Monday August 31, 2015 – We left early to make our way to Split, Croatia.

We left early to make our way to Split, Croatia. We took the coastal road to experience the coastline and the many beautiful coastal villages. It was the long drive but it was a sunny day and the Adriatic Sea was beautiful.

Within┬áthe first half hour we entered Bosnia – Herzegovina. We made a quick rest stop, not that we needed it as much as to take photos and add another country to our list. There was also a bus of Spaniards at the stop making a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. B-H has only a small portion of the coastline and we were driving out of it about as quickly as we drove in, although it added two more border stops to the day. The reason why B-H has this portion of coast is that in the 14th century the Republic of Dubrovnik gifted it to the Muslims to be a buffer state between them and the Venetians. When Yugoslavia was broken up they were required to respect historical borders.

Back in Croatia we paused for another stop with a view before stopping in Makarska for lunch. Makarska has a beautiful harbor. We enjoyed a light lunch of calamari before taking a walk in the old town. It was hot and we were happy to get to the air conditioning on the bus.

We continued along the coastline enjoying its beauty.

The main reason we are in Split is to see Diocletian’s Palace. Diocletian was the last pagan emperor of the Roman Empire (succeeding emperors were Christians). He built the palace in 305 AD as his retirement palace on the Adriatic. The complex covered 323,000 square feet. We were able to view the foundation substructure which supports the town these 1700 years later, a witness to Roman engineering. After the collapse of the Empire the area was transformed into a medieval village and the palace was divided into dwellings and public spaces. Diocletian was the last great persecutor of the Church, even putting to death his wife and daughter when they converted to Christianity, but his mausoleum is now a cathedral and his temple to the god Jupiter is now a baptistery. Today the palace is the “old town” and parts of its architecture is integrated into the medieval and modern structures. UNESCO had named this a “living museum” as life continues within the historic palace walls.

Tomorrow we will see Plivice Park.

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Sunday August 30, 2015 – We spent the whole day today in Dubrovnik.

We spent the whole day today in Dubrovnik.

We began at a place where we could get a panoramic view, then proceeded to the pile (or main) gate to enter the old city. A guide took us to the Franciscan monastery with their treasury of relics, manuscript and paintings, then proceeded to a narrow street that boasted the oldest structures. An earthquake and fire in 1667 demolished much of the town. The bombings from Bosnia in 1991 also ruined many of the roofs but fortunately the town was able to rebuild. We also went to the old port.

We had to break away from the end of the tour having found out Mass was to begin at a nearby church. The Mass was to be in English but the priest was not proficient in English and stumbled through it. We were grateful for it anyway. The Mass was at a baroque Jesuit church, St. Ignatius. It took some climbing to get to the church. We were able to take photos afterwards.

Separated from our group we decided to spend the rest of the day in the old city. It was an extremely hot day and we planned our day accordingly, to escape the heat. We spent some time at the old port. It is mainly used for pleasure boats, larger and cruise ships must use a deeper new port. Still, the old port was bustling and we enjoyed sitting in shade and people watching.

Not in chronological order, we also visited the Dominican monastery, the cathedral, walked through various quarters of the city, took a boat along the sea walls and out into the Adriatic Sea, and walked the circumference of the city atop the city walls. This walk atop the city walls was about 2 miles and 1.5 hours but treated us to an incredible perspective of the city and port. We were exhausted when we finally sat down to an excellent dinner of sea bass and the local white wine.

After dinner were able to see the city lit up at night.

Tomorrow we travel to Split.

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Saturday August 29, 2015 – Today we backtracked through the alpine Gorge to return the sea level to experience Montenegro’s coastal beauty.

Today we backtracked through the alpine Gorge to return the sea level to experience Montenegro’s coastal beauty.

Our first stop was Cetinje, the old capital city of Montenegro pre-1940s (now it is Podgroica). Cetinje is an open air museum (it reminded me of Colonial Williamsburg) that seeks to preserve the royal capital. Our focus was the King Nicholas I Museum, honoring Montenegro’s last king and his wife who reigned until WWI. Since many of his daughters married royalty Nicholas was referred to as the father-in-law of Europe. The museum displayed clothing, furnishings and personal items as it would have been during their lifetimes. The grounds also contain a tomb chapel as well as a functioning monastery.

A few hours later we started descending toward Montenegro’s Budva Riviera, miles of developed Adriatic shoreline.

We stopped at Kotor. Kotor was a 15th century Venetian walled port city. It is laid out as any Venetian town, with palaces churches and state buildings, narrow streets and alleys, and fortifications around the city. We were charmed by the city and would have liked more than the hour allotted to it. One of the highlights was lunch, Montenegro calamari and local white wine taken at a street cafe.

We continued to modern Kotor and around the Gulf of Kotor which is ringed by cliffs and mountains. It had many scenic views but we did not stop for photos, making us snap them on the move. We saw many people swimming along the ample shoreline. It looked refreshing but our guide told us that due to the unusually hot summer this year the water temp was 85 degrees.

It was a hot and sunny day and we were wearing out as we got to the border crossing into Croatia. There was a long wait at border control making us late getting to Dubrovnik, which is not far from the border. Tomorrow we will have all day in Dubrovnik.

