Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Day 94 Starry Poots

Computers are not so easy to come by on this pilgrim trail, and a goodly distanced has been walked since my last update.  The long and the short of it... I've reached the Mediterranean; I'm in Dubrovnik, Croatia; I've got a long way to go and the clock is ticking...

I'll relate an abridged version of a rather dramatic escapade trying to cross some mountains in Montenegro - a country obviously misnamed - I'd have called it Monteblanco for all the snow.  It's beautiful, really, in a rugged sense, and surprisingly underpopulated for all the land area.

I entered Montenegro from Tutin, Serbia after having visited many Orthodox monasteries.  I hoped to touch a toe into Montenegro only to access a road with a high pass into Kosovo to visit two of the most famous monasteries there.  For the first time on the long pilgrimage, I accepted a ride in a car to the border crossing, because of the narrow, winding road with countless unlit tunnels.  In the Montenegrin town of Rozaje, I was advised both by the wife of the parish priest there and by the local authorities, that the days I wanted to travel into Kosovo wouldn't work - an anniversary of some strife, a minor religious holiday for the Christians, and, the advise resounded, I wouldn't be permitted to pass through the border on foot, nor to travel freely to the monasteries, and would need an escort, whom I'd have to pay.  Too much effort, and I opted not to wait around for two more days when the calm would return.

I walked down through a great deal of snow, past a ski resort enjoying a wonderful season, and arrived just below the snowline at yet another monastery.  From there, the adventure began.  Instead of walking along the main road - from what I could tell, the only one plowed regularly - I noted a secondary road on a map I got from a border police officer.  No one could tell me if it was plowed or not, since everyone stays on the main road.  I ventured onward and upward, toward a pass with an elevation of 1,770 meters/6,000 feet.  There were a few villages leading up to the pass and a ski resort on the other side, I estimated a distance of 40 kilometers - one long day for me.

On the upside, I passed the first village on a snowpacked road - plenty of cars had passed.  At the second village, few cars had come or gone, and very few left tracks in the snow beyond the village.  I ventured onward and upward.  The road had been plowed a few snowstorms before, but not recently and the snow was well above my boot-tops.  I kept going - it was a nice day, sunny, no sign of snow in the air.  Some many kilometers further, the plowed section ended, and I crunched through deeper snow - well above my knees - but a snowmobile had passed, perhaps earlier that day or the day before, and I could walk in its path, with some effort.  I came to the last village marked on the map.  It was completely deserted - summer home, chalets, cabins, and two large hotels - all abandoned for the season.  I kept on the snowmobile tracks upward.  I estimated only about seven more kilometers to the pass.

At the last cluster of summer houses, the snowmobile had left tracks of loop-dee-loops and were gone - returned on the same tracks.  Now there was just fluffy snow, sometimes a little icy on top and could support my weight, most times I just fell through to my waist.  I was close - now less than 4 kilometers, I estimated, and the pass would lead to the sunnier, more populated western slope... it should be easier...I hoped.  I found it better to 'swim' through the snow - distributing my weight across the slight icy crust kept me from falling through so much - lying face down and gripping my hiking poles just above the snowbaskets, I could stab the snow and pull myself up the steep slope, using my toes to sort of climb and propel myself forward.  I was close to the pass, I was sure, though I could hear nothing to indicate it, and there were no other landmarks.  The sun was sinking fast into clouds forming in the west.  I could see beneath the fir and spruce trees that the snow was about as deep as a single story house.  It took an hour to go another kilometer or so.  I saw only snow and trees; I heard only wet snow plopping off the tree branches into the snow below.  Try as I could, I couldn't even see the trace of the road.

I paused for an assessment.  On my last adventure in the snow, angels led me to a lovely cozy tavern... there was no cozy tavern on this adventure.  Doh! did my angels fear to tread (again) where I seemed to have rushed in??  That's no good.  I reached under and unsnapped the buckles of my pack, flipped myself over with my pack now on my front, and slid back down the mountain like a double luge team without the sled.  Back to the last abandoned houses, back to the snowmobile tracks.  It was 3:30, the sun was about to drop behind the mountains.  It was well below freezing.  I had thoughts of being a pampered pilgrim.  There was only silence.

