Viewing entries in
Old melds with new on Frankfurt's busy Kaiserstraße ...
St. Nicholas Lutheran Church in Alstadt (old town), built in the 1200's
Nate & Emily in the Römerberg, the old town square ringed by reconstructed, half-timbered buildings in the medieval style.
Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof, the city's central train station
Enjoying tourist life in the Römerberg ...
We are far from understanding the War in Bosnia but through our travels, have learned that it spread like a stain across the whole country, devastating cities like Sarajevo, Mostar, Srebrenica and the countryside in between. The citizens of Sarajevo were pinned down by siege for four long years, from 1992 - 1995, when Serbian forces surrounded the city on three sides, entrenching themselves in the hills where they could fire down on anything that moved. During our visit to the Tunel Spasa, aka the "Tunnel of Hope", near the Sarajevo airport, we learned how a hand-dug underground passage served as a lifeline for the people of Sarajevo during the siege and was the only means by which they received food and supplies.
On the way home from the museum, we drove down "Sniper Alley", the city's main thoroughfare, and observed the many buildings that still bear the scattered sprays of bullet holes and shrapnel, the devastation from the grenades and the (on average) 300 shells that fell on the city each day. Over 11,000 civilians (including over 1000 children) were killed during the Sarajevo siege, their names now listed on white sheets of paper tacked to the wall in the tunnel museum.
"When the miracle of the Bosnian resistance is solved from a historic distance, it will be found - and I am sure of that - that the secret was somewhere in the souls or characters of the people." — Alije Izetbegović, first President of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Our guide (born in Sarajevo during the siege) gave us a quick schooling on the geography of the war and its players.
My niece, Emily inside the tunnel. Made by local citizens and dug by hand over a period of four months, it is 2400 feet in length and 5 feet high by 3 feet wide. During the war, it connected the Butmir side (free Bosnian zone) to the Dobrinjia side (Sarajevo side under siege). Goods were moved in small carts via tracks laid on the tunnel floor and later on, electricty and permanent lighting were added. The tunnel was rife with danger. Underground waters could flood up to waist-high and the air quality was extremely poor, requiring all who entered to wear masks.
Examples of the types of supplies that would have been highly valued during the siege—tinned foods, soda, chocolate. Smugglers risked their lives traveling 4 to 5 hours through the tunnel then, up to 2 1/2 additional hours dodging Serb bullets in Sniper Alley to deliver goods to loved ones in the old city.
Remnants of a UN desk complete with one of the top wartime commodities: cigarettes. Museum guides (many of whom were children during the conflict) maintain that the UN soldiers were largely unhelpful to the civilan population and more interested in passing the time by partying or engaging in corrupt dealings—such as manipulating tunnel access for personal blackmarket gain.
Museum visitors view the list of 11,000 civilians killed during the siege of Sarajevo.
More Photos of the Tunnel Spasa:
Tour Info: We booked a 2-hour tour through a company in the Old City. They provided roundtrip transport from downtown Sarajevo to the Tunel Spasa, including a spin through Sniper Alley on the way back. Per passenger cost was around €15. More info here.
River rafting! A highlight of our travels in Bosnia was a rafting expedition down the Neretva River. Tor and I, in one boat with our niece and nephew (and four random Dutch guys) and my brother and his wife in a second boat with rafters from Poland, Czech Republic and the USA. For €35 each, our trip included transport, gear, breakfast, grilled lunch on a beach and professional guides for each boat. The water was sparkling clean and clear and after repeated urging from our guides, we filled our bottles directly from the river and drank all day, worry-free. In total, we paddled 25 kilometers over six hours with several stops for wading, swimming and boulder jumps in the brisk, refreshing rapids. A peak experience was drfiting through the Rakytnica Canyon, a truly awe-inspiring place—blissfully cool and quiet with towering rock walls and sparkling clear depths up to 90 feet.
More info: neretvarafting.com
We had a wonderful visit to Jajce (pronounced "YAI-tzeh"), the former capital of the Bosnian kingdom. Jajce's walled city was built in the 1300's and was home to the last Bosnian King. Jajce did not escape the devastation of the Bosnian war. In the spring of 1992, it was attacked by Serbian forces and fell in October, forcing 40,000 civillian refugees to flee the city in a mass exodus, leaving Jajce with just a few thousand citizens.
