Sunday, 30 August 2015

Blood and Honey in Mostar

One of the reasons why I wanted to visit Bosnia so badly was to see Mostar, the town famous for the 16th-century Ottoman bridge bombed in 1993 during the war with Croatia and then faithfully reconstructed with techniques dating from that period. In my mind the town was like travelling back in time to the period when the Ottoman empire had spread its wings over this region of Europe. I wasn't disappointed, because indeed Mostar has one foot in that past and one in the present. Nevertheless it was a difficult place to visit, emotionally speaking. I cannot even bear to think that war can become so furious as to destroy centuries-old architecture, let alone in the heart of Europe.

A view of the Old Bridge
During my bus trip from Dubrovnik, I paid attention to the landscape. At first, we followed the coastline of Croatia. The landscape is dotted with spectacular uninhabited islands covered with woods. Blue and green are the dominant colours here. Not for a moment you are reminded that twenty years ago a bloody war infuriated all over the region. 
Bosnia, on the other hand, is probably where the war has left the most visible marks and where reconstruction has been slower. As the bus entered into Bosnian territory, I started to notice that more and more houses were abandoned or in ruins, with smashed windows and bullet-riddled walls. Some of them were reduced to a skeleton. While I was walking in the new part of Mostar, newly arrived in Bosnia, I saw them standing side by side with brand new buildings. I think this is intentional, a reminder for new generations of what should never happen again.

Contrasts in the new part of Mostar
Bosnia, and Mostar in particular, is like a little Istanbul, that is to say a place where East and West meet. The Ottoman influence is so palpable in the historical part of the town that at moments you forget that you're in the Balkans, right in the middle of Europe, and think for a moment to have been teleported to a remote Anatolian village. Tulip-shaped glasses of tea sit on the low tables next to Ottoman-style sugar pots, and by looking around you can certainly find the top of one of the many minarets of the town. It was already getting dark when I took my first walk in the historical town centre, which is very atmospheric when most of the tourists have left and souvenirs stalls are closed for the day.
In Turkish bal means honey and kan blood. It is just an interesting coincidence - the etymology of the word "Balkans" is another - but it summarizes the turbulent history of the region in just two words. Even today, the scars of the wars of the 1990s are visible all over the town, if you venture beyond the painfully reconstructed old town: bullet riddled buildings, but also cemeteries with the same date - 1993 - over and over on the white tombstones, and the city divided into a Croatian and a Muslim Bosniak part. I was also surprised to see souvenirs made of bullets. War is a touristic  attraction all over Bosnia. It is weird and sad, but it plays with our minds and our morbid curiosity about horrendous facts. More than once I noticed how tourists rushed to ask Bosnians what they were doing during the war, and I found myself secretly asking myself the same question without daring to ask.
Souvenirs made with bullets
I also visited one of the mosques close to the old town. For a small entry fee I was shown around by the friendly care-taker. Unfortunately, little of the old mosque had remained, because the building was heavily bombed. However, I climbed the minaret (barefooted because you are not allowed to wear shoes inside a mosque) and I admired the view over the town and the neighbouring countryside. So many minarets! The structure of the mosque definitely reminded me of Istanbul. Even the old cemetery on the other side of the road was Ottoman in style, with the characteristic tombstones with Arabic inscriptions. To stop by one of the mosques, at the ablution fountain or by the shady outer arcades is very pleasant. The atmosphere is relaxed and nobody will bother you.

Ablution fountain in front of a mosque
The bridge itself is slippery with a slope that is not so gentle as you might expect. Young men in their swimming costumes prepare for the dive into the Neretva river, but they only jump when and if they get enough money from the tourists. I saw someone jump, but not from the highest point of the bridge. The historical town is certainly charming, but it feels a bit cramped with too many souvenirs stalls. 

Souvenirs stalls in Mostar
Yet, it is pleasant to walk through the narrow cobbled streets and admire the stone houses, the smaller waterways and the mills.  There isn't much to do apart from browsing the stalls, have a coffee and observe the mix of influences or the panorama. There are a couple of museums, but I think Mostar is more about the atmosphere and the peaceful environments. Bosnia is really a green country, with lots of hills and mountains.

