It’s hailed as the best hike in all of Europe. Sweeping mountains views, gorgeous rivers, and rolling fields of wildflowers all in an easy six hour trek from the village of Valbona to the village of Theth in Albania.
We started in Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro. Our plan was to catch a bus to Shkodër, Albania, where we would transfer to another bus, then a ferry, then another bus, and we’d be at the trail head four days after we set out. Yep, four days just to get to the trail head. It’s that great of a hike.
If you’ve intuited from the headline of this post that we never made the hike, you’re right. But it was still a worthwhile trip. The ferry ride alone was one of the most pleasant two hours we’ve ever spent on a boat.
There were a bunch of minivans waiting on the dock in Fierze, so we started asking around for a bus to Valbona. We ended up in someone’s car along with a few other tourists, and it was here that we got our first inkling that maybe this wasn’t going to be our day.
The driver said the trail was snowed in. The Singaporean tourists in the car were debating whether to try to do the hike anyway, even though people have died trying to make the crossing in the snow. We were not overly encouraged by this.
On the upside, we learned that there were some Frenchmen making the trek from the Theth side and had made reservations to stay at the driver’s guesthouse in Valbona that night. “If they make it, you can make it,” our driver said. “If they don’t make it, probably you won’t either.” He laughed then, either at the soundness of his own logic or because he’s a fan of gallows humor.
Without asking, the guy took us to his guesthouse. He quoted us €15 a night, including breakfast and dinner. His wife and two teenage kids lived there too. His wife had firm hands and a warm smile, and his kids were as broody as any teenagers, but they were quick to offer help if we needed it. I’m ashamed to say that I can’t remember any of their names.
We’ve traveled to a lot of beautiful places at this stage in our sabbatical, but none have so far made me envious of another person’s backyard.
I’m sure those teenagers think they’re growing up in the most boring place on earth, and they can’t wait to leave. I couldn’t get over how lucky they were. When I said so, they all looked at me with a mixture of pride and disbelief.
We went for a couple of short hikes around Valbona, and when we returned for dinner, sure enough, the Frenchmen were there. They were tired. It turns out they lost the trail in the snow and a six hour hike turned into a nine hour hike. What walked into the dining room that night were a couple of 20-somethings with cold, wet feet and no food for nine hours. They were lucky they made it.
So we decided not to test our luck and took the ferry back the next day. We may not have experienced the best hike in all of Europe, but we were not disappointed in the beauty of the landscape or the generosity of the people. And the homemade, traditional Albanian food was delicious.
Let this be a lesson to future generations of destination hikers. Sometimes it’s only half the journey that counts.
Named for the black mountains that characterize the landscape, Montenegro is a lot of loveliness packed into a tiny place. We only spent a week in the country, but we logged a decent amount of activity into that amount of time without feeling overwhelmed.
We have fallen a bit in love with tiny fortified towns built by the Venetians. Kotor is a mini-Dubrovnik, only with a much more imposing wall.
The city is remarkably well preserved for how old it is – it’s been a fortified city since 535 AD – which is what qualified it as a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are a couple of wonderful churches here, and a cat museum! You can probably skip the cat museum if you’re limited on time since there is only one cat there and the rest is just a bunch of artwork.
Our next stop was the nearby town of Perast. We grabbed a quick city bus that brought us around the bay from Kotor to this quiet and beautiful town. This place is just plain pretty. Grab a ferry out to the island churches and take in a lovely meal at any one of the waterside eateries. It’s a truly pleasant way to spend a day.
Ferries were only running to Our Lady of the Rocks on the day we were there, the other island is St. George’s and legend has it that it’s built on top of old shipwrecks.
Carved into the mountainside by Serbian Orthodox monks, this monastery is a major pilgrimage site. If you want to visit the authentic way you have to walk the three kilometers from the lower monastery (where the monks live) to the upper monastery (where the relics are) barefoot. It was cold and raining when we came, and – bless them – there were two women making the unshod journey.