The 60-foot waterfall at the base of the walled city of Jajce enhances the medieval town's beauty even more ...
An abandoned structure adjacent to the falls is the ideal "gallery" for urban artists and was the perfect backdrop for a photographic series entitled "Bosnian Graffiti Runr" or, in laymen's terms—our nephew running in front of a bunch of graffiti.
On the way up the stairs to the Jajce fortress, we passed by the St. Mary's church and St. Luke's Bell Tower. Originally built in the 1200's, the church went through several renovations as a Christian church. In 1582, it was converted to a mosque dedicated to Suleman the Magnificent, an Ottoman Sultan. The building burned in 1658 and then again in 1832, leaving the ruins that stand today.
Our visit to Jajce was not complete without introduction to several influential members of the Cute Animals of Jajce Society ...
A glorious day at Travnik, a 14th-century mountain town and once the seat of Ottoman power in Bosnia ...
One of the traditional weavers at the Travnik fort's cultural museum showed us her handicrafts before sending us off with hugs.
Exploring the Travnik Fort ...
— THINGS WE ATE —
In the middle photo: Ustipci! Traditional fried bread eaten sweet or savory. In this case, it was served with tomatoes, cured meat and kajmak, a fresh unpasteurized cheese spread. On the plate to the left—krumpir, Bosnian mashed potatoes.
Below the Stari Grad in Travik there are three large words painted in blue on a wall: "Never Forget Srebrenica".
On July 22, 1995, the Serb army led by General Ratko Mladić stormed the UN Safe zone around the town of Srebenica in Eastern Bosnia and killed 8000 Bosniak men and boys in a mass execution. Their aim was to rid the area of Muslims. The killings took place in abandoned factories and forests; some of the victims' mass graves are still undisovered. It was Europe's worst atrocity since WWII.
Welcome to Sarajevo, city of saints, survivors and innovators. The war of the 1990's is integral to the fabric of this city and will never be forgotten. It is only one aspect of this intriguing cultural & architectural melting pot, however. There are surprises, it seems, around every corner of this ancient-modern-new-old city.
We never tired of the view from our apartment on Alije Nametka, a fifteen-minute walk up the hill from the Bascarsija, Sarajevo's 15th-century historic bazaar in the old city. The front of the flat was a wall of windows that faced a beautiful panamora (below, left). In the mornings, sunlight illuminated the mountains to the south where Olympic skiers competed in 1984. Each evening, around 10:38 PM, the call to prayer would begin and gradually, all the mosques would join in. Each night, we stopped to listen as their voices spread across the city like sparks on the wind.
TITO WAS A GREAT MAN
We heard this echoed by several Bosnians. This gentlemen (right), peddling trinkets and souvenirs from a cart on Marsala Tita street was no different. In his hand, he holds a 1961 medal of military distinction from the Yugoslav army. As we sat on stools, paging through his bulging book of Soviet-era and post-war pins, he called his friend over from another shop to join the conversation. "The time of Tito were best years," this second man exclaimed, hands in the air. "My children do not know this, but me, my parents, my grandparents—we know. In those days, we have food and jobs. All people live together: Christian, Jew, Muslim. Bosnian, Croat, Serb. They are happy times, good times. Tito was a great man."
Before we left, the man flipped through his book one last time. He extracted a small, silver pin from the 1984 Olympics. "For you," he said, handing it over with a flourish. "So that you always remember Sarajevo."
As if we could ever forget.
— THINGS WE ATE —
While we found less seafood in Sarajevo, we hit the jackpot with meats, vegetables, soups and sauces. One of our favorite meals was Sitni Cevap (left), a dish of savory veal in a sauce of carrots, garlic, onions, parsley, tomatoes, sugar and paprika, served with tomato and cucumber salad and flatbread. Another dish that won us over was Klepe (middle), minced meat or vegetable dumplings (similar to ravioli) in a creamy garlic sauce. Also enjoyed but not pictured) was Punjene Paprike, Bosnian stuffed peppers. Fresh fruit (right) was plentiful at the stands near the Sebilj, the landmark wooden fountain at the heart of the the bazaar in the Old City. We paired this seller's juicy apricots and berries with pastries and bread from the pekara each morning for a cheap, delicious breakfast. (Note his excellent T-Shirt which made us feel right at home!)
