Archive for September, 2013

Film, Art, and Prosciutto

September 17th, 2013 7:30 am by Dave and Ray from here

We had a picturesque flight to Venice, seeing Dubrovnik and Split off in the distance and Venice on approach.

Venice was a lot of fun. Ray’s cousin John was spending a month there, and it was great hanging out with him pretty much the whole time. There were three things happening which we experienced each day: the film festival, the Biennale, and Venice itself.

We saw one film each day. “Je m’appelle Hmmm….” was about a young girl being molested by her father, who runs away and ends up hanging out with a truck driver. Of course, the truck driver, who is the sweetest person in the world to her, ends up being accused of molesting her himself. But before that happens, the middle 60% of the film is basically a really fun road movie. “The Wind Rises” is the final film from Hazao Miyazaki, the master Japanese animator who did “Spirited Away”. Unlike all of the other dreamy and somewhat supernatural movies he did, this one is a dramatization of the life of the young aeronautical engineer who designed the Zero fighter, and the Italian engineer who inspired him. “Under the Skin” stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who entices young men into a house where they become alien food or something: most of the explanation of what is happening is left to the imagination of the viewer. “Eastern Boys” is a rather improbable thriller where a man in Paris gives his address to a Ukranian rent-boy; the boy’s entire gang shows up at the house, and carts off the man’s possessions in the light of day. The most improbable part is that the relationship between the two continues after that. The competition for “most improbable part” is fierce, however.  The Venice festival has a different feeling than the SF International one:  instead of Q&As with the directors it’s all about red carpets, with adulating paparazzi and fans cheering the arrival of stars in Maseratis ferrying them around the island.

The Biennale was focused at two buildings at the eastern end of Venice, the Arsenale and the Giardini. Each was larger than most museums, and they housed twenty or thirty large rooms full of work. There were many interesting things in both places; one of the most special was the psychologist Carl Jung’s “Red Book”. I liked a roomful of plastic human-sized sculptures which had face casts of Venetians with bodies which were much more abstract. Each venue also had many “pavilions” from various countries, which like all art varied wildly in how interesting they were. More pavilions, and many other Biennale exhibitions from individual artists, were scattered all over town as well. Foundation Prada had reconstructed the Bern Kunsthalle in an old palace, and installed a seminal exhibition from 1969, using as much of the original art as possible; the most fun part of that was seeing how the new building fit into the old (they don’t). Ai Weiwei had scale models of his prison cell, with little windows where you could look in to watch him sleeping or eating or showering with guards watching him. I don’t know why they bothered, it’s all on Facebook anyway. The Iraq pavilion was set in a nice flat, with comfortable furniture where you could sit and read books about Iraq, and political cartoons and other art decorating the walls.

Both the films and the art gave us the opportunity to explore parts of Venice we’d never been to. The films were in Lido, and much of the art was way east past Piazza San Marco. The food wasn’t always so perfect: with so many tourists (Venice seems to have a great number of Italian tourists) there are many tourist restaurants with uninspired menus and execution, and super-expensive water: we would ask for “just plain water”, hoping for tap water, but we’d get glass bottles of still water which were upwards of €6 for .75 liter. We did go to “Al Covo”, which was really good. The most memorable eating experiences were at little bars serving cicchetti, Venice’s version of tapas: eat a plate of crostini with baccala or anchovies or cheese or prosciutto, or little seafood salads, and wash it down with a Campari or Aperol spritz. You can eat really well that way for less than €10. Then go somewhere for gelato for dessert: some places have some good flavors.

We were only there four days; we could easily have spent two weeks or longer seeing more films, more art, and more parts of the city.  With so much to see, and so little time, the days were completely action-packed and left no time for contemplation or writing postcards.  Certainly not blogging.

Our friend Doug mentioned that he was in Italy, so we both changed our schedules and met Thursday evening in Parma, home of Parmesan cheese and prosciutto, also known as Parma ham. We went to Parizzi, a nice one-Michelin-star restaurant for dinner Thursday. As we walked around the park before dinner, my phone rang: Osteria Francescana in nearby Modena, a three-Michelin-star restaurant rated third best in the world on someone’s list, replied to my email saying we could be available for lunch or dinner on either of the next two days. Amazingly, despite their small size, they had an opening for Friday lunch. So we had two meals, one very good and one stellar, in the space of 24 hours. All we could do after lunch on Friday was to return to the hotel and digest (after walking around Modena for a couple hours for the excellent wine pairing to wear off before driving back.)

