• Montenegro: August 2018

    I arranged a driver with Natalia, the owner of the AirBnb in Petrovac, and he showed up in a white Audi A3 wagon with my name on a placard. The drive to the coast from the airport reminded me of Southern California, with the arid countryside and rugged mountains. We dropped down through the coastal range to the beach town of Petrovac. Once at the apartment, Natalia and her husband met me and I found out that the driver was their nephew. They were quite gracious and the apartment was large and modern, with a full deck and a sweeping view of the Adriatic. I walked along the beach promenade to a grocery store to grab some staples and realized that it was unlikely that I’d be spending much time at the beach, given the throngs of tourists.

    After Slovenia, Montenegro was the first country that used the Euro. Croatia still uses the duna, Bosnia-Hercegovina the mark, and Serbia the dinar. Fortunately, I still had a supply of Euros from Ljubljana.

    The next morning I found a great beachside hotel with an excellent buffet for €7. Since it was early, I grabbed a table near the beach and the young server brought me a cappuccino. He introduced himself as Božidar in his excellent English. Božidar and I have kept in touch and I’m happy to announce that he’s now engaged! The food was so good and inexpensive that I ended up eating there the next few mornings.

    The weather was hot and a bit humid, so I decided to take a hike along the coastal trail, which featured a long tunnel just to the west of the main beach. The Adriatic was beautiful and spotless, with an aquamarine color. The path led past a derelict resort that had been abandoned after the fall of Yugoslavia. I supposed they didn’t have the funds to either complete it or to tear it.

    From there, the path led up to high hill crowned by the monastery of Rezevici, dating from the early thirteenth century. I entered the main church, which was 15 degrees cooler than the outside and filled with a spectacular iconostasis. While I was admiring the artistry, a young man entered and repeatedly knelt and crossed himself in the Orthodox style, kissing the icons. I walked out to the portico and took some pictures of the coast framed by old trees and an arch. I then sat down under some shade trees and bougainvillea and drank a bottle of mineral water. When the pious young man left the church and sat down by me, we struck up a conversation and I found out that he lived in Shanghai part of the year where he worked as a model, telling me that the Chinese prefer Europeans in their ads. A few minutes later he left to speak with one of the priests and I left for the return trip to town and my apartment.

    Most of the tourists, judging by their appearances and car plates, were from Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia. There were a few Russians, but apparently there were far fewer than in the past. They own a fair amount of the condos in town I was told. Since the evening took on the appearance of a tourist party, I decided to head back to the apartment for a little wine and cheese and reading.

    After a great night’s sleep and breakfast at the buffet spot, I arranged a drive to the Bay of Kotor with Natalia. Her cousin drove me up the coast, which was packed with August tourists. I told him that I’d give him a call when I was ready to head back and then proceeded to explore the old town of Tivat before heading up the old mountain trail to Krstac Pass, way above the fjords of the Bay of Kotor. I passed the ruins of the old Kotor Fortress, which is now a UNESCO protected site. I met a French couple on the trail, but they wisely turned back, leaving me the sole hiker on an increasingly hot and humid climb. I had hoped to get to the summit, but after two hours of steady uphill switchbacks with few trees, I too decided to head back, especially as I was running low on water. I did get some spectacular shots from 1,200 feet above the bay, but I was drenched with sweat. I must have looked as if I’d been in the bay itself when I got back to town and sat down for a late lunch. As pleasant as the lunch was, I was soon engulfed in cigarette smoke. Older people in the Balkans are heavy smokers, which can be quite irritating to non-smokers.

    I had to wait a while for the driver, but eventually he showed up and we drove back to Petrovac. During the drive, I arranged for him to take me to Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkans, the next morning.

    Lake Skadar is divided between Montenegro and Albania, although the two have frosty relations. It’s the largest lake in the Balkans and is protected as a nature reserve by both Montenegro and Albania.

    While I was investigating touring options, I met a fortyish English couple from Bath and their two kids. We decided to book a tour together and we approached the dock. The pilot asked for €100. My English friends were about to acquiesce, but I knew the pilot would settle for half. I offered €40, and we agreed on €50.

    Our pilot gave us a grand tour, including a stop on an island with an old monastery. I enjoyed the English couple. Their daughter was quite precocious and the younger son was hard of hearing. My youngest sister is largely deaf and I got on great with him. They had lived in Vancouver before getting married and I told them they could always visit me on Whidbey Island and they said the same about Bath.

    The next morning the driver drove me to Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital. I planned to spend the night there before leaving for Sofia in the morning. I stayed at the Hilton, which was cheaper and more luxurious than any Hilton in the US. Podgorica itself doesn’t offer much in the way of major sights, although the old Ottoman quarter was interesting. During the Communist era it was named Titograd, typical of the Communist cult of personality tendency. In the evening, I enjoyed a thunderstorm from the hotel’s club lounge, where the drinks and hors d’oeuvres made for a nice dinner.