Pure delight comes in the form of Bosnian Coffee! Served on a tray with tiny accoutrement—ceramic cup, copper džezvas, spoon, sugar cubes and rahat lokum (known by Westerners as "Turkish Delight"), Bosnian Coffee is made and drunk in a very specific way. In preparation, the coffee (ground with mortar and pestle) is heated with cold water in a džezva on the stove until it foams. When it is ready, the drinker first eats a piece of rahat lokum then, takes a sip of water to cleanse the pallet. Next, the foam is spooned off the top of the džezva, coffee is poured into the cup and the foam is added back on top. Lastly, a bite of sugar is taken and the rest of the cube placed beneath the tongue to dissolve as sipping continues. Some Bosnians can linger over one little cup of coffee for hours. Clearly, the pleasure lies in the ritual; the savoring of time as much as taste. We were so smitten with this Bosnian tradition that we brought back a handmade coffee set to enjoy at home.
We spent a fascinating day at Blagaj (pronounced, "Blah-GAI"), a national monument of 13th-century buildings set over a natural spring, including a musafirhana (meeting place) built by the Bektashi order of dervishes in 1470. Visitors of all faiths are encouraged to come to Blagaj and explore, provided they are barefoot and in proper dress. Men must wear long pants and headscarves and skirts are provided for the women, free of charge. As sister-in-law, niece and I can attest, there is nothing so nice as being dressed by the gentle hands of the hostess ...
The musafirhana was decorated with a multitude of beautiful Bosnian rugs made from dyed wool and handwoven with intricate patterns. These traditional designs are not written down or recorded, only produced through the memory of the weaver, and are passed down from generation to generation through careful instruction.
After a walk around the grounds, we enjoyed an outdoor lunch next to the ice cold Buna River. Lots of summer salads, Bey soup (a Bosnian broth with vegetables) and one of our favorite dishes—Cevap-cici, flatbread filled with lamb, grilled vegetables and ajvar, a delicious sauce made of roasted peppers and eggplant.
Next stop, Bosnia. We drove north from Dubrovnik, through the beautiful scenery along the Croatia coast (even catching a glimpse of the ancient Wall of Ston!), crossing the border into Bosnia at Nova Sela. From there, we traveled on to Kravica Falls, an incredible set of waterfalls and swimming area along the Trebižat River. The park at Kravica is well equipped for tourists and has restrooms, food and drink vendors, even an openair trolley that shuttles less-mobile visitors down the hill to the falls from the parking area. Entry to the falls is 4 KM ($2.50 USD). Kravica's large swimming lake is ringed by massive cascades that thunder down into natural grottos around its edge. The water is clean and cold and constantly moving. It was the perfect road break on a hot, summer day before pushing on to Mostar ...
Na Putu za Mostar | The Road to Mostar
The further we drove into Bosnia, the more obnoxiously we gaped. The landscape turned lush and dramatic; sharp mountains stabbed into the clouds behind layers of green hills. Towns perched in verdant folds of farmland, canyons towered, rivers became lakes. Bosnia captured our imaginations early on. Our hearts would not be far behind.
U Starom Gradu | In the Old City
Mostar's Old Town is a little bubble of magic nestled in a bustling, modern city. It isn't large, but for what it lacks in size it offers in character. The views aren't half bad either—it flanks the historic Stari Most (bridge) and has the winding, cobblestone feel of a fairytale. Shop owners are friendly, anxious to chat (and bargain). Everything is available, from regional jewelry, antiquities and lamps to traditional rugs and locally-made clothes. All this, amid a healthy crop of eateries, bars and riverside coffee shops. The Old City makes for a full half-day (if not more) of exploring and Bosnian Mark-dropping. Tip: it's *cash only* so stop by an ATM before you go. If you're stuck with large bills, stop by the Tourist center (north side of the Stari Most bridge) to exchange them for smaller ones.
