Tuesday, April 21, 2015

So You Want To Hike With Donkeys

We went hiking with donkeys, Romeo and Gaspard to be precise, last year. It was fun. We climbed up hills. Daniel rode on the donkey a lot. We stayed on a farm that was previously a secret base for the French resistance in World War II. It was awesome.

So, we decided to do it again. But this year? We're older. We're wiser. We're experienced donkey hikers, so we thought we'd do a 5-day trip and we'd do a few more miles each day. Kein Problem.

So, we emailed the same guy (Pascal) and said we want the same donkeys and could he arrange another trip for us? Of course, he could.

So, we packed up our bags.

Isn't our luggage fancy? Seriously. We do own suitcases, but when we spend every night in a different location, we've discovered the best way to pack is to pack by day. Each bag contains the clothes for the entire family for one day, excluding pajamas. Pajamas go in the "every day" bag, along with extra socks and underwear because even though I was never a Boy Scout, my motto is be prepared. (I did not develop this motto until one day, in Turkey, we discovered that no one in the family had clean socks or underwear for the last day because someone--not saying who--miscounted.)

And we hopped on an EasyJet flight and headed to Montpellier France. My husband said, "you get the bags while I go start on the rental car." Now, this may sound like he's shirking his bag getting duties, but we've been to this airport before and the process of picking up a rental car involves selling organs or something. I don't know what. In fact, I had collected all the bags and come out to the rental car place and he was still talking to the woman at the counter. (He speaks French, so it wasn't a language issue.) We waited 15 additional minutes.

When he was finally done, I said, "Was there a long line?"

"No," he said. "No line."

Apparently, renting a car in France is more difficult than in the rest of the world. 

We had two days before we needed to be with our donkeys, so we did the only rational thing we could do--visit Andorra. Why? Because we could. Except, it was probably a bad idea because you know where Andorra is? In the mountains, that's where. And you know what it takes to get up into the mountains? Miles and miles (or in our case, kilometers and kilometers) of windy roads where we all felt like we would hurl.

We didn't, though, and Andorra was really awesome. Except for our hotel room. 

Daniel is demonstrating his dislike of cheap hotel rooms. And by cheap I mean terribly expensive but cheaper than everyplace else. Note those pillows across the top--this is just one pillow per bed. Bizarre. The Wifi didn't work either. Seriously people, let's talk about the needs of civilized people like me: Wifi is at the base of the Maslow hierarchy of needs.

We did some Geocaching
(technically, this picture may be in Spain, I don't remember. Sue me.)

And we saw these really weird statues. There were probably 5 of these weird plastic men in various poses on platforms. There is also a geocache very close to where this picture was taken, but we didn't actually find it. Frustrating and maybe we'll have to go back to Andorra, but only in a helicopter, because those roads were so windy.

We left Andorra and headed back to France, through Spain. We stopped in this cool little town called Saga, which had a wonderful church and cemetery and a geo cache. 
Sarah refused to get out of the car to come see this church.

This is a monument on the side of the road. Super cool, although my picture isn't. Let's just say selfies aren't my forte.

We were headed to Gruissan France, which we chose because it was only about 90 minutes from the donkeys and was near the ocean.

The castle ruins were a surprise, but awesome.

We stayed in a very cool house we found on Airbnb, but I forgot to take pictures of it. Sometimes I'm not that fabulous. The house was very cool and had 3 bedrooms, so each kid got their own room. Yay! No "Mom, he's touching me!" or "She's snoring on purpose!" Also, it had wi-fi. See, civilized. It was really the last time on our trip that I had real, honest, speedy internet service. Sob. 

We got up Monday  morning bright and early and headed to the donkeys. Pascal and his wife were happy to see us. The donkeys, however, were not. We had requested the same donkeys as last year, but Romeo was in a bad mood. This bad mood persisted all week. 

Note: When they say, "your donkey is being a real ass this morning," you should request a new donkey.

We are not that bright, so we did not. Also, they did not say that directly because they were speaking French and there isn't a funny word for Donkey in French that makes us giggle because we're, like 12. But they did note that Romeo was in a bad mood.

