The Balkan Doživljaj*: Part I (arrival, and a much-needed holiday)

Preface: I had not taken a proper holiday all year. Months of 50+ hour weeks were grating on this wanderer’s spirit. I had planned literally NOTHING for the trip, save a B&B for the first and last days. I had not read the guidebooks. I had not figured out what one does in Croatia or Montenegro or Bosnia and Herzegovina for that matter. But I was on a plane, headed for the Balkans.


Part I: Dubrovnik

I arrive, late and groggy, and foggy from the long flight. Warm sea air and fortress walls welcome me to a new place I’ve read near-nothing about due to a near-overflowing plate of things to do back at home. All work and virtually no play for months make this a much-welcomed holiday (NB: as I begin to write, I am 9 days into a 17-day holiday and have not as yet looked at my work email or read any news.).

I sat and contemplated the upcoming 2 weeks, toes dangling in an aquamarine Adriatic on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, thinking and so it begins:

The B&B here in Dubrovnik is the only place I’ve booked for the trip, and the only “known” knowns at this stage of the adventure are these: my feet are on the ground, there is an old walled city to be explored, and my co-adventurer will arrive at 2100 tomorrow. I am the least-prepared for any trip I have ever taken.

Also, I have never read or watched Game of Thrones. This, I mention, because from the throngs of tourists on GOT tours throughout the city, it’s disturbingly clear that these filming locations were the show-stoppers, and ensuring proper selfie angles were more the goal, than admiring Dubrovnik’s centuries-old and history-rich walls and streets and architectural marvels.

First, Dubrovnik Old Town is gorgeous. Its marble streets are stunning, and the fairytale-esque fortress walls certainly seem less daunting in peacetime than when they were erected – outdoor cafés and gelato shops certainly help. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old city’s fortress walls were built in the 9th Century, re-fortified in the 14th Century, and even further strengthened in the 15th Century. What they hadn’t figured out then was how to protect themselves from a 1667 earthquake that demolished the city, and the 1991 onslaught by the Serbs (ditto). Speaking to any native Dubrovnik-ite, one gets the clear message that the signage throughout the old city about the Homeland War and especially the attack on Dubrovnik in 1991 is there to remind visitors that while GOT is a fantasy world, theirs is an everyday reality. Even 28 years later.

No other metaphor is nearly as apropos: playing something like a Game of Throngs, we walked the old city’s streets and tallied countless steps through the alleys and fortress walls (little did we know that this was only a mere taste of what was to come in the days that followed!), we found what locals consider the best gelato in the city (Peppino’s), the best spot for watching the sunset (atop Mt. Srđ), a quiet place to (cat) nap by the sea, and so many charming little hidden alleys with cats galore.

But 2 days in Dubrovnik is more than plenty, so it was time to move on. Next stop: Montenegro. Kotor first; then, as they say, we’ll figure it out.


*Doživljaj (Croatian/Serbian/Montenegran/Bosnian): n. experience, adventure. NB: I discover that they are not big on vowels here and that many words I’ve tried to pronounce have me sounding like a drunk muppet. Naprijed!

[Click Here to read Part II]

When in Rome: Part III, Traversing Trastevere and unsung Roman wonders

Day 4: The next morn, we set out for (quite literally) the bowels of the city. Atlas Obscura had pointed us (albeit vaguely) towards what is one of the oldest sewer systems in the world. Turns out, in the 6th Century BC, the Cloaca Maxima was how they (also literally) drained the swamp that was to be the grounds of the Roman Forum, and C was keen on seeing this engineering marvel. We followed squidgy directions, and finally, over bridges and down lesser-used stone stairways, found what amounted to a hole in a hole in the banks of the river, next to which was someone’s makeshift camp. On the bright side, the detour took us past the weirdly popular Mouth of Truth (say a lie in its presence and it will bite your hand off), and also enabled us to see the Tiber from a different perspective, taking us to a part of the city that didn’t have throngs of people milling about and queuing up to see just about anything.

View from below, as it were…

Over the bridge and through the charming quarter of Trastevere, with its vine-clad buildings and the narrow, cobbled streets I adore. This is the way I like to see a city, wandering without a specific agenda and bumping into authentic local wonders.

There’s poetry and tragedy and comic relief plastered throughout the city in its street art. And we stumble upon an old church that incorporated ancient Roman graffiti into its façade. It’s little marvels like this that impress me as much as the one we would stand in queue for the following day.

During this day of wandering, we come upon the Palazzo Spada, an almost nondescript palace tucked into an unobtrusive side street, where we encounter a small wonder called Borromini’s Perspective. We walk into a courtyard (the sculptures of which are a wonder in their own right), which contains a window to an optical illusion – a corridor has been built, at the end of which stands a statue. The statue is a mere 60cm (or 2’) tall, and the corridor is a mere 8metres long. By the magic of mathematics and architecture, the perspective looks like a regal gallery many metres longer…the distance between me and the couple in the photo below is in fact greater than the distance between them and the statue.

From here, we return to the Forum, where we’d hoped to get a sunset view from Palatine Hill. Little did we know that only a fraction of the hill was accessible sans billet, as it were, and that the rest of the site closed at 3:30 – a good hour and a half before sunset. Another place added to the next day’s itinerary.

