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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Stara Maslina - A 2000 Year Old Living Relic

Not far from the city of Bar, Montenegro, stands an olive grove that defies time.  The star attraction is Stara Maslina, perhaps the oldest olive tree in Europe. 

Why do I equivocate and say ‘perhaps’ the oldest?  In the Med region of Europe, olive trees are very close to being sacred.  When it comes to being sacred, old is good, oldest is best.  Towns all around Italy and Greece stake a claim.  In the great scheme of things, frankly my dear…etc.  Hey, Stara Maslina has over 2000 years of longevity; meaning people were pressing olives from this tree since before the time of Christ.

If this tree was useful that long ago, we can only imagine how old the old section of the city of Bar is.  Rocky walled and beautiful in its own craggy way, it straddles a hillside, overlooking the fertile land that stretches a mile or two to the sea.  Seems almost neglected.  The modern city slides more toward the shoreline, while the old town crumbles on.  Can you imagine such an old village in a more modern and affluent section of Europe.  Every wall would have been rebuilt.  Trendy restaurants would fill the stone buildings, and tourists would be snapping photos, treading the narrow, cobbled streets.  But, Montenegro still lingers in the misty past.  Perhaps that’s why it takes a local to find the Stara Maslina.  The grove is simple and small as olive groves go.  It’s estimated (by whom I have no freaking idea) that there are over 150,000 olive trees in southern Montenegro alone.

A stone sign marks the entrance and a circle of simple rocks surrounds the star of the show.  Want to buy some olive oil?  5 Euros for a small bottle of ancient history, sold out of a concession stand no bigger than a phone booth.  Phone Booth.  You remember what those look like, right boys and girls?

For most southern European countries, olive groves and the oil they produce are big business.  Spain claims over 56% of the world’s production.  Italy and Greece are the other olive heavyweights.  Montenegro claims only a razor-thin slice of the olive oil pie, .02%.

But back to the ‘perhaps oldest olive tree.’  Local legends abound.  Have you heard why one side of the tree is burned?  Men playing cards got drunk and careless.  Hard to believe men were drunk and careless.  Stretches the imagination.

Then there’s the one about how people used to meet here to resolve disputes.  The actual name of the closest village to the tree is Mirovica and since the root of the village’s name (mir) means peace, it’s thought, by those who are not drunk and careless, that the name comes from the peaceful settlements made under this tree.

When you stand near the tree, feeling the cool shade fall across your shoulders, whether you believe the legends, or the religion, it does feel like a special, sacred place that warps the continuum and makes you feel tiny, a speck of dust on the sands of time.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Here Comes Spring

Our unknown tree

The trees flowers are luscious folds of pink and white

Lacy green appearing...

Cherry blossoms

How do we know when spring finally bursts through the eternal winter?  Vernal Equinox? When the center of the sun is aligned directly with the equator?  The guy who tells you that is the same one who claims happiness is the absence of severe abdominal pain.

Technically.  Don’t you hate that word?  On 20 March it is ‘technically Spring.’  Yeah, and technically this year I was up to my technicals in snow. Snow ain’t Spring on my calendar.  Ya gotta have showers and flowers and sunshine and be able to sit outside with your shirt off, and it shouldn't be a frozen nipple experience.

We’re racing toward the end of April here in the heart of Global-Warming-Europe.  Therefore, we’ve technically been in Spring for over a month.  Yeah and technically your granny is a virgin, since the limit on prosecution for unlawful intercourse is 20 years.  Don’t quote me on that, especially to your granny.

But, solar assistance has finally arrived.  It is about 60ºF/15ºC.  Leaves appear as green and delicate as gauze, fluttering with the gentle breeze through the forest.  Cherry trees are showers of white. Butter colored daffodils bob their little heads in surprising places.  Time to collect those dandelion greens for salad.  Tulips popped through the earth and are racing for the sun.

In my backyard’s wild garden, an unnamed tree  (any help would be greatly appreciated) has burst open its huge white, pink tinged flowers.  Birds and bees float by in abundance.  For every flower it seems there are three overachieving bees.

