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Gerry Feehan

A Rainy Day in Montenegro

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Dubrovnik City wall

Room 703, Valamar Hotel, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I had a strange dream last night.

Well past midnight there came a quiet rap on the door. An apologetic bellboy pointed to a small man standing quietly in the hallway. The man sported a fine suit and monogrammed luggage. ‘I’m sorry,’ said the bellhop, ‘the Valamar is sold out
this evening. This gentleman needs a room. Only for tonight. Perhaps you can accommodate.’ Naturally I declined. However my wife, speaking from her comatose oblivion, insisted we invite the stranger in. ‘Sshh, it’s fine,’ she said simultaneously
snoring, ‘for today, we go to Montenegro.’

What my dream-world wife didn’t anticipate—but I did—was that our uninvited, nocturnal guest would soon become an unpleasant somnambulant nuisance and ultimately transform into a weapon-wielding demon. By the time I finally, politely
asked him to depart our quarters, the intruder had morphed into a loud, apocalyptic earthquake. I awoke in a heap of sweat to a thunderous lightning storm, crawled from bed, pulled closed the trembling illuminated curtains—and swore off rakija for the balance of our Balkan holiday. I tossed and turned the rest of that uncomfortable night, occasionally glancing irritably at my happily reposed spouse. The alarm tolled at 6:15am.

In a post-hallucinogenic stupor I stumbled into the hotel lobby and ran smack dab into the selfsame night-watchman who, in my torpor, had invited Armageddon-man into our room at witching hour. ‘And you call yourselves a 5-star hotel,’ I remarked testily. He regarded me uncertainly, shrugged and opened the lobby doors. Outside, standing curbside beside a dark blue Mercedes van, stood a veritable giant of a man; our driver for the day. He grinned grimly, swung the passenger door open and commanded us to climb in. I was fearful the nightmare was continuing. But as we pulled away from the dewy curb our mountainous chauffeur politely introduced himself as Zoran and began a casual, intriguing introduction to the history of Montenegro.

Incessant rain made for a dreary day

The downpour began in earnest as we neared the border. The Croatian exit authority inspected our papers with palpable disinterest—then stood up, exited his cramped cubicle and promptly disappeared into the mist. ‘Between shifts,’ explained
Zoran with a resigned shrug. After a 10-minute, stiflingly humid delay, an equally apathetic replacement arrived to re-scrutinize our passports. Documents eventually back in hand, we were permitted to depart Croatia and make the short descent into neighbouring Montenegro where another listless guard repeated the same agonizing process.

Everyone loves passport stamps. I entreated Zoran to ask the guard for some evidence that we were actually entering mysterious Montenegro, bragging rights for the folks back home. ‘This not good idea,’ said Zoran apologetically—but
unequivocally—and we pulled away from the tiny damp station and into a strengthening deluge. It was a half-hearted, bureaucratic, blustery beginning to a soppy day. (For no discernable reason, other than inane custom and mutual distrust,
countries of the former Yugoslavia demand perusal of papers upon both ingress and egress. But I digress.)

Montenegro. The name evokes visions of a small, opulent seaside protectorate where luxury yachts bob in an idyllic harbor surrounded by spectacular mountains. But while the country is indeed small, and is on the ocean, and does have a stunning mountain backdrop, Montenegro is certainly not well off. In fact Montenegro is one of Croatia’s poorest Balkan cousins. Together with Bosnia, Serbia and a few other newly-formed states, they were all part of Yugoslavia. In 1984 Yugoslavia hosted the Winter Olympics, welcoming the world’s best athletes to a snowy paradise. Nine years later the entire federation would descend into anarchy and civil war, the lid of a centuries-old pot, boiling with religious and ethnic hatred, finally blown off. Our destination was the walled city of Kotor, a Renaissance-era gem of narrow, picture-postcard lanes. As the European crow flies, the town is not far from the Croatian border, but getting there entails a long circuitous drive around the Gulf of Kotor, which perforates deeply, fjord-like, into the Montenegrin coastline.

Kotor

On arrival, we exited hesitantly from the van, unfurled our umbrellas and splashed into town. What should have been an interesting, leisurely stroll down blind alleys and through colourful curio shops turned into a quick excursion—hurdling
overflowing gutters and dodging the deluge spilling from dilapidated gargoyles in the old fortified town. Overall, the morning was a wet bust. Zoran was apologetic, as if he were personally responsible for the obscuring rain. ‘I wish you could see our beautiful mountains.’

But then came lunch—and, nonpareil, the best meal of our three-week Balkan adventure. I stepped, glasses fogged, into the Konoba Akustik Restaurant and discarded my broken umbrella amongst a stack of equally derelict parasols.

