The base of Bansko Ski Area

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Exhausted from an eight hour bus ride that spanned three countries, we pressed the reception desk at our hotel for an answer. “It’s after midnight, our kitchen is closed.”

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“What about other restaurants nearby?”

“Walk done the road, you might find something open. We are located in the center of town.” Wow, that was unhelpful. The swank interior decorating of bright reds set on black and futuristic minimalistic Japanese inspired lines of the hotel lobby highlighted the staff’s unwillingness to get his image dirty with useful answers. This didn’t bode well for our stay. Luckily we were rescued by a perky eyed staff member who replaced her manager. We were pointed in the direction of a local tavern, one of many, and welcomed despite the late hour.

Huddling from the rain in the Old-Town

That’s Bansko, a bit rough around the edges but friendly and accommodating at its center. And for those who want to stretch their wallet in luxury this is the place. Set in the southern Bulgarian mountains close to the border with Greece, Bankso has always been associated with cheap prices, but now it’s becoming known for world class skiing as well. A crash in real estate speculation in 2008 has helped keep the prices down, but the residents of this former communist state kept themselves busy upgrading the town and ski area with the latest equipment and amenities. The speculation years left their scars in the form of half built hotels and high rise condominiums, but the old section of town was preserved reasonably well. There is still a rare lived in feeling to the old-town which makes a charming contrast to ski area and new construction just across the

Enjoying a smoke in the old-town

cobblestone street.

While having a quaint town to retreat to after a long day on the slopes is important, the main attraction is the skiing itself. Bansko boasts modern lifts and facilities (rare in the region) and has a wide range of trails that will keep beginners to experts happy. A fresh blanket of powder awaited us on our first day which proved nicer conditions than our trip to the Dolomites in Italy. Though to be fair, the selection of rental equipment is not friendly to the advanced skier. Bring your own if you are picky.

I told you it was rough around the edges.

Yes, this is the line. There is another just like it in the other direction.

Another issue is the distance to the slopes from the center of town. While having the slopes at the higher altitudes does wonders for the snow conditions, access is a big problem. Only one gondola ferries skiers to the beginning of the slopes and the traffic jams are intense. Be prepared to fight your way into the cars. As we were putting our skies in the outside holders two others snuck in before us. After waiting in line for an hour we weren’t impressed with the local hospitality. The gondola opens at 8:30 am so if you don’t want to wait for an hour or longer get there early, and bring some muscle.

The skiing and the views make up for it. Where do the clouds and mountains begin?

Once on the ski slopes the rough edges are washed away by the surrounding mountains and impossibly long views. After a long day of fresh air and carving up the slopes slip back into town where taverns rock out to the eighties and Bulgarian pop. Don’t forget to swig back a couple of rakiya, the local alcohol like grappa in Italy. And if a local asks if you like it, shake your head from side to side. Nodding means “no” in Bulgaria and you would hate to start an international incident over a drunken misunderstanding.

Have you been to Bansko? Let us know what you thought and share your tips and local favorites.

By the numbers:

Ski Pass: Adults €25; €Children 12.5/ per day

Altitude of the resort – 990m

Highest Peak – 2,914m

Total length of slopes – 70km

Total number of lifts – 14

If you go

Getting there: The closest international airport is in Sofia, Bulgaria, 95 km away. It is about a three hour drive from Sofia. Be prepared for windy roads with a few bumps along the way.

Where to stay: There are a ton of options in Bansko. The most expensive hotel, the Kempinski Hotel located right on the slopes, will set you back €100 per person per night. Our swank hotel cost €60 per night including breakfast and dinner for the two of us. If you are staying longer rent an apartment for as little as €250 a week. To find a place you can start here.

When to go: The ski season runs from December through late May.

Courtesy of www.cia.gov

I handed my passport to the Serbian police officer. He scowled, not from the encroaching cold, but because I was American and had Kosovo visa stamps. Thankfully, I also had a Serbian entry stamp so there was nothing he could do but waive me through. A few kilometers down a windy country road I reached the Kosovar border checkpoint.

Normally when you cross borders you only have to worry about a valid passport (don’t forget it needs to be good for at least 6 months), and your visa. With Kosovo and Serbia things get a bit more complicated. There is an ambiguous international legal rational for Kosovo; a battle in the Security Council between the US, Russia and China over sovereignty and self-determination; a unilateral declaration of Independence by the Kosovar Government (supported by 65 countries in the world, but not the UN); and the blanket denial of that independence by Serbia, which maintains parallel government functions in parts of Kosovo. By now you may be wondering if there is a border or not…there is…depending on who you ask.