Options analysis: find someone in the abandoned village and spend the night as an unexpected guest; find a suitable abandoned house and break in to spend the night (leaving a note, of course); return to the lower village at least an hour and a half away down icy snowpack.  No option seemed attractive.  I scanned the valley - no smoke coming from chimneys - few chimneys, in fact; no lights on; no snowmobiles or tracks; no noise at all.  I picked up the pace, heading for the lower village, accepting the fact that I'd arrive after dark, but hoping for another solution.  I do so hate the idea of breaking and entering, even in such circumstances.  Angels?? Where did you go??  Come back.  Please.

A great bellow filled the valley - Halloooooo - I whipped around.  Where did it come from?  Scanning... one side of the valley, the other... maybe 50 houses in all.  Another tremendous bellow - Halloooooo.  'Where are you?' I shouted in German - so little English have I had the opportunity to speak - my heartiest full voice pathetically unable to fill the valley like the bellower.  I asked again, but this time in Russian - this Serbian/Montenegrin/general Slavic has not been easy for me to pick up.  There - across the valley, deeply incised by a small rushing river - a portly man waving a red towel out of an open window.  I could see the light from inside the cabin.  I rushed back, found some footsteps in the snow just at the edge of the ravine.  Forget it - I skootched up my skirt and held up my pack with my elbows, and slide down the long snowy slope.  I found a snow-covered plank across the raging river, which at another time might have seemed too dangerous to cross, but now seemed like a minor inconvenience.  With a burst of residual energy, I climbed up the opposite slope and across a great field just as snow began to fall, the tops of fence just sticking out of the snow.  I could see the cabin again - the bellower's smiling and surprised face in the open window.  'Moshna chai?' he asked cheerfully.  'Da moshna'.  Some minutes more and I was in the cabin of two fellows who were having a guys weekend away from their families, playing cards and drinking beer in the beauty of the mountains.  Icons of the Serbian saints Sava and Simeon adorned the walls.  These were fine men, not scary ones.  The little cabin in the snow had a loft where I slept alone and unafraid after a reasonable portion of a manly meal of meat and potatoes.  The guys played cards in front of the fire and slept on sofa beds below.  My angels had returned.

In the morning, I reluctantly resolved to return down to the big town and take the main road around - hundreds of kilometers diversion - but prudent and practical.  I walked down passed the lower village and then heard an approaching pickup truck...towing a snowmobile... I flagged them down... you wouldn't happen to be going to the pass, would you? (In German)  We could do.  I hopped in, returning with them to the point where they could drive no further.  Two of them climbed on the snowmobile and made their way to the pass.  I followed on foot in the compacted tracks.  We met again surprisingly soon.  A tree had fallen across the snow, and they had to pull it aside.  This was as far as my swimming marks got - the fallen tree obscured the trace of the road.  It was less than a kilometer from the pass.  From the pass, many snowmobiles and snowmobilers - and kids on sleds, many people all the way down to the ski resort.  A family with many sleds offered me one of them and pointed to their car down in the parking lot - just leave the sled at the car, they'd get it later.  I sledded for at least two kilometers.  Fun!  Silly angels - they abandoned me too soon, I'd say.  With a little more persistence, I'd have made it.  But all's well that ends well.

I followed the River Tara, with its emerald torrents of spring runoff, down towards to Mediterranean.  A few more monasteries, then the famous Ostrog monastery built into a sheer mountain wall.  Gorgeous scenery, nice climate, shedding layers every day, very nice pilgrim-ing... other adventures, but without snow.  A final descent of 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) in a distance of 10 kilometers (6 miles) nearly did my knees in, and I was at the Mediterranean in the delightful but overtouristic town of Kotor.  Fabulous...springtime. Almond blossoms, olive trees, fig trees, lavender and rosemary.