Have you ever wondered about that expression, usually followed by a sly wink?  The birds and the bees.  Birds I can understand.  They sing, warble, call to any sweet someone in earshot.  They build nests together.  Figure out what goes where and keep the world supplied with baby birds.

But bees?  First off, the ones we see are normally females.  Secondly, they work their little bee-hinds off until they buzz their last and float away to that big hive in the honey colored sky.

I guess that’s what the expression means:  Take time to procreate, but otherwise continue to work your ass off.  To me that’s not springtime either.  Springtime is the time to lighten up.  Have another beer with the guys.  Lie about your misspent youth.  Ogle that vision of loveliness that just wiggled past.  Live a little.  What your wife doesn’t know won’t hurt you.

And above all, enjoy the sunshine and flowers.

Erica or heather

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Peek At Little Montenegro

Montenegro means Black Mountain and there are plenty of them!

A morning boat ride on a vast bay.

Note:  A word about the photos.  None have been ‘Photoshopped.’  All the colors are just as the camera recorded them.  The waters are the same blue, the mountains are as dark and rugged.  Words like majestic, interesting, and quaint do not do justice to Montenegro.

How to sum up Montenegro?  Snow-capped, looming mountains, folded across the landscape from the sea to the horizon.  Deep canyons, awash with rushing, aqua rivers.  Rugged, rocky coastline, punctuated with some 117 beaches.  Tiny, timeless villages, red roofed, nestled in the mountains. Friendly people.  An abundance of fish and good wine.

Montenego is perhaps the last of under-discovered Europe.  With good reason.  Inaccessibility of air travel.  Lack of easily accessible tourist destinations.  Second world atmosphere.

We flew from Munich to Dubrovnik via Lufthansa.  Then an almost four hour bus ride wound along the coast to the town of Bar.  Not much in Bar, but the Hotel Princess is a modern refuge.  Behind the hotel, a long, expansive promenade marks the seaside for evening strolls.  The locals flock in droves.  Baby carriages.  Lovers.  Sulky teenagers.  Rambunctious children.  Whole families.  Coffee stands, beer stands, open-air fish restaurants, braced by palm trees and soft streetlights.  It’s the place to be in the languid twilight.

Sun plays across the water near sunset.  Suck in a lungful of the cascading mountain air.  Smell the sea.  Enjoy the rapid change from bursting sun to dimming gold to creeping night.

Shopping is minimal.  Are you really a tourist who likes to get off the beaten track?  This is the place to find out.

Montenegro has suffered through wars a-plenty.  In the 1990s civil war saw the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Montenegro took the side of the Serbs.  There are still signs in Dubrovnik (Croatia) decrying the villainy of Serb and Montenegran troops.

Today, all that has passed, at least in Montenegro.  The Army has about 2000 troops. There is no Air Force.  Hulks of the former Yugoslavian Navy sit rusting in harbors.  Unmanned.  Forgotten.

Along the coast, the landscape is dotted with half-constructed homes and buildings.  A Chinese company was going to develop here, says our guide, but they pulled out.  An English consortium was going to build a hotel over there, he says, pointing a finger at what looks like a construction site untouched for years.

Ah, the former glories.  In the thirties, apparently the coast was ablaze with English, Italian, and German pleasure seekers.  Nightclubs.  Deluxe apartments.  Beaches teeming with the well-to-do.  Little evidence remains.

Montenegro is trying to join the European Union, hopefully by 2017 or so.  Croatia is about to join this summer.  For Montenegro, it’s an uphill climb and from my point of view, it would be like a poor section of Mexico becoming the fifty-first state.

Still, there is a lot to like in this far corner of Europe.  The landscape is spectacular.  I’ve seldom seen such majestic mountains, which rise to an average height of over 6000 feet and cover the vast majority of the land.

The Tara River Canyon is said to be the second deepest in the world, after the Grand Canyon.  Though the great crag, hundreds of feet below, a river of pure aqua-colored water flows in an endless rush.  Never seen water this color in the wild.  When we stop at a shallow bend for a closer look, I find it absolutely clear, with every bottom pebble distinct. 

