Oh Say can you Sea! Celebrating the 4th of July Along the Balkan Coast.

Our starting point. The UNESCO Heritage City of Kotor, Montenegro.
It was time for a break! A week aboard a boat where someone else would set the course, prepare the meals, drop the anchor and refresh the beverages over the 4th of July holiday sounded perfect.

This diversion came about when Michael was searching for an Airbnb boat option in Montenegro. When he couldn't find one he went surfing and up popped Experience Montenegro, a British tour company that specialized in affordable cruising in Montenegro and Croatia. For just a bit more than our Airbnb budget we could spend seven days on a Gullet (a Turkish made boat that sort of looks like a whaling schooner), cruising the Montenegrin and Croatian coastline with a cozy cabin including breakfast, and either lunch or dinner, depending on where we anchored. Ours was "The Jewels of the Adriatic" cruise that began in  Kotor, Montenegro and then made several stops in Croatia including Cavtat, Sipan, Dubrovnik and Herceg Novi, returning to Montenegro via Bigova, Perast and finally back to Kotor. Take a look at some of our stops.

 St. George's Island near Perast, Monetegro - the most beautiful village we visited.
Devouring our daily ice cream while taking in the scenery in Hercig Novi.
Sunset in Bigova reminded me of nights at anchor in the San Juan Islands.
We would be sharing this adventure with three other couples whom we didn't know - but that can be half the fun. Or half the nightmare.

Living in Seattle, surrounded by water, almost any occasion can be celebrated on a boat. Birthdays, anniversaries, office parties, etc. The usual itinerary includes at least a four hour cruise around Puget Sound or through the Ballard Locks into Lake Washington to ogle Bill Gates sprawling estate, and of course lots of alcohol and a fairly predicable buffet. My first reaction when invited to one of these potential all day excursions is to conjure up an immovable commitment. It’s not that I don’t love being on the water - Michael and I happily shared our sailboat boat for twenty years, the problem, at least for me, is mingling in tight quarters with strangers without an opportunity to gracefully back out the door when you’ve had enough.

Du Zamani boat mates, Doug, Jackie, Michael, Wendy and Graham
We could always seek refuge in our very comfortable cabin.
In this case - our boat mates turned out to be more than delightful. Our companions included Graham and Wendy from North Wales and Doug and Jackie from Dorset, England (the other couple had cancelled - which was a blessing) so it was just us two Americans and four Brits! Our two-man crew, Skipper and chef, Mishu and Meri, director, deck hand, navigator, and chief entertainer. They were funny, friendly, laid back and very capable.

Our trusty crew - Mishu, skipper and chef and Meri, everything else!
Meri was great fun and kept us distracted from any challenges.
When we arrived there was some confusion about which of the two boats sitting next to each other in the marina was the one we'd be sailing on. It turned out there was a surplus of guests who booked the "Jewels of the Adriatic" cruise, so a smaller boat was brought in that could accommodate the 8 overflow guests. We were on that boat. An initial side-by-side comparison made our Gullet look a little shabby, but after a week shadowing the bigger boat with their full contingent of 12 on board, we were very happy with Dus Zamani, our "Little Gulet that Could". She wasn't fast, but she was comfortable and certainly not over crowded. We also learned that these boats don't actually sail, which was disappointing, but if we had sailed, I doubt we'd have gone half the distance.

Our boat anchored just off Dubrovnik, one of the best stops on the cruise.
 We almost didn't have the fun of getting to know Doug and Jackie - they had booked the "Highlights of Montenegro" cruise but the company (not the most organized we discovered) failed to inform them that cruise didn't have enough takers and was cancelled - so now they were taking this trip instead. The news was delivered on-board before departure by a over-smiling, bumbler of a company representative who "hoped they were okay with that?" He apologized for the mix-up of course, but the good news was "they would not be charged the extra cost of this unexpected (but lucky them) upgrade". We knew we'd love these two when they shrugged and said "why not? We're on a boat and you lot (that would be the rest of us) don't seem too bad". I don't know many people that would do that. This would be the first of many running jokes about the tour company and how they operate, mostly around over-promising and under delivering. If this inspires you to take a trip like this, there are many companies that provide similar experiences - I wouldn't necessarily recommend ours, but here's the link:  http://www.montenegroholidays.com/gulet-cruises. 

