Merry Christmas from Montenegro

Winding through what seemed like never ending mountains, the twists and turns miraculously opened to a valley of water.

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What lay in front of us was the Bay of Kotor, one of Montenegro’s most popular vacation spots. Hitting the old town of Kotor in off season (this is a beach resort town), we felt like we had the place all to ourselves.

A maze of all pedestrian streets and independent shops, Kotor is a stunning place to see. Straight out of the Game of Thrones movie set (actually filmed in nearby city Dubrovnik), the steco rooftops and romantic streets provide a small maze to discover – although you can circle the town in about 10-15 minutes.

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The old fortress walls overlook the city and provide an outlook point to the bay. We hiked up to the top for a great view and bit of exercise.

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One of the great things about exploring ruins in non-western countries is the lack of fences and ‘protective’ safety nets cluttered around any high point or historical site. There is a certain freeness, yet lawlessness that is awesome but slightly worrisome at the same time…these ruins are a good example of that. Dating back to the 6th century, as well as the town, we climbed, overlooked and jumped around the stone structures.

Exiting this stunning town, we drove the coastline hitting Bar (do not bother), Budva and Sveti Stefan (do bother).

This gorgeous island turned resort is smaller than one would imagine for such a famed place. Unfortunately it was closed to visitors (yes the entire island), but no matter we still got the iconic views (and pictures) that made the place famous.

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Northern Montenegro

We focused on the coastline during our trip, however, if you have the time there are several national parks that are worth the trip. Lake Skadar offers ferry rides out of Virpazar, but they start extremely early so plan a day to take the trip. Biogradska Gora and Durmitar National parks border Kosovo, BiH and Albania. The outdoor adventure industry is still picking up, however Outdoor Albania (http://www.outdooralbania.com) does treks through all 3 countries on a 12 day mountainous adventure. Not for the light hearted.

Overall Montengro is a stunning resort town with a strong economy far beyond the rest of its neighbouring countries. Nice, but not overly interesting – I would recommend going for what it famous for – beaches and a bit of outdoor water adventure.

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The road that led us to Montenegro

We came to Eastern Europe for an adventure – and adventure we have found.

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Picture: Some of my favorite samples of all too frequent street art/graffitti on any free surface in BiH

First stop from Sarajevo to Kotor Bay (Montenegro) was in the town of Mostar.

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Pictured above is ‘Stari Most’ or the Old Bridge, BiH’s most iconic symbol. Built in the 15th century by Ottoman architect Sinan, it was sadly destroyed during the 1990s conflict along with ‘Stari Grad’ or old town.

As you can see the structure has been rebuilt along with the winding, all pedestrian market area of Stari Grad. We wandered the streets past the bridge to a historic mosque. For $2 you can enter the mosque and wander into the courtyard for fantastic views of this UNESCO heritage site.

Exiting Bosnia through the Dinaric Mountain range, we were about to get our first taste of Balkan back roads (little did I know this was just the start of our off-roading experience). Following our trusty GPS, we turned onto our 5 mile (which actually turned into 20 miles) unpaved, single lane mountain pass.

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What may not be apparent in the above photos is the 100ft drop on the other side of the car. No safety rails. If another car came, you simply had to wait until there was a patch of road big enough to scoot over and then play chicken on who was going to go first.

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I think probably the best part of this drive – other than the obvious views through the mountain side and untouched local villages – was my husbands reaction when initially turning onto this path. To quote “Nahh…No Way.” “Well it says turned onto the ‘unpaved path’ ” , my reply. Luckily a blue truck also turned onto the same path so we shrugged and started the most eventful drive we’ve had in our trip. Humorisly, Albanian roads are 10 times worse than our 1 way mountain pass and we have since never doubted the need to turn onto dirt paths to get to our final destination.

Is driving recommended in the Balkans? Hell yes. Just prepare yourself (and rent a car).