Skirting the crowds, we find a spot to gain some perspective from above and it’s here that we stop to marvel at the site (sic) of so many structures that formed the center of ancient Rome; the Colosseum, perhaps the most famous structure in this now-modern city, is but a tiny dot in the background.

I can see how one becomes inured to these wonders, and how easy it would be to take for granted these things, though magical and important to new eyes, they can become near-boring on one’s daily run to the store for milk and bread.

And life is like that, I think, as we toast with (massive!) flutes of limoncello to the marvels around us, the majestic Colosseum quietly looming across the way and chatty Italian millennials snapchatting and tittering at the table behind us. We see what we take time to observe, we undervalue what is easily at our fingertips, only maybe revelling in gratitude upon reflection.


We’ve wandered more than a half-marathon’s worth of steps today and the cobblestones seem to wobble more on this walk back to the B&B (it could, perhaps, have been the limoncello), the Colosseum seems to glow brighter, the crisp Roman night seems to embrace us as we wander through the Forum, clip-clop of horse-drawn chariots (erm, carriages) resonating in the night.

Tomorrow, we visit The Vatican.

Read more When in Rome: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II]

When in Rome, Part I: Arrival, Wandering, and New Year’s Eve

Day 1: Arrival and the beginning of a mini-adventure, in which I meander from Termini (station) to Forum (B&B), arrive in awe of the sheer magnitude of the architecture, and wander about the crowded streets that divide the Fora and lead the throngs to and from the Colosseum.

The evening before, I had boarded a British Airways 747, my frequent flyer miles and some manipulation of schedules landing me in a Business Class seat. A multi-pronged luxury it was, as the past 3 months had been a whirlwind of work and little sleep, resulting in an unintentional avoidance of adulting, and a lack of attention to detail on the home front. When you get home, you’ll have to deal with it all, a somewhat-envious inner voice reminds. That noted, I feel only a bit guilty at the indulgence and glad to leave the gray December New England skies behind if only for a few days.

I arrive groggy, from both a short night’s sleep and more than enough vino plied by the nice airline folk. A Roman day with its crisp and clear blue sky greets me, tho; the relative warmth already seeping into my pores.

Arrival is always a little overwhelming; not knowing the way, the landmarks, the language… It’s mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve eve, my first time in Rome and I’m still semi-embarrassed because it’s a rather frivolous way to end one year and herald in the next. I’m here a day early to shake jetlag and get my sea legs before I meet my co-hedonist. I navigate the uneven Roman streets from Termini station towards my B&B, thankful for Google Maps to guide me because I’m too frugal (read: aghast) to pay the 60€ for a car from the airport. This is a marginally longer commute, but I rather like walking and it’s a nice way to get immediately immersed in a new place on arrival.

I’ve been warned enough of the pickpockets here from the travel blogs I’ve read and all the signage everywhere… Is it such a rampant problem, I wonder, or are they just stoking visitors’ anxiety around being in a Foreign Place? Foreign, being a relative term, as it looks more foreign to me than it actually feels. Decidedly European, I decide on first impression; confirmedly ancient, I then observe, as the Colosseum leaps into view when I turn a corner towards my hotel. There it looms, large and impressive at the end of the via. Another corner, and 3 columns of one of the Fora materialise at the end of the street. Cobbled steps, a fountain (one of hundreds that are scattered throughout the city) flowing with clean, fresh water. 10 more metres and I’m at the B&B, where I see my first ruin up close.

I arrive also without much of an itinerary, save a map I’ve bodged together to mark recommendations from friends and sites that look too good to miss. It’s in the spirit of getting the lay of the land that I set out to wander the neighbourhood to keep occupied and awake enough until proper bedtime*.

Real first impressions: it’s crowded, where crowded is an understatement. I start the journey a little off-put if I’m honest. I don’t want to spend our precious days here waiting in line alongside tour groups. I chalk up the looming mood to cranky, hungry, tired, travel-weariness. But the sites so far are breathtaking: the Colosseum at dusk, the Foro di Augusto glowing in the evening’s light; the Roman Forum across the way; the 35-metre tall Colonna Traiana, with its comic book-looking depiction of the wars between the Romans and Dacians spiralling up its length; the magnificent Typewriter building, the Altare della Patria, whose imposing stature dwarfs the other wonders in this area.** Non male, as they say, for the first few hours…tomorrow, I explore!


Throngs and wonders, a big dome with a hole in it, a creepy crypt, and things that go ka-boom in the night

Day 2: Before C arrives, I’ve got about 5 hours to see some of the sites I’ve plotted on my map. First, it’s the Pantheon – not to be confused with the Parthenon (Athens) or the Panthéon (Paris)! 😂

Like many monuments, the Pantheon is a former Roman temple that now serves as a church (I take a heathenistic moment to ponder whether there are enough congregants for the astounding number of churches in this city). One of the factoids I’ll learn this week is that the dome of the Pantheon is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The astounding fact to me, tho, is that it was built in 126AD and still in pristine condition! And as if to out-do all other fountains I’ll see here, the one in the Piazza della Rotunda is a wonder in its own right.