View of the old bridge
View of the Neretva river

Food in Mostar was the best I had in the Balkans. Croatian food was fine, but I found that it lacked a little bit of inventiveness. While I was walking in the streets of the old town, I noticed a restaurant called Šadrvan. It was touristic, with the waitresses in traditional dresses and the pictures of the dishes in display, but it was full and there was an enchanting Ottoman-style fountain in the middle of a small courtyard. Of all the restaurants with nice terraces on the river and a view of the Stari Most, the old bridge, I ended up choosing this one and coming back the following day.

The entrance of the Šadrvan restaurant
I ordered something called Hadzijski cevap, which turned out to be a delicious plate of marinated beef with peppers and rice. It was perhaps the best meal of the whole trip. The following day I had sogan-dolma, onions and other vegetables stuffed with minced meat and boiled in a broth. Apparently it is a speciality of Mostar, and I couldn't miss it. The prices were moderate and the service great.

At the end of  the meal I was offered a Bosnian coffee (bosanska kahva), which is very similar to Turkish coffee. To be shown how to prepare it and stir it really did the trick for me, because I liked more than a regular Turkish coffee.

Hadzijski cevap

Overall, I liked Mostar. I think it's an interesting town and it definitely has its own vibe. Even though it's touristic, with lots and lots of day-trippers coming from Croatia just for a few hours, I wouldn't consider it just another touristy town. It's worth exploring and enjoying its timeless charm.

Reminder of the war

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Discovering Kotor - a town with character

Who would have imagined, when I started to write about my travels that I would be telling you about a small town in Montenegro called Kotor? Before starting to read travel blogs, I didn't even know it existed.

View of Kotor from the Church of Our Lady of Health

When I arrived at Kotor bus station, uided by extant reviews of this fjord-like bay in Montenegro, I simply followed my map to the old town and  I entered through an old gate. The town was entirely made of stone, and I felt like I was in the past, in a mysterious and old-fashioned land where old laws still ruled among the family clans. Kotor  is famous for its stunning natural setting between the bay and the mountains, but also for its monuments and fortifications dating from different periods and dominations. 

To be completely honest with you, at first I was a bit disappointed with Kotor. I had come straight from Dubrvnik, which I loved, and Kotor seemed really small. After less than a couple of hours of going back and forth the same small streets I thought there was nothing more to visit apart from a couple of cute squares. How wrong I was! Determined to overcome my feeling of disappointment, I began to explore the back streets, finding beautiful hidden corners where the charm of Kotor really lies. It took me a while, for instance, to discover St. Luke's Square, which I now consider the most beautiful in Kotor. The small church that you see in the picture, with the mountains in the background, has both Catholic and Orthodox altars, which is quite unique.

St. Luke's Square and Church
Kotor is the kind of town where details are worth noticing: a balcony with some flowers and some overgrown plants, or a statue hidden behind a gate, for example. The Orthodox faith of most Montenegrins means that you'll find candles in the sand inside the churches, and golden iconostases. For me, they make churches look more exotic. Venturing behind a church I found a fountain with running water and, just above, an icon, which is an image of Jesus and the Virgin Mary painted on wood and venerated mostly in Orthodox countries.

Fountain with icon

Of course there is also the main square, with the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon and the ancient clock tower. The most stylish restaurants and cafés are located here, but the tour groups were sometimes too annoying to fully enjoy the square. Better to come after five for a slice of cake; by that time the tourists have gone back to their cruise ships docked  just a few hundred metres away in the harbour.

Cathedral of Saint Tryphon

The clock tower in the main square of Kotor

Wondering through the town I found a strange-looking stone arch. The inscription in Latin says "Regia Munitae Rupis Via", and it marks the way to the fortifications up the hill. The winged lion and the date in Roman numbers (1760) tell you that this is from the period of the Venetian domination.
Detail of the architecture of Kotor
The climb to the Venetian fortification up St. John's mountain starts from the old town. The road goes steeply up, but as a reward halfway through the climb you will encounter the votive Church of Our Lady of Health and the most famous view in all Kotor. From here you can see how beautiful the bay is.

Church of Our Lady of Health
It's not the easiest hike: if the sun is shining, prepare yourself for a very hot climb without much shade. The stone wall looks like a Montenegrin version of the Great Wall, zigzagging through the landscape out of sight.