Saturday we sampled the major sights in Parma itself, including the National Gallery (with tons of religious paintings from the 14th to 18th centuries) and the Cathedral. Then we went to the prosciutto festival in the village of Langhirano. A factory tour of Corradi Guerrino S.p.A. was conducted in Italian, but I never listen anyway, I only creep off to find good photos. There were massive numbers of hams hanging in row after row of carts, curing for two or three years; I realized that I was looking at a major proportion of the world’s prosciutto supply, that this was one of the only 150 producers in the area. They served free prosciutto and wine afterwards. Then we walked a block to the downtown area.

A block away, the evening’s village festival festivities were beginning with a marching band with baton twirlers, and another marching band, and a car show of old Alfas and Fiats and Ferarris, and quite unaccountably, a Hupmobile.

We washed it down with dinner at Antichi Sapori, which is what people in Parma eat when they aren’t having art pieces at restaurants serving dishes that are almost beyond food. We had a horsemeat appetizer, some plain but perfect garlic ricotta ravioli, the “pork in tuna sauce” we’d been seeing on many menus which turned out not to be really that interesting, and a parmesan tasting (they were all good).

Sunday we drove to the Bergamo airport, and found scales at a closed checkin counter. We juggled our suitcases until they were just so, avoided a 60 euro overweight fee, and were off to Dublin. In Dublin we had time to do one thing, which was to have dinner with Samuel, whom we met on the Palestinian tour. He took us to a pub in an old bank. The noise level was so high I didn’t hear all that he said. He is about one of the nicest people we have met on the whole trip. And he isn’t cadging us to help get him a visa.

The next day we stood in a number of lines to get back to America. Note to travellers: if you have an 11:25 flight from Dublin to Chicago, and they say the gate closes at 9:40, it is not a misprint. In addition to the usual lines for checking baggage and security, it turns out that in Dublin we were actually entering the United States. It took us about 50 minutes to get through the immigration lines, just barely catching our plane in Final Call status. It seems like the overturning of DOMA may have changed the attitude of US immigration agents. Since we aren’t brothers (like many people ask us if we are), a few agents historically haven’t even let us walk up together, though most have. Of course, we’ve always filled out two custom forms, which on the one hand refer to a household, and on the other refer to “family members”. This time, speaking to the agent, we were much more specific about our relationship (together 30 years, not married officially, living in the same house) and so she crumpled one of the two forms, and wrote “2” on the remaining one. That tells me to fill out only one from now on for both of us.

I don’t know why immigration is less advanced than most delicatessens. Why can’t you just take a number and go sit down? Instead you wind through an hour of lines, it doesn’t matter where, Chicago, Phoenix, Heathrow. It’s just dumb. The Chinese Embassy in San Francisco does it correctly. Dittmer’s Gourmet Meats does it correctly. Tomasita’s in Santa Fe gives you a little buzzer. (I think the answer to this is the Ryanair ethic: like Disneyland, you can squeeze hundreds of more people in the same room if they are standing in narrow winding queues, instead of being comfortable in chairs.)

We flew to Chicago against 100 knot headwinds. No scenery. A flight attendant yelled at me about my Garmin until we showed her in the magazine they were specifically permitted. (The inflight magazine is contradictory. It says you can’t use any device that sends or receives data. The GPS receives data, but it is permitted in the next list.)

We barely made it onto the flight to SFO. We didn’t get seats together; we were each seated next to European tourists who planned to go to SF, and also to Las Vegas, thinking for some reason there was something to see there. At least they also planned to see the Grand Canyon and perhaps others.

When we got to San Francisco, Paul picked us up and we had dinner at Ben Tre in Millbrae, a nice Vietnamese place. Then we bought some oranges for the next day since there isn’t a place to get orange juice in Sky Londa, except at our house. We drove home, and collapsed into bed.