Speaking of fountains: toss a coin over your (left) shoulder (with your right hand) into the Trevi Fountain, and it will ensure a return trip to Rome (more coins assure both romance and marriage). And over 1m € per year are thus tossed. I’ve read that the €s go to the needy. I’m not hard pressed to fling coins, but I’m pressed hard as I squirm my way to the fountain’s edge, disenchanted by the throngs by the time I’m down there.

There’s always an elephant…

On the way to the Pantheon, though, I passed a man playing what I surmise is a hammered dulcimer. He’s set up in front of an elephant bearing an obelisk that sits in front a nondescript church. It’s the little wonders, I remind myself, and not necessarily the big attractions that are some of the most memorable.

After Trevi, I find I’ve still got time, so I head towards the Spanish Steps (when in Rome…). These 174 steps run from the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the the Trinità dei Monti church and are the darling of many a famous movie and song. More fountains; ditto, the throngs: it’s because of the latter that one cannot see any actual steps, and for just a moment I wonder if I’ve mis-stepped in coming here.

What steps? But a nice view from the top!

Fleeing the masses, I point my GPS in the direction of an Atlas Obscura oddity: the Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts, or the Crypts of the Capuchin Friars. This ossuary rivals that of the Catacombs in Paris; what it lacks in grandeur it makes up for in creativity. Suffice to say that the artiste took creative liberties in arranging not only the stacks of bones (some 4000 skeletons are (dis)assembled here), but also the various bodies in repose (fully-frocked Friars) and flight (child-sized bodies looking down from the ceiling; skulls with scapula-wings). The walls and ceilings were covered in mandalas and chandeliers, each surface laden with myriad symmetrical designs, all made from individual bones and carefully arranged in gruesome patterns that affected something of a moribund paint-by-number display.

As I wend my way back, I stumble across the We Run Rome road race and flash a 2019 goal to do a 10k (we’ll see!). But first, it’s Pizza for lunch, a trip to a local wine and cheese shop for aperitivo supplies and then back to the B&B to get ready for New Year’s festivities.


Ringing in the New Year, Roman style!

Italians eat dinner late. So an 8:30 dinner is on the early side, but we’ve managed to find some fantastic melanzane parmigiana at a little local place in the piazza near the B&B. New Year’s Eve, thus far: Prosecco and Parmigiana. Next stop, Pyrotechnics.

I’m not a fan of huge crowds or wild New Year’s Eve parties. But since it’s my first in a European city, la Fiesta di Roma is on the docket. It takes place in Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), the grand sports stadium where they once held chariot races and Ludi, festivals for the gods. In its day, the capacity was 250,000. Tonight, I’d estimate there’s 50,000+ modern Romans. We listen to the weird music, watch the bizarre dance and aerial show (a tribute to the ludi of yore?) and ooh and ahh over the fireworks display over the ruins of the Palatine palace. It may be the most dramatic setting for fireworks I’ve ever seen.

The festival goes for 24 hours, but 2am feels like we’ve been up for a week. We make it long enough to purchase a bottle of bubbly from a street vendor (C’s post-midnight haggling is impressive!) and toast to goals and future adventures.

The finale of the NYE fireworks at Circus Maximus, Rome

Happy New Year!  Read more: [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

*Jet lag avoidance tip #1: when travelling East, stay up as long as possible the day you arrive, so you go to bed at proper local bedtime in an attempt to fool your body into waking up at a moderately human hour the next morn.

**Among other nicknames for the monstrosity are la dentiera (the dentures, in reference to its white marble in stark contrast to its surroundings) and la torta nuziale (the wedding cake).

Iceland: Land of fire and ice (And trolls. And probably unicorns)…

[Sverige: Del ett | Stockholm, Day 1]         [Sverige: Del två | Bergslagsleden]          [Sverige: Del tre | Birthday in Stockholm]

Iceland is like Sweden’s weird cousin that shows up at all the big holidays. It looks more like the moon or a newly-discovered boiling planet than the other Nordic countries, yet it shares the same ancient gods and speaks some variant of an old mother tongue. It’s intriguing, mysterious, remote, cold and hot (simultaneously)… It’s the one who tells all the cool stories at family gatherings, tales so far-fetched that we’re not sure whether they’re real or not.

It’s roughly the size of Kentucky (or, the size of Ireland and Belgium combined), but with a population smaller than the city of Nice; so once you leave Reykjavik virtually everywhere feels like you’re in the middle of Nowhere. It’s almost like a theme park, divided into regions where the farther from the airport you stray, the more A-tickets you’ll need (Adventure tickets, that is…).

One corner looks like a troll nursery, while another, a boiling cauldron ready to burst its seams and spew scalding water or lava or unicorn entrails… one never knows.

I’ve been curious about this strange place, and I’m known to take a photograph or two (or 642) when I travel, so I made plans for a 3-day stopover here on my way back from Sweden, taking advantage of Icelandair’s #MyStopover promotion, where they don’t charge you extra to add days to your ticket when you fly through Reykjavik. You do, however, get to pay for your hotel, rental car and anything you do or eat while you’re here. One thing to note: Iceland is not cheap. On the plus-side, most of the things to do are outdoors, and for the most part, free (unless you do a tour).

