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Sauntering along the south

2016 June 17

We left artsy Seydisfjordur on the east coast, in search of a hike to start our day. We had not driven far before one of the endless waterfalls along the Ring Road caught our eye more than any other, and we got out for a mossy trek and rock scramble. Waterfalls are like trolls in Iceland: they hide around every corner, roaring with their teeth glinting in the sun, and I am sure that some turn to stone, but apparently not until late summer.

The next sureality to catch our eye was the serene and supernatural-like lagoon of Jökulsárlón. Icebergs, great and small, stood in motion-captured floating around a huge area. As we walked, we saw seals duck in the water, ducks hiding in the rocks, and rocks sealed into the ice. We also got to witness the collapse of a colossal wing of an iceberg, breaking into a chaotic mess of chunks, slowly settling into new configurations.

Our sole planned stop was a hike around the Skatafell region of the country-sized Vatnajökull National Park. Another waterfall, and then to the lookout over a glacier cascading between two mountains. The scene looked like army of snow ripples charging through the mountains, forcing them to cleave apart.

We ended the day over a meal of Icelandic cheese and linden-berry jam pizza, where we also learned that 10% of the country was currently at the soccer game.  We drove across what Lonely Planet describes as the “soul-destroying wasteland” of Sandar, which we found rather beautiful in a yet a new way.

Our AirBnb for the night is on a horse ranch with an hospitable and industrious host.  Earlier, we learned that the field after field of horses in Iceland are not for work nor for transportation, but purely for show, so these were beautiful creatures.  That said, I also found “real leather” wallets, with big horse emblems on them.  Our host also does “super-jeep” tours, such as are the only way to get into the highlands.  We were in fact in need of a super-jeep, since the end of our hike for today required three river fordings to get back to civilization.  Ultimately, we decided to make a loop of the trek, which was the awesome Fimmvörðuháls trail between the recently-erupted Eyjafjallajökull and another even-larger volcano.  After passing myriads of waterfalls (10 of the 22 in the hike), we turned around and made our way back for a day of chill complete with homemade risotto.

Bye, bye Balkans: Day 10

2016 March 22

Today we used our “artsy-side” city map and explored some cool neighborhoods, alternative cafes and artist-workshops.   This city seems very alive: graffiti (from signs to murals) buttresses government buildings, and modern shops are surround local peddlers with home-grown flowers.  For lunch we revisited the fantastic Moroccan place and for dinner, had very tender homemade pasta at Pastorant (16 Tzar Asen St, Sofia).  I realize that a disproportionate amount of my reflections concern food, but I feel this is a way that I can really experience a culture.  Beyond nourishing the body, food energizes me to interact with new people, in new environments in new way.  Food is deeply and spiritually fulfilling.

In between meals, we visited the National History museum, with its sometimes spotty coverage of everything from 5000 BC to the present, with the exception of the entire span of Ottoman rule.  The way the museum tells it, Bulgaria is a land inspired by many different cultures, except for the ones that follow Muhammad, which the people toiled under in stalwart resistance.  We also spent a while in front of our laptops at one of the back-to-back cafes along  Sofia’s broad, pedestrian Vitosha boulevard.  This one had neon chairs and techno music, but like all of them, delicious cappuccinos, and like far too few, not very much smoke.

We’ve booked a taxi for 5am tomorrow to bring us to airport where we have about 13 hours of travel ahead. If all goes well, we  will arrive in time for me to dash to the office and James to Columbia.

In sum, this trip has been a great foray into eastern Europe.  No urgent need to return,  but all in all, a positive experience and very accessible place to travel, with welcoming hosts and no shortage of coffee.

Suffice to say: Sofia, Day 9

2016 March 21

In the past 35 hours we have been in 4 countries.

Yesterday we had a very full car/ferry/plane/bus/train day. A few challenges involved boarding the wrong car ferry, with the wrong currency, on the wrong end. Fortunately, I spoke with a Croatian/Australian couple and they helped us direct the car, paid a fee in a currency we did not have and arrive to the airport 2 hours before our flight. There we were welcomed by clouds of smoke, with the last cigarette literally extinguished on the railing as the passengers boarded.