Traveling with a Green Card

September 17th, 2013 7:13 am by Dave and Ray from here

Our final two Olympic Air propeller flights took us from Samos at 7am to Athens, and then on to Tirana, Albania. We found the Budget rental car agent in the Avis booth, who assured us that we could take the car into many other neighboring countries with the proper paperwork. He gave us all the ID cards and a notarized letter, and told us that we had to buy a “green card” which is some kind of international insurance policy. (For €40 for 15 days, it probably doesn’t insure much.) We drove into town, found the Hotel Baron after noticing that the main road through town had become very rough as part of some construction project.

The Hotel Baron is in a suburb on the old road to Elbasan. It overlooks a cow pasture next to a mosque. We had to insist they give us a room with a double bed. The Hotel Baron is not on the Bob Damron circuit, or if they are, they don’t know it. Between English usage and Balkan masculinity, they need to double check.

From the balcony of the hotel, a freeway is visible. We decided to see how far into town it goes. One day it will be possible to drive from Vlorë to Prishtina on a modern autobahn, but it’s less than half done and it peters out on the way into Tirana. There are no lines delineating lanes, and there are occasional 2-inch changes in the road level. It ends at a concrete barrier and a pile of trash. You turn right, and you are in an urban neighborhood about 2500 meters SW of Skanderbeg Square, and so is everyone else who took the freeway into town. Still, it was better than the other road.

We walked through town. Tourist information was closed. The black and white old post card reprints at the bookstore in the Stalinist Modern Movement-style Palace of Culture cost a dollar or more and that’s a lot of money for an Albanian post card.

We visited the National Art Gallery. It was instructive.

The small countries of the world usually follow the lead of the big ones, in responding to the stress that the industrial revolution placed upon art in the 19th and 20th centuries. Representational artists responded to the terminal illness in their profession brought on by printing technology and then photography, with the psychological stages you read about in Parade magazine — Denial (pre-Raphaelites), Anger (Impressionism), Bargaining (Cubism, Surrealism), Depression (Fluxus), and Acceptance (Music Videos) — and whether you are in Cuba or Colombia or a little town in Kansas you will see that the local artists have evolved their brushstrokes away from the mandate of reality in more or less the same temporal order but for some reason that didn’t happen in Albania, despite its cultural proximity to Italy, or at least it didn’t make it into the National Art Gallery.

Folk Art forms seem to have persisted right up until Hoxha forced socialist realism on everyone.  The socialist realist paintings occupy a whole floor, in full blown 21st century irony — how do they do that? This country suffered terribly under Hoxha. The man who rented us the car; his grandmother was killed in front of her house for not telling the police that her children had escaped to Yugoslavia. Everyone has a story like that. Why would they not burn any reminder of the era?

But they respect it, even enough to forbid photographs. Here is a curious museum observation: Museums generally don’t seem to mind people taking photos with their cell phones nearly as much. What a specific fetish.

We returned to the hotel, then braved the rough road to Sofra e Ariut, a fancy restaurant in the town’s large park where we had a large assortment of hot traditional appetizers, and a small main course. Afterwards, the traditionally-dressed waiter showed us around the place: the main building was a large log-cabin-like structure built from logs brought from Sweden. There were traditional women’s costumes hanging up everywhere, as well as some mounted butterflies. One of the rooms was the Laura Bush room, commemorating her visit there many years ago.

The Albanians love the Americans unconditionally and without detail. Woodrow Wilson insisted that Albania be instituted as a nation in 1920; Hoxha of course made everybody hate the Americans but he hated everybody, and as soon as he was gone, the Bushes and the Clintons stepped right up to hate the Serbs, and the way to an Albanian’s heart, even beyond acknowledging their national identity, is to hate the Serbs. Hating Serbs works more or less everywhere in Southeastern Europe. They don’t want to hear that Wilson owed an Albanian fraternal organization in Boston a favor, or that Kosova has deposits of strategic minerals and anyway bombing Chinese embassies is great fun. You know what? I like Albanians too.

