For Christmas we decided to get out of Albania and get out we did. After consulting our master destination wish list, maps, and the weather we decided to head to Ljubljana, Slovenia. Logistics (i.e. a small child with lots of paraphernalia) made it easier to drive so we planned a route that meandered up the Adriatic Coast from Albania to Slovenia via Montenegro, Croatia, and for a very brief time, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Covering just over 600 miles each way, the trip proved to be an amazing contrast of geography, western development, and cultures and was just what we needed to unwind. Highlights included:
· The Albania-Montenegro border crossings. One lane dirt roads manned by chain smoking border police made us feel like we had gone back in time to old Eastern European stereotypes. These roads (both of them!) are the main north-south routes through the Balkans and drive home just how inaccessible Albania still is. If one doesn't want to feel welcome in a country, trying to drive across the Albanian border from the north is the way to go.
· The breath taking views of the snow covered mountains as we drove the hairpin turns from Budva to Podgorica. The Albanian translation for “Montenegro” is “black mountains” and the views left us speechless.
· The rocky and rough landscapes that seemed to perfectly illustrate the country’s history.
· Taking the car ferry across the Bay of Kotor. A quick, 4 € trip saved us over an hour of driving time and provided Sidney with the opportunity to gaze at his beloved uji (water).
· An overnight in each direction in Dubrovnik where we chased Sidney through kilometers of pedestrian only marbled streets and alleyways in the City’s walled Old Town.
· The Pucić Palace Hotel, the only hotel located in the Old Town and in the heart of all of Dubrovnik’s action.
· Dinner at an Italian restaurant where we had a lively conversation with a Canadian and an Australian who were in law school in Paris (now that’s international).
· Driving along the Dalmatian Coast. The pictures I took just don’t do it justice. Between the cloudless blue sky and the translucent water I think this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
· The numerous tunnels along the interstate. Not only was the new highway perfectly maintained and traffic free (maybe I’ve been living in Albania too long), but the tunnels carved through the mountains transported us from one weather zone and into another.
· Croatia’s varied geography. The shape of Croatia results in numerous topographic and weather zones with each being more impressive than the last.
· We blinked and we almost missed it. We were there such a short period of time that we never received stamps in our passports. Once you looked past the tacky tourist hotels clustered around the beach town of Neum, the short stretch of coastline is classically beautiful.
· The old European feel of Ljubljana that couldn’t be farther from what we had experienced along the Adriatic Coast. It is hard to believe that just twenty years ago all of these countries had co-existed under the single identity of Yugoslavia.
· The magical lights and festive atmosphere that continued past Christmas day.
· The street musicians, Christmas markets, and food vendors that lined the pedestrian zoned Ljubljanica River. Every evening brought about a live musical performance along the river. Traditional Slovenian folk music, church choirs, American cover bands, Sidney enjoyed dancing to them all.
· Our suite at the Antiq Palace Hotel. Our temporary living space was larger, and better appointed, than our apartment back in D.C.
· Eating street food (Slovenian sausages with red pepper relish were a favorite) and drinking lots of Kuhino Vino (mulled wine).
· A smoke free atmosphere that was truly smoke free. It was so nice to sit in a restaurant and not be surrounded by toxic clouds of tobacco.
· Hiking up to the frosty Ljubljana Castle then taking the tram down.
· Food, food, and more food. Our taste buds were reawakened as we ate Mexican, Indian (some of the best I have ever had), and Slovenian foods. You don’t realize what you are missing until it is gone.
· The family friendly atmosphere that was pervasive throughout the entire City. Restaurants provided high chairs - in Albania we are so used to them not being available that we now travel with our own booster seat in the back of the car. Every evening children of all ages were out and about on the streets with their families.
The best thing about the entire trip, however, was that we got to spend time together as a nuclear family. For the first time since we’ve been married, we were able to spend the holidays together without being pulled between conflicting family obligations. Phone calls and texts from the Embassy were kept to a minimum and we spent several blissful days without any buzzing from Glenn’s Blackberry. I loved it. Glenn loved it. And Sidney loved it- or so he told us in his two-year old ‘s vocabulary. And that is what the Christmas season should be about.