This is what Romeo looks like in a bad mood. Incidentally, this is also what Romeo looks like in a good mood. Donkeys don't really change their appearance much when they are cranky. They just kick and walk away.

We packed up our big German army surplus bags, loaded our donkeys and headed off. So far, so good. 

It was awesome. The donkeys were a bit stubborn, but the path was great and Gaspard wasn't sticking his nose in my behind like he did last year. (We requested the same donkeys, why?) We did run into a small problem about 5 kilometers in--a downed tree. Through our great donkey skills, we were able to get the donkeys over the tree and continue on our way.

On our path, Pascal had informed us that we would pass through the yard of a Dutchman who was living in an old train station. Pascal had emailed him the night before to let him know we would be passing through. He and his friend met us and invited us to sit down and drink wine. We turned down the wine in favor of bubble water.

We stayed talking with them for an hour. Fascinating conversation--especially the part where he told us that he had been kidnaped as a reporter in Libya. "I wasn't worried," he said, "they treated me very well." I don't think I'd ever describe an experience being kidnaped along with the words "not" and "worried" in the same paragraph. I guess is why I write stories about how to make your boss happy and not about dictators.

Then we headed on the rest of our way to our first stop, Camplong. Day number 1 was a piece of cake--9 kilometers on very easy trail. We were all like, "dude, we got this!" 

We were the only guests in the Camplong Gite, although it had beds for 16. This is awesome, as we're really not friendly. 

Dinner was at the restaurant across the street, which had an awesome vending machine.
Yes, you could buy canned goods from a vending machine. 1 Euro each. It looked like people actually bought them. Which kind of makes sense, since shopping options were somewhat limited in Camplong.

Day two, we headed out and up. Our hike for day 2 was 16.5 kilometers, 3/4 of which was up hill. This was not steep uphill and the path was wide and relatively smooth. The weather was great. It was lovely. Again, we thought, "Aren't we glad we went donkey  hiking?"
It was our 15th wedding anniversary, so I convinced Jason to take this high-class picture to celebrate. "Don't put that on Facebook," he said. "No problem," I said.

Our second night was in a Gite in Servies. Servies was even smaller than Camplong. It had no stores, but the woman who ran the Gite and made our dinner (which was fabulous traditional Servies chicken) brought along a friend who spoke German to translate for me. Wasn't that nice? We had a conversation in bad German translated into French. The "translator" really only knew one preposition in German--gegen--which he used for just about everything. Messages got across though. All was well.

This was our Gite. Isn't it awesome? We loved it, and by we I mean everyone but Jason who, it turns out, was allergic to something in the Gite. But the rest of us loved it.

Day 3, we headed out to what turned out to be a very unpleasant day.

Okay, that's a bit of a lie. The day itself was mostly pleasant. We ran into a group of old French people who were repainting the trail signs. They were delightful and we thought, "what a fun thing to volunteer to do! Go out with your friends and refresh all the arrows on trees and rocks!" 

Then we went up a really steep hill which about killed my knee, but we  made it, and to our joy, at the top I remembered I had chocolate in my bag, so we ate the chocolate and were refreshed enough to go on. At 10k, we stopped for lunch. 

The donkeys like people food. When you're eating, they come up like this: 
It's kind of disconcerting.

The rest of the trail was mild up and down, but not too tough, which was good because our journey was 19 kilometers. This, in case you don't know, is a long, long way. My feet really hurt. But no bother, we were the DONKEY MASTERS! Who cared that Romeo was crabby and Gaspard was rebellious? We were doing great! 

We arrived in Fargairolles and the wonderful woman there had made the best food, ever. Now, granted, when you've just hiked 19 kilometers, anything tastes good, but her food was the best. Pork chops, potatoes with cheese and rosemary, salad, bread, and apple cake for dessert. It was a great meal.

But, after dinner we needed to go brush the donkeys. Jason was extra tired because he'd gone geo caching after we arrived in Fargairolles, so I said I'd take the kids to brush the donkeys. Now, ideally, you'd brush them right after you took off their saddles, but we hadn't because they were cranky and wouldn't stand still.