Sunday we left Tirana, drove down towards Elbesan (where we were treated to a few stretches of new freeway), and then turned towards Lake Ohrid straddling the Albania/Macedonian border like Tahoe straddles California and Nevada. In Elbesan, there were at least three wedding processions (the lead car was always the videographer shooting the cars which followed), and there were several more as the day wore on. Another thing we saw everywhere we went in Albania were places which would wash your car: LAVAZH. There was a particular string of them as we approached Lake Ohrid where they advertised by spouting water into the air. The roads toward the lake were winding and pretty; we started on the longer route to the Macedonian lake resort town of Ohrid around the south end of the lake, instead of the more direct one in the north. Bad idea. On the Albanian side, it was misery: the road was torn up, there was tons of traffic, and while it wasn’t as developed as Lake Como, it didn’t have anything you’d consider wilderness the entire way. There was a version of South Lake Tahoe at the end, but with crazy Albanian traffic instead of casinos. We got to the border, easily crossed out of Albania, but the Macedonian police said that the places to get the green card we needed to take the car into Macedonia were closed on Sunday. Fortunately we were able to drive back a mile to Albania, and get one from a place there that was open, then we entered Macedonia with no problem. The Macedonian side of the lake was a national park, and was a very nice drive, on a nice road with little traffic, the whole reason Ray had decided to take this route in the first place. We found our hotel, right on the lake shore in the center of town, with a bit of difficulty. In the summer many of the beach side streets in Ohrid are closed. We parked the car in the hotel’s private area, and were able to walk around for two nights with no traffic or parking issues. The Hotel Aleksandrija is a nice place, though I chose it because my friend Nikola works there. It was nice to touch base with him again.

We walked up to the fortress area, which had been improved with more stairways and railings since Ray had been there five years earlier. It afforded many nice views of the lake and the town. From there, we rambled down the streets, past the antique theater, to Damar, one of the restaurants which seemed interesting. They served a nice meal including “country meat”, a little casserole with chunks of pork and mushrooms and cheese. Everyone in the Balkans refers to unripened cheeses such as feta, ricotta, halloumi, labneh, and panir as “white cheese”, and they use the term “yellow cheese” to describe what we would simply call “cheese”; the casserole had melted “yellow” cheese. The restaurant was directly across from St. Sophia Church, a charming little Orthodox church with beautiful frescoes on all the ceilings and walls, and particularly the bluish ones at the front above the altar. The frescoes had been whitewashed by the Turks when they invaded; the whitewash was fairly successfully removed by restorers over the years, but the frescoes have a much more pastel appearance as a result, instead of the deep colors you see in so many other Byzantine churches. Anyway, we noticed a bunch of people standing around outside the church, and we decided to see if it was open after dinner. It turned out that there was a concert happening there in about ten minutes, part of the Ohrid Summer Festival, so we decided to buy tickets. It was a concert featuring two Russian pianists, a 20-year-old young man named Arseny Tarasevich, and a slightly older woman named Varvara Nepomnyaschaya. They had both won recent competitions, and were both excellent. But we both thought Tarasevich was more excellent: it really seemed like he wasn’t even trying, but his playing was quite captivating. The stuff he played ended up sounding a little muddy in the echoey church, except that the Ravel “Gaspard de la Nuit” sounded just fine. He seemed a little arrogant in his personal style, but if he plays that well, he gets to be. Her playing sounded like it was closer to her limits, and it seemed a little odd that her second encore was basically a blues piece, disorienting after all the classical music we’d heard. And I was a little annoyed that my perfect pitch has become imperfect: everything sounded to me as though it was a whole tone higher: the pieces in F major sounded to me like they were in G major. I haven’t played for too many years: no practice makes no perfect.

Monday we had the whole day in Ohrid to walk around, and we put on long pants and visited several churches. There were some tiny ones, most of which were closed and we just walked past, but some of which were open as well. One of the main ones we saw was St. Bogorodica Perivlepta, where a lady with a PhD gave us a tour and explanation of the icons and frescoes all over the church, but her accent was so thick and the acoustics so resonant that I hardly caught anything at all. Apparently several of the scenes focused on the life of the Virgin Mary.  The worship of the Mother God was not nearly as eradicated by the Hebrews as they had hoped.

