Tuesday, September 27, 2011

More Cow Bell

After hours of breath-taking beauty and stomach-clenching drives, sometimes you find yourself in the middle of the Swiss Alps with the windows down and the sun roof open, enjoying the cool summer breezes and the endless sound of bells - cow bells.

One wrong turn off Unterdorf will land you on a 15-mile mountain passage way into the heart of the Swiss Alps. We were on our way from Liechtenstein to Interlaken, Switzerland to meet friends for a canyoning adventure. What should have been a two-hour drive from the fourth smallest European country took more than four and, at times, as much courage as I had inside me.

The Klausenstrasse (Klausen Pass) is mostly known only to Swiss locals and participants of the Klausen Run - a grueling race that takes place every four to five years. In 2006, it was labeled the craziest mountain motor race in Europe.

The strasse connects cantons Uri and Glarus at an altitude of 1,948 m (6,391 ft). With more than 136 bends, swift sweeping turns, quick switchbacks and miles of dark and narrow tunnels it's not surprising tourists typically steer clear of this alternate route. As you creep up and around turns, rickety road blocks are the only real barrier between the uneven roads and sheer drop offs. Traffic lights are set it place to determine the direction of cars on particularly narrow sections and within underpasses.

Handfuls of motorcyclists and bicyclists whizzed by as we inched up the mountain. Proving they weren't amateurs to the course, they faced this gorgeous, beauty-driven adrenaline rush fast. Scott and I made our way slow, taking in as much as we could.

By the time we reached the top, we were surrounded by some of the most remarkable sky-scrapping peaks I've ever seen. Dozens of waterfalls trickled from the snow covered caps onto the valleys and towns below. Farmers tended to their land. Smoke escaped from the chimney's of wood-framed homes.

We grabbed quick bowl of goulash at Hotel Klausen-Passhöhe before making our way back down the Klausen Pass. The largest collection of free-range cows I've come across yet were in the valley waiting to greet us. Some stood in the middle of the road, while most just grazed mountainside. All swung their bells with pride.

(Google Maps)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tunnel of Life

I started writing about Bosnia in the car before we left the country. My emotions were so high, I had to talk about it.. well... I had to type it silently into my iphone. We were three days into a four day, 1,200 mile road trip. We started in northern Italy traveling down the Croatian coast to Split, then into Mostar and onto Sarajevo, and back into Croatia for a night in Zagreb.

I haven't read the post since I wrote it almost a month ago. A part of me was afraid writing about that day in Sarajevo would taint how incredible it was. I realized that nothing could, so here we go...

I'm talking about our search for the city's wartime tunnel.

We spent over an hour driving around the Sarajevo suburb of Butmir circling the airport for any sign of a museum. Halfway between the old town and the airport the signs seemed to just disappear. It started to feel like Groundhog's Day driving down the same bumpy roads and through bullet-scarred neighborhoods determined to see the lifeline that kept the people of Sarajevo alive during the three-and-a-half-year-long siege by Bosnian Serb forces.

We were about to give up when we passed a sign that read, "Tunnel Space" (Tunnel of life). It pointed to a house behind a short metal fence. The abandoned building next door was smothered in bullet holes, and we had a very uneasy feeling as we pulled into the deserted dirt lot. Music was playing in the garage, but no one was listening. A minute later, an Italian couple arrived in search of the same spot. They looked as confused as we were. As we exchanged stories about our search hoping to find clues to the museum's whereabouts, a Bosnian man and his son pulled up. The four of us began to scurry, trying to leave this man's property as quickly as possible. A city sign directed us here, but we felt like trespassers in very unfamiliar territory. To my surprise, he stopped us. Pointing to the bullet-filled building next door, he quietly told us that we made it. We found the tunnel.

"5 euro," he said."

Its hard to express the sense of apprehension we all had. A stranger living off a rather quiet street next to the Sarajevo airport offered to show us the tunnel's access point. There was no museum entrance. No one greeting us at the door. There was only a destroyed building that was clearly once someone's home, and this man had a key. I'm still not sure if this was once his house or how he obtained access. We all exchanged nervous looks that said, "Well... Here we go," and quickly followed him next door. The front room was cluttered, and lined with war photos and army uniforms. In the next room, a concrete stairwell led into the ground. About eight steps down, the entrance was blocked off with cement blocks and debris. He spoke little English, but told us how valuable this entrance was.

The Italians couple walked out. "This is the wrong one," she says.

We weren't so sure of that. Dug in 1993, the tunnel was the only safe land route in and out of the city. It was built in people's homes to protect those traveling through it. This had to be it. After all, it was marked with a city sign. The Bosnian man was not scamming us. This was just the other end of the tunnel - the entrance left out of the guide books.

The gentleman offered to show us the way to the other end; to the museum. He must have heard her calling his bluff. It was just a five minute drive. Down windy neighborhood roads - a couple of rights, a left, across a small bridge and around the corner - every other house was bombed out and full of holes. We would have NEVER found it ourselves. The Bosnian man pulled into a small dirt patch and pointed to the badly destroyed home to the left. Without saying a word, he waved goodbye and was on his way.