Cranky donkeys, in my humble opinion, don't deserve to be brushed. (This is why I am not an animal person--I know they  need to be brushed, regardless of their attitude.)  Because they were in their pen, they didn't have their little face harnesses or ropes on. No problem, right?

Wrong. When I opened the gate, they pushed past us and escaped. 

Not a big deal. They are untethered all the time. Sarah said, "Let's put on Romeo's face thingy and Gaspard will just follow back to the pen." This was sound logic. Gaspard always follows Romeo. So, I put a rope on Romeo and led him back to his pen. The problem was, Gaspard didn't follow. 

So, I handed Romeo's rope to Sarah and went to get Gaspard, who did not have a rope. Gaspard is brighter than he looks and knew I had no power over him. Romeo, seeing his chance, ran and Sarah isn't strong enough to hold a donkey who doesn't wish to be held. (No one is, really.) 

And thus began our adventurous evening. At first, we figured, "Oh, let them have their fun," but then it stopped being funny. Any time I would get close, they would run. Sarah went to go get Jason and he came out, without a jacket. This was a bad idea.

We tried to corner them from two separate sides, but we were outsmarted by a couple of asses. By now it was almost dark. I ran back to get my phone and call Pascal to ask for advice. Pascal, fortunately, speaks German, so I was able to communicate. He said, "It's dark, so just let them go. They'll come back in the morning and if not, I'll send my friend to get them."

But, by this time, Jason had chased them a good kilometer away and had caught them. And by them, I mean Romeo because Gaspard had  no face mask thingy or rope. 

He was able to lead them back, but not until an unhappy French person wanted to know why Jason had his donkeys in the middle of his field in the middle of the night. This is not a conversation we ever expected to have. 

This is what two naughty donkeys look like after they've been captured. Dumb asses.

You'll notice that Gaspard still doesn't have his face thing and that is because in all the excitement, Daniel dropped it and his rope in the middle of a field. In the dark. A large field. In France. Did I mention we were in France?

Fortunately, we found the rope and the next day could begin.

It would be nice if day 4 had been awesome, but if I had been able to walk faster I might have caught up to Jason and murdered him for making me come on this stupid hike. I'd walked 39,000 steps the day before (32,000 for the 19-kilometer hike and an additional 7000 steps trying to capture the donkeys) so by 8 kilometers in on day 4, my feet were on fire.

Our path was rocky and narrow and not well marked and climbed and climbed and we kept getting lost, which required turning around, except there wasn't a lot of room, which mean that Gaspard had to go first and HE DID NOT WANT TO GO FIRST. Gah.

This is the a good part of the trail.

Note how smooth and clear the path is.

All this to get to a town called Douche. 

And yes, we were amused by that, or rather I would have been if the trail hadn't have been so awful. Daniel and Sarah wanted to know why that was so funny to us, and someone (read: not me) ended up telling them about that horrible Summer's Eve commercial. 

We arrived in Douche and I was so exhausted that I couldn't be angry. Especially when we met Drunk Uncle Tony (shortened to Drunkle Tony). Okay, he was not drunk, our uncle, nor named Tony, but he looked like Uncle Tony would look if he were French. He was not drunk when we met him, but since wine was part of our food package and we don't drink, we told him to feel free. So, he did.

Drunkle Tony had been hired by Pascal to make our food and he was fabulous. The food was amazing. Then Drunkle Tony discovered a 5 liter box of wine, in addition to the bottle that had been procured for us. He was very happy. He sang. He told stories (in French, of course), and was very happy. Several other couples were staying in the Gite, but they were making their own food. They were jealous of us, because Drunkle Tony's food was so awesome, but the entertainment was for all.

We went to bed around 9:00 and at 11:00 we were awakened by the fire alarm. Drunkle Tony had made good use of the box of wine and spilled oil on the stove, waking everyone.

Except Daniel. He didn't even move. Like, I went to check if he was still breathing because the fire alarm was blaring and Daniel was sleeping like the dead.

Drunkle Tony was back for breakfast. He still had a sparkling personality, but a bit of a hangover. Understandable.

While I finished packing up, Jason went to go get the donkeys. Turns out, Romeo and Gaspard had jumped--yes jumped--over the fence and escaped. Now, they hadn't gone far, just right on the other side of the fence as if to say, "we can do whatever we want and you can't stop us." Jason was able to lure them back with crinkly paper (they like candy), but their point was made. We were powerless against the donkeys.