The other one was St. Clement’s monastery “St. Pantheleimon”, which is primarily an archeological site which has undergone a massive amount of construction since Ray was here last. One of the old churches there had red tile roofs hanging in midair where they would have been, and elevated walkways above the ruins of the walls and mosaic floors. The main church was completely rebuilt above the few feet of wall which remain. But the current construction appears to be large buildings for a new university or monastery or something, with a foundation propped up directly above ruins of ancient structures. We walked along the lake, watching masses of tourists actually swim in it: it really is a nice beautifully clear lake (unlike the algae-covered Clear Lake in California, where all our friends have been for the last two weeks) but it’s probably really cold.

After awhile we went to a different restaurant near St. Sophia’s church, had a different traditional meal, and went to the Monday festival concert, which featured Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulovic and US pianist Susan Manoff. Apparently Mr. Radulovic is a local star, because the entire church was packed; we ended up in the last row (except for the one they added later to deal with the large crowd). He’s an incredible player with an amazing dynamic range, and the two of them have played together a lot and are quite tight. Again, the French pieces, including Franck and Ravel, were the most successful in the church. The encores were mostly enjoyable, but we could have done without “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.

Tuesday we got back into the car, and drove to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. After dropping off stuff at the hotel, we headed to the old market area so Ray could look at antique shops to add to his collection of mortars and pestles; we found a couple nice brass ones from the late 1800s. While the antiquities dealer is selling you stuff, it is all old, rare, and authentic. After the deal is complete, he takes pains to assure you that it is all new, cheap, and not the export of a national treasure. Hopefully the souvenirs won’t put us over our weight limit on Ryanair, but we can always load up our pockets, wear all our clothes simultaneously, whatever it takes to have the checked bags be 15kg or less, and the carryons 10kg or less.

We walked around downtown, and Ray observed that most of what we saw wasn’t there five years earlier: they have been building many monuments, including a huge one of Alexander the Great (remember, he was from Macedonia) and several large museums. The contemporary art museum was also under renovation so we couldn’t go there. There’s a new Arc de Triomphe copy, called the Gate of Macedonia. It makes as much sense as the one in Bucharest.

After resting at the hotel, we returned downtown, and had dinner with Goran and Philip, some really nice guys Ray had met during previous visits and kept in touch with over the years.

We realized that the plans for Wednesday were probably not doable. We had planned to drive to Pristina in Kosovo to have lunch at Tiffany’s, then drive to Novi Pazar, near Stari Ras, the site of the medieval capital of Serbia. Unfortunately, Google refused to route us on the road directly connecting the two, due to the ongoing troubles between Serbia and Kosovo. Instead, it wanted to send us back through Montenegro, resulting in total of three border crossings for the day. So we eliminated both of those from the plans, and decided to go to Niš in Serbia instead, a medium-sized town between Skopje and Thursday’s destination, Sarajevo.

Niš has an old fortress enclosing a pleasant city park, and it has the Skull Tower, which was built by the Turks from the skulls of soldiers who tried to repel their advances into the area during the First Serbian Uprising in 1809. The idea of the tower was to intimidate the locals, but they honor the tower as a symbol of the spirit of their soldiers fighting. The incident that gave rise to the skulls was actually a mass suicide, even greater than that which occurred at Masada. Serbian Stevan Sinđelić, rather than surrender, ignited his ammunition stores, and the resultant explosion killed all his troops and a number of Turks as well. The skulls of 952 Serbs were recovered in good enough shape to build a tower out of;  how did they know they were Serbs, anyway? They didn’t have DNA testing then.

Here is a fashion note at odds with the general skin-bleaching trend: our hero Stevan Sinđelić is described in contemporary documents as having blond curly hair and a light yellow mustache. Yet he is always depicted with dark hair and skin because it lends seriousness and gravity to his actions. This according to the multimedia presentation in the museum there.

The tower itself is a white stone tower with skulls embedded in all four sides. These days there are probably 5% of the skulls left in place, and the whole thing is enclosed in another building. You can no longer hear the wind whistle through the skull cavities, which so impressed the romantic poets who visited the site in the 19th century.