Kosovo and Serbia are both great countries to visit and explore, but if you are planning to experience both on the same trip you need to plan carefully or you may find yourself stranded at the border. I live in Kosovo and recently crossed the boarder so here is what you need to know (at the time of publishing).

Visit Serbia first

Kosovo maintains a border station into Serbia, while Serbia maintains a police checkpoint a few kilometers later  to catch visa violators.  If you entered Kosovo first, received a Kosovar entry and exit stamp, and then try to enter Serbia you will be denied access. Good luck finding your way back to Pristina. Serbia considers Kosovo a part of Serbian territory and if you enter it without a Serbian entry visa you are technically without a valid visa. As a matter of principle, Serbian visa stamps are not available along the Kosovar/Serbian border as there are only police checkpoints to make sure you have one.

Courtesy of www.cia.gov

Visit Serbia first. Fly into Belgrade, explore the country and then move on to Kosovo where you can obtain an entry visa at the Kosovo border checkpoint. Just remember you won’t be able to return to Serbia the same way if you get a Kosovo entry stamp, so plan your flights carefully (e.g. fly into Belgrade and out from Pristina). Or you can ask the Kosovar boarder control not to stamp your passport…not technically legal but it works for a lot of people (including me just last week).

I’m in Kosovo now! What do I do?

Don’t panic, go to your nearest cafe (they’re everywhere) and have one of the best inexpensive machiatos anywhere in the world. Feeling better? Good. Now, all you need to do is plan your exit from Kosovo by either flight or overland through another country (there are no flights direct from Pristina to Belgrade but you can fly from Skopje, Macedonia). If you want to get back into Serbia overland your best bet is to cross into Macedonia and then into Serbia by bus, or a nine hour train ride form Skopje.

Don’t forget that Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro all border Kosovo, have recognized it and there are no problems with visas (assuming you are able to get visas on arrival per your nationality).

Does this seem overly complicated? Maybe, but with a bit of planning you can ensure a smooth trip (personally I like unexpected difficulties, they lead to better travel stories).

Have you crossed the border recently? Leave a comment and share your experiences.

There is no better way to taste traditional Japanese life and culture than through one of the thousands of matsuri held across Japan each year. They come in all shapes in sizes, with dancing, singing, drinking, lots and lots of drinking, naked g-stringed men, massive floats, and portable shrines to take the gods (8 million at last count) out for a spin around the neighborhood and a bit of fresh air.

Most are innocent communal affairs, well maybe not the g-stringed extravaganza, a number are huge, such as Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri, but a few are down right deadly. In a world that is overly concerned with safety and preventing lawsuits, these masturi offer the chance to break through the grip of the rational mind through unmitigated danger and experience the ecstasy of touching the turbulent forces of the spiritual world. Or maybe its just an incredible adrenaline rush.

If you are traveling to Japan here is my list of the 3 Most Dangerous Matsuri that you should attend. Don’t worry you can watch behind the ropes like all the other tourists.

1. Onbashira Matsuri- Suwa, Nagano Prefecture

Photo by toshi0104

This insanely dangerous festival is held only every six years, and with good reason. Giant ceder trees are cut from the surrounding primordial forest and pulled out of the mountains. At its climax thirty to forty people sit on 17 meters long logs, each weighing over ten tons, and race down a steep mountain. Deaths and serious injuries are not uncommon as an unlucky few fly off and are crushed. The logs are used to rebuild the Suwa Taisha Shrine in order to spiritually renew the area with the gods living in the trees.

This matsuri tops my list because the next festival is happening the first weekend in April 2010. Plan now as it won’t happen again for another 6 years. Over two million people attended the last event in 2004, so book a hotel and transportation in advance if you plan to go. More information can be found here.

2. Sagicho Matsuri- Omihachiman, Shiga Prefecture

Photo by Andy Heather

Sagicho matsuri is a fighting festival in which ten massive floats made of bamboo and pine are paraded around the rural city. Each float belongs to a separate section of town and is decorated with thousands of bright red paper strips and an elaborate  model of that year’s Zodiac animal made entirely from natural marine products and grain. Each section of town attempts to out style the other and no expenses are spared. For two days the floats are carried around town by men, dressed as women to appease the female Shinto god enshrined at the local  Himure Hachimangu Shrine.