No photos are allowed in the small chapels, but it’s still worth the trip to see the frescoes and the mosaic tiling. Be warned that if you’re not a believer you don’t need to stand in the long line to get into the Church of the Presentation. That’s where the body of Saint Basil is. The pilgrims crowd into the room, a priest says a blessing, and then the penitents each take turns kissing the (covered) body. It was, uh, awkward for us to be there when this all took place. It was neat to see the frescoes, though.
If you had to pick between Montenegro and Croatia, go to Croatia. But if you have more time, this country is truly lovely. It’s a bit easier to get around if you rent a car. There are plenty of buses, but they take quite a long time in the mountainous terrain.
It was a tough day of travel that brought us to Croatia. The flights were many – Amman to Kiev to Vienna to Split – with long layovers and a start time of 4:30 am. These are the sacrifices we make to save money. Oy.
In the end it was worth every moment of it when we set our eyes upon the sparkling blue waters of Croatia.
We spent a week bouncing around a few of the islands, hiking, eating, and generally relaxing. We were quite fortunate to be here on the cusp of the season. All the great eateries were just re-opening, there were precious few people on the walkways, and one restaurateur gave us free Proseco as a reward for coming in the spring. Huzzah.
Not an island! But we started here and loved it. Split, like most of Croatia, was once owned by Venice. The architecture and the food (lots and lots of Italian places) still show the signs of that time.
The gem of the place is Diocletian’sPalace, which is not a palace at all, but the remains of a fortified town. Inside the walls is a marvel of narrow, labyrinthine streets, shops and restaurants. A few a cappella singing groups also made excellent use of the acoustics.
There are plenty of good walks to high places in Split, as well as excellent food. We recommend doing your best to get a little lost. There are a lot of hidden gems all over the place.
Our next stop was the island of Hvar, which was once inhabited by pirates! The pirates terrified the Greeks for years, but eventually the richness of the soil emboldened the Grecians enough that they took the place over in 384 BCE.
We splurged on a tour of the island and weren’t disappointed. Our guide was quite knowledgeable about the history of the region and he was full of witty little gems like, “there is no life without lamb,” and, when describing a man who failed to engage the locals in his building project: “We call him two meters of stupidity.”
The tour first took us to the abandoned village of Malo Grablje, which was abandoned in the mid-1950s when a fungus from the Americas infected the olive trees and the sole source of income died.
The residents mostly moved to San Jose, California. Since no one remembers who owned which house, the government has declared that all of the descendants own all of the town. This has had the unfortunate effect of keeping people away, since no one wants to invest in something they’ll only ever own a percentage of.
Our next stop was the viewpoint at St. Nicholas Peak, which gave us breathtaking views.
We also learned quite a bit about the soil, and the effort that goes into cultivating it. Every inch of the ground on this island is covered in limestone. Limestone, for those of you who may have forgotten, is the bones of dead sea creatures all piled up over the millennia. I was once again humbled by time – how it is that living things can be turned into a mountain.
The tour came with lunch and a bunch of other stops. If you come in the summer there’s a swimming hole that the guide goes to. It was a bit to cold for that for us.
Sadly, we only spent about a half day here. Walking around the old city at night, listening to the waves was a beautiful way to spend an evening. We left for Dubrovnik on the next morning’s ferry. Croatia is on my list of places to return to with friends and/or family, so I’ll be back!
This is the setting for King’s Landing in Game of Thrones, and the local shops are not keen to let you forget it. There are tours and merchandise and opportunities for cosplays galore.
We didn’t go in for any of the GoT tours that are on offer, but we did pay the exorbitant fee to walk the wall (kn100 or about $15 USD). It was worth it. We spent a lot of time on that wall and I have a ton of rooftop pictures to prove it.
Croatia’s war for independence, which was waged from 1991 to 1995 is felt the most here, though you have to have a keen eye to see it. There are memorial photographs on the walls of some of the houses that were bombed, but the streets are so narrow and crowded with tourists that you’d be forgiven for not looking up.