So I land in the land of fire and ice, acquire my rental car (another note: you need 11 different types of insurance to cover the land/air/sea hazards that may or may not occur while driving in this place), and I’m off: first stop the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which I’ve nicknamed Snuffleupagus because it’s only just moderately easier to pronounce, to see mountains and waterfalls and old churches and fantastic coastlines.

My first observation: there are no trees here. But: black mountains and weird green rolling hills pop up from flat expanses, appearing out of the fog like they’ve just sprung from the depths of some grim faery tale. It’s like Kansas meets Mars or the Moon, in black (and green) and gray, but there are still literally no trees, just a smattering of what looks like wheatgrass and moss-covered boulder fields. And rainbows appear on a moment’s notice, since it’s drizzling then sunny…not terribly unlike New England weather. But with ink-black earth. And volcanoes. And maybe trolls.

About an hour outside of Reykjavik, wending my way north and west, I encounter a tunnel*. Only later do I find out that it is called the Hvalfjarðargöng, and only when I’m 1 or 2km in, do I realise it’s the longest tunnel I’ve ever driven (nearly 6km long and 165 metres deep), rock-lined and sloping steeply (8%!) to enable travel beneath the Hvalfjarður fjord. It’s as I resurface here that I behold the first of many Icelandic rainbows I’ll see in the following days.

The hotel is the only thing lit in the little town of Hellnar when I arrive. And by little, I mean there seems only to be the one hotel, a cluster of about 15 clean-cut, brown houses, an old church, a couple of other buildings, maybe another restaurant, and an expanse of coastline. The staff, friendly; the tea, hot; the bed, cosy. I’ve spanned 2500km in a plane and another 230+ kms driving up here in the wild and woolly weather. This flicka is ready for sängen.

I shot on the order of 600 photos in 3 days, beginning that Monday morn. How? When the landscape and the light are otherworldly, and the sky shows a different side every 8 minutes, even a simple snapshot out the window of a hotel room has a mood and a texture like a painting.

So on this new day, when the dreariness looked like it wanted to thwart an entire stopover, I woke up and steeled myself for the worst of elements. At brekkie, though, the clouds broke. For a precious few moments the sun appeared as if it would stay the day… alas, by the time I was ready to embark (a mere 20 minutes later), the skies darkened and Thor reigned (and rained and rained). Undaunted, I set out (rather, there is quite literally NOTHING to do here except look at nature, so I went anyway). First stop: Kirkjufellsfoss.

The road from Hellnar to Kirkjufellsfoss is across the Snæfellsnes peninsula: follow the main road, make a left at the black church “on the corner” and make a right when you see water again. There are few roads here and, it must be stated, they are in very good condition – Iceland even has a website dedicated to road status…the weather here is so changeable that many roads close due to water, mud, snow, ice, etc. at the drop of a hat.

The Kirkjufellsfoss is one of the most-photographed landmarks in Iceland, and my ultimate dream was to capture the Northern Lights here, though I’m doubtful the weather will permit it. I arrive, driving through the small mountains, then along the coast, a drive lined with moss-covered lava fields, dramatic green hills, glacial peaks and an otherwise other-worldly landscape.

The tour bus and teeming tourists turn me off at first (as do the rain and wind). But the clouds momentarily break, the bus leaves, and I am left with a living photograph before me… The shot, worth it. Then the skies then darken and it begins to hail.

Hailstorm, brief, I set off again, towards the seaside town of Stykkishólmur, situated on the northern side of the Snuffleupagus peninsula. It is quaint, and I climb up to the lighthouse during a break in the showers, rewarded with a view of the bay, rainbow touching down on one of the surrounding islands.

My Snæfellsnes loop continued with a stop at the renowned Búðakirkja, a dark-brown church built in the early 1700’s by a Swedish merchant, torn down and rebuilt (twice!) before the mid-1800’s. It is only made more stunning by its site (mountains on one side, the wild North Atlantic on the other) and the magic Icelandic skies. I continue along that coast, stopping multiple times, gape-mouthed, to photograph the landscape. I vow to put that Nikon 14-24 f2.8 lens on my wishlist.

By midafternoon on that first day, cold and wet were factors by which I had stopped measuring my well-being. The weather began as gray, moved to alternately downpouring and sunny, shifted to gale-force winds (in which, at one point, I had to hold onto my rental car to avoid getting flung off a cliff), hail, more rain, then brooding fog. More sacrifices to the gods of Gore-Tex. The winds, unrelenting! Njörðr (Njord), Norse god of sea and wind, is ever-present. One wonders why this strange place wasn’t called Norway instead.

On Tuesday, I’m slated to stay in the South Coast town of Vik. My plan is to head that way in the morning, stopping along the way when I see things that pique my interest. From Hellnar to Vik is about 360km, the weather only marginally better than the day before.

I stopped to get gas in a small town called Hveragerði, somewhere between Reykjavik and Hell(a)… Turns out it’s a geothermal hotbed here, the hillsides boiling just below the surface, and the continental plates threatening to move farther apart at any moment.

I took a small hike in the town’s geothermal park, met a lovely local woman named Jenny (pronounced “Yenny”) and her dog, and visited their quirky earthquake museum, where I stood in the void between the Eurasian and North American plates.