    On Sunday morning I checked out of the Hilton and grabbed an Uber to the airport. The canyons of Montenegro from the plane were astounding.

  • Eastern Europe 2018: Former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Poland

    A few years ago I wrote a number of Word entries about my late July to early September trip through Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I now think this blog is the best place to present my travel impressions and experiences. I’ll also update this with my 2019 late summer visit to Ukraine, Belarus and the three Baltic States.


    While not considered per-sé a Balkan country, Slovenia was a constituent republic of the former Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito. In April 2018, while spending 5 weeks in Salzburg, I decided to take the train to Ljubljana for a quick reconnaissance of this small capital city. The train ride was about four hours and wound through magnificent Alpine scenery. When I got to Ljubljana, I snagged a taxi to the Hotel Mrak in the Old Town. I found it interesting to hear the driver’s fondness for the days of Marshal Tito, a sentiment that I was to hear frequently during the late summer trip.

    After a quick drive from the airport, I checked in at the hotel and was impressed with the renovations. The manager walked me to my room, one of the newly renovated ones. After settling in, I walked over the river to have dinner at a place where I’d enjoyed a great grilled duck salad back in April. This time the food was equally great. I spoke with some Canadians at the next table and they mentioned that they planned a bike ride around Lake Bled, which is in the Julian Alps near the Austrian border. It’s an area that I’d like to explore at some point.

    The next morning I rented a mountain bike from the shop behind the hotel. The staff was great. They swapped out the flats for some pedals I brought and also programmed their Garmin with a few long-distance rides. Katje, one of the managers, even provided me with a bike rental contact in Sarajevo, which turned out to be a great resource. Within a few minutes I was off to Mount Krim. About half of the road up to the summit was paved and then it turned into a well-maintained gravel road. As I got close to the summit, I ran out of water and was unsure how distant the peak was. A Slovenian Army Humvee pulled up alongside and the soldier asked if I needed anything. When I told him I was out of water, he pulled into a telcom station and returned with two bottles of water and told me I was less than one km. from the top. After thanking him, I continued up what had become a seriously steep climb. At the top, there was a little restaurant with outside seating, so I ordered lunch and enjoyed the amazing view, with Ljubljana in the distance. There was a young couple with their yellow Lab sitting nearby and we started a conversation. I commented on his excellent American-accented English and he told me that he’d perfected it watching American television. I said goodbye and descended the mountain at a nice clip and then returned to the city, after passing through a lovely farming region.

    After the long ride, it was time to drop by Kolibri, a cocktail bar that Id visited in April. Back then, I spoke with the bartenders, who told me that they were opening a new restaurant in the summer. One of the guys was working the bar, so I had a Negroni and caught up with him. He offered to call his business partner at the restaurant in Old Town and made a reservation for me. After a short walk on a beautiful summer evening, I got to the restaurant and grabbed a table on the sidewalk. The food was incredible, served in square plates. I enjoyed some Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc and finished it off with a cheese plate and some local dessert wine. While enjoying the ambience, I started chatting with two younger women seated at the neighboring table and they told me how corrupt the current government was. Apparently, another young woman they knew threw them dirty looks. They laughed and told me she was in the ruling party apparatus. It was a fun way to end a leisurely dinner and I walked back to the hotel with a full stomach and a bit of a buzz.

    In the morning, I went for a long walk through the Old Town and then enjoyed a great buffet at the hotel. Th ewoman at the front dest offered to call Boris, the taxi driver who drove me in from the airport, to see if he’d drive me to Rijeka, in Croatia, so I wouldn’t have to take the slow and non-air-conditioned train. Fortunately, he was free and we agreed on a reasonable price and agreed to leave around noon. After packing up, I went for another walk and enjoyed a pour-over at a hip coffee place in the local museum. 

    The drive to Rijeka was scenic, especially after exiting the freeway and driving through beautiful orchards to the border control. Boris joked that Croatia was a little backward since they didn’t use the euro. I would come to hear about these Balkan rivalries frequently in the weeks to come. After an uneventful border passage, we made our way to Rijeka, where I’d booked two nights at a B&B overlooking the Adriatic.


    In hindsight, I would’ve avoided Rijeka, an industrial seaport formerly known by its Italian name, Fiume. Rijeka was returned to Yugoslavia at the end of World War II. While the place where I stayed was fine, there were no amenities nearby and the long uphill walk to restaurants and the supermarket was through unattractive and busy streets. That said, I had a late lunch with excellent local seafood and a Croatian vegetable dish consisting of braised Swiss chard and potatoes. After walking back down the hill, I read for a while before falling asleep.

    The breakfast was rather mundane and the host only spoke Croatian and Italian. She was watching a Catholic mass on TV when I asked her to call a cab to take me to Opatija, a few miles away. The driver dropped me off right in the center of the Old Town, where I went for a very long walk along the coast.

    Opatija must have been a resort for aristocrats during the Austro-Hungarian era since the main beachside pathway was called Franz Josef Way. There were rows of 18th century houses along the route which must have been getaways for the rich.