Two happy Senior Nomads!
This was very close to a clothing optional excursion. Lucky we had these handsome men aboard!
A challenge that could have caused mutiny was the food. You know I love to cook and some of my happiest memories are from puttering in the galley on Butterscotch, so I had visions of being served freshly caught fish on the grill, juicy fruit, light salads, and interesting Mediterranean specialties all prepared by someone else while I was deep into a book. That was not to be the case. Our poor skipper and harried cook, Mishu did his best - but the daily menus were set by the dreary tour company in England and the provisions were already on board. We knew we were in trouble with the first breakfast - fleshy pink hot dogs, hard boiled eggs, mystery white cheese and slabs of white bread, all washed down with a mysterious "orange" juice. Or on other days bright "pink" juice.

The happy passengers enjoying lunch together. And look at all those clothes!
 Most of the meals were heavy and felt a bit institutional. I mean, who serves a hot soup course, followed by pork chops and mashed potatoes for lunch in 90 degree weather? In a fit of defiance Mishu bought ingredients out of his own pocket and made us Black Risotto from Cuttlefish ink that is one of his specialties - and made sure we had fresh watermelon for the 4th of July. Otherwise, we bought our own fruit and snacks onshore and enjoyed dinner or lunch on our own. I did take over the galley one afternoon to make Strawberry and Blueberry Shortcake for a 4th of July celebration.
Eventually I did share the watermelon.
Doing the best I can to make shortcakes from what was in the larder.
The final results for all to share and a rousing rendition of our national anthem. 
The wine and beer seemed to be in endless supply, along with soft drinks and water, so the six of us were relaxed and sun-dazed, and merrily went along with whatever was brought to the table and wherever we were taken.
Mishu extracting ink from a cuttlefish for his special black risotto.
Mishu's fingers were stained for two days - but it was worth it.
The final results: Cuttlefish Ink Risotto. A memorable dish.
One final challenge. We usually anchored out and Meri would take us to shore in two batches in the dinghy and then collect us when we were done dining and exploring. That worked well until the dinghy motor died a shuddering death. From then on we had to use our big sister ship's tender when we could - or we'd raft along side the bigger ship and crawl over both decks to shore. 

The yellow boat was the larger sister on the same cruise from the same company.
We encountered many mega-yachts on this trip. Here's a harbor blocker at 150'.
In the end,  not having a dinghy turned out to be a good thing - the "rats on the ship" as we called ourselves, convinced the crew to skip a couple of stops that required going ashore so we could spend more time in tranquil bays where we could swim and relax.
Having a fine day in the sun as we slowly make our way back down the coast.
The water was cold and refreshing. Unfortunately, the snorkelers in the group saw more junk than fish.
Doug and Graham toasting to whatever might be appropriate at the time.
After and hour of fishing this was my reward. He went directly in the soup pot.
I don't need to go too much deeper - especially since most of our daily journal entries included notes like: Read most of the day, napped, Played dominoes and card games, ate too much (even though dinner was weird). Caught a small fish. Went ashore in (insert stunning coastal village here), ate ice cream. Or ... don't remember. Who could ask for more? And again, the good news is we loved the people we shared these languid seven days with and hope to visit them in the future. 

Domino dominating the game table. Graham apparently doesn't like his hand.
Personally, we shall not seek independence from these particular Brits.
Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

The Balkan Maze

Heading for a break on a boat similar to these ... if we can get there!
Last month when we were in Prague, Michael was travel planning for Montenegro and came across a week-long boat excursion along the coast of Montenegro and Croatia. After two years on the road, a week on the water sounded like a perfect break from our land-locked travels. We booked a seven day cruise and looked forward to going wherever the wind blew us.

From Kosovo we had to work our way down to the coast of Montenegro to the city of Kotor to board our Turkish-style boat called a "gulet" a 65 foot boat that lookes a bit like a whaling schooner.
In an idle moment, have you ever fiddled with one of those little plastic maze toys? You know, the tilt-the-thing-back-and-forth until the little silver ball rolls from the start to the finish without hitting any dead-ends thing?  Not as easy as it looks, right? That was our experience in trying to find transportation from Pristina, the capitol of Kosovo to Podgorica, the capitol of neighboring Montenegro. It was just one country away as the marble rolls but still not easy. Fly? Twenty-three hours with a 20 hour lay-over in Istanbul. Train? No service. Bus? Kind of...once-a-day leaving at 7:00 pm and arriving at 3:00 am (not a favorite check-in time for even the most accommodating Airbnb host). Rent a car? Not available for one-way, besides we were warned driving through Albanian mountains is harrowing. All this to go less than 200 miles. So, for the first time, The Senior Nomads were at a dead end.