We went to a well-recommended restaurant called Nislijska Mehana, near the fort of Nis; let the waiter bring us food, and we ended up with so much that we had to bring half of it home. We had it for lunch on the road the next day.

Thursday was a marathon driving day. As we left on our nominally-six-hour drive, Ray asked if we should stop at a monastery, which would only add 90 minutes to the driving time. It seemed like there would be enough light, so we did. A half hour of freeway was followed by a half hour of driving through one tiny town after another, which turned into an hour of driving over one ridge after another. No problem, the Serbian countryside was quite pretty, with distinctively shaped haystacks, and some charcoal burners still in use, decorating the hills.

We arrived at the monastery, finished the previous night’s dinner, then walked around inside. The walls of the complex were circular; several archaeological workmen were using pickaxes and shovels to do some excavations. In the main church, there was scaffolding everywhere, and most of the frescoes had a matrix pattern of pits. The guide explained that someone several hundred years ago decided to plaster over the frescoes, and made the pits so the plaster would stick. More recent restorers scraped off all the plaster and found the original pitted frescoes, which are being restored one at a time.

We continued on towards the Bosnia border, where the landscape suddenly went from pretty to stunningly beautiful. A canyon led to Visigrad, a pretty little city with a big river, which led to a long section of a narrow reservoir (the highway was going through almost continuous tunnels). After leaving the reservoir, the road descended through another pretty river canyon, and then wound over one ridge after another, finally descending a hillside until, boom, we were on the main street of Sarajevo’s old town — the entry into town reminded me of the entry into Medellin, which is also located in a narrow canyon between high mountains. We found our guest house, put the car in the garage, and walked into town for a little snack, still somewhat full from the leftovers at lunch.

Friday we walked around Sarajevo, mostly the Old Town. None of the mosques or churches seemed to be open to tourists, but the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque complex was interesting: the fountain had inscriptions on the ceiling in several completely different styles of Arabic; a BetaBrite LED display showed the times the various prayers would occur today. A clock tower across the street had a clock which was also reworked to indicate prayer times. We visited an old synagogue which had become the Jewish Museum.

As with so many places in Eastern Europe, there is Holocaust remembrance without particularly many Jews. Sarajevo did not lose as many as some other places, as there was something of an underground railroad toward Mostar, which was under Italian control. The same track that Muslims were using to escape when the Serbian militias were trying to kill them all twenty years ago. Mark it as a route on your GPS.

And for this reason, there is a bit of Righteous Among Nations inflation at work. One Christian was granted that status, and his picture is up in the synagogue, for not spitting on his Jewish friends, when instructed to do so by the Nazis. He did get in trouble for it, but “righteous”? Is there an honorific for the Kinda OK Among Nations?

Moving away from the Jewish sphere, we went on to the Meat and Dairy market and bought a tasty piece of smoked salami and a chunk of very sweet cheese. The cheese was like butter made from condensed milk. We wandered around some more, paying rather too much money to get into a one-room museum on the corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. The museum is devoted to Austrian-occupied Bosnia, and especially that one attentät. If someone strikes it rich on an inheritance from an heirless Nigerian prince, he can buy me one of the commemorative iron mortars and pestles which were issued with the embossed letters: “1914”. The prices will spike with the upcoming centennial, but after that it should be OK. 1914, 1389, they don’t even need to mention Cinco de Mayo or 9/11 out here, enough just to say the year and the memory is recovered.

We rested for awhile, and then it was time to eat. Up a steep hill in the other direction about a thousand meters is a nice restaurant, Kibe, where we just barely got in. It has superb views of the city, but we were stuck in a back room and didn’t really see them. At this place, and at most of our restaurant experiences here, things seemed somewhat “fast food”, with the main course coming at the same time as the starters, or immediately after they are removed from the table. Has the idea of pacing not made it to this part of the world? Or does everyone uniformly want to get us out of their restaurant as quickly as possible?