Rainwater, dripping from the ceiling, clanged into an ancient metal pail in the foyer. Expectations were low as we dodged around the overflowing bucket and took our squeaky seats at a rustic wooden table.

Then the food began to appear. First a hearty veal soup served with fresh jecmeni—barley flatbread. Then a platter of green olives and prosciutto. Then gnocchi and pasticada—beef marinated in wine vinegar. More jecmeni arrived to sop up stray sauces.

Perhaps a cocktail with your jecmeni?

The dishes kept coming. Stuffed to the gills, I declined desert, sat back in my rickety chair, and focused my attention on the adjoining table where Zoran and two large companions sat, surrounded by three nonplussed waiters and a gesticulating chef.

In unwavering concentration, they methodically devoured every dish we’d been offered plus massive plates of crni rizot—black risotto, and ajvar—spicy red pepper paste. Between mouthfuls they’d wedge in a large portion of Pag cheese. When the
skewers of lamb kebab arrived I could watch no more and directed my attention to the restaurant’s ornate opaque windows and the passersby sloshing outside.

Montenegrins are not the tallest people on earth—the Dutch stubbornly cling to that lofty position. But I can state (anecdotally at least, having spent one full day in the
country) that the people of Montenegro are really, really tall. And apparently it takes a lot of calories to develop that degree of vertical span.

Zoran is on the right… in case you were confused 

It was a full day. On the long drizzly drive back to the Valamar Hotel, the windshield wipers flapped incessantly, hypnotizing me into a sleepy daze, interrupted only by Zoran’s occasional, meaningful collision with a muddy pothole. Nearly home, we passed through the beautiful old city of Dubrovnik. At a bus stop, under a portico tucked into the ancient city wall, I spied a small tidy man huddled under an umbrella, expensive luggage stacked neatly by his side. The fellow from my nightmare. I wiped my eyes and peered again. He was gone.

I slept dreamlessly that night.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

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Gerry Feehan

Big Bend Bob: Gerry Feehan takes us on a stunning tour of the Rio Grande River

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The Rio Grande River wends through Big Bend National Park

When I first spied Bob he was hunched over a computer in the dark outside a bathhouse on the Rio Grande River. We were camped in Big Bend National Park, Texas. I nodded hello as I passed. Bob looked up, grunting inaudibly. What an ornery old geezer, I thought.

Later that evening I watched as he folded up his laptop, grabbed his canes and teetered tentatively across the parking lot toward his van. I felt bad. He was entitled to his grumpiness. He could barely walk from the john to his beat-up old RV.

As I fell into slumber thoughts of Bob evaporated. We had a big day ahead: a long hike through parched desert on a rim trail overlooking the Rio Grande. Our destination was an idyllic hot spring seven kilometers upstream; a place where soothing thermal waters spill into this river famous for separating America from Mexico. After a dip and picnic lunch we’d retrace our steps through the dry wilderness. It’d be dark by the time we got back to camp.

G

We started good and early – which for me means somewhere around 10:15 a.m. I thought it wise to carve a few kilometers off the long, sunny march so my wife Florence and I rode our bicycles from the campground to the trailhead. As we pedaled, I was surprised to see Bob wandering down the road, wobbling on his two walking sticks. I waved. He didn’t look up.

We secured the bikes at the trailhead, donned our packs… and promptly headed in the wrong direction. When we finally gained our bearings and started up the proper trail, there was Bob gamely climbing the first steep ascent. As we overtook him I thought it polite to slow and make a final offer of greeting; after all we were headed into the same scorched Chihuahuan desert and there wasn’t another soul around.

“Are you going to the hot springs?” I asked as we passed, masking a patronizing tone; no way was this old guy tackling the hot desert terrain alone all the way to the springs.

“Yup,” he said, opening up.

We marched on but when we stopped briefly to admire a viewpoint where the Rio Grande cuts a scenic narrow gorge between Texas and Mexico up walked Bob, peered over the ledge and said, “Pretty, isn’t it?”

Big Bend Bob surveys the Rio Grande

After that the conversational floodgates opened. We introduced ourselves and spent the next four hours bantering back and forth in clever repartee, philosophizing about life and just shooting the breeze.

Bob is a retired professor of law from Oregon. When his wife passed away a few years ago he bought an old RV and hit the road, solo. Bob proclaims a healthy disdain for authority and a hearty dislike for close-mindedness and fundamentalism of any stripe.

Bob didn’t move very quickly over the rough landscape. Now and then we’d lose sight of him on the rocky trail but eventually he’d mosey up to where we’d stopped to admire a new vantage of the Rio Grande.