Near the entrance to the Old City, we purchased a pair of hand-hammered silver plates ("Tournament", left and "The Hunt", right) in Mostar's old city. The artisan chooses his designs from 11th-century Bosnian grave stones and hammers them into the plates by hand. Before we left, he proudly presented us with souvenir—a 1000 Yugoslav Dinar note bearing Nikolai Tesla's likeness. It was, as he said, "a keepsake of old money from his country so that we might remember Bosnia".
The Stari Most bridge (below) was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century. It stood for 427 years before it was destroyed during the Croat-Bosnian War in 1993 and was rebuilt in 2004. A beautiful feat of engineering and an icon of post-war resilience, the bridge connects two sides of Mostar's lively Old Town and is free to walk across. Tip: visit early in the AM (before 8) for a peaceful, crowd-less experience. Stop to linger over a pastry and Bosnian coffee at one of the many pekaras along the way.
Many of the buildings in Mostar that were devastated during the Croat-Bosnian Conflict have been purposely left in their ruined state as reminders of the war.
My niece, Emily at the table in our apartment in Mostar where we enjoyed a breakfast bounty of local melons, apricots, peaches, grapes, raspberries and pastries from the pekara (bakery) along with homemade fruit spreads from a roadside stand.
Cruising the Elaphite islands northwest of Dubrovnik is easy, idyllic and fun. For €35 Euros (including transfers, lunch, all-day wine) you can hop aboard a charming wooden vessel in Dubrovnik's Gruz port bound for three sparkling isles—Šipan, Lopud and Koločep, each beautiful yet, slightly different. Sip wine as the scenery floats by, explore medieval towns and swim in crystalline waters. While many area beaches are rocky, Sunj beach (above) on the island of Lopud has a *sandy* bottom. For your own sandy bottom, snag a beach chair for 30 HRK ($5 US). BYO: sunscreen, drinking water, towel, water socks/shoes. To arrange, simply go to Dubrovnik's Old Harbour, throw a rock and you'll hit at least one sandwich board (possibly more) advertising an Elaphite Islands cruise.
Okay, Lokrum Island is officially excellent. It's a literal hop, skip and a jump from Downtown Dubrovnik and offers everything one could desire for a lazy day of exploring—swimming, cliff jumping, ice cream, peacocks, a 19th-century fort, a 12th-century monastery, and a weird, inland lake. Oh, and it is also home to a Game of Thrones Museum where you can sit on the *actual* Iron Throne which, was left behind by the crew because it was ostensibly too large to lug elsewhere.
The island's shores are rocky but perfect for an afternoon of swimming, sunbathing or leaping off boulders into the refreshing Adriatic. Parks and picnic areas abound as well as an assortment of colorful locals—peacocks, bunnies and a healthy sprinkling of "free body culturists" (aka nudists).
BYO: Swimsuit, water shoes/socks, towel, sunscreen, water. Ferries depart hourly from Dubrovnik's Old Harbour. The ride lasts 15 minutes and tickets cost 40 HRK / €5 per adult.
Dubrovnik, with its sparkling location on the Adriatic and bright orange sea of roofs is undeniably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The fact that its old town is still entirely ensconced by a medieval wall ups the charm factor exponentially. The first fortifications of the Dubrovnik wall were built in the 8th century, during the Greco-Roman period. The majority of the structures were added in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The Wall Tour was fabulous. We got our cardio in while searing our eyeballs with stunning scenery. Our stroll began at the west entrance off the Stradun and took us along a south-facing vista of the Adriatic, past the Old Harbor to the east and up to Minceta tower, the highest (and most northern) point along the wall. The whole tour takes arounds 2 1/2 - 3 hours, unless you stop off at one of the scenic cafes tucked along the way. It's a great opportunity to up your Croatian history game, orient yourself, and buy local souvenirs. Photography nerds with a penchant for terra cotta will go mad with medieval roof lust.
Tip: Go early (8 AM). It will be less crowded and you'll be done and ready for a swim before the heat kicks in. Cost: €17. Enter by the Pile Gate on the western edge of the Old City. Hours: 8 AM - 7 PM.