The country is still recovering from the war, and it’s heavily dependent on tourism for income. With crystalline blue waters and nary a bad meal to be had, I doubt they’ll have much trouble in the years to come.
For being as small as it is – roughly the size of Maine – Jordan punches way above its weight class when it comes to interesting things to see and do. It was at the center of trade, religion, and politics for many, many years. That means lots and lots of people have come through here, set up their cities and their holy places and their ruling classes only to be run off by, or absorbed into, the the next group of people who had their own ideas for holy places and cities and ruling classes.
A lot of the old cities are surprisingly intact throughout the country. We covered Petra in an earlier post, so we’ll skip that here. Instead, we’d like to focus on some of the less well known sites.
Biblical Sites Mt. Nebo – This is the peak from which Moses was finally able to look out onto the Promised Land before he died. It’s a popular place, if a little out of the way. We were there on a particularly hazy day, so the view wasn’t great. But the small church on the top of the mountain was a real treat.
The Moses Memorial Church is a 6th century structure that is part of a still-active monastery. The church hosts some of the best mosaics in the country, dating from about 530 CE.
The big masterpiece is a hunting and herding scene rendered in mosaic tile. It was a wonderful piece to see in person, if a little unexpected for a church.
Umm Qais, known in the Bible as Gadara, is the town where Jesus relocated some demons out of two men and into a herd of pigs. My Bible teacher told this story when I was a kid to illustrate Jesus’ power over evil. Neither the Bible, nor my (wonderful) teacher, explained what happened to the demons after the pigs threw themselves into the sea and died, or for that matter what ever became of the guy who owned the herd of pigs.
We only know that the Gadarenes promptly asked Jesus to leave. I guess they decided that the inconvenience of a few demon possessions was preferable to losing their livestock. That’s maybe the bigger lesson we should take from this story – Jesus is a great many things; good for the economy is not one of them.
The ruins of Umm Qais are impressive to walk through. We looked out over the Sea of Galilee onto Palestine and Israel while eating lunch at the restaurant that’s on the grounds. It was like dining in the mist of history.
There are a bunch of other biblical sites around Jordan. One in particular that we did not make it to is Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where the Bible says John baptized Jesus. We skipped because a) it’s hard to get to, b) it didn’t seem like there was anything there anymore, and c) there is a mirror site on the Israeli side of the Sea of Galilee where they also claim the honor of Jesus’ baptismal site.
Byzantine Mosaics in Madaba
Madaba on its own is a wonderful stop. The quaint town is host to a warm and welcoming community made up of both Muslims and Christians. Its streets are lined with shops that sell everything from shoes to meat to pots and pans. What makes it even more special is that people have been living here for 4,500 years. Madaba was one of the lands occupied by the 12 Tribes of Israel back in the time of the Exodus.
After a rather major earthquake in 747 AD, Madaba was abandoned for 1100 years. When refugee Christians moved back in the late 19th century they found a treasure trove of Byzantine mosaic art buried beneath the rubble. I’ve become a huge fan of mosaics. It’s a wonderful combination of art and puzzles that makes my nerdy heart glow.
It’s an easy day walking to all the sites in this small town, including shopping along the way. You can even watch artists create new mosaics at the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art & Restoration. I’m seriously considering taking up this hobby when we get back.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t also discuss the Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist in Madaba. It’s a bizarre little place. There’s nothing to suggest that John the Baptist was beheaded here, but there’s a shrine dedicated to him in an old Latin church nonetheless.
The real draw is the underbelly of the church, where we saw an ancient Moabite well that still works and bold way finding signs.
Like everywhere else in the region, most of Jordan was occupied by the Romans at some point, but for a true Roman city go to Jerash. These ruins are better than Rome’s.
This city grew to prominence because of the rich soil, which still produces ample supplies of figs, olives, apples, and berries. Trade with the Nabataeans (read: Petra) made the town rich. It was only an earthquake in 747 that led to the city being abandoned.
So many of the buildings are in such great shape, though, that it’s almost unbelievable.