A sign on the door read, "Ring bell and wait one minute."

The claustrophobic tunnel entrance was not blocked off like the other.

Using only picks and shovels, Bosnian troops worked day and night for four months to build the 875 yards long, 3.3 feet wide and 5 feet tall tunnel under the Sarajevo airport runway. It was used as a communication channel, allowing the maneuvering of troops and supplies for the Bosnian army. A telephone line used to communicate between Sarajevo and the free territories was installed. An electricity cable and a pipeline for oil ran also through the tunnel. A wheelchair was built to transport the sick and disabled.

Everything came through the tunnel, including 4,000 people a day carrying more than 100 lbs of food, medicine and military material on their backs. Filled with courage and a hope for survival, these people ignored flooding caused by underground water and the constant shelling of Serbian snipers. Each journey through was a necessary gamble.

While we were concerned with toys and getting the perfect bike for christmas, brave Bosnian children were risking their lives to stay alive.

The tunnel museum contains 66 feet of preserved unground space, which we walked through hunched over and in shock. Also on display is a wheelchair used to transport those too weak to walk, wartime uniforms, weapons, aid packages, and a memorial list of those who lost their lives during the tunnel's operations.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Are We Where Yet?

Today is a special day for us Going Giglers. We have a guest post from one of my favorite people, and travel buddy, Scott. For the last three years, he's lived and worked in Northern Italy; a convenient gateway to hundreds of unfamiliar places and peoples. He took full advantage. A search for the end of the earth was underway. It's not often people need to add pages to their passport, but border patrol officers grow concerned when you ask them not to stamp it. In three years, he's flown, driven and rode the rails to 31 countries (most of which more than a handful of times), and this summer he spent his time showing me some of this favorite places. This particular adventure was different. It was new for both of us.

Country Confusion

It’s easy in a place like this, to get confused; the former country consisted of six republics, five peoples, four languages, three religions, and two alphabets. The borders drawn by cartographers have since been redrawn by several militaries. We stopped for lunch in south eastern Croatia, halfway between Split and Dubrovnik, far enough to forget where we were. Understandable, in the past this town may have been on the other side of the border. It felt like Bosnia, at the roadside café that served us cevapcici, while young men smoked cigarettes and bleakly played video slots, though I’ve never had this uneasy feeling in Bosnia. Head on a swivel as we ate, I wrote it off as standard third world no-man’s land jitters. We were the only ones here who knew where we were going.

If you’re not nervous at border crossings, you haven’t crossed enough and I don’t trust you. Hundreds of crossings have taught me this is not the time to sleep. I try to bilingually negotiate my way out of the instant 20 Euro extortion taking place but lose. My car insurance is NOT expired and I do NOT need to buy temporary insurance. Usually acting confused and speaking Italian from my Italian-plated vehicle is enough to get an eye roll and a wave on. Confusion, the second most common Italian expression, after passion, is something I feign well after three years in country. No dice, guido.

Google maps refuses to accept BiH as having roads, and GPS units are near useless so we’re hitting the bombed out roads with our map, compass and best Cyrillic reading skills. Fortunately coming in the Herzegovinian side we deal with less Cyrillic than expected…it’s another story coming from Belgrade through the Republika Srpska. The uneasiness is still there, and I can’t help but channel Abbottabad through the shab prefab houses along our way. These are friendly people, why suburban Pakistan is on my mind is a question without an answer, but I swear I’m looking at the architectural fraternal twin of the Bin Laden compound. The Passat’s busted turbo hisses us through the religious freak-show that is Medjugorje and on to Mostar just before sunset.

Coasting my injured vehicle into the Neretva river valley that cradles downtown, it was eerily calm meeting the gutted, hollow, bullet-riddled buildings for the first time. Eighteen years ago this town was under siege for eighteen months. Some of these void structures stand aside beautiful houses, schools, churches, mosques. Some of these vacant structures were beautiful houses, schools, churches and mosques. Constructed to nurture, they aren’t wholly unrequited, though where people and children should have grown, only plants rise up between the walls. Eighteen years ago there were kids here my age, eighteen years ago, and for eighteen months, they didn’t care what they got on their birthday.

Istanbul serves as the theoretical capital of East meets West. Straddling two continents and bridging culture, trade, empires and the fall thereof, that’s fair. Seeing both sides reveals Istanbul is the capital of a forgotten thoroughfare that spans past the Turkish borders. If it was the imaginary capital, then what of the imaginary country, smeared between two worlds? In 2011 trade unquestionably happens in IST Kemal Ataturk Intl Airport, Haydarpaşa port, but before the Orient Express, in all its forms, it spilled through the Balkans, as it must’ve to the East as well.

Spiraling gently above squat café tables, nargile waft bends with the scent of Bosanska kavha into a pleasantly acrid haze; immediately firing the synapses of Anatolian connection. Tipping the hand further, the glossy, spherical cobblestones in the souk, the undeniable water stink, copper tooling, beaded lanterns and prized rugs for sale have me mentally rooted 500 miles south east. Eating my feelings, I found similar favorites –meat in a leaf! – on the menu. Slaked like sultans, we downed some local firewater, rakija, and crossed the Stari Most to call it a night.