It took an international village from the Sirius Hotel to help organize our travel.
Here's the map to our destination that Michael created to keep our family updated on our travels!
The only option left to us was to make the trip in a taxi! Our apartment in Pristina was just around the corner from a boutique hotel where Michael, at his most charming self, made friends with the young manager. Before you knew it, we had a driver who spoke some English and a shiny black Mercedes lined-up for the next morning. And it cost less than we'd anticipated - $220. door to door! We saw some beautiful parts of Kosovo heading south through Albania - also beautiful, and finally through the black mountains that give Montenegro it's name. And we felt like rock stars!

From left to right Michael, our driver, the hotel manager and yours truly!
On the road in style. I hope we get stuck somewhere else and can do this again!
Just one of the vistas on the road. This is in Albania.
We descended into the capital city of Podgorica in pouring rain and our driver became hopelessly lost. His cell phone didn't work in Montenegro, and neither did ours but eventually with help from strangers with Montenegrin cellphones we connected with our hosts. They drove to meet us at a petrol station so we could follow them to the apartment. Our dutiful driver waved good bye and began his long, four-hour drive back home.

Our little attic Airbnb in Podgorica.
Our little Airbnb apartment was on the 4th floor with no elevator. Not the first time we've hauled our heavy bags up 5 flights of stairs - but it is one of the reasons we are ready for a break! https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/188858 Our host drove us around the city for a quick tour and a stop at the grocery store. We were only be there for two nights, so we hardly unpacked. There wasn't much to do in Podgorica, but we wanted to see the capital of this recently minted country.

Trying on various "Harem" Pants  in a make-shift dressing room in the bazaar.
We did some shopping in a crazy maze of a indoor market. The first floor was all local produce - and you know how much I love a good fresh market, but this one had sort of an overall sadness about it. Maybe it was the dim, fluorescent lighting inside this former communist gymnasium coupled with  the oppressive heat, but everything just looked wilted, including the vendors. Once you got past that, the food and produce was incredibly cheap. A pint of rich red local strawberries for 50 cents, A glorious watermelon for $1.00 and a whole, plump roasted chicken for $2.00! Upstairs, the Bazaar was a rabbit warren of hundreds of tightly packed stalls selling anything and everything you can imagine.  I bought a pair of "Harem Pants", Michael splurged on a pair of $5.00 swim trunks and a $4 pair of guaranteed fake "Ray Ban" sunglasses.

The final touch! A wide brimmed hat for many hot, sunny days ahead at an outdoor market in Budva.
Our next destination was Budva, a resort town on the Montenegrin coast about an hour away from our final destination of Kotor. We had a comfortable bus trip through the mountains and then took what seemed like a straight shot down to the sea. Our apartment for this two night stay was also small, but close to the beach https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1308391. We were happy to be in the sun, on the water, and in a beautiful city. The only spoiler was the constant exposure to over tanned, middle-aged men with large tummies draped in gold jewelry and wearing speedos.

Just one of the Russian Sun Gods on view in Budva.
It was pedicure time! It had been long time since I'd been good to my toes, and in keeping with the low cost of living here, $10 got me an hour of tender loving care. However, the salon was about a half a mile from our apartment. I couldn't put my shoes on for fear of the dreaded pedi-smudge, so I tried to walk in those flimsy free flip-flops. That lasted for about five minutes - but being the clever girl I am, I made toe carriers out of my daily walking shoes and flapped my way home.

Wearing my shoes in a new way to avoid Pedi-smudge!
 Michael got a haircut for about the same price. The last thing we needed to do before we disconnected for a week was to fill-out and sign the paperwork to put our house in Seattle on the market! (more on that as the tale unfolds).

The two cheesy plaid bags held what we needed for the boat.The rest was stored on-shore. 
Our next stop was Kotor, a designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site lauded for it's well preserved Medieval walled city. There we would climb aboard our Gulet - and set sail.

We'll see you there!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Do You Know the Way to Kosovo?

Prague and Budapest were perfect stepping stones on our journey to the less traveled parts of Eastern Europe that include Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. 

As we left Budapest for Belgrade, the capital of Serbia I wondered if this time we would begin to leave creature comforts behind. Serbia certainly isn't a third world country, but it is definitely off the  tourist path and has some unique challenges as it tries to balance a historical attachment to Russia and the present-day desire to be a part of the West and the EU. Serbia earned its reputation of being the neighborhood bully while Yugoslavia fell apart after the death of their founder Josip Tito in 1980. We wanted to visit Serbia, the supposed instigator behind the conflict in two recent wars, as well as visit the "breakaway" republic of Kosovo.