We flew back to Belgrade, and secured beds on the Bulgaria-bound train for that evening, with plenty of time for wandering a now-familiar city. We spent most of our time criss-crossing between closed museums and empty markets, but the weather was beautiful and the people-watching bountiful. By 10pm, our legs were exhausted, and we slumped into our own private train cubby. I would say the train was nicer than our India overnight experience but not as good as the Nile one. We layered both of the wool blankets provided and huddled together to stay warm. At 5 we were woken up by border control (leaving Serbia) and then, about 40 minutes later, we were again asked for our documents, to be stamped as we entered Bulgaria.

Arriving just after 8 we walked the 2 km to our Arte Hotel, with a very deco look. We didn’t know until later that “art” here is a catch-all phrase, for anything from leather goods to bars. We dropped off our bags, showered, and set out to explore the vibrant city on foot. There are threading boulevards lined with “art”, cafes, fresh fruit vendors and a very welcoming spirit. We enjoyed magnificent churches, brass lion flanked bridges, and pedestrian only streets for sipping coffee. We stumbled upon a high-end indoor bazaar across from an grandiose synagogue and a long book boulevard (English pickings were slim). Picking up a few souvenirs along the way, we now have a woven rug, hand painted bowl, ceramic bell, locals rose infused lipstick and an interactive magnet.

Lunch and dinner were my highlights of my day. We lunched at a fantastic (and apparently, sole authentic) Moroaccan place called Annette. Our mezzes included hummus, stuffed pita, and roasted vegetables, all accompanied by perfectly sweetened mint tea with pine nuts. The streets around Annette are filled with hip crafts, and in one of the stores we got a road-map for eccentric Sofia, recommending biocafes, a steampunk boutique, hand-made shirts, and insomnia-fueled skating. We needn’t have worried though: around every corner we took, we found plenty to explore.

After several hours more of walking around, snapping photos, it was time to find our way back the hotel for James to do some work while I took a luxurious nap. Much needed. It was drizzling as we explored this evening, winding from posh Prada streets, through parks, past government monuments and to a homey, traditional dinner complete with rakia, a distilled grape drink. The wonderfully friendly waiters added brandy and home-made coffee liqueur on the house and helped us hide away a napkin-full of their olive oil spice blend. I would recommend Manastirsak Magernitsa for newcomers to the city.

Tomorrow we plan to head to a neighboring town to see the national history museum and likely consume more Banista, phyllo dough filled with salty cheese.

Language learning: thank you – blog ‘o da’, ya?

The cat walk, Day 7

2016 March 19

Today we are counting cats.  This city is teeming with felines and so far, we’ve seen 29 in our 12 hours of counting.

Leaving our apartment this morning, we nearly passed by the”market” without noticing. Upon closer inspection , we found a few vendors selling touristy items including decorative braided reeds (in the traditional style), sachets of lavender and some local spices.  I purchased the latter (5 for the price of 4, thanks to negotiations, but still Whole Foods-like prices of $4 per spice sample) and look forward to giving them to Erin (shout out) and the fabulous chef Noah.

Our first stop was the contemporary art museum, a privately owned villa converted to a museum after WWII housing the work of exclusively Croatian artists.  The first floor is largely modern, focusing on Croatia’s most famous artist, Vlaho Bukovac.  The second had more contemporary art, including a large temporary exhibit with paintings that merged abstract patterns with aerial representations.  The best part of visiting was getting a “student discount pass” to all of the town’s museums–entry to 9 museum for $5 (the advertised price for 1 was $20).  This allowed us to enter the famed city walls (also $20) for free, by “sneaking” in through the Maritime Museum.  James qualifies this by saying “sneaking” does not legal entrance make, but I’m pretty sure it’s the best option.  We only saw about ¼ of the walls before a “ticket control” station sent us back down, but this afforded fantastic photos of the marina, with islands spotting the horizon.  None of the museums are all that impressive on their own, (Ethnographic: lacking, Marina Drzica: uninformative, Natural History: closed, Cultural History: renovating) but there is little else to do but take in the scenery and spend money, so museum hopping has filled our day.

Some observations:  The smoking here is less prevalent than Serbia. The pronunciation of “good day” “Dobre dan” also seems different, or shop keepers insist on replying in English.  Wine is sold at the grocery store in a “bring your own plastic water bottle” way.  The local red blend is very jammy.  I brought a vessel from our rented apartment and using the psychological tactics of “anchoring” and “recency” got about 1/2 liter for $4.

At 5:49, we hatched a plan for securing wine and a spot to view the sunset, scheduled for 5:59 pm.  We ventured out onto the rocky crags of the old city where we found an isolated spot–for the first 15 minutes–and took some photos of muted colors.