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Friday August 28, 2015 – The Tara River

Today we rode along the Tara River. We were treated all day to amazing scenery, from deep gorges to majestic peaks. The Tara River flows through the world’s second deepest canyon, second only to The Grand Canyon. This gave us a real sense of Montenegro, which is 60% mountain area and whose name means “black mountain.” The “negro” or “black” comes from the dark pines that abound in this area. Montenegro is a small country, smaller than Connecticut and with a population of only 850,000 people.

The mountains provide much of the tourism which revolves around recreation, including snow skiing in the winter and camping, hiking and even zip lining in other seasons. Tourism is central to Montenegro’s economy, and we saw evidence in newly constructed lodges and cabins throughout this area. More tourists come to Montenegro each year than the total population. We suspect it is because the prices are so reasonable.

We were also impressed by the clear spring fed glacier lakes. Bottled water is the largest export of Montenegro.

The first stop was to see a glacier lake in Biogradsko National Park, Lake Biograd. It is a beautiful lake, about 3,000 feet above sea level. This is one of seven glacial lakes in the park. It has miles of hiking trails, as well as boats available.

Our second stop was to see the Durdevica Tara Bridge built in 1940. It has become a destination for tourist who take pictures of the Gorge it spans. There are numerous tourist stands selling food, trinkets, honey and liquors made of the local wild fruits. Industrious companies also offer zip lines and rafting. We settled for sampling a local beer.

After stopping for lunch, we entered Dumitor National Park to hike to the Black Lake, another glacial lake at about 3 000 ft. The name sounds ominous but many people go there to boat and swim and the atmosphere was quite festive. We kicked off our shoes to wade expecting frigid water, but it was warm. We hiked around the lake until it was time to return to the bus.

Getting back to our hotel we went to the nearby town to get supplies including a cabaret made in Montenegro.

Tomorrow we will travel to the Adriatic coast before crossing into Croatia.

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An additional photo of Fr. Tom and Jim wading in The Black Lake in Dumitor National Park, Montenegro on Friday.

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Thursday August 27, 2015 – a driving day to Montenegro

We started the day with another great breakfast on the hotel terrace. Today was to be primarily a driving day to Montenegro.

We drove several hours, making a rest stop about a half hour from the border of Montenegro, in Shkodra. Shkodra is an ancient medieval town, but also important in the revolution against the Communists. It was a bustling city with a great deal of traffic. Our experience was limited to pedestrian mall with a great many cafes. They were primarily filled with young people. A mosque was on the mall.

We reached the Montenegro border, stopped at the border crossing and went from a country with a Muslim majority to one with an Eastern Orthodox majority. We drove along Shkoder Lake, shared with Albania. This is a fertile area with vineyards and fruit orchards. As we continued we ascended into the Balkan Alps with steep peaks and deep gorges. In time we made another rest stop at a roadside restaurant where we sampled the local grappa. In Montenegro they infuse the grappa with fruit. We tried the apricot and quince. It is strong drink but fortified us for the rest of the journey. Maybe it was the fruit.

High in the Alps we came to the Moraca Serbian Orthodox Monastery founded in the 13th century. The church is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary and a small chapel is dedicated St. Nicholas. It had incredible frescos and a beautiful crucifix on the icon screen. See interior photos on Fr. Jim’s blog www.thewonderoftruth.wordpress.com. The grounds were beautifully landscaped backed by high peaks. There were many people there and the monks were attending them. Tom wondered how much peace they enjoyed as it was on a busy highway.

We arrived at the skilodge in Kolasin where we will spend the next two nights (elevation 3000 ft). Tomorrow we spend the day at Dumitor National Park.

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Wednesday August 26, 2015 – Tirana city tour.

Today was our first full day of the trip. After breakfast today began the Tirana city tour. Tirana is the capital and largest city of Albania (1 million pop.). The city has gone through a tremendous redevelopment in the last decade following suppression under a strict communist regime. Today it is made up of streets of tightly packed small shops and restaurants. Still, there are many parts of the city needing redevelopment.

Albania is largely Muslim (60%) followed by Orthodox, then Catholic. One of our first visits was the Et’hem Bey Mosque. In 1991, 10,000 surrounded the mosque in defiance of the communist regime. . This was the beginning of the fall of communism in Albania. Under communist rule all religions had to go underground. There is a history of the religions living in harmony. The mosque is located on the main square. The interior is covered with frescos which is rarely seen in mosques. It is small so a much larger one is being constructed

Next we visited the National Historical Museum which had an incredible mosaic on the facade which recounted Albanian history. This was called Illyrium, which is mentioned in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. It was conquered by Ottoman Empire in the 15th century despite the heroic leadership of Albanian hero Skanderbeg. Their independence from the Ottomans came in 1912, followed be a monarchy until the communists came following WWII. The Socialists followed the Communists until it became democratic in 1990. We were even more interested in the religious pieces representing its Christian history.

In the afternoon we went to the mountain city of Kruje, named after the water springs. This was the hometown of Albanian hero Skanderbeg, who had resisted Ottoman occupation. Ruins of his castle mark his memory. There is a large bazaar which sells both inexpensive souvenirs next to antiques and textiles. We toured the Ethnographic Museum giving us a view of family life 250 years ago. Following the museum we had a typical dinner at a local restaurant with an incredible view.

The weather was stifling today. We decided to end the day by sharing the local beer.

Tomorrow we travel to Montenegro.

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The end of our first full day… the Albanian version of Millertime.

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