The Venetian fortifications in the mountain of St. John
And what about the food? I had great meals here, for example the typically-Balkanian ćevapčići, served with onion and kajmak, a sort of sour cream. I had such  a plate at Kotor's main square, with a full view of Tryphon's cathedral for €8,60. I can also recommend the konoba (restaurant) "Scala Santa", where I had mussels and fish soup. The name of the restaurant means "holy staircase" in Italian and not without reason, since it is located just in front of the stairs that lead you up to St. John's Mountain and to the church of Our Lady of Health.

Eating ćevapčići in Kotor

There are cruise ships stopping in Kotor, but it's not as crowded as other places, such as Dubrovnik or Split. I found people really friendly here. I stayed at Old Town Kotor, probably the best hostel in town. The pub crawl I joined on my first night gave me an idea of the night life in this part of the world. Kotor, and Montenegro in general, is quickly finding its way and its identity after the dark period of communism and the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

A pub in Kotor

I hope that Kotor will not become just another tourist town without a heart. As the number of tourists visiting Kotor and Montenegro rises, the challenge will be to find a balance between taking care of them and maintaining one's identity and authenticity.


Sunday, 26 July 2015

Let me introduce you to beautiful Montenegro

When I was talking about my travel plans across the Balkans, I would get concerned looks when mentioning Bosnia, and  puzzled ones when I said I would also visit Montenegro. The thing is that nobody seemed to know much about this tiny country that separated from Serbia only a few years ago.
In Italy the country is known because we once had a queen that came from Montenegro, which has always sounded to me as an unusual place to look for the future king's wife. Naturally beautiful, wild in the interior as you would expect, but with sandy beaches and historical walled towns on the coast, Montenegro is a jewel that many tourists still haven't discovered. It's also convenient because, even though it's not part of the European Union, it has adopted the Euro. Moreover, it's cheaper than Croatia, and travelling is fairly easy, thanks to good roads and transportation network.

A landscape in Montenegro

While Croatia is mostly Catholic, the majority of Montenegrins are Orthodox. As a result, towns have churches of different confessions, often side by side. While I'm not a fan of big cathedrals, I'm a sucker for cute little churches. The sense of identity is both interesting and complicated here: while feeling an obvious tie with the Serbians, history sets the Montenegrins apart from them. The name of the country for instance, comes from the Venetian "monte negro" and it means "black mountain".

A church in Budva
After driving south from Dubrovnik by public bus for about 3 hours (145 kunas, 19,30 €) and after a somehow slow passport check at the border, I arrived at the spectacular Bay of Kotor, which is the most famous and touristic part of the country. It resembles a fjord, with steep mountains plunging into a narrow bay, but is geologically speaking a drowned river canyon, instead of an inlet created by glacial erosion. The bus slowly follows the coast, letting you see how the bay unfolds, passing by historical little towns with stone churches, pebble beaches and small harbours.

A view of the bay of Kotor

I found people particularly friendly and warm in Montenegro, treating tourists like guests to honour or even like new friends, which is always nice. You can consider this tiny country as a sort of connection point between the sometimes serious Slavic people and the more cheerful Southern Europeans. Most people visit Kotor, but I also went to Perast, Budva and Sveti Stefan. Contrary to what many people think, there are tourists in Montenegro and the country is definitely on the Balkan backpacking route, with hostels, Wi-Fi in every restaurant and bar, and in general good infrastructures. People have been invariably kind, redirecting me to the correct bus stop for instance, or giving me advice on what to do or what to eat.

A beach near Sveti Stefan
Coming straight from Dubrovnik I did see a couple abandoned buildings or Communist-era monsters built to boost tourism in the area, especially near Budva, but overall I didn't have the impression of a war-ravaged or poor country, at least on the coast. What I found is a pleasant and welcoming country that I would like to explore more in the future.
Visiting Montenegro, and the reactions I saw when I was talking about it made me think of how much we trust traditional media and recommendations when choosing where to travel, instead of researching on our own. Almost everybody that I met in Montenegro was travelling alone through the Balkans, as opposed to the families and groups of flash packers that I encountered in Croatia. For this I found it a more relaxed place, without the all the must-do/must-see lists that I find annoying about Croatia. Don't get me wrong, I loved both countries, but Montenegro holds a special place in my heart.
The island of Sveti Dorde, near Perast
It was both a familiar and unfamiliar country to visit, with links to Venice but also undeniably tied to the Balkan mosaic of identities. In the next post I will write about Kotor,  the destination Montenegro is mostly famous for.
Have you been to Montenegro? 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Welcome to Dubrovnik: the Pearl of the Adriatic