Last year we spent time in three of the former Yugoslavian republics of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina so we were familiar with this part of Europe and it's past. WWI and WWII took place before we were born but the Bosnian War (1992-95) and the Kosovo War (1998-99) are painfully recent. Last year while in Sarajevo we learned in-depth about what happened during the Srebrenica massacre and the Siege of Sarajevo. We wanted to learn more by visiting "the other side" and the home of the infamous war criminal, Slobodan Milošević. We both were moved by the book The Cellist of Serajevo.

Belgrade is a beautiful city full of surprises
But first we had to get there. We arrived at Prague's faded beauty of a train station an hour early. We were feeling good about the extra time and found a comfortable bench just a short walk to platform 3 where we would catch our train to Belgrade. I left Michael happily reading a rare copy of the International Herald New York Times while I gathered a few travel snacks, and enjoyed a slice of pizza for breakfast.
Just off the train in Belgrade.
We strolled over to our train with about ten minutes to go only to discover our departure platform had changed from 3 to 12. That would be 9 platforms on the complete opposite side of the station from where we were! Nomads on the run! We sprinted the width of the station with our heavy bags and barely got on board before the departing whistle. In less than five minutes we had drained every ounce from our previous Zen like state.

We had an eight hour ride ahead of us, so we certainly had time to recover. And at least three of those hours were spent chugging along at about 15 miles an hour because apparently train tracks in Serbia cannot handle fast speeds. There wasn't a dining car on this journey which seemed crazy for such a long distance - there wasn't even a tea trolley. Thankfully, I had a few snacks and water tucked away for situations like this. Once a mom, always a  mom. 

Gummy Bears and peanuts continue to be staples in our emergency snack bag.
Choose your taxi drivers carefully in Belgrade. These fellows assured us this was non-alcoholic beer. Really?
The historic city of Belgrade has the unfortunate distinction of having been leveled and rebuilt 40 times. As we traversed the city on our walking tours, and did some further exploring on our own, the destruction from intense bombing by the Allied Forces in the late 90's and a general purveyance of  hard times became obvious. There is yet another rebuilding in the city's future, but it will be a long time before this tattered country has the resources to replace and repair the damage.

The destruction from bombing in the nineties was widespread in both residential and commercial areas.
I wasn't sure what to expect from Belgrade as a city or as a place where Americans might be welcomed. I was pleasantly surprised to find a vibrant, cosmopolitan city full of very welcoming citizens.
These very welcoming utility boxes sat outside our front door.
Our balcony facing the park.
 Our Airbnb also exceeded expectation! The apartment was modern and clean and the location was perfect. We were just across the street from Kalemegdan, the city's largest park. This forest refuge rambled for almost a mile along the edge of the Danube to where it meets the Sava River. The imposing Belgrade Fortress sits in the center of the park on a bluff overlooking the river and beyond. There has been a working fortification on the site since Roman times.

The Belgrade Fortress with stones dating back to the 2nd century.
My favorite spot in the morning - bench in the park overlooking the river.
Around the corner in the opposite direction from the park was a wide pedestrian-only shopping street. On our first night we headed out to find a grocery store for a quick dinner, and instead, lingered to enjoy the scene. Even though it was almost midnight, there were families out eating ice cream (ourselves included), drinking coffee or beer, crowding around the street entertainers or enjoying live music that flowed from one place to the next.

Street art abounded in Belgrade. These red umbrellas danced across a little side street.
Grilled meat is a staple of the Serbian diet. Here's just one of many fast food kiosks.
Just one of a dozen robots made from salvage that stood tall on the main street.
Our free walking tour was as always, informative and fun. There is a lot to cover here and our guide did a great job of blending current history with the city's colorful past. Michael took the Communist Belgrade tour the next day that included a stop at Tito's tomb.

Our walking tour guide Jovana. She was so proud of her city and very knowledgeable.
Final resting place for Tito. Love him or hate him.
A short walk to the Skandanska neighborhood made for a truly Serbian experience. The cobbled streets were lined with small restaurants and brew-pubs where enthusiastic musicians strolled from table to table under twinkling lights. They take their work seriously - the more you enjoyed their serenade the more they'd play, and the harder they'd work. The traditional way to offer appreciation is to slap a 500 dinar bill ($5.00) onto their sweaty foreheads! Speaking of Serbian money - at one point during hyper-inflation in 1993-94 you could easily have a 500 BILLION dinar bill in your wallet!

The lovely neighborhood of Skandanska.
I had a haircut that cost 15,000 dinar (about 17 US dollars) It could have easily cost billion dinar a few years ago!
Our next stop was Kosovo, the newest country in Europe, but first we had to get there. That turned out to be not so easy since Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country and because Serbians have little or no interest in visiting this breakaway republic. Here's how it all unfolded.

