No visit to Japan is complete without experiencing Japanese food the way the locals do. In Japan there is no way to separate eating from the atmosphere and experience. Food in Japan touches all of the senses from the minimalistic elegance of sashimi to the visual gourmet versions of hamburger patties. There’s more to Japanese food than sushi but let’s face it, navigating the difficult menus in a New York Japanese restaurant can be daunting enough, let alone tackling lesser known dishes on their home turf.  With Fall in full swing, and November Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted by Surviving in Japan tackling the topic of Fall foods in Japan, I started to think about what I love to eat in Japan this time of the year. This made me hungry and ruined all objectivity, displaced Fall and set me down the path to the 5 foods I love to eat during the Fall and every other season :) To help you follow in my footsteps and guide you through this culinary and cultural experience I’ve created a list of 5 dishes that are a must for any visitor to Japan.

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Hungry yet?

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The Japanese are famous for specializing and defining. It’s no different with food as each of these dishes will usually be served in its own specialized restaurant complete with accompanying unique atmosphere. Warning, if you are a vegetarian this menu is probably not for you, but there are always ways to substitute fish and vegetables for the meat dishes. But be careful, sometimes pork is not considered meat!

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1) Donburimono

Japanese Donburi rice bowl

So much goodness all in one bowl.

Donburi is a large rice bowl and the “mono” (lit. things) refers to the delicious toppings laid over the bed of rice. There is a large variety of Donburi from comfort food, such as chicken and egg oyako-don, stewed beef and onions gyu-don, and fried pork and egg katsu-don, to the more refined variations like tempura ten-don, marinated eel unagi-don, or even sea urchin una-don.

All of these are a great value, even the more expensive fish dishes, as you can eat out with just one dish. Finding a quality local shop may take a bit of work but it will be worth it. If you are looking to only experience gyu-don visit the chain shops Yoshinoya or Matsuya. You’ll have to decide for yourself which is better as its one of those questions that divides the nation. If you’re by the sea or a fish market look for the seafood versions as they’ll be the freshest.

2) Okonomiyaki

Japanese Okonomikayi

Usually called a Japanese pancake, but so differnet this should stop as its nothing like a pancake other than being flat and fried.

It’s not really a pancake, or a pizza, definitely not a crepe but it’s certainly delicious. Made with batter, egg, and your choice of vegetables, beef, pork, seafood and even noodles, you have to do the work here. The ingredients usually come out raw and you have to cook them on the large teppan (hotplate) that you sit around. There’s a variety of ways to make it depending if you are in Tokyo, Osaka or Hiroshima (my favorite) but the basics are: cook the fillings, pour on the batter and beaten egg, flatten the mixture on the teppan with the metal spatula provided, and flip over after five minutes. Aim for a browned outside keeping the inside soft. Finally, add the sauce with the brush provided and/or mayonnaise, and sprinkle on the fish flakes…if you’re into that sort of thing.

3) Yakitori

Japanese Yakitori

Grab a beer and enjoy.

Literally grilled chicken, there is so much more to these skewers that can contain the full range of chicken bits, meat, liver, heart, cartilage and skin. Prices are usually by the skewer, even if more than one arrives, so be careful. They are cooked to order over charcoal and come with either sauce (tare) or salt (shio) seasoning. Nothing goes better with it than a large cold beer and good company. Yakotori can be found everywhere, from specialized restaurants to street stalls. In either case pull a seat up to the bar and be prepared for your orders to be yelled around the room, repeated by everyone from the server to the cook.

4) Ramen

Japanese Ramen

Feel free to slurp all you want. How else are you supposed to eat noodles with chopsticks!

These long Chinese noodles have become the staple of the Japanese fast food industry. Pop in for a quick and inexpensive bite during lunch or after a long night drinking on the town. Ramen shops are on just about every corner in Japan and you’ll be able to find one easily. More difficult will be trying to decide what type you want, from curry to miso to chicken broth, topped with marinated pork to an extra helping of spring onions. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with any choice, it’s all delicious. Add in a plate of gyoza, Japanese fried pot stickers, and you have one great meal.