Though I missed Kosovo and therefore bypassed Macedonia and Albania, I've got a deadline to be in Rome by 7 pm on March 31st to pick up my tickets for the Papal Audience and Holy Week celebrations in Rome, so I've got to scurry along.  I've decided to stick to the coast, staying in Croatia rather than venture back to the mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina to make better time.  It means that I'll be in the Schengen zone the whole time, so using all my remaining days.  I won't be able to linger in Italy after Easter.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Day 76 Unplanned fun

I left a monastery in a deep fog - and though the one sister there and an aspiring sister-to-be who live in the small fortress church with a history of Turkish invasions offered me plenty of the customary liqueur and wine to ward off the cold, the fog was not in my head, but hugging the mountains and the ground.  We had a fun evening, a treat for me that we conversed in English since the two women are well educated, happy to have an opportunity to practice, and happy to have a visitor, so it was a bittersweet parting at dawn.  The sister pointed out that though my footprints remained in the snow from the previous evening's arrival, the freeze of the night gave enough icy crust that there were no footprints as I descended the mountain path. She shouted after me - 'you don't disturb the snow, you must be an angel!'  I'm happy I didn't fall on the sheer ice.

I hiked for hours in the snowy foggy mountains, enjoying the animated tranquility.  I stopped by another monastery, high in a gorge, though like all the others, never fully able to hide from the medieval Turks.  Tea with the monks there and a discussion of the footpath that continued through the mountains to get to the next monastery on the opposite side.  Discussions like these are all quite vague with monks and nuns, attached as they are to their monastery, they don't seem to get out and go for long walks, and don't care to know where they fit in geographically.  Vague compounds poorly with fog and snowfall... maybe it was a tad foolish of me to head off into the mountains without a proper map and without a firsthand account of the way.  I loved every minute of it: breaking trail on a wide forester's track; the abundance of deer tracks was amazing, either a few of them were running in circles around me or there were dozens of them; I heard the sickening screech of wild pigs startlingly close and then one darted out from under a pine tree a stone's throw away, blood gushing from a wound in it's flank, a rank stench left hanging in the billowing fog; surprising for the depth of winter, a duo of black squirrels leapt through the fresh snow deeper than their own height, like cartoon animals... never stopping, I was captivated for hours with the imprecise sense that I was gaining elevation and heading west-ish.  The fun had to end eventually - before dark, always the objective - and somewhere safe.  I reached what seemed to be the top, walked along a ridge for a few hours hoping for a break in the inquiet fog to get a view, and then found a wide white carpet that headed down, the snow being just above my hemline, instead of no footprints in the snow, I now left a strangely adorned set that would likely perplex someone, if someone were there to notice.

Downward and moving fast to reach somewhere before dark, I followed a babbling brook, which fed a stream, which became a small river, then one too large to cross, and hoped I was on the appropriate bank.  A hut, abandoned... a cluster of farm buildings set back, maybe occupied, maybe not... a few roofs visible ahead... domestic debris littering the river... a footbridge, creaky and unstable, but sufficient for purpose... and out onto a paved road into a village of sorts.  Whew, and all without foreknowledge.  The greatest surprise, atypical for the Serbian villages I had already visited, a tavern, with lights on in the full dusk the crept in as the fog lifted, and a view that nearly burst through the window into my yearning eyes - a roaring fire in a great stone hearth.  I couldn't have planned it better.  Okay, so no one inside spoke any of my five good languages, so we relied on my squishy Russian/Ukrainian/generic Slavic/conjugate-as-you-will, gestures, and a few letters of introduction handwritten by some of the good folks who had offered me hospitality.  Hot tea, soup being prepared, a stranger among us, call all villagers, we're having a party.  Who wouldn't love to be a pilgrim?  Scrutinizing a detailed topo map, the myriad of forest roads appeared like spaghetti thrown on paper; I swung too far south and having walked about 30 kilometers, was still about 25 kilometers away from the monastery I targeted for the day.  Ah well.  Off the Schengen clock, I'm in no particular hurry and know full well I can't visit all the monasteries Serbia has tucked in the beautiful nooks and crannies of its mountains.  The proprietor was as gracious as could be, though had no idea of what a pilgrim is in his own language - hodochasnitza, was delighted to have hosted a wayward American woman.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Day 67 Sun, rain, mud

Passing through the flat lands of Hungary has been relatively easy, sure, but back on the Schengen clock has prodded me along quickly again, and the weather has not been conducive to blogging.  Shameful of me not to check in in such a long time...

I tumbled out of the mountains and out of the snow, into mud.  With my western trajectory, I shifted the payload of chocolate to the starboard side; the sun came out.  (Mr. Murphy's class: why would this be a good idea?)  In the few days it took my face and hands to get good and sunburnt, the clouds came back and dropped abundant flower-encouraging rain.  I walked a lot along the soggy levees of the Tisa River, stopping in farmhouses for tea, and being handed from one group to the next, each host taking on the responsibility for contacting an acquaintance in a village a day's walk away.

