Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Munich in May

What a busy month this has been.

we toured the Paulaner brewery and learned how to tap a wooden keg

celebrated a certain special someone's birthday

took a trip to Moscow

said hello to sunny days with endless flowers and creative cupcakes

... and goodbye (or at least bis später!) to good friends

We'll be traveling for the entire month of June to some of our favorite places. I can't wait to share more of our travels!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Way back in 2008 we had planned to visit Moscow. Finally we made it happen.

- Visiting Russia took a bit of work and some hefty visa fees. Through our travels we've definitely learned that it doesn't pay to be an American in need of a foreign visa, because they are often double or even triple European rates.

- After warnings that the Russian consulate is very pedantic, even on German terms, we decided to have an agency handle the rules and paperwork for us.

- Once we arrived at the Domodedovo International Airport and I instantly recognized the scenery from photos of their January attack. Everything was repaired and extra security had been installed.

- It's a strange feeling to see a place and have a personal connection to it when something tragic and heartless happens there. It was a similar feeling to knowing the bombing in Marrakech last month was directly across from the shop where we bought a lantern. It all becomes so real.

- Getting to the city center requires a 45 minute journey on an Airport Express Train and some sturdy elbows to get your ticket beforehand. Evidently people feel very rushed and waiting in line isn't a strong point.

- After entering the subway our map reading skills were tested, because everything, except for several ads, is written in Cyrillic. We typically read the first three letters and devised mnemonics and phrases. There really isn't much that is made to offer any type of assistance to tourists. It made me wish we had one of those photo translator apps, such as SpeakLike or PicTranslator. (I'm among the most techno-unsavvy people, but small translators
like this make me want to enter the 21st century.)

- I printed a bilingual metro map before we left, which was a great asset. I was also hoping to see some of their famed stray dogs riding the subway. There were a couple waiting outside the train station when we arrived, but none navigating the carriages. It could be due to the fact that it was a weekend.

- We did a self guided Metro tour, which is actually quite easy to do. One ticket allows you to stay underground as long as you'd like, so it only costs 28 rubles (approx. 0.70€ or $1) to change between stations.

- It is also permitted to take photos in the Metro, which really is like a museum.

- Being in the subway was interesting, because there are always people standing around. Evidently it's a popular place to meet up with friends. It made me a little bit nervous, because there weren't clearly marked exits. Typically we followed the crowds, but it would be nice to even have some kind of directional icon for safety's sake.

- The militia police roam everywhere and it is advisable to carry your passport - or a copy - at all times. Our hotel had a small informative booklet about local customs, which also recommended this.

- I also read that should you be stopped it may be best to open your passport yourself to the proper visa as opposed to handing it over. We thankfully did not encounter any issues, but were extra cautious having known friends that have had problems.

- Russians are extremely superstitious, so said our guide book. It was comical to see people tossing coins and almost immediately after the coin would hit the pavement someone would take it. There was even a little old lady with a magnet. She was certainly shameless.

- The guidebook also stated what a huge deal it was to have clean shoes, which appeared to be a big object of pride.

- St. Basil was really striking, yet smaller than we had envisioned. The colors are vibrant and the architecture is certainly beautiful.

- More onion domes can be seen by going to the Kitay-Gorod area.

- There were several trends we noticed: brown cars, expensive over the top flashy cars, excess polyester, a love of white, white shoes and white pleather, virtually every woman wearing mile high stiletto heels, baggy bottom tapered leg sweat pants for guys, and one that actually looked nice was flesh toned tiny fish net tights for women.

- We saw an enlightened Homer Simpson before an unknown movie premier. Every day we passed this square close to our hotel there were metal detectors and a lot of security.

- We paid a visit to the Novodevichiy Convent, which is a UNESCO world heritage site.

- The neighboring cemetery is the second most prestigious place to be buried and includes the graves of Boris Yeltsin and Nikita Khrushchev.

- Most of the food wasn't anything special, however they did have Hazelnut M&Ms (they tasted a little smokey) and a lemon lime mint soda (which was great). We were expecting things to be more expensive and had quite a bit of cash left over at the airport, so we picked up a key chain to transform into a Christmas ornament and a bottle of cranberry vodka in a matrioshka bottle.

- Overall Moscow was a lot how we had envisioned it, although there were a few things I didn't quite expect. Racism is rampant. The tourist booklet at the hotel said not to venture out at night if Asian or dark complected. It wasn't dusk until around 22:00 in mid-May.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kotor + Perast

The border crossings from Croatia into the neighboring countries was very telling. We needed extra insurance to go to Montenegro. As we arrived at the border we were told we would have to pay 10€. Having just converted all of our money into Croatian kuna that's all we had, so our fee came closer to 15€. We also got a laugh as the man proudly told us it's Montenegro they use the Euro, although as of now they are still an EU candidate. The waited lasted eons.

- The landscape is different, the architecture has a very communistic appearance, and Russian was on many signs - without the blacked out spray paint we had seen in Bosnia.