“Look, those are spiny soft-shells,” he remarked at one particularly beautiful spot, pointing to a group of turtles spinning slowly in a foaming eddy far below. Above, in a scraggly tree, a vermillion flycatcher regarded us with disinterest.

Vermillion Flycatcher

“Have you two spent much time in those fancy RV resorts?” asked Bob, in a swift change of subject.

“Some,“ I reluctantly admitted, thinking wistfully of hot showers and free wifi. “Why do you ask?”

“I prefer the State and National Park campgrounds. Life is simpler and the company decidedly more enjoyable. In the posh private places there’s always a big mouth in the hot tub. Have you ever noticed that those who talk the most have the least to say?”

For the next few kilometers I spoke only when spoken to.

My concern over Bob’s solitary walk-about into the thirsty desert was ill-founded. Although advanced in years he continues to exercise a life-long passion for long distance running. He ran marathons for many moons before deciding a 42-kilometer run was too short: he moved on to extreme long-distance events.

“But those days are behind me now,” he said. “Mostly I stick to short jaunts like this.”

I smiled knowingly. My feet were killing me.

He continued. “I know it’s not much but once a year on my birthday I still have a decent jog: my age plus the miles run add up to 100.

“How far did you go this year?” I asked, thinking he must be well into his seventies.

“It’s getting shorter all the time,” he laughed. “My birthday was last week. I’m down to 15 miles. A few more years and I won’t even have to get out of bed.”

He hopped off a small outcrop, balanced on his canes and grimaced slightly, “Damn, my knee hurts!”

Eventually we arrived at the hot springs, pulled off our shoes and soaked our toes in the same healing waters enjoyed by pioneers and cattle rustlers alike for over two hundred years. Ancient petroglyphs on the nearby cliffs evidence the appealing – and supposedly healing – powers of these waters.

Ancient Petroglyphs

(At the risk of imprisonment in or banishment from the United States) I decided to flout Homeland Security and waded across the shallow waters of the Rio Grande to set foot in old Mexico. The mud on the south side of the river felt just like American mud.

Gerry on the wrong side of the river

We watched as a horseman a hundred meters downstream did what caballeros have done for centuries: gracefully (but now illegally) ride his mount across the brown waters and up the steep bank into Mexico.

Our long day with Bob was sprinkled with solitude and quiet chuckles. The old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” comes to mind. So does the lesson of the tortoise and the hare. On the return trip he insisted we march on ahead. “Don’t wait for me. I’ll be fine.”

I thought, “Bob’s a big boy… were it not for our chance meeting, he’d be out here in the desert alone.” Off we trundled, arriving back at our bicycles just as the sun set. Although I wasn’t his keeper, I couldn’t help but keep an eye on Bob’s camper as the light waned. After darkness had fully descended and he hadn’t returned, I hopped on my bike and rode back toward the trailhead. I found Bob wandering happily down the road – canes bumping in the darkness – still
a couple of kilometers from the campground.

“You weren’t waiting on me, I hope?” he asked. “I should have been back before now but I got to talking with a couple of interesting folks back up the trail.”

“No, no, I just felt like going for a spin.” I felt stupid, like a worried parent waiting up for a teenager, embarrassed when the youngster inevitably arrives home safely.

We left Big Bend very early the next morning – around ten. As we pulled out of the campground Bob was outside the canteen pecking away at his keyboard, walking canes crisscrossed against his legs. I waved but he didn’t look up.

 

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

 

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Gerry Feehan

A glorious afternoon among the vineyards by Gerry Feehan

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A glorious afternoon among the vineyards

One of the keys to enjoyable travel — and recovery from a seven-hour jet-lag hangover — is to give oneself time to acclimate. And what better place to do that than in the City of Lights?

On tap was a week-long bike ‘n barge in southwest France. But rather than simply change planes at Charles De Gaulle airport and continue on to Bordeaux, we deplaned, shuttled into the French capital and gayly strolled the streets of Paris for a couple of days.

Fun in the streets of gay Paris

Paris, like many of the world’s great cities, is a pleasure to walk. From our hotel in the Latin Quarter, it was an easy saunter along the left bank of the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. En route, we passed two of the world’s great museums, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. Famished after a half-hour en pied, we stopped at a quiet brasserie for escargot and steak tartare. Fun fact: raw beef is best washed down with a heaping helping of Pernod. After lunch we wandered on and were soon gazing up at the Arc de Triomphe and the crazy traffic on the Champs-Elysees. On the return traipse we followed the river’s course to Notre Dame Cathedral where we climbed the narrow spiral staircase to the church’s wooden bell tower for the magnifique view of Paris. We were amongst the last to do so. A couple of months later, the 800- year-old edifice was gutted by fire.