    I was drenched with sweat given the heat and humidity and went through four bottles of water along the way. After walking about 3 miles, I stopped at a fancy beachside restaurant for an excellent lunch of freshly caught sea bass and the usual Croatian vegetable dish, washed down with a nice Croatian Pinot Gris. The shade felt great and the mountains and the scenery along the broad sweep of the Adriatic reminded me of Santa Barbara. 

    After the great lunch I made my way back to the center of town and hailed a cab to take me back to Rijeka.

    The taxi driver told me how much he admired the old Yugoslavia and Marshal Tito. In those days, he said, one could buy an apartment and a car with a 1% loan from the Yugoslav State Bank. He also related how the Yugoslav passport was the best in the world, allowing travel to more countries than any other. This nostalgia for the old Yugoslavia was one I was to hear frequently among older people, who found the shock of the capitalist economy tough to endure. Younger people either emigrated to Western Europe or Australia or found jobs at home that required a university degree.


    The next morning I went online and hired a driver to take me to Zagreb, where I planned to spend two nights. I didn’t want to deal with buses or trains.

    The drive to Zagreb was quite pleasant. We drove on a freeway through pretty country and went through several mountainous regions. As I was to find in Eastern Europe, the countryside abruptly ends and the cities begin, with no suburban ring in-between. The driver dropped me off at my Airbnb and I waited for the owner to arrive to check me in.

    The apartment was new and well appointed, with air conditioning. The weather continued to be hot and humid. After unpacking, I took a long walk into the center to do some sightseeing. The city was pretty clean and, as I got closer to the center, the parks and nineteenth century government buildings and museums showed the strong Austrian influence in the capital. The central square was impressive as was the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Since it was early August, the city was relatively empty.

    To escape the heat, I made my way over to an enoteca that was highly recommended online and sat down and chatted with the owner’s brother, Tomas. He suggested some Croatian wines from the Istra region, a coastal enclave that Croatia shares with Slovenia, which I’m told is like Tuscany. He also brought a marvelous charcuterie and some local bread and two Istrian EVOOs, which were superb. After that charcuterie, I finished up with some olives and a tasting of pumpkin oil. 

    Since the restaurant was practically empty, Tomas and I discussed Croatian politics and sports. Just the week before, over 400,000 fans welcomed the national football team back from the World Cup, where they advanced to the finals only to lose to France. He told me that Croatia was the only team composed of Europeans to make the final. Almost ten percent of the nation’s population was there.

    The next morning I took the tram to the center to have breakfast with a Croatian writer and former diplomat whom I had met several years earlier in California. We discussed the political and social situation in Croatia as well as his new book on semiotics. When I told him I was headed to Sarajevo the following day, he warned me to be careful and to call him if I needed any help. As I mentioned earlier, in the Balkans there is still a high degree of mistrust among the former ethno-religious groups of the former Yugoslavia.

    After some more sightseeing in the Old Town, the heat and humidity began to bear down on me, so I returned to the enoteca from the previous evening and had a great seafood salad and a glass of wine. 

    In the early evening I booked a bike tour of central Zagreb and proceeded to the meeting point. The guide was a young student named Ivan. Also on the tour was a large Belgian family that had been traveling through the Balkans and a single German woman. When the German tried to engage me on the Trump issue, I told her that I was on vacation and had no interest in discussing American politics. After that, she became quiet.

    The Belgians were delightful and interesting. They had been on an extended househunting trip to the Balkans and the parents wanted their children’s input on the relocation. It seems they settles on Bulgaria. The father told me that, as devout Catholics and traditionalists, Belgium held no future for them given its increasing secularization and the mass Muslim immigration in recent years. I thought it was sad that this family with deep roots in Belgium felt compelled to flee their homeland for a new life in a foreign land. 

    Zagreb looked magical in the evening, and Ivan took us to places less visited by tourists. We ended up at an outside café where we had a drink and continued our conversation. When we returned to the bike shop, the kids shook my hand and wished me well. What a nice way to end the tour.

    The next morning I grabbed a latte and walked back to the city center past the university and some superb late 19th and early 20th century government buildings and mansions. Croatia had been a part of the Hungarian Crown Lands until the end of World War 1, so the architecture was similar to that found in Budapest and Vienna. Since I had to check out and head to the airport for my flight to Sarajevo, I took the tram back to the apartment, packed up and hailed an Uber for the airport.


    My seatmate on the short flight to Sarajevo was an American of Bosnian descent and she gave me a nice overview of Bosnia-Hercegovina. As we got closer, I was struck by how green and mountainous Sarajevo was. My seatmate pointed out some massive graveyards below. She said that they contained the remains of the thousands of civilians and militia killed by the Bosnian Serbs during the almost four-year siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996. That war was to be an ongoing topic of conversation during my stay there.