For dinner we checked out a hot spot called Nishta,which means “nothing” going in with expectations that our  meal would really be somethin’ ( .  The food was “fast casual” Indian, but had a great set menu deal and a good salad bar.  We met Andy and Lynn (blogging their adventures here: and talked US politics and exchanged travel tips.

Sunday will be an early morning drive (with ferry) back to Montenegro to return the car and catch our flight to Belgrade, where all planes go to rest.

Listening to the country, Day 6

2016 March 18

En route from Mostar to Dubrovnik, we listened to Serbia pop, which has a distinctly country-meets-latino flair, and some erratic and repeated 80’s English music.  We made three stops: one monastery, one winery and one foot bridge.  I was least impressed by the third. James was impressed by  it.  Its  unique 16th century design, and the fact that it held up to being deconstructed and reconstructed after all that time, 30 years ago.  The monastery had lush paintings on its arched ceiling; you could hear the river to the east, where we enjoyed our packed picnic of sandwiches made form pilfered breakfast items—James’s included pâté from a spam tin!

Once we found our way up a steep footpath to the Podrumi Vukoje, a swanky wine and tapas tasting room overlooking rust-colored vineyards. We sampled three of the vineyard’s wines– a white, rose and red– all 100% locally grown.  We accompanied the beverages with a heap of smoked carp served with horseradish apple sauce and a sizable cheese plate that I could not event finish.  Shocking, I know.

Tonight, we are in the charming sea-side town of Dubrovnik with its high walls and decidedly international flavor, this may be our favorite location so far.  That said, prices are far higher and our dinner of salad and vegetarian bureks plus a single glass of local wine was NYC priced, at $70 USD. The wine we had was Posip Cara Nerica and we were treated to a dessert honey wine called Medovaca on the house.

We are now staying in Marc’s apartment,, a generous host who has amassed incredible treasures, some foraged, traded and many constructed himself. His father rubbed shoulders with Jim Morrison and then recommended his grave site.  His first floor landing sports a priceless, drawn infographic of the history of Dubrovnik, given him for impressing its author with his knowledge of the history of steamship photography.  The headboard of one of the rooms was built for him for free by traveling carpenter journeymen out of the floorboards of a 500 year old palace.

Tomorrow will hold visits to the palace, possible art museum outside of town and some self-catered meals to help alleviate the burden of a place most accustomed to cruise ship spenders.

The trials of travel will take a note as well. We have learned many tricks to optimize our flights. However, in this final leg of our trip, where we need to get from Tivat, Montenegro (where we rented the car) to Sofia, Bulgaria (where we catch our flight back to NYC on Tuesday) there seems to be very few options.

Goal: Spend as little money as possible while maximizing locations and avoiding flights before 6am.

Outcomes: (1) All flights in the region go through Belgrade.  There is no avoiding it. (2) No cheap flights leave Belgrade after we arrive, so we would have to spend at least one night. (3) Reasonably priced flights to Sofia all have stops, typically in locations far from both Belgrade and Sofia, like Warsaw, Rome, and Athens. (4) If we flight to any of those intermediate spots, we still need to fly through Belgrade again on the way to Sofia.


*le sigh*

New plan: fly from Tivat to Belgrade on Sunday, allowing us to spend 2 nights in Dubrovnik. Head directly to the train station and try to book an overnight train from Sofia, leaving 10:40pm and arriving at 8:30am Monday. Wish us luck!

All work and play, Day 5

2016 March 17

It was gloriously sunny, the perfect day to explore the town of Mostar on my own.  I got lost and then found again, crossed five bridges (in both directions), read a book and composed several post cards.  I did not, however, consume my required 3 espresso-based drinks.

James fastidiously programmed away save a lunch and dinner break where we enjoyed waterfront dining and fantastic Italian-inspired food, respectively.

In the hours between sunset and pitch black, we explored Počitelj, an Ottoman Empire fortress with an incredible amphitheater, sizable mosques and steep staircases. Attempting photos in the dark proved fruitless, so we ventured back to Mostar and enjoyed a very good dinner at Restaurant Schumann. I suggest if you in town, you take the mile plus walk to this harbor of home-made pasta, breads and local charm.  No tourists.