Earlier in the week we trekked through some grimy parts of Belgrade to the equally grimy bus station to buy tickets to Pristina, Kosovo's capital city. We'd learned our lesson about Serbian trains and there wasn't any straight forward service to Kosovo, so it bus by default. In the past we have enjoyed bus travel, so we thought it would be okay. The weather was hot and sticky and nothing was coming easy to us Nomads (including my MacBook Air deciding it would no longer provide sound). We'd meant to scope out the buses before buying tickets, but we'd spend a good deal of time with an Apple tech with no results other than a good cleaning and reboot of my system. We were tired and grumpy.  There were challenges to buying tickets and after a lot of hard work, we discovered we'd bought them for the wrong day, so we had to get back in line and replace them. Should have noted that the journey was now longer (a grueling 8 hours) and had a dozen stops along the way.

The rattling city buses were in very poor condition.
Two days later we arrived at the Belgrade Bus Station with our bags and found our bus. Well, not exactly a bus. I guess the demand for travel to Kosovo from Belgrade is limited. Certainly low enough to not warrant using a large, comfortable air conditioned bus when a 15 passenger van that had seen better days would suffice.

The two most startled faces on the scene were mine when I realized we would be traveling in this rattle-trap and the driver's when he saw the size of our suitcases. Somehow the bags were crammed in the back and we were crammed in the last two remaining seats.

People got on and got off regularly along the way. Sometimes we picked up passengers from the side of the road (seemed to be the polite thing to do) and they stood in the aisle for a ride to the next stop.
There were three children in the van that were so well behaved, you wouldn't have known they were the winding roads made one of them sick. Lovely!

Our ride to Kosovo. I wish you could see the 80's carpeting that lined the interior.
On the road. Every seat full and every disco song you've ever loved on the radio.
Pit stop in the rain about half-way to Pristina.
Since Kosovo is considered by the majority of Serbs to still be part of Serbia, the northern part of Kosovo was festooned with Serbian flags hung from most every light pole. It wasn't until we were further into interior that we started to see Kosovo flags. But when we reached the capital city of Pristina we began to see Albanian flags, because 90% of Kosovars are Albanian. Confusing? Kosovo gained its independence from Serbia in 2008 but is not recognized by Serbia, Russia and lots of other countries. Having said that, it is recognized by 108 of the 193 United Nation countries and they are hopeful that someday Kosovo will become a member of the UN itself. And we met the president.

The press conference for the joint efforts between Kosovo and the U.N. to register their diaspora.
There wasn't much to do in Pristina - not a tourist office in sight nor a city map to be found anywhere. But we set out to observe what we could of life in this conflicted country. As we were walking down the main pedestrian street we saw what looked like the start of a fun run. There were clusters of people in colorful hats and printed tee-shirts standing around a few tents. As we got closer we saw several media photographers along with reporters from local radio and television stations setting- up. We worked our way to the front of the crowd and started asking questions. Never shy, Michael marched up to a group of official looking types with clip boards and found out that the Kosovo Ministry of Culture, in partnership with the United Nations Development Program was launching a program to locate the country's diaspora. By finding Kosovars that left the country during the recent conflicts, they hope to encourage them to return, and or support their fledgling homeland through investments. Turns out, we had stumbled upon the press conference to announce the program.

Michael having a great conversation with Kosovo's President Atifete Jahjaga
The Senior Nomads with the president and the Minister of Culture, who is obviously wondering "who are these people?"
We stayed to watch. Much of the program was in the local language (Albanian) but an official representative from the U.N. spoke in English with a translator. He was followed by Atifete Jahjaga Kosovo's female president. Before long, we had worked our way so close to the podium that before you knew it we were embraced and joined the official party. Michael asked to meet the president since she was about 5 feet away sipping cider.  She was lovely and happy to have American tourists (very rare) visiting and interested in her country. Then we met Andrew Russell, the UN official that spoke. He lives in Pristina and a few days later, we had a really fascinating lunch with him at the UN Development Program offices. Learning more about this part of the world has been a priority for us so chance meetings with the leaders who are working to build a new democracy was all we could have asked for. A special Senior moment!

The flags of nations flying in front of the hotel near our apartment.
Next up is Podgorica the capital city of Montenegro. From there we head to the coastal towns of Budva and Kotor for a much anticipated seven day cruise along the picturesque Montenegrin and Croatian coasts. People are saying that Montenegro is the "next Croatia". We'll see.