    I had arranged a pickup with Haris, the owner of Hotel Vila Hayat where I’d be staying for three nights. After the hilly and interesting ride to the hotel, I was effusively greeted by Haris and invited to sit with him for a few minutes. Here was the famous Muslim hospitality that I’d read about. His English was quite good, but his dialogue was almost non-stop. He praised the Americans as saviours from the Serbs and then told me more than I needed to hear about the perfidy of the Serbs. The Bosniaks, their term for Bosnians of Muslim confession, are enamored of Bill Clinton, who ordered the NATO airstrikes that finally dislodged the besiegers of the Army of the Republika Srpska from the heights surrounding Sarajevo. Haris was concerned that Trump wasn’t interested in the fate of his country and asked me what Americans thought of the Balkans. I responded that, unfortunately, very few Americans had ever heard of Bosnia, despite its being the flashpoint of World War I.

    The hotel was on a bluff above the main city and a circuitous path led down to the center, past neighborhood mosques with Ottoman-style minarets and the Sarajevo Brewery (Sarajevska Pivara) built in 1864. From the brewery I walked down to the Miljacka River and crossed the Latin Bridge, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914, precipitating World War I. I walked through a throng of locals and tourists in the bazaar, noticing a fair number of head coverings on the women. There was a major restoration project on some of the Ottoman buildings and mosques, all prominently noted as being financed by Turkey. I decided to look for a nicer restaurant than those on offer in the bazaar and made my way down the river embankment to the Nova Bentbaša. Once seated, I encountered a drunk Australian couple. The woman loudly asked “are you American”. To which I answered “yes”. She then staggered over to my table and stated that she normally despised Americans. Fortunately, the maître d’ walked over and escorted her out. After a nice Bosnian meal overlooking the river, I called for a taxi and returned to the hotel.

    The next morning, after an ample breakfast served in the hotel dining room, I decided to walk up a long path to Mount Trebević, one of the abandoned sites from the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics. As I got closer to the abandoned luge run I passed a number of buildings partly leveled by the Serb bombardment during the siege. The Serbs held all of the high points around the city except for Mt. Igman and fired at will. As I approached the bottom of the concrete luge run, a huge thunderstorm erupted and I grabbed refuge under an abandoned bridge, where several other storm refugees had gathered, including a young Danish couple and another couple from Argentina. We spent the next hour discussing our travels. The Argentines were traveling around the world for a year. After the storm abated, we parted and I walked up to the peak along the graffiti-covered luge run. At the top I hopped on the cable car for a panoramic descent into the valley and the city center. The cable car, or Žiĉara, was destroyed during the siege and rebuilt in 2018.

    When I got back to the hotel, Haris was seated with his son and another fellow, all chain-smoking, as seemed common among the Bosnians. To avoid getting another Bosnian history lesson, I said I needed to check email and take a shower. I decided to take a break from pork and beef and visit a well-reviewed vegan restaurant up in the mountains and asked Haris to call his taxi to drive me. When I told him the address a look of horror came over his face and he said “That’s in Republika Srpska and they hate Americans. You won’t be safe.” I’d forgotten that the Serbian part of the Federation was close by. In fact, I’d been there the day before on my hike up Mt. Trebević. Rather than argue, I agreed to eat at a Bosnian restaurant, Avlija, on the north side of the city, across the Miljacka. The food was pretty heavy and I left a third of it on the plate. I couldn’t get any taxi to pick me up, so I walked the five miles back up the hill to the hotel, arriving around midnight. Of course, Haris was still up. I asked him if he had a lamp for bedside reading. He finally came up with one. I decided that I should have booked the Courtyard by Marriott by the river. The incessant smoking and babbling was beginning to get on my nerves.

    After breakfast the next day, I had the driver take me down to the old Olympic Village where I was scheduled to rent a mountain bike from a fellow named Thierry, who had been referred by Katja, the manager of the bike shop in Ljubljana. Thierry was a nice guy, a Dutchman who had married a Bosnian before the war and decided to stay. The bike was a new Santa Cruz with a new preprogrammed Garmin Edge 1030, which runs around USD 599. He gave me a quick overview of the Garmin and the route, which would take me around the airport, through some countryside and the Bosniak village of Hrasnica, and then up a gravel road to the ski resort on top of Mount Inman. I had barely gotten past the airport when another epic downpour hit. The temperature dropped by about 20 degrees and I found shelter under a bus stop. The rain lasted for about an hour and I was freezing and soaked. I had to relieve myself so badly that I simply stood in the rain and went in my Lycra shorts. That was a first! When the rain let up, I headed towards the mountain. The sun came out and it got much warmer. As I pedaled up the mountain, 1,510 meters high, I passed an odd factory as well as a pulverized bunker. I wasn’t able to see the French Army APC that had been hit by Serb artillery and rolled down a deep ravine, but a sign marked the spot. The views from the summit were stunning-a lush green panorama. The descent was fun and I got back to the airport area pretty much on time. I did pause to see the famous airport tunnel that was used to ferry in arms and supplies during the siege. 