One culinary observation: we always get the “basic” bread when we sit down (part of the 2 euro per person cover charge). Other diners get some version of a grilled thick pita bread.  I’ve asked for the local bread, and then received a side of cold, deflated pita.  Moreover, when I request garlic (another of my daily requirements), I get whole, raw cloves, which I do my best to macerate with a butter knife. More words to learn.

Tomorrow, we will mobilize to Dubrovnik, where our plans and expectations of Croatia await.

I ❤ small towns, Day 4

2016 March 16

Today, we decided to go to Bosnia. The drive from Montenegro to Bosnia provided stunning views of the bay, snowcapped mountains, vocal yacks, and sacks of potatoes for sale by the side of the road. We took the long way ‘round, with the prettiest of views (cue song lyrics), following the serpentine shore of the Bay of Kotor. The bay narrows into a strait, flowing into an upper bay, with an island monastery sitting at its mouth. All around the bay are jutting cliffs, with terracotta roofs in isolated hamlets. We climbed through strings of tunnels and Old-Western style homesteads, before coming to the vineyards of Bosnia.

Crossing the border was pretty easy, with no bribes needed. The green card we purchased through the rental car agency seemed to do the trick. We approached the tiny town of Mostar (which I still want to call monster…) three hours later.

Mostar pulls at heart strings with its picturesque bridges and stone-lined streets.  To seal the deal on its delights, our boutique hotels provides unlimited cookies for James.  By driving through the vertical and tiny streets—as we saw on a sign earlier— “you risk your life”. But now settled, we plan to stay two nights so that tomorrow can be spent with my purchasing of hand painted decorative items (Turkish style) and James making climate models (computer style).  We are both helping the world, I reckon.

This evening we strolled along the dividing river, where locals were watching football and filling time during the “low” season.  Observation: men and women seem to run in separate groups.  Not in the forcibly gender segregated way we saw in Egypt, but far from the coed peer groups you get in the US.

I love that wifi is available virtually everywhere here, so if any on you darling readers have an iPhone, it’s free to message and facetime me, and I would love that tomorrow (Note the 5 hour time difference ahead of EST).

Chiseled features, Day 3

2016 March 15

It’s Wednesday so we must be in another country…

We flew to Tivat, Montenegro and rented a car (with limited challenge but moderate wait for the car to arrive) from now through Sunday. Our first stop is the picturesque Bay of Kotor. It was drizzly and cold when we arrived, but we left the car safely (if expensively) at a car park and ventured into the walled city on foot to find our centrally-located hotel in the winding streets.

Kotor is a city covered in beautiful white and tan stone: the streets are tiled, the water drains are carved, the churches and homes are built of huge, sturdy blocks. Shops and caffes sprout shingle signs, carefully branded for the onrush of tourists that will arrive by yacht in May. The mountain rises with water-sculpted towers, looming imposingly behind the city, with the city wall snaking along its highest ridges.   Montenegro feels like a more cloistered Greece; they also use the Euro but seem to resent it.

As the light waned, James thought it would be a great idea to explore the step mountain—on foot. When I protested, he conceded that we could drive. At a 70 degree slope, we were greeted by 25 hair pin turns. I backed down—from several cars—and then out–when it became pitch black and the Bay sneered bellow, reflecting the schizophrenic headlights of cars that took the curves at 100 kph.

We decided to find our way back on safer roads, and selected the Stari Mlini ( for dinner. Named for the working water wheel on the far side of the Bay, we enjoyed stunning salads, clay-oven-prepared eggplant and local octopus. The dining room was warmed by a fire and we were the sole “seasonal” dinners at 8pm. The chardonnay made 50 km away was not unpleasant.

Back in the car, we zoomed to the hotel so James could do some calls (translate: be on the computer for the next 4 hours) while I explored the night life in town. I sampled the local rose and red wines, and for young grapes, they outshine VA productions. I happened upon a Bollywood style music video production underway, where the singers were dressed as jesters and Princess Jasmine. The taping concluded with some well positioned fireworks that illuminated the fortress walls. I also passed the youth hostel, where I head a smattering of German and a sole American voice complaining about Adweek and LA.

Tomorrow, we plan to enjoy the free breakfast and then head to Mostar, Bosnia, and perhaps reconsider the treacherous drive into the hills of the Adriatic coast.

NB: A note on the format of these blogs: I write steam of conscious observations then James edits for accuracy (i.e. spelling of locations) and adds alliterative adages (self-explanatory and excruciating). Please submit your comments, c/o the Internet to us.