5) Izakaya

Japanese Izakaya

Ok, technically it's not a food, but it IS an experience with plenty to delicious food.

This is the ultimate Japanese communal eating experience that can only be described as Japanese tapas. They are a great way to experience a wide variety of Japanese food, and drink copious amounts of beer, sake or chu-hai (shochu with flavored carbonated water. I like ume-chuhai, plum flavored. Yum!

These are friendly places that are like the local pub on the corner. Japanese come after work to share food, stories, and bond with each other. The portions are usually small and the variety of foods can be staggering, as will be your bill if you try to have a proper meal. Use your time in an Izakaya to sample different dishes, get to know those you are with, or even sitting next to, and then decide on a cheaper option for the next stop in the night.

What are you favorite Japanese foods? Need more suggestions or help reading the menu? Comment away below.

November Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted by Surviving in Japan

(Photo credits in order: singingbeagle, Smaku, TenSafeFrogs, wonderferret, SpirosK, nicolacassa)

I know what you’re thinking: “Slovenia, where the hell is that?” Or possibly: “What, only 2 reasons, is that all you’ve got? Are you getting lazy Todd? I mean all the other Top [insert arbitrary number] Lists have WAY more than just 2.”

Island Church Bled Slovenia

Ohhh, pretty picture. Ready to listen yet? The Church of the Assumption on Lake Bled

Truth be told, I never thought about visiting Slovenia until recently. My other little secret is that there are more than 2 reasons to visit this amazing country but you shouldn’t need any more than these two. Bam! How do you feel now? Feeling silly? Ready to trust me? Huh? Huh?

Also, this is not a post about everything Slovenia has to offer. Over one week I only went to two places. Turns out it was enough to get me itching to head back. I took a week off work and headed into the mountains to work on my Shikoku Pilgrimage book. I’m happy to report that I got three more chapters finished and still had time to hike the incredibly accessible Alps.

First things first, where is Slovenia

Slovenia Map

Map courtesy of http://www.icannga.com/icannga11.php

Somehow this little country does not receive the attention it deserves. It’s one of Europe’s smallest and shares borders with Croatia, Italy, Austria and Hungary. Sounds centrally located to me. Add a small coast, the stunning Julian Alps, and about 500 castles, manors and ruins, amazing wine, food and the infrastructure of any major European country and you start to wonder why more people aren’t talking about it. Oh, and did I mention it’s still relatively inexpensive? Well it is. So much so that I found it cheaper than my recent trip through Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast.

First Reason

Bled Castle Slovenia

The Autumn colors only added to the magical feel of this place.

The thousand year old Bled Castle sits majestically  on a rocky outcrop 139 meters above the lake of the same name. In the middle rests and island holding the Church of the Assumption, evoking further images of fairy tales and dragons that haunt the capital city of Ljubljana, a mere 45 minutes drive away. Imposing mountain peaks surround the lake valley to round out the incredible charm of this little town and making it a must for any serious Europe traveler. The only down side is its so beautiful that the crowds can get quite thick so it’s best to visit in the Spring and Autumn.

The best way to appreciate the natural and architectural beauty of Bled is to walk around the lake. A walking path circles the lake and at an easy pace takes about 90 minutes, longer if you get stuck taking one breath taking picture after another. Not even the ugly Yugoslav era concrete hotel monstrosities can take away from the magic of this special place.

Second Reason

Lake Bohinj Slovenia

Do I even need to write anything here?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Bled. But too many people can ruin a good thing. Luckily all you have to do is drive a pleasant 26 kilometers to the south to reach the glacial lake Bohinj. Resting in a near vertical mountainous embrace lake Bohinj is the perfect get away to commune with nature and experience amazing Slovenian hospitality. Hiking paths start from just about everywhere around the lake, leading both the casual and the extreme hiker into the heart of the Julian Alps.

Church of Saint John the Baptist Bohinj Slovenia

The Church of St. John the Baptist in Bohinj. Amazing views from of the lake and interesting frescoes from the 14th century. Some of the angles inside of what look like fangs for teeth!