Dubrovnik was perhaps my favourite destination in Croatia. I know that many people hate how packed with tour groups it can get, and how touristy and expensive it is, but there is obviously a reason why so many people want to visit it. The first time I walked through the Pile Gate and saw the famous marble-paved Stradun in all its shine and glory, I was in awe. 

Everywhere you look there is beauty, and to think that the city was bombed by the Serbian army in the early 1990s makes me shudder. 
Dubrovnik Old Town
I was also lucky that in early June the old town wasn't too packed with people. At night after dinner and early in the morning the it was particularly quiet, because the big tour groups were gone. Being a popular stop for cruises in the Mediterranean, Dubrovnik can get horrendously full of big groups of older tourists with khaki shorts and sun hats being led through the town by a lady with an umbrella.

Another view of Stradun
Another thing that makes it hard to love Dubnovnik are the prices, which are just ridiculous.: I've seen small bottles of water for sale at 15 kunas (2€), and soft drinks for 30 kunas (4€). The old town is really small, so it's difficult to get away from the touristy parts. For a nice evening meal, you could head to Lokanda Peskarija, one of the restaurants of the harbour, recommended both by locals and by guidebooks. I paid 122 kunas (16€) for a very big plate of grilled squid served in a big black pot and a gigantic season salad. Other meals I had within the old town weren't as exciting: in a restaurant I was even served cod when I was promised a seabass fillet.
It became natural for me to try to save a few kunas here and there. As most hostels in Croatia don't offer breakfast,  I soon discovered that bakeries (pekarna in Croatian) sell excellent croissants and the also make coffee on the go. In the morning I would buy a croissant and a cup of coffee at Mlinar and sit on the Onofrio Fountain, looking at one of my favourite sights in town, the church of St. Saviour, which dates back to the 16th century.
Church of Saint Saviour
One of the best views of Dubrovnik is nevertheless that of the harbour, as seen from the eastern gate and bridge close to the Dominican Monastery. It is absolutely breathtaking, and not even that inflationed with tourists.
View of the harbour
Of course I couldn't miss the opportunity to have a walk along the famous city walls. At 100 kunas (13€) it isn't cheap, but it's really worth it. I went there in the late afternoon, so the sun wasn't too strong, and it was a wise decision. Dubrovnik is called "the Pearl of the Adriatic" and I can see why: the sea is of an incredible light blue colour, and the roofs of the  houses offer a great contrast to it and to the paved roads.

A view
Walking along the city walls
Panorama of the town from the city walls
Many of the big churches in Dubrovnik wouldn't look bad in Venice, and while many people love them, especially the Church of St. Blaise, I fell in love with  the little ones, all built in stone, with triple bells and elaborated rose windows. Sometimes a tuft of grass would spring out of the stones, and I even saw a tree growing out of a vase on a façade. The tiny Church of Saint Nicholas (Crkva Sveti Nikole) is one of my favourites. In the evening the restaurant nearby puts the tables in front of its main door for lack of space.

A cute little church

One thing that I liked about Dubrovnik is that there is always something going on: for weddings and baptisms, for example, you will see the guests in elegant dresses parading through the Stradun, led by a man weaving a Croatian flag and another playing the accordion. At other times, you will run into an orchestra, complete with bachelorettes and trumpets, or into a man performing traditional music while sitting by the Onofrio fountain.
Man performing in traditional costumes

Another pleasure of being in Dubrovnik is the wander its small streets full of staircases, looking for beautiful corners with colourful laundry out to dry and a view of the orange roofs.

A view of Dubrovnik
There might be surprises here and there, such as a stall selling lace next to a Romanic church, or a lounge bar built on the rocky cliffs that look directly down to the sea.