Then Jason informed me that our path today involved going back on the last three kilometers of rocky, steep hell that we had done yesterday--except this time we would be going downhill.

You know, at this point, donkey hiking was feeling somewhat like childbirth. You know how when you decide to have a baby you think, "this is such a great idea!" But you're not thinking, "this baby has to come out, one way or another, and none of the options are pleasant." Donkey hiking was like that. It's a great idea! It's good exercise! It's family bonding time! And then the path turns into a rocky steep; mess and the donkeys are stubborn and the people are turning cranky and you just have to keep going. And, unlike childbirth, you can't even call an anesthesiologist to dull the pain. No, you just have to keep going.

I was a bit crabby by this point.

But, off we went! Down the wrong path--but, fortunately, Drunkle Tony spotted us on the wrong path and redirected us, so we only lost about 5 minutes.

Things were going well. Our feet hurt, but the sun was shining. The weather was pleasant. And, importantly, we were on the home stretch. 

The trail remained rocky and narrow, and you would think it couldn't get worse--there was a sheer dropoff on one side and mountain on the other. Falling would have been deadly. Then we came to another downed tree.

Do you think a donkey could climb over that? Well, if you do, you're not an experienced donkey hiker like we are. The donkeys were never getting over that. 

Which means we had to go around. Except there was a steep drop-off on one side and mountain on the other, remember? Gah. 

Jason, here, should earn his donkey hiker expert certificate. He guided Romeo up and around the tree and then to a point where Romeo needed to jump off a 4-foot ledge and land on a 3-foot wide path. With Jason yanking on Romeo's rope and me pushing on Romeo's behind, we got him down.

That is what they had to jump down. After Romeo went, we thought Gaspard would go with no problems, because he always follows Romeo except when he's being rebellious and running away.

Well, Gaspard took one look at that and said, "No way on earth am I doing that."

He was serious as well. We couldn't get Romeo back up that 4 foot jump. We couldn't get Gaspard down it. We were starting to think that our only option was to decide just to set up a home right there, because weren't going forward and there was no way I was going to back up that hill to Douche. 

So, with a lot of pushing, pulling, begging and praying, we pushed Gaspard off the edge. This did not improve Gaspard's mood, but we survived it. 

Sarah and Daniel just easily scrambled up over the tree. Proof that kids are better than donkeys.

A short while later, Sarah announced she needed to fix the bandages on her feet. I didn't mention (but I should have) that while all of us had blisters on our feet, Sarah's feet were a total mess.

This is partly bad luck and partly because she didn't listen to her mother and pack two pairs of shoes. On the journey to Douche Daniel had fallen into a hidden stream (it was covered by leaves) and gotten soaked. Because I had the emergency backup socks and shoes and extra undies for him, we were able to change his clothing and he continued to hike in dry shoes. Sarah didn't learn from her brother and stepped in the same stream. But, she had no extra shoes. Extra dry socks don't help much with wet shoes. So, she had had to hike the last 5 kilometers in wet shoes, shredding her feet.

Her shoes had dried out overnight, but the damage was done.\

We had an awesome first aid kit, so we were able to bandage her feet pretty well, but because we forgot to pack the anesthesiologist, we couldn't completely do away with the pain.

This was the view I had while working on Sarah's feet. Pretty, right?

The foot doctoring took about 40 minutes, in which Jason fed an entire pound of sugar cubes to the donkeys to get them to stay still. They didn't want to be on that trail any more than we did, and Gaspard still wasn't speaking to us after we pushed him down that cliff.

We finally made it off the rocky, narrow path and onto a beautiful paved road. 

Beautiful, right? It was. Gorgeous. And the trail was easy and there were all these happy French families doing their lovely day hiking, and we should have gone slowly and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings and the ease of the trail. But, we didn't. No. We were spent. We were tired. We wanted to get to the end. So, we walked very quickly--we managed to do one kilometer in a record-setting 9 minutes 52 seconds (during the steep, rocky parts, we were doing 30 minute kilometers, and on reasonable trail we were between 15 and 20 minutes per kilometer). 