When other floats are encountered each side spins their  one ton float in a show of strength culminating in a mad dash at top speed into each other in a bone crunching crash. Teams battle for dominance until one float has pinned the other to the ground. After each battle  a celebratory sake and beer chug, naturally from the dedicated alcohol cart following each float,  ensures a long drunk day where someone always gets hurt.

I choose this one because I was involved and I know how dangerous and drunken it can be. Unfortunately, one of my own teammates broke his neck when he feel from the top of the float. Luckily he recovered…8 months later.  Stay until the end, if you haven’t passed out, and you are rewarded with the spectacular torching of floats in front of the shrine.

The festival takes place on March 15h and 16 in 2010. For more information see here.

3. Takeuchi Matsuri- Rokugo, Akita Prefecture

In the evening of February 15th, after a full day of chugging sake, the small northern town of Rokugo prepares for war.  They don helmets, divide the town into North and South and outfit their men with 40 foot bamboo polls. Yes, this is just one day after Valentine’s Day! Each side faces off in a prepared fighting arena, about 100 men to a side, and proceed to beat, whack and pummel the other side’s heads, legs and torsos causing cuts and welts on their enemies (neighbors and friends on any other day of the year). The first and second rounds are limited to “just” the bamboo poles and lasts three minutes each.

The third round is when things get serious as a bonfire is lit and the armies engulf their polls in the fire. Armed with blazing poles the townspeople enter a winner takes all final battle. In this brutal battle poles are quickly forgotten as  fist fights break out across the battleground, with deserters sometimes being dragged back into the arena for some more “fun”. According to the folk story, if the North wins the rice harvest will be bountiful for the year, a reality seemingly lost on the South in the heat of battle. Make sure you stay far enough back in the crowd so that you don’t get pulled in…unless you like a good street brawl with sticks and fire!

Directions to Rokugo can be found here.

There you have it, my three choices for the most dangerous matsuri in Japan. You may be wondering why I picked only three. Good question! The answer is simple, Japan loves the number three and most lists are ordered in triples.

There are of course many other choices for dangerous festivals in Japan, so join the conversation and argue for your own picks for Most Dangerous.

across in your travels or even in your local market? Leave your comments below.

Blogsherpa Travel CarnivalThis post is part of the Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Travel Blog Carnival hosted this time by Erin over at La Tortuga Viajera. The Carnival is hosted every two weeks by a BlogSherpa member. The topic this time is Unique Customs. I hosted the last one here on Todd’s Wanderings about Travel Safety.


It was also hosted in the February Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted by www.muza-chan.net

As you probably now realize my website looks slightly different. I have moved from Blogger to my very own website…paid for by the bottles I can collect on the street.

I am very excited about this move, as I am able to upgrade the website and deliver new content and options for all of  you. The down side is, as with any move, things break and are sometimes lost. In other cases things get thrown out…because they were old, no good in the first place and should have been kicked to the curb ages ago.

So, please bear with me as I customize the new and improved Todd’s Wanderings, bring back old features and introduce some new ones.

Please note the new web address: www.toddswanderings.net Yes, I know, very professional!

I promise this message will be gone soon and replaced with a new travel article.

Your blurry eyed editor, writer, web designer, photographer, and baker (yes I make bagels too)

My friend Megan who writes the blog See. Write. Live. nominated me to share my three best travel secrets on Todd’s Wanderings. The nomination is a part of Trip Base Blog tag in which the Top Bloggers’ Best Kept Travel Secrets will be published in a free ebook that will be shared with the “entire online community…” Hmmm, good luck with that!

First, I had to decide if my secrets were safe for the average traveler…my lawyers tell me I should be okay (by reading this you have now waived all your rights). So here you are, some of my well kept secrets, and favorite places in this wonderful world:

1. Mount Koya, Japan

Everyone visits the major temples in Kyoto and Nara but these days they are little more than tourist attractions, albeit pretty ones, lacking that lived in, struggle for enlightenment feel. Mount Koya, the secluded mountain temple complex of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism in Wakayama Prefecture, is a hideaway for a more authentic massive temple experience. Located in the heart of the Kii mountains, it was founded in 816 by the monk Kukai, mythical founder of the Shikoku Pilgrimage. The complex houses 100 temples, many offering lodging, and the most famous cemetery in Japan leading to Kukai’s tomb. A walk through the cemetery is an otherworldly experience dominated by centuries old cedar trees and hundreds of moss covered stone Buddhas playing hide and seek in the mist.