Crossing the canyon at it’s deepest point is the Tara Bridge.  Built between 1937 and 1940, the area was occupied by Italian forces in 1942.  To halt the Italian advance, one of the bridge’s engineers, operating as a partisan, blew up the center span, only to be captured and executed.  The bridge was rebuilt in 1946 and has been featured in several films, including the British World War II epic, Force 10 From Navarone. 

With the imposing terrain, travel in Montenegro isn’t measured in kilometers, but in time.  For five days straight, we spent about six hours per day on the bus.

We bussed to Orthodox monasteries, found deep-water lakes in the snow-crusted mountains, ate the freshest of fish at seaside restaurants, drank delightful beer, wine, and brandy (from the monasteries), and enjoyed fresh cheese and smoked ham in the heart of the rural countryside.

Underdeveloped, yes.  Uninteresting, definitely not.  Although not for the faint of heart traveler, Montenegro offers sights, tastes, and adventures you won’t find anywhere else.

Fast Facts

Population:  650,000
Capital:  Podgorica; 152,000
Area:  3,812 square kilometers (5,333 square miles), about the size of Connecticut
Language:  Montenegrin, Serbian, Albanian
Religion:  Orthodox (65%), Muslim (19%), Roman Catholic (4%)
Currency:  Euro
Life Expectancy:  73
GDP per Capita:  U.S. $2,200
Literacy Percent:  97

A shallow portion of the Tara River Gorge

Tara River Gorge, almost as deep as the Grand Canyon

National Park, birch forest

Ostrag Monastery built into the rocks in 1665:  Serbian Orthodox

Friday, April 19, 2013

Let's Get Primitivo - With Wine That Is

Just a couple of a wide selection

Just discovered a new wine, quite by accident,  since I’m not especially partial to Italian swill.  Some may disagree and I say it’s because they’re simply disagreeable. 

Nevertheless, there I was at a tiny table, outside a wine bistro, basking in sunshine and conversation.  For no particular reason, other than the inside was stacked to the ceiling with vintages and the barmaid was young and frisky….ok, scratch the part about the wine to the ceiling, although it was there, honest.  Anyway, although she was just the other side of twenty, I asked her voluptuous opinion on which nectar of the gods should wet my lips.  Instead, she suggested Primitivo.  Never let it be said I let age interfere with finding a new wine, etc.  And when it comes to wine, just remember the old adage, “The size of the grape doesn’t matter.  Only plump and luscious count.”

Now, where were we?  Wine.  New discovery.

Every heard of Primitivo? 

I pictured a small Italian village, women herding goats, men wearing soiled socks when they stomp the grapes.

“Don Carisno, you want that I should persuade da grapes to give up some juice?”

“Make it look like an accident.  Wear dusty socks.”

Turns out, Primitivo is the Italian word for early-one and refers to the grape variety we in the U.S. of A call Zinfandel.  Wine experts (some even older than 20) have traced our Zinfandel’s roots back to Puglia, a region in Italy’s deep south, and from there back to Croatia. Oh, what a tangled cultural web we Americans have woven.

Primitivo is a deep purple grape, high in tannins and in Puglia, the wine is sometimes referred to as Mirr Test, or hard wine.  Primitivo may refer to the grape’s early ripening, or to the somewhat unusual occurrence with this type of grape to find ripe berries along side green ‘grape-shot.’

In any case, the Primitivos I’ve tasted….now that I'm on a quest…are dark and deeply colored and the taste is delightfully light and rounded.  When I say ‘light’ I don’t mean the wine is watery.  As a matter of fact, the taste is intensive, but there’s no tongue-twisting tannic jerk at the end.  Smooth.  Flavorful.  Soulful.  Devout.

Another thing you’ll appreciate is the mild price.  Over here in Europe, you’ll pay the equivalent of five to twelve bucks a bottle.  So far that hasn’t included a drinking companion, but I’m ever hopeful.