ULCINJ, Montenegro -- When we last spoke, I was about to explore the famous ruins of Greece. I offer one word: stunning.
That's my simple take on the Acropolis, the Parthenon and the Temple of Poseidon. If seeing those sites in person doesn't inspire me to read more about ancient Greece, nothing ever will. Consider this: Do you think the skyscrapers, stadiums, landmarks and modern homes of today will survive thousands of years? Yeah, me neither.
While I found the ancient structures fascinating, modern Athens, a city of nearly four million population, could use an upgrade. Many buildings were either dirty, empty or poorly maintained. Public transportation is vibrant and easily available. I saw a few street people sleeping overnight on the sidewalks, but no more than I often see in major cities in the U.S.
On Monday, I took the sleek subway from the center of Athens to the airport, a 45-minute ride for the bargain price of 10 Euros. I flew to Dubrovnik, my next destination for a two-day stay. The crown jewel of Dubrovnik is the huge and imposing old fortress of Old Town. It was packed tight with tourists, restaurants, shops and breathtaking views atop the fortress walls.
One of the smartest things I've done so far is to rely on recommendations from friends and contacts who are avid travelers and are happy to share their tips on making the most of my visit. I've been posting brief, daily updates on Facebook and it was there I received a great tip from former Seattle Times newsman Jim Simon. In 1996, he wrote about the lone synagogue in Dubrovnik and urged me to see it if time allowed. I was sitting in an Old Town restaurant when I asked the server to look at my Google Maps image of the synagogue's location. Turn left, just ahead, and it will be five doors down on the right, he said. I was stunned and delighted. I had walked right past it not 15 minutes earlier.
I quickly finished lunch and made my way to the synagogue, which is the second oldest in Europe. It was built in the 16th century and has survived the ravages of time and history's conflicts. The roof was shelled, damaged and later repaired after the Bosnia-Croatia war ended. Simon had written about a dispute over the synagogue's treasures, which include ancient Torahs. The treasures ended up in New York, but a state court ruling in 1998 sent them back to Dubrovnik and I saw many of them on display in the synagogue's adjacent museum. I'm not Jewish, but I've been reading quite a bit about the history of Jews in Europe lately, so I felt extremely fortunate to walk the quiet wooden floor of the synagogue. I sat on one of the black wooden benches for a few moments of silence for a loved one I lost decades ago. It felt right.
Earlier Tuesday, I toured a powerful exhibit of war photography housed in the War Photo Limited, an exhibition center of war and conflict photojournalism located in Old Town. The permanent exhibit is called The End of Yugoslavia and covers the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The images captured by renowned war photographers ran the gamut of destruction, death and searing agony.
On Wednesday, it was time to make the 95-mile drive south from Dubrovnik to Ulcinj, a coastal city in Montenegro. The drive took close to six hours, thanks to such things as an hour-long delay at a border checkpoint leaving Croatia, a winding two-lane highway and lots of slow trucks. Ulcinj is in southern Montenegro on the Adriatic coast, home to about 10,000 people, the majority being Albanians. Ulcinj's Old City is not near as grand as that of Dubrovnik, but l still managed to spend a couple lovely hours just exploring the nooks and alleys of a centuries-old fortress. I'm discovering that I much prefer the history and haunts of fortresses instead of castles.
My BnB accommodations are easily the best of my trip so far. One of the hosts Is amused by my inability to open the door to the laundry machine or to turn on the shower head. Whatever.
I learned this evening that I am required to formally register as a tourist in the morning, a Big Brother move that offends me. I wrote my son Chris to let him know I may cause an international incident over this. His tongue-in-cheek reply? "I'm not flying over there to bail you out." Guess I won't remind him Sunday is Father's Day.
I will depart Saturday for Split, Croatia, assuming no one in Ulcinj takes my threat seriously.