The earth here, mineral-rich and vibrant in the pre-downpour sunshine, seemed to speak…creaking and bubbling as it sent up its wafts of steam from underground cauldrons. The air, its texture, like silk: smooth and thin and soft. Jenny told me she moved here because the energy was different; that the place somehow called her to stay.

As the sun was getting lower in the sky, I stopped to explore Seljalandsfoss, tourist magnet that it is – it’s one of the waterfall wonders here, and because of the stone’s configuration, you can walk behind it (if you don’t mind getting a tad wet!).

And again the landscape changes on this part of the island, on one side of the roadway, there’s glacial peaks bounded by dormant volcanoes, on the other there’s flat, black expanses dotted with what looks like meteorites. It’s remnants from the volcano that erupted here in 2010. Nobody can pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, so they just call it “the volcano that mucked up all the flights.” All this lava yields to fertile fields and farms promising horse riding on the celebrated Icelandic ponies. It changes again as the road wends back towards the coastline, with its basalt cliffs and black beaches. And I arrive at a little guest house in Vik for my final night.

My last morning, I spend an hour or two wandering the hills above the town, then out the jetty to view the Reynisdrangar rocks from my perch some 300 metres into the sea. Legend states that the rocks are mischievous trolls, caught in the sunlight and frozen as pillars of jagged rock, after a night of dragging ships to shore.**

I drive the way I came, stopping along the route to see what I can in the little time left. As I leave, I reflect that what I’ll remember more than the famous waterfalls, the oft-photographed landmarks, and the tourist-filled hotspots, is the landscape leading to-and-from the wonders.

This is how I spent most of my time outdoors in Iceland…this, and holding onto heavy things to avoid getting flung over cliffs.

NB: I’ve found that the coolest, most amazing experiences I’ve had travelling are the ones not in a guide book, but rather what arises (and surprises) when you least expect it: A trail lined with wild blueberries; cartoon mushrooms popping up from the mossy forest floor; fresh kanelbulle from a local baker; a stranger coming to your aid when you are out of options; a kind local guiding you to the best view in a town you can’t pronounce; deep sleep in an old dirt-floored cabin beside a stream; a paddle down a canal beside an urban island once used as the Royal hunting grounds; a hike through rainbow-coloured steaming earth; a hail storm then a magnificent rainbow on a volcanic coastline in a village with 12 houses…

And so, with a last-minute road closure that diverts traffic over a small mountain on a semi-paved road and gets me to the airport almost an hour later than necessary, I leave these Nordic lands behind, hoping to return again as soon as my interpreter will have me.

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A view from our misty, mossy camp along the Berslagsleden…

[Sverige: Del ett | Stockholm, Day 1]         [Sverige: Del två | Bergslagsleden]          [Sverige: Del tre | Birthday in Stockholm]


*Side note: tired from travel and gobsmacked by the scenery, I accidentally got stuck in the EZPass lane (perhaps ËZPæðþ here?), so time will tell what my penalty is in retrospect.

**According to Norse Mythology, Trolls are said to turn to stone upon contact with sunlight.

Sverige, del ett: Stockholm

I’m eating Swedish pancakes and yogurt on a boat in the Stockholm Archipelago, mere steps from the exquisite Riddarholmskyrkan, the Riddarholm Church. Just a bridge and a few more blocks away is the famed Gamla stan and Stockholm’s Old Town, in which I stumbled around during my Day-1-massive-jetlag state yesterday afternoon.

My bags are laden with supplies, for I am to meet my Swedish Interpreter/Adventurer here this evening.

Supplies: enough for the week-long backpacking and kayaking expedition we’ve planned in the Swedish wilderness.

The Swedish wilderness: of this, I am a bit leery, but with the weeks I’ve had back home of late, I’m ready for this or any other adventure the days ahead may bring.

Preparedness: To get myself up to the task, I’ve been walking and hiking and yoga-ing and squatting and planking. And shopping…I’ve got new hiking boots, sleeping bag, pad and other accessories, borrowed a proper backpack. I dehydrated a week’s worth of interesting foodstuffs, made energy bars and snacks. I’ve stuffed it all into my largest rolling duffel, added clothing for being seen in public and touristing around Stockholm for a few days, plus garb for a 3-day stopover in Iceland on my return. I somehow managed to come in under the 23kg weight limit for checked baggage. [Note: it’s an understatement to say that navigating the cobbled streets here is tricky under load.]


Last night I managed to navigate from the airport to Stockholm’s Central Station, then to the Tunnelbana, Stockholm’s Metro, and on to Gamla stan, then a short walk along the water to the boat-hotel, with views of the surrounding islands. Ferries marked “Djurgården” zip back and forth. I’m to discover Djurgården for real later in the week.

Stockholm is a strategically-situated city, the center of which sits amidst 14 islands, an impressive archipelago at the intersection of Lake Mälar and the Baltic. Most of the islands are connected by bridges, making it seem like a nice city to wander around, if (literally) scattered. There are also archipelago cruises you can take, which, I’m noting, would be a lovely way to spend a summer afternoon. Wind is whipping across the way, and it’s September and I’m already layered in an early-winter jacket, so I’m also noting that swimming here might be even colder than a dip back home.