If you are planning a trip to Jordan, know that it is perfectly safe. Our best advice is to rent a car for the full duration of your time in the country. Public transit between cities is difficult or nonexistent. If you’re the daring type you can hitchhike. It’s an acceptable way to travel in the country.
A few days before I was about to leave for my very first international trip my friend Carol gave me the best travel advice I’ve ever received: “Don’t experience your trip through a camera lens,” she said. “Let your eyes see it.” I have carried this advice with me ever since. Wherever I go I make sure my eyes see more than my camera does.
In Jordan, this is unavoidable. There are activities here that are not suitable for a standard camera. Folks still do it, and get great pictures out of it, but we weren’t confident enough in our ability to keep the equipment dry and/or sand free. I don’t regret how few pictures we have of these places. Our eyes saw them, our bodies felt them, and it was great.
Floating in the Dead Sea
I “stood” in the deep water with my arms stretched out over my head and didn’t sink. It’s a wild experience. I only wish I had brought water shoes as the rocks were very sharp from the accumulation of salt. But for the rest of my life I will remember effortlessly floating there, looking out on to Israel and Palestine, and thinking, “My work is loving the world.”
P.S. Don’t get the water in your mouth. It tastes like burning.
Hiking the Siq Trail in the Mujib Biosphere Reserve
This is a hike we’ll not soon forget. Ninety percent of it is spent in the river, fighting the current on the way up and riding it on the way back. I am grateful to Ryan and the gentleman from New Hampshire who helped me navigate the ropes for some of the more challenging climbs over water soaked boulders. We absolutely loved this hike. I think it was our best day in Jordan.
Snorkeling in the Red Sea
After running out of time to get to the Red Sea in Egypt we made it a priority to do so in Jordan. We drove to Aqaba on the southern border and rented equipment from a beach front hotel. We were not disappointed. The coral was vast and varied and the fish were gorgeous. I watched a clown fish dart in and out of an anemone for a good five minutes.
Camping with the Bedouins
On the way back from Aquaba we detoured into Wadi Rum, land of the famous Lawrence of Arabia. While most tourists opt for a day trip, we negotiated a rate to stay at one of many Bedouin camps. The hosts were warm and welcoming, they fed us a wonderful dinner and breakfast the next morning, and we walked around the desert, looking at bugs and getting sand in our shoes.
There’s a story that a traveler was shot at by local Jordanians in order to make him come back and have tea with them. Responsibility toward the visitor is so deeply part of Jordanian culture that they are aggressively hospitable. We were invited to birthday parties. We sat in a tent surrounded by goats while a local family made us “Welcome Tea.” We, in fact, drank so much “Welcome Tea” that I had a hard time sleeping some nights. The only English some cab drivers know is, “Welcome to Jordan!” There are no words adequate to express just how awesome it was.
So here’s some travel advice to complement Carol’s (which you should also take): Whenever you meet a stranger, even if they’re just from the next town over, say, “Welcome to [Place]!” And just watch how it affects you (and them).
It may not look like much on the outside, but Amman is treasure trove of history and hospitality. Also, beer. After nearly three months in Muslim-majority countries we were pretty psyched to find freely flowing beer.
This was home to the Ammonites of Biblical fame, which fell to King David, but was rebuilt by the Ptolemaic ruler Philadelphus. The city was renamed Philadelphia in honor of the new ruler, making it the original City of Brotherly Love. We can assure you that it still lives up to its old motto. Jordanians on the whole are the most welcoming, nicest people we’ve met on our journey so far.
Our first few days in Jordan were spent here in Amman in order to get our bearings and learn a little of the history of the country. The Jordan Museum was a wonderful start, with artifacts dating back to 15,000 BC to the very first known carvings of human statues.
There was a wonderful temporary exhibition dedicated to Ibn Al-Haythim, the “man who discovered how we see.” It’s a beautiful exhibit about light, optics, and vision. He’s also credited with saying what is now one of my most favorite quotes: “The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads.” This is good advice, especially with all the fake news running around these days.
