Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Accursed Mountains

The 'Accursed Mountains'.

With a name like that, how could one not be enticed?

And to reach into the heart of these mountains in northern Albania, the Lake Koman ferry would seem to be the way to go. Boasting spectacular mountain scenery enroute from Koman to the town of Fierze, it was highly rated online as well as in the guidebooks. One even ranked it on par with the fjords of Patagonia. From Fierze, it is another 2 furgons (minivans) away, via Bajram Curri, to Valbone, a village primed for wonderful hiking and trekking.

In order to catch the 9am ferry, me and 3 other travelers departed our hostel in Shkodra for Koman at 6am. We arrived in good time, just 15 minutes past 8. It was drizzling and bone-chilling cold as we waited for the ferry.

"I think you should go get a cup of coffee", suggested a young man as he approached me.

"I received news that the ferry just departed Fierze half an hour ago", our friendly and helpful local informed us.

The ride is supposed to be a 3-hour journey! It seemed we would be at least 3 hours late!! Apparently, there was an Italian film crew on board and the filming had delayed the ferry.

So we adjoined to the only cafe onsite for the long wait. Luckily we had bought some "rations" (bread, biscuits), and a couple in our group even had camping gear with them, and promptly set up their cannister stove to boil some water for tea and coffee.

The hours dragged by. It was almost 1pm when the latest update from our Albanian friend (whose name I couldn't really prounounce let alone spell) was that it would be an hour more before the ferry arrived. He was with his fiancee and visiting relatives near Fierze and he too, was waiting impatiently. It was past 2pm when a small boat chugged into view.

Most of the locals started to fill the boat. It seemed someone decided to use his boat to provide the ferry service instead. While there was overhead cover, it was exposed on the sides, and much smaller, so we were advised by our Albanian friend that it would be better to wait for the actual ferry. After all, we have already waited for 5 hours, and it was really cold.

At 4pm, the sighting of our ferry sent us scurrying to our backpacks even though there was plenty of time for us to be ready. Indeed, as we waited eagerly to get into the ferry as it docked, our sense of relief and happiness proved shortlived. There were lots of heated exchanges between our friend, the ferry driver, and a man who turned out to be the local representative for the Italian film crew. I concluded that nothing good could come out of that.

Koman ferry finally arriving
The tragic story goes like this. The ferry driver had wanted to complete the round-trip service before entertaining the filming request. However, the local film representative (who calls himself Fabio, and he's Albanian) assured that their filming "would not take any extra time". 7 hours later, Fabio now refused to let the ferry go until he complete the filming, after the crew had their meals. He assured us that the filming would end by 6.30pm......

All reasoning (and some Hokkien expletives) landed on deaf ears (Ok, it was only a mild "N**B**"). Never mind that we would reach Valbone late at night, but the sightseeing (and photography) opportunities would all be lost! Fabio even had the audacity to claim that we would have no problems reaching Valbone as he knew all the contacts in the region. What grated on my nerves was his arrogant attitude and the final straw came when filming ended.

After paying the ferry driver and the calefares (film extras), Fabio fled the scene with his bunch of Italians on a minivan. We were left fuming in the ferry as we had wanted him to bear the responsibility of transporting us to Valbone from Fierze. It was a dark and gloomy ferry ride.

Late, drizzling ferry ride

Still some last minute light for photography
Thankfully, our Albanian friend, a victim himself, managed to arrange with someone on the ferry to help us get to Bajram Curri. It was too late to attempt the mountain road to Valbone in the dark, so we stayed the night at Bajram Curri. It was amazing that he went all out to ensure we were settled in before leaving us - from finding a cheap hotel, to bringing us to a pizza joint at 10pm for our late dinner! Albanian hospitality and friendliness at its best!


The Albanian Alps, as its also known, is truly spectacular! Valbone sits in a valley surrounded by towering mountains on all four sides - truly a trekking mecca. However, perhaps there is more than the mountains that is accursed. I have lost one and a half days reaching the mountains, and my remaining one and a half days were dogged by rain. And of course, the morning that I was leaving, the sun then cast it's warm rays over the Accursed Mountains....

Guesthouse under the mountains
Hiking the Albanian Alps

Plenty of snow left
Crystal clear lake

Morning alpenglow the day I left
Panoramic views

Panoramic views

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Night view, Kotor

My left knee protested adamantly as I plodded on. It's dark and it's an upslope of rocky gravelly path, so one would need to go slow anyway.

The bored ticket collector had gone off for the day. And the light's perfect. And I really wanted to see how's the nightview like. So, really, going up again the fortress of Kotor was set. Of course, I wouldn't be so heroic to go up all the way. Just enough for a good enough view and picture.

A panoramic view of Kotor and the Bay of Kotor. I'm content. 