Jetlag avoidance tips: Take an overnight flight. Dricker mycket vatten (employ some of the 11 or 25 Swedish words absorbed for the trip). Remain awake and upright throughout arrival day. Walk off the late afternoon weariness. Take in the tail-end of a half-marathon. Stare in wonder at local landmarks. Eat a proper dinner. Wobble back to boat-hotel, stopping to gawk at the low-hanging crescent moon, shining golden above the twinkling lights of the boats on the water. Collapse into boat-bunk and sleep for a solid 10 hours.


Awake, rested, fed and watered, I’ve embarked on a day of wandering, biding time until I meet up with said Interpreter. It’s bilfria gator dag, car-free day, here in the city center. I have had no time to read up on things to do in Stockholm, so I’ve just wandered down to the waterfront by the Grand Hotel, where I’m currently being berated by a one-legged magpie for not sharing more of my kanelbulle with him.

This city is working its magic on me already. First, it’s spotless. There are trash barrels every 20 metres (where people consciously, if not religiously, recycle). The architecture is a fantastic display of 16th and 17th Century buildings, some even older… In this part of the city, there are churches and palaces and grandly-carved stone arches and gargoyles and rooflines everywhere you turn; the buildings a palette of warm and inviting hues that has me wanting to redecorate when I get home.

I wander into one of the Royal Palace’s exhibition halls to view the decadent royal carriages on display, wherein I learn of a certain young Swedish Count (Hans Axel von Fersen the Younger) and his seemingly torrid affair with Marie Antoinette (in the process noting my ignorance of pan-European historical scandal).

The waterfront: exquisite, as are the elaborately-spired buildings lining the water across the way


Because it’s Sunday and additionally car-free day, it’s quite nice that nobody seems to be in much of a rush to get anywhere. And so, I’m absorbing what I can as a stranger in a (somewhat) strange land.

Observations: Stockholm is a more multicultural city than I expected. Though I of course know different, somehow I still envisioned a city full of leggy blond folk, and I’m curiously surprised to observe legs of all heights and hues, attached to bodies just as varied. This morning I chatted with an Iraninan-born woman, a biomedical engineer living here now. Here, of course, the immigrant debate is alive and well, fueling (or fueled-by) an uptick in the volume of the far-right Swedish Democrats, a party perhaps more frightening than our own right wing extremists back home.

I’ve overheard chatter in a multitude of languages, and my attempts in Swedish (tack, ursäkta, snälla, en kannelbulle tack…) appreciated and replied-to en engelska. I’d been warned that Swedes like to practice their English as much as visitors want to butcher (erm, attempt) their language (Scandinavian efficiency wins). It’s refreshing, the chatter without the in-your-face loudness of a place that Needs To Be Heard (All The Time!). I realise I’m quieter when I travel; not only because I don’t know the language, but also because sometimes it’s nice to not hear even my own American English.

I take in the quiet of car-free day. And as if to punctuate the day’s non-din, the drumming from two guys in a cart, being driven around by a bike (a Swedish Tuk-Tuk, perhaps?), is a silly surprise as it clambers by.


I stroll. The day warms. And the lovely afternoon affords nearly 20kms of urban hiking by day’s end. It’s time now for this not-as-weary traveller to meet her co-adventurer and continue the journey into the Swedish wilderness.

Explorers ho! (as they say)

The adventures continue: Sverige, del två: Hiking the Bergslagsleden

Ode to the pre-travel freakout

IMG_20180418_150104_957It’s common, I think, to have a pre-trip freakout or two.

I pass through phases: a week or two out, a couple days out, and then of course the day I land: a jet-lagged, culture-shocked lump, just having been hurled through space and time in a giant flying metal tube, stepping foot on another continent, into a different climate; the concept of away hitting all senses at once.

And so, on a day that finally resembles springtime in New England, in my mind is a scene like this, a pristine beach and a turquoise horizon. The first of the faraway travel freakouts has subsided… the international wire transfer sorted, deposits deposited, visa acquired, travel advisories acknowledged, packing started, work delegated (and colleagues on board), lists checked.

I know I’m not the only one who goes through stages of freak-out before a trip, and it’s National Poetry Month here in the US, so I penned a silly ode to the things that run through my head as I prep for the next adventure.

Ode to the pre-travel freakout…

You’ll make your connection,
Your bags will get through,
The hotel won’t be awful,
The skies will be blue…
.
The orange asshat won’t wage war,
Your visa is fine,
The dog will be in good hands,
And the water heater won’t die…
.
A smiling co-adventurer will meet you,
The diving won’t suck,
Your French is somewhat passable,
So, monkey mind, STFU!