If you’re headed to Jordan, don’t miss spending a day or two in Amman. The museums and old ruins are worth the time. And make sure you stop into Hashem Restaurant for some of the very best falafel you’ll ever have.
I knew virtually nothing about Petra before coming here. My sole reason for wanting to see the place was that scene from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade when Indy rides through the Valley of the Crescent Moon and finds this:
Unlike many dreams that get built up in my mind only to come crashing down in the cruel presence of reality, this place exceeded my expectations. The journey into the old city is striking and no less breathtaking in person than it was on the big screen.
The canyon (siq) is awe inspiring to walk through. We made the trip twice. Sheer walls of stone towered above us, the path narrowed and widened, the ground was sometimes new pavement and sometimes the original stone that the Nabataeans traveled on 2,000 years ago.
What’s even more impressive is the rest of Petra. There were once 20,000 people who lived here. The Nabataeans were traders. Mostly they dealt in frankincense and myrrh, but also in bitumen, which the Egyptians needed for their mummification process. The trade routes, with Petra as their main hub, made the Nabataeans quite powerful and quite rich.
It’s amazing how much their presence is felt in the sandstone, yet how little is known about them. An earthquake in 363 AD critically damaged the water system and forced the evacuation of the city. It lay empty, known only to the Bedouins who still used the old caravan routes, until 1812, when a Swiss traveler disguised himself as a Muslim cleric and was led into the old city by a guide. It’s been flooded with tourists ever since.
The tombs and the old water systems are all that’s left of the Nabataeans. As traders, they lived in tents so they could move around more easily. Like most of humanity, they wanted to be remembered even after death. So they carved elaborate tombs for themselves.
How were they this good at carving stone, you ask?
Archaeologists have found evidence of beads and small carved stones from 15,000 BCE in Petra. You can see these artifacts in the Jordan Museum in Amman. What they tells us is that the folks who lived here had quite a bit of practice in carving stones. And their source material – huge mountains of sandstone – rendered some of the spaces truly beautiful.
Since so little is known about them, the names for the big monuments are clunky at best, and often derived from rumors and stories. The tomb that features so prominently in the Indiana Jones movie (and the picture at the beginning of this post) is called The Treasury, for example, even though we’re pretty sure it’s a tomb for King Aretas IV.
It’s called The Treasury because of a rumor that an Egyptian pharaoh hid a stash of gold in the center top “urn” while he was chasing the Jews. The story was so tempting that someone shot at it to try to break it open. Alas, the whole structure is solid sandstone. You can see the bullet markings if you look closely at the picture. While your’e there, see the line of notches on the left side there? Those are evidence of where they set up the scaffolding. They’d start at the top and work their way down.
Other key highlights include what they call The High Place of Sacrifice. It may not be what the Nabataeans called it, but it’s descriptive.
Probably the most dramatic of all the structures is The Monastery, so named because there is a cross carved into an interior wall of the tomb. This led some to believe it was used as a church when the Romans took the place over. It is the largest monument in all of Petra, measuring 50 meters (160 ft) wide by approximately 45 meters (148 ft) high. We stared at it for a good hour. Luckily there is a Bedouin cafe in the vicinity, which provided us with a refreshing mint lemonade and comfy seats after a very long climb.
There are hundreds of tombs in Petra, plus a few free standing old temples that are now in ruins but that are still amazing to see. It is quite a lot to take in, and it’s worth spending a couple of days in order to give yourself adequate time. If you’re able, it’s a much more rewarding experience to walk into the city through the Siq. There are horses and camels available, but they take a different route and are quite expensive despite the touts telling you it’s free. (Avoid the horse-drawn carriages at all costs; they looked like painful rides on the uneven ground).
If your legs or knees aren’t quite up to the task of the strenuous hikes there are donkey and camel touts that can take you to the higher elevations. I’m not sure it’s worth it, though. The donkeys and the people riding them did not look too happy.
We were very, very tired after two days of hiking and walking through the massive site. We probably should have paced ourselves a little better, but in all we are so happy we saw this place.