Selling lace
Overall, there are many things to love in Dubrovnik, and others that you'll have to endure to enjoy this jewel. I think it's important to take it for what it is: an extremely popular tourist destination, with Game of Thrones tours that sell for exorbitant prices, but also with lesser visited museums (the cloister of the Franciscan monastery is particularly beautiful) and charming small streets.
Franciscan monastery
With a little patience it is possible to find quiet streets that are not overrun with tourists. Dubrovnik may not be everyone's cup of tea, with its expensive fish restaurants, its baroque churches and endless holiday apartments to rent, but I think that it is really a beautiful place to visit, with lots of history and surprises behind every corner.

A quiet street in Dubrovnik

Have you been to Dubrovnik? What did you think?

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Backpacking the Western Balkans - First Reflections

Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Instagram know by now that I spent the last two weeks backpacking the Western Balkans. As two weeks isn't obviously enough to see all there is in the area, I limited myself to the coast of Croatia (with an excursion to Plitvice Lakes in the interior of the country), and then went also to Montenegro and Bosnia. I consider this to be the first part of a longer trip that would also lead me to Serbia, Macedonia and Albania.
Whenever I told my friends and colleagues that I was travelling for two weeks through these three countries, they would always tell me that they heard Croatia is very beautiful, but they would forget that I mentioned two more countries. Croatia gets all the praise with its beautiful beaches and many islands to explore, its historic towns and natural parks. Montenegro, on the other hand, is a small country that only recently separated from Serbia and most people don't know a thing about it, while sadly Bosnia and Herzegovina is remembered only for the bloody war of the 1990s.

A church of overlooking the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro
The reason why I wanted to visit the Balkans is that this part of Europe is extremely diverse in terms of landscapes and faiths, with a complicated and interesting history, and a mosaic of influences that is fascinating, to say the least. Being from a small town near Venice, I wanted to see with my own eyes in which ways the Venetian domination in the coastal towns of Croatia and Montenegro has shaped the architecture and the culture of these towns, then I wanted to go inland and see how the Turkish influence plays a big role in that area. Venice and the Ottoman empire, so far away in the map, were always fighting for one or the other corner of the Mediterranean, and it is a part of the history of the Republic of Venice that I find intriguing.

The lions of Saint Mark in the city walls of Kotor, Montenegro

My trip started with a flight to Dubrovnik, on the southernmost tip of Dalmatia. The "Pearl of the Adriatic", as it is nicknamed, is a great place to start a trip through the Western Balkans, because apart from being one of the most beautiful walled towns in Europe, it offers great connections to Montenegro to the south and to Bosnia to the east. From here, traveling up the coast of Croatia is also easy and convenient, offering great possibilities to stop at Split, Hvar and Zadar.

A view of Dubrovnik from the city walls
The Venetian influence is indeed palpable in the coast. I chuckled when I saw that the restaurant I was eating at in  Zadar was called "Kalelarga", a common street designation in Venice, or upon seeing all that cuttlefish risotto in the menu at the restaurant. The culinary options were particularly interesting: pasta and pizza are not particularly Venetian, but other more traditional Dalmatian dishes, like brodet, a fish soup, or fritule (doughnuts) have obvious Venetian origins.

Fritule for sale in Split

Bosnia was another story: indeed I felt like I was in Turkey again, Ottoman-style mosques replacing Catholic churches, cevap - a local variation of kebab - replacing grilled squid at the restaurant. While in other parts of the world, for example in Greece, the Ottoman culture was perceived as an imposition and it is now considered mostly foreign to the country, in Bosnia it is worn with pride, as an important part of one's heritage. I've seen a café named "Istanbul", a festival of Turkish-Bosnian music and friendship, and several Turkish flags. 

The fountain of Gazi Husrev-beg mosque in Sarajevo

When I went back to the coast - a long bus ride from Sarajevo to Split - the reverse cultural shock was incredible and total. The coast of Croatia is much more Italian than I imagined in the style of shops you can find, in the way people dress, and the way towns are developed. It is also economically richer, and more sophisticated if you want, while Bosnia still seems to struggle economically. Reconstruction and recovery after the war hasn't been as quick here.  During the bus ride I observed the landscape a lot: humble villages dotted with the minarets of mosques for many miles, but suddenly, after a mountain pass and entering into a valley, the first thing I could see was a church and a Christian cemetery, while I was still within the territory of Bosnia.   