Kajak na moru! Sea kayaking in Dubrovnik is a must-do. It's a wonderful opportunity to build upper arm strength, spend time with loved ones, circumnavigate a medieval walled city and an island, all from the pleasure of a plastic, floating armchair. A wee bit of effort is involved, but mainly it's a 4-hour lark well worth the €35 - 50 (depending which company you use). We went with Adventure Dalmatia, headquartered in Dubrovnik's tiny West Harbor in Pile Bay (aka "Kings Landing" by GoT nuts). The scenery was exhilarating, lunch was a surprisingly tasty sandwich in tinfoil and we stopped for a swim in Betina Cave before paddling back. Worth every Kuna!
Summer travels took us to Croatia, Bosnia and Germany. We kicked things off in Dubrovnik, a medieval walled city on Croatia's southern coast ...
To head-off the jet-lag, we took an early morning stroll down the Stradun (Dubrovnik's main street) in the old city, the rain had washed the limestone clean and it was peaceful and uncrowded—mostly nuns, locals on the way to work, backpackers, cats and pigeons. The Stradun was built in 1667 after an earthquake destroyed many of the city's buildings.
Eventually, we stumbled across the Porporela (above), a breakwater and pier off the Old Port built in the 1870's to protect the ships moored in the harbor. The fort at the back is the St. John Fortress complex, built in the 1500's to monitor and control the ship traffic. Today, it houses the city's Maritime Museum and Aquarium. The rocky area against the wall to the left is a public swimming beach with a ladder down to the water.
Above, an impromptu family portrait as we try and decide where to have dinner (one of many vacation hardships) ...
— THINGS WE ATE —
Simply put, Dubrovnik's food is outstanding. Here are a few favorites (from top left): Skampi na Buzaru: large prawns cooked in a delicious tomato and wine sauce / Dagnje na Buzaru: fresh mussels cooked in olive oil, wine, garlic, bread crumbs and fresh herbs / Octopus Salad: fresh octopus, tomatoes, garlic, onions, olive oil, lemon juice and olives / Shrimp Tagliatelle: spinach pasta with fresh shrimp in a creamy white wine and garlic sauce / Pivo: the Croatian word for "beer" / Spaghetti Bolognese: pasta with red sauce, basil and parmesan
Tip: The Gundulićeva Poljana Market is a wonderful place to buy inexpensive staples—fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, greens, carrots, peaches, apricots, bread, dried oranges and figs.
Bar Mala Buza—the ultimate, top secret hole-in-the-wall. Perfect sunset drinking spot (go early). Not dirt cheap but far from the worst (two drinks ran around €12.) No substantial food, just snacks. Lovely service and mind-blowing views. Swimming and cliff diving for people emboldened by liquid courage who suddenly decide they want to crush it.
Getting there: it's an unmarked bar squirreled away in the city walls which, makes finding it half the fun! We followed our noses but here are some better directions.
More photos of Dubrovnik:
Andalusia is the Spain one dreams of—sunny and dry but not arid, plentiful with palms painted against a backdrop of azure skies. Everywhere in Granada, the intoxicating confluence of Europe and North Africa is evident in the food, architecture, and people. Street life unfolds in a whirl of exotic aromas, sounds and textures and in the hills of Sacromonte, the gypsy culture thrives where the locals live—as they have for centuries—in houses built into ancient caves ...
Raquel's Cave House ...
More photos of Granada ...
Bonus Footage: Raquel's pet turtle trying to chase and shell-butt us ...
I awake with a start, somehow aware that I am in a masia in the Spanish countryside, but foggy on the details. As my eyes slide around the dimly lit room, I am hit by a sudden wave of fatigue. The kind of brought on by planes, trains and mountain roads, too many early mornings and late nights. The nape of my neck is damp; my limbs ache. I drift off again and am awakened a second time by the clinking of coffee things, the soft splatter of water from a faucet.
Jill appears in the doorway. “How do you feel?” She eyes me hopefully as she sips from a mug.