    The gravel road I was biking on was the only way into the city for a few years. I passed some Communist-era housing blocks with walls pitted and cratered from heavy-caliber machine fun and mortar fire. I also was almost hit by a city bus on the shoulderless road. When I got back, still pretty muddy, Thierry and his assistant invited me to wash up and then he graciously gave me a ride back to the hotel. I told him about the vegan restaurant incident and he just laughed, saying that I would have been fine. He has Bosniak and Serb women working for him and they got along fine. 

    After doing a walking tour, which are a great way to see the sights in the Balkans, I checked out of the hotel and headed to the airport for my flight to Belgrade on Air Serbia. The Bosnia Hercegovina girl’s national basketball team also was on the plane. I sat next to one of the coaches who spoke English well and we had a nice chat on the hour flight.Despite the poor choice of lodgings, I found Sarajevo fascinating.


    After I collected my bag at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport, I walked outside and hailed a cab to my destination, what turned out to be a superb Airbnb close to the center, on Marŝala Birjuzova, named in honor of a Soviet general who led the “liberation” of Serbia. I’d texted with my hosts in Sarajevo and they had the place ready for an early check-in. After putting things away, I headed out to grab dinner in the hip Skadarlija district. After reconnoitering the neighborhood in the heart of the Old Town, I sat outside to a wine bar, Vinoteka Skadarlija, and sampled some Serbian wines and appetizers. I was a bit tired, so I walked back to my flat through some busy neighborhoods and retired around 9.

    The next day I’d scheduled a bike tour at iBikeBelgrad, a short walk from my place. There I met the manager Vojn and my guide, Simon. The bikes were in great shape and we headed off for a tour of the riverside and New Belgrade. Simon shared that he took part in some antigovernment demonstrations and had sustained a leg injury. As I was to discover, there was a feeling among the young that the Serbian government wasn’t that much different than the old Tito-era authoritarianism. It was a beautiful early August day and the bike paths were easy to navigate. Simon showed me some famous examples of the Brutalist architectural style, which the Tito regime embraced. Among the buildings were the Palace of Serbia, the Genex Tower and the Hotel Jugoslavija. A rather macabre site we passed, the old Belgrade Fairground, built in the late 1930’s for exhibitions and car shows, had been used after the 1941 German invasion as a killing site for Jews. It was the first time the SS experimented with mobile gas vans, according to my guide. This part of the city had been part of the Independent State of Croatia at the time, since it was on the other side of the Danube. There was no monument at the abandoned site, since Marshal Tito didn’t want to incite ethnic tensions. There is a Brutalist memorial on the other side of the river, but it’s pretty obscured.

    During our ride, Simon told the famous story of Stalin’s three attempts on Tito’s life, after the latter broke with Moscow in 1948. After the third NKVD assassination failed, Tito wrote to Stalin and stated that, if a fourth attempt was made, Tito would send a team to kill Stalin and that his team would be successful. 

    After we got back to the bike shop, I chatted with Vojn and decided to join him the next day for a 70 kilometer tour of the Pannonian countryside on the northern bank of the Danube. I also met a young guide named Jovanka, who was about to take a bike tour of Belgrade itself. Since I was the only customer, we set off and spent the afternoon seeing the major historical sites, including the famous fortress overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers and known as Kalemegdan. We stopped at a farmer’s market and bought a selection of delicious berries and I was amused by the farmer’s compliments directed at my lovely guide. 

    As we were leaving the government complex, we stopped at the Ministry of Defense complex to see the ruins of the 1996 NATO airstrikes. The Serbs have left the ruins intact. Across the street were the ruins of the television station, where a few employees died in the airstrikes. Heading downhill towards the river, Jovanka pointed out a statue of a young man bedecked with flowers. She asked me if I knew who it was and I shouted “Gavrilo Princip!” She was a bit shocked that an American would know that. The plaque in Sarajevo wasn’t covered with anything but anti-Serb graffiti.

    The next morning I met Vojn at the shop and we headed across the river and onto a local road heading away from the city. In Eastern Europe it’s striking how few suburbs there are. One goes straight from the city into the countryside. I first noticed this in Zagreb. Vojn told me his name means war and that he was a Vlach, rather than a Serb. The Vlachs were a major tribe in present day Romania. Along the way to a rustic village and restaurant, Vojn told me about the Serbs in World War I and their struggles against the Germans and Austrians, although they fared well against the latter. I then told him about the US Civil War, which he found fascinating. We visited a working monastery along the way and he mentioned that only Orthodox monks were celibate. Orthodox priests were required to be married and have children to be an example of Christian living to their parishioners. The lunch was enjoyable outside under ancient chestnut and beech trees. The long, but moderately paced bike excursion was a superb way to spend the better part of a day exploring an area that few Americans have ever seen.

    That evening I went back to the Skadarlija for dinner at an outside café. I met an English couple whose daughter was competing in a gymnastics competition. We three enjoyed speaking in English over dinner and exchanged contact information. Later, I texted my hostess to arrange a late morning pick-up for the ride to the airport and my flight to Podgorica, the capital of neighboring Montenegro.