2. Castlereigh Reservoir, Dikoya, Sri Lanka

I couldn’t possible live with myself if I didn’t include a stay at Castlereigh Family Cottages in my list of best kept secrets. Not that I want to fight the crowds to visit, but they do such a wonderful job they deserve my  unabashed fawning. Two small cabins sit in the middle of a working tea plantation, right on the reservoir, with amazingly large porches to wile away a relaxing day soaking in the scenery. One cabin can sleep four while the larger one sleeps up to ten wanderers. Add the genuine friendly staff that wait on you hand and foot, delicious BBQs and the incredibly cheap prices and I am wondering why I ever left. Most visitors to Sri Lanka head up to the large tea plantation areas, but Dikoya delivers on scenery, tea trail hiking and is close to Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka’s best known pilgrimage.

3. Dili, East Timor

Timor Leste has a troubled past, and the instability in 2006 led to travel warning advisories most governments have yet to lift. Excited to go yet? If you are a scuba diver, or you are someone who wants to see a young country before it is transformed, then you should be. The travel advisories mean there are few tourists but plenty of facilities catering to the peacekeeping and development workers helping Timor Leste to recover. Located in the coral triangle Timor Leste boasts acres of unspoiled reefs, world class underwater walls stretching miles into the distance and a friendly local population eager to share their country with the rest of the world. Dili is the main base for diving and most dive spots are off shore,just a few meters from the secluded beaches lining the coast. Of course you need to be careful and watch your security, but this is not Afghanistan folks!

Now that I have shared my secrets it is time for me to “tag” five bloggers to participate in the “Three Best Kept Travel Secrets”. Your it:

1. Lili at Muza-chan’s Gate to Japan
2. Kirigalpoththa, name to remain a mystery…
3. Suzanne, THIRTY: Own up to Being Growing-up
4. Stephanie, Where in the world am I?
5. Marianne, Zen & the Art of Peacekeeping

Handing over our passports to the Italian NATO troops we waited in the crisp winter air to enter. The secluded canyon exuded peace and tranquility, at odds with the tank barriers, sandbag bunkers and matching barb wire. We weren’t crossing a boarder, or even trying to enter a military base. We were there to visit Visoki Decani Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site and probably the best preserved medieval church in the Balkans. Nestled in the embrace of western Kosovo’s Decan Canyon, surrounded by grapevines, chestnut trees and bucolic pastures the abbey is a lovely two hours drive from the capital Pristina.
Ten years since NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign and accompanying peacekeepers, tensions are still evident between  Serbians and Albanian Kosovars. Many of the Serbian cultural heritage sites have a NATO protection force camped on the perimeters. However, at Decani tensions are much lower and it offers a model of tolerance.
Constructed between 1327 and 1335 the Serbian Orthodox monastery survived the subsequent Turkish invasion and the Ottoman empire unscathed, due mainly to the sultan’s personal protection. The monastery has also enjoyed the protection of the surrounding population as Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim Albanians all believed the tomb of the Stefan Decanski, who ordered the original construction, has healing powers. While some Serbian Orthodox monasteries will not allow Albanian Kosovars to enter, Decani can be visited by anyone.
Unfortunately, many nationalists on the Serbian and Kosovar sides use the religious center as their own battleground for legitimacy. Reading some articles on the web you would think the Italian NATO troops are all that stand between the pitch fork and flame wielding townspeople, and the monastery’s certain destruction.  Visit in person and the harmony between town and monastery is clear.
The monastery lies hidden in the imposing mountains
Located a little over a mile from the town of Decan, walking in is a great way to soak in the tranquility of the area.
The monks support themselves by farming the land and raising livestock.
The church sits in the center of the monastery and looks amazingly new for 700 years.
.
Thousands of Byzantine frescoes depict themes such as the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the multitude of kings under whom the monastery was created and sustained.
Amazingly you see almost exactly what a visitor would have experienced seven centuries ago.
The grounds are immaculate and black robed monks crisscross the visitors path as they go about their daily routines.
The monks even produce a good tasting wine…red of course! Best served with prayers for peace and tolerance.
If you go

Getting there:
Visoki Decani Monastery is located in western Kosovo at the foot of the Prokletije Mountains, about 1 1/2- 2 hours drive from Pristina. There is a car park at the monastery entrance and buses run from the Pristina , Peja and Gjacova bus stations. The buses stop on the main road in Decan by the roundabout. The  road to the monastery is off of the main roundabout and is a half hours walk, or you can negotiate a tax ride.
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