I know she would like to leave the masia as much as me. It has been a cold few days, the earth and sky as damp and dark as an English moor in winter. We have reveled in the atmospheric haze of the countryside but now crave the sight of new things—the aroma of food, sound of human voices.
I throw off my pallet of blankets and stretch skyward. “We are going to see a castle today," I declare. And march for the shower.
Refreshed by a breakfast of oranges and coffee, I pull our car onto the rugged track toward Sierra Engarceran. The fog finally lifts as we approach the outskirts of nearby Benalloch, revealing vineyards, olive fields and frothy meadows dotted with sheep. The flat landscape dives without warning into one ravine after another, finally rising into peaks as torn and ragged as paper. As we creep higher, I take the hairpin turns like an old lady and we exclaim over the nameless hill towns that roll past; each with a church like a sweet, bun-topped grandmother.
When Morella suddenly looms in front of us it as if by magic. The city is wholly vertical in nature—a colorful skirt of buildings winding up the mountainside and culminating in a first-century castle at its pinnacle. We roll silently into the citutat—the city center—where we get out, stretch, pull on weatherproof layers in the wood-fire air.
The town is on the cusp of afternoon siesta, many of the restaurants preparing to close until 8 or 9 PM, when they reopen for the evening meal. Like Sierra Engarcaren, the streets are narrow, large enough only for foot traffic or bikes and lined with shops and eateries. Beneath stone arches, a fire crackles in a brazier. Drawn by its amber glow, we spy a nearby pastisseria—its large glass window showcasing neat rows of croissants, empanadas and buns.
We enter and order coffees. The woman behind the counter smiles patiently as we choose lunch—ham and cheese baguettes and a trio of almond, chocolate and marmalade pastries. It is just the two of us in the café and we devour the warm, buttery sandwiches as if we will not eat again. Outside, a more serious rain begins and we watch the rhythmic blooming of umbrellas in the street. When the last crumbs of pastry have been destroyed, we reemerge to wander more twisting alleys, each leading to another level of the town until we finally reach the cathedral. We stand before its enormous doors of inlaid wood and stare up at stone faced saints who in turn, behold us with weatherbeaten, beatific countenances.
Just around the corner is the castle, its entrance marked by a sandwich board advertising tour fees—€3.50 for one adult. The docent hands us a guide sheet translated into English and motions toward a pair of doors that open onto the castle’s Franciscan abbey. All is quiet in the romantic, pillared courtyard until suddenly—the bells begin. They are more than loud, they are cacophonous and bone-shaking. A quiver blossoms at the back of my neck. It is the call of holiness or, in the very least—the stern rebuke of anything that is not. We leave the ethereal courtyard, feet crunching up a rocky trail marked by a smattering of ruins. The mist thickens, making us feel as if at any moment we might hear the clatter of hooves, rattle of chain metal or thwack of arrows. Squinting upward through the fog, we are entranced by the mammoth walls that seem to appear, then disappear into the clouds. As we walk, Jill reads aloud from the guide sheet:
"The Castle of Morella is actually a mountain with a castle built into it. Geologically it is considered a hanging synclinal, meaning water filtered through the calcareous stone and clay have made natural caves. These caves have been in use since prehistoric ages. Due to the caves' great capacity for natural water storage, the castle could easily withstand lengthy sieges in Medieval times. According to historians, the castle has endured Roman, Muslim and Christian rule. Because of its equidistance from major hubs of civilization—Sargassa, Valence, Palma and Barcelone, it was the only castle under crown rule (neighboring territories were ruled militarily by the Knights of the Templar, Calatrava, Hospitaller, Montesa). In its early days, the legendary Spanish warrior, El Cid attempted to wrest the castle from the Iberians but was unable to take it. The castle became a National Monument in 1931 and since then, massive, ongoing restorations have been implemented."
The higher we go, the more we are battered by rain and wind—unforgiving gusts that finally force us to descend the ninety-eight steps from the parade ground, all sodden skin and chattering teeth. We cinch our hoods and step sideways through the gale to glimpse ruins of the castle’s ancient moat, then continue down—past the guard towers, the graveyard, stables, soldier’s quarters and artillery, the bakery, Governor’s Palace and the gigantic stone cistern. Finally, we exit through the imposing Main Gate.