I spent 7 days here and loved every minute of it. The lack large hotels is not a negative at all as there are plenty of apartments in traditional house for rent (called sobe). The peace and quite, as well as fresh mountain and lake air can rejuvenate any soul and get you itching to explore the paths that bring you along impossibly green rivers, through sight gorges, and to the top of rocky peaks.

So, did you like my 2 reasons. Of course I slipped a few more into the mix without you even knowing. You were probably too distracted by the pretty pictures :)

If you go

Whoa, if? I haven’t convinced you yet. Well here are couple more reasons.

Getting there

Simple and easy. Just fly into Ljubljana airport, gather you bags and then walk across the street to the next building that houses the rental car agencies. There is about 8 of them so shop around to get the best deal. My first offer was 430 Euro for 7 days…at the “budget” car agency. I finally settled on 190 Euros. Coming form Kosovo where you pay 60 Euros per day, this was like heaven.

The drive to Bled only takes about 45 minutes on a nice highway. Drive another 40 minutes in to reach Bohinj. This is a perfect trip even if you only have a weekend.

Where to stay

Bohinj Slovenia

The view from Pension Stare

This is a bit more tricky. I wanted to avoid large impersonal hotels so I just drove to the end of the lake and found a pension. There are lots of apartments and rooms available and you can learn more at the tourist information center. But be warned they are not so helpful other than giving you a book of the places available. Having a car to search them out helps.

I stayed at Pension Stare, at the end of the lake, and would recommend it to anyone. I usually don’t promote individual places (for free that is :) , but they treated me so well I can’t help it. The Pension boats a delicious dinner, simple but comfortable rooms, and incredible views of the surrounding mountains. It’s family run and has been in business for 25 years.

Have you been to Slovenia? Tell us what you loved about it, or what you are dying to see.

amazing river canyon

Amazingly beautiful, but we'll never know how to get there unless you can guess the place!

Update:

The winner is Dawn…who guessed Fish River Canyon in Namibia, the second largest canyon in the world (after the Grand Canyon)!

Thanks again to Dave and his truly professional travel photo site.  Here’s what he had to say about Fish River Canyon:

Fish River Canyon was an out of the way stop on our epic cycling journey from Cairo to Cape Town. We had been cycling for almost 4 months at this point and instead of keeping to the smooth paved roads all the way to the finish, the race directors decided to take us off road one more time to Fish River Canyon. The roads were rough and the weather somewhat miserable. After a long day of riding we finished in a camp on the outside of the canyon. We set up our tents and then we were shuttled to this outlook for a steak dinner. It was worth it to say the least. Great food and a breathtaking view. Who could ask for anything more?

Dawn gets the prize this week. So wander on over join her Guided Walks in New Zealand.

Welcome to Travel Photo Contest Friday, wow that’s a mouthful! If you’re new or never bothered to actually read what I write, each week I post a beautiful picture (at least I think so) from my travels (or now a featured guest…see below for details) and you guess where it is.

This week’s photo comes from Dave and his travel photography website Picture the Planet. Dave’s a professional photographer and one half of Canada’s Adventure Couple. I can’t say enough great things about his photography and travel habits. And now Dave and his wife Deb have started leading photography tours. Their next one is in India and I encourage everyone who loves travel and want’s to learn more about photography to sign up. The 10 day tour starts on January 27th and the 14 day tour starts on February 8th, 2010.

The first person to guess where this picture was taken (Country AND Canyon name) will win a link back to their blog with the anchor text of their choice in this post (keep it clean and relevant).

Leave your guess and recent post in the comment section below. Last week Aaron stormed the Castillo de San Felipe Fortress in Colombia first.

I will also stumble and review the latest post of anyone who leaves a comment even if the winner has already been picked (up until next Thursday). Dave has agreed to join in on the stumble love as well! Yes, the prizes heavily favor the blogging and travel geeks amongst us. If you don’t have a website, then leave your favorite website or better yet a charity that deserves attention.

Good luck!

Guesses aside, all comments are welcome!

New Feature: Be a Guest Photographer

If you’re looking to help increase the visibility of your blog, drive more traffic, or just share your pretty pictures then why not be a guest photographer for Photo Contest Friday on Todd’s Wanderings! If you’re interested in having your photograph featured then send me an e-mail through my Todd’s Wanderings Contact Page with the Subject line: Photo Contest Friday. Don’t forget to tell me which site your coming from and I’ll be in touch and explain how to send the photo. Keep in mind that your photos should be awesome!