Thanks for following along!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Bewitched by Budapest

My list of favorite cities has shifted to make room for Budapest. I loved the confluence of cultures that exude mystery and dark secrets, but also puts a brave face on centuries of turmoil and takeovers. It’s like Istanbul married Vienna and they had an only child.

We arrived here by train from Prague. At the station we met a gaggle of 60 somethings who unfortunately fit the American tourist stereotype. They were over-packed, over-bearing and definitely over-shared. They were on a two week Vienna/Prague/Budapest trip and could tell us ANYTHING we needed to know about those cities - especially all about the weird food, the heat, the stairs, the lack of air conditioning, the prices, and a serious lack of people who spoke decent English. Of course that was after we learned everyone’s relationship to the others in the group - who's sister-in-law shouldn’t put up with her husband one more minute, who’d been neighbors for thirty years, etc. … you get the picture. This all happened in less than twenty minutes! Finally we made a break for it before and found a spot much further down the platform.

The American Tourist is alive and well in Europe.
And there the pendulum swung in the other direction and we met Stephanie Danforth - also American. She was well-traveled without being boastful, friendly without immediately sharing her life story, curious about the world, confident and didn’t shy away from things that were different. And of course, she was very well put together.

We learned she had traveled extensively in Africa and South East Asia. She had been on her way to Nepal when we met her, but the earthquake there made for a change of plans and she was heading to Budapest for a week with an eye towards re-visiting Morocco. She lives on Martha’s Vineyard and is an accomplished artist. Through sales of here paintings she supports a school in Sambaru, a tribal community in northwest Kenya. You will love her paintings! Here’s a link to a recent article: http://www.eisenhauergallery.com/download/danforth.pdf.e7cc34984dbe3de2ef07bab2967b9857

Enjoying one of the worst meals of our trip with one of the best friends we've made.
The train journey took seven long, hot hours and the train itself had seen better days, but the passing scenery was interesting and we were both deep into our books. Our cabin was fairly comfortable until it filled to capacity with six passengers and their luggage. We brought our lunch and enjoyed a cramped picnic. One seat mate also brought his lunch, although I wish he hadn’t. His was a plastic container of pickled cabbage and sausage to be savored slowly with a liter of warm beer. Sadly, the windows didn’t open. I bolted to find Stephanie (carefully avoiding the other Americans). She was in the car ahead of us with just one seat mate so it was to my advantage to spend time getting to know her better.

Our cabin mate on the train to Budapest.
So, beyond truly enjoying our stay in Budapest we came away with a new friend. Well, actually I made two new friends, if you count Misha the cat that lived next door to our apartment. Once again our Airbnb location was prime real estate. The apartment building was built in 1737 and our apartment was still owned by the family that lived there for over 200 years. Here's the link: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1126755

The front door to our Airbnb and my new friend Misha.
We were on a quiet street just two blocks from the Danube River, and one block from the mile-long pedestrian street that bisects the city. The fairy castle Parliament building was at one end, and the famous Market Hall sat at our end - but you had to run a gauntlet of restaurant hawkers and tourist traps in between.

The entrance to the Parliament Building.
Inside the massive Market Hall just two blocks from our apartment. Heaven!
For the first time we took three free walking tours in one city! And they were all excellent. I know I’ve said this before, but wherever you travel if a walking tour is available, take it. Our first tour was an overview of the city and it’s history. There was a lot to pack in and it took over three hours! Our guide, Andrew was really good and he would be guiding the Jewish Budapest tour a few days later so we booked that. In-between we took the Communist Budapest tour, and that was fascinating, too.

A moving memorial to the Jews shot at the bank of the Danube.
Michael took a tour of the Parliament building and he also trekked to a park filled with discarded statues and monuments from the Soviet era. To top it off, we spend a rainy afternoon at the House of Terror, a memorial to the victims of the dictatorial regimes in 20th-century Hungary who detained, interrogated, tortured or killed thousands of citizens in the building.

Just one of the many Communist era statues in Memento Park.
Dear Comrade Lenin, I'd like a new Porsche for Christmas,  please!Oh wait. There is no Christmas!
It was very hot during our stay and we were fortunate that our apartment faced a shady courtyard. So while Michael was boning-up on Hungarian history, I spent some quality time with the cat in the garden, scoured the food hall from top to bottom, and did some shoe shopping! It’s been a long time since I’ve done that, but after 700 days two of my three pairs were ready for retirement.