A Catholic image in Split, Croatia

While in Croatia and in Montenegro the reminders of the conflicts of the 1990s are few, and the two countries seem to prosper after a dark period, in Bosnia you are constantly reminded of the war, even though people don't like to talk about it. There are still many abandoned bombed buildings riddled with bullet holes, in the countryside as in the main cities, while cemeteries with the characteristic white gravestones dot the landscape. The riddle of why these horrors could happen in Europe in the 1990s has been only partially clarified for me during this trip.

A bombed building next to a new modern one in Mostar,in Bosnia 

It is extremely easy to travel in this area of the world: buses are reliable and frequent, often connecting cities and towns across multiple borders, plus people speak good English, and are always kind and available to give directions and advice. Moreover, it is safe and it doesn't provide particular challenges for women travelling alone. As a matter of fact, I didn't hear a single rude or sexist remark in my whole trip. Bosnia and Montenegro are fairly cheap, while Croatia is only moderately so, apart from towns like Dubrovnik or Hvar that can be very expensive. There are plenty of good-quality hostels, actually some of the best I have been to. Yet, the majority of the travellers I have seen travel in tour groups, clinging to their guide and rarely taking public transport. The great majority of the tourists that visit Croatia don't venture into the other countries of former Yugoslavia, thinking it is dangerous and unsafe, but to be honest I felt as safe in Montenegro and Bosnia as I did in Croatia.

The main square of Hvar, in Croatia

Have you been to the Western Balkans? What were your general impressions?

Sunday, 17 May 2015

A rainy day in Meknes

Since I came back from my second trip to Morocco in March, I have been having a recurring dream hat I plan a new itinerary in the country, and there's always a trip to Volubilis and Moulay Idriss that gets postponed or cancelled. As a matter of fact, when I was in Fez, I had to cancel my trip there, mostly because of the rain that didn't want to stop.

I did start my day with a train to Meknes, though. In my experience, trains in Morocco are safe, comfortable and cheap. A trip to Meknes from Fez of about 40 minutes cost me 20 dirham, less than 2 euro, but the train was half an hour late. Once in Meknes I was supposed to take a cab to the Roman ruins of Volubilis, but the pouring rain  and the aggressiveness of taxi drivers in this city put me off the trip. I decided to explore Meknes instead.

Meknes is not as touristic as Fez, but it is still one of the imperial cities of Morocco. The most beautiful thing are the gates: totally fascinating, colourful and very old. Bab Mansour is the most famous, but a trip around the city walls by taxi will show you the others.

One of the gate doors in Meknes
Overall, I found Meknes to be a bit dull, if compared to other places in Morocco. The main square, Place Lahdim, resembles Jemaa el-Fna, only without the life that makes that square one of the main tourist attractions of Marrakesh.

Place Lahdim
The souqs here are rather modern, with unattractive clothes made in China. I did take a walk in the more traditional parts, but I didn't find the whole experience as alluring as a walk in the medina of Fez or Essaouira. The irony was that Meknes was my 50th UNESCO world heritage site, and it was overall a bit disappointing.

Moroccan fashion

Since it was raining when I arrived in Meknes, I took shelter in Museum Dar Jamai. Like Museum Dar Si Said which I visited in Marrakesh, it was worth it more for the beautiful palace than for the exhibits. Inside the museum I met a French man who was travelling alone without a guidebook or anything, picking up advices from other travellers. Somehow he senses that I speak French, so I told him about the Roman ruins and he was very happy about it.

Inside the museum

Another room of the museum/palace
Meknes is not completely devoid of charm: you can find nice spots here and there, but I wouldn't make a detour to visit this city. The taxi  drivers here seemed to be desperate to make more money out of the few travellers who stop by, which is something that I haven't seen in Fez, where I found it very easy and stress-free to take a taxi.
I don't know if it was the bad weather, but even when it stopped raining I didn't see anything special in this city. What the locals referred to as great views ended up being just a glimpse of the hills around the city, the restaurants didn't look as inviting as in other parts of Morocco, and the city in general seemed a bit lifeless.

Street life in Meknes

Have you ever been disappointed by a UNESCO-listed heritage site? And if you have been to Meknes, did you have a different experience?
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