The photograph should be your own and should have a few small clues in the photo to help the reader out if they’ve never been there (no, I don’t follow this last rule myself all the time…but it’s my website). I’ll link to your page and talk you up as the guest poster. I can be very flattering when I want to be.

Oh, and it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. You should be an independent travel blogger. You big companies have more than enough SEO stored up to get you through the winter.

japan matsuri bannerWelcome to the October Japan Blog Matsuri! This month’s topic is Japan Highlights and we asked the brightest Japan Bloggers to tell us what THEY thought was the best Japan has to offer…Japan’s best places, experiences, activities…whatever. The “whatever” is important. This is not your typical Japan “must see list” that tries to speak to everyone. This is not a clumsy “top ten things to do in Japan” post that has been repeated over, and over again. This is a glimpse into what makes Japan special to a bunch of completely different people. There’s something for everyone here, so pour yourself a sake, squeeze out that wasabi and enjoy a guided tour.

Miyajima Japan

Beautiful Miyajima, definitely a Highlight!

Before the tour starts and the train doors close, don’t forget to check out last month’s host Nippon-Ichigo, who rocked out to the theme Japan Music. Awesome!

Weather your just planning your trip, or you’re already there, these articles provide plenty of travel inspiration on all the must sees, dos, experiences, eats, drinks, whatever Japan has to offer. (Hey, click the large bold, underlined titles to be taken magically to the full articles.)


obimatsuri shizuokaReason’s to Visit Shizuoka

Ashely from Surviving in Japan takes us on a whirlwind tour of Shizuoka Prefecture and introduces us to the top 10 reasons to visit. She was on a mission not to be cliche so rest assured you’ll only get meat in this great post, no filling! She also has a project to explore all the other great things about Shizuoka which you can find here.


Japan mixJapan’s Highlights

Abi from Inside the Travel Lab really takes the mission to heart. She offers the best of her recent trip. It’s an eclectic mix ranging from Kyoto’s Old Town to Folding Prayers. A great article that highlight a diverse and wonderful Japan.



Japan Record StoreTokyo: A Music Nerd’s Paradise

Good and Bad Japan looks at Japan in a unique way, through the eyes of niche nerds. While he thinks Tokyo offers up options for any nerd, from the comic book collector to those desperate for the love of  fine ukuleles, it’s music that gets him going.  He enjoys the  great food, great places, great nature, great people, great onsen,  but the one thing he really loves  is trawling the record shops of Tokyo with a bit of spare cash in his pocket.


Japanese squat toiletFlushed Away

We never said this Matsuri was going to be classy! Through Eyes From Afar brings us his Japan Highlight…the Squat Toilet. Not sure how this could possibly be a highlight? We’ll check it out and read about the traditional holes in the ground and their many health benefits. There’s probably a reason the Japanese live for so long!.


Harajuku styleI Wanna do That! To Do List.

Amanda from Whoa…I’m in Japan, has a Top 7 bucket list of things she can’t wait to do in Japan. Amanda covers some of the best things to do and experience in Japan. Funny the squat toilet didn’t make her list, but after reading the Matsuri I’m sure she will manage to squeeze it in…yes, that was potty humor.



Kansai HighlightsNachi no Taki Japan

We’ve heard from the Tokyo dwellers, now it’s time to hear what Kansai has to offer. Of course Kansai is much much more than just Kyoto and Osaka. The Blog Side of Life brings us the best of Kansai. A great mix from the all-female musical theater troupe in Kobe, to the holy waterfall in Nachi, to the sacred grounds of Mount Koya. You’ll love them all!