Click for bigger view

Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring Snow

The snow swirled and flurried onto my face. It was a good feeling when it was gentle and while walking in town. But now, trudging to Curovac viewpoint, it was an annoyance. It was a 9km walk to the viewpoint.

The previous day was a little better. There were dark angry clouds threatening most of the time, but it only started snowing in the evening. So I had the opportunity to hike around Black Lake, which of course, isn't black. The Black Lake is the easiest excursion in Durmitor National Park, biggest of Montenegro's national parks. Famed for its hiking opportunities, Black Lake is just a whiff of its potential. However, the season had not started yet, and well, the reasons are obvious. The weather is still very much unpredictable. It is already close to mid April, and as my host said, the heavy snow was "not normal".

Hiking around the perimeter of Black Lake

Black Lake under the Durmitor mountains

Unpreditable wintry spring scene
Well, the upside is I get to stay in a private apartment with kitchenette, ensuite toilet, Wifi etc etc for 13 euros a night. But the snow is getting worrisome. Walking in snow is fine - it's just that I wouldn't be getting a view at the viewpoint after walking 9km!! And this was for one of the the biggest attraction in Durmitor National Park - the Tara River Canyon.

I had a glimpse of the canyon, and the green Tara river, when crossing the border from Bosnia & Hercegovina into Montenegro, and I was impressed! Stuck in a bumpy mini-bus ride with curvy roads, there just wasn't any way to capture the scenes. And like I said, it was just a glimpse. It is Europe's longest and deepest gorge at 80km long and 1300m deep. And it was enough for me to do this 18km round-trip walk.

The snow had let up when I reached the trailhead to the viewpoint. Most of the 9km walk was on an asphalt cum dirt road until the trailhead. However, the trail, which was just a jumble of rocks, now covered in snow, was precariously close to the edge of the cliff. Slowly but surely (not really), I clamoured laborously forward. And there and behold! A bench! Facing a wall of swirling misty white!

The snow-covered rocky trail

Rest stop with a view
I paint a forlorn figure, shivering within a grey-white mist. It was like those depicted in the movies, where one got lost in a dream. And like a dream, the mists lifted like a curtain  revealing the stage behind. A valley of green encrouched by this whitening storm. And while the snow and mists had a field day up in the mountains, they could not penetrate into the valley below. And then I saw the sliver of green in the distant. The Tara river!

And I realised this was just a rest point.

View when the mists cleared!!

The Tara River Canyon
I looked around and realized that indeed, there was a continuing trail obscured by even more snow. I cursed the weather gods for dumping this amount of snow onto the ground. This was beyond my comfort zone as the snow literally mined the rocks on the trail, and a mis-step could easily spell disaster. In the end, I had to settle for just the views at the rest point. The 9km walk back did not brighten my mood, though back in town, I comforted myself with one of Durmitor's local specialty - jagnjetina, a lamb dish.

Smoked lamb, boiled potatoes and cabbage
The 3 days in Zabljak/Durmitor was supposed to be a spring mountain experience, but turned out to be a winter excursion. I enjoyed myself no doubt, but would have been exponentially more satisfied if I had managed to reach the proper Curavac viewpoint.

I had a late morning bus the next day. And well, you might have guess the inevitable. The morning arrived with a brilliant shining sun and a stunning blue sky. Ah, why is it always me?

Beautiful day at Zabljak & Durmitor National Park

Monday, April 7, 2014

Of Cevabdzinica and Blatina

"Menu?" I asked.

"Pepsi, Fanta, Yoghurt" the waitress quipped without missing a beat.

I got momentarily confused, and she repeated her options in an almost impatient demeanor. It was lunchtime, and the crowd becoming sizable. And she doesn't seem to speak English.

I re-looked around, and then it dawned on me.

"Fanta" I replied and sat down feeling rather foolish.

I am in Cevabdzinica Zeljo, and well, a cevabdzinica sells ... cevapi, the ubiquitous fast-food found everywhere in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH). Apparently, the "menu" options are just size options, and your choice of drink. Every plate on the tables in the eatery is almost identical - a flatbread stuffed with mini sausages and a pool of white diced raw onions. At some point in time, I noticed some others having some sort of cheese addition in their plate. Why wasn't I give that option??

Cevapi at Cevabdzinica Zeljo
My cevapi from Mostar
Anyway, this was actually only my second cevapi. My first was in Mostar of course, where I had just arrived from Dubrovnik Croatia. This one in Sarajevo was raved about, though I find them almost the same. While it's nice, there is just no vegetables in the meal to feel balanced. In Mostar, half of my meals were cooked food take-away from the supermarket, and eaten in my hostel. There are two reasons I liked this arrangement. One, there are almost non-existent non-smoking spaces in local eateries. Secondly, I get to have my meal complemented with local wine at the most affordable prices. That 250ml pepsi cost 2KM (~S$1.70) in the eatery while I got my 750ml bottle of Blatina in the supermarket for 5KM (~S$4.20).