Speaking of underground railroads, on the way out of town Saturday we stopped at the Tunnel Museum, via an iffy dirt road as part of Google Maps’ route. During the Homeland War of the mid-1900s, Sarajevo was surrounded by Serbian troops in the hills above, and so the Bosnian army built a tunnel under the airport’s runway, used to bring supplies into the city, and to get refugees out of it. It’s a cute little museum which has a video describing the situation, a few rooms with memorabilia, and about 25m of tunnel you can walk in. Watch your head. It had rails to facilitate moving carts full of food or guns.

We left the museum and headed to Mostar, which has a famous old bridge that was destroyed in the Homeland War. Afterwards, they rebuilt it pretty much as it was. “Most” is the word for bridge, and as we encountered the extreme hordes of tourists and junk shops next to the bridge, I renamed it “Most St. Michel” because it gave exactly the same impression. A few guys jumped off the bridge every once in awhile into the deep river below, then passed a fez to try to make a few euros. I was happy to leave the tourist trap behind and to get back on the road towards Split. I dutifully followed the road signs towards Split, and ended up arcing way north of town; I suppose they were trying to keep me off the toll road or something. We finally found our Airbnb accommodation, someone renting out a room in Grandma’s house close to the Old Town. They sent us to a kind of stuffy restaurant two minutes away, where we had some good grilled monkfish steaks.

The main tourist zone of Split is Diocletian’s Palace, which takes up about four city blocks, and is filled with little shops and restaurants and hotels. It has a few sights, including a Sphinx stolen from the Egyptians, and a church. We started out there Sunday morning, but the crowds and trinket shops pretty much cover the entire palace region so we quickly headed west.

The Ivan Markovic Museum is located in a ritzy neighborhood along the peninsula that defines the west part of Split. Markovic was a prolific sculptor, and much of his work is found around town as well. A chapel near the museum has carved wood panels of events in Jesus’ life, and a modern-looking crucifix made in 1916. He is an exception to the rule that artists are usually only good at drawing or sculpting either boys or girls. He seems very accurate and dedicated with each.

There were so many good places to eat in Split that we had two meals both of the two days we were there: on Sunday it was Konoba Kod Joze in the afternoon, and a snack at Wine and Cheese Bar Paradox later at night. At the Paradox, we learned that Luka had been through during the last week. Luka is one of the owners of the Palo Alto Grill, and before that he owned Lavanda. His hometown is Split. You should go to his restaurant, it’s great.

Monday was spent touring the Gallery of Fine Arts, featuring Croatian art from the 14th century to the present, with a rather extensive contemporary collection. A tiny hole in the wall, Villa Spiza, had been entirely nonexistent on Sunday, but provided a delicous grilled sea bream on Monday afternoon. We walked through Marjan, their version of Golden Gate Park, and after resting for awhile had a late dinner at the small but popular Konoba Matejuska. They had a menu, but the waiter verbally listed what had been caught that day: we had delicious grilled hake and tuna.

Tuesday we drove from Split to Dubrovnik, avoiding the freeway and going down the road along the coast. The northbound traffic had two major traffic jams that I was happy not to have been in, but the only problem southbound was some congestion at Omis, which is popular because a raftable river has punctured a wide hole in a picturesque cliff.

There are three longish islands south of Split which we’d considered going to, but decided that ferry rides would take up too much of the day; we saw these edge-on as we drove down the coast.

The waters around the foot of a long peninsula just north of Dubrovnik were filled with oyster farms; we stopped at a restaurant in Mali Ston to sample some of the local oysters, and also an assortment of mussels including Noah’s Arch, a kind of mussel found mostly in northern Croatia which is more strongly flavored than most. To get to our guest house here, Google Maps expected us to take a driveway off the main coast road steeply downhill onto a tiny street with no sign; instead we found the road coming up the hill on somewhat larger roads. We parked nearby, and said the address aloud; a guy standing there indicated that if we were staying at 13, we should park in the garage, so he moved his car out, and I moved ours in. Jamie Oliver had a webpage recommending Dubrovnik restaurants, and Amfora, the one he said not to miss, had a nice octopus terrine and tasty suckling pig.

Dubrovnik is set on a coastal slope, with roads running along it, and steps running up and down between them. There is an old city surrounded by intact city walls which is still quite slopy inside. Wednesday, after a relaxed and rainy morning, we walked to the Old City and had breakfast at the Art Bar, where some sofa-like seats are made out of bathtubs.