This is the type of trail you can just fly down.

As we got into the village where we were to meet Pascal, who popped out of a local restaurant, but Drunkle Tony! We were happy to see him again. We were even happier to see Pascal.

And then a strange thing happened. We were like,  "This was awesome! We were amazing! We hiked 72 kilometers on really difficult trails and we survived. Let's do this again next year!"

Because, like child birth, when you finish you've got an adrenalin rush and you forget that it was totally painful. Except when you stand up and your feet scream at you.

We told Pascal about the downed tree on the last day's path and the harrowing time getting his donkeys down, thinking he would want to tell his next group of hikers not to take that path. Instead he said, "Oh someone from the government will fix that eventually." Clearly, far more relaxed about it than we were. 

So, we're going to go donkey hiking next spring, but with different donkeys and on a path that's not quite so difficult. We're thinking Portugal. We'll miss you, Romeo and Gaspard. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Republika Srpska or can someone please explain Bosnia-Herzogovina to me?

Our last exotic country was Bosnia-Herzogovina. I realize this isn't on most American's hot tourist spot list. "I know! We'll go to Bosnia!" And, in fact, I feel guilty, because we kept referring to it as Bosnia, but in reality we spent very little time in Bosnia and most of our time in the Republika Srpska and Herzogovina, but Bosnia gets all the credit. Add to that, our guide book said, straight out "some people think I favor Bosnia. This is true." I'm feeling all sad for poor little Herzogovina.

Which, in my vast experience of handling international affairs, I think should be it's own country. As should the other part which I'm sure I'm misspelling because it suffers from a serious lack of vowels. In fact, the whole region seemed to suffer from a lack of vowels. Perhaps the Balkans and Hawaii could get together and share some letters. I think it's the logical thing to do. Where's my appointment to the UN?

Anyway, after our adventure taking a "short cut" through BiH (their abbreviation) which resulted in bribing police officers, I was apprehensive about our planned trip. But, Jason will not be stopped. Once he's determined to do something, it's very difficult to stop him. The border was a breeze (yeah!) and we were in, and driving through Republika Srprksa and having a grand time. Except for the part where we all started to get crabby.

So, we stopped in a town, whose name I've forgotten. We drove by a lovely park, so we parked and walked a couple of blocks to a grocery store. Going to grocery stores in weird locations is one of my favorite things to do. I love to see how they vary. We bought bread, cheese, meat, the strangest sodas we could find (except for Jason, who bought Coke. He may be adventurous on his travels, but he is not adventurous when it comes to Soda drinking. Of course, since Coke is having that "Share a Coke with [name] campaign, his bottle told him to share a Coke with Powkrsdjka or something, so that's adventurous). And on a random note, we found this Yogonaise, which is made by a Swiss company, but we can't buy it at home. I'm both intrigued and disgusted.

And then we hit the candy aisle.

I love candy. It's my favorite thing. In fact, when I diet, I just give up the regular food instead of giving up the treats. Yes, I will be dying next year. Anyway, we bought some weird candy. Like this:

It wasn't half bad. It wasn't half good either. We also bought some Turkish Delight, which isn't Srpskian but is exotic. And I bought a secret bag of M&Ms. Why? Because I love candy, and I've had enough experience buying candy in strange locations to know that "lips" may, just may, end up being nasty, and I wanted some emergency back up candy. (All those years of food storage lessons in Relief Society have paid off!) And you know what? They were AWFUL. Tasted terrible. I eat M&Ms like normal skinny people eat Special K, and I know what M&Ms are supposed to taste like and this was not it. We investigated and it turns out that they were made in Poland. I've had Polish chocolate before and it was awful. 

I was so sad about the bad candy. So, so sad. I gave it to the kids, who didn't notice and ate it without complaint. If I wasn't so lazy I'd write to M&M Mars and say, "Do you know how awful the things coming out of your Polish factory are?????!!!!??!?!?!!" but my Swiss friends think the stuff that comes out of the Hersey factory back in good old PA is nasty, so I suppose it's just regional taste, but seriously, bring your own M&Ms when you travel in Bosnia. That's my motto!

