return, you sail through relatively unimpeded. 4 hours from Tivat to Dubrovnik’s Port Bus Terminal; just 3 hours from the Port to Tivat. 45 gorgeous miles. This is Tivat’s bus terminal – by the way – please ignore what Google Maps tells you. About 18€ each way. Euros are sometimes taken in Dubrovnik but the Croatian kuna (HRK) is preferred.

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Those black hills

Hello, everyone. Just back from my spring break trip to Montenegro and Croatia, two gorgeous countries, both formerly part of Yugoslavia. The trip fell upon me by happenstance – my friend wanted to see Dubrovnik and no matter how we sliced it, we couldn’t get there without 7+ hours of driving or connecting flights. These days my patience for airplane connections is rather low, especially when it comes to a break from school. Thankfully, Katie had the presence of mind to look at a map of the region… and we were off to Tivat, Montenegro!

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Never seen the sky quite so cerulean blue – the Bay of Kotor

We were elated to touchdown at little Tivat Airport to sunny skies and 70F weather. Though this glorious weather didn’t last all week, it certainly cemented our appreciation for the gorgeous fjord that is the Bay of Kotor. This tiny country, half the size of Wales, packs a stunning aesthetic punch.

A few things to know before you go – Montenegro means “black mountain”. This ruggedly handsome country is a combination of deep water and soaring sky, with jagged mountain ridges uniting the two. Wedged in between Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania, Montenegro is one of the world’s youngest countries, born in 2006 (only senior to Kosovo and South Sudan). The majority of the population is Orthodox Christian, which played a role in the regional factions that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

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A fjord is a narrow surrounded by steep sides or cliffs created by a glacier which came in from the ocean.

As we drove along the fjord, orange trees and wisteria dotted the waterfront properties. Mountain streams came crashing into the fjord, producing churning water that could surely be harnessed for natural power. Rocky crags jutted out over the single lane highways, hemmed in only by flimsy-looking netting.

All visitors to Montenegro have 24 hours to register with the police. If you stay at a hotel or Airbnb, your host will often do this for you. Euros are the currency here, though it is not an EU country. It is, however, a travel destination for Russians as no visa is required here. The same is true for Americans.

We began our stay at the Boutique Hotel Casa del Mare Aurora, a hidden gem that I cannot recommend highly enough. Another accidental finding, this spot proved perfect for two teachers to unwind and acquaint ourselves with local customs.

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Doesn’t take long to defrost after a Russian winter!

The hotel featured a gorgeous deck over the water where locals and hotel guests would congregate each afternoon. Whether we fancied an Aperol spritz or a glass of Vranac (the delicious local specialty of a Cabernet Sauvignon and a rich, dark-berried Syrah), the sommelier had us covered. Definitely the best hotel breakfast buffet I’ve ever encountered, and the kindest staff to boot.

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Vacation official

Looking to explore (and find an ATM), we made our way to Perast, a town along the Bay of Kotor featuring stunning views and two churches on man-made islands just off-shore.

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The lake looked as smooth as an oil painting
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Sister cats in Perast on a casual Sunday morning

After a few days of rest, we ventured into Kotor, an ancient town which was ruled by both the Byzantines and Venetians at one point throughout history. Dating back to 300BC, the red-roof city charms many a cruise-ship visitor (ships do dock here regularly).

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The view from our hotel balcony
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Old Town has its charms once you escape the tourist shops

From the road, the medieval walls of Old Town hide the adorable town within, and the cliffs above the city do well to mask the church and fortress which cast a watchful eye over the little town.

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We walked the 700 steps up to the Church of Our Lady of Remedy. We opted not to climb all 1500 steps as it was beginning to mist and the steps were slippery!

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Exploring more of the local area, we first drove down to Budva and then inland to the edge of Lovcen National Park. Having opted for digital-free navigation, we noticed a road sign indicating Kotor was accessible without retracing our steps. Little did we know we would end up on the Serpentine Road!

We began at 880m above sea level (that’s 2,200 feet or a half mile).  Down and down the switchbacks I drove, encountering few cars (thankfully) but a horse and multiple cattle along the way. The views were extraordinary, like walking on the wing of an airplane.

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Mountains beyond mountains

Renting a car was pivotal for exploring Montenegro but we opted to take a bus to Dubrovnik, knowing that the majority of the ride would be spent traversing the circumference of the Bay of Kotor. We wanted to enjoy the view without stress (those pesky crags!).

I’m going to pause the story here as I have to go pack another bag (don’t tell my cat!). Headed to meet some art teachers at the NuArt Festival in Aberdeen this weekend. Look for a Croatia blog post forthwith!

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A well-deserved cheers to Montenegro

“It’s Friday in Rome, shouldn’t there be fish?”