The Herzegovina region of BiH is well known for their wines, and I get to try these grape varieties that I have never heard about. The Blatina semed only to be grown in these region and they're really good for the price. I also tried a Vranac, which I got for 4KM in a 1 litre(!) bottle, and this was my first bottle of wine that came sealed with a bottle-cap (as in those beer bottle caps)! Ah yes, I will be sipping wine all day!

Here in Sarajevo, there are definitely more dining options, although all suffers from the same smoky fate as in Mostar.

"Are there any non-smoking section?" I would asked, and they would reply, "Yes, yes, no problem", and the interior of whatever establishment would reek of concentrated cigarette smoke. Al fresco seemed a tad better, though only during non-peak hours where air current flows determine your state of enjoyment!

Oh, and then there's the other kind of fast food. You know, starts with letter 'M'?

Yup, Mak Doner! :)

Sunday, April 6, 2014


"You know, today is 6 April. Today is freedom day", my hostel host said.

He had just picked me up from the train station to his family-run hostel in Sarajevo. I had unknowingly stumbled upon another historical date in my travels (another one was in Latvia).

In my mind, this must be related to the Bosnian War. But it was more. On 6 April 1945, Sarajevo was finally liberated from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Ironically, in a twist of fate, on the same day in 1992, the Bosnian War formally started and so began the Siege of Sarajevo - a siege that lasted 1425 days. I guess when my host said it is freedom day, he was refering to the first date.

Unfortunately, I missed most of the commemorations/ceremonies which were held early morning. However, from what I'm told, it essentially involved representatives from the various governments placing flowers and wreaths on the memorials and monuments in the city. In particular, I visited the Eternal Flame and indeed, there were many flower bouquets and stalks surrounding the flame. Many placed there by relatives of the war victims no doubt.

The Eternal Flame

Further away from the centre, a memorial dedicated to the children killed during the war is no less decorated. While the Eternal Flame lies on the side of a busy road, this memorial sits on the edge of a peaceful park. A park whose grounds are carpeted with fresh spring wildflowers. Indeed, spring is the season of renewal. And Bosnia & Herzegovina is certainly on the road to recovery and renewal. Today is a day to commemorate one's freedom, and also a day to remember not to take this freedom for granted.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Korean Wave

I arrived in Dubrovnik with mixed feelings. By all accounts, I've just arrived in Croatia's most expensive city. But as my bus stopped in front of Pile Gate, entrance to the famed walled city, one couldn't help but be excited to be exploring this UNESCO World Heritage site.

I knew that Dubrovnik is one of Europe's hottest vacation spots. But what I didn't expect was the Korean Wave. Granted, there were quite a number of Korean tourists in Plitvice Lakes, and in Split as well. But here within the old walled city, the Korean tourists were swarming the streets. I've noticed too that Samsung mobiles were quite popular with the Croatians, but then again, I think Samsung has penetrated quite abit of the European market. And so, I've met with many "acknowledging" nods from fellow tourists, who somehow think I look like a Korean.

Tourism culture in recent years have evolved with the advancement and convergence of digital photography and mobile technology. Not only is the mobile phone the dominant snapshot device of tourists, the recent popularity of "selfies" have somewhat created a different "travel phenomenon". Add that to a mass of (female) Korean tourists, and all selfie-hell breaks loose. While waiting for the cable-car to arrive to bring us up to Mount Srd for a stupendous view of Dubrovnik, 2 pairs of Korean gals were selfie-ing non-stop for 10 minutes with varying postures of the "2-finger salute" (also known as the Victory sign). And I can bet all my travel budget that these selfies could not even show the ticket counter behind them, let alone the sight that is the Dubrovnik walls. There were about 12-13 people in the cable-car. A pair of European tourists, me, and the rest were Koreans.

View of Dubrovnik from top of Mt Srd

I blew my budget for the Croatia leg of my Balkans trip. But truly, I could see why Dubrovnik is Croatia's top draw (although being a scenery sort of guy, my highlight was Plitvice lakes). Especially the walk atop the city walls, it is easily the best part of its attractions. The views of the Adriatic Sea beyond the walls, and the chaotic yet pretty roofs of the houses in the old town within, makes for a delightfully idyllic walk. And when confronted with such sparkling turquoise waters of the bay, the inevitable is bound to happen.

I held my compact cam towards myself and took a selfie.

Sight of daily life atop the walls

Commanding view of the walled city and the Adriatic Sea
Super clear waters on the bay

Postcard perfect