- Along the drive we had an interesting talk about communism. I enjoy talking to Stefan and his parents about that, because for them it was closer to home they have very vivid memories of the East and West Germany, as well as the Iron Curtain days.

- I distinctly remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and department stores selling large chunks of it. A classmate of mine brought one in. Stefan remembers how scarce bananas were, because they were such a luxury good that people were buying them with their reunification money. A friend of ours that grew up on the East said her family instantly went on a cruise and her father told her she could save money when she's old.

- Montenegro has a lot of fascinating history even before their foray into communism with the Illyrians, Byzantine Empire, defeating the Ottomans, and having close ties to Venice. Their independence was gained from Serbia just 5 years ago and it will probably be several generations until people can appreciate the communist fall.

-The Adriatic coastline of this tiny country is incredibly beautiful. There are mountains, glistening waters, and small medieval towns along the way. We stopped in Perast, which is a quiet little city where the main attraction is chartering a boat out to the islands.

- The larger city of Kotor, which is further down the coast is enclosed in an enormous wall that circles the Old Town. The hike to the top has incredible views over the city, however we opted to enjoy the day like the locals.

- It seemed like everyone in town was at the cafés and restaurants or down near the water front enjoying the coastal way of life, so we joined them after wandering the intricate maze of streets.

- Around town the worn walkways give way to beautiful old buildings that are covered in window shutters. It's a quaint and charming little place with the perfect mix of history and natural beauty.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Međugorje + Kravica

Međugorje is a Catholic pilgrimage site where 6 children were said to have been visited by the Virgin Mary in 1981. It is visited by people of all faiths with an emphasis on peace.

Large organized tours assemble and Mass is performed in an array of languages. With so many hopeful people in one place it really has an incredible energy.

There are a plethora of shops with rosaries, statuaries, and other religious goods. One area, to the left of St. James Church, has many priests and confessionals again in many languages. It was fascinating to see which had the largest lines.

Since we weren't able to make it to the Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia, we settled for the Kravica Waterfalls, which is one of the largest in Herzegovina. The Trebizat River flows into this 100m wide, 25m high expanse of impressiveness. Natural beauty really never ceases to amaze me.

We arrived shortly before dusk when the light just glistens across the landscape. Surprisingly there weren't many people around, which added to the ambiance. Kravica Waterfalls are breathtaking!

Bosnia isn't a huge tourist destination, but it certainly has a lot to offer and positively surprised us in so many ways.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


After spending a bit of time in Croatia we set out on a road trip through the surrounding areas. The drive along the coast is really incredible. There were moments where we had to remind ourselves where we were, because it felt so similar to road trips we have done along the coast in the US.

- Getting from Dubrovnik to Mostar takes a few hours, but it's such a scenic drive. There are also several border crossings, first into Neum (Bosnia), then back into Croatia through Metković, followed by a more stringent and time intensive crossing into Bosnia. It was advantageous to speak German, which always makes me happy to not only have English to rely on.

- Once in Bosnia it was interesting to see so many signs where the Russian has simply been spray painted through. It was a very clear sentiment that the Bosnians are finished with that.

- The medieval Ottoman influence is visible in Mostar immediately after arriving to this picturesque city. If it weren't for the very distinct signs of war it would appear to be out of a fairy tale.

- We immediately walked over to the banks of the Neretva River. The water is mesmerizing and so crystal clear. That serenity was interrupted by a man throwing about 7 pairs of shoes out of his house into the water flowing below. Definitely strange. It made us wonder how the river stayed so clear if people used it as a wasteland.

- The Stari Most is one of the big tourist sites in town. Unfortunately bridges are often bombing targets during wars and this was no exception. The stones of the original bridge were supposedly made from a combination of horse hair, eggs, and wax paste.

- The food has a very Ottoman / Turkish influence and included Ćevapi / Ćevapčići, Kebabs, and Baklava. It was quite good, although my Grandma's baklava still holds out as the best I've ever had.

- Later in the day we'd also witness several young men being paid to jump off of the bridge. This seems to be a coming of age tradition for the men of Mostar. I have no idea how much money they made in doing this, but as they hit the water below it sounded quite painful.

- The bumpy cobble walkways on both sides of the bridge are filled with shops and restaurants catering to tourists. There was a lot of pomegranate inspired art work.

- Minarets decorate the skyline and the city remains to be divided down religious lines, even for the support of sports teams.

- We walked through the quiet nearby market and neighborhoods to observe the less touristy areas. Many of the buildings have deep scars in their façades. As we walked down a quiet street we were surprised to see a group of young boys shooting at each other with pellet guns. With the marks of war everywhere it seemed even more of a reality.

- Nature has reclaimed some of the ruins, which is interesting and beautiful to see. It's certainly a place of renewal and regrowth.

- Bosnia and Herzegovina is probably not the first place think people of taking a holiday, but it has a lot of natural beauty.

Next up... Međugorje and Kravica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.