With the passage through Hungary moving swiftly along, the larger cities of Debrecen and Szeged offered their amber shops in the old city centers, reassuring me that I'm still on the right ancient route.  Hungary spills out of its borders, which are evidently political rather than cultural.  I continued to bungle through Hungarian for several days after crossing into Serbia, where I am now... the capital city of Belgrade, such a cultural crossroad that, I read, it has been a battleground something like 150 times in its history.

The Serbs are gentle with their language, equally presented in the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets.  With the similarities with Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian, my vocabulary is bigger than I managed in Hungary, though I spend a lot of time in jovial confusion.  People are good, of course, and I've met many wonderful people, young and old.  Funny thing, passing through Hungary, I was silently hopeful for some of the famed goulash, and finally had some only after passing through the transition zone in Serbia... delicious, and made with venison.

Even after all of this silence, I'm quite limited on the computer this evening and have to devote some time to figuring out a route for my non-Schengen leisure - Serbia is overflowing with old Orthodox monasteries, most of which seem to be nestled in high mountain valleys, how to choose??? I could spend a lot of time touring around, but Rome awaits, so though I have no need to rush, I mustn't dawdle.  I'm staying with a trio of retired French missionary nuns who have plenty of experience in the region but none afoot... I hope to make it at least well into Kosovo, but if my wanderings take so much time, I may have to sacrifice a visit to Macedonia before swinging into Albania and balancing the sunburn with a northern bearing for a while.
   the world needs more pilgrims! gotta run...!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Day 5Ö How cold is cold?

There are many reasons I prefer to do my pilgriming in winter, but that is not to say the colder the better.  I climbed into the mountains in glorious snow - exhilarating, wonderful, picturesque, etc... but on the final day of my push over the Transcarpathians, the snow took a respite from falling, the sky cleared up, and it turned cold.  The little thermometer that hangs from my pack, close enough to my body to capture a smitten of heat, was red only in the bulb.  I don't think I ever saw that before.  No registration at all.  Minus 2Ö C and minus 25 F are the lowest markings on the scales.  The slight headwind made my eyes water, an unfortunate occurrence since, I learned right then, in the blink of an eye, upper and lower lashes freeze together.  Conveniently, so pretty did I find the valley that the unfortunate discomfort was not much of a distraction.  I hope not to lose the mercury into the bulb again on this pilgrimage, or any other.

Over the top in the cold, but down the subsequent slope in the knee-deep fresh snow that fell overnight.  Then the temperature rose to a slushy few degrees above freezing, and everything is cold deep and sopping wet.  Everyone is commenting that it's the whitest Christmas they've seen in a generation.  What luck for me.  At the border with Hungary, having a wide transition zone for the switch from Cyrillic to Latin writing and from Eastern to Central European time, I poised to re-enter the EU in the morning and take two days to walk to the biggest pilgrim shrine in Hungary.

I've got to hand it to the Greco-Catholic priests and sisters of Ukraine, who have taken exceptional care of me, passing me along from one parish to another, from one monastery to another, like no where else I've been.  The world, of course, needs more pilgrims, and I enthusiastically encourage pilgrims to come to Ukraine.  I've struggled somewhat with the language - it's a complicated one grammatically, but breaking the Cyrillic code opens vocabulary pretty quickly.  Nonetheless, English is not widely spoken, despite what people may think, but my other languages have come into play regularly, doh! all except Spanish, which is now my strongest foreign language.  Every evening has been something new - okay, say it all again, but this time in German, now in French, back to Italian... arghh, my head!  Next time, Hungarian...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Day 45 Merry Second Christmas

Ukraine is a wonderful place to be a pilgrim - well, where isn't? My eye is adjusting to the Cyrillic fonts and Slavic sounds.  The richness of languages is clear in a basic and frequent question I hear nearly every day: Mozhe chai?  It's more than the simple inquiry it would be in English, where we would ask - would you like some tea? - here, the question is Could you do with some tea?  Da, mozhne! is the eager response, yes, I sure could.

Western Ukraine is completely different from the eastern part of the county I pilgrimed through five years ago.  The part that is now sadly torn in an unnecessary dispute, I could not walk through these days - I'd be prevented from entering Crimea entirely, where I spent a wonderful extended holiday season.  Because of the current conflict, the bright blue and yellow of the national flag is present everywhere, freshly painted and raised.  Flags generally fly low on their staffs in deference to those who have been lost in the fighting.  New Year's Eve was subdued.  It's not quite a time of celebration in a nation with internal strife.

What I experienced in the eastern part of the country five years ago was a throw-back to a former time where indoor plumbing, even in grammar schools, is absent, heat comes only from the central woodstove with its ubiquitous cauldron of bottomless borshcht, topped off daily, and the household generally sleep together in one room on mattresses on the floor.  People dress simply, and the kerchiefed babuskas in peasantry garb look exactly like those in century-old photos... but the west of Ukraine - it's clean and tidy Europe, as modern as anywhere.  Young people, even in farming villages, are downright chic in their dress, smart phones, and shopping bags.  Houses are big and richly styled with architectural adornments, and cars are generally late-model, though the occasional Lata beater plugs away.  By my own eyewitness, east and west meet somewhere in the middle of Ukraine where two centuries mingle.   Of course, I found wonderful people when I traveled in the east, but I like it here in the west very much.

I've walked south, staying relatively close to the border with the European Union.  The number of cars with Polish, Czech, and Slovakian license plates reflects the open communication among neighboring countries.  Most villages have a European look and layout about them, with the church prominent in the main square.  For my daily walks, I've been staying largely in the forests and between farm fields, stopping for tea once or twice a day, and seeking hospitality at churches.  One night, Evangelical Christians offered a warm place to sleep, and one night I was taken in by an elderly Orthodox priest and his wife, who frantically scolded me (for my pilgrim efforts) in Russian far beyond my capacity to understand, but who treated me otherwise like a lost kitten, putting some milk in the saucer of potato and rice soup.  For the balance of my days here in Ukraine, I've been coddled by Greco-Catholic nuns and priests, who have all taken such exceptional care of me, I feel like a regular pampered pilgrim.  Though I'm still carrying a shameful surplus of chocolate bars and bonbons, they've been understanding about loading me down with too much food - those kielbasa and butter sandwiches freeze within an hour, I plead, please don't expect me to lug ice around all day, and the giant cans of tuna and sardines...please, I can't even open them, much less eat them in one sitting in their slushy congealed oil.  A hearty breakfast and an evening meal is more than sufficient nourishment.

Validation that I'm still on the Amber Road came in L'viv - a gorgeous gem of a city - when I passed an amber shop in the old part of the city.  A reproduction of an old map hangs prominently in a gilded frame in the window caught my eye as I walked by, so I stopped to look for a moment.  Across the street, at a tony cafe specializing in roasting coffee beans, a barista spied the scallop shell hanging on my backpack.  He tapped on the window and waved me in - the first to recognize the pilgrim symbol - offering me a cup of the finest roast on the house.  One day, he said, if he can get a visa, he'd like to walk to Santiago de Compostela.

A slight westward turn after L'viv, the Transcarpathians rolled in under my feet like a foamy incoming tide.  Every day in Ukraine has greeted me with snow flurries, but my approach to the mountains have coincided with a weather front bearing heavier snows.  The blustering swirls are glorious, the winter wonderland, out of a postcard.  It's Christmas Eve (again) and much more fitting to be standing boot-high in fluffy dry snow than in the dreary mud and rain.  I left some worrying priests in a hilltop monastery shrine as I tramped up through a narrow valley to a small village, then turned to cross a pair of long logs lashed together across a nearly frozen river.  Several hours later, after a peaceful afternoon listening to a pine forest fill with snow, I popped out into another valley where nuns and orphans awaited with hot tea.  Winter pilgriming is great!  I'm rather committed now, up yet another high and snowy valley, spending Christmas Eve with a family this time, delighted to serve the delicacies - 12 by tradition - to the otherwise empty placesetting left at the end of the table.  One more day up the valley - to another awaiting priest - and then the final push over the pass, to come down at the border with Hungary.  Ironically, more heavy snow is in the forecast... with the mountain paths unmarked, I'm a pilgrim with a few winter challenges.