Sunrise Mount FujiUnforgiving Mount Fuji

What trip to Japan could be complete without hauling yourself up Japan’s most storied, and highest mountain. Fuji-san is one of those trips that will live on in your own personal highlight reel long after you leave Japan. Lonelee Planet gives us the blow by painful blow of what it takes to climb Fuji, but also the wonderful rewards.


japan maneki neko30 Must Have Souvenirs

Last but certainly not least, Muza from Muza-chan’s Gateway to Japan brings us this amazingly comprehensive list of what’s worth buying in Japan. There are now no excuses for not following the Japanese custom of bringing home souvenirs for everyone, family, friends, coworkers, the mailman. What makes this list particularly useful are the travel tips giving you great advice on when and where to pickup these gifts.

Serendipity

Of course what kind of host would I be if I didn’t offer you anything myself. Like all the other bloggers I had a difficult time deciding on non cliche highlights. I have written on Japan a number of times and all contain a highlight or two:

This happy guy could be around any corner!

Sexual Secrets of Japanese Temple

3 Most Dangerous Matsuri

The Backside to Iwayaji Temple on Shikoku

The Hermit in Seclusion

Japanese Food Find: Placenta!

All of these add up to one great highlight of Japan: something new and crazy is around every corner. You’ll never find any of these in a guidebook. They are available and ready only for the adventurous to find, in the winding backstreets of Japan. For me this is the greatest highlight of them all. So make your plans, get a map, follow the advice of everyone above, but don’t forget to leave time for serendipity. I promise you, Japan, and its wonderful people are full of surprises!

Next month’s Matsuri can be found at Surviving in Japan, no Japanese necessary!

Have you been to Japan? Planning a trip? What are your must sees, dos, eats etc?

(Miyajima photo credit: karma-police)

This post is by: Kay (my lovely wife and writer for K’s Kitchen!)

homemade ajvar

It's great as an appetizer and for dipping!

Since the end of August, I started to see lots of sacks of paprika at vegetable shops in Kosovo….Yes, this is a sign that autumn is here and therefore the season for Ajvar has started….Indeed, leaves are turning yellow and it was zero degree at night in Prishtina few days ago (early October)!!

Today, I’m FINALLY introducing you to one of the most popular Balkan dishes (sauce), Ajvar. I never knew about this very popular Balkan dish until I moved to Kosovo. Ajvar is basically a sauce made of red paprika and spices. According to the website and some recipes that I have seen, eggplants and onions are sometimes used, however, my Kosovar friends tell me that Ajvar is strictly with paprikas and the one mixed with other vegetables are actually called Pinxhur. Both of them are often used as a dip or part of the appetizer (Meze) with bread. You can also use it as a sauce for meat, or even as a pasta sauce. Here is the link for the history of Ajvar, for those interested.

Ingredients (makes 1.5 litters)

ajvar ingredients

Fresh and delicious. Ok the chillies might not be traditional but we love the spice.

Red paprika:10

Eggplant: 4

Onions: 1 finely chopped

Garlic: 3 cloves finely chopped

Chili: 3-5 (depending on your preference)

Olive oil: Half cup

Vinegar or lemon: 1 Tablespoon

Salt: to taste

Pepper: to taste

How to cook (cooking/preparation time: 60 minutes)

take the skin off of paprika

Skinning the peppers

(1)  Roast red paprika and eggplants in the oven at 240 C° for 25-30 min or until they are roasted. You may want to cut the eggplants into haves if they are big. Turn the vegetables around half way through to roast them evenly. Roast chilies as well, but please don’t put in the oven too long! Mine exploded in the oven!

(2)  While roasting, sauté the onions and garlic with 1-2 table spoons of olive oil very well until they are brown and very soft.

(3)  When paprika and eggplants are done, put them in a pot and leave them for 5-10 min. Peel their skins and take out the seeds of paprika, cut them in pieces, and mash them with a masher.

(4)  Put the mashed vegetables, chopped chilies, and sauteed onion & garlic, as well as olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, into a blender and blend them until the chunks disappear.

(5)  Adjust the taste by adding more salt and peppers. In my case, I have added more chopped spicy Sri Lankan chilies (-:

(6)  Serve Ajvar on the plate together with other dips or meze along with some bread (ideally Arabic or pita bread). Today, I decided to serve with some olives from Macedonia (thanks to Todd’s recent trip to Lake Ohrid).

That’s a lot of Peppers!