Here are the kids at the park.

We then walked into the city center to find a bathroom and buy a magnet. (We buy a magnet in every place we visit. You should come see our collection.) We accomplished both (although the lady selling magnets overcharged my by a whole Euro, but I didn't complain because I don't speak Sprskian or whatever they speak there, and I figured an extra Euro meant more to her than it did to me). Then we headed out again, on our way to Mostar. 

We got stopped by sheep:

The shepherds have their sheep graze right along the roads. I suppose it's because of a. landmines and b. the rocks. This whole region is so incredibly rocky and mountainous and filled with scrub brush that if Brigham Young had been a European he probably would have declared this region the "right place" and built a temple right in the middle of what is now a lovely landmine field. Anyway, all during our drive we had to keep our eyes open for sheep and cows which were always wandering into the road.

Jason's eagle eyes also caught sight of a sign for a cave that we'd read about in our travel guide. So, we took a 9 kilometer side trip to a fantastic cave--Vjetrenica, or the Windy Caves. This was a fabulous trip. Our guide was lovely and spoke perfect English. She said very few people actually visit the caves, which is too bad, because they were amazing. They have all sorts of creatures that live in the deepest depths--we couldn't go past 500 meters, sadly, even though she said it's paved for 2 kilometers, but since the war, they don't take guests past 500 meters. We couldn't take pictures inside, but we saw a real, live one of these: 

It was very cute, as much as a cute, eyeless, albino lizard fish type thing can be. Much cuter was this: 

Then we headed back towards Mostar, but first we stopped to take pictures of this!

Yes, real, honest-to-goodness landmine fields. The kids were highly fascinated by this and found it funny, but we tried to explain that this was a serious problem. I mean, how awful to live in a land where you had to be concerned about being blown up if you stepped into the wrong area. And, that "pozor mine" tape was the only thing stopping people from romping into the mine field. Scary and horrible.

Also, we saw this:

That's a really big snake. Really big. We were in our car. It lives in the landmine field, which, if you're a snake is probably a good place to live. No people.

Then off to Mostar. Mostar was the site of a pretty horrific battle during the war. They have a famous bridge that was built in the 1500s and it was destroyed by repeated shelling by the Croatians. They rebuilt it a few years ago and it's well worth visiting. 

We had rented an apartment and finding it fell squarely into the sketchy part of our trip. We couldn't reach the guy and it was in a residential area and I started to feel like, "Let's just go find a Motel 6" or something, which we couldn't because we were in Bosnia, for goodness sake's. Finally, we tested to see if the front door was open, which it was. And went up the stairs and heard people in the second floor apartment so Jason bravely knocked while I cowered in the corner, afraid that it would be actually answered and I'd have to speak to someone. They guy there not only spoke English, but said he'd call the landlord for us. Score! Jason's bravery really does help.

The guy showed up and let us in to our vacation rental and wow. Brand new, two bedrooms, hardwood floors, living room, kitchen, dining room, super nice bathroom and a back yard, with a sprinkler, which the kids determined was the best thing ever. Oh, and this is the view from the backyard: 

Yep, the famous bridge. We honestly could not have found a better place. Except for the spotless part and the landlord made it very clear that he expected us to keep it spotless and showed up in his boxing clothes, to kind of send the message home. Nevertheless, I'd even stay there again. Amazing.

Also amazing, dinner:

Prices in Mostar were exceptionally cheap. Their official currency is the Convertible Mark, which converts perfectly to the Euro--2 to 1. The cost of this meal, including four bottles of water, was 12 Euros. It was listed on the menu as a meal for 2, and we ordered the meal for 4, but the waitress said, "Oh, no, you have kids. That's too much. I'll bring you the meal for 2 and if you need something else, I'll just tell my mother." Seriously. That's what she said. It was delicious and we didn't need more.

Which is why, after dinner, we went and bought ice cream cones. There's always room for ice cream cones. And in Mostar? 0.50 Euro cents per cone. Seriously. Wow.

We, sadly, only stayed one night in Mostar. We got breakfast at a little bakery and at it in our back yard:

Then we toured around Mostar a little bit more and visited a museum about the war. Sarah and Daniel were amazed that his war happened while Mom and Dad were in college. Scary how close it all is. We tend to think of wars as something that happened very long ago and very far away, not on the street you were standing just a few years ago.