😊🐒🌴

 

Morocco, Part IV: an ancient curse, the dark side of Marrakech and the magic of street food

[Morocco, Part I] [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part III]

When we last left our intrepid traveller, she had been deposited at the busy end of the Fna, desperately in need of the loo (and a shower), an hour late and quite eager to meet her co-adventurer back at the riad…

Jemaa el Fna at night

Truth be told, I navigate better by gut than by map, so after a quick pit stop at the nearest café (NB: it is a fact that in any ladies’ room on the planet, it will always be occupied by someone having a vivid argument on her mobile, and the intensity of the conversation will be in direct proportion to how badly you need to pee), I trust my instincts (and cheat with Google Maps only once) to guide me back to the riad. Briefly revelling in my triumph, I arrive with barely half an hour to spare before C appears. Our reunions are always nice, as was the tagine dinner and Fna-gazing from the rooftop. It’s a different world up there; the din of the music and the drums and the crowds are near-silent within the walls of the riad.


Explorers-ho!

The mission for the weekend is to explore the souks and The Medina. I hadn’t ventured too far my first afternoon, and by the next morning I was excited to see the sights. With company, I figured, it wouldn’t be as daunting. I must report that the bazaars I’ve been to in India and in Istanbul pale in comparison to the ferocity with which the souks here in Marrakech do their souking. Hundreds, non, milliers, of stalls fan out from the Jemaa el Fna square in semi-organised lanes, lined floor to ceiling with wares, some sections carry general themes: cuir, olives, cuivre, vêtements, textiles, lampes, épices… The rest of the stalls, piled high with pottery and scarves and shoes and crafts and rugs and…I’m confident that one could find literally anything here.

By this point we’ve spent some time haggling for trinkets, and I’m beginning to get my sea legs back – in French! We’ve spent an hour or more in a gorgeous lamp shop, genially negotiating, finding C the one thing (actually, three) he’s wanted to get here: some filigreed copper lamps, and I’ve even chosen one for myself as well. We’re feeling accomplished but hungry, maybe a little haggle-weary, and on our way back through the chaos we run into the super-nice Puerto Rican couple from my jaunt in the desert. We’ve decided to have lunch together in a café overlooking the square, so we’re en route when we’re accosted by a very insistent woman, babbling in nursery rhymes, keen on hennaing me. She’s not as keen on C’s brush off and looks him squarely in the eye as she invokes the ancient and potent Berber curse. Every hair in C’s scrappy beard stands on end as she says, finger pointed in warning: Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he? It’s clearly lunchtime.

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Jemaa el Fna at lunchtime on a Friday, just before the afternoon Adhan

The Adhan, or call to prayer, sounds haunting from above – 3 minarets broadcast the muzzeins’ calls in unison, lunchtime din mixes with the prayers.

Running amok…

After depositing our souk winnings and a siesta, we embark on the next check-box for the day: completion of C’s RunStreak. You see, he’s an ultramarathoner in recovery from a frustrating injury so he’s challenged himself to a 20 minute (and >1.6 km) run each day for the month. I’m an incidental beneficiary (??) of the challenge. And so we set out this afternoon, not entirely sure how it will play out – even with all the European influnce here it is still a very conservative Muslim country. I’ve covered myself head to toe; but still, in running tights and a long-sleeved/hooded sweatshirt, I feel a bit exposed in this place where the sight of a woman’s legs sans frock is near blasphemy. We run through the Fna square and across to Koutubia mosque, with its orange trees ripe for picking. It goes okay, I haven’t gotten berated or stoned, so I’m feeling a little better about the next day’s plan for an even longer run in these streets.

Street food for dinner in the largest open-air cafeteria on the planet

If rigid ideology is what divides us, food is what unites. Jemaa el Fna is a mélange of sound, smoke and smell; an open-air cafeteria for all the senses. There are the food hawkers of course, but also the drumming and other instruments (the gimbri or the oud, Moroccan versions of the lute), the insistent clapping of the two-sided Moroccan maracas; there’s a resonance of flutes in the air…not to mention the snake charmers and storytellers and singers, all swirling their words, in Arabic and Tamazight and French, with the smoke from the cooking fires. The smell is something I’ll always remember as warm and spicy and rustic and elemental.

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In the evening, the stalls go up: dozens of pop up restaurants selling variations on a theme, organised into rows of similar foodstuffs. One row is snails, one row soups, one row meats, one row kebabs, one row desserts. We choose a stall on faith – they’re numbered, and representatives from each stall go out into the crowd to entice hungry-looking wide-eyed lingerers to their tables. It’s an amazing visual, a well-choreographed nightly ritual.

Our first experiment is snails. We’re served a small bowl of the critters from a giant steaming pot, and use toothpicks to pluck them out. They’re a thinner, more peppery version of escargot, sans the butter and garlic. So they’re nothing like escargot at all really, but I’m glad to have tried them.

Bread is a staple at every meal. And mint tea. I order olives and Moroccan salad (something like ceviche without the fish); C orders an entire lamb’s head (because, of course you do) and has way more food than he can possibly eat, so we share an entire plate of meat, plus some of the bread, with the sweet, chatty family sitting next to us; they’re clearly grateful that we’ve shared our dinner.

Dessert is a thick tea; a ginger, anise and cinnamony mix of spices (there does not seem to be any actual tea in the tea), served from massive copper urns, accompanied by dense, crumbly cake that is something of a cross between halvah and gingerbread. I think I could stand here at this stall for an hour, sipping this luxurious tea and watching the Fna go by. Grand total for dinner: 150 dirhams; approx. 15€.