As I wanted to make it properly, I bought a sack of paprika and used 10 which produced almost 1.5 litters of Pinxhur Ajvar! If you would like to try first, you can probably cook a half portion. If you sterilize the bottle, they say that Ajvar lasts for couple of years. This is the way how people in the Balkans used to prepare (and still prepare) the preserved food to be ready for winter. Kosovar Moms also like to point out how healthy this is, especially since one red paprika is said to have more vitamin C than a lemon.

Was that easy? Delicious? Tell us how tasty it was, or how it all went horribly, horribly wrong :)

stone fortress

A large, stone fortress at night! Storm the walls and guess your way in.

Update:

The winner is Aaron…who guessed Castillo de San Felipe – Cartagena, Colombia and actually read the instructions carefully :)

Thanks again to Jenny and her wonderful minimalist lifestyle/travel  blog.  Here’s what she had to say: “San Felipe is one of the greatest and strongest fortresses ever built by the Spaniards in their colonies. It took 200 years and 245 tons of gold to build and helped protect the city from pirates. Despite numerous attempts the fortress was never taken over. Built into the fort is a complex network of tunnels connecting various strategic points.

Aaron gets the prize this week. So wander on over to Gekko Gone Blogging and check out some of Aaron’s post.

Welcome to Travel Photo Contest Friday. If you’re a new friend, each week I post a beautiful picture (at least I think so) from my travels (or now a featured guest…see below for details) and you guess where it is. This week’s photo comes from Jenny and her travel photography and word smithing blog Where is Jenny. She’s on a mission to be a location independent minimalist, awesome!

The first person to guess where this picture was taken (Country, City AND name of fort) will win a link back to their blog with the anchor text of their choice in this post (keep it clean and relevant).

Leave your guess and recent post in the comment section below. Last week Katrina nailed the colorful cathedral in Leon, Nicaragua first.

I will also stumble and review the latest post of anyone who leaves a comment even if the winner has already been picked (up until next Thursday). Jenny has agreed to join in on the stumble love as well! Yes, the prizes heavily favor the blogging and travel geeks amongst us. If you don’t have a website, then leave your favorite website or better yet a charity that deserves attention.

Good luck!

Guesses aside, all comments are welcome!

New Feature: Be a Guest Photographer

If you’re looking to help increase the visibility of your blog, drive more traffic, or just share your pretty pictures then why not be a guest photographer for Photo Contest Friday on Todd’s Wanderings! If you’re interested in having your photograph featured then send me an e-mail through my Todd’s Wanderings Contact Page with the Subject line: Photo Contest Friday. Don’t forget to tell me which site your coming from and I’ll be in touch and explain how to send the photo. Keep in mind that your photos should be awesome!

The photograph should be your own and should have a few small clues in the photo to help the reader out if they’ve never been there (no, I don’t follow this last rule myself all the time…but it’s my website). I’ll link to your page and talk you up as the guest poster. I can be very flattering when I want to be.

Oh, and it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. You should be an independent travel blogger. You big companies have more than enough SEO stored up to get you through the winter.

The Happiness Chart

Happiness Chart on how to be Happy

The Lifestyle Strategies section is all about helping you find your perfect life, showing you there are alternatives to what everyone else implies life should be (no one says it out loud). Being happy is probably the most important measure of a perfect life. If we don’t love what we’re doing, who we spend our hours, days, minutes with, how can we expect to treat others well or help make the world a little better?

May people have told me to grow up, stop being so naïve. Life is harsh, it sucks sometimes and you have to just bear it and move on. True, but move on to what? You also have a choice to work hard to not fall into a pattern you’re not happy with. It may sound selfish but our own happiness is the most important thing. Without it how can we hope to spread more happiness? It’s like when an airplane loses cabin pressure and you’re told to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. (Morbid example, I know.)

Life can get complicated. Responsibilities and societal norms can pull us in all sorts of different directions, twisting us until we feel trapped. It’s our own responsibility to build a life we love, to be happy with our decisions and where we are heading. Life changes often, something new always comes along, both positive and negative. We don’t always have a choice to control these changes, but we do have control over how we deal with them.