We visited the mosque and climbed up to the top up this spiral stair case.

The view from the top was worth it:

We said goodbye to Mostar and headed out to our next stop: Medjugoria. In June of 1981 Mary appeared to 6 children on the top of a hill and has been appearing regularly ever since. Or supposedly because even though it's a huge Catholic spot, the Catholic church has not officially declared it either a valid miracle nor an official holy spot. That, however, hasn't stopped a million people a year from visiting and buying glow in the dark Mary statutes. We did not buy one, since we already have one from our trip to Fatima a few years earlier.

We did, however, hike up Apparition Hill to the spot where the Blessed Virgin appeared. This hike is not for the faint of heart. Here's the trail:

I wonder how many people break their ankles on this trail. Also, it was hot. Very hot. But, there were lots of people and everyone was being quite respectful, and it is a place that clearly means a lot to a lot of people.

And that was the end of our Herzogovinian adventure. We climbed back in the car and drove back to the Le Meridien, Split, where we spent our last day lounging around in the sun and eating things. All in all, a fabulous vacation.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Montenegro: windy roads, raspberries and rafting

Podgorica, Montenegro, hasn't made anyone's top 10 places to visit for a good reason. It's the capital of a very small country and isn't designed to attract tourists. But, we dutifully visited it and walked around it. In fact, our fitbit counted over 30,000 steps that particular day so you can be assured that we walked around all of it.

Plus, our hotel room smelled funny, and we didn't even cause the funny smell, which is saying something.

Fortunately, we only stayed one night in Podgorica before heading off for bigger adventures. I wasn't feeling well when we got in the car Monday morning, but that didn't stop us from climbing things. That's the Lucas family motto:  When in doubt, go up. We went to the highest tomb in Europe, or maybe the world. All I know is that it was at the top of a very windy mountain. Everything in Montenegro is at either the top or bottom of a very long windy road.
We only had to walk a kilometer or so and then climb up 350 steps and when old, fat ladies in flip-flops were passing me, I should have taken that as a hint that I was, actually sick. Fortunately, the tomb was marble and underground and very cold.

But the grounds gave a fantastic view

After that, we went to a monastery. Well, the monastery required walking up, which I was in no mood to do, so I sent the camera with the family and sent them up, while I sat in the shade and worked on the primary program. This is one of the most sacred spots to the Serbian Orthodox. Here are the pictures from the monastery:
In retrospect, I probably should have given the camera to Jason rather than Daniel.

We then headed down yet another long and windy road where we all thought vomiting might be a good idea until we arrived at the rafting camp. We'd arranged a white water rafting trip that included 3 meals and overnight lodging. We had no idea what to expect. I mean, what would you expect from a rural Montenegran rafting camp? Well, because you're reading this, you can know what to expect:

 This was our cabin. It sleeps up to 6 and it was brand new. It came with a fireplace, which we used, because it gets cold in the mountains.

This is fresh raspberry juice. It was so incredibly delicious you wouldn't believe it. The waitress assured us that it was just raspberries and a bit of sugar. You've never tasted anything like these raspberries before. Honestly and truly. They were amazing. In fact, all the food at this place was amazing. And fresh. We watched the cook go get additional cucumbers--by picking them from the garden. 

I don't know why they had an astroturf covered car.

But the bunnies were adorable.

And the kinder even got along with each other.

And did I mention the food? It was, amazing. Except for the fact that the bacon was raw. I just couldn't bring myself to try it. Jason kept saying, "It's been cured like ham!" Yeah, well, I couldn't do it. He did, though. So did Daniel. They are brave.

We left the Ethno Selo and followed the directions to the actual rafting camp. Turns out we were in the overflow, which was AWESOME. 