It was hard to leave this handsome, green-eyed lover. I mean cat.
During our first walking tour we explored a part of the city filled with what are known as “Ruin Bars”. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many apartment buildings were abandoned and became derelict. About a dozen years ago, some young entrepreneurs began to use the large spaces as impromptu bars and clubs - and a culture was born. You could not recreate one of these with any of the authenticity that comes from scavenging for the furniture, bar ware, and found art. Most Ruin Bars covered multiple floor of an apartment building with an open courtyard. Many had different themes on each level with their own music and intimate spaces. One bar we visited held 400 people at any one time, and often 4,000 people would cycle in and out until the wee hours of the morning. Some also offered hostel rooms on the upper floors. Good idea. Here's a link to the best Ruin bars as of 2014: http://welovebudapest.com/clubs.and.nightlife.1/the.best.ruin.pubs.in.budapest.2014.edition

The IKEA of Ruins Bars. This was on the bi-annual junk collection day.
Oddly, these bars were really clean! It only looked like you'd stick to the chairs.
Michael checking out one of the upper floors of the Szimpla Kert Ruin bar.
Patrons are encouraged to add their own personal touches to the decor.
Budapest is known for elaborate bath houses and pools where locals and tourists alike while away a few hours soaking in mineral rich waters. The famous Gellet Spa was just across the bridge from our Airbnb. The labyrinth of elaborately tiled hallways led from one pool to another. Each one offered dips in a range of temperatures, the hottest ones followed by nearby cold showers and then a stint in  the steam room. Once inside, I couldn't see Michael across the room - but something about this heavy, hot fog saps you of the energy you might spend thinking about much of anything other than the relief that toxins are pouring out of your body like rats leaving the ship.

One of the few times it is okay to be in hot water!
The outdoor pool was a great escape from a hot afternoon.
On our last Sunday, we attended service at a Calvinist church that was hosting a 160 member choir from Holland called “Holland Zings”. It was one of those great Senior Nomad moments that come from living like locals. We saw the flyer posted on the door of the church during a walk, and the experience was a five star experience. The service was in Dutch as well as Hungarian - a priest from each country presided. The average age of the group looked to be fifty plus. The group loves to travel together and perform abroad once a year.

Inspiring choral singing in a simple setting made for a perfect Sunday morning.
The soloist was a talented younger woman with a soaring voice that suited the acoustics of this simple, elegant setting in a 150 year old church. Most of the songs performed were in Dutch, but a few were in Hungarian, Latin and English. As a finale the choir sang both the Dutch and Hungarian national anthems. It was very moving.

Farewell from the land of goulash and paprika. Lots of paprika!
Our next journey takes us to Belgrade in Serbia. We're looking forward to learning more about about that much-maligned country first-hand. 

Thanks for following along!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Prague? Czech.

A great shot for the Czech Lonely Planet Guide blog taken by our new friend Bara.
We left Austria in the rain and arrived in the Czech Republic in the rain. The downpour seemed more ominous there - maybe because our destination of Brno (pronounced Bruno) is a gritty city with a dark history. Why, you ask, would the Nomads visit a city with a name that sounds like the moniker of a pit bull? It has to do with the Lord. Our quest to meet the organizers of The Late Night of Churches throughout Europe resulted in this short side trip on our way to Prague. The event, held in 1,500 churches all across the Czech republic is organized from here. If you read the blog I wrote from  Salzburg last week you'll know more about this event. That meeting is the only reason, and will remain the only reason for this stop. However, as consolation, we were able catch the Eurovision 2015 Finals on TV live from Austria (but that's it's own story).

A damaged photo mural in Brno summarizes the state of the city.
This country has a history of conflict that goes back hundreds of years, including the last century where the Balkan wars, a Nazi occupation and 45 years under Soviet rule brought them to ground zero. Many Czech cities other than Prague, with it's tourist draw and subsequent income are still dealing with outdated infrastructure, dilapidated buildings and a struggling economy. Brno is no exception. When we emerged from the dark underbelly of the train station we met our host Daniel who drove us to his apartment. The drive took us much further from from the center than we expected and ended in a neighborhood crammed with bleak concrete housing blocks. Welcome home! Here's the link: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1712691

Brno is a "a study in gray." This was taken next to our front door.
The view from our apartment looking towards abandoned buildings
As it turned out, we weren't that far from the center if you don't mind a 20 minute walk through blighted neighborhoods. Once we reached the main square things looked up a bit. We scoured the tourist office for things to do during our four days here and found a concert by The Ranger's - a popular Czech folk rock group from the 60's! It turned out to be a fun evening and even though we didn't know the words, it was still "groovy". And we got to go "back stage".