Sad to leave Novi Sad, Day 2

2016 March 15

Happy Pi Day!

Goal: consume as many Serbian pies as possible today.

We started at a lovely coffee shop providing extensive chemistry lessons on coffee composition and bean varietal. James had a Nutella croissant, which he counts as pie number one of the day.

Took a bus 1.5 hours to the northwest of Belgrade to the darling town of Novi Sad where we had a fantastic meal at Fish & Zelenish (, feasting on baked feta, sizable salads and salmon tar-tar above an open kitchen. They gifted us a cookbook/menu and regional salt. No pie was consumed, but we somehow were not feeling deprived. It was definitely the best meal we’ve had so far.

We wandered the dense old town, of tiled streets and artist resalers. Found a swanky hotel to take some work meetings/calls and make arrangements for tomorrow. Amended plan includes flying into Tivat, Montenegro and renting a car to explore the coast. Why Tivat? Oh, tickets are only €60, compared to €250 flights or 12 hour buses to go half the distance.

Dinner was a very late, with an overpriced excursion to the Opera/restaurant. Sitting in a plush overhead booth, with a silent bell tassel to call the waiter, we order ambergine with raw garlic and baked goats (cheese). Alas, after hours, the music was recorded and the kitchen too early shuttered.

The day in numbers:

  • Pies consumed: 0.314
  • Ratio of time on train to time on bus to cover the dame distance: 1.8 to 1
  • (Took the bus to Novi Sad, and the train back. The price was the same, time spent was not).
  • Jewish historical sites visited: 2
  • Post cards sent: 3
  • Bread products sampled: 6
  • Churches seen: 14
  • Enclosed spaces with smoking: 100% minus Fish & Zelenish.

Balkan Bash 2016, Day 1

2016 March 13

First day in Belgrade, Serbia, and visually it’s a Kiev-Budapest mashup: soviet buildings next ionic columns, next to burnt out structures along cobblestone streets. I love the green areas, open spaces populated by off-leash dogs, often in brightly color sweaters, meters away from owners smoking cigarettes in jogging suits. Roller blades are also popular here, along the wide pedestrian-only stretches of Stari Grad, lined by excessive bookshops, hair salons and coffee shops, all of which provide a long list of alcoholic beverages.

From 2-10pm, we explored on foot, checking the “largest temple (actually a church) in the Balkans” off our list, as well as the national buildings, which evoked DC in their proximity to each other and disproportionate number of phallic sculptures surrounding. Also cheeked out the Nikola Tesla Museum ( where his genius was referenced in every sentence and the museum was conquerable in the 30 minutes we had before closing. In case you were wondering, there were no cars.

Lunch was at Smokvica (Kralja Petra 73) and for dinner we were serenaded by a traditional Roma band of fiddle, accordion and base at Sesir Moj (MY Hat, Skarska 21). The best food, ‘salads’, are really dips. Roasted red pepper and feta; zucchini and yogurt; maybe something mayo based with garlic? We had a trout that was smoked and then seared providing a profoundly savory flavor that only James cared for.

Feeling like we have totally “won” the city, tomorrow we will take a day trip to Novi Sad to bite into the Po’Boy of Serbia at the Index House, explore what is described as a “chipper” and “less smoky” town, about an hour away by bus. Dinner plans include seeing the opera while enjoying smoked salmon (no one calls it lox here) at Little Bay (

New work of the day: Hvalah “thank you” pronounced like “hell-of-a”.

From there, the 10 days ahead look like this:

  • Sunday and Monday in Belgrade (nights of 3/13 and 3/14)
  • Tuesday travel to Mostar, Bosnia to visit the “most beautiful bridge in the Balkans” and explore some vineyards (nights of 3/15 and 3/16–unless we think that country can also be consumed in less time…)
  • Thursday travel to Dubruvnick, Croatia (nights of 3/17 and 3/18)
  • Saturday make our way to Kotar, Montenegro (nights of 3/19 and 3/20)
  • Sunday, explore Pristina, Kosovo or Skopje, Macedonia (spending 3/21 and 3/22 in whichever we select –coin toss likely involved)
  • On Tuesday the 22nd we will find ourselves in Sofia, Bulgaria where we fly out of on the 23rd and back to NYC.

This itinerary will absolutely change–check back daily for country updates.

First round of postcards to be sent out on Monday 3/14, photos to be posted whenever wifi is available (on Instagram first @johannaisgreat).