To get to the actual camp took us about an hour. On very, very, windy roads and through lots of tunnels. They don't believe in actually putting in lights in most of the tunnels and it turns out that tunnels are quite dark without lights. Also, they just left it after they blasted it--no finishing of the tunnels at all. I would have taken a picture, but it was, well, dark. Dark and friendly. For instance, if you ran into a friend, you could just stop and chat for a while:

Also, if you needed to pee, just pull over and go! Yeah! No need to walk away from the road or find a bush or anything, just go ahead and go. Of course, after we joked about this for a while, we realized that part of this probably comes from living in the part of the world where landmines exist and wandering off well traveled roads isn't a good idea, even if you need to go.

We did finally arrive at the river. They suited us up in wet suits, helmets and life jackets. Let's just say that it wasn't our best look. 
 Well, the kids looked awfully cute.

The Tara river is the cleanest river in the world, according to our guide. He insisted you could drink straight out of it, which he did. The other people (a nice couple from Finland) did as well. The river was spectacular. I wish we had pictures from the white water parts, but it would have ruined the camera. 

 During the slow parts, the guide let Daniel be the captain.

The water is straight from the mountains and is super cold. (Hence, the wet suits.) It didn't feel terribly cold through the wet suit so when Jason jumped in he was pretty surprised at how cold it was when it got to his unprotected arms and head. Brr!

Sarah was just as brave as her father and hopped in.

The rest of us waited until we were at the shore and then just waded in, but Jason and Sarah did the full deal. All in all, it was an amazing day.

After the rafting, we went back and had lunch and then, on to Kotor, Montenegro.  Because the road had been so windy we thought, hey, let's take the less windy way through Bosnia. It's only 20 kilometers longer and not nearly as windy! Well, it should be one of those givens that when someone says, "Let's take a shortcut through Bosnia," the answer should be no. Unfortunately, Jason and I are dumb as rocks sometimes.

So, we're driving along and Jason gets stopped by the police, who stand on the side of the road and hold out a little sign. Sigh. I would have taken pictures, but I didn't know if we were about to be hauled off to some jail or something. And we weren't even in real Bosnia-Herzogovina. We were in the Republika Srpksa. Heard of it? No. We asked our Bosnian river guide to explain it to us, and he couldn't even do it. We've read the wikipedia entry and it didn't help.

Anyway, the police didn't speak English and well, our Bosnian isn't great. The guy they had pulled over right before did speak a bit of English and he explained that Jason was being ticketed for driving without his lights on and for driving in barefeet. Jason is never barefooted. Never. Except for the one time he gets pulled over in the Republika Srpska. The other victim explained that we would have to go into the next town, go to the post office and pay a fine immediately. But, through a lot of hand gestures, the police indicated that what they really wanted was cash--Euros were fine--now. So, Jason paid them 10 euros, they laughed and slapped him on the back and we drove off on our way.

And we just kept driving, because it ended up taking 4 or so hours to get back to the town. We used google maps on the iphone, which is an awesome tool. (We have unlmited global data.) Except for the fact that the iphone sent us down the hill of death. It was narrow and had potholes and if was utterly terrifying. Fortunately, we didn't encounter anyone coming the other way, mainly because the locals are smart enough to stay off it. They should put a sign at the top of the hill saying, "We realize your iPhone is sending you this direction, but they are wrong."

We did finally arrive in Kotor, Montenegro, which is a lovely little seaside town with castle ruins (where else?) up the side of a mountain. 1325 steps of the side of the mountain, which, of course, we had to climb up.\

So, the next morning, we climbed up, and up, and up. Sarah was a trooper and lead the way. Daniel whined a bit, but we all made it to the top. 


Then it was time to climb back down. You'd think we would have learned from our drive the day before that we should stay on the main roads, but  no, we (read Jason) decided to go down the alternate path. "It's on the brochure!" he said. Yeah, well, ouch. Most people don't go down (or up!) this way because it was overgrown with pokey bushes, had broken steps and was very, very scary.

 Jason was wearing long pants, but the rest of us had shorts or capris on. Sarah had no socks on. We got terribly scratched up legs. Terribly. About 2/3 of the way down we ran into a couple climbing up. She was wearing sandals and short shorts. We should have grabbed them and forced them to turn around, but we didn't. We hoped they survived.

So, at the end of that, we weren't that sad to leave Montenegro and all it's scratchy bushes. On to Bosnia-Herzogovina and the Republika Sprksa.