  • Upper Bucks County Oddities: October 19

    Upper Bucks County still retains much of its rural charm and isolated and sparsely-populated townships, dotted with 18th century farmsteads and country inns and large state parks and woodlands. In high school, we used to make late-night visits to spooky places like Ghost Mountain and Beverly Hall, where the Rosicrucians still maintain a campus in the middle of a dense woods. Ghost Mountain, actually Haycock Mountain, Bucks County’s highest point, was rumored to have a haunted wooden bridge and a house of albinos who would abduct trespassers. These legends apparently still persist.

    Visiting Beverly Hall is always a bit nerve-wracking, as the Rosicrucians don’t like trespassers. I remembered that it was beyond the swamplands on Axehandle Road. We only saw one man near the main building, so I jumped out to take pictures of the pyramids and outbuildings before jumping back in the car at the edge of the property.

    Around the corner stands the Weisel Youth Hostel and barn and trails to Nockamixon State Park. I always loved the old limestone walls around the hostel, which is now sadly closed and crumbling.

    No road trip to Upper Bucks would be complete without a visit to owowcow creamery in Ottsville, among the best ice cream places in the country.

  • A Trip Upstate

    My mother’s family is from Pottsville, PA, in Schuylkill County. Some residents of southeastern Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia metro area, still refer to that section of the state as “upstate”, or the Coal Region, owing to its history as the chief anthracite coal mining area in the country during the pre-WW2 era. At one time, Pottsville had one of the highest per-capita incomes in the country and even fielded an early NFL team, the Pottsville Maroons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1925_NFL_Championship_controversy

    My sisters and I decided to drive up on a beautiful fall day to see the family cemetery, which I’d never visited, and to see our first cousins, whom I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years. Our cousin Anne met us at the cemetery and we later met her brother, Ned, for lunch at an Italian restaurant in town.

    Pottsville is famous as being the hometown of celebrated American novelist John O’Hara, who changed the name of his birthplace to Gibbsville, most notably in the book Appointment in Samarra (1934). It is also the home of the Yuengling Brewery, America’s oldest brewer. From its peak of 24,530 people in 1940 its population has declined to around 13,000 today. Ned told us that two-thirds of the students are on free or reduced-price meal programs. Its decline mirrors that of vast tracts of the country, although its former wealth can be seen in impressive limestone and granite buildings downtown and mansions on the hillside. If gentrification ever arrives, the gentrifiers will find great structural bones.

    We also stopped in Deer Lake, where my grandmother owned a family cottage where we often spent parts of the summer as children. In the ‘30’s, it was a summer refuge for well-heeled Pottsville residents. Now it’s likely a drug-addled little place, although the lake has been dredged and restored.

    The cottage itself looks desolate. We saw no one on the streets and found a cottage that we remembered as children with a shocking lawn ornament. The isolated towns and villages in this area of the Appalachian region are home to what might be referred to as relict populations.

    To avoid the perennially under-construction I-78 with its endless semi traffic, we took the scenic route on Old Route 22 from Hamburg, PA, in Berks County.

    We’ve always had a morbid interest in abandoned institutions and asylums, so my sister mentioned a massive institution that housed hundreds of children with disabilities including microcephaly. It happened to be on our route, so I jumped out and snapped some photos.

  • Postscript: Useful Tips

    Over the past few years, I’ve found the German app Omio to be great for booking train tickets. They don’t charge a service fee and it’s helpful to have the .pdf on your phone so you don’t misplace the paper tickets, as I’m wont to do.

    Another cost-saving tip regards using the ATM. European banks will always ask you if you want to accept the bank’s exchange. Always reject that option. Then they’ll ask it in another way on the next screen. Reject that, too. I’ve spoken to a number of visitors who incurred a €24 charge otherwise. The ATM’s UI appears to sow doubt about rejecting its options. When I withdrew €200 on Sunday, my alert showed me that I’d just withdrawn $197.25, benefiting from the great exchange rate.

    If visiting Portugal, be aware that Lisbon has five train terminals and I’ve used four. Rossio has the suburban trains to Sintra and other spots. They run at one and thirty-one minutes after the hour. Cais do Sodré on the riverfront serves the upscale beach towns of Estoril and Cascais, on the Portuguese Riviera. Oriente serves the Algarve and Porto and its trains go as far north as Braga. Trains from the Algarve also stop at Sete Rios, which is also near the major bus terminal. Finally, Santa Apolonia, also near the waterfront in the Alfama area, serves the interior cities like Santarém and Tomar, as well as Porto. In most cases, intercity trains stop at several, so make sure you know where your hotel or Airbnb is before getting off.

    Also, all intercity trains to Porto stop at Porto Campanha station. When you get off, take the escalator down to the concourse to Linha 2 and grab the train to São Bento station in the historic center. There’s no charge and it’s the final stop.