We spent a fun evening with these old Rockers.
The information at the Museum of Roma Culture was eye-opening
 Around the corner from our Airbnb we found the Museum of Roma Culture. Not something we would normally sought out, but our afternoon there was moving and very insightful. We had a private tour with a very knowledgeable young man who walked us through the history and current plight of the Roma people. Throughout Europe Roma (or Gypsies) are blamed for most anything crime related, especially pick-pocketing. You find them begging on the streets usually holding babies, and small children dart everywhere trying to sell packs of tissues - and of course they do commit petty crime. It breaks your heart and makes you angry at the same time that these people have been reduced to such a sad state. Unfortunately, they been persecuted for hundreds of years and have lost hope. Efforts to assimilate them seemed half-hearted, and it doesn't look like the children will be all cleaned up and sent to school any time soon. Our takeaway from the guide at the museum was these people have a rich culture and heritage, that they are no longer connected to and have been relegated to the margins of all the European cities where they live. There are organizations that are trying to help but progress is slow.

In most every major city we've visited there have been Roma on the streets.
Our meeting with the Late Night of Churches organizers was the other highlight. We must have spent two hours in the offices of the Catholic Diocese near the imposing Cathedral discussing the event, the state of the Catholic church and life in the Czech Republic. Afterwards we had lunch with our hosts in a convent where the food is prepared and served by a rotating coterie of nuns from around the world. They arrive with their recipes and blend them into the menu as part of their mission to nurture the community through food.

A meeting of the minds between Michael and Zlata at the offices of the Brno Dioceses.
A large and stunning painting of the Good Samaritan at the convent.
We were ready to leave Brno behind and looked forward to a week in Prague. The last time we were there was in 1990. The Berlin wall fell in 1989, but Czechoslovakia had already had a peek from behind the Iron Curtain and had seen the bright lights of freedom. I remember the young tour guide that walked us around the city - he was still twitchy about openly sharing information. Fast forward to last week when we took a kitchy walking tour full of outlandish stories that could have gotten our lively guide arrested and tortured just 25 short years ago!

Amusing baby Alfred while waiting for dinner.
Our Prague Airbnb adventure was one for the record books. In a good way. Our hosts Hana and Lukas own this apartment and live there with their two small children, Lola 4 and baby Alfred, 9 months. They were heading to Grandma's house in the country while we took over their home, but they were intrigued by our story so they invited us to join them for dinner before they left. That's a first! Hana made a delicious goulash. Here's the link: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/5718458

Goodbye Host family! See you in a week.
We enjoyed a good visit and played with the kids while she cooked. As the evening progressed it got a bit chaotic, as it does with small children nearing their bedtime, and while it was odd to shoo residents out their own front door with a promise to do the dishes! We were happy to finally collapse after a long travel day. The apartment was great, and once again the Nomads scored a great location:  https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/5718458.

A happy group setting up for some rousing folk dancing under rainy skies.
A less than subtle call for tips on the world famous Charles Bridge.
It was a quick 10 minute bus ride from our front door to old town and the center of Prague. From there, we enjoyed large market squares where you could down a fat sausage and a frosty beer, jostle your way across the Charles Bridge, watch the amazing astronomical clock do it's hourly thing, and breath in the pungent aroma of horse droppings from hundreds of carriages.

Our best day out took in a free three hour walking tour with our most exuberant guide yet - Sarah, a fiery red head from the states. Prague is a city with a complex history, a lot of it brutal, and Sarah used some mean kick-boxing moves to illustrate some of the many battle scenes that took place here. Somehow the city has come through intact, and there is a sense of pride that you can feel in its citizens.

Sara and her puppet. She was an excellent tour guide.
The New York Times article about our travels has peaked the interest of our potential hosts as we inquire about renting their homes (we now include the link on our profile) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/26/garden/retirement-plan-an-airbnb-travel-adventure.html When we book a property, we often hear back from hosts we sadly declined hoping they can still meet us for coffee to hear about our adventures. This interaction has opened new opportunities to meet people living in the cities we visit and we love it!

Bara and her mother and sister. We had a great time together.
In Prague we met with Bara, a host who couldn't take our booking but wanted to interview us for a blog she writes for the Czech language Lonely Planet blog. It also turned out she and her mother and sister would be exploring the Late Night of Churches so we met them for a drink and then enjoyed a wonderful evening wandering the city together and got to witness the event through their eyes. The perfect end to our stay. Here's a link to the story she wrote: We haven't translated it yet, but if you speak Czech let us know if she got the facts straight! http://www.lonelyplanet.cz/prispevky/kocovnici-s-check-in-zavazadlem

Could this be Mona Lisa II? Portraiture on the Charles Bridge.
Our next adventures takes us to Budapest! See you there.

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads