“Whatever you do, don’t cross her,” Rich said, after our first encounter with the manager of our hotel in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This formidable woman had issued a flurry of instructions and left a large, laminated card in our room listing more rules. No cooking in the room, despite the fact we had a suite with a full kitchen. No guests in the room, which made us wonder why the table offered seating for four and the massive leatherette couch could easily hold eight. No doing laundry in the room, even though there was a washing machine in the bathroom; she’d snapped off the washer’s door handle so we wouldn’t be tempted to transgress. “Guests are required to report and compensate for any damage caused by their inappropriate behavior,” warned the rule card. Yes, ma’am!
After months of warm, make-yourself-at-home-have-a-glass-of-homemade-brandy hospitality, we were gobsmacked to find ourselves sneaking food into our room and doing clandestine laundry. But if we’ve learned anything on this trip, it’s the importance of flexibility. This Monday, July 29, we’ll hit the 100 day mark, the longest time we’ve ever been on the road. We thought we were fairly travel savvy before, but this journey has brought us fresh insights about packing, food, and comfort. Like what, for instance? Well, here are a few highlights.
Electronics account for about a third of the weight of my suitcase, and I’ve figured out how to eliminate an entire device: by downloading the Kindle app onto my phone. My iPhone 7 plus has an oversize screen, which is a bit more comfortable for reading than standard models. Try yours and see what you think.
They say no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, and much the same could be said for travel wardrobes. I packed for a range of weather but didn’t foresee that 2019 would be the hottest summer in the history of the world. I’ve jettisoned garments I needed in April (heavy socks, long-sleeved T-shirts) to make room for a sundress and low-cut socks. What about the discards? I left them in public places, such as bus station restrooms, where others are likely to find them and take them home.
I’m comfortable living out of a suitcase but every once in a while it's refreshing to leave my bag behind (stored in lodgings we’d just checked out of). We did this during the detour to Kosovo and our farmstay in Reç, Albania. If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of luggage-free travel, an overnight stay is a low-risk way to give it a whirl.
In the past, my research about local cuisine consisted mainly of finding a few common menu items I might actually want to order. Which is why I lived on sarma (stuffed cabbage) and shopska salad last time I traveled through Eastern Europe. Now I study Wikipedia and travel blogs to learn about regional classics and their backstory. Meals are far more interesting when you know that the trout on your plate was swimming in the river beside the restaurant just hours ago, or that locals have been known to come to blows over references to ćevapi as sausage.
In many places we’ve visited lately, most locals rarely go out for anything except coffee or ice cream, and when they do splurge on a restaurant meal, they expect a real feast. Rich and I generally share an entrée and remind ourselves that we aren’t obliged to finish every bite or bottle that lands on our table. When we stay in, we make light meals to give our digestive systems a bit of a rest. In short, we pace ourselves.
Like eating, sightseeing is best approached, as the Spanish put it, “poco a poco,” little by little. As an energetic person and die-hard optimist, I’m tempted to believe I can do everything. But I’ve learned to take each journey as an opportunity to evaluate and honor the current parameters of my capacities. Twice lately I’ve hiked up to high castles in 90 degree heat and seriously regretted it. I’ve vowed to be more sensible in the future.
Our ability to navigate well in strange places often depends on the weather, the kindness of strangers, and sheer dumb luck. But we can do a few things to hedge our bets, and one of them is making a point of arriving early for trains and buses. Who needs the stress of running through sweltering streets, dragging a suitcase, racing the clock? I greatly prefer strolling into a station and leisurely consulting the departure board and a few humans to verify that I’m waiting in the right place at the right time. Should things go south — like the train that was cancelled out from under us in Elbasan, Albania — I’m in a better frame of mind to regroup.
Travel reminds us that we have remarkably little control over anything. Our grasp of the language, food, customs, money, social norms, and historical context are usually hazy at best. On a good day, we have the presence of mind to recall that we’re there for the fun of trying to unravel the mystery. Here are a few of the conundrums we attempted to grapple with during our time in Albania.
Follow Your Curiosity
Traveling with a purpose has added a lot of zest to our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour. How might your next trip be different if you set out to follow your curiosity? You might be intrigued by classic diners in the US, want to visit the settings for all your favorite British whodunits, or feel the urge to explore ancient battlefields and figure out how it all happened (and how you could have done it better). Pursuing a goal offers countless opportunities to connect with fellow aficionados, explore unusual parts of the culture, and feel the satisfaction of completing a quest.
How do you begin? Google your interest and your destination and see what comes up. Are you intrigued by the paranormal? Search for ghost tours and you’ll find nearly 35 million results in Italy alone (although to be fair, some of those are more about zombies). Staying at an Airbnb? Let your hosts know about your interests using the form Airbnb sends you when you book. I’ve used it often over the last 100 days to ask about traditional food and restaurants; I’ve received suggestions, even invitations to coffee, dinner, and excursions. If you open up the conversation, you never know where it will lead.
Of course, not all suggestions prove helpful. The Mostar hotel manager directed us to the most touristy places in town, praising their views of the Old Bridge. She had an opinion about everything and wasn’t shy about sharing. Her views on dogs, which arose when friends came to collect us for lunch Tuesday accompanied by their exceedingly well-trained service animal, grew nearly apoplectic. “Impossible! Dogs? In a hotel? No! Impossible!”
Fortunately, Rich and I had discovered a delightful, shady little restaurant, with a view of the river (if not the Old Bridge), a dog-friendly policy, and a large fan with a tub of water that spread a fine, cooling mist in all directions. As the owner passed around complementary aperitifs, I reflected that these are the best lessons we can learn on the road: how to ignore bad advice, break ridiculous rules, and enjoy ourselves in our own way, wherever we are.
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We're currently in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina; we'll soon be heading to Sarajevo.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
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