Fittingly enough, the city which was a major connection and trade route, takes its name from its bridge and her keepers, Mostari. What better way to destroy the psyche and livelihood of a city reliant on its bridge than to take it out? During the war this was quick to go, and only recently resurrected to its original state, a mastery of engineering, well before its time. Proud as we are of ourselves today, this bridge and her ancestry were sheer technological marvels, eighteen years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

The iconic, hand-drawn sign near the bridge tells us: “Don’t Forget.” Collectively we have answered the bridge: it’s impossible to forget what we never remembered, and now, as it was then; it’s altogether easier to ignore 63 international war criminals, 100,000 dead and 2,000,000 people displaced, than to remember eighteen years ago a bridge that had stood for 427 years was dropped into the river by tank fire.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Blue Grotto

After making sandals with Antonio and picking out the best pair of brightly-colored moccasins, we went in search of the Blue Grotto. But first: a pit stop for beer and a lasagna panino. That's right, a heaping slice of lasagna stuffed inside bread and warmed to perfection.

It only took a few minutes for the infamous orange Capri bus to scoop us up. Luckily this one wasn't as crowded as those picking up at the port. We hopped on to find two Americans we met at Antonio's shop. They smiled and held up their shoe bags, showing that we now had more than one common bond between us. They, too, were heading to the grotto.

Hold on tight. It's going to be a rocky ride. Like a roller coaster, the bus slid around the mountainous bends throwing passengers about inside. Falling back and forth from one side to the next, holding on was imperative even for those seated. It was hard not to laugh, and even harder to keep your balance. I have to remind myself - we paid for this. Lucky for us, this ride was cheaper and much more fun than the cab alternative.

We arrived to an empty cliff overlooking the ocean and a sign that read "Grotta Azzurra." It pointed to a very steep stairwell. Down more than 50 steps sat a green dock about 36 sq. ft in size. It held four, maybe five people at a time and swayed in the sea breeze. It's a good thing we had our swim suits on. A handful of row boats sat in the water outside the cave and one drifted to the dock just as we arrived. The rower helped us on, first myself, then Scott, placing us both in one corner. I was big spoon. Our shoe shopping buddies climbed in on the other side.

Our rower circled the entrance for a few minutes then slowly led us inside. The cave entrance was so small, only one boat could enter at at time, and only if all riders were lying down. There were three other boats in the grotto and people swimming in the middle. It was August and nearly 100 degrees outside. Why didn't we think of that?

The water was glowing like a shiny new sapphire. The refraction of sunlight on the cave causes the water to turn iridescent blue. I drug my hand through the water hoping my hand would glow blue, but sadly, it didn't. We circled the grotto while the four rowers sang, and we left, ducked down just as we arrived.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Making Sandals with Antonio

Capri is breathtakingly beautiful. A hydrofoil picked us up from the port of Napoli. We packed inside with hundreds of other tourists for a 45-minute journey to the island. The boat docked in the heart of the day, and we were greeted with steaming Mediterranean sea breezes and cloud-scraping cliffs overlooking the town below.

Scott and I attempted to take a bus to the top of the cliff to shop in Anacapri. We waited and waited, and watched as the first one to arrive immediately filled to capacity. The next bus wasn't scheduled for another hour and waiting in 95˚ heat wasn't an option. We shared a cab with an Italian couple to the center of town.

The four of us piled into a car, whose roof was merely a thin Bimini boat top installed for shade. Our driver cranked up the radio and sang along, while zipping around bends and racing up the hill. To say the winding streets were narrow is an understatement. They were often too thin for two buses to pass (and our cab too). We hugged the cliffside with an uncomfortably steep drop below. The cab screeched to a halt a few times as a bus backed up to let us pass. Wide-eyed passengers got each other's attention and watched carefully as our cab inched by.

Ten minutes later, we were in Anacapri surrounded by tourist shops and stores selling handmade sandals.

Did someone say sandals? They're a speciality of the island.

We were both overwhelmed when we saw Antonio's crowded store. Sandals and moccasins of all colors and styles lined racks and hung on the walls. Antonio, with his bushy, white mustache and pink and blue stripped polo was sitting comfortable making a pair. The inside of the store was filled with shoes and straps in every color you can dream of.

"My store is like Bagdad," he told us. "They keep bombing me. It's quiet now, but they will start again in just a few minutes."

Like a needle in a haystack, I found a teal pair with braided straps. They were calling to me. As I admired them, a gentleman brought me different shoes.

"Try these on for size. We will make those for you. Twenty minutes."

Antonio put down the pair he was making and began my shoes. He started by braiding two teal straps together as a co-worker held one end tight. He used tiny nails to attach the straps to the sole. He finished one and let me try it on. Two single straps crisscrossing over my big toe and reaching back towards my ankle, and a braided strap over the arch of my foot. Perfect.

"May I take a picture?" I asked as he worked.

"Yes, of course, but then you take one with me."

Antonio has been making sandals in this very shop since 1958. His son makes the moccasins.