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Piazza Navona

When my friend Elena took a contract with the Eternal Word TV Network in Rome, I knew a visit was in order. It’s been a decade since my friend Kate and I last visited the Eternal City. Across from the Pantheon, a restaurant advertises “gluten-free pasta or pizza”. Smart cars are still parked willy-nilly; half on, half off sidewalks. The Colosseum is as epic as ever, especially at sunset. The food is still unbeatable. So when we had a Friday off for International Women’s Day, I hopped a plane.

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Sunrise over Rome as seen from Elena’s porch

International Women’s Day is celebrated in many countries throughout Europe. Created to honor women who lost their lives in NYC in a textile factory fire in 1908 (prior to the more widely known Triangle Shirtwaist Fire), the day was adopted by many socialist and communist countries and then recognized by many feminist organizations worldwide. The UN began celebrating the day in 1975.

From fresh pasta to artichoke, Rome knows good eats. As I sat on fountain steps on my first morning in town, I watched a man wheel stacks of groceries through the square – cloves upon cloves of garlic.

Tradition runs deep in these parts. Food is serious business. Food is also the spice of life. Cappuccino: you stand, they deliver. Aperitivo, you sit. Pizza, stand. Gelato, stand or sit (seriously delicious either way). To say we ate our way across Rome that weekend would be accurate.

There are somethings I just love about Italian life. Charmingly (perhaps tellingly), every single public clock in the city but one proved incorrect. Work starts at 10am, casually wraps up at 6pm. Everyone and their mother is out in the square at night; drinking, playing, telling tales of the day. And the art. Ohhhh the art.

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Same piazza, different fountain. Yeesh.

Having seen David at the Accademia, I opted to forgo the usual tourist haunts. Upon Elena’s recommendation, I had booked an advanced timed ticket to the Galleria Borghese. Do not miss this one, folks. A stunner of a villa, this lesser-know palace has frescos that rival those of the Vatican. It was there I learned that Octavian’s sister (Octavia) was married to Mark Antony, of Caesar fame. Antony and Octavian were major rivals. This was all before Cleopatra came on the scene. The more you know. Anyways, the marble sculpture of Octavia as Ophelia with the apple is a stunner.

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In the Park Borghese I sat and sketched. A saxophone played nearby. The guy refused the coins I tried to give in appreciation but then relented after our funny exchange. As I walked deeper into the park, I found landscapes which looked ripped from canvases at the Louvre – too soft in focus to be real.

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The Villa Medici bookended the park with stunning views spanning the entire city below. I toured the grounds under the tutelage of a startlingly expressionless yet deeply devoted French guide named Blanche.

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The Villa has been under French ownership since Napoleon gained possession of the place in late 1800s. The Academy now sponsors dozens of fellows (known as “pensionnaires”) who will live and work on the extensive grounds. All artists who can speak French are welcome to apply. Upon hearing I was from Boston, my guide enthusiastically (her demeanor warmed considerably as the tour went on) shared that a former pensionnaire is now an art professor at Boston University. Go Terriers 🙂

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The Medici Garden pavilion frescos – c.1580. And this is just the guesthouse.

Perhaps the highlight of the weekend for Elena and I was our street art tour in the neighborhood of Ostiense. Never ones to skip a meal, we made our way to the Mercato di Testaccio. Once inside, we made a beeline for Mordi & Vio and their heavenly panino picchiapo. Little known fact – panini is plural, panino indicates just one sandwich. Wandering the stalls before our tour, I couldn’t get over the fresh produce. The beans were huge! After another shot of espresso, we set off to meet our tour guide, a local architecture student.

Our guide began by defining street art as public art with a message. In Rome, street artists do this work for free, for a cause, and (typically) with permission from both government and site owner. We wandered through neighborhoods for nearly two and a half hours, learning about artists such as Roa (Belgium), Axel Void (Haitian-American), and Clemens Behr (Germany). I was impressed to know that some street artists like Andreco and Iena Cruz (below, right) are using air-cleaning paints in an attempt to stymie the effects of pollution upon the city and inhabitants.

All too quickly, my long weekend came to an end. On my final day in Rome, Elena took me to see the Pope give his Sunday Angelus. Privy to the text of his speech prior to the address, she translated the message for me as we watched flag-waving pilgrims fill the square. When the moment was right, a maroon rug was unfurled and Pope Francis appeared at a window above the square. It was pretty wild to see him with my own eyes and to be part of the masses gathered on a Sunday in Rome. After receiving his blessing, we enjoyed a final meal together and I headed to the airport with a suitcase packed with pasta and limoncello.

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The top window, second from the right is where the Pope appears every Sunday at noon.

Like time spent with all of my friends from TASIS, it seemed like no time had passed. That weekend away was a game-changer for me, warm weather and all! Back to “spring” in Moscow which brings longer daylight and, hopefully soon, temperatures in the 50s. Addio a tutti!

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The Rome haul.