We’re quite good at getting lost together, C and I, but usually it’s in a forest or on a mountain, not on the narrow alleyways of an ancient city. We’d stumbled around The Medina that morning, deeper into the souk streets, finding the old slave market that now houses olives and textiles; exploring old caravanserais (fondouqs), old lodging houses for traders on the caravan routes – the bottom floors wide open to accommodate camels, the rooms on the upper floors for travellers. Only 140 of these fondouqs remain in The Medina; they’re gorgeous old buildings now home to artisan workshops.

We wandered until we found ourselves near the tannery, where, before we knew it, we were being handed Berber gas masks (sprigs of mint) against the smell, and guided into the lieu. There are two tanneries, we’re told: the Arabic one, where they use machines and chemicals to cure the hides (typically cow), and the Berber one, where they use natural ingredients (including “pigeon poo”) to prepare the leather (the more durable camel, and also goat). It’s more fascinating than stinky, and for that fact alone I’m grateful it’s not 10° warmer. And I’m not surprised as we’re then guided into a shop to haggle for more goods (I score a pair of handmade leather shoes) before meandering back out into the maze.

It’s here that we become frustratingly lost and ask directions – we’re aware of the scams so we ask to be pointed the way back. This was the diciest moment of the trip: the guy who initially pointed out the directions began to lead; the streets grew quieter and we were lead into an empty courtyard where he pointed to a minaret (not the one we were looking for, I realised) and demanded money to lead us to it. We said no (again) and began to walk back the way we came. Just then, 3 or 4 of his friends appear from out of nowhere. There are no other people around and we are surrounded by these guys in a really narrow alley, demanding to be paid for their, erm, services. I don’t think I had time to be afraid because when I saw how angry C was, the don’t fuck with me look in his eyes said all the guys needed to know. They backed off just moments before it could have come to ugly blows.

Crisis averted, Google maps gets us to more familiar territory, and we let the adrenaline die down over a fantastic rooftop lunch. It’s times like this I think of that Charles Schulz quote, “In life, it’s not where you go, it’s who you travel with.” We toast, with mint tea, to this very moment in time.

Rooftop lunch at Bazaar Cafe

The afternoon is more wandering, more haggling (argan oil and scarves), more running – this time through the magnificent Cyberparc Arsat Moulay Abdessalam, its manicured gardens and meandering paths a striking contrast to the din of the souks. And finally, after the long day, dinner redux at Jemaa el Fna.

Because food is half the adventure of travel, we first try soup from one place (the ubiquitous harira, which I’ll try to replicate when I get home), then seek out some other vittles for the main course. “Number 55 is stinky food,” we’re told by a guy representing a virtually empty stall. We choose number 55, of course, as it is packed with many more locals than tourists – always a good sign.

The lamb tangia is cooked in earthen pots over an open fire. We’re seated at a long table with sheets of paper for mats, Berber bread plunked down in the middle, Berber whiskey (mint tea) served alongside the meal. Next to us sits a family of 3, excitedly awaiting their dinner. It is served with fanfare, and we watch in equal anticipation as the waiter unfurls the dish. The meal, barely enough for two, is placed in front of the family. But before they begin, we are offered the first taste with a warm gesture.

We’re enjoying the food (C’s got the tangia; mine is a really good roast veggie plate), revelling in the gregariousness and absurd hospitality of the cooks/waiters, welcoming the kindness of strangers. We share bread, we share our meals, we eat in the din of the night amongst thousands of strangers. This is nice, I think…What is it that we’re doing wrong in the West, when welcoming foreigners is discouraged, as if we’d lose something of ourselves if we were to gain new perspective or new friends. It pains me that if the tables were on this soil, this scene wouldn’t likely have played out.

 


We wake the next morning and it’s already time to go. A quick riad brekkie and C is off to the races, almost literally, as the Marrakech Marathon has snarled traffic and, ironically, he has to walk part-way to the airport. I get a few hours more, the first part of which I spend drinking mint tea in a sunny café in the quiet of the morning Fna, watching the day (and the vendors) unpack. I had wanted to see the photography museum, but after our ordeal in that general vicinity yesterday I decide I’d better not get lost with just hours before my flight. Instead, I set a goal of getting the most for the last dirhams in my pocket and venture back into the souks. And I feel pretty good, parting with my last 100 dirham bill and some coins in exchange for some hand-painted bowls. I feel an even more an accomplished haggler when the shopkeeper, laughing, calls me a Berber. For that I take back a one-dirham coin (roughly 10 cents) from the pile I’d placed in his hand and say, jokingly, pour un souvenir, and leave the shop with both of us still laughing.

The ride to the airport was uneventful, and it was on the walk to the car that I realised we were lost the day before mere blocks from the riad. Oh, the labyrinthine rues of Marrakech…The sounds and the smells and the sights of a whirlwind week in Morocco fill my head as I check in and board my flight.

One last stop: Germany. A quick stopover in Munich on a lovely day gives me just enough time to see the Marienplatz glockenspiel do its thing from the 91-metre high Alter Peter. Then it’s Westward-ho into Boston’s late-January chill, where the fernweh takes hold and gets the wheels spinning for the next adventure.

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In case you missed these: [Morocco, Part I] [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part III] and read C’s account here. Cheers!