After our relaxing stay in La Cité, we boarded the train at Gare Montparnasse, well-rested and physically and mentally prepared for the formidable task ahead: seven laid-back days of pedalling through the serene back roads of southwest France, coupled with the burden of sampling fine Bordeaux wines.

The trip from Paris to Bordeaux is over 500km, but when travelling by rail at over 300km/h, the journey is over in a flash. At the station in Bordeaux we transferred for the short run into Libourne, a sleepy little village on the Dordogne River, where we boarded our vessel, the aptly named MS Bordeaux. The ship was originally commissioned in the 1920s as a Rhinetuger, hauling heavy burdens on the Rhine River. The old gal went through a number of iterations over the decades before being converted into a passenger vessel. The boat has 49 cabins, but there were only 23 guests, so we became friends with everyone on board — crew and clientele alike.

It was a cozy, intimate experience.

On the weeklong voyage, we drifted slowly down the Dordogne toward the Bay of Biscay. When we reached the wide Gironde estuary we made a u-turn and rode the incoming tide up the Garonne River to Castets-en-Dorthe where we were to disembark. It was late fall, the ship’s last sailing of the season. The weather was ideal. The autumn hues of southern France were on full display.

Each morning, after a fine petit dejeuner, we stuffed our panniers with a picnic lunch of oven-fresh baguettes, pate, brie, fruit — and a world of pastries. Then we’d roll down the gangplank and hit the bucolic road. Each route was unique and scenic.

A GPS mounted to the handlebars kept us on track, ensuring we didn’t turn a la gauche when we should have gone a la droit.

We pedalled past orchards of ripening grapes, waving at the friendly vendangeurs hand-picking the last sweet remains of the year’s vintage. Often the route led us up what looked like a private lane, a path we’d never have taken had not the GPS assured us we were on course. We’d stop and gawk at some enormous ancient stone Château before continuing down the cobbled way.

Fall is hunting season

Despite the season, many of the Châteaux were open for tastings, invariably hosted by a friendly, effusive, fifth-generation proprietor, happy to share the family cellar with a group of foreign geeks in cycling shorts.

Bordeaux boasts some of the most stunning scenery in all of France — and some of its best vintages. That’s saying a lot in a country renowned for le vin. Personally, I turn up my nose at snooty French reds like Cote du Rhone and Burgundy. They’re a little too subtle for my meat-and-potatoes palette. Give me a big beefy Bordeaux any day. And that is what this appellation is all about: deep purple merlots blended with a splash of cabernet sauvignon.

Some of our fellow passengers chose e-bikes to lighten the load, but our group of eight hearty Canucks toughed out the Bordeaux hills with good old-fashioned foot-pedal power. We logged about 50km per day, a distance one could easily cover in a few hours. But, what with stopping to marvel at the glorious views, photograph the panoramic campagne, sip Sauterne and enjoy a leisurely picnic lunch, we managed to stretch every outing into an eight-hour work-day.

Beware of dogs in the fog!

One morning as we meandered down a medieval lane enjoying the ‘douceur de vivre’ a layer of mist descended upon us. This typical morning fog offers perfect growing conditions for Bordeaux’s famous varietals. Suddenly from out of the haze a huge dog, teeth angrily bared, descended on my wife Florence. I shouted but the mongrel continued its malevolent advance, apparently unfamiliar with English profanity. Then I remembered the tip regarding unfriendly curs contained in our pre-trip information pamphlet:

“Continue cycling past the dog. If it persists, a more aggressive approach may be required, in the form of pretending to throw a stone (or in extreme cases actually throwing a stone).”

The animal’s command of English may have been lacking, but it was a quick learner when it came to comprehending the meaning of rock on chien.

That evening, after another glorious dinner on the boat, we retired to the lounge for a digestif. It was the last night of the last sailing of the year and Sebastian, our maîtres d’, cum waiter, cum bartender, was ready to let his hair down. He brazenly lassoed all the female passengers onto the dance floor for a Bacchanalian romp. Overhead, a faux-disco ball twirled as the ladies gyrated and the boat rocked. The men, fatigued from another trying day amongst the Bordeaux vineyards, were content to sip Pastis and chat.

An ebullient Sebastian

Another fantastique dinner

I quietly slipped into the night air and onto the upper deck. After bidding adieu to my bicyclette and its worn tires, I made my way to our berth and slipped into a dreamless sleep. I needed the rest. In the morning our last arduous adventure would begin: two lazy days of decompressing back in gay Paris.

If you go: www.aquitaine-cruises.com

 ‘Goodbye Bordeaux’

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

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