I hope you enjoy my Happiness Chart. I’m getting back off my little soap box now. I’m writing this while I’m sitting on a patio looking out over the Slovenian Alps and Bohinj Lake. I’m pretty happy with my life. So I know it’s possible.

What changes are you making to increase your happiness? Share your strategies and plans.

Disclaimer: I bet you didn’t know that Happiness needs a disclaimer. I know this is not for everyone. It’s not meant to be preachy. If you’re happy, love life, love where you are, great, keep it up. This is for those who feel out of step, like they are missing their purpose in life. I used to be one of them. I meet a lot of more through this blog who need encouragement to break free of what they have been told they’re supposed to be.

Colorful Catherdral

Pray that you'll be able to answer correctly where this beautiful cathedral is.

Update:

The winner is Katrina…it must be the good Karma from nominating 2 charities ;)

Thanks again to Jasmine and her wonderful picture and awesome blog. This has been one of most commented contests yet! Here’s what she had to say “The answer is Leon, Nicaragua, home to the largest cathedral in Latin America, historical and art museums, Sandinista revolution stronghold, and a sweltering hot climate.” I do love a good revolutionary stonghold!

Katrina get a bit prize this week. Not only a link to her wonderful blog Tour Absurd, BUT also links to her more than worthy charities:

Children of Ethiopia Education Fundhttp://coeef.org/
Amani Children’s Homehttp://amanikids.org/

Welcome to Travel Photo Contest Friday. If you’re a new friend, each week I post a beautiful picture (at least I think so) from my travels (or now a featured guest…see below for details) and you guess where it is. This week’s photo comes from Jasmine and her fun travel blog Jasmine Wanders. No, I didn’t just pick Jasmine’s site because her Blog Name is similar to mine. Give me a little more credit. Check her out, it’s worth it!

The first person to guess where this picture was taken (Country and City…smiley faces for partial answers) will win a link back to their blog with the anchor text of their choice in this post (keep it clean and relevant).

Leave your guess and recent post in the comment section below.

I will also stumble and review the latest post of anyone who leaves a comment even if the winner has already been picked (up until next Thursday). Hopefully, we can convince Jasmine has agreed to join in on the stumble love as well. Yes, the prizes heavily favor the blogging and travel geeks amongst us. If you don’t have a website, then leave your favorite website or better yet a charity that deserves attention.

Good luck!

Guesses aside, all comments are welcome!

New Feature: Be a Guest Photographer

If you’re looking to help increase the visibility of your blog, drive more traffic, or just share your pretty pictures then why not be a guest photographer for Photo Contest Friday on Todd’s Wanderings! If you’re interested in having your photograph featured then send me an e-mail through my Todd’s Wanderings Contact Page with the Subject line: Photo Contest Friday. Don’t forget to tell me which site your coming from and I’ll be in touch and explain how to send the photo. Keep in mind that your photos should be awesome!

The photograph should be your own and should have a few small clues to help the reader out (no, I don’t follow this last rule myself all the time…but it’s my website). I’ll link to your page and talk you up as the guest poster. I can be very flattering when I want to be.

Video instructions on how to hike from Brod to the old Macedonian Smuggling Pass. This is an extra resource for those looking to hike this path and would like to see what it is like and where the map will take them. For a written explanation on how to reach the mountain pass, including a map click this link.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments on the video and the beautiful area of Brod, Dragash.

Hiking Kosovo Macedonia Mountains

Amazing view of the Mountains in Macedonia just over the border.

Winter is approaching but there are still a few weeks left of crisp clear hiking air awaiting you in the mountains of Dragash. Located in the southern end of Kosovo, Dragash is an oasis of untouched natural beauty and traditional villages sandwiched between the borders of Macedonia and Albania. Ignored by the Yugoslav government, the area never received development money for tourism despite its wealth of flora, fauna and cultural traditions. Luckily, this also spared the region the communist era concrete hotels and restaurants that mar similar regions in Kosovo. To help spur sustainable eco-tourism to the region and highlight an untouched wonder in the Balkans I’m helping to write a hiking guide to the Dragash Region implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and funded by the Finland government.