When we look up again, the fog has cleared and the massive castle—a marvel of both nature and human engineering—reveals itself. Man-made angles jut sharply from mossy, dark earth. Plant life drips from crevices beneath stone-hewn watchtowers. All along the ramparts there are ripples of grass and flowering vines. In many places, it is difficult to tell where the castle begins and the mighty mountain ends.
More Photos of Morella
From Sitges, Jill and I drive south to Valencia. Our destination is the tiny village of Sierra Engarceran in the province of Castellón. We arrive late in the day, our Smart Car rolling through the narrow, shuttered streets like a marble in a maze. Slowly, people begin to appear—an old man with his matted, brown dog, boys unloading a truck, a cluster of women chatting on a side street.
I park in the plaza and phone Rob, our host. He arrives moments later, unfolding himself from a blue Citroen as his dog peers out from the back window. His hands and jeans are dusty with clay as he kisses us gruffly on both cheeks. He is an artist, an almond farmer, a joyful transplant. We follow him on the serpentine road out of town and are rendered speechless by the late afternoon light that folds down across the hills like giant, gold wings.
We stand in the stone piazza outside his masia—his farmhouse—and gaze at the craggy peak at its back, the steep incline bursting with herbs.
“Remember, you are in rural Spain," Rob says, in his gentle British lilt, when we ask about Wi-Fi and the nearest amenities. His nonchalant shrug signals that we will be far from pretty much everything for the next week. Life will move at a snail's pace; there will be mist and fog and drizzle and possibly—storms.
Each detail of his property seems plucked from a novel: the tidy terraces of almond trees, green, sunken pool in the garden, the living room’s snug, stone fireplace. In the kitchen, we linger beneath low-slung beams and admire the postcard view of the village framed by a large window. Rob’s dog, Idgie weaves between us excitedly, her black body sleek as a raven’s wing.
Rob begins to list off possible points of interest—we could hike to the saddle of Tossal de l’Om (the mountain behind the masia and the site of a 14th Century Muslim encampment only recently unearthed by archaeologists). Or, we might drive to the nearby towns of Ares and Morella—ancient, walled cities topped by medieval castles. As Rob talks, I fat-finger notes into my phone and finally—after building a fire in the living room and showing us a stash of leftover wine—he departs, Idgie trotting at his heels.
Left to our own devices, we realize that we are in need of supplies. We return to town and following my muddled notes, drive in circles until we finally locate the carnisseria. Entering, we dodge the swish of beaded curtains, and are greeted by Ima, the shop owner. She is aproned and curvaceous with an inquisitive face framed by brown curls. Briskly, she beckons us inside.
“Qué te gustaría?” She asks, feet and hands spread wide. What would you like?
Words leave my mouth in a slow stream and her tiny counter begins to fill: oranges, avocados, bananas, broccoli, apricots, tomatoes, thick slices of ham, cream, mayo, eggs, cheese, a loaf of bread and three bottles of wine—two tinto, one rosa.
As she deftly taps numbers into a calculator, she unleashes a barrage of Spanish. Where are we from? Are we staying at Rob’s masia? Is fair-haired Jill Rob’s daughter? The last question makes us laugh. Aside from the fact that they are both Caucasian, Jill and Rob look nothing alike.
In a flurry, Ima bags our purchases. The entire haul will feed us for a week and costs nineteen euros, wine included. Before we leave, she imparts snippets of local information—the bakery is open from six-thirty to two most days, never on Sundays and on Saturday, hours vary. The farmacia is around the corner and Bar Salvador sells wine, beer, cigarettes and occasionally, food.
“Entiendes?” She looks at me pointedly. Do you understand?
I nod. "Your words come so fast. Como un viento.” Like a wind.
She laughs and with the cadence of an approving mother, tells me that it’s good that I speak Spanish.
“Lo intento,” I reply. I try.
I will always try.
