East Europe Land Cruise – I (111)

 Mind if I divert your attention to a little land cruising? Cruisers often park their boats in a kewl spot to embark on an inland trek/diversion/safari. In our case, lovely Dena and I had just finished 7 wonderful days sailing with Lats’ Share the Sail Croatia and were heading out for a quick tour through Eastern Europe.
After a farewell lunch with Capt. Mike Z, Dena and I headed straight for the bus station. I love the bus. For a miniscule fee I get my own local driver who takes me where I want to go as I sit up high in the back working on whatever, or in foreign lands, taking in all the sites. All I need is my backpack of essentials (food mostly) and if I’m lucky, someone to share the experience with. We were headed to the castle town of Split. As fate would have it we just missed the straight-through bus. We opted for the bus that “makes many stops”. Even better, since time was not an issue and we were trying to take in all that we could.
Once in Split we stood around looking lost (only do this in safe areas) until someone who wanted to practice their English came forward. These people are everywhere, usually younger people. We got directions both to the other bus station, so we could check the schedule for the next day’s transport, and also directions to the ‘old’ town where our hostel was. Old where I live means built 50 years ago. Old in Europe means built 5 centuries ago, or more. In this case the old town was within the walls of Diocletian’s Palace and built back when the years only had three digits. The locals there didn’t leave to go home at night, they lived within their own UNESCO World Heritage site. And that’s where we were staying. We were traveling just before tourist season got humming which meant less crowds, cheaper accommodation and very excited hosts. After a fresh local fare dinner in our room we night toured the ancient narrow alleys of the castle/village. Wandering around we stumbled onto a small hole-in-the-wall pub in an off-the-main-drag square where we sat outside and enjoyed some local brew.
Our days developed a pattern. Pick up breakfast and snacks, board a bus, enjoy a chauffeured tour to our next destination (Dena usually slept, mostly on my lap – sorry about the crumbs). Upon arrival and while still at the station, check the following days bus schedule, unload at the hostel, walk/tour the afternoon away, internet book the next days accommodations, find and eat at a secluded dinner spot before heading back to the room.
This part of the world must get a lot of rain because it was incredibly green, almost jungly (without the heat). After an amazing coastal drive along steep cliff-side roads overlooking fishing villages and private rocky beaches, we arrived in the town of Dubrovnik, “The Pearl of the Adriatic”. This was the real deal. The place made Split look like an afterthought. The local bus dropped us at the front of the castle. Before us was a giant rook crowned wall with a central arched entryway protected by a wooden draw bridge lowered over a very deep moat (to push enemies into). Inside the great wall was a long wide promenade that stretched down to a big church/bell tower. All these towns had grand functioning bell towers. I kicked off my flops. I wanted to feel the stone underfoot, worn smooth by a thousand years of human traffic. Had Alexander the Great stood here? Probly. We filled our stainless drink containers from the big stone cistern that pulled water from a spring deep inside the mountain.
The central promenade ran down a valley of sorts. On each side were rows and rows of ancient abodes rising steeply up the hillsides. At the top? More of the great wall that surrounded the city. My directions stated that our accommodation was the third ‘street’ on the left, about half way up and on the third floor. That’s right, we were spending the night inside the walls of this incredible castle/village. I wouldn’t call them streets though. They were 8 foot wide, steeply staired pathways which would account for the surprisingly fit locals – all natural foods balancing out their unplanned health regimen.
But there’s more. We were on a mission to discover the hidden secrets of this storybook place. We put our stuff away and headed down the promenade to a seaside arch which led out to a small craft harbor encircled by castle walls that were laced with cannon. Through another hole in the great wall we found ourselves back in a dense ‘residential’ area. Carved wooden “Cold Drinks” signs enticed us up a maze of steps, turns and tunnels to a tiny gated arch. Through the arch daddy found heaven. On the other side, a cliff dropped straight off a hundred feet into the wine dark Mediterranean Sea. But right there, perched on a rocky ledge was the world’s perfect bar. We sat under a big umbrella, gazing across to islands over deep blue water as old school wooden vessels plied slowly past, sailing to and from their work at sea. All the while a lovely local lass brought us cheap local vino and pivo. Think I’m making it up? I don’t dream that grand.
Throughout our entire E. Euro adventure, through 7 countries, there was a common theme. Though we chose to stay in smaller towns we had to pass through big cities to make bus transfers (we often heard, “Can’t get there from here” but always did). All the big towns felt generally safe. As we bused through hundreds of miles of back country we passed through village after village. Along their central avenues were small family owned shops, each with a purpose: fruit and vegetable, bread, meat and all manner of repair shops. When something breaks they fix it. I know, a crazy concept where I’m from. Most towns had a square where families and individuals hung out when they weren’t walking the main drag or chillin’ with friends over coffee/tea/coldies in outdoor cafes. It was high quality living.
Between the rock built, red-tile roofed villages, were mini farms. They were everywhere. These farms must produce all the area food and then some. Which might explain why there was a bio-diesel pump at every gas station I saw. How is it that in all these undeveloped countries where I (thankfully) can’t get a big mac, they have bio fuels?
Onward we pressed. We traveled sou’east along the coast through Bosnia and into Montenegro, and then inland to Albania. It took 2 coach buses, a mini bus and a cab that we split with a Dutch backpacker to get us to Shkoder, Albania where we they had buses to Macedonia. What was the rush? We were pushing to get to the outer reaches of eastern Europe, even further from the influence of things that we knew. At one stop I got off the bus to have a look around. In the distance I heard our bus motor out without me. Dena caused a ruckus, as she does, and made them stop – thereby saving the day (or preventing an unplanned side-adventure, however you want to look at it).
Well that’s it for now, going to finish this up next month. In case you hadn’t noticed, this was my once a year scoop on how “High Quality Living can go hand in hand with a Clean Happy Earth”. Elegant symbiosis.   

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