We bought a 24-hour Dubrovnik Card at tourist information, gaining a 10% Internet discount by buying it online on our cellphone while standing there.

We wandered around somewhat aimlessly inside the walls for a few hours, looking into a few churches, and walked back. Then we got the car, maneuvered it down a steep slope, and drove to the art museum, starting the 24 hours on the card. Its current exhibition wasn’t particularly interesting, just many flat sculptures made out of various balls of paper. Oh well. Then we proceeded to Konoba Dubrava, a restaurant in a tiny village across the main highway, where upon making a reservation you have to tell them if you want the lamb, which takes three hours to cook. It is covered with a metal “bell” which is then covered with ashes. They cook bread and potatoes in the same fashion, and it is all delicious. The road to it is absurd, especially when other tourists stop to look at the sunset in the middle of a hairpin turn. There are not even driveways in our mountains that are so steep and narrow.

Thursday we incredibly ticked off all of the remaining attractions on the Dubrovnik Card: we walked the city walls, which featured great views of the Adriatic as well as the old city; we went to a tiny museum celebrating a 16th-century playwright, and the Ethnographic Museum which had a display of traditional Polish toys, in addition to the usual displays of traditional Croatian clothing and tools. The Maritime Museum had many models of ships, sailing ships downstairs and steamships upstairs. Dubrovnik had had a flourishing shipping industry, being kind of the gateway from the Middle East and China to Europe; it faded somewhat after America started up, and the global shipping focus changed to transatlantic traffic. The Natural History museum had home-made exhibits on endangered birds, local fish, and a special room with incredible underwater photos. I didn’t know that the Adriatic had all those creatures.

The Rector’s Palace had some cute old rooms, and an interesting exhibition about Stjepan Gradić, a statesman who represented Dubrovnik in Europe and who was instrumental in arranging aid from European nations after a devastating earthquake in Dubrovnik in 1667. We went to Restaurant Dubrovnik and split a salt-baked seabass, which was very tasty. This involves encasing the thing being baked in a huge pile of salt; we had only seen this done with chicken at Kirin Restaurant in Mountain View (and eventually at home). After dinner, there was a concert at the Rector’s Palace; tickets were more expensive than the cash we had. We ended up with “standing room” tickets, with which we sat on the stairs above the performers and watched the fingers on the piano keys from above. There was a piano duo for the first half, and a string ensemble for the second; none of it was nearly as exciting as the performances in Ohrid. Theme with variations on Happy Birthday; really.

Friday we checked out of the hotel and crossed into Montenegro, happy we were not in the 2km line of cars heading the other direction. This is the season when the Albanian workers return to Italy.

We drove along the edge of a twisted bay to Kotor, another old walled city, much smaller than Dubrovnik. The interesting thing to do there was to walk up out of the city to the fortifications high on the hills above: along the way we met a couple of English guys our age who were on a cruise with their wives; when we got back down we had a beer with them. We got back on the road, followed the directions of Google Maps which took us on a long obscure road with lots of traffic but which wasn’t really wide enough in most places for a car to pass a bus. It got dark. Finally we reached the Albanian border, then the small city of Shkodra, and a little ways from the center we found the Florian Shkodra Guest House, no help from Google, not knowing about the one way streets.

Fortunately they served dinner, which consisted of vegetables grown in their garden, homemade bread, and homemade wine. It was extremely simple, but one of the best meals we’d had, and under €200! (It was €4.) I don’t know why we ever leave Albania.

Saturday we got a tour from Florian’s young cousin, including an old stone bridge, and the immense castle on a hill. Florian sent us away with grapes from his garden, which got the steering wheel and gearshift quite sticky as we drove back to the Tirana airport. (We found ourselves on the wrong road, and Google Maps suggested a road to get to the right one which quickly became dirt and then a very questionable bridge across a creek. Worse-looking than the road to the Sarajevo tunnel museum. This time, we bailed and found a better route further away.) We returned the rental car to the jolly agent, and proceeded to the plane.