Back in the masia’s cozy kitchen, Jill chops piles of vegetables next to a roiling pot—heaps of broccoli, garlic and tomato. She tests the pasta, dumps the vegetables in. Fragrant steam fills the air. Splashes of cream, butter, a pinch of salt. Her elbow lifts and points as she stirs industriously with a wooden spoon. She moves with the grace of a dancer, happier than I have ever seen her.
We draw chairs up to the rough-hewn table and slurp noodles topped with fresh cheese, every so often refilling our squat, clay glasses with wine from a label-less bottle of tinto. A local map is spread out and our eyes rove the topography of Sierra Engarceran. As night shrouds the farmhouse, we become full and sated. Warmly tipsy. The iPhones come out and we play our favorite songs, loud as we please, singing along in the glow of the kitchen.
The next day, we hike. Fog moves in a winged froth, chasing us up the rocky embankment behind the masia. Higher and higher we climb, pink-cheeked, shivering; flanked by hillside troves of hyacinth, thyme, wild lavender and mint. At the pinnacle, Jill buries her face in a feast of purple rosemary while somewhere below, dogs in the valley bark and whine. Seated on a pair of large, flat boulders, we munch sandwiches until a thickening mist sends us down through the shrubs and rock fields. Our steps, careful and precise, as if we are brittle and small and not people at all—but figurines made of glass.
We return late to the village one evening, sapped by the desperate, indecisive hunger of strangers in a strange land. Squinting out the car windows, we search for signs of life—a cluster of voices or the furtive glow of lamplight. But darkness has settled over the village like a solemn prayer. All is quiet.
"Bar Salvador?" Jill asks as we slow to a stop near the only place that appears to be open.
We glance at each other and shrug.
Inside, heads swivel as we enter. The dim room is lined with men watching sports, drinking beer, smoking. Murmurs trail us as we walk past.
The proprietor is tall and lanky, somehow younger than we expected in his tracksuit and dark-rimmed glasses. "Bienvenidos," he greets us.
We order wine and I ask if there is food available. He waggles his head for a moment and raises a finger as if to say, I don't usually do this but—
"Mama!" He calls loudly.
A slice of silence and then, the curtain behind the bar ruptures and a woman steps through. Like Ima, she is aproned and rotund with a benevolent face. He speaks to her in a flash of Catalan but the meaning is clear. She nods at us, smiles; disappears behind the rippling cloth.
We pull up chairs at a nearby table and sip our wine. Moments later, the bartender brings us two of the largest baguettes we have ever seen—mighty, hinged planks of crusty, soft bread layered with tomatoes, ham, cheese and olive oil. It is comfort food of the highest order. We devour the simple, savory flavors in rough mouthfuls, scarcely stopping to speak. Or breathe.
Blurry with fullness, we settle our bill, pantomiming our satisfaction with exaggerated gestures.
"Fuen perfecto," I say. "Y gracias a tu mama, tambien!" Thanks to your mother, also.
"De nada, de nada." The bartender dips his head with a smile. "I will tell to her!"
The curtain behind him darts and flutters, but does not open.
More Photos of Sierra Engarcaren
Jill, my friend of twenty years, joins me in Barcelona. Our reunion is an immediate return to our twenties; we scream when we see each other outside arrivals then, drive down the serpentine coast to Sitges where the sea blusters and roils, changing hue as if it is one, large, liquid chameleon. It is a town in which it feels as if we have gone backwards in time, backwards within our own selves. The light is soft, painterly, and we take to the skinny, cobblestone streets like teenage girls. Strolling arm-in-arm as we ogle handbags and jewelry; double-fisting gelatos as we follow our noses to one tapas joint after another.
The beach, however, is our favorite haven and we rent €6 loungers for one glorious day until the man shoos us off of them at six o'clock. We stay with our rears and soles and elbows in the sand, chair-less but happy, watching locals chase their dogs and children through the crashing waves until the last of the sun squeezes through the clouds, eventually returning to our tiny seaside apartment where, we sing and howl with laughter. All the while, eating continuously from a hastily-assembled charcuterie board of gas station staples—Iberian ham, goat cheese, berries, crackers and a surprisingly delicious bottle of rioja.
Hot Tip: Tarragona (45 minutes south of Sitges) has a Roman colosseum with killer views ...