    Uber is widely available in the larger cities and towns and is incredibly cheap. They drive funny little sedans that are unseen in the US, so you’ll be looking for a Fiat Tipo, a Renault, Citroen or Dacia. While you spend €6 to go from the Lisbon city center to the airport, you’ll spend around $45 to go the few miles from BNA to my house in central Nashville.

    I also highly recommend getting Global Entry. Most high-end credit cards cover the cost and it includes the TSA pre-check benefit. The last two times I returned to the US I simply walked up to the kiosk and snapped a selfie and handed it over to the agent. No passports or custom claims required.

  • Heading Home

    I took an Uber to the airport early, as always. I avoid stress while traveling internationally and am relaxing in the premium lounge after checking in with BA and passing through security.

    As much as I enjoyed almost a month in Portugal, I’m looking forward to getting home and resuming my normal routine and seeing my family. I have a big reunion coming up this Sunday and look forward to connecting with old friends.

    I highly recommend Portugal as a vacation destination. The people are warm and friendly, the weather is like San Diego, although a bit warmer inland, and the history and culture are noteworthy. The food is uniformly excellent, except for vastly overpriced tourist traps like Belcanto. You can buy a DOC wine for under €10 and a perfectly good one for half that. And I was lucky to benefit from the strongest dollar ever.

    The Portuguese with whom I spoke uniformly dislike, even abhor, what they describe as the current government’s massive corruption. But as several said, most of the people are complacent even with the inflation and stagnant wages. Some of the young, like generations before them, would like to emigrate. But, as several said, the beaches and cheap beer take the edge off politics. I’ll be following trends in Portugal, as I do with many of the countries I’ve visited. The trip was well worth it, especially the new friends I’ve made.

    I plan to continue this blog as I travel both in the US and abroad. Stay tuned and bom dia!

  • Rainy Lisbon Monday

    I’ve been amazingly lucky with the weather. There have been a few early morning showers over the past four weeks, but this is the first rainy day, although it held off until after lunch.

    After morning coffee, I took a long walk down from Graça to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, but it was closed. When I walked in, the rather Soviet functionary seemed pleased to inform me that most museums are closed on Monday. Oh well, I should have checked.

    I walked around the interesting neighborhood before popping into Restaurante Picanha for their prato del dia, which was a Cuban beef dish-very affordable and tasty.

    I decided to walk to the beginning point of the famous Number 28 tram, which is supposed to start at Campo de Ourique, a 24 minute walk up and down from the restaurant. Lonely Planet needs a new Lisbon expert. There was no sign of tram tracks with a kilometer of the site. Then it started to rain, but fortunately I’d brought an umbrella from the apartment. I waited 15 minutes for an Uber moron to show up, but he couldn’t find me and cancelled. Lovely! Then I walked up the hill to a big intersection and tried again. After a 20-minute wait, the second driver showed up and got me back to the apartment. I decided to run a wash and perhaps grab an Uber later to the highly-praised Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.

    Since the Museu closed at 6:00 pm, I didn’t think it made sense to head all the way out for an hour’s tour, so I decided to visit the cathedral, Sé de Lisboa, built in the 12th century. It was a 20-minute walk from the apartment and it hadn’t resumed raining, so I left the umbrella. Although I’d ridden past the Sé twice on bike tours, I was happy to finally visit it. The admission of €5,00 is worth it. It’s built in a trapezoidal shape over the ruins of a Roman temple and a Moorish mosque. As in many places in Southern Europe, old ruins are always put to new use. Visiting pre-Reformation Roman Catholic churches in Portugal and Spain, I’m struck by the prominence given to the Virgin Mary. She assumed a greater prominence than Christ himself. Now I understand the critique of the Protestant low churches and the hundred thousand sects and offshoots of the Reformation that Rome wasn’t “biblical”.

    After the tour, it started to pour, so I stopped by a cafe across the street to sit under the umbrella and have a glass of wine. The Muslim server couldn’t recommend a wine given his abstemious piety, so he offered me a sample. It’s ironic that ten centuries after the Reconquista a Muslim-owned cafe sells alcoholic beverages to tourists in the shadow of a cathedral built on the ruins of a mosque.

    Cities look different in the rain, especially one that recently has seen little of it. Fortunately, I’d brought my trusty Arc’teryx rain jacket.

    I checked out O Pitéu around 8:00 pm, but it was packed and I really didn’t feel like a big dinner, so I walked across the street and had a serviceable salmon salad. It was still pouring when I left. I leave for the US late morning, so a good night’s sleep is in order.

  • Changing Venues and an Afternoon by the Ocean

    Had a relaxing morning at the hotel and checked out before heading over to the new digs in Graça, on the heights to the east. At the hotel bar, the server comped me a cappuccino and a small pastel de nata. This morning was the Lisbon Marathon, so I knew the ride over to the other side of the city center might be longer than normal, but the Uber driver took back streets and got me there before my host, Maria, arrived. Maria owns a number of high-end Airbnbs, and since we got to know each other when I rented her Chiado place, she gave me a cash discount to rent the new one privately. The place is huge and has three bedrooms. It’s just below the city’s most renowned vista point, or miradouro. I just took some night shots from the living room.