Entering Bosnia (BiH)

Crossing two border patrols, 5 tolls and countless small villages, we made our way to Sarajevo from northern Serbia.

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In many ways Sarajevo represents everything interesting about BiH. It has an odd mix of super modern shopping malls next to a bullet holed, spray painted buildings. The air smells of burning wood, smoking takes place anywhere (while cooking, eating or drinking) and mosques sit beside orthodox chuches.

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While the country has had a long list of ruling empires, the Ottoman Empire has left the most prominent cultural impact in the region of Sarajevo. Turkish coffee shops dot the town, and mosques blare the call to prayer 3 times a day (although not all in sync I might add). It is for this reason, this mix of so many cultures and backgrounds, that Sarajevo is a fascinating place to be.

We stayed in the middle of Sarajevo’s Baščaršija (http://hoteloldtown.ba); an ancient market established in the 15th century, it is an all pedestrian area that is filled with locals and tourists alike. Walking through the rows of shops its easy to forget the troubles that plagued the region in the 90s – there is little evidence it ever happened. Peaking a little past the tourist-veiled-smiles, however, the poverty of the country is still evident.

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Picture: Formerly a public drinking fountain, this reconstructed design marks the beginning of the maze of shops in Baščaršija

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Picture: Barely marked, the Latin Bridge pictured above marked the start of WWI with the assassination of Archeduke Franz Ferdinand

One worthwhile must-see is a trip to the tunnel museum (http://www.sarajevoinsider.com/tours/tunel-more.html). Driven by a local tour guide, we took the main street which was once known as “sniper alley” (Ulica Zmaja od Bosne). Sniper Alley – a road that is back to normal traffic nowadays – is the main road connecting central Sarajevo to the Airport (primary outpost for UN peacekeepers during the war). As such it was the most central way to get out of the siege that encompassed the capital for 4 years – the longest of sieges in modern warfare.

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With conventional means of exiting the city impossible, Bosnian Army engineers designed and dug a 340m tunnel under the international airport to their alley territory on the other side. A primary survival method during the war the tunnel brought food, supplies and weaponary.

A little known fact on the tunnel is that it was built under the home of a local family who have donated the structure to be a museum so that others can learn from the mistakes of the past. One can only hope that others learn from the errors of the past.

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Although talking with our local guide, it seems the Dayton accords have done little to assist the country in moving past its history. Set-up as a temporary fix, 3 presidents from each side of the war (Croats, Bosniacs, & Serbs) rotate annually as a means of compromise. Instead of compromising however, each president simply undo’s what the other has accomplished leaving a frustrated political system that digs deeper divides.

What is more troubling though is the education system. Children pile into segregated schools along religious/ethnic lines with different history books. Even if a child may attend the same school as another Serb/Croat/Bosniac, the school has a different name depending on your background.

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Walking through the city, ‘street art’ (aka graffiti) depicted many of the above messages – never forget.

Learn, yes. Forget? Sometimes a society needs a little forgetfullness. It is no contest that each side had its own set of atrocities committed, although many could belabour this point. More difficult than holding onto the pain of the past is something so simple, yet so difficult in war: Forgive.

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Novi Sad

Novi Sad marks our entrance into Serbia at the start of our 14 day road trip through emerging travel destinations in Europe: Bosnia Herzegovina (BiH), Montenagro, Albania, Macedonia (FYROM), and Kosovo. Having explored most of western Europe, I’m looking forward to touching the eastern parts of the continent, still raw from the 1990s.

Flying into Belgrade, I was pleasantly surprised by the pristine airport and newly built northern highway that led us to Novi Sad. I had this image of Serbia being this archaic-snowy-backwards-looking Russian country. You’ll be happy to know that none of the above is true, although it is still evident that the country is slowly, but surely, growing out of its war torn, communist era past.

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Guide books will say that Novi Sad is the ‘Athens of the North’, but I would say it is more the Budapest of South…but less vast and well-known. A 3 mile radius of newly built rainbow sandstone encompasses the town centre, leaving the rest of the outer radius less aesthetically pleasing.