What better way to experience this traditional area than by hiking to the old pass to Tetovo, Macedonia. Not only can you walk the old smuggling paths trodden by horses burdened with heavy oil barrels during the sanctions placed on Yugoslavia, but the view into Macedonia with its dramatic mountains and sheer cliffs is unforgettable. The oil barrels from this period are still used to cover houses and storage areas in the region.

Old House in Brod, Dragash, Kosovo

Oil barrels are used as walls and roofs on many of the old houses in Brod

This hike is harder and longer than the others I have posted (Restilica to Brod and  Brod to Mt. Cule) but worth every second. For those less ambitious the first part of the hike is easy, nestled in a gorgeous river valley and makes an easy 1 1/2 hour round trip hike.

Old Macedonian Pass

Brod to Macedonian Pass Hiking Map

Click the map for a larger version. The trail is not marked so be sure to print out a copy of the map.

STARTING POINT: Brod, from the cemetery

ENDING POINT: Brod, the Mt. Cule hiking path

TIME- 7 hours (long hike); 1 1/2 hours (easy hike)

STARTING ELEVATION- 1,384 meters

HIGHEST ELEVATION- 2,265 meters

DIFFICULTY- Hard or Easy (it’s your choice!)

The path starts on the eastern edge of Brod. Enter the town from the Dragash road and turn left when the road ends. Follow the river up past the mosque until you reach the edge of town with the cemetery above to the left. Climb up the steep hill until you see the source of the river flowing out of the narrow gorge.

Follow the river and the gorge for about 40 minutes until you reach a large boulder towering over the river. From here climb up the hill to the right until you are above the boulder and you see a path that takes you to a flat area (perfect for camping) and a spring to fill water bottles further on. This is where the easy hike ends and the longer hike continues.

Valley Brod, Dragash

You guessed it. Climb up the right side of the valley just after this boulder.

Lush river valley Brod

The first part of the hike is green and lush

Macedonian Pass to Dragash

The end of the hike is quite the contrast.

Follow the path through the valley until it ends at a river. Cross the river and climb the mountain following a small goat path up to the left of a sharp peak and around it to the right and then up, up, up. Your goal is the top of the mountain so feel free to get there any way that makes sense. Once you reach the top, after a long and steep climb, you will see the top on your right. This is where you will see the old wagon tracks and the remnants of a stone rest house. Keep going up to the right until you reach a drop off and magnificent views of Macedonia where Mt. Tito pokes its sharp head into the sky (yup we climber Tito too!). From here you start your return to Brod by keeping  Macedonia on your left and the valley you hiked through on your right far, far below. Check back on soon for a video description of the whole hike as well as a video of hiking/camping tips for the Dragash region!

Shepherd at Sunset Brod

A shepherd and his flock at sunset

Make your way until your see the point of Mt Cule (see earlier hiking article) to your left and follow the contours of the path and mountain until you reach Cule. Be careful not to go down the steep mountain as it drops suddenly and is dangerous. Keep on the goat path with Cule on your right across a deep valley and it will bring you around the backside of Cule and eventually down to the normal shepherd paths that lead back to Brod. From Cule head down and cross a small river and you will see a clear path. Just head towards Brod at this point and you can’t go wrong. Remember part of the joy of hiking in Dragash is finding your own way, which is very easy as no trees obstruct your view.

If You Go

Brod Village, Dragash Kosovo

No trick photography here. It really is a beautiful place.

Driving from Pristina it takes about 2 1/2 hours to reach Brod by car. Drive to Prizren and follow the one way roads through the city taking a sharp left at the city center and following signs for Kukes and Dragash where you will take a right hand turn to leave the city. Continue on the road to Kukes for about 15 km until you come to an intersection with signs pointing left to Dragash. Turn left and follow this road into the valley for about 30 km until you come to the  town of Dragash itself. Continue through Dragash center following signs for Brod. The road after Dragash winds its way through the mountains for another 20 minutes until you come to Brod, the last town along the road.

If you have any questions about visiting Dragash just post a comment below. Or share your stories and tips for visiting this wonderful area of Kosovo.

If you do visit, please leave a comment below as I will be sharing your experiences with the Mayor and the communities to help encourage them and show them the value of their resources.

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