    My friends Pedro and Joana invited me for a drive to the northwest of Lisbon, so I planned to grab the local train from Rossio station to Benfica, where their apartment is right across from the station. Maria offered to drive me to the station, so we hopped into her electric Peugeot, which is a great car unavailable in the US. The marathon closures were so bad that I decided that walking would be faster, so I hopped out and was able to catch the 1:31 train for the 10-minute journey to Benfica.

    Pedro met me at the station and we jumped in the car and headed out to the very cool beach town of Ericeira, which is a big surfing venue. The restaurant they reserved was closing early so Plan B was to head to the beach and eat there. We found out that the World Surf League European Challenger Series was underway, though when we got there the day’s competition was over. The restaurant reminded me of Huntington Beach, with surfers from all over Europe and their families. There was even a marine layer!

    After a satisfying lunch, we walked around the town. It’s a place where I certainly could live. Nice restaurants and shops and a beautiful coastal location.

    After Ericeira, we drove to another picturesque town, Mafra, built on a highland with Sintra and the Atlantic in the distance. The canyons and trees reminded me of Del Mar near San Diego.

    Mafra is the site of the Vatican-scale Palácio Nacional de Mafra, built to rival St. Peter’s in the early eighteenth century. It’s surrounded by a large park with an aviary and extensive French formal gardens. It’s visible from the freeway below.

    It was around 6:45 pm when we headed back to Benfica, so we stopped just outside Mafra to take some pics.

    I bid my friends goodbye and walked across to the station to catch the train back to Lisbon. I’m grateful to have met Pedro and Joana and really enjoyed their hospitality. Great way to end my last weekend in Portugal.

  • A Saturday in Lisbon

    After a deep but abbreviated sleep (early bedtime tonight!) I had coffee and then worked out in the hotel’s decent gym. I’ll have to check out the sauna later.

    Around 10:30 I went to the well-stocked breakfast buffet and had a brief conversation with Anton, a young Russian guy from Moscow, who told me he would’ve been conscripted but was fortunately living in Lisbon. He has no plans to return. This war has caused hundreds of thousands of well-educated Russians to bail, which will compound the country’s already collapsing economy. As an aside, on Twitter I saw that the massive Kerch Strait bridge was hit on both the rail and road sections, cutting off the Russian Army’s supplies to the Donbas and Kherson fronts. Anyway, Anton is a journalist who is a good friend of the owner of Belcanto, José Avillez, another coincidence!

    I met the group before noon and we had lunch before heading out for our three hour e-bike tour of Lisbon, which I arranged based on my great experience three weeks ago. We also met two women from Philadelphia who had graduated from Lafayette College, a peer school of my college, Franklin & Marshall. Despite the steep downhill sections, nobody crashed and they all agreed that it was a great three hours. Our guide, João, and I had interesting conversations about Portugal on the ride.

    Before the ride, I was relieved to hear that all of us were greatly disappointed by the poor service and mediocre food at the highly overrated and overpriced Belcanto the night before. My previous post about Belcanto was intentionally neutral, so as not to offend; however, the consensus was that it was an expensive disappointment.

  • Dinner at Belcanto: Friday Evening

    My Nashville neighbors and I planned to meet at the restaurant at 7:30. It was a 15-minute walk from my hotel and I recognized the neighborhood since my initial stay in Lisbon was just a few minutes away. The weather was pleasant and the streets weren’t yet thronged.

    One of our party, who’s a pro at these things, made the reservations for the chef’s table in August and we weren’t disappointed with the seating. The four of us were seated with a solo diner from Los Angeles, who meshed well with our lively group. He had a 5:00 am flight back to L.A. and I’ll be curious to find out if he made it.

    Our server, Beatriz, was an energetic 21 year old originally from Porto. We had chosen the chef’s menu and decided to go with the wine pairing, which provided us with a wide spectrum of rare Portuguese wines. As in many chic Michelin-starred restaurants, the dinner was a series of highly original small plates which interested readers can investigate on the many online reviews. Several of the tiny seafood plates were bathed in sauces made from the heads of the fish, including a large prawn. One can appreciate the art in imagining and then executing plates like these.

    After the tiny but superb desserts, we were shocked that four hours had elapsed. Group photos were taken and posted to Instagram, which I haven’t checked this morning. The bill was predictably steep, but not as high as I’d guessed. Was it worth it? Yes, since it’s not something that I’d ever do on my own.

    After dinner the group decided to go around the corner to The Ivens, where two of our party were staying. It was far past my bedtime, but I happily joined for one glass of wine. One of the neighbors was staying near me, so we walked back together and walked off the dinner, as they say. The other friends and the guy from L.A. ordered another bottle of red as we were leaving. I’ll need to catch up on sleep tonight!