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The famous Danube river lines the outer edge of town. It provides a backdrop to the citadel which sits on the top of a ridge across from the city centre. With stunning views of the rest of the town and laid with artists and swanky wine bars, the citadel was easily the most interesting part of town.

Novi Sad is worth the trip if you use it as a stopover to hike Fruska Gora national park, however, not necessarily recommended otherwise. Happy to have seen it, but not needed if short on time.

Fruska Gora
On our way out of the city we passed through a beautiful national park called Fruska Gora.

http://www.npfruskagora.co.rs/eng.html

Famous for its 32 monasteries scattered through the forest, it is a beautiful walk worth taking. As an added bonus, wine growers also populate the area primarily focusing on white chardonnays – a perfect way to end a day of walking!

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Trappist Breweries: An introduction

If there is anything about Belgium you should know, it is about beer (and politics, but that is a lot less fun).

There are upwards of 180 breweries and 700 or so different variations of beer in Belgium making it one of the worlds top places for true Micro-brews. One of the more famous variations of beer, and supposedly some of the tastiest in the world, are the Trappist breweries. These breweries are extremely rare: there are only 10 in the world and 6 of them reside in Belgium.

Brewed by Monks, all funds collected from selling the beer go to charities or to fund the abbey; so you can take pride in the fact that while you are enjoying your 8% brew, you are also supporting the abbey fund as well as charities from around the world!

Visiting Trappist Breweries
The ability to visit these exclusive breweries varies by the monastary.

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Chimay is the most well-known of the breweries and exports to all parts of the globe. However, despite its global name, visiting the abbey/gift shop (no Trappist breweries allow you to take tours of the brewing process) is underwhelming to say the least.

For 6 Euros you can take a mini-self guided tour on Chimay and its charities, however, you will be done with the ‘tour’ in about 20 min. Attached to the mini display is a pub and mini-gift shop which allows you to buy suvineor glasses. Overall though, not worth a special trip if you only have a few days in the country.

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Westvleteren, on the other hand, I would highly recommend. Famous among beer lovers, it has garnered many awards, including being named “the best beer in the world” for its dark, complex 12 variety.

The title, however, I believe comes from its exclusivity rather than actual taste. Westvleteren beer is not sold on the economy and it is one of the hardest beers to get your hands on. The only way to taste or buy the beer is to visit the small cafe attached to the monastery or schedule an appointment buy calling their appointment line – which is not always open. Buying the beer you are looking for (they have a Blonde, 8 & a 12) is not guaranteed either, even if you have an appointment to purchase a case. The monks brew a certain amount of each batch according to what they need to finance their monastery and nothing more. This modest beer industry creates an ever rising demand for their complex, interesting brews.

If you want a more inside look at how trappist beers are made, I recommend a trip to St. Bernardus. Only a few clicks away from the famed Westvleteren, it is rumoured that St. Bernardus has virtually the same beer receipe as Westvleteren as they both come from the same origins.

From 1962 – 1992 St. Bernardus brewed beer on behalf of Westvleteren. Then in 1992, Westvleteren broke away keeping to more traditional means of production while St. Bernardus expanded to international exportation.

http://www.sintbernardus.be/geschiedenis.php?l=en

Other Belgian Trappist breweries not mentioned above: Orvel, Westmalle, Archel

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What’s the difference?
If you are a Bud Light type of person, you will be sad to know that your light lager goes bad after 9 months in the bottle.

Trappist beers (and many other Belgium brews), however, preserve similar to a champagne – and are bottled the same. Larger champagne bottles preserve the beer for much longer than your regular 12oz, lasting 5-6 years or longer. They also taste that much better and pack a heavy punch being fermented twice or sometimes even 3 times in the case of triples.

With so many beers to try and not enough days in the year to sample them all, Belgium is the Mecca for beer lovers.